Before I could begin this newsletter a stream of requests for prayer and news of deaths of friends of the Monastery were already in front of me. My first reaction was, “I’ll write this Christmas letter later!”
On reflection, I realised of course that this is precisely what Christmas is about: God coming right into the needs of our earthly life. It is so easy to start from the tinsel and decorations and Christmas wishes, or sometimes, sadly, WINTER Season Wishes, as if there were something mildly out of place and inappropriate about references to sickness, death, bereavement and loss. Perhaps we need to learn from the beautiful Winter Season that it carries its own message…that out of this seasonal death comes the stubborn resurgence of new Life, and that at the end of the day, Christmas and Easter are not that far apart.
So let me begin on behalf of the Community with a very sincere and prayerful message to all of you who, in the last year, have borne any kind of loss and sadness, especially to those of you who are alone to bear your pain. We do pray a lot for your needs, the needs of those in our hearts, on our doorstep and indeed worldwide.
At Brownshill it has been a busy year and we will begin our tour of events in the Guesthouse, where we have had the joy of welcoming so many, both newcomers and familiar faces. Throughout the year we have watched as a team have ably guided a group of students through the skills of Spiritual Direction. We are always struck by the endless gifts and talents we discover among our guests and friends. They are so generous in sharing these and their time: artistic representations of the local landscape and of the monastery, music lessons for our younger sisters, stone wall rebuilding, reception and household help, ‘chauffeuring’…... Remembering all this gives us the opportunity to thank you our friends who, in so many ways, add your helping hand week by week to the life of our Community here at Brownshill, including, of course, Fr Peter! Thank you all.
At the beginning of the year, S M Apolline returned to Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo) to be with her family following the death of her mother in November 2017. She was with them for the special moment of the ‘40th Day’ when they all gathered for a memorial Mass in our new Monastery Church at Goma, and met afterwards to share memories, photos and stories.
We combined the lovely Feast of the Epiphany with the Community’s celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of S Mary Lucy. It began with Fr Peter’s traditional annual pre-lunch drinks and nibbles during which he proposed a toast to S Mary Lucy. The rest of the day was a round of celebrations. And just a month later it was S Elizabeth Mary’s turn to celebrate her Silver Jubilee in the company of family, friends and Bernardines. S Elizabeth Mary’s actual date was Shrove Tuesday, so we would be starting again with celebratory pancakes! Meanwhile we enjoyed her special day with her sister, Margaret, and her own family. One of S Elizabeth Mary’s lovely gifts was from Fr Peter, who had succeeded in setting up a wi-fi access in the Guests’ Dining Room.
It was good to spend time together on both days as S Elizabeth Mary has had to be away a lot this year. Surely the most exciting of these was her visit to our sisters in Vietnam in October. Postponed from March, she flew out on 19th September for three weeks for her first visit to our fledgling Community there. Most mornings, when not off to the local market on the back of a ‘moto’, she enjoyed helping with the beginning of the coffee harvest in our large plantation. But, above all, she appreciated simply sharing the life of our Community and getting to know the young sisters there. She returned with one of our Vietnamese sisters, S Marie Therese, but the latter was scooped up by S Maria at Heathrow Airport and taken directly to Hyning, so we would have to wait patiently for another few months to meet our sister.
Meanwhile we were delighted to host our General Council for their meetings, as well as the French Novitiate: S Veronique (from the Congo) and S Francoise (from Vietnam) and Annabelle a postulant. Some very entertaining moments were spent in the kitchen, and afterwards at table as we tasted each other’s traditional dishes. The only sting in the tail was that the return journey for our French sisters was seriously upset by our English winter! It was our kind neighbour, Mark, who got them out and on their way through the snow.
By March, however, we were enjoying an English Spring and a visit to St Bernard’s Secondary, Slough, for a last reunion with our past pupils after our departure in 2006. The head Teacher, many staff and present pupils prepared the day beautifully and assured us that the Bernardine spirit continues to animate the school.
Another departure will be coming about as we transfer the Trusteeship of St Bernard’s Preparatory School, Slough, to St Benedict’s Ealing in the New Year. We shared our Goodbyes and Thank Yous on 21st November when most of our Communities of Hyning and Brownshill gathered at Prep. After the celebration of Mass with Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton and Fr Kevin O’ Driscoll, Parish Priest at Langley, so beautifully prepared by staff and children alike, there was a reception. It was a time to remember and to give thanks for all the blessings since the foundation of the school in 1945, in the presence of many staff, both former and present, governors and friends. In addition to its unique ethos, we are proud to share that it was placed 4th in the Sunday Times listing of Independent preparatory schools when these were published a fortnight ago. Although sad, as this marks the end of our involvement in Catholic Education in the UK, we are confident that under the guidance of St Benedict both schools have a great future together.
