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

The Music of Shakespeare

This year's Music for Midsummer is scheduled for Tuesday, 30 June and promises to be a wonderful evening, with weather to match. If you haven't yet got a ticket, there are still some which will be available at the door. Come and hear Jubilate! under their director Simon Whalley and some fine actors give us The Music of Shakespeare in word and song. Afterwards we shall meet in the gardens of Hendred House (adjoining the church) for wine and canapés as the shadows lengthen over the grass and the swallows wheel overhead. Very English, very enjoyable and an excellent way of helping our work for the blind and visually impaired, about which we shall say something during the evening. The community retreat continues until 5 July but an exception will be made for the concert: the nuns will be allowed to speak! (podcast resumes next week.)

Michael Jackson, R.I.P.

Already (5.00 a.m.) our prayerline is humming with requests to pray for the repose of the soul of Michael Jackson. Perhaps people will be more generous in death than they sometimes were in life to someone who was clearly both hugely talented and deeply troubled. No doubt the media will have a brief "Wacko Jacko" feeding frenzy which will tend to eclipse the real grief of his family and friends. Let us hope that his family will be given the space they need to come to terms with the shock of his death, and that those who had something against him will be able to forgive and let go. We all face death: surely none of us would want to enter that good night with unresolved quarrels or conflicts, or some kind of "unfinished business" hanging over us. Catholics customarily pray for the grace of a happy death, one in which we are at peace with God and others. We also believe that we can help with our prayers those who have already died; so let us pray today for Michael Jackson and all to whom death has come suddenly. Requiescant in pace. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Three Feasts

At this time of year we celebrate three feasts that are great favourites with the community. Yesterday we had SS Thomas More and John Fisher, today we have St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns, while tomorrow we have the Birthday of St John the Baptist. More and Fisher were great Englishmen with whom we have a number of connections that make them not-so-distant figures. At Hendred House over the way you can see More's drinking cup and Fisher's cane, with which he walked to the block, while we look to a nearer connection through D. Gertrude More, disciple of Fr Baker and a worthy great-great-grandaughter of the martyr. As English nuns,we have no difficulty in identifying with our predecessors when, for example, we read about changing into night shoes in the Regularis Concordia and quietly note our own custom today, though none of us is wearing a hairshirt under a purple tunic, nor is the prioress's veil edged with gold as some of those found at Shaftesbury were. John the Baptist is the most monastic of saints, the most joyful, the most attractive because the closest to Christ. No doubt I'll write more about him tomorrow. Meanwhile, on the principle that one should taste and see that the Lord is good, I'll mention that we tend to associate these feasts with different foods. For More and Fisher fried eggs (More loved them, apparently); for English nuns a bowl of cherries, the first of the season; and for St John the Baptist, the first new potatoes of the year and honey at supper. No locusts, and no strong drink, but plenty of good cheer all the same.



Early this morning, soon after the sun had risen, we were chanting that line from Psalm 71, "May his name be blessed for ever/ And endure like the sun." When I was younger, I used often to pass Stonehenge. Indeed, I am old enough to remember being able to go right up to the standing stones and touch them though sadly I never saw the midsummer sun rise over the plain (I did once manage the winter solstice, but that's not quite the same). Stonehenge, Avebury, and other ancient sites give one an impressive sense of the sun — one needs little imagination to understand the role it plays in many religions. But the sun in the psalms as an image of Israel's God-King has a peculiar brightness and warmth about it. The Shepherd of Israel shines from his cherubim throne and beams a blessing on all creation. Today is the day of the sun and of the Lord: let us rejoice and be glad in it.

