Preparing for the Unknown

by Digitalnun on November 20, 2014

I begin a course of chemotherapy tomorrow so will probably be blogging only intermittently, if at all. It is fitting that I should start this new phase of my life on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, the Dies Memorabilis of the English Benedictine Congregation, and my own Clothing anniversary. However much we try to prepare for certain eventualities or to predict outcomes, we have to live with the unpredictable, with scenarios for which we are most definitely not prepared — as Our Lady did with such spectacular consequences for us all. I think that is what it means to live by grace. It is certainly what is meant by monastic profession, when we place our whole lives not only in the hands of God (the easy bit) but also in the hands of fallible human beings (the difficult bit) and learn to walk, as St Benedict says, by another’s judgement and decisions.

So, you get a little rest from my words, at least for now. The prayer, however, goes on and on.

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The Church’s Powerful Women

by Digitalnun on November 19, 2014

What does that phrase convey to you? Whom do you think of as the Church’s powerful women? My guess is that the majority of Catholics would be hard put to name any living woman as such. A little scratching of the head might produce a few names from the past: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, say, or Teresa of Avila. The idea of women exercising power in the Church is alien to most, and the names we remember tend to come from a comparatively small group of people who did comparatively similar things, e.g. found an order/congregation/institute of charity or write. The more historically-minded could provide a list of Late Antique empresses and medieval queens who exerted a lot of influence in the Church, not all of it good, but that mythical beast, the (wo)man in the pew, would probably end up with very few names. Among them would almost certainly be that of today’s saint, Hild or Hilda of Whitby, but I wonder whether it would be the Hilda of history or the Hilda of modern myth who would be celebrated?

A close reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us several interesting facts about Hilda and suggests many more. She may once have been married. ‘Everyone called her mother,’ says Bede, a phrase he uses of no other nun. She was certainly of mature age (33) when she abandoned her plan to go to Chelles, the leading monastery for women of the day, and answered Aidan’s call to establish a monastery in Northumbria. The monasteries she founded all followed the Celtic pattern and were double houses for both men and women. Bede emphasizes her gifts as an administrator — and her sensitivity to poetry. She plucked Caedmon from the cow-byre to be a singer of psalms and sacred songs. Her role at the Synod of Whitby has been much discussed, and I think it may explain why Hilda has been mythologized in recent times.

What happened at Whitby must have been quite earth-shattering for many of the participants. Indeed, the monks of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision to embrace the Roman date for Easter and withdrew first to Iona, then later, to Ireland. For those who did accept the decision, Hilda among them, it meant the loss of much that was dear and familiar. Little by little, or in some cases overnight, the old Celtic practices gave way to the ‘new’ Roman ones. Even the shape of the monks’ tonsure changed. Perhaps only those who have lived monastic life themselves can really appreciate what these changes meant to the individuals concerned. There was continuity but also change, and it is often the little things that cost most.

Hilda undoubtedly played a key role in getting the decision accepted. Such was her reputation for wisdom and prudence that many would have looked to her for guidance. Crucially, what many overlook is that in accepting the Roman date of Easter Hilda was placing the desire for unity in Church practice above any other consideration. As a Celtic Christian, she already acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but here she was, stating that a theoretical acknowledgement had to be translated into actual practice.

People sometimes speak of Hilda as though she were a role model for female bishops. She is undoubtedly a role model for Christian leadership, but I think myself it is more helpful to see her in the monastic context, where leadership is exercised without hierarchical status. Power, in Church terms, is such an odd thing. I think we sometimes mistake the importance of the different elements in building up the Church. Administration is a gift, a charism, not to be undervalued; but it is a gift meant to lead to holiness, and holiness without compassion is an impossibility. Hilda did not set herself up over and against the existing hierarchy of the Church but used her many gifts of heart and mind to bring others to the Christ she knew and loved so well. It is no accident that, holy herself, her monastery became a nursery of saints. May she pray for us all.

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What Should We Do About Ebola?

by Digitalnun on November 18, 2014

You have probably noticed how Ebola has slipped from the headlines in the West. We are currently more interested in IS, Russia and the spectre of another recession. It doesn’t mean Ebola has gone away, or that we are any less involved in terms of money and personnel, but our perception of the immediacy of the crisis has somehow lessened. Unless or until another person with Ebola is hospitalised in the West, we shall continue to think of the virus as something that affects people ‘over there’ — and our thinking about how to help will follow suit.

