On this day in 2004, with the approval of the Holy See, we received our formal decree of canonical erection as an autonomous Benedictine monastery from Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth. What a lot has happened since then! We are now in the diocese of Cardiff where circumstances mean that our once pioneering internet outreach has had to change form a little, though we hope it is still of service to the Church and the wider public. Today will be spent giving thanks for the blessings we have received and in praying for all our benefactors, living and dead. I daresay there will be a celebratory treat or two as well. Slightly against my better judgement, I’ve agreed to take part in this morning’s edition of BBC 1’s Sunday Morning Live — so a prayer for that, too, wouldn’t go amiss. Thank you.
I am writing this in advance of the fifteenth anniversary of our canonical Foundation as I doubt whether I shall be able to string two sentences together on that day because of the usual ‘chemo cosh’.
What does a Foundation Day signify? In the first place, it marks a new and definitive stage in a community’s growth. It is the Church’s official seal on, and recognition of, the community, conferring both rights and duties which are carefully spelled out in canon law and in the constitutions of the monastery itself. In the second place, I think it marks an important development in the life of the individual.
Earlier this week I touched on the individuality of the call to become a Benedictine, and I hope in a few days to be able to reflect on the communal aspect of the way in which that call is worked out. This morning, however, I want to emphasize that being formally incorporated into the Church as what canon law calls a ‘religious institute’ makes a difference to the individual as well. We follow the gospel and the Rule of St Benedict as we always have, or tried to, but our canonical status affects the form in which these are interpreted and the sanctions that may be applied if we fail. Our constitutions bind us as individuals, not just as a community, to interpret our obligations in a way that can, at times, be challenging. You have only to think of how difficult some contemplative communities of nuns are finding the new requirement that formation last for a minimum of nine years and what it must mean for the individuals it affects most directly. I could multiply examples, but that isn’t my purpose.
What I think is clear is that a Foundation Day is not merely for looking back on the past with gratitude and, where appropriate, sorrow and repentance for any failures we may be aware of; nor is it a case of rejoicing in the graces of the present or expressing hopes for the future. Of course we pray for the well-being of the resident community itself, our oblates, friends, benefactors and online community. Of course we pray for renewed fervour and zeal, for everything that will make us better Benedictines and more pleasing to God. But ultimately that commitment comes down to the individual’s readiness to make the community’s life her own; to kneel before God many times every day and reaffirm the commitment to follow the Lord wherever he leads; to be what Benedict calls a utilis frater, a reliable brother or sister (RB 7.18), who prefers nothing to the love of Christ. (RB 4. 21) Please pray for us as we do for you.
Today is the fourteenth anniversary of our canonical foundation as an autonomous monastery of diocesan right. In other words, our Foundation Day — a day when we give thanks for all the blessings of the past, for our oblates and associates, our online community and friends, and all the benefactors who have helped us in many and various ways in sometimes dark and difficult days. Our survival until now is itself a miracle, given the forces ranged against us, and indeed any monastic community, at times. What the future holds is more problematic.
I see that back in 2016 I wondered whether small autonomous communities of monastic women would survive the changes hinted at in the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere. I think Cor Orans gives us the answer, at least in the short term; but it would be a mistake to assume that Vatican documents, no matter how well-meaning or how large their scope, have the final say. The Rule of St Benedict was not an official Church text when it it was written in the sixth century, any more than the monastic way of life was, in origin, an official Church status. Monks and nuns are, by definition, led by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ in ways that may seem to others contradictory or strange. That is one of the reasons both civil and ecclesiastical authorities have always tried to pin us down, lock us up, even, in safe, controllable categories. But the Holy Spirit is never confined, never wholly predictable. That is the wonderful thing about seeking God in the monastery: he is always doing a new thing, overturning our certainties, drawing us along paths we never expected. What he asks of us is fidelity and perseverance, a readiness to respond to the promptings of grace, a willingness to begin again every day. What he makes of our small offering is his business — and we know he can be trusted.
