Sunday, 3 July 2016

Surprised by Nuns - Some Epiphanies

There had been a death in the family. "Perhaps I ought to leave?" The funeral was scheduled for right in the middle of my stay. "Oh no, this is what it's all about for us, death isn't the end, it's the beginning we've been looking for". So I stayed, and attended the funeral, although I wasn't bold enough to join the procession round the garden at the end, before the coffin is loaded into the hearse for burial at Rose Hill cemetery - a place which later became part of my daily walks, and I often read the names on the memorial stones in the two community plots there.

That was back in March 1989, my introduction to the Religious life, whilst on retreat with the Sisters of the Love of God, at Fairacres, Oxford. The sister departed was Sister Jocelyn Mary, who was mentioned on Friday morning at the requiem mass for Sister Isabel, of Jesus Glorified, who was under Jocelyn Mary's tutelege as novice mistress, back in 1960 when she made her vows to the community and to God.

When they die, after a decent interval, the Sisters' names are carved in stone on the wall in the cloister, just outside the vestry where visiting clergy robe before going in to chapel to celebrate holy communion with them. I've often had a few minutes to pause and be reminded of familiar names - particularly from articles in the Fairacres Chronicle and the many Fairacres Press publications - and sometimes familiar faces, on the rare occasions in this largely silent community that there have been introductions. Counting from Sister Jocelyn Mary, Sister Isabel will be the thirty-third name I have known over these last twenty-seven years. Rather fewer new names have arrived in that time.

I've only attended those two funerals. The first, because I was invited and encouraged to do so, because it would give a flavour of the community's life and faith and hope in the resurrection. The second, because I owed Sister Isabel a debt of gratitude. She had a bright, sharp, clever face, with a strong sense of underlying impish wit, and you felt, seeing her across the chapel, or the refectory at lunch, that she would be rather fun to know, and that she would know interesting things. The address at her funeral, from Sister Rosemary, who was Reverend Mother at the time I was admitted to the Fellowship of the Love of God some years ago, made it abundantly clear that this impression was true - not only the humour, which was at times a tonic for the community, but she also won acclaim for translating poetry from Romanian. In total, I had had two conversations with her.

The first was one summer evening, shortly after we were married in 2007, when a kind friend had invited us to house-sit for him, and I was out walking his dog, and met Sister Isabel, walking her stick (she later graduated to rather high-powered and nippy electric chairs, which she manoeuvred with aplomb), in the unmistakeable Fairacres garb, of brown habit and black veil. We got chatting, and she remembered my name, and knew my story, and said "then you must come and celebrate for us", and one way or another before long I was standing at the altar in their chapel, and have been doing so about once a month ever since. It was a lifeline for a priest without a parish, nor the possibility of having one, trying to work out what vocation might now be for. And, in the miasma of depression and bereavement that follows the loss of a ministry and subsequent unemployment, it was envigorating to be able to do again what I'd been doing for years, and doing well, and which had become part of me - celebrating the sacrament.

The second was briefer, little more than an encounter. Another sister, Mary Magdalene, whose name is now inscribed on that, wall shared her birthday with me. It was 2010. I was 44, and she was 98. It's possible that she was already the longest-lived sister ever - she went on to be 101 - and there was coffee and cake after the service, and I was invited. I had a soft spot for Sister Mary Magdalene because the way she smiled and listened, and laughed, during my little homilies made me think (vain fellow that I am) that she was "fan club material". So, I went over to thank her for being one of the few people who could make me feel young, and for being so encouraging during my sermons, and Sister Isabel giggled and said "she's deaf as a post, can't hear a word you're saying - never could!" So what I had taken for "fan club" was really kindness. And that can only be the better gift.

That's why I went to the service last Friday, togged rather implausibly in a black cassock (covering the more casual gear I'd be wearing for my Friday afternoon job, pushing a man in a wheelchair) and a big wooden holding cross that I was given by Sister Catherine when she was prioress, and organising the diaries, and I was in search of a cross, and she had a box of also-rans that they'd considered as new kit for the community. I sat next to Father Hugh, who was once dean of Jerusalem, later vicar of S. Mary Magdalen's in the city centre here, and has retired to a house right next to the convent, most of which, including converting a cellar into a library, he has refurbished with his own hands. For light relief, he writes learned works about the Orthodox liturgy. And next to him was Father David, formerly a warden of the community, and before that headmaster of Soho School, which used to be within the purlieu of one of the charities of which I was a trustee whilst at the neighbouring parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields; I knew two of his successors in that post, and he was a great help to me in a troubled time, recommending spiritual exercises of breathing which have developed into my daily therapeutic walking, which keep the Black Dog at bay.

The intercessions were led by Sister Margaret Theresa, who was prioress when at Sister Isabel's encouragement I returned to Fairacres, and who put in a good word for me with the local undertakers in the hope that I would be able at least to make a little money in straitened times by taking funerals (which I did, and I recognised Julian, one of the undertakers' men, as they were preparing the hearse after the service).

And this time, I did go out with the procession, urged to join by Sister Avis Mary, the present prioress, and say a last blessing, and a brief hello to Sister Tessa, who these days lives mainly in the infirmary, but who led a retreat for the Fellowship some years ago, at Chester and told me about William Vanstone whose books I had much admired, and she had known, and she said he was a most cheerful man, when from his books you might think him a little melancholy. And then I had to slip away to my other life.

From the occasion, I took away a profound sense of belonging, and connectedness, to the place, and to the community, living and departed; there had been a death in the family, and this time, I was a member of that family. And also words from Sister Rosemary's address, that were either Sister Isabel's, or attributed by her to the great Father Gilbert, warden of the community at about the time she arrived, and remembered with great fondness by an older generation of sisters: "the cross is the epiphany of Christ". I can't claim fully to understand it, but epiphanies are about revelation of the truth. It has reminded me of something Sister Helen Columba (the sister to whom I was first assigned after writing them a barmy letter, at the urging of a stranger I had met on a train coming back from Edinburgh in 1988, and who also these days lives mainly in the infirmary and seldom leaves it) said about the cross as "a place of tension, where heaven and earth, God and us, eternity and time, are held".

One other thought I am left with is that whilst the best people perform acts of kindness unthinkingly, and for their own sake, they still merit our thanks, and perhaps before there is a next time it would be better to express them whilst they are still alive.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Jubilee Month, July 2016


  1. Lovely and quite moving, Richard. The community of nuns at Fairacres seem very special to you.

  2. A great tribute to the Nuns, who have had the kindness to nurture you both as a younger man, and through the trials that you have had since than. I think that the kindness is two ways, your celebrating the Eucharist with them, has huge significance for them as well. I don't know the ins and outs of the community there, but I am familiar with the community of Benedictines at West Malling and they're quite sparing and discriminating on who celebrates for them - my SD is one such and I have had the privilege of being invited to several quiet days there, when he goes to run a retreat and to celebrate. Not often, thereby, making each occasion more precious. I'd like to think that the Fairacres community see your service to them in the same light.