Let me tell you a story of two Desert Fathers:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said, “Abba, as much as I am able, I practise a small rule, all the little fasts, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet; as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven, and his fingers became like torches of flame. And he said, “Why not be turned into fire?”
Jesus makes a similar point to the Samaritan woman at the well. Don’t just settle for the rope and bucket, pulling up just as much as you can carry home, and then coming back for more when you run out. Why not be turned into torrents of living water? And ‘torrents’ is what Jesus is offering here: potamoi in the Greek – Matthew uses same word for the floods which come and sweep away the house built on sand in Jesus’ parable.
Why not be turned into torrents of living water? Well, I’ll tell you why not – you’ll make one heck of a mess.
We find Jesus’ promise to the Samaritan in our Principles, don’t we? If we let our profession truly change us, we will become ‘channels of grace’ (Day 30). That sounds very dignified, dare I say very Anglican. It puts me in mind of Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens at Hestercombe, watered by trickling rills. But what is running through this ‘channel of grace’? Irrepressible torrents of living water. And what do the Principles have the nerve to ask of us so those torrents can flow? To be ‘willing to be emptied of self, and to surrender’ to Christ. To make Christ known and loved everywhere, to spread the spirit of love and harmony, to live simply; to serve through prayer, study and work, and be turned inside out by humility, love and joy.
Hmm. Suddenly coming to the well every day with your bucket begins to sound a lot easier, doesn’t it? Jesus and Abba Joseph warn us that we can use the forms of religion, yes, even personal rules of life, to excuse ourselves from the risks of discipleship and community. That is why penitence is so important – it keeps those channels of grace scoured clear.
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I have to say I’d much rather talk with than talk to, because I’m still trying to make sense of what I’m meant to do in this peculiar job of Provincial Formation Guardian. I listen at area meetings, to the Area Formation Guardians. I read every word which Area Teams wrote for Chapter last autumn. Never mind, I have been asked to talk to you, so I’m going to have to stick my neck out for these 20 minutes, and you’ll get your say over lunch.
I soon discovered a huge appetite for ‘lifelong formation’. I think people are wanting to say that the Third Order is not about clinging to Abba Lot’s little rule, it’s a crucible of change, where the support of a shared discipline empowers us to take risks of discipleship, make discoveries, become Abba Joseph’s flames of fire.
Well, with a working group of Area Formation Guardians we’re looking at loosening up the annual report form, so that instead of ticking boxes, it asks open questions which are more attentive to change in the landscapes of people’s lives. Some AFGs plan to give them back before the next Francistide so that one year’s report can be a starting point for the next. It’s got to be better than shredding them.
Small ideas, and they won’t change the world. It’s great that there is a desire to make the Third Order a place of personal growth. But I don’t think we can stop with personal spiritual growth. As the Principles reminds us at the start of every month, we are professed not for what we can get out of the Third Order, but for we can enable each other to give.
Let’s just look at the vow we make at profession:
I give myself to our Lord Jesus Christ, to serve him for the rest of my life in company with my brothers and sisters [that’s us], seeking to spread the knowledge and love of Christ, to promote the spirit of love and harmony as the family of God, and to live joyfully a life of simplicity and humble service after the example of St Francis.
So why are we professed? To encourage each other to serve Christ by fulfilling the three Aims. Now since I was professed in 2004 I must have spent hundreds of hours at Third Order meetings, before becoming PFG and since, talking about aspects of the personal rule of life. But it has dawned on me that’s missing the point. The Rule of the Third Order is not the personal rule, but the rite of profession (and particularly the vow), the Principles, statutes and constitutions, and at the heart of it all is the Aims – and I’d ignored them. Am I alone? Does it matter?
I’d like to give another reason why it might matter, besides being our solemn vow. I did a comparison between our Principles and those of the First Order SSF. The two sets of Principles are largely the same, but there is one major difference. Where the First Order principles set out the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, ours set out the Aims. So the Aims are as important, distinctive and demanding to us as the evangelical counsels are to our First Order brothers and sisters. Theirs are poverty, chastity, obedience; ours, we could say, are evangelisation, reconciliation, self-giving.
And then when we renew our pledge each year, I discovered when reading the rite of renewal, the pledge we are renewing is not the personal rule of life, and I had thought. Read the rite of renewal for yourself, and you’ll find that our pledge is to serve Christ in the three Aims – evangelisation, reconciliation, self-giving. We place our rule of life on the altar only as a kind of manifest of our pledge.
There’s one thing I wish the Principles did say about the Aims – and that is that we should apply them to ourselves before we presume to inflict them on anyone else. To ‘make Christ known’ I must make room for him to take flesh in me. To spread ‘love and harmony’ I must reckon with the seeds of violence in my own lifestyle and character. To ‘live simply’ I must ransom my appetites from their enslavement to consumerism.
