S T   C U T H B E R T ’ S  H O U S E Hermitage of the Diocese of Nottingham               

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Christmas 2005

It is a while since I wrote one of these early “Christmas” newsletters – nearly three years I think.  Let that be sufficient comment on the mundanity of life as a hermit.  The garden is flourishing – abundant vegetables and soft fruit, and the apple trees which I planted when I first arrived here have already grown tall enough to provide very welcome shade on hot and sunny days, though few apples as yet.  For company I am kept entertained by regular visits from one comically self-important cock pheasant who will tap on the window if he feels a meal is a little late in arriving or simply not up to standard.  Life goes on regular as clockwork.

There have, however, been some quite extraordinary events during that time.  Christmas 2003, after a year of preparation, I made simple vows for three years as a hermit of the diocese of Nottingham.  This was a very simple ceremony held at the Carmelite Priory in Oxford; just me and a handful of friars to witness.  Fr. Matthew Blake who has been guiding me into this way of life accepted my vows on the part of Bishop Malcolm McMahon.

Later on that year, Bishop Malcolm came here himself for a pastoral visit.  Panic, as it was a slow start to the produce season that year, but in the event he was able to sample the first flush of broad beans and baby new potatoes and all went well.  Altogether a very relaxing visit, focusing principally on the mechanics of shower head plumbing, and an attempt to identify some rogue vegetative growth which was besetting the gardens of Bishop’s House.  He has also promised me a ride in his big black car next time he visits – the thrills of the hermitage!

For 6 months of last year, I was holding down 2 jobs – part time physics teacher at the local secondary modern (this is Lincolnshire), and part time support worker to a young woman with profound learning disabilities who lives in the next village.  The latter was a new experience for me, but it soon became apparent that the work was much more appropriate to hermitage life than teaching.  Now I have become more confident in it I have been able to give up the teaching altogether:  I am disappointed to say that I don’t really miss it at all.

The beginning of 2005 saw a couple of rare outings up to Newcastle upon Tyne where I was a student and began my teaching career.  The first, a 50th anniversary Chaplaincy reunion, was a great opportunity to meet up with old friends of many yesteryears – and their flourishing progeny.  The second, rather more sadly, and suddenly, was for the funeral of Fr Tony Battle who was chaplain at the University whilst I was a student.  He was a good and remarkable man.  Beyond all the sadness, the spirit of celebration and thanksgiving made the ceremony seem at times more like a wedding than a requiem – a sentiment I think he might have appreciated.

That other great ceremonial event – the election of a new Pope, was conspicuous here only by its absence.  I don’t have a television of course, and long wave reception is pretty appalling, so for the most part I had to rely on the snippets contained in the news bulletins … however … technology being what it is, I did manage to get the Vatican chimney up on my desktop as a screen saver and, serendipitously, happened to be taking a break from frenetic typing at the point the smoke went up!  Of course the whole thing had crashed before the bells even began to ring so I had to wait for the evening bulletin to find out who was Pope-elect.  An interesting exercise in anticipation management and very focused prayer.  They do say some prayers take longer to answer.

I was back on the road again to Oxford at the beginning of May, this time with a rather more prosaic purpose.  The Carmelite priory is sited in the middle of a small woodland which has been subject to very effective management in recent years.  As a result I have been the grateful recipient of many a shuttle-load of logs for my wood burning stove.  The Fiat Punto is not, however, a car renowned for its bulk-carrying capacity, so on this occasion I was driver-in-charge of a very large white hire van.  I think it would be an accurate summary of the expedition to describe it as a disaster verging on the ridiculous!  A reversing accident wrote off the back doors of the van (and my insurance excess) even before I started loading, then the rain started and the van got stuck in the mud.  Imagine, if you will, sitting through Evening Prayer that night and then through Mass the following morning, staring through chapel windows to where the van, clearly visible through sheets of miserable rain was slowly sinking into a lopsided slump.  “Out of the depths I cry…”.  I was beginning to envision a new, white, tin hermitage, set on the picturesque slopes of Boar’s Hill, until I was heroically rescued by a group of retreatants who spent an entire morning first unloading, then unsticking (by many and by varied means), then reloading the van.  My eternal gratitude to them all.  As for the ridiculous - I succeeded in locking myself out of my bedroom on the way to the shower room, the only way back being via a window some 7 feet off the ground. Thankfully there was nobody around to witness my “inelegance” … although the discretion of the friars is renowned:  I still like to think this is the first they know of the matter!

Many thanks to all of you who persevere in your prayers for me; for your support, practical, spiritual, emotional, and for the daily joke!   As I am writing this to coincide with the launch of my new website, it seems appropriate to particularly thank all those of you who support me in this way.  I hope you enjoy the new layout and some of the new cards.       www.stcuthbertshouse.co.uk

Best wishes and prayers,  Rachel