Shrove Tuesday 2016

by Digitalnun on February 9, 2016

Today is the day when the ‘joy and spiritual longing’ St Benedict associates with Lent come to the fore. This is the day for confessing our sins, for the restoration of a right relationship between God and ourselves, and between ourselves and everyone with whom we are in any way at odds. It is the day for being freed from our sins, and freeing others from anything that holds them ensnared. Clearing our larders of eggs and butter and making pancakes is secondary. It is the spiritual preparation for Lent that matters most; but, happily, Catholicism has never been a dour religion so we can carnival (eat meat) and toss our pancakes with gusto, inverting the usual order of things by ushering in the great fast with a great feast.

Today, if not before, we will also think about the form our prayer, fasting and almsgiving should take. If you look back on this blog, you will find several suggestions, but today I would like to mention just one monastic discipline: the Lent Book, a book of scripture chosen by the superior and assigned to each member of the community after some prayer and thought about what he/she would find most helpful or challenging. A hundred members of our online community have already received a personal recommendation, but for those of you who didn’t, but who would value a suggestion, I’m going to invite you to read the Book of Exodus.

With the mass migrations sweeping across Europe, Exodus is a timely reminder of what it means to be a slave then an exile; to be set free by the Lord, then search for the fulfilment of a dream, a promise. But Exodus is much more than a conveniently contemporary account of the dynamics of oppression and freedom. It is a record of the Lord’s tender love for his people, the covenant he established in the desert and ultimately sealed with the blood of Jesus on Calvary. The experience of wandering in the wilderness is one we can all relate to in some measure, along with the experience of sin and failure. The story of Exodus filled Jesus’ last days on earth and helps interpret his final actions and sayings. As such, it is a wonderful preparation for Easter — which is what Lent is all about.

Tips on Reading
As always, pray before you begin to read; read the text as addressed to yourself; and give thanks when you have finished, because grace grows in proportion to gratitude. At some point you will become weary and want to give up, or you’ll seek diversion in concordances and commentaries, but try just to stick to the text and let God speak to you through it. You can delve into the commentaries later to enrich your understanding but don’t let them become an excuse not to engage with the text.

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Preparing for Lent 2016: the Poverty Bill

by Digitalnun on February 6, 2016

Yesterday I posted on Facebook a couple of links to resources on this blog and our main web site about preparing for Lent (see below). This morning I’d like to mention a monastic practice that others beyond the monastery may find useful: the poverty bill.

Once a year every nun draws up a list of everything she has in her room or for her own use and submits it to the superior or, in the case of the superior, to another nun. It encompasses everything and acts as a check on any tendency to luxury or excess. You’d be surprised how easy it is to start the year with, say, two biros and end with twelve! Here at Howton Grove we take it further. Every year we assess what we think we genuinely need to live a monastic life and be of service to others. Anything we regard as excessive or anything we haven’t used in the past year is scrutinised and usually either given away or sold and the proceeds put to better use. Of course, that isn’t true of every single item. We didn’t use our fermenting bin to make apple wine last year, but we may this year; so it will stay. And I regret to say there is still stuff we haven’t unpacked from our Hendred years which needs a similar scrutiny.

The point is, this annual check on possessions is a very good way of bringing some reality into our Lenten observance. It is easy to make a nominal sacrifice of some food or trifling self-indulgence; it is easy to make a small donation to Oxfam or some other good cause; it is even easy(ish) to add some prayer or reading to our regular routine; but to cast a ruthless eye over what we have, and make decisions about what we really need, takes a certain amount of steeliness and generosity. It is not merely a stripping away but also, and more importantly, a giving to others. Otherwise it is just ‘decluttering’, which can be selfish, a way of organizing space just how we want it with no thought of anyone’s good but our own.

So, as we prepare for Lent and think about the form our prayer, fasting and almsgiving should take, may I suggest spending a few moments thinking about our everyday surroundings, the things we have, the things we may not even notice so accustomed have we become to their presence, and ask ourselves whether we are putting them to good use and whether there is a better use still.

