Thinking back to those days when we met people ‘in real life’, and not virtually, I bumped into someone who had followed me on Twitter for a few years: “Oh you’re books and icons.”, she said.
I was, as you can imagine, quite pleased. There, are no doubt, so many worse things she could have said about me. That is all by way of making no apology for this being a letter of, you guessed it … books and icons.
Fr Simon suggested that he publish the talk I gave in January 2015 that was the spur for the formation of our Sodality (you can find it here in this newsletter.) It was interesting to re-read it as I prepared to write to you today on the eve of the Seventh Sunday of Easter and as we prepare prayerfully to renew our commitments and receive the gift of wonderful new priests, deacons and ordinands into our little community.
Re-reading my talk I was surprised at two things: that I still think what I thought then, and that the Spirit has led us along this exact road. It still describes who we are.
A few things have changed. We now have a separate existence to SCP, and maintain friendly relations with them, many of us are members of both. This week I had a really helpful conversation with soon to be new Sodalists in the United States and Australia where the context is a little different and where the ‘romanising’ stream in Catholic Anglicanism is less strong, perhaps there the distinction is between Dearmer and Sarum style? As we grow we change. Substantial groups in other parts of the Anglican Communion will change us. Already in small ways: moving from praying Vespers on Zoom to using the Office of Readings to include those praying before lunchtime; using subtitles to be accessible on Zoom. Inclusion always involves change. Change, conversion, repentance, is at the heart of the Christian life, of the growth in holiness that is our sole aim: ‘because the world needs holy priests’.
Inclusion is not about ‘welcome’ or ‘hospitality’, that would be to treat those different to us as guests. One of the things that struck me most about my original talk as I re-read it is the sense of a place to call ‘home’. Several of our newest enquirers have said that praying with us, meeting us, was like ‘coming home’. That is deeply moving. To belong is a basic human need, to have a place of refuge, a home is essential to our well-being in life and especially in ministry. In the Grail psalms the word ‘refuge’ is used thirty-seven times as a description of God. The church can be a very competitive place. Home is where we are totally ourselves, honest about our failures and disappointments, loved for who we are. Being at home with each other is how we support and cherish ourselves. For Julian of Norwich God’s love is ‘homely and courteous’. May we always nurture a homely spirit in the Sodality.
As many of you know one of the most significant icons in my life is this one, sometimes called ‘icon of friendship’. It has been made famous by its use in the Taizé Community. The original is in the Louvre in Paris. Two things stand out for me. The hand on the shoulder. Jesus is the one who accompanies us in life. The touch of his hand is warm, gentle and adult. He calls us friends and he calls us to friendship with one another. To ‘belong’ to the Sodality is to be part of a community not an organisation. This is our home.
The second thing I love about this icon are the eyes. Those beautiful, large, almond shaped eyes that are so characteristic of north African Christian iconography, not just in the early period (this icon is probably 6th – 7th century) but right up to Coptic icons today. Those eyes are deep pools of luminosity, they are transparent, and they pay attention. The best definition of love that I know is to pay attention to. When we commit to love each other in the Sodality it is not to ‘like’ each other, not to socialise (though we do), but to pay attention to one another. I thought a lot about this as my mother died last summer and the weeks leading up to that in which my siblings and I sat with her in the hospice where she was so wonderfully cared for. Very gently, unobtrusively, many of you accompanied me on that journey in prayer. I was also aware in that time of how much my relationship with mum was an adult one. My life has not turned out the way she would have imagined it when I was her little boy. She has at times grieved over that. Her grief has made her joy and pride in me deeper and even more real. It was not easily won. And there was I, sitting with her, praying with her as she prepared to make that final leap, that final letting go into God’s eternal arms. That moment, when, with my brother and sister with me, I prayed “Go forth Christian soul”, as her last breath hung in the air, will remain an unspeakably profound gift in my life.
It is that same adult relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary that is at the heart of our charism as a Marian community. We are not the baby Jesus sitting on Mary’s lap. The unspeakable tenderness of Mary’s gaze in the icons of tenderness is tender because Mary knows the sword that will pierce her own heart. Icons surpass time, all the events of her life, of Jesus’ life are present in the images of the Mother and Child. We need to remember that Mary’s biological maternity is important in relation to Jesus, as guarantor of his humanity, and to us
in that through her Jesus shares in our humanity. But primarily she is our sister in faith, the first believer. Her ‘yes’ to the angel is the first Christian Credo. Jesus himself makes this clear in Luke 11:27-28, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”. And that is what Mary did. Mary confronts us always with the challenge of faith: dare we make the total ‘yes’ of faith that she did?
There is a short list of books below on the place of Mary in the Christian life and there will be more in the Sodality Companion to Mary. Mary is a key part of our charism and one that we need to be able to articulate effectively if we are to live it with integrity. The first meeting of what was to become the Sodality was on the 27th May, aptly St Augustine of Canterbury’s day, 2015 at St Saviour’s, Pimlico, from that a ‘Formation Group’ met over a period of time to discern what the Lord was calling us to. Part of that discernment was choosing a name. After lots of ideas of particular saints to choose as a patron someone suggested Our Lady. It seemed right immediately as a unifying patronage for a Catholic society. Since then I have often reflected on the charism of a Roman Catholic community of priests, the Society of Mary, I particularly value this passage in their Constitutions (Rome, 1988):
“To choose Mary’s name is to enter into a special relationship with her, which teaches [Sodalists] to relate to their neighbour in such a way that through them Mary can be present to the Church of today as she was to the Church at its birth.
