People often ask me, “Are you in fancy dress?” but most often I am asked, “Why did you become a monk? Are you a real monk?” The truth is I am a Franciscan brother. You might not know this but Franciscan brothers are not monks, we do not live a monastic life – in one location, but are an order of mendicants, meaning we travel from place to place. Franciscans view the whole of Creation as being part of their ‘monastic enclosure’ and go out into the world to share the Christian story through a life of prayer, community and service.
Saint Francis’ experience of Christ at San Damiano continues to speak to me. One day Francis was praying in front of the San Damiano Crucifix in a small dilapidated church, which had fallen into ruin, when he had a mystical encounter in which Christ spoke to him from the icon and said, “Francis, go and rebuild my house, which has you see is falling into ruin.” Francis initially took this very literally and rebuilt the dilapidated church but over time began to realize he was being called to rebuild the Christian Church through a life of prayer, community and service to, and with, the poor and marginalised. This vision really speaks to me – and helps maintain my ongoing commitment to the Franciscan way of life.
It might surprise you to know that I have not always been a religious person. Yes, I did grow up in a church going family but stopped attending church when I was 13. I did however attend a faith school and would sometimes attend the optional morning prayer and I enjoyed the R.E. GCSE I did, which focused on Mark’s Gospel, but outside of this I wasn’t religiously active. That was until I was 20. When I was 20, after I finished my first year at university I taught canoeing in America with Camp America. One afternoon when I was alone in a small wooden cabin I found myself before the Presence of God for the first time. No words were exchanged, but all of a sudden I found myself to be a Christian. This experience changed my life – over the subsequent 3 years of my degree, I attended church most days, I joined a prayer group and attended weekly talks on the Christian faith and signed up for a 9 month Confirmation course, which met for 2 hours each week. At the end of the course I was asked to choose a Confirmation Saint. As I was reading about Saint Francis I felt a strong interior desire to live like Saint Francis had done, not in order to pretend to be him, but to live out my own faith journey in the Franciscan way of life.
I felt an interior desire to live out the teaching contained in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and to visit the prisoner. This was not a call to become a priest, or to pursue religious leadership; but to become a servant-like follower of the LORD in the world, as a lay Franciscan brother.
At this time, I was 21 and didn’t feel ready to join a religious community. And so after university I spent a year as an intern with the Jesuit Volunteer Community in Liverpool where I lived in a Jesuit lay-community, helped run a Fresh Expression Methodist Church and worked with asylum seekers teaching English, and offering informal practical support such as giving out clothes and food. The following year I joined the Chaplaincy Team at Liverpool Hope University, as the lay chaplaincy worker. This introduced me to morning and evening prayer on a daily basis. I’d never done this before, and over time I realized I wanted this style of prayer to be part of my daily life.
During this time I visited a few religious communities. I inquired into several religious communities but none of them seemed right to me; I realized it wasn’t the right time in my life to pursue this calling. And so I trained to be a social worker, in Liverpool, where I had placements with a mental health unit and a family support team. During these placements I continued to participate in morning and evening prayer; I really enjoyed the cycle of prayer and work, returning back to prayer at the end of the day. I realized this was the type of life I was being called to live. At the end of my course I wanted to live in a Christian community. This led me to move to the Hilfield Project in rural Dorset, which is a lay community attached to a Society of Saint Francis friary; an Anglican Franciscan community of brothers. I lived there for 9 months. Realistically I went there to pursue a sense of calling to Religious Life. Yet after 9 months I felt deflated; nothing really felt right for me, and so I left to work with adults with learning disabilities. I worked for a Christian charity called L’arche. In total I did this for 3 years in Manchester, and then in Liverpool.
As a L’arche assistant I used to take adults with disabilities to church each Sunday. I used to particularly enjoy taking Dawn to church. Dawn is a wheelchair user who does not have mental capacity, she communicates by laughing or shouting; she is hoisted to and from her wheelchair and eats blended food; in many ways she is profoundly disabled. In church however she used to rock back and forwards to the music and would smile. She would often sit very quietly, as if in a deep state of peace. I always found this to be a very moving experience. On reflection I realized I was experiencing a call to be with the people at the back of church rather than being at the front. And so I was moving closer to embracing my Franciscan vocation, as a lay (non-ordained) brother.
