The Last Plantagenet

by Digitalnun on May 28, 2016

Blessed Margaret Pole (pronounced ‘pool’), Countess of Salisbury (1473 – 1541), is sometimes called ‘the last of the Plantagenets’. Her early history was eventful, to say the least, and like all those close to the crown, she experienced the fickleness of royal favour. Her father was executed for treason; her mother and younger brother died when she was three; widowed  in 1504, with five children, scanty resources and no prospects, she lived with the Bridgetines of Syon for a few years. Restored to royal favour in 1509, she enjoyed the sunshine of Henry VIII’s regard for a while but, when she refused to countenance his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, was treated mercilessly. Her eldest son, Henry, was executed; Margaret herself was imprisoned in the Tower for two and a half years and, despite her age, subjected to rough and inhuman treatment. Her death, when at last it came, was at the hands of a ‘blundering youth’ who, instead of cutting off her head cleanly, ‘hacked her head and shoulders’ so that eleven blows were needed to kill her. The following verse was found on the wall of her cell:

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

To the very end, she protested her innocence of any crime and is today regarded as a martyr for the Faith.

I think Margaret is an encouragement to all whose family circumstances are less than ideal, and whose age or frailty makes them think that they can do nothing of any consequence — those who protest that they are ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. In the sketch given above, I have said nothing of her third son Reginald’s resentment of her abandoning him, as he saw it, to the Church (where, as it happens, he had an ‘interesting’ career as cardinal, papal legate and archbishop of Canterbury) or of all the cousins and other family members who met violent deaths and/or suffered the loss of lands and estates. What stands out, I think, is her courage and her constancy. She was a woman of integrity who did not plead age as an excuse to knuckle under to Henry VIII’s demands. Even her son Reginald was forced to acknowledge there was something great about his mother, finally admitting he would ‘never fear to call himself the son of a martyr.’ Those watching The Hollow Crown on BBC1 may like to remember that those ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago’ had a very human face and cost. The bravest were not always the youngest and most handsome. There is hope for us all.



St Augustine of Canterbury and the E.U. Referendum

by Digitalnun on May 27, 2016

There are two things I find especially attractive about St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast we celebrate today: his reluctance to come to Britain in the first place, and his modesty once he arrived. Gregory the Great had to keep chivvying him as he dawdled through Gaul — clearly, the Anglo-Saxons either terrified Augustine or disgusted him or both. Then there was the problem of the miracles. Gregory wasn’t keen on them, and said so. Augustine took his rebuke to heart and to this day we know nothing about the miracles contemporaries ascribed to him. In fact, there is something very English about this obscure Roman monk, plucked from the cloister and sent to Kent to begin the huge work of conversion. He was dutiful rather than brave (though he could be firm in the face of opposition); loyal and hard-working rather than showily magnificent; a monk at heart wherever he went. These are not spectacular qualities, but they are very sound ones. Augustine was not a Benedictine, but he more than fits Benedict’s idea of the utilis frater, the reliable brother.

With the E.U. referendum just a few weeks away, it may be helpful to think about St Augustine and what followed from his mission. For several centuries England was to be part of the Catholic Church and, as such, to have horizons that stretched well beyond national self-interest. Many of her important churchmen were foreigners. Among Augustine’s successors we number Theodore of Tarsus who gave us our parish system, Lanfranc who reformed our monasteries and cathedrals, and Anselm of Aosta who, in addition to being a Doctor of the universal Church, played a significant, if uncomfortable, role in the so-called Investiture Contest. Our idea of the nation-state has tended to obscure the older, more fluid conception of Europe which these men understood. Has that anything to contribute to our current debate? When we come to vote on 23 June (incidentally the feast of All Holy English Nuns) we shall have made our decision on the basis of economic and political arguments that will, I suspect, have largely concentrated on ‘what’s best for us’.  I suggest that before then we need to think about how we define ‘us’.


An Unfashionable Virtue: Obedience

by Digitalnun on May 24, 2016

Yesterday and today we have been reading St Benedict’s fifth chapter, on obedience. Its fine phrases have often been quoted on this blog, and I have spent most of my adult life trying to put it into practice. We vow our obedience in the monastery. At the heart of that vow is a perpetual listening to God that, far from narrowing our world, opens us up to endless possibilities. It is, we believe, a virtue to be obedient. But is is an unfashionable virtue. In the west we value our independence of thought and action and regard choosing to live by another’s judgement and authority (cf RB 5.12) as somehow immature. Even among Catholics you will find those who seem to know better than the Church!

I think part of the problem may lie in our inability to make the connection between our own obedience and Christ’s obedience to the Father. Canon Law protects us from the enormities of ‘blind obedience’ or any lazy attempt to shrug off personal responsibility by claiming ‘I was only doing what I was told.’ That is not obedience, although it is often mistaken for obedience. No, real obedience is hard work and exposes us to risk. It will change us, and most of us do not like being changed. Moreover, we cannot be sure we are always right any more because we are not the sole masters of our fate. God has a way of upsetting things. Even so, we can misunderstand; we can get it wrong. What we can’t do is play safe, refuse to act, refuse to listen. I have sometimes wondered whether, during those last few days before his Crucifixion, Christ did not ask himself whether he was doing the right thing, whether he had understood aright what the Father wanted. In Gethsemane those questions came to the fore and could only be answered with ‘Let your will, not mine, be done.’