Today, therefore, we give thanks. We look back on the past and some of the extraordinary things we have been enabled to do despite being few in number and of no importance, and we ask God’s grace for the present and future, that we may continue to serve God and others in ways pleasing to him. Please join us in that prayer, not forgetting the many other small communities of Benedictine nuns for whom we have been asked to pray.
Anniversaries always invite reflection, but memory plays artful tricks, sometimes allowing us to appreciate the good things better but also, sometimes, allowing the bad more scope than they should have. When, on 6 September 2004, Bishop Crispian Hollis signed the decree canonically establishing us as an autonomous monastery of diocesan right, we had no idea what the future would hold. Our finances were perilous; we lived in a rented house; we had been covered with obloquy by those who did not know the full facts but were certain of the unassailability of their own position. Our friends were few but true. It was an excellent starting-point but perhaps not one we ourselves would have chosen.
The next few years can be described as a gradual unfolding of the community’s vocation. We took on the work of providing free audio books for the blind and visually impaired (St Cecilia’s Guild, now Veilaudio), the editing of the Catholic Directory for England and Wales, and much typesetting and book production for the diocese of Portsmouth and others. At the same time we began to develop our online ministry, building our first set of web sites with what were then innovative features such as weekly podcasts, online conferences, video talks, a blog, online retreats and so on. All this to the accompaniment of the community’s regular round of public and private prayer, the building up of a library and the slow acquisition of the wherewithal to furnish our oratory. I sometimes wonder how we managed it, but along with the unfolding of our vocation came the gift of friends.
Our years in East Hendred were happy but we came to realise that we needed more permanent accommodation, free of damp and mould. To raise funds to buy a house we were greatly helped by our friends and by the oblates and associates we now numbered as part of our community. Our move here to Herefordshire in 2012 signalled the beginning of another chapter in the life of the community, one that is still being written. My illness has, unfortunately, made demands on the community we did not expect, but we have also learned from it — and if I am able to finish the revision of our web sites, you will see what I mean by that.
The strapline to our community web site is ‘Sharing a vocation with the world’. It wasn’t dreamed up by us, but I think it expresses very neatly soemething of the dynamic of our monastery, rooted in the traditional Benedictine disciplines of prayer and work but also engaging with others as openly as possible in a modern form of hospitality. It isn’t always easy to maintain such openness, and there are times when we disappoint those who seek more than we can give, but it is worth trying.
As we give thanks for all who have helped us over the years, please pray for us that ‘following the guidance of the gospel, we may walk in His paths’ and may be found worthy of the great vocation entrusted to us. Please pray, too, for all those with whom we are connected: our friends, oblates, associates and online community. We may be few here at Howton Grove, but world-wide we number thousands. Thanks be to God.
Today is the seventh anniversary of the monastery’s foundation. It is a day for giving thanks, for looking back and looking forward. We are grateful to our benefactors, living and dead; we are grateful for our Oblates, Associates and Friends, our online community and those waiting patiently to enter the novitiate. Above all, we thank God who has never ceased to look after us, sometimes prodding us to follow paths we might have preferred to ignore, at other times holding us back from the profoundest folly. But we are very far from being complacent. A monastery is never a ‘finished work’, it is always in process of becoming.
It is helpful to consider what St Benedict says about the monastery in his Rule. Most of his text is concerned with the way in which the monks live: how they are to order their worship, how they are to dress, what they are to eat and drink, how they are to organize themselves, the disciplines they should observe. Of the monastery itself he says only that it should, if possible, contain within it everything necessary for monastic life — so that the monks have no excuse for wandering outside. There are clearly designated areas for eating and sleeping and an oratory ‘which should be what it says it is, and nothing else be done or kept there’. In other words, what Benedict calls variously the monastery (monasterium) or house of God (domus Dei) isn’t meant to be a place of privation but somewhere where the focus is clearly on God and the things of God. Everything about it should help both inmates and visitors to concentrate on him — everything.
Many of the things you might expect to find in a long-established monastery simply don’t exist here at Hendred, but that focus on God and the things of God should be evident to all or what right have we to exist? This morning at Mass the community will renew its vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience. As we do so, we shall be affirming our small and insignificant part in that long tradition of monastic living, of ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’. May he grant us the grace of perseverance.