A Member of a Secular Institute’s Journey
I was born into a family of observant Jews in the Reform tradition. My father was a prominent member of the Jewish community, having been curator of the Ben Uri Art Gallery during the 1950s and 60s. I was batmitzvah (confirmed) at the age of 15. While I was preparing for my confirmation, I felt a strong spiritual yearning. However, at that point the youthful idealism of teenage years, the desire to change the world, was channelled into politics, and I followed my activist friends into agnosticism. I went to university in 1966 to study Economics and Politics, and was caught up in the student revolution of 1968. That direct experience of raw politics in action showed me clearly that politics was not the solution to what I was seeking, but to change the world, which required first of all a change of heart. After graduating in the summer of 1969, I went on holiday to Morocco, and in the desert, had a life-changing personal encounter with God. At that moment I recognised that, as God is supreme, the best thing I could do with my life was to devote it to knowing him and doing his will. It’s only looking back that I realise that I had fallen in love with God, but with no conception of this possibility in my religious tradition, I did not know what had happened or how to express it.
Journey with Buddhism
On my return home, I picked up a book on Buddhism, which I found very attractive as a guide to living. Despite the fact that Buddhism does not have the concept of a personal god, I continued in my prayer life to deepen my relationship with my Creator. I studied mindfulness meditation with a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition, which is an austere form of Buddhism. Then I met a Tibetan lama, and became engaged in the Mahayana tradition, which makes full use of the senses in its religious practices and also places great emphasis on the compassionate heart. While studying with the Lama, I met my future husband, a Jamaican musician, writer and artist. We had two children, and lived our life together focussed on the love of God, expressed as an exploration of a variety of faith traditions. My husband introduced me to the New Testament which I read for the first time when I was 26. Through the Scriptures I became familiar with the person of Jesus and came to admire his teaching on an intellectual level.
Emigration to Jamaica
When my children were small, my husband became ill and wanted to go home to Jamaica. I got a teaching job, and took the family to live there in 1982. After two years, my husband died, but I decided to stay in Jamaica for my children’s sake. Shortly before his death, we had bought a house in Kingston. He had not seen it, but gave the area his approval, as he had known it before coming to England in the 1960’s as a good residential district. Unfortunately in the intervening years, it had become ghetto, so I found myself a single white woman with two young children living in the Kingston ghetto. Life was tough.
Conversion to Catholicism
All this time my heart was still restless. My house was next to a Pentecostal church and I was fascinated by the three-hour Sunday services which were very lively and full of joy. I attended some services, but did not feel that I belonged. Then in 1992 someone invited me to her church. On arrival at the address, I found myself on the steps of the Roman Catholic church of Ss Peter and Paul; the old prejudices that I had absorbed as a child came to the fore, and I really did not want to go in. Just then, my friend who was inside greeted me, and not wishing to appear rude, I entered with great trepidation. My first Mass, the celebration of the Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, was an experience of instant conversion in heart-to-heart encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. I was struck by the similarity with a synagogue service, and with the blessing of bread and wine, which was exactly the same as the Friday night ritual performed by my father in our Jewish home. I knew I had come home, and that this was the fulfilment of the encounter in the Moroccan desert.
Beginnings of Vocation
The first person I spoke to about my wish to become a Catholic was a Servite sister. She led the RCIA programme, and I got to know and love her. She returned to England before I was baptised, so I received instructions from a wise and generous Jesuit priest. I was baptised in 1994, and returned to England with my children the following year, as we had been unable to make a stable life in Jamaica. It was in Jamaica that I first came across secular institutes. As my family situation and my age and background were not suited for a commitment to religious life, I was delighted to discover the possibility of consecrating my life to God in the world. However, due to my circumstances at that time, I was not able to pursue this possibility.
Encounter with the Servites
On my return to England in 1995, I spent the next few years settling down. While I was training in computing, I attended a local church for daily Mass. There I met a woman who was very welcoming and hospitable, and who asked me to teach her how to use a computer. I visited her every week, and discovered that she was a member of the Servite Secular Institute. The more I found out about her way of life, and about the Servite Order, the more I realised that this was the vocation to which God was calling me. While considering it, I happened to meet in London the Servite sister I had known in Jamaica, and the sense of God’s providence was very strong. The fact that one of the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order was named Alexis was another encouraging sign!
Living the Secular Institute Vocation
I began formation in 1998 and took first vows in 2002. I worked as a project manager and trainer of teachers of adults. Now, although past retirement age, I work part-time at a further education college. I do this out of necessity, as we share the insecurities of lay life, and my circumstances require that I continue to work for the time being. I am not typical of the membership, being a widow (and grandmother!), whereas most members are single women. Taking the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as those in religious life, we live the vows in the context of ordinary lay life, bringing our experience of personal encounter with Jesus Christ in prayer and in the Eucharist into our family life, workplace and parish communities, with the emphasis on personal responsibility in following our Rule. I took perpetual vows in 2009, and have the joy of knowing that I have been blessed to be where God has called me to be, a Servant of Mary in the world of everyday life.
Alexis Pottinger, member of the Servite Secular Institute www.ssi.org.uk