July 2019

Tuesday 2nd – Lunch and supper cooks are being invited to ‘nab and squirrel’ the first fruits of the kitchen garden as they begin to pile up in the South Link. So far we’ve had a couple of modest-looking courgettes, as well as some baby carrots, strawberries and raspberries. There is also a steady supply of lettuce. Thanks to all the help we’ve been getting with weeding recently the kitchen garden looks unusually tame. It’s a shame we can’t build a wall around the flower gardens at the front of the building. The hares continue to delicately trim anything showing fresh growth, and in one evening worked their way through ten bedding plants. At the moment we’re trying a spray – an anti-hare spray, if you like – but I’ve been wondering whether a shot gun license would be so hard to get. And with the hay meadow now freshly cut the little critters would have fewer places to hide…

Large potatoes or small nuns? Both I think.

After sufficient harassment Br Ian very kindly sent me some of the highlights from his pilgrimage to Canterbury with Br Adrian last month. But I must confess to being a bit tardy, having failed to get them into last month’s round-up. So here they are:

  • Meeting with our hosts along the way and hearing about their context and ministry. It was a very good reminder that we are all one in Christ; all members of the one body even if we live and minister in very different situations and with different gifts and callings.
  • On Day 2 as we entered Kent we could look back and see in the distance the skyline of London and the Shard, and we realised we were making progress! Walking a pilgrimage can at times seem very slow (especially when you are tired) so it is nice to see some markers and signs along the way to show that the journey is progressing.
  • Sharing in the office at Aylesford Priory, Kent. There were only about a dozen of us in one of the smaller chapels at the Priory, but it was very good to be sharing in that way with other retreatants and some members of the Carmelite community who live there.
  • Walking through the woods on Day 5 and sensing a little perhaps of what it might have been for pilgrims centuries ago, and then coming to a slight rise and a clearing and seeing Canterbury Cathedral in the distance – the destination is in sight!
  • Saturday morning – having time to look around the Cathedral and attending the Eucharist in the crypt. The make-up of the congregation was a good reminder that it is a place of worship for local people as well as the mother church for Christians around the world.
  • All the help, support, loan of equipment, advice, and prayer that made the pilgrimage possible. Adrian and I walked it, but we needed lots of other people to make it possible.
Br Adrian outside The Dirty Habit in Hollingbourne, Kent.

Wednesday 3rd, Feast of St Thomas the Apostle – It was while I was worshipping at St Thomas the Apostle, Finsbury Park, that I was received into the Anglican Church. At the time I was a discontented Roman Catholic convert (a pretty exclusive club), and had been searching for a church where I wouldn’t feel the need to conceal my sexuality. Each time this feast comes round I find myself appreciating more and more the time that I spent at St Thomas’, and the strange byways I took in getting to Mucknell.

During lectio divina this afternoon we read, as always, the gospel for the day (John 20:24-29). In the NRSV verses 24-5 read ‘But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him “We have seen the Lord”….’. However the REB has ‘So the others kept telling him, ‘We have seen the Lord’, and for me this conjured up quite a different scene. I could imagine Thomas feeling hurt that Jesus had chosen to appear before the disciples when he was absent, and increasingly irritated, resentful and envious as others ‘kept telling’ him what they had seen; that it was with petulance that he said ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe’. But as the collect for today suggests, Jesus was playing a longer game: ‘for the firmer foundation of our faith [you] allowed your holy apostle Thomas to doubt the resurrection of your son’. It was in response to his second appearance, in which he got his rather gruesome wish, that Thomas was made to utter the words that have been described as the climax of St John’s Gospel: ‘My Lord and my God’.

On the subject of vocation, Br Finnian SSF recently sent me a copy of a talk he gave about his faith journey to the Franciscan General Chapter. Describing his time with L’Arche, he writes that his calling was always to be at the back, and not at the front of the church. I thought this was very striking, and it reminded me of a painting which hangs in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. Entitled ‘The Presence’, it was painted in 1910 by a little known Scottish artist called A.E Borthwick.

