22 Jun 2014

Made with love

The Welsh poet, WH Davies, captured a simple truth with the opening lines of his 'Leisure' poem:


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Simple, and easy to remember too. So how come I need to remind myself of it over and over again? I'm probably not alone.

Recently I stood and stared here:


summer solstice 
wheelbarrows 
lean in the shade
Malling Abbey is only about two miles from my doorstep, in West Malling in Kent, South East England. It's been home to the same closed order of Anglican Benedictine nuns since 1916, but in historical terms that's cake crumbs: the first recorded mention of a community on this site is 946. Although credit goes to the 'builder' Bishop Gundulf for its development and foundation between 1090 and 1150, one of the first post-Conquest monasteries for women.

Malling Abbey's Norman tower
wrapping the upper, later, octagonal addition.
The wheelbarrow rest-stop in the above photo is the back of the Norman tower. Gundulf's church once enclosed this area but only one of the nave's walls remain, though the play of sunlight on old stone, the lime tree's shadows and the poetic resonance of wheelbarrows all work at making this a sacred enough space for me. 

The current Mother Abbess has been living here for 44 years. She is knowledgeable about the Abbey's history from its foundation, through Henry VIII's dissolution and subsequent centuries of private possession, right up until a 19th century benefactress, Charlotte Boyd, driven by a vision to restore monastic lands, bought the property in 1892 for £10,000 and invited an order of Benedictine nuns to return. 

She revisions the dissolution of the monasteries for us: it wasn't just about his argument with the Catholic church, Henry had wars to fight and he needed money. She asks us to consider the fate of the disenfranchised nuns in a patriarchal society: the monks could become parish priests, bishops even, but what became of the women? And reminds us of Shakespeare's 'the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sung’ from Sonnet LXXIII, words that conjure up the abandoned ruins. 

break in the clouds
the glint of pins
in the nun's black veil

The dedication of a life to prayer, to seclusion and restriction, seems anachronistic in the 21st century. I can more easily understand religious communities that work with people in need to limit deprivation, or who look after the sick and injured, or offer spiritual comfort to the terminally ill. Does individual and/or corporate solitude, silence and prayer help the wider world? The nuns evidently believe that it does. And the community isn't as isolated as it once was. The Abbey offers public tours on Heritage and Open days and they also have a guest house for private retreats; the level of involvement in their religious services is down to personal choice.

Interior of the 1960s church. The pillars
were added 4 years after the church was
completed when the 'basilican' design
was found to be dangerously flawed.
Lauds. Terce. Sext. None. Vespers. Morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon and evening prayer. These are listed in the Guest chapel's prayer book though the nuns also pray at Matins and Compline. I'd like to believe that their fellowship and their personal prayer is making a difference, however slight. I do believe that silence and solitude are good for all of us from time to time, moments in which we stand still and notice the world, our relationship with it. We've come back to where we started: WH Davies' standing and staring. 

At the end of my Abbey tour - which included its gatehouse and restored almonary chapel, the medieval transept and cloisters, the nuns' library and the 1960's 'concrete technology' church that is surprisingly beautiful in its starkness - there was tea and cakes in a small building near the nuns' extensive vegetable gardens where rows of Cara potatoes are flourishing.

'Cara' means beloved in Latin. It's the root for names like Cherie, Cheryl, Kara and Carys. In Welsh 'cariad' means beloved too. Maybe it's not silence or solitude or prayer that makes a difference, but the quality of love that's present in these actions. Love practised, given and received. 

When my Grampa Rees really enjoyed something his wife had cooked he used to say to her, 'There's some love in this, Get.' There was some love in the apricot flapjacks served with my tea: sweet toasty oatmeal sandwiching a layer of soft fruit. I thought I'd email the Abbess and ask if I could have the recipe. But there's no email address on their website. I could phone. But there's no phone number either. There's a postal address: I'll need to write a note, slip it into an envelope, add a stamp, take it to the postbox at the corner of my lane. And wait. How anachronistic. How perfectly appropriate.

Hungry Writing Prompt

Write about doing something slowly.