Howton Grove Priory | Mobile WebsiteSharing a Vocation with the World . . .


D. Teresa came home today. Fortunately, we had finished tidying away most of the remains of the Garden Party, so the house looked fairly civilized when she arrived; but of course, that is not what really matters. "Coming home" means a feeling of ease and familiarity, of knowing one's place, of accepting and being accepted. A monastery ought to give that sense of belonging to all its members. The big challenge for monastic communities is, how far that sense of welcome, of being at home, can be shared with others without making the monastery less of a home for the monks or nuns who live there. The practice of enclosure is fundamental, but as a discipline it is often misunderstood and sometimes misused. It would be so much easier if we didn't feel the need for private space!

SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus

The name of this feast varies. Some celebrate St Martha only and give gloomy little homilies on the necessity of hard work, with a nod in the direction of the contemplative life, which is all right for monks and nuns but has nothing to do with anyone else (sic). Some celebrate St Mary as well, and give rather more upbeat homilies, recognizing with St Bernard that Mary and Martha are sisters and equally necessary to the life of the Church. They tend to exalt the contemplative life, with the result that anyone leading a normally busy existence (even in a monastery) may be left feeling vaguely inferior, as though they hadn't quite made the grade. Benedictines of course know that there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, and never overlook the opportunity of gaining friends in high places. So we celebrate Mary, Martha AND Lazarus and keep the feast as a feast of friendship, a Little Easter in the desert of Ordinary Time, with its promise of resurrection and new life. We may not have it in us to be a Martha or a Mary, but we can surely all imitate Lazarus. Jesus was his friend and saw his need. Lazarus did nothing, simply allowed the Lord to act and was transformed. A reminder, if we need one, that God's ideas are so much bigger than our own.

Reminder for a Busy Day

We all have days when we feel completely overwhelmed and grumble at God or our nearest and dearest because we can't possibly meet all the demands being made upon us. On days like that it is good to recall the words of St Catherine of Siena, "God doesn't ask a perfect work, only perfect desire." Or if we are suffering from ennui, there's always St Teresa of Avila, who was quite happy to admit there were times when she couldn't swat a fly for the love of God. Two great mystics and Doctors of the Church with a keen understanding of human weakness. Does the fact that both were women have something to do with it?

St Mary Magdalene

I don't know why so many people persist in thinking of Mary Magdalene as a notorious sinner. The gospels portray her as a woman of great character and resolve whose experience of being healed by the Lord Jesus was utterly transforming. But perhaps the popular view of Mary as a penitent is useful to us in the twenty-first century, who so rarely accept that we are sinners in need of repentance. We must acknowledge God's love and forgiveness rather than dwell on our own shocking ingratitude, but we must not pretend that sin is of no consequence. There are some lines of Phineas Fletcher (1580–1650) that I've always loved. The poet asks that his tear-filled eyes may become the way in which the Lord sees sin. There is a prayer in the paradox.
Drop, drop, slow tears
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from heaven
The news and Prince of Peace;
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

Vocation Trends

Recently we have had several vocation enquiries, some of which required considerable thought and prayer before answering. We always try to be helpful, even when it is clear that our community would not be suitable (e.g. the enquirer does not speak English). Some of the questions and responses will eventually be incorporated into our FAQ section, but I must admit to being fascinated by the "shopping lists" of requirements the community, rather than the applicant, is sometimes expected to fulfil. Such lists may be tinged with a little romanticism or nostalgia for a Catholicism that never was (nothing wrong with that, religion shouldn't be dreary, though the cynic in me wonders how well a theoretical enthusiasm for fasting and long hours in choir will stand up to the reality) or a tendency to assume that we must be terribly lax here because our current timetable subsumes all the Little Hours into one lengthy office of Midday Prayer (come and see, O doubting Thomasina). Some enquirers want to know exactly how "traditional" we are. I never know how to answer that until I know how the enquirer herself understands tradition. Benedictine monasticism, like Catholicism itself, is inherently traditional, and I like to think St Benedict would recognize us as true disciples; but there is an understanding of tradition which is fundamentally un-Catholic, preferring private judgement to the Magisterium, and very narrow in its sympathies. If there's anything narrow about us, good Lord, deliver us!

Two Cherries

I was walking the dog in the interval between Vigils and Lauds. He was thinking deep thoughts about rabbits and hares and I was thinking deep thoughts about nothing in particular when we both stopped. There on the path lay two cherries, flawless in the morning light. Some earlier walker must have dropped them, and by some strange chance the local birds had failed to discover them. Duncan was puzzled, and sat down with furrowed brow to consider the question; while he pondered, I was suddenly transported to another morning many years ago, when snow lay thick on the ground, and I walked from King's into Clare and was surprised by cherry blossom scattered on the glistening whiteness. The fleeting beauty of that memory and the radiant beauty of the present made me think. The blossom must fade, if there is to be fruit; and the fruit must fall and break open if there is to be a future tree. Only we human beings seem to resent the process of growing older, of change and decay. Duncan sniffed delicately and looked up, recalling me to the present. We left the cherries where they lay. Even a dog and a nun can give life a chance.

