Word from Wormingford

02 January 2008

NEWS from a far country came, i.e. Washington. It gives me the latest on St Anselm’s Abbey on South Dakota Avenue, where my friend Dom Gabriel, who, as one would hope, writes like an angel, lives according to the Benedictine Rule.

Dom Peter, the headmaster, spends his days listening, praying, calming, urging, convincing, encouraging. Dom Daniel, a quiet man, listens. Dom Philip is a study in energy and movement, and holds forums with Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh communities.

Dom Edward is on loan from Downside Abbey and is “in the richest sense of the word” a cosmopolite. Dom Boniface paints icons. Dom James has been backpacking in the Sierra Nevada and writing about Thomas Merton. Dom Christopher has been having a six-month sabbatical in Wales.

Dom Simon says “that the more we entrust ourselves to God and to a life lived in faith, the more our mind sees, and our heart expands, preparing us to erupt one day into eternal life”. Abbot Alban is 96 and says that he is grateful for “all of it”. Dom Hilary is excellent on the website, and loves the liturgy. Dom Dunstan, “our sole Canadian”, has been travelling and teaching in Korea.

Dom Matthew is a guest-master and a definite and a benevolent presence, but a pre-monastic Manhattanite. Dom Edmund teaches physics and “is a kind of legend”. Dom Dominic is bursar, cantor, and on loan from Saint Louis. Dom Michael is sub-prior and master of ceremonies, archivist, and polymath — “But now my cell is much smaller, my days more predictable, my time more flexible, my prayer more wide-ranging.”

Lastly, my old friend Dom Gabriel, who is exploring hymns for vespers, or searching out new music for the eucharist, or in all probability reading Barbara Pym, or biking, or listening to Bach.

Were I even slightly community-minded, I would envy these monks. But, as Dom Gabriel knows, I cannot imagine it. We met in Hereford ages ago when I gave a lecture on Kilvert, and was seated next to Miss Kilvert, the diarist’s niece.


It was when I told him of a correspondence I had with Barbara Pym. Talk about “And did you once see Shelley plain?” How his eyes lit up. And so, every end of the year, he tells me about his abbey, and I think about them all and marvel at their closeness and goodness and cleverness on broad South Dakota Avenue.

An English monk, Edward Crouzet OSB, wrote about the polarisation of American Roman Catholics. “Early on I encountered the two poles in the celebration of the mass. On the first occasion, as celebrant myself, I was invited to sit in a circle of sisters on cushion chairs, the altar a low table, the chalice ceramic, the homily a dialogue, the intercessions spontaneous, the sign of peace fulsome and lengthy, communion passed from hand to hand.

“On the second, attending mass as a member of the congregation one weekend at the nearest church to where I was staying, I encountered a missa normativa in Latin, with the priest facing east although the altar was free-standing, no sign of peace, communion on the tongue, many of the women in black hats or mantillas, the music beautifully performed by a polyphonic choir.

“Though I hesitate to admit it, I actually enjoyed both experiences. Each pole is committed to its vision of the Church. What is sad is that the commitment is so exclusive. They talk about, but never to, each other.”

I am off to talk about post-Christmas carols.

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