September 1964: the first Wednesday of the school term. I was just about getting used to the dreariness of life in St Augustine’s. I hadn’t been there a week when I realised that every day was going to be the same after all the day girls had gone home. Tea (more on that later)at four o’clock, then “play” till five, then “prep” till 6.30, then supper (more on that later) , then more “play” in the hall, then bed with prayers and “lights out” at 8. 8!!!!! What was a girl to do? I hated “play” which always seemed to involve catching a ball of some sort, or throwing it, which was even worse. I couldn’t do it then, and I can hardly do it now, but at least no one is making me. They’d put us into teams, so I always felt as if I was letting everyone down. Nightmare – in every sense of the word! I wanted to read, and there was not the time for that. Couldn’t do it in bed either because they switched the light off too early. I wasn’t sleepy and the girl I shared a room with didn’t want to talk to me. I can’t really blame her – she was 17, from Hong Kong and as displaced as I was. Why would she want to make conversation with a nosey, tearful, 11 year old? So we both tossed and turned sleeplessly and miserably while waiting for breakfast! (More on that later!)
But back to Wednesday. The bell rang for the end of afternoon school and suddenly there was a flurry of girls not going home but looking for their hats! Hats? Mine was upstairs in my bedroom. Minutes later we were all lined up in the cloisters ready for Benediction. I was deeply curious and then very bemused. We all trooped into the chapel, which was tiny and beautiful, with a lovely blue domed ceiling, and were told to kneel down. Which we did. And then the priest came in, in a very resplendent, embroidered cope, and carrying an enormous monstrance. I had never before experienced anything like it. Suddenly the singing started – Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, the high reedy voices of the nuns, the deep sonorous voice of the priest – followed by apparently endless Latin litanies, and finally the blessing. Loads of incense. It all took about twenty minutes, and that first time was utterly amazing. I was entranced by the mystery of it, the music, the silence, the smells, the bells, the grandeur, the theatricality… It was truly a multi-sensory experience.
And then, as with many things, familiarity breeds contempt.
I was at the school for seven years and for seven years we had Benediction every week. I got used to it. I got bored with it. Then some of it changed to English, so I began to understand it. I became very ambiguous towards it. And then I left school.
It didn’t happen again. I didn’t think about it. It was of its time, of its place. If anyone had cared to ask I would have thought it was something that just happened at school. A private, eclectic ritual. And then many years later I was in Spain, and just entered a church at random.
And there was the priest ( looked as if he could have been the same one, though of course he wasn’t – if truth be told, the priest changed in St Augustine’s, but they were all pretty similar) in his magnificent robes, holding up an even more ornate monstrance, and intoning the Tantum Ergo and the litanies. I was transported back to school, and utterly bemused again. Why did this not happen more often? It is a beautiful if sometimes incomprehensible ritual – but not mentioned or celebrated anywhere!