The Society of the Precious Blood (1961)

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WHEN a Christian is alone by his bed praying for the Church, the world and his friends, he believes that Church, world and friends are helped by what he is doing. When Christians leave the world to enter the sacred enclosure of a church, and then and there offer the Holy Sacrifice, they believe that the world outside the church doors and the whole state of Christ’s Church beyond the parish boundaries benefit from what they do. In both cases, there is no obvious connection between the act and its results. It is, perhaps, no different in principle to believe that the life of JESUS Christ had results beyond Palestine and after the first century. By prayer and worship, we enter into that mystery by which Christ’s life flows outward in space and onward in time. So our prayer and worship share in the universal effectiveness of Christ’s life. The individual and the congregation pray as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, and that particular prayer and worship rush into the invisible but real bonds by which Christ connects all the members of His Body; the focus and center of Christian life, the individual person and the parish congregation, always looking out beyond their bounds to the universal territory of Christ’s Body; our small and rather commonplace actions travelling faster than light through the invisible network of Christ’s Mystical Body. The Ascended Christ embraces the whole creation.

It is the same principle that justifies the “usefulness” of Religious Communities: their offering overflows in the Church and into the world the Church inhabits. Of all Communities, the Enclosed or Contemplative is the most concrete expression of the fact that prayer and worship are the source of the Church’s vitality and effectiveness. And just as the private prayer of the individual is something he does not easily talk about, going into his closet before the Father Who sees in secret, so the Community of contemplative prayer is hedged about with secrecy and modesty. Love and humility are uneasy when their names come up in conversation. So involved in penitence and reparation, the Enclosed Community prefers to stand afar off in the Temple of Christ’s Mystical Body and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” In the Enclosed Communities of His Mystical Body, Christ once again withdraws to a desert place to pray, once again lives His obscure Nazareth years of preparation.

Before the Reformation, Burnham Abbey in Berkshire was the home of a Community of Augustinian Canonesses, and it had been since April 18, 1266. It was dissolved in 1539 in reign of “that most rapacious monarch,” Henry VIII (as a sign in Glastonbury parish church calls him), and there was not much reason to believe it would ever be the home of nuns again. And as was the way with deserted abbeys, little of it was left standing as the years passed: just the chapter house, the sacristy, and various walls. But on April 18, 1916, the first Mass since the Reformation was said at the Abbey for nuns following a rule derived from that of S. Augustine and dedicated to the Precious Blood of our Lord. Once again in this place the redeeming grace of the Ascended Christ poured into a Community of Religious, and from their glad and receptive hearts overflowed into the Body of Christ, the Church.

There, are several intriguing coincidences connected with the re-establishment of the Religious Life at Burnham, the latest of which is the dedication of the chapel of the branch house in South Africa on the same day as the nuns were expelled in 1539 — but one hardly knows what to make of such things. And there is no doubt that the rich, strong and holy personality of the Mother Foundress had a great deal to do with the formation and development of the Community. Yet an outsider only gets hints of that and waits for a biography written by those who have actually come under Mother Millicent’s influence. What we do know of the history of this modern Anglican Community is helpful, and one can recognize in it the guidance of Providence. For the Society of the Precious Blood is not the result of academic and theoretical planning, neither in its beginnings as a Religious Community of the mixed type, or in its evolution into the contemplative type.

Millicent Taylor went to live in Birmingham. She was told that S. Jude’s Church needed a parish worker, and so she applied. She had done such work before, at Walthamstow and with the Wantage Sisters at Reading. But here, other than the usual things, Miss Taylor found herself in charge of an Evening Club for factory girls, for S. Jude’s parish was full of slums and concerned itself with ministering to the people who lived in them. While doing this work, she decided she must live by a rule; she did not intend to found a community. But after two years she had decided to begin a community for working in parishes and among the poor. It was so often the case with Anglican Communities: work crying to be done and a community is formed to do it. But, as has also been found, stability cannot be grounded in the work: it must be grounded in the Religious Life. This was certainly the direction the Society of the Precious Blood was headed. From the first, the Society was very poor and very austere and observed ascetical practices characteristic of enclosed communities. “In those early days prayer came first with us”, Mother Millicent observes, and though she and her first Sister “came into Religion armed with S. Teresa’s Way of Perfection” (which first turned her thoughts to Religion), it is clear that they needed a great deal of training in the way of prayer. The Community’s first real introduction to the subject came from Father Andrew who conducted a retreat for them in 1908. At the same time he suggested that they needed a novitiate at some distance from the parish, and the next year a farm house at King’s Heath in the Arden Forest was bought.

