Br Nicholas CR

God seemed everywhere, in church, in the countryside, around the school. I couldn’t get away from Him, and I didn’t want to. I knew He was good and I wanted to stay with Him always. When it came to my vocation, God was not subtle. He hit me hard over the head. I couldn’t escape.

Br Nicholas CR

Who the Community of the Resurrection?

Br Nicholas CR is a brother of the Community of the Resurrection in West Yorkshire. The Community of the Resurrection consists of men who, freely accepting the call of God, have committed themselves to follow the gospel life. The pattern is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, of whom it is said ‘they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers’ and ‘had all things in common.’ The Community’s contemporary mission continues to radiate from Mirfield. We live together as brothers in Christ, rooted in the Anglican tradition and formed in a Benedictine round of worship, ministry and hospitality.

My Early Years

If I wanted a date for the start of my vocation I would give 20th April 1958. I was 11 and that was the day I first served at Mass. It was the 7.00 a.m. Sunday Communion and I served our young Rector, Fr David Jenkins. For years afterward, serving in the sanctuary felt very much like serving in the household of God. By the time I was 13 I was sure I wanted to be a priest. Most of that wanting was to do with serving God and leading services in Church. I was not a good teenager. I was idle at school, stroppy and often in trouble. I was not notably wicked (few of us were in that conservative society) but neither was I very good. Yet, as I grew through my teens, I began to read more and to see more what Christian faith demanded. I found it was not just a matter of dressing up in a cassock and swinging the incense. It involved the sacraments. Well, I went to mass every Sunday and often during the week; but what about confession? I had been to confession when I was confirmed and kept it up for a few years, then dropped away. At 18, I decided to go back. Fr Richard Davies heard my confession and at the end said, “You must go and visit the Fathers at St Augustine’s, Penhalonga. They are all university men. You will like it there.” I had never heard of St Augustine’s but in February 1965, a friend and I set off to St Augustine’s. It was a visit that literally changed my life. 

I was quite amazed by what I found. St Augustine’s is in a beautiful setting in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. Mountains surround it on three sides and a long valley opens up in front. The school buildings were simple; the brick church magnificent. There were ten CR fathers in white cassocks and grey scapulars saying seven offices a day (“Seven times a day will I praise you, O Lord.”) and usually each one of them said mass at one of the altars round the mission. There was also a community of English sisters and another of Shona sisters. I felt surrounded by prayer. God seemed everywhere, in church, in the countryside, around the school. I couldn’t get away from Him, and I didn’t want to. I knew He was good and I wanted to stay with Him always. When it came to my vocation, God was not subtle. He hit me hard over the head. I couldn’t escape. 

Every university holidays from then on, I went to stay at St Augustine’s or at St Peter’s Priory, in Johannesburg. It was an education on many fronts. Naturally, I learned much more about the sacraments and prayer. I discovered there was a religious life for men. I began to read up in the priory library about other religious communities and about the exciting history of Anglo-Catholicism. I longed to be like the slum priests and serve among the poor. 

At the same time, it was a political education. I had always been on the liberal side of the White political spectrum, but I had lived entirely among Whites. The only Africans I knew were servants. In South Africa, I read Naught for Your Comfort in the very house where Fr Trevor Huddleston had written it. I began to see the iniquity of the way blacks were treated, both in South Africa and at home. As I came to the end of my university time, I decided to break my contract with the government who had paid for my university studies on condition I taught in White education afterwards. Instead, I went to teach at St David’s School, Bonda, a school for African girls. I had to pay back all my government money but never regretted it.

Time in England and Rhodesia

Just before my last year of university, I had the chance to spend 3 months in England. It was a fantastic experience. I stayed mostly with the CR and so got to know them in their London Priory, at Leeds and at Mirfield. I loved the winter and the snow. I loved London in the Sixties, with Carnaby St and Flower Power. I spent Christmas at Nashdom Abbey and loved the Benedictine life where not a single word of English crept into the Latin liturgy. When I got to Mirfield I saw the Superior, Fr Hugh Bishop and told him I wanted to join CR, as soon as possible. He told me to go away and grow up. He was right. I had a wonderful time growing up! 