InterFaith Dialogue

There's an interesting InterFaith meeting going on in Madrid at the moment (the traditional home of Three Faiths debate). The sponsor is the King of Saudi Arabia, which is astonishing, given the reputation of Wahabi Islam for intolerance. Let's pray that this is one conference that actually produces a worthwhile result, though I suspect it will be a long time before freedom to practise their religion is extended to Christians in Saudi. In bleaker moments, given the hostility towards Christianity in some parts of Britain, I wonder whether the same might one day be true here.

St Swithun and the Symbolic

Life is very hectic at the moment as the round trip to visit D. Teresa takes three hours, so no time for Chapter talks or podcasts, alas. If there were, I'd like to say something about St Swithun. Instead I'll have to point people in the direction of Michael Lapidge's excellent "The Cult of St Swithun". I daresay all the local children will be reciting the old rhyme about rain on St Swithun's day and looking anxiously at the skies, but I wonder how many, confronted by the image of a bishop holding a bridge and with broken eggs at his feet, will realise that it is a representation of St Swithun or recall the miracle it purports to recall? Odd that in an age when the visual is so important, Catholicism has lost much of its ability to read the language of symbols. Perhaps that is why the monastic life we share with St Swithun is incomprehensible to so many. It is, in the fullest possible sense, "symbolic".

Sunshine and Smiles

Nice to see the sun shining for the feast of St Benedict! This is, of course, the "lesser" feast; the one that Benedictines celebrate with most solemnity is that of the Transitus on 21 March. But St Benedict's day is St Benedict's day, so there will be much rejoicing and thanksgiving. We send greetings and good wishes to all our Associates and Friends, especially those who are in hospital or recovering from a stay in hospital. We moved D. Teresa last night from the Nuffield Hospital to the Millhouse Care Home in Witney, where she will be a for a few days. She has taken her first steps and we hope she will now make a speedy recovery. Visiting hours are open and she would be pleased to see any of her friends. Meanwhile, back at the monastery, we had hoped to put up our new web site section about St Benedict and the Rule but the events of the last few weeks have delayed us. Perhaps it will be all the better for having to "mature". I wonder if St Benedict would appreciate being likened to vintage claret?

Grumbles and Gripes

What is it about wet weather in summer that brings out the worst in people (including nuns)? Found myself being carved up on the A34 yesterday and thinking uncharitable thoughts about the carver-uper (which, as everybody knows, nuns are not allowed to think). Then I thought even more uncharitable thoughts about a long series of unnecessary telephone calls (always distrust people who begin, "I was wondering if you could just . . ." and then go on with a list of demands which makes the Labours of Hercules look like a quick trip to the corner shop). I even thought uncharitable thoughts about a bundle of wet dog deciding that I was his best friend ever and needed a display of doggy affection. Hopeless. I'm just a grumpy nun.


Someone asked a good question yesterday, "Are you founded or are you still founding?" I think what the questioner probably meant was, "Is the process of foundation (of the monastery) complete?" Canonically, of course, everything is in place, and we have done all that the civil law requires, but can any monastery ever really be called "complete"? Communities are always changing in some way as new members enter, old members die, and the rest become more determinedly middle-aged. Buildings are altered, furnishings changed, the very landscape may look different. Even the so-called unchanging elements of monastic life and liturgy take on a different cast: we do not sing the salicus now as it was sung in the earlier twentieth century, and that one small change has quite transformed some pieces of chant. And yet, if one stands in the choir at Romsey and thinks back to all those nuns who lived there generation after generation from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, one has no difficulty in recognizing the continuities between their lives and ours. Being a Benedictine is a constant process of becoming.

The Book of Job

We are reading the Book of Job at Vigils. Sometimes it sends shivers down one's spine — too much drama for six in the morning! The dialogue between God and Satan is full of humour, but menace too; the catastrophes that fall upon Job are both comic and pathetic. I suppose much of life is like that. Comedy and tragedy are so often mixed and there can be undertones in the most ordinary of conversations. Job is someone with whom we can all sympathize. He refuses to accept the glib certainties of his so-called comforters, questions the Almighty, searches his conscience for evidence of wrong-doing and asserts his own innocence; in short, behaves like most of us when confronted with suffering and pain. But baffled, angry Job refuses to blame God and eventually comes to acknowledge God's utter transcendence. He places his finger over his lips. There may be a lesson for all of us in that.

Spam Attacks

Our Prayerline page has been inundated with spam recently so we are considering introducing a CAPTCHA element which should weed out the (non-human) villains, although it will make the process of sending a message longer, and for visually-impaired people, more complex. The big problem with spam from our point of view is the amount of time it wastes. We look at all our Prayerline emails, so if we get a few hundred spammy messages, you can imagine the consequences. This last week's electronic postbag has contained many cries from the heart, and it would be sad indeed if we failed to hear them. Please join us in praying for all who have asked our prayers. Prayer, like love, is one thing that can never hurt another.

D. Teresa Rodrigues

It is becoming difficult to respond to all the enquiries about D. Teresa, so here is an update. She had surgery on Monday and is now recovering. Please continue to support her with your prayers as we shall not know for a while how successful or otherwise the operation has been. Visiting hours at the Nuffield Hospital (Ward E) are 10.30 to 12 noon and 15:00 to 20:00. I imagine she will be feeling a bit groggy today but would be pleased to see people from Wednesday onwards. If there is any alteration to this, we'll post a note here and add a message to our answerphone recording. Howzat for the positive side of technology that can sometimes sem intrusive or maddening, depending on one's mood?