Jesuit led spiritual writer to become boundary dweller

British spiritual writer Margaret Silf led a retreat at Providence Renewal Centre June 24-26.


British spiritual writer Margaret Silf led a retreat at Providence Renewal Centre June 24-26.

July 11/25, 2016

Jesus moves freely among his fellow men and women, with little regards for their religious practices or even their religious denominations.

When Margaret Silf began to believe that, she felt free and started to live outside normal Church structures. She felt those structures were a box, which had become too uncomfortable.

Silf is unquestionably a believer, a spiritual woman, but she is not married to "stale" structures.

Silf, a leading spiritual writer and retreat leader from Great Britain, was in Edmonton June 24-26 to lead a retreat at Providence Renewal Centre on Growing Into Tomorrow. She is also leading retreats in Saskatoon and Calgary.

Born and raised in South Yorkshire, Silf was baptized a Methodist, joined the Anglican Church at 15, and was received into the Roman Catholic faith at 20.

However, in her mid-30s, aided by a Jesuit, she experienced what she calls a genuine return to God. Today she calls herself a boundary dweller, more at home outside the institutional church than within.

In the 1990s she studied with the Jesuits of the British Province and began incorporating Ignatian spiritual practices into her daily life.

"I'm not belittling tradition," she said in an interview. "Tradition is important but it has to grow in every generation. We have to live the vision in the circumstances and the experience of the 21st century."

It seems, she argued, that we are stuck in the past. Churches still have mediaeval power structures and defend their practices tooth and nail.

Silf's immediate impulse is to question what's going on at the top of an institution. "Not (Pope) Francis, though; Francis is great. He is the best thing ever, a real breath of fresh air."

She would question the whole system because in her opinion the Church "as a whole I think got a bit stuck in the mediaeval times."

"It is actually a continuation of the Roman Empire and it is an imperialistic model, and I don't think that imperialistic models are acceptable today in a democratic world. They are completely self-authorizing, you can't change anything and they are totally male-dominated."


"Sorry I don't want to be sexist but missing out on the female wisdom and intuition is a huge mistake."

Faith should be like a river, says Silf. The river of faith – the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits – flows like a river watering the ground and bringing life.

"If you don't have any framework, the river can't really flow properly but if the framework is too rigid, it becomes more like a reservoir, which is guaranteed purity but doesn't go anywhere."

For many people today, the Church, as a human organization, is becoming less relevant, Silf says. "The human family searching for God, each in their own cultures and their own ways, is very dynamic."


"A lot of people who never go near a church are also on a dynamic spiritual journey; by that I mean practising the Gospel values."

People who went to Africa to help with the Ebola crisis, for instance, are practising Gospel values, whether they know it or not.

"People who foster children, people who visit in hospices or work in hospices or volunteer to take elderly people to hospital in their car, they are all living the Gospel," Silf said.

In Silf's view, it doesn't seem to make much difference whether they belong to a church or not. Most don't, "but they are still living the Gospel."


Nevertheless, the Church still plays an important role – it provides community. "Faith communities are absolutely essential in providing community. Human beings need to be in community so it's not an individualistic journey.

"But if people go into a church and they are not welcomed or are excluded, they will find community somewhere else. Without community we can't be human beings. We are made for community."