Christ’s Peace

by Digitalnun on May 1, 2016

Is today’s gospel reading (John 14.23-29) anything more than a nice little farewell speech from Jesus? Yes, there is the commission to keep his word, but don’t we customarily tend to get a lovely glow from that

Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you,
a peace the world cannot give,
this is my gift to you.

and gloss over the hard bits? The bits that tell us peace isn’t easy, cannot be be taken for granted, exists even in the midst of conflict and violence? The Benedictine device of the word pax, ‘peace’, surrounded by a crown of thorns is a powerful reminder not only that peace is Christ’s gift, but that the way to it is both protected by sacrifice and suffering and barred by pain and difficulty. It is, in truth, a very ambivalent sign.

The death of Fr Daniel Berrigan S.J. will have reminded those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War what an extraordinarly confused time that was. Peace activists sometimes gave the impression of not caring very much about the consequences of their actions. The cause was all in all, and it didn’t really matter if some people were hurt or even killed. I still can’t make up my mind whether that was the best way to oppose some of the enormities committed in Vietnam, but without that opposition, so the argument goes, there would have been even more death and destruction than there was. Much the same line of argument tends to be used today in support of everything from attacks on the pope to gender questions to whatever is the burning issue of the day. ‘I am right about this, and anyone who thinks differently is wrong. It therefore doesn’t matter how I treat them or what I say or do in support of my views.’

I think it matters very much. The peace of Christ is not something extra, something added on to our existence. It is fundamental — a peace, a blessedness, meant to inform our whole being and change the way in which we view everyone and everything. It is something we are to share with others, not just those we like or are in agreement with. At the heart of the biblical notion of peace is a sense of completeness. That can be a very challenging idea to grasp, but I think it boils down to this. Christ’s peace embraces the whole world. Does ours?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Catherine of Siena: Mistress of the Sound-Bite

by Digitalnun on April 29, 2016

Catherine of Siena: Photo by Jim Forest

Catherine of Siena: Photo by Jim Forest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People often lament that no one really argues anything any more. They opt for the sound-bite instead: something short, snappy and hopefully memorable. You might think that I, as a Benedictine and therefore a proponent of the slow meditative reading we know as lectio divina, would be hostile to the whole idea of the sound-bite. Certainly, I am uneasy at the way in which politicians often try to simplify arguments, reducing them to absurdity, but today’s saint, Catherine of Siena, was very good at producing wise, pithy sayings one can spend the whole day thinking and praying about. Take, for example, her insight into the crucifixion: ‘All the nails in the world could not have held Christ to the cross had love not held him there.’ Isn’t that theology in a nutshell, and doesn’t it lead naturally to prayer— a perfect sound-bite, in fact?

If you know nothing about St Catherine, Dominican tertiary, mystic and doctor of the Church, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_of_Siena (or you could do a search of this blog, using the search box in the sidebar). I hope it will encourage you to read Raymond of Capua’s Life of the saint and then go on to read the saint’s own letters and important Dialogues.

Catherine played a major role in returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome and wasn’t afraid to say exactly what she thought — but always with courtesy, something today’s critics of Pope Francis might usefully dwell on. She had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, was given the gift of tears, and experienced a mystical marriage to Christ which was to dominate much of her subsequent thought and teaching. Yet she remained always firmly grounded in the realities of everyday life and was much sought out for her guidance and practical wisdom. It is not surprising that she was opposed by some of the authorities of her day and had to undergo interrogation by the Friars of her own Order six years before she died.

This morning, however, I am thinking chiefly of the wonderful way in which she expressed old truths as though new-minted. Take, for example, her image of Christ as a bridge flung between earth and heaven. This bridge consists of three great stairways constituted by the feet, the side, and the mouth of Jesus. Rising by these stairways the soul passes through the three stages of every path to sanctification: detachment from sin, the practice of the virtues, and of love, sweet and loving union with God. It is an image easy to grasp, easy to remember. Best of all, though, is her warning to perfectionists — those of us who never get anything done because we are always wanting to do things better: ‘God does not desire a perfect work but an infinite desire.’ There’s a sound-bite to take us through today and every day.