There have been sobering reports that Western aid is missing the mark. Julia Duncan-Cassell, Liberia’s Chief of Development, is on record as saying neighbours and relatives are struggling to care for thousands of Ebola orphans while Western aid workers enjoy a lavish lifestyle and spend money on projects that are of little benefit. That kind of statement feeds into a very Western fear that aid agencies and charities do not always use the money given to them wisely or even appropriately. On the whole, if I may be permitted a very large generalisation, the religiously-inspired charities seem to do a better job than most, but still there is anxiety. How do we help? How do we ensure that money given to aid people suffering so greatly actually does what we intend? What should we do? I have no answers, but part of me thinks the very Benedictine approach of listening to the community might be a good starting-point. We may think building another treatment centre is the priority (and heaven knows, they are needed!) but for those who have been orphaned, or who have lost children on whom they depend for support, the need for food, shelter and companionship is just as urgent. It may not seem as urgent to us, but there is a future beyond Ebola we must think about and work to protect.

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Was St Benedict a Foodie?

by Digitalnun on November 17, 2014

It may seem strange that the chapter of the Rule we read today (RB 39) is entirely concerned with food, but not food as it is often perceived in contemporary Western society, where it is the focus of TV programmes and endless discussions about superfoods, cooking gadgets and the latest take on traditional dishes, but rather, food as part of the physical and spiritual discipline of the monastery. The two go together, as feast and fast go together, but we often forget that, so accustomed have we become to abundance and to the exaltation of freedom and choice as absolute values. For St Benedict, as for his followers, food is a symbol of something much more important, and its proper preparation, serving and enjoyment are all part of that process of seeking God that is the raison d’être of the monastery.

Chapter 39 is concerned with the amount and type of food, and would probably delight the heart of any fitness-freak today with its insistence on fresh fruit and vegetable and moderation in everything; chapter 40 discusses drink, and allows for moderate use of wine; chapter 41 goes into the times of meals, which are all related to the Easter feast. In chapter 35 we read of the kitchen servers and the qualities they should bring to their task; in chapters 36 and 37 Benedict makes special provision for the sick, the young and the very old. Elsewhere we read of the rituals surrounding eating (e.g. chapter 38) or the punishment of exclusion from the common table (e.g. chapter 24). All in all, this amounts to a theology of food, a domestic liturgy, in which all participate and enflesh, so to say, the rhythm of the Christian year, with its movement through the different seasons and the alternations of fast and feast until we reach the central point of Easter. The monk is not to be weighed down with excess, not to give way to self-indulgence, because he has mind and heart fixed on paschal joy.

For many people, food is just fuel for the journey; for others it is an end in itself. Most of us would probably admit to being somewhere in between the two extremes, caring about what we eat, but not sufficiently to spend all our time in the kitchen  or concentrating huge efforts on achieving some sort of gastronomic excellence. Perhaps we can all learn something from Benedict’s approach to food as an essential part of life, to be valued and treated with reverence but not idolised. We become what we eat; we also become how we eat. It would be a useful exercise to spend a few moments today thinking about both those things, and how they relate both to our spiritual quest and to our development as human beings. St Benedict was indeed a ‘foodie’, but perhaps not quite as we understand that term.

Emails: our emails are working again. The problem related to our previous use of Postini as a relayer, but I’m not sure how many emails have been unintentionally returned to sender.

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Disappointment

by Digitalnun on November 16, 2014

We all know what it is to be disappointed, when ‘ah’ turns to ‘oh’ on a downward note, and a brave smile replaces a bright one. I was fascinated to learn that the word originally meant precisely what it says: to remove from office. Perhaps an element in disappointment, then, is the feeling that one has been deprived of something that is one’s due. It isn’t merely an unfulfilled hope that is being dashed but a (more or less) legitimate expectation.

All very well, but how do we deal with it? I daresay at Christmas there will be many a person saying, ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ as they open a gift they don’t much care for, not realising how those words can numb the heart of the well-intentioned giver. We can ignore; feign; insist on acting as though nothing had happened. Very few of us have the ability to accept with perfect equanimity that things haven’t turned out quite as we had hoped. The tacite conscientia of the Fourth Degree of Humility is beyond most of us — except by grace. When it is a question of something more than present-giving, how we deal with disappointment can have effects that go far beyond anything we intended. Some of the horrors of the Second World War surely grew out of the disappointments of the First and the determination of Clémenceau and others to make Germany pay. Disappointment and humiliation are evil bedfellows.

