A Starry Sky

One of the joys of living in rural Herefordshire is the beauty of the night sky. We don’t have street lights — or many houses, come to that. Step outside the door on a clear night and the sky is velvety black, studded with silver. Stars I could never see in Oxfordshire are here visible with a brilliance and definition that make one gasp. It reminds me of an evening in Cambridge during one of the power-cuts of the 1970s when I cycled down Castle Hill and saw the whole city spread out in the moonlight, rather as I imagine Newton must have seen it: soft and shadowy, quivering with a life it did not possess during the daytime.

Night transforms many things. Fears may grow, but the mind often sees with a clarity it lacks at other times. Distractions fall away. It is the time of sleep, of abandonment, of trust. In the monastic tradition, it is also a privileged time of prayer, of keeping vigil while others sleep, a time for God alone.

Looking up at the night sky and seeing the promise made to Abraham glittering from every corner, one can but marvel. We are so very small, the universe so very great, and there are worlds beyond worlds we have no knowledge of, yet God holds all things in being — not as a remote and indifferent spirit but as a Father, intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. The beauty we see is a reflection of his unseen Beauty. As Hopkins said,

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

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A Heavenly Sky

One of the (many) things I love about our life here in Herefordshire is the beauty of the sky. At night it is inky black or dark blue, and the moon and the stars stud it with silver. This morning it is a luminous blue and pink, with touches of orange and white where sun and cloud meet. Even when it is grey with mist and cloud, it has an airy, clean grandeur about it. It is country sky: bluff, no-nonsense, vast, seen whole, not glimpsed among skyscrapers.

It is easy to see why the sky has become a symbol of heaven. Its purity, silence, and utter loveliness may be tantalisingly beyond our reach, but we see them and feel their power. Have you never wanted to immerse yourself in the sky, be lost in its blueness, or is that something you left behind with your childhood? The sky reminds us of that which is so much bigger and better than anything we can think or imagine. Our ideas of God are too little, too much like ourselves. Look up at the sky and let them expand. God fills not just this Universe but everything that is.

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Palm Sunday 2013

The Herefordshire countryside is looking bleak this morning: sheep huddled under the trees, dribbles of dirty snow along the verges and a cold grey sky overhead. It isn’t the kind of Palm Sunday we wanted. Is the Messiah we acclaim today the kind of Messiah we want, either? Do we want someone imposing, who will make us feel good about ourselves, or are we prepared to follow this rather ridiculous fellow on a donkey, who promises only that we must drink the cup that he drinks?

You choose.

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Another Howton Grove Priory Update

A few of the 'smaller' leylandii
A few of the ‘smaller’ leylandii

We shall soon have been here three months. Visitors remark how much we’ve done in that time, but for us the days pass in something of a blur. We moved during the height of the grass-growing season so have been constantly dodging rainstorms of almost tropical intensity in order to keep the lawns mown. Friends from Wantage came and worked terrifically hard in the garden to clear many of the ‘smaller’ leylandii and some rather intrusive yuccas before starting on the proposed vegetable plot.

Hidden treasures
Hidden treasures

In the process some lovely bits of agricultural archaeology were unearthed. Now all we need are half a dozen strong men or women to help us move them to more suitable places! (The photo above shows an agricultural sink unearthed in the prospective vegetable plot. It will join our cider mill, cider press, stone horse trough and cartwheels to remind us of the barn’s origins.)

Our friend Damien Young at work in the garden
Getting stuck in!
Vegetable plot before clearing
Vegetable plot before clearing

Vegetable plot after clearing
Vegetable plot after clearing: laurel and silver fir still to go

Alas, we failed to keep a rampant clematis in check and had to call out an emergency gutter-clearing service since we don’t, as yet, have a ladder high enough to enable us to deal with such problems ourselves. The frustration! We are also having to call in a professional hedge-cutter to deal with the hornbeam hedge which seems to have set its sights on the moon, so lush has been its growth this year, and to remove some of the larger confers and laurels to allow planting of more fruit trees (we already have apple, pear and plum — although the pear has no fruit this year and the plum looks as though it is ailing — plus a flowering cherry which needs more breathing-space, and a magnificent hazel laden with nuts.)

Inside the house we have replaced some windows which needed attention. Tomorrow a builder comes to begin some plasterwork renovation the Bank requires, and soon after that, we hope to have the first of our bookshelves installed. Then, finally, we can begin to unpack our books which are piled up in boxes in the calefactory and garages — and maybe begin to think about those areas we’d like to redecorate before our postulant-to-be takes up residence. (She was relieved to hear we had bought her a bed, but please pray that all visa issues are resolved quickly and positively)

In the meantime, the prayer and ordinary work of the house continue, the latter often in the early hours or late in the evening. Doing so has enabled us to appreciate ever more in what a beautiful part of the country we have found our ‘local habitation and a name’.

Just one problem: what shall we do with ‘Bro Duncan’s guest-house’? It would make some child a lovely play-house, having been beautifully made; but whoever would like it must dismantle/collect it themselves. It is listed for sale on ebay (and Bro Duncan has never actually been in it!): http://bit.ly/NlDOgO (link opens in new window).

