by Digitalnun on May 23, 2015
Pentecost is the great feast of the Church, but how often do we prepare for it with the kind of purposefulness we associate with Lent? I don’t mean that we should fast (we don’t fast during the Easter season) or do penance, but even now, on Pentecost eve, we could think about prayer and reconciliation and their role in attaining the peace and unity the Holy Spirit bestows on the Church. So, if there is anyone to whom we need to say ‘sorry’, or anyone we need to forgive, today is a perfect day for doing so. If there is any disunity in our own lives or in the lives of our families or communities, this is a day for trying to set things right. Above all, this is a day for praying simply and earnestly that the Holy Spirit will come upon us and renew his gifts within us. Whether he comes as burning fire or cooling breeze is not for us to decide. Our prayer is short and pure, as St Benedict would have it: Veni, Sancte Spiritus — Come, Holy Spirit!
by Digitalnun on May 20, 2015
Time was when priests complained about penitents who came to Confession with a laundry-list of sins they had committed. The internet age equivalent is the prayer shopping-list, sent by means of email or Social Media to people who are known to have a special interest in intercessory prayer, or who are assumed to be, in some way, professional pray-ers, the ‘prayer warriors’ of pious parlance.
For some years we have hosted a 24/7 email prayerline to enable people to ask for prayer at any time of day or night and be sure their request will be acted on. Many of the requests we receive are profundly moving, and I feel privileged to have such trust placed in the community and its prayer. In recent years, however, I have become a little uneasy. I’ve mentioned before the new phenomenon of people asking for prayer but also wanting us to write back assuring them of our prayer, as though our promise to pray was somehow not enough. Often this is accompanied by further requests: that we have Masses said (if only!); fast for a certain number of days or weeks for the intention named in the prayer request (hmn); undertake various devotions or say certain texts (very unBenedictine); send back relics or prayer cards (we can’t). Quite often people don’t bother with the prayerline at all but send emails to the monastery inbox or direct messages via Twitter or Facebook, probably not realising that their requests have less chance of being immediately picked up than when the prayerline is used. It is not this that troubles me, however, although I’ll admit that on occasion it can be irritating, it’s the nature of some of the requests themselves.
I believe everything we are and do is of interest to God; so I have no difficulty praying for a good exam result for x (though I would suggest that having done some work in the previous year would be a wise plan), or for a good husband/wife for y (though trying to be a good spouse oneself might be more to the point), or a successful house sale for z. The trouble comes when the prayer request becomes a list of financial/personal benefits desired or even demanded, as though the petitioner had a right to them, or worse, a list of curses to be visited upon the head of someone else. What do people think they are doing? How can we help them to a more mature understanding of what intercessory prayer is? I don’t know. If you have any ideas, please tell me, because I think it is something we need to address. It is on a par with those ‘last resort’ requests we receive: we’ve tried everything else, now we’re trying prayer. One longs to say, it’s all right, we’ll pray as though prayer were your first resort: God is the most generous of Fathers and he will hear.
I come back to things I have said many times before. Prayer is not magic, nor is it a short-cut to obtaining what we want, good or bad. Intercessory prayer, as I wrote on another occasion (see this post), invites God into the situation we are praying about but doesn’t presume to tell him what to do. We ask humbly, perseveringly, and with great trust, but it is for him to decide. To present God with a shopping-list of material benefits one wants to receive is, at best, childish; to call down curses on another is completely unacceptable, a travesty of prayer, an engagemenet with the devil. At the heart of all prayer is, or should be, profound reverence. No words are necessary — except maybe, sometimes, for us. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is enough.
by Digitalnun on May 19, 2015
If I had time, the feast of SS Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald would prompt me to historical reflection. The renewal of monastic life in the tenth century owes much to their vision and hard work and we are fortunate to know enough about each to have some idea of their individual personalities and talents. There is Dunstan, monk of Glastonbury and polymath archbishop of Canterbury, famed as a metal-worker, illuminator and musician; Aethelwold, monk of Glastonbury and bishop of Winchester, stern critic of the secular clergy, champion of the Rule of St Benedict (he is generally credited with the composition of the Regularis Concordia), and rather inclined to be severe to nuns (though the Vita of St Edith shows him bested in argument by her, with one of the most memorable put-downs in history); and Oswald, monk of Fleury, bishop both of Worcester and York, gentler than the other two, who died in the very act of washing the feet of the poor. They continue to be an inspiration to English monks and nuns of our own day.
As it was in the tenth century, so in the twenty-first, monastic life is in need of renewal — and I do mean monastic life, not some of the (very good and enriching) contemporary forms of community life which take their inspiration from monasticism but lack some of its essential elements. My reason for that qualification is simple. It takes time to learn the art of being monastic. Being stripped, little by little, of the self-will that clings so closely; discovering that prayer requires much boring slog through the foothills rather than ecstasy on the heights; that community isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and one can be very lonely in the midst of others; that obedience to a superior and to the brethren can be hard work and even those things one originally found attractive can become a hair-shirt when one is condemned to sit next to someone who sings flat or half a beat before or behind everyone else — it takes time to learn how to deal with all these in a positive way, allowing the Holy Spirit to fashion his worker as he pleases — time and commitment. Living in a community vowed to the same purpose is both encouragement and a useful check on personal idiosyncracies.
