Posted on December 2nd, 2021
What do you seek? might be a question which directors helpfully ask of their directees, but it’s also the title of my latest book. It’s the question novices to the Religious Life are often asked as they seek admission (it was the question asked of me at my Profession in the First Order of the Society of St Francis many years ago) and the response, in one form or another, includes the statement that one seeks God and his will – and that, of course, is what lies at the heart of spiritual direction.
I wrote the book for all seeking to give attention to their divine journey, so it’s intended to act as a resource for anyone, and not just those considering their vocation (although it’s intended to speak into that). It’s also written from a specifically Anglican perspective because similar books can seem concerned with the wisdom found only through Roman Catholic Orders; yet, since the Life was re-established in the Anglican Communion in 1841, a wealth of treasure and insight has developed within Anglican traditions.
‘The person who prays, maybe someone committed to the life of a hermit, can learn to live at the point of intersection where the Love of God and the tensions and sufferings we inflict on one another meet, and we are held to God’s transforming love.’ (Mother Mary Clare SLG, What Do You Seek, p.57)
The first communities were acceptable because they cared for the poor: most Anglicans found the notion of vowing yourself to God alone abhorrent. Unpaid women nursing (especially with Florence Nightingale) were one thing – enclosed Religious given to prayer quite another! And, to an extent, such a view still exists, which is why many know little of the spirituality needed by those seeking God: having a time of ‘contemplation’ is one thing – living contemplatively is quite another!
I have tried to explore how the Life is, in many ways, just life in Christ writ large – how it’s the successor to the life of the Church described in Act 2.42f. And, whilst the monastic vows of Stability, Conversio morum and Obedience might seem outlandish to some, I’ve tried to show how they are as helpful for all Christians as are those of the ‘active’ Orders – Poverty, Chastity and Obedience (again!). All these are the counter-cultural affirmations about what it means to live in Christ, for they challenge the very heart of what secular society thinks of as the ‘good life’, yet can easily lead to anxiety, desolation and chaos.
My hope, then, is that this book can be of use to Spiritual Directors because it concerns the heart of our faith. Beginning by exploring humanity’s ageless hidden desire for God, it goes on to look at the insights of hermits (Desert and otherwise); developing a prayer-ful life, and the importance of Eucharistic living. And, stealing a title from an American writer, there is a whole chapter on the ‘monkhood of all believers’.
The contemplative soul is the instrument of Divine Love. Its contemplation is creative in so far as it is surrendered to the Divine Love. It operates not in its own self-expression but in and through the power of God: possessing nothing for itself and therefore possessing all things. (Fr. Gilbert Shaw, What Do You Seek, p.90)
The Very Rev. Dr Frances E. F. Ward Obl.OSB, former Dean of St Edmundsbury and author of Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate Crisis, Eco-Anxiety and God and other books, generously wrote in her commendation: ‘To enter this book is to find oneself in another world soaked by the presence of God; it is to realise that all life, communal and individual, and indeed the natural world around, participates in a greater reality of love and there finds meaning and purpose.’