by Digitalnun on October 24, 2014
It was rather a shock to learn that some people don’t seem to realise I’m a dog — a real, live, actual dog; and not just any dog but an old-fashioned scent hound, with a low-slung body, large ears and a nose you could perch a mountain on. Being a dog is the essence of my being, from the tip of my nose to the tip of my tail. I am all shaggy doggyness and sheer doggedness, even when I’m asleep, which is quite often now I’m getting on in years (sigh).
For those who want precision in all things, I’m a PBGV (Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen) of the truest type — happy, handsome (or so I’m told), and insatiably curious about Life. Most of the time my curiosity takes the form of exploring everyone and everything, especially if it’s edible or chase-able. That is what it means to be a hound-dog; and, sadly, that is all anyone ever thinks a dog bothers about. But I have a big secret to share with you, what you might call the secret of my inner life, only that’s a bit OTT for me. I, Duncan, am a canine contemplative and have a duty contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (‘to contemplate and share with others the fruits of contemplation’).
Being a dog gives me a special perspective on this God business. It’s no accident that His name is my name in reverse. I love everyone, and so does God. My happiest moments are spent sharing food with people; so are His — in the Eucharist here below, in the Heavenly Banquet up above. I am always listening for the voice of my friends, and so is He. I am ever eager to help, to cheer, to comfort, just as God is. Sometimes, when I think it advisable, I disappear for a bit and go about my private business, ‘off the radar’, so to say. Of course, I am always within earshot, but humans have to learn not to take me from granted. God was telling me the other day that He has the same problem. I guess it’s even tougher for Him as He has even more people wanting His attention. I’m not soppy, but I am very fond of the nuns who form my little pack. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Them, even to laying down my life for Them. God says the same, but with this difference. In the person of His Son, Jesus, He did exactly that, and not just for a little group like my nuns but for everybody on earth.
God and I have a lot in common, which is why I think He likes to chat to me sometimes. He knows I’ll never betray His confidence or let Him down. I’m happy to follow where He leads. It’s a pity that after He made us dogs He went on to create humans, because they aren’t nearly as good at following in his footsteps. He should have realised that with us He’d reached the peak of His creation. That’s the trouble with God. He never knows when to stop. He is really too good and too generous. So can I share with you my thought for the day? It may be that you have rather neglected God of late, throwing Him the occasional bone, as it were, but not really spending time with Him or enjoying His company. Why don’t you change that and spend a few minutes with Him today, doing nothing in particular but just chilling out with Him? It would please Him enormously. It would also please me.
Dunc xx (@BroDuncanPBGV)
by Digitalnun on October 22, 2014
Holiness is not something strange or above and beyond the reach of us. In fact, it is all around us, for the simple reason that God is everywhere. There is no part of the Universe where God is not. That is a comforting fact when we are faced with a lonely or discouraging experience. It is also a challenging fact when we are tempted to selfishness or moral cowardice or anything else that is less than perfect. You notice I call it a fact, not a thought. That is because most of us are apt to be a little choosey about what we deign to call ‘holy’. We like our holy places to conform to our own ideas of what they should be; we like our saints to be what we would secretly like to be ourselves. I have not the slightest hesitation in admitting that I never found St John Paul II personally sympathetic, but he is a saint, and one who challenges me much more than I find comfortable. I thank God for saints such as he.
by Digitalnun on October 21, 2014
According to UNICEF, twelve children die every hour as a result of violence, most of it not linked to war. That is an appalling statistic. It means that every five minutes somewhere in the world a child is being done to death, most probably by adults charged with their care. Very often we note such things with a shudder, utter a silent prayer, and then move on to the business of the day. We forget that children have no real voice. They aren’t in a position to make much fuss. They don’t lobby politicians, launch Social Media campaigns or otherwise engage public attention. Here in Britain we are inclined to be a bit sentimental about childhood. Child abuse and child poverty grab the headlines when they are uncovered, but the kind of violence UNICEF was talking about tends to be under the radar. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments thinking about these things — not condemning the perpetrators, which can often be a fruitless exercise in vicarious anger, but rather but thinking about how we can protect the young. Violence against children is not acceptable, but how do we create a society where we all believe and act on that principle?
by Digitalnun on October 18, 2014
You might be expecting me to write about the Magnificat, as I have often done in the past (e.g. see here) or about evangelisation, the medical profession, painting or women-in-the-gospel, all of which are fairly predictable themes for this feast day; but what struck me forcibly this morning was, what would St Luke write about if he were alive on earth today? In one way, I think his subject would be unchanged: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. But I think there might also be a fairly devastating critique of the way in which we Christians live and proclaim our faith. Do we truly believe what we say we believe? Do we want to share the Good News with others? Or are we so very British and diffident that we find enthusiasm (literally, being filled with God) in rather poor taste?