Bonda was even more beautiful than Penhalonga. The girls were delightful and very clever. The school was run by the sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete, and they were young and fun. I learned a lot about religious life, Shona people, and Latin (which I taught). After a year, my job came to an end, and I had to move to St Anne’s Goto, in the Wedza area. This was a new school, not as good as St David’s. There were boys and girls and only two of us teachers were White. In many ways, it was hard. It was hot, dry country and I missed the sisters; but it was one of the best times of my life. I discovered a Rhodesia I didn’t know – rural Shona society. I learned Shona, learned to eat sadza, and had my political opinions radicalized. Unlike Bonda, it was clearly an African run mission and I really had to treat Africans as my colleagues. I was now definitely on the side of African people and supported their political aspirations. This was quite hard for a White Rhodesian, though my friends and family were good about it. They were used to the fact I was different in both my religion and my politics. I was different, too, in that I made no move towards getting married. At a time when brother and sisters and most of my friends were getting married I was taken up with this fascinating life in the bush, discovering God, prayer, Shona people, poverty and politics. It was much more interesting than marriage! That is one way God showed me my vocation. 

After three years at St Anne’s, it was time to move on. The diocese of Mashonaland accepted me to study for the priesthood and I asked to go to the College at Mirfield. As soon as I arrived, I went and told the Superior, Fr Hugh Bishop, I didn’t really want to be at the College; I wanted to join CR. He told me to go away. I had to be a priest before I joined. I was angry, not getting my own way but he was right. I had a largely happy 18 months at the College but I missed Zimbabwe terribly. I didn’t do much academically, except learn Hebrew, but I learned a few things about prayer. One significant venture was that I went to the Benedictine Abbey of St Matthias in Trier, with which CR had recently formed a relationship. That became important to me as it deepened my sense of being part of Catholic Christianity. Later on St Matthias helped to root us all in the wider tradition of monastic life.

War in Rhodesia

In June 1974, I returned to Rhodesia and was ordained deacon in Borrowdale parish, where my rector was Fr Robert Mercer CR. I spent a happy 18 months there, made lots of friends, learned a lot from Robert, but also annoyed a lot of parishioners with my pro-African views. The Bush War was heating up; most of our male parishioners were involved in call ups to defend our way of life. It was not a good time to tell people to give up their white privileges and let Africans rule the country. At the beginning of 1976, I moved to St John’s Chikwaka where I was chaplain to a children’s home and cared for seven churches in the vast Mangwende Mission district. My rector, twenty miles away had far more! I loved the life on the mission. Two African sisters ran the Home and we said mass every day. The kids were fun and affectionate. I learned a lot more Shona and got to know the people much better. It was a very sacramental ministry. I visited the churches, said Mass, heard confessions, prayed with the sick, preached and moved on. But of course the liberation struggle was in full flood. My area was relatively quiet when I arrived but guerrilla activity increased steadily. I discovered years later that the guerrillas had been coming onto the mission while I was there but Sr Anna Marie had told them to leave me alone, which they did. However, all around us the violence increased. Village people were shot. We took in a boy whose parents had been killed by a landmine. Everyone was afraid. It was awful watching the local village people being terrorised by both sides. Negotiations between Britain, Rhodesia and the African political leaders got nowhere. I became more and more convinced that my best contribution to stopping the war would be to pray. My sense of vocation to CR grew stronger and yet I wondered how I could drag myself away from a place I loved so much and work which seemed so important. How could I leave my people in the midst of war? 

War is horrible. That is one thing I learned. Nice people do terrible things. Truth is compromised. Innocent people get tortured and killed. Yet war is also exciting, especially if you are young. Danger adds spice to life. Knowing you could be killed makes you appreciate being alive. It also helps to sort out the important things of life. For me it was the people who mattered, and the beautiful countryside I lived in. Driving round on my motorbike was wonderful, especially on the dirt roads where I skidded, twisted, turned and mostly stayed upright. A BBC documentary team who filmed me there said, “You can certainly handle that bike!” But I knew of one Jesuit who had been taken off his bike by the terrorists and beaten to death. I often said Psalm 91 while I drove through the trees and kopjies where an ambush might happen. It was beautiful, open, Highveld country and being on a motorbike made you feel one with it. I have never been so happy! 

I had a good reputation amongst the locals. Twice I met with guerrilla fighters outside my district. At first, they were suspicious of me as a White but as soon as I told them who I was, they said “Oh, we know about you. You’re alright.” In a civil war, you need to be known to be alright if you are going to survive, and even that is not always enough. As I soon discovered. On February 6th 1977 three Jesuits and four Dominican sisters at St Paul’s Musami (a few miles away) were shot at night. I knew them all. That terrible event changed the nature of my relationship with God. Could God be trusted with my life? I thought he would keep me safe, but if he didn’t keep Jesuits safe why should he keep me safe? I realised that God’s idea of looking after me was going to be different from mine. Clearly, I would soon have to go. In fact, I left five months later, literally in tears. I remember flying out of Harare feeling a rat to be leaving my country in the middle of a war. Then began a long argument with God. As I went through my novitiate and then for many years afterwards I told God I wanted to be in CR. He seemed to want me there too. But I insisted I also needed to be in Zimbabwe. That was my idea, not His. It took me a long time to learn you cannot bargain with God. You go where he leads and that is it. You have to trust him that his way is best. It took me a long time, also, to learn the lesson of Musami: God can be trusted and all things do work out for good, but that good is not always what we expect. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

