Nick Quanrud, a Westcott alumnus, reflects on the experience of residential training for ordained ministry.
Tradition has it that St Francis of Assisi was once overheard praying by one of his religious brothers, “who are you, Lord my God, and who am I?”
I can remember the feeling of excitement in the summer before I began my studies at Westcott House. Having been through the discernment process and the drama of a selection conference – where I had become something of an expert in answering questions about myself– I had come to view theological college as a kind of a promised land. There in the romance of those hallowed cloisters I could iron out all of my flaws and heresies and, at long last, become the person God had called me to be. Rather dramatic, you might think, but probably not that uncommon. The beauty of a residential community like Westcott is that it always responds to our fantasy with stark reality of everyday life: of taking responsibility, of washing up, of the complexities of human relationships. It forces us to respond to the needs of one another, to learn to give of ourselves.
The second of St Francis’ questions is one we constantly strive to answer. ‘Who am I?’, who is it that God has created me to be? The book of Isaiah tells us that God’s word goes out from His mouth, and shall not return to Him empty, but ‘it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’ (Is 55:11). Our response to God’s creative act of love, can only ever be to strive to exist as his faithful creatures; not the grand versions of ourselves which we can sometimes be fooled into believing, but our true selves. Community life is a constant reminder that discerning our vocation is about so much more than filling in forms or giving the correct answers to questions. It’s just not something we can do in abstraction, but is discerned amidst the particularities of the everyday, whether that is at the Lord’s table or in the dining hall. It gives us the time and space to cultivate the patterns of living which will sustain us throughout our ministry: of which daily prayer is the most important. These are things which cannot be learned just through reading about them, nor just dipped in and out of part-time, but must be lived and embodied, day in, day out.
Westcott is a place where we encounter God in the simple complexity of everyday life: in the sacraments and in one another. It is a place where we might begin to answer St Francis’ questions, and by God’s grace, to go on asking them.
The Revd Nicholas Quanrud
Assistant Curate at St. John the Divine, Kennington