A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Living in Community – A Trysting Place
Day 17 – Monday after 3rd Sunday in Lent
There had come a night when, unable to speak, Philippa had taken a cloak from a peg by the novitiate door – Dame Clare’s cloak? A junior’s? She had not cared – and had gone out, leaving the sheltered Garth and garden for the open park, to feel the cold and wind on her face and to walk – violently, thought Philippa – away from the house, up along the avenue that spanned the width of the park, an avenue of copper beeches, their top branches bending and straining in the wind. It had not been quite dark, clouds were chasing across a half moon; every now and then a twig snapped and whirled down through the air. It had been too cold and windy even for her desperate mood and she turned into the ‘pleached alley’ that bordered the lawns…
The alley made a sheltered walk for the nuns who often paced there and that night Philippa had caught the white shine of a wimple and underveil; someone from the community was out too, making, Philippa guessed, her evening prayer; the nuns often came out for that half hour, morning and evening, wish or stand in some specially loved spot, or to pace as they prayed, but not in the wind and cold, thought Philippa. It must be someone who, too, wanted to be alone, to get away…
‘Sister Philippa!’ said the nun. It was Dame Catherine Ismay. She had put out a hand to find Philippa’s that was clutching the cloak. ‘You’re cold’ – Dame Catherine’s hand had been warm, surprisingly firm and strong; Philippa could feel it still – ‘cold and distressed,’ said Dame Catherine. The compassion in her voice had seemed to plumb Philippa and, as if it had made a crack in the wall of her reserve, that surface composure under which she had hidden all these weeks, Philippa had felt tears beginning to well; they had seemed to have come not from her eyes but deep in her, welling up with such force that she shook with the effort of holding them back. It had been no use and in a moment she, dry-eyed stoical Philippa who had not wept even when Keith died or when she and Richard had made their decision, was weeping in a storm of tears, perhaps the tears of a lifetime, that had shaken her as helplessly as the beech trees in the wind. Dame Catherine had stood by, concerned but letting them flow, taming Philippa’s hand so that she could find her handkerchief, and saying nothing until Philippa had managed to gasp, ‘I’m so, so sorry.’
‘Don’t be. We have all done this when we were new. We call it “having monsoon”.’
‘I never… have… before.’
‘Perhaps that’s why,’ Dame Catherine had said, and presently, when Philippa had quietened, ‘Come and walk.’ She had slipped her arm under Philippa’s and together they had walked up and down the pleached alley for half an hour talking of trivial things. That night Philippa had slept.
(In This House of Brede – Page 98)
From the Scriptures:
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ 10 He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’
It is this part of the Story of Brede Abbey that called me to name these reflections ‘A Trysting Place’. The Pleached Alley in the Enclosure seems to be the place where many of the nuns work out their love for our Beloved. Not all of them find it there, the majestic Dame Agnes fights her battles from her stall in the Convent Chapel and the novice Sister Cecily weeps under the protection of the organ bench. But for many it is outside where they can walk and pray the fidgets out of their faith that many find a safe place to hide when the monsoon wind blows within us.
Like Philippa and Dame Catherine, my favourite trysting place is outside in the wind. I need a place where I can let all the dross of my life be swept away and, when I am exhausted, fall to my knees in quiet listening and hear God say those awe-filled words, ‘Andrew, I love you.’
My Trysting Place since returning to the Church of England has been The Heugh on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Each time I go there I take my Community Cloak with me and late at night, Heathcliff like, stalk the ridge of The Heugh shouting my failings and faithlessness at the wind – it seems I’m not very good at remembering past lessons. Afterwards I sit exhausted in the quiet and dark of the Old Boiler Room Chapel of St Columba’s United Reform Church until the dark turns to dawn, the monsoon fades, and the seals begin to sing.
We should not be surprised that we have these times of desperation in our journey homeward. None of us is immune from being human (thank heavens!) though some of us, be it because of over-much pain or a false pride, make valiant efforts at hiding our frailty. Philippa did for the first years of her novitiate and paid the price in sleepless nights and physically wasting away. If she had not found the strength to give in (a strange dichotomy, no?) the Council was worried that she was in danger of wasting away in her faith as well. The words, ‘That night Philippa had slept’ speak volumes about the importance of having a place to go to where we can say anything to the One Who Loves us Best.
This is what was intended from the beginning. Our first parents were meant to be with ‘God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze’ but they could not and Paradise became a place of pain and shame. When we are over-full with fears and tears, questions and uncertainties, that is when we must run to the Garden, the Trysting Place, and there find succour and healing.
As we learn this habit, we may be blessed to find another sister or brother walking alongside us who will hold our hand and pass us handkerchiefs. Someone who will not dare to ask the question ‘why are you here’ but, in the knowledge of their own times of frailty simply wait and walk with us until the storm blows over.
In Felixstowe we are fortunate to have a team of five active ministers and several more experienced retired clergy in our congregation. This gives each of us the space to be ‘us’. Space to share our hurts and our hopes. Space to rant at our frustrations with ourselves and with others. Space to be held and hugged and walked with until the fidgets of faith fade and the dawn breaks. The Body of Christ is not made to be led by one minister only, we need each other and those who find themselves alone are in a place of deep vulnerability and pain.
The lesson of the monsoon of faith is two-fold. We should strive to find a place where we can cry and pray and sing and be silent and seek out a friend who will hold our hand and pass us handkerchiefs without question but with understanding love.
And if we can’t find such a place or such a friend, we must needs pray for the strength to make dark places holy with our tears and become someone who walks alongside others and share the gift of weeping with them.
God, there are corners in my soul
that I don’t know yet.
How can I ever understand myself?
How can I ever fathom
my answer to the Challenge of life?
Where are you?
Are you possibly present
in those unknown corners?
Lighten up what is hidden,
reveal my soul,
untie your secret in me.
I would like
to meet the others
with only light in my eyes,
with an unbiased heart.
I would like to be an oasis
in the desert of life,
a home where they can rest,
a tree in whose shade
they can ﬁnally meet you.
(André Quintelier, Philippines)
1) Go to your ‘Trysting Place’ and say thank you for a safe place to find healing.
2) Next time a ‘monsoon’ assails your faith don’t be afraid to share it with a spiritual friend who will hold you through the storm.
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