Monday 14th November - Holy Cross Abbey, Whitland

Apologies for the delay. Still working. Had a productive time yesterday but after a Skype call with family, and tea with my son I inevitably lost my motivation to continue. I'm also struggling to move parts of my body without experiencing pain. My neck seems to be locked in a "hunched-over-peering-at-the-screen" position. Oh well.

This morning I've woken up in pain. Am currently lying on the floor in hope that it'll do something for my back. I can't move my arms without experiencing a sharp pang, and my neck and shoulders are swollen and tight. I didn't even get the work done for today. Bloody waste of effort.

Anyway, I'm not promising that you will enjoy, or find this post particularly engaging, but I find that the writing produced on retreats is different compared to my usual ramblings. They tap into a spiritual side of me that I often think is now non-existent. Hope you take something away from it.

Thursday 3rd November:

There's something very pleasing about travelling across the country by train. Perhaps it's because I can marvel at the countryside or simply sit back and watch the world pass me by - literally. When the train stops at a station I often find myself imagining the details of the life of the person sat across the platform from me. Where are they going? Where have they come from? Are they going to be met by a loved one or have the always wandered alone?


My thoughts are all over the place at the moment. The last thing I wrote in my journal encapsulated a day that was simultaneously perfect and riddled with sadness. Two months on and I find myself questioning whether that day actually happened and if it did why I can't be happy that it did. As a wise person once said, "It's not our happy memories we remember, but our sufferings."

I'm angry at myself again. I find this happens every couple of months - usually for the same reason. I only have myself to blame for my lack of strength and inability to cope. I'm too stubborn to admit defeat and therefore hold out for a brighter day. Truth is, I'm scared. I'm scared of letting go and subjecting myself to the randomness that is life. I'm sacred of caring again, of getting hurt, and most of all, being alone. And so I hold on tight with all my might, living life as a shadow of my former self, waiting for the day when I wake up and no longer care. But that's too much to ask of myself. I'll always care whether I like it or not, whether I want to or not. But it's a lot to bear: waiting. I've been running for so long, perhaps it's time to stop, face it, and let go.

This place is beautiful. At the top of a hill, surrounded by the serene Preseli hills, I'm truly in the middle of nowhere. Greeted at the station by the abbess Sr Christine, we drive to the abbey. She tells me that a cloud has just burst and that it's a shame the weather isn't nicer. Considering I was greeted in Whitland by a vibrant rainbow (and the fact that I live in Scotland) I beg to differ, but continue to nod and smile politely. She tells me that the road to the abbey sometimes becomes a river when it's raining hard, and that when this happens the road is closed and there's no quick way to get to the station. Part of me prays and hopes that this happens so I can stay in this haven of solitude for longer.

The Abbey

The Guest House
Upon arrival I am handed over to Sr Elizabeth who is the retired guest mistress. Sr Christine apologises on the behalf of Sr Andrew (the current guest mistress) as she is poorly with an illness. I am shown the quaint self-catered studio flat that I am going to be staying in. The sisters have been kind enough to save me supper - tomato soup, pasta, broccoli, potatoes, and rice pudding - a feast fit for a retreatant. There are two rooms for me to choose from. Sr Elizabeth suggests the smaller one as it's warmer. This sounds appealing but so does the look of the rocking chair in the other room (the one I happen to be rocking in as I write). Perhaps I'll move later.

She takes me to the chapel which is down some steep steps (which I can only imagine becomes a waterfall in rainy weather). Walking in I am reminded of the chapel at the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. Quite modern, there is no obvious distinction between the area for the community and the laity (unlike at Pluscarden). The altar, the choir stalls and the tabernacle are very simple. No ornate wooden carvings or elaborate designs, just plain crosses. Sr Elizabeth hands me my five choir books for the Divine Office. Despite talking (well whispering) me through them, as well as marking certain pages with large colourful clips, I know I'm going to forget anyway.

On my way back to my room (which I've discovered is named after St Non), she offers to find me a torch so I can attend Vigils tomorrow. Along the path we encounter a black cat. It turns out the community (of which there are only seven) have three cats: Snap, Crackle and Pop. Sr Elizabeth seems to be very fond of Pop (the cat she introduced me to), or so I gathered from the way she was stroking her cooing "Yes you're my favourite pussy, yes you are!"

