A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Day 7 – Wednesday after 1st Sunday in Lent
In the Novitiate – Falling in Love
At each Chapter of Faults, the Abbess called on six nuns to make full and clear confession of any wrong they had done; now the last of these rose from her knees, bowed and went back to her place. ‘Are there any acknowledgements?’ The Abbess asked as she always asked, and a miserable figure in a black postulant dress and veil stood up. ‘It’s dreadful, being a possie,’ Hilary had said in sympathy to Cecily. ‘You were marked out even by the shape of your veil.’ ‘Yes, even by your shadow,’ said Cecily and, ‘What shall I say?’ Cecily had asked Dame Ursula in panic. Now, ‘My Lady, I…’ [Cecily confesses that she broke a sink in the Novitiate]
‘We didn’t let you in to smash up the Abbey,’ Abbess Hester had said when Hilary was sent to her, but not even Hilary had broken anything as badly as this.
‘I have,’ said Philippa.
That had been on Sunday when, as always on Sundays and important feast days, the novitiate had joined the community for recreation and Cecily had come straight to Philippa.
‘When I was a novice I broke a wing off one of the stone angels in the choir.’ Philippa had been using a stepladder to stand on while she dusted the high windowsills and, lifting it to put it away, had caught one of the angels below the organ loft, breaking a wing. ‘I remember I had to acknowledge it before the whole community and make satisfaction by kneeling, holding the wing, in the middle of the refectory until Mother gave the knock.’
When the last of the six had stood up and bowed, the Abbess asked her question. ‘Are there any acknowledgements?’ When Philippa had said, ‘My Lady, I have broken an angel,’ an irrepressible ripple of mirth had run round the community. The Chapter of Faults had the effect of welding the nuns together and making them like one another. ‘You can’t be afraid of someone, even as sharp and clever as Dame Agnes,’ said Cecily, ‘when you have seen her kneel down before us all even us young ones she teaches, and say, “Three times yesterday I said things that cut,” or “I lost my temper.”
‘Especially when you know you will probably lose yours tomorrow,’ said Hilary,
Strange things came out in the Chapter of Faults and, sometimes, endearing things. ‘I accuse myself of ‘aving done a h’act of charity in such a h’ugly manner as I’ll never be h’asked to do another,’ said one of the old claustral sisters, and from a nun, stickler to the letter of the Rule about possessions, ‘Lady, I have broken our false teeth.’
(In This House of Brede – Page 195 – passim)
From the Scriptures:
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective…
19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
(James 5v13-17, 19-20)
Jesus said, ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’
If I were allowed to keep only one sentence from the book of the story of Brede Abbey it would be the words of the lay sister at the Chapter of Faults, ‘I accuse myself of ‘aving done a h’act of charity in such a h’ugly manner as I’ll never be h’asked to do another.’ O my beloved Saviour will I ever come to a place where my love for the Body of Christ is so full that I would be able to have such honesty before my sisters and brothers? It is of a certainty that the sister for whom the penitent had misdone the ‘h’act of charity’ was listening to her accusation with a heart melting with love for the one who had wronged her. Why would we not want to follow this example of humility?
Extreme intimate times of corporate confession such as a Chapter of Faults are deep, rich and rare. I have only been in such circumstances a few times and one of them turned my life upside down and the collar of my shirt the wrong way around! They cannot be conjured out of thin air but instead are born out of a deep love for the whole Body of Christ and a faith which recognises that when I hurt a fellow human being I hurt the whole of the church and, in the end, I hurt myself as well.
It is not simply about making a ‘full and clear confession of any wrong [we have] done’, for in community life nothing is (or should be) hidden and everyone knows everything. It is the freely offered accusations that add grist to the mill that polishes the coal of the postulant into the diamond of a fully embraced vocation.
Nor is it simply pointing out the faults of others. Some fellowships I know, misreading the teaching on sin in Matthew, have made the error of publicly going to other Christians and ‘forgiving’ them for sins they did not even know they had committed! The kind of person who would come up to you and say, ‘Brother, I forgive you for the sin of eating chocolate cake during Lent. I just want to let you know that I am praying for you in your weakness and forgive you the offense you caused me.’ To be honest if I was ever involved in something like this I would go straight out and buy more chocolate cake!
Which is why the acknowledgements in a Chapter of Faults are so much more powerful and more healing of the self-inflicted wounds of the Body of Christ than the simple shopping list of sins I sometimes lay before my Beloved.
Ultimately sin is corporate and not personal. There are no private or venial sins, all sin is ‘sin with a high hand’ and so a deadly sin; deadly to our souls and detrimental to the Body of Christ. Jesus knew this and puts forgiveness and reconciliation before any other form of worship in the Sermon on the Mount. No offering to God will avail for anything unless we have first opened ourselves before our sisters and brothers.
There are many ways of being reconciled, after all not many of us will experience the intimacy of a Chapter of Faults, and all of us are able (if wiling) to go to the one we have offended and ask their forgiveness. Is our poor behaviour so precious to us that we would rather limp through life?
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace.
Come into the brokenness of our lives and our land with your healing love.
Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance,
and to bow to one another in real forgiveness.
By the ﬁre of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts
and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us.
Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love which casts out fear
and bind us together in that unity
which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
(A prayer used in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland)
1) Before Easter make things up with someone you have wronged.
2) Consider making a personal confession of sin to another (it need not be a priest).
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