Ty Mawr Retreat 29.11.17: Stories from El Salvador

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A piece of traditional El Salvadorian pottery depicting the Nativity

It was a cool, damp morning in late November, when the Holywell Community set out across Monmouthshire to the Ty Mawr convent. As Fr Tom, Fr Mark and Sr Jennii tried to remember the way to the house (‘All roads around here lead to Ty Mawr! But I would have taken the other one, Father’), I happily dozed off in the back, missing a gorgeous view of the valley. We were on our way to our sister community’s house, where we’d booked the peaceful Print Room in the grounds to spend a day recollecting and praying together. With Advent approaching rapidly, it felt like the perfect time for some much-needed space before the busyness of the Christmas season began.

On arrival we prayed the monastic office of Terce, and then said Lectio Divina (a practice of slow, prayerful reading, in this case of that day’s gospel). In the quiet comfort of the Print Room, we were able to take a luxurious amount of time to meditate in peace on the scripture. As the time of prayer came to a close we found ourselves in happy conversation about the lives of the disciples, and reflected a little together on the passage we had encountered. One of the great blessings of community life is being able to speak about faith so openly, and learn from each other, and as a new monastic community it’s important that we make time to do this.

At lunch we were joined by our associate Michael Woodward, who has recently returned from a pilgrimage to El Salvador with the Archbishop Romero Trust. Michael took us through Romero’s life, from his training for the priesthood to his eventual martyrdom at the altar of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia. Romero’s death did not bring about the end of the civil war, but the over the following years the example of his devotion to the poor has helped bring about great social change. He was beatified in 2015, and is remembered with great love and reverence not only in El Salvador but across the world.

Romero had been brought up a Christian, and had chosen to pursue his faith, becoming a priest against the wishes of his family. Through his early life and ministry he was an able and dutiful servant of the church, but whilst tensions rose in El Salvador Romero showed few signs of being the powerful social and spiritual advocate that he is known as today. It was in the murder of his friend, the Jesuit priest and tireless social advocate Fr Rutilio Grande (and his companions), that Romero’s life changed. From that grief came a second calling on his life; to the cause of the poor and oppressed. He had at that time been archbishop less than a month, appointed as a safe choice for the church authorities and state, and unpopular with the local priests who faced the daily hardships of poverty and suppression. Romero left Grande’s side with a prophetic insight into the call of the church to fight for the poor; he saw no church, no faith possible without them. In the three short years between this second calling and his martyrdom, he lived and breathed the liberation of the poor of El Salvador, unafraid to criticise the government and military.

In Ty Mawr, thousands of miles and four decades away from Romero’s death, we spread out a bold map of El Salvador and traced his steps across the country. It is easy to place those obviously holy, like Oscar Romero, on pedestals, to imagine that the extremes of both their faith and the suffering they endured put them on a different level somehow to us. But Romero’s life is a testimony against this way of thinking. He recognised the forgotten martyrs, the thousands who died or suffered during the war; he believed in one church of poor and rich, united in one God; he walked away from any honour given to himself to glorify God and raise others. I was struck by one line from the documentary Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, where a church activist who had known him spoke of encountering Christ through him; although those that knew him clearly adored him and were inspired by his actions, their deepest and truest love was for the God they encountered through him. The story of Romero’s life is of a man who had served God on his own terms giving God complete reign in his life. The love that surrounded Romero – fierce love, angry for justice, compassionate for the poor, brave for the meek, gentle with the oppressed – is God’s boundless love in action.

There is more to say about the love of God in the life of Oscar Romero than I could hope to cover, but a few details stood out. Firstly, Romero’s greatest work was in the last three years of his life. God didn’t finish calling on him when he became a seminarian, a Deacon, a Priest, or even an Archbishop. Wherever we are, and wherever we have come from on our Christian journeys, God’s call continues. We know from scripture that this call is not a demand for us to act, but an invitation to step further into God’s love. It always begins with our name. Whether poor or rich, Archbishop or tentative believer, we still need to hear God calling our name.

Secondly, our faith must permeate our lives. While faith had guided Romero before Grande’s death, the faith of those three years afterwards was one of total submission to the will of God. I took away the impression of a man who was as much liberated as liberating. God’s love demands to be acted on, and to be let into every part of our lives. Archbishop Romero recognised that his theology was incomplete if it didn’t lead to action, and his political and social activism had to be driven by his faith. We often talk about bringing our faith into the world, but Romero also challenges us to think deeply about the challenges the world poses for our faith. Our faith has to be our best tool for approaching the world; we deserve a theology that does it justice.

After a final cup of tea, we had to leave the comfort of the Print Room and make our way back to Abergavenny. Days together as a community are a great source of strength and encouragement, and our reflection on the life of Oscar Romero has helped me think on how we are inspired to make our faith and our work one. It’s always hard coming away from a good retreat, but there’s always something more to look forward to! This Sunday Fr Tom will be preaching at St Mary’s on Christian Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and so forth) which will be a lovely opportunity to reflect on how we respond to God’s call on our lives, so do come along (and if you’ve braved the end of this blog, ask him questions about Oscar Romero!)

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Our thanks go to Michael Woodward, for a fascinating afternoon discussing Oscar Romero, and the community at Ty Mawr, for their hospitality and use of the lovely Print Room.

Sr Joanna

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