BAKER'S CONTINUING INFLUENCE ON BENEDICTINE NUNS

 

INTRODUCTION

 

This Paper was given at a conference in Abergavenny in May 2000
by Sister Benedict Rowell O.S.B. of St. Mary's Abbey, Colwich

This paper will attempt to trace the Baker tradition down the history of one community, letting the nuns speak through their writings. These were never written for publication, but for the community present or future, or for the individual alone.

 

THE FIRST GENERATION OF BAKER'S DISCIPLES


The Monastery of Our Lady of Good Hope was founded in Paris by the nuns of Cambrai, ten years after the death of Baker. It is now St. Mary's Abbey, Colwich, near Stafford. Cambrai wanted the new community to be based on the teachings of Baker. Some of our 'Mother Beginners', as we call them, had been taught by Baker personally, for instance, the first Prioress, Mother Bridget More, whose famous sister was Dame Gertrude More. Less well known, was Mother Elizabeth Brent, the first Novice Mistress. Her obituary notice says she was:
"sent to Paris . . . to assist Mother Clementia Cary in the beginning of this our Monastery here in Paris. She was of a serene and equal temper and an intern spirit, much relishing venerable Father Baker's divine instructions, as may be seen by her collections and his books which she wrote out and faithfully practised with custodia cordis that he so much recommends".


A Memorial of Father Baker, written at our Paris monastery, states that all Baker's manuscripts and his collections were copied at Cambrai for the new foundation at Paris. The Cambrai nuns:
"had for some years not only the happiness to partake of his verbal instructions and advices but also he enriched them with his precious manuscripts, which were above thirty treatises, and as many translations out of several spiritual authors viz: Harphius, Thaulerus, Blosius etc., all which books in his own hand are now transcribed into twelve tomes. There is also an abridgement of these holy instructions set out in print and called Sancta Sophia. But the precious originals of his own writings having been strictly examined and approved by grave and learned Doctors as containing sound and catholic doctrine, and admirable instructions for all estates in a contemplative life etc., are all extant and most carefully conserved in the aforesaid Monastery of the English Benedictine Dames of Our Blessed Lady of Consolation in Cambrai, our Mother House. From whence as from the head fountain we have, by the great care and diligence of our Venerable Mother Beginners obtained original and faithful copies of all those his books, by which means this our Monastery of our Blessed Lady of Good Hope au Champs d'Allouette in Paris is also enriched with all the same spiritual treasures. God Almighty give us his holy grace to be true and perseverant practisers of these holy and divine instructions."
We still have many of these manuscripts at Colwich.


The Constitutions of the Paris house, based on those of Cambrai, were approved in 1656. The whole of the Preface is full of Baker's spirit, and once quotes him by name:
"To this purpose is that legacy the venerable Father Augustine Baker left you: 'Observe your call, that's all in all', that is, the spirit of your vocation must be the life of all your actions, interior and exterior; and all your actions, interior and exterior, must be to conserve and increase the life of your vocation, there by making our vocation secure (as St. Paul saith). Or in other terms, as the same venerable Father and true intern propensioner saith to the same purpose: 'Prayer and mortification is the only means and way to perfection, to which we ought all to aim, tend and aspire'."


The community lived by these Constitutions almost unaltered until the early 20th century.

 


THE SECOND GENERATION OF BAKER'S DISCIPLES

 

The second generation were nuns, and monks, who did not know Baker personally. For instance, Father Serenus Cressy was sent to Paris with the nuns and was their chaplain for a short time. He is well known as the compiler of Sancta Sophia and biographer of Baker, but it is important to realise that he did not know Baker personally. The second generation depended on those who did, and on his writings. The Memorial of Father Baker already quoted was part of the Necrology, a book of obituaries of the nuns to be read out on their anniversary day. It was written in 1695. Baker is the only person not one of the nuns who was given an entry. As the one who wrote it had not known him personally, it is not about his life, but about the importance of following his "doctrine". For instance:
"Let us not then, as St Paul saith, be like unto children wavering and carried about with every wind of doctrine, since we with the very Religious Dames at Cambrai may justly apply to him that which the same Apostle said of himself viz: Although we may have ten thousand Masters, yet not many Fathers, for in Christ Jesus by the holy Gospel he has made us his children."


We can see in the 17th century obituaries of the nuns how Baker's works were important in attracting women to the Paris community. For instance, Sister Rachel Lanning:
"By the divine conduct she came to be acquainted with the Reverend Father Hugh Starkey . . . who gave her the Abridgment of venerable Father Augustine Baker's instructions in print, called Sancta Sophia, and some directions for mental prayer. By the practise of which Almighty God pleased to enlighten her . . . "
She entered the community early in 1659, and therefore must have read Sancta Sophia quite soon after its publication in 1657.
Mother Clare Newport:
"Coming to London to her sister Allonson, whose first husband's mother being Mrs. Watson (with whom venerable Father Baker of happy memory died), the said Mrs. Watson speaking to her of Father Baker, showed her his Book D; and she by reading it was so much touched that in a little time after she resolved to be religious in the Monastery where the said venerable Father's books and instructions were kept and practised, which she knew was then only at Cambrai or here".
This took place early in 1664. Later she was:
"above twenty years Librarian in which she took the greatest care and pains to preserve all the books, but particularly those precious treasures of our house, venerable Father Baker's manuscripts".
The Abbey of English Benedictine monks at Lambspring in Germany became a centre of Baker spirit through the Gascoigne family: a Gascoigne Abbess of Cambrai, a Gascoigne Abbot of Lambspring, and later a Gascoigne Prioress of Paris. Abbot Maurus Corker of Lambspring, a second generation Baker disciple, was an influential figure in handing on the tradition. He recruited members to the Paris community:
Sister Benedicta Pease, who became a lay sister:
"always lived in Catholic houses, and some years before her coming hither, [lived] with the widow Cotton with whom very reverend Father Corker then also lived, and he knowing she had a desire to be religious, proposed her coming to us".
She came in 1668.


Mother Gertrude Hanne:
"Lady Fairfaxe . . . lent Dame Gertrude More's book and Sancta Sophia to her, who found unspeakable comfort to her soul in reading and following these instructions. It renewed in her mind fresh and ardent desires to give herself entirely to God, and to this end she laid out all ways she could to be received into some religious house where they followed those heavenly instructions . . . [she] obtained to be admitted into this community by means of very reverend Father Corker to whom she addressed herself".


She became Novice Mistress, and lived into the 18th century, dying in 1701.
One of Corker's letters to the Paris nuns in 1673 makes clear that Baker was a constant point of reference:
"I confess I cannot be very solicitous, neither would I have you, about God's Providence in the choice of your superior. . . As to the queries you propose in case of a new superior, I think Mr Baker would have returned these answers, viz. first, what if the superior should command you to give an account of your interior to her or her agents? I answer: you ought with sincerity and brevity to obey, yet if she or they give you manifestly false or impertinent instructions you may if the matter be of great concern appeal to higher superiors as judges herein," and so on.
In another letter he gives New Year greetings, adding:
"and, which is no small blessing, I wish both you and your Sister Mary the Spirit of Father Baker."