TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
I am writing this - I wrote this - to you for the sake of all our C.H.F. An Olivetan Benedictine monk has blessed olive leaves for you and these are sent to you with this text. This letter is about forgiveness, truth, reconciliation, healing.
I believe that something terrible, unjust, unforgiveable, was done to you when you were a small and vulnerable child. You were our matron, in charge of the youngest children who were boarders, whose parents were, many of them, abroad or dead. I believe the same terrible crime was done to one of our Sisters. She became the Head Mistress of these littlest children, working with you. Forgive me that I have dreaded both of you, who love each other so much, not understanding that you in turn dreaded things even further in the past that shaped you this way. I was right in resisting being so shaped. But wrong in failing to try to reach into that past to heal it, too. Now I am trying to do so.
It is never too late for God's mercy, for his gentle, creating hands consoling us. They are always there. Whatever we may do to ourselves, to others, to thrust them away in our anger and despair. Julian of Norwich says they are like the hands of a mother, only even more so, even better, and that they never fail. Even when we nail them to crosses.
I have been in hospital. There were complications. Going back to the cruelty of the school at Stonecourt. Earlier, I wrote in a letter about the abuse to children there, a letter that went out in the Diplomatic Bag nearly five years ago. Before that I had already told of these things to Anglican Bishops, but it seems they condone cruelty to children. They protect you, not Joanna, not Charlotte, not Carol, not Hazel, not me. There is no statute of limitations on murder. One of the things I described was how this becomes a chain, a cycle. How when I was vomiting as a child and shivering uncontrollably you were angrily, coldly, in the Stonecourt bathroom telling me to clean it all up. How I then did the same to my child. Who later said 'Mummy, do you know what you did? When I was vomiting, and shivering, you ordered me cruelly to clean it all up'. I flung my arms around him when he said that and begged him to forgive me, telling him how you had done it to me but I should never have repeated it to him. Could you tell me the same? Ask my forgiveness and together we forgive whoever did that to you?
I was hemorrhaging badly following surgery. It didn't need to happen. But because I was so afraid of vomiting onto the hospital bed I was leaning on my elbow to get away from the clean bedclothes, the effect of the anaesthesia following surgery, and so tore out the surgeons' stitches. I couldn't believe it when the nurses came and insisted I vomit into the sheets to protect the surgeons' handiwork and my body from further harm. Again, as following my first childbirth, I had Rahab's scarlet thread of blood pouring from my body from tubes into containers. I was still, ten years later, then fifty-five years later, so terrified of you and of your injustice, and so bound in obedience and fear to you, that I caused my own bodily harm. Our bodies are the temples of our souls, to be kept chaste for worshipping God. I now see this injustice by us to my self mirrors another's injustice to your self.
Do you remember how I fell in the Stonecourt gravel, with dirt and stones in both my bleeding knees, and you didn't wash them, just angrily put large pieces of plastic bandages, the edges all sealed against the air, on them. How I was crying every time I had to kneel at prayer from the pain of the stones in the knees. And how I became so smelly and so feverish. Until finally you took the plasters off and my knees were all green with squirling puss and we had to put painful hot poultices on them night after night to get them better. That came back to haunt me with the bandages in the hospital. I was finding myself unable to trust my very competent, caring, doctors and nurses, always afraid I was being made deliberately ill. Did anyone do this to you? And can we forgive them together?
It was terrifying being at Stonecourt, your voice saying 'You can hear perfectly well when you want to.' I am deaf from a V2 rocket, and can now function in society because I have learned to wear two hearing aids. But I could not then. Nor would my mother allow my brother and myself to say we were deaf, out of her guilt at working at Evesham for the BBC listening to enemy broadcasts, away from us in Sussex. Sometimes, when I knew the context and the light was right, I could both lipread and guess correctly. But most of the time I was lost, in terror. How I wish your words were true and that I could hear perfectly well!
Your favourites were always being given sweets by you and being allowed to do Black Masses in the dormitories to those who were not your favourites, who had to worship these older girls on our knees or be flogged with conker chains swung like censors, threatened with being murdered if we told, mocking the lovely Communion we had had at St Mary's. In my day we had no chapel at Stonecourt, and I used to pray we could have a real one, and made one in the garden in a tree trunk, writing tiny hymn books for it, anything to bring God and love back, instead of this infernal thing that went on night after night in the dormitory. The day girls, among them Barbara, whose son is now a priest, encouraged me to tell them what was happening. But we were forbidden to tell. So they told me to write, not speak it. Which I did. Then they said it was all right for me to speak, that what was being done was wrong. And I fought each senior girl doing it to us, the way my father taught, no blows below the belt, and, because they were girls, no blows above either, taking care to only hit their shoulders. And it stopped after that. (When my Novice Guardian hit me it was precisely where the cancer came to be, in the breast, and that blow's pain, administered on Wednesday, continued through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, until on Easter Sunday, when I untied the bell rope to ring the Angelus of the Resurrection, I realized I could flee, and would do so a year later.)
