Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Beautiful Thread

The Beautiful Thread (vol. 8 in The Hawk and the Dove series), releases on the 19th of February (don’t buy it, Deb Sokell, I’ve got it on pre-order for you), along with the new edition of The Breath of Peace.

Some of you will have read The Breath of Peace in its original edition, but I thought you might like to read a snippet from The Beautiful Thread to see if you like it – so far it hasn’t got the usual ‘Look Inside’ thing available on Amazon, though I expect they’ll get round to it at some point. The Beautiful Thread is all about kindness as a central characteristic of Gospel living. In the story, Abbot John and his new cellarer Brother Cormac have to juggle the rigours of a bishop’s Visitation (like an official Church inspection) with the preparations for a large wedding taking place at St Alcuins – Brother Damian’s sister Hannah is marrying into an aristocratic family. They draft in William to help Cormac with the complexities of it all; unfortunately it turns out the bishop likes William no better than most people. And then there’s Brother Conradus’s mother Rose – who appears briefly in this extract:

The five visits to St Alcuins Florence Bonvallet had made in the course of the week, Abbot John had dodged and left her to his prior. Mostly he had been required to be with his Bishop Visitor.
Some of the time he had been struggling to cram in urgent correspondence and the preparation of homilies and Chapter addresses.
Late at night and early in the morning he had been approving, signing off and stamping with his seal, the prodigious accumulation of bills associated with the torrent of extra guests into the abbey. 
But on one occasion he had been guilty of catching sight of Florence as he came out of his house, and simply legging it as fast as he could in the other direction, pretending he hadn’t seen her.
 Today he felt he owed it as much to Father Francis as to the Bonvallets to accept some share of the responsibility himself, and offer her an hour of his time – or better still, half an hour.
Brother Martin told him she had gone to the refectory, to check on the condition of the tables and their cloths, to be sure the frater had no vermin, to determine the placing of those guests of sufficient status to be indoors and seated, to decide where to situate the harpist. She also found herself in two minds about the minstrels; the simplest thing would be to give them a spot outside; let the harpist entertain the people of refinement and substance, and everyone else could enjoy the juggling and acrobatics, the more boisterous music of dubious ballads about wedding nights, and the hurdy-gurdy. On the other hand, even her more elegant guests had a taste to be amused, so she acknowledged the existence of an argument to give them a brief spot in the refectory.
She asked the abbot his opinion on the matter, and he won himself the sourest look imaginable by enquiring what Hannah’s and Gervase’s preferences might be. And now she stood, regal and imposing, one hand on her hip and the other thoughtfully rubbing her chin, as her gaze swept the room, missing nothing. John noticed that someone had made a fine job of waxing the tabletops and buffing them to a glossy finish.
            ‘There’s a mouse!’ observed Lady Bonvallet, in cold disbelief. She looked at him accusingly. Earlier on in this acquaintanceship, the abbot had felt constrained to please her if he could, to offer their best and remedy any faults she detected. By this time, reduced to counting the days and heartily looking forward to the first sunrise of Hannah’s married life, he limited his efforts to remaining both patient and civil.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘We do have mice. We keep a cat, but she misses some.’
‘Then get another one,’ she responded. The abbot’s jaw tightened, but he did not reply.
‘You know how I want the tables set out? The top table at the far end there, the others flanking the long walls – then the harpist at the bottom, there.’
‘Aye, I do. I believe you had a word with our fraterer, Brother Richard, on the matter. I’m not your man, really, Lady Bonvallet. It’s not I who will be arranging the furniture for your family wedding.’
Florence’s mouth compressed into a tight, twisted rune of displeasure. The abbot sounded distinctly unco-operative. She fixed him with a frosty look, and drew breath to speak, but the far door – that led most directly to the kitchen – opened, and in walked Rose, cheerful and pleasant.
‘Yes?’ Florence re-directed her attention to the interruption.
Rose, smiling, curtsied. ‘Good morrow, your Ladyship. My son told me you were here. We thought the wedding day might be such a press and bustle of people, and since we have some of the sweetmeats ready and two of the subtleties are complete, we wondered if you might like to be the first to have a quick peep.’
 Her eyes sparkled with fun. Though she spoke respectfully, she made the suggestion sound enticing and delightful. She put some of the magic back. Watching Florence’s face change, seeing it light with eagerness and interest, John felt ashamed. A lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of prayer and humility had evidently not taught him the sweetness of manner that seemed to come naturally to Rose.
‘May I have your permission, Father John,’ Rose then asked him, ‘to take Lady Bonvallet through the cloister to the kitchen? I know it is a liberty, not something for everyday. But I think it might mean a lot to her.’
Florence, who had taken a step forward, it never occurring to her to seek the abbot’s permission, paused and looked at him. She read effortlessly the softening of his face, the tenderness with which he regarded Rose and heard her request. She could see that whatever Rose asked, the answer was never going to be ‘no’ from Abbot John. Her eyebrows rose slightly in astonishment.
Intrigued, she watched as the whole demeanour of his body changed; the obstinate rigidity of a moment before melted away.
‘Conradus is with you?’ he ascertained. ‘Then, yes; certainly.’
Making a mental note to get Rose on her side about the mice, Florence followed this interesting and unexpected person into the kitchen to see what they had made. Not much about this wedding so far had made her happy; but she had to admit, the sweetmeats were the daintiest creations imaginable. They let her taste one of each kind, and she had to pronounce them delectable. The dragon’s head was ready, and they showed her how the body would be formed of artfully stacked shortbreads – ‘But they must be crisp and the butter quite fresh, your Ladyship, so we’ll be making them the day after tomorrow.’
Brother Conradus, bursting with pride, showed her the subtleties he had made – the chalice and paten on the altar with gilded glory raying at the back; and a crenelated abbey with open doors revealing a host of tiny pastry people. Florence peered closer. ‘How did you make their eyes?’
‘Poppy seeds, my lady,’ he said with a smile. Then, the question he could contain no longer: ‘Do . . . do you like them?’
Lady Florence Bonvallet looked at the short, plump brother with his ruddy cheeks and shining dark eyes (exactly like his mother), anxiously awaiting her verdict; and in spite of herself she couldn’t help smiling back. ‘I do,’ she said. ‘I think what you’ve made is magnificent. The best I’ve ever seen. It makes me feel better about the whole thing.’
As she escorted Florence away from the monastery kitchen, Rose asked her softly: ‘Forgive me if I am too forward, or if it’s a secret, your Ladyship; I’m just dying to know – what will you be wearing?’
As Florence described the embroidered linen lawn of her chemise and kerchief, the sumptuous green silk velvet cotehardie, with pearls and thread of gold adorning the sleeves, then the deep red surcote with the jeweled braid edging, Rose’s eyes grew round with delight. ‘And on your head, my lady? Oh yes, you said – a kerchief in linen lawn over your barbet! Oh, gracious goodness, you will be perfect! A queen! I shall be serving along with my son on the day, so I’ll be able to catch a glimpse. Oh, my! So exciting!’ She wisely omitted any enquiry about the attire of the bride.
Lady Bonvallet went home happy; curious about the abbot, too – evidently a man not immune to feminine charm, which she hadn’t expected.


