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Home/Rod Dreher/The Abbess Of The Moorings

The Abbess Of The Moorings

The Rev. Helen Orr, at home in Cambridge

I wanted to share with you some good news, for once. What follows is the text of my last two Substack newsletters, to which you can subscribe here. I use the newsletter to focus on spiritual, religious, and aesthetic interests — which is to say, no culture-warring or politics. Though I am unhappy to be a displaced person (I’m in the UK, waiting on getting a visa to get back to Europe), graces abound. Read on. — RD

[The first one, titled, “The Abbess of The Moorings]

You readers are going to get two of these today. I’m on my way back to England, having been deported by the Austrian authorities when I tried to return to Vienna last night. My papers weren’t in order. Totally my fault! And the border police were actually very nice about it. Still, I have to go back to the UK and appeal to the Austrian Embassy in London for a visa. Further bad news: my research trip to France is now impossible, because I can’t get anywhere into the EU without a visa.

The good news is that I will now have more time to write. The further good news is that I’ll be returning to The Moorings, the Cambridge home of my friends James and Helen Orr, who hosted me there this week. I have to tell you, their rambling home on the banks of the river Cam, north of the town, is an oasis of peace and Benedictine hospitality.

James Orr is one of the bravest men in British public life — for instance, he led the resistance to the university’s attempt to crush free speech and keep Jordan Peterson from speaking there — but Helen is the happy genius of their household. I had not met her until this trip. She is the daughter of a prominent Anglican bishop, the late Simon Barrington-Ward, and is herself an Anglican parish priest. She and James, and their two children, host Christian student boarders in their house, and have built a kind of Benedict Option community there. The place and its people are so welcoming, and I think it’s mostly down to Helen.

(I’ve added her as a subscriber to this newsletter, so I know she will be reading this and will probably be embarrassed by my praise, but sometimes one has to push on ascetically through such trials.)

When I arrived there earlier this week, Helen took me on a walk through their back garden. One of the best things about England is their gardens. I’m an ardent Francophile in most things, but on gardens, I much prefer to messy English approach to the Cartesian severity of the French style. Helen told me of her plans to build a chapel there, and to keep working to make it a real center of art and healing in Christ.

She knew about my divorce situation from her husband, with whom I have been friends for several years. We stood down by the river and she spoke to me about it with directness and pastoral compassion in equal measure. I sure needed to hear what she had to say. In an earlier time and place, she would have been a great abbess of a vast and famous monastery. Today, she is vicar of the countryside parish of Bassingbourn, which dates back at least to the 13th century.

Over the past few days, I’ve watched Helen oversee people coming and going from her house, feeding us, taking her kids to their activities, running a lodger to the doctor, and so forth. It was really something to see, how much passion she poured into making us all feel at home and cared for. And then when she sat down to talk with me from time to time about life in Christ, her words were always deep, wise, and comforting — in fact, comforting because deep and wise. She has a rare gift of being able to speak with casual cheerfulness about profound things. Helen makes one feel seen. Whatever one thinks of women’s ordination — I think it’s impossible for us Orthodox, but the Anglicans can do what they want — Helen has a pastoral gift that might be more powerful than any I have ever seen.

It might be that she made such a powerful impression on me because she reminds me of my Aunt Lois and Aunt Hilda, about whom I’ve written a number of times over the years. Lois and Hilda were sisters of my father’s grandmother. They were born in the 1890s, and were very old when I was a little boy, and knew them. I would go to their tiny cabin at the end of a pecan orchard every day to visit, and to be dazzled by their presence, and their stories. Here they are with little me, about 1969:

 

That’s Hilda on the left, and Lois on the right. They were formidable, let me tell you. They had volunteered to be Red Cross nurses during World War I. I trace my abiding love of France to their stories about serving in the canteen in Dijon, and traveling around France after the war. Hilda was especially indomitable. In the great 1927 Mississippi River flood, she wanted to deliver relief supplies to the stranded in rural north Louisiana, but the Red Cross wouldn’t allow its female workers to take that risk. So Hilda disguised herself as a man, took command of a supply boat, and went into the wild.

That’s the kind of women they were. So is Helen, I divine.

I wish I had been able to get through the border police and back to my apartment in Vienna. But it is not necessarily a bad thing that I’m headed back to Cambridge, and to the home of the Orr family. Last night I bedded down in the airport chapel here in Vienna, comforted by the thought of sleeping where travelers pray. I was thinking that though my interrupted travel is unwelcome, maybe God allowed it to happen because He has something He needs to show me back in England. Helen is so full of life and curiosity about the world God has made that I can easily believe enchanted things are about to happen.

More later today — I have to transcribe and publish here an amazing interview I did with an Anglican ordinand. And I want to share with you some things I read in the Venerable Bede last night, about St. Cuthbert. I had never really thought about the Anglo-Saxon saints until hearing about them this week in England. You just never know who you are going to meet, and what you are going to learn once you step off the everyday path.

The plane is boarding here in Vienna now. Back to Blighty!

[Here is the second one, titled “The Pearls Of The Abbess”]

Well, the adventure continues. Last night at the vacant terminal at the Vienna airport, I took comfort in the fact that the only place I could find to sleep not on the floor was in the airport chapel. It calmed me deeply, because I was resting where God is praised. It made me trust that despite the unpleasantness of being deported, and losing my pilgrimage to holy places in France next week (because I can’t get back into the European Union/Schengen area until I get a visa, for which I have now applied), I felt assured that God was in it. That He has a plan here. I should have been quite distressed and unhappy, but somehow, I was calm, and thought, “OK, God, what are you up to?”

I arrived back at London’s Stansted airport, and waited in a very long passport control line. There’s a rail strike on here now, so trains were running off schedule. I finally caught a local up to Cambridge, and arrived in the sweltering heat not long after eleven a.m. I couldn’t get an Uber — none available, unusually — so I decided to walk to The Moorings. Only twenty minutes away, though the weather was hot, and I was toting three bags. Still, I just wanted to get a shower and fall into bed, so off I went.

On the way, I began to pray the Jesus Prayer. I usually do when I’m walking. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I walked a few minutes like that, but then the thought crossed my mind: back in the Before Times, I used to love calling my wife and sharing, in delight, the craziness of things like this (“Can you believe it? I got deported! Isn’t that just how it goes?”). Now I can’t do that. I haven’t been able to do this for about a decade. I miss it so much. That thought settled in, and brought with it sadness, and anger, and suddenly, I couldn’t pray any more.

Don’t surrender to it, I thought. Keep praying. But I remember making a deliberate choice to poke the sore tooth with my tongue, to linger on my unhappiness, and my sense of dislocation, of exile. I thought about this for the rest of the walk to The Moorings.

I let myself through the gate, and found the Abbess in her living room. I set my bags down, and flopped onto the sofa, while she flurried to the kitchen to get me something to drink. When she sat down, she showed me the handsome strand of pearls she was wearing.

“I put them on today to remind myself to tell you the story about them,” she said. The Abbess told me that she loved these pearls, but one day, she noticed they had gone missing. She looked everywhere for them, but couldn’t find them. She was heartbroken, but figured that was just the way it goes sometimes.

As the year went on, Helen began to doubt whether she was doing the right things with her life. Finally, she prayed, “Lord, if I am where I’m supposed to be, doing the things I’m supposed to do, please bring me back my pearls.”

The next day, the Abbess got a call from her sister in Scotland. “Did you lose your pearls?” the sister asked. “My friend found some pearls in the back garden. She thought maybe they were costume jewelry. I told her that no, I think those are my sister’s pearls. Are they?”

They were! The sister pointed out that her dog had gotten into Helen’s bag when she, her husband James, and the kids had been visiting last. The dog must have pulled the pearls out, and dropped them in the garden. For a year, people had been treading that garden, mowing it, and tending it, but no one had seen the pearls — until that day. Until Helen had asked God to return them to her as a sign.

“I wanted to share that with you because it’s a sign of enchantment,” she told me. And of course I agreed.

We talked a bit more. She mentioned her late father, Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, and how intimate was his friendship with C.S. Lewis — and indeed, how before the bishop died in 2020, had been one of the last people left living who had been close to Lewis.

Soon I apologized to my hostess, and told her, “My mind is so discombobulated that I can’t form a coherent thought. I need to go down to the room, get a shower, and get some sleep.”

