by Digitalnun on June 28, 2016
I have been thinking about yesterday’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 20, On Reverence in Prayer, and wondering anew at its beauty and perceptiveness. In one sense, Benedict says very little about prayer. He is almost English in his reticence. In another, almost every line of the Rule speaks of his attitude to prayer. It is quite clear that, for him, we are what we pray. Whether praying alone in our monastic cell or with the brethren in choir, whether we are talking with a guest or tapping out a blog post on the computer, whether we are working in the garden or performing some household task, whether we are filing a tax return or driving a car, we are the person prayer has made; and the prayer we make is the person we are. We cannot separate the praying self from the self we are at every other moment. That is a thought that gives me pause. Whenever I am testy or unkind or selfish, that is the prayer I am making to God, just as much as when I am patient, kind or generous. How glad I am, therefore, that the Lord looks at us all with eyes of compassion and love!
by Digitalnun on June 27, 2016
Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.
I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.
I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.
by Digitalnun on June 10, 2016
Everything is grist to the blogger’s mill, so here is a little light relief from major matters like the destruction of Syria and the E.U. referendum, but one with a serious message underneath — and I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t the obvious one of the title.
Yesterday in the supermarket Quietnun and I were accosted by someone who asked, ‘Is the convent still going?’ We were slightly startled at the nature of the greeting but answered as best we could (and I hope we were polite). Afterwards Quietnun, usually mild-mannered and ultra-forgiving, said, ‘People seem to think they can speak to us just anyhow and we must take it.’ What she meant, I think, was that the presupposition behind the words, that monasteries of nuns and convents of religious sisters are all in terminal decline, was actually a little hard to bear, given that we were both, quite clearly, alive and members of a community. One wouldn’t greet a married couple with the words, ‘Are you splitting up now?’ would one? People are usually very nice to us, but we do sometimes have to swallow remarks that would be unacceptable in other contexts. We smile non-committally and pass on, only a slight grinding of teeth and clenching of fists betraying our true feelings. Of course, we all act out of our store of preconceived ideas. Some of those that people have about nuns and sisters are, to us, distinctly odd; but then, so, I suspect, are some of our ideas about clergy and laity.
Occasionally, the misunderstandings give rise to chuckles. We once spent several minutes explaining why, for example, we were hoping to upsize to our present house only to have our interlocutor reply, ‘Yes, all religious are having to downsize these days.’ What can one do but laugh? We know, too, how hard it can be to convince even the authorites of our own Church that our being over 40 doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t help anyone with vocation questions. We smile, we shrug, and we get on with the business of trying to help those discerning, who are often over 40 themselves. Ageism is not for us.
Sometimes, however, I think we need to protest. Recently, Aleteia ran a poll on religious habits for nuns and sisters, asking its readers whether they preferered them habited or unhabited. It didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of talking about any woman in terms of her appearance, let alone a religious who has less freedom in the matter than others. Then, this morning, on Facebook, I noticed that old chestnut attributed to Fulton Sheen about hearing nuns’ confessions attracting boyish chortles. These things are trivial in themselves but they are indicative of something that isn’t so trivial. The Church can make as many pronouncements as she likes about the dignity of women but if they aren’t translated into daily life, they are just words.
Our attitudes, and the way we express them, do matter. It is no good lamenting the decline in female religious vocations, for example, if clergy and laity show, by their words and actions, that they do not have any respect for nuns and sisters but instead trivialise them, both as individuals and as communities or congregations. We are not angels, but we’re not brainless idiots, either. No one is going to join a community or congregation that is despised, treated as a figure of fun or dismissed as irrelevant or tiresome by other members of the Church — something that I think is worth considering. Equally, clergy-bashing is no way to attract men to the priesthood; nor is grumbling about the inadequacies of the laity the way to draw people to Christ.
My main point, however, is this. What is true of the Church is also true, mutatis mutandis, of everyone. Those we despise, treat as figures of fun or dismiss as irrelevant or tiresome are not defined by our attitudes. On the contrary, it is we ourselves who are defined by the attitudes we hold and express. There has been much wringing of hands over the situation in Syria, but it must be evident to everyone by now that we lack the political will to end the war there. We in the west do not want to engage Putin’s Russia head-on. So we allow the desperate plight of the Syrian people to fall from our headlines, discuss those who have fled to the west as a ‘problem to be solved’ and exhibit some rather jingoistic traits whenever the question of immigration comes up. Similarly, the E.U. referendum has raised immensely important and complex questions but it is easier to be rude about those campaigning on one side or the other than to investigate the questions themselves. Scorn is not an indicator of either deep thought or mature reflection but rather the reverse — and we do need to think and reflect, not just react.
