Sunday, February 13, 2011

Stanbrook Abbey 3: East Hendred continued

In one sense it could be said that the inner workings of an enclosed contemplative order are no business of an outsider, not even a devoted Catholic lay person. But if those workings have a bearing on a place like Stanbrook then I would at least invoke the Catholic Heritage argument as mentioned earlier. Originally I did not set out in 2008 to know the details of what went on at Stanbrook during the last decade. It was only when I found Dame Catherine's piece online a couple of years ago, (written 24th Jan 2008), that I began to feel uneasy about what may have happened there. It may of course have nothing to do with the move decision, but as I said earlier the timing of it all occasioned deep misgivings.
In her New Statesman Faith Column post, Dame Catherine wrote as follows about her life at Stanbrook and what brought it to an end: (Post title "What matters is not the sacrifice but the music: the role of work is central to the Benedictine way of life") She speaks first of a period of adjustment to work in the monastery scullery and the kitchen. She is a Cambridge graduate and was in banking before entering the monastery. Then she goes on:
"Assignment to the printing room* brought with it two great blessings.: I began to work alongside a woman of rare nobility and huge moral stature, Dame Hildelith Cummings, who made me think aboutthe white space on the page, the colour of black, the texture and smell of paper and ink, the moral import of all we do. I also found in my Junior Mistress Dame Gertrude Brown, a wise and generous friend, with whom I could argue to my heart's content about all the questions that bubbled up inside. Both were as one in focusing on the contemplative quest of 'preferring nothing whatever to Christ.'

Then my world fell apart. The next few years were lonely and difficult, made all the more so because I was forced into a position where I could not openly tell all I knew and had to endure a number of false accusations....."

It shook her faith in the Church and her institutions and she goes on to say how she was saved by the Rule of St Benedict.

There were several sympathetic comments from people who know Dame Catherine and some from a person who criticised her for washing dirty linen in public, a particularly nasty phrase in view of the circumstances. Dame Catherine reacted with dignity and charity, inviting the person (who had written under a pseudonym) to write to her privately.

It was an unfair accusation. Dame C had tried to do the impossible, that is, tell the truth about why she had left Stanbrook without naming the people who had hurt her or giving any details of how they had done it. To my knowledge, apart from this slight lifting of the veil, both Stanbrook and EH have been silent on the issue. Except, I've just remembered that Dame C wrote a short letter to the Times Editor in 2006 stating that she and two others had left because of ' a matter of conscience'. I only discovered this letter online yesterday.

My own feelings in her favour were increased by the fact that Dame Teresa Rodrigues, a senior nun and a famous scholar in her own right among those who know the Benedictine English world, also left Stanbrook and went with Dame CW and Dame Lucy King to EH. To leave S. must have been even worse for her. Dame TR died at the beginning of 2010 aged 79 (RIP) I had correspondence with her in 2004, from EH but did not know the situation then. She put me in touch with Rumer Godden's daughter, who in her turn gave me an unpublished poem by her late mother, 'The Christmas Rose' . May she too rest in peace.

More Stanbrook musings asap, probably Tuesday DV, when I will share more of my own Stanbrook experiences and particularly of Dame Felicitas Corrigan, may she rest in peace. Also need to bring you up to date with what has happened to Dame Joanna Jamieson, the former Abbess.

* The print room: Many of you will know that Stanbrook was famous for its fine printing. It had the oldest printing press in the country. I do hope the Community have taken it with them to Wass.

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