Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A different path

Was it some sort of musical preconditioning? I do not know. All that I know for certain is that when I joined the Sisters for Morning Prayer during my recent retreat, my reaction was one of surprise. “That sounds like sunrise!” At that point, my thoughts moved away from the written psalm in front of me and I simply luxuriated in the beauty of the same words as sung by the Poor Clare Colettine community of Ty Mam Duw in Hawarden, North Wales. That reverie, too, was prayer.

This is the time of year when most Religious manage to escape for a while in order to enjoy their annual ‘holiday with the Lord’, as a Retreat is sometimes called. Not that it is much of a holiday in one sense, because having the opportunity to spend several hours in prayer every day for one week, in silent solitude, has its own demands. It is an opportunity, not only to come face-to-face with the Lord, but also to take a closer look inside one’s own heart, a heart that is his, true, but is still one which, in the course of life’s daily busy-ness, can digress a little from ‘the straight and narrow’. Thus a Retreat is a time for reflection, assessment and redirection.

This year I managed to achieve something that has been a long-held wish and headed to Ty Mam Duw. The Poor Clare Colettines spend approximately one third of their day in ‘formal’ prayer, about four hours of which are taken up with the recitation of the Divine Office, starting at 06.30 in the morning and finishing somewhere around midnight…and then there is Mass, the Rosary and private prayer. Life becomes totally orientated around prayer, totally God-centred.

Such an intensive life of prayer is a special vocation in itself. Not everybody could do it. It means that prayer is the priority of the day, with other tasks, even such things as cooking, washing, ironing…and eating, necessarily relegated to places of lesser importance.

Yet, as St Teresa of Avila declared, “God is found even amongst the pots and pans!” As a Sister remarked in an interview I did for Vatican Radio, “With spending so much time in prayer every day, it is never quite possible to make ends meet as a result of one’s own work.”

Of course, this state of affairs suits the Poor Clare lifestyle to perfection. St Clare pestered the Pope until she was given the ‘Privilege of Poverty’, a document granting that request arriving, literally, as Clare lay dying. It is the privilege of Clare’s followers to throw themselves in utter dependence on God’s generosity … even for their next meal!

Yet speak to any of the Sisters and their sense of joy is real, their inner freedom tangible. There is no sense that the long hours spent in prayer are burdensome. The Sister I interviewed After all, these are the very moments when they can be close to the sick, the dying, those in any kind of need, as one story goes to show…

Not long ago, late at night, the dog started to bark, without any obvious cause. There was a feeling that someone was dying and so the Sisters immediately sprang into action, praying throughout the night hours on that person’s behalf. The dog continued to bark into the early hours of the morning and then, suddenly, stopped, allowing the Sisters a few hours of sleep. Next morning, they learned that the moment of the dog’s silence was the very time at which the mother of a nearby camper, died. Thanks to the dog, the Sisters and a good dollop of Divine Inspiration, the old lady did not die alone… and they have many stories just like that, when they have somehow known that there was somebody in urgent need of their prayerful companionship at a crisis point in their life.

St Francis had a dilemma, solved for him by St Clare. He wanted to spend his life as a hermit, lost in prayer in the wonderful forests of Umbria, but, at the same time, he felt that God was calling him back into the marketplace of the world at large. Which road should he take? Clare, after praying for him, was adamant that Francis’ vocation was not that of a solitary hermit. Yet, to the end of his days, Francis felt the tension between the two ways of life. It was difficult for him, and it is, quite frankly, something that I personally find hard. Coming to Ty Mam Duw, there is part of me that never wants to leave, but there is also part of me that declares that the life of a Poor Clare Colettine is not my calling. Like Francis, I am called to the highways and byways, and, just like him, am called to ‘spread the Gospel and, when necessary, use words’. Perhaps the tension between the dual calls of Francis and Clare is a necessary, and sometimes uncomfortable, part of the Franciscan way of life: the two distinct vocations are only two sides of the one coin. Just as Francis never really overcame the yearning to be a hermit, so also Clare and her ‘Poor Ladies’ shared in the call of Francis and his ‘Lesser Brothers’ and were conscious that their part was to support each other through a path that was, at once, both the same and yet different.

We each have a vocation in life. Each is a unique path to God, a way that will unfold during the course of each day. None of us can see the details of our journey, but we do know that, at every step of the way, God is there, beckoning. That someone else’s vocation is different from mine does not make mine second best. Difference is not a matter of good or better: each of us is called by God. What is important is the way in which I respond to my calling. As the catechism used to say ‘God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.’

God bless,
Sr Janet