Image licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Courtesy

by Digitalnun on April 27, 2016

Sometimes, standing in a check-out queue, I have been tempted to murder the person in front — not because they are in front of me but because of the way in which they are treating the person at the till. Most people, most of the time, are polite; but there are those who seem to make it their business to be as rude and difficult as possible; and then there are the rest of us, who want to be polite, but who have occasional stunning lapses. Where, then, does courtesy come in, those manners fit for a royal court? I think Chesterton captured its essence when he said that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’. Politeness can be a mere exterior polish applied to our rough and ready selves but courtesy, real courtesy, must come from within. I like to think of it as a sacramental. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it is an outward expression of an inward grace. The opposite, alas, is also true. Rudeness shows only too well what is within. For a Benedictine, the ritualised courtesies of the cloister protect us from the grosser manifestations of selfishness, but unless they become internalised, so that they are a genuine expression of what is within, they do not rise above the level of a formal politesse. Even so, I don’t think they should be despised. After all, we don’t really want to live in a world where might is always right, and the young, the old, the frail and the vulnerable must go to the wall, do we?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Click ‘Like’ for Outrage

by Digitalnun on April 26, 2016

One of the acknowledged problems of Social Media is the ease with which a sense of outrage can be generated. A tweet or a Facebook post expresses a partial truth in vigorous language. We click ‘like’ and pass on, duty done. Only, as the more thoughtful will recognize, duty isn’t done, but rather the reverse. Whenever we assent to something we haven’t really thought about, whenever we promote something we haven’t reflected on, we are acting irresponsibly. Our clicking ‘like’ isn’t morally insignificant (unless, of course, we are ‘liking’ a photo of, say, a PBGV, which is, after all, merely an indication of our good sense and good humour). Activity on Social Media is now often touted as expressing public opinion on various subjects. It would be fairer to say it expresses the opinion of those who use Social Media, but that limitation is often forgotten. Today, as we read about the doctors’ strike, the failure of BHS, the Brexit debate or whatever, perhaps we might pause before we click ‘like’. Do we really agree, and if we do, is this the best way of expressing our agreement? Are we inadvertently helping to create a false sense of public opinion? Most important of all, are we clicking ‘like’ and doing nothing ourselves? I notice a lot of Social Media outrage at the Government’s refusal to admit 3,000 child refugees but I wonder how much those expressing such outrage have done to help those they are so angry about. Just a thought.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Barack and Boris: a Cautionary Tale

by Digitalnun on April 25, 2016

I wonder whether St Mark, whose feast we celebrate today, ever stopped to think how his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ would be received. Did he weigh his words carefully, or did they simply tumble out in his enthusiasm for his subject? We can certainly see signs of redaction, and we all silently bless him for some of the little details, like the green grass on which the 5,000 sat to eat their loaves and fishes, but we shall probably never know how much art or artifice has gone into his gospel’s composition. We do know that if we look too long at the gospel’s construction, we may miss the message it contains. Similarly with Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Their words provoked such squeals of protest over the week-end that we may be in danger of missing the message they wished to convey.

Take President Obama’s forthright remarks about British membership of the E.U. No one likes being told by a foreign Head of State what we should or should not do, but what he had to say was worth pondering. Dismissing his remarks as bullying is unfair and, I think, unhelpful. My American friends won’t like my saying this, but the tendency to give the benefit of their advice to others unsought is one of their characteristics. It is no good taking umbrage, because it is usually kindly meant. Personally, I find it endearing more often than I find it irritating. But President Obama struck a nerve because he touched on a sensitive topic which has not yet been properly debated. We have had plenty of opinion voiced, and various figures have been published, but we have not yet had time to weigh them and think through the consequences.

Boris Johnson’s reaction to President Obama’s remarks was typical of the man. His questioning of the President’s motivation and underlying prejudices was perfectly valid, but the way in which he expressed himself was definitely not. However, it would be as wrong to dismiss his underlying argument as it would Mr Obama’s. Those of us who will be voting in the E.U. Referendum do need to think about sovereignty, economics, immigration and so on and so forth. There is, however, one more thing we must consider: the common good, and the common good not only of our own nation state but of all the other nation states that make up the E.U. and, indeed, the whole world. The Long Ending of St Mark’s Gospel contains the command to proclaim the Good News to the whole of creation. Maybe today we could spend a few moments reflecting on how we understand that injunction in the light of our place in Europe and the world as a whole. Neither staying in, nor leaving, the E.U. is without profound moral and ethical consequences.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St George, Shakespeare and England

by Digitalnun on April 23, 2016

The solemnity of St George is shot through with ironies that only a very English sense of humour can appreciate. He is now our patron saint, as he is the patron saint of many other countries, but, despite our English love of tradition stretching back into the mists of history, has been our patron only since the mid-fourteenth century, following Edward III’s establishment of the Order of the Garter. Before that we celebrated St Edmund, King and Martyr (although the Normans were less enthusiastic as he reminded them of our Saxon kings).

