‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). St Francis de Sales, the Catholic bishop of Geneva and patron saint of writers and journalists (and nowadays, surely, of bloggers, commentators and opinion-makers also) seems to have understood that very well. His courtesy was legendary, but there was nothing complicated about it. He wished to win others to Christ and saw that ‘whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love’. That didn’t mean that he watered down what he believed or that he endorsed views or actions he thought wrong, but he was never one to refuse to engage with those who thought or taught differently. On the contrary, he took more trouble than might have been expected to try to understand those whose opinions or beliefs differed from his. He recognized their goodwill and regarded dialogue as preferable to condemnation, convinced, as he was, that holiness was for everyone, not just ‘professional religious’ like monks and nuns.
We are almost at the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the questions we are asked to consider today is how we tackle prejudice and exclusion in ourselves and in our communities. I think St Francis de Sales, with his gentleness and love for others, has something to teach us all. In the seventeenth century, D. Prudentiana Deacon, a nun of Brussels sent to help the young Benedictine community at Cambrai, obviously thought so, too, for she translated some of his work into English. At first sight, St Francis de Sales is the antithesis of of Fr Augustine Baker, then vicarius of the monastery, and a great exponent of the medieval mystical tradition. A little thought, however, will soon show how wrong that is. Those who truly seek God in prayer cannot but love all his children; and those who love the children must surely seek to deepen their love for the Father.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation and the 70th birthday of the National Health Service. I owe an enormous debt to both and make no apologies for an intensely personal post.
Many years ago, before I became a nun, I was doing some research in Ourense, Galicia, where the canon-archivist was very keen to show the enigmatic Inglesa his pride and joy: a statue of Our Lady of Consolation that had been much beloved of English seamen. I had so far acculturated to Spanish ways that I actually dropped to my knees and prayed — for England, of course, but even more, with all the egocentricity of youth, for myself and future path in life. I did not know that it would lead me to an English Benedictine monastery under the patronage of that self-same Lady of Consolation, nor that one of my kinswomen had been a member of the community back in the eighteenth century. But it did, and I think that the emphasis on compassion, on strengthening, the choice of dedication gave the community has been a marker in many monastic lives. Here at Howton Grove, where we are under the patronage of the Blessed Trinity, we continue the tradition, I hope, albeit in a different form from that of the seventeenth century when Cambrai was established.
It seems to me very suitable that the NHS should have begun on the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, though I doubt whether its first architect would have been so appreciative of the link! During the last seventy years the NHS has undergone many transformations and will doubtless undergo many more, but one thing it has done superbly well, especially for the poor. It has taken away the worry of ‘how will I afford treatment?’ I myself have two rare diseases, one of them a rare and aggressive form of cancer that has been kept at bay far longer than I have any right to expect by a treatment programme entirely funded by the NHS. The community couldn’t afford the treatment I’ve had; we couldn’t even afford the insurance premiums for the treatment I’ve had. So, yes, I am just one more person who owes her life to the NHS, but there is a little more to it than that.
I began by referencing Our Lady of Consolation for a reason. I haven’t much time for those who moan and groan about the NHS being underfunded or who are scathing about its poor outcomes in some areas because I happen to believe that we are each of us chiefly responsible for our own health. It is up to us to adopt as healthy a life-style as we can and I don’t expect the NHS to make good any defects in my own ‘self-care’, as it were. The NHS is flawed, as any large organisation will be flawed; but that isn’t the point. The existence of the NHS has freed us from an anxiety about ourselves that can be quite crippling. The question we must therefore ask is, what do we do with that freedom? Are we givers of comfort and encouragement or merely consumers thereof? There are times when my own illness makes me look inward and feel very sorry for myself, but I hope there are more times when it forces me to look outwards at the sufferings of others. When I can do nothing else, when I am too sick to write or respond to requests, I can try to pray — and somehow, in ways I can’t explain, I think that does achieve something. Despite all the sadness, anger and division in the world, despite all the moral, physical, mental and spiritual sickness that exists, there is a way of spreading health and happiness. It is called prayer, and it costs . . . everything.
On this day in 1633, at the early age of twenty-eight, died D. Gertrude More, great-great granddaughter of St Thomas More and one of the nine founding members of the community at Cambrai. Her story is an interesting one because she is exactly the kind of person who ought to become a nun but who is considered by people outside the cloister ‘too lively’. She was indeed lively and high-spirited, but the liveliness and high-spiritedness were accompanied by a truthfulness and seriousness of purpose that were a measure of her intellectual and spiritual stature.
Her novitiate was not without its ups and downs. She was forever flaunting authority. Any mischief tended to have young Sr Gertrude at its centre, and she definitely took against the solemn Fr Augustine Baker who came as Vicarius to help the young Cambrai community grow in prayer. In fact, she was strongly tempted to abandon monastic life altogether but Fr Augustine showed her how to pray; a conversion followed and the rest, as they say, is history. Her holiness of life made an impression on those who knew her and today she is revered as one of the Stanbrook community’s uncanonised saints. Fr Augustine wrote a life of her in two volumes, with copious quotations from her own writing, including her far too fluent doggerel. If you are interested, you can read it online here: http://bit.ly/aklx3h.
