St Augustine: a Very Contemporary Saint

by Digitalnun on August 28, 2015

St Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, wrote so much and so well that it is almost impossible to get him into any kind of focus. Most people know and love his Confessions; many will have read his City of God; a few more will have read some of his treatises or his reflections on the psalter; I myself acknowledge having plundered his sermons on many occasions for readings in choir; but it is perhaps those who live according to his Rule who know him best. It is very short, and full of north African sunshine. His theme is love and his words simple, but I don’t think his thought is; and that’s the great challenge of reading Augustine today.

We have a tendency to assume that the way in which we read a text is the way the writer intended. Unfortunately, because most of us are not schooled in rhetoric or are unfamiliar with many of the references and allusions contained in his works  — even the text of the Bible he quotes is different from any we customarily use — there is often a gap in our understanding. Perhaps that is why his speculative theology is so attractive. One does not have to beaver away at understanding the context of North African Christianity but can attempt to follow his mind as it ranges over the created universe in pursuit of the Eternal Uncreated. (A propos of which, modern physics enhances one’s understanding of his treatise on the Trinity rather better, in my opinion, than all the footnotes of Augustine scholars, but that’s a dangerous point to argue!) Is that enough? Don’t we have a duty to get to know the Augustine who has been so influential in Christian history?

I think we do, and that is where his life-story becomes important and very contemporary. The profligate youth; the sudden conversion at the age of thirty-one; the thinker and teacher who engaged with the important issues of his day; these different aspects of Augustine helped determine his opinions and proved to have a long currency. His concept of Original Sin, for example, and his understanding of the workings of grace have made the Church of the West very different from the Church of the East. Today we tend to concentrate on his anthropology: his condemnation of abortion and slavery, his strict sexual morality, etc.; but to his contemporaries, Augustine’s teaching on the nature of the Church, her sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, and free will were possibly of greater moment. He became the pre-eminent Doctor of the Western Church, and it is not without significance that, as Augustine lay dying in 430, the Vandals were laying siege to the city of Hippo. The brilliant Christian culture of North Africa was about to sustain its first destructive blow. Everything was to change.

Today, when Christianity in North Africa is only a shadow of its former self, when the Churches of East and West are divided and secular morality has moved very far from the positions held by St Augustine, one might argue that it would be vain to look to him for any guidance. Yet there is a perennial freshness about Augustine’s work that makes him as relevant to us today as he was to his fifth-century contemporaries. He makes us think, and he makes us pray. Who could ask more of him than that?

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The Virginia Shooting

by Digitalnun on August 27, 2015

Only rarely do I comment on events in the U.S.A. as I’m well aware of my limited ability to do so with real knowledge or understanding, but the murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward by Vester Flanagan has implications for us all. If I give offence by what I say, I apologize; but I do think there is a question we all need to consider, whether we are U.S. citizens or not.

When we ‘privatise justice’, that is to say, take to ourselves the right to judge and pass sentence on another and then carry out that sentence, we are undermining the basis of civil society. We are allowing our sense of injury or grievance to over-ride the structures of law and government. The tragedy in Virginia isn’t ‘just’ the murder of two innocent people, the suicide of the murderer and the grief and shock felt by their families and friends. It is that we are even further away from a dispassionate and open-minded investigation of the killer’s alleged motives (not all of which were personal to him, e.g. the Charleston church killings) and from a society in which the freedom of every citizen is assured by law and has no need of guns to protect it.

To an outsider, this is one of the great paradoxes of ‘the land of the free’. People who truly believe they are free, who regard their democracy as the most perfect on earth and are keen to export it to other countries of the world, often genuinely believe that weapons are necessary for self-protection. I can’t help thinking that may go some way to explaining the failure of American foreign policy in various parts of the world as well as ensuring that the cycle of violence and reaction continues indefinitely.

The U.S.A. sometimes speaks and acts as though it had the solution to everyone else’s problems. Its great wealth and generosity and sheer get-up-and-do have placed the whole world in its debt; but this reluctance to confront its own vulnerability, its reliance on guns rather than law, is going to go on troubling the world, not just the U.S.A, for years to come unless Amercican citizens have the courage to say, ‘No more’. Last night President Obama spoke of his desire for more gun control in hesitant, almost wistful terms. Perhaps Vester Flanagan’s lack of belief in his country’s institutions was justified after all.

