Playing with God

Last week I spent four days on retreat at Mucknell Abbey. Why does a retired vicar even need a retreat? I hear you ask. Isn’t the whole of his life one long retreat? Well, yes and no. I may be much more the master of my time, than I was when I was a working vicar; but there are still all sorts of ways in which the business of ‘everyday living’ can feel as if it gets in the way of being able to think about God, and spend as much time thinking about God, as you might like. Also, I’ve found myself spending the odd idle moment asking myself, What am I actually supposed to do, now that I’m nothing but some superannuated old priest?

Mucknell Abbey is one of my favourite places to be in the whole world. Just a few miles from Worcester, it’s the home of a community of Anglican Benedictines, men and women, who devote themselves to living and praying according to the Rule set out by St Benedict 1,600 years ago. They used to be at Burford Priory, but when that property became too expensive for them to maintain, they sold it and moved to their new, purpose-built monastery, in 2010. There are 12 members of the community, including two novices, and their number is sometimes augmented by a few ‘alongsiders’: young people who have chosen to share the community’s life for a short period of time. If you want to know more about them, have a look at their excellent website.

The Oratory, Mucknell Abbey

Staying at Mucknell, even for just a few days, is a spiritual tonic. Sharing in the community prayers six times a day (I never managed the seventh, the Service of Readings at 6 a.m. each day), enjoying their simple but ample (mostly vegetarian) meals, and lots of hours to read or think or wander around the grounds up there on their windswept hill.

Perhaps I hoped for some dramatic revelation, a flash of light and the voice of God telling me exactly what I have to do. One always does hope for that. Or maybe not. Instead of that kind of drama, something much better happened. In my thinking alone, and my reading and praying, and the Offices, I began to discern a common theme, which was about God being present, and near. (In fact the Rule of St Benedict has a lot to say about God being present everywhere and anywhere.)

You know how it feels if you’re in the same room as someone you really love and admire but you maybe don’t know very well – perhaps a celebrity or popstar or some other kind of hero – and they look at you, and your heart jumps? It was a bit like that. I got the sense that God was there, and that God looked at me. Not with reproach or blame or anything scary like that – it would be possible I suppose to feel terrified by the thought that God was looking at you. No, this look was with interest, and love.

While I was away, Alison posted a picture of her visit to youngest grandson Jerm. It somehow became a lovely kind of icon for me, that described my week at Mucknell. In this icon, God is represented by Alison, and me by Jerm. We’re involved together, we’re looking at each other, we’re playing together, we’re having fun.

That’s kind of how the spiritual life should be. Hang it all, that’s how life should be, and how St Benedict sets out to regulate it so it can be. Living with God, being with God, sharing God’s deep joy in all things. I’m really hoping to bring that sense home with me and hold on to it as the special revelation that God did indeed give during my retreat.

Lewis: Wild Justice

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, we’ve been enjoying our way through the nine series of Lewis. And – dare I say it, for it sounds very much like heresy – I enjoy it more than I do Inspector Morse. I mean, I love John Thaw as Morse: I love his love of music and his disapproval of freemasons, I can smile at his curmudgeonabliness, (I’ve been known to get a bit grumpy myself, just occasionally), I can tolerate his constantly falling in love with unsuitable women, many of whom have a habit of ending up dead. What I found increasingly annoying was the running gag of his stinginess, never paying for a drink and expecting Lewis to pay every time. Robbie Lewis is altogether a much more likeable character, and I especially like the developing dynamics of his relationship with Hathaway, which so often reminds me of me and my brilliant curate.

Last night’s episode was Series 5 Episode 2, Wild Justice. I think this may be my favourite episode ever. It has just about everything, recycling many of the well-worn themes and conceits of all these dramas ‘inspired by the works of Colin Dexter’. Set in St Gerard’s, a mad religious institution in Oxford, where the crazed ‘not monks, they’re friars’ are all ferociously reactionary and resistant to, especially, the idea of women priests. The sinister Italian Father Mancini reads from Dante’s Inferno (in Italian) to the dying nasty English millionairess. The first victim is a black American woman bishop, so suspicion naturally falls on the mad misogynistic friars. There’s the woman academic, a specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies, which provide the manner of death for all the four murders that reveal Oxford, yet again, to be the Murder Capital of the World. (“Four murders in five days, Robbie!” exclaims Chief Superintendent Innocent. She should surely be used to it by now?) There’s the bitterly contested college election for the post of Vice Regent, where the (male) forces of reaction are pitted against the (progressive) women candidates. There’s the former violent criminal transformed by the love of a good woman into a gifted best-selling writer. There’s the woman who, aged 10, committed a gruesome murder, now grown up and given a new identity, and astonishingly transformed into a gifted academic. There’s the posh wedding reception held in the stunning new atrium of the Ashmolean Museum. There’s a kind of reference to two paintings by Fra Angelico that were discovered in Oxford shortly before the episode was filmed. And perhaps best of all (because I don’t remember this happening anywhere else in the whole oeuvre)


it was the butler who did it! in revenge for the long-ago murder of his grandparents, by the now-rehabilitated child murderer.

Really, how could you not love all this? We may not yet have had The Kiss (that comes a bit later in the series); but I’m sure you can see why I love this one so much.