Mary did not press her privileged position as the mother of Jesus, but was ready to be first and foremost his disciple, one who ‘hears the word of God and keeps it’” (Lk 8:21)
As we grow as a community in depth as well as in numbers (and the first is the most important), articulating our ‘charism’ will be essential. I have been trying to do this as I have spoken with new Enquirers in recent weeks and months.
The Charism of the Sodality
In the first few years of our community I imagined that we would coalesce around a school or stream of spirituality. Many of the speakers we invited were part of exploring that. What has become clear is that we are a community of people who bring our own journeys of exploration in the tradition to our common life. There is no single flavour to our spiritual life together.
What I think is emerging as our charism is that:
– We are a dispersed community of diocesan priests
We don’t define ourselves as part of ‘new monasticism’ or seek to emulate communities of vowed Religious. Our community life is designed to enhance the primary vocation of our ministerial roles, our apostolates. – We are a joyful community
This is a spirit in us that many, many visitors and observers comment on. Our Bishop Visitor commented on how ‘lovable’ we are.
– We are serious Christians
Even though we fail often, our aspirations of ourselves are high and we are accountable to each other for that.
– We are an adult community
We are sisters and brothers of Mary and aim to relate to each other in adult ways
In being adult friends of Jesus and his holy Mother, there are several books that have really helped me:
The Joy of All Creation: An Anglican Meditation on the Place of Mary
A.M. Allchin New City Press 1984
Anything by Donald Allchin is worth reading. This book is a lifetime’s meditation from deep in our Anglican tradition. Writing of the Annunciation Allchin writes: “All annunciations, all visitations of the Spirit in the Church come from and point to this central annunciation.”
Sodalists are devoted to Mary as the first believer.
Blessed Are You Who Believed
Carlo Carretto Orbis, 1983
A profound piece of spirituality deeply rooted in the tradition of Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers of Jesus and also in a social, political gospel. This tradition links us to the ‘French school’, Fr Oliver and the Curé d’Ars. As well as the Anglo-Catholic commitment to the poor.
The Little Brothers of Jesus are intensely Jesus focussed as their name suggests.
Sodalists are relentlessly Jesus-centred.
Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ
The Seattle Statement of the Anglican- Roman Catholic International Commission
Ed Donald Bolen and Gregory Cameron (yes, our Episcopal Visitor)
This is not only a ‘report’ it is also a rich source for meditation and reflection. It deserves deep study. In the Preface in my printed I copy I have underlined this sentence “It is as figure of the Church, her arms uplifted in prayer and praise, her hands open in receptivity and availability to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that we are one with Mary as she magnifies the Lord.”. There are 57 references to the work of the Holy Spirit in the report.
Sodalists are Spirit-filled.
Maiden, Mother and Queen: Mary in the Anglican Tradition
Roger Greenacre Canterbury Press 2012
I have such fond memories of hearing Fr Roger preach when I was at Chichester Theological College, I can almost hear his unmistakable voice as he proclaimed one St Richard’s Day that the whole of Chichester was ‘en fête’!
This is a book full of practical wisdom and the deep insights gained from a lifetime of priesthood. The Preface quotes a phrase from Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran’s homily at Roger’s Golden Jubilee of Ordination, “artisans of reconciliation”.
Sodalists are “artisans of reconciliation”.
Mary: a gospel witness to transfiguration and liberation
Andrew Jones Bible Reading Fellowship 2014
A deeply biblical book from an Archdeacon in the Church in Wales in which Mary’s Magnificat is drawn out as part of the search for liberation. This is at the heart of Anglo-Catholic political engagement for justice.
Sodalists are priests of the Magnificat.
This time next year I will no longer be Superior of our community. We will be moving to a new phase of our common life. I am looking forward to moving to a different mode of being a Sodalist and making the Sodality a place where I can develop other parts of my personality than those of leadership and change. I yearn to be more Mary than Martha. One of the reasons for the role change in my own ministry is to be able to write and reflect more theologically and pursue academic interests on Mindfulness and the teaching of John of the Cross.
Please accept my apologies for all my short-comings in this role. Just this week I have apologised and been forgiven by a brother of our Sodality who I had annoyed by a comment I made to him. It is a source of deep joy and such a privilege to belong to this priestly community. Community is in itself a means to holiness because it knocks the edges off us, and we have to confront our own desire to control or be the centre of attention.
I am so grateful for the trust you have shown me, for the hospitality many have given in your homes, the opportunity to witness the tremendous work you are doing. You are a hugely impressive group of people. I am never less than certain of the great future for the Catholic movement in our church when I meet priests of such integrity and so many gifts.
Most of all thank you for the friendship you have shown me, for the warmth of your hands on my shoulder as we walk this road together.
Please pray for me as I move to the next phase of ministry and for each other as we move to the next stage of our life as a community. There are no words better than the great prayer gifted us by Fr Steven who will be admitted to the Sodality at Pentecost. Please know that I pray for us all each time I ‘bear his life-giving body in my hands’ at the altar.
With my love, as ever, in the Two Hearts,
Fr Richard Peers SMM
God of demanding grace: your desire for us
is holiness and fullness of life; you called Holy Mary
to share in your work of salvation
and become the Gateway of New Life.
As we daily renew our commitment, bind our offering to hers,
that in the welcome of her heart and the strength of her prayers
we may be faithful to our priestly calling:
to nurture Christ within us to labour for his birth
to bear his life-giving body in our hands and to sing his sacrificial love.
We ask this through Christ, our High Priest now and for ever.
Fr Steven Shakespeare