False Nun Syndrome and Its Secular Counterparts

by Digitalnun on August 27, 2014

Before you yawn and turn to something more interesting, let me reassure you that this blog post is about more than the title might suggest. I use the example of nuns because that is what I know best, but a little thought will soon show you where all this is leading.

From time to time, on Facebook, Twitter, in emails and on the street, I encounter False Nun Syndrome. It has various manifestations, but its chief characteristic is a desire to create nuns after the whims and fancies of the (human) creator. The ideal nun should be young, beautiful, smiling and silent — especially silent. She should be dressed in antique robes (the robes are important) and ready, at the drop of a veil-pin, to surround the unbidden guest with sympathy, tea and homemade cake. She must never, ever suggest she has a mind or opinions of her own, and should the beautiful brows ever beetle in anger or irritation, she must know that she is a complete and utter failure. The reality is, of course, that nuns and sisters are just like anyone else and can be middle-aged or elderly, ugly, opinionated and badly dressed. What matters is the fidelity with which each one lives her vocation before God — and that is largely a matter of individual conscience, duly informed and lived out in the particular institute to which she belongs.

So, do we find False Nun Syndrome appearing anywhere else? I think we do. We find it in all kinds of human relationships, where one person seeks to dominate another. It can also be called Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome. The husband who demands that his wife should always dress in a certain way; the wife who demands that her husband should always act in a certain way; the parents who demand that their child should be top of the class/outstanding at sport/play the violin, or what you will: these are all, in their different ways, guilty of wanting others to be as they want them to be and not as they are. It can cause conflict and private anguish; and in the case of children can scar them for life. It is closely linked to the arrogance I wrote about yesterday, and like arrogance it is often unremarked by the perpetrator who genuinely thinks he or she is doing the right thing. How many a parent has wailed, ‘I only wanted what was best for him’ on discovering that all the carefully-made plans have led to a break-down or worse?

There is a humility I think we all need to cultivate with regard to one another. It is not the same as indifference or lack of care or abdicating responsibility to challenge or correct. On the contrary, it means caring enough really to listen, really to look: seeing and hearing the real person, not the false person we wish to create. It means allowing the other person to be him or herself and adjusting our own views to cope. False Nun Syndrome is usually met with a wry smile or (as only too often in my case, alas) with an irritable little outburst. Much more dangerous is Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome and the damage that can do. Maybe this would be a good day to ask whether there is just the merest smidgeon of that in us? We may not have husbands or wives or children, but unless we live alone on a desert island, my guess is that there is someone, somewhere we do not always see whole and complete but only as we want them to be.

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The Problem of Arrogance

by Digitalnun on August 26, 2014

Arrogance is a swaggering, brutal word. It suggests someone with a loud voice, an overbearing manner and probably a florid complexion into the bargain. Unfortunately, arrogance can come in rather more humdrum form — not so much overweening self-confidence as complete disregard of others, an almost risible inability to register what others are thinking or feeling. From time to time I delve into the spam folder on this blog and find comments spluttering expletives and self-righteous denunciations, so bound up in the writer’s own views as to be incapable of taking on board anyone else’s. I suspect these writers have very few friends if they converse like that offline!

The problem with arrogance is that it makes claims for itself at the expense of others. It is selfish; and because it is selfish, it can be destructive. It is suspicious of others’ motives, grudging of others’ success. The contempt it shows is simply a mark of its being turned in on itself. The best image I can think of is not the lip curled into a snarl but the clenched fist, ready to pound a table or another’s nose, the hand that will neither give nor receive. Maybe that is why the prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah came, he would uncurl the clenched fist; why, as evening comes, we sing the Magnificat, with its bright promise that the arrogant and powerful are cast down and the humble raised up.

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Oyez, Oyez, Buy a Nun a Book Day Draws Near

by Digitalnun on August 25, 2014

International Buy a Nun a Book Day

International Buy a Nun a Book Day

It will soon be here, International Buy a Nun a Book Day, on 17 September, the feast of St Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church and Benedictine polymath. The idea behind the day is simple. Nuns and Sisters (especially missionaries) often don’t have the opportunity to choose a book for themselves. They have to rely on what is already in the monastery/convent library, if they have one, or on what they are given (which is why you will often find lots of lives of St John Paul II on religious bookshelves!).