Very few of us ever seem to reach the point where, heart and soul, we can say, ‘Let your will, not mine be done.’ We try, yes we try. We make huge sacrifices, bear terrible things as uncomplainingly as possible, but it is only with our last breath that we can be sure that our obedience is complete. That is one reason why we pray daily for the grace of a good death. Not necessarily a good death as many understand it, a death free fom pain and surrounded by those who love us, but a death that truly completes our life, that allows us to say, ‘I have heard, and I have obeyed.’


Trinity Sunday 2016

by Digitalnun on May 22, 2016

The Trinity
















Trinity Sunday brings with it the stately propositions and anathemas of the Athanasian Creed. Look only at the anathemas and we will be lulled into uneasy sleep; look only at the propositions and our mind will be tugged and stretched beyond bearing. However we try to explain the Trinity — in terms of energy or relationship or even the poor little shamrock — we are left with mystery. It is a beautiful, luminous mystery, to be approached silently, reverently, on our knees. The trisagion of the heart does not depend upon our understanding but upon our willingness to let God be God in our lives.

Note on the illustration
English or French Book of Hours, c. 1430–40, from the Getty Collection, MS 5, fol 13v.


An Idle Thought Before Trinity Sunday

by Digitalnun on May 21, 2016

This morning I was thinking about D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai*, and the courage with which she defended Fr Augustine Baker’s teaching on contemplative prayer in the face of disapproval (euphemism) from the monks of the English Benedictine Congregation. A little later I did a quick check of our Facebook pages and came across a series of photographs of Cardinal Burke in several varieties of ecclesiasatical costume (another euphemism) appended to an interview he has given about secularism. And there you have it, I said to myself, two quite different understandings of the Church, two different understandings of what really matters. For D. Catherine — quiet, resolute, determined to hold to the one thing necessary — a reluctant confrontation with Church authority; for Cardinal Burke — combative, fired with a zeal some of us see as not always wise — another instance of apportioning blame for the ills of the Church (remember his interview on the feminization of the Church?) which fails to take account of the responsibility of her priests and bishops for the same, and is not helped by the way he dresses.

This post isn’t about Cardinal Burke or D. Catherine as such. It is, as I said, about two different understandings of the Church, but they are useful illustrations of two tendencies the Church has within her. One early image of the Church is that of the vine — organic, growing, subject to dormant periods, in constant need of pruning, but essentially fruitful despite its vulnerability. Another is that of the Church built on rock — solid, unchanging, proof against all assaults. We actually need both understandings, but most of us have a tendency to prefer one or the other. The danger of thinking always in organic terms is that one can lose a sense of the objectivity of the Church, of the necessity of her institutional form. The danger of thinking always in institutional terms is that one can lose sight of the personal, the charismatic. And so to my point. As we approach Trinity Sunday with its powerful reminder of the transcendence of God, we need, more than ever, to remember the Incarnation. The great mystery of faith we call the Holy Trinity has a vulnerable, human face; and we worship both.

*Today is the anniversary of her death.


On Being Religious

by Digitalnun on May 20, 2016

Many people begin a conversation with the words, ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’ Sometimes they go on to articulate a philosophy of being that is fundamentally religious with their acknowledgement of a Supreme Being and their sense of personal obligation, duty and relationship. More often they lose themselves, and me, in a series of well-meaning but inchoate propositions that suggest something between pantheism and humanitarianism. The idea of a personal God who is to be known and loved, reverenced and obeyed, does not fit easily into such a scheme of things. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered, perhaps unfairly, whether to be spiritual as some people explain it is to worship a God made in one’s own image and likeness — a God with all the difficult and demanding bits left out. To be religious, as Christians understand that term, is quite the opposite. The ‘difficult and demanding bits’, with their language of love, sacrifice and obedience, are essential, because they are what conform us to Christ. They are only possible because of the immense otherness of God, his existence above and beyond our understanding, coupled with his immense humility, his willingness to be close to us and dwell within us; but we cannot side-step them. They constitute the Way we must follow.

It is no accident, I think, that the words ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ were, for many years, synonymous with living under monastic vows. The conventional etymology, identifying the words with the Latin religare, meaning to bind, oblige, revere, seems to fit. The monk or nun is someone who has vowed their love and obedience to the Lord in an unbreakable covenant. The emphasis is not so much on our response (living monastically) as on God’s invitation (to become one with him). Paradoxically, that invitation, which binds us to the Lord, leaves us supremely free in a way that ‘being spiritual’ never could. It is as if choosing to follow the guidance of the gospel, the rule and one’s superior cut away all the unnecessary complicatons that being spiritual imposes. The path is Christ, and Christ alone, not a multitude of choices, all apparently equally good, all apparently leading somewhere. That doesn’t mean that following the path of Christ will be easy, but of one thing we can be certain. If we follow it to the end, we shall reach our destination; and I’m not sure that being spiritual will do that for us.


