by Digitalnun on May 20, 2013
Pentecost has come and gone and we are bounced back into Ordinary Time without benefit of an octave or even its dreary secular equivalent, the Whitsun Bank Holiday (now transferred to the last Monday in May). If, as a result of this ecclesiastical minimalism, you feel a little bereft (or even quietly indignant), allow me to introduce you to the concept of Spirit Days.
Spirit Days are a monastic invention. Like most monastic inventions (e.g. champagne, private confession) they are capable of being very slightly subversive — although, if they catch on, in a few hundred years they will probably be enshrined in the calendar as an op mem at the very least. The rationale behind Spirit Days is beautifully simple. If we can’t have a proper liturgical octave, we can at least have two days of profound and joyous meditation on the Holy Spirit. Since we must follow the promptings of the Spirit in everything (or they would not be ‘Spirit’ Days), we are free to garden, make music, scribble poetry, knit, play with the dog or whatever (within reason) takes our fancy. This is liberty of spirit (small s) in action, and as Fr Baker would often remind the nuns of Cambrai, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all.’• The only limitations are that we must pray, read, eat and sleep — hardly burdensome, surely?
Do you think Spirit Days could become popular outside the cloister? If so, the gifts of the Spirit might have more time to produce their fruits, and that would be a Good Thing. Perhaps we might even get our octave back . . . or is that wishful thinking?
Note for the Serious-Minded
Quoting Fr Baker out of context and with a slightly different purpose from the one he intended is a well-known monastic ploy.
by Digitalnun on May 17, 2013
Yesterday I caught a subliminal glimpse of a statement to the effect that Christians have reduced Christianity to morality and forgotten that it is meant to be Good News. Although I think I understand what the author was getting at, it might be fairer to turn the statement on its head and argue that Christians aren’t moral enough. Let me explain.
People sometimes complain that all one ever hears from Christians is a series of negatives: don’t do this, don’t do that, everything you want to do is wrong. Sometimes the complaint is justified. We all know people whose main joy in life seems to be curbing the joy of others. More often, however, the complaint is wide of the mark because it fails to see that the life of virtue is a necessary part of Christianity. The Good News is meant to change our conduct. The problem is that often it doesn’t change it enough.
Many a newcomer to monastic life has a harmless little fantasy about what it will be like ‘inside’. They see themselves floating down Gothic cloisters in a cloud of incense, going straight from the purgative way to the unitive way and living henceforth in a state of mystical ecstasy. Then they discover that there seems to be an awful lot of washing-up and getting on with difficult and sometimes disagreeable people which no amount of Gothic or incense can make up for. It is now that they must begin to learn what it means to be a monk or nun; that the ‘yes’ to God spoken neat in prayer must take concrete form among the pots and pipkins of everyday life.
There is no opposition between mysticism (if you must use that term) and morality: they are two expressions of the same experience of God. The deeper our knowledge and experience of God, the greater will be our love and desire to live a life pleasing to him in every detail. That inevitably involves morality, distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong. But it also calls for charity and commonsense. Being a killjoy isn’t being moral, though some believe it is. The true mark of morality is joy; and because Christ’s joy is in us, and we are counted among his friends, we shall indeed be transformed — and that must be good news, mustn’t it?
by Digitalnun on May 16, 2013
Should I give this blog a new template for the desktop version (the mobile version will remain the same)? Long-term readers know that I chose the rather austere style of Rodrigo Galindez’s design because it suited my purposes as a monastic blogger. I don’t often include pictures or audio and wanted something that would load quickly, read easily and not offend anyone’s love of typography too grossly. A plain and simple style for a plain and simple person, which is what you have. But the point of writing is to be read, and I’m aware that a ‘tired’ lay-out may put others off.
What do you think? Shall we stay with the tried and trusted, or shall I spring something new on you? I’m not intending to load the page with artwork or audio, but I may move the comments system over to Disqus so this would be a good time to speak up. Make your views known!
by Digitalnun on May 15, 2013
St Pachomius is one of my monastic heroes. He is widely credited with being the founder of coenobitic monasticism and at his death there were perhaps 7,000 monks in his chain of monasteries. Let’s think about that for a moment.
One of the ways in which we are accustomed to assess the health of any religious institution is by playing the numbers game. We may deny it, but in practice we are impressed by numbers. A congregation of 500 at Mass is said to be flourishing; a monastic community of 50 or more likewise. Occasionally, someone will drill down into the figures and give a more negative assessment, usually on the basis of age. If 400 of our putative 500 Mass-goers are over 60, the congregation is suddenly transformed from ‘flourishing’ to ‘aging’ or even ‘dying’. Sometimes, we don’t even think about the words we use. There was some fluttering in the dovecote when I spoke about our need to get a bigger house to accommodate those who wish to join the community and the first comment was from someone who said, ‘Yes, all religious communities are having to down-size these days.’ She had not heard what I said but what she assumed I would say.