If you would like some more suggestions about Lent, these two links may be helpful:

The first is fairly general: http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/02/11/preparing-for-lent/

The second pulls together various resources on fasting, prayer, almsgiving, etc. http://bit.ly/1L3BhjN

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The Internet and Cancer: a Post for World Cancer Day 2016

by Digitalnun on February 4, 2016

The kindest thing anyone can do to someone with cancer is to treat them normally — and avoid giving them the benefit of their advice. ‘Cancer’ is an almost meaningless term, covering a multitude of different diseases. Most people diagnosed with one form or other quickly become internet experts in their own speciality, digesting grim facts and figures and tossing off polysyllabic references to various forms of treatment and their outcomes. I know I did, until I realised that the dire statistics about sarcoma related to very small sample pools and I’d do much better just getting on with things, sticking to healthy food and exercise and avoiding, as far as humanly possible, bugs and viruses. The trouble with the internet is that every crackpot idea can be presented as though it were anything but, and cancer is such an emotive subject that it seems everyone has a view they want to share.

Much more useful, it seems to me, is the way in which the internet does allow those affected by cancer — those with the disease, family, friends, carers — to share not their pseudo-science but their experience, so that it is no longer quite the lonely and frightening business it once was. Of course, cancer is frightening and lonely at times; it’s also painful and expensive and incredibly dreary; but it does not define a person, nor is it the totality of a cancer patient’s life. It can, however, define and become virtually the totality of the life of the carer, be they family or friend. Despite all the splendid initiatives in this country intended to help those who are carers, I feel that more needs to be done. I am sometimes embarrassed when people focus on me and my illness and forget that it is Quietnun who has the harder task. Recently a friend drove over and invited her out for a walk, just the two of them. What a blessing it was that someone was paying attention to Quietnun, thinking what she would enjoy, taking her out of an environment where, like it or not, my illness is constantly present (though I do try to hide the pills and potions and keep my walking-stick more or less hidden).

Today is World Cancer Day and there will be a flurry of appeals for better care, more research and so on. Personally, I would like to see more of an emphasis on those beyond the spotlight, so to say: those who quietly get on with the business of looking after others and who often make huge but unremarked sacrifices. I’d also like to see more care for the bereaved, who are sometimes left angry and bitter. Part of the trouble, I suspect, is that we have not yet changed what Andrew Graystone called ‘the rhetoric of cancer’. We still tend to describe it in the language of war: we fight it, work to defeat it, and eventually lose our battle with it. Such language produces guilt, not only in the one with cancer (I’m not fighting hard enough) but also, after their death, in the carer (I didn’t do enough). I think that is nonsense.

One thing we can all do today is pray. At the same time, perhaps we could each ask ourselves whether there is anything we can do to help others, especially carers. As always, it is important not to press our own agenda. What suits one person may not suit another. Self-forgetfulness does not come naturally to most of us but it is key to being a true friend to another. Indeed, I think I would go further and assert that it is at the heart of all caring. The fact that it is also very Benedictine is surely no co-incidence.

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Gene Editing, Consecrated Life and Candlemas

by Digitalnun on February 2, 2016

Yesterday the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved a limited form of experimental gene editing of human embryos (see BBC report here). For anyone who believes that life begins at conception, irrespective of whether that life lasts for only a few hours or many years, is born or is not born, as we commonly understand that term, it is a decision of enormous consequence. But because it is ‘science’, because it is presented in the language of compassion for those who are infertile or whose children miscarry, most of us are probably not thinking through the questions that follow in its train. By saying the embryos must be discarded after seven days and destroyed after fourteen, are we not saying, in effect, they are not human, they have no rights? The caveat that embryos which have been experimented on should never be implanted or allowed to grow to term may not cut much ice with those of us who remember the debate around the 1967 Abortion Act and the way in which many of its provisions seem to have been ignored. The prospect of GM human beings just came another step closer.

You notice that I have been careful to write of embryos whereas I naturally think of the unborn as babies. (Whoever said, ‘We’re expecting an embryo!’ or ‘I can feel my embryo moving!’) That is because I think the Church often fails to speak or even understand the language of those to whom she must proclaim the Gospel. Today, on the feast of Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of the Lord or the Purification of Mary), when we think of Simeon and Anna keeping faith through long years of hardship and disappointment and finally seeing the Glory of Israel, we tend to think of the elderly, of the gifts they bring to the Church, and we look backwards, perhaps to a Golden Age that never was. We forget the wars, the poverty, the ill-health, the sheer ignorance that marred the lives of many (as they still mar the lives of many in other parts of the world) and indulge in a little nostalgia. We think of peace after the day is done and the quiet tones of the Nunc Dimittis as night falls. The HFEA’s decision is comfortably forgotten in the soft gleam of candlelight and the sprinkle of holy water.

Let us be grateful, therefore, that today is not only the last of the Infancy feasts, a reminder of what the Incarnation means and Jesus’ purpose in becoming man, it is also the Jubilee marking the end of the Year of Consecrated Life. Quite a lot of people see religious life as irrelevant or a refuge for the stupid and are astonished when they discover that it is not necessarily either. Indeed, whether apostolic or contemplative, religious are great shakers-uppers of fixed ideas or accepted notions. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Mary Ward, Mother Teresa, they were all very different, but they exposed and overturned many of the fashionable complacencies of their day. The Church has never had greater need of people whose whole lives will proclaim the absolute transcendence of God and the importance of the Gospel in defiance of whatever society endorses as ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’.

Today, as we process holding our flickering candles, let us pray that God will continue to call and uphold those whose service of the temple is, in many respects, hidden but who, by their very existence, assert the reality of values that go beyond the present and reach into eternity. And may those privileged to serve in the temple continue to pray that we may never lose sight of our humanity or fail to be humble in the presence of Life.

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An Offer You Cannot Refuse?

by Digitalnun on January 30, 2016

Lent will soon be upon us (yes, really, Ash Wednesday is 10 February!) and I shall begin posting on Lenten themes. In past years a number of people have found it helpful to have a book of scripture assigned to them, just as it is in the monastery, which they read through during Lent. Sometimes the choice is congenial; sometimes it isn’t; but St Benedict gives us this task for a reason (cf RB 48.14–16) and expects us to work at it. As St Jerome says, ‘Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,’ and Lent is a time when we try to know our Lord and Saviour better than ever.

If you would like me to assign you a Lent book, please use the link below and I will do my best to respond before Lent begins. I can’t guarantee that you won’t get a book you’ve had assigned to you in previous years, but if that happens, comfort yourself with the thought that the mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us to make are usually not mistakes at all. Please note that this offer is limited to the first hundred persons to apply USING THE FORM BELOW! (If you can’t see the form, it could be that you have disabled JavaScript.)

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Setting a Good Example

by Digitalnun on January 29, 2016

Time was when the idea of consciously trying to set a good example was seen as unbearably priggish, smacking of Victorian do-goodery and implicit hypocrisy. Quite apart from the fact that I think we are unjust to the Victorians, I’d argue that the notion of setting a good example is one we need to re-visit. In the West we are only too ready to step away from responsibility. Politicians exclaim, ‘I have done nothing wrong!’ when caught out being greedy or in some shady activity. Parents exclaim, ‘They are out of control!’ when seeking to excuse themselves for their offspring’s behaviour. Even bishops have been known to disclaim all knowledge of what their priests have been up to. It is refreshing when someone has the courage to say, ‘The buck stops here. I take responsibility.’ But  we need to go further. It is not just responsibility for what has been done that we need to accept, but responsibility for creating the conditions in which certain behaviours are seen as acceptable. In other words, how we set a good example is something we all need to consider.

A short examination of conscience can be extremely helpful. The standards we actually live by, as distinct from those we publicly espouse, will soon show us what sort of example we are setting to others. Honesty, kindness, courtesy, hard work and so on are not specifically religious qualities, inasmuch as they are shared by many who would not claim any religious affiliation, but they do tend to point to the strength of our religious commitment. The intersection of public and private morality can be very difficult, and it is not made any easier by the way in which legislation can seem hostile to the open expression of someone’s beliefs. Wearing a cross or offering to pray for someone is not acceptable in certain situations, and I think most of us can understand why even if we do not always agree. It is much trickier when reservations about the morality of certain forms of research or corporate policy are in question. I remember, years ago, a banker friend putting his job on the line because of his objection to an advertising campaign which encouraged household debt. I am sure you can think of many similar instances.

The fact that something is difficult, however, does not mean that we can avoid making a decision, or ignore the fact that our decision, whatever it may be, will have an effect on others. We have recently celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day, and I was reminded of all those non-Jews in Occupied Europe who chose to put the Star of David on their coats to show solidarity with their persecuted fellow-citizens. We shall never know who was the first to do that, but the example he/she set was surely a good one. May we, in our turn, be just as ready to set a good example in both the big and small things of life.

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Making Room for the Holy Spirit

by Digitalnun on January 27, 2016

I nearly called this the confessions of a digitalnun. For some days I have been nibbling away at the community’s correspondence mountain and fretting that I haven’t been able to do what I wanted to do (finish re-jigging the monastery’s web sites). It has taught me a useful lesson. Neither the correspondence nor the web sites will ever reach a state of completion, when I can say that no more needs to be done. More than that, I’ll never be able to say that they’ve been dealt with perfectly. There will always be the letter or email I haven’t answered adequately, or clearly or kindly enough to satisfy its recipient; and web sites are out of date almost as soon as they are uploaded. It is in that imperfection, however, that I think we make room for the Holy Spirit. The moment we drop our own ideas about how it should all go, we allow a chink for him to act; and reluctant though we may be to concede the point, his ideas are invariably better than ours.

Most of us like the illusion of control. We are ‘the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul’. Possibly; but trouble comes when we try to make others share our illusions  or subscribe to our version of reality. I can best illustrate this with a simple example. Occasionally, we receive enquiries from people who are thinking about vocation but who have forgotten, or are perhaps unwilling to acknowledge, that there are three parties involved: God, themselves and the community. It is no good presenting the community with a detailed programme of what is expected of it, anymore than it would be to demand that God endorse our ideas about things, or for the community to expect the candidate to have attained perfection. (As D. Elizabeth Sumner was wont to remark, ‘Why enter a monastery if you’ve already attained the Seventh Mansion?’) We have to explore, be open, be honest, listen hard, reflect, trusting that the other party will do the same and that God will be involved in the process. It cannot be rushed. What is true of discernment of vocation is also true of much of life. We have to check the inner clamour so that we may hear what God has to say, and, if my experience is anything to go by, he usually speaks through other people or through events.

So, this morning, as I dutifully set about the correspondence backlog, I shall try to keep in mind that what I want may not be the best that is possible. Tinkering with our web sites may be fun, and I have no objection to fun, but there may be something more important for me to attempt. It may not seem important to me, but it matters to God; and that is surely what counts.

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Ego Networks

by Digitalnun on January 23, 2016

People sometimes refer to Social Media as ‘ego networks’, and the way some people use them (not you or me, obviously) that is devastatingly accurate. But the phrase set me wondering, and as it is Saturday morning, a little light-heartedness is in order. What other ‘ego networks’ do we belong to? I take the phrase to mean groups or associations that flatter us, make us feel good, or enable us to advance some cherished aim or plan of ours. In my youth, a lot of people seemed to play golf who didn’t like the game very much but who valued the ‘opportunities’ playing provided. Then there were the week-end sailors who didn’t like the sea very much but who appreciated the ‘interaction’ at the yacht club. Even today we have parents who suddenly discover a religious bent when attendance at church is a pre-requisite for their child’s enrolment at a faith school. But what about you and me, decent, upright citizens that we are, what do we belong to for reasons of self-interest? I have examined my conscience on the matter and drawn a blank. Could that be the ultimate self-deception? Is blogging just another ego network? Over to you. :)

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Christian Unity 2016

by Digitalnun on January 21, 2016

The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity began on Sunday and will end with the feast of St Paul on Monday, 25 January. During the course of these eight days there will be numerous attempts to celebrate the unity we already have and pray for the unity that still eludes us. Like many others, I don’t see Christian unity as an optional extra but as something Christ wills for his Church, but I must admit to becoming rather more doubtful about the way in which we are proceeeding.

