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

SS Peter and Paul

This glorious feast may remind us of many things: visits to St Peter's or St Paul's-outside-the-Walls, perhaps; memories of popes of our own time; the liturgical antiphons for today; sweet peas before the altar; the smell of Basilica incense; even the earnest exhortations of dutiful parish priests to "contribute generously to Peter Pence". And in the midst of this thick clutter of remembrance, there is the fact that the Lord chose two quite flawed people to be leaders in His Church. There is Peter, so weak and wobbly at times, his very volatility seeming to disqualify him from any special office. But the Lord does not see as we see, He looks at the heart; and He found Peter's exactly what He desired. Then Paul, such an awkward man, so full of argumentative self-righteousness, who would have thought that he would be so captivated by Christ that he would spend the remainder of his life meditating on the mystery of redemption and preaching it to all and sundry? There is hope here for us all, and a warning. Flawed as we are, we too have a role to play in the work of salvation; yet we must remember that we too may be called to martyrdom. As St Augustine remarks in another context, "Can the way be so very hard which countless others have trodden before us?"

God of Surprises

We hadn't intended to spend Thursday afternoon in hospital, but we did; and it has rather delayed our putting up the gallery of concert photos. But they are there now, and we hope you will enjoy them (see Gallery III). Spent a pleasant hour this morning picking blackcurrants and peas and thinking deep thoughts. . . Tomorrow D. Teresa goes into hospital (another one) for surgery on her knee which we hope will mean she can throw away her wheelchair. Please keep her in your prayers.

The Morning After

Jubilate! about to sing
We are a trifle bleary-eyed this moning, but yesterday's concert must be considered a great success. Simon Whalley and Jubilate! gave a sparkling performance of works by modern American composers (including one of the finest renditions of Barber's Agnus Dei I've heard), ending with a delightful medley of old American Songs arranged by Copland and Simon Whalley himself. Afterwards we moved into the lovely gardens of Hendred House for wine and nibbles and there was much talk and quiet laughter until the shadows lengthened. The Friends truly excelled themselves in their attention to detail. As one member of the choir said, "I knew the moment I arrived and saw car-park marshalls that this was going to be good." Our sincere thanks to all. We'll put up a gallery of photos later today or tomorrow and post the financial results on the Friends' page once we've done all the sums.

Birthday of St John the Baptist

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Lady and St John the Baptist. Tonight we shall be having a lovely "birthday party", with Jubilate! providing the music and wine and nibbles in the gardens of Hendred House. Only ten tickets remain unsold: the Friends have done a wonderful job encouraging people to come. It will not be a very peaceful day in the monastery as there is much to do, but St John won't be forgotten; and this evening, the concert-goers will be able to look across to the ancient chapel that bears his name. Fortunately, there will be more than locusts and wild honey on offer among the nibbles!

St Etheldreda and Holy English Nuns

Finished printing out the concert programme for the 24th at one o'clock this morning, which made the prospect of Vigils at six somewhat unappealing, then remembered that we had not posted the podcast. Discovered I had overwritten the file. Did a last check of emails and discovered two apparently "urgent" requests from customers of Veilpress | Veilnet (sent on Sunday evening forsooth . . .) so spent half an hour trying to sort out the problems. Probably made things worse. Lots of people will be able to resonate with that kind of shambolic "start to the week". But it made me think once more of all those Anglo-Saxon nuns to whom we owe so much. Yes, they were women of prayer and wide charity, but they were also scholars and skilled scribes, intrepid missionaries and best of all, perhaps, to those who knew them, wise and generous friends. They not only understood but practised the art of just getting on with things without grumbling and without waiting until everything was perfect. They are good patrons to have, especially on days like today.

Psalm 129 (130)

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord." I wonder how many times we have sung that psalm at Vigils on Thursdays, yet to me it always seems new-minted. Sometimes it has been sung "out of the depths" of pain or sorrow or sheer bewilderment; sometimes "out of the depths" of joy and wonder; most often, probably, "out of the depths" of what one might call a godly routine. In the Hebrew bible it is marked as a Song of Ascents, a pilgrimage song for the journey to Jerusalem. I like the reminder every Thursday that we are indeed all on our way to God, no matter how rocky or difficult the path seems, and that the journey, like the psalm, ends with a promise of redemption.


