A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
The Abbess, the Abbess and Maisie Shaw
Day 30 – Tuesday after Passion Sunday
On the twenty-ninth of December, the feast of St Thomas of Canterbury, the Archbishop came to Brede to give Abbess Catherine the abbatial blessing and formally enthrone her in the presence of the whole community, of the Abbot President, Abbot Bernard and his monks, and of her own family. To her great joy, Bishop Mark Islay [her brother] was at a special prie-dieu in the sanctuary…
The words of the Gospel as the deacon read them, ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me,’ became a living actuality for her.
That was the meaning of the crook. Abbess Hester’s family had had a crook made for her, a stem of rosewood with a croak of silver, embossed with the roses of the Cunningham family – ‘roses with thorns,’ said Abbess Hester – and tipped with ivory. To Abbess Catherine’s delight Bishop Mark brought her a plain crook from the Sussex downs. ‘Beautiful as Mother’s was, I like this far, far better,’ said Abbess Catherine. Abbess Hester had had her coat of arms above the abbatial chair, but Abbess Catherine was a country doctor’s daughter and had a simple crest. Even so she preferred to use the Abbey’s. ‘Let me keep to simplicity,’ she said. Only that, she felt, and humility could balance this terrifying power.
(In This House of Brede – Page 140)
‘What is this that that has fallen on Brede? Three! [nuns sick] One after the other!’
‘Not three;’ the Abbess could have told them. ‘This is all one. It stems from Abbess Hester.’
One fault allowed – no, encouraged – can grow in a community like the mustard seed into a monstrous tree.
‘No one lives to herself.’ Over and over again, the Abbess thought that in the long watches of the night. That was what I was doing, when I was no longer cellarer. Living to myself, aloof – almost; there had been only the one small episode with Sister Philippa in the pleached alley to redeem that. If I had not shut myself in for so long, thought Abbess Catherine, I might have been able to find the right compassion, share, suffer with Dame Veronica.
‘You couldn’t have been expected to,’ Dame Perpetua’s sense would have said, ‘Look how she behaved!’
but, ‘I am expected to,’ was the answer for an abbess.
There must be no limits. Philippa, coming in with letters, saw that scrawled in Abbess Catherine’s big writing on a pad on the desk and Philippa looked at the words for a long time.
(In This House of Brede – Page 176)
From the Scriptures:
11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Anyone who has ever looked at the history of ministry in the church will know that women have been bishops, people with oversight of churches and the care of the flock of God, from the very beginning. They may not have always worn purple vestments and have not always been named as ‘bishops’ but there is no doubt that women have always held an episcopal ministry in the church.
This is reflected in the role of the Abbess and the responsibility that comes with carrying a crook, a symbol of care for those in her charge. Abbesses such as Hilda of Whitby with her double monastery of women and men, have held the church together at critical times in it’s history and now it is the turn of Abbess Catherine who inherits an abbey distraught over the failings of her predecessor.
Shepherding is hard work. Sheep by nature are timid yet self-willed, dependent and (according to Monty Python) very dim. When I look at my own response to the life of faith being ‘sheepish’ sometimes seems to be the prefect metaphor and I pity those who have me as part of their flock!
So the new Abbess Catherine, who had thought she had escaped the pain that comes with leadership, discovers that her sheep, though living the vowed life, are no less susceptible to sheepish behaviour. We will read in the next few days of Dame Veronica’s shame and suffering, but it is not only her hurt that the Abbess has to hold.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…
Laying down your life means there is nothing left for ourselves. The words ‘No one lives to herself,’ becomes her watchword.
If Abbess Hester had a fault it was that she had fallen into the besetting sin of the Religious of ‘being particular’. Having a ‘particular’ coterie of friends and, inevitably, co-conspirators. Having a ‘particular’ plan for the Abbey which she kept to herself and hidden from others. Using a ‘particular’ situation, the endowment that was hoped for with Sister Julian’s Solemn Profession, to further that plan. Abbess Hester thought she was laying down her life for her sheep but in the end it seems she let her own likes and dislikes, her own hopes and ambitions, cloud her care for all of her flock.
Whether we are called to be an Abbess or faithful floor-scrubbing Sister Ellen, a bishop or the youngest candle-carrying acolyte we need to remember that we are not the centre of the show to be kow-towed to nor so insignificant that our presence is unimportant. Whatever role we find ourselves in the Body of Christ there will never come a day when we are called to live for ourselves. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, to be called by Christ is a call to die.
Most loving God,
you are the Shepherd God
who cares for us with an inﬁnite compassion,
seeking to help even the smallest,
in your flock.
Grant to us, we pray,
the readiness to put ourselves
under your direction,
that in our weakness
we may have your divine support,
and in our strength
the wisdom to use our power
in ways that will not hurt others.
So shall we fulﬁl your purposes
declared in our Shepherd King,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Bruce D Prewer, Australia)
1) In the reading Abbess Catherine has three mottos, ‘Let me keep to simplicity,’ ‘No one lives to herself,’ and ‘There must be no limits.’ Whether you have a family crest or not, write a short motto that describes your faith.
2) Today let someone go ahead of you in a queue.
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