Remembering… Fr Conrad Pepler, O.P. (1908-1993)
By Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, O.P. | Br Daniel reflects on the life and work of Fr Conrad Pepler OP, a friar whose wisdom came “alive not so much in carved blocks of stone or finely printed books but among living human beings. He was an artist in people.”
In an obituary in The Tablet, Fr Conrad’s work running the first Catholic conference centre in England, Spode House, is aptly described as having manifested a wisdom that came “alive not so much in carved blocks of stone or finely printed books but among living human beings. He was an artist in people” (Brian Wicker, The Tablet, 20 November 1993). Implicit in this homage to nearly three decades of great dedication are three prominent features of his life: exemplary obedience in wholeheartedly working at whatever he was asked to do; a love for the arts and the via pulchritudinis as a mode of preaching; and lastly, his humility in acting as “a catalyst that made something happen without itself being directly involved in the happening”.
Baptised Stephen, the son of Hilary Pepler, the writer, printer, and co-founder of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling – a lay community of Catholic craftsmen inspired by distributist principles – his childhood was profoundly shaped by an immersion in Ditchling’s quasi-religious life of prayer and artistic work. In a piece for The Hawkesyard Review, Hilary Pepler’s philosophy is encapsulated in the remark that “the work of the printer is to multiply the written word, hence the printer serves the maker of words, and the maker of words serves… the Word which became flesh”. This incarnational emphasis was to become a refrain throughout Fr Conrad’s work. It is no wonder that after the rather natural decision to enter the Dominican Novitiate (taking the name Conrad) at Woodchester in 1927, his chief interest proved to be the liturgy, the veritable icon of Catholic incarnationalism, leading him to defend a lectoral thesis on “Christ the High-Priest of the Mass”. After a brief spell of teaching at Hawkesyard and then in Rome, the interruption of the War resulted in his assignment to Oxford where he undertook a considerable amount of work, at one point being student master, cantor, librarian, and editor of Blackfriars and Life of the Spirit, not to mention also writing and giving retreats.
When in 1953 he was surprised with the appointment as warden of Spode House, he took the task in his stride, regarding it as the embodiment of his editorial work for Life and Spirit, intensifying the Christian spirit where it already existed. It also resonated with a desire to humbly serve others, which had been especially inspired by the work of Dorothy Day. Earlier, he had mused on the idea of setting up a house of hospitality for the poor in London, though it didn’t capture the imagination of his superiors. The title of the inaugural programme of study weeks organised at Spode was “Religion and the Arts”, a favourite topic in Fr Conrad’s writing. For the first week, which was to focus on music, musicians were encouraged to bring music and instruments. The influence of the first week still perdures, despite the closure of the conference centre in 1987, as the annual Spode Music Week.
Alongside his full-time pastoral work at Spode, he found time to write books suffused with a distinctive spirituality: though not well known, his writings still have much to offer. Indeed, in a letter to a Cistercian novice master, Thomas Merton recommended them as worthwhile novitiate reading. His artistic interests are most prevalent in his slim volume of essays entitled Sacramental Prayer. It is important context to note that the book immediately followed two others: one on the English mystics and and the second a more general study of mysticism. In the mystics he sees an emphasis on private devotion and individualism, reflecting the inclinations of late medieval piety but also the secrecy necessitated by persecution after the Reformation. Sacramental Prayer thus endeavours to redress the balance by bringing together the desire for personal union with God with the corporeality and communality of liturgical prayer. Art plays a crucial role, for worship is “bound up with art” because it expresses the “divine harmony in all that the Creator has made”.
Sacred music was a great love of Fr Conrad. He gives it pride of place among the arts and lauds it as the “most delicate of man’s creations… always on the move… never seen as a static whole… music has a sacramental character of its own, signing the sacred sign in the mysterious realms of sound”. St Augustine, in the Office of Readings for last Friday’s memorial of St Cecilia, echoes a similar sentiment when he refers to the “sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth what it cannot utter in words… soaring into an immensity of gladness, unrestrained by syllabic bonds”. Why does Fr Conrad give such importance to liturgical music? It is because he sees the liturgy overflowing into “all the interstices between daily occupations”. He laments that “We are saturated with profane music – radio waves convey vibrations… through the very tissues of our flesh… All this sound flows not towards God, but away from him, and so serves to disintegrate and disunite us… we lack the art of music in ourselves”. In a Dostoevskian phrase he concludes: “we shall not introduce harmony into this life until we have introduced it in our liturgy”.
Lest we suspect Fr Conrad of overprioritising human determinations in the liturgy, we must only note the ardour with which he asserts that the “whole movement of the spiritual life… [is] inspired, directed, and controlled sacramentally by the Eucharist, which leads to the perfection for which every Christian prays… it works in such a way as to impel the soul to prayer – Christ takes possession of the soul and its activities through this sacrament”. For Fr Conrad, the Holy Eucharist was indeed the consummation of the spiritual life, and his yearning for beauty in the liturgy sprang from a desire to see the wood of more souls kindled by the flame of divine charity in the greatest of the sacraments. Here was surely the secret of an almost palpable holiness that is still remembered and spoken of with admiration by the friars who knew him.
Fr Conrad Pepler OP (May 5 1908 – November 10 1993). Requiescat in Pace.
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