At that moment, a neighbor showed up, poked her head in the back door, and gave Helen some information. I can’t remember what it was about, but what I do remember was that the neighbor said that she felt so “discombobulated.” I don’t know when I last used or heard that word, but now it had been spoken twice within four minutes. By now in my life, I’ve learned to take that kind of thing as a synchronicity, as a meaningful coincidence. It always means, simply, pay attention, God is revealing something to you.

I went down to my room at the side of the garden, and got the last of my clean clothes to take to the bathroom for a shower. Ten minutes later, I was freshly washed and lying in the cool darkness of the room. Before I fell asleep, I looked at my e-mail. There was this from my friend Wesley J. Smith, a fellow Orthodox convert:

Just read of your travail in being barred from the EU.

If you are in England for a while, please spend a day or two at the Monastery of St. John in Essex. Founded by St. Sophrony the Athonite. Experience the Jesus Prayer service. Imagine hours of the JP chanted in different languages. It has to be experienced, it can’t be described. I prayed at his tomb, and I have never felt the Holy Spirit so strongly. Completely off the grid. You have to call. Do. It is sublime.

Well, turns out that that monastery is not too far from where I’m staying in Cambridge. Maybe I can get there.

Then there was a letter from another reader of this Substack, a priest, who sent this video. It’s from eight years ago, with Helen interviewing her father, the late and much beloved Bishop Simon — about the Jesus Prayer! I started watching it, and look, here is the first image, of Helen introducing her dad:

 

She’s wearing the pearls.

I thought, okay, this is a real synchronicity. I need to watch this video, but only when I’m in my right mind. I closed my laptop and fell asleep.

A few hours later, when I woke up, I watched it. Here it is:

It is plain and gentle and like cool, clear water. The bishop — who, Helen told me, wrote two books about the Jesus Prayer — talks about what it is and why it’s so important. He mentions going to the Monastery in Essex, becoming close friends with the Abbot Sophrony, and learning the Jesus Prayer from him. In the video, the bishop holds a prayer rope that the future canonized saint gave him. Bishop Simon simply tells how to pray the Jesus Prayer, and why (e.g., he explains theosis). None of it was new information to me, but it was like being stopped wandering off the road, and pointed back to the straight path by this dear old Christian Englishman, the father of my new friend the Abbess.

Do I even need to tell you that I am going to do my very best to get out to that Monastery this weekend, or at least while I am in England waiting on my visa problem to get sorted? I am so sorry to be missing Mont-Saint-Michel and Rocamadour next week, but I will get there eventually. There is something God has for me to learn here, in England, at St. Sophrony’s monastery.

When I finished the video, I came up to the house, and found the Abbess finishing her sermon for this Sunday. She told me that she has never watched that video of herself and her dad, but maybe now she should. What if it is, for Helen, another strand of pearls, lost in the garden, but now turned up at just the right moment?

I asked the Abbess if I could photograph her with the pearls. Yes, she said, but do so in front of this colorful painting hanging in her living room. She bought it many years ago, after a painful crisis in her life, one that she was coming out of with some professional success (before she became a vicar, Helen was a recording artist). She explained that she was walking in Notting Hill one day after signing a recording deal, saw the painting in a shop, and was so moved by the brightness of it, the warmth, and the life in its colors. But she figured it would be too expensive. It wasn’t, so she bought it.

Helen’s husband James, a Cambridge professor, commented, “That painting has enlivened every house we lived in, no matter how Dickensian.” And there is the happy genius of her household, wearing pearls, in front of the painting.

Later, she loaned me one of her late father’s prayer ropes (not the one from St. Sophrony, which is with a friend at the moment), so I can pray the Jesus Prayer on it while I’m here. I will pray it tonight, and ask for Bishop Simon and his friend St. Sophrony to join me in prayer. I’m onto something. Turns out I was right to be calm in the airport chapel last night, and to trust that God was going to use that crisis to show me something I needed to see.

But what? I’ll soon find out. And you know I’ll report back!

Helen just showed me something she wrote down a while back to comfort her husband in a time of stress, and has kept near to hand in their bedroom. She wants me to share it as the Abbess’s pastoral message to you all this evening:

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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