Considering the Religious Life – a resource post

When I approached my diocesan director of vocations to discuss my vocation, I was surprised to find that he didn’t have any resources or reading lists to give to someone interested in the Religious Life. I left with a reading list tailored for someone considering ordination, which didn’t really address my questions.

This post will contain resources that either I have used or that have been recommended to me by friends who have explored the Religious Life (disclaimer – I’ll check everything as thoroughly as I can, but I haven’t read everything on here.) If you have any further suggestions, please leave me a comment, or contact me through twitter (@joanna_hollins). The resources on this post are intended to focus on Anglican Religious Communities, but I hope will be useful for anyone discerning a vocation, and will draw on materials from other traditions as I find them.

Ultimately, the best way to explore is to speak to someone living the life, and to visit and spend time with a Community. Send an enquiring email, drop in to their celebration of the Eucharist, send them a tweet… it doesn’t matter how tentative your enquiry is, how little you may feel you know about nuns & monks, how long you’ve been thinking about it – we like enquirers. Come and see.

This doubly applies to vocations advisers – please come and spend time with your nearest community, and use the resources out there! 

 

Books

The Anglican Religious Life Yearbook (ed. Dr Peta Dunstan). Updated annually, it includes contact information and general information for every community in the Anglican Communion, including a summary of the character and charism of the community, guest house information, the size of the current community, their oblates and associates, and whether they take Alongsiders. It also includes a few short articles and many pictures! The Yearbook is due to be replaced by a website in Sept 2019, but can still currently be purchased as a hardcopy.

Books about the Religious Life, Community & Discernment

  • Community and Growth by Jean Vanier
  • Anglican Religious Life: A Well-Kept Secret? ed. Br Nicholas Stebbing CR
  • What are you looking for? Seeking the God who is seeking you by Joan Chittester.
  • Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life by Fr. Christopher Jamison OSB
  • Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings OCSO
  • Crossing: Reclaiming the landscape of our lives by Mark Barrett OSB
  • The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
  • Selling All and Finding the Treasure by Sandra M Schneider IHM
  • The Calling by Catherine Whitney
  • Poverty, Chastity & Obedience by H.A. Williams CR
  • Towards a New Day by Ralph Martin SSM
  • A Simplified Life by Verena Schiller
  • Stolen Daughters, Virgin Mothers by Susan Mumm
  • The Disciple’s Call ed. Fr Christopher Jamison OSB

On specific areas within monastic life:

Franciscan

  • Franciscan Spirituality: Following St Francis Today by Br Ramon SSF; and for further enquiry into Franciscanism, Augustine Thompson OP’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography 
  • Joy in all things
  • The writings of Clare of Assisi

Benedictine

  • Monastery of the Heart and The Way We Were by Joan Chittister
  • Benedictine Tapestry by Felicitas Corrigan
  • St Benedict’s Toolbox by Jane Tomaine
  • The Oblate Life

Carthusian

  • The Way of Silent Love
  • The Spirit of Place
  • The Call of Silent Love

Accounts & Memoirs of the Religious Life

The Choice by Sr. Kirsty CSMV (Community of St Mary the Virgin)

Together and Apart: A memoir of the Religious Life by Sr. Ellen Stephen OSH

New HabitsToday’s Women Who Choose To Become Nuns by Isabel Losada

Unveiled: Nuns Talking by Mary Loudon

A list of suggested reading material can be found on the Anglican Religious Communities website here.

Audiovisual resources

Anglican Sister Journey – a wonderful youtube channel documenting a journey into Anglican Religious Life, and answering questions about it. Recent, informative, honest, and engaging, Lizzie covers everything from the mundane realities of daily life (what toiletries do nuns use? can they go to the shops?) to exploring spirituality, questioning vocation and the challenges of entering a convent.

Discerning Hearts is a podcast resource from the Roman Catholic Church, with podcasts ranging from spiritual direction, RC social teaching, bible study and vocations guidance.