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Holier than Thou

by Digitalnun on August 26, 2015

One of the professional hazards of being a nun is to be thought a party-pooper, a bubble-buster or an old vinegar-face. By definition, we disapprove of everything human or joyous (apparently). Then again, we ought to be living on bread and water and looking pale and anaemic as we waft delicately down gothic cloisters. The fact that we don’t and won’t is a mark against us. Being holier than thou, you see, takes many forms, with the inverse just as dangerous as the other.

As it happens, I think many of those frequently accused of being holier than thou — not so much nuns but decent, generous-hearted Christians of every denomination, people who quietly do their duty in the face of tacit and sometimes not so tacit opposition — are actually the least likely to be so. They are too aware of their own failings to waste time comparing themselves with others, or condemining them for faults not their own. They do not take refuge in the blithe assurance of the pharisees in today’s gospel (Matt: 23.27–32), ‘We would never have joined in shedding the blood of the prophets, had we lived in our fathers’ day.’ They know that they might not have seen clearly enough to avoid the mistakes of their forebears. They are humble in their self-knowledge.

So, who does point the finger and why? First, there are those who do not believe but still think they know what Christianity is and how Christians should behave. They tend to be very keen on our turning the other cheek when insulted or misjudged and affect to be terribly shocked at any display of material comfort. They also have long but often selective memories. They are the people who haunt Twitter with their oh-so-funny allusions to ‘Sky Pixies’ and make wild accusations about the iniquitous doings of Christians generally, but especially clergy and religious.

Second, there are those who are themselves believers but who are incautious in their judgement of others. They don’t mean to be holier than thou, but they often end up sounding sanctimonious. Their very idealsim leads them astray. ‘What would Jesus do? is, in this context, a condemnation rather than a prayer. If someone sincerely disagrees with them on some point, they are dismissed as being somehow wanting. They don’t believe as they should. Those finding others wanting need to be exceptionally well-informed themselves but aren’t always, which only compounds the difficulty.

Can we eliminate this tendency to be holier than thou? I suspect not. Those who don’t believe will continue to act on their half-knowledge of what the Church is and what she teaches. They will continue to look for a Church of saints and be disappointed when they encounter only a Church of sinners.  Those who do believe will continue to want a Church that measures up to their ideals and be disappointed that she never does. The rest of us must just get on with things, trying to become holy in the only way that matters: in God’s eyes, not those of anyone else. That is the real challenge, and the only one that counts.

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Grumbles and Graces

by Digitalnun on August 25, 2015

It is often easier to find something to grumble about than be glad about, but St Benedict wasn’t keen on murmuring, although he did allow that there were occasions when monks might jutifiably complain. Unfortunately for us, they are few and far between; but they do exist, and with time, the grumbles can themselves become graces. Here, however, is a short-cut. In case you got out of the wrong side of bed this morning, I list a few of my own causes-to-be-grateful which may stimulate you into thinking about the blessings you yourself enjoy and for which you should give thanks:

I’m alive. Yes, I know I should be looking forward to the next life, but I haven’t quite finished with this one yet. I don’t share the happy Protestant certainty of heaven. As a Catholic, I rely utterly on the mercy of God. My consciousness of sin and failure suggests a prolonged period in Purgatory, at the very least. In the meantime, there are a few sock drawers still to be tidied . . .

I’m blessed with family, friends, community and the ever-wonderful Bro Duncan PBGV. The English don’t do feelings, so I reserve my emoting (thank you, American cousins) for the dog. He’s rather nice to have around.

I can read. What a world books open to us, and how many there are who cannot read or who do not have access to books! I am grateful, too, to know a little about book design and typography so I can enjoy beauties others sometimes miss. Of course, I also have a little grumble now and then, justifiable or not, about some of the dreadful things perpetrated by those who do not know but think they do. It adds zest to life.

