A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Philippa – the Journey Inward
Day 14 – Thursday after 2nd Sunday in Lent
From the first the novices and juniors had found Philippa difficult. ‘She spoils things,’ said Sister Benita. ‘She makes us know how silly we are.’ Even Julian had shied away from talking to Sister Philippa. ‘She can’t help being superior, but she is.’ Philippa had known she should not let them see how worrying she found their daylong company. ‘Try, my dear. Try,’ Dame Ursula had encouraged her. ‘It’s just a mortification.’
‘A typical Teddyism!’ Philippa said to Dame Clare, who was not amused. ‘We don’t use nicknames, Sister, and especially not for Mother Mistress who should be revered,’ and she had said, with scant sympathy, ‘the other novices try to keep things pleasant – and try their best. At least you could be polite.’
‘Thank God we have silence most of the time,’ Philippa had written to McTurk ‘Recreation seems the longest hour of the day. Serves me right; I’m so used to being on a pinnacle.’ The pinnacle had tumbled now. ‘Your age is against you.’ If Dame Ursula had said that once, she said it a hundred times, and it was unmercifully true: while Philippa had toiled, the young ones, notably Julian, finished their housework, gobbled up the unfamiliar words and phrases of the liturgy, found their markings, learned to chant, compelled their bodies into discipline, while she had felt hopelessness creeping into her very bones. ‘It’s like trying to be a ballet dancer; you can never achieve that if you start too late.’ Only a dogged obstinacy had held her, ‘but . . . if I could have a cigarette.’
(In This House of Brede – Page 96)
‘Did Mary feel ashamed for not helping Martha?’ Philippa still had not learned to let an argument go, or temper it; she still used the quick riposte, ‘and we haven’t a chance against her,’ muttered Julian but, ‘The world needs many, many Marthas,’ Dame Clare had said gently, laying her hand on Julian’s.
‘Yes!’ cried Julian. ‘Look at the state of the world.’
‘Which is why she needs a few Marys too.’ Philippa had undoubtedly been right but she had had a rebuke from the zelatrix.
(In This House of Brede – Page 48)
From the Scriptures:
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls…
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
(James 1v19-21, 26-27)
A wise archdeacon taught me a lesson once that I have yet to learn fully. ‘Andrew,’ he said. ‘Never be anxious to always have something to say about everything.’ Oh, how well he knows me!
Mrs Talbot, in her metamorphosis to become the gentle Dame Philippa finds this as much a challenge as I, and I suspect many others, do. Over-used, in fact encouraged by her profession, to be a ‘shaker and a mover’ she swings between the two poles of an enforced silence and not joining in to a compulsion to display her knowledge. She rightly earns the epithet ‘Clever Dick!’ from Sister Bonita when she worsts Dame Agnes in a Latin class.
Every so often the faith of others can be enriched, and our humility deepened, when we counter-intuitively choose to ‘hide our lights under bushel baskets’. This is not a counsel of false-pride but a decision to prefer another to ourselves. It is one of the most difficult lessons of the faith as, in our enthusiasm and devotion we want to share with the whole world all the wonderful works that our Beloved has done within us.
Sometimes though, we forget that God works in the lives of those around us as well as in our own. This leads to the mistaken arrogance of the street preacher who calls all passers-by to repentance, warning them of damnation whilst having no idea as to whether they are preaching to prostitute or prelate – though both may be in need of a modicum of penitence at some time during their lives.
It is the self-important, yet understandable presumption of the Christian bumper sticker which proclaims, ‘Jesus loves you! But I’m His Favourite’
I saw this care for others wonderfully demonstrated by some school colleagues in Johannesburg. At parties during RSCM conferences Jenny and Ronnie were a perfect double act mimicking the songs of Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren. Whenever other less polished couples put their names down to perform Ronnie and Jenny, though they knew they could do much better, stood back believing that everyone deserved time in the limelight.
How do we learn to stop being ‘choose me, choose me’ Christians? For Philippa it came through the forbearance of her sisters in the novitiate and the wisdom of her Novice Mistresses. For us, who do not have the Enclosure to help us, it is more challenging.
In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels the guardians of the Second Foundation when meeting together have no hierarchy or rank save that of the ‘First Speaker’; simply named as such as they were the one who often, but not always, spoke first. Their voice doesn’t always carry the debate and all discussions end by common consensus. I freely admit to being tempted to have not only the first word in any discussion but also the last word! Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of some of the World War II public service posters. Careless talk can indeed cost lives.
When we learn that the whole of the Body of Christ needs to be given the space to speak and also learn that our own words carry no more weight than that of the whole community, it is then that we become the Word of God and are finally able to speak sense to a love-lorn world.
make our hearts ever gentler and more humble,
so that we may be present
to those you have conﬁded to our care,
and in this way make us instruments of your love which gives life and joy and real freedom.
(Jean Vanier, Canada)
1) Cultivate the habit of not being the first person to speak in a conversation.
2) Look for opportunities to encourage the voices of those who are not good at speaking yet still have important words to hear.
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