Death on Camber Sands

by Digitalnun on August 26, 2016

Sometimes it is the numerically smaller, more local tragedies that hit hardest. The ongoing tragedy that is Syria, the earthquake in Italy, they are heart-breaking and we feel a deep sense of connectedness with those who suffer; but a father and child* lost to the sea in Cornwall or five friends drowned on Camber Sands, these are tragedies we can identify with more easily. We have names, faces, personal histories associated with places we know; and if we have lived by the sea, we also know what fickle things tides and currents are. The water at Newquay sweeps in faster than a strong man can run; Camber Sands are notoriously dangerous and the graveyard of many a ship. But those on holiday, possibly unfamiliar with these things and caught up in the magic of a carefree moment, tend not to notice when the tide has turned, when they ought to turn back to the safety of the shore.

Inevitably, people ask, ‘Why does God allow such things to happen?’ There is no real answer other than, ‘We do not know.’ I myself do not believe in the kind of interventionist God who never allows sad things to happen, because such a God makes a mockery of human freedom and dignity and curtails the freedom and beauty of the natural world. I do, however, believe in a God of tenderness and compassion, a God who does not destroy wantonly or take pleasure in the death of anyone. I do not understand, for example, why God allowed the death of those five friends on Camber Sands but I am convinced that their death is not meaningless, that they are not lost for ever. Many will find such a statement unsatisfactory, but it is what I believe. We live with the messiness of life and death, not knowing, not understanding, but somehow willing to trust. It is part of being human. I pray for the souls of those who have died, for the comforting of their family and friends; and I pray that those who holiday beside the sea will take heed of the warning notices and tide tables.

  • A tragedy made all the sadder by the fact that the child was rescued but died later.

Low Morale in the Pews

by Digitalnun on August 22, 2016

We all know good and faithful clergy and parishioners, the kind of people who light up the world with their faith and zeal, whose charity is wide and generous, and whose love of the Lord is infectious. Sadly, we also know clergy and laity whose morale is low; who seem to ‘go through the motions’ without communicating any real sense of personal commitment or joy. I must confess there are times when I too wonder whether the Catholic Church in England is wasting away before my eyes. Depending on whom one talks to, one will get a different explanation for the malaise. ‘Poor liturgy’ says one, ‘Vatican II’ cries another, ‘the return to Tridentinism’ asserts a third. Some accuse the bishops of being out of touch, while others point to the decline in priestly and religious vocations. Church schools with mainly non-Catholic pupils are alleged to be a further reason for the weakening of faith and practice. And of course, there is always that old canard, societal change, which means the laity are not prepared to take ‘what Father says’ for granted. Some of the priests I know seem to be almost at war with their parishioners, or at least, to feel besieged, unvalued. The appalling ignorance of Church teaching many Catholics now display is a matter for genuine concern and leads to yet more dissension in the pews.

Dissent is not the same as poor morale, however; and while I think there are elements of truth in all the above (or I would not have mentioned them), I think there is something more fundamental. The extradition to the UK of Lawrence Soper, once abbot of Ealing and now facing several charges of child abuse, highlights a problem for all Catholics. For years now the spotlight has been, quite correctly, on the suffering of those abused, the allegations of cover-up, and the pathetically inadequate response often made by Church authorities. No matter that the Catholic Church in England now has one of the most robust Safeguarding processes anywhere; no matter that we have all (even cloistered nuns) invested huge amounts of time and money in trying to ensure that potential abusers are stoppped in their tracks, we still have a problem — but it is not necessarily the one people assume. The problem we have is that those who have abused have undermined the morale of those — the great majority — who have not abused, and are sickened by the actions of the abusers.

I have lost count of the number of monks and secular clergy, convicted of abuse, who have administered the sacraments and preached to me and fellow community members. I still have a letter from one of them admonishing me, de haut en bas, which, in the circumstances, would be funny were it not so unbecoming of the writer. I have blogged in the past about nuns in the Boston diocese whose house was sold over their heads to meet compensation claims and similar unintended consequences of the attempt to right wrongs; I have even grumbled (God forgive me) about having to pay an annual fee to the Catholic Safeguarding Service when we have no chaplain, no children and no vulnerable adults to worry about or being called upon by the pope to make acts of reparation for guilty clergy. The custom of sending clergy under a cloud to a religious house for a while has often beeen seen as a good way of dealing with ‘a problem’. No thought seems to have been given to what it meant for the religious house concerned or those who came to it. Even now, there are clergy who insist that the abuse question is a witch-hunt, designed to undermine them.

