On the 22nd June 2011, I made my first vow to the Single Consecrated Life on St. Alban's Day in the chapel of Shepherd's Dene, the Diocesan Retreat and Conference Centre, situated just outside Riding Mill village, a lovely part of Northumberland. The chapel is quite simple, with green carpet and separate upholstered chairs arranged in an arc facing the altar. This is set in front of wide windows, giving a view of the extensive garden and grounds sloping away into the distance, with many beautiful mature trees. Propped against the altar is a large copy of the Rublev icon 'The Hospitality of Abraham', which speaks to me not only of hospitality and relationship but also of the Holy Spirit.
The readings for St. Alban's Day seemed appropriate for the occasion: 2 Timothy 2. 3 – 13 and John 12. 24 – 26, as did the hymn, 'God, whose city's sure foundation stands upon his holy hill'. In his address Bishop Frank first related how Alban, a pagan local soldier in Verulamium, as it was then called, gave shelter to a priest, and was so impressed by his way of life that he became a Christian. When Roman soldiers came to arrest the priest Alban donned the priest's long cloak, and was led out in his place. He thus became the first Christian martyr in Britain, and the great abbey of St. Alban stands on the site of his martyrdom.
As Bishop Frank went on to say, it is thanks to saints like St. Alban that the Christian faith has been handed down to us, and like them we are all called to good living, to serve God in various different ways, and to praise and magnify the Lord.
As I moved forward rather nervously to stand opposite Bishop Frank for the scrutiny I became aware of being upheld by all those present, by the Abbess of Malling Abbey who suggested the Single Consecrated Life to me, together with the Sisters and Oblates, my brothers and sisters of the Single Consecrated Life, many other friends and my family, as well as, of course, by God. My own particular commitment is to involvement in the local church, and the support of organisations dedicated to fair trade, care of the environment, and bridging the gap between rich and poor. In my vow I pledged myself, by the help of God's grace, to live in simplicity as a contemplative urban solitary according to the spirit of the Rule of St. Benedict.
As Bishop Frank has said, 'Walking in the Spirit is a life-time's adventure!', and at 86 I can say 'Amen' to that. He will be seeing me again in six months’ time and, all being well, I shall make my life vow in my local church in Fenham sometime next year.
On the 6th July 2012, Jo made her life vow of celibacy in the chapel at Shepherd's Dene, committing herself to live simply as a contemplative urban solitary according to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict.
The Old Testament reading was Psalm 119, 1 – 8 and the Gospel Matthew 9, 9 – 13. In his homily Bishop Frank contrasted the attitudes to Jesus of the Pharisees and the tax collector. The former seemed to assume, because of all their religious practices, that they were somehow superior, whereas Matthew, the outsider, responded with immediate obedience. There is, perhaps, a warning there for us, and the need of a corrective – the precious gift and grace of humility. The purity of response evinced by Matthew is beautifully expressed in the opening words of Psalm 119: 'Blessed is the one who praises God with an upright heart'.
The way of praise and the practice of thanksgiving opens the heart to attune our ear to God, and to see more clearly the beautiful actions of Christ.
It draws our attention away to God and others, and allows the growth in us of a humble rather than a religious spirit. That work of grace will sustain Jo on her journey.
A further reflection from Jo
I‘ve been reflecting on the question why so many older ladies are feeling a call to the Single Consecrated Life (SCL). This was the question put to me by someone in the religious life whom I met last November. I said I couldn‘t answer for the others, but I felt it to be an authentic call from God which it was incumbent on me to explore. I can‘t help feeling that ¯why is the wrong question anyway, as it is, in my opinion, with all things to do with God: ¯how is much more appropriate. Would they, I wonder, ask why in the case of OT characters like Abraham and the prophets, or like NT people such as the Virgin Mary and the Apostles?
My Bishop also posed a question to me: ¯Why did I feel the need to become an SCL when I had just made my oblation at Malling Abbey, and so become an Oblate? I think I said at the time that it was to do with a sense of call, perhaps similar to his when he felt called to ministry within the Church. Later I realised I could have enlarged on that. My call to be an Oblate was a call from God to serve him via his agent, the Abbey: a call which needed to be authenticated by the Abbey. My call to SCL is a call from God to serve him via his agent the Church: a call which needs to be authenticated by the Church. There‘s certainly nothing self-seeking about it, in fact, quite the reverse as one feels the need to be upheld.
As I stood before the altar at the Abbey, I prayed those lovely words from Psalm 119: ¯Uphold me, O Lord, according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope.
I then turned to the circle of nuns and others surrounding me and asked them for their prayers. It was very moving and uplifting, and I felt a sense of home-coming: I hope and pray the same will be true when I make my Life Vow in the parish church. I am to make my First Vow in the chapel of our Diocesan Retreat and Conference Centre on 22nd June: please pray for me.
I think that it‘s very much of God that SCL serve him in many different ways. My own way is as a contemplative urban solitary living in simplicity according to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. This involves observing the three Benedict vows of Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience; reading, three times a year, ¯Households of God – The Rule of St. Benedict, with explanations for monks and lay people today by David Parry O.S.B.; and lectio divina (spiritual reading).
My day begins with prayer followed by reading the Old or New Testament passage and the Gospel as set out in the Weekday Missal. I say the Abbey's Day Offices of Lauds, Terce, Sext, None and Vespers, which provides a framework into which shopping, household chores, hospitality, recreation, etc. are fitted. At some time during the day I say two or three Psalms so that all are said within a thirty day period. My intercessory prayer is based on the Abbey's litany with additional categories into which are slotted persons and situations prayed for daily, and on a thirty day prayer diary.
There are also times just being still before God. I say Compline at nine o'clock, and this is followed by reading and / or music, a prayer of thankfulness for the day, before retiring for the night.
I‘ll end with some words adapted from Through Julian‘s Windows by the Carmelite nun, Elizabeth Ruth Obbard. She was writing about hermits and solitaries, but I think her idea applies equally to anyone who is, or is thinking of becoming, an SCL. 'What is important for the person called to a Single Consecrated Life is not to strive to conform to a certain definition of SCL, but to seek to answer the call in the given conditions of his or her life.