Pushy Mum (and Dad) Syndrome

by Digitalnun on March 4, 2015

We are all familiar with Pushy Mum Syndrome: the mother whose energies are entirely devoted to advancing her child’s chances in life. All her ugly ducklings are swans, if only the world would see; and how hard she works to make sure the world does see! Pushy Dad Syndrome also exists but can be harder on the little chip off the old block, who is expected to be everything his father never was — and more. I wonder whether Mr and Mrs Zebedee would recognize themselves in that description, the pushiness and the fiery temper being among their traits passed on to their sons. When the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask a special place in the Kingdom for her sons, I daresay both parents justified their ambition by claiming it was not for themselves. They were only interested in the good of their children. The put-down Mrs Zebedee received must have delighted the other disciples, though they may have shivered at what Jesus had to say about servanthood (Matthew 20.17–28).

Today’s gospel alerts us to two things most of us would rather not think about: the way in which we can deceive ourselves about our true motives — doing things for the good of others is surely irreproachable — and our reluctance to embrace the sacrifice that following Jesus necessarily involves. Scrutinising our own motives isn’t easy and often requires someone else to show us what we would rather not see. It can be painful, but we need to remember that truth is ultimately not only freeing but healing, too. As to sacrifice, we are surely far enough into Lent for everyone to realise that it is not the little sacrifices we take on ourselves that count, but the unexpected ones God sends us that matter. If that sounds rather severe on this lovely spring morning, there is something more we could reflect on. God desires only what is best for us, genuinely so. In him there is no trace of Pushy Mum or Pushy Dad, only infinite love and goodness.

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The Inferiority of Women

by Digitalnun on March 3, 2015

A chilling trailer on the BBC website for a programme to be broadcast on Sunday, 8 March, makes difficult reading. Even those of us who live in the so-called civilised West know perfectly well that some of the attitudes expressed there are commonplace here, though sometimes given a discreet veil of ‘hunour’ or irony. If one is a woman, one knows that the expected way of dealing with such views is with a shrug and a smile. To challenge anything is to prove one is a humourless old biddy, not to be taken seriously. Even an intended compliment can turn awkward, like the Pope’s reference to female theologians as ‘the strawberries on the cake’.

I seem to have spent long hours of my life wondering why women should be thought inferior and come to no very sure conclusion. Even today, I find some of my friends will cheerfully lecture the women of their acquaintance in ways that they would not normally address their fellow men. But although I cannot explain this phenomenon, I think there are a few conclusions we can draw from it that may be helpful this Lent.

Today’s gospel, Matthew 23. 1–12, reminds us that we are all brethren. To exalt ourselves, to lord it over others, is not the Christian way. Of course, some are teachers and preachers and have a duty to teach, preach, warn and correct; but not all of us. The one thing we ALL are, male and female, is servants. The root of that word is in the Latin for slave. Once one starts thinking about slavery, we are in a different territory, where concepts like inferiority and superiority count for very little. Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn this Lent is how we must stand together in Christ. Mutual respect and love go hand in hand. If there is anyone we think of as being inferior, anyone we look down upon or regard as of less value or account than ourselves, we have gone seriously wrong. Society exalts the concept of equality but rarely practices it, or rather, practises it selectively (which is a nonsense, if you think about it.) That isn’t an option for disciples of Christ. I gave this post the title ‘The Inferiority of Women’ because I know it will encourage people to read it. The tragedy is some will see it as being true.

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To Judge, or Not to Judge?

by Digitalnun on March 2, 2015

One thing everyone knows about Christians is that they should never, ever judge. No matter how badly people behave, no matter how much hurt or harm they cause, no Christian should ever presume to judge another’s conduct, still less condemn it. Christians should be compassionate and forgiving, and they should live much more simply and frugally than the rest of the world. Anyone reading today’s gospel, Luke 6. 36–38, will see I have written nothing but the truth — though that reference to frugal living is possibly more a construct of the popular imagination as it applies to priests and religious, as Cardinal Fell is discovering to his cost. So, why the tone of irony?

I am ironical because, like most literal interpretations of scripture, it can easily end up distorting the scriptures to mean the opposite of what they intend. When Jesus tells us to be compassionate as our Father is compassionate, he is asking something huge, but he is not asking us to suspend our rational faculties. Common sense is precisely that — common, and sense. We are to try to see others as God sees them, but that does not mean we are to be blind to their faults or indifferent to the danger they pose. Compassion for Mohammed Emwazi, for example, ought not to mean he should be allowed to go on butchering people, rather the reverse. It is in his own best interests — as well as those of other people — that his violence should be checked. That is to show compassion both for him and for his victims.

What about judgement in general? Here I admit we are often on trickier ground. Social Media is awash with instant, sometimes very harsh, judgements on people. We tend to condemn the sinner with the sin, ourselves determining that it is sin in the first place. Take Cardinal Fell’s expenses, for example. When I read through the list yesterday, I actually chuckled. Some things seemed to me perfectly explicable. Having flown Economy from the U.K. to the U.S. a number of times, I can imagine someone flying from Australia to Europe opting for Business Class, if possible, especially when such a ‘comfortable shape’ as the cardinal; and as to spending $3,600 on vestments/clerical tailoring, only someone who has never had the misfortune to have to buy something of that nature will know how highly the (lay) firms that supply such goods charge. Other items, such as the expenditure on furniture, probably deserve closer scrutiny. What we are dealing with, however, is not so much what the cardinal spent as public perception of a how a cardinal should live. Secular clergy do not take a vow of poverty, but we still make assumptions about what is or is not fitting based on a monastic ideal of simplicity of life. Is that right? Although no friend to extravagance, I’d have to say I don’t think it is, although I’m always uneasy when those who serve as priests or religious are self-indulgent in material things.

Today’s gospel requires a lot of prayer. It can’t be interpreted to mean one thing, and one thing only, in any and every circumstance. It may make us think more deeply about how we engage with others; how we determine and, on occasion, defend our values; it should certainly make us more loving and generous. But I don’t think it should make us wishy-washy. When people tell us how they think we should live our monastic life, or how we should deal with a particular situation, we usually weigh what they say, in case, like the visiting monk, they have been sent for that very purpose, but we don’t necessarily agree or act on their suggestion. A doormat is a doormat and not really an adequate expression of being created in the image and likeness of God.

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The Spiritual Selfie isn’t Helfie

by Digitalnun on March 1, 2015

The feast of the Transfiguration goes back to the early fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh (Roseflame). He kept the old name for the Christian feast because ‘Christ opened his glory like a rose on Thabor.’ It is an arresting image. When we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent (Mark 9. 2–10), roses are usually nowhere to be seen. There are just bare branches, with a few little reddish buds showing where the new growth will come. The analogy with Lent is embarrassingly obvious. Here we are, trying to open ourselves to the grace of conversion but apparently plunging deeper and deeper into a sense of failure and sin. The promise of future growth may be there, but one has to look hard to find it; and in any case, we’re always being told that we need to take our gaze off ourselves and focus on Jesus instead. The spiritual selfie isn’t helfie.

While I agree with that, I think we may need to nuance things a little. The old practice of a daily examination of conscience, going over the events of the day and asking ourselves not so much what we did or didn’t do as where we placed our desire, what we wanted so much that it became the wellspring of our thoughts, words and deeds, is a good check on slipping into indifference. But today’s gospel asks more than that. It asks us to look hard and see only Jesus. That means seeing Jesus in ourselves as well as others, of having such a huge reverence for him that we simply cannot choose sin because to do so would be to profane his image in us. I have always loved the collect for today, with its invitation to feast interiorly on the Word — such a stark contrast with the fasting Lent lays upon us. The liturgy of the day piles paradox upon paradox, but the greatest of all is the fact that God became man and we, creatures of clay, now are filled with hope of the divine glory. The true selfie is all around us, ‘lovely in limbs not his’.

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Praying for Our Fellow Christians

by Digitalnun on February 28, 2015

Yesterday evening, as on many previous occasions, we held a short prayer vigil here in the monastery for persecuted Christians in the Near and Middle East, especially those in the grip of IS. For once I remembered to mention the vigil on Social Media, and it was heartwarming to see how many responded and joined in ‘virtually’. Inevitably, one or two people wanted to widen the terms of reference, not just Christians but also . . . . Anyone who follows the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page will know that we never take an exclusive view of prayer — the fact that we don’t mention someone or something doesn’t mean we’re not praying for them — but given that today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 43–48, addresses the subject of loving our enemies, you may wonder why we insist that our vigil was, quite specifically, for our persecuted brethren.

It’s easy to forget that as Christians we are the original corporate person, as it were. We are one in Christ, and as St Paul famously reminds us in his analogy of the body, what affects one affects all. We have a duty of care towards one another. The first way in which we express that is through our union of prayer. Nothing can substitute for that. It is from our strength and unity as a Christian community that our action proceeds, and unity cannot exist without being grounded in prayer. Everything we read about the outrages perpetrated by IS reminds us that Christians face a persecution as evil as any in history. Some will argue that the numbers involved are fewer than were exterminated by the Nazis or that the atrocities reported by the media are exaggerated. Personally, I find it rather repugnant to play any kind of numbers game. The fact is that people are suffering because they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and God. They are being driven from their homes, enslaved, killed. We pray for them and ask their prayers for us, mindful that they show us what it means to be a disciple. Those Coptic Christians who died in Libya calling on the name of Jesus must surely be an encouragement to us all. Last night we asked the Lord to have mercy, but we also gave thanks for the witness of his followers who were ‘faithful unto death’ and showed us what it means to love our enemies:

Coptic Christians martyred in Libya

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The Sleepy are Apt to Make Excuses

by Digitalnun on February 27, 2015

St Benedict ends today’s section of the Rule by urging the monks to encourage one another when they get up for the Work of God, ‘for the sleepy are apt to make excuses’. (RB 22.8). It is one of those tender touches, full of warmth and humanity, that make the Rule so attractive. Of course, anyone who has actually got up in the middle of the night to sing Vigils, day in, day out, and been faced with the long, cold trek into choir, where X is singing flat and Y flapping around like a wet hen because, yet again, he hasn’t prepared, may take a slightly more jaundiced view. Let us leave the monastic curmudgeons to their mutterings and reflect on the words themselves: ‘the sleepy are apt to make excuses’.

Do we sleep-walk through life, going through the same routines but never thinking very deeply about anything and avoiding, if we can, any engagement beyond the superficial, or do we cultivate a kind of moral sleepiness, deliberately keeping ourselves distant from everyone and everything, so that if we are taxed with bad behaviour or challenged about our attitudes, we can take refuge in excuses and evasion? It isn’t very brave, but as a survival technique it has something to commend it. If it always someone else’s fault, we can reassure ourselves that ‘our withers are unwrung’. If we don’t have to face up to the consequences of our actions, we can go on defending them. The trouble with that kind of approach is that one day we’ll wake up and find that because we’ve never been able to say sorry, we’ve never been able to accept forgiveness, either.

If I may be allowed a very large generalisation, I’d say that men are marginally more likely than women to have difficulty admitting they are wrong. It sounds like conceding defeat, weakness even. They prefer to go on the attack or continue to justify their actions when it might be more gracious just to smile and say ‘sorry’. Women, by contrast, sometimes say ‘sorry’ very quickly, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is necessarily meant as an apology or recognition of wrongdoing. Far from it! It can sometimes be a way of drawing fire, of avoiding responsibility. (Here let me just add that, if one is British, one is culturally predisposed to apologize to all and sundry, even the furniture, but I hope we can take a more international view of the situation for the sake of my argument.) Whether male or female, we are all familiar with the techniques of avoidance and evasion, both active and passive, but I don’t suppose any of us is very pleased to have them pointed out to us, not in ourselves at any rate. We prefer to keep our eyes closed, dozing our way through things.

Unfortunately, we can’t doze for ever, not in this life. The time will come when we must rouse ourselves and stop making excuses. Why is that important? I’ve already given one reason, the importance of both giving and accepting forgiveness, but I think there’s a second. When we are asleep, even half-asleep, we are less than fully alive. We’re slightly ‘out’ of things. Making excuses for ourselves, whether of the aggressive or defensive kind, is also a way of being ‘out’ of things, but that isn’t how we are meant to spend our lives. We aren’t meant to be moral cowards. We have been given the enormous gift of free will, and we are meant to use it. We have been given grace, signed and sealed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism. Is there anything we cannot face, even those shortcomings that wound our pride and undermine our sense of self? Of course not! And Lent is a very good time for facing up to some of them.

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, contains a very sober warning that we can’t drift through a life of virtue. Little things matter. We have to act, and act decisively. If there is someone we need to be reconciled with, it’s no good waiting for him/her to come to us. We must go out to them. That takes courage, because it means risking rebuff. But wouldn’t it be better to be thought a fool rather than actually be one, to be fully awake and alive rather than slumbering and semi-comatose? Today, I shall try to take my own advice because I believe it to be what the gospel asks of us. What about you?

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Constant Failures

by Digitalnun on February 26, 2015

How is Lent going? Are you still full of enthusiasm, or are you ruefully beginning to count how many good intentions have fallen by the wayside? Has there been a little fudging on the fasting front, perhaps, or sudden blindness/deafness when confronted by someone in need? And all that extra prayer you promised yourself, where did that go?

Note I said, ‘promised yourself’. The trouble with Lenten resolutions is that very often they are about us. It is an old joke in the monastery that the Lent Bill written by God bears no relation to the one we ourselves write. We were going to do great things for God but, strangely, we find we can’t do the little ones he actually asks. Being patient with X or curbing the withering reply, no, that’s too much to ask. We are tired and hungry and our temper is uncertain. Let’s get on with the Bigger Programme we set ourselves and leave these trifling details to others. Well, NO.

I freely admit that my Lent has, so far, been a constant failure. Everything I set myself to do and be has collapsed around my ankles. I’m not proud of that, I’m certainly not happy about that; but I think it may be the lesson I need to learn — yet again. I am constantly failing, but the emphasis should be on the constant not the failure. What God asks of us is that we try, and go on trying no matter how often we fail. Today’s gospel, Matthew 7. 7–12, is one I find very challenging. To treat others as one would be treated oneself, yes, I can see how that would be not merely a Lenten programme in itself but, as Jesus says, ‘the meaning of the Law and the Prophets’. Pray for me as I do for you, that together we may arrive at the great feast of Easter, still failures in the ordinary sense of the word, no doubt, but definitely constant, standing firm on the rock that is Christ.

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The Price of Integrity

by Digitalnun on February 24, 2015

When the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued its pastoral letter, Who is my Neighbour? (text here) there was immediate condemnation from those who think the Church — whether Anglican, Catholic or what you will —  has no business ‘meddling’ in politics (as though membership of the Church somehow disqualified one from engagement with politics, government, law, morality, etc, etc). Then came the disturbing revelations concerning Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, and even the most secular of secularists may have wondered, Quis custodit ipsos custodes? Who will ask questions or challenge the assumptions of those in power if not the Church? The ‘greed is good’ mantra is not one Christians or Jews usually espouse, but events of recent years have demonstrated, again and again, that Parliament has been tainted with financial corruption among its members, and that bodes ill for all of us.

It should be said that the allegations against Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm have not yet been proved, and it may be that they have done nothing illegal. Doing nothing illegal or contrary to the rules is not the same as acting honourably or with integrity; and some unfortunate remarks of Sir Malcolm about ‘entitlement’ will have jarred with many. The larger question remains, however. What do we expect from our politicians and how should we react when they don’t seem to be adhering to the standards we expect?

Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in our expectations. We often expect others to act better than we do, on the grounds that they are richer, cleverer, have more opportunities than we do ourselves. That is, of course, envy masquerading as something else. Today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6.7–15). Reading through those phrases I think one is stopped short. What we call ‘integrity’, acting honestly and in accordance with strong moral principles, can only be attained through a sense of the interconnectedness of individuals and — ultimately — our dependence on God. We forgive, and are forgiven; we are fed, and feed others; the holiness of God is the context in which all other texts (words) are uttered.

Today, as we wait to see the outcome of the Straw/Rifkind debacle, we might meditate on the price of integrity. Are we prepared to live as we think others should? And what might that mean for us, in the particular circumstances of our lives? That is not a question from which we should turn away. Indeed, it is a apt one for examining whether our Lent has moved from the theoretical to the practical, from thinking about goodness to trying to be good.

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Spiritual Warfare for Christians

by Digitalnun on February 22, 2015

Christ Carrying the Cross

Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

There is a spiritual warfare that requires not a drop of blood to be shed, not a single angry word to be said, not one unkind thought to be thought. To put it in contemporary terms, you could say Lent is the Christian Jihad, when we oppose everything in our own lives that is hostile to God. The qualification is important. For the next few weeks we are principally concerned with following Jesus into the desert, allowing the searing light of truth into the hidden parts of our being, making us face up to the reality of who and what we are. We know it will be uncomfortable, but we were never promised a life of comfort when we became his disciples.

St Benedict tells his readers that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, and there are many places in the Rule where he refers to fighting for the true King, Christ our Lord, the fraterna acies or battleline of the community and the spiritual combat of the desert in which solitaries engage. But he never presents this spiritual warfare as something dour or grim. On the contrary, it is immensely joyful — because it brings us closer to Christ. His chapter on Lent, RB 49, is one of the most lyrical in the Rule and reminds us that we are looking forward to Easter ‘with joy and spiritual longing’, that everything we do, even the restrictions we place on ourselves, the things we ‘give up’ for Lent, is done ‘freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. In this, I think he is echoing the joy Jesus found in the desert, when he spent those precious forty days exploring the depth of his relationship with the Father. Yes, he was tested; yes, the temptation was real and urgent; but he was driven out into the desert by the Spirit — the Greek verb used is very strong, almost catapulted — and he was accompanied by angels, messengers of God. In other words, he was alone with the Alone.

