A Little Saturday Cheer

by Digitalnun on August 1, 2015

British library london.jpg
British library london” by Jack1956Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
We may be reading less and less but it seems our library buildings are getting better and better. The British Library has just achieved Grade 1 Listed status (see report here). It makes one’s heart rejoice. Time was when our churches and grand houses were the most accomplished buildings, but now it is our libraries. As an erstwhile book designer and printer, I salute this happy change and trust it does not mean that books will soon be as obsolescent as religion and privilege now appear to be.

There is just one little question in my mind. I have never worked in the new BL, though I spent many happy hours beavering away in the Reading Room of the old one. Is it a building that delights its users? Is it, in the phrase beloved of politicians, ‘fit for purpose’? I do hope so. There was a time in my life when I spent long hours in another award-winning library, the Seeley Library in Cambridge. It was the ugliest, most uncomfortable building I have ever read in. It almost killed my joy in history. Awards for one kind of excellence do not always equate to excellence in another. A building may be splendid in itself, but does it also fulfil its function splendidly?

When we came here to Howton Grove, the first thing we established was our oratory or chapel. Not long after came our library, with specially-made shelves, a good strong table and some comfortable chairs for readers. It is a mark of our reverence for the book and for learning that is characteristic of Benedictines the world over. Our library will never have listed status, but it is loved and used. Isn’t that what libraries are all about?


Making a Friend of Death

by Digitalnun on July 29, 2015

In our monastic calendar the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus is a very jolly affair because, for us, it is primarily a feast of friendship. We don’t have to agonize about the different roles of Mary and Martha or ponder the effects on Lazarus of those three days in the tomb. Instead, we can reflect on the three siblings’ friendship with Jesus, and the influence on him of all the hours spent in their company. This morning, however, the BBC web site has announced new guidelines for the care of the dying proposed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. It is obviously time to think about Lazarus again.

Many people shy away from death and dying. In the West, it is quite possible to reach late middle age without ever having seen a dead body or held the hand of a dying person. We are often confused, awkward. We don’t know what to say or do. Instead of seeing the dying person, we see something else, something strange and perhaps terrifying. Very few death-beds are really dignified, as most of us understand that term. There is, instead, a mess of feeding-cups, morphine-pumps, crumpled bed-clothes and — often — the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital. But it is not these that confer or withhold dignity from the dying person. It is the atmosphere of love and reverence surrounding them that matters. Even in the most appalling circumstances, a gesture of love and reverence can be transformative.

When Lazarus came to die, I think we can be confident that he was surrounded with love and devotion. In death his body was treated with as much reverence as in life — washed, anointed, bound in linen cloths and placed in a tomb. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to wake him from death, he was ready. The binding cloths fell away and Lazarus stepped once more into the sunlight. He had experienced death as a friend, and it was his Friend who called him from it.

It is said that St Francis added the verses about ‘Sister Death’ to his Canticle of the Sun just a few moments before he died:

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.

He had learned that death was not to be feared: dying was only the means to attain eternal life. Sin held more terror for him. Most of us are not so brave, or clear-sighted. We fear death as Francis feared sin. We see the death of our body as the end of everything, rather than an entry into glorious freedom. Perhaps we need to wait a little. We cannot manufacture an understanding we do not yet have. In the Benedictine tradition, we are exhorted to keep death daily before our eyes. We are to make a friend of death and live each day as though it were our last, with joy, gratitude and selflessness. I think Lazarus, called from the tomb, would have understood that, don’t you?


Silence in the Midst of Digital Noise

by Digitalnun on July 27, 2015

Silence is more talked about than practised these days. The irony of speaking endless words about silence was not lost on the late Jean Leclerq who also had some good things to say about the thousands of miles he had travelled to speak about stability. I think he might have had some trenchant observations to make about today’s obsession with being perpetually connected, as though the smartphone were a fifth limb linking us to a world that never sleeps, never goes offline.

The truth is, most of us are keener on silence in the abstract than in reality. We understand silence to be somehow an escape from the hurly-burly of life as we know it, so we devise various strategies to free ourselves from the world of noise in which we pass most of our days. Spending a lot of time on Social Media? Let’s have a digital fast! Always on our smartphone? Let’s switch everything off and enjoy some primeval silence! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. People are still people and will claim our attention whether we are online or not; our smartphone may be off but there’s always something going on in the background, from traffic noise to the squeaks, squawks and screams of wildlife in the countryside. We are approaching silence from the wrong end, so to say, and possibly for the wrong reasons.