Torch obtained I returned to my room to unpack and sort through my things. On the abbey website they said they provide 'necessities' for guests. Boy were they being modest! The cupboards in the kitchen are stocked well enough to feed a family through a zombie outbreak. There's beans, golden syrup, tuna and even sauerkraut! I guess I didn't need to bring anything after all.


Is there any monastery/abbey/charterhouse that doesn't have a copy of Br Lawrence's Practise the Presence of God?

There are maps of Pembrokeshire in the living room. One of them has an advertisement for speed boat rides. It's called Aquaphobia.


So I was journalling before Vespers, but now I'm back and have had dinner I'm trying to learn a bit of Welsh before Compline. It doesn't surprise me that when people look at Welsh words they think it's a made up language. Not only is it not phonetic but there are just too many consonants next to each other! Even Polish seems easier than this. No, wait, even Greek is easier - and that's symbols! [I just chuckled to myself as I pronounced open in Welsh out loud. I'd convinced myself I was calling upon the true King of Gondor].

It's a shame I couldn't go to Caldey Island. The island itself looks untouched and tranquil, not to mention the fact that the monks make chocolate. I used to think if I were to be a nun that I'd be rather content to paint or do calligraphy, but now I'm thinking the Cistercian monks have got it right. It's like that time in the Philippines when we drove eight hours to Baguio in hope of making it to Banaue (the famous rice terraces). Another sad tale of "so close yet so far". More reason to come back I guess.

It's creeping me out slightly that there's an unlocked door between my room and the community quarters. Although Sr Elizabeth knocks before entering, the mere sound of the knocking itself piercing the silence is enough to give me a fright. Also, I'm a wee bit paranoid that someone will walk in whilst I'm sleeping. Though I'm 99% sure I have nothing to worry about.

I think my "favourite" hours of the Divine Office are Vigils and Compline, mainly because they both take place in darkness. During Compline this evening I found it very moving and stilling to have the sisters with their backs to me, their black habits and white cowls draped perfectly over them, chanting, the sweet music echoing off the walls. All of this taking place by the light of one candle. It's at this moment that I contemplated my 'calling' to be a nun. Even if I did want to become one it wouldn't be for the right reasons. I'd be saying all the words and performing all the postures, but my heart just wouldn't be in it. I know in my heart that joining a religious community would be a mistake. It would be me trying to run away from a reality I no longer want to be a part of, feelings I no longer want to feel, and people I need to stay away from. Life as a religious may prove to be the ultimate distraction but it would be an insult to contemplatives everywhere if I were to join for those reasons. And anyway, no one could guarantee that I'd enter the monastic life and feel at peace with myself.

Friday 4th November:

Asleep at 20:30 and awake at 3:00. However did I manage such a feat? Considering I'm still awake at 3am most nights I'm pleased I was able to control my sleeping habits this one time.


Question: Are contemplatives allowed to miss any part of the Divine Office (apart from being ill)? I only ask because there were only two nuns in the chapel this morning. I suspect the more elderly sisters require more sleep on grounds of health?
Answer: The nuns are allowed two days rest, which means not going to Vigils. Now I know why Sr Elizabeth replied to my "Sleep well" yesterday evening with "Oh I will!"

Psalm 69:13-15
13 But I pray to you, LORD
     in the time of your favour;
in your great love, O God,
     answer me with your sure salvation.
14 Rescue me from the mire,
     do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
     from the deep waters
15 Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
     or the depths swallow me up
     or the pit close its mouth over me.


I'm annoyed. So I dozed off after Vigils, though not before setting an alarm to wake me up before Lauds. Alarm goes off and I'm faced with three clock faces that are showing different times. It seems that when I dropped the clock I set the alarm on, the clock itself stopped, meaning that when it went off at 6:30, it was actually 7:30! So not only did I miss Lauds I also missed Tierce *mumble grumble* At least I'm awake for Mass.

I never feel more welcome in God's house than when I'm attending Mass whilst on retreat. Perhaps it's because I know the people who are celebrating it are there because they want to be. Even during weekday Masses I usually expect there to be others, but today it was just me. I felt at peace. I have since I arrived. I think it's all the time alone, but especially more the silence. Surprisingly I don't even find myself talking to myself out loud that much. I think attending the Divine Office and allowing myself to speak for only one purpose - to talk to God - suffices my need to verbally express myself.