This morning, somewhere in Pakistan, Asia Bibi is living with the knowledge that she has been condemned to death by hanging because she refused to convert to Islam when accused under the country’s blasphemy laws. Reports of the case suggest a squabble on the fruit farm which got out of hand. A cup of cold water (how biblical is that!), tempers fraying, an escalation of words on both sides and then a life imperilled. Two politicians who spoke in defence of Asia Bibi have already been murdered and the Government of Pakistan is now in the ‘difficult’ position of upholding a verdict many see as unjust. The trouble is, governments do not care as much about justice as they say they do; and unless some face-saving formula can be found, Asia Bibi will surely die.
What would St Luke make of that? I think he would applaud Asia Bibi for her steadfastness of purpose and condemn the Pakistani government and judiciary for their cowardice and political chicanery. But I suspect his severest words would be for those of us in the West who do nothing more than wring our hands, metaphorically speaking, in the face of such outrages. We are too concerned about upsetting other nations, unless there is some economic advantage to be had. We have become lukewarm in our faith, preferring our domestic disputes about marriage and divorce, liturgy and practice, even, at times, the cut of our vestments, to the life and death issues faced by our brothers and sisters in less comfortable parts of the world. Praying the Magnificat in the light of what Asia Bibi faces is an unsettling experience. I suspect that is exactly what most of us need: a shake-up by the Holy Spirit. The questions posed by St Luke in his gospel are just as relevant today as they were in the first century. Answering them is just as difficult, too.
by Digitalnun on October 17, 2014
After a certain age, sleepless nights become commonplace. We may lie awake pondering the awfulness of Ebola and the sluggish international response; or we may toss and turn over some more immediate, personal problem concerning family or finances. I wonder how many of us, however, register the sounds of night-time. Here in the country, where traffic slows almost to a stop, the soft soughing of the wind and the snuffles and shrieks of small creatures mean that the night is never completely silent. The nocturnal soundscape has its moments of violence—the high-pitched bark of the vixen or the scream of the rabbit caught by a predator are not easily forgotten— but the general impression is of life proceeding purposefully on its course. Our lying awake is part of that process, not to be resisted or fought against, nor always to be filled with displacement activity (think, cups of tea and the radio). In Christian tradition, the night hours are specially privileged times of prayer. They form a kind of desert moment in our busy lives. Peter of Celles loved the long winter nights when he could give himself more completely to seeking God without the interruptions of business or people. We can all learn from him. Whether sleeping soundly (no barriers to God) or lying awake watchfully (keeping vigil), we can still claim to have had a good night. The important thing is to have allowed God some share in it.
by Digitalnun on October 15, 2014
St Teresa of Jesus, usually known as Teresa of Avila, the ‘great’ Teresa as distinct from the ‘little’ Thérèse, the eagle not the dove, is one of those saints whose character seems forged by the landscape and townscape in which they lived. The stony beauty of Avila — its cold, clear light in winter and its burning, intense sunshine in summer— have always struck me as factors in Teresa’s strength of purpose, her passionate love of God, and her equally passionate but commonsensical approach to life. The intelligence, the drive, the shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and her ability to win over opponents with flashes of humour bespeak her Jewish ancestry (her grandfather was a converso or convert from Judaism). I find her both engaging and mysterious: a saint who attracts but who is also, in some measure, alien, ‘other’.
If you want to learn about contemplative prayer, read Teresa, not John of the Cross. She misses nothing out and takes her readers stage by stage, through mansion after mansion, until the seventh is reached. Her letters, too, are full of wisdom. Today, at Midday Office, we’ll read one in which she teases her sisters about their dislike of choir, their feigning of excuses, little headaches and so on, that prevent their serving His Divine Majesty. But it is her actions that make me realise what a very different world Teresa inhabits from the one in which I live. When, as children, she and her brother set off to meet martyrdom at the hands of the Moors, she displayed a zeal, a fervour I find completely alien. The nearest we come to it today is among those young men and women seduced by Islamic extremism who set off to fight in the ranks of IS or Boko Haram. Is it the same impulse at work? I don’t think so; but I also hesitate a little because the explanation I would give will not make sense to everyone.
