A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
The Abbess, the Abbess and Maisie Shaw
Day 33 – Friday after Passion Sunday
‘My name is not Fanshawe,’ Dame Veronica had said ‘I was born Maisie Shaw, not Margaret Fanshawe as I am listed in the register,’
‘I remember,’ said Dame Veronica, ‘my mother’s suggesting I train as a children’s nurse, or a cook. Lady Orford had offered to pay, and to my mother those were high class posts, but I stared at her and said, “I? Be a servant?” She said…’ Here the iron went out of Dame Veronica’s voice and her chin quivered. ‘She said, “1 am a servant.” I can still see her face when she said that, the dignity. When we were very small – before she got the Orford post – she used to get up at four and clean offices before she started her regular work, to get more many for us; we were always neat and clean and well fed, but I was cruel. It was then I decided,’ said Dame Veronica, should be a nun as soon as I could. Nuns have no class.’
‘Should have no class,’ said Abbess Catherine…
…and Dame Veronica whispered, ‘I even forbade my mother to come here.’
‘Your mother is alive?’ The Abbess was startled.
‘Yes. God pity her,’ said Dame Veronica, ‘because we didn’t. I used to write to her sometimes, but I always told her not to come?’
‘But… she must have been wonderful and devoted.’ Abbess Catherine was shocked.
‘She says – not “naow” for “now”, and “cike” for “cake”, but very nearly; sometimes she drops her aitches.’
‘Oh, my dear child!’
‘I know, I know it was contemptible but you don’t know – no one can’ said Dame Veronica passionately. ‘It served me right when Paul came instead.’
‘Paul. Your brother?’
‘Yes, my brother. My little brother.’ Dame Veronica spoke with a mixture of tenderness and sadness. ‘Paul was different. We put all our efforts into him, Mother and I. That’s why I went out to work so young. Well!’ Dame Veronica gave a shrug. ‘He went to prison for the first time when he was twenty. I don’t know,’ said Dame Veronica, ‘how he found out where I was. My mother would never have told him, never, but he may have found a letter of a card and then…’ Dame Veronica sat upright in bed, her eyes fixed on the opposite wall. ‘He came here to see me last August, first of He called himself Fanshawe too. I gave him that idea. He had helped me fake my birth certificate – he was a clever faker; Paul Fanshawe. I don’t know what the extern sisters thought, he was so shabby; just out after ten years, his fourth sentence, down at heel, and down and out. He said he would tell Lady Abbess if I didn’t…’
(In This House of Brede – Page 181 passim)
From the Scriptures:
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
For some time Dame Veronica has felt a Sword of Damocles hanging over her head. Frightened of being ‘found out’ she withdraws from the community and refuses to talk. Then, as the inevitable exposure of her malfeasance (stealing Abbey funds for her brother) draws near she takes another nun’s heart medicine to calm her down and ends up in the Infirmary. There, finally, she has the talk with Abbess Catherine that she has been dreading.
In the grand scheme of things pretending that you are better than others is no big deal – followers of the antics of Hyacinth Bucket were entertained for 44 episodes of the long running ‘Keeping Up Appearances.’ But for Dame Veronica, and the other ‘Maisie Shaws’ of the world, status has been allowed to become everything.
This should not be so in everyday life, and should definitely not be so inside the church! We are called to be the most egalitarian of egalitarian societies wherein all are welcomed, none are excluded. We are to be valued not because of who we are but because of the indiscriminate love of our Beloved.
Maisie Shaw knows this truth and it is one of the reasons why she feels a call to enter Brede Abbey because – ‘Nuns have no class.’ But it seems that hiding her past presumptions has spilled over into her present life with her mother being turned away and allowing herself to be blackmailed by her brother.
As mentioned earlier in Lent, our Beloved has no favourites. But if God were to have any then God would start with those farthest away. After all it’s what Good Shepherds are famous for… and this should not surprise us.
However, as I look at the many different church fellowships to which I have belonged over the 55 years since I was baptized, I notice that we haven’t noticed this. We preach a gospel of inclusion and equality and then seem somewhat surprised when people take us at our word! An endless stream of people who don’t ‘fit’ or ‘belong’ in other parts of society look constantly to we who proclaim a gospel where ’There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.’ and then are understandably mystified when they are not welcomed with open arms. Church, we need to become who we say we are!
The hymn ‘Let Us Build a House,’ beloved of my liberal catholic friends, challenges us to become the church we are meant to be;
Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.
The motto of our parish is ‘Open to God, Open to All’. We are endeavouring to become a safe place for everyone, somewhere where the great love of our Beloved may be found.
Doing this is not easy. It means we ask people to join us with whom we would not normally associate. It means that things do not always run smoothly or according to the rubrics. It means that other churches around us may think we are getting things wrong.
Yet it is also means that we will have moments of tender grace. A noisy two-year-old child reverently reaches out his hands to receive communion with his brothers and sisters. A young girl in leg splints ignores her own disability to help elderly worshippers walk down stone steps. And rainbow children of God find a place of welcome instead of judgement.
We are not yet perfect. The vicar messes up often and he wishes he could unsay things frequently. We need to more work on ensuring that all our visitors are comfortable, after all we do want them to stay. We (or is that I?) need to listen more deeply to those whose voices have been silenced. Yet we are on the road. How about joining us?
whose will it is that all your children
should be one in Christ,
we pray for the unity of your Church.
Pardon all our pride and our lack of faith,
of understanding and of charity,
which are the causes of our divisions.
Deliver us from narrow-mindedness,
from our bitterness,
from our prejudices.
Save us from considering as normal
that which is a scandal to the world
and an offence to your love.
Teach us to recognize the gifts of grace
among all those who call upon you
and confess the faith of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(French Reformed Church Liturgy)
1) If you were to write a motto for your church fellowship what would it say?
2) How will you ‘welcome the stranger’ in your daily life?
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