Commemoration of the Centenary of the Monks' Conversion on Caldey
Hugh Gilbert, OSB*
The Bishop of Aberdeen commemorates the centenary of the monks' conversion on Caldey'Know then that the Lord your God is God indeed'
We are remembering how, one hundred years ago, on St Aelred's day, a group of Anglican monks on the Island of Caldey entered into what we now call full communion with the Catholic Church. Until 1906, that community, like Israel in the desert, had done a lot of wandering, trying different locations throughout the country and then having to move on. Once they had settled on Caldey they found themselves beginning another kind of movement, looking for proper recognition within the Church, for authorisation of their life.
They didn't want it to be just a personal fad. They came to see, not without pain, that it was not in the power of the Church of England to give that recognition. And the price asked was too high, the surrender of certain articles of faith. And so 100 years ago, on 5 March 1913, they crossed the ecclesiastical Jordan, into the Catholic Church. Perhaps they applied the Psalm: "It was there that your people found a home, prepared in your goodness, O God for the poor" (Ps 67:11). Perhaps they remembered Deuteronomy: "If the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, it was not because you outnumbered other peoples: you were the least of all peoples. It was for love of you". Certainly our Lord's words must have spoken to them strongly: "Come to me, all you who labour and overburdened, and I will give you rest". That rest found in the Land. That rest, which St Aelred says, means the true manna, means the Eucharist, Jesus, really, truly and substantially present.
It was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Caldey monks would be able to continue their life in the Church. They put belonging to the Church before any particular way of life within her. But thanks to the efforts of Bl. Columba Marmion, the openheartedness of Pope St Pius X, and the cooperation of the local Bishop Francis Mostyn, it was possible for these men to continue as Catholics the Benedictine life they had pioneered as Anglicans. They found the recognition, the endorsement they were looking for. And so, a distinctive interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict entered the bloodstream of the English-speaking Catholic Church, and enriched it. Their sister community of nuns at Milford Haven followed a parallel path, and that community, albeit small, continues in Chester. The Caldey community moved in time to Prinknash, near Gloucester, and after World War II made two foundations, Farnborough Abbey in Hampshire and Pluscarden in Moray. It's therefore as a grateful daughter that we at Pluscarden, with our brethren at Petersham, are remembering this decisive moment in our mother's life. And so Fr Abbot is appropriately at Prinknash Abbey, as this celebration is first and foremost theirs.
"Know then that the Lord your God is God indeed".
That, I think, is the heart of it.
It was the heart of it for those men at that time, and it is the heart of it for us now, monks and laity and clergy. Because if the Land across the Jordan, if the Church, holds anything, it is the knowledge of God.
The monks of Caldey learned to know God more thanks to what they went through. It was what they received from the Church and brought into the Church.
The vocation of Israel as a people was a vocation to be a bearer of the knowledge of God. To learn him, we might say, as he disclosed himself to them through prophetic figures, through events, through words and deeds. To learn him, to suffer him, to undergo him, until awareness of him, the God of their fathers, was burned into them. And they could do nothing but remember him, know him, press on to know him more. He who had set his heart on them and chosen them, not because of anything in them, be it number or any kind of prowess, but because of something in him, because of himself, because of a gratuitous love. He, "the faithful God who is true to his covenant and his graciousness for a thousand generations... but who punishes in their own persons those who hate him". All this, the love, this faithfulness, this justice, Israel learned, came to know, remembered.
And Jesus, the Israelite par excellence [sic]
And what is it that Jesus brings? Pope Benedict asked this question: "What did Jesus actually bring if not world peace, universal prosperity and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses andthe Prophets — the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honoured among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth. He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little".
And this knowledge Jesus bequeaths to his Church. Or better, the Church is the place where this knowledge of God remains, waiting for each of us, the rest he promises. And when either we enter a monastery to be a monk, or visit it, what is it we are looking for? What is it we are hoping to find in the monks? Not good looks or beautiful voices, not an outnumbering of other peoples, but true Israelites in whom there is no guile. The knowledge of God. Because this is what each of us consciously or otherwise, craves. The knowledge of God is the reason a man is anything, said St Bernard. Without it we are the hollow men.
"Know, then, that the Lord your God is God indeed".
The monks of Caldey put their faith today in God's loving providence towards each and all of them. They put their faith in his gracious faithfulness, for generation after generation, that faithfulness which is Christ's abiding presence in and governance of the Church whatever the failings of its members. And that faith brought them rest, the knowledge of God.
"It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little".
Everything Israel underwent in the desert, everything, conspired to teach her God. Everything, including her infidelities and the punishments worked out in person. Everything, especially the sufferings. Everything in the life of the Church: the lovely and noble things, the things that comfort and inspire, and the shameful and repulsive things that knock the heart out of us, everything teaches us God. Everything is Jesus bringing us God. Everything is an undergoing of him so that we can know him and remember him, and pass this knowledge on to our children. Because God is greater than anything.
"Know then that the Lord your God is God indeed". This is what the monks of Caldey confessed a hundred years ago. This is Moses and Israel. This is Jesus. This is the Church. It is the reason a man or a monastery is anything. It's the deepest need of our heart. It is what any suffering helps us realise afresh. It's the message of our present circumstances. It is the rest that Jesus brings.
So, let's not be hollow men. "Let us press on, then, to know the Lord".
*Bishop of Aberdeen
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27 March 2013, page 13
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