June 2019 - Mucknell Abbey
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Mucknell Abbey

June 2019

Saturday 1st – Yesterday, as part of our involvement in the Thy Kingdom Come call to prayer, we began using a set of bidding prayers during the Eucharist for the period between Pentecost and Ascension. These were put together by Br Stuart and set to the Taize chant Adoramus Te Domine.

Tuesday 4th – We welcomed a very tired Br Keith SSJE, who is on retreat with us for two weeks before he returns to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take his solemn vows. As well as time for prayer & reflection, he hopes while he is here to get a chance to strengthen the once very strong ties that existed between the two communities. At tea yesterday following our corporate lectio we were very gratified to learn that the habit of leaving the last biscuit in the tin so as to avoid the onerous business of having to wash it & put it away, is not one which is confined to English communities. We also touched on some more meaningful comparisons…

Wednesday 5th – Br Stuart recklessly suggested that I might try my hand at using the tractor to mow the paths on our estate. There were some alarming moments but nothing was cut down that shouldn’t have been (incuding Br Stuart, waving his red flag), and on our slow progress around the ridge-and-furrow meadow we discovered a bee’s….erm, cave?…which had been recently attacked, probably by a passing badger, and which the surviving bees were slowly reconstructing while their dead lay slain at the entrance.

Br Aidan let loose…
The bee lair

Saturday 8th – The morning was once again overcast with heavy showers, and Bertie, not having the same choir obligations as the rest of us, wisely chose to have a duvet day.

I spent most of the morning making a tiramisu, which apparently means ‘pick me up’ in Italian, as well as the filling for a pie, both of which are for our lunch tomorrow. There was a time when being lunch cook filled me with dread, but I quite enjoy it now, proving I suppose the pedagogic value of being thrown in at the deep end. At tea time we welcomed Sr Jessica and Abbot Thomas back from their respectively holiday and retreat, and this was followed by the first Vespers of Pentecost. The reading was taken from 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul makes the bold claim that ‘we have the mind of Christ’ and are subject to no one else’s scrutiny. It’s one of my favourite chapters in the NT, full of mind-bending statements that still, after two thousands years, you feel we still haven’t grasped. And it occurred to me today that one of the problems faced by Paul’s hearers, ourselves included, is that he was writing from a radically altered consciousness that perhaps relatively few believers have fully shared in.

Sunday 9th, Feast of Pentecost – We waved goodbye to Br Adrian and Br Ian, who set off this afternoon for Southwark, the starting-point for their five day pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Br Stuart’s sermon for Pentecost can be read here.

Tuesday 11th, Feast of St Barnabas – Today we celebrate the life of St Barnabas, the Cypriot-born companion of St Paul on his missionary journeys among the Gentiles. His birthname was Joseph, but among his fellow-workers he was known as Barnabas. In Acts Luke translates Barnabas (paraklesis) as “son of encouragement” or “son of consolation”. Like other biblical monikers this probably reflected an aspect of his character, although I guess this one was pious and straight-faced, without any of Jesus’ ironic humour – “Sons of Thunder” for those who shyly get their mother to intercede for them, and “Rock” for the impetus, vascillating Peter.

On the theme of consolation, I read an essay today by the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray. He is probably best known, if he is still known at all, for his translations of Greek drama. The essay was entitled ‘Literature as Revelation’, and his point was more or less summed up in the last paragraph:

“‘….There still remain some whose words seem to apply not only to the moment for which they spoke the but to the permanent or constantly recurrent needs of humanity. These are the men for whom we scholars seek in the literature of diverse and widely removed ages. They are the people who have felt most profoundly and expressed most poignantly those facts about life which are always important and always easily overlooked, those visions and aspirations in which the human race is always afresh finding its calm in the midst of storm…and their words stay with us as something more than literature, more than mere art of writing or pleasant help for the passing of leisure hours: ‘the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, treasured up for a life beyond life’”.

Aeschylus, Milton and Shelley are some of the names included by Murray in this category. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t the kind of literature he had in mind, but recently I’ve been reading the short stories of Raymond Carver. Although he eschewed labels, his work has been placed in the school of ‘dirty realism’. and I’ve found his careful, unsentimental observations of the everyday, unarticulated pathos to be found in ordinary lives quite haunting, They cetainly capture ‘those facts about life which are always important and always easily overlooked’. But there is nothing recognisably beautiful or sublime about them, there are no lofty ‘visions and aspirations’, and you would hardly describe them as consoling. Yet precisely because of this the stories might qualify as a Christian revelation.

Wednesday 12th – Yesterday Br Stuart represented us at the funeral of Dom Kenneth OSB at Salisbury Cathedral. You can read his obituary here. Dom Kenneth was one of four Benedictine monks who currently live in what was the Principal’s House of Sarum College. During its heyday the Community was responsible for forming the Sisters at Burford Priory in the monastic tradition.

