Ty Mawr Retreat 29.11.17: Stories from El Salvador

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A piece of traditional El Salvadorian pottery depicting the Nativity

It was a cool, damp morning in late November, when the Holywell Community set out across Monmouthshire to the Ty Mawr convent. As Fr Tom, Fr Mark and Sr Jennii tried to remember the way to the house (‘All roads around here lead to Ty Mawr! But I would have taken the other one, Father’), I happily dozed off in the back, missing a gorgeous view of the valley. We were on our way to our sister community’s house, where we’d booked the peaceful Print Room in the grounds to spend a day recollecting and praying together. With Advent approaching rapidly, it felt like the perfect time for some much-needed space before the busyness of the Christmas season began.

On arrival we prayed the monastic office of Terce, and then said Lectio Divina (a practice of slow, prayerful reading, in this case of that day’s gospel). In the quiet comfort of the Print Room, we were able to take a luxurious amount of time to meditate in peace on the scripture. As the time of prayer came to a close we found ourselves in happy conversation about the lives of the disciples, and reflected a little together on the passage we had encountered. One of the great blessings of community life is being able to speak about faith so openly, and learn from each other, and as a new monastic community it’s important that we make time to do this.

At lunch we were joined by our associate Michael Woodward, who has recently returned from a pilgrimage to El Salvador with the Archbishop Romero Trust. Michael took us through Romero’s life, from his training for the priesthood to his eventual martyrdom at the altar of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia. Romero’s death did not bring about the end of the civil war, but the over the following years the example of his devotion to the poor has helped bring about great social change. He was beatified in 2015, and is remembered with great love and reverence not only in El Salvador but across the world.

Romero had been brought up a Christian, and had chosen to pursue his faith, becoming a priest against the wishes of his family. Through his early life and ministry he was an able and dutiful servant of the church, but whilst tensions rose in El Salvador Romero showed few signs of being the powerful social and spiritual advocate that he is known as today. It was in the murder of his friend, the Jesuit priest and tireless social advocate Fr Rutilio Grande (and his companions), that Romero’s life changed. From that grief came a second calling on his life; to the cause of the poor and oppressed. He had at that time been archbishop less than a month, appointed as a safe choice for the church authorities and state, and unpopular with the local priests who faced the daily hardships of poverty and suppression. Romero left Grande’s side with a prophetic insight into the call of the church to fight for the poor; he saw no church, no faith possible without them. In the three short years between this second calling and his martyrdom, he lived and breathed the liberation of the poor of El Salvador, unafraid to criticise the government and military.

In Ty Mawr, thousands of miles and four decades away from Romero’s death, we spread out a bold map of El Salvador and traced his steps across the country. It is easy to place those obviously holy, like Oscar Romero, on pedestals, to imagine that the extremes of both their faith and the suffering they endured put them on a different level somehow to us. But Romero’s life is a testimony against this way of thinking. He recognised the forgotten martyrs, the thousands who died or suffered during the war; he believed in one church of poor and rich, united in one God; he walked away from any honour given to himself to glorify God and raise others. I was struck by one line from the documentary Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, where a church activist who had known him spoke of encountering Christ through him; although those that knew him clearly adored him and were inspired by his actions, their deepest and truest love was for the God they encountered through him. The story of Romero’s life is of a man who had served God on his own terms giving God complete reign in his life. The love that surrounded Romero – fierce love, angry for justice, compassionate for the poor, brave for the meek, gentle with the oppressed – is God’s boundless love in action.

There is more to say about the love of God in the life of Oscar Romero than I could hope to cover, but a few details stood out. Firstly, Romero’s greatest work was in the last three years of his life. God didn’t finish calling on him when he became a seminarian, a Deacon, a Priest, or even an Archbishop. Wherever we are, and wherever we have come from on our Christian journeys, God’s call continues. We know from scripture that this call is not a demand for us to act, but an invitation to step further into God’s love. It always begins with our name. Whether poor or rich, Archbishop or tentative believer, we still need to hear God calling our name.

