“We are filled with the blessings of your house, of your holy temple.” –Psalm 65
From July 8th to 15th I was at Canterbury Cathedral in England for a Benedictine Experience Retreat led by Esther de Waal and Fr. Simon McGurk, a Benedictine monk of Belmont Abbey. (I have given about 29 Benedictine Experience Retreats myself around the U.S.—Washington, Dallas, New England, and especially in California.) One of my retreatants graciously offered to send me to Canterbury—an astounding gift. This time I could just sit back and just be a participant.
Most of us remember reading part or all of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales when we were in school. Chaucer’s description of the Canterbury pilgrims was written in the 14th century. It was rather awesome to think I was there seven centuries later.
The Canterbury Lodge (Hotel) looks out on the Cathedral from about 300 feet I’d say—and so I spent a week very much in the ambiance of that great Cathedral. I did not even close my drapes at night in order to look out on the Cathedral. The Cathedral exterior is illuminated at night until about midnight. The Cathedral is also the site of the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Becket. Some of you may remember the movie Murder in the Cathedral. I prayed there for all of our friends, oblates, and many special intentions.
In 597 Pope St. Gregory the Great sent Augustine and a group of Benedictine monks to England. This was not the Augustine who wrote the Confessions but a simple Benedictine monk named after him. They established St. Augustine’s Abbey from which the Benedictines emerged to take a very eminent and very influential part in English church history. At the time of the English reformation I believe eleven of the great Cathedrals had Benedictine “chapters”—which means that there was an attached monastic Benedictine community which prayed the Office in the Cathedral. The ruins of St. Augustine’s monastery (parts of which date from the very early 7th century) are perhaps a ten to fifteen minute walk from the main gate of the Cathedral grounds. Seeing the foundations of St. Augustine’s abbey church was for me one of the most moving things in the pilgrimage. It is the beginning of a great flourishing of Benedictine life—which in a few centuries would send monk- missionaries to the Continent: Alcuin of York, St. Willibrod, St. Walburga. For a sense of the Benedictine influence on English history see the book Canterbury and Rome by Robert Hale , OSB, cam. One chapter is titled “The Benedictine Roots of Anglicanism”.
St. Walburga founded a monastery of Benedictine nuns in Eichstaat, Bavaria. This is very important for us since many of the Benedictine houses of women in the US trace their heritage to Eichstaat. The first Benedictine woman to found a house in the US (from Eichstaat) was Sister Benedicta Riepp who founded St. Mary’s , PA, and is buried at St. Benedict’s in Minnesota.
One afternoon we were taken by coach (bus) to Minster Abbey about an hour away. It was founded by St. Mildred In the early 8th century. Some scholars believe that the first “official” Benedictine nuns were there –at St. Mildred’s Monastery on the Isle of Thanet. This monastery was closed along with all the English monasteries by Henry VIII. ( see the book: The Dissolution of the Monasteries by Aidan Cardinal Gasquet, O.S.B.) The Monastery (now called Minster Abbey) was re-opened shortly after World War II by sisters from the Monastery of St. Walburga in Eichstaat, Bavaria. That visit also gave me an overwhelming sense of Benedictine roots.
It was good to be with Esther de Waal again, who originally conceived the idea of a Benedictine Experience retreat. She is the author of Seeking God, a very well-known introduction to the Benedictine way. More comments later on aspects of the retreat and the journey.