by Digitalnun on July 23, 2016
The publication yesterday of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, will not be of much interest to the Church at large, although it will be of great interest to those it most concerns — contemplative women’s communities, especially those that, like ourselves, are small and of diocesan right. It isn’t my intention to comment on the Constitution itself but simply ‘think aloud’ about one very important underlying question: how to judge a monastic community and its fidelity to its vocation.
For some, a monastery is just a set of buildings where the inhabitants wear funny clothes and spend a lot of time singing psalms. The grander the buildings, the more numerous the inhabitants, the more splendid the music, the more ‘successful’ the community is considered to be. May I beg to differ? The late Dom David Knowles once remarked that a community can keep up a decent performance of the Divine Office in impressively fine buildings long after the heart has gone out of it. I have often found that a chastening thought. It is what we do, not where we live or what we wear, that counts; and even what we do can be done half-heartedly or for the wrong reasons. Despite all our efforts, all our attempts to live in obedience to the Gospel and the Rule, we can miss the point of being in the monastery in the first place. The only real test to be applied, the only thing by which our fidelity to our vocation can be judged, is the simplest but most difficult of all: holiness. Is the community striving to become holy itself and lead others to holiness, too?
I think we all know when we are in the presence of real holiness, although we could never hope to explain it and most of us would have the good sense not to try to judge it. Holiness can’t be faked or hidden. It just is. And what is more, real holiness is immensely attractive. That doesn’t mean it is not challenging or disturbing. It is often both those things, but it is also endlessly encouraging. In the presence of a holy person we know we are loved by God and that somehow, whatever the difficulties or disappointments on the way, we are buoyed up by that divine love. It is the love of God that the monastic community is meant to mediate to others, and it can only do that insofar as it has itself experienced that love. Hence all those hours of unseen prayer, the small asceticisms of daily life, the quiet perseverance in seeking God.
Those of you who know our community will appreciate we have some concerns over the ‘one size fits all’ approach of Vultum Dei Quaerere, but we must not allow such concerns to get in the way of what we are about. We may be small and insignificant, and we certainly aren’t holy yet, but that is our aim: holiness. Nothing less will do.
by Digitalnun on July 22, 2016
Did you know that Bro Duncan PBGV, the hairy sage of Howton Grove Priory, had a very different kind of life before entering the monastery? Before he gave up everything to live in humble obscurity, he was known as Ch. Soletrader Dunc ‘N Disorderly and had a huge impact on his breed, the Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen. Gavin Robertson, who bred him (and the famous Jilly, who won Crufts and has since done lots of charitable work) recognized his exceptional quality, so now there are lots of little Duncans and Duncanesses and their sproggetts all over the world. Our man seems to have travelled widely in his youth, even spending a year in Sweden. When he returned to this country, Gavin and Sara decided that he would not be happy in kennels (there are rumours that he and Woody, another famous Soletrader PBGV, did not always get on) and began to think about what to do.
At the same time our D. Teresa was becoming more housebound and D. Lucy and I wracked our brains trying to think of ways of making life pleasanter for her. I, the dog-lover, had always said the community should not have pets. D. Lucy, the cat-lover, said a dog might be just the thing. I countered that if we had a dog, it could only be an adult male PBGV, thinking I had set an impossible requirement. Within ten minutes, thanks to the internet, she had found the Soletrader site and urged me to write to Gavin and Sara, which I did. The rest, as they say, is history. We went over to have a look, just to have a look, you understand — and that was that. Gavin and Sara could not have been kinder or more generous; I think there was definitely something caught in Sara’s eyes when she handed Duncan over. He never forgot them, and when we took him to Wallingford to be groomed for his last TV appearance (on BBC 1’s Pentecost Songs of Praise) there was a grand reunion, with much wagging of tails and soppy remarks which, among the British, are the way we express our deepest feelings.
