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Interview: Robert Fruehwirth, contemplative, priest

02 September 2016

‘Silence is necessary as a kind of basic spiritual hygiene’

I was the Priest Director of the Julian Centre from 2013 to 2015, my last two years in England. The Julian Centre is right next to the Julian Shrine in Norwich, and my mission was to extend the many different ministries already in place there, as well as to build program­ming around spirituality.


I had a wonderful experience while leading a quiet day of reflection for the adult-learning programme at St Paul’s Cathedral. During the day, the retreatants and I grappled openly with the challenge of living into Julian’s faith that “all shall be well.” In our conversation, it be­­came clear that believing in a God of love who makes all things well is not something we accomplish all at once, but something into which we grow gradually. I was eager to dis­cern how that growth happens, and I realised that Julian was a model for this growth as well. This is the basis of my book, The Drawing of This Love.


My surname comes from Austria. My father emigrated with his im­­mediate family to the United States in 1955, when he was 14 years old. The family home near Vienna had been badly damaged by bombs during the Second World War, and my father had grown up in extreme poverty near Salzburg, where the government had relocated the fam­ily after the bombing.


We moved to North Carolina in July 2015. My wife is an economist at the University of North Carolina, and I’m an Associate Rector of St Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh. It’s a large parish — 600-plus communicants on an average Sunday — and I’m part of fantastic team of clergy and lay staff that keeps the place humming. My par­ticular responsibilities are work­ing with the young adults, adult educa­tion, and assisting in the organisa­tion of our extensive out­reach and mission.


After working in specialised min­istry for decades — first in a monas­tery in the Episcopal Church, offer­ing retreats and spiritual direction, then around the Julian Shrine in Norwich — it’s fantastic to be e­­ngaged in ordinary parish life. All that I developed in con­templative spirituality and the mystics can be brought into play in pastoral care, in teaching and preaching — in being, I hope, a life-giving member of this community.


My aim is to convey in simple language the basic truths of our faith and how we practise them, so people can be more engaged with God in daily life.


All of the mystical tradition and contemplative spirituality boils down to just a few things like surrender, like listening, like com­passion. We find all these in Jesus and in Jesus’s Spirit in us. We don’t need anything esoteric. It’s very simple, and I want to communicate that at the parish level.


I was a new convert to Christianity as a freshman at university, and began to read about monasticism, which got me interested in a new Anglican religious order, the Order of Julian of Norwich. I found the short version of her Revelations in the research stacks at university and read it straight through, com­prehending little. It was only five years later, as a monastic in the Order of Julian, when I took the time to study her Middle-English text for an hour a day over a period of months, that I really grasped the story that Julian relates, and the systematic clarity and cohesion of her theology.


The current feeling that con­templative prayer is a spiritual annexe to the Church is accurate and unfortunate. Silence is neces­sary as a kind of basic spiritual hy­­giene. It allows us to recover a certain minimal sanity that can, in turn, allow us to hear God’s Word and to hear ourselves and the cry of our world. But once we have re­­ceived God’s Word, the kind of silence we experience can be the fruition of loving closeness to God, where all words fall away. As Julian says, then we can do nothing except as God moves us.


I’d like for contemplation to be understood less as a special method tacked on to the side of a Christian life, or in place of church, or as an esoteric wisdom for a few: that all seems somewhat Gnostic to me. I’d like to see it more as a loving prep­ara­tion for the Word of God, so that compassion can bloom in our lives, and silence becomes a loving fulfil­ment of the compassion.


You have to set the 14th-century anchorite’s life against the average 14th-century life — and then it might not appear all that bad. The anchorite’s vocation certainly gave Julian quite literally “a room of her own”, and an authority to speak about God and directly relate and counsel people that was unique. Still, it’s hard to imagine being stuck in a room, or an apartment, even with a garden, until death.


Julian’s humanity and breath of vision comes from her love, her com­passion, her rich joy, her grati­tude, her honesty with herself and her God. Julian lived very much with a feeling of being in the ante­room to heaven, in which we can suppose earthly life looks more vivid, not less, and can be more passionate.


The point of life vows is pretty simple. Can we imagine something so extensive, so infinite in its possib­i­l­ities, that even after we have given our whole lives to it, we’ll only have etched the surface? Life vows regis­ter and solemnise and publicly re­­inforce our intent to explore something infinitely rich through a finite frame: the very heart of all sacramentality. And they do so before God, and so gain a sense of ultimacy. Practically, they provide a security that strengthens us in the challenges that arise because of the limited people we are.


I asked to be released from my life vows in the monastery, and then got married. My monastic life vows were fundamentally to a commun­ity’s Rule of Life as interpreted by the community under a Superior. My marriage vows are to a single human being who is vowed back to me. The difference has felt eno­rmous to me: incalculable. In the monastery, I came to a degree of self-knowledge through all that re­­acted in me against the Rule and community. In marriage, I’ve learn­ed so much about trusting myself to another.


The best thing about monastic life is stewing in scripture; living in a world impossibly rich with scrip­ture, saints, and sacraments.


Marriage is living in a world im­­possibly rich with diapers and household disasters. More seriously, it is learning step by step to allow myself to be loved and to love, a little more every year, and to know that my wife and I are guardians of this mystery that we have together.


I’ve had to practise more rigorous holy obedience to the demands of my young children than I ever had to practise in the monastery. The Church needs to help ordinary people understand the ordinary responsibilities of any life as the way to be open to the life of God. And the Church, without losing touch with the centrality of Jesus and his saving work, can also offer simple things such as silence, listening, and emptiness — all those things of which monastic life speaks — as ways in which we can be restored to ourselves and be open to God.


I was 12, and my father was dying of brain cancer, which I suppose opened me in a special way, but I carried on my music lessons with a master woodwind player. One day, we were playing a clarinet duet based on a melody from Mozart. Somewhere in the piece, I ceased to have any self at all, but, of course, I was still playing the music. It was the purest thing in the world, and happiness, and peace, all in one: “You are the music while the music lasts,” as Eliot wrote. The inter­section of time with eternity.


I am not sure that first experience of God can develop. How does transparency get more transparent? But, for the past 25 years, I’ve been finding a way to open my ordinary life to that kind of transparency, so that — once again, as Julian says — how I am in the character of my living can be like how I already am in my essence. And this is really simple stuff — gratitude, com­passion, listening.


I’m happiest when I touch on this kind of transparency. This could be looking at vegetables at the farmers’ market, or talking with a friend, or washing the kitchen.


The best sound is my wife breathing as she falls asleep.


I turn to the Gospel of Mark most.


Another car cut me off and jammed on the brakes on the expressway this morning. That’s what last made me angry. I want to live so I can see my kids again.


Fr John-Julian Swanson OJN, the founder of the monastery I lived in for 20 years, was a huge influence on me. Brian Thorne, and his medi­ation of Carl Rogers, was critical. I like to think of Julian as someone with whom I live my daily life.


I do pray. I make myself a place where I, and the world as I ex­peri­ence it, and God can meet. Per­haps that is enough.


My wife, Jane, and I both work full-time. We have two young kids. If I was locked in a church for a few hours with a companion, it would definitely be Jane


The Revd Robert Fruewirth was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


The Drawing of This Love: Growing in faith with Julian of Norwich is pub­­l­­ished by Canterbury Press (£12.99; CT Bookshop £11.69).

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