The 24th October is the Feast of St. Anthony Mary Claret, founder of the Claretian Missionaries.
So, on the 24th August 1998 I left home for the first time. I packed all my possessions into a rucksac and moved into the religious community of the Claretian Missionaries at Buckden Towers. I was 17. I do not remember giving my parents much warning of this decision in my life - in my mind I just got up and went. Perhaps that has been indicative of the way I have made big decisions ever since.
Nevertheless, the Claretian community I lived with gently taught me many things about developing a relationship with God and about being more patient, they taught me about living in community, about people, their doubts and uncertainties, and about my faith. They helped me to understand a little about what it means to feel called to the religious life even though this has not been, and was never meant to be, my path.
My daily routine went from doing pretty much what I wanted, when I wanted, to being set out by the rhythm of prayer, mass and work. Each day began with Morning Prayer from the Divine Office, and closed with Evening Prayer. There would always be Mass. I worked as an assistant on retreats for children and young people, and helped the house keeper to keep retreat centre tidy and in fresh linen. I was guided in my work by Fr. Paul who led the work of the retreat centre, Fr. Chris who was superior of the house and Parish Priest, Br. Billy who had lived in that community for many many years, and knew the place inside out and backwards, and Denise, my fellow lay member of the house, who had recently left contemplative life with the Carmelites. I loved that house, and I loved living in that place. Often, there were days on end where I could walk in the country, or climb high onto the roof tops of the tower and look out over the Cambridgshire fens. Sometimes I was left to my own devices to polish the floors of The Tower - a job that took all day, and I was quite happy to hum little tunes to myself and keep busy. On Monday nights we had 'community night', and would meet together to play canasta and chat about the week. I looked forward to that. I loved looking after the grounds and the sheep and lived for days when I could help light a big bonfire, or ride on the tractor.
I learnt many things during the year I spent with the Claretian Misisonaries, Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Living with that community showed me the everyday realities of feeling called to religious life. I observed then something I have never been able to describe since - people working, truly and in the heart, for the love of God. The Claretian Missionaries were founded by St. Anthony Mary Claret, and they often spoke about the heart of the missionary being 'on fire' with zeal to spread the Gospel. This sounds confusing to those who do not often hear such language. The year I spent in Buckden Towers taught me that being 'on fire' with the love of God often equates to getting up every day with the determination to complete the tasks of the day with joy, grace and compassion. Sometimes it means getting on with something you might prefer to avoid, but doing it with good grace. Sometimes it means setting your mind to seeing goodness in the heart of those around you, even though they are in a foul temper. It always means doing everything within prayer.
There were 'big' days in Buckden Towers, and I learnt all sorts of new skills. I still remember very clearly the week of the Claretian Chapter. All the Claretian Missionaries in England and Ireland came - I knew many as I had worked with different groups from their parishes in Gorseinon, Durham, Hayes and Leyton. I was tasked with cooking breakfast - as the cook did not arrive until later in the day. Rustling up a full English for 35 fellas for 7am was no mean feat - but I was trusted to do a good job of it, and enjoyed the challenge. There were also quiet days. In 1999, after I had been away to university for a year, I was called back to The Towers. Once again the brethren were having 'Chapter', but this time at another venue. I house sat the complex for a week! I opened the church each day, and locked up at night, answered the door and the phone, looked after the 'gentlemen of the road' that called looking for a place to stay, and tried to make friends with, rather than be terrified of, the many creeks and bumps in the night that go with a building in which Queen Katherine of Aragon spent time under 'house arrest' - sent by her husband Henry VIII.
At 17 I was very young. I am going to be 33 this year. Time has passed very quickly. I am still learning the lessons from my year in Buckden Towers. I know now what I did not know then. I am a teacher. That is my vocation. It is a lay vocation and I am delightfully happy in my job.
I took the photo of the Chapel of St. Claret above. It was in that chapel I made many of the 'big' decisions in my life: to be confirmed, what subjects to take at A-Level, to join the lay community at The Towers, where to go to university, what to study. It was in that chapel that I decided to walk to Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage on which I decided to train to be a teacher. My brother, Stephen, was married in that chapel. I turned down the option to move straight on to a PhD at Liverpool there, and moved onto jobs in social services, time in Spain and working for Parish Communities. I chose to take up an MA whilst teaching there, and later made the choice to study a DPhil at Oxford. I returned to Buckden when my money to complete the DPhil fell short and things went awry, and I worked my way through resolving to begin again in that place. On my phone this picture is labelled 'home'. Next week, during my half term, it is my ambition to go to that chapel again. I am fiercely independent, and always have been. I blame it on my Ma, whose birthday it is today, 24th October, and who taught me everything I know. I tend to make big decisions quickly and with little consultation. Once again I am at a point in my life when big decisions must be made, and I know the only place I can make them securely is in that space of my 'home', my chapel. St. Claret, I ask your prayers.
In honour of St. Anthony Mary Claret, and in thanks for my formative year in the company of your brethren whom I pray for on this feast, there should be some delicious spanish food.
Basque Chicken Pie
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp flaked sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, cut into 12 wedges
1 green pepper, halved, seeded and sliced
1 red pepper, halved, seeded and sliced
3–4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
150g/5½oz chorizo sausage, skinned and cut into thin slices
3 garlic cloves, crushed
4 large ripe tomatoes (each about 100g/4½oz), skinned and roughly chopped
2 tbsp flour
225g/8oz plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine sea salt
75g/2¾oz unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
1 medium egg yolk
4–5 tbsp cold water
1 egg, beaten, or full-fat milk, to glaze
Put the chicken pieces in a bowl and sprinkle over the paprika, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Rub the seasoning into the meat and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the onions and peppers with the thyme and bay leaves for 3 minutes, while stirring. Add the chicken and seasoning and cook for another 3 minutes, turning the chicken regularly until it is starting to colour. Add the chorizo and garlic and fry for 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes or until they are softened and juicy, stirring regularly.
Tilt the pan so that the liquid runs to one side and sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, chicken and chorizo. Stir it in quickly, then set the pan level and stir the cooking liquor into the flour. Doing it this way should prevent little clumps of flour – but don’t worry if you do have a few, no-one will notice. Add more salt and pepper if necessary and continue to cook for 1 minute, stirring until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat and tip everything into a roasting tin or ovenproof dish, measuring about 25cm x 30cm/10in x 12in and at least 4cm/1½in deep. Leave to cool.
For the pastry, pulse the flour, baking powder, salt, butter and egg yolk in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Slowly pour in the water with the motor running, blending until the mixture just comes together as a dough (you may not need to use all of the water). Form the dough into a ball.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
Roll the pastry out into a rectangle about the same size as the tin. Place it over the pie filling and tuck the sides of the pastry down around the filling. Brush with beaten egg or milk to glaze.
Bake for about 30 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the filling is hot.
H/T The Hairy Bikers!