The Purpose

Why am I doing this? Who will ever use these?

So ran the thoughts of Brother Gregory as he stood in that freezing workshop, the icy draughts penetrating beneath his black monk’s habit and spiralling around his bare legs concealed beneath. His hands were sodden with clay and his flimsy protective tunic, hardened with spatters of clay, was streaked with uneven lines of colour where he had tried to wipe the tile glaze off his hands, bringing a garish brightness to the small, dimly lit outbuilding.

“My Lord”, Gregory prayed, “I joined this Monastery three years ago - in 1425 - to serve you. I knew things would not be easy. I was prepared to sacrifice a life of comfort, of companionship, even of physical pleasure to devote myself instead wholeheartedly to you. I try to remain focussed and to obey the Prior. Yet here I am, in the middle of Bedfordshire, unable to speak - save for an hour each Sunday or when reciting the seven services held in chapel each day - cold, clogged with clay and attempting to produce something useless. My Lord, help me to understand why”.

The n, feeling guilty for his negativity and afraid lest he may have stirred up God’s wrath, Gregory made against his breast the sign of the cross (thereby depositing more clay onto his tunic), took in a deep breath and tried to carry on with his task in a spirit of more than mere acquiescence. 

Pulling the rough wooden frame towards him, he began transferring the wet clay to its interior patchwork of squares, smoothing it down and wiping the excess off the edges. Satisfied with content and consistency, Gregory reached out for the wooden embossing tool. He wondered just how many clay tiles had he embossed with this rosette and fleur-de-lis pattern. The re was already a pile of them, glazed and fired by his hand, standing outside the workshop, shivering like him in the cold and not going anywhere. Why was he making more? If of no use to the monastery, who were they for?

Those negative thoughts again. Could he never banish them? Why did he have to question everything? What was there inside him trying to make itself felt? It wasn’t, creativity: he had been assigned this work by the Prior to help keep his mind from wandering. Unfortunately, the repetition - mixing, smoothing, stamping, bisque firing, glazing, firing again, stacking - had afforded ample opportunity for his thoughts to drift. He had managed to control some of his brain’s wildest meanderings and he always managed to return to the here, the now - Beadlow Priory near the village of Clophill, in the fifteenth century; a monastery existing to honour God and to offer prayers for the living and dead. In his heart, though, Gregory knew he wanted to do something to make a real difference. Even if it was for just one person, he would feel justified in the path he had chosen. The Prior had told him that his presence in the monastery meant something to God and to all those people outside the walls who looked towards that place for comfort and strength but, to Gregory, that was corporate responsibility. He wanted to do something positive, directly for one individual, to help change one person’s life for the better.

With these feelings of frustration, Gregory heard the rhythmic chiming of the chapel bell warning of the next service. Laying aside his tools he prepared to marshall his wayward thoughts and concentrate on the coming devotions. He stepped outside into the icy wind and looked down at the neat stack of already completed tiles. The n, before he became indistinguishable from the other habited and prayerful monks now silently moving towards the chapel, an overmastering desire to express his individuality suddenly propelled him to grab his fletching knife. Turning over one of the finished tiles he roughly etched onto the back his initial and the year: “G - 1428”. “I have stamped my individuality on something”, he thought. “Underneath this habit I am still me”.

The bell ceased. Fighting against the bitter wind Gregory just succeeded in making his place in the stalls as the Prior’s opening words rang out Deus in adjutorium meum intende”. “O God, come to my assistance”.

Gregory never returned to the workshop. That night he started shivering violently. It was not the cold which had eaten into him; it was something more serious, more deadly. His fellow brethren gathered round him, enfolding him in thick blankets, lifting him bodily to sit before the blazing, open log fire. The y tried to whisper injunctions to him, breaking their enforced silence. The y tried to help him drink a warming brew but Gregory’s fingers were unable to grasp the cup and his lips remained closed, his teeth chattering wildly behind them. His tongue was quite incapable of speech and his features gave out a fixed stare, looking way beyond the cloister, his eyes blinking only infrequently. Soon a more vacant look took over and the final thing Gregory saw on this earth was the Prior, with outstretched hand, administering over him the last rites.

Gregory never lived to see a use for his tiles. He never lived to see that day, 100 years later, when Henry VIII swept away, with comparative ease, all the monasteries and convents from this land, for them not to return for centuries. Gregory would never have believed that Beadlow Priory would crumble and disappear so completely that even its precise location was forgotten and that by the end of the millennium nothing whatsoever remained to be seen above ground.

Gemma loved exploring the past. As a young girl she was unusual in enjoying history lessons at school, diligently learning dates and battles and lists of Monarchs. From an early age she knew she was different to the other girls somehow and, reaching her teens, she began to feel inside her something she couldn’t quite pin down. It seemed to manifest itself as a need to try and achieve something which she could put to really practical use in her forthcoming adult life.

Always a bit of a loner and, like many such individuals, something of a bookworm, she was browsing one day in the school library when she discovered a book about mediaeval monasteries. Quite out of the blue, something tugged at her: was this the field in which she could become a specialist? She decided there and then it was and her determination and diligence drove her on to gain a Doctorate in Mediaeval History.

Well known in her field, Gemma was often called in to advise on archaeological excavations and when, in 2005, Bedfordshire County Council decided to investigate the site of a former monastery called Beadlow, located somewhere near Clophill, Gemma’s specialist knowledge proved invaluable. The excavations which she oversaw revealed the location of the monastery and the layout of its buildings, including what may have been a workshop. In one of the archaeological trenches which had been cut, Gemma one day came across fragments of what initially looked like pottery. Carefully brushing off centuries of compacted soil, she was able to discern sections of rosettes and fleurs-de-lis. On that sunny warm June day she meticulously started to join the fragments together on the ground and realised that these were pieces of hand-made clay tiles, dating from the fifteenth century.

She knew without doubt that these would have been made at the monastery and she wondered who had filled the moulds and performed the embossing and glazing. The n she noticed a sharp corner protruding from the side of the trench. Carefully scraping around this, she gradually unearthed a complete tile, which transpired to be the only intact one extracted from the whole site. Somehow it had escaped damage down the long years and, after cleaning, it looked as colourful as it did on the day it was fired.

Gemma turned it over and saw a scratched-on date – 1428 – and a letter G. She wondered about the monk who had left his mark this way. She tried to visualise his sense of calling, his vocation, his commitment to be part of a religious community, living a detached and difficult life of prayer, service and obedience.

In that instant, everything became clear. She knew. That was her tile - G for Gemma - she was meant to find it. That disembodied feeling inside her which had never really gone away, that yearning to have a purpose, which had masqueraded as her professional drive, was now blindingly obvious.

Nine months later, Gemma stood before the front door of an impressive building outside the village of Turvey and rang the bell. A woman wearing a white nun’s habit and with head adorned by a white wimple beamed to the postulant: “Welcome, Gemma. Welcome to the Priory of Our Lady of Peace. May your future years here with us as a Sister be long and fulfilled”. In Gemma’s suitcase was Gregory’s tile.  

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire February 2016