by Digitalnun on July 28, 2014
Today we begin re-reading RB 48, Concerning Daily Manual Labour. It is one of those chapters some like to skip over on the grounds that manual work is something other people do, or at any rate, the provisions of the Rule are rather quaint and outmoded for people living twenty-first century lives. I wonder. One does not have to be monastic, nor particularly ‘alternative’, to recognize that the way in which Benedict divides up the day, allotting time to both manual work and lectio divina (slow, prayerful reading), has some human wisdom in it; but I think one does have to be monastic to some degree to recognize both the spiritual value of work in Benedict’s scheme of things, and the work that needs to go into the cultivation of a genuinely spiritual life.
First, there is that insistence on the value not merely of work but of work with our hands. Even in the sixth century there was obviously some discussion about whether harvesting was to be included in the tasks normally assigned to monks, but Benedict tackles the subject head on and reminds us that our fathers and the apostles lived by the work of their hands, and so should we.(RB 48.7–8) Clearly, the monk must be ready for anything. Getting our hands dirty, doing jobs many think menial or unimportant, has value — so much so that it should be part of our daily experience, not something we do occasionally with self-conscious effort or even a smattering of self-congratulatory ‘humility’.
Then there is that importance attached to lectio divina, which we are to work at seriously and perseveringly. It is not something we do just when we feel like it. Indeed, it is so important that Benedict allows monks to read when otherwise they would be resting. Our habit of speed-reading, flitting from page to page, skimming and failing to digest what we read, is one Benedict would have found alien. St Ambrose surprised St Augustine by reading silently, but for most people in Late Antiquity, reading was a very physical business. The words were shaped by lips and tongue, chewed over, thought about, prayed about. The true monk does not get up from his reading without carrying away with him a word or sentence that will remain with him for the rest of the day. Benedict expected the monastic mind to be well-stocked, but not in a random fashion. To read in this way, day after day, requires effort, application, belief in the value of what one is doing. It is a work of faith no less than the prayer of the Divine Office or life lived in common.
I think there are things here that everyone can take away and apply to their own lives. To recognize the holiness of the ordinary, the blessedness of the everyday and routine, is to recognize that grace comes to us in myriad ways. Cleaning the loo or battling away at that unpromising passage of scripture may not be quite how you thought you would become a saint, but it may be how God makes you one.
by Digitalnun on July 27, 2014
Yesterday saw an all too brief cessation of hostilities between Gaza and Israel, but was it, as some said, a moment of peace? Technically, I suppose it was; but peace surely means more than the absence of war or civil disorder. I tend to think of peace as being more of a state than a process — what we Christians mean, or should mean, by the Kiss of Peace exchanged, above all, at the Eucharist: a sign of the unity and charity that exists in the assembly. St Benedict was quite keen on the Kiss of Peace, given and received. It was an important part of the ritual of welcome for a guest, but it was not to be shared until prayer had been offered (cf RB 53.4–5). That reminds us that peace is not a matter of mere feeling, of general goodwill; nor is it something we can attain in all its fullness by our own efforts. Peace comes to us as a divine gift, but it is a gift we have to be ready to receive. To be united in peace and the bond of charity requires effort on our part. It often means laying aside our preferences, our prejudices, even making sacrifices of things dear to us. It is no accident that the Benedictine motto ‘pax’ appears within a protective crown of thorns. For the great paradox is that while we may seem to struggle to attain the gift of peace, it is the Lord himself who guards the hearts of those he keeps in peace.
by Digitalnun on July 25, 2014
I like St James, whose feast we keep today. I like the fact that he and his brother are Sons of Boanerges (Sons of Thunder) and that whenever he pops up in the New Testament in propria persona, the dust flies. In my mind’s eye, I can see him looking dark and dangerous, glittering with ambition, and not too scrupulous about how many toes he treads on. He gets his mother to ask for a seat at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, because, of course, he’s worth it; he helpfully suggests raining fire and lightning down on recalcitrant villages because he knows he can; he alone among the apostles is recorded as having been martyred by Herod Agrippa — he was just too much of a nuisance to go unpunished. He is, I think, a wonderful patron for those of us who have problems with ambition and anger.
I’m quite sure that some of my readers will protest that they are not ambitious or that they are not angry persons. They should stop reading now. This post is for those of us who are both. St James is a fine example of how qualities many regard as ‘unChristian’ can be transformed by grace so that they become not merely neutral qualities but positive helps to salvation. Without his ambition and drive, St James would have been a lacklustre servant of the Church; without his anger and the energy it gave him, he would have been much less courageous. It is worth thinking about that. The very qualities that we might fear in ourselves or others were, in him, vehicles of grace.