Tolerance v. Indifference

by Digitalnun on May 18, 2016

From time to time someone will call me a bigot for the simple reason that I am a Catholic, or they will assume that I ‘don’t really believe all that stuff’ the Catholic Church teaches. Either way, it seems, I am an idiot and perhaps a hypocrite, too. The fact that such people usually live another day after making such pronouncements is, I think, proof of my tolerance; but isn’t it odd how often we accuse people of being intolerant when what we really mean is that they don’t share our beliefs/values — and then laud indifference, not caring, as though it were a positive value?

Pope St John I, whose memoria we keep today, had an eventful life but one which exemplifies the distinction between tolerance and indifference. He had the misfortune to be pope when the Arian Theodoric ruled Rome. While detesting Arian doctrine, John had no difficulty in wishing Arians themselves well and, despite his own frail health, went to Constantinople, to ask the emperor, Justin, to moderate the civil effects of his anti-Arian decree of 523. In this he was largely successful, but Theodoric seems to have suspected some double-dealing (for which there is no proof) and had the luckless pope thrown into prison at Ravenna, where he died of neglect and ill-treatment. John was tolerant; he wasn’t indifferent.

Our experiments with multi-culturalism in the West have often ended in failure precisely because we have confused tolerance (respect for the individual and the willingness to accept difference, however painful) with indifference (an unwillingness to consider whether anything is good or bad). Being tolerant is never half-hearted, never not caring; whereas being indifferent is the lazy way out and easily slides into not bothering at all. Ultimately, tolerance means welcoming the stranger, whereas indifference means ignoring them.

The example of a sixth-century pope may seem a little remote, but I believe it is worth thinking about and asking ourselves whether we are becoming more tolerant or more indifferent. The answer may be chastening.


Sunshine and Scowls

by Digitalnun on May 17, 2016

You will surely have noticed how even a little sunshine seems to lighten everyone’s mood. Yesterday a chilly start was followed by one of those bright May days which lure the bees to the apple blossom and put a smile on everyone’s faces. No doubt by the end of the week we’ll be back to our usual scowly selves, as the weather turns wetter and colder. It is humbling to realise that we are creatures of such evanescent moods.

At the risk of sounding like a third-class spiritual self-help book, may I suggest that praying for the grace of cheerfulness is a very good idea, especially when we know we are not at our jolliest. Many years ago I was working in the Bodleian (Cantabs have been known to venture into alien territory at times). It had been a long, hot, rather disappointing day. I had not found the information I was looking for, and my temporary digs were remarkably uninviting. The librarian at the desk looked worn out, but when I gave her back the book I had been reading and thanked her, she gave me such a brilliant smile I have never forgotten it. It was a moment of pure grace. Cheerfulness, too, is a way of proclaiming Christ and welcoming him in others.


Pentecost 2016

by Digitalnun on May 15, 2016


Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey.












It is significant, perhaps, that the only person depicted in flame-coloured garments in this painting by D. Werburg Welch is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Classical historians will remind us of the flame-coloured veil worn by married women, but here the colour has a theological meaning. Mary, too, received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the same Spirit who overshadowed her when she conceived Jesus. Just as the
Son of God was born in the flesh from that first overshadowing, so today the Church is born when then Spirit of God fills the minds and hearts of those assembled in the Upper Room. It is the fulfilment of the Promise, the completion of Christ’s earthly mission.

In recent days I have blogged on the gifts of the Spirit. Today I’d like to spend a few moments thinking about the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Catholic tradition lists twelve:

charity (or love)

We can see at once that these are, indeed, the characteristics of those who have allowed the Holy Spirit to work within them. There is nothing wimpish about them. It takes stength and courage to love, to be joyful even when life is brusing, to be kind when others are behaving cruelly or boorishly, to be self-controlled in the midst of temptation, to be chaste when society exalts selfish sexual gratification above fidelity and commitment. There is one, however, that I think stands out above the rest because it won’t let us get away with lazy thinking or complacency: goodness.

What does it mean to be good, to live a good life? Philosophers and theologians have struggled with this question ever since we first began to reflect on our own existence. For the Christian there is a precision in the question we cannot escape. What does it mean for me to be good, to live a good life in the circumstances in which I find myself here and now? The goodness of the cloistered nun is not the same as the goodness of the married man with a family, though obviously there are elements common to both. Nor is the goodness I must live today necessarily to be identified with the goodness I lived twenty years ago or shall live twenty years hence. Only with the help of the Holy Spirit can we make sense of this conundrum.

The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost was not a once-for-all event. The Advocate is to be with us always, to the end of time. Our problem is not so much that we do not have the Holy Spirit as that we do not listen. There is a wonderful irony in the fact that we associate this great feast with the gift of tongues and the commission to go out and preach the Good News to all nations, yet we can only do that if we also remain silent and still, listening for the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. Today, amidst all our rejoicing, let us make time to do just that: listen.