On the weekend of 2nd to 4th December 2016, a small number of us gathered for a time of reflection and prayer at the quiet house near Coolham, West Sussex, named after the little known saint of Steyning, run by Arundel & Brighton Diocese.
Many thanks are due to Ricky for his efficient organisation of this event, and even if we were few in number, we were strong in fellowship and worship. Old friends and new came together in a safe space to renew our spiritual lives.
In case you’re not sure who St Cuthman is, or confuse him with the more famous Cuthbert of Melrose (and Durham), he’s the bloke who pushed his widowed mother around in a homemade wheelbarrow. (She was paralysed and they were forced to beg.)
When the improvised mobility vehicle broke, he took it as a sign God meant him to stop and build a church, about four centuries before St Francis of Assisi got a similar message. He is also reputed to have outwitted the Devil’s plan to drown all the Christians of Sussex, so he certainly would merit wider recognition! His feast day is 8 February, but you may have missed it. I hope they remembered him in A&B, as he is Sussex’s patron, but Southwark diocese, where I live, didn’t.
The retreat house is like a comfortable country house from the inter-war years, with real fires in winter, splendid library, and 25 acres of grounds. (Think Poirot or Cluedo, without the animosity.)
Admittedly, the chapel, a separate building, is very cold in December, especially for morning prayer, even though it’s in daily use, but we weren’t discouraged. Anyone who’s ever attended Anglican or Protestant churches – usually only used on Sundays – will be adept at finding the warmest spots.
We had excellent facilitation from Fr Paul, Jesuit and general practitioner, (wow!), who doesn’t seem to have taken fright after his experience of being chaplain at our 2016 Conference in Scarborough, where we explored trans issues.
In spite of his impressive learning and experience, he is a modest and empathic man, and I, for one, found our sessions of reflection seemed to pass very quickly.
We had three topics to consider, God’s meaning in my past, God’s trust in my present, and God’s hope in my future, of importance to everyone, but especially for all those who are not “standard issue” Christians – I should say “standard issue” human beings!
We enjoyed good liturgy, too, morning and evening prayer, Mass, and even the Rosary and Benediction on our visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation.
I don’t usually like saying the Rosary with others, as I’m not wild about the popular add-on Fátima prayer (“save us from the fires of Hell”!), but we stuck to the traditional prayers, so it worked for me.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation is another little known part of Sussex Catholic history. On Wikipedia it’s only given a tiny mention in an article devoted to its Ohio equivalent! It dominates the surrounding countryside, and my first thought was that it was too old, and too imposing, to have been built as a Catholic church, but it was. The present church dates from 1876, and its isolated position honours the wealthy recusant Caryll family, who provided hiding places and succour to priests on the run in Elizabethan England. (They weren’t so wealthy thereafter!)
The “Priest’s House”, probably dating to 16th C, has THREE priests’ holes and a secret chapel (a hayloft), and relics of Blessed Francis Bell, who was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1643. Accounts of the time relate that his greatest ambition had been to be martyred for the Faith, so maybe he wasn’t just like us! He was actually a Franciscan, but there’s a decidedly creepy portrait of him (the eyes look at you in a disturbing way) that might have been painted by the other side to present a “Jesuit conspirator”!
There was an enlightening talk on the history of the place, and therefore of English Catholicism, so I learned a lot, the history of England not having played much part in Scottish education – except for wars, of course!
The church is marvellously well maintained and BIG, well worth a visit. We were welcomed by the priest and his wife – yes, wife! – who made us tea. All the same, I wouldn’t like to be seen reading the Tablet there, somehow…
Altogether a great weekend. Well done, Ricky, well done, Paul.