We have a garden. This morning the bean flowers were beaded with raindrops when the sun shone briefly upon them, transforming them into diamond-studded cascades of red and white. I can lose myself for hours in the garden, thinking deep thoughts, or sometimes no thoughts at all. ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’ becomes a hopeful phrase when uttered in a garden. Eden is not lost for ever nor does Gethsemane last for ever; all will be made new in paradise.

We have an oratory. I save the best till last. Ours is small, plain but filled with Presence. It is where we take the most painful and most joyful moments of our lives; where we plead for others, and for ourselves; where we grumble, give thanks and are graced beyond measure. You may not have a physical oratory, but you have an oratory of the heart. Open it to God and I warrant his graces will flood your being.

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St Bartholomew and Baalshamin

by Digitalnun on August 24, 2015

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Time was when the legends surrounding the death of the Apostle Bartholomew seemed remote and unapproachable. Who but a barbarian would flay the skin from anyone? Such cruel and unusual torments belonged to a distant age or were the creation of an over-heated imagination. Sadly, we know better now. The enormities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries show us that the dark side of human nature does not change. The napalm that stripped the skin from Vietnamese civilians, the brutalities of IS and Boko Haram, what are they but contemporary instances of that same deadly impulse to destroy?

The desire to inflict pain takes many forms. The destruction of the temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra may not have resulted in the death of anyone*, but to destroy the artefacts of the past, to destroy the cultural heritage of the Greco-Roman world, is to inflict a grievous wound on Western civilization. That, presumably, was the intention. But there may be something the perpetrators have failed to consider. Just as the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, so attempts to destroy Western civilization may actually invigorate it. There surely has to come a turning-point when we in the West will stop wringing our hands or lamenting what is done and make clear where we stand. How we do that, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t believe a military ‘solution’ is any solution at all. Just as St Bartholomew did not resist his captors but ultimately triumphed over them, we need to decide what we truly value and follow the logic of our decision. Something worth thinking about, I suggest.

*Please see this post for 22 August.

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The Bread of Life

by Digitalnun on August 23, 2015

Many a preacher on the Bread of Life discourse in St John’s Gospel has come a-cropper when waxing lyrical about making bread. If one hasn’t made bread oneself, one can easily forget the labour involved, the heat, the sweat, the sheer physicality of the process as it was for all bakers until recent times. Very few have had the experience of hacking off great lumps of baker’s yeast from a huge block, mixing the dough in a vast bowl, then pummelling it with, just possibly, the thought of the enemy of the moment flickering through one’s head as one does so; next, waiting for the bread to rise as one sets the coal-oven ablaze, sloshing a wet mop round the inside to raise the requisite amount of steam; then finally, baking it, handling the heavy bread-tins with a large wooden paddle — all in the early morning while the rest of the monastery is asleep. For most people, if they make bread at all, it is a sanitized version involving a breadmaking machine and quick-yeast sachets. The rest rely on bread made by others and bought at a shop or stall. It has no poetry in it and therefore, for the most part, very little prayer.

It is a great challenge, then, when Jesus Christ describes himself as the Bread of Life and the great sacrament of communion with him uses bread and wine as its matter. For us in the West, bread is comparatively cheap and ordinary. It rarely features at every meal; it has ceased to be a staple of life. We brush crumbs away and throw them out to the birds or put them in the food-compost bin. We no longer treasure bread. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we so often fail to see and reverence Christ in the ordinary or everyday. We look for him in the extraordinary and, when we fail to find him, are cast down.

There is a monastic habit I found quite sickening when I first encountered it but have gradually come to see in a more positive light. We eat at a plain woooden table and there is usually bread at every meal. At the end, just before we sing grace, we brush the crumbs in our place together and eat them. It is meant to remind us that food is precious, a blessing of God, and bread, in particular, a daily reminder of Christ’s sacrificial love. We treasure bread both because of what it is and what it has the potential to become: the Body of Christ. The wonderful, the extraordinary, is here and now before us in those trifling crumbs, that little bit of bread we are tempted to be so casual about.