A Small Anniversary

Yesterday was the second liturgical anniversary of this blog which began on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, 15 June 2007. It's interesting to see how things have developed. As we have neither time nor interest in "moderating" comments, we decided early on to leave the blog as just an open diary of our lives. We soon realised that many people really value interaction and feel a bit "short-changed" by our policy, despite an impressive number of email responses, to which we do try to reply faithfully. Digitalnun keeps promising to change the blog engine in order to improve the format, but in a small community such as ours the urgent is always driving out the important so we look like having to wait a bit longer. A Facebook site is under construction; the Benedictine Forum was launched in March to provide a more open environment for discussion, but support from other communities has been a little slow in materialising. Perhaps the day of the forum or bulletin board is already over. The latest chuntering from on high (where said Digitalnun's lair is) is all about using Moodle to provide an interactive web course on the Rule of St Benedict. There is a distinctly enthusiastic humming under the wimple. Possibly another community with greater resources will pip us to the post, but that doesn't matter. It would be best as a collaborative effort but sometimes one just has to do a little pioneering in order to inspire others to act. We value silence and seclusion as great helps in the life of prayer and are therefore highly selective about the activities in which we engage; but in order to share with others what we can of monastic life and values while preserving the peace of the cloister, there is really only one way to go. If the U.K. is to become "Digital Britain", we'll try to do our bit to make sure it includes "Digital Benedictinism".

Year of the Priest

Tomorrow the Pope will initiate the Year of the Priest (just as we are coming to the end of the Year of St Paul). The focus will be clearly on the presbyterate. At first reading, Cardinal Hummes' letter to the bishops announcing the decision seems to be almost wholly concerned with discipline: reaffirmation of the value of clerical celibacy and the bishops' power to discipline the clergy under them. A significant addition is the requirement to regularize the position of those who have left active ministry without obtaining dispensations — bishops now have the ability to begin the laicisation process for any of their priests who have been five years or more away from their ministry. John Paul II made it quite difficult for priests to obtain laicisation so one most hope that this latest development is a pastoral response to situations that are often deeply distressing to those concerned. One cannot help wondering, however, whether the real challenge is being overlooked. So many priests seem to have low morale, to be uncertain about their purpose, to feel lonely and unvalued. It is difficult to be a priest but sometimes one has to ask where the initial love and enthusiasm went. The priesthood cannot be separated from a life of prayer. No amount of action, however good, can substitute for that. Let us pray that the Year of the Priest will offer all our priests a deepening of their life of prayer, joy in their service of God and the Church and a renewed sense that what they are and do is truly pleasing to Our Lord. And incidentally to all of us, too. Tell your priest how much you value him!

Green Shoots?

Like everyone else we ponder the news and have our own opinions about what may or may not happen, as ill-informed as the next person's, so take today's post as the rambling of a nincompoop if you will. North Korea's attitude to nuclear weapons; the political turmoil in Iran; the sickness and suffering of millions of people caught up in their own private griefs and tragedies, they are all part of the concern of our prayer and so of our reflection. I have been thinking a lot lately about the implications of the economic changes affecting us all. Green shoots there may be for those who concentrate wholly on such things as manufacturing figures, but the situation is decidely sticky and will be for some years. But, once a historian always a historian, so I find myself wondering more and more about the political and societal instability that is likely to follow our present economic woes. I wonder how we'll meet the challenge. Quite specifically, I wonder what role the Church in the west will play in the shaping of things. The Catholic Church has a wonderful record in terms of articulating the necessity of virtue considered as social justice but we've never been in quite this situation before. For a start, we've never had such instant communications among such vast numbers of people. Reverence for authority is not what it was, probably because much authority has shown itself less and less worthy of reverence. Green shoots . . . exploration . . . tentative beginnings. There is hope, but it will not be easy. If we Christians fail to pray our part, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. (And yes, I did write "pray".)

A Sleepless Night

In community the traditional remedy for a sleepless night is to say something like, "Oh goody! I'll make some extra prayer." Usually, as soon as one does that, one nods off (not very edifying but true). Last night I prayed and read but sleep still would not come. So I listened to the sounds of the night, and how beautiful they are: the strange, alto bark of the dog fox as he made his nightly passage across Hill Farm; the soft snuffle of the hedgehogs crossing the lawn; the occasional alarm of a bird wakened from sleep; and other, less identifiable sounds, which might have been deer beyond the fence, or even a badger though I haven't noticed signs of any setts around here. The nights are so short at this time of year, and there is a long gloaming and dawn in which to enjoy the flight of bats and beetles and the abundant buglife of this little corner of Oxfordshire. As Psalm 150 reminds us, "Let everything that lives and that breathes/ Give praise to the Lord. Alleluia!"

Corpus Christi 2009

It seems so odd to be celebrating this feast on a Sunday, with a parish Mass and no procession — and no Benediction at Vespers. Ah well, there are other graces to acknowledge, as this week\s podcast makes clear. The Preface of the Day is a jewel of theological exposition, and for those who will be celebrating in the Extraordinary Form, the use of the Preface of the Nativity is a powerful reminder that the Bread of Life born at Bethlehem (literally the House of Bread) is our sustenance still. It is important to link the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Time to dust off some of those Advent and Christmas sermons of the Fathers, perhaps, and rethink them in the light of today's feast.


Startled three deer this morning which set me thinking about the use of the deer image in Christian Tradition. I thought first of the deer carved or painted on early Christian monuments, frozen for ever in an attitude of grace; deer stooping to drink on embroidered vestments thick with gold thread and precious jewels; sentimentalised deer on pious little prayer cards printed in slightly wonky colour, with bad typography and uncertain margins; but I was soon thinking about the references to deer in the scriptures. Thirteen in the Old Testament had occurred to me before the end of the walk. I began with the psalms and Isaiah but when I got back I checked them and arranged them in order. It is interesting to see how the bible begins with the deer as food before going on to a consideration of the deer as symbol of one protected and upheld by the love of God. There is a parallel there with the Rule of St Benedict. His practical arrangements school us in holiness just as much as any other aspect of monastic life. That is why we can say that the whole life of the monk or nun or oblate or associate must be an opus dei, a work of God.

1. Deuteronomy 12:15
However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer.
Deuteronomy 12:14-16 (in Context) Deuteronomy 12 (Whole Chapter)

2. Deuteronomy 12:22
Just as the gazelle or the deer is eaten, so you may eat of it. The unclean and the clean alike may eat of it.
Deuteronomy 12:21-23 (in Context) Deuteronomy 12 (Whole Chapter)

3. Deuteronomy 14:5
the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep.
Deuteronomy 14:4-6 (in Context) Deuteronomy 14 (Whole Chapter)

4. Deuteronomy 15:22
You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer.
Deuteronomy 15:21-23 (in Context) Deuteronomy 15 (Whole Chapter)

5. 2 Samuel 22:34
He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.
2 Samuel 22:33-35 (in Context) 2 Samuel 22 (Whole Chapter)

6. 1 Kings 4:23
ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl.
1 Kings 4:22-24 (in Context) 1 Kings 4 (Whole Chapter)

7. Psalm 18:33 (liturgical psalter 17:34 you made my feet swift as the deer)
He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.
Psalm 18:32-34 (in Context) Psalm 18 (Whole Chapter)

8. Psalm 29:9 (liturgical psalter 28:9, though some translations refer to trees not deer!)
The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, "Glory!"
Psalm 29:8-10 (in Context) Psalm 29 (Whole Chapter)

9. Psalm 42:1(liturgical psalter 41:2 lots of musical settings, some of them awful)
[ BOOK TWO ] [ Why Are You Cast Down, O My Soul? ] To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah. As a deer pants for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.
Psalm 42:1-3 (in Context) Psalm 42 (Whole Chapter)

10. Proverbs 5:19
. . . a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.
Proverbs 5:18-20 (in Context) Proverbs 5 (Whole Chapter)

11. Isaiah 35:6
then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
Isaiah 35:5-7 (in Context) Isaiah 35 (Whole Chapter)

12. Lamentations 1:6
From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
Lamentations 1:5-7 (in Context) Lamentations 1 (Whole Chapter)

13. Habakkuk 3:19
GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on the high places.
Habakkuk 3:18-19

Acid in a Young Girl's Face

I was looking for something else when I saw it. The photo startled me: a young girl, horribly disfigured, lying on a wretched bed in a shabby room. Acid had been flung in her face because she dared to go to school, a serious offence in parts of Afghanistan. By and large, we haven't heard much about what life is like under the Taliban for women. We hear about opium production and war lords, military offensives and diplomatic initiatives and look at the photos of men and boys without seriously registering the absence of women and girls. An occasional glimpse of a burka on the margins may remind us, but the suffering of many Afghani women generally passes us by. I don't know what we do about it, but excluding women from literacy and education and reinforcing that exclusion with violence and cruelty strikes me as a sin crying to heaven for vengeance. I can be irritated by misogyny or condescension in our own society (Church not excepted!) but one learns to turn things with a laugh or a "blotting-paper" look, while one quietly gets on with things. Most of the time, it works. But there are other times when something more is called for. You can't laugh away acid in a young girl's face.