Secondly, our faith must permeate our lives. While faith had guided Romero before Grande’s death, the faith of those three years afterwards was one of total submission to the will of God. I took away the impression of a man who was as much liberated as liberating. God’s love demands to be acted on, and to be let into every part of our lives. Archbishop Romero recognised that his theology was incomplete if it didn’t lead to action, and his political and social activism had to be driven by his faith. We often talk about bringing our faith into the world, but Romero also challenges us to think deeply about the challenges the world poses for our faith. Our faith has to be our best tool for approaching the world; we deserve a theology that does it justice.

After a final cup of tea, we had to leave the comfort of the Print Room and make our way back to Abergavenny. Days together as a community are a great source of strength and encouragement, and our reflection on the life of Oscar Romero has helped me think on how we are inspired to make our faith and our work one. It’s always hard coming away from a good retreat, but there’s always something more to look forward to! This Sunday Fr Tom will be preaching at St Mary’s on Christian Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and so forth) which will be a lovely opportunity to reflect on how we respond to God’s call on our lives, so do come along (and if you’ve braved the end of this blog, ask him questions about Oscar Romero!)

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Our thanks go to Michael Woodward, for a fascinating afternoon discussing Oscar Romero, and the community at Ty Mawr, for their hospitality and use of the lovely Print Room.

Sr Joanna

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Taking the Christmas message out

Some of the Christmas outreach stuff we will be involved with.

St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny

We think it is important to take the Christmas message out in action, as well as in song, so we have planed the following programme.

Gifts

We started doing so already!  We have dispatched over 80 shoe boxes containing gifts for the needy in Romania, with the help of Blythswood Care.

We are now collecting gifts for young adults who have recently left the care of Monmouthshire County Council Social Services.

Church without walls Carols

In the week before Christmas we will be taking the good news of Christmas out of our Church buildings:

Saturday, December 16th

Scenes from last year’s Walking Nativity with the Bishop

During the afternoon we will take the Nativity story out on the streets of Aberagavenny as we walk from Holy Trinity Church, Baker Street to St Mary’s Priory Church, Monk Street via  Red Square and the Market.

Tuesday, December 19th

We will be singing Carols in…

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We remember; we trust; we are influenced.

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November is a month of remembrance. We remember the people who have a had a significant influence on our lives, on the 1st of November we remember all of the saints of God, those people who through their lives have shaped our faith; on the 2nd we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, those people who have shaped each of us personally and on the 11th we remember those who help to shape our countries, those who gave their lives in battle and those who still fight for our country today. Having these days however does not prevent us from remembering these people on any other day of the year.

In the church there is a practise of remembering the church Fathers, the early Christians who passed on the message of the Good news, whose writings provide us with a reference point for our faith and traditions. The office of readings is a service that the church provides where these writings are read alongside scripture readings and psalms.

Many Seminaries (theological colleges) offer a module on patristics which is the study of these writings. But why are these writings held with such importance?

To look at who the fathers of the church are, it is first important to understand who they aren’t. The apostles and others from the New Testament age are not church fathers neither are the Doctors of the church from medieval or modern times such as St. Thomas Aquinas, both these grouping have their own classification. Rather the Church fathers are those who wrote spiritual letters, sermons or catechist from approximately 50AD to 800AD. This period contains the first 7 ecumenical councils of the church. This is what is known as the patristic period, these great writers can be split into a variety of groups such as the Apostolic Fathers who were alive within 2 generations of the Apostles and many had encountered the Apostles; then there are 3 groups who take their names from the language they wrote in, those being Greek, Latin and Syriac. Then are grouping based on what the writings are about these include Councils and synods, Creeds, Canons and Apologetics (explanation/ defense of the Faith).