I would like to suggest that we face up to the fact that abuse has affected us all, and that it is a significant factor in the low morale we often encounter in Church members. This is rather more specific than the charge of clericalism sometimes laid against the clergy, but of course, the two are linked because in both there is an abuse of power and authority. I know many will argue contrariwise and point to lively and flourishing parishes/religious houses where clergy and laity are mutually supportive. That is excellent, but it does not invalidate my question: how do we improve morale for the rest of us? What is needed to reinvigorate Church membership? We pray, we fast, we try to be generous in love and service, but there is still something we lack. Is this a desert experience the Church must go through, along with Islamist violence and hate-filled attacks from some secularist elements — a necessary purification — before the Church can arise, spotless and beautiful, once more? I wish I knew the answer — and I wish the pope and bishops did, too.

I have written quite extensively about the problem of abuse in the Church. Although I confine my remarks here to clergy who have abused, since I consider that to be a major factor in a loss of morale, I am well aware that religious sisters and brothers have also been charged with abuse. I am not aware of any allegations against cloistered nuns. Most people, whether monks, nuns, sisters, brothers, priests or laity are NOT abusers.



A ‘Noisy and Troublesome Frog’: St Bernard of Clairvaux

by Digitalnun on August 20, 2016

Francisco Ribalta - Christ Embracing St Bernard - WGA19350

I rather like Cardinal Haimeric’s put-down, when he thought Bernard had been meddling in matters above him, ‘It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.’ But I like even better the response Bernard made, which disarmed Haimeric and showed the true monk, ‘Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption.’

St Bernard possessed, to a unique degree, a capacity for making friends of his enemies and, sometimes, let’s be honest, enemies of his friends. He is undoubtedly one of the great glories of monasticism — a man on fire with God, capable of immense lyricism, but with a strange, fierce zeal that leaves many uncomfortable today, as it did in the twelfth century. I wrote of him once

He wrote like an angel, especially when he was angry (which was often). His Latin is as near to French prose as anything  I know, and there are times when he manages to say nothing and say it very brilliantly as most French writers do (no racist slur there). He was beastly to Abelard (who actually wasn’t very nice and certainly no romantic)  and he is usually condemned for preaching the Second Crusade, yet Bernard was kind to Jews at a time when no one was kind to Jews. Indeed, in the early fourteenth century we find a rabbi in Cologne recalling the help and protection afforded by the abbot of Clairvaux, so at least his reputation for good survived him (he died in 1153) instead of being interred with his bones, as is often the case. He had a great love of family and inspired lasting affection in those who knew him, yet he was not exempt from criticism. . . .

Bernard has been called a protestant avant la lettre because he did not hold the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and because his understanding of  justification was often quoted by Calvin in his exposition of the sola fide principle. ‘Our words are ours, their ends none of our own.’ Bernard is scarcely to be blamed for any interpretation put upon his words in after centuries. No one could really accuse him of lacking orthodoxy. In his lyrical writing on the Blessed Virgin Mary, he himself admits that he sometimes runs on a little too far. Pius XII proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church and called him the ‘last of the Fathers’, but perhaps his best memorial is the fact that his name has become synonymous with the Order he did so much to foster. He was involved in the foundation of no fewer than 163 monasteries in his lifetime. At his death, the Cistercians, the first true Order in the Church, numbered 343 communities. Even today, in Spain, you will hear the Cistercians referred to as ‘los bernardos’. . .  .

But what about that ‘noisy and troublesome frog’ charge? Many people assume that a monk, especially a Cistercian, should lead a life of silent seclusion, never venturing an opinion on anything and certainly never engaging with any of the important political or ecclesiastical issues of the day. I think St Bernard shows in the twelfth century as, mutatis mutandis, Thomas Merton was to show in the twentieth, that it is precisely because a monk must live a life of prayer and asceticism that he is able to speak on matters outside the cloister. There is no contradiction. If the prayer becomes less earnest, less intense, and the search for God ceases to hold first place in his heart, the monk’s ability to speak will lessen also. When we chose as the strapline for this blog ‘The world seen from the cloister’ we were conscious of both the limitation (the partial view it implies) and the obligation (to pray unceasingly, to put God first) the phrase expresses.  We cannot hope to serve others unless we put God first. Nihil amori Christi praeponere, said St Benedict, ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.’ St Bernard did exactly that.