In recent weeks we have had a number of disappointments here at the monastery, so this post is being written very much in via rather than safely on the other side of disappointment surmounted. My most recent PET scan revealed that the secondaries in my lungs and liver are growing merrily and have now invaded my right hip (bone) and, indignity of indignities, even my sit-upon! Fortunately, the pain is bearable at present, and beginning to walk like a drunken sailor is just one more eccentricity to cultivate. Of course I am disappointed. Of course it is difficult. But somewhere in that disappointment we as a community, no less than I personally, have to find meaning and grace. I am sure it is possible, but it may take a while to figure out how.

Note: we have a server problem which means all emails addressed to @benedictinenuns.org.uk addresses are currently being rejected. Prayer requests made via our online contact form are still getting through. We hope to get it fixed as soon as possible.

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1,000 Blog Posts and Reaching for the Stars

by Digitalnun on November 13, 2014

For someone who loves symmetry, it is rather nice that the 1,000th blog post to appear on iBenedictines should co-incide with the feast of All Benedictine Saints and our waiting to hear whether the historic landing of the Philae robot on Comet 67P is going to be as successful as we all hope it will. We are reaching for the stars at every level!

One of the most amazing things to have happened in my lifetime is the exploration of space. To have watched the moon landings as I did as a child; to have pored over those beautiful photos made possible by the Hubble telescope; to have looked at Mars or the grey surface of 67P is something undreamed of, a wonder and a joy that, to me, speaks of God. What mind, what heart, conceived these things and holds them in being? The Benedictine Saints we commemorate today did not see any of these astronomical wonders, but they knew ‘the Love that moves the Sun and lesser stars’. And because they knew that Love they have left us both example and encouragement.

‘Reaching for the stars’ may be a rather corny expression, but I think it captures that sense of voyaging into the unknown, of striving for holiness that characterises Benedictine life. People sometimes think that becoming a monk or nun must turn one in on oneself, makes one’s universe shrink. If it does that, there is something very wrong going on. The opposite should be true. One’s horizons should expand, just as one’s heart should expand with the inexpressible sweetness of love as one runs along the path of God’s commandments. (RB Prologue 49) Blogging, too, if it is all about seeking admiration or star-ratings is, for the monastic practitioner, another wrong turn. I am grateful that this blog has managed to pursue its own quirky path with what I hope is its own quirky integrity for 1,000 posts. You, the readers, help make it what it is, but any success it has cannot be measured in numbers, only in its ability, or otherwise, to make people think and, I hope, draw closer to God.

St Benedict ends his chapter on Good Zeal with the hope that Christ may bring us all together to everlasting life. That is the prayer of the community here today for all who light on these pages, and for all whose lives we touch or who touch our own.

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Our Biggest Failure?

by Digitalnun on November 12, 2014

Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?

We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.

In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.

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Generosity and Greed

by Digitalnun on November 7, 2014

The prosperity gospel, which assures its followers that wealth is a sign of blessing from the Lord, and the more one has the better, is really no different from the ‘greed is good’ mantra of Gordon Gekko. In some respects, it is far worse, because it spreads a religious gloss over behaviour that is anything but godly. Many of the words we associate with money-making have unpleasant overtones: greed, avarice, meanness, miserliness, profiteering, fraud — they are not words we would want applied to ourselves. The one that always strikes me is miserliness, from the Latin miser, meaning someone who is wretched, unhappy. It is, as always, the degree of attachment to wealth that tends to make one happy or unhappy rather than the amount of money one has or does not have; but amassing wealth and refusing to spend it is a sure way of becoming deeply, wretchedly unhappy. Who ever derived more than a passing joy from contemplating the noughts at the end of his bank balance? Surely only a nut-case.

Today and tomorrow we are re-reading St Benedict’s advice to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). He begins with a list of qualities the cellarer ought to have, and they make challenging reading. The cellarer should be

a wise person of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, nor offensive or lazy or wasteful, . . . who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1–2)

I think that is a neat summing-up of an attitude we can all cultivate, of being detached in respect of our own material possessions, but generous to others in their use. We may have very little left over at the end of the month, perhaps nothing at all, but we can still be compassionate, ready to share what we have. I am reminded of a story my father once told me of a time when he was serving in the Middle East. He was running along, tired, sweaty and very fed up when he passed an elderly man walking in the opposite direction. The man immediately reached into a bag round his neck and pressed a handful of fresh dates into my father’s hand. The man was poor, materially much poorer than my father, but he was rich in compassion and showed himself a father to my father, sharing the little he had. Who he was, whether he was Christian or Muslim, we shall never know, but nearly three quarters of a century later his instinctive generosity is still remembered and celebrated. We might ask ourselves, will ours be?

