Solitude – Glasshampton – Saturday 25th July 2015   3 comments

Today I am spending the day in solitude in a little hut and demarcated area of the garden at the bottom of the grounds in Glasshampton Monestary.  It is a privallage to do so.  This place is very special to me for a number of reasons:

  1. Before the area was created as a separated off place, it was my favourite part of the monestary.  I used to come down here to sit and think and just be.  There is a lovely view over farmland, then a wooded hillside, up to the church tower at Astley the next village to the North.  That church has a special place in my heart because the vicarage was the home of Frances Ridley Havergal, the C19th hymn writer, and she lies buried in the church yard.  She is one of my Mum’s spiritual heroines probably most famous for writing “Take my life and let in be consecrated, Lord to Thee”, but she was quite prolific. The view to the church has to be glimpsed through the trees and shrubs now which have grown markedly since I first used to come and sit here in the late 1980s – early 1990s.
  2. This area was created as a separated off area for Brother Ramon (d. 2000) when he was exploring the hermit life.  Ramon I first met in his books.  Then when I first retreated here he was the Guardian (the Franciscan equivalent of Abbot) and he became my first formal Spiritual Director and was my Confessor.  I learnt so much from him and although I am a lowly pupil a long way behind him on my spiritual journey there is a lot of commonality between our journeys.  We both started off in the Nonconformist tradition; he was Welsh Chapel and I from the ages of 6 to 18 was brought up in Wantage Baptist Church but have two Welsh grandfathers so really identify with his tradition and have strong memories of visiting Welsh Chapels in Abertillery (where I have relations) and when holidaying in Wales.  We both eventually found a home in the Catholic Tradition but continued to draw on our roots.  He was a noisy, jokey, activist who learnt to love and be fed by contemplative prayer and I am the same although compared to him I feel I just dabble in contemplative prayer.
There are lots of reminders of Ramon in the hut (think of a garden shed with a bed, desk and chair in it) where I sit and write this.  There is a plastic container labeled “Adam’s Ale – Ramon” – I suspect it referred to water but I seem to remember he took a little home brew on high days and holidays.  Then on a simple shelf to the left of the desk there are various Bibles, service books and hymn books. Who else would have Keswick Praise (you can’t get more conservative evangelical than that!); Hymns of Faith published by Scripture Union (again conservative evangelical) alongside The Weekday Missal (Roman Catholic) and The Catholic Hymn Book?  There is an old label on the same shelf saying “Ramon – Altar Linen”.
I was on retreat in Glasshampton in 2000 when Ramon lay dying in his bed and then went to his funeral in Worcester Cathedral, which was a wonderful service. To me he was a saint and a great spiritual guide, I loved and still love him deeply.
All the above was by way of introduction to what I am doing today; that is spending from breakfast to supper in ‘Solitude’, following the rhythm of the monastery but on my own.  There is second shed next door which is laid out as a simple chapel where in about half an hour I will go and say the Midday Office at the same time as the Brothers and other guests are saying it in the chapel in the monastery. Then after lunch I must spend time reading, thinking and praying.  I will record some of my thoughts later in this blog post so I can reflect on them again at a later date.
Before I came I didn’t have a particular agenda for this retreat so I did not know what books to bring to read.  Anyway I brought half a dozen or so from home that I thought I might look at and have picked up a few more from the library here at the monastery. One of the later is a Grove Booklet from their Pastoral Series: Jeffery Satinover (1995) “The Empty Self – Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity”.  I am only part the way through it (on page 10 out of 28) but it has sparked off some thinking that ties in with thoughts provoked at this morning’s services before I entered my short period of solitude.  It is the sort of book my wife Jackie would dislike; it is pure intellectualism and expresses its ideas densely in academic language, but being an academic I am really enjoying it.
The central thesis of the book, at least so far, is that with the Renaissance, Western Man (and it is probably more a sin of men than women) has put self at the centre of their lives; made self their god rather than the God of Israel. This sense of self importance came up in the Gospel reading at the Eucharist this morning.  It is the Feast of St. James the Apostle today and we had read the account, from Matthew Ch. 21 vs 21-28, when James’ and John’s mother came to Jesus and asked that her two sons be designated to sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom.  This angered the other disciples but Jesus puts them all straight by saying: ” … whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” [Matthew 8 vs 26-27]. Now it seems James learnt to deny himself and was probably the first of the disciples to be martyred for the sake of the Gospel in AD44 as Herod Agrippa tried to suppress the new religion then referred to as “The Way”.
The New Testament reading at the Eucharist this morning was from 2 Corinthians Ch. 4.  I quote verse 7:
 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
I know this verse by heart and have done since my mid-teens.  When I was about 16 or 17 Jackie (now my wife) asked me to go and give a talk to the Christian Union at her school which was less than 1 mile away from mine.  I spoke on this verse, basically a talk I had ‘pinched’ off an evangelist at a Christian Houseparty I had been on the previous summer holiday.  The picture used was of a flowerpot (the jar of clay) that contained a beautiful plant.  No one looks at the flowerpot they look at the plant and it’s flowers.  We are like the flowerpot, cracked, dirty and ordinary.  However, we can contain the light of God.
Now recognising the irony that this represents I am going to give an account of how these readings have related to myself in my thinking while in solitude; i.e. put my ‘self’ back at the centre of this blog post.  One of my besetting sins is that I like to feel important.  I will give an example that illustrates this.  At work I used to be Head of AEM (it does not matter what AEM stands for for the purpose of this account).  After a reorganisation of my Institute AEM ceased to exist and I was no longer head of anything.  In reality my role had changed little but I lost a title that made me sound important.  That grated with me and if I am honest still does quite a few years later.
All this relates to my current stage of life.  My work at the Open University comes to an end at the end of this calendar year (I am taking voluntary redundancy).  Next year I hope to generate an income though a variety of means: I have recently accepted an invitation to be a Director of a company; as a consultant; and hopefully part-time as a researcher at Southampton University.  Now, I know what these readings mean for that context.  I need to watch my ego, avoiding trying to show off what I know or what I can do but rather seeking to serve those that employ me and in turn the disabled people and others that that work seeks to enable.
Jesus’ teachings are never easy but I know He points to a better way.  God give me the strength and wisdom to walk in that way.  Amen!

3 responses to “Solitude – Glasshampton – Saturday 25th July 2015

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  1. Enjoying your posts Martyn. I’m on holiday reading a book about Pope Francis (‘Why he leads the way he leads – lessons from the first Jesuit Pope’) which shows how his Jesuit thinking shapes his actions, and more surprisingly, how such thinking can (and should) be applied to any leadership in today’s world. Serving others and not oneself. The stand-out phrase is “authentic power is service”. This chimes with my own long-standing aspiration to use my position to help others. I am still still searching for ways to do this well and hope the book will provide more food for thought and action… Wishing you a very happy and helpful retreat!

    • Agnes,

      I have a huge respect for Pope Francis – I think he tries very hard to follow Jesus’ way which must be very hard surrounded by all the riches and trappings of power in the Vatican.

      I have also used the Ignation Spiritual Exercises in my own prayer life (although not recently). I hope on day to do a full 28 day Ignation retreat – that will be a spiritual and just plain human challenge! I think in terms of my own spirituality I am closer to the Franciscans than the Jesuits.

  2. Pingback: Farewell to Glasshampton / Books I have read while here | Martyn's Spiritual Reflections

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