Why does Confession seem like a sham? I sit there, confess my sins, make an act of contrition, get given a penance and am absolved. And yet, I come out of there feeling more angry and more stupid than when I first went in. I don't think it helps when it takes place face-to-face. As I said yesterday, I like the darkness: the ability to hide my sinfulness behind a screen is comforting somewhat. To confess to a priest's face reveals one in all their nakedness. We are laid bare for all to see. An uncomfortable feeling. But maybe I feel it's a sham because I don't really believe in it anymore - the power of being absolved. I know I live a life of sin but whether that means I'm going to stop ... well, I don't know. Like any life lived in temptation, I enjoy it and yet I don't. When alone I get pangs of guilt for all the stupid things I've done, but in the moment ... well, I enjoy it. I want to stop and I don't. But I think I don't want to stop more than I do.

I had some time to kill before Sext so decided to go for a spot of hill walking. I had planned to do some dissertation reading, but with the sun blinding my eyes I thought my time would be best spent outside. Not only was it sunny, but warm! And dry! Wales is not too different from Scotland - it's also not as wet as everyone says ... Anyway, I wandered up the road just beyond the abbey. What I found made my heart leap with joy. Now, we've established on previous visits to monasteries that wild animals (or farm cattle for you country folk) are an exciting sight for me. As I turned to climb further up, that's when I spotted them. Llamas! What magnificent creatures! As I snapped away on Hector they seemed to be as curious of me as I was of them. One even slowly edged right up to the fence simply to stare at me with those vacant dark eyes. For all I know it wanted me to piss off. So I did.

Look at that evil grin. Any closer and I'm sure it would have spat on me

I kept on walking till I reached some houses and thought I'd better turn back as there was nothing more to see. Passing the abbey on my left, I continued down the road we drove up when I was picked up at the station. Walking past a few pubs I could smell the waft of bacon tingle the inside of my nostrils. Ah, meat....

Welsh people are lovely, but also a little scary. Now the latter may just be a reflection of living in the city most of my life, but usually when a stranger talks to you it's not a good thing, but an invasion of privacy - even if that invasion is simply interrupting me staring at the Preseli Hills. One man in his 50s, looking suspiciously like Mick Jagger, initiated conversation mid-photo to tell me that I could get on to the old bridge I was taking a photo of. As he was telling me how to get there I could geel something tugging at my jeans - it was the Dulux paint dog! - well a more unkempt version.

Anyway, another encounter with a stranger involved an elderly lady apologising for nearly tripping me up with her shopping trolley. I was about 2ms away from her and too busy standing in the middle of the level crossing imagining what it would be like to see a train speeding towards me, to be paying much attention. So she needn't have worried. One thing I did notice though is that every time I'm in a new village and I see two or more members of the elderly community together, I think of Hot Fuzz and how their idle chat about Maude and Mr Norris next door is actually a cover up for their plan to kill someone. I was actually told during my talk with the priest earlier that the imagination can be a dangerous thing. He might be right.

When I picked up my tray of dinner from the pantry I though "My, the nuns are generous!" Amongst the array of food on the tray, there was a little jar with the label Rose Petal Jelly, Summer 2011. Intriguing. Before starting my meal with the soup, I thought I'd taste some of this jelly instead. My initial reaction was "What on earth?!" It's like eating a flower. Actually, it's like eating a bowl of potpourri. It's one of the strangest things I have ever tasted. I think I prefer basil ice-cream. [10 mins and a glass of water later I'm still sticking my tongue out in disgust. I'm going to have a cup of tea.]

In a bid to avoid reading the rest of my book (I was initially gripped by all the Greek words and was satisfied with my pleasure in being able to read and translate some of them, but soon the novelty wore off), I am reading Reader's Digest. Quoted as "The World's Favourite Magazine" I can just about see its appeal. After reading it from cover to cover, I've learnt how to set a hamster trap, amongst other things. According to the Word Power Quiz I have an excellent vocabulary (though if I took this at the time [March 1999] I don't think I would have scored so highly). Currently I'm laughing at the Life's Like That section. Here's one for your enjoyment:

The man knocking on my door asking for the milk money was unfamiliar, so I asked him if he had any identification. "Well," he said looking thoughtfully and pointing into the street, "I've got the milk float." Lesley Evans, Swansea.


I was a little annoyed to find that None was to interrupt my reading of the Reader's Digest. Now back in the flat I am pleased to inform you that I have discovered another two copies. I think I will be sufficiently preoccupied till Vespers.

