Thursday, February 24, 2011

Personal Tribute to Dame Felicitas Corrigan O.S.B. (March 6 1908-Oct 7 2003)

" I think the communion of saints is stronger than we realise. You haven't got to meet a person in the flesh really to get to know them, to affect one another very deeply at a spiritual level."

This was Dame Felicitas' response to someone who had asked her whether, in the writing of her 1976 award-winning biography of Helen Waddell, she had felt disadvantaged by never having met her subject. It was a fatuous question in any case but you will note that Dame Felicitas' answer immediately spiritualises its context. It speaks a truth about spiritual correspondence in general, and one which was borne out in my own association with her. I am NOT suggesting that I had any spiritual effect on HER, but she most certainly did on me. We never met and yet my three books would not have been written without her willing involvement and advice. This appreciation of her gifts to me is most definitely not an attempt to 'puff'' my own books, but in order to show how Dame Felicitas helped me, I will need to say something about their content and structure.

The Beginning
My former parish priest Canon Michael Richards (RIP) knew Dame Felicitas quite well through his editorship of the Clergy Review. It was he who recommended that I write to her for advice as to which publishers I should approach with a proposal, for what I originally thought would be a single book. Admiring Dame Felicitas' own writing, I was somewhat in awe of her, but did as Canon Richards suggested. I don't think it was more than a fortnight before I received her first letter. That and subsequent ones, changed my life in all its aspects.

The books constitute a spirituality of gardening, but not in an airy-fairy new age sort of way. They are firmly rooted in the liturgical year of the Church, in her Mass readings, the Divine Office and the history of her saints and feasts.

The Development
At the time of her first letter Dame Felicitas must have been in her late eighties, but her cogency and clarity leapt from the pages of neat and compact handwriting. Having given a name for me to write to, and explaining that she had by then little contact with publishers, she went on to address the content of my work. I had sent her the 13 page preface I had already written. This was eventually to appear as the introduction of my first book. It was obvious that she had studied it closely but did not suggest any alterations or additions. She corrected one very careless spelling mistake (oh the shame for me an English teacher!) and adjusted the way I had laid out a quotation from one of the psalms. Then she let me know that she had consulted two other nuns about the standard of gardening knowledge I had demonstrated. Having conveyed to me that I had passed their tests, she went on to compliment me on my scriptural knowledge and later gave the command on the subjects of gardening, prayer and Holy Writ, "Write everything you know!" That would have been daunting enough, even had she not earlier given the dictum "Every word must count." During the writing of the books I would struggle with obedience to those two imperatives.

My initial reaction to her first instruction was a weak-kneed realisation that it couldn't be achieved in one book. There would have to be four of them, each dealing with a specific period of the Church year. (Advent and Christmastide; Lent-Pentecost; Trinity Sunday-Exaltation of the Holy Cross; Seven Sorrows of Our Lady - Feast of St. Andrew. This scheme was completely unbalanced by later publishing decisions, but that is another story) The inner structure of the books came directly as a result of Dame Felicitas' reactions. A plant is chosen for each day and its entry is divided as follows - Brief Cultivation Notes; History and Lore of plant and Feast; Towards Meditation; List of Biblical Readings; Suggested Place of Spiritual Retreat. Suffice to say that only three books are written. (see cover illustrations lower down sidebar to the left) Dame Felicitas is waiting for me to get on with the fourth!

The first book was published in 2002, the year before Dame Felicitas died. I sent a copy to the Abbey, but I think by then that she was in a home or hospital. In her reply to my accompanying lettter Abbess Joanna, said she was just about to visit Dame Felicitas and would give her my messages of concern and promise of prayers. I was not informed as to her exact whereabouts, probably because she was by then too weak to receive correspondence.

The above details give some idea of Dame Felicitas' thoroughness and integrity in dealing with her vast correspondence. It was as if she put everything and everybody else out of her mind, except the detailed needs of the person she was addressing. In my own case, it was not just the help she gave with the structure, content and lay-out of the books, but that her interest gave me the confidence and the courage to write them. She 'spoke' to me as if she assumed that I could and would do it. That perhaps was the most amazing thing.

There is no end to the story.
2005 -
The third book was published in 2005, and therefore written before the election of Pope Benedict XVI. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Consolation in memory of Dame Felicitas, and of Rumer Godden her novelist and poet friend. I have not published anything since then, but as hinted earlier, I now feel the stirrings of renewed courage to write a proposal for the last book of the unfinished quartet.

She must have known about the planned move from Stanbrook, and we have to wonder whether she approved. We do know from her Telegraph obituary, that if she didn't approve, she would have said so. " No, Mother, I don't agree.' "

If the move to Wass would have been against her wishes, I have to record a sad relief that at the age of 95 she was spared the experience, going to her eternal reward some 6 years before the move happened. Whether or no, I pray that she had a happy and peaceful end. I thank her now and always. I find it difficult to believe she is not already in heaven and so I ask her prayers and remember her daily in my own.


Final update:
Dame Joanna is now Novice Mistress.
Dame Maria Boulding died in 2009 after only a few months at Wass.

But that is another part of 'The Benedictine Tapestry', not to be explored today.

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