Nuns and Sandcastles

Yesterday, my schola (Schola Scholastica) went to the Isle of Wight to meet with Sister Bernadette, the choirmistress of St Cecilia’s Abbey.  This was the first of our monthly instructions on Gregorian Chant with Sister.

To say that to be in the company of Sister Bernadette or any of the other sisters from St. Cecilia’s feels like a privilege is an understatement. You cannot help but be bowled over by the humility, the contentment, the kindness, the intelligence (l could go on…) of these devout, down-to-earth, gentle, spiritual women.

The sense of happiness in this remarkable community is apparent as soon as you walk up the driveway of the convent as you are greeted by impeccable beds of roses still magnificently holding their summer blooms, coupled with the scent of lavender lingering in the sea air. Entering the public hallway of the convent, the neatly arranged wall of photos of the sisters going about their busy daily cloistered lives fills you with a palpable sense of something quite special. The parlour with its grey painted grill can be intimidating at first but the barrier soon becomes immaterial when the sisters are in the room. This is a place of great joy.

We spent over an hour with Sister Bernadette studying the Introit and the Alleluia for the Missa Salve Sancte Parens, the propers sung for Our Lady’s Saturday.  I imagine Sister could easily fill an entire day discussing a single Introit and still find more to say about it. You find yourself hanging on every word, every sentence she utters, it is all relevant, nothing is said that does not have value. It really is extraordinary listening to someone talking about chant when you know this is the backbone of their daily routine. She is not just talking about a piece of music that she has studied and quite likes. These texts, these groups of neumes, these prayers, are everything and in everything they do. They permeate their entire lives.

After our wonderful lesson, the Schola went off to do what they do best and that is to lunch. We then returned to the convent during the nuns recreation time which is from 2pm until None at 2.40pm and two of our group performed an impromptu concert for the sisters. Martina, one of our Schola, conveniently just happens to be an incredible singer; she studied at the Royal Academy of Music, so she performed the Domine Deus and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Jenny who had joined us for the trip to the Isle of Wight, just happens to be a professor of music at an American universtity and also a concert pianist, so she performed a couple of pieces of Bach (the younger) and Bach (the elder.)   She is also a specialist in Messiaen and is actually over in the UK to given a paper on this ‘Marmite-like’ composer.  She finished the repertoire with a synopsis on Messiaen’s life, his faith and of course his music, at the request of the fascinated sisters.

None at St Cecilias, tea and cake and then a high-speed visit to Quarr and the day was sadly at an end.

When you consider it is only two hours door to door from Brighton to the Isle of Wight and with various special offers on the trains at the moment, you can get there and back for only £15 return. So grab your Triplex and bucket and spade and go and listen to the sisters singing the Divine Office and then you can go and build sandcastles afterwards.

Thank you to Candy who organised the day for us. (CLICK HERE FOR MORE PHOTOS)


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