Thus, at the age of five, the same age as Bede, Bro Duncan PBGV entered the novitiate at Hendred. He proved the truth of the old saying, ‘Handosme is as handsome does.’ He wasn’t just a supremely beautiful hound, with a wonderful head and easy grace of movement, he had the sweetest temperament of any dog I’ve ever known. He was full of fun, but it was always gentle fun. He was endlessly patient with the old, with children, with most other dogs (he didn’t like black ones). He was a natural contemplative and could sit for hours just gazing . . . before making a sudden dash into the undergrowth to investigate something he’d noticed. We used to walk for miles on the Ridgeway, Bro Duncan PBGV always on a lead, of course, and discovered he had a passion for horses. He would trot after anything, even the massive stallion one of our neighbours rode, which used to worry me sometimes, in case he got kicked.
He had been with us for three weeks before we discovered his voice, and what a voice it was! A basset profundo of glorious richness, used sparingly but always to great effect, warning us of visitors and changing tone if he didn’t like the look or smell of them. His expenses were thereafter noted in the monastery accounts as ‘Security System’. Most of the time, however, he was happy to be St Benedict’s wise old man at the monastery gate, welcoming everyone without getting in the way. Once, when I returned from a visit to Rome in the early hours and crept into the house as silently as I could, there was Bro Duncan PBGV, tail rotating in an ecstasy of welcome and doggy delight (well, I hope it was doggy delight).
Bro Duncan PBGV thoroughly approved of our move to Herefordshire in 2012 and loved having a big garden to roam in. It was here that his remarkable talent for blogging and tweeting first became apparent. He had a gift for saying simply what most of us find complicated; and if, in his later years, he sometimes showed a little of the grumpy old man, who can blame him? I have found a few of his unpublished writings which I’ll look over and perhaps be able to share with you at some time in the future.
He was always remarkably healthy but in old age he developed pancreatitis, which we were able to control with diet, and Cushing’s, which was controlled with a pill. This did sometimes lead to epic struggles in the early morning, but he was a PBGV after all. A certain independence of mind is to be expected. It is part of the fun. His last illness was sudden and swift. He was coming with me to the Churchill Hospital as he always did, but suddenly his rear legs gave way. We had been warned by the vet that that could happen with Cushing’s, so we telephoned immediately and he took Duncan in for observation, assuring us that it was probably a spinal problem or even an infection. Later that afternoon, he told us tests had shown abnormalities in the liver. In the morning our Hairy Brother was no better and we took the hard decision that, at just over thirteen and a half, his time had come. He sleeps now under the wide Herefordshire skies, never to feel pain or distress any more. Thank you, old friend, for all you shared with us. We miss you.
Bro Duncan PBGV Memorial
Several people have asked to give something in memory of Duncan. He was an assiduous waterer of trees, so we have decided that our mini-orchard should be dedicated to him. We need to clear some of the existing trees and re-plant, so if you would like to contribute, we suggest a donation of £5 to £10, either via our online donation page, http://www.charitychoice.co.uk/benedictinenuns or by cheque made payable to Holy Trinity Monastery. Donations can be Gift-Aided.
by Digitalnun on July 20, 2016
When the Cold War ended, many of us hoped we would never again hear the word ‘purge’ used in a political context. For, of course, a purge is not an abstraction: it is human lives brutally torn apart because those with power fear the loss of it. As the reports emerging from Turkey seem to show, it is not merely a case of removing from office military personnel alleged to have been plotting a coup, nor of others being sacked from their jobs, it is also violence being used to extract convenient confessions and, ultimately, if President Erdogan’s words are an indication, death. In the nineteenth century Turkey was commonly referred to as ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. Today we might question Turkey’s claim to be European in anything but the geographical sense, but sick? Surely the answer must be ‘yes’; and we have a duty to pray for the sick and suffering. Today let us pray especially for the Turkish people.
by Digitalnun on July 18, 2016
The Pokemon Go craze has co-incided with my hunting through our photograph collection in search, not of monsters, but of characteristic shots of Bro Duncan PBGV; and it has made me think about images and the way we use them. The sight of so many people walking around, noses glued to their smartphones, is surreal. It suggests a parallel universe, a retreat from reality. The slimness of our photograph collection suggests the reverse. Monastic life is about living in the present, becoming more and more attuned to reality, not retreating from it or evading its demands. Those who have never lived it may find that statement puzzling. Don’t monks and nuns have a charmed existence, occupying themselves with a little prayer and reading now and then, enjoying a world where there is very little to worry or vex them? Ask me at the wrong minute, and I’m likely to say Pokemon Go can produce nothing as nasty as the enemy of the moment in the cloister, while the work required to sustain the liturgy, keep house and grounds up and provide a welcome to visitors, online and off, can be taxing. The important thing, however, is that it is real. Monastic life is about becoming more and more real, experiencing everything more and more deeply.