Note on the illustration
This is my favourite image of St Bernard, Ribalta’s Cristo abrazando a San Bernardo. When I lived in Madrid I used to go and visit it every Sunday morning in the Prado.



by Digitalnun on August 19, 2016

Having written about brain fog yesterday, it seems only fair to write about clarity today. What do we mean by it? Most people, I think, would reply that we mean the quality of being clear, intelligible, sharply defined. Some of us, however, particularly those accustomed to singing the Divine Office in Latin, might want to overlay such a definition of clarity with something others might find unexpected. The word clarus in Latin is associated with glory, more specifically the divine glory (cf the antiphons for Vespers on Holy Saturday). That takes clarity into another dimension. Just as I argued yesterday that the danger of the many varieties of brain fog is that we use them as an excuse for not making the effort to distinguish between true and false, right action and wrong, so I would argue today that striving for clarity infuses a very ordinary, everday activity with touches of divine glory.

I always pray before I write, and one of the things for which I ask in prayer is that what I write may be clear and truthful. That it should be truthful is, I hope, self-evidently necessary; but clarity isn’t always so easy to achieve and many might argue that it can appear ‘simplistic’ and  ‘unprofessional’. (I am thinking here of the turgid prose that too often masks the thought of the academic or expert while proclaiming to the rest of the world that he/she is one who knows — and is keeping the secret close.) In an age where speed-reading and headline-skimming are more and more the norm, I am conscious of how easy it is not to make one’s meaning plain; and even if one does make one’s meaning plain to one’s own satisfaction, there will always be someone who uses words and concepts differently and therefore understands differently. But that doesn’t invalidate the quest for clarity, or lessen its importance.

To be clear, to reflect something of the divine glory, to allow that glory to permeate, infsofar as one can, both thought and speech is not a trvial matter. It is the work of a lifetime — and it is work.


Brain Fog

by Digitalnun on August 18, 2016

After a certain age, or when receiving certain kinds of medical treatment, a condition known as ‘brain fog’ is likely to manifest itself. It is not the same as that which occurs after drinking too much good wine or watching too much cricket in the sun. It is rather less pleasurable to the sufferer and much less amusing to the onlooker, but it has this one good effect. It simplifies life. When one can  no longer remember the detail, let alone bother about it, one ceases to be paralysed by the infinite number of possibilities and choices before one. One acts; one does; and one learns not to worry unduly about the consequences.

Now there is a downside to this. If one has not cultivated some sort of moral sense, has no values by which to judge the rightness or otherwise of a course of action, brain fog can be very dangerous indeed. It can result in our accepting that which is false out of intellectual or moral laziness. I have just finished reading Herbert McCabe’s God Matters and have been struck by his insistence, over and over again, that when we question, it is the right answer that we must seek, not just any answer. In other words, we must want what is true, not what is false. If we use our brain fog as an excuse to opt out of this important but often fatiguing demand, we are opting out of being fully human. I am learning to live with my own particular brand of brain fog, but I certainly don’t want to opt out of the painful business of being human. Do you?


The Problem With Books About Prayer

by Digitalnun on August 16, 2016

The problem with books about prayer is that they tend to stop us praying. What I mean is, instead of getting down to the business of trying to pray, we spend time reading about it; and the more we read, the more discouraged we often become. This wonderful, mystical adventure the writers promise, where is it? How does this dreary half-hour on my knees or that vacant sitting still on a chair, trying to summon some soul energy, measure up? Where am I going wrong?

17 August marks the anniversary of the death of one of the great English contemplatives, D. Gertrude More; and she had exactly the same problem, though in her case, the books about prayer she found uncongenial were the kind I myself have difficulty with. She did not find formal meditation helpful. Only when Fr Augustine Baker showed her a simpler, older way of praying did she discover that the Lord had been inviting her to pray all her life; and once she discovered that, there was no stopping her. When she died at the early age of 28, she was widely regarded as a woman of singular holiness.

The best advice anyone can give is Dom John Chapman’s ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ Of course, there are some things we may find helpful (see, for example, the pointers given here) but we each have to find our own way. The great adventure of prayer will have its difficulties and its longeurs, but like any relationship, it grows and changes over time until, ultimately, there is nothing left but that great Love which draws us to himself.