This is YOUR chance to show a nun or sister that you value her by delighting her with a book. So,

  • find a nun or sister
  • ask her what book or ebook she would like
  • present her with a copy on 17 September
  • pray for her.

You will find that some will ask you for titles they can use in their work. Others may ask for poetry or a novel that would normally be unavailable to them. The requests will be as many and various as the nuns and sisters themselves. If you can’t afford a book, a book token for a smaller sum will be received with just as much gratitude and pleasure. (Note: Amazon do not allow gifts of Kindle editions in the UK, but you can buy a Kindle gift card.)

What we ask you NOT to do is to use this day as an opportunity to offload unwanted books from your own collection (unless, of course, one of them happens to be wanted by the intended recipient). Take them to Oxfam or some other charitable organization rather than dumping them on the nuns and sisters!

Update: we shall post our own wish-list in due course on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/benedictinenuns, but for now we just want to spread the word about #BNABDay.

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The Mind of God

by Digitalnun on August 24, 2014

One of the things that makes me chuckle, when it does not make me weep, is the certainty some people have that they know what God thinks. The second reading at Mass today should disabuse us of any such foolish notion:

How rich are the depths of God – how deep his wisdom and knowledge – and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods! Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counsellor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything? All that exists comes from him; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen. (Romans 11. 33–36)

In those few sentences I think St Paul captures the essence of God’s otherness, his utter transcendence. The trouble is, we do not like being reminded of our own limitations. We exalt reason as a God-given gift, then forget that it is a gift, and one that will take us only so far. St Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi has come down to us as a neat theological encapsulation of Jesus’ divine nature and salvific mission, but the evangelist uses the simplest of words, words that might well have sprung from the lips of a Galilean fisherman who grasped intuitively what most of us struggle all our lives to understand: Jesus is our Saviour, the Word made flesh, Son of the living God. We can only wonder and give thanks.

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The Right and Wrong Kinds of Piety

by Digitalnun on August 22, 2014

A ‘Kemble cup’ is a Herefordshire expression for a parting drink. Its origin lies in the last hours of St John Kemble, whose feast we keep today. Falsely accused of complicity in the Titus Oates plot, he was apprehended and sentenced to death (at the age of 80). Before his execution he insisted on saying his prayers and finishing a cup of sack, inviting his jailers to join him. Fr Kemble is exactly my kind of saint: not pious as many understand piety, but truly devout because truly human.

In my (limited) experience, Catholics and Evangelicals both have a difficulty with piety. Put simply, we have a tendency to overdo it. Whether it be multiplying statues and devotions, or scripture quotations and Hallelujahs, we surround ourselves with an aura of godliness that doesn’t always bear inspection. We say the words and we do the deeds, but are we being completely honest with God or ourselves? Is the piety true or false? I have always believed in being as honest as one can with God, admitting one’s doubts, fears, anger, whatever is the struggle of the moment. Yes, one would like to live with a serene and untroubled faith — but that wouldn’t be real; and a real faith is what one needs.

So, this morning, a word of encouragement for all those who feel they are somehow substandard Christians because they aren’t quite ‘good enough’; because they go to church reluctantly sometimes, or eat or drink too much, or have messy personal relationships or just don’t quite ‘get it’. Faith is a funny thing. It tends to come and go. Moments of great enthusiasm are often followed by long periods of lassitude and weariness. What matters is perseverance, not piety as that is commonly understood. One of the Desert Fathers was asked the secret of his spiritual life. He replied, ‘I fall down, and I get up. I fall down, and I get up.’ That is the right kind of piety, and one we can all practise.

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The Murder of James Foley

by Digitalnun on August 21, 2014

The barbaric murder of James Foley is being picked over by the media, as is only to be expected. The fact that the IS spokesman who did the foul deed is apparently British will have set alarm bells ringing in Britain, where there is already considerable concern about the role of British jihadists and the radicalisation of young Muslims by extremist clerics. Even here, in my monastic fastness, I feel uncomfortable. I have Muslim friends — kindly, civilized people, predominantly second or third generation British and middle class — who are as appalled by this kind of violence as anyone else. But, perhaps because I am a woman and a religious, I have also encountered another face of Islam, one that is much more hostile, much less ready to accommodate itself to British notions of law and justice or socially acceptable behaviour. It is this other face of Islam I find increasingly troubling.

