A life in the day of an Augustinian Canoness

The Constitutions of our Federation begin by quoting a sermon of our patron, St Augustine: ‘In the beginning was the Word ... there is the One to whom Mary listened ... And the Word was made flesh ... Behold Him whom Martha served.’

One way of summing up our lives would be as a constant attempt to hold in fruitful balance Mary and Martha, stillness and busyness, solitude and sociability, regularity and variety, contemplation and action. Often, it can seem as if these two poles are in tension, but our Constitutions suggest otherwise: ‘The depth of our words and of our gift of self to others will depend on the depth of our silence.’ Our capacity to imitate Martha flows from our capacity to imitate Mary. To put it another way, our prayer - private or common - is the source of the love and harmony within our Community which can flow out into an attitude of warmth and hospitality towards all those whom we welcome into our lives.

The regular elements of our lives nourish its monastic basis of prayer and community. We begin the day by singing Morning Office and Mass, and meet again at midday and in the evening for prayer and a meal, completing the day with Compline and recreation. In addition, each Sister dedicates an hour to private prayer: our beautiful Blessed Sacrament Chapel, for example, is often occupied through the day, from six in the morning, and much used also by our visitors. All this is the steady framework, as it were, on which the sprawling vine branches of our life can grow and bear fruit.

The fundamental work of our house is threefold, and each aspect reflects our charism of the mediation through hospitality of the mercy of Jesus to those in need. We run a Nursing Home, a Guest House and a programme of residential groups. The Nursing Home caters for long-term residents, with some rooms for respite care or those who are dying. Our Guest House welcomes visitors young and old, alone and with families, from every walk of life; many of our guests enjoy sharing our prayer, and they enrich it by their presence. Our residential weeks provide a unique combination of retreat, study and holiday, for groups with a shared professional interest - health, education, prisons - for young Catholics, for Scripture study. One of the joys of our life is to see our own ideal of love in community reflected in those who stay with us: in the mutual concern and kindness among our patients; in the friendships that spring up among our guests; in the solidarity and fun generated among the participants in our groups. Community life is infectious!

A few concrete images may capture something of the variety within the regularity of our life: holding the hand of an elderly priest as he is dying; picnicking with students on a Lakeland peak; spoon-feeding a lady who used to run a nursing home herself; laughing as we try to help a French-speaking Sister from China with her English; pondering a papal encyclical with the novices; sharing the family’s sorrows and joys at a patient’s funeral; debating the Sermon on the Mount with a seminar group; listening to our Nigerian Sisters sing an African farewell after visiting us; watching the footrest of a wheelchair being tapped by the feet that used to dance to the waltz I am playing on CD; celebrating Mass on the fells in the ruins of a medieval Augustinian abbey; offering a shoulder for the tears of a heartbroken mother; teaching a teenager how to bathe an old gentleman with tact and respect; absorbing the depth of shared silence after we watched together Of Gods and Men; welcoming guests to our beautifully decorated Refectory after Mass for the Feast of St Augustine. Each of us, of course, does not do all of these things; but together we do them all and so much more. ‘Why did you come here?’ people ask. The more interesting question, and one that has ten thousand answers, is, ‘Why did you stay?’

Sr Margaret Atkins made her perpetual profession as a Canoness of St Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus at Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, in February 2012. Her Federation has Sisters in France, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and South Africa.

You can also read this and other accounts of the religious life at www.ukreligiouslife.org