If you have read this far, I have a challenge for you this morning. Have you ever asked yourself whether your ‘instinctive reactions’ to people and events are based on what in other people would be called prejudice, although in ourselves we prefer to call it principle or something equally high-minded? How far do our attitudes towards others tend to limit them, even perhaps belittle them? Do we need to examine how we treat others a little more closely? St Benedict was uncompromising about the need for mutual respect and courtesy in community. It wasn’t a superficial add-on, but fundamental to survival. The fact that we still have Benedictine communities fifteen hundred years after his death suggests to me that he knew what he was talking about. Something to ponder there, perhaps. (And, incidentally, the convent=the monastery is indeed still going, thanks be to God.)
by Digitalnun on June 7, 2016
I normally photograph our prayer gazebo from the front, so that one can see the cross hanging from one of the beams. Yesterday I photographed it from the rear. One cannot see the cross, only the raspberries growing into the gazebo and helping to fill it with cool green light even on the sunniest of days. A change of perspective; a change of understanding; but not, fundamentally, a change of purpose. The gazebo is still a place of prayer, a place of refreshment.
There is more to this than mere whimsy. As human beings, we are constantly changing, constantly in search of something better. That is why drawing our lines in the sand is, very often, only as effective as drawing a line in sand can be, i.e. not at all. The Brexit/Bremain debate has reached a point where most people are heartily sick of the scare-mongering and dodgy statistics on both sides. If leaving the E.U. means Britain would be contributing more to the world (and demanding less for herself) than she is as a member of the E.U., my vote would be to leave. Conversely, if leaving the E.U. means Britain would be contributing less to the world (and demanding more for herself), my vote would be to remain. It is, for me, a matter of perspective, but also one that touches on my understanding of the nation-state’s role and purpose in the world. As I have often said before, ‘what’s best for us’ depends on how one defines ‘us’, and I, for one, cannot separate how I understand that from how I understand any and everything in the light of the gospel. How I vote on 23 June will require some hard thought and much prayer.
by Digitalnun on June 6, 2016
On 5 May this year, the Observatorio Bioética of the Catholic University of Valencia published a thoughtful article by Justo Aznar (which you can read in English here) that neatly summarises some of the medical and ethical problems posed by the creation and use of chimeras. Today’s BBC report of work being undertaken in the U.S. to grow human organs inside pigs by means of gene editing simply highlights how far medical research has progressed towards the creation of animal-human hybrids.
I don’t pretend to have the scientific, philosophical or theological skills necessary to discuss this matter in any depth, but there is one question I think we can all legitimately ask and that is: how far can we justify the kind of risk-taking such research involves on the grounds of its potential benefit? I imagine most people would say that organ transplants are a good thing in themselves because they enable us to cope with diseases that would otherwise kill us or condemn us to a lifetime of painful treatment. But there are so many unknowns in the work currently being undertaken that we do not know what we might be unleashing. Does that impose any limits? Does the fact that we can do something necessarily mean it is right to do it? I suspect I may not be the only person waking up this morning and wondering whether we are closer than ever before to a nightmare of our own making — a nightmare we didn’t intend or foresee. What do you think?
by Digitalnun on June 2, 2016
There are times when a sentence of scriptures sings and sizzles with meaning. This morning, it was as though I had heard the gospel of the day, Mark 12.28–34, for the first time.
One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.
What struck me forcibly was the restatement of that first commandment. We tend to be so anxious to rush on to the second that we do not feel the full impact of the first. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength? To love God absolutely? Most of us, I think, would say we aspire to love God in that way but are aware that we don’t. There are pockets of reserve, occasions when God definitely isn’t at the forefront of our lives, instances of rebellion, sin and failure. In the past I have annoyed many people in the Catholic blogosphere by suggesting that the way in which we blog reveals a great deal about how we think of God and the place he occupies in our lives. To some, he is a hammer with which to batter others — and that applies equally whether we self-identify as liberals or conservatives. To others, he is a kind of warm, fuzzy blanket to be thrown over every difficult or painful situation, someone with whom we are on apparently matey terms. We may not be pope, but we speak for God, being quite certain that his opinion must be the same as ours.
I must confess that I find all this rather difficult. Sometimes, when I am irritated by something or someone, I have the good sense to go into the oratory. I have to learn again and again, it seems, that human anger does not work God’s purposes, that a raging heart is never a truly reverent heart. It is too noisy, too full of itself. Before the altar, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, my burning concerns turn to dust and ashes. It is in silence, love and adoration that we make room for God to be all-in-all. Only then, only when we are filled with God, can we go out and take him to others. The second commandment is like the first, but it is not a substitute for it. God comes first — always.