One cannot argue with a gun or a knife, any more than one can ‘dialogue’ with someone who thinks one has no rights or value as a human being. The murder of James Foley, like the murder of Lee Rigby, confronts us with a form of Islamist violence that we do not know how to deal with. It is beyond our experience, outside our conceptual world. We can only ask, rather pathetically, ‘How can people do such things?’

In the past Britain has been, nominally at least, a Christian country. We haven’t always lived up to Christian ideals, but there has been general agreement on the Judaeo-Christian basis of much of our law, morality and social behaviour. That sort of cohesion is now breaking down. We have both an increasingly secular and an increasingly religious divide — but the religious divide is not Christian. A few days ago, newspapers were reporting that the most common newborn boy’s name in Britain is now Mohammed and it is the stated wish of some groups to establish areas where Sharia is applied to everyone living there. That presents a peculiar difficulty to our liberal Western minds. Are there limits to what is acceptable? How do we reconcile the demands of some Islamist groups with our societal norms?

It is a question that affects Christians no less than our secular-minded countrymen. To be expected to be complaisant in the face of Islamist outrages because Christians are, by definition, loving and forgiving is to forget that Christian tolerance is really only a pale form of Christian patience; and Christian patience means more than just putting up with things. We are children of Light, dedicated to the service of Truth. A readiness to forgive injuries does not mean that we condone them. A willingness to accept others’ differences and to defend their right to freedom of religious belief and practice does not necessarily mean we regard them as equal to our own. We walk a difficult path, seeking to be true to what we believe while allowing others to be true to what they believe. But still we must ask the question: do we have a common basis for deciding moral questions any more? Do we have a genuinely common response to the kind of militant Islam fostered by IS?

Inevitably, there will be calls for revenge, for more violence to try to end the violence we have seen in Syria and Iraq and, indeed, on the streets of Woolwich. No doubt Western governments are already planning ‘appropriate responses’ to try and guarantee the safety of their citizens. We know that our safety cannot be guaranteed unless there is a change in attitudes, and no one knows how to do that. It has been said that to adopt an ‘eye for an eye’ approach, tit-for-tat violence, leads ultimately to a world full of blind people. Can we be any more blind than we already are? IS fighters are determined to exterminate all who think or believe differently from themselves. Will there come a point when their brutality proves too much and destroys themselves as well as others? Is it possible for so much cruelty not to have a backlash? I do not know, but for all our sakes, Christian and Muslim alike, for the sake of everyone now living and for the sake of the children yet to be born, I hope and pray it may do, and soon.

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On Being an Abbot

by Digitalnun on August 20, 2014

It is very apt that we begin re-reading RB 64, On the Appointment of the Abbot, on St Bernard’s feast day. He was, after all, one of the most energetic and  successful abbots of any time or place, and as a White Monk rather than a Black Monk, shows us how the Benedictine charism is susceptible of development without undergoing fundamental change. (For reasons why I love St Bernard, see this.) Today, however, I want to share a few thoughts about St Benedict’s second chapter on the abbot.

Whereas the first, RB 2, The Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be, was idealistic in its portrayal of a humane, spiritual and discerning leader, RB 64 is much more worldly-wise. It starts with the nuts and bolts of how to get an abbot in the first place. (RB 64. 1–6) Ideally, he should be chosen by the whole community acting unanimously; but then comes the swift decline into realpolitik. If not a unanimous choice, he should be chosen by part of the community, and it needn’t be a majority, just the portion which has better judgment. Once appointed, the abbot is subject to the scrutiny of the local bishop and other Christians who are obliged to intervene if they see anything amiss in his administration and even make an appointment of their own, should it be necessary. That is pretty strong stuff and has, in the past, been used as a pretext for some distinctly unspiritual manoeuvrerings. It has at its core, however, something we sometimes forget: the importance of checks and balances on religious authority, no less than on any other kind.

