Questioning my value I recently placed an estimate on myself of between 89p and £2.50. This was based on the price labels left on the reverse of Christmas, Easter and birthday cards. Childhood memories of purchasing cards bring to mind the shopkeeper’s ritual of producing a rubber to remove the pencilled price from their reverse, and then gently blowing away any surplus grains of the erasure. Subsequently with cards sold in a plastic wrap the price was removed with the outer layer. Then we moved to codes … perhaps best not to go there, because whilst the deciphering was left to a machine it was a human being who demanded, at times, an extortionate amount for what was fundamentally a folded piece of paper with a little bit of glitter applied to it. Highway robbery was an expression frequently used at home, although unlike today there were no facial coverings on those asking us to stand and deliver! Still delighting in the use of pen and paper to communicate, I shall no doubt continue to pay whatever price in order to purchase these items of stationary.
Valuing ourselves through the use of a particular unit of measurement has clearly had an impact upon the language of worth. Any mention of St. Thomas the Apostle will be followed by the question, Do you mean Doubting Thomas ? And if we use the word priceless about someone it is usually in response to a gaff in speech or a series of actions which led to unforeseen and unintended consequences. These responses imply an almost innate reductionist or devaluing attitude. Thomas the Twin is not a saint due to his incredulity, but because of the faith he professed and ultimately died for. Likewise whilst priceless can correctly be used to describe something very amusing or incredibly absurd, in its truest sense it conveys an understanding that someone or something is so precious that their or its value cannot be determined. The people, experiences, and things that are truly priceless to ourselves come in a variety of wrappings, not all of them glitter covered or as bright and garish as may be expected, and most definitely no price tag will be visible; removed long ago!
Whilst still at junior seminary, I was asked by a couple of friends if I would like to accompany them on a short break to Buckfast Abbey in Devon. It was somewhere that my parents had visited in the 1950’s but was unknown to me. Getting there involved an all-day coach journey depositing us on the English Riviera from which we had get a taxi (a novelty for me!) to the Abbey. We were greeted by the monastic Doorkeeper, Brother Baptist, who on opening the door cast a keen and shrewd eye over the new arrivals. In the absence of the regular monk-Guestmaster the responsibility for our care was placed in the hands of numerous members of the very hospitable Benedictine community who all seemed to view us as potential postulants. Whilst, of the three of us, I initially appeared to be the most responsive to the routine and discipline of our monastic experience, St. Benedict did eventually claim one us, although, clearly not yours truly.
The timing of our visit, which for myself was to be a repeated experience over a good number of years, provided a priceless postcard of insight into another world. At daily gatherings in the Monk’s Common-room after lunch in the Refectory (where the meal was eaten in silence, broken by a single voice reading from a book chosen by the Abbot) there was a human time-line of the Abbey’s history. Men with German and French accents representing the early days of the modern community; others who had physically laid stone upon stone in the building of the Abbey church; craftsmen whose unique enhancing gifts provided an awe-inspiring environment for generations of visiting pilgrims and tourists alike; teachers, monks who worked on the land, others who ran parishes, those who were the backbone of maintaining community life such as cooks, cleaners, launderers, as well as an Infirmarian, not to mention those working in the gift shop and on the distilling process of the world-renowned Tonic Wine, as well as an Abbot and his predecessor. Their outward wrapping was uniform, the black of the Benedictine habit worn when together, an outward sign of equality before God and representative of no worldly ambition. On dispersal academic gowns were donned as well as over-alls, jeans and kitchen whites. The brethren rejoining their own worlds.
A notable absentee from these daily happenings was a monk then in his mid-80s, who had arrived at the Abbey from his native Germany with indifferent health at the age of 11 in 1910 – Brother Adam Kehrle. He joined the community as a Lay-Brother, dedicated to serve the Lord through manual work, to differentiate his vocation from that of a Choir-monk, whose voice would sing God’s praise in Liturgical celebration, and the Priest-monks who proclaimed the Word and celebrated the Sacraments. Whilst the Vatican Council of the 1960’s saw the Lay and Choir monks absorbed into a single entity, communities continued to respectfully accept old ways being adhered to by those who had lived that way for decades. I first came across Brother Adam during a very, very early morning walk around the still, quiet monastic grounds, which was one of the privileges we enjoyed as guest of the Community. He was waiting for a lift to take him on to the wilds of Dartmoor to the Abbey’s world-renowned bee breeding station. A cheery wave and a quick hello, on his part still with an accent, was our introduction: I’d had an audience with a legend. With nothing to distinguish him from many others of venerable years, except perhaps the fact that he was up as dawn broke, and clearly about to head off for a full day’s work, I was in the presence of a man whose knowledge and devotion to one species of life on our planet took him beyond any monetary value. At the age of 21 he was placed in charge of the Abbey’s apiary, before which he had cultured the first Buckfast strain of bee which was resistant to a parasite that had devastated the country’s native bee colonies during the Great War. As soon as he was allowed, his world-wide travels began, and included, aged 90, being carried up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain (at 19,340 feet) strapped to the back of a fellow apiarist on a bamboo chair, in search of native strains of bees! Recognising the importance of the bee, his life-work was to ensure that it survived numerous fatal diseases, literally pouring years of his own life into encouraging selective crossings between strains, producing new stronger varieties including the so-called Buckfast Superbee, which reputedly was the healthiest and most prolific honey producer ever bred. Bees produced at Buckfast found new homes around the world, and in 1991 helped salvage honey production in the USA which had been brought to a near halt in some States by disease. Whilst he travelled widely, those seeking his incredible knowledge and wisdom also knocked on the door of his world in Buckfast. They came from across the world and met the man as he was. Without exception they were called upon to live as he lived; long days and hard graft! Accompanying him to the unforgiving moors, it was always a hands-on experience of learning, often rather rough and devoid of the finesse of laboratory or university life.