That doesn’t mean that, as far as we are concerned, anything goes. On the contrary, and using St James as an example again, I think it was his close friendship with Jesus that transformed natural ambition and anger into something gracious and grace-giving. Can we say the same of our own anger and ambition? Are we ‘friends’ with Jesus? The Christian life is sometimes presented as a war against everything that comes to us naturally and humanly. That is, in fact, an enormous heresy. The Christian life involves struggle, of course it does, but we start with what God gave us — this body, this intelligence, these emotions, these circumstances — and we allow God to make of them, and us, what he wills. Co-operation with grace is the key point, and that co-operation can only be achieved if we become close to God — friends with Jesus, if you like — through prayer.
by Digitalnun on July 24, 2014
A Twitter friend took me gently to task for a recent post about being cheerful, reminding me that those afflicted by depression often see in such postings an exhortation to ‘buck up’ or ‘cheer up’, as though it were in their power to do so. Anyone who has had any personal experience of depression, whether in themselves or in another, knows what an impossibility that is. Perhaps, however, there is something to be said for trying to be positive.
For once, the dictionary is not the best place to start one’s reflection. If you look, you’ll find that although the word derives from the Latin ponere, to put, it very soon acquired a more specific meaning than the one I should have liked it to have had (‘constructive’). It is all to do with law and being very definite, allowing no questions. That kind of being positive can be extremely dangerous. Happily, many people do use the word ‘positive’ in my preferred sense of ‘constructive’. So what does it mean to be positive/constructive? What effect does it have, on oneself and on others?
In the first place, I think it means guardianship of one’s thoughts and emotions so that what one says or does is not destructive of anyone or anything. It is very easy to allow a careless word or look to convey negativity. Taking the shine off another’s joy is mean by any standards, but who among us has never done that? The frown, the sarcastic retort, they are all potentially destructive, however much we may want to excuse them to ourselves. I think being positive also means taking notice of what is going on around us. How often do we get to the end of the day and realise that the sins of omission have formed a deep litter all around us, and we never noticed! We simply weren’t available to anyone except ourselves. Sometimes, I regret to say, that unavailability extends to God. The prayers we have said are rather like the tax collector’s in the Gospel: said to ourselves not to Him.
There is another side to being positive which I myself have found helpful although it is almost embarrassingly obvious to mention. It is the recognition that whatever may be the consuming anxiety or irritation of the moment, it is transitory. We are children of eternity, although we sometimes act otherwise. Death, illness, injustice, we must face them all, but if we can pause, even for a moment, and register that what we feel now is not necessarily what we shall feel always, there is room for hope and an acceptance that may transform the situation in which we find ourselves. God wills only our good. Being positive opens us up to that — and to Him.
by Digitalnun on July 23, 2014
It can be very hard to understand why anyone should wish to use bullets, bombs, kidnapping, torture and other horrors to achieve their aims, yet that is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world. Hamas wants to destroy Israel so rains down rocket-fire; Israel wants to destroy Gaza so rains down air-strikes and ground offensives; ISIS wants to eliminate anyone who thinks or believes differently so uses bully-boy tactics on Christians and other religious groups; Boko Haram has its own vision, if one can call it that, for Nigeria and has no scruples about using kidnap and terror against the civilian population. In every case, it is civilians who suffer most; and as far as I can see, the shocking truth is that civilian suffering is what is intended. If enough civilians die, there will be a shift in thinking; existing power-structures will crumble; victory will have been won.
It would naive to believe that waging war with civilians is a novelty. Sadly, it has always been so; but today’s weaponry makes it easier and deadlier than ever. That raises all kinds of moral questions about Just War theory, individual/collective responsibility, the role of Superpowers and so on. I’m not sure what bloggers and others have to contribute to the debate, but perhaps thinking in terms of ‘debate’ itself contributes to the problem. We are not talking about something abstract and ultimately harmless but about human lives. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and remember that what is done, or not done, today affects not only the present generation but generations to come. Wars are rarely born of sudden misunderstandings or power-grabs. They tend to come from long-simmering feuds and resentments, from the memory of hurts, real or imagined, that we all carry within us. Perhaps there is something there for us all to think about today.
by Digitalnun on July 21, 2014
I think cheerfulness is an under-rated virtue. To make others happy or light-hearted (which is what cheerfulness does) is indeed to strengthen them (which is what virtue does). But being cheerful is slightly different from cheerfulness itself. It implies something more lasting than a passing feeling, a transient mood; something that goes deeper than the smile on the face or the merry quip on the lips. It implies, I think, that one has acquired that stained-glass quality of letting the light shine through. To do that, one must first let the Light (note the capital letter) in. These lovely sunny days we are enjoying at the moment lift the mood but only the Light within can transform lives. Being cheerful has much to commend it.
by Digitalnun on July 20, 2014
It is one of those beautiful Sunday mornings England seems to do so well: sunlight streams across wet grass and the air is filled with the busy chatter of sparrows and the sweet, milky smell of the calves across the way. In hundreds of churches people will be gathering, as we ourselves will gather, to sing the praises of God, ask his intercession and celebrate his sacraments. It is a world away from the horrors of war and exile; but war and exile is precisely what many people are experiencing. There are over 50 million refugees in the world today, and yesterday their number was increased as Christians fled Mosul, Iraq, and those who could, fled northern Gaza.
I find it heartbreaking that we as a nation are standing by as the ancient heartlands of Christianity are ripped apart and destroyed. Whatever may be happening elsewhere in the world, Christians in the Middle East are disappearing fast. It will not be long before the only ones to be found in Syria and Iraq, for example, will be foreign visitors. That matters, and I, for one, am appalled that the British Foreign Office, to the best of my knowledge, has STILL said nothing — although it has said a great deal about Russia and Ukraine in the past 72 hours.
Why should we be concerned? The first reason is that we are talking about human beings who have a right to life and liberty being driven from their homes by the ISIS campaign of terror and by other militants who want to see Christianity destroyed. That is indefensible. The second reason is more complex. The destruction of Christian holy places, the desecration of ancient sites, the profanation of holy things, bites into the soul of every Christian in ways we do not always admit. We are not all spirit: we are flesh and blood, and we need signs and symbols to help us along. People come to the monastery here because they know they will find enfleshed, so to say, a way of prayer and seeking God that has centuries of lived experience behind it. The Christians of the Middle East enable us, through their very presence in the ancient holy places, to draw close to the sources of our belief and practice. They have given life to the Churches of the West, but now they themselves face death.
At the risk of repeating myself, I want to ask again a question I have often posed. If one man’s death diminishes us, how much more that of a whole people?
by Digitalnun on July 19, 2014
It is sometimes forgotten that there were Christians in what we now call Iraq long before there were Muslims. By noon today, however, it is expected that there will be none left in the city of Mosul, where Isis has faced them with a deadly ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax or die. See this BBC news report for background.
This item of news didn’t make the front page of today’s BBC web-site (it is buried deep inside), yet it represents a sickening attempt to violate the consciences of thousands of people and the very real possibility of mass murder. It highlights the difficulty we in the West have in dealing with the religious dimension of conflicts in the Middle East. Part of the problem is that many of us no longer take religion seriously enough to consider how it motivates people and are woefully ignorant both of its teachings and its history. Most of us can’t get inside the mentality of Isis and its particular understanding of Islam so tend to dismiss the kind of ultimatum posed to the Christians of Mosul as mere posturing. We believe in freedom of religion, we say, by which we mean the freedom to worship according to our own beliefs. There are a few limitations on such religious freedom. Human sacrifice, for example, is not permissible, but by and large, we follow the principle of ‘live and let live’. If you want to follow some cranky religion, you do so; just don’t expect me to follow suit. That is not how a member of Isis would see things. It is not how things are in Saudi Arabia. So what do we in the West do?
We know perfectly well that at an international level what ‘we’ do is determined by our respective governments and the political and economic interests of the moment. That is not always as cynical a proposition as it may sound (think energy supplies and European winters). What we do at a personal level, however, is just as important. We have to pray, and we have to protest. We simply cannot stand by mute and uncomplaining when our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq are being chased from their homes and threatened with death. Or can we?
by Digitalnun on July 18, 2014
Yesterday afternoon, at about the time that a Malaysia Airlines jet was being blown apart in the skies above Ukraine and the brief ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended with renewed rocket fire and air strikes, I looked up into the peaceful blue skies above Herefordshire and thought, not for the first time, that there is something peculiarly dreadful about death coming suddenly and unexpectedly from the skies. We half-expect danger on the ground or in the water. We have thousands of years of collective experience of predators, human enemies and sea-storms taking us by surprise; but missiles, rockets and bombs dropped from the air, these are somehow different. They come so swiftly and the destruction they wreak is, despite what the perpetrators say, essentially indiscriminate.
As the death toll in Gaza rises and the likelihood that the Malaysia Airlines jet was hit by a missile sourced from Russia increases, international tensions also rise. The West focuses upon the Middle East and Russia, but many in Asia are asking what China intends. The world looks as fragile and volatile as it ever has. The Christian response — trust, prayer, loving surrender — probably looks ‘inadequate’ to those who believe that all the world’s problems can be solved by action; but there are times when human action seems only to complicate and confuse. As we pray for peace, we need to remember that peace has to start somewhere, in the individual human resolve to forgive and, what is perhaps still harder, accept forgiveness. It is no good lamenting what a terrible state the world is in if we do not look into our own hearts and see what needs to be changed there. The choice before us is always, as Deuteronomy says, between life and death. Let us choose life.