I do hope you like it.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Sources of strength

Watching the moon sail bright across the heaven through the Badger’s skylight windows as I was falling asleep, I thought about sources of strength in making good choices.

People of faith, schooled perhaps in the-answer-is-always-Jesus thinking, are often quick to say “God. God is my strength.” Like Harry Potter’s friend Hermione, swift to supply the right answer.

God is our strength of course – and in some difficult passes, our only strength. We live in Spirit and the Spirit lives in us; otherwise we wouldn’t be alive at all. We would be mere lumps of matter, except that even matter is God-breathed. There is no getting away from the Spirit of God. So God is our strength, naturally; both by grace and by the simple fact of our existing at all.

Even so, the very word “disciple” implies that we live under discipline, not merely scudding along surfing on a cloud of inspiration. We have to do it as well as be it. Discipline requires constant exercise of choice, turning away from the territories we are passing through in order to keep to the path that is ours. This implies effort and effort requires strength; so I thought about our sources of strength.

What brought this to mind is the surprising difficulty I find in choosing every day some things I believe to be good. Not so much lofty things like prayer, I mean (though that, too), but more mundane matters – the food I eat, where I draw water, earth closeting, minimalism, abstaining from activities that hurt the Earth, walking every day. That sort of thing.

In the perpetual experiment and course of study my life has been, I have certainly discovered what is good, both by enquiry and practice. I know perfectly well why it is better for me and better for the Earth to drink water from the local spring, wash up in rainwater, eat what is simple and natural and stay away from the refined carbs and sugars and processed meat – all that kind of thing. I know why it’s better to light a fire or wrap up warm and have a hot water bottle by me than turn on the central heating. I need no further information on the subject.

As to matters of diet, the reasons why I should eat what I know is good are played out with boring repetition when I make poor choices (I do like cake) and end up liverish and shot with pains.
So I asked myself, if I know all this, why is it a hard discipline to keep making the good choices? And what are my sources of strength in making those choices?

