Dietrich BonhoefferTerry went into the chapel, and I went towards the garden; but seeing a man in a workshop layering clay onto a bust, I went to join him. It is his first. He has come to the abbey on an icon-painting retreat before, and now he works on this head. He is sculpting Dietrich Bonhöffer, and is unsure about the eyes. I understand that the normal gap between eyes is the same width as the eye itself. “Oh, that’s useful, do you mind?” He holds his knife up close to my eyes, thumb out to measure it.

So attuned to Rules am I that I feel some apprehension when he refers to “Herbert” rather than “Brother Herbert”- Oh!. Yes, I suppose one could call him that.

The reading before Compline tells us to imagine a circle of compassion, and stand at the edge of it, so that there is no edge; stand with the outcast and the poor. Indeed, that is at the heart of Christian maturity- there is no out-group, no Bad people.

After Compline and meditation, Anthony says that he had just seen an email from a doctor, a friend of his, whom three years ago he had brought into the Church, who having learned of that Chinese child who had his eyes gouged out could no longer believe in God. How could a good God allow that? My answer is that there are human characteristics, without which we would be lesser- human drive and energy- which may be perverted to that. Anthony fears he will dream of that child. Oh, No! Dream of the circle of compassion.

Sam the sculptor’s answer is that of Etty Hillesum, File:Michael Portillo by Regents College cropped.jpgwho pitied the Nazis who hated her and shouted and tried to make her ashamed and fearful; and threw a card from the train, “Tell them we went into the camps singing”. I think of a man who was walking in the station when someone jumped up on his back and slashed his forehead, just above the eyebrows, with a knife. He lost all trust in the world, and his life was ruined.

Brother Herbert says that originally monasteries sang all the psalms in a week, and now some miss parts out, such as Psalm 137. How can we sing of dashing a child against the stones? I know the strength of my own rage, though I tend to turn it inwards rather than outwards. I like to think that all of me, that rage included, is within that circle of compassion.

Sam’s friend is obsessed with Noah. He has been to Mount Ararat and measured rocks there, seeking evidence of the Ark, and believes that if such evidence could be found the Bible would thereby be proved. “We might think that ridiculous”, he says- well, of course, I would.

When we were talking of faces being asymmetrical, people being asymmetrical, I thought of Michael Portillo. Narrating a TV programme, he said he had known his face was asymmetrical as a child, and when he talked of it his voice shook. He had known this as an ugly defect, though it does not appear striking in him, particularly. What pain someone can endure from childhood!

Etty HillesumA preacher should say nothing he would be ashamed to say in the presence of burning children, said Sam. He is ordained. He left his project working with children who had been groomed and raped in Keighley, children whose lives were ruined, to write a PhD on Dietrich Bonhöffer; and now is sculpting him.

“Post-modernism started in the camps- its doubt and cynicism,” he said. Um. To me Post-modernism is liberation, leaving behind the One Interpretation of any object or work, or the intention of the artist, and indeed the One Truth- democratising it so everyone’s interpretation has value. We discussed how drawing someone, or sculpting them, helps us to see them more clearly.

Why would we tell the story of Noah to small children? Violet, an atheist, has been having fun with it: the story shows God is an idiot for creating such a wicked world, and a monster for killing everyone. Perhaps that is the point: this is a cruel world, where ghastly things happen to good people, and everyone getting wiped out is an illustration of that. Then God calls Noah, and saves him and his family: those who obey God will be saved. And there I dislike it: Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz; though it killed only her body, and her spirit and example live on. It is one side of Christianity- sheep and goats, damned and saved, Good and Bad, in and out, rejecting that Circle of Compassion where everyone must be brought in. If we can know the cruelty of existence from early childhood, then nuns can operate Magdalen laundries happy in the knowledge that they serve God.

The image of the animals two by two is strange and lovely.


Nine_order_of_angels 1What is incense for?Nine_order_of_angels

-It smells nice.
-I heard that they buried bodies in the floor of churches, and it covered up the smell of the bodies.
-Yes, there was that church in Bath where the floor was subsiding, and they had to remove a lot of bodies.
-It might need to cover the smell of the living!
-In the 1960s, it covered up the smell of pot.

-I thought it was prayer, an aroma ascending before God, said the Retreatant. Brother Herbert just smiled.

It smells nice and it gives you something to do. I used to serve at the altar: we used to walk perpendicular to the walls of the church, North-South or East-West, never diagonally. It makes the sanctuary special, other-worldly, different from outside; it is a way of showing respect, in that I do not walk the obvious way but a different way; it lets me do a 90° turn, and make my cassock-alb swing, which is theatrical for the watchers: it makes it special for me, but also for them, and deepens the experience of approaching the sanctuary from the nave.

