Bread & Broken Glass

During the night the kneading hands of the wind pried the door of the larger greenhouse loose from its rollers. Untethered at the base, it must have knocked against the frame until the topmost pane of glass shattered. Some glass fell in onto the bolting rocket and cornsalad nearest the door; most fell outwards onto the ground in great slippery shards, and minute silver fragments that hid amongst the drops of rain clinging to the grass.

Plans are discarded. There’ll be no new bed of onions today; I race around dragging escapee cloches back over their frames and tamping them down with old tiles. The greenhouse door has to be fixed as quickly as possible, not for the sake of the hardy lettuces inside, but so the changeable wind doesn’t put her fist through any more panes. We board it up with wood, stuffing rags into the last few gaps, and then with two pairs of gloves on I begin to collect up the glass.

Even in the wind, I like this kind of work. It’s the kind of job you can’t fail at. Every piece collected is a little success in itself. And when it’s done, there’s the satisfaction of something complete, something whole, something untouchable – even in a bag of broken glass.

In the afternoon, I learn to make bread.

I’ve made bread before, years ago, but now I’m learning how to make the large, regular batches we eat every day, and to bake in the Aga. It becomes clear to me very quickly that I haven’t remembered anything very useful; I have to learn this skill from the beginning.

The Community have asked me to take on the breadmaking as part of my work as a Postulant. It’s a way of serving the Community, of participating in the Eucharistic life at the heart of our community, and it’ll primarily be my sole responsibility. It’s not a small undertaking, and it’s in the grey territory outside my comfort zone. Once or twice I’ve joked about my terrible cooking skills – perhaps protesting too loudly. I’m always scared of letting people down, so I try to set the bar low: anecdote after anecdote, told in my biggest, silliest voice, about failed driving tests and burnt meals, clothes torn, examinations scraped through by a hair. The first thing I have to let go of is my anxiety: somehow the Community believe in me, and I have to take on their faith, and believe in myself. And part of this is letting go of the compulsive need to justify that faith, and to prove myself; their faith is offered freely, without qualification.

The bread I’m asked to make, in my work in the kitchen, in my work in the garden, is the bread of service. It can be made from flour, yeast and water in the kitchen. It can be made from a bag of broken glass collected in the garden, a row of broad beans reaching out of the ground, a handful of flies swept off the windowsill in an unused bedroom. It is bread, and it isn’t like any bread I’ve eaten before.

When I taught myself to make bread, in my final year of university, I was living in a large student house with four lovely, and very tolerant friends. I used to walk from room to room idly tossing the dough in my hands, wanting to be admired for my craftiness. (I have an idea now that this didn’t particularly do the dough any good.) My friends bought me a smoothie maker for Christmas. My family bought me Mason Cash mixing bowls – I ended up with three – and I bought myself small things that made me feel as if I owned the world, and all its domesticity: a rolling pin, a wooden spoon, a bread tin.

There was a time when I imagined that my happiness was dependent on drawing everything I touched and everything I loved into myself. this meant lists of all the artists I liked, so I couldn’t forget their names. It meant an endlessly re-written CV, intensely proud of all my certificates. It meant trying everything, and wanting to know and have an opinion on everything. And to symbolise all of this, I had a dream of a house. It would be an end of terrace red-brick, with bay windows and a long, sloping garden. I imagined a wide patio, fairy-lights strung down from the house to a dwarf-stock apple tree halfway down the lawn. Inside the kitchen would have warm, yellow walls and a farmhouse table. And upstairs I’d have a study full of books, where I could shut myself and all my dreams and hopes and ideas away. My Wilko rolling-pin was the first piece of that security.

The unexpressed, unrealised aspect of this wasn’t about possessing material goods, but about building up a ‘self’. I spent my university years desperately trying to build up a ‘character’, who would be tough, and cool, and clever. Without denying any of the interests and the wonderful people I met in those years, who changed me for the better in so many ways, I now have the task of deconstructing that person. I can love the things she loved, but now they have to become distinct from me, and I have to find a sense of self which doesn’t depend on piercings or poetry or an intricate knowledge of the history of Norwich or any one of a thousand fragments of broken glass I tried to hide behind. Part of the call of the Religious Life: love these things, but be willing to leave them behind.

When I make bread, and think longingly of the beautiful Mason Cash bowls wrapped in newspaper in my parents’ attic, I’m baking a new bread. This bread can’t be baked in my fictional buttercup-kitchen; it’s made because I’m asked to make it, with what I’m given.

And this bread comes as a choice. I can receive it a crutch for my fragile ‘self’, something that validates my place in the Community, that makes me Useful and Necessary.

