Br Nicholas Alan SSF

It seems to me that vocation is not something that comes from outside imposing demands to be obeyed, but something that wells up from within, with all the strength and urgency of a deep inner longing.

Br Nicholas Alan SSF

Who are the Society of St Francis (SSF)?

Br Nicholas Alan SSF is currently the Guardian at Glasshampton Monastery, St Mary at the Cross, in Glasshampton, Worcestershire. The Society of St Francis is an community of men seeking to follow Jesus Christ in the way of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. They live under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

A visit to Hilfield Friary

As the rain fell steadily in the darkness, soaking slowly into my coat, I could only see the way ahead by the grey strip of sky between the not-quite-touching trees overhead. I had walked to Sherborne that morning and was now walking the ten miles back to Hilfield Friary having missed the last bus. It was Francistide and at Sherborne Abbey I had stumbled across a choir festival in honour of Saint Francis. 

Standing in the Abbey, I had suddenly felt a great longing to be there as a Franciscan, a brother of the Society of Saint Francis, and as I walked along the lanes back to the Friary later that evening something was still singing inside me as I sang out into the night. And as I walked, I felt as though God was saying to me: “It will be hard, but I will be with you.” When I eventually got back, the Friary was in darkness – the storm had brought down some electricity cables – so I lit a candle and sank gratefully into a steaming bath. It felt good to be home.

I had come to Hilfield having finished a degree in theology and wanting somewhere to think through some of the half-digested ideas of three years’ study. One of the things that spoke to me most during those four months was the Franciscan ideal of poverty. There was something wonderfully reckless and life-affirming about Francis’s disregard for possessions. For me, this formulated itself as a question: “How can you be both rich and compassionate?” It seemed a simple question, but the answer becomes more complicated the longer I stay in the religious life. At the time I felt deeply the injustice of having too much while millions were starving, and wanting to be a Franciscan was certainly bound up with wanting to make some kind of statement against the accumulated wealth of the West.  Now I see more clearly the financial security I enjoy as a member of a religious community: no mortgage or pension to worry about, no children to fund through college, no personal income but no income tax forms either.

Over time my uneasiness about possessions became just one factor in the vow of poverty. Now I see it more in terms of the opportunity to let go of whatever holds me back from following Christ.  As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians, to follow in the way of Christ is to be “poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, yet possessing everything.” That vision captures my imagination and I feel its truth in my bones. Choosing poverty seemed to me not a response to guilt but a celebration of the richness of God’s creation. I wanted to let go of what I had, truly to enjoy and share in God’s great generosity and open-handedness.

My next explorations and travels

Travelling through Greece and Turkey with a friend from college my thoughts kept returning to the question of choosing a celibate life. How can anyone know that this is what God wants for them? Then one evening, as the golden sun sank into the Aegean and the wake of the ferry stretched out to the horizon, I stood at the rails of the boat watching some gulls soaring and darting as they followed alongside. And the words came welling up from inside: “ . . . and there will be others.”

After leaving Hilfield Friary I spent the next two and a half years living in a small community in inner-city Nottingham. I have many happy memories of my time there: the meals together, the friendships, the early morning prayer and the Eucharists we shared in the basement chapel. But it was also a time to discover some of the stresses and strains of living together as a small group, with all the clashes of personality and temperament, and just of living amid the pressures of an ‘urban priority area’. But what it did show me was something of the value of simply attempting to live together, living the Christian life. I don’t like living alone. I need times of solitude and a space of my own, but I also need others around me, just to share the day-to-day experience of living. So being able to live in community with both its freedom of space and its warmth of support was another of the factors drawing me to the SSF.

But it’s not just about the SSF. It’s also about joining the family of all religious of whatever denomination and indeed through the ages, becoming a brother with many, many brothers and sisters. Becoming part of that wider family brings a great sense of belonging and of finding a place and meaning in life.

A key moment

Incense hung in the warm summer air. The golden statue of the Buddha looked serenely down, offerings of flowers and fruit spread at his feet. Seated around the room, our bodies stiff from a day’s meditation, we listened to the tick of the clock counting the last few moments of our time together. And then the slightest breeze brushed against a chime hanging from the eaves of the temple. And suddenly I knew: that’s it. That’s what I want. After two years of inter-faith work in Nottingham and two years studying Buddhism in Bristol, I wanted to know more about Buddhism as it is lived in Asia. This led me to Korea for three years with the Church Mission Society to teach English at the Anglican university in Seoul and to explore further the dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity. 

Getting to know people of other faiths has convinced me that perhaps the most important meeting point of all is in prayer. It is as we pray that we find ourselves in the presence of that which is beyond us all, and I came to realise that in order to know my friends of other faiths more fully I would have to go into my own faith more deeply as well, particularly in the life of prayer. But praying by yourself is so difficult. I knew something of the strength of the corporate saying of the Offices and the encouragement of living with others committed to prayer. I knew that I needed that again if I was to go further myself. 

Early one crisp Spring Sunday morning in the crypt chapel of Seoul Anglican Cathedral, kneeling next to one of the sisters of the Society of the Holy Cross, I knew in myself that the time had come. It was as if an alarm-clock had gone off in my head, or a rain-swollen river finally burst its banks.

It seems to me that vocation is not something that comes from outside imposing demands to be obeyed, but something that wells up from within, with all the strength and urgency of a deep inner longing. In the end, I came because I wanted to come, this was my particular form of obedience to a call to go deeper into God. Not that the superficial ‘I’, the personality and character I so hang on to and depend on, wanted this life which challenges and unsettles in so many ways: but that the deeper ‘I’, the one I long to set free, that self heard the rumours of this life as if from a far distance and came running. It was time to come home.

My life as a Franciscan brother

In the end, what kept me in the SSF was simply that these Franciscan brothers and sisters were the people I had come to know and love.  They were and are my family; just as I had always enjoyed a close and supportive family life at home, so now I had become part of a wider spiritual family.  Friendships with members of other communities, not just Anglican but Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Buddhist were also becoming increasingly important to me.  They were all part of what I had become.  Somewhere along the line a choice had been made and one path followed with another left unexplored. 

And in this company of sisters and brothers, both those with whom I live and pray, and those I have visited and come to know as friends, with these companions I honestly feel that living this life makes a difference.  People visit our communities and are changed: refreshed and revitalised in spirit, strengthened to live their own lives to the full.  People and groups we visit find something in this crazy choice of ours that inspires them, just as I was inspired as a student.  When you live this life for a while, you soon realise that it is not you who work any of these miracles, it can only be God.  And if God is here, then the one thing necessary has already been found.

Being Franciscan: Living The Tradition

I’ve recently written a book entitled ‘Being Franciscan: Living The Tradition’, published by Canterbury Press, which provides a series of vignettes into the lives of various Franciscan holy men and women.

A short video about Glasshampton Monastery

The Society of St Francis
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