So know we know who they are, why should we read them? simply, to remember; to remember those who made the passing on of our Faith their life’s work. But it is so much more than that. The fathers provide us with invaluable guidance and insight based on their own faith and experience, they interpret the scriptures and other Holy elements and traditions in a way as to educate us about them, many of the traditions coming from so long ago that we, in this age may have forgotten their significance, here we are reminded of these things and they offer us an image, an example of the Christ-centred, self-sacrificing Love that WE are all called to emanate.

There 750 years of writings, how can they all be relevent? They all provide us with a different context, a way of showing how the scriptures have been interpreted over a great period of time, without becoming irrelevant to the society at that time. If the scriptures can span so long without losing relevance that it is only natural to believe that they are still relevant to this day we just have to find that point of common ground, a way of explaining them to our society today. Also another fact to consider is that the bible which contains 66 (73 including apocrypha) was written over a period much greater than 700 years.

faith of our fatherspatristic readings also offer us an insight into the lives of the writers, many of whom are saints that are well-known such as: Augustine in Hippo; Alexander the Great; Athanasius of Alexandria. There are also lesser known saint and some who aren’t formally recognised by the church as saints, such as Tertullian. But saint or not, none are infallible, and given they span three continents and over 700 years, if they agree on anything that is spectacular and so improbable, and yet they do agree on a great many topics, and this is a sign and testimony that they’re writings did not originate with them but with a higher power, influenced by the Holy Spirit, which is passed to us, by studying them but we also get a world-view of their lives through reading them, we learn about the historic significance of that time and we may even come to see, that these writers where just ordinary people like you and me, who made mistakes and fell into temptation but who ultimately gave their lives to follow Christ. It can be so easy to place the saints on a pedestal of unattainable height that we forget they were human just as we are, they felt the weight of being Christian and choosing the right path, they faced difficulties just as we do.spirit inspired.jpg

A lot can be written in over 700 years, St. Augustine alone wrote over 4 billion words, in fact it is reported that a medieval monk, St. Isidore of Sevile, once said (corrupte apud Florezium, Augustine) “Mentitur qui te totam legisse factetur” which translates to Concerning Augustine ‘ who so ever claims to have read all his works is a liar’ or the more literal translation would be, concerning Augustine, ‘He is a liar who confesses to have read the whole’. So where do you begin?

Luckily, you don’t have to jump right in and choose a place for yourself as there are many resources for following a structured reading list, the office of readings would be a great place to start as it gives you the prayerful approach to the readings and there are many resources to provide recomended excerpts from many of the patristics orif you have a discipline of bible study then there are many commentaries from the fathers on most of the new testament and psalms. If you are looking for more than just excerpts from the writings or more than commentries then I personally would suggest beginning with the Apostolic fathers for a few reasons, most obviously because their lifespan overlapped in some degree with the apostles, in some cases such as St. Polycarp there is evidence that they had personal contact with some of the Apostles. Beyond the simple fact that they came first and so provide the groundwork for the later fathers, they have undisputable apologetic values coming from witnessing the unwritten apostolic tradition. Also they are mostly, simple pastoral men and there for are easier to read, you don’t need to take a platonic philosophy to understand what they are saying. And many of them follow the same format that we are used to reading in the epistles and Acts of the Apostles where asthe later fathers are men or great learning and their writings reflect this.

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Sr. Jennii

Fr Tom’s 1st Sermon as Sub Prior

St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny

Fr Tom Bates our new Sub Prior and Associate Priest preached at St Mary’s Priory three times today, his first 11am Sermon is published in full.

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Fr Tom said:

Receiving an invitation is exciting! Indeed, receiving any piece of post that is not a bill is exciting, but an invitation especially so. An invitation can be a means by which we receive some news: It may be some good news: perhaps a couple we love have decided to get married, or are having a baby, and want to share their joy with us. Perhaps someone we know is receiving an honour or an award, or graduating and is inviting us to celebrate their achievement. We hurriedly look through our diary to save the date so that we can be a part of that joyful celebration. Indeed it is increasingly popular now-a-days for couples to send out ‘save the date’ cards…

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The Bishop’s Sermon at Fr Tom’s Licencing

Preaching at the Service of Evensong at which Fr Tom Bates was Licensed as a Cleric within the Abergavenny Team the Bishop of of Monmouth, our Episcopal Visitor took 1 John 2:24-25 as his text.

 

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.

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Our Sub Prior, Fr Tom

Bishop Richard said:

In a shifting world it would seem hard to find rock solid certainties. Images are manipulated.  False news created and it seems you can tweet what ever you want!

What can you believe, and who can you trust?  The first letter of John reflects on the nature of truth and how it relates to our Christian faith. His views are non negotiable.  Jesus reveals the nature of God who is truth.  If you make out that Jesus is not the son of God you can have no part in him.  To say that Jesus is just a good man, a prophet or teacher, and you call yourself a Christian then you are lying.  St John does not mince his words!

But he is not launching personal attacks.  His motives are not about propaganda or scoring points. He is just seeking clarity in a world where there is a lot of fudge. As Christians we are not called to defend a religion or a set of ideas.  Rather we are, through our spirituality and our faith community, asked to disclose the God who has revealed himself to us.

So St John says let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. In other words what has grabbed your heart and mind in your authentic encounter with God, let that abide in you .  Let it grow and flourish and be the centre of your truth.  This makes sense.  When we meet people and if we ever talk about our faith it cannot be based on ideas but our personal journey. I can read a book about Christianity; it may impress me.  But what would change me is meeting a person who has experienced the transforming love of God in their lives, who have a story to tell.  That’s real, that authentic and will resonate with my spirit.

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Bishop Richard & Fr Tom

One writer said that we are caught up in Gods story, his creative working out of his love affair with humanity. Our story is our own, but also it is his.  Each of us as Christians share a common narrative.  An encounter with Jesus Christ who is changing our lives. Let what you heard, tasted from the beginning, abide in you

Father Tom it is good to welcome you and Paul to the parish of Abergavenny. As a priest you have a story to tell that is both yours and God’s. Your work in this area will be yours and mine as we both proclaim, not through arrogance or personal credit, the good news of Jesus Christ, the love story of God.  Your task is to disclose the growing life of God in your soul.  Do not be distracted from this task. It is why your are a priest. Your acts of sacramental service, your care for others, your prayers and teaching come from the core of your relationship with God, nothing else will be true to your calling.

And you are blessed in coming into a community, with Canon Mark and the members of the Holywell Community and the ministry team you have a place where you can flourish as you serve the area.

May God bless you in your ministry and may your story in God be an inspiration to others.

 

 

The week that was…Sr Joanna looks back on our week

Tuesday

For most people, the week begins on Monday. Our week begins twice in the community; first on Sunday, and then again with the start of the working week on Tuesday, as Monday is our day off. After Mass, which is said every morning in St Mary’s Priory, we walk over to Holy Trinity Church to lead Little Footprints, our parent and toddler group. This morning the children are making birthday cards for St Mary, to celebrate her Nativity, and reading a story about food in preparation for the Harvest and food festival.

In the afternoon we set out tables on the vicarage lawn, and serve tea, coffee and Welsh cakes to the residents of Riverside Court, St Mary’s newest neighbours.  Despite the gloomy weather, many of the residents come out to chat with us and walk around the beautiful vicarage garden. As a tea drinker, one of the most important lessons for me so far has been how to work a coffee machine! Hospitality is a big part of the work of a Benedictine community, and so our lives here, but sometimes it seems strange to me that it counts as work – we receive so much more back than we can give. As the newest member of the community, I’m regularly asked how I’m settling in and if there is anything I need, which has helped me to feel at home already.

 

Wednesday

After Lauds, Sr Jennii and I walk across town to meet volunteers who work with Crafty

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Decorating cakes with the Volunteering for Wellbeing service!

