One Hundred Days Alongside

The website read A community of women drawn together to respond to God's love by living a life of prayer, work, study and hospitality based on the Rule of St Benedict—this is the common denominator for these individual and different women of varying temperament, character and age. They have chosen to live under this rule and under an Abbess. It was this community that I asked to live alongside for three months. I had visited the Abbey for some years, so I did have some idea of the offices and their way of life. I was assigned a sister to support me throughout my time at the Abbey. Before my stay I was fortunate to be able to discuss with this sister the type of things I would be doing as well as any expectations on either side.

I was given my own timetable to supplement the standard nuns’ timetable based around the offices—these being the purpose of the day around which everything else functions. This supplementary timetable spelled out my times of prayer, work, study/reading.

I spent the first two weeks trying to be where I was supposed to be and on time; whilst also trying to absorb all that I was encouraged to do by copying or being shown (and shown again). I quickly learnt though, not to follow a nun assuming they were going directly to Church; they all had various tasks which they did en-route to the Church! Amazingly, however, at various points my alongside sister would just be there and made sure I was going in the right direction; I learnt my cutlery setting by copying the sister next to me at meal times, which she did very slowly until I had made a reasonable effort. I realised I had learnt how to do this without having spoken to her or without her being particularly obvious in showing me. At other times I would find a marker had been placed in the correct place in the office book I was using; or when I was gardening and I had left my jacket on a bin I returned to find it hung up on a hook in the garden shed. So although I was given space to just be, they were quietly and discreetly looking out for me, as they do for each other.

Initially the timetable had seemed daunting; however I grew to truly appreciate it as it was the means to enable a balanced and rhythmic day, and this I found liberating.

Any work I did, be it housework or gardening, I knew that a sister had done that work at some stage. I enjoyed being part of the whole, if I was sweeping the stairs someone else would be organising dinner, doing paperwork or washing a floor. Surprisingly to me, I needed to learn to know when to help and, more importantly, when not to help as everyone had their own various tasks and although well intended, doing non-assigned work could confuse the process.

It took me a long time to learn that when I was given a task I need not think how I could do it differently or try and work out the overall purpose. I needed to be present to the actual action I was carrying out. It brought to mind George Herbert’s poem Teach me my God and King in all things thee to see, and what I do in anything to do it as for thee… …who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine.

I also found it difficult to learn to stop a task part way through. I would start gardening, just getting into it and I would need to stop, even if just another ten or so minutes would finish the task. I had to leave it until the next scheduled gardening time. I had to learn to stop in time and at an appropriate stage to be on time elsewhere—starting to stop as opposed to carrying on until completed. I later understood this to be a way of freeing myself from being bound to a task by my own preferences or preoccupations.

I had not realised how established my own pattern of prayer had become; I learned how to develop flexibility within the set times of prayer within the offices and personal prayer, morning and evening, which overflowed in to the daily routine—there was continuity of prayer from church to refectory.

All that was happening occurred within the silence, which was daily cultivated by prayer, the respectful attitude of the sisters towards one another, and within the practicalities of daily living during the times of silence and in the restraint of speech, especially within the cloisters. I had noted how rich the soil in the kitchen garden was and a sister pointed out that that had come from generations of previous sisters nurturing the original poor quality soil—so too with the intangible rich silence of the Abbey present within the everyday noise of modern life. A silence cultivated by the continuity and commitment of past and present sisters. Rich soil. Rich silence.

As an Abbey guest I had enjoyed attending the offices and hearing the Nuns sing, observing a sister gardening, or in contemplation, or checking on the guests. I enjoyed relaxing in this quiet peaceful setting; however within 48 hours of living alongside, I realised that these are really busy people! The life they lead is chosen in response to God’s call. It is a life of commitment, continuity and co-operation. It requires daily endurance and perseverance in preferring nothing to the love of Christ. Much of the life is finding Christ in the mundane; supporting each other in community and in their relationship with God and each other, whilst continually adapting and changing to the demands of the 21st century as they seek God, living and interpreting the sixth century Rule of St Benedict for today, and in the acceptance of the grace of God.

At the office of Lauds I was encouraged by the daily acclamation:

Glory to him whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory to him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever, Amen. (Ephesians Chap.3:20-21)

(JMH July 2020)