The Re-Emergence of Saint Benedict

All around me in my local landscape, in my parents’ garden, a persistent three-leafed plant. Wood avens (Geum urbanum), otherwise known as colewort, Herb Bennet, and St Benedict’s Herb. My mum wants me to get rid of this common ‘weed’ but, like with the cleavers and the nettles, I give it a small patch as it provides nectar for the bees and is the food plant of the grizzled skipper caterpillar.

I do not know how wood avens came to be associated with Saint Benedict. Only that it was considered to drive off evil spirits and was used to treat the poisonous bites of snakes and rabid dogs. It has been suggested its three leaves and five flowers are reminiscent of the trinity and the wounds of Christ. Whatever the case, it seems like a good plant to have around in a time of pandemic. Its leaves make a tasty addition to salads and it’s possible I’d try using its roots to flavour soup.

Interestingly, with the emergence of Saint Benedict’s Herb into my life, my awareness of the influence of the Order of Saint Benedict in my locality and what feels like either past life or ancestral memory has been growing stronger.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Benedictine Priory which was located next to St Mary’s Church on Castle Hill in my home town of Penwortham. It was founded in the 1140s as an obedience of Evesham Abbey, dissolved in 1539, rebuilt as a mansion, then demolished in the 1940s to make way for housing.

On my daily walks I’ve been repeatedly drawn to St Mary’s Church and the Benedictine Monastery in Bamber Bridge. The latter was founded by the Order at Ampleforth Abbey in 1780 and closed in 2016.

I’ve felt the Benedictines, with their motto of ora et labora ‘pray and work’, and their slow prayerful way of life organised around eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime), has something important to say to a world in lockdown due to coronavirus.

This feeling was confirmed when I learnt that the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fidélité de Jouques in France had released six days of their Gregorian chants of the offices in Latin for free via Neumz for Holy Week to help people in isolation. Their singing and the sound of the bells and organ is beautiful and calming and the perfect antidote to the stresses of this turbulent time.

The re-emergence of Saint Benedict has brought back to the forefront my own monastic leanings. A couple of years back I really wanted to be a nun but could not reconcile the demands of living by a rule with my own unruliness or the renunciation of worldly pursuits with sharing awen as an awenydd. I also felt uneasy adopting a lifestyle originating from the Christian religion, which played a major role in extinguishing British pre-Christian beliefs and demonising my god, Gwyn, and his spirits.

Yet my craving for a life of prayer and work has not gone away but has grown stronger. Since the beginning of the year, when I stopped drinking alcohol and thus having drunken evenings and lie-ins and going to the pub, my life has been structured around prayer/meditation/journeywork, writing and study, physical work in the house and outdoors, and exercise including a martial art.

Since the lockdown the biggest changes have been the cancellation of my volunteer work parties with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, my Taekwondo classes, my monthly drumming circle with the Way of the Buzzard, and the Damson Poets event, and not being able to see friends. I’ve dealt with this by replacing my practical conservation work with gardening, practicing my Taekwondo moves and patterns alone in the garden, participating in the Way of the Buzzard online drumming circles, and keeping in touch with friends and the other members of Damson Poets by email and text message.

Slowly I’ve been developing a semi-monastic routine based on my natural rhythms and my duties to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of Peneverdant rather than the rule of a Christian saint. It is helping me stay focused through these days of isolation and to build a deeper relationship with my land and my gods.

5.30am – Dawn prayer and breakfast
6.00am – Morning prayers and practice
7.00am – Writing, study, blog
10.00am – Housework/shopping/cooking/gardening
11.30am – Dinner
12 noon – Noon prayer and study
1.00pm – Housework/gardening
2.00pm – Exercise (walk, run, or cycle, Taekwondo)
4.30pm Afternoon prayer and bath
5.00pm – Tea
5.30pm – Emails and news
6.00pm – Housework and water plants
6.30pm – Evening prayer and meditation in garden
7.00pm – Study
9.30pm – Night and bedtime prayers
10.00pm – Bed

Illuminated Prayers

A nun in a small room. A big woman, robed in grey, not only her bulk but her presence fills the space. Every ounce of her being, of her focus, of her concentration, is directed to the page on which she slowly, painstakingly, inscribes flowing letters and illuminates the words with beautiful artworks.

How I envy her slow pace of life. The space she has, inner and outer, for this steady work. For her fulfilment in this golden now of creation and lack of cravings for whatever lies beyond those stony walls.

She first appeared to me a few weeks ago and I took this as a signal the time had arrived to start writing in a notebook with a cover based on the Lindau Gospels, which a friend bought for me several years back. I’d never dared write in it for fear of spoiling it as the artwork is so beautiful.

The Lindau Gospels are so named because they were once housed in the Abbey of Lindau in Germany. The lower cover, on which my notebook is based, was produced in 8th century Austria, but its style is that of insular British art. It is predominantly Christian. Around the central topaz are the monograms ‘IHS, XPS, DNS, NOS’ ‘Jesus Christ Our Lord’ and Jesus appears on each of the arms of the cross in a cruciform halo. The four evangelists appear in the plaques in the corners. Yet the spaces between the cross and within the cross are filled with swirling, shapeshifting figures, which morph from serpent to bird to fish to dog and back again, and recall pre-Christian traditions.

Illuminated manuscripts, based on Christian scripture, were produced across Western Europe from 500 to 1600 CE. The phrase derives from the use of gold or silver to illuminate the words and pictures. Many were ‘Books of Hours’ containing devotional prayers said at set times of the day.

I’ve been drawn to such books before. Several years back I visited Stonyhurst College, which was founded by the Jesuits in 1593, with Preston Poets’ Society. Whilst the other poets were geeking out over Shakespeare’s First Folio I was far more fascinated by the prayer books of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth of York one of which, if I recall rightly, was illuminated by lapis lazuli.

And, of course, many of the medieval Welsh manuscripts which contain the myths of my gods were illustrated by their scribes, including The Black Book of Carmarthen where we find ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ with a cheeky portrait of Gwyn’s dog, Dormach.

The childlike nature of the drawings in the old Welsh texts and the way the seething mass of pre-Christian imagery unsettles the golden veneer of the Lindau Gospels gave me the confidence and the feeling of rightness to open the notebook, to begin writing. To dedicate it to ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and the gods and spirits of Peneverdant’ and to begin penning within my first prayers and illustrations.

I am now using it as a space in which my re-emerging monastic leanings can combine with my relationship with the Annuvian gods. Where my prayers and pictures are not illuminated by gold but by the golden light of the Otherworld.