My name is Br Finnian, I am an Anglican Franciscan friar living in east London, in the UK. That’s me in the middle in the picture above. This is my 4th house now as a brother. We live ‘in community’ under vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.
Ours is a relatively busy urban friary. There are 5 brothers and up to 8 homeless adults, men and women. We house people who don’t have recourse to public funds.
The brothers have no private space apart from our office, so in many ways it’s a very shared life. It isn’t a monastery, we have no enclosure. On my floor of the house there are no other brothers, we have 13 rooms in 2 buildings on one site.
My main jobs in the house include leading the times of prayer, cooking and cleaning, and offering hospitality to our guests.
Life in an urban friary in some ways is quite structured. There is a bell which is rung before most of the times of prayer, and there is a daily plan of life. For example I go to a foodbank every Monday and Wednesday and to soup kitchen on a Tuesday. But urban houses are often also very unstructured, we have an open house and offer hospitality to the stranger. I enjoy the variety urban houses offer.
I was already a very prayerful person before joining a religious community. But the way I prayed changed and grew, at times it retracted, but then flourished once more. In many ways I am compulsively religious, as a result of my unexpected conversion experience when I was 20.
In August 2005 I spent a summer as a camp counselor in a YMCA summer camp in Annapolis, which is relatively near to D.C. in America. I worked there for the summer, primarily because I got free flights as part of the deal. I had just finished the first year of my degree in St Andrews, in Scotland, where I was studying Theological Studies and International Relations.
I wasn’t personally religious but had the intention of becoming a journalist focusing on international news. I hadn’t attended a church service since I was 13, but I did enjoy reading about religions. I read about religion as an outsider, like someone looking into a shop through the window standing OUTSIDE. I’d never grasped why anyone would be personally religious.
Anyway, in August 2005 I was unexpectedly alone in the wooden cabin I was staying in for the summer. The cabin was in a wooded area on the expansive YMCA site. All of a sudden before me was a luminous presence; a great ball of glowing light. I’d never seen or experienced anything like this before.
I instinctively knew this was GOD.
The luminous light, in my immediate grasping of this situation, was the Divine Presence. My initial internal thoughts were:
“But this isn’t possible. I don’t believe this is even possible.”
But it was happening in real time before me. I was experiencing the reality of God for the first time. I didn’t feel scared or as if I was being judged. I felt an almost overpowering sense of being loved and accepted. No words were exchanged. But on reflection I did internally hear the words,
“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
I knew this was the God of the Bible. I knew that the moment this experience began. I don’t know how long the experience lasted for, and no audible words were shared. There was no grand message or revelations, but I did feel a powerful sense of being loved.
This experience changed my entire life.
When I returned back to university to start my second year, I entered a church for the first time since I was 13. I also started going to a Tuesday night creative prayer group, which introduced me to Taize chants and forms of creative Christian prayer.
I really threw myself into religiosity.
After 12 months of intensive religious engagement I was asked to choose a confirmation saint as my confirmation was coming up. I was 21 and hadn’t been confirmed as a teenager, as I’d quit church. I was reading about the saints and I came across St Francis of Assisi. I knew who St Francis was, but as I read more about him I felt an interior desire to live like St Francis had done, not in order to pretend to be him but something about his way of life really appealed to me in a way I couldn’t explain.
I originally moved into our first house to begin my ‘Postulancy period’ on July 4th 2016. This often makes me laugh, because Americans view this as a day of liberation and freedom whereas for me, theoretically, it was a day when I gave up elements of my freedom and independence. In many ways though, this act of surrendering a part of myself to God, and to a religious community, freed me to enter into a period of serious discernment.
As a Postulant I wore my own clothes and lived in our retreat house. After 6 months I was invited to be a Franciscan Novice. It might sound strange but I hadn’t thought about ever wearing a Franciscan habit, or being a Novice. I was taking this one day at a time, but here I was at the next stage of the journey.
Reality hit the moment I was invited to wear a Franciscan habit for the first time, in preparation for me being ‘noviced’.
All of a sudden, it all seemed very real and it freaked me out: “What am I doing!?” I thought, possibly audibly as I looked at myself in the full-length mirror for the first time in a habit. “How did I get to this point?”.
Getting to this point was a whole journey, but the realization I was exploring a serious life of prayer, Christian community, and service hit me.
In my mind my experience in the little wooden cabin and my interior calling to become a brother are directly connected. In many ways my vocation is the fruit of the experience. My initial experience of the reality of God, what I called the ‘Presence’ is not limited to my encounter in the wooden cabin but has informed my prayer life since that time.
I always assumed this was a normal experience for everyone. I assumed everyone had this experience of God. Slowly but surely however I came to realise this was not the case, some people didn’t know God like this at all. I wasn’t sure what that meant.
Over a period of years, I felt a desire to embrace a contemplative vocation; meaning a life lived before the Divine Presence without any outside ministry. This resulted in me being an Inquirer with a contemplative community for 18 months. The moment I was accepted however I realized I still needed to work with people in an active form of ministry. I remember that moment really clearly.
Now I’ve been a Franciscan for 3 and a half years my interior desire to become a contemplative has re-emerged. This is resulting in a new round of discernment; am I being called to embrace the contemplative life or am I being called to live as a prayer-FULL Franciscan brother who lives with homeless adults and has active ministries? At the moment I am still trying to work this out. Discernment doesn’t stop but is an ongoing process, and for me it’s all rooted in my daily experience of the reality of God.
My prayer life has grown since joining my community. I have developed my own prayer life outside of our daily Offices and Eucharistic service. No one told me how to pray, what to do, or when to do it, but I have been given the space to grow in this area. Luckily, I have a strong desire to spend time in personal prayer and find praying on my own incredibly rewarding. I’m always left with the desire to spend more time in prayer.
I find having prayers prepared aids my ability to keep the rhythm going. This often then leads me into moments of contemplation. I have a very visual experience of God and the things of God, which is personal to me, but that too aids my entry into the state of contemplation; which for me means being before the Divine Presence and entering into a state of union and intimacy.
Before I joined the Society of Saint Francis, which is an Anglican community, I had been Roman Catholic (from birth really). As an undergraduate student I’d really gotten into the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
This has been part of my life since that time, but as a brother I’ve found it an incredibly useful way to maintain periods of intercessory prayer during my normal daily tasks. I offer up intercessory prayers using this method as I am walking, or am on the bus, or am mopping the floor.
A key part of my prayer life is being within the Presence of God, sitting by the San Damiano icon in our chapel, and by the tabernacle which has the Blessed Sacrament reserved within it. This is a picture of the icon in our chapel.
I find having a set plan of prayers and devotions helps lead me into moments of Intimacy. Yes, I seek to minister to the Glorified Jesus, but he also ministers to me. At times this happens in a very powerful and moving way. I like the dynamic of the relationship, which is emerging out of my prayer life, which is really a relationship steeped in seeking intimacy with the Divine Presence.
For Franciscans, who have a particular love for the poor and for the outcast and abandoned, I’ve found that being near to the San Damiano icon, where we meet the Crucified Christ has helped me to then go out into the world and meet Jesus in the people I come across.
People often say they meet Jesus in me (in spite of most of the things I say and do!). I suspect this means that at the moment prayer is really about encountering the reality of God within Creation, within the people we meet and within the Divine Presence which comes close to us when we seek His face.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.