So, why do I think monastic life today is in need of renewal? As Dom David Knowles observed long ago, mediocrity, settling for the status quo, has always been the bane of Benedictine life. There are communities which seem to have lost heart and are just hoping that the monastery ‘will see me out’. Equally important, monasticism itself has become institutionalised within the Church. That can, and sometimes does, mean an uneasy relationship between, say, the requirements of canon law and the demands of the Rule, especially for nuns. Why add to the difficulties? I am not suggesting for one moment that we should ditch everything, that those monasteries which are artistic and cultural treasure-houses, should cease to be. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to keep coming back to the age-old question: how do we best live monastic life, how do we best search for God?
Regular readers know that I foresee a monasticism of the future which will be smaller in numbers, and probably different in shape, from that with which we have become familiar, but no less fervent. That, however, is in the future. Our business now is to live good, holy and dedicated lives, as unselfishly as possible. On this fifth day of our novena to the Holy Spirit, let us ask for the gift of wisdom that we may do so.
by Digitalnun on May 18, 2015
‘Assume a virtue if you have it not,’ says Hamlet bitterly to Gertrude (Hamlet, Act 3, Sc 4). In the days since the General Election, those words have come to have a different meaning for me. Both in the press and online, writer after writer has claimed the moral high ground through the simple expedient of labelling those they disagree with as ‘stupid’, ‘evil’ or worse. I have sometimes wondered whether we are back to the ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ simplicities of Animal Farm, because very little actual argument is involved, only the trading of insults, many of them in the brutally unimaginative language of the four-letter word or personal attack. In vain does one point out that none of us can predict the future; in vain does one protest that supporting a particular political party does not imply a monopoly of righteousness and good sense. It seems no one wants to hear such inconvenient truths, only to shout their own views.
There is an important point here. We often ascribe to others views we would be horrified to have ascribed to ourselves. How can anyone else know what we really think? We don’t even know ourselves sometimes! But more than that, how can we condemn others for a lack of compassion or sense of justice, for example, when our own conduct shows that we are rather deficient in that area ourselves? Those who followed the post-election ‘debate’ on Social Media will probably have been struck, as I was, by the reluctance of many to accept that, imperfect as our democracy may be, we were all free to exercise our right to vote, and as a corollary, must accept the result as legitimate, whether we like/dislike it.
The tendency to assume that being angry or aggressive equates to being virtuous is becoming quite widespread, but I believe it is a tendency we need to check. Some will say I am merely substituting middle-class ‘niceness’ for passion, but I would argue that passion is not in itself a validator of anything. The more keenly we feel an injustice, for example, the more determined we should be to work for its being put right. The verb there is crucial: work for. That, for me, would involve prayer, reflection, argument and doing what I legitimately could to achieve the desired end.
When we turn to the Church, we can see similar positions being held. It beggars belief that many who call themselves practising Catholics can write of others in the terms they do. Very often they assume an infallibility that makes one chuckle when it does not make one weep. There will always be those who dislike whatever the current pope/bishop of the diocese/parish priest or whatever is doing, and there will be occasions when we need to speak up to right some wrong; but we need to scrutinize our own motives first. Sometimes, we launch into an attack because we happen to dislike something, not because it is wrong or injurious. All too often the debate becomes deeply personal and leaves its scars long afterwards. It is scant comfort then to say the Church is big enough, and old enough, to weather such typhoons in a teacup because what matters is holiness, and the urgent pursuit of holiness through a life of charity and virtue. Scant comfort, but surely true?
Some will say that such a view of the Church’s fundamental mission and purpose is naive. I’d say it is not so much naive as getting to the heart of the matter. Church politics are very like party politics, and just as capable of leading to unintended consequences if pursued without sufficient thought or reflection.
Today, as we pray for a renewal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit within us, we might pray not only for right judgement but also for an increase in charity and compassion — and the ability to know when we would do well to shut up.
by Digitalnun on May 17, 2015
The title of this post is a bit naughty. How many of you instantly recognized that WCD2015 stands for World Communications Day 2015? Probably only my Catholic readers, and not even all of them, I suspect. It seems that the more we speak or write about communications, the less good we are at actually conveying anything. We lapse into acronyms or jargon which keeps the outsider firmly outside (unless one appeals on Twitter for someone to explain the trending hashtag of the day). Yet today’s great solemnity of the Ascension is what we might call perfect communication. The Risen Christ ascends to his Father, taking with him our grubby humanity, so that God and humanity are for ever one; and because he has returned to the Father, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the one who can articulate the prayer we could never put into words, can come upon us, overshadow us and make us new.
