THE movement into ordained life needs to be understood as a paradigm shift — a life-change of fundamental magnitude the power of which shouldn’t be underestimated. From the beginning of training through the years of formation, we will experience such shifts at both conscious and unconscious levels as our “internal plates” are moved by forces beyond our control.
Through it all, we need to exercise patience and allow time and space for the internal processes to work, as we begin to assimilate aspects of vocation that will be strange and unfamiliar, often at odds with what we have known.
This will take time, often years, and will involve various tensions. For example, those with families will have to face particular demands on time and attention. People may have to move from a regulated life to one with little regulation, where the onus is on the individual taking responsibility for what they do.
Some will need to adjust to the demands of parish life after having had a secular job, and what was a “nine to five” life becomes a life that can seem to have no boundaries. A person who carried many responsibilities may find they have to face having none; yet, at the same time, will find that there are external expectations from clergy and congregations as well as one’s own, internal, ones. And that existential question: who am I before God?
Amid the wonders of a new life, there will be times of great darkness and doubt. What have I let myself in for? Can I trust God? Have I made a massive mistake? Do I need an “exit strategy” if it all goes pear-shaped? Help! These and other questions, doubts, and fears are inevitable, and reveal that there is movement going on. Apart from taking all this to God in prayer (so important), this is where a good spiritual director can be of great benefit. And don’t worry, this state of affairs won’t last for ever! Have patience with the slow work of God.
We’re naturally impatient, and can forget the importance of this journey, which takes time and will involve periods of instability which accompany change. It’s important to embrace and be open to these experiences which, by God’s grace working in the soul, are part of the process of realising one’s vocation. Accept the anxiety and uncertainty, and sit lightly to it all. Don’t let it overwhelm you, turn your eye upon Jesus, and sit prayerfully in that compassionate gaze. Don’t give in to desolation or despair — remember, vocation is a costly business involving losing and finding, letting go and discovering, poverty and riches.
IN ALL this, the need for “white space” becomes apparent. Originating in the design industry, the term denotes the space that surrounds the written word. But it’s also relevant to spirituality and growth because of the way it expresses the need for areas of nothingness, where life appears as a blank canvas waiting for God to make a mark — times that seem valueless, yet enable the undistracted presence of God. It’s another term for that poverty of spirit, that desire to abandon all to God, that selling all one has which Jesus told one young man was necessary to discipleship.
It’s vital that uncluttered space is allowed for the vocational process to be realised, just as a gardener, after planting, needs to leave the soil undisturbed. This may be formal, as in contemplative prayer, Quiet Days, and retreats, or we may suddenly find ourselves with nothing much to do.
There’s a strong temptation (I know) to fill it “productively”, but that would be to avoid the importance of times of apparent emptiness and nothingness; rather, we need to tell ourselves that it’s OK to slow down, “do nothing”, open a book, listen to music (preferably not noisy. . . ), visit an art gallery, read poetry. Gaze. Such periods are of immense importance, especially in the early stages of living out this new vocation, because they allow the Holy Spirit undistracted opportunities to work within us and for our vocation to “embed” itself.
It could be said that we need to develop contemplative prayer because of the way it enables “white space” where the Word may be revealed. This is a vital aspect of diaconal formation; for it reminds us of the foundational importance of realising that we are not simply called to be “ministers of the gospel”, but, as Fr Bill Kirkpatrick expressed it, “contemplative activists”.
The introduction of contemplative looking will guard our compassion from simply emotional activism to reaching out to others from the heart of God. Of course, what emerges in times of contemplation can be disturbing, which is why we need a spiritual director with whom to process what is becoming apparent. It may be, however, that only those who gaze on that space observe the effects of that revelation — the “page” itself may be unaware of what’s been imprinted. Our task is to make sure that the page is clear and remains “white”, open only for the Word. It is the writer, not the page, who determines what is written.
A balanced life
AS A Franciscan, one of the things I was grateful for was the way our Principles emphasised the need to live a balanced life rooted in Christ; for ministry was but an aspect of our calling. Behind ministry we were to be rooted in, and live out of, that core-self that primarily sought, and desired, to be found by God.
In a similar way, the primary calling of priests is into this same dynamic relationship with God in Christ from where our vocation springs; for, while we are part of the body of Christ, our “ministry is not an extension of the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit”, as the Agreed Statement on Ministry and Ordination of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commision (ARCIC) says.
Thus the section on “Prayer” in the Principles of the Society of St Francis (SSF) begins by saying: “Praise and prayer constitute the atmosphere in which we must strive to live. We must endeavour to maintain a constant recollection of the presence of God and of the unseen world. An ever-deepening devotion to Christ is the hidden source of all our strength and joy” (Day 14).
Immersion in Christ through prayer and scripture was foundational. I say that, because, even for a religious, prayer and feeding deeply on scripture through, for example, lectio divina can easily get squeezed out. So another of the Principles reminded us that Brothers and Sisters “must always be on their guard against the constant temptation to let other work encroach upon the hours of prayer, remembering that if they seek in this way to increase the bulk of their activity it can only be at the cost of its true quality and value” (Day 16).
If “Christ is the pattern of their calling”, as the bishop says at the beginning of the liturgy for the ordination of deacons, we should notice how frequently Jesus withdrew from public ministry. While this has long been recognised as important by many in the Church, others, like Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson, are now beginning to understand the value of contemplative prayer, solitude, and silence in Christian discipleship.
But are those in formation encouraged to develop the practice of finding a “place apart”? Does their training incumbent set a good example by taking Quiet Days and retreats? What does their example say?
ARE we, in an age of increasing noise and restlessness, falling for the temptation to offer lots of activities, hoping that this will attract people? No wonder some clergy get exhausted by having to create services each week — and then “put them on”. There’s no shortage of websites (often connected with megachurches) devoted to how to develop a “successful” ministry.
Although we must not ignore the need for churches to grow, many sense there’s a danger in the notion of success in relation to the Church, and some programmes for evangelism can begin to feel akin to growing a business. Having worked in insurance sales, I recognise some of the telltale signs of the overlap between successful selling and church growth. It often means that prayer, in these situations, becomes about asking God to do things — make things happen — as we want it, rather than developing a heart open to God.
I wonder if you, like so many others, crave silence, or whether your life is so full of noise and restlessness that you fear facing what might become present in silence? I always recall running a school Quiet Day, and inviting a group of 14-year-olds to experience a minute of silence. “How was that?” I asked at the end. “Boring,” said one, which led me to suggest that he might consider why being with himself for a minute might be boring.
Thankfully, these days, young people are being introduced to practices of mindfulness in schools — and some church schools are turning to the great Christian traditions of silence and meditation to help children realise the rich traditions and disciplines that we have at our disposal in order to put them in touch with their inner self and the Other. But I wonder if we, ministers of the gospel, are being formed, and are helping others to be formed, in the great traditions of Christian prayer? Or are we ignoring our heritage?
What we have to offer is a path to encountering God: we’re not just to be good at “bringing people in”, but in enabling them, when they are in, to deepen their relationship with God. Thankfully, some involved in the Church Growth Movement recognise that a healthy church is one which is living out of the Beatitudes rather than simply increasing in numbers.
AND then there’s a sense that some see the Church offering them a career path, a way to success. Jobs advertised in religious newspapers can appeal to this feeling of wanting to climb the ladder. How many of us want to accept a “failing” church, as the young Curé did who was sent by his bishop to that poor village of Ars?
Too often, one comes across clergy who have begun to feel overlooked in the “preferment stakes”. While it’s understandable that we want to be recognised for the good we’ve accomplished, we must also beware this turning into a desire to be offered more “successful” positions.
The life of Fr Stanton, the great Anglo-Catholic priest who died in 1913, is a moving example of the value of a hidden ministry. He was ordained priest at the age of 25, and his entire ministry — almost 50 years — was spent as a curate at St Alban’s, Holborn; yet, when he died, thousands lined the route of his funeral procession.
One of the many insights that he is reputed to have passed on to some Oxford ordinands was simply: “When you’re priests, teach your people to love the Lord Jesus. Don’t teach them to be C of E. Teach them to love the Lord Jesus.”
As the Revd E. F. Russell preached at St Alban’s on the Sunday after Fr Stanton’s death, “He found Christ and loved Christ in the souls of men, and . . . most of all in the least worthy; for this was one of the marked features of his love, that, like his Master, he loved the lost sheep and the publicans and the sinners . . . and this brought him often into friendly relations with persons and creeds and strange varieties of beliefs or unbeliefs, which at times were misunderstood.”
It can be hard if we feel overlooked in the preferment stakes, but we follow a Master who wasn’t interested in developing a career, but in being faithful to his Father. This is what all the great priests of the past remind us.
I REALISE that clergy shouldn’t be formed for failure, but are ordinands being trained to face the probability that, at some point, they will have to face the end of hopes and dreams, cherished plans or projects into which they’ve sunk time and effort?
Many religious orders, facing declining numbers and their possible disappearance, grasp this situation as an opportunity for growth in faith in the paschal mystery; for we follow one who was a failure in the sight of most of his contemporaries, yet who could never have been a failure in the sight of his Father: Jesus wasn’t formed for success but for faithfulness.
So the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises reminds us that “God’s purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth . . . that we may attain our goal of everlasting happiness with him in heaven.”
Yet what we’re often formed for is not this, but a role. Of course, we have ministries, ministries that are Christ’s in which he invites us to share. But we should not forget what he said to his disciples after they had experienced some success in their mission and ministry: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
So we’re not to get attached to results, people liking us, our abilities, etc. In a culture where success is everything, let’s not forget that our faith is countercultural; Christianity isn’t about success, but about failure being redeemed. Popularity, growing congregations, people speaking highly of us, and so on, are full of their own dangers; they may be a cause of thanksgiving, but, if given the wrong kind of attention, can lead us down the road to nowhere. What matters is that our names are written in heaven, that our “core self” is rooted in the knowledge that we are God’s loved and precious child.
We’re to be “doorkeepers of heaven”, men and women whose primary call is to enable others to encounter holiness, to encounter God. And that encounter has an evangelising ability. One need only recall the appeal of holy places, the attraction of plainsong and other sacred music, of mystical art or monastic liturgies, to recognise that the desire for God is still present in human beings, even if they’re not attracted by what goes on in our churches.
Priests are to be formed as “encouragers of faith” in an age of carelessness. We’re to invite people to notice the doorway to the divine, which may not be in a church, but can often be in the presence of nature or art, which, bearing the imprint of the Creator, offers such an opening. We’re to incarnate the holiness of God as we seek to respond to the call to become instruments of his reign, and given to that conversatio morum (conversion of the heart) which reflects our desire for him.
Let the final word be spoken by Pope Francis. In his Evangelii Gaudium, he wrote of the way in which Jesus “summoned us to a revolution of tenderness” towards others and towards ourselves. We’re to be formed as expressions — sacraments — of this desire, to be full of faith and hope in an unbelieving world; to be constantly converted to compassion and tenderness; to be priests of the heart of Jesus. What a glorious calling! And it’s in prayer we experience our need for, and capacity for, this great gift of tenderness which begins in the heart but is expressed in our lives.
With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, (God) makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus.
The Revd John-Francis Friendship is an Anglican priest, spiritual director, pastoral supervisor, and a senior team member at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction. He is a founder member of the Anglican Catholic organisation the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests, and belongs to the Society of Retreat Conductors.
This is an edited extract from Enfolded in Christ: The inner life of a priest by John-Francis Friendship, published by Canterbury Press (£12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70) 978-178622-046-2).