Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

by Digitalnun on November 27, 2014

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.

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Lost Faith in Institutions

by Digitalnun on November 26, 2014

As an Englishwoman, I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the situation in Ferguson. What is clear, even to me, is that the Grand Jury’s decision not to prosecute the police officer who killed Michael Brown has been rejected by many as unjust. That word is significant. It suggests a lack of faith in one of the very institutions meant to guarantee justice. Whether those who have rejected the Grand Jury’s decision have heard all the evidence in the case, or whether the Jury itself was prejudiced in Darren Wilson’s favour is, in a way, beside the point. As Aldous Huxley remarked in another context, there is a difference between being sincere and appearing sincere. There is a widely-held perception that something is wrong, and it is fast becoming a many-headed hydra feeding on itself. The lack of trust in the law and the way it is administered is palpable, so too is the fear on both sides. It is particularly sad that the U.S.A. should be undergoing such a trial on the eve of Thanksgiving, when people all over the world, not just its own citizens, give thanks for the many good things that have come from ‘the land of the free’.

It isn’t difficult to find parallels nearer home here in the U.K. or in the Church. It is impossible, for example, to talk of integrity and banking in the same breath without someone smiling a little cynically. Some of our Westminster politicians have done a very good job of discrediting themselves, alas; and while I grieve for the sins of the Church, I can’t help admitting that some of her members have behaved so badly that it is a wonder we haven’t all been torched. What has caused this negativity, this loss of faith?

I think myself a partial answer may be found in the experience of war, totalitarianism and untramelled capitalism during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The huge loss of life, the sacrifice of the individual to a very uncertain good, the sheer dreariness of everything, only fleetingly alleviated by the modern equivalents of bread and circuses, have taken their toll. The individual has often felt helpless and alone. Add to this the breaking down of supportive structures like the family and old allegiances, e.g. to Church, and we have a piquant mix. It is not the whole story, of course, but we see the working out of it in the protest movements and sporadic violence now troubling us. We have lost faith. We have lost trust. And because we have lost trust, we may have ended up becoming less trustworthy.

May have. It is an important distinction. Here, therefore, is a question for myself and for anyone who bothers to read this post. What grounds would anyone have for trusting me (us)? Are they adequate, or is there a grey area that invites disbelief? The answer we give may be sobering, but there is something to cling to, even if we feel hopeless. The astonishing fact is that we have been trusted by God — infinitely. He has given the world into our care; he has entrusted life itself to us; and He does so over and over again. We may be disbelieving, but we know He will never lose faith. I think we should be encouraged, don’t you?

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Courage in the Cause of Right

by Digitalnun on November 25, 2014

St Catherine of Alexandria by Carlo Crivelli, XV century

St Catherine of Alexandria by Carlo Crivelli, XV century

We live in a world where violence has become commonplace. Perhaps it has always been so, but we are certainly more aware of it now than we might have been in times past. Modern media allows us to see what is happening in the streets of Mosul or Ferguson or virtually anywhere in the world, as it is happening. One problem with such instant awareness is that it may lead to a short-circuiting of thought. We react rather than reflect. Today’s feast, of St Catherine of Alexandria (more properly, Katherine), is interesting because it provides us, inter alia, with a different perspective.

Let us concede, right at the start, that the St Catherine of hagiography is probably a conflation of various holy women; but that has not made her cult any less significant. She is one of the great virgin martyr saints who fulfils all the ideals of Late Antique Christianity. High-born, learned, beautiful, courageous and eloquent, she is credited with having opposed the Emperor Maxentius, winning the debate with his philosophers on the question of idol-worship and converting many to Christ. And all this without a single blow being struck, without any compulsion. It is easy to see why in the Middle Ages she was ranked as one of the fourteen most helpful saints in heaven (a lovely idea, isn’t it?). I myself would rank her as a good role-model for Christians today. Whatever one thinks of her mystical marriage to Christ, or the various elements of her cult some find uncomfortable, she remains an example of courage in the cause of right; of non-violent protest; of conviction and daring. She is very much a saint for our times.

