When I was received into the Church at the age of 19, I had no knowledge of Institutes, secular or otherwise. I wanted to be a good Catholic and after going from my home in Devon to London to study, I discovered my local church, St James, Spanish Place. Browsing one day through the CTS rack I came across a pamphlet on Third Orders and sat down to read it. I had been worried that I was not as fervent after three months in the Church as I had been when I was received and belonging to a Third Order seemed to be an answer. I shall join the Carmelites, I thought, they seem to be the most difficult but upon reflection I thought it was perhaps better to join a less demanding group. The Servites seemed to be the least challenging so I decided to join them!
Had I reflected further I might have noticed a happy coincidence: that my birthday was on the feast of St Juliana, a Servite saint. Aged 14 I had one day opened Butler's Lives of the Saints, curious to see if there was a saint Jacqueline. There wasn't. There were plenty of St James, but no female saints. Discovering St Juliana was my birthday saint, I had been praying to her for help on a regular basis ever since but without her Servite identity impinging on me.
I decided that I would visit the Servites' Church in Fulham Road in London so one Saturday headed that way with the intention of going to confession. I had to confess telling a lie and was worried that this would stop me being a tertiary. It so happened that there was no one hearing confessions at the time I presented myself so I went home again.
Three weeks later I headed to Fulham Road again, found a priest in the confessional and told him I wanted to be a tertiary. He told me to go next door into the priory and I met Fr Gerard Corr OSM, the co-founder of the Servite Secular Institute. And the rest, as they say, is history!
My training as a member of the Institute had its difficulties with my studying and I was lucky finally to pass my degree after which I went on to Teacher Training. Now I would be very hesitant to advise anyone to start following their spiritual vocation while studying full time. When I finished my Teacher Training I worked for a year in London which was convenient as Institute training meetings were held in the Fulham Road parish. I met many Institute members from a variety of walks of life and remember fondly the actress, the Foreign Office secretary, the retired lady whose life had been lived in India with echoes of the Raj, the Austrian nurse, the doctor, the retired mill worker and many others. After a year I moved to teach in Birmingham and for the first time found myself without other Institute members in my local area.
Institute life involves travel, spiritually and physically, if the latter is possible. From Birmingham I attended meetings in London and in Bristol, driving my bright yellow Morris Minor through the winding A roads (no motorways in those days.) I enjoyed meetings with prayer together, discussions, washing up, interviews with the Head of the Group and having small conversations with other members in passing, not realising that these were to be the basis for lifelong friendship maintained over the years with little or no further contact. Spiritual friendship in our Secular Institute is a very strong factor. We usually call it family spirit. Living individual, busy lives we try to maintain contact by phone calls, letters, Skype, e-mails where an actual meeting is not possible but inevitably there are members whom one rarely sees, which makes meetings (when they do happen) even more special. This spiritual identification of members is particularly striking one meets in a national (rather than a local) group. Everyone fits in; is talking on the same Servite wavelength and is welcomed and accepted. They have not lost out by being for most of the time an isolated member.
The vocation of the individual is just that: individual. No matter where one finds oneself or chooses to be, it is assumed you will be the best possible version of yourself, taking all opportunities for widening one's appreciation of one's calling. Some members' apostolate is within the Institute itself, training others, leading groups, working behind the scenes, filling the various offices and appointments. My vocation led me to the Servite missions for five years early in my Institute life. I loved being in Africa, running a small African school and I was lucky that Swaziland was at that time a British protectorate so English was the teaching language at secondary level.
I returned to the UK as my parents' health deteriorated. It was a challenging time as the contrast between England and Africa was acute and I was homesick for Africa for a couple of years. However my vocation was not as a missionary and had I stayed, I would have put my Secular Institute vocation in danger. Being a Secular Institute member demands secular living and one struggles if one's environment is too far removed from the secular norm.
Within a couple of years both my parents died and I settled as a teacher in a school in Hampshire where I stayed for fifteen years. I then moved to be Deputy Head of a school in Bromley in Kent, which was a new and exciting challenge. This was to be my last teaching post and when the school's circumstances changed I was lucky enough to be offered a couple of years' early retirement. This enabled me to study for a Diploma in Pastoral Ministry and I then moved to Nailsea, near Bristol, where I now live.
I then took a course in Spiritual Direction and this led to my having directees of my own. I feel singularly blessed in this work and find it a privilege to accompany others on their spiritual journeys.
Do I regret joining a Secular Institute ? No because I think that that is where God wants me. At the time I joined, a key phrase was holy, humble, hidden. I think I have perfected hidden and am now working on humble; God willing, He will perfect holy in his own good time!