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The Scholar and the Saint: two valiant old men

by Digitalnun on August 22, 2015

I am thinking today of two valiant old men, one a scholar, the other a saint, and what they teach us about how to live and die. They lived far apart in place and time but they were united in their courage and in their sense of something greater than themselves for which they gave their lives.

Today is the feastday of St John Kemble, a Hereford man who became a priest and worked quietly among English and Welsh Catholics for fifty-four years until, in 1678, he was accused of being party to Titus Oates’  so-called Popish Plot. He was tried and acquitted of involvement but subsequently condemned as a ‘seminary priest’. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on Widemarsh Common on 22 August 1679. Before he was executed he said, ‘I die only for professing the old Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this kingdom Christian.’ He was eighty years old.

Every time I walk down Widemarsh Street or drive across the common, I remember St John. I think of the barbarity of being hanged, drawn and quartered and of those being subjected to similar treatment by IS today. He and Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist murdered two days ago for refusing to reveal where some of Palmyra’s treasures were hidden, were just a few months apart in age. Both were men of integrity and valour. Both were men with a clear sense of purpose: St John saw his duty in upholding the faith of his fathers, Dr al-Asaad in preserving the treasures of antiquity — and both paid the price of their convictions.

We tend to consider old age a kind of weakness. As our bodies begin to crumble and sometimes our minds too, we think uneasily of Shakespeare’s sixth and seventh ages. Our life’s work is done, it is time to accept the inevitable. Death is, of course, inevitable for all of us, but how we meet it, what we make of it, and what others draw from it, is not quite so predictable. St John Kemble and Dr Khaled al-Asaad could both look back on a lifetime of achievement. Many of the missions St John established lasted until the nineteenth century. Dr al-Asaad was ‘Mr Palmyra’, the man who knew more about that important ancient city than any other. Yet it is arguable that their death, and the way in which they met it, was their finest hour, the crowning acheivement of their lives.  St John refused to give up his religious faith and conform to the Church of England; Dr al-Asaad refused to break faith with his stewardship of historical artefacts and the duty of scholarship. They did not plead old age as an excuse but met death clear-eyed and bravely. We may lack the courage of either, but we can surely be grateful for the example they give us.

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The Two Koreas, St Pius X and the Way to Peace

by Digitalnun on August 21, 2015

There is a terrible irony in the fact that this morning the war of words between the two Koreas has escalated. It is no longer just a matter of rhetoric or small arms fire: there has been an artillery exchange and North Korea has been placed on a war footing. It is said that St Pius X died of a broken heart at the outbreak of World War I, and there is surely something in that memory we could all usefully think about.

We tend to think of Piux X in connection with the liturgy or the reform of canon law. Some will reflect on his efforts to improve clergy training and discipline while those of us who love Gregorian chant honour him for having fostered its revival. Scripture scholars probably think more of his foundation of an institute for scriptural studies or his inauguration of a revision of the Latin text of the Bible (the Vulgate). Others again will dwell on his separation of Church and State and his vehement opposition to political organizations laying claim to religious sanction. But I wonder how many will remember those homilies he preached Sunday by Sunday in the courtyards of the Vatican on his favourite theme: the restoration of all things in Christ and the ushering in of peace on earth.

Peace is more than the absence of war, but it has to begin with a cessation of hostilities. While the world looks on aghast at the atrocities of IS or worries about what might happen in the Korean Peninsula, there is a challenge all of us, without exception, need to accept. For there to be peace in the world, there must first be peace in ourselves. Unless we are prepared to lay aside old grievances, face up to old injustices, admit misunderstandings and the mistrust born of them, how can we realistically expect any change in others? It may sound idealistic, even naive; but perhaps if a few more people had been prepared to be reckoned simpletons, the tragic slaughter of World War I could have been avoided. We may be tempted to smile at the antics of Kim Jong-un as others once smiled at the reaction to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It would be more to the point to ask the prayers of St Pius X instead.

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Getting Our Priorities Right

by Digitalnun on August 17, 2015

The anniversary of the death of D. Gertrude More, about whom you can read in this blog (please do a search in the sidebar) or its predecessor (please follow this link) is as good a day as any for reflecting on our priorities. What are they?