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Preparing for the Unknown

by Digitalnun on November 20, 2014

I begin a course of chemotherapy tomorrow so will probably be blogging only intermittently, if at all. It is fitting that I should start this new phase of my life on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, the Dies Memorabilis of the English Benedictine Congregation, and my own Clothing anniversary. However much we try to prepare for certain eventualities or to predict outcomes, we have to live with the unpredictable, with scenarios for which we are most definitely not prepared — as Our Lady did with such spectacular consequences for us all. I think that is what it means to live by grace. It is certainly what is meant by monastic profession, when we place our whole lives not only in the hands of God (the easy bit) but also in the hands of fallible human beings (the difficult bit) and learn to walk, as St Benedict says, by another’s judgement and decisions.

So, you get a little rest from my words, at least for now. The prayer, however, goes on and on.

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The Church’s Powerful Women

by Digitalnun on November 19, 2014

What does that phrase convey to you? Whom do you think of as the Church’s powerful women? My guess is that the majority of Catholics would be hard put to name any living woman as such. A little scratching of the head might produce a few names from the past: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, say, or Teresa of Avila. The idea of women exercising power in the Church is alien to most, and the names we remember tend to come from a comparatively small group of people who did comparatively similar things, e.g. found an order/congregation/institute of charity or write. The more historically-minded could provide a list of Late Antique empresses and medieval queens who exerted a lot of influence in the Church, not all of it good, but that mythical beast, the (wo)man in the pew, would probably end up with very few names. Among them would almost certainly be that of today’s saint, Hild or Hilda of Whitby, but I wonder whether it would be the Hilda of history or the Hilda of modern myth who would be celebrated?

A close reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us several interesting facts about Hilda and suggests many more. She may once have been married. ‘Everyone called her mother,’ says Bede, a phrase he uses of no other nun. She was certainly of mature age (33) when she abandoned her plan to go to Chelles, the leading monastery for women of the day, and answered Aidan’s call to establish a monastery in Northumbria. The monasteries she founded all followed the Celtic pattern and were double houses for both men and women. Bede emphasizes her gifts as an administrator — and her sensitivity to poetry. She plucked Caedmon from the cow-byre to be a singer of psalms and sacred songs. Her role at the Synod of Whitby has been much discussed, and I think it may explain why Hilda has been mythologized in recent times.

What happened at Whitby must have been quite earth-shattering for many of the participants. Indeed, the monks of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision to embrace the Roman date for Easter and withdrew first to Iona, then later, to Ireland. For those who did accept the decision, Hilda among them, it meant the loss of much that was dear and familiar. Little by little, or in some cases overnight, the old Celtic practices gave way to the ‘new’ Roman ones. Even the shape of the monks’ tonsure changed. Perhaps only those who have lived monastic life themselves can really appreciate what these changes meant to the individuals concerned. There was continuity but also change, and it is often the little things that cost most.

Hilda undoubtedly played a key role in getting the decision accepted. Such was her reputation for wisdom and prudence that many would have looked to her for guidance. Crucially, what many overlook is that in accepting the Roman date of Easter Hilda was placing the desire for unity in Church practice above any other consideration. As a Celtic Christian, she already acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but here she was, stating that a theoretical acknowledgement had to be translated into actual practice.

People sometimes speak of Hilda as though she were a role model for female bishops. She is undoubtedly a role model for Christian leadership, but I think myself it is more helpful to see her in the monastic context, where leadership is exercised without hierarchical status. Power, in Church terms, is such an odd thing. I think we sometimes mistake the importance of the different elements in building up the Church. Administration is a gift, a charism, not to be undervalued; but it is a gift meant to lead to holiness, and holiness without compassion is an impossibility. Hilda did not set herself up over and against the existing hierarchy of the Church but used her many gifts of heart and mind to bring others to the Christ she knew and loved so well. It is no accident that, holy herself, her monastery became a nursery of saints. May she pray for us all.

