‘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.
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?
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.