To experience something means to immerse oneself, to be engaged, not separate. My brother-in-law, a very gifted photographer, might disagree, but for me, to photograph something means standing aside, observing, not engaging — and that is contrary to the purpose of monastic life, which is all about engagement. Monks and nuns tend to notice detail, sometimes maddeningly so. We are taught to read slowly, carefully; to work patiently; to listen intently; to look closely; to speak seldom. The monastery is designed to allow very few ways of escape from reality. We can’t bury ourselves in drink, drugs, TV or internet games — they are not life-giving. Even the time-table, which orders every hour of every day, is meant to free us from the preoccupation of choosing for ourselves how we shall spend our time.
I am not suggesting that everyone should rush off to join a monastery, but perhaps in each of us there should be an inner monk or nun: a little part of us that is the lonely place where Christ prays unceasingly to the Father and we can learn what it is to become real. It’s more demanding than Pokemon Go but ultimately, I trust, much more rewarding.
by Digitalnun on July 15, 2016
Yesterday’s tragedy in Nice has brought the usual wave of condemnations by world leaders — and the usual wave of those wanting to talk about violence in Kashmir or Palestine or wherever the writer feels the lack of the world’s attention, as though grieving for one made it impossible to grieve for the other. The truth is, every violent death is a tragedy; and we grieve all men, women and children murdered by human malice wherever they may be. But France is close, and many of us have walked along the Promenade des Anglais or taken part in 14 July celebrations. It is therefore easier for us to identify with what happens there than it is with countries we may not have visited or lived in. However, if our identification goes no deeper than mere sentiment, I think we are missing the point.
Almost anything can be used to kill — in this case, a truck or lorry — but it requires the intervention of human thought and intention to turn that vehicle into an instrument of destruction. If, as is currently being suggested, the perpetrator of the Nice attack was some sort of Islamist terrorist, we are again confronted with our failure to combat Jihadist ideology with any powerful ideology of our own. There are times when it seems we would rather be quiescent than confront such a perversion of human values. I say human advisedly, because I think one of our biggest mistakes is to take Islamist propaganda at face value. It is not zeal for God that motivates such murderers but lust for destruction, to which religion gives a superficially acceptable cover. Wringing our hands and talking limply about Islam being a religion of peace will achieve nothing because it does not touch the root of the problem. The root of the problem is human anger, human grievance, the human desire to be something in a world where, by and large, one is perceived as nothing.
This morning, as we pray for those killed or injured in Nice, perhaps we could also spend some time reflecting on the origins of violence, in ourselves as well as others. What makes us angry? What do we use to justify our anger? How does our religious belief (if we have any) bolster or undermine our justification of our own conduct? The brutality of IS shows what happens when all restraints are shrugged off in the illusory pursuit of a religious ‘purity’ that cannot be. Are we consumed with a similar zeal? It may not be religious purity we are after, but is there something else that drives us and maybe threatens to wreck other people’s lives as well as our own?
Bro Duncan PBGV
Bro Duncan PBGV, a.k.a. Ch. Soletrader Dunc’n Disorderly, was put to sleep yesterday morning after a brief illness. I intend to write a blog post about him sometime in the next few days. He was 5 when he came to us. Anyone who has photos of him in his younger days which they would allow me to use, please get in touch.
by Digitalnun on July 10, 2016
Here is a little prediction for you. Everyone who goes to Mass this morning will listen to the Parable of the Good Samaritan and resolve to be a better neighbour to others — more kindly, more compassionate, more generous. But come Monday morning, with its prospect of another day at the office or a mound of dirty laundry to be washed or even (whisper it not) a complicated and lengthy office of Vigils to celebrate St Benedict, and the milk of human kindness will quickly turn to yoghurt in our veins. We want to be good; we want to be all the things the gospel asks of us; but wishing and wanting don’t make things happen. We may have an impulse of kindness and generosity now and then, but to make them habitual requires hard work and many failures. That tends to put people off, rather like trying a new diet and slipping back into old habits once the initial enthusiasm has worn off. Why bother trying? Why not just accept that we can’t?
