[This story originally appeared here in 2007, courtesy of “Rooster Cogburn.” According to our online statistics, it is one of the most sought-after items we have published here in our ten-plus years. It is presented here every two or three years, and so is presented here now, especially for readers new to this venue. -- DLA]
A beautiful Christmas story:
taken from the Downside Review, January 1990,
by Mary Hazel Hastings
(Mrs Hastings was born near Battleford in Canada in 1897. Her mother, Mabel Hutchison, had emigrated to Canada a few years earlier. She became a Catholic, and married Charles Daunais, a French Canadian farmer in Saskatchewan. After his death she returned to England with her little daughter, and a few years later asked to be received into the Benedictine community of Stanbrook [transcriber's note: the prototype for Rumer Godden's Brede Abbey]. At that time there was a tiny school within the enclosure and it was agreed that her daughter should also live at Stanbrook as a schoolgirl. She entered the school in the summer of 1904 at the age of six. Her mother joined the community a few months later, receiving the name of Paula. Dame Paula Daunais died in 1961 in her 57th year in the Benedictine habit. Mrs Hastings here recalls her first Christmas at Stanbrook in 1904.)
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The tower of Stanbrook Abbey houses a peal of eight bells that are rung from a gallery immediately above Lady Abbess's throne called the Tribune. When my first Christmas at school came round it was decided, as I was only seven, that it would be enough for me to sit through Midnight Mass itself in the church, where my short legs swung uncomfortably from the school bench. But to leave me all alone down in the dormitory while everyone else went to Matins would be unthinkable, so I found myself preparing to do the exciting climb up to the Tribune, where I was to sit in warmth and comfort while the nuns sang the grand and very lengthy Christmas Matins.
Sister Martina lit her 'bougie' from a gas jet in the cloister and guided me through the narrow door and up the twisting stone stairs: her other arm was occupied with a stone hot water bottle, a pillow and a couple of blankets. 'Now be careful, Miss Hazel, keep close to the wall and do not stumble.' They were deep steps and the light from the 'bougie' was dim and flickering, but we reached the narrow landing safely and Sister Martina opened the Tribune door. The bell-ringer was there already and was preparing to ring the first toll. I climbed onto a kneeling-chair and stood on tip-toe looking over the top of the stone balustrade. In the church below all the gas lamps were burning and the flames of the candles in the brass candlesticks above the consecration crosses danced as one by one they were lit by one of the sacristans. Round the crosses there were wreaths of yew and ivy with bright clusters of holly berries and, far away, beyond the great wrought-iron grille the Sanctuary was a mass of flowers and lights. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Suddenly the bells began to ring and I nearly fell off the chair. I had never before been so close to them. When the great bell at the bottom of the scale boomed the whole tribune seemed to shake.
Sister Martina had been preparing my chair and now it was ready for me, a pillow behind me and another chair for my feet. I was tucked in like a caterpillar in its cocoon with the hot water bottle at my feet, but if I turned my head I could watch the bell-ringer as the changes were played on the eight bells. The ropes danced in and out of their places on the wooden frame, clicking like castanets. When Sister Martina opened the tribune door to go down and join the procession the noise was so great that I had to put my fingers in my ears. As she went out an old sister came in and knelt behind me. I was glad that I was not going to be all alone up there. The second toll was low and slow, just the thud of the great bell again and again making the tribune and my chair and me tremble with each boom. Then came the third toll and the bells went up this time from the big booming bell to the small high one--not quickly and gaily like the first toll but slowly and solemnly--and then suddenly the organ began and the bells stopped and as I leant forward I could see, through the holes in the balustrade, the procession coming into the church. First came two nuns and then two of the girls in the school--one carrying Lady Abbess's silver crozier and the other the big book of the Office. Behind them, slowly and with great dignity walked Lady Abbess. They all turned to the altar and genuflected together and then they turned again and I watched them as they walked down the church, till they disappeared under the tribune. The nuns followed, two by two, genuflected to the altar, then up the church and bowed to Lady Abbess before turning apart and going to their stalls, one on each side--and last of all came my mother, now a novice, in her new white veil.
