The essence of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield in three words…
What is it like at Mirfield? Of course, any description reflects the interests and character of the person answering. So the real answer is, “Come and see!” But here is an attempt to point to some distinctive things in just three words…
A consultation involving members of a diocese and representatives of theological courses and colleges asked those coming to sum up what was distinctive about their institution in just three words. I asked some of the brothers in the monastic community what I should say. And one brother said firmly, “Formationship… You can’t say formation, because that word has been hijacked and emptied of meaning. Say formationship”
What does that suggest? Fundamentally, it points to the ecclesiological mystery of persons brought into relationship through baptism, learning to be the Body of Christ through the grace and gift of the Spirit. There is here both a conscious, deliberate attempt to discern the otherness of God, the mysterious breaking through of the wholly transcendent – but in and through the ordinary exchanges of human persons. This conscious attending is made possible to a significant degree by the network of ‘skilful means’ that shape the community of the College: this is an intentional community, drawing on patterns and habits of the monastic community alongside which it lives to enable each ordinand to engage with every part of life in College (worship, learning, practical placements, eating, recreation) in the expectation that, at every moment, the Spirit is calling us forward. In this, comes a new awareness of self, a new appreciation of interdependence, but above all, a new recognition of the primacy and generosity of God. There is some sense in speaking of the College as an expression of ‘new monasticism’, though with caution, – for monasticism has no purpose other than to give glory to God: the life of the College is purposefully shaped to preparing men and women for ordained ministry within the Body of the Church.
Under this heading, every aspect of College life is experienced: prayer together, social life and encounters, pastoral placements, academic study – both in the rhythm of monastic theology shaped by the liturgy, and the utterly different environment of the university of Sheffield. A paradoxical illustration of such richness may be seen, for instance, in the experience of married students with families. Frequently, the experience of life in College is encountered as all-consuming, over-demanding by spouses. Too often, this is an existential reality, fuelled by the excitement of the ordinand not wanting to miss a grain of experience and forgetting that they have been called to this moment not as a single person, but in and with their partner. Formationship here requires the adjusting of expectations, the patient, often complex re-shaping of the ground-rules of relationships. On the other hand, most generally, children of student families respond with simple, excited recognition – and the formative experience for them is one that remains a powerful memory.
We are all well aware of the seemingly unstoppable drift towards a functional analysis and understanding of things, relationships and ministries. With this comes increased hesitancy in speaking about or knowing how the sacramental economy is constituted. Daily life in College is, on the contrary, a constant encounter with grace. Surprising, transformative, challenging, intractable, delightful, unappealing moments all reveal more than is to be seen on the surface – because they are experienced in a context that is shaped by the daily celebration of the Eucharist. Because, as St Benedict suggests, the life of a truly Christological community discovers more and more to be sacramental as the full depth of the ‘primordial sacrament of our encounter with God’ (Schillebeeckx) is more truly known, so the deliberately ‘God-facing’ life of the College (in the shadow of the monastic community) leads us together to expect to be surprised by grace, if not by joy.
Perhaps it takes a life so deliberately different (albeit in quite small ways) that enables us to recognise the increasing danger of Christian belonging in the 21st century becoming less and less like the radically liberating way of being human celebrated in the NT; and more and more the mere acquiring of the curious language and habits of ‘being church’ or ‘doing church’ (as the horrid neologisms have it). In the journey that all of us at Mirfield share, we are asking ‘What is the good news of Jesus Christ for us?’ and ‘What is the good news of Jesus Christ for our society and world?’ In other words, because of the deep rhythm of the daily encounter with the Risen Christ through the liturgical prayer, through our shared fellowship in the Gospel, and through our study and learning of God’s word and the broad theological tradition, we are freed to look over the parapet and find ourselves being moved gradually to a renewed sense of what it is to be Christian – and thus to being able to convey the hope and joy for the world that we have ourselves received.
Afterword – Residence
For everyone preparing for ordination, where and how they reside is deeply influential and formative. But there is a dimension that is unique to the residential colleges, and, perhaps, uniquely so for Mirfield. Students (and their families) make different sacrifices to come to College, but once here they share a common experience. That ‘being brought to the same starting gate’ (because it has an element of the unknown and yet the intentional about it) serves to alert each one. We become expectant as we discover ‘being residential’ as a category which opens up the spaces and times – spaces and times for learning, practical placements, eating, recreation, liturgy, prayer and so on. And these are given: they are what they are, largely immune to our choosing. In that there is the same realism that is necessary in exploring a relationship with another person; and a fortiori exploring the relationship into which God is calling each of us. And all this happens in this particular place – with its special beauty; and in this moment – asking us to focus on the now, and discover something of what David Jones memorably calls ‘transubstantiated nowness’: that is, we find ourselves, by grace, grounded in particular space and time. That, in turn, counteracts a certain virtualisation and contextualisation of time and space that can happen so easily when we experience ourselves as the chief managers of our affairs and when things become compartmentalised. Here, by contrast, we find ourselves in a time and space that continually hints at the infinite – and simultaneously intensifies our awareness of the immediate.
Fr Peter Allan CR