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09 October 2015

by Sister Rosemary


Days of our lives

I HAVE mentioned before that this year we are celebrating our 150th anniversary. I shall go on mentioning it, since it is the most exciting thing that has happened in our community for years.

One of the ways in which our anniversary has been marked is by the publication of a history of the community. This has been a very long time in preparation — after all, communities do tend to think in centuries.

Before entering the community, our Sister Constance had been an academic historian and archivist; so she was the natural choice to be presented with the boxes and files containing the evidence for our history, and told that writing the history would for the duration be her full-time job. She set to work with a will.

Members of communities will probably not be surprised by the next development. The community found itself short of a housekeeper, and so Sister Constance’s job became writing the history while running the kitchen. In the intervals between feeding everyone, she produced an impressive manuscript; and then came the question of publication.


Final work

AT THIS point, it was decided that a shorter, more anecdotal account would have greater appeal and higher sales; so that was what Sister Constance next produced, and that was the version that then appeared. Fortunately, her archivist’s conscience led her to preserve the original manuscript.

This mouldered, unread, until its existence was brought to the attention of Dr Petà Dunstan, whose work on the history of Anglican religious communities made her the obvious person to ask about the value of the text. She was excited, and agreed to edit it for publication.

Sister Julie Elizabeth, one of our younger Sisters, produced a continuation of the history, covering the period since the earlier book, and the whole eventually appeared to coincide with our great celebration in August this year. We had long been looking forward to Sister Constance’s joy when she at last saw her work in print. Alas, she had died suddenly in August 2012, with the lack of fuss that marked everything she did. We hope that she is now rejoicing on the other side.


Mission circle

WE ARE not one of those communities that owe their existence to a formal Mother Foundress; in fact, in the early days, our very survival seemed improbable. Sisters came and went, and returned — sometimes more than once — and the little group was, in every sense of the word, unstable. We were a feeble instrument indeed to face the huge problems of a poor and depressed neighbourhood, let alone to embark on evangelistic mission.

But we have carried out our mission, and have survived, through 150 often turbulent years, and if we are once again feeling few and frail, at least we can remind ourselves, “We have been here before.”


Souls in purgatory

THE Derby Bach Choir, which adds such enjoyment to my life, is currently rehearsing The Dream of Gerontius for a concert in November. I wonder what the founders of the community would think to see me helping with great energy and enjoyment in the rendering of the “Demons’ Chorus”?

Elgar, of course, was a Worcestershire man, and our community’s long association with Malvern makes us especially proud of our local genius. I remember the frisson I felt when, on a visit to a nearby medieval church, I found inscribed on the organ “Elgar & Co., Worcester”.

Gerontius is a deeply religious work, setting a poem by Cardinal Newman, but the brand of religion was not to everyone’s taste at the time it first appeared. The mention of Mary as intercessor, and masses for the dead, outraged the feelings of Protestant England. A BBC guide to the work, coming from our modern secular culture, comments with puzzlement: “It may seem petty to us now, but in early-20th-century England these were acutely sensitive issues.”

These days, liberal Christians often regard Newman as a “Vatican II Catholic” before his time, but this text reminds us of his adherence to full-blooded 19th-century doctrine. Most of the work takes place after the death of Gerontius, and gives us a guided tour of the afterlife, ending with the central character in purgatory.

Purgatory has always seemed to me a very reasonable idea, if it is regarded as a process of penitence, learning, and growth fitting the subject for life as a citizen of heaven. In Newman’s version, however, although its inhabitants are, as the doctrine has always maintained, saved souls, their purging seems to be achieved by sheer torture. The suffering is partially relieved by the compassionate ministry of angels, and the prayers and masses offered by friends on earth; but God is blissfully enthroned somewhere else, waiting to make the arbitrary decision to end the torment.

The demons protest that Christians serve God “from dread of hell-fire, and the venomous flame . . . with sordid aim, and not from love”. Given this chilling picture of God, it seems to me that they have a point.


The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.

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