Or I can give it as the bread of service, which we share. It isn’t mine and it doesn’t matter that I made it, and every impulse to brag or worry about it has to be left outside the oven door. But I receive it too. Before it is even cut, in the making, I am receiving that bread. I can’t explain it, but when I was told: this is part of our eucharistic life, I understood. It’s a blessing to make bread, as it is a blessing to break it.

Books ARE allowed at the table: What I’ve been reading in the convent

… and also in the new monastic community I belonged to until July – it’s time for a ‘what I’ve been reading’ summary post!

Fiction

This year hasn’t allowed me anything like the time I’d like for fiction, but what I have read I’ve hugely enjoyed. I spent a lot of 2016 & 17 catching up on weighty 19th century novels I’d been planning to read during my degree, and this year I needed a change! As living in semi-Religious life means I don’t have an income, almost all of these books came from Monmouthshire Libraries or the convent library. From Abergavenny Library I borrowed Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and The Good and The Book and the Brotherhood, (I currently have The Bell on my reading pile), and finally, a huge stack of Ursula Le Guin books sourced from libraries across south Wales – Rocannon’s World, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and Four Ways to Forgiveness. The staff of Abergavenny library really went above and beyond searching for Le Guin books, and I’m very grateful for their effort! I bought Becky Chamber’s A Closed and Common Orbit for my sister, and prompty borrowed it for six months; I’m hoping I’ll have an opportunity to ‘borrow’ the third book in her Wayfarers series, Record of a Spaceborn Few. In the convent I’ve read Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant – historical fiction, which isn’t my normal genre, but which I very much enjoyed, several Agatha Christie stories, Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, and two of Tove Jansson’s Moomin Troll books – a shamefully late discovery, but I’m enjoying catching up. I’ve also just started Susanna Clarke’s famed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which already has me gripped.

One fiction recommendation? Definitely Ursula Le Guin – the Earthsea series would be one of my ‘desert island’ books. She’s the best world-builder I’ve ever encountered; her characters are flawed, believable, and entrancing; she explores huge swathes of socio-economics and anthropology without being dull or preachy; she knows when to slip in a sly joke, when to be solemn, when to let the dialogue speak for herself; and finally, she was a defining light in science fiction in a time when most men thought women didn’t know one end of a car from the other. Read her.

Poetry

Most of the poetry I’ve read this year has been fragmentary: links on other people’s twitter pages, poetry read once on the back of a paper. One of the difficult parts of being unable to purchase books has been seeing all the exciting new poetry published by friends and people from the UEA writing community, and not being able to support them. My wish lists are going to be full of poetry for some time.

One project I’d like to highlight is the poetry of refugee children shared by poet and writer Kate Clanchy, via her twitter feed (@KateClanchy1). However Clanchy is teaching her workshops, we all need to be taking notes: these are some of the most incredible, moving, delightful poems I have ever read. Clanchy has a book coming out next year called Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, which I would very much like to get my hands on…

We’re very blessed with an excellent poetry collection at the convent, and so far I’ve enjoyed spending time with Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, Michael Symmons Robert’s Corpus, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet. Malcolm Guite’s poems have been a source of enjoyment and meditation this year, and he has an excellent blog where you can find much of his work. I’m halfway through Mark Oakley’s book The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, which is an anthology of poems by other poets with accompanying short, reflective essays by Oakley himself. His selection is diverse, with writers ranching from Hafiz to Liz Berry, and his reflections are honest, varied, and stimulating. He manages to be both intelligent and intelligible, making this a good book both for the casual reader and for academic reference. I only wish it had been published in 2016, when I was writing my dissertation around Christian poetry – although perhaps it would have been too easy to give up and wish I’d written this book instead.

One poetry recommendation? Look up the poetry written by Kate Clanchy’s students. Their voices are incredible, and the more people that hear them, the better.

Autobiography

In the last few weeks I’ve read three autobiographies by three incredible women.

Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness gripped me entirely. One of the founders of the Catholic Worker’s Movement, her faith, politics and attitude to life are radical and refreshing. The nineteen-year-old me who proudly announced that she was a ‘Catholic Marxist’ to her seminar group fell entirely in love with her, and the conviction and determination with which she lived her life. Even if you find yourself at odds with her, this book is worth reading for the sense of sheer terror the reader feels for her through the rather dramatic turns of her life, whilst Day remains stubbornly calm and composed.

Story of a Soul by St Therese of Liseux was an unusual choice for me. I visited her shrine in Liseux as a teenager and doggedly refused to me moved by it. I picked up Story of a Soul out of curiosity, remembering how fondly both of my parents had spoken of it, and not expecting to find it personally appealing. To my dismay, I couldn’t put it down. Reading it over a week’s silent retreat, I raced upstairs after meals and offices to curl back up in the ‘reading nook’ I had made for myself to sit with St Therese. It’s written in quite an unusual voice, and at times I found myself struggling with a sense of primness around her, but the intensity of her love and devotion blazes off the page.

