Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Timothy Radcliffe – Telling the Truth (1) SUSAN SOUTHALL


On Tuesday the 16th of April Susan Southall conducted a Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on the English Dominican Timothy Radcliffe. Here is Susan’s introductory paper to that session.

Timothy Radcliffe was born in London at the end of the Second World War (1945) but spent most of his youth on his family’s estate in Yorkshire, the upper-class English country life celebrated in literature, although he points out that from the ages of eight to eighteen, three quarters of his time was spent at boarding schools: these were the Benedictine schools Worth and Downside. All of his numerous cousins and in fact most English aristocratic children were the same, although he finds it incredible now. On his second night at school he was beaten for leaving his clothes on the floor. He says, ‘No one had ever hit me, no-one. I was utterly astonished that anyone might do such a thing!’ [1]

On one side he is descended from the great Catholic recusant families who had demonstrated the ability to put their faith above the loyalty demanded by the state. When he became involved in the anti-nuclear campaigns with other young Dominicans it was pointed out they were breaking the law. His reaction was, ‘We had been breaking the law for centuries.’ [2] His mother’s family came from Portugal at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They had a theological bent, and association with the East: they subscribed to Country Life for the Dalai Lama until he went into exile! His great-grandfather George Lane-Fox, had been disinherited by his father when he became a Catholic. He went to Rome to become a novice at Santa Sabina: although his father wasn’t speaking to him, many other relatives were and they visited, taking him to dinner at Rome’s finest restaurants. His novice-master suggested that with so little attention to the vow of poverty he lacked a religious vocation, and so he became the ancestor of a Master of the Order instead.[3]

It was only after leaving school that Timothy Radcliffe had any reason to question his faith. He began to meet people who asked, ‘but is it true?’ He came from this protected Catholic background and now had to reflect. If it is true, he thought, he ought to spend his life on it. All that he knew was that there was a religious order whose motto was Truth. He asked the Benedictines to put him in touch with the Dominican provincial. Within five minutes, he said he wished to join the Order. He was sent to talk to the novitiate, and was struck by the simplicity of the life there, and the richness of discussion. It was a complete intellectual environment, people discussing everything from communism to the sacraments. His family would later be disturbed that he decided to join an Order with such a left-wing reputation. At the end of this visit, he asked to join the Order. The novice-master suggested he should read Plato’s Dialogues as preparation.

He had never thought of religious life before this, and he came from a politically conservative family. He had a hard time to begin with, being the only person there who came from an upper-class background. He was teased all the time, and became familiar with terms like exploiters of the working-classes, and immoral capitalists. He thought this was unfair on his relatives, whom he knew to be good people. In time, his own political views began to change and he joined his brethren protesting against the Vietnam War and the nuclear sites in England. It was a time of disturbance in the world and in the church. Guidance from superiors was helpful. He remembers saying to the elderly Dominican Gervase Matthew, ‘It must be very hard for you, Gervase, to see all this going on.’ To which he replied, ‘Oh, it was worse in the fourteenth century.’[4]

Of his vows, in spite of his background, poverty didn’t trouble him. It was something different to experience! It bothered some of his relations, though. He had an argument with an uncle who wanted to pay his train fare: he explained that he was hitch-hiking. Eventually the compromise that was reached had the chauffeur driving him in the Rolls-Royce to a suitable stop at the highway and handing him his bag as he was given a lift in a lorry. Travelling light! Chastity provided more difficulty for young men, especially as they were at that time given no formation in how to deal with their sexuality. He makes the observation that ‘what is the hardest aspect of chastity is not the lack of sexual activity but, much more, the lack of intimacy — knowing that you have a unique importance for one person who has that same importance for you.’[5] At the age of thirty, he found this aspect painful. But obedience was never a problem. For Dominicans, obedience took place in an atmosphere of ‘dialogue and fraternity.’[6] He became a priest in spite of his resistance to clericalism. He wanted to be a brother of the Order, but when asked he accepted ordination as a form of obedience to brothers who requested it. Gervase Matthew told him the most important thing he did as a priest was hearing confessions. He found this to be true, especially as he recognised that ‘you are not a superior being handing out God’s absolution to someone else’ but yourself a sinner who can encourage others by giving the words he needs to hear himself.[7]

That process was repeated much later when after years of teaching scripture at Oxford at the request of Simon Tugwell, he was elected English Provincial. He had fallen in love with study, and the transition to leaving research, libraries and students for travel, administration and meetings was difficult. He was able ‘to create the conditions in which we can really talk to each other, and together arrive at decisions about the common good.’[8] One of the advances from his English years was related to the AIDS crisis. He arranged a conference of hospital chaplains, doctors and nurses, and patients and broke the taboo on talking around the disease. AIDS sufferers were free to stay at Blackfriars to come and rest. This was at a time when the illness was completely stigmatised.
He isn’t able to know exactly how he came to be Master of the Order. He thought he wouldn’t have to worry about it; he was such an unlikely candidate. He accepted the office as part of his obedience to his brothers. For two-thirds of the year he was travelling, supporting the friars, the sisters, the laity and the contemplatives, especially those working in places of violence, war and persecution, as Rwanda during the genocide, a situation that brought him to tears. It is a nine- year appointment, which he held from 1992-2001, virtually living in airports, and he feels no one could manage to do it for longer.

When asked if the Order should leave magnificent buildings such as Santa Maria Novella in Florence to open new mission territories, he replied: ‘You ask what we should close. I think the first question we need to ask is what we should open. Let’s first do something new and then see what, as a consequence, we must give up. You mention the example of Santa Maria Novella, that wonderful priory in Florence, filled with Renaissance frescoes. It is true that we cannot let ourselves become museum keepers for tourists. But surely we can find ways of preaching the gospel through the beauty of such places.’[9]

Timothy Radcliffe continues to preach from his community at Blackfriars in Oxford, and his homilies can be read on the internet: https://www.english.op.org/profiles/timothy-radcliffe.htm





[1] Timothy Radcliffe, I Call You Friends (London: Continuum, 2001), 11.
[2]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 4.
[3]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 15.
[4] Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 19.
[5]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 22.
[6]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 20-21.
[7]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 29.
[8]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 34-35.
[9]  Radcliffe, I Call You Friends, 76.

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