How ought we to measure the vigour or otherwise of our congregations and communities? The question is highly relevant to the community here. Holiness of life is not always visible to the outsider while multiplication of services and charitable activities may mask an inner collapse. Dom David Knowles once remarked à propos the Dissolution of the Monasteries that a decent observance of the Divine Office could be kept up long after the heart had gone out of a community. I have always taken that as a warning never to assume that, because the monastic routine is faithfully observed and we are doing good works, all is well. Something more is needed.
Yesterday we celebrated a small anniversary in community. Ten years before we had moved into the rented house in East Hendred which was to be our home for the next nine years. Although we had no money to speak of, one of our first undertakings was the making and lending of audio books for the blind and our online engagement — websites, blogging, social media and online retreats. At the time, it was thought odd for a community of nuns with such slender resources to be so open to others, but we persevered. Looking beyond our own needs to those of others, whether visually impaired or anonymous surfers of the web, is surely no more than a modern take on the traditional hospitality of Benedictines.
Throughout the Hendred years we worked hard to try to secure more permanent premises in order to accommodate those who wished to join the community but, again and again, we were told ‘You are too small.’ Fortunately, not everyone was of the same mind and eventually, ‘with a little help from our friends’ (and a huge bank loan), we moved here at the end of May last year. Our first postulant enters in June, D.V., having finally secured all the necessary authorizations from the UK Border Agency and there are a few more ‘potentials’ in the background.
Does any of that make us ‘flourishing’? Not if you think size the only indicator. I would dare to say we are a vigorous community, with plenty of can-do spirit and a very clear sense of our monastic vocation. We probably influence more people’s lives than we realise for our ‘online community’ is quite extensive, but our numbers here are few and likely to remain so. Only someone with a sense of adventure and very real trust in God is going to join a community that financially sails so close to the wind and has no great ‘presence’ in the world.
Others may laugh, but I like the analogy of sailing close to the wind. Being filled with the Spirit is exactly what I would wish our little community to be. I also think it is something St Pachomius himself would have understood and approved.
I’d like to thank again all those who have contributed in big and small ways to our community over the years, and especially those who made possible our move to Herefordshire. May God bless you all.
by Digitalnun on May 14, 2013
One of the expectations of Christian clergy and others is that they will be compassionate. Sometimes this amounts to no more than listening patiently and handing out tissues while someone pours out (or more often, chokes out) their grief and anger. But is that all compassion is? The Latin roots of the word go much deeper. To be compassionate we must suffer with the other, feel with them, not just identify with them intellectually. I wonder how many of us, clergy and religious, could honestly say that is what we do when confronted with the world’s pain? To keep our sanity, to enable us to go on, we sometimes have to place some emotional distance between ourselves and the other’s suffering.
Very often, awareness of having placed limits, of having perhaps lacked the imaginative capacity to sympathize as we think we ought, can lead to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I think myself they are misplaced. We are not called to be Christian supermen or superwomen; we are called to be Christ in any and every situation; and to be Christ is to allow Christ to work in and through us. He respects our limitations. After all, we are God’s creation! So, we do not need to worry about whether we are being truly compassionate or feeling the world’s pain as we ought. We have only to allow Christ to love others in and through us as best we can. Sometimes not getting too much in the way is more than enough.
If, today, you are called on to deal with a person or situation that seems beyond your strength or ability, take heart from the example of St Matthias. He was chosen to take the place of Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus had caused so much pain both to the Lord and to the disciples. Matthias knew he wasn’t first choice for the job, wasn’t even the surefire choice of the other apostles (who chose between between him and Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus). He had been with Jesus and the others from the beginning, but never in the first rank, never in the close circle we read about in the gospels. He could have had a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but he didn’t. His experience of being ‘outside’ stayed with him ‘inside’. I have a hunch that he was probably the most compassionate of the disciples because he knew not to get in the way. May he pray for us all.
by Digitalnun on May 13, 2013
Monday morning, and I am thinking about white space. What does it mean to you? To me it means, first of all, the space on the page which sets off text, gives words shape and impact and allows meaning to flow from the jumble of letters and words. It is a necessary adjunct to thoughtful composition and close reading. White space is what makes poetry poetic and architecture architectural; it is the silence between musical notes; the inner form of sculpture; the hidden essence of the painted image; the heart enthralled by prayer.