Most recently I read The Choice by ‘Sister Kirsty’, a pen-name used by one of the sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage. Written some decades ago, it tells her story from entrance to the community as a Postulant, up to her Profession. Sr Kirsty has a wonderful sense of humour and speaks honestly and openly about the struggles and joys of becoming a Religious Sister. Although a few decades have passed since it was written, there were many moments reading The Choice when I felt that I could have been talking to another postulant today, laughing at the idiosyncrasies of convent life and wondering if we’ll ever get to grips with it (and Sr Kirsty is very encouraging on this front!). I’d recommend this to anyone considering the Religious Life, or anyone with a family member considering it.

One autobiography I’d recommend? I’m unable to pick a favourite here – whilst I was reading each of these women felt like companions in faith, teaching and guiding me. Dream dinner party companions?

Non-Fiction

Living in a convent with a huge theological library is like living in a sweet shop, but better, because the Community makes excellent cake to go with the books. So in no particular order, here are the books I’ve read this year:

Rowan Williams, Holy Living; Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island; Henri Nouwen, The Return of The Prodigal Son and The Way of The Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers; Jean Vanier, Community and Growth; Bonnie Thurston, For God Alone; Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed; Mary Wolff-Salin, The Shadow Side of Community and The Growth of the Self; Charles Cummings OCSO, Monastic Practices, and Grace Jantzen, Gender, Power, and Christian Mysticism.

I also read The Garden Expert, but as much as I love reading about different types of apple mould over dinner, I might pass on the chance to re-read it…

Any of them any good? Mostly! Holy Living is wonderful, but I did have to read it twice to understand most of it – time well spent, and I’m looking forward to reading more of William’s books, which are stashed all over the convent. Bonnie Thurston deserves a special mention for the poem at the beginning of For God Alone, which has been going around and around in my head ever since. I read God: A Guide for the Perplexed because a section of it was a set text in my A-Level RE, and I was too lazy then to read the full book. Unfortunately, it only made me feel even more perplexed. Grace Jantzen‘s Gender, Power and Christian Mysticism takes a deconstructionist approach to understandings of ‘christian mysticism’. It’s illuminating, well-structured and argued, and opened a world of new questions and ideas to me, and often sent me running for paper and pen to sketch out my own responses and applications to other texts I’ve encountered. Will I ever write the essay on Christian mysticism and Jane Eyre I planned after reading this book? Probably not, but Jantzen made me want to write and reflect. She is also responsible for the inclusion of an illustration of Waldesian ‘heretics’ kissing a goat’s bottom which made me cackle with laughter during a silent meal.

Okay – one recommendation! If there’s just one of these you search out and read, it has to be Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth. I read this book slowly over a number of months, often in small sections, in odd minutes caught between offices and work and sleep, and it became a very dear companion. His advice on community life, on living with pain and injury, beauty and difference in others, on identifying and living with your own shadow side, and on seeing Christ in community has been a lifeline over the last year and a half. Community and Growth is prayerful, loving, meditative, joyful, and real. When I packed to become an Alongsider I restricted myself to only a few books from the four hundred or so I’ve accumulated in the last decade, and this was one of them. Of all my recommendations from this year, Community and Growth would have to be my number one.

What have you been reading this year? What are you planning to read? What’s been sitting on your ‘to-read’ pile for months and hasn’t been tempting enough to open? And do you have anything you’d like to recommend?

I wish you all happy reading in 2019.

Compost

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There’s something special about the convent garden. It’s not just the six-foot sunflowers, or the lazy rows of ripening apples, or the sleeping cats who wander absentmindedly through the flower beds, although each of these has held me spellbound momentarily. Nor is it in the rows of cornflowers and cosmos, the ripening strawberries, the loganberries and elderberries fattening in the insect-rich hedge. And it doesn’t start in the Lady Garden or the new orchard or the meadows full of wary sheep stretching down into the valley. It starts behind the plants and the flowers and the hedges, in the unexplored corner where we make our compost.

The compost starts life in several bays, separated by old pallets. Some contain compost ready to go onto the garden; others collect its constituent parts, as yet undigested. Cut grass, boiling down into blood-warm mulch. Vegetable and plant cuttings (bar the most virulent weeds). Food waste from the kitchen, tamped down in metal bins. And fresh woodchippings, which steam as the shovel lifts away each hunk. Over two mornings I layer these ingredients into tall compost barrels, where they will begin to rot down, as millions of tiny bacteria digest the mix and excrete nutrients which can be reabsorbed into the garden. The compost will be turned and moved into a second barrel, then finally a third barrel, where it can be stored until needed. I’m instructed carefully on the layering of the compost: first a dry, or ‘brown’ layer of woodchippings, then a mash of ‘greens’, the vegetable matter; at the moment our pile contains a lot of comfrey, which I’m told aids the breakdown. Then the food waste, and then finally heaps of steaming grass, packed down on top. And so on until the barrel is full.

