Community of the Sisters of the Church

St. Michael'sAfter I posted my last blogpost yesterday I realised that I have never written about St. Michael’s and the Sisters of the Church.

I have been coming here for a number of years now. My first spiritual director asked me once, where do you go on retreat? When I replied that I didn’t go anywhere he told me very clearly that this wasn’t good, and that I should make an annual retreat at one of the places about which he would be sending me information. One was a house belonging to his own order, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) in Durham, the other was St. Michael’s at Ham Common in Richmond, belonging to the Community of the Sisters of the Church (CSC). At the time my brother was living in London, so St. Michael’s was easy to get to and so I contacted them and asked if I could come.

As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, St. Michael’s is a large, sprawling house. It has a large garden, some of it orchard and the edges are woodland. The Community has been here about sixty years, but will soon move to another, more manageable location north of London. This will be my last visit here. I’m feeling nostalgic before I even leave.¬†While the house and grounds are lovely, what really makes this such a wonderful place to make a retreat is the sisters themselves.

The order was founded in 1870 by Mother Emily Ayckbowm. In their early decades their work was in education and children’s homes. In the 21st century, the schools and children’s homes are no longer run by CSC, though I know at least one of the schools continues today. Many of the sisters at St. Michael’s are elderly and in the last year several sisters have died. Some sisters work outside the convent. There are other houses in the UK, but this is the largest. There are also sisters in Canada, Australia and the Solomon Islands, which is where the order is growing.

In everyday life the sisters don’t wear their habits, though for special and solemn occasions they do have them. They are distinguishable here by the crosses they wear round their necks. Their Daily Offices are simple. A lot is sung. The pace is always unhurried, calming, prayerful. There is no fuss, everything is done in a very matter-of-fact manner. As with all religious I have met, they are direct when they speak and astute. Nothing gets past them. They also have a keen sense of humour and a great love for one another and everyone here. As well as the sisters, there are a number of alongsiders living here and sharing their life, all with different circumstances.

This is a quiet place, a place where I have always felt everything fall away, so that I can pray, sit in silence, worship with them, walk around the grounds or read. This afternoon as we prayed the Evening Office I could see foxes in the garden, and after Compline I sat outside and prayed the rosary. A local Buddhist group meets here on Wednesday evenings and came out for the walking meditation part of their meeting while I was still in the garden.

Tomorrow I say goodbye to St. Michael’s. It’s always hard to leave, but tomorrow will have a finality and will be harder. The new St. Michael’s will be open in 2017, so I will see the sisters again then. Until then, they have a big move, big changes. St. Michael’s is closed during August, but will be open from September to December, when it will finally close its doors to visitors. If you have time before then to visit this wonderful place, I encourage you to do so.

My favourite memories of the sisters at Ham Common will be these:

On my very first visit here, most of the meals were taken in silence, but supper once or twice a week was a talking meal. At the end of my second day, I was in the dining room when one of the elderly sisters approached me and said, Are you on retreat? Because we’re TALKING.

One evening at supper, which was a talking meal, with some consternation they realised that Compline would clash with Midsomer Murders. They realised they couldn’t all hunker down in front of the television to watch John Nettles solve a crime and protect the good people of the picturesque Cotswold villages; someone had to be at Compline. Over supper they bargained attendance at Compline that evening and the following week; by the end of the meal everything was sorted to their satisfaction, while I was left a little goggle-eyed at the sisters and their viewing preferences.

Finally, four years ago, I was here a couple of months after my father had died. It had been a strange spring, first with the earthquake, tsunami and aftermath in Tokyo, and then my father’s death. I felt I wanted to talk to someone and so made an appointment with the Sister In Charge. I told her about my father, and about his funeral. I told her I had given the homily. When other people had heard this they had been perplexed, maybe, a little alarmed. The sister simply looked me in the eye and asked, Were you honest? Which of course was the most important point, but no one else had asked me that.

The Community of the Sisters of the Church. As another sister, a member of a different order, said to me last summer, They’re always good value. I am so blessed to know them.

Lavender

St. Michael’s, Ham

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And then I was here.

After a busy term at school, a typically hectic end to it, a rush to pack and a flight back to the UK, a few magical days in Northumberland and a train journey down to London and across the city to Richmond, I was here, back at St. Michael’s Convent.

A number of years ago, my spiritual director had asked me where I went on retreat, and I had told him, sheepishly, that I didn’t. His reaction was straightforward; that won’t do. And he followed that up with two recommendations for places I could easily go. Since my brother lived in London at the time, I decided to come to St. Michael’s.

I remember arriving for the first time and feeling rather anxious, because I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and I was wondering how on earth I was going to spend the next three days. The sister who showed me around gave me all the information I needed then left me in my room. I knelt to pray and found myself crying, not knowing why or for what, but just letting it all come out.

That first year I attended some of the daily offices, but was quite new to the rhythm of the day and felt a little awkward. I spent time in the garden, reading Julian’s Revelations, and generally being quiet. At that time, almost all the meals were taken in silence, with only one supper a ‘talking meal’. It was the end of my second day and as I sat down one of the elderly sisters said to me, “Are you on retreat? Because we’re talking!”

The following year I was back, this time with a version of the Cloud of Unknowing and a bit more idea of what to do and how to use my time. I felt more comfortable attending the daily offices, and found that attending them all gave my day a focus and a rhythm that very quickly took me away from all the cares and concerns I had arrived carrying. More of the meals were ‘talking meals’ and one evening the sisters had a lively discussion about who would go to Compline and who would be able to go straight to the sisters’ private sitting room to watch Midsomer Murders.

I continued for several years, but in 2012 and again in 2013 I just couldn’t make the dates work and had a retreatless summer. Last year I went to Norwich and called it a retreat, but then spent a lot of time talking to people and felt irritated that I didn’t have the same feeling of peace and slowing down that I had after my visits here.

And so I decided I really needed to make the dates work somehow this year, and just managed to squeak in for a retreat before the house closes for the summer. I also arranged a visit to Norwich, but decided I needed to reframe that as a short pilgrimage, rather than a retreat.

So here I am. I arrived almost twelve hours ago, just in time for the midday Eucharist. I have once again come here with a copy of Julian, but this year I have the Mirabai Starr translation. I attended Evening Prayer and Compline, and while neither was the form I am used to, since I am more familiar with the Episcopal Church’s BCP daily offices, the form no longer has me stranded or caught in the headlights. I know I can find my way through and know what I’m doing.

This afternoon I spent some time in the garden and walked the small labyrinth. Not really knowing what to do, but having the space all myself, I took off my shoes and walked slowly, reciting one word of the Jesus Prayer for each step, then stopping to pray for whoever or whatever came to mind. I went slowly, gently, and found myself unpacking all the prayers that have been part of my daily intercessions, round and round, until I had prayed them all out. A squirrel sat in the grass only a few metres away and watched me intently. It was nice to have a little company in that green space.

I shall do it again tomorrow, and try to find a way to incorporate some kind of walking meditation into my prayer life in Tokyo, because it just felt so right to walk, and pray, and raise each person or concern up and let God take care of it.

I put my shoes back on and walked through the garden feeling reassured that I had given my concerns to God and that truly, all shall be well.