The Aims are not a duty. If I submit to be the object of them, they are a royal road to joy and freedom, for others and for ourselves. Joy Cowley’s Aotearoa Psalm is a great commentary on our second Aim:
‘We are called to be bridges…When I become a bridge for another…I escape from the small prison of self and exist for the wider world, breaking out to be a larger being who can enter another’s pain and rejoice in another’s triumph’.
We are not professed for what we can get out of the Third Order, but for what we can enable each other to give. The Aims make us a community in mission. In the collect in our Vigil we told God: ‘We find our purpose in belonging to you and to one another’. It is mainly in our local groups that that belonging happens. So if the Aims have their rightful place, the evidence will be in our local groups. Let’s look at our local groups, then.
At their best they can be a place where each unique gospel life is named, cherished, nurtured and realised. There are lots of imaginative ideas around. In some local groups, the members have discovered deeper relationships from doing their annual review of vocation in twos or threes. Some look to the year ahead as well as the year past. They identify how the group can help them, and what they can offer, and these conclusions become building blocks for planning a year’s programme.
But in an important survey undertaken in 2009 by Denise Mumford, a Tertiary in London, 44 per cent, nearly half, were not entirely satisfied with their local group. One Tertiary told her: ‘Local group thinking needs further revision’; another: ‘It is something that I feel needs further research and attention. Advances made during the novitiate are not always followed up after profession.’ And another: ‘Fellow members of my Small Group are most supportive and caring, but I do not think this amounts to formation in the spiritual life’.
Another Tertiary said more recently: “After I was professed I felt suddenly adrift, with no Novice guardian, and a need for encouragement and challenge. I found it with my spiritual director but not in the Local Group.” These words, only a year old, echo uncomfortably closely the very reason our network of local groups was formed in 1999: that ‘after their profession, many…felt that there was too much a sense of “being left on their own”’.
What we should do about voices like these? We cannot pretend that everything is fine. I believe we can find an answer in the first communities of Francis and Clare.
They drew people together to leave everything and follow the footprints of Christ. Reduced to their common humanity, they became brothers and sisters, with each other, with lepers, and with all of creation. They shared all they had, practically and spiritually, and trusted each other with their lives. Francis did not found monasteries, but simple shelters of mission and homecoming, mission and homecoming, mission and homecoming. It is his gospel fraternities which provide a template for our own.
Do our local groups enable us to live up to our gospel aims – evangelisation, reconciliation, self-giving – as those early communities did to theirs? Are they places of radical trust and transparency, where we encourage each other in our endeavours as they did? Are they places where we can discover what is ours to do in a world (never mind a church) which is falling into ruin? Are they outward-facing gospel communities, from which we sally in prayer, study and work, to earn a crust, and to which we return to tell all that we have seen and done? Possibly not all of them, and not yet, but perhaps some already are, and all of them can be.
As you know we are gathering views for what the next General Chapter might seek to achieve. Two aspirations recur in the responses so far. One is that we release the Franciscan missionary impulse for our times: ‘to open up hope in the real good news of Christ in the imagination of our culture which is distracted and despairing’, to grow in ‘engaged Franciscanism’, confronting a temptation to become a ‘holy huddle’, a ‘cosy club where we can find support but not challenge’ or to fragment into a collection of individuals each following a private spiritual path.
A second recurrent theme is closely related: our membership is ageing, and we must open up to a younger generation. We must enter an ‘unknown land’, post-Christian and post-modern, anxious about emerging crises, financial, environmental, existential. This won’t just mean promoting ‘our’ Order to students and young adults. It will demand fundamental changes of us, whilst also calling us back more radically to the example of Francis.
In longings like these, the Order is praying, as we are about to pray, ‘Let us build a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true, where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew’. If we are going to sing that prayer with sincerity, we will sing and pray it for our local groups. There is a longing to become a community in mission, to forsake the bucket for the living water and flood the world, and the little rule for the flames of fire and cast it on the earth, and that longing is finding a voice. These are exciting times to be a Tertiary – I would say important, even necessary, times.
For now, let me leave you with three small suggestions. One is to tell me over lunch that I’ve got it wrong, or perhaps that I’m stating the obvious. Another is to share your own ideas for what General Chapter should address – it says how in Little Portion. The third is to take your personal Rule out of its envelope. Let it breathe, see daylight, set it free. Let it feel the imprint of the world, witness its beauty and tragedy. Let it be creased and crumpled and stained. As you renew in October, lay it naked on the altar with an undefended heart. In doing so let us trust each other, and be worthy of each other’s trust. And then may the world find the gospel written in your life.