Hengrave changed my life. Almost everything I like about myself has some connection with my time at Hengrave. Let me try to explain what this place is and what it has meant to me. Hengrave Hall Centre is run by a community called the Sisters of the Assumption. They are a mixed denomination Christian community, who devote their lives to reconciliation, which means mainly ecumenical work but they do some interfaith stuff, some social justice stuff and so on. Hengrave is one of their largest houses, and is run as a kind of conference and retreat centre by a mixture of nuns and lay volunteers, some of whom spend a short spell of a few months there and some longer term. The house itself is a gorgeous country house, mostly Tudor, and one of the most architecturally important houses of the period in England. Here are some of my pictures, and a more comprehensive set I found on Google.
The Hengrave community are just incredible people, people who make it possible to believe in humanity and in religion as a force for good. As well as being mixed denomination, they come from all over the world and range in age from late teens to nineties. I think the simplest way I can put it is that they love people. If you have a really good friend, someone you can talk to about anything, however boring or however personal and difficult, someone who really sees who you are as a person and is always there for you, that might give you some idea of what the community are like with everyone. So people who are invited to Hengrave (always guests, never "customers") and experience the amazing atmosphere that comes from living among people like that, are inspired to be kinder to the people around them.
I've met some of my dearest friends at Hengrave. And I've been a far better friend to all my friends because of having learnt there what it means to really value someone else. I think it's Hengrave, to a very great extent, that inspired me to venture out of my little self-absorbed bubble of books and ideas and intellectualism and take an interest in people. It was the first place where I was taken seriously as a person, not just a child (despite the fact that I actually was a child, in years and in emotional maturity at the time). I've found comfort and strength there when I was having a hard time facing reality. My understanding of religion is deeply permeated by my experiences at Hengrave; I do think it's a holy place, it's the only way I can describe it, and having prayed there lets me find meaning in ritual. Of course, it's where I discovered interfaith dialogue, which is such an important part of my life.
Hengrave has given me a vision of the person I would like to be. Since I first went there, I've been trying to grow into that person, and as far as I've succeeded I'm a much, much nicer person than I would be without that. It's also let me accept myself as I am, knowing that I'm worth something even though I'm in no way close to that goal yet. (Here's my post on last years' conference, where I've had another go at saying some of the things in this post.)
Earlier this year, and very suddenly, the Hengrave community announced that they were in financial difficulties and would have to close the centre. I was and am absolutely devastated by this news. Yesterday I attended with my Dad a thanksgiving service at Hengrave, held to mark the end of this wonderful community. (I can't bring myself to talk about Hengrave in the past tense, so my apologies to any grammatical pedants who may object to the earlier part of the post.)
The service was structured as a celebration of all that is wonderful about Hengrave, but it was done sensitively and accepted the sadness of the congregation. And it was based around a harvest / thanksgiving festival, with people bringing offerings of produce and stuff. They brought the Hengrave cross out into the garden in front of the house, and gathered together the community past and present as well as people like me who wanted to join them in saying farewell. They had baked bread which they shared round, after asking R Goldstein (who used to run the Jews and Christians group) to make hamotzi (the Jewish blessing for bread) over it. It was a lovely service, but I was really having a hard time not weeping throughout.
They had as many people as practically possible to speak about their memories of Hengrave; it has touched so many people so profoundly, I know. The music was almost entirely modern hymns which I don't really know or like (hatam_soferet would likely disapprove), but still, Hengrave has always favoured participation over aestheticizing religion, so it was in keeping. Sr Asterie played her big African drum, much more audible out of doors than the guitar, flute and electric organ that provided the rest of the accompaniment. It would be impossible to have a service of remembrance for Hengrave without mentioning Sr Julian, who led the community until her death a few years ago and who very much made Hengrave what it is. I can't go to Hengrave and mourn for Sr Julian, who died in her 90s surrounded by her community and people who loved her, without remembering J, who didn't.
After the service there was a tea, the community even now keeping up their tradition of trying to serve others in small practical ways as well as following their grand religious ideals. There was some of the usual Hengrave spirit of realizing how wonderful people are, the happiness of meeting old friends who have shared Hengrave experiences. Sr Aquinas, who has retired from Hengrave itself now but who was among the people who inspired me in the early days. Sr Angeles, who is like everybody's adored and indulgent grandmother, was sweet to me as she always has been. And there was someone who remembered me as a precocious 14-year-old from the Jewish - Christian events more than a decade ago.
And all of that, and more that goes beyond what I can describe, is over now. I started out asking the community where they were going to go, but was horrified to find they don't know. Some of them have been part of Hengrave for five decades, and some of them have nobody in the world but the community. I'm sure they will find homes eventually but it's an unimaginable grief for them to lose all this. I know, nothing lasts forever and all that, but I find it really hard to accept that this community quietly living their lives in rural Suffolk and doing genuine good, have to be broken up because they've run out of money.
O GodBlessed is the Judge of truth.
Give us a well of tears
To cleanse the wounds of our world