A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
The Abbess, the Abbess and Maisie Shaw
Day 31 – Wednesday after Passion Sunday
Dame Perpetua went to Dame Maura’s session – music was a deep love – and, ‘If Dame Anastasia came too,’ she asked Philippa, ‘could you manage the telephone and answer Mother’s bell?’
‘Of course,’ said Philippa.
Abbess Catherine seldom rang her bell; she still instinctively got up to go in search of anyone she needed, besides, ‘I like to go about among you,’ she said when Dame Perpetua tried to save her. But today she was too busy to come out of her room; once again she was engrossed by the Abbey accounts.
It had been the duty of the two depositarians, those indefatigable book-keepers to prepare the ‘status’ of the Abbey and present it to the new Abbess; for the last few days Abbess Catherine had been going through it and, as If the nuns sensed she had a heavy task, they forbore to knock at her door, that incessant knocking, all the minutiae of requests and permissions.
‘May I lend this book to Dom Placid O’Hara?’
‘Mrs Forrester is coming to the parlour at half past four. She has suggested that Professor Forrester gives a lecture to us on the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth. What shall I say to her?’
‘May I write to the Tablet about…?’
‘Mother, I feel so tired, I don’t know what to do with myself. May I have a morning’s rest?’ ‘Almost everything you ask, in reason, will be allowed,’ Dame Ursula had told her novitiate, ‘but remember, the best nuns are those who try not to ask.’
Yet, even for these, there were many occasions when they had to go to the Abbess’s room. It’s an iniquitous system, Philippa had thought at first, but was it? She, Philippa, or another nun secretary, sitting just outside in the alcove, could have taken half a dozen messages and requests and brought them in at one time, but that would have meant coming between the Abbess and her flock.
(In This House of Brede – Page 145)
From the Scriptures:
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But [Jesus] said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
How do you feel about giving up Social Media for Lent? For some ‘keyboard warriors’ (myself included) a break from the need to comment on every issue and post about every detail of one’s life can be an unhealthy addiction that needs reining in. However a complete cessation from contact with cyber-friends, especially without warning or explanation, may not always be helpful. My friends from Disability & Jesus caution against this; an unintended consequence of our social media fast may feel like rejection by those who have come to depend on our daily chatter no matter how banal and inconsequential it may seem to us.
Sister Philippa, tempted to slip into Mrs Talbot mode, wonders if Abbess Catherine busy with the Abbey accounts, could do with a ‘fast’ from the Facebook Fiends and the Twitteratti of the community. After all some of the requests do seem frivolous and you cannot but agree with Teddy’s advice to her novices. ‘…but that would have meant coming between the Abbess and her flock.’ Perhaps another reason why Abbess Hester’s passing had been so difficult?
Abbess Catherine, missing the hustle and bustle of community or just guarding against being set apart, puts into practice the shepherding skills she needs. Even with an ‘open door’ to her cell some will find it difficult to knock. The timid, the lost, those who feel they are beyond help or indeed above help. All of them need to be shepherded. The Abbess remembers that lost sheep cannot find their own way home so she aims to lead by seeking out sheep rather than expecting them to follow blindly.
In our Diocese, those clergy who find themselves in posts without a Sunday congregation to shepherd, who work in the Diocesan Office or an institution, are encouraged to become an assistant in a parish near to them where they can be ‘ordinary’ shepherds and part of the local body of Christ. In this way each may feed and be fed by the other.
Pope Francis, in his challenge to those of the curia whom he described as ‘airport bishops’, called them back to their call by asking them to be ‘shepherds with the odour of sheep.’
This is difficult in a church that is set up as a hierarchy where one priest is seen to be more important than another, where one vocation is more valued than another. Abbess Catherine imitates our Beloved as she chooses to ‘go about’ amongst her sisters and aims to ‘be among them as one who serves.’
It is vital for the correct growth of the Body of Christ that we imitate the Good Shepherd for, as sure as night follows day, the sheep will imitate the shepherd they can do no other.
When I was a school chaplain and a novice teacher in the wonderful and historic St Martin’s School in southern Johannesburg I made a discovery about the lessons I gave to the students. They learnt their lessons. In fact they learnt all the lessons I gave them. They learnt not only the outstanding lessons, but also the shoddy unprepared lessons and even the bad lessons. And, as is the way of adolescents, they seemed to have the capacity to remember my bad lessons much more readily than my good lessons!
It matters not where we find ourselves in the life of the church we are all shepherds. People, most often those outside the church, are looking at us and learning every lesson we teach them – be it consciously or unconsciously. What was that aphorism made famous during the Flower Power decade of the 1960’s? ‘What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say’
Be we Abbess with a crook to carry or door steward with a hymnbook to hand out, we are all shepherds and need to be people with ‘the odour of sheep’. The smelliest of whom has not yet crossed the threshold of the church and so need to be sought out by those willing to leave their cells and go and find our Beloved’s lost lambs.
O God, Sustainer of all life
and Creator of the universe,
you set aside men and women to be leaders,
so help us to see things as they are
and not only as they affect ourselves.
Grant that we may have a wise and modest estimate of our own powers
and live in full contact with all things high, true and good.
Teach us our failings and our faults;
give us courage to acknowledge them
and by your grace enable us to overcome them.
Lift us above the unstable currents of our self-will
and establish us on the rock of your purposes.
Be to each of us the secret stay
and the inner guide of our lives.
May your Spirit dwell in us more and more,
that your peace which exceeds all understanding
may possess our hearts and minds.
(Lawrence Gandiya, Zimbabwe)
1) What ‘lesson’ did you give to someone yesterday by your deeds?
2) What ‘lesson’ would you like to give and how will you do it?
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