Father Gregory(from my autobiography)
You think of monasteries as happy, peaceful and ordered places. I rapidly discovered this wasn’t Downside. Ever since its foundation in 1605 in Flanders there had been division between the young turks who wanted the danger of the English mission and those who thought monks should stay in their monastery praying. This division still existed between the school and monastery fathers. It was an incredibly unhappy place, marked by the emotional repression that was so marked a feature of English middle-class life at that time, – Father Illtyd had a withered arm and for forty years never referred to it, nor anybody talk of it to him – a repression released in gales of hysterical laughter, the last thing St Benedict would have wanted. I soon found the non-school fathers were even more remarkable than the school ones had been. The Abbot Christopher Butler – soon to be a world star at Vatican II – was formidably intelligent but deeply repressed. The community with held their affection from him as he was incapable of giving it to them. He must have been very unhappy and spent large amounts of time away. ‘The Abbot’s away giving a retreat’ somebody said. ‘You mean beating a retreat’ mocked Meinrad. Francis Little must have been one of the funniest men alive. People wept and groaned with laughter. Gregory Murray was one of the greatest musicians in England and in the thirties had given organ concerts on the BBC. But now, incredibly it seemed to me at the time, he had turned his back on music and would only play the recorder, as gloriously, though, it were the pipes of Pan. He had a face lined with suffering and above all grim. determination. He would come up to you and tell you some embarrassingly smutty story – it was like being button-holed by Mozart in a café in Vienna. You sniggered compliantly fearing to be drawn into his unhappiness. It is only now that I realise these were desperate cries, come join me down In the cellarage. He was the supreme example of the miseries that stalked Downside at that time. I understand so much more now. He had given so many concerts for the BBC his brother monks complained about the BBC’s recording gear that was so frequently in the Church. He was forced to choose between monasticism and music, and he gave up music to choose monasticism. How terrible a sacrifice must that have been to that capacious soul so full of frustrated harmonies. When Vatican 2 happened and opportunity came to renew church music he put all his tormented soul into it. Now, he would only play the recorder, which, needless to say, he played like the pipes of Pan, or sometimes the small choir organ – not the great Compton one that had been built for him, how unbearably painful would that have been – effortlessly wringing the most amazing variations out of this mercifully limiting machine. He poured all his now vicious puritanism, I don’t think it would be too much to call it that, into stripping the community of its splendid rituals and glorious plainchant. This world authority on Gregorian chant. The wonderful Great O’s in Advent, Puer Natus Est at Christmas, Circumdederunt me at Septuagesima, the lovely Latin psalms of Compline, Salve Festa Dies at Easter and the beautiful Easter alleluias as sweetly peaceful and contended as songs of blackbirds, all swept away. For many of the older members of the community it must have been like seeing your beloved parish church’s stained glass windows smashed, its statues beheaded and its art treasures carted away by Northumberland’s bully boys in the reign of Edward Vi. Instead, they were now faced with psalms in English sung to the simplest of tunes and responses written by Gregory himself. It broke many hearts, including Gregory’s, this second rejection by the community. But he grimly soldiered on. Perseverance. Slog on. Don’t give up. Resolve. Imagine Mozart, his head already full of the tunes for Ave Verum, The Magic Flute and the last great symphonies, deciding it would be best if he wrote no more. Not long now he would say.
There was a happy ending to Gregory’s terrible tormented journey, though, coming from an unexpected quarter. He happened to see The Forsyte Saga on the television, the one with Eric Porter and Susan Hampshire. Soames, he’s me! Soames had all Gregory’s disapointment with life, his entrapment in his own emotions, his frustrations, his harboured resentment. But Soames is redeemed by his love for Fleur. Gregory saw it is love not even music that finally counts. He turned into a sweet and gentle old man. My room was next to his, and I could feel his last contentment seeping through the thin walls. The last thing he made me promise before I left was to attend his funeral. Alas, I didn’t of course.It was an arrogant place and this had doubtless come down from the swashbuckling self-confidence of its martyrs. John Roberts threw a party the night before he was to be hanged drawn and quartered. Maurus Scott gave the last money in his pocket to the hangman. Don’t worry about it son, buy something nice for the kids. Phillip Powell called for sherry when he was taken. The monastery’s spirituality had also developed for men leading dangerous lives on the run. No books, no pictures, no images, no reasons. Simply an inner reaching towards God dwelling in the depths of the soul. Ahbsolutely nething, said Father Leander. It was all meaningless to me, it did indeed mean nothing. I daydreamt the prayer times away. But now it does. Now it means everything. I realise now how great these unhappy men were. They taught me that we all have a greater self, that there is a greater dimension to which we all truly belong. Greater even than music. I thought then that the unhappiness was a dreadful thing. It wasn’t. It was a dark night of the soul. They were very holy these men. Especially Gregory Murray. They were so great. They taught me so much. They were wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful Downside.