Two Hairy Brothers: 1

by Digitalnun on August 15, 2016

Bro Dyfrig BFdeB asks advice

Bro Dyfrig BFdeB asks advice

Howton Grove Priory
14 August 2016

Dear Cousin Dunc,

Here I am at the monastery, all shiny and new-looking. Thank you for your good advice and encouragement. I know you thought long and hard about my future and where I’d become my Truest and Happiest Self.

I spent a few days in the guest quarters, as required by the Rule, but on Sunday, the Solemnity of the Assumption, I was admitted to the novitiate and given the name Bro Dyfrig BFdeB. There was a nice little ceremony and a piece of chicken afterwards by way of celebration. I have a pleasant bunk on the ground floor. The bed is comfy, and the water-bowl is a Treasured Relic of yours which, I must say, is rather splendid. Life is austere, but not too bad for an adaptable fellow like me.

I thought at first they would welcome my leadership skills, but apparently not. Here I trot through doors last; and when I attempted to rest my weary limbs on the guest sofa, I was very quickly shown the error of my ways! Do be a kind chap, and give me a few pointers about how to survive and flourish in the cloister.

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

P.S. I haven’t been allowed into choir yet. Something about ‘wait and see how he gets on.’

The Heavenly Houndland
15 August 2016

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

How nice to be able to call you that at last! I am delighted to know you are safely admitted to the novitiate. It took some organizing at HQ, I can tell you, what with St Thomas Aquinas in a huff about dogs going to heaven and St Jerome urging pet lions and St Francis wanting a whole menagerie of all kinds of beasts and birds. Thankfully, St Clare argued in favour of a single hound (you), then St Bernard helped out by recalling how he encouraged lots of his relatives to join Cîteaux and BigSis is rather a fan of his, while St Benedict just smiled a wise smile and had a quiet word with Our Lady. I think Our Lady has a soft spot for dogs. At any rate, after St Benedict spoke to her, there was a little bit of Private Conversation between her and her Son and, lo and behold, there you are!

The best advice I can give you is to follow what is written in the Rule regarding novices — eat, sleep and meditate. If you eat, They will know you are happy; if you sleep, They will know you have found the place you are meant to be; and if you meditate, you will have something to share with Them and Their followers. It’s easy-peasy really.

Of course, some things will be hard, especially at the beginning. I was always a gentleman, so allowing ladies first came naturally to me. You will just have to learn not to rush forward all the time — and choosing the highest, comfiest seat is a definite no-no. Human Beans worry and fret about silly things like status and want to demonstrate how grand they are by the things they possess or by being given a higher place at table or a ‘superior’ rank or title. You don’t have to worry about any of that. You’re a dog; your place in the Kingdom is assured. All you have to do is be the best dog you can, which means being yourself and giving glory to God just as you are.

As for the rest, you’ll find They talk a lot about perseverance in the novitiate, but I think it all boils down to sheer doggedness — and you have that in spades.

I shall be keeping an eye on you, young sprog. Don’t let me down.

Your affectionate old cousin,

Bro Duncan PBGV

P.S. Don’t worry about choir just yet. Concentrate on the basics, one for each paw — eat, sleep, meditate, and eat again, of course. That chicken is a good sign: make the most of it. It won’t happen often, believe me.


The True Significance of a Cucumber Sandwich

by Digitalnun on August 12, 2016

Yesterday I ate a cucumber sandwich. I made it myself from home-made wholemeal bread, spread with local unsalted butter, a cucumber fresh from the garden, a hint of sea-salt and a sprinkle of freshly-milled black pepper. It was accompanied by a cup of Darjeeling Second Flush, made from loose tea in a tea-pot, and drunk without milk or lemon. To some, that would have been a modest supper; to others a luxury that nuns — nuns, forsooth! — ought not to have. To me it was a Lucullan delight I enjoyed enormously; and therein lies its true significance.

It is very easy to go through life either indulging or denying oneself at every turn. The indulgers cast a scornful eye on the deniers and accuse them of being shrivelled up, joyless old so-and-sos, while the deniers avert their gaze from the indulgers, thinking them wastrels or worse. The truth is, the earth and everything in it was given to us to be enjoyed. But we, being human beings, tend to get it wrong and assume life should always be all pleasure or all pain. Of course, it is a mixture; and we are asked to be wise stewards of whatever we are given. The fact that we cannot solve all the world’s problems does not mean that we shouldn’t try to contribute to a solution where possible; nor should we refuse to take pleasure in the little joys and good things that come our way, any more than making them our only interest.