Perseverance is a very unshowy quality, but also very important in monastic life and indeed the Christian life in general. It means getting up again as soon as one has fallen, plodding on when one cannot run, trying one’s best even though one is doubtful of the outcome. It is a grace and, as such, one we can pray for, must pray for if we are to follow the teaching of Christ. Most of us are not Good Samaritans most of the time. We are not even priests or levites passing by. We are, though we may be reluctant to admit it, lying bruised and bloodied by the wayside, needing the Good Samaritan’s help. Learning to accept graciously is as important as learning to give graciously, but in many ways we find it harder because, of course, it takes us from being centre stage, from active to passive. If our resolve to be kinder, more compassionate, more generous doesn’t last into Monday, maybe our readiness to accept the kindness, compassion and generopsity of others can. Sometimes it is only experiencing the goodness of others that can lead us to become good in our turn.
by Digitalnun on July 8, 2016
You might expect Benedictines to have a keen interest in liturgy, to be concerned about its reverent performance, to take trouble to be informed not just about liturgical rubrics but also the theology behind the rubrics; and you’d be right. Our community, tiny though it is, has always tried to ensure that our liturgy is all that it should be: orthodox, reverent, beautiful, unhurried. Following the Sacra Liturgia conference from afar, however, has been a mixed experience. The five points made by Cardinal Sarah highlighted as being of special importance are not a problem to us. Our oratory is arranged for celebration ad orientem and always has been; we regularly use Latin and Gregorian chant in our worship, not as self-conscious revivals but as the natural expression of our monastic tradition; silence and pauses to allow reflection and prayer are easy to us; and we probably kneel more often, and longer, in the course of a day than many others do in the course of a week*. So, why do I describe following the Sacra Liturgia conference at a distance as a mixed experience?
First, there is the fact that we have only had edited highlights so far, plus the reports and photos of Social Media friends who have attended. Context and nuance are important, and we haven’t been able to assess those. More significant is the fact that the liturgy we experience daily is of two types. The monastic liturgy of the choir, the Divine Office, fulfils all the desiderata Cardinal Sarah has specified. But for the liturgy of the Mass and sacraments we are dependent on others. That is the situation of most nuns and nearly all laity (i.e those who don’t have chaplains but are dependent on the parish system for Mass and the sacraments). That means that there can be a dichotomy between the monastic liturgy of the Divine Office and the ecclesial liturgy of the Mass.
Even inside the monastery we can experience such a dichotomy. Only very rarely is Mass celebrated in our oratory but, when it is, the visiting priest is free to decide how it should be celebrated. Usually, priests who wish to say Mass for us are in sympathy with our monastic ideals, but sometimes it is a case of gritting one’e teeth and muttering ex opere operato to oneself. When we go out of the monastery for Mass — which is nearly always the case — we have to accept whatever is offered, which can be problematic, especially if, as sometimes happens, liturgical rules are flouted or we simply find ourselves out of sympathy with the tone of the celebration.
I remember talking once with a very liturgically-minded deacon and suddenly realising that for him the historical locus for liturgical celebration was the late sixteenth and early seventeetnth centuries, whereas for me it was a long way further back. For him a sanctuary crowded with male servers and Baroque splendour was the ideal he carried in his mind’s eye, whereas for me it was the sparer forms of Late Antique Rome. We both know that the objective character of the liturgy is supremely important. It is not what we like or don’t like that matters, but we each have our preferences. As a member of the clergy, my deacon friend has much more chance of influencing how the liturgy is performed than I do; and that is where I see a possible difficulty arising.