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What Should We Do About Ebola?

by Digitalnun on November 18, 2014

You have probably noticed how Ebola has slipped from the headlines in the West. We are currently more interested in IS, Russia and the spectre of another recession. It doesn’t mean Ebola has gone away, or that we are any less involved in terms of money and personnel, but our perception of the immediacy of the crisis has somehow lessened. Unless or until another person with Ebola is hospitalised in the West, we shall continue to think of the virus as something that affects people ‘over there’ — and our thinking about how to help will follow suit.

There have been sobering reports that Western aid is missing the mark. Julia Duncan-Cassell, Liberia’s Chief of Development, is on record as saying neighbours and relatives are struggling to care for thousands of Ebola orphans while Western aid workers enjoy a lavish lifestyle and spend money on projects that are of little benefit. That kind of statement feeds into a very Western fear that aid agencies and charities do not always use the money given to them wisely or even appropriately. On the whole, if I may be permitted a very large generalisation, the religiously-inspired charities seem to do a better job than most, but still there is anxiety. How do we help? How do we ensure that money given to aid people suffering so greatly actually does what we intend? What should we do? I have no answers, but part of me thinks the very Benedictine approach of listening to the community might be a good starting-point. We may think building another treatment centre is the priority (and heaven knows, they are needed!) but for those who have been orphaned, or who have lost children on whom they depend for support, the need for food, shelter and companionship is just as urgent. It may not seem as urgent to us, but there is a future beyond Ebola we must think about and work to protect.

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Was St Benedict a Foodie?

by Digitalnun on November 17, 2014

It may seem strange that the chapter of the Rule we read today (RB 39) is entirely concerned with food, but not food as it is often perceived in contemporary Western society, where it is the focus of TV programmes and endless discussions about superfoods, cooking gadgets and the latest take on traditional dishes, but rather, food as part of the physical and spiritual discipline of the monastery. The two go together, as feast and fast go together, but we often forget that, so accustomed have we become to abundance and to the exaltation of freedom and choice as absolute values. For St Benedict, as for his followers, food is a symbol of something much more important, and its proper preparation, serving and enjoyment are all part of that process of seeking God that is the raison d’être of the monastery.

Chapter 39 is concerned with the amount and type of food, and would probably delight the heart of any fitness-freak today with its insistence on fresh fruit and vegetable and moderation in everything; chapter 40 discusses drink, and allows for moderate use of wine; chapter 41 goes into the times of meals, which are all related to the Easter feast. In chapter 35 we read of the kitchen servers and the qualities they should bring to their task; in chapters 36 and 37 Benedict makes special provision for the sick, the young and the very old. Elsewhere we read of the rituals surrounding eating (e.g. chapter 38) or the punishment of exclusion from the common table (e.g. chapter 24). All in all, this amounts to a theology of food, a domestic liturgy, in which all participate and enflesh, so to say, the rhythm of the Christian year, with its movement through the different seasons and the alternations of fast and feast until we reach the central point of Easter. The monk is not to be weighed down with excess, not to give way to self-indulgence, because he has mind and heart fixed on paschal joy.

For many people, food is just fuel for the journey; for others it is an end in itself. Most of us would probably admit to being somewhere in between the two extremes, caring about what we eat, but not sufficiently to spend all our time in the kitchen  or concentrating huge efforts on achieving some sort of gastronomic excellence. Perhaps we can all learn something from Benedict’s approach to food as an essential part of life, to be valued and treated with reverence but not idolised. We become what we eat; we also become how we eat. It would be a useful exercise to spend a few moments today thinking about both those things, and how they relate both to our spiritual quest and to our development as human beings. St Benedict was indeed a ‘foodie’, but perhaps not quite as we understand that term.

Emails: our emails are working again. The problem related to our previous use of Postini as a relayer, but I’m not sure how many emails have been unintentionally returned to sender.

