Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stanbrook: 5

After half a century of enclosed contemplative life, Dame Joanna's experience at the Art School in modern East-End London must have been like a cacophonous vision of hell. It would have destroyed a person of less courage, strength, determination and faith, and one has tremendous admiration for her. And yet the decision to make this sojourn was her own choice. She 'had been intructed' to take a year out after the election of her successor, but did not follow the usual practice, in such circumstances, of spending the time at another Abbey. Permission must have been given for her to do as she wished. When she returned to Stanbrook, before the move to Wass, Abbess Andrea apponted her as Sacristan and gave permission for her to spend the rest of her time on her Art. What a wonderfully compassionate two-fold gift of balm!

Rumer Godden's novel 'In this House of Brede' (first published 1969) was largely based on Stanbrook, and written in response to Dame Felicitas Corrigan's wish that 'someone would write a book about nuns as they really are, not as the author wants them to be'. The book is based on countless private and individual interviews with the nuns. Its dedication hints that these took place over a period of five years. Just one of the things that stands out, is that after appointment as Sacristan, the recipient of that office is the happiest nun in the Abbey. No believing orthodox Catholic will be surprised by that. I was very disappointed that in the Fergussun/Times piece Dame Joanna did not mention happiness at this part of her new job. (Perhaps she did say something and it was edited out as not being relevant to the main thrust of the article - one of the dangers of giving interviews to secular press.) She does mention great relief at being allowed to continue with her art and says she would probably have had a breakdown otherwise. She then goes on to speak of the difficulty of living the two vocations of Nun and Artist. I leave that to the reactions of my readers, but it worries me.

An Abbess has tremendous power and control over her Community, approaching that of a bishop in his diocese, although, like a bishop consulting with his Priests, she consults with her Council of senior nuns before making any major decision. However, the whole question of Obedience must be taken into account. If the Abbess (or indeed, the bishop) gets a bee in the bonnet about a certain issue and exerts undue pressure and persuasion on her Council, what then? Unless there have been radical changes of which I am unaware, at the end of all discussion and debate, agree or not, they must obey the final decision of the Abbess or break one of their vows. Of course it's possible that at Stanbrook a member or members of the Council, having been bitten by the 'green' bug', presented the ecological move to the Abbess whilst she was trying to discern the future. She was persuaded and it all went full 'reed bed' ahead. Others have hinted that the idea came from her and that she railroaded her Community into its fulfilment.

Sheridan Gilley(Emeritus Reader, University of Durham) wrote to the Times 23 Jan 2006 commenting on an article (17 Jan 2006) title 'Nuns, Pugin and a grotesque redevelopment' The original article was sympathetic to the catholic heritage argument, and to the nuns, although it hints that the Abbess was determined to sell, and gives some proof of that. Apparently she counterpetitioned an earlier petition to the Prince of Wales that a sale should be avoided at all costs. It claims that there was disagreement among the nuns and that four 'dissenters' had left as a result. Dame Catherine (now at East Hendred) responded to Morrison, and whilst not denying that she had left because of disagreement over the sale, she objects to the word 'dissenters' and states that she and two others left because of a 'matter of conscience'.. This does not quite tie in with her New Statesman post, in which she claimed that her superiors had said she would have to leave, at least for a while. (This article has one of those infuriatingly long links. It's quicker for you to Google the article title and I do recommend it) Sheridan Gilley in his comment does not mention the 'green fever' that seems to have been taking over at Stanbrook, and concentrates more on the Abbess's determination to sell. He lays the blame firmly at the door of post-conciliar liberalism which has done 'immense harm to the English Catholic Church and looks likely to consign the Stanbrook community to extinction.' He then goes on to blame the Abbess personally, who 'seems oppressed not only by her Puginian Gothic surroundings but by the memories preserve of great scholarly nuns such as Dame Laurentia McLachlan and Dame Felicitas Corrigan.........................'

We will probably never get to the entire truth of the matter. As I said some time ago, maybe it's not our business. However, there is usually 'no smoke without a fire', and my own view is that the results of this whole sorry affair most definitely are our business.

(It's been an exceptionally and unexpectedly noisy and dusty day here. The builders have been up and down replacing some plaster board in the library ceiling This post will continue under the following headings asap. I will alert you when it is complete.)

Well, we should be grateful that the empty Abbey was not vandalised or 'squatted' during the 4 or five months between the Nuns' departure and its eventul purchase by Clarenco (Amazing Retreats). All who cared about the place worried about those possibilities at the time. On their own site, the Abbess states that she and her community are satisfied that the purchaser will treat the Abbey with sensitivity, both in its refurbishment and the use to which it will eventually be put. The word 'retreats' is mentioned and I had high hopes when investigating Clarenco. Perhaps the Abbess didn't know that the world generally applies the word to quiet hideaways and bizarre follies, a la English heritage.. In this worldly use, there is certainly no assurance of spirituality being part of it. Yes, it does look as if Clarenco will be sensitive, at least to the history of Stanbrook, but the idea of banqueting and dancing in the Pugin chapel is unpalatable to say the least. On the other hand, apparently the nuns have retained the right of access to the two cemeteries. It is a tremendous relief to know that they will not be disturbed. On balance it could have been a lot worse. Several groups prayed regularly that the Abbey would not be sold and that somehow, the nuns would be able to stay, whether or not they suspected that the Abbess wanted to move in any case, as suggested in the earlier part of this post. Those groups, must have thought their prayer was being answered, until the thrice delayed sale finally went through. It must have been, and still must be, a terribly sad time for the lay community surrounding Callow End, The nuns acknowledge that the village grew up around them and their Abbey. That is just such a Benedictine thing, a pattern that goes back to medieval times. To take it away is rather like taking Winchester Cathedral out of Winchester At places where there used to be a priory or an Abbey, Walsingham and Shaftesbury for instance, I always feel sad, and sense the ancient pain in the place that must have been felt at the original amputation. At the very least what has happened to the community surrounding Stanbrook is a sociological rupture. The Callow End community was small but loyal. It will take a long time for its members to adjust to the loss of Benedictine presence at the centre of their lives. One hopes that some of them will find work with 'Amazing Retreats' and guide the owners away from ignorant mistkes in future. They are in my prayers, just as much as are the nuns who have gone.

The remaining sections mentioned below will appear in future posts of their own.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I come to this rather late, but I feel that I must register a protest at the way in which we all seem entitled to speculate about the private workings of a community. Clearly, those involved have not felt the need to make more that the most minimal comments - perhaps we would be well-advised to respect their privacy and look to our own affairs and failings rather than those we feels we night be able to spot i other people. Interesting that most comment on this issue - on various sites - has come from people who do not live a monastic life, but have very strong views about how it should be lived by those who do.