But why am I writing about her under the heading of ‘simple prayer’? Partly, of course, it is because anyone who tries to pray will discover that prayer becomes simpler as time goes on. Words fall away and the silence and emptiness that remain are charged with God. So it was with D. Gertrude. She understood very well the simplest of all truths about prayer: we must pray as the people we are, not as the people we aren’t. Hers was an affectionate nature, and she used her affections to come closer to God. Not for her the composition of time and place and imaginative insertion into the events of the gospel. There was only ‘the sharp dart of longing love’ but it was enough. That she should have learned that in her comparatively short life is an encouragement to the rest of us. Can it be so hard to follow where she has led?
One October morning in the year 1793, twenty English nuns and one novice were turned out of their monastery in the Rue des Anglaises, Cambrai, by French Revolutionaries. They were Benedictines who had lived quietly in the city since 1623, because the Penal Laws of the time forbade the establishment of monasteries in their home country. They had known what was likely to happen, but they kept hoping it wouldn’t. They stayed on as Revolutionary fervour made their position more and more insecure, fretting about their diminishing income and worrying about the future. D. Ann Teresa Partington wrote a spirited account of the nuns’ travails during this period while another, D. Anne-Joseph Knight, sent a series of letters to her family after her return to England which suggest the shock and horror of events. It was night when the knock on the door finally came.
I had the keys of the great door at the time, and when I opened the door, I saw three great men with clubs in their hands. I never was so frightened in my life. They told us we were to go out just then. We begged for a small space of time, but could only obtain half-an-hour at most. All our linning (linen) was in the water for the wash, and our bread in the oven, and you must imagine in the bustle we were then in we could not do much.
They were hurried away in a coach and two open carts to Compiègne, where they were imprisoned for eighteen months, part of the time with the sixteen Carmelites whose martyrdom we celebrate today. The English nuns were nearly starved and lived in daily fear of being executed. Without Mass and the sacraments for the most part, they nevertheless maintained a community life — but at what cost. As D. Anne-Joseph remarked:
. . . our heads are safe, but I really think it has ruined our constitutions, at least hurt them very much, and I for my part am an old woman.
She was then fifty-one. But she was right about the strain imprisonment had imposed. Four of the nuns died in prison, including D. Anselma Anne*, the cellarer, so that only seventeen returned to England in May 1795; and of them, one found the strain so great that she transferred to the Cistercians, being in need of a more regular form of life than was possible during the forty years of wandering that ensued after the return to England. From this small group of tired and weary nuns came Stanbrook Abbey, the many Benedictine foundations in South America which look to Stanbrook as their origin, and, last and least, ourselves.
The Carmelites, who were locked up in the same prison, went boldly to their deaths, wearing their monastic habits and leaving their lay clothes to the English nuns, who were subsequently able to escape to England wearing them and whose successors still treasure some of them as relics today. The two communities were unable to speak to one another, but we are told the Benedictines waved their handkerchiefs at the window and prayed for their sisters as they were taken away. Bernanos and Poulenc have given their version of events, but personally, I like the simple, homely accounts of the English nuns, who recognized heroic virtue when they saw it and knew that they themselves had come close to being asked to share the same fate.
Red martyrdom or white, both are forms of witness that take more courage than most of us think we could ever muster, but grace is given when we need it, not in advance. Today, as we ask the prayers of the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne, I think we could also ask the prayers of those Cambrai nuns, don’t you?
* Our families were related, so she is my ‘jailbird connection’ 🙂
Note: None of the Benedictine monasteries of women in South America is actually a foundation of Stanbrook, nor are we, although the founding nuns came from the Stanbrook community.
In our monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, (originally, Our Lady of Comfort). It was a devotion popular in the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when it was adopted by the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai. English sailors took the devotion to Galicia in Spain where you can still find the occasional statue dedicated to Our Lady under this title. In recent centuries Our Lady has acquired other, more popular titles, but I find this one rich in scriptural allusion and content.
Consolation is a beautiful word, so is comfort in its former sense of giving strength. Consolamini, consolamini, Comfort, comfort ye my people . . . Every Christian must be, in some measure, a giver of strength and consolation to others, but it is not something we can do through our own efforts. Mary, the Mother of God, was a mulier fortis, a strong woman, a valiant woman, one who allowed grace to flower in her, an excellent teacher of what it means to be a giver of comfort to others. I like the way in which Mary is always and everywhere leading us to her Son. As she said to the servants at the wedding feast of Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’ With that advice she solved the problem of the wine running out, taking nothing to herself but giving the glory to God, to whom alone it belongs.
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.