It is the same with the thurifer, priest, and boat-boy who carries the Navicula, a metal container which holds incense. Preparing the thurible beforehand, with charcoal, then opening it, putting on the incense, swinging it correctly so it neither burns too quickly nor goes out, all the ritual around that, then censing the altar, priest, servers and congregation, is great theatre-business. Where I worshipped, we rarely or never used such things, but one of my earliest memories is being in a different Episcopal church with the procession going in, the colours and the robes. I might have been around four.

Brother Herbert’s reading was on faith coming from worship, and not the other way around. My summary, through my biases- opening up to God/the Other/ Reality by performing ritual and saying ritual words; and thereafter comes theology. It is like writing a poem, and then along come the dogmatists, to make a system or Understanding of it which can be taught and learned by rote; and then, some worship the dogma rather than the Reality.

-I heard “you have to take your dogma out for a walk”, show it round to a community, test it out with them.

A paradox! In the Eucharist, we recite the Creed: the Nicene Creed, which unites the churches, and standardises the dogma. (Again, Brother Herbert just smiles.)

We shall not cease from exploration. Relationship to The Other/ Infinite/ Whatever may grow, along with reading about it, as long as the words are a spring-board rather than a box, curtailing us. I said something like that, and the Retreatant nodded and smiled enthusiastically.

I was struck when sprinkled with holy water, on the top of my head: I did not feel it, and this brought on regret that I wear a wig, stronger than I have felt for some time. Then I reflected on the oddness of that: sometimes I regret, when I see the beauty of another’s hair, sometimes I think well it’s not all that bad, really, when I hear them complain about it, because few are entirely satisfied with their hair; perhaps this is a new reason to regret my need to wear a wig, and so the regret becomes acute again. I had thought I had come to terms with it.

We also discussed the Tao Te Ching. We love the Tao. It is a cosy little spiritual club we have here, quite delightful.

Turvey Abbey

Abbey 2 GardensI feel serene. I watched the sky darken, and that long, single brush-stroke of bright RED in the West fade, and the reflection of the sky in the pools of water. Conversation was easy.

The abbey is beautiful. There were many huggable trees, and some, with soft bark, strokable. The chapel is mid 20th century, looking like so many retreat houses. I could wander here happily. We chatted, driving down, then we walked through the grounds, then we went into the chapel, and sitting in it, I began to think of the extremist Catholics, gloating about Hell. Tertullian said that one of the joys of Heaven was seeing your persecutors suffer below, but he had an excuse. I felt uncomfortable, even though I am here with a lesbian couple: if they disapprove, there are three of us to disapprove of.

Retreat centreIn the car, we discussed a Buddhist monastery. Sue’s cousin is in a cave in the grounds, looking after a Goddess. She has been solitary for 25 years: she goes to the main house for meals, but sometimes she retreats, and they put food outside her door: she leaves the plate outside when she has finished, and may not see a person for months. She has books.

-It’s horrible.
-What’s it like?
She mimes: hands like claws, mouth open to gobble.

MosaicThe nuns come in individually, the monks from next door come in, they bow to each other. There are about a dozen monks and nuns, six in the congregation, and us four Quakers, for Compline. The Lord grant us a quiet night, and a perfect end. They chant psalms and Nunc Dimittis in reedy voices, with the Superior’s guitar. I am still bristling. If anyone actually did say (of course, no-one does, I have no reason to believe they even think it) this is a holy place, you cannot be here, like that, I would explode. Or collapse. Or something.

They leave the chapel, to sing to the statue of Mary, in Latin. The laity follow. Then we go out through the garden, to a small room, for meditation: four monks, four Quakers, four others. Chapel

Psychotherapy books line one wall of the small room, art books and Catholic references another. There are twelve books on van Gogh. We sit in a circle about a round table with an oil lamp in the centre, on a simple but beautiful mat. It is easy to get into Presence here. Geoff makes a joke, and Grace hushes him. Brother Hubert, the 90 year old monk, comes in last, and we begin our half hour meditation (the reason we came) when he kneels down.

Afterwards, Geoff makes tea, and we chat.

behind the altarBrother Herbert was born a Jew. His mother brought him to England from Germany when the Nazis came to power, and he became Catholic “when he heard the Sermon on the Mount”. Terry is interested in the anger one can feel, in a closed community: he has told me before, and now says again, that Brother Herbert leapt and stamped in rage. “You have to let it out,” smiles Brother Herbert, toothlessly. Terry raises theodicy again, and the monk says, What God has made is very Good. Terry wonders what it is like to be solidly in one tradition, life long, and Herbert and Grace say that you don’t believe all of it. Doubt is part of faith.

Ah, that certainty, the comfort within the tradition I find uncomfortable. Is that what made me prickly, in the chapel?

Welcoming is important to him. He wants the abbey to be Open. The younger nuns tend to be more dogmatic: they wanted a gate, at the entrance. You would have to open and close the gate, when you arrived. He snorts.

Driving home, I am relaxed.Tapestry