Thursday 13th – Each night, before Compline, we hear a life of Christian witness read from the martyrology. This is usually on the eve of their feast or day of commemoration. Ours ranges from John the Baptist to Josephine Butler, with an understandable emphasis on (sometimes obscure) figures from English monastic history. Anglo-Saxon royalty is very well represented, although one must confess that in one or two cases it seems that the greater part of their sanctity has been lost to history. But as Abbot Thomas often says, ‘it just goes to prove that God can write straight with crooked lines’. Today’s martyr is St Anthony of Padua. Although he has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church and was renowned in his lifetime as powerful preacher, he is now best known for reuniting supplicants with their lost property. The story goes that one day, when Anthony was a Franciscan friar, a young novice who had decided to leave the community walked off with his prized psalter. After praying for its return the thief had a terrifying apparition which moved him to repentance. This gift has kept him busy ever since.

Every other year for over twenty years members of Religious communities from across the world have met at an interconfessional conference to celebrate, share and explore our common calling. The year before last the conference was hosted by a Reformed Benedictine community in Bavaria, and I was very excited to be able to represent Mucknell and the wider Anglican tradition. Today Sr Sally flew off to Barcelona, where she will be staying at the famous abbey of Monserrat for this year’s gathering. Hopefully a report will follow her return next week, and by that time the deluge may have ceased and our envy lost some of its edge.

Saturday 15th – Our two pilgrims returned from Canterbury this afternoon, limping, unshaven and triumphant. They have promised to scribble an account for the website sometime soon.

As I write this I can see one of our many baby hares grooming itself on the edge of the meadow. It’s a heart-warmingly bucolic scene, but it doesn’t make up for the fact they’re vandalizing the flower beds. In another Community not far from us, also in the sticks, they’ve had to surround their gardens with a low electric fence to keep the badgers out. I’m not sure this is an option.

Sunday 16th, Trinity Sunday – A famously tricky subject the Trinity. In her sermon (click here) Sr Alison looked at different ways of approaching the subject and concluded that ‘God is in the swirling muddle of it all and this is where we encounter Trinity; by jumping into messy reality and the reality of mess, figuring it out from within, right within the heart of it’. Practicing what she preached, Sr Alison also found time this morning to make her signature turkey and apricot bake for lunch. Hurrah.

As soon as we’d finished eating we said our goodbyes to Br Keith SSJE (see entry for the 4th). Although most of his time was spent in retreat we thoroughly enjoyed the time we got to spend with him.

Br Keith on the balcony

Thursday 20th, Feast of Corpus Christi – Br Stuart preached at the Eucharist today and his sermon can be read here. In the afternoon we welcomed two Franciscan brothers from Glasshampton. It was Br Tobias’ first time here and he was given the grand tour before we all assembled for tea. In the past, when the Community was unambiguously Anglo-Catholic – indeed Anglo-Papalist – the liturgy for Corpus Christi was a little more elaborate than we’re used to now. The photograph below, taken at Burford Priory in 1963, shows the traditional procession of the Blessed Sacrament.

The logbook entry for the previous year, written by our first prioress Mother Mary Gabriel, records that there was ‘a perfect morning of sunshine’ with ‘not too much wind’, ‘St John’s Chapel looked very beautiful with banked up flowers on [the] left side of the altar [and] red roses at the back…’. High Mass was at 10.30am and, as usual the Sisters were joined by undergraduates from Oxford, seminarians from St Stephen’s House and members of SSJE. Afterwards they had lunch in the “Big Parlour”, waited on by the handyman and gardener, Siegfried Taubenheim. Lunch consisted of soup, followed by veal, apple tart and meringues. Although our former Sisters led a more ascetic life than our own, I can’t imagine us ever being served veal. But I was amused to see that by 2.30pm everything was back to normal. Some things don’t change.

Sunday 30th, 2nd Sunday of Trinity – I have been on holiday for the last week in central London, thanks to the very generous hospitality of Fr Philip Chester and the staff at St Matthew’s, Westminster. On Tuesday I was at Lambeth Palace as a guest at the commissioning service for this year’s cohort of the Community of St Anselm. It was good (and surprising) to see so many familiar faces. Being in London, with its frenetic pace and many distractions, made me realise once again the value, at least to me, of the monastic life. It is sometimes supposed that monasteries are full of well-disciplined people with a natural aptitude for prayer. It’s more likely that the opposite is true. They are, after all, schools of the Lord’s service. In the very first entry in the alphabetical collection of sayings attributed to the desert fathers and mothers, St Anthony the Great prays to God that he is beset on all sides by sinful thoughts and despairs of his salvation. Shortly afterwards he is granted a vision of a man ‘like himself’, sitting at his work, getting up to pray, sitting back down to his work again, then getting up to pray. ‘Do this’ an angel says, ‘and you will be saved’. The discipline of a timetable, and of a frankly monotonous life, has few obvious attractions. But it’s the one thing that keeps me on the right path, and we can do worse than aspire, like Hurrell Froude so famously did, to a ‘humdrum life’.

A car left for West Malling abbey this afternoon. Br Michael is attending his icon course; Sr Alison is taking part in a Novice Guardian’s conference, and Br Stuart is acting as confessor to the Sisters.