Retrospect: 2004 – 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016
The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns

Were today not Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of St Etheldreda (Audrey) and All Holy English Nuns. You can read about Etheldreda and several others in Bede if you don’t know anything of them. This morning, however, I am thinking not so much of those for whom we have vitae, letters and other memorials but the anonymous ones we commemorate under that catch-all title, ‘All Holy English Nuns’. There is something immensely attractive to a Benedictine in knowing that she stands in an unbroken tradition stretching back long before the Conquest to a time when Anglo-Saxon nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as their counterparts today. They are an inspiration to us here at Howton Grove Priory. Their zeal for holiness, their learning, their generosity in service are qualities we seek to emulate. The fact that their names are lost to us is unimportant. We can still ask their prayers and follow their example. One area where that example is very telling is that of friendship. You have only to read the letters to and from St Boniface to realise how very good Anglo-Saxon nuns were at friendship.

Striving to be friends of God should surely help us to be friends with one another — and if you have any doubts on that score, just re-read John 15.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Announcement: Updating our Websites

Since we moved to Hereford, I have been asked several times when our new websites are going to be available. There are five in all relating to the monastery which need to be updated, and it really is a question of finding enough time and money to do the revamping. In practice, that means rebuilding each site from the ground up. We want  to take this opportunity to incorporate new features we have been longing to put online and clear out broken or messy code which can make a significant difference to the loading-time and general performance of the sites. So, please be patient. We hate having out-of-date material online, but for the time being this blog, our Facebook page, Twitter account and occasional email newsletters are your best points of reference for what is happening. For our oblates, there is also a private group on Facebook — the private forum on our main website is being discontinued.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Praise of Books

Howton Grove Priory: unpacking the library
Howton Grove Priory: unpacking the library

After the oratory or place set aside for prayer and worship, the library is probably the most important part of any Benedictine monastery. Ours began with just a handful of books but has grown over the years, so that it now fills (or rather will fill) the calefactory (photo above), several other parts of the house and the garage. Thanks to a kind benefactor and some diligent saving on our part, we have been able to install some purpose-built bookshelves in the calefactory to house our most important theological works; so now the work of unpacking the library boxes can begin.

There is something very comforting about the presence of books. As we unpack each one, it is greeted like an old friend and welcomed onto its destined shelf. Books have personalities which go beyond their contents. The binding, the paper, the typeface, all convey so much, to say nothing of the pencilled marginalia which recall the efforts to understand, engage with or dispute the arguments of the author. It will be some while before the library at Howton Grove Priory is shelved and catalogued as it should be, but in the meantime, how good it is to have our books back among us!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail