A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
The Abbess, the Abbess and Maisie Shaw
Day 34 – Saturday after Passion Sunday
‘Mother, what are you going to do with me?’ After the distribution of Offices, Dame Veronica, still thin and pale, had come and knocked at the Abbess’s door.
‘I was coming to see you in the infirmary,’ said the Abbess.
‘I am nearly well now. I should work, try to pay back. Mother, you should punish me. Punish hard,’ Dame Veronica’s hands were pressed together under her scapular; tears were brimming.
‘I think you have been punished enough,’ said Abbess Catherine. ‘Sit down, dear child,’ and as Dame Veronica sat, ‘I have had a letter.’
‘It – hurts when you are so good to me,’ Dame Veronica interrupted.
‘Let’s think about the letter.’ The Abbess held up her hand and Dame Veronica had to be silent ‘As soon as you are quite strong, you will help Dame Camilla in the library. I know you will do it tactfully she is getting very old and her eyes are bad. Meanwhile there is something I have kept for you: a Mr Digby of Mortimer and Digby, the publishers, has written saying they want an especial book [of poems] — and think it might come from Brede’…
‘Write poems now?’
‘You could do it well’,
The tears spilled over, ‘I need to do what I hate as – as an atonement. Mother, give me the hardest, dirtiest work in Brede. Let me clean out the hen houses, dig in the vegetable garden.’
‘You are supposed to have had a heart attack,’ said the Abbess. ‘We must be consistent…
Wouldn’t the best penance,’ asked Abbess Catherine more gently, ‘be in doing what you are asked? What you con do.’
She smiled and said, ‘Talking of atonement, the advance they offer against royalties is a hundred guineas, one hundred and five pounds.’
(In This House of Brede – Page 193)
From the Scriptures:
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5 For all must carry their own loads.
6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
What is the best way to restore the penitent? Banishment? Require a public apology? Command an extensive penance? Or should it be a slap on the wrist? Letting off with no further reprimand? I have seen them all in action and none compares with the grace of Abbess Catherine’s restoration of Dame Veronica. Whenever I come to those big moments of confession in my own life I pray that I might meet such a confessor who commands me to obedient joyful service as a way of healing my heart and restoring my place in the Body of Christ.
Abbess Catherine’s ‘penance’ is no sinecure. Dame Veronica finds herself working harder than she has in the past and that at the direction of another rather than following her own muse. Every penance, whatever form it takes needs to include reparation – one hundred guineas (the amount that was stolen) is the monetary value of Dame Veronica’s.
When we fall and fail our Beloved, our friends, and ourselves our immediate response is to run and hide (Dame Veronica is no different to our first parents in the Garden of Eden) and then, when we are found out we have two common responses. We either blame someone else, which is just a different way of hiding, or we ask to make amends. Like the Younger Son in Luke 15 we finally return home and ask our father to ‘treat me like one of your hired hands’. All of the stories in that chapter of the gospel are not so much about lost things – sheep, coins, children – but about a loving God who will not let us go. God loves lost things as much as those who feel secure in that love – verse 1 is proof of this, so we should never ever fear to return home.
The grace shown by Abbess Catherine needs to be shown in our own church fellowships as well. How may times must we forgive? If we indulge in counting up to 490 then we have missed the point completely. There is no virtue in counting faults..
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Galatians 6v1)
But what is this temptation we face when we refuse to restore with a spirit of gentleness? Simply this, when we refuse to restore we judge, and when we judge we take the place of God. Perversely it is those who expect God to forgive them who turn others against our Beloved by turning our Redeemer into a Judge.
I have recounted previously how one late night in Johannesburg I, out of the kindness of my self-satisfied heart, gave a lift to two Street Workers. Climbing into the back of the vicarmobile they rumbled that I was a Christian and proceeded to tell me how much they loved Jesus and that they read the bible every day. Self-righteously I asked them what their favourite bible verse was. They began by saying ‘John Chapter 3’, I interrupted by saying ‘verse 16’. They turned my life around when they said ‘no, John Chapter 3 verse 17’.
Look it up.
your sign of reconciliation is the Cross,
in all its breadth and length and height and depth.
Teach us to share it with you
and our sisters and brothers
so that we may learn to act justly,
to walk humbly,
to love tenderly.
And so, waiting upon the Spirit,
become instruments of your peace,
to the glory of the Father.
(The Hengrave Prayer England)
1) The next time you have cause to forgive someone try to ask them to help you in a task.
2) The next time you catch yourself judging someone ask God for forgiveness.
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