A Crucible of Formation
Our leaver Helen O’Sullivan reflects on how studying within an intentional community changes the nature of training for ministry.
When I started at Trinity College two years ago I wrote a blog post about the blessings and challenges of living and learning in a new community.
There is an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ As I approach the end of the first month of “vicar school” this quote reflects the thing that has struck me the most. That these next two years are not just about my training and formation but are about treading this journey with others who are on a similar path. Seeking to be obedient to a calling to serve God and His people and learning what it might mean to do this as part of a bigger community.
After many essays, Greek exams, sermons preached and cups of coffee drunk, pantos written and directed, parties enjoyed, early morning ballet classes attended and film evenings arranged, I now face the ending of this season and I find myself drawn back to reflecting on the importance of community.
At its very core Trinity’s heart beats for Christ-centred learning and formation taking place in and through a community gathered in regular rhythms of life and sent out in missional vision and service. Staff, faculty, fellow students and the local churches we are part of have all impacted me in a myriad of different ways, some of which I recognise and some of which will only begin to reveal themselves as I move on into new adventures.
‘My time at Trinity has taught me many things, but central to it all is that the Christian faith is never meant to be lived out in isolation.’
My time at Trinity has taught me many things, but central to it all is that the Christian faith is never meant to be lived out in isolation. From Genesis to Revelation we see God calling and acting in community: families, tribes, nations and the church, reaching out in invitation to the whole world. Our faith grows and deepens when it is explored and experienced alongside others in safe spaces of disagreement, hospitality, reconciliation, and grace, and it is this that Trinity seeks to provide. Through lectures, chapel, pastoral groups, prayer triplets and conversations over coffee and food my training has been less about what I need to know to carry out a role and more about how I learn and share in a community of fellow disciples, seeking to be obedient to the time and place to which God has called me.
This community has acted as the crucible of my formation.
While this formation has been a wonderful thing it has not always been easy. Trinity is a place that dares to dream about what it means to ‘Live Like the Kingdom is Near.’ To take seriously the words of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, that God’s kingdom will come and his ‘will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ But these are not just words that look good on the wall in our reception and on our headed paper. These words are embodied daily in the messy reality that is life lived together with other broken human beings. Over the last two years we have explored contentious topics and annoyed each other in lectures, on social media, and over the salad table. There are good days and bad days and days that are best forgotten about–these are simply the realities of committing to other people as members of the body of Christ rather than choosing those who think and act the same way as us.
But along with these challenges, at Trinity I have seen some ways in which Christian community facilitates healing and transformation. Firstly, the rhythm of the week provides spaces for discussion and disagreement but also for confession and communion. Lectures, lunchtime and gatherings around the pool table are all places where frank and honest discussions can be had. But whatever has happened during the week we gather each day for morning prayer, re-orientating ourselves around God’s Word and starting afresh with the confession of our own need for forgiveness and the story of God’s faithfulness and grace on our lips. Whilst on a Friday we join together around the communion table to enter afresh into the communal narrative of reconciliation and transformation enacted there. Secondly, our smaller pastoral, prayer, and friendship groups provide safe places of prayer, caring and accountability–tears are shed, chocolate consumed, and hands are held as wobbly steps forward are taken out of places of pain, worry and anxiety. Finally, our faculty model humility, vulnerability, and an approach to disagreement which offers hope and vision for how Christian community can work.
‘There are good days and bad days and days that are best forgotten about–these are simply the realities of committing to other people as members of the body of Christ rather than choosing those who think and act the same way as us.’
What might start to become clear from these words is that this community has become precious to me both in terms of the individuals it is made up of and the way they join together. This means that the next few days of packing and leaving for the final time are going to be both ones of thankfulness and sadness. Remembering how I felt as an introvert when I arrived, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like I would belong or have anything to offer such a diverse community but now I cannot imagine not being an integral part of this crazy, wonderful group of people.
I was reminded this morning of C S Lewis’ words from his book The Four Loves.
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
To commit to community is to be vulnerable, to know yourself always in relation to the other, to be willing to receive hospitality as much as to give it and to consider the impact on the whole before making individual decisions. Through this relational joining comes blessing but also pain as love and loss take on a corporate as well as an individual dimension. Community requires emotional vulnerability as being invested in it makes it all the harder when it comes time to leave. But as Lewis articulates, this pain that come from love is the cost of being open to the other, and the hardness and bleakness that comes from a life that chooses not to love is darker than any pain that emerges from daring to love. So as I leave I am carrying around tissues in my pocket for those moments when the depth of belonging meets the reality of ending, but I also carry around gratitude for those who have made these two years so special and who have given me a glimpse of what community can and should be.
This glimpse has planted the seed of hope that those of us who are leaving will carry this experience with us and seek to discover how to foster and encourage community in the places where we come to rest for the next season. Just as God calls us into communities God also sends us out and we do well to remember that the heart of Christian community is never our effort, our work or our successes and failures but rather it is the presence of Christ, through the power of his Spirit.
‘My training has been less about what I need to know to carry out a role and more about how I learn and share in a community of fellow disciples, seeking to be obedient to the time and place to which God has called me.’
All those who are disciples of the risen and ascended Christ, no matter what their vocation, are called to live out their lives in the diverse community that is God’s Church, to embody the values of God’s kingdom and be the crucibles that shape each other into the people we were created to be. This should be as true of the local church as it is of Trinity, and it will be just as challenging and rewarding. Let us not confuse comfort and Christian platitudes with the hard, holy work of learning together, challenging each other, and being open and willing to change for the sake of the other. Let us each be rooted so deeply into our Christian communities that we can go out courageously into the spaces of our everyday lives as those with a story to tell and an invitation to offer. Willing to love despite the fear of a broken heart, to disagree with grace towards each other, and to hold each other in times of celebration and lament.
As I prepare to leave Trinity for my curacy it feels, in some ways, that I have come full circle back to where I started: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
But these two years have added such rich layers of theology, practical experience and community joy to these words that I can recognise many changes in me from the person who drove up to the door of the college in September 2016 with two cats in tow. I will be forever grateful for the fun, laughter, generosity, challenge, and encouragement that I found in this place.
To all my fellow students and the awesome faculty who have walked the last two years with me, thank you.
And to God ‘who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.’ (Ephesians 3.20-21)
(Reprinted with permission from Helen O’Sullivan’s blog, Tapestry of Love, 20 May 2018 post)
About this blog
This blog hosts a collection of voices, some from within the Trinity community and others from beyond it. Although all opinions are each author's own and cannot necessarily be considered to represent Trinity's position, our prayer is that you will be inspired, informed, and challenged through your engagement with our bloggers.