Many people enjoy a brief interlude of silence and find it refreshing, but if it goes on too long or is too complete, it makes them uneasy. A soundproof room, for example, can be disorientating. A couple of weeks of silence in a monastery has been known to drive people to midnight flits — anything to get away from this frightening absence of the everyday and familiar. If physical silence can be disconcerting, interior silence can be devastating. Those who try to cultivate interior silence will tell you that, beautiful though it is, it strips us of everything we rely on to protect ourselves. Silence lets us see ourselves as we are, and most of us are not very keen on that.

So, what are we doing when we declare a digital fast or switch off our mobiles for a day, a week, or more? Are we doing anything more than trying to assure ourselves we are not addicted? We are not actually risking an exposure to silence, are we? Anyone who seriously tries to pray will tell you that although external silence is helpful, it is not necessary. It is the noise we carry within that creates all the problems. Rather than switching off or disconnecting, what we need to do is to cultivate an attitude of detachment from our online world. We can be silent in the midst of digital noise, but it takes discipline and a clear sense of purpose. It is not how much we are online but how we are online and why that counts. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments reflecting on that.


The Problem with Good Advice

by Digitalnun on July 24, 2015

The problem with good advice is that most of us are better at dispensing it than receiving it, and almost none of us is any good at putting it into practice. That explains, for example, why preachers are often disappointed that their most eloquent sermons seem to fall on deaf ears; spouses, that advising their better halves ‘for their own good’ seems to have no effect; and the rest of us are mildly surprised that world leaders are not beating a path to our door when we so obviously have the solution to every problem under the sun. It’s unfortunate, isn’t it?

To listen to good advice, weigh it and put it intelligently into practice requires not only intellectual humility (I may not be right about everything) but also intellectual daring (I will think this through and follow the logic of my conclusions), plus some stamina and steadfastness of purpose (good advice rarely provides a quick fix for anything).

For anyone serious about living the Christian life, there is no shortage of good advice to draw on. We have the scriptures and centuries of reflection on them, especially the early Christian writings known collectively as the Fathers. Do we need anything more? I think we do.

It has become fashionable to have a spiritual director, not so fashionable to have a confessor (a priest to whom one goes for sacramental confession). As you might expect of someone coming from my particular monastic tradition, I’m slightly ‘iffy’ about spiritual direction* but wholly in favour of confession. We all need to confront the fact of sin and failure in our lives as honestly as we can, but it isn’t always helpful to pick over our ‘spiritual lives’. A confessor who apparently has nothing to say is as valuable as one who seems extremely insightful, though we may think otherwise. In the sacrament of confession we can be quite sure that our wounds are placed before God for healing and, provided we fulfil the necessary conditions of the sacrament, we can be equally sure that grace will flow.

Of course, there are situations in which we seek the advice of others, and we’d be fools if we didn’t. The trouble is, many of us blunder into things and only realise too late how unwise we’ve been. Perhaps the biggest problem with good advice is that there is very little of it around when we need it most. The only solution is to cultivate a thoughtful, prayerful way of living, open to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and humble enough to embrace it when we find it.

* I don’t mean to knock spiritual direction as such, but in the Cambrai tradition there is a certain wariness of spiritual direction as commonly understood — historically, it caused some very grave difficulties.


Don’t Clear Your Inbox!

by Digitalnun on July 23, 2015

From time to time I utter a digital wail about the number of emails piling up in the monastery inbox. I make heroic efforts to keep up with them, I really do; but I realise that there is a fundamental flaw in what I’m doing. In effect, I’m allowing others to set the monastery’s priorities. If we reflect a moment, we can see how that applies to everyone, not just the community here.

Allowing others to set our priorities is dangerous. Clearing one’s inbox, for example, does give the illusion of achievement; but it is only an illusion. Tomorrow there will be another incoming tide. Deciding what really matters and being prepared to follow it through may not endear us to everyone, but it does allow us to concentrate mind and heart. So many of our difficulties stem from our losing focus or trying to do too much. Yes, we have to find a way of reconciling all the many claims on our attention and no, I am not suggesting that we excuse ourselves from our duty on the grounds that multi-tasking is not for us. However, I do believe we would do well to spend a few prayerful moments thinking about our customary priorities and deciding whether they really are priorities or just a matter of habit. The answer may surprise us.


Witnessing to Truth: the Example of St Mary Magdalene

by Digitalnun on July 22, 2015

Pedro de Mena, Magdalena penitente, 1664

Pedro de Mena, Penitent Magdalene, 1664: Rubén Ojeda, Wikimedia Commons, Licencia CC-BY-SA 4.0

A quick search in the sidebar will show you that St Mary Magdalene is a favourite subject of mine. Can I have anything left to say about her? Only this. The ‘apostle to the apostles’ was called to witness to Truth in a unique way and to bear ever after the opprobrium of a bad reputation in history. She saw the Risen Lord, but was not believed. She was one of the small group of women who accompanied Jesus and the disciples and provided for them out of their own resources, but she has been identified as the sinner from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, and that has tended to colour the whole picture*. The best that might be said of her is that she is the type of repentant sinner.