Moving to Mirfield

I arrived at Mirfield somewhat traumatised by all this. The Community at Mirfield had no idea of what I had been through. Nor had I, really. Like all English people, they had no real interest in other worlds. For two years, I had to focus on life in CR. I was homesick all the time, but glad to be in CR. I felt I was praying and I believed the life was important. I longed to be back in Africa yet knew I needed this time of formation in the ways and character of a CR Father. I enjoyed the Brethren who were various kinds of mixtures of good sense, silliness, holiness, intelligence and fun. I learned most from our then Superior, Fr Eric Simmons, who had us in for a talk every six months and generally tried to persuade us to leave, since the community was in such a dreadful state! That made us determined to stay! It was Eric who taught me that a religious must pray; that prayer really was at the heart of religious life, despite all the fascinating things we could find ourselves doing. I was also delighted when John Gribben arrived in the novitiate from Belfast where civil war raged almost as violently as in Zimbabwe. We could understand and share our experience in a way we couldn’t with others. An Irish sense of humour also helped a lot! 

After two years at Mirfield, our South African novice, Rowan Smith and I persuaded the Community to send us to Johannesburg to complete our novitiate on African soil. We hoped that this might encourage other South Africans to think about the religious life. The Brethren in the South African house were a great crowd. Most had been there for decades. Many were delightfully eccentric. They cared passionately for the African people. They hated apartheid and worked constantly against it. Many of the heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle were good friends of ours: Desmond Tutu and Helen Joseph. Fr Timothy Stanton went to prison for his stand against apartheid. The Brethren were, however, very English and missionary in their outlook. They didn’t see that South Africans, either White or Black, would not want to adopt the mind set of English missionaries to live in their own country. They didn’t see that CR needed to change its mind-set and become indigenous. That was a deep frustration to both Rowan and me. Despite that, I had a wonderful time in Johannesburg. I made many new friends. I discovered missiology and for the first time in my life did well academically, studying with UNISA. I learned some Zulu and some Afrikaans. However, I failed completely to persuade the Community to change its ways. This was partly because of the arrogant and insensitive way I went about my mission. Also, I did not realise how hard it is for older people to change. All that came later. On 4th October 1980, St Francis Day, Rowan and I made our first professions. That part of the journey was over.

Moving to Johannesburg

After two years at Mirfield, our South African novice, Rowan Smith and I persuaded the Community to send us to Johannesburg to complete our novitiate on African soil. We hoped that this might encourage other South Africans to think about the religious life. The Brethren in the South African house were a great crowd. Most had been there for decades. Many were delightfully eccentric. They cared passionately for the African people. They hated apartheid and worked constantly against it. Many of the heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle were good friends of ours: Desmond Tutu and Helen Joseph. Fr Timothy Stanton went to prison for his stand against apartheid. The Brethren were, however, very English and missionary in their outlook. They didn’t see that South Africans, either White or Black, would not want to adopt the mind set of English missionaries to live in their own country. They didn’t see that CR needed to change its mind-set and become indigenous. That was a deep frustration to both Rowan and me. Despite that, I had a wonderful time in Johannesburg. I made many new friends. I discovered missiology and for the first time in my life did well academically, studying with UNISA. I learned some Zulu and some Afrikaans. However, I failed completely to persuade the Community to change its ways. This was partly because of the arrogant and insensitive way I went about my mission. Also, I did not realise how hard it is for older people to change. All that came later. On 4th October 1980, St Francis Day, Rowan and I made our first professions. That part of the journey was over.

Returning to Mirfield

I stayed in Johannesburg until 1986, then returned to UK. In the last 30 years, I have done a lot of retreat giving, mostly in the Ignatian tradition. I also taught Greek at the College of the Resurrection for 20 years. I had a wonderful 28 years serving on the committee of the International Congress of Religious, which took me all around Europe. I discovered and fell in love with Romania, which led me to a PhD. I managed to keep visiting Zimbabwe in in 2009 helped to found a charity for young people, Tariro. This has brought me back into a deep involvement in Zimbabwe. I now live monastic life in Mirfield, and work in Zimbabwe. It is stressful but fun. My life has certainly been richly fulfilling. Vocation has certainly led me to unexpected places!

 

Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
Community of the Resurrection
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