A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Philippa – the Journey Outward
Day 38 – Maundy Thursday
When Abbess Catherine had officially released her from her Japanese charges, Philippa had climbed the tower stairs and stood there at the parapet, taking a new breath. I can go back to my own life, she had thought, with gratitude and content. ‘1 can abrogate responsibility,’ she said as she had said before. Perhaps, too, she had thought unconsciously that there should be some sort of easement or reward. It had been the shock of shocks, when the Distribution of Offices came round, to find herself named infirmarian.
‘Infirmarian! I! I!’ She could not believe it. ‘Besides, how can anyone imagine the infirmary without Dame Joan?’
‘Exactly,’ said the Abbess. ‘It’s time somebody did. Dame Joan has done a long hard term. She deserves a change.’
‘Mother, I… I know nothing about ill people.’ Philippa had been incoherent with dismay. ‘I have only one instinct with anyone ill and that is to run in the opposite direction.’
But Abbess Catherine had not shown a jot of sympathy. ‘Then this will be a new experience for you,’ she said, and, ‘no work can give you more closeness with and experience of the community; with your long time with the Japanese you have been specialized too long.’
‘But Mother! Think of the poor patients,’ Philippa pleaded but Abbess Catherine had ignored that. ‘Go to Mother Prioress, she will tell you what you have to do,’ and Philippa was dismissed…
She was used to it now, after two years, and the Abbess had been right; no work could have brought her closer to the community; nuns whom she had scarcely spoken to had became almost intimate.
‘You really know someone when you have helped her through a spell of frightening asthma, attacks of vomiting, inflicted pain on her by hot-poulticing a virulent abscess. One thing I have learned,’ Philippa told the Abbess, ‘and that is how fastidious I was, how I guarded myself as if I were precious.’
She had flinched from much of it, often felt impatient, but never with Dame Emily Lovell; to tend her was a privilege…
…Dame Emily lingered, though she was dying by inches and, when Philippa and Sister Mary, who specialized in looking after the old and very ill, lifted the emaciated body to ease her position, wash her, or change the sheets, Philippa could not put enough of tenderness and strength into it.
‘If only I had a touch like yours,’ she told Sister Mary. ‘I so hate to hurt her but am afraid I do.’ The last week had been one of great suffering, but there had not been a murmur of self-pity or complaint.
(In This House of Brede – Page 405 passim)
From the Scriptures:
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
‘Then this will be a new experience for you,’
Philippa thinks, having escaped her duties in the novitiate with the Japanese nuns, she is now free to pick up the threads of her old ways and continue to pursue ‘her’ vocation rather than God’s call. No such luck. Having shown Abbess Catherine that she is finally willing to give everything away to help serve her sisters in the Abbey, Philippa is taken at her word and thrown into an area that is beyond her expertise and very much outside of her comfort zone.
What a wonderful lesson to learn!
Since I have been ordained I have seen several beloved colleagues and friends try to make God’s call conditional and be willing to serve wherever God sends them except in those place where they do not feel comfortable or do not feel they will be successful.
The first time I was at St Mary’s Cathedral Johannesburg, with it’s grand Baldechino, reminding me of my upbringing at the Royal Hospital School, and it wonderful interpretation of the Rood of Good Friday, I was, to be honest, very dismissive. The service was Evensong according to the South African Prayer Book (a copy of the rejected BCP of 1928) but there were far too many psalms, the choir was out of tune and slow, and the hymn singing was perfunctory to say the least. My heart sank and I remember turning to God and saying, ‘How can anyone worship you in this way with these words?’ (I have always been a Liturgical Movement enthusiast). I did not need to wait too long for the reply from on high which thundered, ‘Andrew, if you can’t worship me with these words how can you worship me with any words?’
I, like Philippa, have (I hope!) learnt the words of the Mother of Jesus to the servants at the Wedding at Cana ‘Do whatever he tells you!’ Every time we kick against the goads and choose our comfort and competence over God’s call, miracles do not occur and the feast of love is spoiled. To do what God wants, unsurprisingly, often involves doing what we do not want to do, doing what we do not enjoy doing, and doing what we are not equipped to do. But God calls us to do it anyway.
Yesterday, the Bishop of Dunwich phoned me to say that a Diocesan Committee to which I had been appointed had no space for me. A disappointment? No, not really. He and I know that this means that I am now available to serve on whatever committee and in whichever position next becomes vacant. Am I disappointed or anxious? Not in the least! I have learnt to be comfortable in this liminal place where I find myself waiting for the ‘Distribution of Offices’. It is a moment for me, when the Beloved having said to me ‘Jump’ that my feet need to be already off the ground before I respond with ‘How high Lord?’
For only when all our abilities and inabilities, competentcies and questions, have been handed over does God have enough space to work miracles in us and through us.
God of many names,
my name is known to you.
I am held in the hand of your life,
and I do not know what you will make of me.
All I know is that I cannot make myself
any more than I could in my mother’s womb.
But this I can do,
this I choose,
to give myself into the hand of your continuing creativity.
My past, with its joys and triumphs, its failures and regrets.
My present, with its struggles and accomplishments, its failures and regrets.
My future, with its fears and freedom, its pain and promise.
To loose and to bind, to stretch and to shape,
to become what I will,
trusting the hand that made the world
trusting the spirit that breathes life
trusting the love that will not let me go
trusting the promise of the Word made ﬂesh.
(Kathy Galloway, Scotland)
1) What have you not done, that God has asked you to do, because you don’t feel you can do it? Do it!
2) What holds you back from doing everything God asks? Hand over your fears and your uncertainties to Jesus who today hands himself over to suffer for us.
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