A summary of the October 1998 issue:
  • Egypt is really, truly, madly romantic
  • The story of T65 makes me want a raccoon
  • Honey gives you instant energy
  • Reader's Digest is rather gripping
[Not so sure on the last point. Lack of social interaction, online or otherwise, may be distracting my usually "keen" sense of judgment.]


Casually sitting at the table reading my final copy of Reader's Digest (December 1997 for those of you interested), when I hear Sr Elizabeth on the other side of the door cooing. I reply and she opens the door with a wide smile, the jar of rose petal jelly in her hand. This is for you to keep / Oh, thank you / It's very sweet mind you (Yeah, I didn't notice....).

She sat down just to run a few details with me about changing the bed sheets and bringing the plates back down to the pantry. She asked me a few questions about myself and we got talking about the Philippines and how people living in poorer conditions than us are usually happier. She tells me that she's originally from Australia and that she'll be celebrating her 60th anniversary next April. She said she never wanted to be a nun till she travelled to the UK and met the Cistercians. Four weeks it took her to travel her by boat! Four long weeks, surrounded by nothing but water. Blimey. She told me that she thoroughly enjoyed her job back home but knew that there was nothing in life that would make her more happier than dedicating her life to God as a Cistercian. It was at this moment that I knew in my heart that this life was not for me. It can't be. I've had a taste of the happiness that is available out in the world and I hope to experience it again one day. Also I'd really like to have children and be the best mother I can be.

[Wait, maybe I could be a nun? There's not really much going for me back out there anyway. Spooks has finished after all ... Who am I kidding? I'm not nearly half as faithful or willing for this life.]

We ended the conversation by briefly talking about the Beeb documentary Young Nuns. She said that the sisters had a tv screen, but that it only played discs. Bless. She said she read the review in The Tablet and that it sounded quite good. She thanked me for coming to stay with the community and wished me luck for the future before giving me a hug. It's a bit of a shame that I have to leave so soon. I've been enjoying the routine of attending the Divine Office, and only wish I could structure my day around it back in the world of dissertations and The Walking Dead.

I cannot express enough my admiration for contemplatives. But, contemplatives with a good sense of humour and a down-to-earth manner about them are simply wonderful. I only say this because of the wee slip up of one of the nuns during Compline. She was meant to turn on the small light after we prayed in darkness, but instead she turned on all the main lights and then the lights in the cloister before getting the right one. Sr Chris was about to walk over and help her, not in reproach, but in kindness. The smile of affection reflected her kind thoughts: Oh God bless her, she's turned on the wrong lights!

An example of good humour can be traced back all the way to the Desert Fathers. Palladius, questioned by John about his desire to be a bishop replied that he was already bishop of the kitchen, consecrated by gluttony, and excommunicating the wine when it turned to vinegar.


It's 20:48. My bedside lamp has spontaneously switched off so I am writing this using the glow of my phone as a guide (and no, I'm not actually using it - in fact one doesn't even get signal here). I wonder if my sudden descent into darkness is a sign I should retire from my reading on the Desert Fathers and go to sleep?

*Two minutes later*

And then there was light! Right, back to work.

Saturday 5th November:

I could see all the stars as I made my way to the chapel for Vigils. I even spotted a few star consolations. Now back in my room with some tea, I am contemplating whether it's worth sleeping for an hour before Lauds ... Here are some things for you to ponder, taken from the ever delightful Reader's Digest:

Inspiration is nurtured by activities like chopping wood, raking leaves and reading to the children. Those activities soften the work pace of the day's pursuits and allow all our God-given intuition to work in unlogical magic. Only then can we reach our fullest potential. Only then can we leap from thinking to understanding. ~ Philip Howard

The word not spoken goes not quite unheard. It lingers in the eye, the semi-arching of the brow. A gesture of the hand speaks pages more than words, the echo rests in the heart as driftwood does in sound, to be rubbed by time until it rots or shines. The word not spoken touches us as music does the mind. ~ William Cohen in The New York Times


I've managed to wet my last pair of socks and jeans all for a couple dozen photos of morning frost and a dandelion covered in dew. A beautiful autumn morning though. Chilly, granted, but the rays of light over the valleys and the colours of the shedding leaves ... Such beauty can only be created.