Space does not mean the absence of colour or form, anymore than the air we breathe implies an absence just because we cannot see it. It has nothing to do with size, but the fact that it is white is important. White reflects light and warmth, increases our sense of spaciousness and confers a sense of freedom. It is the colour of the Resurrection and Ascension, of joy and triumph, of a transformation wrought by grace which reveals the mystery within. Pentecost will clothe us in red, the colour of blood and flame, but for now we are surrounded by white. It ‘unclutters’ us. White space helps us know ourselves, and knowing ourselves is a step towards knowing God.
by Digitalnun on May 12, 2013
Sometimes a picture says what words cannot and makes connections we are in danger of forgetting.
This two-panel ivory relief carving (from the tenth century, Byzantine) depicts the Crucifixion and Ascension of Christ. In the Crucifixion, the sun and moon and Stephaton and Longinus are reversed from their usual positions. Longinus carries a sword rather than a spear. The style is related to the Nicephoros Group. The figures in the ascension stand upright, looking upwards towards Christ, who sits in a mandorla carried by two angels. The bottom border and parts of figures in the Crucifixion scene are broken off, as are the left border and upper left corner. There are several pinholes in the upper border and ground. ‘AVE MARIA’ has been scratched on the back and there is the impression of a seventeenth-century seal.
From the Walters Art Gallery and made available under Creative Commons Licence.
by Digitalnun on May 11, 2013
There was some quiet chuckling in the monastery at some alleged remarks of Pope Francis which you can read here: http://bit.ly/14bxA73. The chances are that the pope has been quoted slightly out of context or mistranslated (some things sound fine in Italian but are rather limp in English) or otherwise ill-served by his reporters, but the contrast he apparently drew, between spiritual mothers and old maids, was always going to ignite a few fires. In the U.S.A. they seem to have gone down as well as the proverbial lead balloon — except among laity who have ‘issues’ with American sisters.
I have met a few nuns and sisters for whom the concept of spiritual motherhood is valuable and helpful; I have never yet met any who desired to be a spiritual old maid; most simply don’t think of themselves in those terms at all (and, though I’ll disappoint some readers by saying it, very few of my acquaintance have ever taken the Bride of Christ image to themselves, seeing it more accurately as a reflection of our theological understanding of the Church as a whole). We are just nuns or just sisters, responding to a call from God as best we can. Where that call takes us, what it demands of us, is part of the journey of faith and obedience each of us must make.
Such simplicity of understanding may seem wanting, but I think it is actually very important. Religious life for women is often circumscribed by rules and regulations which can get in the way of taking to heart the enormity of what is asked of us: a life TOTALLY centred on Christ. The vows we make, the renunciations we undertake, have only one end in view, to deepen our relationship with Christ, a relationship at once deeply personal yet at the same time always ecclesial.
On this feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, it is good to remember that the life of each us should glorify God; and it can only do that insofar as we take on the shape and form of our vocation, whatever it may be. Spiritual mothers v. old maids? I don’t think so. Forgive my chuckles, Pope Francis, but I think it might be more fruitful to think in terms of child of God v. child of the devil.
by Digitalnun on May 10, 2013
Around four o’clock on Friday afternoons, my Twitterstream becomes less busy. I assume people are leaving work early, or at any rate, changing gear and shifting focus towards whatever they do at week-ends. Just before five o’clock the inbox here at the monastery starts to fill up with last-minute requests from clients and others. I have learned to be quite brutal about these. Those that are genuinely urgent — something isn’t working or a question has to be answered — are dealt with methodically, and I hope graciously. Those that could have been sent at any time, or which begin ‘could you just . . .’ (grrr) are consigned to the ‘to be looked at on Monday pile’. During the week-end itself, when we tend to be busy with guests and often have a longer and more elaborate liturgy (Sunday), the inbox will fill up with questions of a different kind, asking for advice about vocation, for example, or some aspect of Catholic teaching. By Sunday evening we are usually tired and drained.
Does that colour our feelings about Friday afternoons, which usher in all this busyness? I don’t think so. It may seem rather pious, but at three o’clock each of us paused briefly and remembered the Crucifixion. We didn’t say any particular psalms or prayers, didn’t do anything dramatic, we just remembered. Remembering is, in itself, a liturgical act but, more than that, it is a way of gaining perspective, of allowing a ray or two of grace to pierce our hearts. We may not always advert to the fact, but, by and large, that Friday afternoon feeling is shot through with wonder and gratitude, no matter what the week-end holds. All it takes is just a few seconds spent remembering.