Took a walk by Scutchamer Knob yesterday evening and was grieved to see that ravers had left behind bags of rubbish and strewn beer cans and bottles in all directions. Such selfishness and lack of respect have immediate and unpleasant consequences. Not only is a beautiful place desecrated, children and dogs are put at risk from broken glass, flies multiply, and some of the wildlife suffers. It puts my grumbles about occasional passersby tossing rubbish into the monastery garden into perspective; but I'd still rather everyone took their rubbish home, wouldn't you?

Guilt and Shame

Some of the saddest entries in our postbag come from people who are burdened with a sense of guilt and shame. So often, they feel hopeless. How can God possibly forgive me for doing that? Or, even, I deserve to be punished for doing such and such. And one can feel the anguish and self-doubt in every line. True, we may deserve to be punished for what we have done, but it is for the Law to decide that; God is much more interested in forgiveness and reconciliation. It is we who make the difficulty, refusing to seek or even accept a forgiveness we cannot earn or in any way co-erce. Guilt and shame are not very productive emotions and can be a barrier to grace. No wonder we are encouraged to pray for humility, the ability to see things as they are.

Religious Art

Recently I have been reading Rosemary Hill's biography of Pugin, God's Architect. Architectural history has fascinated me since I was a child, but I came comparatively late to an appreciation of Victorian Gothic, possibly because I have lived or worked in Victorian Gothic buildings most of my life. What interests me about Pugin, however, is not just the fine buildings and artefacts for which he was responsible, but his enormous zest for life, his huge capacity for work — the rows, the intrigues, the delight in detail — and above all, perhaps, his conception of the architect as a man divinely appointed, a "steward of the mysteries" no less than the priest at the altar. I wonder whether our contemporary concern with design has lost something now that few would admit to the designer's being anything more than a talented individual. Pugin understood the middle ages in one point very well; the individual is unthinkable without the group and good design must be allied to good workmanship. L'art pour l'art? Not quite, but there is no room for the second-rate in religious art. (No podcast this week as a cold is sweeping through the community and hoarse vocies and sniffles do not make for pleasant listening.)

Frazzled Nuns

There is a dish, much beloved of the community, called officially Cheese Frizzle but always known as Cheese Frazzle because of the generally frazzled state of whoever elects to cook it. (The dish, by the way, is a mixture of cheese, eggs and oats, requiring very little preparation or cooking time, hence its usefulness to the frazzled. The recipe will appear in our Christmas Cook Book). It has been appearing on the table rather often of late, which makes me wonder if pressure is mounting. But everyone seems to be smiling; I haven't heard any "accidentally" slammed doors; the dog isn't being walked more frequently than usual; and most tellingly of all, no one is having a row about liturgy. It is a reminder, to me at least, that things are not always what they seem. When trying to judge the moods of others, we need to do some delicate reconnaissance before jumping to conclusions. So, are we frazzled here in Hendred – or just addicted to cheese?

Being Patient with God

Recently I was asked why God did not answer a prayer for help in a difficult situation. Why did God not work a miracle to heal someone who was suffering terribly? That is a question we must all face: apparently unanswered prayer where the prayer is for something good and, in human terms, entirely consistent with what we know of God as a loving Father. The standard answer (which also happens to be true) is that God hears all our prayers but the way in which He responds is not always the way we would choose. We are apt to forget that we pray that God's will may be done. Usually, what we want is our will to be done. There is nothing wong with that, of course, but we have to remember that the relationship between ourselves and God is not one of equals. God is supreme. We have to be patient, which is difficult, especially in our "instant gratification" society; we mustn't give up when we don't "succeed" but do as the gospels tell us and persevere in prayer. If you like paradoxes, you could call it being patient with God.

Cold Calls and the Eleventh Step of Humility

A monastery is not free of cold calling despite our having taken steps to block such calls. A particularly insistent caller yesterday (Sunday) and the difficulty we had shaking him off politely made me think about today's section of the Rule. Benedict is not talking here about the right and wrong uses of speech as such but the actual quantity of words that fall from our lips and the way in which we should ensure they are worthwhile. We all tend to babble on because we do not take words seriously enough, and that is how we allow anger or pride or mockery of others to creep in. Speech is a gift which, by and large, we take for granted. Some of us, of course, cannot take it for granted: we struggle with lisps or stammers, a stroke makes it difficult to articulate clearly enough to be understood, or the need for an oxygen mask makes every word an effort. It would be a pity if only a speech impediment or illness made us stop and think about the way we use words.