I like reading through the visitor's book. Not really for the comments (Most of them are the same. The only time I've seen something of interest was when the word unusual cropped up. Even then, the person was using it in the context of gardening) but more to marvel at all the different handwriting scripts. Apparently one's handwriting reflects one's personality. I actually thought it was just down to the way someone holds the pen *shrugs* There's the large writing that reflects a bubbly personality and the tiny, illegible scrawl that represents an introverted personality. Now, I'm not really sure how much of this is true but handwriting is something that I consider an art. Whether you're bubbly or introverted, big or tiny, your handwriting is a thing of beauty.


Bless Sr Elizabeth. The hospitality she has shown me since I've been here has been more than I could ever have asked for. Working at the table, the morning light as my aid, she knocks on the connecting door and walks in draped in her kitchen work clothes - apron and tea cosy on her head. She has brought me rolls and sweet buns for the journey home. She tells me she'll be back later after she finishes up in the kitchen as she wants to give me the addresses for Cistercian abbeys in the Philippines. It's the little things that people take away from conversations that have the largest impact on the heart.

So ... I fell asleep again. Thank God Sr Elizabeth came knocking on the door when she did otherwise I may have missed my train. She came in and sat down for a chat. I offered her a drink and she replied "No ... I want my bed!" Ha! She told me about the history of the Cistercian community in Whitland, and the tale of how they went house hunting all over the country for a suitable building. Her and a few other nuns (One's died and the other is in a home *taps her head* She's gone off a bit mentally. I'm the only sane one left of the "three oldies" as they called us! *laughs*) She was saying the abbey now standing has been tastefully decorated. The private rooms are not too feminine, and have none of that frilly stuff. No, just simple. Our en-suites are nice too. I have a shower and Sr Linda next door has a bath, and so on. But a shower suits me fine. I ask her about her plans for today: "I'm probably going to have a siesta before I say None ... I have a nice small table you see, I like to be able to move it wherever I like. The nice thing about Saturdays is the break from structure. There's no Office between Mass and Vespers so sometimes I like to take a sandwich and go for a walk."

She then bids her farewells, or as she likes to call it See you laters! Sr Elizabeth: "You know in French it's au revoir, so I will say 'au revoir' to you." As one would expect, when a conversation is flowing as naturally as this one, she ended up staying for another 20 minutes.

We spoke about films and she began to quote from Pride and Prejudice. I asked if she had seen the more recent film and she told me she had not. We then shared our admiration for Colin Firth and went on to talk at length on The King's Speech. She mentioned Of Gods and Men and recalled how she knew one of the monks who survived. She said the film was not entirely true. The scene that shows a monk hiding under the bed did not happen. Instead, he was in another part of the house at the time. Hearing Fr Christian's voice (the abbot), he assumed everything was ok, before returning to his room to retire for the evening. It was only when he awoke for Lauds in the morning that he realised what had happened. According to Sr Elizabeth, the men were only ordered to take 7 of the monks. Unfortunate, one could say, for the brother who was visiting the community at the time, but as Sr Elizabeth says "It was meant to be - his crowning glory."

We talked about The Tablet (she doesn't bother reading The Catholic Herald unless she's waiting for Mass or something); Caldey Island; trains and the extortionate prices of their buffet carts. We also spoke of the soap boxes at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park; reading in Latin ("St Bernard is a poet, so reading him in English is like reading Dante in German"). We could have talked all afternoon but I could tell she wanted her siesta. Before she left, she started to chant "I-am-going-to-go-to-my-bed-now!!!" She continued to say au revoir as the door was closing behind her, reminding me to send the sisters a copy of my dissertation once it's finished. At this rate, it more a case of if.

Sr Edith dropped me off to the station. Before leaving she told me she needed to lock the door of the guesthouse as last time they had ""visitors" in inverted commas". In the car I asked her about these visitors and whether they had long tails. According to her it was actually men posing as window cleaners. She then told me when she was younger, her father used to tell her stories of men who would dress up as window cleaners, prop a ladder on a roof and plan their break-in. She told me of the high drug problem in Whitland and that in the evening it's a very different place than it is during the day. She said people think the community is really rich because they converted the old barn; even the construction workers though they were getting their salary straight from the Vatican! (You've got to admire the picture some people have of the Church.)

They think we have laptops and mobiles for them to steal / Yes, because nuns are really going to have plenty of those things. You don't even get signal up here / *chuckles*

She said gadgets disrupt the peace in our hearts and souls. I completely agree. I'm nervous about turning my phone on. I've enjoyed having just the cats and the nuns for company. I feel refreshed not having to have looked at a screen these last few days. Oh well. Here we are. Back to reality. Let's take a deep breath.

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