But there was still the other cruelty, cruelty to the other children. Charlotte on the walk in tears begging that we turn back because she was so ill and you saying she mustn't be selfish and making our walk take so much longer. And she in the hospital that night with pneumonia and we all praying, kneeling beside our beds while you were gone, even the girls who did the Black Mass, we were so scared. Charlotte and I would later have great difficulty following childbirth, following any hospital stay. She suicided. Charlotte's father a King's Counsel, a judge, and a great benefactor of St Mary's. My father a prospective Member of Parliament and a friend of Gandhi. Why did you punish the good, reward the evil? Carol screaming for hours upon hours, you insisting she was acting, like her famous actress mother Elizabeth Aveling, and no medical attention given to her until aperitonitis set in and she was carried down the stairs late at night to hospital, her sister Mary saying later she had died on the operating table but they managed to revive her. Why were you so cruel to us, so kind to other girls. Was this done to you?
I know I came to you already scarred. The bullet wound in my arm as a toddler in the Battle of Britain, sixty years ago now, partly why leaning on it following surgery resulted in the hemorrhage. The same day I was wounded by that stray bullet many Westfield village school children were machine-gunned to death from the sky while waiting for the bus, and a mother at the Post Office flung her body over her child's, the child dying, the mother living. Then later, at six, my deafness in both ears from the V2 rocket explosion in Westfield Lane. My mother doing important war work with her languages apart from us and being herself shattered. At least, when she was unjust to us, afterwards she would always admit to that and ask our forgiveness, explaining she was two persons, one cruel, the other kind. You used to say my mother was bad. I found you far more cruel and dangerous to me than she. It took years to forgive her. I now seek to forgive you.
I remember the night I spent with Joanna in the dorm and we spoke of her grandparents in the Grampians who were kind and how she felt safe there and so frightened at Stonecourt. That was the night I stayed in the dormitory with her because I had suggested a dolls' tea party with the Victorian dolls' china in the cabinet and made my doll clothes for the event and Patricia Gagan tore them off and so I was forbidden to come to our party. Later, Hazel told me how upset she had been with Joanna dying in the bed next to hers and no one telling her what had happened. Too many children dying, too much fear. I was always wanting to run away, being petrified with terror, filled with hate for what you did. Like the time you accused me of stealing my white nylon material from your room but which was given me in my village by Mrs Matthews. Like the time you made me eat all the other girls' fat and gristle piled high onto my plate, even bits they had chewed in their mouths, which I couldn't, so I had to sit in front of that plate gagging all afternoon, and can never again eat fat. Did someone do these things to you? Can we forgive them together?
For I do believe we can go back into the past and undo its harm. If we have the courage. And the wisdom. And the love. There's a prayer the Sisters prayed, that the Holy Spirit be always with them as they taught the children, which I pray daily so it go back into our past, retroactively. For my Novice Guardian told me she prayed the Holy Spirit be taken from her and I saw her hatred for the children in how she crossed out that part of Mother Agnes' Rule in the blackest of ink that spoke of us as 'innocent lambs'. (I now understand her life was shattered early and all such trust lost, her own innocence murdered by one she had trusted, her own father.) But we were truly innocent lambs. And trusted infinitely in you, as in a mother, as in God. And with truth and reconciliation can go back to trusting. You can bring God back.
I visit an elderly English lady in hospital, who is lonely for her language, every Sunday I can. Her mother died when she was a baby and she was brought up by her grandmother who had marvellous faith. To hear Isla, which she does every time I visit her, launch into 'The Lord is my Shepherd' is such joy to us both. This is usually in response to my suggesting we say the Lord's Prayer! Do you remember when I fled from Holmhurst's cruelty, particularly to Sister Joan, and wrote to the Queen about cruelty to children, that Her Majesty at her Christmas Broadcast that year ended it with looking up at us, leaving reading from her written speech, and saying that we each must keep the faith we had had as a little child. Christ says the same in the Gospel. You and I can go back to that innocence. What happened is no longer secret. But is forgiven.
On blessed olive leaves. This has become a ministry of healing. I used to give the blessed olive leaves from my pilgrimage to Gethsemani until I had none left. They came with all the meaning of that place, the Agony in the Garden, Christ healing Malchus' ear Peter had cut off. Then I took to giving those picked here amongst our olive groves above Florence when there was need, for people suffering from being abused as children (this changes brain chemistry, leading to numbing, depression, multiple personality disorder, self-mutilation, suicide, or to being an abuser in turn), where there was trauma, the bomb in Nairobi, the bomb in Omagh, the discotheque fire in Goteborg. There are Bibles in Africa with bookmarks of Florentine olive leaves. These olive leaves are blessed by don Patrizio (Patrick), our parish priest, an Olivetan Benedictine monk, these monks being garbed not in black but in white. You can give these olive leaves to whomever you want, even heap the graves of the dead with them. They can be given to enemies and friends, for in healing your enemy you heal yourself from their harming.
Hermit of the Holy Family
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