I have a confession to make. I am not proud to be English; I am not proud to be Catholic; I’m not even proud to be a Benedictine; but I am supremely grateful to be all three. The current fashion for saying one is ‘proud’ to be this, that or the other leaves me cold. I’m never sure whether the being proud is an attempt to claim greatness by association or simply a way of saying politely ‘ya, boo and sucks to you!’ I daresay it can be both — and more. Pride and gratitude both arise from a deep sense of satisfaction, but with this difference: pride is centred on self and gratitude on the other; one looks inward, the other outwards. Could that be why the Christian tradition has never been very keen on pride but always loved gratitude? As our American friends say, go figure.
The Benedictine Development Symposium at Schuyler, Nebraska, has come to an end and I’ll shortly be on my way to New York. It’s been a good conference: lots of ideas, professional expertise generously shared, and the genial kindness that marks Benedictines en masse. The monks of Christ the King have been unstinting in their hospitality and one has had the happy sense of being ‘at home among the brethren’. Most of the people I’ve met during the past few days, possibly all of them, I’m unlikely to meet again except online. It’s a reminder to me of how enriching the internet and associated technologies can be. As I give thanks for all I have received during the past few days, I also want to give thanks for the internet, which was both the cause of my being here and will be the means of my sharing what I have learned.
On 21 May 1676 died D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai, and a ‘doughty dame’ if ever there was one. She was the daughter of Sir John Gascoigne and his wife, Anne Ingleby. At the time she was born, Catholics in England were subject to severe legal penalties. Attendance at the services of the Church of England was required by the law. Failure to do so meant being listed as a Recusant; there were fines and often confiscation of property, along with tedious restrictions such as not being allowed to own a horse. Priests saying Mass could still be imprisoned, just as earlier they had risked being executed. To be a Catholic was to be under siege. The idea of living a monastic life in England was unthinkable, so when Catherine and a group of like-minded young women felt called to be Benedictine nuns they had no choice but to journey abroad. In 1623, under the auspices of the English Benedictine Congregation, they set up house in Cambrai, Flanders.
The early history of the community is stirring, especially to someone familiar with it as part of the living tradition of her monastery of formation, but this post is about D. Catherine herself and the part she played. The Cambrai community was initially helped by three nuns from Brussels, who were charged with teaching the novices and preparing them for profession of vows. Unfortunately, although diligent and generous, the Brussels nuns were very much influenced by the Jesuits and their way of systematic meditation, whereas D. Catherine and the nascent Cambrai community fell naturally into the older way of prayer taught by Fr Augustine Baker, the Benedictine Vicarius of the community (Fr Baker had revived the medieval English form of contemplative prayer which is very different from the formal meditative method then currently in vogue). It was, as you may imagine, an explosive situation and there was great relief when the Brussels nuns returned home and D. Catherine was elected abbess in 1629.
The problems were not at end, however. The community was poor, and Fr Baker and his teaching fell under suspicion . The orthodoxy of the Cambrai community was questioned and a committee of enquiry was set up by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation in 1633. D. Catherine was resolute and faced her opponents with quiet courage, giving an account of her prayer in such simple, moving terms that anyone reading it cannot but admit its truthfulness and power. ‘Goe on couragiously, you have choosen the best way: we beseech Allmighty God to accomplish that union which your hart desireth’ said the Fathers; but in 1655 D. Catherine was again facing ecclesiastical censure. She refused to give up Fr Baker’s treatises, arguing that they were entirely orthodox and of immense value to the community and the Church. She won, of course, but it was a close run thing.
In time, D. Catherine’s talents came to be recognized more widely. She was called upon to oversee the reform of another monastery in Flanders. When she was dying, she wrote to the then President of the English Benedictine Congregation, Fr Benedict Stapylton, asking for ‘a new and very ample confirmation’ of Fr Baker’s writings, ‘as being the greatest treasure that belongs to this poor community’, for she saw clearly that the only true wealth of a monastic community is its holiness and prayerfulness.
What has D. Catherine Gascoigne to teach us today? Personally, I have always found her inspiring, more so than her more immediately attractive companion, D. Gertrude More. Her quietness, her firmness in the face of opposition from those who should have supported her, her fidelity to prayer and monastic observance, her care for the community committed to her are admirable qualities. I am also grateful for something very few know. She would never have been able to become a nun had she not suffered from smallpox. The Bishop of London refused her a licence to go abroad, saying she was too beautiful. She prayed for her beauty to be taken from her, and it was; so the licence was duly given. Chance, too, has its part to play in our history.
Tomorrow, Feast of the Chair of St Peter, we shall be making an important community announcement and on Tuesday, 1 March, we shall be launching a new online service. All Deo Volente, of course; but if you are interested, please keep an eye on this blog and on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk.
In the meantime, I have been fascinated to learn that monkeys apparently suffer from self-doubt, just like human beings (see http://bbc.in/hz0z7y). I can’t help wondering how today’s saint, St Peter Damian, who was such a keen reformer (especially of clerical morals), would have reacted to that, had he known.
Peter Damian is sometimes judged harshly by those who see only his zeal and none of his compassion. He was orphaned early and never lost a sense of identification with the poor. As a Camaldolse (hermit Benedictine) his form of life was strict, but he was a gifted peacemaker and his love of the Church, though sorely tried during some of the sixteen papacies through which he lived, never left him. He is widely credited with having died of overwork, which is not a virtue but a measure of his obedience, which was heroic. The scandals of the last few years have reminded us how much we need another Peter Damian, fearless in speaking the truth, relentless in urging repentance, absolutely sure of what the Church, at its purest and best, should be. May he pray especially for all our clergy and those charged with their formation.