Near to the end of my time in L’arche, a charity founded by Jean Vanier to support adults with learning and physical disability live in a Christian home environment, I was putting on Peter’s shoes. Peter is a wheelchair user who doesn’t have mental capacity, he doesn’t speak but communicates through laughs or screams, he is hoisted from his wheelchair to his bed, he is fed via a tube. In many ways Peter doesn’t have a lot to be happy about; but he was one of the happiest people I have ever met. Joy seemed to shine out of Peter in a very special way. One day as I was putting on Peter’s shoes I looked up and for a few seconds saw Jesus look back at my through Peter’s eyes. This was a very mystical encounter; and I felt like I was being told, “You are now ready.” Shortly after this I moved into the Community of the Resurrection, a monastic community to be an Alongsider, this is someone who lives in a Religious Community but is not a member. During this time I visited the Society of Saint Francis house in Leeds, this is a terrace house which houses homeless asylum seeker men in. I enjoyed the simplicity of the life, and the vision of service it encapsulated. It felt like I’d found what I had been looking for – and so I applied to join the community; and was received into the Anglican Communion in June 2016, becoming a Postulant with the Community in July 2016.
Since this time I have lived in Alnmouth friary in Northumberland becoming a Novice with the community in December 2016. I have also lived in our monastic house, Glasshampton, near to Worcester, in our Leeds house and now live with homeless asylum seeker men in Plaistow. What has sustained me in my journey has been a deep sense of calling to serve the hidden Christ in the people I meet, to pursue the Restoration of the Church which is falling into ruin, to pursue a life of serious and committed prayer on a daily basis and to live in a Christian community on a full time basis. Hospitality to the stranger is a key part of being a brother. We welcome retreatants at Alnmouth retreat house and at Glasshampton monastery where people come for up to a week. We also welcome the stranger when we house homeless asylum seekers in Leeds and where I now live in Plaistow. For me this is a living out of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats where Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Private and communal prayer is a significant part of my daily life. The brothers meet 4 times a day for communal prayer, at 7am, noon, 5pm and 8pm. We also spend time alone in private meditation and prayer. My favourite time of the day at the moment is praying on my own in my room an hour before morning prayer begins. This really gets me started for the day. Where I live we say our Night Prayer at 8pm. The homeless people we house voluntarily attend this, which makes it feel really special. Brothers live a life of Christian community. We live in multi-generational communities on a full time basis. We live our family lives together as brothers. We do not have relationships or children, our brotherhood is our family life. Because we are available on a full time basis we have the opportunity to welcome other people into our family dynamic, including the homeless who come to our front door throughout the day for food and the homeless asylum seekers we house.
As a novice, (a trainee Franciscan brother), I have been on a roller-coaster ride of experiences and situations and have learned a lot about myself. I have learned I need to grow in church related roles, such as serving but that I am gifted with people and often put people at their ease quite quickly. I have learned the image of San Damiano, where Christ tells Saint Francis, “Francis, rebuild my house which as you see is falling into ruin” continues to be very important to me. I feel drawn to commit myself to the restoration of the house of God through a life of Christian prayer, service and community.
Author biography: Brother Finnian is a novice with the Society of Saint Francis, an Anglican Religious communities of brothers, who take vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Brother Finnian joined the community in July 2016, and may take his First Profession in 2019. Brother Finnian has lived in 4 houses during his Noviciate to gain a deeper appreciation of the community’s ethos and ministries, and currently lives in
Plaistow London where he lives in a community of 5 Franciscan brothers and up to 6 homeless adults. Between 40 to 50 homeless people come to the door between 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday to collect sandwiches and fruit. Brother Finnian assists in the running of the house by participating and leading in the daily cycle of prayer, being offering hospitality to the stranger and by supporting the work of several local charities.
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Cover image by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe