Tuesday, 8 July 2008

I don't think I need go into any detail on the events of last night -others have commented with far more skill and knowledge than me. All I can say is that I will go into work this morning proud to be a Catholic in the Church of England, and proud to remain one for as long as I can.

And because there's nothing else we can do but try to carry on....

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Life in the Convent

Last week Winifred and I went to France to stay in an abbey with a group from our local church. The community of Benedictine monks which resides there is joined on Sundays and feast days by the local community of nuns who live 3km down the road in a beautiful convent, built in the 1950s to house the first sisters who moved there from Paris. Always keen on a little adventure, Winifred and I asked one of the nuns if we could visit them at some point during our stay (actually it was primarily Winifred who asked as her French makes it into complex sentences; mine consists mostly of individual words, largely pronounced in an "'Allo 'Allo" manner and is accompanied by much Italianate gesticulation). The nun we spoke to couldn't have been more positive: she directed us to an English-speaking sister (Sister Anna who is Polish but has lived in France for years) who suggested Sunday afternoon as an ideal time to visit and told us that the convent was simple to reach on foot: "just leave the abbey gates, turn left, go into the valley and you can't miss us". Easy peasy. And, with a bit of help from some local walkers, it was. We arrived in the convent to be greeted by an elderly receptionist in full habit and wimple. She summoned Sister Anna on the internal phone line and we were taken out onto the terrace for some cold water with Syrop before being conducted on a tour of the enclosure. This, we were told, was not their usual custom with visitors, but they are very keen on keeping up good relations with their Anglican brethren. So we were led into the convent equivalent of the VIP area... The chapel is simple but beautiful. The apse is fashioned from an old stone bread oven which was donated to the convent. There is a beautiful medieval statue of Our Lady which a local farmer found when ploughing and kept secretly, certain that one day a community would be founded in the local area and so would be of use to it. In addition, there were two full-scale wooden carvings of St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica (more of whom in a future post...). Sister Anna also showed us the community room, the chapter house, the refectory and the cloister and we were joined by another sister who was visiting from a Benedictine community just outside Jerusalem. Daily life in the convent was presented to us enthusiastically: the daily office, mass, work, meals, recreation (the sisters are permitted one non-religious book to read after lunch, such as a history book: it seems even nuns are allowed some time off!). We were then conducted to the shop which was full of exquisite candles which the sisters produce in order to support themselves financially. Although apparently this is becoming increasingly difficult as they are competing with supermarkets and high-street stores. Still, they get by with the help of income from those who visit and stay in their guest house which is particularly family friendly as, unlike the monks at the abbey, they do not ask their guests to remain silent during meals (this proved to be one of the most challenging parts of our stay at the abbey. However, it was gratifying to note that the sisters found it arduous at times too!). Finally, we were given tea and biscuits and driven back to the abbey in the sisters' minibus/'nun-mobile' (an exciting ride!) in time for solemn vespers.

The most overwhelming part of our visit to the sisters was their sheer happiness. Given that they had been up since 6am (I confess I'd opted for saying Morning Prayer by myself at 8am rather than making it to Lauds at 7am...) it must have been an exhausting day. In addition, the weather was glorious, but extremely hot which I imagine is no joke in their fierce garb. However, they all seemed genuinely delighted to receive us and to make us feel welcome. Even when it was pointed out to us that we ought to remain silent during the bus journey to the abbey (they use it as time to prepare for the service ahead) it was done with gentleness and grace: none of your shushing and glaring here. This brief exposure to the sisters’ placidness and quiet, consistent faith has remained with me since our trip. At a time when our Church seems to be in turmoil and the future appears so uncertain, the sisters provide, I think, a reminder of why we are here and what we constantly strive for: to know and love Our Lord and to live to His and His people's service.