WORD FROM OUR REVEREND MOTHER
(From Community Notes, Fairacres Chronicle 2021 Winter)
I am glad to be able to report that I am writing these notes in my Office back in the Convent of the Incarnation! After a long journey (and though there remains work to be completed and moving in to be done), at last we can see and enjoy our beautiful new surroundings.
As many of you will be aware, the Convent was a long building with several changes in floor level; those of you who have stayed with us for retreats will remember the long, sloping cat-run between the front drive and Fellowship House garden. There were a lot of problems of accessibility, though for the exercise-conscious it did allow for plenty of walking during the day! Now however, though St Mary’s itself looks very much the same as before, as you will see from the photograph, it forms part of an enclosed quadrangle with a new wing directly opposite St Joseph’s and new glass cloisters around a central landscaped area. Sisters now have access to the library, Chapel, Chapter House and common room all on one level, and the new front entrance is part of the body of the buildings, rather than on one end.
The design produced by our architects, MEB Design, enhances the vision of Paul Waterhouse, who designed the Chapel and St Mary’s in the 1920s, and provides us with a building that we hope will enable the life of the Community into the future. A particularly nice touch is the return of the shutters to St Mary’s: they had been part of the architect’s design in the 1920s, but had been removed in the 1980s when their condition began to deteriorate. It gives the building a rather continental feel, especially on days when the sky is blue and the sun shining.
At the moment we are in the process of gradually re-inhabiting the buildings and re-establishing our life as a Community after our time in dispersion, but we look forward to the point when we can once again welcome guests for retreats and quiet days. The new guest accommodation consists of three new cottages in the grounds, and a guest area in the new wing of the building.
Buildings provide a very interesting spiritual metaphor! At the beginning of the planning process, we were encouraged to see how problematic areas in the building might mirror challenges in the Community. If areas of the building were not accessible to all, was that a reflection of how we were as a Community? It is certainly significant that important rooms within the Convent were not accessible to everyone except with great difficulty.
A newly renovated building is, of course, only the beginning of the story, and can only be brought alive by the Community living within it. We have almost 100 years of Community history in St Mary’s and the Chapel, which will celebrate their centenary in two years’ time, and I am conscious of past Sisters who have lived out their lives and vocations in this place since we arrived on the site in 1911.
Not long after the Convent was handed back to us at the end of August the memorial stones in the Shrine for the four Sisters who have died during the past two years, Sister Elizabeth, Sister Alison, Sister Barbara June, and Sister Tessa, were put in place in the Cloister in St Mary’s, and it was moving to see their names among those of the other departed Sisters.
On 3 September we were joined by our Bishop Visitor, Michael Lewis, for a simple blessing service of the buildings. We processed around the four sides of our new quadrangle singing ‘Christ is Made the Sure Foundation’ and celebrating our new home. The memorial stone in the new wing echoes the wording from Psalm 16 put above the Visitors Chapel door when the Chapel was built, which the New Revised Standard Version translates as ‘the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage’.
As we re-gather in the Convent, and as we re-establish our life in common as Sisters of the Love of God, St Paul lays a challenge before us:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. (1 Cor. 3:11–13)
Christ is our foundation stone; the foundation stone gives stability and strength to the structure and to build on this foundation means to build in a way which is Christ-like and in line with the Gospel. That encourages the Community to re-visit and re-imagine how our life as Sisters of the Love of God should be expressed and lived out.
The foundation of our life as church and as community is Christ. What is the quality of our workmanship as we build upon that foundation? At the time of a new beginning, such as the Community is experiencing, it is good to pause and reflect on past, present, and future.
The phrase retrieve, reclaim and reappropriate was offered to me recently; what elements of our life as a Community so far would we wish to reclaim and reaffirm, and what new ways and possibilities might the Holy Spirit be leading us towards?
When the Community was first founded in 1906 the world was less than a decade away from the First World War, a war that proved to be so costly in terms of human life and yet did not lead to the promised and hoped-for peace. Those earliest Sisters would have had prayer for peace and reconciliation at the heart of their lives. Now, as the Community begins its return to the Convent, the news headlines are full of reports of the work of the COP26 Climate Conference. Already the arguments about whether enough has been done at the conference to make a real difference are beginning, but I am reminded that what is really needed is metanoia, a change of heart and mind among us all, and that there is a work of prayer and conversion of heart for all to engage in if we hope to reverse or halt the effects of climate change.
Conversion of heart is a core concept for the Christian and monastic life. In our own small ways and ordinary circumstances we can engage in this: practically we can engage in efforts to recycle, shop ethically and seek a life that leaves as small an ecological footprint as possible. Spiritually we can engage in the work of prayer and conversion that helps our world in the shift of consciousness that will lead us to see ourselves as parts of an interconnected and interdependent whole, part of a creation seen as good by the God who created it.
I have recently come across a description of people of prayer being likened to a network formed from interconnected lights enclosing and cradling our world, and that strikes me as a helpful description of the place of prayer. Just as the events of World War One must have seemed incomprehensible, and indeed unbearable, to the earliest Sisters, now we find ourselves living in a situation where we can feel hopeless and helpless. Yet our foundation stone is Christ; and while that may not prevent us from being pessimistic about our future as a planet, at the same time it leads us to a realization that our hope is firm and in Christ. Fr Gilbert taught the Community that ‘your work is standing’. We stand in the place of prayer, just as the Cross stands at the heart of the world, bringing healing and redemption in the darkest of circumstances.
So, it seems to me that, even as we all stand at a crossroads in terms of the needs of the world, and as the Community renews and re-appropriates its calling in our new situation, the call to prayer at the heart of our lives stands firm and unchanging.
As we approach the Christmas season, I pray that the peace of the newborn Christ Child will bring peace and healing to the peoples and creatures of our beautiful but troubled world. The Sisters join me in prayer for you all, and we thank you for your prayers for us.