The Pauline Sisters are a Roman Catholic order dedicated to spreading the world of God through the media. Amongst other work, they publish books & AV material, run bookshops, and create multimedia resources (and many of them can be found on social media). Their website includes many helpful resources on the Religious Life.

Online

The Religious Life page on the Church of England’s website contains useful summary information, including jargon busting and lists of Anglican Communities in the CofE.

Arcie (Anglican Religious Communities) may be helpful in locating a UK based community, and includes useful reading suggestions. The website is slightly out of date, but information appears to be accurate.

The Roman Catholic Office for Vocations in the UK has an excellent website for the Religious Life, including links to RC communities, vocations stories, a discernment app, reading lists and further resources on the Religious Life.

RoOT (Religious of Orthodox Tradition) are a group affiliated to The Society who promote the religious life across the Church of England. Amongst other projects they regularly organise Monastic Taster Days. These vary in location across the country and offer enquirers a chance to meet religious brothers, sisters, monks & nuns, ask questions, and hear their stories. Resources on their website include contact information, a novena for the religious life, resources to help promote the religious life, and information about upcoming taster days. (I attended one of these days in 2016 and found it very helpful. Although organised by The Society religious and enquirers from across the spectrum of the Anglican Church attend.)

Ways to explore: New Monastic Communities, Internships, Pastoral Assistants & more!

Communities with residential options: 

The Community of St Anselm  The Community of The Tree of Life  The Holywell Community  The Iona Community • Lee Abbey The Scargill Movement  L’Arche UK  The Northumbria Community  The Othona Community

Dispersed communities:

The Community of Aidan and Hilda • The Third Order of The Society of St Francis (TSSF)   Community of Hopeweavers • Contemplative Fire  The Order of Anglican Cistercians  The Order of Mission   

The Single Consecrated Life – a fresh expression of the Religious Life. Adherents are not part of a religious community, but are connected through the SCL network.

Internships & Ministry Experience: 

The CofE Ministry Experience Scheme • More to be added later!

*categorising these communities is challenging, so I have attempted to divide them on the basis of whether members can live in community, or are dispersed, on the grounds that this may be a useful starting point for those discerning vocation. I have included communities such as the Iona Community in ‘residential’ because they offer opportunities to volunteer for extended periods in one location, forming a temporary residential community, although most members are dispersed.

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Encounter

Some say blessed, but in this translation: happy.
Happy are those who are unhappy
in every way imaginable

says the back of the hand
says the pale moon palm

*

In the corner of the thistle-field
a sheep caught in brambles
backs away as far as the bent arm
of the bush will allow.

I walk forward slowly. I only mean
to free her. I believe this.
This morning a deer startles at the faint sound
of my breath in the woods,

bolts away with the white tip
of the tail signalling across scrub.
And I’m overjoyed. I haven’t seen
the deer here for months,

I thought they’d abandoned me.
Happy are those who see a single deer
running through the forest after weeks
following their frozen tracks. But what blessing

is her springing back from absence, into air?
The whole earth leaps away
from the deer in flight

who hangs like a comma over ferny scrub.
The ground has limestone knees and it springs
away from stillness.

Let me tell you about the ewe and her
tense knot of legs, her wide eyes, coming unstuck
before the backswing of the heart
that brings us close
is struck

and how the thread
between us has shredded
into a thousand felted strands on bramble branches.

*

Before I was, before I became, I was running
and it seemed God must be the light I followed,
the silver thread. But then I saw it was only the light
from my torch, bouncing ahead on the trees.
I thought God might be beside me, but that
was a fox in the undergrowth, who paused
to watch as I ran past, and for a moment kept pace.
When he went I didn’t see him go. He wasn’t company.
Only two creatures, running alone in the darkness.
And then I hear the click of the hunter’s gun.

*

As I’m writing this it seems like I’m not lonely.
Some times I don’t know how to be alone.

Are there others, moving silently through the forest
ahead of Her, too quick to catch? Is God

springing through the trees to meet me,
holding the spray of thorns

from my back?

