A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Day 23 – Monday after Mothering Sunday
The last toll [of the passing bell] ended. Then, as the nuns rose stiffly from their knees, the voice of the great bell sounded again, beginning the first of the three tolls for Vespers. Silently the nuns filed down to fetch their cowls and go to their station in the cloisters, then, two by two, paced in procession into choir where the Abbess’s crook lay across her empty chair which was already draped in black. When Cecily saw that, she gave another gasp; coming into church she had walked as was prescribed – Cecily had been studying monastic observances for years and had kept her eyes down, her hands together, but now, in her place she looked up and saw the black drapings, the laid-down crook that seemed so eloquent, and her distress was audible all through the choir. Dame Clare laid a restraining hand on her shoulder; it was not too early for the newest postulant to learn that nothing, not even the death of a most holy Abbess, could be allowed to disturb the Divine Office.
(In This House of Brede – Page 57)
Cecily was shaken. ‘I had counted on finding Mother here.’ Philippa had heard Cecily sobbing in the night, almost all night – she herself had been wakeful, as were nearly all the nuns. Philippa would have gone in to Cecily, but cells were sacrosanct – only Dame Ursula or Dame Clare could have done that and Philippa guessed that Cecily would far rather they did not know. In the morning Cecily had looked so desperate that Philippa had tried to hearten her by saying, ‘It’s not irrevocable, you know; No one will think any the worse of you if you find the Abbey too hard without Lady Abbess.’ Cecily had turned what Philippa thought was a startled glance on her; then she said in a low voice like a shamed child, ‘It’s just that… I had wanted, I needed – to tell her about the lunch party.’
‘A lunch party?’
‘Yes. The day I entered, my mother gave a farewell luncheon for me. It was dreadful. No… I was dreadful,’ said Cecily.
(In This House of Brede – Page 64)
From the Scriptures:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
It was the Rt Revd Timothy Bavin (now Dom Timothy of Alton Abbey) when he was Bishop of Johannesburg who sent me to seminary to train to become a priest. During that time he was appointed to become Bishop of Portsmouth and left Africa to return to the Church of England. Before leaving he visited every seminary in the Province, five in three different countries, when he personally met with every single one of his ordinands to apologise to them that he would not be their ordaining bishop.
We had a close relationship with Bishop Tim. Lesley-Anne used to be a secretary in his office and he baptised our eldest son, so we were sad to see him leave. I remember him sitting in our small flat talking over what was going to happen with his life and saying that of course it made no difference who would be my ordaining bishop (in the end it was the blessed Bishop Simeon CR) but at the same time recognising that God works through individual people and in particular places. He taught me that our God is a personal God and, to help us on the journey, brings us people with whom to travel for a while and so we should always be aware of how important our personal influence is on others. It has been over thirty years since we had that conversation and we have not met again. Nonetheless I give thanks for him frequently.
Sister Cecily, whose story we will be following this week, had a similar relationship with Abbess Hester (as did Sister Philippa before her). This is why she is distraught to find on the day of her entry into the Abbey that the Abbess has died. Though she knew she was giving everything up to enter the religious life she did not expect that that would include the friendship with the one who had become like a shepherd and a mother to her. She had gone through many hard years preparing to give her life away and wanted to hear ‘her’ Abbess welcome her home.
Yes, she knew that things didn’t last forever and that her vocation was not dependent on the presence or absence of another, yet for all of us it is a great comfort when stepping out on a new venture to have someone walking next to you who already knows the way. Abbess Hester was for Cecily who Bishop Tim was for me.
New beginnings, paradoxically, need familiarity and consistency. This is why in a convent there is a novitiate where all you have to do is to learn how to be. No extra particular tasks or callings, they will come as the vocation settles, but a simple rhythm of consistent prayer, frequent conversations with the Novice Guardian, and regular conferences with the Abbess. Nothing too new or unusual to obscure the narrow path to the green pastures ahead.
Though, Cecily was schooled in these ways she found it difficult to adapt to change. It took her many years, after Abbess Hester’s passing, to call Abbess Catherine ‘Mother’ and to tell her the story of the dreadful lunch party about which she was so embarrassed. When we steel ourselves to tell the whole of our story, the telling is made easier if we can pour it into familiar ears.
I look back with fondness to the impact one of my chaplains at school had on my life. How it was he who, when I felt lonely, gave me the habit and gift of remembering and quietly using the Office of Compline late at night. And then there were the authors to whom he introduced me, Michel Quoist, T. S. Eliot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dag Hammarskjöld. Strong meat perhaps for a seventeen year old, but a lifetime’s supply of spiritual food.
We are blessed if we have such ‘spiritual midwives’ to journey with us as they help faith be born within us. The best, shepherd-like, gently walk alongside us, guide us with an occasional nudge of a crook, and ensure that we rest frequently in green pasture next to still water.
If you are travelling alone at the moment pray for the gift of someone to journey with you who will hold your hand in the times of darkness and sing with you in the sunshine.
Start your walk towards the place where God wants you.
May God enlarge your sleeping mat;
may God enlarge the door of your dwelling;
may God enlarge your back.
May God lead you by pulling you along,
and may God push you.
May God be at your side.
May God grant you many children.
May God grant you many cattle.
Spread out, like the water of a lake.
May God be your deliverer.
I have placed myself in front of you to lead you.
Start your walk towards the place where God wants you.
May God enlarge everything that is yours.
Be like a powerful tree, with a refreshing shadow.
Give us life.
Go without stopping.
(Samburu people, Kenya)
1) Give thanks for one person who has made a definite influence on your journey of faith.
2) For whom are you a ‘spiritual midwife’? How are you making yourself personally present to give them a place of comfort and rest for the journey ahead?
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