St Bernard understood politics, but he understood sanctity even better. When Eugenius III became pope, for example, he sent him the treatise De Consideratione which contains invaluable reflections on authority and obedience and the nature of Christian presence in the world. Any reformation of the church — with or without a capital ‘C’ — must begin with the personal holiness of its head. In this, St Bernard shows himself a true son of St Benedict. The opening verses of RB 64 may give us the realpolitik of the Rule, but as the chapter goes on we shall be back to a portrait of the kind of leadership that encourages holiness in others, to the stewardship that results in a glorious abundance. (RB 64. 20–22)

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Young and Old | Love and Respect

by Digitalnun on August 19, 2014

I’m sure I’m not alone in having noticed that RB 63 on Community Order, which we finish re-reading today, is interpreted differently according to one’s age group. If one is young and fervent but possibly a little insecure, one will home in on all the points at which Benedict directs the elders of the monastery to show love and kindness to the young. If one is old and fervent but possibly a little insecure, one will home in on all the points at which Benedict directs the young of the community to show respect and kindness to the old. The truth is, as Benedict’s constant reference to Romans 12.10 indicates, love and respect go hand in hand. The danger is that we may forget the mutuality at the heart of community life and sheer weight of numbers may distort how we relate to one another.

That would be a purely monastic concern were it not that in the West we face a major shift in demographics. The old will soon outnumber the young. How we cope with that will reflect what we are as individuals as well as what we are as a society. Government policy will always be affected by what is perceived to be popular with voters. At the moment, elder abuse is a hot topic, and we are rightly shamed by revelations about the ‘care’ meted out in some institutions. But more and more legislation is rarely the answer to anything. Perhaps we should ask questions a little nearer home. How do we see the old/young/people different from ourselves? If we want a society that is truly respectful and caring, there is only one place to start: with ourselves and our own attitudes.

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Making Prayer a Simple Matter

by Digitalnun on August 17, 2014

D. Gertrude More

D. Gertrude More

On this day in 1633, at the early age of twenty-eight, died D. Gertrude More, great-great granddaughter of St Thomas More and one of the nine founding members of the community at Cambrai. Her story is an interesting one because she is exactly the kind of person who ought to become a nun but who is considered by people outside the cloister ‘too lively’. She was indeed lively and high-spirited, but the liveliness and high-spiritedness were accompanied by a truthfulness and seriousness of purpose that were a measure of her intellectual and spiritual stature.

Her novitiate was not without its ups and downs. She was forever flaunting authority. Any mischief tended to have young Sr Gertrude at its centre, and she definitely took against the solemn Fr Augustine Baker who came as Vicarius to help the young Cambrai community grow in prayer. In fact, she was strongly tempted to abandon monastic life altogether but Fr Augustine showed her how to pray; a conversion followed and the rest, as they say, is history. Her holiness of life made an impression on those who knew her and today she is revered as one of the Stanbrook community’s uncanonised saints. Fr Augustine wrote a life of her in two volumes, with copious quotations from her own writing, including her far too fluent doggerel. If you are interested, you can read it online here: http://bit.ly/aklx3h.

But why am I writing about her under the heading of ‘simple prayer’? Partly, of course, it is because anyone who tries to pray will discover that prayer becomes simpler as time goes on. Words fall away and the silence and emptiness that remain are charged with God. So it was with D. Gertrude. She understood very well the simplest of all truths about prayer: we must pray as the people we are, not as the people we aren’t. Hers was an affectionate nature, and she used her affections to come closer to God. Not for her the composition of time and place and imaginative insertion into the events of the gospel. There was only ‘the sharp dart of longing love’ but it was enough. That she should have learned that in her comparatively short life is an encouragement to the rest of us. Can it be so hard to follow where she has led?

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The Assumption of the B.V.M. 2014

by Digitalnun on August 15, 2014

#464418813 / gettyimages.com

The destruction of statues and icons of Our Lady in Mosul and Qaraqosh is a  reminder that, next to the Cross of her Son, images of Mary are powerful signs pointing beyond this world to the next, to the realisation of Christian hope and the perfection of heaven. She is already what we hope to be, so we call upon her prayers with joyful confidence. The words of the prayer we make are both a theological statement, expressing what we believe about Mary, and a mark of our love and trust in her concern for the Church. Let us pray them today with great simplicity and devotion, mindful of the Christians of Iraq and wherever there is persecution or need: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Note
For a short reflection on what Mary means to Catholics see here; for a summary of the Church’s teaching on the Assumption and other Marian doctrines, a quick search of this blog should reveal several entries.

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