I've been in the UK the last few days, visiting my family in St Albans and Portsmouth. It's strange returning home after being in Munich for so long; everything is normal, understandable and familiar, from places I've been to the newspapers I read. I enjoy the strangeness of living in Germany and being immersed in a different culture, but at the same time it's nice to be home.
There's a very potent word/concept right there. Home. For many people it is the place you grew up, or where your family live. For others, it is something more complex. I remember hearing somebody ask a Methodist friend of mine rather casually "Where's home for you?", obviously not expecting the long, soul searching answer they received in reply. Over the past few years, the idea of home and where I feel at home has been going through my mind. More often than not, I refer to places where I am living as home, such as York, Konstanz and finally Munich. Sometimes, I may even refer to St Albans or London as home. Yet these thoughts are occurring at a deeper level than thinking superficially of a location.
I consider home to be where I am most comfortable, where I am able to grow and where I feel loved. This of course transcends concepts of place and finds its meaning in relationships and personal worth, in communities, in family. At twenty two years old, I believe it's normal to be considering "What's home for me?" I believe I may have found it. In September 2011, I will enter the Carmelite Order as a novice friar.
For some people who read this blog (some of you Carmelites) this will have been pretty clear from previous posts about Carmelites in KZ Dachau, about my growing faith and other such things that people who think about religious life dwell on too much. For others this may be a bolt out of the blue. Either way, this is a way of life that has tempted me from my first months at university. At York I developed a close relationship with the Carmelite friars and laity in the city, and they accepted me, bad music taste, cynicism and all. I met friars visiting York, I began to attend Carmelite Spirituality Group meetings and found myself with a group of imperfect but honest and good people. In April 2009 I began to visit friar communities in the UK, wondering if I could really live with these people. Essentially, it has now taken me almost four years to say, "Yes, let's try."
Many things have gone through my mind, including many fears and worries. Am I simply trying to escape the 'real' world of student debt and dead-end jobs, running away from responsibilities? Do I really want to give up the chance of having children? Why not 'live' a few years, and allow God to pull me back in with G.K. Chesterton's proverbial 'twitch upon the thread' once I've had a few years of libertine living? These are worthwhile questions, and ones to which I cannot answer certainly 'No.' However, there are two more questions which the Carmelites consider more important. They are "Can you grow with us?" and "Are you comfortable with us?". To these I can answer with a sheepish, "Yes, possibly."
The novitiate isn't intended to be an everlasting commitment. It is an opportunity to taste and see, to try the lifestyle. Of course I would like to believe that I will remain for longer, but I will not know that until I have tried religious life, experienced its rhythm of prayer become routine, been forced to live with the dynamics of community.
In 1930, a week after his conversion to Catholicism, Evelyn Waugh wrote an article for the Daily Express entitled "Converted to Rome: Why it has happened to me." (the title of this blog should now make more sense as a literary reference no-one understands. Go me.) Conversion begins with a contradiction of that statement, the willingness to stand up and accept an invitation to grow. The rest of the experience is however often passive. Carmelite spirituality sometimes feels like that. I did not wake up one day and say "Today I will be a Carmelite", it just happened that I realised I felt at home with a bunch of imperfect, middle aged men and that they might be able to teach me something about who I really am.
That may change, maybe not. All I know is that right now I feel at home with them. I feel no need to perform, no pressure to impress them, no desperation to fill an awkward silence. I can be me. Even better, I might be able to learn who 'me' is. That journey, the one we all take, continues in a new way in September.