Page 6, 25th March 1977

25th March 1977
Page 6
Page 6, 25th March 1977 — monk at Westminster

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Locations: London, Newcastle, Oxford


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monk at Westminster

JUST over a year ago, Basil Hume, Abbot of Ampleforth, learned that he was to become the next Archbishop of Westminster in a telephone call which so upset him that he had difficulty in finishing his supper.

Widely reported to be "shattered and distressed" — leaving Ampleforth he said he was no longer an Abbot but "just an Archbishop" — his distress was disarmingly genuine, even when displayed to hard-boiled pressmen.

Today, the distress is no longer there. In its place is an equally disarming simplicity: the unsophisticated maturity of someone who has come to grips with himself and can risk saying what he really means.

An example of that lack of sophistication is that he arrived in Westminster with no cheque book and a brand new portable radio set given to him by the staff of Ampleforth because he had never owned one before.

His days, if he is to be taken at his word, show none of the high-level planning of a top ecclesiastic. He hasn't yet, he says, learned to cope with his diary. "I get up at six in the morning, say my prayers until Mass at 7.30, and the rest of the day, I have to admit, is not properly organised."

He has only recently discovered Thomas Hardy and Simone Weil: "When I find an author, I devour him". Before Hardy, it was Lawrence.

Paintings are judged by no greater cultural criteria than "1 know what I like", and music — "I listen to the obvious classical stuff: my taste is very unprofessional" — is "a nice noise". At the most, it is a glimpse of the numinous, performed in Westminster Cathedral while children outside kick footballs across the piazza in the dusk.

Already making himself a little at home, playing squash at the Royal Automobile Club, running in Battersea Park, as keen on football as his Anglican counterpart at Westminster Abbey along the road, his conversation ranges from theological discussion to comments like: "Cor blirney, I'll be late!"

Priests coming to him in distress are given his own all-purpose recipe for encouragement, which he calls dialling Matthew 999: "It is not those who are in health who need a physician, but those who are sick."

Like Cuthbert, one of his favourite Northumbrian patrons who was also a monk and a bishop, he feels keenly the tearing of the soul between contemplative and active life, and his favourite saints are the weak ones — Peter, Matthew, Paul — "humanly speaking quite inadequate for their high calling", To every blatantly practical problem set before him — war, ecumenism, Northern Ireland — his answer is: "I would put prayer at the top." And yet his most frequent method of praying he calls the prayer of incompetence. "You arc a monk and you must remain a monk," Pope Paul said to him when they talked together in French a week after Father Basil heard of his appointment. "It is my task to lay the cross on the shoulders of other people." "At that moment," says Cardinal Hume, "I felt what I call the freedom of obedience. It. is a remarkable thing to experience one's preoccupations, one's own desires and affections, all that is important in daily life, become subordinate to the will or G6d.

"My whole attitude to what had happened changed. It was God's will, and that was all that mattered."

The monsignor at the outer door of the papal chamber looked probingly into Fr Basil's eyes and smiled. "You will not change," he said.

Born and brought up in Newcastle, the son of an Anglican heart surgeon and a French Catholic mother, the Northumbrian hills and Holy Island are part of his life, the Celtic saints, Aidan, Cuthbert, Bede and Chad, living people: "I suspect their monasticism was a bit chaotic, but I always rather admired it." Baptised George, by the time he was nine or ten, wanted to become a monk.

"At that age, it's only an inclination: something you think you would like to do. Looking back, my idea of God was not the right one. Like many children of that generation, I saw Him more in terms of a person who imposed duty and responsibility, than as a loving father drawing me to himself. That had to change."

Attending a non-Catholic day school he was sent to the Dominican Fathers for weekly catechism on a Saturday morning.

"The priest occasionally took me round his parish, which was in a very depressed area of Newcastle," he said. "It was in the 1930s, and I remember the sight of people crowded together living in one room, of boys my own age running round the streets without shoes on and women coming to church wearing their husband's cloth caps.

"All this had a profound influence, because even at that age I couldn't help but contrast their life-style with my own. I wanted to lead the kind of life which would be devoted to people who were in need. Anyway, that was how I saw it then ..."

Educated at Ampleforth, at Oxford, and a theological college in Switzerland, he entered the monastery as a novice in 1941, and later regretted rnissing active war service.

"At the age of 18, one is very immature," he said. "I thought I would end up in a concentration camp, hung up in the streets from a lamppost. In the kind of heroic way in which one can think, this seemed to me to be a contribution."

But "The reasons you stay in a religious order are different from the ones that draw you there in the first place. You go into the show thinking of what you can contribute and whether it is going to suit you, but in the period of probation you have to become a hardheaded realist.

"Very soon you move to the point where you realise that a vocation is a response to a call. Once you have accepted that, you are prepared to go through anything. You just follow the He made his solemn and perpetual vows in 1945 at the age of 22, taking the name of Basil: "There wasn't another name I liked on the list except Hugh, and I thought Hugh Hume wasn't very helpful!"

And instead of digging pits with the poor in a working-class Benedictine parish or being martyred in enemy-occupied Britain, he found himself back at Ampleforth teaching modern languages to the boys, dogmatic theology to young monks, and coaching the rugby team.

In 1963, he ceased to be a housemaster and became Abbot, so popular in the position that after serving the statutory eight years, he was re-elected immediately. When he celebrated Mass there for the last time before. coming to Westminster, many people were in tears.

The day he arrived in London, "feeling very small" after thousands of letters and over 400. congratulatory telegrams, he received the Papal Bull charging him to "advance along the way of virtue with a stout heart like a giant, and encourage your flock in_ the same course".

As well as a new monastic realism, he brought with him a shy but willing cheerfulness to tackle the task, more reminiscent of David than the giant. On his mantelpiece he pinned the text "KEEP THE FAITH — if you have any left". "I don't quite know where I am," he admitted, displaying an endearing vulnerability.

Edward Carpenter, Dean of Westminster Abbey, who welcomed the monks of Ampleforth to sing Vespers on the evening of the enthronement, calls him a profoundly spiritual man of prayer and piety. "He is extraordinarily humble. Very simple, but an utterly convinced believer."

The Catholic Faith he sees as a flowing river, always in motion. Prayer he describes as "awareness" and "desiring": the awareness of something beyond, and the desire for God, 'This means a lot to me. It is in none of the textbooks, but it is the state of prayer of a great number of people, and certainly of myself.

"It is what I call the prayer of incompetence. Most of the time you are floundering. You don't know where to start or how to go on or where to end, but somehow or other, you want God."

God he sees in everything around him, and takes as his guiding text the words of St Paul used at the first Vatican Council which he calls a revelation: "Through things seen, you shall come to the knowledge of things unseen."

"Through things that are good," he says, "through things that are beautiful and joyful and exciting, through. things that are human, you can glimpse something of the divine.

"If it is true that people are made in the image and likeness of God, then there is a sense in which every single person can show me something about God. This is the basis of respecting people and being sensitive to them. They arc images, icons, unique expressions of God, shadows behind which lies the reality."

Perversely unshakeable -in this belief, he stretches it to its limits and then apologises for sounding pietistic: "By the same token, there is a sense in which everyone is superior to me. The man I meet in the road is different from me, and so he can show me something different about God."

And if the man in the road shouts abuse? "I may feel I want to hit him, but his individuality still reflects God and makes him superior."

Before taking his final vows, Fr-Basil had what he calls a conventional crisis: "You must, otherwise it wouldn't be a deliberate decision."

Early in his novitiate he 'was finding liberation in the sudden awareness of the need for salvation. "At the heart of celibacy there is always pain," he says. "You have to take it on deliberately, knowing what you are doing.

"I believe profoundly that there is no real increase in charity — in the love of God and the love of neighbour — without purification of faith, and there is no purification of faith without trial.

"The purifying of faith has to be experienced through the removal of all the props, which is always a frightening and a terrifying experience, especially when you have committed yourself to a life in which the things of God predominate.

"1 have never been in a situation where I said to myself 'There is no God', but I have gone through long periods of trial. There are so many things about life which make a thinking person say to himself 'What has a Christian got that the others haven't got?'

"There is the problem of suffering, of the mess the world is in, and the fact that a great Many very good people are not Christian.

"One can only come to terms with it Jey a far greater understanding of the smallness of man, and a far greater understanding of how God sees that weakness and futility.

"It is written on almost every page of the New Testament: however small you are, however insignificant you are, however weak you are, nonetheless God has called you. Whatever you achieve will be through his help and grace."

His own search for God has been made, of necessity, in the midst of the world rather than outside it. "Once you get beyond 50," he says, "weeks become days and days hours, and you can't wait around for the beatific vision." Twice the beatific vision caught up unexpectedly.

"I was teaching theology, and on more than one occasion I had to explain St Thomas's proofs for the existence of God. I was a housemaster, and about 20 or 30 boys were listening to 'Top of the Pops' in my room.

"I was sitting in a corner reading St Thomas for the next day's class and suddenly I knew that I had moved from what Newman calls notional to real assent. I realised what dependency was and what an absolute being meant, and I knew that it was true."

The second time came in the course of wrestling with prayer, using the psalmist's shouts of darkness and light. "The spiritual life is at times pain and at times joy. The search for God leads to the experience of His presence and His absence. It is like going into a dark tunnel, knowing that there will be full vision at the other end.

"That came when I realised that God is love, and God I oves."

There are more than halfa-million Catholics in the Westminster See; 500 priests, 500 religious, and 250 churches, Fr Basil, tall and pink-checked, with his immediate smile, spontaneous laugh and complete lack of "side", ha: visited a quarter of the parishes so far, and entertaimd more than a hundred priests in his home since Christmts.

Already working t') create a team spirit round eim — a capability which disthguished his time at Ampleferth he has taken on h new responsibilities meth a remarkable lack of disnay. "Anybody at the head of anything has to suffer" he says. "The agonising thing is that I don't see situatiots as black and white. I wish Idid. It would make life so much easier."

He talks cheerfully of television as a marvelltes platform for preaching tut quite inadequate for conveting all the thoughts in us head, and still refers sefconsciously to Press intee views like this one as utcomfortable ego-trips.

"I am more and more convinced that one of the most important tasks a bishop can do is to encourage people," he says — "to thank them and to congratulate them.

"There is too much carping in the Church; too much sourness. Being in the Church — or in a monastery — is like being in hospital. Everybody's sick, If we realised that, we'd help each other more and be more understanding and broadminded.

"There is a terrible intolerance, and unless God is tolerant and broad-minded, Heaven help the lot of us."

Carolyn Scott

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