Lounging lambs

The cold still bites here in Royal Berkshire, but at least the sun has managed to put his hat on occasionally, and to lovely effect. That said, yesterday was mostly filled with flurries of snow flakes, and the daffodils are terribly confused.

One effect of the sunshine is to encourage a little ritual lambs are fond of indulging in. After joining in the feeding frenzy on barley and hay with the ewes, they like to have a little chill time and think on the eternal verities. And they like to do it together. Normally in the sun they would play, but in the recent bleak and freezing weather they prefer to act like solar cells, and soak up as much warmth as possible. It begins when a nice bed of strewn hay is found in full sun. A couple will settle, satisfactorily gorged for now, and other lambs decide that they have the right idea.



Quickly you have five settling in for some sun.



And soon there are six, as a couple of the early comers start warming to their task of… warming.



After some maternal intrusion and subsequent re-arrangement, they resettle to reveal the sun-and-slumber party has grown to eight.



Malcolm, the youngest, is very much his own lamb and sits off a little to the side, balancing community with independence… and sleep.



And looking back to the main assembly we find the other nine have finally settled together, Cher, the only girl among them, showing a suitable juvenile female disdain for boys.



And they shall stay till the next human diversion arrives; for now, I have become far too boring to notice.




An Easter Lamb

The Triduum is a busy time for a monk who is both sacristan and cantor. Unexpectedly, my shepherd’s hat was on today as well – a surprise lamb born today, Holy Saturday, in the midst of our first period of sunshine for quite a while (though it still be chilly).

Though untimely born, she is well-omened. So Frances is our Easter lamb. 11 live lambs this year, our best crop ever (and this after three dead at birth). Alas, only two of them girls. A weird year. Given North Korea’s excessively loud belligerence, perhaps the end of the world is nigh. Repent, while we have the light of life.

Below is the little girl and her young mother (barely over a year old herself, and rejected by her own mother last year), taken with shaky, frozen hand on a mobile phone.


Frances, the Easter lamb.

A novena and an omen

Yesterday afternoon two more lambs were born, which makes 7 in three days, and 9 in total – an ovine novena. Alas I only heard yesterday’s twins had arrived after dark, so after a fretful night I went out, after an earlier breakfast, through the sun-pierced fog and across crunching frost hoping for the best. And it was granted. A first time mother, Josephine, had given birth to a loud twin-set of lungs on legs. After her panic as I hoisted the lambs into the nursery pen, she followed us in and calmed down to the point of serenity. Having docked the lambs’ tails, and realised I had yet two more boys, I had a little play with the lads before they fed from mother while she wolfed down some barley (all photos should enlarge on being clicked): Feeding on all frontsIn light of the papal theme, it seemed apropos to name these two after the two most favoured papabili for the upcoming conclave. Our new albino boy, Angelo, declared approval: Angelo roarsHis brother, Marc, looked equally pleased, though he was forced to keep quiet by his more urgent need to lick his lips after downing a warming draught of mother’s best: Lip-licking goodWhen I let in the others, who were all waiting expectantly by the gate, there was a wonderful confusion of excited lambs escaping briefly the maternal leash, and of mothers frantically trying to put them back on the leash. All sorted in time: Meet and greetReturning this afternoon with some long-awaited mineral lick, it was lovely to see Cephas (at right) sitting near his grandmother with her boys Joseph and Benedict. Extended familyThe sunshine was very popular. Sunbathing was order of the day. Sonny and Cher slept through most of my visit: Sonny and CherJoseph and Benedict showed already signs of being scallywags, trespassing on other mothers and then sampling the mineral lick when they thought no one was looking: Sprung!The two eldest, Alban and Bartholomew, seemed lost in contemplation of the sun among the molehills, and I thought I might get quite close for a promo shot: ContentBut I was spotted and cast a disdainful look: SprungMeanwhile the new boys were finding their legs and learning the art of brotherly love: Brothers for lifeIn light of this preponderance of boys, 8 out of 9 lambs in total, surely there is a clear omen discernible. This is a near-certain sign that the next pope will be male. You heard it here first.

Lambs galore!

Another chap born at the end of High Mass today, in glorious sunshine. I waited around in case a twin was still to pop out but the mother happily munched away without any sign of impending delivery, so this lad is a solo act. That makes 5 in 24 hours – the nursery paddock is abuzz with doting mothers and inquisitive lambs. But 6 boys and 1 girl makes for an annoying gender imbalance.

Anyway, meet…….

Cephas! (If you know your gospels, and you know this week’s events, you know why.)

Ecce Cephas!


Meanwhile Sonny and Cher spent their second day, with Mum, sunbathing.

