Silence is golden
Once or twice a year, the senior staff in the Diocese of Lincoln take themselves off for one or two nights for a residential meeting. This has taken us to Sheffield (Whirlow Grange); Launde Abbey; Edinburgh and, last week, to Whitby and the convent of the Holy Paraclete (fancy word for Holy Spirit) www.ohpwhitby.org. You will perhaps know of my profound love for this ancient fishing town (see previous blogs) but, in the years I have being going there, I have only twice before been to the convent, which is set high up on the hill just outside the north side of the town. One of these occasions was to attend their garden party and the other was to have a look at their chapel. The castellated building was once the grand home of a local businessman and was then taken over by the nuns who also ran a school in it. About ten years ago, circumstances caused the school to close down and so Sneaton Castle (as it is called) became a retreat and conference centre.
We are a slightly boisterous Staff, to say the least, when we are together and we have a tendency to enjoy each others company no matter what internal wrangles we may be having about policy, strategy or theology. This is very healthy I think. So, we were welcomed royally to the Castle and shown to our bright, airy and modern rooms (separate rooms and en-suite-we don’t get on that well!) It was the perfect setting to ruminate and attempt to have some creative ‘blue sky’ thinking: the cliff top and Whitby Golf Club to one side and the dark, brooding hills of the North York Moors to the other. We covered a host of subjects: ‘minster’ models; the changing face of incumbency; our new ‘Mission Forums’; the proposed area episcopal scheme for the Diocese; the job description and person specification for the new Archdeacon of Lincoln; proposals for mission in the Diocese in 2009 and much more. Then it was off for a brisk walk and a tour around Whitby led by yours truly (for which Iwas tipped a whole 2p by my colleagues) and a couple of pints in the Black Horse pub.
‘But what was the highlight?’ I hear you say from out of the virtual ether. The sisters of Whitby maintain a strict pattern of prayer in their chapel of stripped-down, Cistercian austerity. At any given time, when they are not in parishes or in Africa, there are about twenty of them in the mother house and they are of all ages. We gathered with them, for midday prayer and Eucharist, for Lauds and for evening prayer. The round of prayers and Bible readings are said punctiliously with long spaces between the stanzas of the psalms; perfectly measured plainsong chanting and soft, deliberate intercessory prayers. These are no Victorian throwbacks in their modern gray habits with white collars and only the odd one or two black headscarves rather than wimples. Amidst there obvious enjoyment of the repetitive offices, there was a joy, a calm and a purposeful intent rarely experienced in the Church. I was put in mind of Larkin’s poem: ‘a serious house on serious earth this is’: for this was a place where ‘prayer was valid’ like Eliot’s Little Gidding. Those few moments of ‘valid’ prayer refreshed and re-motivated we weary and cynical workers in the world, and we returned to Lincoln just a little transformed by nothing more complicated than silence, quiet, beautiful words, music and the intent seriousness of these poor, chaste and obedient women. To return to our world from this womb was just a little difficult, but made easier for knowing that, in the middle of this frenetic, grasping, clamouring and, often, cruel, world there is an oasis of community life pointing to a better way to live and a better master to serve. If you want to be re-created, I can suggest nothing finer than a night in Whitby at the Convent of the Holy Paraclete. (www.sneatoncastle.co.uk)