A remarkable year, or on being mistaken for a cello case

By Sr Ann Catherine Swailes

(Sr Ann Catherine works at the University Chaplaincy in Cambridge, and since January has been acting chaplain.  This speech was given at the Fisher Dinner, an annual event for members and alumni of Fisher House.)

Fisher Dinner Reflection 2022

As Henry VIII used to say to his wives – I promise I won’t keep you long.  But it’s traditional for the chaplain to say a few words at this point in proceedings, and also traditional for the chaplain’s speech at the Fisher Dinner to constitute something of a review of the life of the chaplaincy since the last such occasion, and, as your soon to be Acting Chaplain Emerita, I’m delighted – if somewhat trepidatious – to be sharing in this venerable tradition at the conclusion of what has been, by any standards, a remarkable year in the life of our community.

In the nature of the case, many of my own most treasured memories cannot appropriately be shared: the encounters with those of you who have invited me onto the holy ground of your lives at moments of joy, sorrow and perplexity, and in so doing have entrusted me with gifts vastly greater than any help I can possibly have given you. I would though just like to mention one specific gift I treasured receiving recently: an email conversation which opened with the salutation : dear St Ann. The person responsible pretended that was a typo:  who  knows, but in any event it gave me great pleasure – and certainly beats being mistaken for a cello case. (This also happened  - see photo for why it might take place. Ed.)

But what of the memories that I can share?

When, back in early January I discovered that I was not, after all, required to deliver an undergraduate theology course I’d been expecting to teach during the Lent term– at an institution other than Cambridge, I hasten to add – resentment at time apparently wasted in preparation mingled with relief. 'At least' I thought, 'I’ll now be able to give my undivided attention to completing my thesis.' Well, it hasn’t worked out quite like that...

I’m aware, incidentally, that this could be misconstrued, given that the subject of my doctorate is the theology of suffering, but the thesis, which, thanks be to God is now moving gently towards its conclusion, could never have been written without my involvement with Fisher House, not just this year, but throughout the time I’ve been working on it, without the encouragement, support, curiosity and insights of this community.  In recognition of this, I intend to dedicate the thesis to Fisher House along with my own Dominican sisters.

The last few months have been remarkable to me, both for the ways in which we have done new things – which I’m confident means the way in which we have allowed the Lord to do new things in and for and with us – and for the way in which old things have continued, if sometimes in new ways.  Both seem to me to be evidence of the profound health of our community, and a cause therefore of profound gratitude, to God, of course, but also to each other.

In the first category– there is the extraordinary response our community showed to the war in Ukraine. I’m delighted to be able to report this evening that after some significant practical difficulties the goods donated by so many in our community some months ago will soon be on their way across Europe, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Fr Matthew; a group of undergraduates hope at some point to climb Mount Snowdon in order to raise funds for humanitarian relief in Ukraine;  and we will soon be offering a Greek Catholic Rite Ukrainian priest, the son of a Cambridge student who attended and spoke at our apologia evening devoted to the crisis, the opportunity to celebrate the liturgy regularly at Fisher House.

What then, of the continuation, or retrieval, of things that have always happened– or happened at any rate for long enough to constitute distinctive Fisher House traditions? There is so much that could be reflected on here; the very fact, for instance, that through the kindness of many visiting clergy, but above all through the immense generosity of the Dominican friars represented this evening by Fr Euan, and of Fr Matthew, there has not, I think, been a single day in term time when Mass has not been celebrated at least once either at Fisher House, or for Fisher House in a college chapel; there have been those college Masses, each of them truly radiant occasions of joy and hospitality; above all there was the Easter Triduum, culminating in the Vigil and First Mass of Easter at the eye-watering hour, of course, of 4 a.m.  I had been, to be completely candid, in two minds as to whether it would be feasible for us to celebrate the liturgy of Holy Week this year at Fisher House, but I have never been more grateful to have been persuaded to take a less pessimistic view of things. It was certainly the most demanding, but also the happiest Easter of my life, and there was at once a homeliness and an extravagant generosity about every aspect of it from the music to the wonderful paschal breakfast that was quite simply unforgettable.