The fact that many Churches now celebrate similar-sounding or similar-looking liturgies does not necessarily mean that we believe the same things. The differences may be small, but they can be significant; and many of us, alas, have lost our sensitivity to symbolic meanings. We think we mean more or less the same by what we say or do, but we don’t. We have forgotten the underlying theology expressed through the liturgy. Our understanding of priesthood, for example, affects our understanding of what happens during the celebration of the Eucharist or Mass. Our understanding of hierarchy affects our understanding of popes, patriarchs and bishops and the way in which their authority operates. In other words, our understanding of the Church herself — ecclesiology — is fundamental to our quest for Christian unity and should give it both impetus and direction. So why am I less sanguine than hitherto?

Part of the reason is that here in the UK I see Catholicism taking on a much less catholic identity than it has had in the past. There are many more divisions. Often those who like to see themselves as ‘traditionalists’ or ‘liberals’ seem to rely on feeling rather than thought. I am not much of a theologian or Church historian, but I do read quite a lot of theology and history and am sometimes embarrassed to read or hear confidently-expressed opinions about what the Church believes or teaches that are actually wrong. (It can even happen in the pulpit!) There are also some notable differences developing in the way in which the Christian Churches in the UK understand some of the major social issues of our day. Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life, its opposition to abortion and the death penalty, its social teaching about economics and justice, are part of a seamless robe (which, let’s be honest, not all Catholics are prepared to accept) but it is not always seen as  such from ‘outside’. On the other hand, despite some admirable public utterances, the Catholic Church’s attitude to women and their role in the Church is definitely still at the handmaiden-only stage, and in some places is becoming even more restrictive.

For me, as for many others, the great dream of Christian unity is the ending of the schism betwen Catholics and Orthodox. There are comparatively few Orthodox in the UK, so we tend to concentrate on achieving greater unity between Catholics and all the different varieties of Protestant and Reformed Churches. I am certainly very keen to do whatever I can to help in that, but part of me remains wistful about that older, greater dream. Ultimately, I remind myself, it is all God’s work. We just have to take care not to get in his way with ideas of our own; and that includes not trying to time-table the Almighty or insist that he do things our way.

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Water into Wine: the Miracle of Cana and Intercessory Prayer

by Digitalnun on January 17, 2016

We are barely into Ordinary Time yet already we have the miracle of Cana to lift our hearts and minds. Water becomes wine at Jesus’ word, and in such abundance that everyone is amazed. It would be easy to say life is like that, a constant changing of the ordinary into the extraordinary, sorrow into joy. At one level, that would be true; but how many of us would claim that was really our own experience? I suspect most of us would admit to finding life rather more like the curate’s egg: good in parts, sometimes rather inexplicably scrambled, generally unpredictable and occasionally very nasty. Perhaps we have listened to too many sermons trying to instil a sense of our living in the best of all possible worlds to free ourselves entirely from the idea that we ought to relate to the gospel story in a certain way. For me, the real miracle of Cana is its ordinariness, and what it teaches us about intercessory prayer.

Jesus is at a wedding; the hosts have under-catered; Mary notices (because women do notice these things) and urges her son to help but gets a dusty answer in return (Jesus must have been enjoying the party, and what young man wants his mother to intervene at party-time). But it doesn’t end there. Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. She isn’t put off by his apparent unresponsiveness. I think that is how most of us intercede for others, or indeed ourselves. We aren’t put off by God’s apparent lack of responsiveness. We just keep trying to pray, dimly aware that somehow God is involved and will answer the prayer he has inspired us to make. I don’t suppose Mary knew in advance what Jesus would do, and I certainly don’t think she gave him a detailed programme of what she wanted him to do. She simply told him there was a need, reassured the servants, and waited. We can learn from that. We don’t need to tell God what to do when we intercede with him, but we may need to reassure others, and we certainly must be prepared to wait. When the miracle comes — and it will — it may not be the one we expected or wanted, but it will transform things. It may be a sign we do not understand or which we misinterpret or even fail to notice, but it will be there. The miracle of Cana is for all time.

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