Somewhere I found this description, which does a better job than I could manage at the moment:

“A service is in progress at the High Altar and the Choir is bathed in light, no doubt symbolising our Lord’s real presence at the Eucharist. The Nave, however, is empty – or empty but for two persons – and is illuminated only by the light of the Sun, which streams through some of the windows. Quite near the main entrance to the building, and kneeling at the back row of the Nave, is the figure of a woman dressed in black and obviously in distress. She is either unaccustomed to worshipping in the Cathedral or feels unworthy to take part in the Holy Communion service. She kneels in the shadows and pours out her distress. Behind her the artist has drawn the mystical figure of our Lord with his hand raised out to bless or to absolve, and round him an aurora of light. Here, where he might least be expected, the woman finds his presence near”.

I daresay it’s not a great piece of art, but during the nine months I lived in Edinburgh I often used to go to the Cathedral just to look at it, always finding it a source of encouragement and consolation.

Incidentally, the western towers of St Mary’s were largely paid for by the redoubtable Lady Christison, widow of the physician Sir Alexander Christison and the mother of one of our founding Sisters, Irene Mary. Her son described her as a strict disciplinarian who made sure the whole household, servants included, were assembled for morning prayer at 7am. It must have left Irene well-prepared for the rigours of convent life.

Saturday 6th – Br Michaël and Sr Alison returned yesterday, and this photograph of the Novice Guardians arrived shortly afterwards.

From L to R: Sr Jane (All Saints Sisters of the Poor), Sr Maureen (Community of St Francis), Sr Alison (Mucknell), Sr Monica (Community of the Holy Name), Sr Margaret Teresa (Sisters of the Love of God), Sr Margaret Joy (West Malling), Sr Sheila (Community of All Hallows), Br Joseph Emmanuel (Society of St Francis), Sr Anita (Sisters of the Church), Sr Joanna Elizabeth (Society of St Bethany) and Sr Elizabeth (Society of the Sacred Cross).

Just before Compline we had a visit from a local aerial photographer called Darren Morris, who took some superb photographs of the monastery. Using a drone his company provides photography for both advertising and surveying work, and for anyone else who wants to view their property from an unaccustomed angle. Contact details and examples can be found at https://a-pix.co.uk.

Sunday 7th, Trinity 3 – This morning at Conference we listened to Abbot Thomas read from Chapter 30 of the Rule of St Benedict, on Correction of the Young. Here Benedict recommends that serious misdeeds be met with either exclusion, severe fasts or corporal punishment, depending on the child’s level of comprehension. Draconian though this may be, Abbot Thomas reminded us – and again in his sermon (download here) later that morning – that Benedict’s understanding of punishment was restorative rather than retributive: ‘so that they may be healed’, as he puts it at the end of the chapter. In the letter to the Galatians, today’s second reading at the Eucharist, Paul counsels the same principle: ‘if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness’. The body of Christ might become diseased in parts, but every effort is to be spent in keeping it together. I’m sure Paul would have balked at the idea of applying the rod, but then Benedict was running an institution which probably had more in common with a borstal than we imagine. This tempts me into a digression about people confusing the Church with the function of other social bodies, something uppermost in my mind after marking the feast of St Thomas More yesterday, but I’ll resist and log off.

Tuesday 9th – Br Philip returned from York today after attending the General Synod at York. This is his first synod since being elected as a representative for the Religious Life only a few weeks ago. I hope I can get him to share some of his reflections.

