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A Benedictine Abbey and a German rock group: it was a curious juxtaposition with which to mark the beginning of the season of Advent and one of its most powerful and universal images.

I was spending a much-needed quiet day at Minster Abbey, a community of enclosed Benedictine nuns not far from Canterbury. It is a most sacred place for me, and holds many precious memories.

My first visit was in 1988, as a brand new L’Arche assistant. Maggie, my House Leader, decided it was somewhere I needed to see and drove me and a couple of other over there on my very first weekend in Canterbury. She had first got to know Sr Benedict and Sr Aelred when, as Bernie and Barbara, they had been assistants with her at L’Arche Kent in the 70s, in the first years after the community was founded. Benedict and Aelred both tell of how they were inspired in their contemplative monastic vocation by their contact with John, a man with Down’s Syndrome who had no words but who, despite being full of mischief, had an almost Buddha-like quality of presence and contemplation.

That was the first of countless visits for me. I led retreats and quiet days there, took part in various meetings, enjoyed the odd glass of wine with the sisters, and had some fine musical sessions besides. It was also the starting place for the annual L’Arche Kent pilgrimage. And occasionally I came for a bit of personal retreat time. It was on one such occasion when I’d arrived, probably pretty exhausted, in the afternoon, and sat with a cup of tea in the lovely Bethany Room with its large windows and views of the beautiful garden. I’d sat for what must have been hours; simply sat there, revelling in the complete stillness, and gazing out of the windows as light gradually turned to dark.

I’d not been to Minster since leaving L’Arche and starting at the Irish chaplaincy and it was good to be back in that sacred place. It was in the Bethany Room that I had a catch up with Sr Benedict, then she gave me a book to read, and left me to it. The book was called ‘Make Time for yourself’, and was written by Abbot Notker Wolf, who had been leader of all the Benedictines congregations in the world. He also, I was surprised but delighted to read, played guitar in a German rock group called ‘Feedback’. He sounded like my kind of Abbot!

Each year as Advent comes round I recall a start of Advent service I once attended at York Minster which was conducted completely by candle-light. At this darkest time of the year, at least in the Northern hemisphere, the images of light and dark which we are given in the book of Isaiah are especially evocative. When I got home from this latest visit to Minster I saw an email asking if Yim Soon and I would sing the opening song at our zoom Mass on the Sunday, the first of Advent. We chose a song from the ‘St Louis Jesuits’ which, inspired by Isaiah Chapter 9 begins with the words ‘The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light’. I first heard the song in 1988. There was a Jesuit called Rick McGurn from Chicago who was spending two months at L’Arche. On some mornings at 7 a.m. he would celebrate Mass in his bedroom and a little group of us would gather there and, just as the dark was turning to light, we would sing that song by the St Louis Jesuits.

Later on in my Minster day, as the light was beginning to fade, I had returned to Abbot Notker’s book and discovered some colour pictures in the middle. Amongst photos of his visits to Benedictine communities in different countries there was a shot of him performing with his band in a live appearance for Austrian TV. In the background was a neon sing on which could just be made out the words ‘licht und dunkel’: light and dark. I don’t know what the context for that was in terms of the TV show but it was an interesting connection with a day in which I’d been preparing for Advent and reflecting on light and dark. It was completely dark when I went to join the sisters for silent prayer and Vespers, in a chapel which was lit just by candles. And then I made my leave.

Light and dark: we’re all a mixture of the two. Sometimes there is more light, sometimes more dark.  And one does not exist without the other. We have only to look out of the window each day and through the changing of the seasons to behold that simple truth.

And may each of us, whatever our circumstances, find this Advent some glimmers of light in the dark.

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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