*

If nothing connects us in this universe

and the world is spread wide and nothing watches

then this space between us, woman, doe, and ewe,

can’t matter. And yet these fumbling decisions

where we’re each others beasts and burdens,

the call, the leap, the arching back, the song

when I reach out my hand and it’s not taken,

the road I don’t follow, the deer tracks long ignored,

somehow still happen and keep happening. We’re each

in air, and in landing, know the other.

*

17.12.18 at Tymawr

Bread & Broken Glass

During the night the kneading hands of the wind pried the door of the larger greenhouse loose from its rollers. Untethered at the base, it must have knocked against the frame until the topmost pane of glass shattered. Some glass fell in onto the bolting rocket and cornsalad nearest the door; most fell outwards onto the ground in great slippery shards, and minute silver fragments that hid amongst the drops of rain clinging to the grass.

Plans are discarded. There’ll be no new bed of onions today; I race around dragging escapee cloches back over their frames and tamping them down with old tiles. The greenhouse door has to be fixed as quickly as possible, not for the sake of the hardy lettuces inside, but so the changeable wind doesn’t put her fist through any more panes. We board it up with wood, stuffing rags into the last few gaps, and then with two pairs of gloves on I begin to collect up the glass.

Even in the wind, I like this kind of work. It’s the kind of job you can’t fail at. Every piece collected is a little success in itself. And when it’s done, there’s the satisfaction of something complete, something whole, something untouchable – even in a bag of broken glass.

In the afternoon, I learn to make bread.

I’ve made bread before, years ago, but now I’m learning how to make the large, regular batches we eat every day, and to bake in the Aga. It becomes clear to me very quickly that I haven’t remembered anything very useful; I have to learn this skill from the beginning.

The Community have asked me to take on the breadmaking as part of my work as a Postulant. It’s a way of serving the Community, of participating in the Eucharistic life at the heart of our community, and it’ll primarily be my sole responsibility. It’s not a small undertaking, and it’s in the grey territory outside my comfort zone. Once or twice I’ve joked about my terrible cooking skills – perhaps protesting too loudly. I’m always scared of letting people down, so I try to set the bar low: anecdote after anecdote, told in my biggest, silliest voice, about failed driving tests and burnt meals, clothes torn, examinations scraped through by a hair. The first thing I have to let go of is my anxiety: somehow the Community believe in me, and I have to take on their faith, and believe in myself. And part of this is letting go of the compulsive need to justify that faith, and to prove myself; their faith is offered freely, without qualification.

The bread I’m asked to make, in my work in the kitchen, in my work in the garden, is the bread of service. It can be made from flour, yeast and water in the kitchen. It can be made from a bag of broken glass collected in the garden, a row of broad beans reaching out of the ground, a handful of flies swept off the windowsill in an unused bedroom. It is bread, and it isn’t like any bread I’ve eaten before.

When I taught myself to make bread, in my final year of university, I was living in a large student house with four lovely, and very tolerant friends. I used to walk from room to room idly tossing the dough in my hands, wanting to be admired for my craftiness. (I have an idea now that this didn’t particularly do the dough any good.) My friends bought me a smoothie maker for Christmas. My family bought me Mason Cash mixing bowls – I ended up with three – and I bought myself small things that made me feel as if I owned the world, and all its domesticity: a rolling pin, a wooden spoon, a bread tin.

There was a time when I imagined that my happiness was dependent on drawing everything I touched and everything I loved into myself. this meant lists of all the artists I liked, so I couldn’t forget their names. It meant an endlessly re-written CV, intensely proud of all my certificates. It meant trying everything, and wanting to know and have an opinion on everything. And to symbolise all of this, I had a dream of a house. It would be an end of terrace red-brick, with bay windows and a long, sloping garden. I imagined a wide patio, fairy-lights strung down from the house to a dwarf-stock apple tree halfway down the lawn. Inside the kitchen would have warm, yellow walls and a farmhouse table. And upstairs I’d have a study full of books, where I could shut myself and all my dreams and hopes and ideas away. My Wilko rolling-pin was the first piece of that security.