Another way I could have organised this reflection would have to take you on a virtual tour of the chaplaincy and spoken in turn of the significance of each location within it. This idea occurred to me rather late in the day, but I did want to offer a couple of thoughts on one particular space within Fisher House and on some of what has happened there over the last few months. I’m thinking of the roof garden, and I say “some of what has happened there” advisedly; much of what is said and done under the watchful but discreet eye of Our Lady and the visiting pigeons is unknown to the acting chaplain – actually that’s true of the entire property - and I’m sure that’s exactly as it should be. But two particular events do stand out for me. One is the conclusion of the Evening with Mary that we held at the end of last month. Our singing as we moved from the Church to stand before the statue of Mary in her own garden was truly astonishing – marked by a wonderfully complete absence of coordination between those in the vanguard and those bringing up the rear. It’s easy enough to achieve that sort of effect in a longer procession – anyone can do it on the Holy Mile in Walsingham, for instance – but to do so in the space between the Fisher Room and the Mary Garden takes, I feel, real talent. We then proceeded to honour Our Lady with perhaps the smallest floral crown in the history of Marian devotion though to me at least one of the loveliest in my experience, and the entire evening was just full of that marvellous mix of chaos and reverence that seems to me to be quintessentially Catholic, and which was one of the things that first attracted me to the Church, doubtless because, whilst I do try to be reverent,  I’m certainly chaotic. I can’t help feeling our blessed Mother was happy about it too.

Then there was the remarkable interfaith conference organised by Paul Norris in collaboration with the university Islamic and Jewish societies and the Cambridge Student Christian Movement early in the Easter Term. Gathered on the terrace, with one eye on somewhat threatening clouds overhead, Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers reflected together on the mysterious and disturbing story of the sacrifice – or rather the eventual non-sacrifice of Isaac. What was said in the formal part of the evening was profoundly inspiring and moving; so too was the experience of prolonged discussion afterwards between the representatives of the various faith communities who crowded into the library as those threatening clouds began to deliver on their promise. It had nothing of that slightly desperate niceness that can sometimes characterise interfaith, and indeed ecumenical dialogue, rather, charity energized by honesty enabled difficult things to be said with mutual respect. And that, I think, is profoundly characteristic of the ethos of Fisher House.

There is always so much more that could be said. There are certainly many thank yous that could be given, and my reasons for not doing so specifically and in detail this evening are, first that we would be here all night, and secondly that I don’t know that I could do so without weeping. I can’t though, end without mentioning two people in particular: Fr Matthew, and Matteo, whose energy, discretion and above all kindness have helped me more than I could ever hope to express over the last few months. There will be opportunities over the next few weeks for us to say goodbye and to thank them formally for all they have done and been for us this year; these have not been organised as yet largely, I suspect, because none of us can quite bring ourselves to believe that they’re really leaving. But, for now, Matteo, Matthew – thank you.

I have been speaking a lot about memories, but we need now to get on with making memories for the future. So I’ll leave you with just one final image. One of the things that preoccupied me in my first weeks as Acting chaplain was the business of ordering a Paschal candle: something I’d never had to do before, and which filled me with quite disproportionate dread. What if, despite my frantic measuring and re-measuring of the base of the stand, we ended up with a candle too small to stay upright, or too big to be inserted into its receptacle? What if everyone hated the design I chose? What if, worst of all, it didn’t turn up in time for the Vigil?  Of course, on Easter Sunday morning, when I allowed myself a microsecond’s break from the complex mix of gratitude, awe and sheer blind terror as I stood at the ambo doing battle to with the army of frogs in my throat that proved to be incipient COVID, as I prepared to sing the Exsultet, when I cast a sideways glance at the candle it was all alright. It was there, first of all, it fitted the stand perfectly, and it was too dark, frankly, for anyone to notice the aesthetics of the thing, beyond a pleasing sense of paschal light amid the encircling gloom. Over the next six weeks, though, my anxieties returned: sure, the candle had the right diameter, but what had possessed me to order such a short one? Would it last until the end of Eastertide? Well, with judicious husbandry and some debatable liturgical decisions about when and when not to light it, of course it did. And on the morning of Pentecost, there is was, blazing out to celebrate the descent of the Spirit, still burning, still there, still, in the words of the Exsultet itself, mingling with the lights of heaven, greeting the morning star, the light of Christ than never sets. And so are we. We are still here. We have done it. We have reached the end of a complex, and challenging and beautiful year, and we have done it, thanks be to God, gracefully and gloriously, aflame with the light of Christ.. Gaudeamus. Let us rejoice.

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