St Teresa of Avila is a very great saint; and she is great not because she was fervent or full of zeal or reformed the Carmelite Order but because she loved much — both God and her fellow human beings. As her friend and confidant St John of the Cross remarked, ‘At the end of the day, it is by the quality of our loving that we shall be judged.’ Teresa of Avila has been judged and not found wanting. May she pray for us who go along but limpingly in the way of holiness.
by Digitalnun on October 14, 2014
Once upon a time, when I was young and foolish, I despised the very idea of taking a nap. How could one waste precious moments of daytime asleep, when one could be reading or walking or busy about some activity that the daylight hours favoured? Now I am older, and wiser at least in this. The siesta, the midday nap, is a great blessing. The drowsiness of a summer’s day can be given into without a single, Anglo-Saxon guilty pang. The chill of a wintery afternoon and its greyness can be forgotten as one loses oneself in a few minutes’ quiet slumber. For those of us whose energy levels have been sorely affected by age or illness, it is a great restorative. St Benedict assumes that his disciples will have a noonday rest (though he wisely allows us to read quietly during that period). What more can I say? Only this. One of my favourite quotations, trotted out whenever I have caught myself falling asleep over my prayer or some other religious duty: Ego dormio, sed cor meum vigilat. ‘I am sleeping, but my heart keeps vigil.’ Only sleep puts up no barriers to God. Perhaps we should all take a nap more often.
by Digitalnun on October 13, 2014
In Anglo-Saxon times such a question would probably never have occurred to anyone. The long roll-call of saintly kings and queens, bishops, abbots and abbesses (who were themselves usually of royal or noble origin), would have been evidence enough. The royal cults of Anglo-Saxon England are especially interesting, as they include one or two saints whose claim to holiness is — what shall we say — a little on the questionable side by modern standards. Even today’s saint, Edward the Confessor, has had his sanctity questioned by latter-day historians, though more on the grounds of political ineptitude than because of any deliberately ungodly behaviour on his part. It is as though the possession of power marked a man or woman out as blessed by God; and provided the administration of that power was in conformity with Christian ideals and accompanied by manifestations of divine approval (miracles), the holder of it could be thought of as holy. Is that true today?
I daresay anyone looking at the political landscape in Britain today would hesitate to dub any of our chief politicians holy; there have certainly not been any obvious miracles to attest to divine favour recently — or am I being unduly cynical? It makes one ask, is there now a divorce between holiness and power? Does personal goodness in a leader matter? Should our conduct in the public sphere be affected by the ideals we hold in the private sphere? These become important questions when we are talking about legislation on life-death issues such as abortion, euthanasia, or war. They are also important when we are considering the education of our children or the welfare system that supports the sick or unemployed. They matter, too, when we are managing a company or administering a service. In short, anyone who is a leader or holds any kind of power has to make choices that affect others on the basis of what he or she thinks or believes.
For many people — not just politicians — the answer is to be found in compromise. One does what one can, according to one’s lights; and because Britain today is a multi-ethnic, polycultural society, what one can do must be tempered by the knowledge that someone’s susceptibilities are likely to be affected. The only problem I have with that is the fact that we are all called to be holy, something which admits of no compromise. I do not know how to square that with the realpolitik of leadership, but I am sure prayer is an essential element. To some, Edward the Confessor may seem a bit of a loser, but I think myself he makes a very good patron for those in positions of power wanting to do the right thing, but not entirely sure how to set about it. St Edward, pray for us!
by Digitalnun on October 10, 2014
I’ve never much liked awareness weeks, or special days for this or that, for the simple reason that I think they often end up being token gestures. We remember X on this day and forget about it for the remaining 364 days of the year. I have therefore fought shy of Mental Health Awareness Week, but so many of the requests for prayer that we receive via our email prayerline have touched on mental health recently that I have been forced to rethink my attitude.
Mental health is something that affects us all, every day of the year, but we still seem to have complicated, and sometimes quite negative, feelings about it. Anyone who is not ‘normal’ — whatever we mean by that — who suffers from stress/anxiety/depression/bipolar/schizophrenia or any one of a thousand other conditions, is an object of pity and/or fear. Objectification is a terrible thing to do to another human being. It makes them ‘other,’ and not in a very kind or respectful way. I hope readers of this blog are generous in their support of mental health charities. I hope they are generous with their prayer. Most of all, however, I hope they are welcoming and accepting of friends and family who struggle with mental health difficulties, and supportive of those closest to them, who often struggle equally. No one tells a cancer patient to ‘snap out of it’ or runs from them in fear. Sadly, that is not the experience of many who suffer from mental illnesses. We may not think we can make much of a difference, but we can at least try, can’t we?