The unexpressed, unrealised aspect of this wasn’t about possessing material goods, but about building up a ‘self’. I spent my university years desperately trying to build up a ‘character’, who would be tough, and cool, and clever. Without denying any of the interests and the wonderful people I met in those years, who changed me for the better in so many ways, I now have the task of deconstructing that person. I can love the things she loved, but now they have to become distinct from me, and I have to find a sense of self which doesn’t depend on piercings or poetry or an intricate knowledge of the history of Norwich or any one of a thousand fragments of broken glass I tried to hide behind. Part of the call of the Religious Life: love these things, but be willing to leave them behind.

When I make bread, and think longingly of the beautiful Mason Cash bowls wrapped in newspaper in my parents’ attic, I’m baking a new bread. This bread can’t be baked in my fictional buttercup-kitchen; it’s made because I’m asked to make it, with what I’m given.

And this bread comes as a choice. I can receive it a crutch for my fragile ‘self’, something that validates my place in the Community, that makes me Useful and Necessary.

Or I can give it as the bread of service, which we share. It isn’t mine and it doesn’t matter that I made it, and every impulse to brag or worry about it has to be left outside the oven door. But I receive it too. Before it is even cut, in the making, I am receiving that bread. I can’t explain it, but when I was told: this is part of our eucharistic life, I understood. It’s a blessing to make bread, as it is a blessing to break it.

Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Lent begins in silence. I was late downstairs, rushing to put the water on, finish making porridge before chapel. At quarter to seven I’m pushing a wheelbarrow full of bin bags down to the gate, passing the woman who delivers milk to us three times a week. I say good morning, and we smile at each other, and the silence somehow stays complete. I’m discovering the strange elasticity of silence, how sometimes it stretches around whole conversations, how at other times a cold shoulder or a single word can make it snap like burst bubblegum. There is a constant friction between me and the silence: a yearning for it fighting with the impulse to push the clutter in my head out into the empty space.

For many years I’ve thought of Lent as empty space. It’s a time of waiting, a time of absences and restrictions. The chapel is stripped of flowers and the liturgy of cheerful Alleluias. There is a need within me to fill empty spaces. Sometimes I fill Lent with projects. If I give something up, I talk about it ceaselessly; if I read a Lent book, or study, I read hungrily, without time to stop and meditate. And then comes the cavernous emptiness of Holy Saturday, between the grief of Good Friday and the blissful end of emptiness on Easter Day. In both of these days there’s plenty to fill my head and heart. But I’ve always hidden from that long, empty Saturday, unsure what to do with it, how to understand that stretch of time.

This morning I helped to clear our smaller greenhouse, ready to take trays of seeds. In the pouring rain, we emptied the space, levelled the ground, and begun to plan and place shelves. Excess soil, which I had assumed was dead to all use, we sieved and saved for seedlings which need poor soil. I’m beginning to realise how often the garden changes, and how adaptable we need to be to keep up with it. In my naivety I’d imagined that anything we hadn’t used in the last six months was never used, and sat as a permanent fixture in one place, as if it had sat there since the convent was founded. But even unseen, even in absence and emptiness, life changes our garden. The tomato seeds that lay dormant three days ago have sprouted inch long stems and inch imperceptibly towards the glass even as we turn them back. As we clear away, I see the greenhouse in a new light. Even emptier now than it was this morning, laid bare but for the neat shelves, it suddenly seems so full to me. I can see the rows of young tomato and chilli plants and the trays of lettuce and beetroot and chard, rocket and perpetual spinach, bean and berry. The greenhouse is a womb holding the next few months of our garden, even before the seeds are planted. And in it’s emptiness it also holds my hopes, for the things I might learn, the journey I’ll take over this Lent and the months and the years to come.

As a student I once wrote an essay on ‘blank space’ as a metatextual element. Emptiness and absence have become an uncomfortable recurring interest, an academic obsession. But it’s not so comfortable to be asked to live alongside emptiness or uncertainty. If we really go into Lent, this is inevitable, and it’s so human to run away. But it seems to me that, like the waiting greenhouse, the silence of Lent is a growing silence: empty, and yet so, so full.