Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Visit to Walsingham

I have been curious about Walsingham for a long time. In 1982 I was introduced to Our Lady of Walsingham in a New York City parish. Urban decline had robbed her of her fleur-de-lys staff and she had a sheen of city grime, and I felt the whole business of an English Nazareth pretty far away and irrelevant. In those days, the parish was championing the cause of those opposed to the ordination of women so I rather lumped Our Lady of Walsingham into that camp, never kissing her image as some enthusiasts did.

But then I met some people who were as liberal as me (!) and held deep affection for all that Walsingham is about. So I have had a desire to get there and see for myself. A year or so ago SSF established a tiny friary there, and this year, during my visit to the European Province I made a point of going to Walsingham. Below are Brothers Paschal and Maximilian in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

It is picture perfect, and early summer is the best time to see the beautiful gardens. I stayed in the bedroom used by the founder of the modern Shrine Fr. Hope Patten (upstairs in this house).

Yes, there are lots of people opposed to the ordination of women in Walsingham. But there were some women priests there, though not celebrating Mass. There were lots of school children and people of various races and social backgrounds. I had a chance to talk with the Warden, Bishop Lindsey, and he was quite emphatic in refuting my prejudices about Walsingham.

So, yet again I had to re-consider things. My spiritual journey has a well established pattern of adamantly held opinions gradually eroded away through exposure and prayer. I have an Anglican fault in that I make snap aesthetic judgments, and I can get quite worked up about "good taste." I didn't like the paintings in the Shrine so was ready to dismiss the whole thing. But then a small voice advised me to pray not criticize.

Sometimes I got a bit of a headache from all the prayer as thing after thing bothered me. Until I decided to live and let live. "Don't let it bother you, so!" I could friends' voices in my head.

In spite of myself I enjoyed the procession around the Shrine gardens during the evening, carrying candles aloft. Everytime we sang "Hail Mary" we hoisted the candles above our heads. I remembered our torchlit labyrinth walks at Little Portion Friary, and all the people from every faith and background who joined us on those pilgrimages round and round the labyrinth.

One of the themes that kept getting emphasized: "What has Our Lady given you in your pilgrimage visit?"

I wanted to disclaim: "I'm just here to visit the brothers! Not a pilgrimage!" But my journal is full of notes from a book I was reading at the time called "Reshaping Ecumenical Theology." I was especially intrigued with the idea of "reception." And the magazine on top of the shifting mound of papers in the brothers' common room in the friary had a long and helpful article about reception by Dame Mary Tanner--a theologian I respect. So I decided that this is what Our Lady had to teach me. Reception is the process by which the church welcomes change: slowly, and marked by integrity, humility and spiritual maturity. I read about the hundreds of years it took the Church to accept the Nicene Creed. Obviously it is about not jumping to conclusions, making snap judgments, adopting either/or, black/white positions. I thank God I am not an ecumencial officer of any denomination; but I am every day asked to give an account of the faith that is in me. If I hurt others, or diminish them, or write them off I am only demonstrating the insufficiency of my love and intellectual and spiritual stamina. To give up on other people is a sin.

Thank you Mary.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Visiting Alnmouth

Alnmouth is a tiny village in the far north of England, not far from Scotland. The brothers have lived here, in a rehabilitated house for a long time. I say "rehabilitated" because after it's salad days as a luxury home it became a night club ("and worse" as late Brother Edward might have said). You can just speculate about that...

As a friary it has been the staging area for missions throughout the North of England. Brothers are always coming and going out from this place, and it has hosted thousands of people seeking peace and quiet to sort through their life and vocation. Perched over the sea side it is a perfect place for mulling over the meaning of life.

But the friars don't let much moss grow on their feet. They are a busy lot, five of them hosting a steady stream of guests--cooking, cleaning, offering beautiful worship and attentive hospitality. The Franciscan flavor of it all is that there is no separation between guests and brothers. No separate guest house, no separate dining room, everyone included in the prayers and chapel life. Sometimes of course it can be a bit much, but as elegant as the surroundings are, it is all about poverty: no control over much of life, having to accept and thrive in the circumstances where we find ourselves, offering to God our longing to run away from it all and finding grace to be gracious--yet again and again. I admire all that they do.

Today, Sunday, we are getting ready for the annual Garden Open Day sponsored by the Rotary Club in the village. Rotarians are everywhere erecting tents and different games. It is a money making day to support various local charities. It's raining but everybody still expects a good turnout, as the English never let a bit of rain spoil their fun! The friars collaborate with the Rotary Club by offering the beautiful gardens as the site. So I have spent the week gardening: mowing the lawn, weeding, sweeping. I find these kinds of activities deeply healing, transporting me back to my adolescence when I worked as a lawn boy and all around jack-of-all-trades for various people. I lose myself in a dreamy state of mind, moving to rhythms of lawn mower and broom, bending, lifting, praying and giving thanks. Sometimes people express concern for my "busy life" not knowing it is only busy on paper. The actual living of it is slower than most peoples' lives. The only sacrifice is stability.

But what mendicant wants THAT?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Praise the Lord!

This morning we heard a rousing homily from a brother from Belfast on the need to praise God. It certainly captured my mood. There is much to be thankful for: a terrific week of meetings here at Hilfield Friary in Dorset, England, not forgetting beautiful weather (always remarkable here in England). The people, the setting, the sense of new things happening has inspired me.

The week began with a pilgrimage from the local nearby parish in Cerne Abbas to the friary. It is a yearly event, and very neighborly. About 40 people walked through the stunning countryside. Great fun, and a chance to show off their dogs,
the event is truly a pilgrimage, a visit to a holy place. The walk is punctuated with scripture reflections, and upon reaching the friary, a huge "cream tea" is set out, a collaborative effort between the parish and friary community featuring cakes and sandwiches. The event culminates in a lovely Evensong.

The theme of pilgrimage continued into the meetings during the week. The brothers had an historic meeting here, in which they decided to have an annual all brothers' Chapter. There was a strong sense that it was time for such a development in the province, and the brothers are eager to see this happen. As one brother pointed out, the community has traveled a long way, andenjoyed the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is a high level of enthusiasm for sharing the responsibilities in the province. I was deeply moved by the seeming transformation among the group as they met in small groups and then came back to the plenary sessions eager to move forward. I was braced for cynicism, but there was none of it. The facilitator listened particularly well, and skillfully named the deepest longings of the group and framed the discussion. A very heartening process.

But it hasn't been only about the meetings. The community at Hilfield has also continued to develop and proceed on it's pilgrimage together. Both friars and other people have been living together at the friary, and it is great to see the things that were talked about before actually happening! The sheep are lambing, chickens are laying, the garden is growing. Patches of lawn are given over to wildflowers, encourage different insects. It really is about a conversion, learning to see and value things differently. I love neatly tended lawns but they are not always the most helpful to the ecosystem.

The Community of St. Francis, our First Order Sisters, are moving out of Compton Drville, their huge old manor house in Somerset. They are moving to much smaller premises. During a break in our Joint Chapter we moved some furniture out. The tone deaf piano enjoyed a last hurrah curbside.