A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Day 5 – Monday after 1st Sunday in Lent
In the Novitiate – Falling in Love
The novitiate of any convent or monastery is, in a way, a restless place with its entrances and sudden exits. ‘They comes and they goes,’ Sister Priscilla Pawsey, Brede’s old kitchener said, ‘but mostly they goes.’ In Philippa’s four years then, she had tried to keep her eyes down, her thoughts on her own purpose, as Dame Ursula directed, but she had not been able to help casting a professional look over her fellow novices and juniors. ‘Haven’t I sat on selection boards for years?’ Even in her first days, – Sister Matilda won’t stay, she could have said Sister Matilda had kept the Rule with scrupulous fidelity, scrupulous exaggeration, thought Philippa. No bows had been as exact as hers, no books marked as correctly, no one else obeyed with such alacrity. By reason of nine months’ seniority she had been kind to the new postulants, always setting them right, ignoring the fact that Julian had a lifetime’s knowledge of Brede and its ways. ‘And I should let Sister Philippa manage her own Latin’ said Dame Ursula. ‘My poor girl!’ Julian had told Matilda afterwards. ‘Sister Philippa took a “first” in languages at Oxford.’ Everyone had been glad when Sister Matilda was sent away. Sister Angela too: ‘She sits about, waiting for someone to put a halo on her,’ Julian had said. ‘She certainly doesn’t make much effort,’ Philippa had to say. ‘Only in trances,’ said Julian, scornfully and, ‘We don’t put much faith in ecstasies here,’ Dame Ursula had told them. ‘The nun you see rapt away in church isn’t likely to be the holiest. The holiest one is probably the one you would never notice because she is simply doing her duty.’ Sister Angela had left after four months, but there were many who persevered in the life: Sister, now Dame, Benita, once a teacher of art: Sister, now Dame, Nichola, daughter of a chemist – ‘He lets us have drugs at cost price.’ Sister Sophie, just senior to Philippa: Sister Constance, tiny and quick as a bird, who had come in Philippa’s third year, as had Sister Louise whose father and brothers were miners.
(In This House of Brede – Page 41)
From the Scriptures:
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 They love the place of honour at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. 8 But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
If Brede had an ecclesiastical expert in the art of ‘mansplaining’ I suspect it would be the not overly-lamented Sister Matilda. She may have even been the patron saint of ‘nunsplaining’.
This ‘skill’ is not the preserve of those in the Religious Life. Churches and home fellowships have more than their fair share of Sister Matilda’s who take it upon themselves, in a spirit of helpfulness, the education and information of others and in so doing rob people of the joy of their vocation.
I am convinced that the Sister Matilda’s of this world do indeed mean well but, over excited by their own desire to demonstrate their knowledge squeeze the life out of others. It is easily done by those who think they have an answer for everything, and we should all guard against it.
I was good at nunsplaining. When at seminary – an ecumenical inter-racial haven in Imbali Township in South Africa – I was very eager to share my wisdom with everyone else. I did not stop to think that a White Boy from England probably needed to learn from his peers first before telling the locals how things should be done. I presumed that because I was White, competent in English, and Private School educated, I knew more than anyone else. It was a salutary moment when my fellow students told me to sit down and not to speak until asked. I had made the mistake of thinking my voice was more important than the voices of others, and in so doing could have easily missed out on hearing God’s word to me from them. To this day I cherish those days of being made to listen before speaking and now try to not be the first person to have something to say about every single topic. I must have been such a boor.
Choosing to not speak and have a view on every issue has an evil silent twin. Instead of being a busy-body there is the temptation to become ‘so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use’ also known as being Sister Angela. I know more than a few people who seem quite content to ‘sit about, waiting for someone to put a halo’ on their head. They are dear people and I know God loves them, but when their devotion does nothing other than add to other people’s burdens it can very quickly move from attempted sainthood to self-indulgence.
When we are like this we end up treating our sisters and brothers in Christ as if they were our personal servants. Our presence is more of a chore for others than a blessing as we make our devotion, our prayer practices, our seat in the church, our quiet before and after the service, more important than the needs of the rest of the Body of Christ. As we do this we become velvet-gloved martinets around whom others whisper and tiptoe and breathe a sigh of relief when we finally go home. So sad…
Dame Ursula has it right ‘The holiest one is probably the one you would never notice because she is simply doing her duty’. Echoing the teaching of Jesus in Luke 17 she reminds her novices that the nun rows her boat down the river of life using the two oars of Ora et Labora (prayer and work) in perfect balance. Too much of one or the other and you end up steering into the bank of the river. Use only one of them and your life of faith literally spins around in circles.
There needs to be a little bit of Sister Matilda and a little bit of Sister Angela inside each of us. There will come times when we are the experts at doing and we will occasionally find ourselves on the edge of ecstasy, but most of all we need to be quite good at forgetting ourselves completely as we aim to be simply ‘worthless slaves; [who] have done only what we ought to have done! (Luke 17v10).
God of illumination,
you call us beyond our imaginings
to tasks beyond our powers.
Empower our service and enlighten our worship
that we may know and proclaim the light of the world.
(Joy Tetley, England)
1) Ask someone for some advice, however small, today and let them shine instead of you.
2) Pray in a place where you usually work… without making it obvious that your are praying!
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