Prior to this move, the Community was immersed in parish duties and in the difficult handling of the factory girls who lived and worked under appalling conditions. The Sisters were up at 5:30 a.m. and the girls’ club functioned after work from 7:00-10:00 p.m. The physical strain must have been immense, but no greater than the mental and spiritual strain of learning to interpret rightly the “ill-mannered” habits of these girls. Mother Millicent has told a few stories of these days (in the booklet, “The Early Days of the S.P.B.”) that endear us to the work. But it was work soon to be given up. One Sister was left in the parish, but the rest went to the farm house at King’s Heath, and there the contemplative vocation began to assert itself.

They certainly didn’t have it any easier at King’s Heath. They were terribly poor and terribly isolated. When a priest did not come to the house for Mass, they walked two miles to the nearest church, and in the very worst weather. Yet, in a way, it was this “isolation, the silence, the quiet hours of prayer, the monotony and regularity” that was developing in the Community that spirit God wanted, so that when Mother Millicent, in 1910, visited the Benedictine nuns of Mailing Abbey, she “found in it much in common with our own spirit and way of life,” even though she had no plans to enclose her Society. The lessons they were all. learning were “waiting on the will of God” and “trusting only in God’s care and protection.” They were well-taught at King’s Heath.

In 1912 the idea of forming an enclosed community was definitely considered, but the Warden waited a year to give his permission. Then in 1914 the Society moved to Hendon to run a retreat house. There they grew in numbers and in the contemplative spirit and decided they must relinquish the retreat work and concentrate on community life in a more adequate home. Burnham Abbey was for sale. Most communities found it too small, but for the Society of the Precious Blood it seemed just right in many ways, one of which was “the irresistible atmosphere of calm quiet peace that surrounded it”, but another, one suspects, was the more indefinable atmosphere exuded by a holy place, long prayed in, then deserted, ruined and waiting. A friend of the Society bought it for them, and the Community moved there in April 1916. The Sisters are reticent about the great trials and “many desperate happenings” that awaited them, but by the Jubilee in 1930 they could look upon them as being in the past and stability as being reasonably attained.

After a long succession of S. Luke’s Days, Mother Millicent Mary of the Will of God, by a miraculous renewal of strength in her old age, celebrated her last S. Luke’s Day in 1955—it was the Golden Jubilee. At the end of that long day of festivity she remarked, “Wasn’t it kind of God to give me such a happy day.” She died January 19, 1956. Almost immediately the Society found itself branching out into new life, for in September 1956 the Chapter decided to begin a new foundation at Masite in Basutoland, South Africa. In May 1957 the Mother Superior and five Sisters left for what has now become the Priory of Our Lady Mother of Mercy.

The Bishop of Basutoland had invited them, and Fr. James, an African priest, had gathered eight African postulants who had prayed and waited for the Sisters to come. So had the local congregation prayed, one of whom said when the first novice was clothed, “I am quite ready to go now when the Lord wants me. We have prayed so long for a Community to come here and now I have seen it with my own eyes”. It is, of course, amazing to observe the faith of the congregation and of the Bishop in longing for an Enclosed Community. In a diocese where so much active mission work is needed, it would have been easy to expect another sort of community. But in the sermon preached at the dedication of the chapel at Masite, the Bishop plainly reveals what such a Community means. First, the Community is a place where the offering of worship is continually made, that offering of the Whole Christ, Head and Members: so mankind’s chief duty is done and the Church strengthened and built up.   Second, the Community is a witness to the “claim of God upon man’s total obedience.” The Community creates and shows forth; it is the word of witness that proclaims and judges, and the word of silence that works secretly like leaven in the Body of Christ that is in the world.

The racial problem has its ascertainable causes, economic, political, social. But it has another aspect, dark, puzzling, and irrational. This is the place of spiritual combat where mythological language alone can describe the struggle of love to subdue hatred. And it is in this place that the enclosed convent sets up the camp of love. The ideal of the Society in Africa is clearly stated by Mother Mary St. Agnes: “We are not just an English community to which Africans aspire to belong: we believe we are called to be a multiracial community to which Africans can make their own particular contribution according to the grace God has given them”.