There is, in fact, no incompatibility between these three ideas. St Mary Magdalene was indeed a privileged proclaimer of the Resurrection, and there are a number of medieval legends showing her active in leadership of the early Church. Leadership, in Christian terms, is always about service, and how dreadful it is when institutions or individuals forget that! That she has to bear a false reputation is not surprising. If they said of the Master ‘Beelzebub is in him’, is it strange that one of his closest disciples should be accused, too? And finally, shouldn’t every Christian be a repentant sinner — one who knows God”s forgiveness and never ceases to be amazed at his mercy?

Of course, some will argue that St Mary Magdalene has been demonised by a male patriarchy; that she is a feminist icon, a champion of women’s rights in the Church. No one can deny that the Church has tended to view her through male eyes, and some of the changing ideas about her role are a necessary historical corrective, but — and it is an important ‘but’ — in destroying one set of wrong assumptions, we may be in danger of creating another. St Mary Magdalene is important because she was a disciple of Christ and because she was singled out by him to witness to the truth of the Resurrection. Unless I am very much mistaken, that is what all Christians, male or female, are called to be and do; and that glimpse of Mary searching in the garden and seeing the Lord through a mist of tears is surely a reminder that love, and love alone, is the measure by which our witness to Truth will be judged.

* the seven demons cast out of her were commonly said to be demons of lust.


Pushed to the Limit

by Digitalnun on July 20, 2015

Quite often a prayer request to the monastery will contain the words, ‘I feel pushed to the limit.’ Most of us can probably identify with that. So many things are beyond our control. No matter how hard we try, there are times when everything seems to go into melt-down and our ability to cope disintegrates completely. We just can’t get through to X or Y. Despite all our efforts, the bills keep mounting and now this! Just when we thought we had got everything sorted, we discovered we hadn’t thought of that. Even in the monastery — I’m tempted to say, especially in the monastery — there are times when we are reduced to asking God — if there is a God, that is — why He has brought us to this. Faith, trust, everything goes. We are just a little blot on the face of the earth, exhausted and alone.

We can agree that feeling pushed to the limit is a fairly common human experience, but what we may not agree is that it is also a divine experience. God has more faith in us than we do ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can somehow summon up some ‘soul energy’ and confront whatever it is that is pushing us down and reduce it to nothing. Dragon slayers are not so easily found nowadays. I mean something messier and less triumphant. No matter how down we are, no matter how helpless we feel, the mercy of God is lower still. We probably won’t realise it because if we did, we wouldn’t be at our lowest ebb. Somewhere in that horrible, aching void we feel inside, in that sense of personal failure and distress, there is Christ. Not the Christ who rose triumphantly from the tomb, but the Christ who hangs on the cross with us and shares our pain. When we are pushed to the limit, God has some good purpose in mind. One day we may be able to look back and see that it was so. It is much more likely that we never will in this life. Being pushed to the limit takes us to the edge of eternity, makes us tremble on the brink of God’s infinite mystery, where we live by faith — our faith in God, and even more astonishing, His faith in us.


Another Little Rant: Cancer Care

by Digitalnun on July 19, 2015

Every time I read of some new attempt by the government of the day to improve cancer survival rates by setting targets for this, that and the other, my heart quails. With the best will in the world, setting referral or diagnosis targets isn’t necessarily going to change things. Not all cancers announce themselves openly in time for a cure to be attempted, and even medical professionals can misinterpret the signs that a cancer is present. Mistakes happen, and unless one believes they are always avoidable — which I don’t — we are going to have to face up to the fact that late referrals and late diagnoses are going to continue to occur.

Surely a more fruitful approach would be to look again at funding for medical research, not just into cancer, but into a host of deadly diseases that currently offer little or no scope for pharmaceutical companies to make a profit? At the moment our response to most cancers is still slash it, burn it, poison it (surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy), but genetic profiling of tumours and research into the immune system have both begun to suggest potentially useful approaches. The problem is such research is enormously expensive and results do not come all at once.

I am a greedy person, I have two rare diseases, not just one, and research into them is largely the province of university researchers who attract little funding from the pharmaceutical industry or other corporate donors. Diseases with a more emotional pull or wider range, such as breast or prostate cancer, are obviously of more interest. I have no quarrel with that. Whether one person is affected by something or one million, each individual has to come to terms with life as it is. What worries me about the present government’s target-setting is that it is generating both unreal expectations and, in some cases, unhelpful attitudes towards NHS staff. There isn’t an easy solution, and if someone you know and love is dying before your eyes, you will inevitably want the best you can for them. Sometimes, however, the best isn’t what we think is best. One of the differences between a medieval world-view and a more modern one is that in the Middle Ages the group had more importance than the individual. We, by contrast, exalt the individual. I wonder whether we need to re-think that, too?


