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Nashdom Chapel

Do this

Nashdom Chapel

From his 1945 book, The Shape of the Liturgy, by the English Anglican Benedictine monk, Dom Gregory Dix is writing about the action Christ had told his friends to do henceforth with the new meaning “for the anamnesis (remembering) of him”; (usually people quote the first paragraph here – it is, however, worth reading the next two with it):

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

Dom Gregory Dix
Dom Gregory Dix
To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well–remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves—and sins and temptations and prayers—once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the Eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew—just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill–spelled ill–carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor:—‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday Eucharist in her village church every week for a life–time mean to the blessed Chione—and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought. (All that going with one to the altar every morning!)

It is because it became embedded deep down in the life of the Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and the rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be born; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever–changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In this twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara ‘did this’ with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.

Images: Chapel 1966 of the Anglican Monastery of Our Lady and St Benedict at Nashdom Abbey Burnham, Bucks; and Dom Gregory Dix. Source.

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11 thoughts on “Do this”

      1. Simply that the scholarship in the book has never won wide acceptance (and as we would expect with any book of that age, a great deal of it has since been shown to be wrong), but the theories presented (especially the “fourfold shape” concept) were nevertheless disproportionately influential in liturgical projects of the second half of the twentieth century (the Canadian Book of Alternative Services is markedly “Dixian”).

        And then there’s the chapter on the BCP Eucharist, which puts forward an assessment of Cranmer’s Eucharistic theology that was also very influential and that was equally wide of the mark. If you ever hear someone arguing that Cranmer was a “Zwinglian”, that person probably got it from Dix. The charge was upsetting to many who read it (Dix himself said he was upset by his conclusions) and it gave a kind of theological cover for the virtual obliteration of the Anglican liturgical tradition that was coming.

        In other words, much of what was sold to us as a necessary liturgical renewal in the image of Christian antiquity — a position justified from the pages of Dix — had questionable support in the facts of liturgical history. And the results, it seems to me, are in any case far from what Dix himself was looking for (his remark about Augustine near the end refers, of course, to the Missale Romanum, which was used at Nashdom).

        It remains a beautiful book, and is still worth reading, not least from a “devotional” perspective (as passages like that quoted above so clearly reveal). But I cannot endorse all that has been done in its name.

        1. I thought that may have something to do with it, but you were so cryptic in your comment that I thought it was something more ominous!

  1. My knowledge of this is sketchy, but as far as I recall Nashdom was designed by Edwin Lutyens as a house for a Russian owner. It was later Nashdom Abbey. I visited the monks in their new home, Elmore Abbey, with its beautiful oratory. Sadly they are no longer there, with the remaining few monks living in Salisbury.

    Thanks for the longer passage, Bosco. I sometimes quoted it in educational material about the eucharist, and saints.

  2. Nashdom abbey, in its heyday, was a place of pilgrimage for Anglo-Catholics from all over the Anglican spectrum. The Benedictine monks were still saying the Offices in Latin for some time after Vatican II! The Monks had a seat on the Roman Catholic Benedictine Council.

    Sadly, the Benedictine Life for men has largely disappeared from the Church of England – except for a few small monastic communities that have managed to survive the rigours of modern life.

    However, Australia has an Anglican Benedictine Community at Camperdown, where a New Zealander, Brother James Andrew Howey, OSB, will be made a Deacon in the Church of God at the Abbey Church of Our Lady & Saint Benedict, on Saturday 1/9/12.
    Please pray for him.

  3. ‘the theories presented (especially the “fourfold shape” concept) were nevertheless disproportionately influential in liturgical projects of the second half of the twentieth century (the Canadian Book of Alternative Services is markedly “Dixian”).’
    ‘If you ever hear someone arguing that Cranmer was a “Zwinglian”, that person probably got it from Dix.’

    I’m confused. The most obvious result of the liturgical movement in the 2nd half of the 20th Century was the centrality of a set of quite catholic eucharistic rites. I don’t see how that fits with Dix saying that Cranmer was a Zwinglian.

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