Thursday 7 January 2010
As I look back to my childhood seventy years ago in an Anglican vicarage, there is no doubt in my mind that I was as conscious of Our Lady as I was of her Son for as long as I can remember. In the dining room there were at least three large reproductions of the Madonna. In the drawing room there was a small revolving bookcase and on top of it were some objects of piety. What interested me most was a circlet of irregularly shaped brown beads strung on wire and terminated by a small metal crucifix. I remember holding it in my small hands: It was something to hold on to.
I asked my mother. “What’s this?" She answered. “That’s called a Rosary. Roman Catholics use it to count their prayers. These brown beads are the seeds of the tree of the Crown of Thorns. That small black ball next to the crucifix is a tiny dried orange that comes from a tree planted by a Saint in a monastery garden.”
“Where did the beads come from?” I asked. “From Rome,” my mother replied. “They came from a monastery and church your father and I visited, when you were two. The monks there were dressed in white and black.”
I was barely four years old, when she told me this about the brown beads. My mother died when I was eight. The big school I was sent to was Anglican and like my home, rather High Church. There followed more than four years of war. Our battalion numbered a higher proportion of Catholics than is usual, as the men were volunteers from a Catholic district in the north of Lancashire. Thus, I came across the Rosary once again. At night in the front line, sentries on the firestep, rifle in hand, as often as not would have their Rosaries looped over their wrists. At my step-mother’s wish I was wearing the small silver crucifix she had given me, and I also carried a Miraculous Medal, the gift of a Catholic Sister, a friend of the family.
In September 1918 after crashing a plane—it was a “write-off.” I went home for three days leave. My father had just resigned his living, and the furniture was being put into store. The only thing I asked for was the Rosary with the brown beads, and it was given to me. Thus the brown beads came once again into my hands. At that time I was trying to find my way. I was already saying an Our Father and a Hail Mary each day in Latin. In English I had known them since boyhood.
Two years later, on a late September afternoon in Sussex I was received into the Church. At that moment I came to the Rosary with the brown beads: it did not come to me. I came to it. It had waited twenty-two years before I learned to pray with it in my hands to the Lady who had kept me safe in the days and nights of war.
In 1922 my stepmother became a Catholic, and I gave her the brown beads. Six years later she restored them to my father, when he became a Catholic three months before he died. They were then given to my eldest sister who was under instruction and shortly afterwards was received into the Church. She died some seven years ago, and before I said her Requiem and buried her body, her husband, a devout High Anglican, placed his own beads in her hands and retained the brown beads. The brown beads had been placed in his hands and buried with him. There they remain side by side with his wife’s body in the churchyard of a Lincolnshire village.
In view of this, I cannot personally separate Our Lady’s motherly care for me from the touch of the brown beads. I received the Dominican habit in 1928 and so far as I was concerned, the tradition of our Order altogether confirmed what my mother first gave me in my Anglican childhood.
Perhaps a word or two should be added.
In 1945 I underwent the disturbing experience of being elected Prior of Blackfriars, Oxford, and quite soon after of being elected Provincial. Within a year I came to Rome for a month to a General Chapter to elect a Master General, who then kept me in Rome. I have been there ever since, nearly a quarter of a century and nearly half a century after my father and mother had brought from Santa Sabina the brown beads that I loved to handle as a child. I am still one of the “white and black friars” that my mother then told me of when I first asked her about the brown beads.