"Give Beauty Back": Tarrawarra Abbey

Photos in this post by Ngun T. Lian—to whom, thanks.

Photos in this post by Ngun T. Lian—to whom, thanks.

Yesterday I made a brief visit to Tarrawarra Abbey, a Cisterician monastery about an hour and a half away from Melbourne’s city centre. See the photo above of the “noble simplicity”—and arresting heft—of the abbey’s altar and ambo.

At the bookshop I bought the recent Festschrift for the Abbey’s member Michael Casey, a much published writer and much travelled speaker on prayer in the Christian tradition, and the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions in particular. I confess I know more about some of the writers in the Festschrift than its honouree, so I started with two chapters in the middle of the book. Mary Collins, a Benedictine sister from Kansas, USA, wrote Worship: Renewal to Practice (Portland, Ore.: OCP, 1987), a book I loved from my first encounter with it twenty five years ago. She also presided over the brilliant ICEL Psalter (Chicago, Ill.: LTP, 1995) which in an ecumenical irony after being suppressed by the Vatican for its “inclusive” renderings was picked up by other churches—the Uniting Church in Australia, a case in point—for their liturgical materials, and which endures among many folks I know as the preferred version of the psalms for daily prayer. Collins writes in the Casey Festschrift A Not-so-Unexciting Life about crafting rituals for the dissolution of a praying community, invoking to moving effect portions of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”:

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s
self and beauty’s giver—

with this line used in refrain as sisters in turn gave testimony to “memories of great beauty—fragments given them in their shared monastic life” (p. 106).

Katharine Massam is my esteemed colleague at Pilgrim Theological College. She contributes a chapter on connections between cloister and community, playing with the Foucauldian notion of “heterotropia”—that is, how one real location “represents several locations at once.” As Katharine discusses “reading the cloister as Christ” she focuses on the strange and wonderful experience of the thirteenth-century Benedictine Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1302), who whilst singing vespers (evening prayer) in her community experienced Christ saying to her: “Behold my heart; now it will be your temple,” and asking her to “look among the other parts of my body and choose for yourself other places in which you can lead a monastic life.” To this unusual command, Gertrude responded by asking for “the Lord’s feet for a hall or ambulatory; his hands for a workshop; his mouth for parlour and chapter house; his eyes for a library where she might read; and his ears for a confessional” (p. 309)!

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Carmel Posa, SGS, ed., A Not-so-Unexciting Life: Essays on Benedictine History and Spirituality in Honor of Michael Casey, OCSO (Athens, Ohio/Collegeville, Minn.: Cisterician Publications/Liturgical Press, 2017).

See here for the Liturgical Press page on the book, where, it turns out, Mary Collins’ chapter is included in the sample pages.