This is a day for silence, wonder and awe, for allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to us and quietening anything that might hinder our hearing what he has to say. If we need to focus our prayer, then surely we should pray not only for media professionals but also for ourselves, that we may be good communicators, communicating good — which is ultimately to allow God to communicate himself through us.
by Digitalnun on May 14, 2015
St Matthias has always been important to me. He is the man chosen by the Church to replace Judas and make up the number of the Twelve (cf Acts 1). All three things are significant. First, we see the Church at work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, confidently making choices that will determine the future shape of Christianity. Second, we know that Matthias, by his fidelity, must somehow make up for the infidelity of Judas. Third, we are alerted to the significance of the Twelve: it wasn’t possible to leave Judas’s place empty, but the apostles’ choice is also significant— someone who had been with Jesus since his baptism by John but who was not a member of the inner circle. That is why I tend to think of Matthias as a heavenly ‘second choice’, a patron saint for those of us who are not anyone’s first choice for anything, but who bumble along, as best we can, trying to be faithful, trying to do whatever we are asked, and perhaps sometimes tempted to think that we are somehow second-rate.
We know very little about Matthias’s subsequent history. He was plucked from obscurity and to obscurity he returned. We can all find encouragement in that. We don’t have to be great by this world’s reckoning to do great things. We don’t have to be known, or singled out as special, we just have to be; and in our obscurity and fidelity we can achieve the greatest of all achievements: the fulfilment of the vocation to which we are called, whatever that may be. That is worth thinking about: the vocation to which we are called, not the one we would choose for ourselves or the one we would like or dream about, but what we are actually meant to be — God’s choice, not ours.
May St Matthias pray for us all, especially those tempted to confuse being a second choice with being second-rate.
by Digitalnun on May 11, 2015
For many years now the Rule of St Benedict has been plundered for all kinds of purposes for which it was never intended, including — and I quote from the title of a book on our shelves — business success. Sometimes I almost despair. Yes, one can take many good ideas from the Rule about leadership, communal living, mutual service and so forth, but strip the less popular elements from the mix — the ceaseless round of prayer and observance, single chastity, obedience — and one takes much of the heart from the Rule. It was written for monastics, people with a lifelong commitment to seeking God in community under a superior. It is worth pausing for a moment to think what that means, especially in relation to the chapter of the Rule we begin re-reading today, The Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be.
Benedict was not writing about a temporary situation, one the individual could shrug off at will. He says quite clearly that the abbot ‘is believed to represent Christ in the monastery’ (RB 2.2) Nothing could make it plainer that, for him, authority and obedience are truly religious concepts, intimately connected with the search for God and marked by a seriousness and durability of purpose we cannot ignore. It matters who and what the abbot is because, in an important sense, he mediates Christ to the community. That requires faith and spiritual vision on the part of both abbot and community, for without it we are left with a merely mechanical interpretation of what it is to head the community/obey the superior. We end up with a boss and being bossed about rather than with a leader and being led.
The first requirement of the abbot is that he should ‘always be mindful of what he is called and act as a superior should.’ (RB 2.1) That ‘always’, semper, is significant. There is no time off for the abbot, not a single moment when he can relax his charge, can forget, however briefly, what he has been called to be and do. It is enough to make one shake in one’s socks! Then, just when one might expect Benedict to enlarge on the abbot’s powers, one finds a list of duties or restrictions laid upon him: he must not teach or ordain anything that would conflict with the law of the Lord (RB2.4); he must remember that there will be an examination of his own teaching as well as of his disciples’ obedience (RB 2.6); he must bear the blame for any lack of profit the Father of the household may discover in his sheep (RB 2.7). Only then are there a few words of comfort for the abbot. He will be acquitted on Judgment Day if he has ‘lavished every care on a restive and disobedient flock and taken pains to heal its unwholesome ways.’ (RB2.9) Even when he is being comforted, it seems, the abbot is to be reminded of how arduous a task he has undertaken and warned that he must be tireless in his efforts.
These first sentences of the first chapter on the abbot (Benedict has another later on) are often glossed over by those who use the Rule for courses in management theory. They are replaced by ‘inspirational’ remarks about the qualities a leader should have and the value of team-work. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t exactly Benedictine. Everything in the Rule, like everything in the monastery, is meant to lead us to God. To begin, as Benedict does, with a sense of the spiritual significance of the abbatial role, the limitations inherent in its exercise, the context in which all actions are to be judged, is to demonstrate a radically different idea of what leadership is and how it should operate from that which we see all around us. There is no real distinction between the office and the person. For those called to serve in that way, the prospect is daunting, and it is no wonder that many fail or are, at best, mediocre. Mediocrity has always been the bane of monastic life and can lead to many abuses, not least the abuse of power. Perhaps today we could pray for all who hold leadership postions, not just in monasteries but in the world more generally. They certainly need prayer if they are not to give way to the temptations power puts in their way.