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A time for contemplation: Sr. Orchard's #governoreffect

A time for contemplation: Sr. Orchard's #governoreffect

Sr Frances Orchard CJ is a governor of St Mary’s and a former staff member. She is also a sister of Mary’s Ward’s institute, the Congregation of Jesus, which founded St Mary’s.

I don’t really do blogs unless, of course, our wonderful headmistress, Charlotte Avery, asks me to. Her invitation made me smile. It went thus: ‘Your view on communities which live in isolation i.e. religious ones would be fascinating in relation to our school community here in Cambridge…..’ This conjured up an image of a monastic community living behind closed walls, in silence, with Divine Office being sung in choir six times a day including 03.00 and 06.00 in the morning, with the 24-hour day broken up into what today we would call ‘micro-schedules’ consisting of gardening, cooking, cleaning, work in the printing house or monastic infirmary, and, if you were lucky, in the brewery. I wonder how many St Mary’s pupils might like to sign up for that.

Mary Ward sisters are apostolic rather than monastic and combine a life of ‘contemplation and action’ going to serve in the world where the need is greatest. Sometimes this is in schools, sometimes in chaplaincy, in academia, in pastoral work depending on the needs of the place. Lock-down for us has meant that the usual international conferences, pastoral work, hospital chaplaincy work even, is no longer possible. Instead we are confined and isolated like everyone else. An epidemic – such as plague in the early 17th century – would not have triggered ‘isolation’ but have opened up opportunities for Mary Ward and her companions.

Outbreaks of plague in London and Rome would have seen Mary Ward sisters out there nursing the sick, caring for orphans and widows, feeding the hungry, rather than fleeing into isolation. Nowadays, the irony is we can best serve the ‘Common Good’ by accepting to ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’, and clapping the NHS on Thursdays.

With less opportunity for the familiar ‘action’ in our lives we can focus a bit more on ‘contemplation’. Although the word conjures up images of silence, stillness and endless boredom this is not the experience of those who practice it.

Anything can be contemplated, such as the birds that sing so magically early in the morning. Just stop and listen. Or the soft green leaves that we can watch unfurling. Just gaze and admire. Or the geese and goslings that wander down the high street. Just stop and watch nature take over again.

Or try to learn to know those you live with more deeply. Yes, we can be irritating, annoying, stupid – but we also have a depth as human beings that has yet to be discovered. We can realize that by mumbling ‘sorry’, or by a warm smile, or with a word of thanks. Just try it.

One of the best stories in the Gospel is that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). They were feeling down after the death of Jesus in whom they had put their hope. But instead of moping at home in self-isolation they took themselves off for a walk and moped together. Pope Francis in one of his Easter homilies focuses on how God dealt with them. He begins by saying ‘a person is Christian because he or she has met Jesus and has allowed Jesus to meet them’ – no self-isolation here. On the road to Emmaus Jesus interacts with the two disciples in the same way he interacts with us. He doesn’t lecture, reprimand, express disappointment for their, or our lack of faith. He walks beside us, as he walked beside them. He is patient. He moves slowly. He is respectful of our readiness. He accompanies us. Invites us to talk about ourselves – as he did with them. Most of all he invites us to talk about what is bothering us, which is another way of saying he invites us to prayer. He even feigns ignorance when he says to the two downcast disciples: ‘what things?’ God likes to hear us speak so he can understand us well. He always goes at our pace….he waits for us to take the first step. And when it is the right moment, he asks us a question. He opens our eyes when our hearts begin to burn.  This is contemplation. Why not try it as a change from lock-down bake-ins, digital discos, and endless Netflix?

Read more about our governors