Part of coming to a religious community is confronting yourself, all the things you ignore or try not to acknowledge. I’ve come dashing in from the noise of the world like a soaked dog running in from a storm. Now I’ve learnt my way around the house and the names of the Sisters and begun to understand the Office Book, and I feel like I’m barely beginning. We bring so much baggage with us. So much mental noise. I have a lot to learn about silence.

If I am to learn to love composting, then I have to look at it differently. While it’s still a chore – a smelly, tiring chore – I find it hard to enjoy. The pleasure of learning something new and understanding the excitement of the gardeners brings me a little closer to happiness. And I’m happy to be useful, and to be working. But everyone I speaks to sees something more in this task. It’s a spiritual experience. I inwardly groan, and start the task. Composting as metaphor. Composting as a way of personal growth. Isn’t this a sermon illustration I’ve heard before?

The woodchip is the easiest layer to lay. It’s satisfying to run the wheelbarrow across the lawn, piled high with wood, and to hear it rattle into the empty barrel. The dry wood and the spaces between it will help make space for air, aiding aerobic digestion. It will absorb excess moisture and prevent the compost from becoming slurry. Each ring of a tree is a year’s wisdom. How many years are re-released here? Each splinter is a day of growth, a day of birdsong and rain on the hills.

The woodchip will be the Community, for their structure and experience, for their guidance and wisdom, and for the sheer love that radiates around them. On this layer, I will build my compost. Ha.

Next, the vegetation. I bundle comfrey, courgette stem, yellowing brassica and dried flowers into the tub. After a little deliberation, I decide that this layer will be the good things I bring with me. My skills and experience, my ability to learn, all that is in me that gives life. But these two layers aren’t quite enough to start a compost. There’s no heat yet.

Thirdly, the kitchen waste. I plunge my gloved hands into a week-old stew of rotten apples, egg shell and potato peelings. Everything squelches. I thank the Lord, without irony, for my genetic lack of a sense of smell, and wish I’d picked tougher gloves. This layer is the catalyst. It’s desperately needed. And it stinks. Easiest labelled: this will be my ‘sin’ layer, all the things I don’t want to confront, everything I want to hide from sight (and nose). Some of it slides down the sides of the bin and I crouch in the nettles to scrape it up. Something damp seeps though my gloves.

With the food bin recovered for the moment, I turn to the last layer. Some of the grass I cut that morning; other cuttings are older and have begun to dissolve. They are horribly warm, and the fresh taste of cut grass has begin to alter into something much more earthy and intense. We have essentially made our own manure.

Grass, piled and left to rot, creates incredible heat. It can spontaneously catch fire, someone tells me. In the compost, it will cook our layers, creating the environment for the bacteria to digest everything else. But on its own, it dissolves into slime. The magic is in the mix. In the metaphor I’m now absorbed in, as I pat down this last layer, grass will be prayer. It will be the heat and fire that changes the rest of my life, if I hold nothing back: my life as an individual and in Community, my skills, my failures, my fears, my loves, everything must come to prayer. And so I close the lid of the composter, and stand mesmerised, looking at what must be my life. Is this what I am? Heat and commotion, packed down into one human-shaped vessel? A compost of constituent parts, that somehow becomes a life?

And then I remember the garden. I have forgotten it even exists, I’m so absorbed in my task. When I turn round it seems more beautiful than ever. This is where the compost will go, and where it will create new life. And it comes to me that perhaps when I look at my life, and I focus on the compost – especially on the slime and the rotting food waste – God looks at my life and sees the garden, and longs to tend it and walk with me under the apple trees. Tend the compost, and see the garden grow.

This morning at breakfast I finish reading Thomas Merton’s No man is an island, and after I finish reading I sit with my tea and wonder at the garden Merton describes. For every challenge he raises – and there are many – the description of the life lived in relation to God becomes more and more beautiful.

So here’s my final thought from the compost bins: God sees the whole of you, and how beautiful you are, and loves you with the tenderness of a gardener walking in the early morning through a newly-flowering crop. Everything you bring, good and bad, is compost for your life. Every hard lesson and mistake, every joyful memory and good work, and it can all be used by God to enrich the garden of your life. But you are not the compost. You are not the sum of your mistakes and successes. You are the garden, and the garden is wonderful.