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A Bucket List for a Benedictine

by Digitalnun on November 6, 2014

Once upon a time, when we were trying to fundraise for a permanent home, we were advised to read the Mail Online because it covers all the news other online newspapers don’t deign to notice. This includes an almost daily ‘cancer story,’ which often contains a bucket-list of things the cancer sufferer would like to achieve or experience before he or she dies. Personally, I haven’t much time for these. I’m just hoping I’ll have time to tidy my sock drawer, get the accounts in order and burn all the rubbish before I go to meet my Creator.* But it is worth thinking about. What would a Benedictine hope to achieve or experience before dying?

I think first on the list would come the desire to have found, not merely sought, God in prayer, in community, in obedience to the superior. My well-known scepticism about some modern movements that call themselves Benedictine stems from the fact that they seem to short-circuit the process of seeking: they don’t demand that lifelong gift of the entire self that I’d say was essential to the monastic quest for God. Those of us who are Benedictines know that we need the kind of focus and discipline monasticism gives or we’d either give up or make accommodations that, inch by inch, would lead us away from God. We need to stick at this God-seeking of ours. Patience and perseverance in the quest are what matters, and the hope that one day we shall glimpse him of whom our heart has spoken.

Second on my bucket-list would come the desire to have shared the joy and peace of the cloister with others. It is not an easy joy or a facile peace. The crown of thorns that surrounds our motto, pax, has a two-fold nature: it is both the means of attaining what lies within, and a protection for what is attained. There never is, in this life, a moment when the guard can drop or we can say the struggle is at an end, pace St Benedict in RB 7.67. But we are curiously apt to try to keep good things to ourselves, so sharing, learning to be generous, is also a lifelong requirement.

Third I think I would put the desire to have enriched, in however small a degree, the lives of those with whom we may have no direct connection. The scholarship of the Benedictines, the music, the beautiful buildings, the concern for liturgy, they are all part and parcel of the wider vision I think monks and nuns have always had. What we do individually is insignificant; what we do as a community, as a fraterna acies, is much more than we can ever think or dream. Cassian once remarked that anyone who removed even a little dust from the oratory would not go unrewarded. I like to think that those of us who have not ourselves been anything very wonderful but have enabled others to achieve something will not go unrewarded, either.

So, three things in my bucket-list, which is itself very Benedictine (St Benedict’s Rule is full of three-fold patterns); three things for me to aim at personally, three things for the community and our oblates to aim at, too. And if you think they are difficult of achievement, just remember what St Benedict advises: ‘Where our nature is powerless, let us ask the Lord to supply the help of his grace.’ (RB Prologue 47)

*I wouldn’t mind having paid off the bank loan for the house, either; but it’s tidying the sock drawer that weighs on my mind.

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When Things Go Wrong

by Digitalnun on November 5, 2014

Who hasn’t had the experience of everything seeming to go wrong, and usually all at once? The last few days have been rather like that for me. I won’t bore you with the details because I’m sure you can think of  enough instances in your own life without my having to recount any of my own. The problem is, what do we do? We can kick and scream, if we are the kicking and screaming type; we can renew our attempts to improve things, though with the gloomy foreboding that we’ll only make things worse; we can pray; we can try to escape whatever it is that oppresses us by plunging into drink or drugs or some other means of oblivion (not available to nuns, please note); we can have a good cry; take a hot bath; go for a walk; talk to the dog. What we can’t do is what we most want to do: change the circumstances we find ourselves in.

For me as a Benedictine, that is where patience comes in. It is often said that patience is our fourth vow because Benedict explicitly says that ‘we share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve to share also in his kingdom’. (RB Prologue 50.)  As a society we aren’t very keen on suffering; and if we are honest, some of the supposedly character-forming suffering of the past was both unnecessary and unhelpful. But it is surely naive to expect a world — or a life — from which suffering is absent. The ability to feel pain, to register sorrow and distress, to share comfort with another: these are human qualities that make us transcend our ordinary limitations. You may argue that problems with the plumbing, say, may be exasperating and inflict various degrees of inconvenience but they do not make us transcend anything. To which I would reply that I think they can.

It is not the thing itself but the feelings and responses it arouses within us that counts. A problem with the plumbing may seem hilarious at one level, but it may make me angry and aggressive and mean that I can’t wash or cook or have the heating on and am therefore cold, dirty and dispirited (this, I hasten to add, is for the purposes of illustration only and does not reflect life at Howton Grove Priory at the time of writing). The ability to cope with that cheerfully and not give way to envy or irritability is a form of transcendence, and not to be sneered at because it is a small thing. Life is made up of small things, small graces. When things go wrong, it is the small graces we most need and which bring us closer to Christ.

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