The reading at Vespers this afternoon was Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son. There’s a great scene in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) where Jesus, hosted by Matthew the Levite, recounts the story to a tent of full of tax collectors and prostitutes. But when Jesus is done it is Peter who breaks down in repentance. In the figure of the eldest son he sees his own resentment against Matthew, the reconciled traitor of his people. I can’t listen to the Prodigal Son being read now without hearing Robert Powell’s very English messiah somewhere in the background. Anyway here it is. If some of the embedded version disappears off your screen then follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14epxvU8XIA

Tuesday 16th – Efforts to keep this digest regularly updated have faltered a little recently. So a quick update before the bell calls me away. On Thursday 11th we celebrated the feast of St Benedict. It has only been held on that day since liturgical reforms carried out in 1969 ensured that it never fell in Lent. We always pray that our feasts are holy, good and peaceful, as the Book of Common Prayer enjoins evening worshippers, and I’m pleased to say it was. On Friday Br Stuart went off to London for the Community of St Anselm’s annual review day, while back at the ranch we held the second of our Prayer and Gardening Days. The next one will be in September for those who are interested. On Saturday Br Michaël had an English test in Birmingham as part of his application for British citizenship. The staff were very kind and solicitous once he was in the building, but as they had no disabled access Br Stuart and I went along to carry him up to the entrance. He had been given the option of going to Leeds, but as the test was only 10 minutes long no one felt that was realistic. Discovering how many places are still inaccessible to wheelchair users has been an eye-opener for us all since Michaël had his accident. Anyway he passed with top marks, as we knew he would. His chosen topic was monasticism and the work of the Russian theologian Bulgakov. Of course.

Sunday 21st, 5th Sunday after Trinity – Br Stuart and I returned from a short holiday on Friday. We had been staying with a former novice sister who is now the Vicar of Rickmansworth. On Thursday we visited Knebworth House, which during the 1890s was rented by an very wealthy American socialite and authoress called Irene Osgood. When she died in 1922 she left her estate, accumulated through two judicious marriages, to her niece Dorothy Ward. Many years later, as a Sister in the Society of the Salutation, she used this inheritance to buy the Community’s former home at Burford Priory, I’m busy writing a short biography of Theodora (as she became known) and her quite sensational family, so it was good to see the place where her aunt, in her own words, ‘rode all day and danced all night’.

On our way back to Mucknell we stopped off at the Stanley Spencer gallery in Cookham, Berkshire, which is modest but well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Spencer, who saw the artist as a kind of lesser saint, believed that art was an act of gratitude (‘saying “ta” to God’) for the sacredness of everything, even those things we would want or be tempted to call unclean or profane. He is best known for the way in which he brought his strong biblical imagination to bear on life in Cookham, transfiguring its characters and their everyday lives by incorporating them within a salvation drama we are only too ready to consign to first century Palestine. I particularly enjoy his Resurrection series. with people clambering out of their graves in drab period clothing and adjusting once again to an embodied life and its simple joys: stretching their limbs, dancing, smelling the flowers and having their hair combed.

Spencer, Stanley; Resurrection, Re-Union; Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/resurrection-re-union-107918

And this leads seamlessly into Br Anthony’s sermon for today (read by clicking here), which ends with this poem from Bonnie Thurston, ‘That they may have life’:

A tiny lamb lies
On a sack by the hearth
Working hard to breathe.
‘We’ll know by tonight
If he’ll make it’ she says.

‘He’ not ‘it,’ she says.
No anonymous thing,
But a dear, gendered one
Gasps for precious life,
Rib cage working like bellows.

The mystery of life and death
Plays itself out
On a flagstone kitchen floor,
The womb centre of a home
That welcomes strangers,
That nurtures life.

Sheep of His pasture,
Lambs on his hearth,
We are fragile creatures
Waiting in the gloaming to be called by name,
Hoping to rise from the dead.

I insinuated myself into the very end of Br Ian’s weekend retreat on Benedictine vows to take this photograph of him and the retreatants. It was a full house with lots of new faces, and we look forward to welcoming those who will be attending Sr Alison’s retreat on the English mystics early next month.

Sunday 28th, 6th Sunday after Trinity – Those of you who were listening to the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning will have heard Sr Sally being interviewed about the incense we make here at Mucknell. The programme was addressing the global shortage that is being threatened through the loss of the Boswellia tree. If you want to listen to it on Sounds I’m told the piece is 30m 30 secs in. She told us afterwards that she had been very nervous. And how did she manage to calm down? By praying? By meditating? No, by baking a Victoria sponge cake. Works every time.