Sonny & Cher with Ma


Joseph and Benedict likewise took some sun, and seemed destined to stick together like limpet mines.

Benedict & Joseph stick together


Meanwhile the two eldest boys do not know what all the fuss is about.

Bartholomew & Alban noble in reposeBuona domenica.

Lamb Alert

Yesterday four little bundles of ovine joy were delivered here. One ewe had twin boys, who light of the current situation just had to be called Joseph and Benedict. Benedict is the one who has more papal white about him:

Joseph (left) and Benedict
Joseph (left) and Benedict

Another ewe had twins covering both sexes, and to balance the sacred with some profane, they are now Sonny and Cher:

Sonny (standing) and Cher
Sonny (standing) and Cher

May they graze as safely as we have under our good Shepherd, Benedict XVI.

Busy, in a good way.

Blogging does not come so easy when duties appear that require a great deal of attention and time. One such this month has been the re-design of my monastery’s website. Our website is one the earlier monastic ones, begun in 1997 by Fr Wilfrid, now deceased, who taught himself enough HTML to get it going. After his death another senior monk took it on, amidst his other duties, and again Fr Gervase had time only to learn sufficient HTML to maintain the site and add new pages as needed. It became a huge website, with so much information and so eccentric a navigation system that you could get lost in it! But it was very regularly updated, and this was its great strength.

Well, HTML is still around but things have indeed moved on. CSS, HTML5, Web 2.0, Flash, the rise of internet typography have all changed the internet landscape into one of often stunning beauty and wonderful utility. So, since I had some idea of what was going on, it came to me to become webmaster, and to try to update our very 1997-looking website.

I now have huge respect for web designers. The hours it took me to learn relatively simple effects – this alone was sobering enough. Given that I had the advantage of a nifty piece of software to to the designing in (though not one of the famous expensive ones), it struck me that it could have taken many hours more. Modern web principles also have more than a theoretical role. They lead to time spent in design issues and tweaks: not too many different fonts, and websafe ones is possible; manipulating graphics to have a good effect without being so big or complex to take an age to load (our dire internet  connection is, ironically, a good barometer); avoiding too much razzle-dazzle; text as king, message as purpose; aesthetics without excess; polish without secular, corporate flashiness; and the fact that so many people use tablets, requiring that that vertical scrolling be kept within reasonable bounds, and horizontal scrolling avoided totally if possible.

Anyway, part the first is up, with more content yet to be converted form the old site, or re-worked entirely. There have been some niggles, some necessary tweaks, some “dohs!” and even some occasional satisfaction. Our website is now, at least, very much 21st century, if not necessarily quite 2013. Please do have a look.  If anything does not work, please let me know; if there is anything you would like to see on a site like ours, do tell me that too.

Douai Abbey Website

abbey entry page

Snow, and more snow

As a diversion from the gun debate below, serious and worthwhile as it is, let us glory in the dump of snow we have had at Douai, and that most of southern Britain is experiencing. For all its beauty it brings its own very significant hazards, so spare a prayer for those who must travel in this weather. And now is the time to fill your bird-feeders, if you have one. This will be a tough time time for the lovely little things. I am conscious of course that back in Australia my family swelters!

Some scenes this morning from Douai… as usual they get bigger if you click them.

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Christ the King

Beset with laziness, I am copping out and posting my homily for today’s feast of Christ the King. This evening I read the Pope’s homily for today, and his conclusion was not so remote from mine; so I will attach it as food for meditation.


On 11 December 1925 Pope Pius XI published an encyclical entitled, Quas primas, instituting the feast of Christ the King. Though it appeared only 87 years ago, already the feast might seem incongruous in a world in which monarchs are an endangered species. We could of course more completely spiritualize the feast, honouring our Saviour as king of every human heart, looking forward to that day when he will reign in every human heart. That is something we are right to hope for and await. However, on reading again the encyclical Quas primas, we might find that it has relevance still.

Pius XI in explaining why he was introducing this feast at that time notes that throughout the Church’s history its doctrines and dogmas have initially been promulgated through the written word, accessible only to a tiny minority in the Church, its bishops and theologians. That the mysteries of the Church’s faith might reach all the people She employed liturgical feasts. Unlike documents which were circulated among the few, a liturgical feast day was an annual public proclamation of a particular mystery or teaching, a proclamation made not just in word but in ritual action before the face of all the Church.

New feasts were introduced to meet particular demands of the time. Thus in the early Church the feast days of martyrs were celebrated to emphasize the mystery and value of martyrdom to the many persecuted Christians who battled the temptation to deny Christ. Later, when reverence for the Blessed Sacrament grew tepid, the feast of Corpus Christi was introduced to remind the Church of its supreme and essential value. Later still, the feast of the Sacred Heart was introduced when the cold and dehumanizing influence of Jansenism was strong, with its puritanical diminishing of the fundamental mystery of God’s self-sacrificial love for humanity in Christ.