The information itself is one source of strength; understanding the point of drinking living water and making off-grid choices is a good motivator when it comes to the slog of carrying the big bottles.

But information alone fails under the pressure of tempting alternative possibilities. Expedience, busyness, convenience – these can overwhelm information even when they should not.

The three principle sources of strength I identified are habit, context and community.

Habit is a strong motivator. When I am rushed or harassed, habit becomes the easy choice – the thing that wins through. The point about habit is that you no longer have to think; it’s the path you could walk in your sleep. So when I’m distracted from the weaving of a beautiful fabric of daily routine, by news or obligations or just the presence of other people, it tends to be habit I fall back on. The more I make the good choices, the more likely I am to go on making them. They seem easier as the habit strengthens. They become just what you always do.

Context is also a strong motivator. I should explain what I mean by that. For example, if you are trying to build a dietary discipline that protects you against diabetes, obesity and fibromyalgia, you will do well not to attend cream teas and stay out of the baked goods aisle in the supermarket. If you pick your snack in an orchard and shop in the fruit and vegetable section, you’ll establish the right path for health. What applies to food choices is also true of other choices – surrounding yourself with, or immersing yourself in, the environment that enhances the likelihood of making the right choice is obviously a source of strength. If, for example, you have resolved to stop driving cars and travel only by public transport, you are more likely to keep your resolution if you make your home in the city than if you choose to live up a steep hill five miles from the nearest store and you have a family to feed.

Community is a strong motivator too. It’s easier to sit down to a plate of steamed vegetables if you aren’t with somebody eating a cream doughnut. It’s easier if three of us lug the bottles of water home from the spring and we are all walking along together chatting. And it’s a great deal easier to practice minimalism if the people you live with choose to do the same. You can’t even see your minimalism if they don’t.

It occurred to me that habit, context and community are pillars of the monastic life, which maybe explains its strength and success for helping people who want to make good choices.

I haven’t got anything more to say about this, so I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Here is love, vast as the ocean - Robin Mark

Mince pies, sand and bobeches

So it turns out that mince pies and bobeches inter-are.

Do you have mince pies in America, in Australia? They are very important here in Great Britain. You cannot truly have Christmas in any gastronomic sense without mince pies.

In case you don’t have them, I should explain they are small pies of a size to hold in your hand and eat in a few bites. They are made with shortcrust pastry – er … the crumbly sort where you rub the fat into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then add cold water, knead, roll out. The filling, enclosed with a lid, is a spicy dried fruit mixture of about the texture of jam (US ‘jelly’), includes suet (whether vegetable or animal).

If you make them at home, they go in the regular bun tin (the baking tray with a dozen cup-shaped depressions to cook individual cakes or pastries. But if you buy them in the shop, as we usually do, they usually come cooked in little foil trays. We don’t throw these out, our Hebe saves them up because they are handy for the paint she uses for the calligraphy on coffin plates.

The main candle that illuminates my room is on a wall sconce, and the drip tray is not large. As my computer often sits beneath it, there is a risk of sticky beeswax dripping onto the keypad, which would be an unhappy occurrence. So I thought I should acquire a bigger bobeche to add to the drip tray it already has.

I looked at some on eBay, but they tend to be expensive and come in sets. Then I thought – oh, wait on! What about screwing the candle cup through one of the little foil trays we kept back after Christmas? That would work perfectly! And so it does. 

You don't need brass polish to clean the sconce, either. The sandpit is a very practical alternative.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Ordinary miracle of every day

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
                                   ~ Ernest Dowson, from Vitae Summa Brevis

At chapel on Sunday we had the reading with the wedding at Cana-in-Galilee – the one where Jesus changes the water into wine.

I thought about what the ruler of the feast said to the bridegroom when he tasted the Jesus wine: Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now (John 2.10).

It brought to mind days long gone when I spent most of my time in hospice, travelling along with people in the very last bit of their lives.

I lost count of the number of people – this became commonplace – who told me these had been the best, the finest and most precious weeks of their lives. A treasure-store, really, discovering the riches of love and being loved, of honesty and kindness, often of forgiveness and reconciliation. Laying down of earthly burdens, turning away from the complications and machinations of what passes for life as usual, to a bright simplicity before the open door to heaven, its borrowed light.

Over and over again, rulers of the feast of life God had set before them, they expressed their surprise: Thou hast kept the good wine until now.

Could we, I wonder, start now? Appreciate that in this living moment, these are the roses, this is the wine, God’s good gift. Or at least drink the water, and wait for the miracle to begin.