A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
In the Novitiate – Falling in Love
Day 8 – Thursday after 1st Sunday in Lent
The novice mistress was old and experienced. She had been able to deal without a ruffle with ebullient Julian, as she dealt now with Sister Louise’s hasty judgments and her jealousies, with Sister Constance’s faint slyness, with forthright Hilary. Only that morning Hilary had bounced in on Dame Ursula in her cell, where the novice mistress was writing a letter. ‘Mother, have I a vocation?’
Dame Ursula had looked up mildly, ‘Only you can answer that?’ Then quietly she added, ‘I think you have a very strong vocation.’
‘Damn,’ said Hilary but Dame Ursula had heard her telling the others proudly, ‘Teddy thinks I have a strong vocation.’ That was natural, lovable, as were Hilary’s faults; she was always in trouble with Sister Jane. ‘Sister Hilary, have you never cleaned a saucepan before?’
‘No,’ said Hilary.
‘Thorough, you must be thorough,’ was Sister Jane’s maxim; ‘I could never canonize a saint who wasn’t thorough.’ She was in charge of the cells and often saved the girls from trouble. ‘Sister Constance, you have left your window off the latch again. One day it will blow into the garden. I did it for you this time,’ and she would do it again, but she was appalled at Hilary’s untidiness. ‘Anyone would think you had had a nanny to pick up after you.’
‘I had,’ said Hilary.
Sister Cecily was of different calibre; what calibre, Dame Ursula, experienced as she was, found difficult to say. When Sister Cecily was pleased or touched, she was ‘transfigured,’ Dame Ursula said; happiness shone through her, ‘as if she only had one skin.’ Dame Ursula was not given to flights of fancy but, by her refusal just now [to let Cecily attend a music session], she felt as if she had snuffed out a light – which was of course exaggerated. Was Sister Cecily herself exaggerated? ‘If there is any instability, religious life will make it worse.’ That was a precept every Abbess and novice mistress had to keep in mind but Sister Cecily was not unstable. Dame Ursula knew, as the Abbess and Council knew, of the long steady battle Cecily had fought for her vocation; how tenaciously she had held to her purpose; and how sensibly she had prepared herself, ‘though Mummy never guessed what lay behind the music. Poor Mummy!’
(In This House of Brede – Page 143)
From the Scriptures:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
The Honourable Fiona Dalrymple (in religion Sister Hilary) and Elspeth Scallon (in religion Dame Cecily) would be a challenge to any novice mistress, let alone the experienced Dame Ursula. Yet, despite Hilary’s clumsiness and Cecily’s ‘transfigurations’, they seem to be a harmonious version of the home at Bethany. Hilary, rejecting her high-born status is determined to act out her vocation in scrubbing floors and providing for the physical needs of the convent while middle class Cecily, plumbing the depths of prayer and soaring the heights of music, helps provide for the spiritual needs of the convent. Martha and Mary in harmony, Ora and Labora perfectly synchronised.
They are chalk and cheese yet they are sisters vowed to live together in the same community for the rest of their lives, or at least they will once they have graduated from the novitiate.
Which side of this calling is your natural vocation? Personally I would much rather spend time in prayer and contemplation but I also know that active work for the gospel brings me energy and excitement so I don’t think I could be simply aHilary or a Cecily. Most of us need to be a little of both. If we do find ourselves leaning more to one side than the other we must beware of a spiritual pride which presumes that it is the Martha’s who really run the church or that only those in prayer like Mary of Bethany have a true deep faith.
Here be dragons! Too many good Christian folk make a shipwreck of their own faith, and the faith of others, in the mistaken pursuit of some kind of hierarchy in the Kingdom of Heaven. Have we not learnt that in the Body of Christ, if there is a race, it is a race to be the last and the least? When we start comparing our work with another’s worship we are wading into quicksand out of which it will be very difficult to do any real work for the gospel.
Richard Rohr reminds us there is ‘a goodness that does no good’. Too easily we are tempted to hold up the work we do for our Beloved in some kind of twisted competition with the offering of another. Where did we learn these lessons in spiritual superiority? This is not what Christ taught us. When Peter questioned the risen Christ at the lakeside as to his plans for the beloved disciple Jesus dismisses him with the words, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ Or as my brother Francis said on his deathbed ‘I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do’. Learning that we ‘only need one thing’, that which is set before us, is the key to answering our vocations more fully and building harmony within the Body of Christ.
Cecily and Hilary (and I suspect in the end Martha and Mary) are content in their different vocations because they each value the offering of the other. The Hilarys of this world know and rejoice that all their scrubbing and cleaning and administration and emailing makes it possible for Cecily to sing. Conversely worship leaders, organists, choristers and the other Cecilys of the church sing sweeter songs when it finds harmony and thanksgiving with the work of those who have built the churches, paid for the instruments and pressed the linen that make of our Ora and our Labora a whole.
Lord God, I bring to you:
My sins for your forgiveness.
My hopes, my aims, my ambitions for your blessings.
My temptations for your strength.
My words and duties and responsibilities for your help.
My family, friends and all loved ones for your care and protection.
My sickness for your healing.
(Womens’ World. Day of Prayer, 1991, written by women from Kenya)
1) If your Lenten devotions are Martha-like make sure you do some Mary-like stuff, and vice-versa
2) Examine your heart and confess any feelings of superiority to other members of the Body of Christ and, if possible, praise the work of the person you have demeaned or despised.
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