S. Mariae ad Nives
My thoughts are currently preoccupied with the upcoming ordinations fast approaching this Michaelmastide (actually, just prior, on St Matthew’s day) and the need to prepare particularly the deacons to be priested on this occasion. It happens to be a significant anniversary for me too, personally, and having just completed the first year of my episcopate last May, I have been somewhat distracted of late and in an almost paralysingly reflective mood.
At the beginning of July I spent some time in quiet reflection at Belmont Abbey and just last week at Sarum College in the Cathedral Close at Salisbury. I was joined on both occasions and indeed was blessed to have the company of friends, also to realise acquaintances and establish new relationships. I was also blessed to be able to share in the daily round of Office and Mass with Benedictines, at Belmont Abbey obviously, also at the recently founded Howton Grove Priory (a Convent and the home of digitalnun) and in Salisbury with another recently established Priory, the new home of the monks formerly of Elmore Abbey. Additionally in Salisbury there was the added delight (though if somewhat soporific after a long day of walking, talking and reflecting) of Cathedral Evensong, sung by a most proficient choir (in place of the Cathedral’s own who were away), enabling me to drift and pray in the midst of music by Richard Ayleward, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells and the master, Thomas Tallis (of whom David Starkey’s current series on the BBC provided an accurate and balanced portrayal).
It was rather an auspicious time to have visited both houses of monks respectively, Belmont was just about to host the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation and the Priory at Salisbury had just been visited by one of its more famous oblates, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby! It had also transpired that the Abbot of Belmont had trained in Rome with an episcopal colleague (my equivalent as Metropolitan in the USA) back in the 70’s. I was also able to celebrate American Independence Day with the newest member of the community at Howton Grove too, a postulant from America!
There were many highlights to my experiences during this time away, not least of course sharing in the faith journeys and experiences of those in whose company I was in, whether my particular companions for the duration or some of the people I met. Just like a pilgrimage, visiting holy places even on retreat always involves others, reminding us that we experience the spiritual life, just like the material life, not in isolation but in company with others. There were naturally times spent in solitary, important times for reflection and prayer, but at meal times, communal prayer times and in socialising there too the incarnational aspects of our relationship with God and each other were made plain and the Lord still seemed “to speak” to me. As is so often the case, there is “nothing new under the sun” and just as when we re-read a portion of Scripture and find hidden or deeper meaning, so too in the interaction with others discussing faith we can find different insights and perspectives on very similar experiences. Though we experience life very much subjectively and as individuals, yet often the scenarios and circumstances are not so unique.
It can be easy for anyone to feel that their particular experience of this life is completely unique, but one of the wonders of the Catholic Faith is the knowledge that numerous saints before have gone through something of whatever it is we think we are uniquely experiencing now. I have often found it a great comfort to know that somewhere a saint in light, one of the blessed who has gone before, knows something of what it is I am feeling. Particularly for me, those who also shared in the burden of the priestly office, and now after this “first year of our episcopate”, most especially those who were burdened as I am with the weight of the “summum sacerdotium” (fullness of the priesthood). I can honestly say, and I certainly don’t mean impiously, that I can still to this day feel the weight of the Book of the Gospels that rested upon my shoulders during the Rite of Consecration.
However, sharing in the faith stories of others and reflecting on my own, I was buoyed to recognise the presence of God in other’s lives and thus also in my own. True, my companions and I spoke much as if our conversations would put the very world “to rights” but even in our commiserating, there were definite signs of God’s presence and through our discourse we were able to awaken each other to His presence. Each conversation then resulted with a positive disposition to continue to strive and to hold one another in prayer to that end!
My time was spent with fellow Catholics – Roman and Anglican and despite some perceptible cultural differences, I was truly in the company of likeminded people. True, there was much variance perceptible between members even of the same denomination, reminding me that even among the people of God, our many and various individual perceptions and experiences can yet coalesce into a greater whole. This provided me with some comfort, for even though consecrated to one particular portion of the flock, I cannot help but feel my ministry as a contemporary Apostle is for the whole Church, for there is but “one Lord, one faith and one baptism” [Ephesians 4:5] and irrespective of our circumstances there is but “one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”.
I am not making any claim to a “universal jurisdiction” here, but rather the knowledge that I was consecrated and set apart by God for His people, irrespective of jurisdiction. I thus can’t help but feel some responsibility, some concern for the spiritual welfare of other Christians irrespective of denomination. Clearly, the company I was with, despite our different circumstances, some appreciably difficult as well as different, yet our spiritual and doctrinal commonality in expression of the Faith proved under it all our unity. That I drew some comfort from, even if ironically it was proof that no matter which side of the fence, the grass is neither greener nor necessarily healthier!
I wrote at the beginning though that my thoughts have been primarily taken up with the upcoming ordinations, so more of that in part II…
S. Mariae ad Nives, ora pro nobis