We have a much better educated, more articulate, laity than fifty years ago, one in which women are accustomed to taking their place alongside men rather than always being subordinate to them. Above all, we have a laity used to deciding things for themselves and acting accordingly. We don’t change from being one type of person outside church to being another inside. Those who don’t like how Mass is said in parish X will often choose to go to another. If they don’t like how things are done at parish Y, or have some quarrel with Church teaching, they will stop putting their hands in their pockets. And, there is the awkward fact that arguments about liturgy can seem very remote to people with more immediate concerns about their mortgage or the future of their country outside the E.U. In this context, I wonder whether some of the liturgical principles being advanced at the Sacra Liturgia conference are going to find a somewhat stony reception.
Calls for more, and better, liturgical formation have resounded throughout my lifetime, but rarely have they been effectively heeded. As I say, I have been following the conference from afar and it may be that there is a plan to improve liturgical formation in this country. I hope so, because liturgical practices that aren’t fully understood or embraced as an expresion of living faith have a tendency to alienate people. Some will dismiss Cardinal Sarah’s remarks, and the lectures given by others, as an unwelcome return to the past; others will use them as a way of castigating those they regard as ‘not true Catholics’ or as an excuse for introducing a very subjective approach to the liturgy, quite contrary to what was intended. The truth is, all liturgy is about becoming closer to God and being transformed by him into his image and likeness. It is easy to make a great deal of noise about it; much harder to allow the liturgy to do its intended work in us. That is what I suggest we must pray about today and every day.
*Cardinal Sarah’s remarks about kneeling were in the context of receiving Holy Communion. We follow the practice of whichever church we are attending for Mass.
by Digitalnun on July 7, 2016
Today many people in Britain will be recalling the events of eleven years ago, the 7 July bombings. For those most nearly affected, who live with the injuries the bombs inflicted or the loss of someone they love, the memory of that day must be deeply painful. Yesterday’s publication of the Chilcot Report brought another kind of pain to the people of the U.K. as a whole. Along with the grief, the regret, the acute awareness of the senseless loss of life, there is a deep and terrible shame. The very people we elected to represent us in Parliament, who were charged with decision-making, made catastrophic errors of judgement, and none more so, it would appear, than Tony Blair. If Sir John Chilcot is right, we continue to pay for the mistakes that were made then. The world is not a safer place, and death and destruction continue to haunt us. Can we salvage anything from this?
I think first of all we should be grateful that we live in a society where such a report can be commissioned and published. It shows that there is some degree of reflection and self-awareness in the body politic. The published extracts I’ve seen show Sir John to have been polite but damning in his assessments. There is a coolness in his remarks that has much more impact than super-charged emotionalism. Secondly, I think we should remind ourselves that exploding with anger or seeking vengeance (e.g. against Mr Blair) is contrary to the intentions and scope of such a report. If we are to learn its lessons, we need to react less and reflect more. That doesn’t mean that we utter a mealy-mouthed ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ Rather, it means we get to grips with the memories that the Report has stirred up, however hard or painful that may be.
Philosophers, theologians and psychologists all have different things to say about memory. We borrow terms from the digital world to describe what happens: we encode, store and retrieve our memories, and we talk of short-term, intermediate and long-term memories. What we sometimes forget is the connection that Augustine made, for example, between memory, intellect and will. It is not enough to remember; it is not enough to understand; we must also act.
To a Christian, the Chilcot Report presents a very great challenge. Contemporary theologians have questioned classical Just War theory, and there seems to be a definite movement towards rejecting the permissibility, even in the abstract, of modern methods of warfare. There is also the question of how far, and on what grounds, it is legitimate to interfere in the internal affairs of another nation-state. Sovereignty, democracy and the role of law are something the population of Britain has recently been quite vociferous about. We would surely do well to remember Iraq and the fact that Tony Blair was the democratically elected Prime Minister of this country when he made the ‘flawed decision’ to engage in hostilities there and, later, Afghanistan. We cannot claim rights for ourselves that we refuse to others, can we?
Please join me in praying today for the victims of the 7 July bombings and all who have died or been scarred for life by the Iraq War and subsequent hostilities. Let us pray also for those burdened with guilt about the role they played or failed to play in the processes involved.