Of course, to read the reports of the Sisters at Masite is to know it is all another world: not only English and contemplative, but African as well! Novices carrying pots of things on their heads with all that grace: “Stand up, stand up for JESUS” sung at a Clothing during Vespers from the Roman Breviary; a jug of the cow’s milk laid at the Bambino’s feet in the Crib; and the cow’s name, Ludmila, way down there; the delicious incongruity of the local witch doctor making the Sisters a present of £2 and three pumpkins at the dedication of the chapel.

Clearly, the English Sisters found it another world, even though they had studied the language, Sesotho, and the culture long before they got there. “We are still ignorant of what they really think,” wrote one, referring to the postulants. The Sisters could hardly be accused of having closed minds or being set in English ways; rather they were content to wait for African ways to reveal themselves. The excerpts from the Sisters’ letters, published in the Society’s magazine Sitio, show this reticence to judge, coupled with constant enquiry and most spontaneous ability to appreciate the goodness of others no matter how foreign the ways it may express itself. They immediately incorporated Sesotho prayers and hymn tunes into the liturgy and built a nice chapel of local stone in an appropriate style. The Religious spirit is so adaptable, or ought to be, bring forth from the Sisters what can only be called Christian childlikeness in receiving gifts from an outstation congregation of grass brooms, a colored clay pot, and five lively hens, with the comment, “they are such a generous people.” Then out into the fields to work the crops and gather cow manure alongside the native postulants in unaffected and eloquent equality, a witness to the charity of Christ that caused much comment in the village. The Sisters intend to live on what they raise. It is a real poverty, but nothing new to the Society which, in Africa, is only drawing on its earliest experiences: “our Community started with the poor and for the poor, and to begin again with Christ’s poor in such poverty and obscurity draws us strongly.”

Masite is a very young foundation still, and one does not know whether the native postulants will survive; several have found they had no vocation and others have come instead. Yet South Africa is so often brought to our attention, especially as Anglicans, that we might hope to God for the growth and stability of the Society of the Precious Blood in Basutoland. For then will the fire of adoration burn in that darkness and the voice of intercession be heard day and night. The Society aims at uninterrupted intercession, and that is now the practice at Burnham.

The dedication of the Society to the Precious Blood is rich in meaning. One significance is the reconciliation of mankind, as a Sister writes:

This is our vision—Africans and Europeans pleading the Precious Blood together “to break down the middle wall of partition … by the Blood of Christ . . . That He may make in Himself of twain one new man, reconciling both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Eph. 2:14-16). Surely that is the answer to the problem of apartheid.

This reconciliation is furthered by prayer, among other things. The Sisters in Masite are, perhaps, in as “useless” a state as our Lord nailed to the Cross. So from their enclosure, as from the Cross, rises up the prayer of intercession, “Father, forgive them,” a perfect prayer with which to combat apartheid.

But another significance of the dedication to the Precious Blood, and’ one dear to the Sisters, is the generosity which is symbolized by the freely flowing blood of the Cross. The Sisters enter into Christ’s heavenly work of intercession by the offering of themselves to the Divine Will; that is Gethsemane’s sweat of blood that leads to the prayer, “Not my will but Thine.” It is the generosity with which this self-offering is made that keeps it from being something masochistic and transforms it into something liberating and joyful. “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you” (2 Cor. 12:15) is the Society’s motto.

It is hard to write about a life so secret and so shy, as the inmost reality of all love is secret and shy. How helpful is the letter written from the sister of one of the African postulants who had asked the Sisters to pray that her son would write to her:

Beloved Sister,

Will you thank the Sisters of the Precious Blood of JESUS for me, because I had a letter from my son and £3, and he says he wants to give me £3 every month, and at Christmas he will come to repair his father’s grave. I thank you, the Sisters of the Precious Blood of our Lord, very much. May God have mercy on you, may He bless you, and may He cause the light of His countenance to shine upon you, that we, being people who do not know the power of prayer, may come to know it through you. I am very glad because the Son of God has found a place where He can lay His Head, with you, the Religious of the Precious Blood. Oh, remember me before the Lord always.

Cowley, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, pp. 44-52.

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