During my recent visit to England (for my Diocesan Council of Advice in London), I visited a friend of mine who is a medical doctor and a philosopher. I spent many hours discussing profound things, but also meeting his wife and friends with their own young children. I was surrounded by children – quite an experience – with all the characteristics of beings discovering their world so vividly. One of those children is a baby who needed to be baptised. Timothy and I were invited to the christening at Farnborough Abbey.
Sunday Mass was celebrated in the 1962 Roman Rite with some modifications allowed for monastic communities, with which I was familiar in abbeys like Fontgombault and Triors. Farnborough is a very small community, but yet has a mitred abbot. Information about the community and its fascinating history can be found at Farnborough Abbey. I was most intrigued about the use of the organ, a fine Cavaillé-Coll instrument played by an equally fine lay organist. It was a time of prayer, memories of my Roman Catholic days and a totally different perspective through bitter-sweet experience. The Mass, attended by about ten very serious lay faithful and the families of mixed origin (Italian, Polish, etc.) and the children, was followed by the very simple baptism. Being a monastic and not a parish church, there is no font, so the baby Bernardo was baptised using a copper basin on a table.
We went outside to the green facing the church, where there were the customary photographs. I was wearing my cassock and old style cravat with my hair tied back. The Abbot came up to me and asked who I was. I gave him my name, and he repeated it with surprise and almost veneration. I detected no cynicism or sarcasm. The monks of Farnborough read this blog and have appreciated my article about the liturgy and certain other subjects. The Abbot, a plain-speaking man from Durham, said a number of things – like for example that he could write my obituary in most glowing terms. To which I replied that I would have to “fall off my perch” first! It was a moving experience to be treated as a famous celebrity by this Abbot. I was also plain about my experience in Triors and knowing that monastic silence promotes knowing about everything and listening to every conceivable bit of gossip. Silence heightens the senses and our wonder about things that most people don’t notice. To this day, I can stare at a single leaf on a tree and contemplate it for several minutes!
He was probably quite taken aback by my being as Northern as he and also plain talking. Many idealise the monastic life, but I am so aware of its humanity and the way grace works with the human condition here and now, without ambition or standing above the communion of the community. Ora et labora: the monastic life is divided between the long hours of singing the Office and doing mundane tasks like maintaining the buildings and grounds or in some craft – or study when it wouldn’t cause pride.
It was a profoundly touching experience for me, that will encourage me to put more renewed work into this blog for the sake of Christian education. There is something in common between a lone priest at his computer and the monastic community that generates prayer and divine grace. It was also for me a kick up the backside to return to the Parable of the Talents and consider my priesthood and my vocation to Christian education. I have been through a hard year “of discernment”. This meeting with a wise and experienced abbot was a sign to me, even though I no longer belong to his institutional Church. Even there, he was most sensitive and did not attempt to get me “back into the fold”, knowing that such would be my spiritual and vocational death.
A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.
I thank God for such men of discernment, of good northern English plainness, a shot in the arm of grace and joy. I returned to Dover and France elated, driving through the Surrey hills to the smells of honeysuckle and the flowers in the gardens. This is surely a foretaste of heaven in these summer days.
Gratias tibi agimus, propter magnam gloriam tuam!