A couple of weeks ago, as part of my ongoing journey of vocation discernment, I went to visit a fantastic Anglican religious order in the north of England. I’ll write a fuller blog post about that another time, but while there I read a book, written in the 1950s by one of the sisters in the community, called I Choose the Cloister. It was brilliant, and struck at the core of my being in a way that few books ever have. It challenged me, made me question myself, and, mostly importantly, made me think long and hard about my personal shortcomings. Reading about the way women have, and do, fight with themselves for decades in order to live a Christ-like life helped me come to realise how proud, vain and arrogant I am, especially when it comes to my faith. I’m certainly guilty of constantly pointing out and complaining about other people’s fault while trying to exonerate, rather than address, my own. So much for the cloistered life being a mild and gentle one.
This might all sounds bad – “I read a book that made me realise I suck at everything!” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement – but I Choose the Cloister book did to me what all good spiritual writing, and the Bible itself, has the power to do to us all. It helped me to realise my faults, yes, but most importantly it reinvigorated my faith in the infinite grace and guiding spirit of God. It reminded me that, no matter how seemingly insurmountable my sins, no matter how inadequate my penitence may feel, God will never fail to forgive and accept me: nothing is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit.
I Choose the Cloister does an excellent job of highlighting the way in which, in our naivety, we can often act in what feels like a humble, faithful way while actually adding to our pride. James 2 famously informs us that faith without works is dead, and it’s therefore quite natural to feel that service to God hinges solely on good works. To this end, we give up things, we offer our time and resources, we do an astonishing variety of fantastic things in the name of caring for God’s creation. And this is excellent. But this doesn’t necessarily represent Christian humility. Instead, it can often have the contrary effect, feeding one’s own ego, making us less Christ-centred and more self-centred: rather than building up Christ, we build up ourselves. It’s nice to think that all we have to do to be good Christians is give people our money, and live simply. In these instances, however, when the focus is so purely on the works, and the outcome seems to be nothing but a nice feeling of self-satisfaction, we act for ourselves, and not for God.
Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicholas encapsulates perfectly this struggle we have between doing things for ourselves and doing them for God. In the third section, Nicholas tells us that he gives everything away, sells his land, gives all his money to the poor in an attempt to act out his faith, yet ‘love demanded more’. He becomes more earnest, casting aside everything joyful in his life in order to focus more truly on God; this, however, is no more effective, and ‘love desired more still’. It is only when he breaks down, praying to God, and begging for ‘sweet humility’, that ‘love was satisfied’. When I sung this in 2012, not long after becoming a Christian, I thought this was an odd request. Begging for humility? Aren’t you already pretty darn humble if you’ve given away everything, living for other people? No, God tells us. You can give your things, your time, your words, your actions, sure; but these are nothing without giving your spirit to the one who knows best your gifts, your needs and your purpose. I Choose the Cloister ends with one of the sisters praying a prayer which played incessantly on my mind for a full week after I first read it, a prayer which perfectly encapsulates this humility:
Give me to practise
That supreme liberty of will,
Which is to strip my will of every liberty.
My visit to the sisters made a profound impression on me. It most certainly helped me to grow in my faith, in ways I can’t even begin yet to comprehend. The initial purpose of the visit was to help me in my attempts at working out what on earth God might be calling me to. I was hoping to leave feeling very strongly that it was or wasn’t what I should do; instead, I left with a far more complex set of emotions and questions than I had when I arrived. I was worried that, since I didn’t immediately feel that I was absolutely meant to be there, that I must have got it all wrong, and God was chuckling merrily at the very notion of me thinking I might be called to life in a religious community. Feeling a bit stressed and confused about the whole thing, not to mention angry with myself for presuming I might be good enough to have a vocation, I went to work – in a bookshop – the next week, and the first book I saw, right on top of the pile of new acquisitions, couldn’t help but make me turn my eyes upwards and smile. God has a pretty wry sense of humour sometimes, and this serendipitous sign, what my friend called a ‘Godincidence’, is perhaps my favourite to date.