A Trysting Place– 40 Days in Brede Abbey
Philippa – the Journey Outward
Day 40 – Holy Saturday
[Philippa] did not need to be told what would await her as Superior at Suwa – she knew, without dissembling, It would have to be as Superior. She had seen enough of Abbess Catherine’s lot at Brede. Yet Brede was long established, with a pattern for everything, and a legion of strong, well-schooled nuns to help. Suwa would be different, as every Benedictine house was different, having to make its own way, find its particular flavour, but in strange surroundings…
Everything she had counted on at Brede would be gone, the peace, the anonymity, the shield of Abbess Catherine, the friendships – and the fun, thought Philippa. It had been bad enough for Dame Colette to have to go – ‘but she had had decades of Brede, while I, so pitifully little,’ whispered Philippa.
Self-pity would not help, but she could have a moment’s private rebellion…
She saw the almond trees in flower, those treacherous almond trees. They had made her give herself away – and at once the inevitable answer came back. Isn’t that what you came for? To give yourself away? She remembered her Solemn Profession, her vows and the moment when she had lain before the altar – a holocaust. A little thing, thought Philippa, but the greatest anyone can give: yourself.
In the cloister she met Cecily. Cecily did not stop at the token bow, the small inclination of the head, with which the nuns passed to one another. Cecily, so undemonstrative now, stopped and put her arms round Philippa in a hug; her eyes were big with tears as she tightened it. Behind Cecily was Polycarp – Dame Polly. She took Philippa’s hands and wrung them before she went on her way. Neither of them broke silence but more eloquently than if they had used torrents of words, it was a foretaste of ‘goodbye’.
(In This House of Brede – Page 413 passim)
From the Scriptures:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16 A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17 He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’
‘Follow me!’ What’s so difficult about that? Surely it is, as Philippa knew deep in her heart, all that we ever wanted to do? Yet, as we grow closer to our Beloved we know that will always mean we will become less attached to the things we used to love. This even applies to those things that drew us closer in the first place! The Abbey helps Philippa be silent enough to hear God’s love song yet it is the same Abbey sends her away able to hear that song beyond the walls of the enclosure.
We are on a perpetual journey, be it one of time or space, or most usually, both. Philippa has discovered (despite her last minute moment of rebellion) that the words of Dag Hammarskjöld are the only response we can give to our Beloved as we are called again and again to new and renewed service. ‘For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes!’ It would be wonderful if, as Peter suggested we could remain on the Mountain Top with the transfigured Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but then how would anyone else ever hear the Gospel?
Over these 40 days of Lent we have deliberately and intentionally focussed on our Journey Inward perhaps at the expense of our Journey Outward. Now, like Philippa, it is time for us to leave the solitude of our cell and, following our Beloved, go outward and even go ’where [we] do not wish to go.’ How will we cope without those things we had counted on? ‘All would be gone, the peace, the anonymity, the shield of Abbess Catherine, the friendships – and the fun.’ Leaving home is a very difficult task…
Sometimes I do only small things for God because I am frightened of being alone. I look at what God asks of me and I hesitate. I am excited by the call yes, but I am dismayed at all the starting over again. Ask any minister how often they move during their career and living without a place you can call home. For when you leave a church fellowship it is not fair (or holy) to refuse to leave behind the previous relationships you have built. Those whom you have loved are now in the care of another shepherd and those you are now amongst deserve your full attention.
But this is not only the lot of clergy, nuns and monks; it is the common lot of a very large proportion of the world’s population. As I sit at Landguard Point and see the enormous container ships entering the Port of Felixstowe my heart goes out to their crew who have been at sea for months on end, will be in Port for just a few days. A quick break at the Seafarers Centre, perhaps a walk in to town to replace a mobile phone that broke during the voyage, and then cast off the lines and it is back out to sea again. How do seafarers and truck drivers, miners and railway workers, migrant labourers and airline pilots, maintain strong and healthy relationships with friends and family and their faith? The enclosure of an Abbey, the expectation that you have a frequent retreat or time of quiet, is for them nothing but a pipe dream.
Catherine de Heuck Doherty, in her books Poustinia and Sobornost reminded Western Christians of the Orthodox habit of trying to take your ‘cell’, the place that helps you grow inward with you on the journey outwards. In Orthodox faith a poustinia is a small one roomed refuge, a trysting place if you will, in the grounds of your home or in the countryside wherein only prayer and silence grows. Doherty’s challenge to us is to somehow take the Poustinia with us. She uses the image of a woman with child who has new life growing within her yet still goes about her normal business as an example to follow. We learn to meet our Beloved everyday (not just for the 40 days of Lent) because we aim to carry the silence of love within us.
And as Cecily and Polly showed to Philippa, words are not always necessary when the language we speak is the language of love.
I am only a spark;
make me a ﬁre.
I an only a string;
make me a lyre.
I am only a drop;
make me a fountain.
I am only an ant hill;
make me a mountain.
I am only a feather;
make me a wing.
I am only a rag;
make me a king!
Today is the ‘empty’ day of Lent when not much happens except the waiting for a new birth. Try to do nothing onerous or exacting today, or to not be busy doing things all day, and simply listen to our Beloved’s words of love for you.
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