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Disappointment

by Digitalnun on November 16, 2014

We all know what it is to be disappointed, when ‘ah’ turns to ‘oh’ on a downward note, and a brave smile replaces a bright one. I was fascinated to learn that the word originally meant precisely what it says: to remove from office. Perhaps an element in disappointment, then, is the feeling that one has been deprived of something that is one’s due. It isn’t merely an unfulfilled hope that is being dashed but a (more or less) legitimate expectation.

All very well, but how do we deal with it? I daresay at Christmas there will be many a person saying, ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ as they open a gift they don’t much care for, not realising how those words can numb the heart of the well-intentioned giver. We can ignore; feign; insist on acting as though nothing had happened. Very few of us have the ability to accept with perfect equanimity that things haven’t turned out quite as we had hoped. The tacite conscientia of the Fourth Degree of Humility is beyond most of us — except by grace. When it is a question of something more than present-giving, how we deal with disappointment can have effects that go far beyond anything we intended. Some of the horrors of the Second World War surely grew out of the disappointments of the First and the determination of Clémenceau and others to make Germany pay. Disappointment and humiliation are evil bedfellows.

In recent weeks we have had a number of disappointments here at the monastery, so this post is being written very much in via rather than safely on the other side of disappointment surmounted. My most recent PET scan revealed that the secondaries in my lungs and liver are growing merrily and have now invaded my right hip (bone) and, indignity of indignities, even my sit-upon! Fortunately, the pain is bearable at present, and beginning to walk like a drunken sailor is just one more eccentricity to cultivate. Of course I am disappointed. Of course it is difficult. But somewhere in that disappointment we as a community, no less than I personally, have to find meaning and grace. I am sure it is possible, but it may take a while to figure out how.

Note: we have a server problem which means all emails addressed to @benedictinenuns.org.uk addresses are currently being rejected. Prayer requests made via our online contact form are still getting through. We hope to get it fixed as soon as possible.

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1,000 Blog Posts and Reaching for the Stars

by Digitalnun on November 13, 2014

For someone who loves symmetry, it is rather nice that the 1,000th blog post to appear on iBenedictines should co-incide with the feast of All Benedictine Saints and our waiting to hear whether the historic landing of the Philae robot on Comet 67P is going to be as successful as we all hope it will. We are reaching for the stars at every level!

One of the most amazing things to have happened in my lifetime is the exploration of space. To have watched the moon landings as I did as a child; to have pored over those beautiful photos made possible by the Hubble telescope; to have looked at Mars or the grey surface of 67P is something undreamed of, a wonder and a joy that, to me, speaks of God. What mind, what heart, conceived these things and holds them in being? The Benedictine Saints we commemorate today did not see any of these astronomical wonders, but they knew ‘the Love that moves the Sun and lesser stars’. And because they knew that Love they have left us both example and encouragement.

‘Reaching for the stars’ may be a rather corny expression, but I think it captures that sense of voyaging into the unknown, of striving for holiness that characterises Benedictine life. People sometimes think that becoming a monk or nun must turn one in on oneself, makes one’s universe shrink. If it does that, there is something very wrong going on. The opposite should be true. One’s horizons should expand, just as one’s heart should expand with the inexpressible sweetness of love as one runs along the path of God’s commandments. (RB Prologue 49) Blogging, too, if it is all about seeking admiration or star-ratings is, for the monastic practitioner, another wrong turn. I am grateful that this blog has managed to pursue its own quirky path with what I hope is its own quirky integrity for 1,000 posts. You, the readers, help make it what it is, but any success it has cannot be measured in numbers, only in its ability, or otherwise, to make people think and, I hope, draw closer to God.

St Benedict ends his chapter on Good Zeal with the hope that Christ may bring us all together to everlasting life. That is the prayer of the community here today for all who light on these pages, and for all whose lives we touch or who touch our own.

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Our Biggest Failure?

by Digitalnun on November 12, 2014

Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?

We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.

In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.

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