Mother Paula Fairlie, a retired Benedictine abbess in northern England, has always been drawn to the time of year which leads from autumn into Advent. “The leaves have fallen in splendour, the harvest gathered in, and we expect life to slow down into a contemplative season of pale sunshine and mist—yet it is not so,” she once wrote. “Each tree has buds, beautifully formed, strongly protected. This is the season when new life begins, veiled in mystery.”
But, Mother Paula noted, this is also when preparations for Christmas gather momentum, often overwhelming our desire to be still and aware. Social obligations can become “restless waves beating against the rock on which the Lighthouse stands.” In truth, though, we have received a spiritual gift, an awareness of something much more profound than the material world or physical life. In spite of—or because of—secular culture, there is an ever-widening quest for the spiritual in society, flowing around the established churches and seeing them as part of the problem. “It is in this situation that monasteries of monks and nuns, of whatever faith, may be lighthouses, keeping the flame burning through prayer and silence,” she pointed out. “Their enclosures may be experienced as havens of peace to visitors and guests, while the monks and nuns feels the battering of the waves! While the world around us seems ‘smaller’ through rapid communication and travel, our interior world may reveal itself as larger and more mysterious. Perhaps we can enter Advent with a desire to see the mysteries of God, and how they have permeated our being.”
I first met Mother Paula in March 2007 during a flying visit to her small Benedictine abbey in the leafy suburbs of northern England to record her thoughts for a BBC Radio 4 feature about charities. I still remember ringing the bell, being welcomed inside and taken to a small room to await the arrival of the black-habited abbess who turned out to be not in the least formidable but utterly disarming and immensely perceptive.
A year or so later, I found an excuse to interview her again and, gradually, we got to know each other. We stayed in touch through emails and letters, exchanging cards during Advent. I visited when I could, becoming friends with the sisters, praying with them, then giving a Lent talk and on one occasion leading their annual retreat in the autumn. Waiting to meet the abbess one day, I noticed cards created from the intricate and vivid mandalas she had designed and was soon being urged to take some home.
It soon became evident that we both shared a love of animals, especially cats, and if I were in mourning for a pet, she would always provide the right words of consolation and empathy. We were particularly sensitive about the origin of the food on our plates, and Mother Paula explained how we could pray back into the past for the animal which had died for us.
Her monthly jottings and annual letters to friends have enriched those of us who live outside the monastery and allowed us to maintain a special connection with it. In fact, she came to call me “Brother Michael,” treating me as a confrater of the community and a member of its extended spiritual family. “We are all part of each other’s heritage, little patches of earth among which some of the seeds of our lives have been sown. Perhaps the silence of the years, the faithfulness of thanksgiving for kindness and love, are really all that matter. Life changes but goodness and kindness endure.”
I remember turning up at the monastery one dank December day and feeling my spirits being lifted when, during the midday office, I heard Mother Paula singing the antiphon “May dew descend from heaven.” She explained to me afterwards that we are dependent both for our earthly and spiritual lives “on water and the grace of God and the life that it represents.” As the sisters were singing the antiphon, they had been asking for more abundant life, “sometimes upon the parched earth and sometimes upon a parched soul.” It was a longing which could be experienced every day of our lives, she said.
After lunch, which included the abbess’s own creamy rice pudding, Mother Paula took me on a tour of the grounds. Benedictines are taught to see creation as the good gift entrusted to humanity to cherish and sustain. The world is sacramental, touched by God, and capable of revealing him. That afternoon the earth was still frozen hard—one of those cold, misty days, with occasional piercings of sunlight that scintillated a spider’s web as an exquisite work of art. Some people dread winter in the northern hemisphere because of its limited natural light, said Mother Paula, but if there were less artificial illumination we could “once again be enfolded in the darkness,” and see the sky and the stars more clearly. Then we could identify even more closely with people who were longing for the dawn of day and the breaking of the light. This would help us rejoice in the light instead of taking it for granted.
“Many people are frightened of the dark and they panic, in the same way as many people are frightened of silence because they don’t want to find out what is inside themselves and they will do anything to block it out. But anyone who has been able to enter into a certain silence and into a certain darkness (after the particular demons that we all seem to have in our minds have been driven out, mostly through prayer), they then discover that darkness is creative.”
After all, she noted, a baby in the womb comes into being through darkness and it is in darkness that seeds in the soil transform into new life. “That is why Advent the most creative time of year. The darkness is not a shell because that is hard; but it is an enfolding darkness, a warm, creative darkness, the cover for our own being to become truly itself and then gradually burst out through this and grow. It is a form of allowing our being to increase in capacity. It has then to break through, root and thrust forth like a seedling and come into the light. Advent is a wonderful season. But I think too many people are afraid of it.”
