A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Philippa – the Journey Outward
Day 36 – Tuesday in Holy Week
At dawn, Dame Sophie, as caller of the week knocked at Philippa’s cell, called ‘Benedicite’, Put in her hand and turned on the light;
Philippa, who had tossed and ached all night, hot with fever, filled with a strange pricking and pain, the back of her neck an intolerable ache now, sat up and reached for her shawl, meaning to tell Dame Sophie she was afraid she was ill and ask her to call Dame Joan or one of the aids: as Philippa reached for her shawl she saw her arm coveted with small darkish red blisters; she looked at the other arm, it was covered too, as was her chest when the opened her night tunic. There were no looking glasses in the cells and she had to call Dame Sophie. ‘Dame, look at my face. Have I spots?’
‘Spots?’ Dame Sophie was backing away. ‘You’re covered!’
Then, both together, they said, ‘Sister Polly’s chicken-pox.’
‘I suppose it is chicken-pox,’ said Dame Sophie. ‘It looks Jibe Plague.’
‘I wish it were,’ said Philippa. Then she began to laugh, laughed so that Dame Sophie grew alarmed.
‘Dame, do you feel very ill?’
‘Yes,’ said Philippa, laughing.
‘Then – what are you laughing at?’
‘At myself. My little puny self,’ said Philippa…
For the first few days Philippa was too ill to know much about her incarceration. ‘Her age is against her,’ said Doctor Avery, but Dame Catherine guessed it was the weeks of strain before, the pent-up resistance and the old nightmare about Keith.
‘She hasn’t much weight to spare,’ Doctor Avery said, worried, and the rash was virulent. ‘The poison coming out,’…
Philippa had gasped to Abbess Catherine in a lucid interval and, ‘How many skins does one have to shed?’ but she was often delirious and how much Sister Polly gathered or it learned she never knew.
In her attic isolation cell Philippa was aware of a presence – sometimes it seemed no more than that – but who was always there, in the night as much as the day; someone who bathed wrists and head with heavenly cool water, brought cooling drinks, smoothed creased sheets and pillows, anointed spots that burned and itched.
Sister Polycarp looked after Philippa unemotionally, firmly and thoroughly. ‘No credit to me,’ she said afterwards. ‘I had it lightly, you very badly – besides what else had I to do, shut up in those two little rooms? And I had to help Dame Joan. She was run off her feet. There has been a real epidemic.’
The epidemic, though, was influenza, not chicken pox. Sister Polycarp and Dame Philippa were the only two to catch that.
‘You see,’ said Dame Beatrice ‘you see!’
Philippa and Sister Polycarp, willy-nilly, spent almost three weeks – ‘nineteen days,’ said Sister Polycarp – in one another’s company and, ‘Why was I making such a fuss?’ asked Philippa…
On the twenty-first day of her isolation Philippa was pronounced clear.
‘You can stop ringing your leper’s bell,’ said Doctor Avery. ‘Have a good disinfectant bath, and wash your hair; put on clean clothes and you can go back to life.’
Philippa had a deep bath – ‘my first for more than six years,’ she wrote to McTurk – and when her short hair was dry and she had on fresh linen, Dame Joan brought her a new habit, sent by Dame Agnes.
‘You have had your old one ever since you came, and before that it was Dame Anne’s, so you deserve it. I shall burn the old.’ The new habit was hand woven, so soft and fine that Philippa felt as if she were dressed in silk. Feeling new from head to foot, she went to the Abbess’s room and knocked…
‘Well! Sister Polycarp won that round,’ said Dame Agnes.
‘What do you mean?’ Abbess Catherine was almost sharp.
‘Dame Philippa has just come to me and said that if a zelatrix is still needed for the Japanese – and the others – she is ready.’
‘How kind of her.’ Dame Agnes was dry.
‘Dame, what do you mean?’ Dame Beatrice was really pained. ‘Dame Philippa has fought a painful and powerful battle with herself and won,’
but Dame Agnes shook her head. ‘Dame Philippa won’t have won until she can do what she is asked, what is needed, without a battle,’ she said.
(In This House of Brede – Page 319 passim)
From the Scriptures:
7 Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
8 Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust.
Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.
9 Save me, O Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge.
10 Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.
Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.
A long time ago, when it comes to the life of faith, I gave up believing in coincidences. Too often things have happened just at the right time, with just the right people, for just the right purpose. Some call it serendipity, I see God’s hand behind things, not controlling but nudging, steering, calling until our will is moulded with God’s way. I guess Dame Beatrice and I must be twins with our ability to see God’s hand in all things.
And so it is that God can use even a case of chickenpox to knock some sense into a stubborn nun’s head.
Philippa, not wanting to use her God given gifts to help the Japanese novices for fear of having to work with Sister Polycarp (who reminds her of a deep pain from her past), finally gives in when it is the self-same Sister Polly who minister to her in her illness.
‘Why was I making such a fuss?’ asked Philippa. Sister Polycarp chose Brede as the place where she would answer her vocation because she had heard that Dame Philippa, with whom her family had a connection, was already there. Hoping to find support and a welcome she found avoidance and a cold shoulder. Sister Polly knows and understands the reason why but still says of Philippa, ‘It is understandable but someone as big as Dame Philippa should have been kind.’
Sometimes we meet a logjam on our journey of faith, a kind of feedback loop made up of interference from our past combined with fear of the future. Like the lumberjack trying to get their cargo downstream, we need someone to throw a stick of dynamite into the mess to free our faith and our lives for better service of others. We need something, some event, some word, some ‘coincidence’, to help us take our minds away from our own situation so that our eyes rest more firmly on our Beloved and His call. Or else we end up twisted and self-involved, unable despite our best intentions to even be kind.
I don’t for one minute God intended Philippa to get a bad case of chickenpox, neither do I believe that God visits use with natural disasters or man made wars and catastrophes, I do believe, however, that God uses the mess we find ourselves in to show us a better way forward. I have learnt again and again and ‘know that all things work together for good for those who love God’ (Romans 3v28). I’m just a little slow on the uptake.
Too often, like Philippa, when faced with a difficult situation I have wanted to run away to my cell, my trysting place, and hide, as if that would make things go away. I know I need, when faced with intractable situations, to spend more time asking God what to do instead of licking my wounds or tending to my ego. In the end we learn that life runs much more smoothly when we walk with God daily instead of waiting for a dose of the pox to come along and remind us how puny we are.
I thank God for the odd stick of dynamite in my life. Some have been painful but our God is a God who heals and the hurt does not endure. Other have been times of being surprised by joy. It doesn’t have to be distress that brings us closer to God. Attending a Cursillo weekend, being invited to a Christian Festival, or a pilgrimage to a place like Iona. Many such as these have put my life back on the straight and narrow and reminded me to listen more closely. If you’ve found such occasions valuable what is to stop you form inviting another to attend? Perhaps even offering to help with the cost of them?
O Lord Jesus,
forgive me for the times I have racked you
on the cross of God’s purpose
and my rebellion.
Let me gaze at that cross
and recognize what my wilfulness has done.
So join my grief with your passion, Lord;
that with your whole creation
I may be redeemed.
(Ruth Etchells, England)
1) If you were laid low with a ‘gentle’ case of chickenpox what would you talk to God about during your isolation? What is to stop you from having that conversation in a quiet church in these days before Easter?
2) Which of your fellow worshippers needs an invitation from you to something that breaks spiritual logjams? Take them with you on a Quiet Day, a visit to a holy shrine, or a shared journey through a book about the life of faith. There are many sticks of spiritual dynamite out there.
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