When we went into church I always went in right at the end of the procession, when all the nuns were already in their places, and it looked very different from my tribune chair. When the nuns and the girls and the lay sisters were all assembled, standing facing the altar, Lady Abbess knocked with a little silver ivory knocker and everyone knelt for a moment, she knocked again and Matins began. The sound too was quite different from what it was when I sat in the school bench. It floated up all around me. I sat back and enjoyed it, very warm and cosy in my blankets, with my feet on the stone bottle (that had once been full of ginger beer) and presently my eyes closed. I woke up to see Sister Martina bending down with her finger on her lips. She unfolded the blankets, picked up the water bottle and I followed her on tip-toe through the narrow door and down the steep twisting steps with her 'bougie' twinkling in the darkness ahead. When we got down and out into the cloister she spread a blanket on a stone window-seat and made me sit there. She unpinned my crushed veil and put on a clean one and then, even more quietly on tip-toe, we went together by the side way to the church door. It meant going very close to Lady Abbess's throne. Only a curtain was between her and us, and it felt like a very exciting game of hide-and-seek. I must not let her hear me or see me. I held my breath, and tightly clutching Sister Martina's hand I got 'home' without being caught, right to the bottom of the church inside the great doors, and she slipped me quietly into my place. One of the school benches was in front of the organ and I always sat up at the top end--next to Clare Kenyon who was the biggest girl in the school. She had to lift me up on to the bench. When she got me there she was allowed to leave me perched in the corner of the high-backed bench, while everyone else stood up and bowed down and then sat down again, as they did over and over and over again. On Sundays, when there was a sermon, I slipped out of the bench and round to the back of where the organ blower sat. There were two steps that led up to the back row and she kept a fascinating box of cards for me to look at--old coloured prints of Biblical stories--Judith holding Holofernes's head by the hair; beautiful Ruth with an armful of corn and handsome Booz smiling benignly at her; David creeping into Saul's tent and dozens of others that I can still remember, so that at that period sermons were things to look forward to and enjoy. But at Midnight Mass there was no sermon, just lots of singing and clouds of incense that made me sleepy. It went on for a long time but at last it was over; even Lauds was over and the organ played as we went out at the end of the procession.
Down we went throught the cold 'tin tunnel' and the two long cloisters, through the dark, ghostly chapter-room and into the school. Sister Winifred was there already, preparing a great jug of hot cocoa. Mother Christina had come down with us and together we went into the 'second classroom' and put the Infant Jesus onto his bed of hay. We then sang a carol: 'Dear Little One, how sweet Thou art, Thine eyes how bright they shine'. It was always that one after Midnight Mass. I thought our Infant Jesus the most beautiful one imaginable but his eyes did not shine; they looked as if he had just been crying and I wondered why. After the carol, cocoa and bed. We were up for Mass at dawn, 7 o'clock, and then there was still the solemn Mass at 9 with Terce and Sext. After our Christmas dinner we went up to the dormitory and lay on our beds but I think we never slept. We listened to the nuns who trooped down to look at our Christmas presents spread out on the long table in the second classroom.
The bells had rung out magnificently into the Christmas night, and for Mass and Vespers next day, rung by the best bell-ringers in the monastery, probably the blind Dame Gabriel and Dame Febronia; but two days later, at ten minutes to three, there was a strange and fumbling peal of six to ring in the Feast of Holy Innocents. The School had taken over. I doubt if any Stanbrook girl ever allowed her parents to drag her home for Christmas. It would have meant missing Holy Innocents and no Christmas trees and dinners and parties could come up to that. For one full day we were treated as a Community visiting the monastery. Our elected Abbess, wearing her Pectoral Cross, sat in church on the right of the Stanbrook Abbess; they came into choir together. The Holy Innocent Abbess gave the knock with Lady Abbess's ivory hammer to end the silent prayer. She took the Office, intoning the first Antiphon, singing the prayer of the day and the Venite Exultemus at Matins. At my first Feast of Holy Innocents I was a novice: Phyllis, my companion-novice and I, being much too small to manage a stall, sat on the steps of Lady Abbess's throne. Every girl had a favourite nun and long before the feast you srewed up courage to ask your nun to lend you one of her veils and her second habit, if she was at all your size: you arranged if possible to sit next to her in choir and you got her to come and dress you before the First Vespers. Names had been chosen long before, and every friend and old girl and relative was bullied into writing to us, addressing us by our religious names. I went through a considerable litany during the nine years that I was a Holy Innocent. Inevitably it was Eustochium (my mother's religious name being Paula) for one year or possibly two; then there was the martyr period when I had read "Fabiola" and was Dame Sebastiana and the following year Pancratia. It was in 1910, I think, that having been to Buckfast Abbey during the holidays I was Dame Anscara after its Abbot, Dame Anscar Vonier. We had our allotted offices--portress and printer, cellarer and dispenser and infirmarian and bell-ringer, and we went off with our Stanbrook counterpart to 'help' her with her work. Dame Rosalie was a great favourite and there was always competition for the privilege of assisting her in the messy job of making 'bougies'--string coated with wax that the nuns kept coiled up in their pockets and used for lighting candles and lamps. What made it all so enjoyable was that we were taken seriously--as though we were truly a visiting community. There were always too extra priests for the Christmas week and the Innocents chose one to be their Chaplain. He gave his community a Conference in the large parlour, and the year that I was Abbess my chaplain decided that as the Abbess gave her nuns penances during their 'Chapter' he would give me one, and I was told to put the Vespers hymn of the feast into English verse. The literary gem that was produced has not survived. What has instead are these happy memories of my childhood in a Stanbrook of long ago.