St Benedict leads me naturally to speak of our close relationship with our local Benedictine monks at Prinknash. We have been able to assist at some of their several events this year, both happy and sad as they mourned the loss of several brothers who have died in the course of the year, celebrated with Fr Martin his abbatial blessing as he takes over the pastoral care of his Monastery from Fr Francis, and celebrated too the first Profession of Brother Hugh. They have shown themselves true brothers to us, willingly celebrating Mass at Brownshill, if ever Fr Peter needs to be absent. It is always a joy to share some moments with them. Nor do we forget our Brothers and Sisters in St Benedict, at Mucknell, and we were able to share their rejoicing in the profession of Br Michael earlier this year. S Catherine received the warmest of welcomes when she made her Retreat at Douai Abbey in October.
We enjoyed visits from several of our Cistercian Brothers and Sisters, S Jean from Whitland, S Catherine from Imari Japan and S Marie Joseph from France. These visits, and regular visits from our own Bernardine sisters, are truly enriching and build up the unity of our large and far-flung family.
We are always glad to welcome priests and religious sisters from our own Diocese of Clifton and beyond, as they take precious days to relax with the Lord. In this context another bitter-sweet moment took place in the autumn as we said good bye to Canon Tom Gunning our Parish Priest and welcomed Fr Christopher Whitehead to our parish of Stroud. We owe much to both of them in all the comings and goings involved in their ministry; we confide them to the Lord. Among our visitors we want to mention the young people whose commitment to the Lord and depth of prayer always humble us. We also enjoy our own younger sisters’ enthusiasm for their own commitment to their vocation, their generous service, their joyfulness. Once again their formation took them away in the course of the year; this is enriching for them but also for their community. Our younger sisters spent a fruitful and enjoyable week with others in formation on Caldey Island exploring Monasticism in the 21st Century, ably led by Fr Michael Casey OCSO.
In August, Sr Florence took the important step of renewing her vows for a further 2 years. A few days later she left for a month in Rome with other Cistercian Sisters and Brothers in Formation. During this enriching experience the high point seems to have been their visit to Subiaco, walking in the footsteps of St Benedict.
One of the most significant events in the life of a Religious Community is the commitment for life of a sister. So it was with much joy in early August that we welcomed S Hilda back from Hyning after her 3 months of special reflection and prayer in preparation for her Solemn Profession. Sunday 19th August was the special moment, when S Hilda processed into the Chapel in her black veil to celebrate, with her Bernardine family, her parents and her friends, her Solemn Profession as a Bernardine Cistercian. In a society where commitment presents a big challenge, even a question, the presence of so many, coming from so far, confirmed for us all the values of Benedictine Spirituality…obedience, stability and conversion of life. Among many friends, the presence of Bishop Declan Lang, our own Bishop of Clifton and Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB, a longstanding friend of S Hilda and our Bernardine communities, surely strengthened S Hilda’s resolve to live the challenge from St Benedict chosen by her for the cover of her Profession Booklet: “Listen my child to the teaching of a father who loves you, and attend to it with the ear of your heart.”
We are blest to see quite an impressive group of young people following S Hilda in the Novitiate, including S Reina who joined us in Community here at Brownshill from Hyning in mid-August. We ask you to join us in praying for these and for all young people that they may realise their aspirations and dreams and listen in their turn to Jesus who brings to them “the voice of a father who loves you”.
We could fill our Christmas Letter with details of these grace-filled events, and all the other lovely events of this year 2018. At the moment, S Marie Emmanuelle is back in her native France. She is being missed by Community and guests alike but is being ably replaced in the Guests’ Dining Room by S Reina. Meanwhile, S Mary Philippa continues her Spiritual Direction course, finding both the formation and the companionship of the lovely group enjoyable and very enriching.
In some ways we end where we began. As I write we have just lived Remembrance Sunday. Many families are touched at this time, but as we kept this year the centenary of the end of the First World War, we hold in special honour all those who gave their lives, then and now, in war or peace, without counting the cost. Remembrance, Commemoration, Memory - all important strands on our Christian way. Here at Brownshill they reach their culmination every day as we celebrate the Eucharist and remember, not just Christ’s Christmas coming, but his abiding presence, and then we remember you all. For all of us, may He be the joy of our hearts, the spirit that inspires our vision and the strength for every step of our journey in the year ahead.
Happy Christmas - Happy New Year.
S Elizabeth Mary, S Mary Lucy, S Catherine, S Mary Philippa, S Marie Apolline, S Marie Emmanuelle,
S Hilda, S Florence, S Reina