So highly valued were some of his bees that at different times theft was a significant risk, leading him to decamp to the moors to live alongside them. When two queens were stolen from the apiaries at the Abbey, the local constabulary circulated a description from the great man should any officers come across them: “three-quarters of an inch in length, with dark brown and dark gray stripes.” Despite his globe-trotting life and long absences from the communal element of the Abbey, Brother Adam never lost sight of the fact that his work with bees was vocational, it was his way of serving the God to whom he had committed his life as little more than a boy, and when, in 1992, his Abbot asked him to step away from the research element of his work, to concentrate more on honey production, he obediently bowed to the will of his superior. Somewhat grounded at Buckfast due to the onset of age, his wisdom and counsel continued to be much sought after. A fact that never ceased to bring him delight being able to contribute to others committed to working alongside the humble bee. His return to God at the age of 98 in 1996, removed a truly priceless individual.
Whilst the Abbey Church at Buckfast has an almost medieval feel to it, despite being completed in 1938, it also has a striking contemporary Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where visitors to the Abbey are invited to spend time in silent, contemplative prayer. Its dominant feature is a huge east window (measuring some 8 meters across) depicting Christ at table with offerings of bread and wine. Between the two glass depictions of the gifts stands the chapel’s Tabernacle, to the fore of which is the altar used for Holy Mass. It is captivating by its size alone, and as a priest who has celebrated Mass in front of it there is something quite surreal in being almost absorbed into an image of what you are celebrating. The window was crafted from a technique known as dalles-de-verre (from the French glass-slab) in which tiles of coloured glass are chipped into shape and set, mosaic fashion, into a concrete or resin matrix. The designer and master craftsman of this project which took some three years to complete was Fr. Charles Norris, a member of the Buckfast community, who arrived at the Abbey having trained at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1920s.
His admittance to the Benedictine family coincided with the building of the Abbey church, and its growing need for embellishment. With an abundant skill-base he worked in glass, marble, ceramics and when war was declared was found on his back atop of scaffolding, painting the ceiling of the Lantern Tower in egg-tempera and gold-leaf detail! In traditional and long established format he produced windows, pavements and floors, but hungering and thirsting for fresh and new techniques his imagination led him, disciple-like to sit at the feet of Pierre Fourmaintraux, the man acknowledged to have brought the skill of dalle-de-verre to England. In turn Fr. Charles became one of the most prolific proponents of the style in the country with associate workshops at both Prinknash Abbey and Aylesford Priory. Into his 90s he was still working, and his guidance constantly sought by those inspired by his creations in colourful glass. In the midst of the worshipping community of the Abbey it was less his artistic skill for which he was noted, but his presence on a stool in the Choir, singing as a Cantor with three of his confreres in Religious Life. In this he was true to his first calling to follow God’s plan for his life. With fine voice and through artistic skill he returned thanks, responding to the question of the psalmist; “How can I repay the Lord for His goodness to me ?” (Psalm 115)
To myself as a teenager this erudite octogenarian, over a coffee in the Common-room, was an utter joy to engage with in conversation. Despite his undoubted encyclopaedic knowledgebase he still had room for more, quizzing me about the education I was receiving, and when mention was made of the Abbeys at Kirkstall and Fountains, he gave me a very full history lesson on the nineteenth century origins of Buckfast whose architect had used these Yorkshire foundations as a blueprint on which to build. Priceless!
St. Paul described us as “God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10) and as such we really are beyond price. So, on those days when you wonder where on the scale you are between 89p and £2.50, recall experiences unique to yourself, relationships that you’ve enjoyed, and the abundance of gifts and talents that are yours alone, which if used well and spent liberally in the marketplace of life, will have enhanced and benefitted untold numbers, both the named and anonymous. In a world of scientific research or art Brother Adam and Fr. Charles Norris would undoubtedly have found themselves with a valuation measured on someone’s rich list, based solely on accumulated monetary wealth. Instead, they gave their lives in answer to a call God made upon them, first and foremost to serve Him, and to use the talents and gifts He had entrusted them with for the benefit of those who shared their life journey. Each man priceless, and not forgotten by myself, whose life through presence and conversation they enhanced and enriched albeit for a relative short time.
Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection, together with those on your life journey who are truly beyond value … priceless.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas