The English countryside offers sudden glorious, enchanting sweeps of beauty as the train swooshes along. I’m travelling from London down to Devon, to spend a weekend at Buckfast Abbey, and it’s a cold bright Spring day. There are some lambs frolicking in the fields, and some plump sheep showing evidence of more lambing to come. The trees are still leafless, but there are daffodils out in sunny corners, and purples crocuses shyly emerging.
I’m sewing. It’s cross-stitch in bright wool, on open-weave material, following a printed pattern. Nothing very special about it – this is really embroidery-by-numbers. But it’s peculiarly satisfying, because I’m making kneelers for a church in Kent, a small hall perched on a green slope as you approach a pretty village. This was recently given into the pastoral care of a priest from the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and he and his team are slowly transforming it into a place of charm and beauty in the tradition of English worship. Kneelers – hassocks – embroidered with designs showing Christian themes are a strong Anglican tradition, and I enjoy sewing them. My small nephew called it “Auntie Joanna’s knitting” when he first saw me doing it (and wanted to help, so I let him do a couple of stitches, which he tackled with breathless care and great enthusiasm). The name has stuck.
The beauty of England in the spring, a cup of fresh coffee bought at Paddington station, some sewing to do and books to read…this is a good way to start a weekend. And it will get even better, as my destination is Buckfast Abbey, with its superb Abbey Church and a warm welcome from the recently founded School of the Annunciation where I’m joining friends on a catechist course. All part of the New Evangelisation of our country. At least, I hope it is – evangelising modern Britain will require courage and commitment, prayer and much love, and we are in for a long haul. No easy ride ahead, and the temptation to abandon the project will hover over and around us…
Our poor country: today’s news is filled with ghastly reports of young men from our towns and cities hurrying to the Middle East to fight as warriors in support of the religion of Mohammed…and of girls who seek to follow them as brides. The picture is grim: not only the deaths and horror in the Middle East but the revelation that such religious fanaticism has taken hold among young Western-educated boys and girls at our schools and colleges.
Campaigns, funded by the public purse, to “combat extremism” have turned out all wrong – some of the money went to extremist groups by mistake, and no one in public life seems to have any very clear idea of how to tackle this whole immense issue anyway.
Only a true message of hope and love can provide a basis for a civilisation, a community that can live and work in harmony. This isn’t something that can be imposed from above: our country needs evangelisation by Christians, who offer truth and an authentic message rooted in service and love of neighbour.
It’s Lent, a time of penance and renewal. A good time to be training for evangelisation. A good time to think about the sacrifices that true evangelisation entails. It’s certainly not a simple matter of embroidering some church kneelers or doing a catechist course. But you do what you can, and not what you can’t…and God supplies the rest, and sometimes (often!) surprises us.