Women. It’s great to find out more about volunteering in Monmouthshire, and think about how the community can get involved. If you are interested in volunteering in the local area, and helping to support some incredible projects, you can find out more about it here. We’re back for Sext, and then across town to Abergavenny Baptist Church, to talk about community life and our journeys with the ABC fellowship group who meet their every Wednesday at 2.30pm. The group pray and sing hymns before we speak, including one of my favourites, Great is thy faithfulness. It seems to be the right word for Abergavenny – there is so much happening here, and the churches of the town are right in the middle of it all.

 

Thursday

Thursday is normally my day for helping in the Tithe Barn Café, but today we are expecting pupils from Our Lady and St Michael’s Catholic Primary School on a Tudor-themed visit to the church. Pupils rotate through three workshops: a workshop on Tudor pastimes, one on Tudor food, and a Day in the Life of a Monk session led by Fr Mark, Sr Jennii and I. All the workshop leaders and assistants are dressed in period costume, including a Benedictine monk’s habit and hood for me. It’s a little strange seeing myself dressed as a traditional monk, with my Holywell pectoral cross on over the habit! Our visitors ask excellent questions, and to my delight, many decide that they would be willing to become medieval monks. The highlight of the tour for me is showing each group the Beadsman hidden in Sir Richard Herbert’s tomb – at eleven years old I would never have been brave enough to put my hand under the marble foot to feel the hidden carving.

Thursday is also the feast of the Holy Cross, which I have never really celebrated before. It’s good to have something to focus my prayers on. With Easter so far off, it’s also a good chance to think about the cross and Jesus’ passion once more.

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Decorations from the Fringe Talk on Fishing in St Mary’s Priory

Friday

On Friday, set-up for the Food Festival begins in earnest. We set out tables, chairs and gazebos on the vicarage lawn ready for the church cream teas, and run through the schedule for the weekend. The food festival brings thousands of people into Abergavenny, and stallholders, exhibitors, and speakers from across the country come to share their knowledge. In the evening, the Festival Fringe runs a talk on sustainable fishing practices in the church, to a large audience. The Abergavenny Food Network run a community kitchen and campaign on food sustainability; you can find more information about them on their facebook page.

 

 

Saturday

The main day of the food festival! Sr Jennii and I are based on the Priory site, helping out with the tea on the lawn and running a creation-based activity for children during the day. It is wonderful to see people coming into the church to pray and explore the building. In the middle of the day I venture out into the market hall to find lunch (pizza, with the most gorgeous, floury, fresh-baked base I’ve had outside of Italy). The atmosphere is incredible, but it also makes me appreciate the tranquillity of the church. In the midday office we thank God for time to rest in the middle of the day, and I’m coming to understand and appreciate that office more and more. Heavy rain breaks out in the early evening, bringing a damp end to the evening market, but by this point the Community are already in bed!

Sunday

The last day of the food festival, but more importantly, time for the church community to gather and worship. It’s my week to serve at the 8am Mass at St Mary’s, which is one of my favourite services. I had never served at Mass before joining the Community last month, and I’m slowly learning the ropes. Several families join us for our 9.30 All Age Eucharist (also St Mary’s), which is wonderful – we hope that many more will join us over the coming months. The last service of the morning at St Mary’s is the 11am Mass. Serving duties mean that one of the Community will normally be based at St Mary’s on a Sunday, but over the next few months we will be spending time at Holy Trinity, Christ Church and St Peter’s, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other churches and worshipping with them. We also visit some of the stallholders and are treated to a few leftovers from the day! The final service of the day is Evensong, with a particularly excellent sermon from Fr Roger, and music from the Chamber Choir. Saying Evensong or Compline in the evenings is the perfect way to end a long day – we have a chance to give thanks for all that has been good, and give our cares to the Lord, going to bed unburdened. And so ends the working week, and another begins, each completely different from each other, with new challenges,  new faces, and the same wonderful, all-giving God.

~ Sr. Joanna