Vocation was described by Frederick Buechner as the place where our deep joy meets the world’s deep need. In a few days, I’ll be attempting to find my own sense of calling by spending 12 months living with the Order of the Holy Paraclete, a community of nuns at St Hilda’s Priory in Whitby. Often seen in the UK as a fading preserve of elderly Roman Catholics, religious community is, on the contrary, alive and well in the Anglican Communion. One does not need to take permanent vows in order to engage with community living: one of the key tenets of most orders is hospitality, and that offer of hospitality, coupled with the rhythm of prayer and work, is there for us all to share in.
I can’t explain why I feel called to this this year. Reeling off stock responses about peace and quiet, simplicity, and finding oneself can ring hollow, but sometimes they’re clichés because they’re true. Like many other communities, the Order of the Holy Paraclete places a high value on silence; it is in silence that we hear that still small voice of calm which is from God. I live in the middle of a city, and as such, my life is busy and noisy. I listen to podcasts while I fall asleep; I have the radio on while I’m reading a book; I listen to music while I cook. Being plunged into long periods of silence will probably be uncomfortable at first, but it seems to have worked wonders for a multitude of people over several millennia - why shouldn’t it work now?
I’m sure I, like many others, have lots of misconceptions about what life in religious community is really like. I’m sure that a large part of me romanticises convent life; my timetable, in keeping with the Benedictine spirituality at the heart of St Hilda’s Priory, balances contemplation with more manual labour. Both of these are challenging in their own ways, and part of the reason I want to do this year is to dispel the notion in my mind and the minds of many others that religious community is an easy choice.
It is, however, easy to lose sight, amidst the last minute packing and emotional goodbyes, of what exactly I’m doing by taking this step into a new and unknown world. This year, for me, is more than anything about saying yes to God in a way I never have before. It’s about placing myself entirely in God’s hands, leaving behind a life that I know and love to spend a year living and working entirely in the name of Jesus. I admire people who can do this by living ‘secular’ lives, but I haven’t done too well at that so far.
So, this year, I will be getting rid of earthly distraction. No more lunches out with friends several times a week, or buying pretty dresses on a whim. No more sleeping in when I feel like it, or skipping church because I can’t be bothered. As Thomas Merton puts it, a religious is one who gives up everything in order to gain everything: I pray that, by making these small sacrifices for a year, God will allow me to share in that gain.
Written by Sian Eastwood. Sian is an Anglican currently living in York and about to journey to Whitby to live with the Order of the Holy Paraclete at St Hilda's Priory.