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Monday, 13 April 2015 16:10

Adventure in Alice

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Sr Anne Surtees osu150Ursuline Sister Anne Surtees is giving up a role she loves as Director of Centacare Pastoral Ministries in Brisbane to head off into the great unknown in Alice Springs after "feeling uncomfortable being so comfortable", writes Peter Bugden.

Sister Anne Surtees has never taken a leap of faith quite like the one she is taking this Easter season.

The Ursuline Sister of 35 years is giving up a role she “loves” – as director of Centacare Pastoral Ministries in Brisbane archdiocese – and heading off into the great unknown in Alice Springs.

It’s a change of direction that has come out of left field and taken Sr Anne completely by surprise. But it’s her choice – no one else’s.

Although she scoffed at the idea initially and then faced “fear and trepidation” in coming to her decision, now she’s excited about the possibilities.

She leaves after Easter Sunday to join another Ursuline, Sr Mary Wicks, in establishing a new community in Alice Springs but she still has no idea what she’ll be doing.

Sr Anne’s decision came out of a sense of feeling “too comfortable”.

“The whole process has been one – over a period of time – of just becoming aware of becoming unsettled, and thinking that I was pretty comfortable,” she said.

“And there’s nothing wrong with being comfortable but it was starting to make me feel uncomfortable being so comfortable.”

Sr Anne asked herself the question “Did I enter (religious life) to be comfortable?”

The answer was a definite “No”.

In working through this unrest, Sr Anne drew on her training and experience as a spiritual director trained in Ignatian spirituality, and on her years of formation as an Ursuline based on that same spirituality of St Ignatius.

She also sought the support of a spiritual companion.

She said this was part of “that whole process of trying to think, ‘Well, what’s this unease or unrest happening within me?’”

“I loved the role (with Centacare). I love the ministry I’m in,” she said. “I think it’s an absolute privilege working with these chaplains (in Centacare Pastoral Ministries). They are such inspirational people.

“And yet, there was something that was unsettling within me; and sitting with that for some time, and in prayer, it became clear that there was an invitation in this ‘unsettledness’.”

Sr Anne had to sit patiently with the question “Well, what is the invitation?”

Then came the surprise out of the Alice – a fellow Ursuline suggesting she might like to move to the centre of Australia and help her set up a community there, a house of hospitality and welcome.

“A sister (Mary Wicks) who’s living in Alice Springs and working (in a hospital), she invited me … she asked the question,” Sr Anne said.

“And I initially said, ‘Don’t be silly. I’m not that silly’,” she said. “But then it was like that was the seed that was flicked out – the idea that was flicked out – and it seemed to settle, and part of my unsettledness became part of that seed, sort of growing and challenging me.

“So through a whole process of prayer and discernment – a whole process of discernment – I actually felt the invitation was ‘Leave here and look and explore what’s possible in Alice Springs’.”

Sr Anne said “the interesting thing was when I’d actually made the decision or actually said it out loud I felt an extraordinary peace at being able to say yes to the invitation”.

“And that’s a sign of a discernment that has been honoured.”

Sr Anne said it was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve made for a long time”.

“It’s a case of do I stay here where I’m really comfortable and everything’s fine or do I think, ‘Now … I need to step out in trust’?” she said. “And I think there’s great energy in that. There’s fear and trepidation, but great energy in that I feel a great freedom in saying ‘Yes’ to the invitation.”

But the response to the invitation to leave everything and go to Alice Springs did not come quickly. Sr Anne knew she had to be patient with the Ignatian process of discernment she had come to trust through religious life and through her training in spiritual direction.

“It’s believing in the process, that you think, ‘Well, I know the process works’, because of other events and incidents in my life – that whole process of discernment and waiting on the Spirit …

“We can ask for something but often we live in such an immediate world, (and we can say) “Okay, I’ll ask, and can you give me an answer by the end of the prayer?’

“Whereas I’ve learned through life experience and through good direction, over my life, that you wait – the answer will come.It may not come in the way you want it but the answer is always there. So it’s a case of waiting.

“I could’ve made a decision earlier, perhaps, but that would’ve been a decision, not a discernment.

“So (it’s a case) of waiting for the Spirit, and waiting for that truth to become real, and keep having it checked out and validated with sharing the journey with someone else – with a spiritual companion.

“It helps you to clarify, to let go of the stuff that can be a distraction, and come down to the depth of what the invitation is, and what my response would be to that invitation.”

After bouncing backwards and forwards – “Yes”, “No”, “Yes”, “No” – Sr Anne finally reached a sense of freedom when she could say, “Yes, this is the right decision”.

“In that back and forward, and Yes and No, when I actually heard myself saying it to another sister – when I was mentioning that this was where I think I might be going – this extraordinary sense of peace and a great freedom (came).

“It was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this’. And it’s a sense of not just ‘I can do it’ but ‘This feels right for me’.

“And, you know, as I’ve lived through and into religious life you realise it was the Spirit giving me the strength to say ‘Yes’ and the peace and freedom to continue the ‘Yes’.

“The invitation is almost like the daily invitation ‘Will you come and be with Me?’

“And it’s that freedom to say ‘Yes, because I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be’.

“Yes, the initiator of the invitation is the Spirit. That unsettling within me made me open to that question, ‘Would you think of moving out?’”

As “a Brisbane girl, born and bred” and with great sadness having to leave a ministry she loves, she heads for her new town with enthusiasm and trust.

“When I said there was a great peace, there’s also an extraordinary freedom,” she said. “And I’ve got to say the province is very supportive of me moving into this space.

“So it’s one of those things where there is this extraordinary freedom and I know I have the love and support of the (Ursuline) province in looking at this and, for both Mary and I, in starting this new venture there.

“It’s always tinged, of course, with the sadness of leaving but there is that wonderful sense of stepping out in trust.”

Sr Anne, who counts it as a great privilege to have worked in Brisbane archdiocese in supporting lay ministry, in multicultural pastoral care and Centacare Pastoral Ministries, doesn’t know what ministry awaits her but she hopes to look at the possibility of spiritual companioning and retreat work.

“There are already centres like that happening in the Centre but perhaps I might be able to be part of that,” she said. “Really, I have no preconceived ideas about how this will happen. And this is quite challenging.

“So I just hope that whatever gifts I bring that they be utilised most effectively about the compassion and justice and love of God.”

This article written by Peter Bugden was first published on 6 April 2015 in the Catholic Leader, the official publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.