According to legend, St George was Syrian on his mother’s side, Cappadocian on his father’s, and probably met his end in Syria itself; so as an emblem of Englishness, he is . . . not an obvious choice. As a saint of the Universal Church, a sign of that heavenly unity to which we aspire, he is a reminder of the larger world to which we belong. It is ironic, then, that some campaigning for Brexit have chosen to use the flag of St George as one of their key emblems.

Shakespeare, whose four hundredth anniversary of death we also celebrate today, has some fine phrases for St George, as he has fine phrases for almost everything, but his own protean character slips from English to universal and back again with maddening ease. He really is no help at all.

It seems we cannot distil the essence of Englishness from St George, Shakespeare, nor even the land itself — a land subject to wave after wave of immigration, change and alteration. It is a vain task and asks the wrong question, I think. It is not what ‘makes’ us English that matters but what we are and what we do that counts. There is an exquisite Responsory for St George’s Day Vespers in the Worcester Antiphoner which we sing every year. It is plainchant of the most lyrical expressiveness, born from the synagogue music of Our Lord’s time, shaped and pointed in the monasteries and court chapels of the Holy Roman Empire, composed here in England and sung to the glory of God and in gratitude for the witness of one of his martyrs, that unlikely soldier saint from Syria, in an obscure Herefordshire monastery. Something to ponder there, I suggest, as we think today about Syrian refugees, our place in Europe and what it means to be English.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Unexpected Kindness and Unexpected Prejudice

by Digitalnun on April 22, 2016

Yesterday Quietnun and I were standing in an IKEA car-park looking at a heavy flat-pack we needed to load into the car when along came a very nice couple who offered to help. The awkward package was in the car in a jiffy. Bro Duncan PBGV immediately turned on his own peculiar brand of high-octane charm and we all parted the best of friends. Such instances of unexpected kindness are far from rare, but we often overlook them because we like to think we’d do the same in similar circumstances. As we get older, however, or illness saps our strength, or we simply find we lack the necessary skill or confidence to do something, our gratitude becomes the more profound because we know that, without the other’s help, we’d be in a very difficult situation. I often think of those who have helped me in unexpected ways and ask a blessing on them.

I was musing on this as the basis for a blog post when I encountered a couple of instances of anti-Catholic prejudice online. I was surprised because they came from fellow Christians, and because I had tended to assume that one good result from all the ecumenical endeavours of recent years was less hostility among the denominations. The fact that I was surprised is evidence that something has been achieved, but still, it made me think.

Spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, like spontaneous reactions of unkindness or prejudice, are as much habit as anything else. We can, and should, cultivate what used to be called good habits, but most of the time we just don’t think: we act or speak, and there’s the rub. The kind couple we met yesterday saw our difficulty and unhesitatingly offered to help. They did not pass by on the other side, pretending not to see us (something we British are very good at), nor did they regard what they were doing as in any way unusual. They just acted, and I feel confident that they are as helpful to others. Similarly, I suspect my anti-Catholic friends are unaware of their prejudice and would be amazed if they were to be taxed with it.

In the monastery such unawareness is contrary to the close watch over the actions of our life that the Rule demands we keep (see RB 7). Our spontaneity must always proceed from good habit and delight in virtue. As such, it should always be positive, always help build others up. Today would be a good day for thinking about how we ourselves behave. It may not be physical help we are asked to give but a listening ear or a kind word, or even just a smile. The question is, do we?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Perseverance: A Necessary Optimism

by Digitalnun on April 19, 2016

How often do we feel tired? Yet we go on, do we not, getting up, going through the day’s routine, doing what we can and hoping, however vaguely, that tomorrow will be different, somehow better than today? That is what I call a necessary optimism. It is very closley linked to what monks and nuns mean by perseverance: the humble routine of life in the monastery faithfully followed day after day. To an outsider the monastic routine can look dull, even dispiriting; but it does its work. Little by little, both individual and community are transformed. Yet when we embrace that routine, when we are clothed in the habit or make profession of vows, the transformations wrought by grace are largely hidden from us. We make an act of faith in God and the community just as God and the community make an act of faith in us. Sometimes it is good to remember that God too is an optimist, always expecting the best of us and keeping faith in and with us even when — perhaps especially when — we have lost all faith in ourselves.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Something for Vocations Sunday 2016

by Digitalnun on April 17, 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

I wonder how many people today will hear a homily that speaks of the wonder and joy of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated (old-time, religious) life? How many will hear one that speaks of the importance of marriage or family life, of the beautiful but often difficult vocation of those called to be single, or indeed anything beyond a dutiful bidding prayer that somehow mixes up sheep, shepherds and labourers in vineyards? I ask because I am convinced of the supreme value of knowing, loving and serving God and would like everyone to find joy in the things of the Spirit and in the fulfilment of their unique call from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a good day for reflecting on our own own vocation and, in addition to praying for others, thinking and praying about how we ourselves have responded to God’s call in the past, and how we should respond in the future. Have we helped or hindered others in following Christ? Is there something more that the Lord asks of us? Are we ready to listen, or do we want to turn a deaf ear?

