A Norbertine in Devon

Brother Gregory has been to the Benedictine Abbey of Buckfast in Devon a few times this summer. The first time, he was leading a retreat for a parish that had kindly booked him for that purpose, and the second time was to visit the School of the Annunciation: centre for the new evangelisation (schooloftheannunciation.com). The School offers a variety of diplomas and courses focusing on the new evangelisation and catechesis, and he can warmly recommend it to you, both priest and lay.

For his talks earlier in the summer, he spoke to the retreatants about his second-favourite subject: Late Second Temple Judaism and Temple Typology in the Old Testament. Thrilling stuff. Interestingly, the subject matter suited the setting perfectly.

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The Church itself was completed in the 1930s, during the tenure of Abbot Ansgar Vonier, who was an important theological and spiritual writer in that period. Consequently, the church building itself radiates biblical symbolism. It has a very masculine and Saxon feel to it, helped by the substantial columns, small windows, and polished black marble. Still, the side chapels (of which there are six) are beautifully decorated, intricate, and elegant. In the north transept (on the left-hand side of cruciform church) is the Lady chapel; on the opposite side is the Holy Cross chapel, now also containing the hair shirt of St Thomas More on permanent display for veneration.

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At the high Altar is a golden reredos depicting Pentecost; Christ presides over the sacred banquet in heavenly splendour, and underneath him are the Apostles and Our Lady, nourished by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This scene on the reredos is ‘actualised’ at the altar itself directly underneath this image: the priest, monks and (in the distance) the laity participate in this sacred banquet as Our Lady and the Apostles do now in heaven; we cannot see the gifts of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire, but the candles of the altar symbolically represent them (thus, when the bishop celebrates solemnly, he has seven flames burning at the altar). On the marble and gold altar itself is an image of the Lamb, Living though Slain, which, during the Mass, is actually present on the altar itself. The altar itself is placed in front of a column between two arches, symbolising the old and new testaments, and the two natures of Christ. These arches are ‘filled in’ with a red curtain that is reminiscent of the red veil inside of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Both the altar, the Lamb and ourselves are on ‘this’ side of the veil, unlike the old Temple, wherein God dwelt on the ‘other’ side, because Christ has rent that veil in two; heaven is now ‘open’ thanks to the Paschal Mystery.

And on the ceiling of the Tower, above the altar, is a beautiful image of Christ, surrounded by Our Lady, St John the Baptist, the old testament prophets and the doctors of the Church. Around Christ are written the words of the prophet Haggai: “Great shall be the glory of this last house more than of the first, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place, I will give peace.”

The religious life on earth is a figure of the life of heaven; the same is true for the earthly liturgy, whereby we participate in the heavenly liturgy, seeing God face-to-face. The purpose of our lives here on earth is to allow God to fit us, to prepare us for his heavenly banquet. At the very top of the east wall of the Church, high above the altar, is an image of the coronation of Our Lady: the fulfilment of our promise of future glory.

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Abbot Anscar

Beside the High Altar is the burial place of Abbot Anscar, and above his tomb is a beautiful bronze memorial, depicting his life, his work and the building of the monastery (the monks largely built the monastery themselves). The last scene in the life-story of this monk shows the Abbot in his cowl, standing outside the completed church, being touched on the shoulder by death, and giving up the ghost. He died shortly after the completion of the church in 1938.

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The memorial of Abbot Anscar

But these little scenes on this memorial are dwarfed by the main figures. In the bottom-right corner is Abbot Anscar, wearing a chasuble, on his knees, his hands open towards heaven; he is looking to the top-left, where there is a beautiful image of Christ crowned, with his own hands open as a sign of welcome to this saintly priest. The abbot spent his life completely for Christ, saved from a shipwreck, becoming father of his community, building the church, and, of course, in his study and writing. All of it was but a preparation for the life of glory that I hope he now enjoys in the perfect monastery of heaven, as, indeed, I hope we all enjoy one day:

“And in this place, I will give peace.”

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There is, of course, little actual connexion between Buckfast and the Premonstrant Order, although there was one historically. Originally, the Abbey was Cistercian, with whom our Order has a historical and charitable bond. Nearby (unusually, since Cistercian and Norbertine Abbeys tended to keep a fair distance to avoid competition) was the old Norbertine Abbey of Torre. The local town took the name of that Abbey, becoming Torquay(the whole area today is called Torbay); the Abbot, however, had a bolt hole down the road, and around him developed a new town. Today, that settlement is called Newton Abbot. No doubt, in days of yore, the roads around Buckfast saw white habits blowing about in the wind, as today it sees black ones.

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