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 2009

Something a bit different for Christmas this year :  it was a peculiarly intense summer,  the highpoint of which was an invitation to a calligraphy master class with a guy called Mick Paine - local, but of growing international repute for his work with lettering using collage techniques.   The traditional calligraphic process involves drafting out “roughs” to determine letter size, nib width, colour etc, then slicing up a good working copy and rearranging it until a satisfactory layout is reached.  This layout is used as a template for the final piece - a “perfect copy” of all the previous work, which is henceforth consigned to the back of a drawer never to see the light of day again. A bit frustrating.

Mick uses calligraphy very differently, weaving it into his designs to give pattern, texture & narrative, but subverting the traditional forms to a more intuitive process – a sort of patchwork – to create a final piece of great depth, intricacy & surprising beauty.  He works only on one board, scribing, concealing, pasting, revealing as he goes along, with a sense of direction, but no preconceived outcome.  Nothing is wasted.  It is very exciting.

The work of the maestro is viewable at www.mickpaine.com  or as a preliminary venture you can view my own Christmas offering via the links from my homepage at www.stcuthbertshouse.co.uk .  the original  is also on exhibition at the Usher Gallery, Lincoln, if you are passing …

But the calligraphic technique still needs to be honed to perfection, and to that end I have been very fortunate in being accepted into the tutelage of another local calligraphic dignitary, Tony Curtis.  I met Tony through Lindsey Scribes – a group of enthusiastic calligraphers that meet a couple of times a year to learn and practise together.  Tony is a Fellow of the Society of Scribes, and is characterised as rigour incarnate within the calligraphic world.   I am very grateful for the enthusiasm with which he has embraced the challenge of bishbashboshing my self-taught letterforms into something altogether finer and more nuanced.  It is a work in progress.

Now then:  I have just received my invitation to spend an hour on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square as part of Anthony Gormley’s installation One&Other.   I am excited and terrified at the same time, so it is probably a good point at which to distract myself from pre-emptive vertigo by addressing the issue of “public hermit” head on.  Earlier in the year I was approached by the Guardian for an interview for their Saturday magazine (& had my photo taken by the guy who takes the team shots for Man U!); my writing for the Redemptorist Sunday Bulletin opens up various elements of my hermitage life to public scrutiny:  there appears to be some conflict between the professed desire for “simplicity, solitude, silence” and the eagerness to see myself pasted over every billboard in the land.  So …

It seems that people are interested in hermits, possibly in the same way that they are attracted to weddings, and to new born babies.  There is a fascination with “possibility” which seems to be endemic to the human psyche.  Of course (as in weddings & babies) the reality is often quite different from whatever attracts in the first place.  I can only be a hermit in the place I find myself – in an ex-council house in a quiet, hard-working Lincolnshire village, trying to scratch a living from a website business … which requires publicity: a pragmatic justification for advertising myself perhaps?

But it is not solely pragmatic.  A longstanding principle of the hermitage is hospitality.  For the desert fathers in the early centuries of Christendom this was a life-preserving essential, a fundamental rule of the desert.  To turn a traveller away from the door of your tent was to send him to his death.  Lincolnshire is not quite so arid a desert, in geophysical terms at least, but there is a desert out there, a thirst for something else, for something which is other, and yet totally one-self.  I do not have much to offer, & I am acutely aware that my hermitage is not the oasis of tranquillity & holiness which some seem to imagine; but the hint of its possibility, its liminality, might be just the drop of water which will revive a weary traveller:   it is not about me, but the life which I profess, the grace which sustains me.

Raphael  Vernay OSB wrote in his paper “on the Desert Place of the Inner Sanctuary” (1974) The hermit is simply a pioneer … in the way of the desert which the whole of humanity must follow of necessity one day, each one according to his measure and his desire.  This eremitical vocation, at least embryonically, is to be found in every Christian vocation …  it is necessary that the Church and society do something so that this may be realizable,  so that each may at least touch it, be it only with the tip of his little finger.

I am not sure that Fr Vernay envisaged newspaper articles or plinth-standing when he wrote that, but these have been the invitations that have come my way, & which least distract from  my 363 regular hermit-days of the year.  Best put that down to providence.  Or irony.  Or God.

Having said all that, & notwithstanding the footballer’s photographer & the plinth, the rest of this summer has been preternaturally quiet - even the junk emails dried up at one point mid-august.  Thanks to the coincidence of several quirks of nature - wind, rain & a dodgy femoral nerve - I have been able to spend extended periods here without interruption: a great opportunity for hunkering down and letting the silence & solitude work their way back into the crevices of the place again.  

As we each in our own way re-establish our places in the dusk & quiet of the winter months to come, I pray for God’s touch & blessing on you and yours, and a welcoming spirit for God’s renewed dwelling amongst us.

It has been a year of great blessings, and I am grateful for the support you have given me in so very many different ways.  You know who you are.  Thank you!

Wishing you every blessing & prayers for the remainder of this year, and the whole of the next.

Rachel M Denton   Hermit of the Diocese of Nottingham