Techie Note

Recently we've had a number of questions about accessing parts of this site. In most cases, the browser used proved to be Internet Explorer 6. As this is now "out of date" and not able to cope with some current technology, IE6 users should see a message on a suitably hideous pink background alerting them to the fact that they should ideally update their browser to a later version or switch to another such as Firefox (which we like very much) which should solve the problem. On the other hand, people may be quite happy not being able to see parts of this site. Silly me.

Abuse and Conversion

The recent publication of the Ryan report has refocussed attention on abuse within the Catholic Church. The lamentable response of many religious orders is cause for shame and concern, but once the subject slips from the headlines, will anything change? The media tend to concentrate on sexual abuse but there are other areas where the misuse of power and authority has caused suffering and injustice. Over time some of these may come to light and we'll all react with shock and horror and ask ourselves, how could we have let that happen? There is a parallel here with the abuse of the MPs' expenses system (not that I mean to imply that money is as important as people) and the political fall-out from what is widely perceived as corruption at the heart of Westminster. A misplaced sense of entitlement, of being immune from criticism provided one stays within the letter of the law (and Church institutions, like Parliament, can be said to have both legislative and executive functions) and, sadly, a failure to realise the truth of the gospel injunction, that to whom more is given, from them more will be required, allow abuse to flourish. I'm sorry for those who have been (and perhaps are being) hurt. I'm sorry that good and faithful priests and religious will be condemned along with those who acted (and maybe are acting) wrongly. I'm sorry for those who have been (and possibly are now) guilty of abuse and abuses. Above all, I'm sorry that, as one Catholic priest put it, the Church in Ireland (and elsewhere) has been too Catholic to be Christian. I'm even sorry that the British political system is such a shambles. But, and it is an important but, we cannot let "sorry" be the end of the story. Consciousness of sin and wrong-doing CAN be a spur to conversion. Heaven knows, we need a lot of that; and today is a very good day to begin — with ourselves and our own lives.

Trinity Sunday 2009

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity and our patronal feast. This feast has an interesting history inasmuch as it is quite a late development, having been made a feast of the universal Church by John XXII (1316–1334) although we have an Office of the feast composed by Stephen of Liège at the beginning of the tenth century, as well as prayers and a preface of the Holy Trinity in the Gregorian Sacramentary. Some readers will remember that every Sunday of the year to which no special feast was assigned was always celebrated with a Mass of the Holy Trinity, and one would have to be remarkably thick not to have noticed that all the formularies of public prayer in the Church tend to be Trinitarian in character, just as the Rule of St Benedict is permeated with Trinitarian references. Yet despite all this many Christians remain, practically speaking, tritheists. It is difficult to get one's head round the docrtrine of the Trinity. Many a priest will be metaphorically shaking in his socks as he ascends the pulpit to preach on the subject (as is the nun I have asked to do this week's podcast: we'll see if it materialises or not!). Part of the difficulty may lie in the "dryness" of some theological expositions. I've probably said before that Augustine's De Trinitate was suddenly illumined for me by reading some modern physics which similarly stretches our understanding of words and the processes they signify. God as energy is exciting. God as loving, creative energy is more exciting still.

St Boniface

Feast of the great apostle of Germany, and nice to think that he was an Englishman (from Crediton originally) who worked in our diocese at Nursling before he received the call to go to Germany. Boniface was apparently a monk before he became a Benedictine, but his championship of the Rule never faltered. He was a friend of Leoba of Tauberbischofsheim, also from our diocese (Wimborne), whom he persuaded, along with twenty-eight companions, to join him in the Anglo-Saxon Mission. The wonderful thing is that we have so many materials to tell the story of the Mission, including the fascinating letter collection which gives us a glimpse of much that official histories tend to deem unworthy of inclusion. A day to pray for Germany, but also a day to pray for fruitful collaborations among Benedictines.

