I like the A3, I decide on Christmas Eve. It’s a great road to drive, a testament to our island history. Were it not for the fact that Britain used to be a great naval power, we would not have had such a good road from London to the coast.
There is now not a single traffic light between the suburbs of south-west London and Portsmouth, thanks to a new tunnel under the Devil’s Punchbowl. Turn off on the far side of the tunnel, as I did on the morning of the 24th, and you come to Grayshott, on the borders of Surrey and Hampshire. On the outskirts of the village is a fine, smallish Catholic church, unusually with its own graveyard. Attached to the church is a large presbytery, which since autumn 2015 has been home to a convent of nuns, the Sisters of Maria Stella Matutina (Mary, Star of the Sea). They have asked me to celebrate Mass for them.
Oscar Wilde said that only very shallow people don’t judge by first impressions, andI am immediately impressed by certain things. They look like nuns. They wear full-length, light grey habits and from under their white veils their smiles shine out. I wouldn’t dream of asking a nun her age, but I would be surprised if the average age of the community were more than thirty-something. I distinguish various accents: English, American, French.
Their principal work in Portsmouth diocese is to pray for the new evangelisation. They are not enclosed, however, so you will also see them out and about at events such as Youth 2000 retreats, where their youth, evident joy and distinctive religious identity must in themselves be powerful tools for evangelisation.
The Grayshott nuns are part of a growing order, which now numbers more than 200 Sisters from more than 20 nations. They are a scion of the Community of St John, seeking to live a life of contemplative prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and study of the Word of God and the philosophy of the human person. One notable aspect of their life is that they have a special devotion to the Paschal Mystery, each week reliving in prayer and devotion the Holy Week Triduum, from Thursday night to the vigil of Sunday.
It has stayed with me as the calmest moment of the season, that morning Mass of Christmas Eve, waiting, like Mary, to welcome the Christ Child in the company of these remarkable women of prayer and peace. The coincidence of my visit with Mary’s time being fulfilled reminds me of why she is the model for all contemplatives. For contemplation, like pregnancy, requires the giving of body and heart, and a great deal of waiting and tolerating discomfort, not as ends in themselves, but for the sake of the one who comes. And it is virginal. What comes I could not create or own, but I may receive and nurture and bear it. It is the gift from above, of God himself.
We didn’t discuss it, but I wonder what it must be like for a contemplative whose life revolves around the worship of Almighty God, to wake up on January 6 and have to tell themselves, along with the rest of the Church in these lands, that although from time immemorial – since before the institution of a Christmas feast – this date has been the feast of the Epiphany, it is now a date of no particular significance.
Well, not here at least. Were you a member of the Universal Church somewhere else in the world – the Vatican, for example – it would still be; or indeed if you were an Anglican. For me, there will till my dying day be a cognitive dissonance caused by the proposal that the Epiphany should be a feast somewhere in the first or second week of January, and January 6 just a Christmastide feria – Oh, unless Sunday happens to be the sixth of the month, or you happen to be abroad.
Imagine responding to the question “When is your birthday?” in similar terms. You would receive few cards or greetings, demonstrating an ordinary human truth, that an event constitutive of the identity of a person or community requires a fixed date of its own, rather than just a day in the vicinity. What can’t be moved, by definition, can’t be set aside. To move such a feast, is to my simple mind at least, to have already downgraded its celebration.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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