Part of me would have liked to have shared my cucumber sandwich with someone who was hungry, but that was largely an after-thought. At the time, it was sheer cucumbery bliss. It gave glory to God by being so; and I gave glory to God by eating it and giving thanks.


Learning to Speak

by Digitalnun on August 10, 2016

Learning to speak is as difficult as learning to listen. We might think that once we have mastered the sounds, words tumble forth of their own accord — an endless stream of them. Most of the time that is true, alas; but learning to speak, as orators of old understood the term — to speak with precision and persuasive force, with nothing unnecessary or unworthy, nothing trivial or beside the point — that is an art, and an art we, as Christians, need to cultivate in a society where words are abused and trivialised. St Benedict, we must remember, grew up in age when the art of oratory was still part of a gentleman’s education and what he says in the Rule about the right use of speech, especially in the Eleventh Step of Humility, could be taken as an expression of that. I think, however, that it expresses something richer and deeper something much more fundamental to our existence as Christians. Benedict, quite simply, wants us to value words and set great store on them because God chose to incarnate himself as the Word made flesh. Words cannot be trivial if they express the nature of God, can they?

I think we can take this a little further today, as we celebrate the feast of St Laurence, the Roman deacon who counted the poor as the Church’s greatest treasure. When asked to give an account of himself, Laurence spoke exactly as Benedict would have his monks speak: gently, without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words. And because he spoke so simply and directly, he gave us for all time a definition of what makes the Church truly rich. It is in her poor, her voiceless, her defenceless, that the Church truly glories — not in the rich, the successful or the powerful. Learning to speak is not just about making intelligible sounds; it is the art of seeing into the heart of things and communicating what we see.


Learning to Listen

by Digitalnun on August 9, 2016

One of the most difficult things in life is to learn how to listen, really listen. We assume, most of the time, that if we simply don’t make a noise ourselves and pay attention, we shall automatically be listening. I’m not so sure. Part of the strength of St Benedict’s teaching on listening comes from the fact that he does not advocate total silence. He talks about restraint in speech, taciturnitas, and urges us to bend low the ear of the heart (inclina aurem cordis tui) that we may listen carefully, attentively, as indicated by the opening word of the Rule, Obsculta! At the same time, he acknowledges the great value of silence and is well aware that, the more we talk, the more likely we are to let the words run away with us and end up sinning in some way. The most important thing, however, is that our listening must not be just hearing: we are meant to act. Our listening is meant to change us and elicit a response.

I think that is the key to what St Benedict has to say on the subject. Restraining our tongues is a mark of humility, undoubtedly, for most of us are convinced the world would be a better place if everyone heeded our advice. But the monastic view of silence is of something more than an exercise in humility or a form of discipline. It is the characteristic attitude of the disciple, one who learns from and follows the Master. We stop talking in order to hear what others, above all God, have to say. There is inevitably an element of dialogue involved. We do not sit always mute, waiting for a revelation to fall upon us.; but we do not chase after every idea in the universe, either. We listen, and we obey (the root of the word obedience is, in fact, to listen.)

Learning to listen is both easier and harder than may at first appear. In the monastery there are times when talking is strictly forbidden. Here at Howton Grove writing is permitted, but not the use of Social Media, which can disspiate one’s attention. That check makes one think about what one really needs to say, and what is just another way of filling time. But to go deeper, to cultivate that attentive listening to the Lord that we call prayer, requires something more. It means making a deliberate choice: exposing oneself to boredom, ‘failure’, even disgust. It takes us into quite dangerous territory, where our ability to control others through our use of words is gone for ever.

A few days ago, I listened to a conversation taking place at our entrance door. The rise and fall of voices told me pretty well what was going on, even though I couldn’t make out more than a word or two. We rely on words to give our thoughts precision, but we can communicate very ably without them. Our silence, our listening, should be just as communicative, perhaps even more so, because ultimately it is the language of compassion and understanding, of love and obedience. Perhaps a moment or two spent thinking about how we listen will show us where we ourselves may be lacking.

Personal Note
Thank you very much for your prayers and good wishes. The latest round of chemotherapy is proving demanding and I will need to pace myself more slowly than hitherto, but I’m grateful to be having the opportunity to slow the progress of my sarcoma (D.V.) — and get that sock drawer tidied before I die!