Lessons from the Garden

Busy planting out beans and tomatoes before Lauds and thinking of Dr Feckenham, last abbot of Westminster, a-setting of trees in his orchard when Queen Elizabeth's messengers came to take him away. I wonder where Feckenham found his peace in all the trials and troubles that beset him. Richard Cox, bishop of Ely, described him as "a gentle person but in the popish religion too, too obstinate". I can't help wondering whether his gentleness had something to do with his love of gardening. One can't be brutal with young plants, and they don't last long if one is forever taking them out of their pots to see how they are doing. Patience, that fourth vow of Benedictines, is essential to the gardener, and too, the readiness to begin again from the beginning when something doesn't work out. The acceptance of failure is a mark of personal maturity although none of us finds it easy to let go of our ambitions or dreams. When hopes are dashed or plans go bottom up, it is easy to sink into despair and give up. Benedict was well aware of the tendency, which is why his fourth degree of humility has a great deal to say on the subject of perseverance. Interestingly, he links perseverance with forgiveness. Usually we think of forgiveness as something we give to another or, more rarely, as something we receive from another. Perhaps we have to learn to forgive ourselves. Only then can we pick ourselves up and start again.

Wilting Wimples

Today is the feast of St Charles Lwanga and Companions, Ugandan martyrs who suffered cruel deaths at the hands of a tyrant. Their story is inspiring, and I feel slightly ashamed that it is the burning to death of some of them that captures my imagination — for trivial domestic reasons. Our plumbers departed yesterday, promising to return a month hence. In the meantime, we have to run our heating system at full-power (something we never do, even in the depths of winter) for a couple of hours each day to complete the flushing out of the system. We've set the heating to come on at four in the morning before the heat of the day becomes overpowering but I must admi it is trying. Even our Trinidadian member is feeling the heat and wilting quietly underneath her wimple.

Of Valves and Vacuums

Memo to self: must drop this adolescent habit of employing "apt alliteration's artful aid" in blog titles. Yesterday's post prompted one kind reader to send a valuable link to Migne and other goodies online, (link opens in new window) which could be a source of temptation in the future. There is no substitute for reading texts in the original language although it can be hard teaching oneself to do so. Thomas Merton claimed one could learn Italian or any other language in a quarter of an hour daily. That might work with Hebrew, which is an easy language; but I'm not so sure about Latin and Greek. Our water-saga continues. We returned from the JR to find the plumbers deep in nests of copper piping, muttering darkly about silted up valves. Handynun had a fit when she saw the state of the newly-finished guest room, wall-panelling down, smoke detectors disassembled and confusion everywhere. One must have faith that all can be put right eventually. During this last week, when we have officially been having a few days' "gardening leave" (dies non), household hiccups have multiplied (nature abhors a vaccuum, does she not?): carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, all have been dealing with various problems, with great courtesy and good humour. I hope it has something to do with the running buffet of tea/coffee/cake being supplied. I suspect, however, it is the British workman at his summery best.

From Patristics to Pipes

Monday morning and back to Ordinary Time again, with the usual crop of deadlines to meet and duties to perform without the glorious liturgy of Eastertide to sustain one. It will take a day or two to adjust, but there are good things in store. Today is the memoria of St Justin Martyr, a second century Christian apologist. I was looking for one of his books in our library and when I couldn't find it (alas, no Migne) began an internet search. The problem with searching on the internet is that it tends to turn up the good, the bad and the utterly irresponsible with cheerful indifference. I was impressed, however, by the quantity of patristic texts and commentaries available, even though only in translation. If you want to read Justin, here is a useful starting-points, and for a rather fuller listing of texts and ancillary studies (both links open in new windows). As a good Platonist, Justin might have wondered at our next task: sorting out the hot-water system but the truth is, you can lay aside a book when you will, but you ignore a leak at your peril. Monastic life is about pipes as well as patristics.