'Bro Duncan's Guesthouse': the play-house in the garden
‘Bro Duncan’s Guesthouse’: the play-house in the garden
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Moving from Hendred to Howton Grove

We have now been here a month; and in all that time, I think there have been only two days when it hasn’t rained, so no photos yet (the rainless spells were used to mow the lawn and do some essential outside work). Is there anything worth sharing from our experience of moving from Hendred to Herefordshire?

Quietnun packing up to leave East Hendred
Quietnun packing up to leave East Hendred

Inevitably, one thinks first in terms of loss and gain. We made many good friends in Oxfordshire and miss them all. Here making friends will be a slower process, for we no longer live in a village and the opportunities for getting to know people will be fewer. Against that, we are delighted by our new home and its situation. To wake up every morning without worrying about damp or mould is a joy, and the countryside around us is breathtaking in its beauty.

In practical terms, we face a steep learning curve. We are in an entirely different geographical location, and a different diocese. Our most immediate challenges will be the ordinary ones of everyday life. At first, just finding our way around the city and major villages was a lesson in patience: finding out where to shop, where to park, where to obtain those innumerable little things that suddenly become necessary when one moves.

Part of our library, still in boxes
A Library in Boxes: Howton Grove Priory

Religious communities don’t fit into any convenient category when it comes to utility companies and the like, so there has also been much to-ing and fro-ing to ensure that essential services are maintained and billed in the correct manner. Then there are the alterations and repairs which are needed. The barn has been carefully looked after, but even so, one or two things need attention and are beyond the strength and skill of the community. In Hendred we knew who the reliable tradesmen were; here we don’t. Consequently, our oratory is still without the Blessed Sacrament while we seek out someone who will secure the tabernacle to the wall for us; our library remains in boxes while we try to find someone who will build good, plain bookshelves for us (Ikea flatpacks don’t fit well with old walls); and so on. We know we shall sort it all out in time, just as we shall get a vegetable garden going again and launch a new website and online services.

In the meantime, the experience of dislocation is probably good for us. Monasteries can become too comfortable, too complacent. Being faced with a completely new situation will call for new talents and new responses. The Hendred years brought development and graces of their own. We became a community; we formulated a clear vision of what it means to be contemplative Benedictines; we began our internet outreach and our service of the blind and visually impaired. Who knows what Howton Grove will bring? The prayer goes on.

The prayer goes on: the oratory at Howton Grove Priory
The Prayer goes on: the Oratory at Howton Grove Priory
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In a Monastery Garden

One of the things that has delighted me since coming here are the birds. They are everywhere: sparrows, thrushes, finches and, over the way, larks and the occasional buzzard. The garden is filled with birdsong from morning till night. There are oak trees and apple trees and the rich red earth of Herefordshire peeping through long green grasses. In the local churchyard the graves are marked with the names not only of the person who lies there but also of the farm from which he or she came. There is a rootedness, a closeness to the soil, that is no longer the familiar experience of the majority of British citizens.

Does this affect how other things are viewed? That I have yet to learn, but I suspect it makes one aspect of the Gospels easier to grasp. The allusions to the natural world, to seed time and harvest, to digging and trenching, the building of wine presses and barns, need no interpretation here. Indeed, I look out of my window at the old cider press in the garden and it takes no great leap of imagination to see, not an old horse trundling round and round, but one who comes from Edom, his garments stained red as from a wine press.

We must connect life and faith or there is a terrible disjunction in our lives, leading either to total disbelief or an equally total fanaticism — not, perhaps, what Ketèlby had in mind when he composed his eponymous piece!

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Explorations at Howton Grove

Accompanied Bro Duncan on a long walk this morning. We set out under Constable skies, along the edge of fields green with wheat, over pasture studded with ancient oaks, the sun just breaking on the Brecons. The wind whipped and tugged nosily at our coats, but in the sudden calm that descended from time time we heard innumerable larks. Sadly, there are no red kites, lapwings or yellowhammers here, or not that we could see, but there are lots of sparrows and swallows and various kinds of finches to keep us on our bird-spotting mettle. A fox crossed our path but obviously didn’t think we were any kind of danger.

The cattle are a constant joy: pure-bred Herefords (my favourite from of old) and crosses, but I haven’t a clue what kind of sheep are kept here — they are long-legged and multi-coloured, very unlike the mules we have been used to. We shall explore further when the unpacking is done and we have more time, but for now we can say that this is a lovely place to be.

Sheep and Bird Update
We have identified two of the sheep breeds, Welsh Badger-Faced sheep and another Welsh mountain variety, but the third continues to baffle us; and yesterday we saw a yellowhammer at close quarters.

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The Promise is Fulfilled

‘The promise is fulfilled: all is made new.’ With those words we greet the Solemnity of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and the greatest feast of the Church year. Probably a few readers are thinking to themselves, ‘Surely Easter is the greatest feast?’ But please note where I put the emphasis, on the Church year. Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole Church, our commission to mission, so to say. It is a feast that combines transcendence and immanence, grandeur and lowliness, in a most remarkable way. The promise made to our ancestors is fulfilled: we live now the newness of life that Christ our Lord has made possible. The Church is a sign of his presence and action in the world: it is our vocation to be what he is.

For us here at Hendred the promise is fulfilled in another, more material way. Yesterday we collected the keys to our new monastery in Herefordshire and this week we shall be moving in. We shall be offline for a while, at least until BT fits a new telephone line, but prayer never ceases; and very soon Howton Grove Priory will resound to the praises of God as we sing the Lord’s song in a new land. To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
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