I myself am a Benedictine, and a very happy Benedictine at that, yet part of me wishes I had been graced with the vocation  of a Carthusian or hermit so I could live ‘alone with the Alone’. I say that without any rose-tinted misconceptions about the demands of the eremitical life. I only just scrape by as a coenobite and would never manage as a hermit. But God is, and I pray always will be, the most important person in my life — which is why I am a nun, why I am enthusiastic about monastic life in general and the life of this community in particular, and why I want to share its blessings with as many people as possible.

Sometimes a visual image can help, so the photo at the beginning of this post shows the altar-end of our oratory while the one below shows the choir-end. Our oratory is a plain and workman-like space, as monastic life itself is plain and workman-like. There is careful attention to detail, but nothing fussy or superfluous. It is the most important part of the monastery, and I think it is eloquent of how we understand Benedictine life and try to live it. If it is a terible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, it is also, as the saints assure us, the most delightful. May God draw many to experience his love and mercy, to savour the sweetness of the Lord and be his true disciples.

The choir-end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

The choir end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

I give below links to a few previous posts on vocation which, together with the information on our main website, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk (www.benedictinenuns.net for small-screen devices) and our Facebook page, may prove helpful. I hope so.

Some Posts about Vocation

Praying for Vocations

Vocation and Reality

Further Thoughts on Vocation

A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Vocations Sunday

A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Praying to the Devil

by Digitalnun on April 15, 2016

Have you ever prayed to the devil? Before you recoil in shock and horror, let me explain what I mean. We are all familiar with the prayer the pharisee prayed to himself in the parable of the pharisee and the publican, Luke 18.9-14, and most of us would admit, a little shamefacedly, to having had moments when we allowed a touch of smugness to infect us. We may not have lauded our own virtue but we have condemned someone else’s failure to live up to our expectations or cried ‘hypocrite’ when they acted in ways we disapproved. Praying to the devil is much worse than that, but it is dangerously easy to slip into if we do not hold ourselves in check. Only this morning we received a prayer request which was essentially a calling down of curses on another and willing their death. I don’t think the person who sent the request had any idea of the spiritual danger to which they were exposing themself. However hurt or angry we are, however incensed by someone else’s conduct, we must not allow our feelings to open us up to spiritual harm. Nonsense? Let’s see.

Whenever someone ‘prays’ with anger and hostility, wishing ill to another, they are praying to the devil. People whose marriages have broken up sometimes call down curses on their spouse’s new partner rather than praying for conversion of heart and an end to the adulterous relationship. Or people inveigh against someone they dislike or think evil in terms that are themselves evil. If this is allowed to go on, it becomes a prayer to the devil. All prayer is powerful but this kind acts as a concentrator of negative feeling. It is one thing to tell the Lord our distress and anger (and maybe get cross with him), quite another to demand he punish or hurt someone we regard as the cause of our unhappiness. That is the one kind of prayer that isn’t going to please the Lord; but it will please the devil very much indeed. If we are sufficiently filled with bitter zeal, we may think that is all right. We don’t care whether God or the devil hears our prayer so long as x suffers. What we forget is that when we open ourselves up to evil, we open ourselves up to something we cannot control, something that does not desire our well-being but our destruction. In the end, we are even more harmed than the one we want to afflict.

You will notice I have carefully avoided saying who or what the devil is, and that is important. It is a great mistake to think that sin and evil are outmoded notions, the product of a febrile imagination; it is equally a great mistake to think we have got evil ‘taped,’ so to say. It is precisely because we haven’t got evil ‘taped’ that we succumb to its allure.

If we fall into the habit of praying to the devil our lives will change as surely as they do when we pray to God. Instead of seeing the good in others, we will see only the bad. Instead of being generous, we will become mean and grasping. We certainly won’t be very nice to know. Ultimately, I think that matters more than we may be ready to concede when we are consumed with anger. People often quote the tag lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning ‘as we pray (or worship), so we believe’; it actually has a third part, lex vivendi, meaning ‘so we live’. Praying to the devil is what we might call a whole life choice — only it isn’t life at all, it’s death. The next time we are furious about someone or something, we might usefully remember that.

Additional Note
Several people have  commented on the difficulty they have with the cursing psalms. I wrote about them here. The two posts go together.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail