Clare Priory's unique experiment, of laity and religious living together, offers a blueprint for the modern Church, says Christina White It is twilight as we take our walk into the gardens. Clare Priory is in the heart of Suffolk, in an English countryside eulogised by prince and poet. "Glory be to God for dappled things" said Gerard Manley Hopkins; and that spirituality pervades the air of Clare.
Swifts dart high in fading light as the call of a woodpecker echoes to open fields. The neighbourhood cat, an imperious ginger with white blaze. takes up his evening patrol along the flint paths, through ruined cloisters. He is after the rabbits, that scurry and hop, darker images now on the lawns that surround the great house.
The sense of other worldliness, of a place apart, is physical as well as spiritual. Dr Beeching closed down the line that connected Clare with Sudbury, effectively isolating this corner of Suffolk. Time and place are preserved.
The air is sweet with the scent of damp grass and country flowers: hollyhocks, verbascum and golden arrow. Virginia creeper has reclaimed the cloister walls, a blaze of colour in Autumn. The trees of the orchard are heavy with fruit. The prior stops at a plum tree. " I don't think they're ripe but Billy (Fr William Baldwin), he's been eating them. If you see Billy eating he's been at the plums again."
Fr David Middleston returned to be prior here two years ago. A tall imposing man with a soft Cumbrian burr he taught French for over 30 years ai the Augustinian school in Carlisle As headmasted de felt the iime had come to move on, to hand over the reins to a younger visionary, but there is a touch of regret for the academic life. "I thought I would return to carry on teaching...but Clare has much to offer."
Founded in 1248, the Priory is the mother house of the Augustinian Friars (Austin Friars) in the English speaking world and one of the earliest foundations of the order. From this priory, in medieval times, the Friars established nearly 40 foundations in England and Scotland. But the Reformation saw the English province banished to Ireland. "At the time of the Reformation the Augustinians were fighting for change," says Fr David. Martin Luther, an Austin Friar, was sent to Rome because he was the brightest and finest of scholars. An Augustinian translated the bible into English – his words appear still today in the King James bible."
He continues: "They felt the Church needed reform. they didn't approve of the practice of indulgences, of the power and might that was Rome."
Austin Friars have always lived according to the rules of poverty and simplicity. At the time of the Reformation with over 350 friars in England and Wales, their lands amounted to just 40 acres. I ask what happened to the friars at the dissolution of the monasteries. Fr David is philosophical – "Many signed the oath of supremacy, many just melted away – merged back into secular society. There are stories of some wearing their old friars' habits under their new surplices – I think they thought the changes were temporary."
The friars gave one priest to martyrdom, Fr John Stone one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales — who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Canterbury and beheaded just as the hapless Anne of Cleves was making her way through the English countryside to meet her King. The prior has sympathy for Protestant and Catholic martyr alike. "They burned Cranmer at the stake," he shakes his head.
The Priory was restored as a religious house in 1953. The owners wanted to return it to the order, for the friars to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. In recent years it has become a retreat house – the "stable block" offering comfortable rooms for quiet contemplation.
It is the antiquity of Clare, the history within its stones and timbers that fascinates. Modern history too — Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein was stationed here in 1944 before the great assault on Normandy.
There is a sense that owners of the house, over the centuries, had a certain reverence for what they inherited. The main door to the priory shows the signs of violent iconoclasm. Ancient carved figures — holy saints roughly hewn away from the timber but much of the priory structure has survived. The friars' church was demolished, now only the south wall remains, but the sanatorium building was preserved. "Probably because they had a use for it," Fr David explains. "It was used as a barn."
The sanatorium was at ground level with a study/dormitory for the novices at first floor. Narrow windows sit high in the wall "You can imagine the friars, praying for the light to last so they could study". Today the building serves as the parish church.
CTare Priory is a unique architectural treasure with original panelling and medieval timbered cloisters. A modern carved beam in the main house depicts the ancient legend of Clare – of the wicked friar who sold his soul to the devil and was found
dashed at the foot of stone steps. Fr David says the legend has entered Suffolk folklore. "A former occupant of the house was researching the history of the friars and Clare priory and found an old lady who told the legend in some detail in old English. It obviously came down through a centuries' old oral tradition...
He made his profession here in 1961 on the site of the old church. "I carne first to the priory in 1960," he says. He speaks of a feeling of restriction, of an old pre-Vatican II order. "This was a very closed place, an introspective place." That has changed. Parish and retreat work is now an integral part of the monastic life at Clare. Fr David regularly visits the inmates of Highpoint prison. "They say the prayers like psalms," he tells me, "there is such reverence."
A third of the pilgrims who come to Clare are not Catholic the priory isn't in the business of proselytising but it is a
magnet for people. It has a strong and resolute band of devotees who talk of the peace of Clare and the strong spirit of Christian love. This is very much a community of religious and laity, a modern focus for Christian living which the Augustinian order is pioneering.
I meet ladies on retreat, whose faces light up when you ask why they have come here. Winifred "Riggy" and Christina share their love for Clare."It is so peaceful, so lovely" they tell me. A parishioner explains what draws her, "They pray so much here. Not just individually but together. There's a real sense of searching for God.
"People go to the East in search of karma, of inner peace. We had this treasure and we've lost it. It's about finding God in the midst of our daily lives. You can't be a Christian on your own.. "
Parish priest Fr Ben O'Rourke leads retreats on the need to find God within — "Return to your heart, learn to pray".
There are just four friars in the community now — Fr David, Fr Billy, Fr Ben and Fr Pat. An Augustinian sister, Sr Eileen, and Mary a lay member of the community live part of the time at Clare. "Be of one mind and one heart on the way to God" wrote St Augustine and this is what binds people here. The experience of Clare is unique – an ad experimentum – of lay and religious men and women, living together. It will not be superimposed on every Augustinian community but it works here and offers a blueprint for the modern church.
After Mass we gather round the refectory table for coffee and cake. Norah, a devoted parishioner, brings homemade scones for Fr Billy. Today the Richard III society are coming to Clare to honour six ancestors of the much maligned king who are buried within the ruins of the monastic church. A plaque will mark their resting place.
Parishioners and Riccardians come together as the prior leads the congregation through the rites of the Requiem Mass and a Latin liturgy familiar to Joan of Acre, Edward I's daughter; Lionel Duke of Clarence; Edward, Baron Monthermer; Elizabeth de Burgh, Duchess of Clarence; Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March and Lady Margaret Neville. We process with fitting solemnity through the gardens to the ruined church where the plaque is unveiled. Shakespeare who did much to destroy the reputation of the Yorkist King sums up the day "In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights". In praise of Clare... .