A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Day 3 – Friday after Ash Wednesday – Finding the Way Home
In the Chapter House the novice mistress took charge of the postulant, presenting her to the nuns in turn, to be given the Pax, the Kiss of Peace. ‘Kiss the community! Philippa had shrunk in dismay when Dame Ursula had told her about the Pox. ‘Kiss them all! But, Mother, I smell of whisky.’ ‘Postulants smell of all kinds of things,’ said Dame Ursula placidly. Living as we do, in such pure air and almost without smoke or fumes, our sense of smell is keen. They smell to us of railway carriages, of cars, oil and petrol, of face powder scent. Whisky is a good strong smell but cheap scent, for instance, is very disagreeable. You won’t smell of that.’
(In This House of Brede – Page 69)
‘Have you told me everything?’ Abbess Hester had asked Philippa in her days of candidature. ‘No, Mother.’ The Abbess had not questioned further. She had only said, ‘you will.’
(In This House of Brede – Page 108)
From the Scriptures:
As a pleasing odour I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.
In a Religious Community the brothers and sisters may wear habits but they are naked to each other. So when Abbess Hester tells the aspirant Philippa Talbot that she will reveal all in the end she is not threatening thumbscrews but simply telling the truth that in a community vowed to a common life there are no secrets and everything will come out in the end. (Quite a large amount of the story of Brede is how different nuns show themselves to the community).
In the end it is the same in our church fellowships, like it or not we reveal ourselves. Be we cheap scent or railway carriages, face powder or a good Scotch, we will betray ourselves. This doesn’t happen as quickly as in a monastery, and even there it takes decades, but if we are to take our baptism promises – on which the vows of most Religious Orders are based – seriously, those around us will know if we have truly renounced evil, repented of sin, and turned Christward.
Yes, we can play silly little games and tell ourselves that no one will notice that we still hold on to a pet sin, a gentle breaking of the command to love all without exception, or a miserly spirit when it comes to giving of our goods for the work of God. However the whole community knows and feels this as much as if we had told everyone in the notices before the beginning of worship. Of course nothing is ever said as mostly everyone is playing the same silly little game as we are.
This is a game with a deadly outcome. Unacknowledged aromas don’t allow for the growth of ‘pure air… almost without smoke or fumes’ (except perhaps incense…) and the church too easily becomes a whitewashed sepulchre instead of a pleasing aroma.
How do we come to this place of openness and pure air? There are several ways but the one thing that will not work is pointing out each other’s ‘smells’. In general Christians are far too expert in the art of telling other people how bad they are and are nowhere near good enough at examining their own lives nor owning up to their own peccadilloes.
When we take community seriously, when we truly desire to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, we are given the gift of time and a space to look at our own lives and turn our whisky and face powder smells into a pleasing aroma. Why do we hold on to what Philippa later calls ‘A cat and a clock and some dear little sins’ when we can be held firm in the loving embrace of our sisters and brothers?
By the end of our story Philippa tells Abbess Catherine what she did not have the courage to tell Abbess Hester and when she does she is finally set free to ‘To try her vocation as a Benedictine in this house of Bede,’ in a deeper and fuller way. What holds us back from following her example?
In the face of all our realities:
we are the people who heal each other,
who grow strong together,
who name the truth,
who know what it means
to live in community,
moving towards a common dream
for a new heaven and a new earth
in the power of the love of God,
the company of Jesus Christ
and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
(The people of Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney, Australia)
1) Your church fellowship may not be a ‘kissing community’ like Brede but in some way try to be a little more affectionate with your fellow believers in worship this Sunday.
2) Now, before Lent gets too busy, is a good time to give yourself permission to get rid of a ‘dear little sin’. Go on, you know you have wanted to do this for a long time. What have you to loose except an unpleasant odour?
Quotations from ‘In This House of Brede’ are copyright © Rumer Godden 1969, 1991 Page numbers are from the 1991 Pan Book edition ISBN 0 330 33521 9
Scripture quotations are copyright © New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright 1989, 1995, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Prayers are from ‘Prayers Encircling the World’ and are copyright © SPCK: 1998.
These Reflections, ‘A Trysting Place – 40 Days in Brede Abbey’ are copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2019