February Digest - Mucknell Abbey
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February Digest

As anyone who has visited Mucknell will know, windy conditions are nothing unusual; the recent spate of storms may have kept us indoors more than usual, but fortunately neither the monastery nor the wider estate seem to have suffered any serious damage.

Loppers at the ready

Having written last month about adding some 1700 trees to the estate, we spent a busy estate week earlier this month removing about 300 trees elsewhere. Many of our ash trees were showing signs of Ash Dieback, a fungal infection which it is estimated will kill around 80% of ash trees in the UK. Our good friend and former Alongsider Tim Vick of Halfacre Tree Services came with his collection of chainsaws to do the cutting down; it was then up to the rest of the community to ‘process’ the trees to a manageable size (hence the need for loppers), and then transport them to Br. Stuart’s nearest bonfire site. The weather stayed dry and mostly sunny throughout, and the workers were well supplied with snacks and hot drinks by Br. Michaël and Sr. Sally in the kitchen.

The following two photos show a tree that was showing clear signs of dieback, and also some logs where the disease was clearly well established; the black splodges are the fungus, which affects the tree’s circulatory system.

Ora, Labora…et Lectio

It is often said that the Benedictine “motto” is Ora et Labora (prayer and work), or perhaps Ora est Labora, in recognition of the value that Benedict places both on the recitation of the Office, and on our work to support and serve one another, and to sustain our life of prayer. While it is true that these two elements are important components of our life, they do not together form either a motto for every Benedictine ever, not are they all that Benedict discusses in the Rule. It is also clear that he wishes his community to be one which reads and studies; we see the first hint of this in Chapter 8, The Divine Office at Night, where Benedict stipulates that any who need “a better knowledge of the Psalter or readings should study them” in the time between Vigils and Lauds. Benedict expects much of the Office, including readings, to be recited by heart, so for some there would have been a lot of work to do!

When dividing up the day in Chapter 48, Benedict assigns 2 to 3 hours per day to reading/study; on Sundays this time is increased such that all not involved in other activities should be reading. In Chapter 48, we also read of another Benedictine practice involving books: the injunction to have a ‘Lent book’, i.e. a book which one undertakes to read “straight through” during Lent. We still follow this practice here at Mucknell today, although we are free to choose our own book rather than have it be “distributed” to us by the Abbot.

The other traditional practice involving reading is that of having someone reading during meals; Benedict devotes a whole chapter to the “Reader for the Week”, chapter 38. Again we along with many other monastic communities still follow this practice, and we’re often asked how the meal books we read are chosen. As with many aspects of our life, practices vary and change over time. We currently have a shelf set aside in the library for suggested meal reading, which any community member is free to contribute to. New meal books are usually taken from here by the Abbot, unless something particular has crossed his desk. The subject of meal books is one which can give rise to animated discussion among the community, as various of us react to different books in different ways and from different viewpoints. With this in mind, I asked the community for their opinions on our two most recently completed books, High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain, by Simon Heffer, and Sheltering Saints: Living with the Homeless, by Roger Quick.

High Minds, at almost 900 pages, gives a detailed look at various aspects ofVictorian politics, society and arts; Sheltering Saints is the follow up to Entertaining Saints, first published in 2020. In both books, Roger Quick, chaplain to St. George’s Crypt in Leeds, tells the stories of those who, with nowhere else to go, turn to the team at St. George’s Crypt for help with homelessness, addiction and much else besides.

High Minds scored an average of 3.25 / 5 with the community; the author’s breadth and depth of knowledge were admirable, but for some the book was just a bit too much:

Excellent text book. Not ideal for reading aloud in Refectory. Far more information than you ever knew you needed about the Victorians – or at least, the men

Interesting insight into the Victorian period, sometimes too much detail made the book a bit laboured.

Sheltering Saints scored an average of 4.5 / 5, and was described as

thought-provoking and strangely encouraging.

Another community member said that it was

a useful reminder of the reality of life ‘at the bottom of the social pile’ and of the many reasons which land people on the streets and into addictions.

Our current meal time book is The Well Gardened Mind : Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World by Sue Stuart-Smith; hopefully I’ll be able to share some opinions of it in a future digest.