So, too, Pius XI was addressing a need by instituting the feast of Christ the King. Under the title of anti-clericalism, he identified secularism’s attempt to neuter Christianity, not least in Communism’s assault on the Church and its clergy. Behind this was the relativism which held any religion to be as good or bad as another, a product of human society rather than an expression of objective truth. When religion is seen as a human social construct it takes very little time at all for secular governments to see it as yet another tool for social control. Marx saw religion as the opium of the people, and his followers held that its dosage should be modified, or eliminated entirely, as the state saw need. This was the global context Pius XI faced: a world of atheistic, secular materialism.

Well Communism might be a discredited and largely abandoned system now. The great totalitarian regimes of the last century have mostly fallen or are poised to topple. Each year sees more countries moving towards democracy. This is not 1925. Yet, atheistic secular materialism is as strong as ever, even in democracies.

The Church has always prized the common good, but it never equates the common good with the will, or whims, of the majority. Democracy is no better guard against human self-centredness than any other system. In a society in which religion is more and more marginalized, with freedom of religion interpreted as merely freedom to worship, the shared self-interest of the majority increasingly triumphs over the moral truths on which good society is built. Even to wear a cross to work can be labelled as an attempt to force one’s religion on others, and if no one religion is better than another, then this is a grave affront to democracy. The accusations are shriller still if we dare to uphold publicly the Christian teaching on sexual morality, the nature of marriage or the dignity of all human life. Democracy at its best allows the individual to flourish free from the demands of a powerful minority. At its worst, it replaces what is right with what is merely popular, and too often what is popular has little to do with the common good and more to do with common self-interest.

We heard again today Christ’s words, “My kingship is not of this world”. But Christ’s kingdom is in this world, seeded in the Church. As Pius XI reiterated, Christ’s dominion is over not just the Church but all the world, including every government and society, whether they acknowledge him or not. Authority does not derive from people but from God. Christ assured Pilate that what little power he had, had been given him by the Father. So this feast reminds us who live in an ostensibly democratic society that we must exercise the democratic powers we have been given to ensure that Christian truth is heard, in season and out. In fact it is our duty, not just to God but to our neighbour. To adapt St Thomas More’s words, we must be society’s good servants, yes; but God’s first.


And a snippet from the Pope’s homily today at the Mass he concelebrated with the 6 new cardinals he created yesterday. What he says to them applies also to us whatever our state in life.

To you, dear and venerable Brother Cardinals – I think in particular of those created yesterday – is is entrusted this demanding responsibility: to bear witness to the kingdom of God, to the truth. This means working to bring out ever more clearly the priority of God and his will over the interests of the world and its powers. Become imitators of Jesus, who, before Pilate, in the humiliating scene described by the Gospel, manifested his glory: that of loving to the utmost, giving his own life for those whom he loves. This is the revelation of the kingdom of Jesus. And for this reason, with one heart and one soul, let us pray: Adveniat regnum tuum – Thy kingdom come. Amen.

St Edmund’s Day

The embroidered image of St Edmund on the chasuble the Abbot will wear at Mass today.

Slowly I am emerging from a nasty dose of ‘flu. Appropriately my first full, if woozy, day back on deck will be that of the Solemnity of our patron at Douai Abbey, St Edmund, King and Martyr. Two years back I posted something on the good young king. For this year’s feast, falling as it does in the Year of Faith, one element of the story of St Edmund’s passion is worthy of particular note. It comes from Abbo’s Life of St Edmund:

Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom… Soon afterwards he [ie Ivar, the Danes’ chieftan] sent to King Edmund a threatening message, that Edmund should submit to his allegiance, if he cared for his life. The messenger came to King Edmund and boldly announced Ivar’s message: “Ivar, our king, bold and victorious on sea and on land, has dominion over many peoples, and has now come to this country with his army to take up winter-quarters with his men. He commands that you share your hidden gold-hordes and your ancestral possessions with him straight away, and that you become his vassal-king, if you want to stay alive, since you now do not have the forces to resist him.”

Then said King Edmund, since he was completely brave: “This I heartily wish and desire, that I not be the only survivor after my beloved thegns are slain in their beds with their children and wives by these pirates. It was never my way to flee. I would rather die for my country if I need to. Almighty God knows that I will never turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.”

After these words he turned to the messenger who Ivar had sent him, and, undaunted, said to him: “In truth you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood, because I follow Christ who so instructed us by his example; and I happily will be slain by you if God so ordain it. Go now quickly and tell your fierce lord: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen warlord, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.'”

