Golden years

David Bowie had a hit, a long time ago, with his song ‘Golden Years’, with that opening line

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.

Golden anniversaries, jubilees, celebrations, are important milestones whether they for a marriage, of ordination, of a royal reign, even of a life. 50 golden years is a long time and seeing our way through them is something really worth celebrating. It’s another ten years before I can celebrate my golden jubilee of ordination but it is always lovely when you are invited to join someone who is able to celebrate a life time of devotion. So I was delighted when some time ago Sister Joyce CSF asked me whether she could have a celebration in the Cathedral for the 50th anniversary of her life profession as a Franciscan. Of course, I said yes. Joyce is a valued member of the congregation and has been a Chapter member and much more besides and so it was exciting to think that we could be alongside her as she both celebrated these golden years and as she renewed those vows during the Eucharist.

An early photo of Sister Joyce CSF, when they still wore veils!

All of that happened yesterday and it really was a golden opportunity to give thanks for golden years, that to some might look like life ‘taking you nowhere’ but for those who have something of an understanding of the religious life, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.

I mention the Community of the Resurrection a great deal in this blog and those who follow it will know that I valued my years in the College and the subsequent years of association with the Community really highly. They have given so much more to me than I have been able to give to them. But it is not just CR that has paid an important part in my life.

I was fortunate that the church I was brought up in, a place I have also often mentioned, All Saints Wigston Magna, over the years produced many vocations to the religious life. As children we were used to seeing one nun or another back on furlough – a word that since the pandemic has taken on a different significance for me. There was a sister at Wantage, one at Clewer, one in East Hanningfield. They had strange names to a child’s ears – Sr Mary Columba, things like that – and these strings of letters after their name, something for the cognoscenti to get their minds around – CSMV – the Community of St Mary the Virgin; CSJB – the Community of St John the Baptist; CSP – the Community of the Sacred Passion. The nuns looked of indeterminate age, the normal signs of aging hidden beneath a wimple and a veil, no sign of a wrinkled neck to give the game away, just slightly gnarled feet in sandals, making their way past we children peering through the fretwork in the choir stalls, preparing to receive the Sacrament in reverent awe.

Summer would involve a trip to see one or other of them – Clewer, vast, almost like a prison block to my eyes; Wantage, with the beautiful carvings by Mother Maribel, the lovely statue of Our Lady and the child Jesus that I adored; East Hanningfield with its array of Nissen hut holding vast quantities of prosthetic limbs to help those suffering from leprosy who the sisters served. It was another world as was the experience of chapel – the slow processions of veiled figures in and out, the high-pitched quiet and careful chanting, the posh accents that anglican nuns seemed to have. Then there was the sparse tea that we were given, tea and plain biscuits, but served with girlish laughter and a smile. I loved it and every moment has stuck in my memory.

Yet in all of this I hadn’t had experience of the Franciscans, until I came to Southwark and discovered in the Cathedral a chapel dedicated to St Francis and St Elizabeth and began to learn about First, Second and Third Order and about the straightforward and attractive simplicity of the community.

At first the sisters were living in a house just south of the centre of Brixton. I was on the rota to go and preside at the Eucharist for them, a real joy. Then they had to vacate that house and the diocese found them a place in the old St Alphege Clergy House not far from the Cathedral round the corner from where the Sisters of the Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (CRJBS) had lived. That is where they still are and I am still on the rota to go along on a Thursday as I did last week. Whilst there are some sandals, there are no veils and wimples, but the atmosphere is as calm as I experienced as a child and the life as simple and I still get tea after the service even though it is at breakfast time – though there is cereal offered instead of biscuits!

At the front of the order of Service for Sr Joyce’s celebration were two poems. This one struck me as particularly beautiful. It’s called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in obedience to the call of God, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ into the context of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, or whatever language the particular community uses, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in response to the call of Jesus to ‘Come, follow me’ is incredible and amazing. And thank God that people do it and, like Joyce, celebrating 50 years, can stay the course and run the race and live the life and that people like you and me can touch the fringe of it and find it life-giving.

To God be the glory. Amen.

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My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark