February 2020

Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) – Candlemas, in which we remember the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, is a sort of hinge event. Liturgically, it completes the celebration of his birth. And in Mary’s redemption of her first-born we look forward to Lent and Easter; to his death and rising. We now enter so-called Ordinary Time, and some of the tension of what we might call the ‘ordinary time’ of life – between the promises of God and their final fulfilment – is another theme taken up in Sr Jessica’s sermon for today, which you can read here.

Have you read the new Support Us page?

One of things we can do here at Mucknell is fold a fitted sheet. Successfully navigating adulthood remains a challenge…

Tuesday 4th – Our Estate Week got off to a fine start yesterday. Sawing, chopping, raking, burning: that pretty much covers it. I remembered how all-absorbing it is to watch a fire burn. And then there’s the joy of smelling of smoke afterwards. Mind you, I think that’s niche.

I’ll try and remember to take some photographs. There were some very Instagrammable subjects yesterday, but alas no one was armed with a phone.

Sunday 9th – Estate Week is over and everyone is feeling their lack of physical fitness. However we accomplished more than we thought we would, and the weather was very kind. Personally I would be very happy to spend the rest of my days starting and tending fires. However Estate Week doesn’t leave much time for anything else, and now that it’s over – and before we’re swept up into the land of Oz – here is a quick update on some other things that have been happening:

On Wednesday evening Sr Karin, the recently elected Prioress of Alsike kloster, a small Lutheran community in Sweden, shared with us something of their current life and work. The community has been working with refugees for 40 years, but in recent years their involvement has intensified considerably. They now host 65 refugees or asylum seekers – many of them from the Balkan states, Angola, the Congo and Afghanistan – in a building designed for 20. They are helped by many volunteers, and have recently welcomed a new novice from Kenya.

There’s more to say but there goes the bell, and I have to put a joint of beef in the oven….

…Ok, so from Tuesday to Friday Sr Jessica attended the inter-novitiate study conference held at Gerrard’s Cross, where the Sisters of the Church have their new home. The speaker was Dr Santha Bhattacharji, who discussed the history of Christian monasticism from its beginnings in the Egyptian desert through to the development of the medieval mendicant orders.

From left to right: Manna (Postulant; CSMV, Wantage), Br Ethan nSSF, Lizzie (Postulant; CMSV, Wantage), Sr Joanna nSSC, Sr Julie nSSB, Sr Jessica nOSB, Br Tobias nSSF

Friday 14th – Good news for those hoping to visit us in the future: a press release was issued a couple of days ago announcing that the new Worcestershire Parkway Station will be open to passengers on the 23rd of this month. Hurrah! As you can see from the map below, the new station is almost opposite the ever-perilous turning into Mucknell Farm Lane. More information will be made available on the website when we have seen it with our own eyes, and touched it with our hands.

Saturday 15th – Br Philip recently returned from General Synod in London and has very kindly written a short reflection on the experience (after much prodding…):

https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-02/OP%20VI%20-%20Feb%202020.pdf – this link should take you to the General Synod pages on the Church of England’s website. It is a wonderful example of some of the reading I now have to help me sleep inform me of the mechanics of the legislation that helps the Church of England function as an institution…

When Abbot Thomas resigned from Synod on being elected Abbot in 2018, there was a by-election which resulted in my becoming one of the four representatives on Synod from Religious Communities. I attended my first group of sessions last July, when it was held at York. I have just returned from the latest group of sessions at Church House, London. I was fortunate in having St Matthew’s Westminster as my accommodation – literally a 2 minute walk from Church House.

Synod sat from Monday 10th until Thursday 13th and the days were full of business items and fringe meetings, and much chatting over coffee and lunch. The proceedings are very much like that of the Houses of Commons and House of Lords (only without the rowdy shouting), and measures are proposed and scrutinised for final Parliamentary enactment, having the equivalent status of an Act of Parliament or an Order in Council. There are also many small working groups doing the hard graft in-between sessions.

The chairs and speakers bring a high level of expertise, and where appropriate, good humour to the proceedings. I was reminded just how “official” Synod on seeing a bewigged lawyer sitting next to the Chair at all times. There were times, too, of deep, heart-rending listening, as when we heard of the work of Living in Love and Faith and the Pastoral Advisory Group, as well as details from the Safeguarding: Response to Recommendations in IICSA May 2019 Investigation Report.

On Wednesday there was a small group of hardy folk (there was a biting wind) holding a vigil protest in support of urgent action on the climate crisis. I met Franklin, a member of the Community of St Anselm who had recently stayed with us here at Mucknell. He is part of the praying presence in the chamber, and it was good to see their white habits in the gallery supporting us. In just three days there is a lot to process, and that continues through to the next group of sessions which will be back at York in July. Please keep in your prayers all those who work behind the scenes both during the sessions and for the time in-between. Br Philip

Sunday 16th – The Community begins its week-long pre-Lent retreat this evening after Compline.

Sunday 23rd – In the afternoon a few of us walked down the lane to scope out the new train station. It was surprisingly busy, although I only saw one person actually waiting for a train. The promised retail unit has yet to appear, much to our disappointment (!), and there doesn’t seem to be an indoor waiting room. Given the exposed position of the platforms & the howling winds we’re used to here, it is a puzzling omission. But otherwise it’s all fully functioning, deluges notwithstanding. Which leads me on to this, which I read last night in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Contagious fogs, which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn


Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.
The nine-men’s-morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here.
No night is now with hymn or carol blessed.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which”.

Br Aidan, Br Philip (who does have a neck in real life), Br Ian and Lydia (behind the camera)

Tuesday 25th – We are very pleased to have raised over £3,000 as part of our appeal for Hassan. It also leaves us with a surplus of £430, which we will be passing on to the Society of St Francis in Birmingham for their work with asylum seekers and refugees. I will be writing to those who donated as soon as the details have been finalised.

Wednesday 26, Ash Wednesday – The theme for our corporate Lenten observance this year is Love and Understanding (whether Abbot Thomas borrowed this from Cher remains uncertain), and in today’s readings we heard Isaiah’s warning against ‘pointing the finger’ and the (for me) moving story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).

We’re told that all condemnation comes from the devil, the accuser (Satan), yet we spend an awful lot of time doing his work: accusing ourselves and others, with impatient exhortations to be and do better. Yet it occurred to me the other evening, as I was remonstrating with myself over a poor decision, that in any given circumstance we’re all doing the best we can – each of us is acting according to the measure of light we have, and often in spite of forces that obscure and threaten to extinguish it.

I think about one of the teenagers I worked with some years ago, who bore a scar on his forehead where his father had stabbed him with a screw-driver. He was practically feral when I knew him, and although there was an innocence and gentleness about him, it wasn’t enough to stop him getting involved in a long-running feud that ended with him throwing acid at someone outside a supermarket. His light, at least at that time, was sadly very dim indeed. But who can blame him for that? Or take the woman caught in adultery. Perhaps she knew the Law very well, and had been a devout woman all her life. But she was unhappily married. Perhaps her husband was violent and unfaithful. One day there is a perfect storm of events and she takes the split-second window of opportunity to escape – so she thinks – from her misery.

Like Socrates I’m convinced that no one freely and knowingly chooses what is harmful. If only people had a true knowledge of what was best for themselves, he argued, then they’d choose for that every time. I think St Paul is more realistic when he says that sometimes even a comprehensive knowledge of what is best still doesn’t help us. Now, through psychology and neuroscience, we have a much better understanding of what he called the ‘body of death’. This doesn’t mean collapsing the distinction between right and wrong – violent assault and adultery are still sins – but it is an invitation to understanding and forgiveness.

We don’t need to know all the extenuating circumstances in any particular case, most of which, most of the time, are trivial (‘This is the second time you’ve forgotten this…’). It’s sufficient to know that people are doing the best they can. Anyway, it’s a thought which I will try to dwell on this Lent.

Thursday 27th – Waiting this morning on a cold platform for the delayed CrossCountry to Cardiff I fell into conversation with a woman whose opening salvo, delivered with eloquent precision, spoke for everyone present: ‘It’s bloody freezing and there’s nowhere to sit’. We’d been chatting for about ten minutes when I could no longer dance around the question of what I did for a living (‘I work from home’). Unless I’m given away by my habit, generally speaking I try to avoid sharing with strangers the fact that I’m a Benedictine monk. You never know quite what the reaction will be, and compared with some of my brothers and sisters I’m less open to the adventure of finding out.

But sooner or later, depending on how polite they are, the conversation invariably turns to the endlessly fascinating subject of celibacy. So it was that one of the first things I was asked this morning was ‘do you not want a relationship with someone?’

I hesitated, wondering who else finds themselves being fired such existential questions by people they’ve only just met. ‘I’m not sure to be honest’.

‘Oh but being in love is the most amazing thing in the world! To be loved by someone and have them love you in return. I couldn’t live without it. I’m so lucky to have found my boyfriend’.

I told her I was familiar with the experience.

‘Hey, perhaps I’m a messenger sent by God, to tell you to go out there and find someone!’ she ventured.

‘Perhaps’.

Whether or not I was entertaining an angel unawares, by a curious coincidence I spent the whole of last night wide awake processing a book I’d just finished called The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis. Tallis is a psychotherapist, and in a series of sometimes astonishing case studies he explores quite movingly some of the pathologies of romantic love: jealousy, addiction, heartbreak, infatuation. We might even say the pathology of being in love, which of course the Greeks famously regarded as a kind of madness.

In discussing one of the case studies, the eponymous ‘incurable romantic’, Tallis says that ‘Romance has been characterised as the most significant belief system in the Western psyche’. It’s a triumph he traces back to the motifs found in the poetry of Arab Beduoin, which later found their way into the epic romances of medieval Islam, the chivalric love songs of the troubadours, the work of Renaissance writers such as Petrarch and Dante, and eighteenth-century Romantics like Goethe and his love-sick Young Werther.

It’s an arresting thought, romance as a ‘belief system’. But reflecting on it, it has all the elements of a religion – worship, sacrifice and rituals –, while also holding out the promise of transcendence and immortality. Today it so embedded in our culture that to varying extents, whether we are aware of it or not, it has probably made devotees of us all.