God comes first, of course; but what do we mean by that? The whole of Benedictine life is ordered towards the search for God. Prayer, liturgy and observance, every detail from lectio divina to the ups and downs of community life, the clothes we wear and the buildings we live in, is meant to lead us closer to God. A splendid liturgy may give us wonderful feelings about God but they tend to disappear when faced with a mound of washing-up or half a dozen loos to clean. Yet singing the praises of God in choir and doing more mundane tasks outside are all part and parcel of monastic life. They are all equally part of our search for God, the only difference being that, although we may postpone, say, the washing-up for a while, nothing may come before prayer. Prayer is the search for God neat and undiluted, whether it be the common prayer of the Divine Office or the more private contemplative prayer of the individual.

There is a catch, however. Even St Benedict, who exhorts us to prefer nothing to the work of God, makes one very important exception. He tells us that care of the sick should come before everything else. Forests have been felled and gallons of ink expended in an effort to try to reconcile these two seeming contradictions. Personally, I don’t think there is a contradiction. St Benedict was a sensible man, with a sensible approach to the problems of everyday life. If someone is really sick, we honour God best by serving him/her rather than by abandoning them while we fulfil our alloted service in choir. The problem comes when we find endless tasks that are to be preferred to prayer; when we use people and things as an excuse for not praying; because then we are putting ourselves first, rather than God; and the tragedy is, we often misuse good things in this way.

Well-meaning people sometimes look around and note all the great problems in the world and ask what contemplatives are doing about them. They rarely stop for an answer. No one who seriously tries to pray can be indifferent to the sufferings of others, to the injustices many labour under, to the sheer horror of poverty, war and disease. Most will quietly do what they can. Monastic communities give money/help where they can, write letters, try to influence others for good, but the most powerful thing they can do is to intercede with God. If one doesn’t believe in God, or if one only half-believes in God, that won’t make much sense. Prayer for such people is essentially a waste of time — something to get through, the spiritual equivalent of a quick cup of coffee before the real work of the day begins. For a Benedictine, by contrast, it is life itself, our meaning , our purpose; and unlike that quick cup of coffee, it is something that carries us over from this life to the next.

D. Gertrude More was, at one level, an obscure seventeenth century nun whom history has overlooked in favour of her distinguished ancestor St Thomas More. Yet to those who know her she is at least as important as he. She never did anything very ‘important’; never held any major office in community or had any overt influence on the events of her day. But, when she died at the early age of twenty-eight, she was already accounted a saint — not the plaster-of-paris type of treacley sentimentality but the adamantine type of steely determination. She was funny; she was clever; as a novice she was outrageous; but she knew exactly what her priorities were. One day we may discover how much she achieved through her fidelity and generosity of spirit.

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The Assumption of the B.V.M.

by Digitalnun on August 16, 2015

As so often, the Preface for this feast expresses with wonderful economy of words both its theological meaning and its devotional significance:

. . . hodie Virgo Deipara in caelos assumpta est,
Ecclesiae tuae consummandae initium et imago,
ac populo peregrinanti certae spei et solacii documentum;
corruptionem enim sepuleri
eam videre merito noluisti,
quae Filium tuum, vitae omnis auctorem,
ineffabiliter de se genuit incarnatum.

. . . today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven
as the beginning and pattern of your Church’s perfection
and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people,
For justly you would not allow her
to see the corruption of the tomb,
because from her own flesh she brought forth ineffably
your incarnate Son, the author of all life.

It is impossible to think of  Mary apart from her Son or apart from the Church. In her we see what an ordinary human being can become, utterly transfigured by grace. That is why we celebrate her feast with such joy and gladness. She shows us what the Church (= ourselves) will be when all is made new at the end of time.

As I tap out these words my head is filled with the plainchant Alelleuia for the feast, Assumpta est Maria, which soars and eddies with a lyrical grace the neumes on the page can hardly contain. It is a reminder that Mary, alone of all our race, has lived her vocation with a degree of perfection the rest of us can only strive to emulate. But, if Mary is the Mother of God (as she is), she is our mother, too. We can ask her prayers with confidence: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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