Flights of Fancy

Lark ascending

The last few days have been full of bird sightings: a barn owl at dusk, white wings glowing, as she took a mouse or vole back to her nest; a red-legged partridge sitting on a fence and obviously reluctant to move; and always there are the larks, pouring out their ecstatic song as they fly higher and higher (the photo was taken early this morning, in the interval between Vigils and Lauds). The beauty of the sky has entranced countless generations. Even in popular speech, we talk of "the heavens" and instinctively invest them with a more than natural significance. Astronomy, mathematics, chemistry — all are sciences that have led to a deeper sense of wonder. As the author of this week's podcast remarks, it was contemplating the beauty of the periodic table that first gave her intimations of God.

St Boniface

By a curious irony, one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived is largely forgotten in this country. In Germany, however, where his name is synonymous with the Anglo-Saxon Mission, his memory is still green. We have quite a lot of information about St Boniface's life and work, including an extremely interesting letter collection which allows us to see something of his friendships, especially with nuns. There are delightful touches: Boniface receiving a gift of towels (the Anglo-Saxons had an astonishing fondness for towels) or sending a community of monks a barrel of beer "for a merry day with the brethren". Benedictines owe him a special debt. The great abbey of Fulda and the popularity of the Rule of St Benedict throughout the Middle Ages owe much to his efforts. Finally, there is the moving story of his martyrdom, shielding himself from the axe blow by holding above his head the book of the Gospels, "protected in death by the book he had loved and studied in life." This diocese can claim Boniface for its own, for he taught at Nursling, where Leoba of Wimborne and later Bischofsheim may have been among his pupils. It is inspiring to think that the Christianization of so much of continental Europe stems from the missionary zeal of our monastic forebears here. May we in our day share their zeal.

The Marvel of the Ordinary

Yesterday was an "ordinary" day, rainy, a bit drab, the kind of day one does not recall. So here is a list, in no particular order, of some its transforming marvels which I might have missed but fortunately didn't: the sound of running water everywhere, with its soft chuck-chuck-chuckle; raindrops shimmering on leaves; the thick smell of earth; unfurling leaves, pale green and delicate, in the greenhouse; Duncan sitting comfortably under a warm dry tree while a very wet nun tried to coax him round the garden; Martyrs of Uganda and the thought of Africa's hot vermillion soil; the smell of baking bread; laughter in the next room; the deep silence of the oratory; psalm 118, with its wonderful dance around the Torah; an email from a friend; someone said thank you; someone said I feel better now; I learned something new.

The Fifth Degree

What St Benedict says in today's portion of the Rule has validity on the psychological as well as spiritual level. To be really honest with oneself seems to require the help of another. Although it can be diffiult to articulate sin and weakness, the very act of doing so can be liberating – as generations of Catholics have experienced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance. Benedict is wholly positive about the practice of confession and takes for granted that disclosure and healing will take place in an atmosphere of condfidentiality and trust. Obviously, that cuts both ways. We expect those we confide in to be trustworthy; those who confide in us must find the same trustworthiness we expect of others. The power of binding and loosing is, sacramentally speaking, the privilege of the priesthood. We tend to forget that it is also a responsibility entrusted to all Christians. We, too, by our kindness and sympathy can set others free.

Trivial Pursuits

How trivial are most of the things one worries about on a day to day basis. I spent much of Friday cleaning the carpet in the downstairs corridor, trying to remove the accumulated muddy footsteps of winter visitors and negligent nuns alike, something that had been "bothering me" for some time. This morning I noticed one of the high gutters had leaked and we have a damp patch oozing along a recently repainted wall. I started thinking about how to deal with that as well as all the other things planned/required for today. I know all will be taken care of eventually (not necessarily as one would like: the damp patch will dry out but the stain will remain). In the meantime I shall probably waste time and energy worrying. No wonder we pray daily in the Mass to be delivered from anxiety.

White Rabbit Moments

In theory, life in a monastery should be calm and peaceful, full of that "busy leisure" St Bernard writes so eloquently about. Alas, it is often full of "White Rabbit moments". Nuns can be as busy as anyone else, sometimes even more so, because whatever the deadline, whatever the need of the person who telephones or knocks at the door, the Divine Office must still be celebrated and the personal commitment to prayer and study must continue, day in, day out. This obedience to the daily living out of the Rule constitutes a real asceticism. Asceticism gets a bad press in the west, where we have become accustomed to getting our own way and indulging as many of our appetites as we can with no thought about the impact on others. The result seems to be increasing misery in the midst of affluence for some, and for others, a mounting sense of frustration and impotence that often issues in violence. Toay's podcast reflects on the root causes of violence in ourselves and in society at large.