Mother Paula hails from Germany and spent four years in Florence during her younger days but she speaks perfect English. Pointing out various plants, she spoke of creation itself as being a complete cycle: it begins in the evening, followed by night and then day. “In a way we are born so we can enter into darkness in order for it to become a new resurrection or, as we say in German, a neue aufstehen. Every time the sun rises, you have this new birth which we participate in as the day dawns. One can hear again birds singing—life and hope and joy. The whole Christian year, as it has been inserted into the natural year, is in fact making use of all the opportunities the seasons provide us with, so we can grow in the knowledge and love of God. We are also given a sense that we ourselves are constantly being allowed to grow, to change, to die, to go into a right space and to go into a wider space.
“I was pondering on the Parable of the Sower recently. There is nothing wrong with the sower, who is doing his work correctly, and there is nothing wrong with the seed, but there is quite a lot wrong with the field which is a hard path, a rocky path, and there are also the fertile areas. It came to me that, if we are the field, we cannot till ourselves and break ourselves up, so how do we do this? It has to be by what happens to us in our life. There will be certain times when we are broken open by sorrow, grief, despair and all the other human emotions which can tear us apart. If we allow tears and compassion to enter us as well, there is some soil and we know that we need something. We can then allow a seed to enter our being, a seed of hope. If we do not experience the pains of life, we are likely to remain rather hard and very unreal. Furthermore, we are not going to be people who are happy in ourselves because we are hard, and we are not going to be really very much use to anybody else because we haven’t been broken open sufficiently to allow our humanity to come forth.
We are always aware of everything being renewed from a time of chaos and pain and suffering in the world, and yet if one looks at the soil and the soil of one’s own being there’s always new life there coming out of chaos. Chaos seems so important together with darkness.”
Benedictines look forward in Advent to the birth of Christ and a New Creation which also becomes everyone’s own new creation in the heart of God, she said. Penitential practices in Advent or Lent have no value at all if we are not looking forward in hope for something better, for a greater fullness of life. Waiting is a state of being which requires the casting away of any impatience or desire for instant gratification so we can live in the present moment.
“Without the waiting, the fasting, and the doing without, we can’t really appreciate the gift that is given. Even in the monastic life, there are times when we get too much. So often we say thank you and wonder what on earth we can do with these things that we don’t need and don’t want. How can we pass them on to others who could need them? So we have entered in our own community into a cycle of recycling. Yes, we have appreciated the gift but we pass on, giving it to the poor or missions so that this gift spreads out further and not just to us who do not need it.”
Directing people back to these truths has to come through our humanity and not any specifically religious coating, said Mother Paula. Sometimes the best evangelization takes place when a sister in her habit is in the waiting room of a hospital. People often begin talking because they are nervous and frightened. “I think we just enjoy the humanity of other people. It’s not a question of what their religion is or isn’t but that they are human beings. So often these people, who apparently have no religion, are very much concerned for others. This is most heartening. Although secular society may not be very aware of God and may even be contemptuous about God, they are, in fact, aware that they are called to do good for other people. The real questions are: How are we treating each other? How are we treating creation?”
By now, we had reached a patch of the garden where the four seasons seemed to come together. Carpets of violets had spread across one corner. Some seeds put down for birds and squirrels had planted and would grow. Nasturtiums from the summer were still in flower, while close by were the wet autumn leaves from the beech trees and horse chestnuts. The leaves symbolised both the end of a year and new growth. Nature needed a rest period. “I used to think that, when I was distracted, my thoughts were like leaves tumbling down from the trees,” the abbess recalled. “Then I remembered that they decay and renew the soil, so that everything, even thoughts I don’t like, can in fact be an enrichment to my own being. From there, new things can grow so the earth, soil and just natural beauty are tremendously important for understanding our spiritual lives. For those of us who are still able to walk in the garden and in the enclosure, it’s a bit like being in Eden and seeing everything with fresh eyes.”
*Update*—Less than two weeks after the publication of this piece, we learned that Mother Paula went to the Lord at around 9:00 a.m. on Christmas Day, December 25, 2021, entering into eternal life on the feast day that celebrates a time of new birth. Two sisters were with her, and everything possible was done to ensure her comfort. Her words and witness as recounted by Michael Ford above have made a deep impression on all of us. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.