Inside the Mind of a Murderer

by Digitalnun on July 18, 2015

Three tonnes of explosives driven into the busy market town of Khan Bani Saad, Iraq, did their deadly work yesterday. At least 80 innocent men, women and children were killed. It is impossible for any normal human being to understand how anyone could think such acts justifiable or even meritorious. Murder is still murder, however anyone may try to explain or excuse it. To glory in it, as the perpetrators so often do, takes us to a different territory. How can we possibly understand or get inside the mind of a murderer who thinks himself, or more rarely herself, blessed by God?

At this point, those who know less history than they think they do will often appeal to the past, citing examples of dreadful massacres, brutal wars of colonisation, religious persecutions and the like. The trouble is, we are dealing with a very different situation from any that has gone before. The men and women of our own day may, mentally, inhabit the world of any century they please, but we all live in the highly-interconnected world of the twenty-first. For the first time in history, that interconnectedness is no longer the privilege of a few but is shared by the majority. One of the horrible ironies of IS, for example, is the way in which they combine a simplistic interpretation of Islam with a very professional grasp of the possibilities of modern technology — the very technology that allowed people everywhere to know about events in Khan Bani Saad within minutes of their occurring.

Every time we read of such horrors, every time we hear of people being ‘radicalised’ or joining terrorist groups, I wonder whether we can somehow use technology to combat the monster that technology itself has fed. Personally, I find the appeal to British values unconvincing, and demands that Muslims in Britain should condemn Wahabist violence pointless (more Muslims are killed by those who claim to act in the name of Islam than non-Muslims). But if you look for anything like a clear alternative to the propaganda put out by IS, Boko Haram and so forth, do you find it? We react; we do not lead. And because we are always reacting, we are always suffering the consequences.

Maybe we would do better to spend less time trying to get inside the mind of the murderer and spend more trying to produce a convincing and technologically-astute ‘alternative narrative’. Someone somewhere must surely have the necessary skills to make a beginning. It cannot be impossible for those who oppose violence to be just as sophisticated and determined as those who espouse it. In the meantime, let us pray for the dead and injured and all who are grieving.


On the Old and Very Young: RB 37 by Bro Duncan PBGV

by Digitalnun on July 16, 2015

BigSis decided I was a ‘natural’ to write about today’s chapter of the Rule (RB 37), being the oldest in community — although I do act young at times, she says, and I like to think there’s something of the dashing youngster about me still.

Being old is no fun. Everything creaks a bit. The eyes are dimmer, the hearing not so sharp, and visits to the Vettery increase in number and discomfort. So, I was pleased to find Benedict making four points about how we oldies and the very young should be treated. He says that, although everyone should feel compassionate towards us,

  • the authority of the Rule must still make provision for us;
  • our lack of strength should always be taken into account;
  • we should not be expected to observe the strictness of the Rule regarding food but should be allowed to eat earlier than the others;
  • we should be treated with sympathetic consideration.

In other words, we need the protection of the law, not just occasional warm, fuzzy feelings towards us, which can be switched on or off when you please. That means sticking at the business of looking after us, even when we become a tad uncertain about lifting our legs at the right time and all that kind of thing. I admit, we can become awkward as we grow older, and our ability to burp after meals is no longer regarded as the triumph it was when we were young, but so what? It shows there’s life in the old dog (human) yet!

I’ve heard dreadful rumours that old dogs are sometimes ‘put to sleep’ and there’s a feeling among some that there should be a law about that for humans, too. I don’t think St Benedict would have approved, do you? I certainly don’t! Let us conk out when we have to; but equally, don’t take any extraordinary means to keep us alive.

Our weakness should be recognized for what it is: lack of strength, not some diminution of our humanity (Them) or doggyness (me). It’s important we should be properly nourished, as Benedict says, which means serving meals that are appetizing and suited to our digestion — and we shouldn’t have to wait for them too long, either. (Quietnun, please note.) Finally, there is that ‘sympathetic consideration': treating us kindly, but as one of yourselves, not something indeterminate called ‘an old person’, a ‘young person’, or ‘a decrepit old dog’ (snarl), as the case may be.

It’s really all about treating us as you would like to be treated yourself now, not as you imagine you would like to be treated in the future. The thing is, old age isn’t as we imagine it will be. We don’t change inside. It’s our outsides that crumble and wrinkle. So, please, be kind to us oldies. We may be slow and doddery, but we have our dignity; and one day, you yourself may be one of us and understand what it was all about.