Disponibilité: My life as a Sister of the Stone Congregation
A Talk given at the Dominican Seminar by Sr Tamsin Mary
My community – which is small - decamped en masse to our Mother House at Stone for Christmas. A certain sister there who is in her eighties took my breath away as she outlined her programme for the next few days. She would be taking part in an ecumenical walk singing carols through the town on Christmas Eve. Then she would be playing the flute at a Mass for Children in the evening in Stone, and then she would be playing again at the main Mass on Christmas morning in another parish.
Meantime other sisters from that community were dispersing themselves through the deanery – we were present and represented at eight Masses in four different parishes over Christmas.
Why am I mentioning this?
One of the harder things to do is to describe very precisely the mission of our Congregation, except by the word in French that has no precise English equivalent - disponibilité: We are available to serve.
At any rate this is perhaps the common theme that draws together the many aspects of my own personal mission. As many of the brothers can attest I am a teacher of Latin, and I suppose that is my main apostolate – At one point I did severely question what was going on when I was working in a secular school and most of my life seemed to be about teaching paganism to protestants, but I reflected that there are ways of doing that – wearing the habit, being an Oxford graduate, being professional and effective as a teacher, giving the children (what they most of them otherwise entirely lacked in their lives) a space of silence at the beginning of a lesson in which they might pray if they wanted – all of these things perhaps gave organised religion a face and an aspect that children of entirely secularised parents in a school which often – sometimes explicitly- mocked at Christianity, might scarcely encounter elsewhere. And the children did pray, though sometimes they made the oddest faces while they were about it.
Then the work in Heythrop and Blackfriars came up, and I do feel a greater sense of a coherent mission in - among other things – giving future priests the tools with which to read St Thomas in the original and to say the Latin Mass. Another thing which I came to realise was that since I see the students in Heythrop for four hours a week I do have more contact with them on a one to one basis than most of their other lecturers, and this in turn give the space and the time to talk about other things than Latin Grammar. Since many of my students are to be priests, sometimes this gives a privileged opportunity to tell them, for example to ‘do the red and say the black’.
I am part of a formation community, which through the day to day business of praying the Office together, living the common life and by our common apostolate we strive to make a ‘Holy Preaching’. We share in the formation programme of the Brethren at this stage, and the novices share classes. My contribution to this is to teach Latin. This joint formation fosters the ongoing friendship and mutual trust that has characterised the history of our Congregation in relation to the brothers – long may it continue so!
Apart from teaching there are a variety of other things I do – for some years I have seemed to be a ‘go-to’ person for catechising children and adults who in some way don’t fit into the normal categories – preparing adolescents for first communion, instructing adults who cannot fit around the parish RCIA programme, giving one to one instruction to children with special needs. I always feel in these contexts somewhat unfit for the task, but on a principle of disponibilité I undertake what I am asked to do in this line and do what I can. I was lucky enough in Ealing to be part of the group of people who ran the Confirmation programme, and so have learned at some level how this work can be really well run and done. Applying what I have learned with my nephew Henry who is profoundly autistic proved a different kind of challenge. Those of you who are experienced in educating children with special needs will know what I mean when I say I went through a long period where I was not at all confident that anything was going in. Came the day I thought I would see if he remembered what had gone before: Henry cannot be questioned, so one looks to see if he can finish a familiar sentence once begun ‘God made…’ I said, and Henry replied ‘the sky’ ‘and God made…’ ‘Mummy and daddy and Henry’ ‘and Jesus is…’ ‘God’ ‘and at Mass the bread and wine…’ ‘become Jesus.’ – I decided that as there are many communicants who do not know so much, I would ask if he might receive communion. Given his age it was felt he should also be confirmed – this proved more exciting than I quite liked, as Henry reacts adversely to the unfamiliar, but he did manage to say he rejected Satan and all his works, and that he believed in God and the rest of the baptismal formula, and the Holy Spirit was conferred, in Blackfriars in Cambridge in a congregation of people who knew and loved Henry. When it came to communion, Fr Aidan who possibly had had enough by this stage, put the Sacred Host in Henry’s mouth without waiting for a response – Henry fixed him with a steely glance and firmly said ‘Amen’, and I would be surprised if there was a dry eye in the church.
I seem for the last two or three years to have been on a sort of home mission. I have spent a lot of time visiting my father and my sister in their last illnesses. As those of you who have lost a family member know there is always a chorus of guilt about one’s failings in such a mission, but I have learnt a lot about myself and also about how to relate to the dying and to comfort the living – a skill set recently put into service when a dear family friend was dying, and I had the strangest of role reversals when this man – to some extent a mentor of part of my youth – was suddenly turning to me for spiritual advice in the art of dying.
I also act as a spiritual director to a group belonging to the Teams of Our Lady – The Teams are a lay run organisation for the sanctification of married life. What is has meant for me on the whole has been that once a month I meet with the couples and am given an excellent meal, we talk about the month that has passed, and pray together, and I come away with a renewed certainty about my vocation to the single state. On a more serious note it has been a privilege to accompany these couples in their struggles and heart-aches – One couple for example has gone through having a child with cancer – mercifully now recovered – and a miscarriage. It has been a journey that deepens and tests friendships, and some couples find they cannot keep up the commitment. At its best it is a beautiful thing, which fosters the Catholic life both of the couples and of their children.
I also – as some of you may be aware – have a mission on the internet. As well as being the person charged with developing and maintaining our web-site – a task in which I must simultaneously please all of the sisters and have an end result that does not look like the product of a committee (what do you call a horse developed by a committee? A dromedary!), and is appealing to the young – as well as this I spend too much time on Facebook. This I feel is to some extent justified by the fact that at the moment according to the internet one and a half billion people use facebook at least once a month- not all are Anglophone, but it is still a very considerable preaching medium. I rather seldom put up things of my own - what I do post has usually already been posted by someone else, and falls into various categories: Religious items, pro-life news, news about other issues of social justice, and what might be broadly termed ‘entertainment’ – jokes and touching stories and pictures of animals. This last I do because I observe in myself a tendency to veer away from reading items posted by people who are uniformly serious – I find my mind quite unjustly freezing over with boredom – whereas if people share jokes then they are more generally accessible.
Many people use the internet to ask for prayers, and I frequently stop in the midst of what I am dong to respond immediately to a prayer request. Many people on Facebook are housebound and have few close friends or opportunity to socialise. Some people post questions about serious matters ranging from questions of faith to requests for advice about their personal life. It is conventional I think to sneer at the ‘waste of time’ – and there is a temptation in this direction – but there is also a huge ministry out there if one sees the matter rightly. It is not enough to put a beautiful article on a blog page – someone has to be reading it and sharing it with others. That is what I do.
As you can see this principle of disponibilité leads to a very diverse set of apostolic commitments – I have not mentioned them all, for fear of outstaying my welcome! But the general effect is that I feel stretched in my ministry, and yet have a sense of freedom that new avenues lie near at hand, which may be put before me on my own or before my community in our common service in the vineyard of the Lord.