King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons…

Young St Edmund seemingly had two choices: to submit to bondage to the heathen Danes and so preserve the earthly lives of his Christian people (perhaps! – the Danes were not foremost in keeping their word), or to resist against overwhelming odds in the hope of winning a pyrrhic victory for honour and Christian liberty at the cost of his peoples’ lives.

The king however found a third way.  It was an evangelizing way. He would witness to faith in Christ first by imitating His non-violence, and secondly by offering to submit to Ivar if Ivar would submit in his turn to Christ. A masterstroke: a non-violent way of upholding the primacy of faith in Christ. The fault then became doubly that of Ivar: he not only slaughtered an innocent and unarmed man, but did so explicitly rejecting Christ. In the midst of his cruelties Ivar was offered the chance to repent and believe the Gospel. St Edmund set before him life and death, and Ivar chose death; not merely the physical death of St Edmund, but his own spiritual death.

The boss of St Edmund in the roof vaulting of Douai Abbey church.

In the modern context St Edmund’s example is a reminder that Christ comes first, not least Christ crucified: whoever would follow Christ must, at some stage at least, carry the Cross with Him. No Cross, no glory. St Edmund’s death is a reminder too that non-violence is most truly the Christian response. This is not to reject the morality of self-defence. Yet in a gun-saturated world obsessed with retaliation in the face of wrong, the only certain way of ending the cycle of violence is for one party finally to repent of violence, even to the point of death. How much of Himself would Christ see in the gun-toting, gun-loving minority of Christians in the USA?

Which brings us to the last lesson of St Edmund’s passion and death: that physical life must yield in importance to spiritual life, and that our sufferings now are as nothing compared to the glory that awaits those who stand firm in Christ. St Paul puts it better:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
(Romans 8:16-18 ESV)

Happy feast!

St Edmund, King and Martyr – pray for us.

A changing church – part 1

Over at the New Liturgical Movement one can find a rich resource for charting the changes that liturgical reform has brought to church architecture and liturgical vestments. Very few churches go through life without being modified in some way to meet new circumstances, or as a result of war or disaster. Some changes are good; some are woeful. Even Douai Abbey‘s relatively young and humble abbey church has seen a good deal of change, nearly all of it before my arrival here. Nevertheless our photo archive affords a glimpse into the changes that have been made to our church in its near 80 years of existence. It fascinated me, and perhaps some others will find the photos of interest. They will enlarge on being clicked.

Construction circa 1929, seen from the top floor of the then monastery block, the Ark, later to become a dormitory for the school. The church was designed by Arnold Crush (1885-1936), a convert from Birmingham, and a pupil of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
The west end of the abbey church under construction, with what was originally intended as the chapter house on the right. In the event it was for a time the novitiate, and now houses the sacristy, some offices and some guest rooms.
The abbey church in the year of its opening, 1933. The original plan was not completed due to lack of funds. It was to be a very large church in red-brick Decorated Gothic.  What was built here was meant to be the lady chapel and chancel. A temporary west end was built, which became semi-permanent, remaining 60 years. This represents only one-third of Crush’s design, as much as was ever built.
The abbey church and its ‘temporary’ west end, seen through the monastery gates. The Ark, at this time the monastery, can be seen at far right.
The interior of the abbey church prior to some minor renovation in 1952. The choir stalls are still in use, the eagle-ambo long gone, and the cantors’ stools, relics from old Douai, now elsewhere in the monastery. The seating for the boys seems rather attractive to me; if only we still had those seats.
A postcard view of the abbey church prior to 1952. Its current Grade II* listing is in no small way due to the church being an early example of the innovation of structural stone-clad concrete.
A closer view of the pre-1952 altar, with its lovely sanctuary carpet. The postcard entitles it the Lady Altar, a nod to the fact that this area, though used as the choir and sanctuary, was intended as the Lady Chapel. Until 1978 this was the principal altar of the church.
In what is now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was the St Benedict Chapel. The simple yet elegant altar remains to this day, with fine lettering by Christopher Derrick. The squat candlesticks we still use today on the main altar.
Between the St Benedict Chapel and the entrance to the choir was the altar of St Joseph. Now long gone, victim to the reforming zeal for one altar only in a church, the area today is behind the new Tickell organ and is a chair store. The triptych is now rather awkwardly placed in the sacristy for the house chapel.
A poor quality photo showing the church arrayed for a Requiem offered on the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939. Note the unbleached candles and the papal tiara (made of cardboard I believe!).
In time the church was equipped with the first of its organs. Here is a shot with a young Fr Romuald (+2012 – RIP) tickling the keys.

Part 2 to come in due course. Pax!