For us, as disciples, our moments of being alone with the Alone can be very few and far between. In Lent we try to make more time for prayer, reduce the number of distractions (fasting) and seek to serve God in others (almsgiving). We know that we can sometimes be very self-regarding in all three, whereas what we intend is to forget ourselves. That really is the secret both of spiritual warfare such as I have described, and the joy that accompanies it. We need to stand aside, as it were, and let Christ be all in all — and that is so hard for us difficult, argumentative beings, who like to be in control all the time and find it virtually impossible to let go! The illustration at the top of this blog post may help change our perspective a little. It shows Christ carrying the Cross: the logical conclusion, if you like, of his forty days in the desert. The battle with Satan that began there reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ wins the victory for all time.

Christ has shed his blood for us, once and for all; so no more need be shed. He has borne every insult and angry word that has ever been uttered; so no more need be said. He has experienced all the contradictions of being human and transformed them so that now we can live the life of grace. Yes, Christ has triumphed and we live now with a vast opportunity before us. This Sunday is a good day for asking ourselves what we truly desire: God or something less, joy or endless sorrow?

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Lent: a little background to the season

by Digitalnun on February 18, 2015

Since Anglo-Saxon times we have used the lovely word Lent (meaning springtime) as a translation of the Latin Quadragesima (a reference to the forty days which make up the season of Lent). Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are traditionally associated with this season and show clearly the Jewish origins of the Church. They are the means by which we show our repentance from sin and firm purpose of amendment for the future.

Historically, probably the most notable feature of this period is the Lenten fast which is a preparation for Easter. Scholars continue to debate its origins, although the length of forty days is presumably drawn from the example of Moses, Elijah and Jesus himself. There may also be a reference to Jesus’ forty hours lying in the tomb. The Early Church kept the fast in many different ways. For example, in sixth century Rome, Lent lasted six weeks but, according to the Church historian Socrates, there were only three weeks of actual fasting. In Alexandria, Lent also lasted six weeks, but there was only one week of fasting (very severe fasting, it is true) during Holy Week.

By the time of Gregory the Great (590-604), there was some complicated number symbolism becoming associated with Lent, Gregory, for example, writing of the thirty-six days of fasting (Sundays were never fast-days) as being a tithe of the year offered to God. Later the importance of completing forty days of fasting meant that some extra days had to be added to the customary six weeks; so that the Roman custom is now to begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent. The Church of Milan held out against this innovation and until recently always marked Lent as beginning on the first Sunday of Lent.

As you might expect, there has been an equally wide divergence in the nature of the fast. Most commonly, the rule was to have only one meal a day, in the evening, and to abstain from luxuries such as meat and wine. St Gregory the Great, writing to St Augustine in England, tells him to abstain not just from meat and wine but also from eggs and dairy produce. This became the common practice. Remnants of the custom are found today in our practice of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before Lent begins, and eggs at Easter, when it ends. Of course, there were mitigations and exceptions were granted to those who were sick or elderly. In time these spread more generally.The most frequent was the allowance of two snacks, known as collations, in addition to the daily meal. The name comes from the practice of allowing in monasteries an evening drink at the time that the Collationes or Conferences of Cassian were read.

On Maundy Thursday evening began the Paschal fast, usually of greater severity than the Lenten fast. Often it was limited to dry bread and vegetables so that when Easter finally came it was celebrated with great relish. Today the Church continues to encourage fasting and abstinence during Lent but only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are ‘statutory’ fast days. The young and the elderly are not obliged to fast even on these two days. In monasteries, however, the usual practice is to fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted.

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration are burnt and the ashes sprinkled on the heads or foreheads of churchgoers with the reminder, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’ We begin Lent by recalling our creatureliness, something Adam and Eve forgot and which led them into sin. We may not wear biblical sackcloth, but at least we wear ashes as a sign of our penitence. We also mark the day by fasting and abstinence: they are a mark of our sorrow for sin and desire to return to the Lord who is ever ready to forgive and welcome us back.

In the monastery a special chapter is held in the afternoon, during which the Lent Books are distributed and each person receives back her Lent Bill (do a search in the sidebar for the meaning of these). We are reminded that the point of our Lenten observance is that we should ‘look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (RB 49.7) and everything we offer up or do by way of penance should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ (RB 49.6).

Lent Books (updated)
I have finished emailing the first 50 to have asked for a Lent Book suggestion. For anyone who disn’t make it into the first 50, may I suggest you read  1 and 2 Peter: they will lead you naturally to think about Easter. The advice I’ve given others is this: Pray before you begin and read slowly, trying to find a word or sentence you can take away with you and meditate on through the day. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to rush to a Concordance or Commentary (good though they are). Just try to spend time with God’s word and let him speak to you. Don’t be surprised if you feel bored or feel you are getting nothing from the reading. Sometimes it can take weeks, months, even years for something to percolate. May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.

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