by Digitalnun on September 29, 2016
Most of us prefer to dismiss unpleasant subjects from our minds. If we can find a specious reason for doing so, so much the better. Evil? An outmoded concept, surely? One which our clever theologians can wrap round with weasel words until we deny not only its existence but the very possibility of its existence. Then we look at the broken body of a child from Aleppo and are forced to admit: this is evil, not an abstraction we can dismiss as a figment of an over-heated imagination or simplistic reasoning. There is something more terrible here than blasphemy: a deliberate rejection of God, delight in destruction, a darkness of mind and soul so absolute that no chink of light can penetrate it.
The Catholic Church has never wavered in her understanding of evil; and in her advocacy of the the old prayer to St Michael, whose feastday this is, has expressed both her awareness of the presence of evil and her reliance on heavenly help to combat it:
St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Most of us can see the evil in Aleppo, but are we quite so alert to the evil in, say, Sam Allardyce’s defence of his own conduct, when he claims to be a victim of entrapment rather than a man prepared to break rules and denigrate others for the sake of money? Greed can be evil; fudging the rules can be evil; treating others with contempt can be evil; but we tend to make excuses for ourselves. It is a white lie we are telling, an understandable little human frailty that doesn’t matter very much. I’m not so sure. Every time we choose to be less than honest, less than straightforward, I think we are colluding in some degree with the crookedness of evil; and it changes us. Today it would be useful to spend a few moments thinking about some of the habits we may have fallen into and the way in which they blunt our sensitivity to good and evil. It can be a salutary shock to realise that, without being what others call wicked, we may have drifted into a state that is far from being what it ought to be. Let us ask the prayers of St Michael and All Angels to help us see what we must change and grant us the courage to do so.
Note on the illustration
St Michael rescuing souls from Purgatory — a reminder that God is more interested in saving us from evil than in condemning us.
by Digitalnun on September 25, 2016
Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV
Howton Grove Priory
24 September 2016
Dear Cousin Dunc,
I hope this finds you well and cheery and enjoying Beyond as much as ever. BigSis misses you lots, but LttleSis and I have become inseparable so I’m hoping I’ll get through my first perseverance without too much difficulty. Mustn’t be presumptuous, though; I’m trying to be good, which, as you will understand, isn’t always easy.
I would like to ask you about something that has been bothering me: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good dogs and Human Beans? I’ve been thinking about all those little Human Beans in Syria and Yemen and the fact that the big Human Beans don’t seem to care how much they suffer, they just want to go on playing war games with one another. Surely God is involved, but how?
Then, I’ve had two scary experiences of my own recently and I’m not sure where God was. One was when we all set off for Oxford where BigSis was to have a PET scan. That word ‘PET’ confused me and I was a bit shaky but They kept saying I wasn’t involved, so I just had to trust Them. What a mistake! Something happened and BigSis had to stay in hospital, leaving LittleSis and me marooned until that nice Bro Eric came and drove us all the way home. I was allowed to sit with LittleSis, which was nice, but I was a bit car-sick, which was horrid. Fortunately, Bro Eric was very understanding and kind so I didn’t feel too badly about it; but it is very puzzling for a small dog like me.
Then, just the other day, I was taken to a place called a Vettery and a Human Bean put a needle into me and I kept getting sleepier and sleepier and when I woke up I was missing two little teeth and I could hear all sorts of sounds I couldn’t hear before because he had done something to my ears. But now They say I am eating like a horse and am full of energy, so perhaps losing your teeth is a good thing after all?
I am very confused about all this. Can you help?
Love and licks,
Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB
The Heavenly Houndland
25 September 2016
My dear Bro Dyfrig,
It is good to hear from you, young sprog. BigSis tells me you are doing very well and acquiring some very monastic characteristics, but I can understand why you are confused and questioning.
Let’s start with the most important question. Why does God allow bad things to happen to good dogs and Human Beans? It is a question everyone asks in one way or another. Sometimes the answers we get are a bit of a cop-out. You probably haven’t met the kind of Human Bean who goes all twinkly and says, ‘Ah, a great mystery! We just have to bear our Cross, don’t we?’ That’s true in a way, although I don’t think you’ll ever hear Them say it, but it’s positively shocking when you think of all those little Human Beans in Syria and Yemen. They are suffering, plain and simple; and their suffering cries to heaven for vengeance.
Why does God allow it? Does he hope to draw some greater good from it? I doubt it. Does he just say, ‘Human Beans are so perverse, let them get on with it!’? I doubt it. It is a mystery, in the sense that it goes beyond our understanding, but the God I know and love is far from indifferent to the suffering of those little Human Beans. He respects our freedom to choose right or wrong, to play war games or jaw games, but that doesn’t mean he endorses or accepts as right the choices we make. There’s a big difference between the two but Human Beans tend to think God thinks as they think, which is the biggest mistake ever. Today’s gospel is about Dives and Lazarus and you can see that Human Beans can’t evade responsibility for the evil that they do themselves or silently countenance because they can’t be bothered to notice the plight of others any more than we dogs can escape the consequences of eating too much or rolling in fox poo.
As to your other scary experiences, I think you are on to something when you talk about trust. You see, just as we have to trust God when we don’t understand, we have to trust Human Beans, too. It is difficult because every nerve and sinew says, ‘This is wrong. I’m not in control. I don’t know how this will turn out.’ Happily for us, unlike Human Beans, we have no illusions about being in control all the time. We live in the moment, grateful for the good things that come our way, uncomplaining about the bad things. I’m not sure that losing your teeth is a good thing in itself, but I’ve been told that your appetite is much better and you are becoming very good at vacuuming up whatever has fallen on the floor. The monastic term for that is ‘crumb-popping’. Did you know? Sometimes it is better to concentrate on what we can do rather than what we can’t. Be encouraged. I’m sure They will let you persevere.
With love from
Bro Duncan PBGV
by Digitalnun on September 16, 2016
A few days ago, I was surprised to find someone attacking philosophy as an ‘airy-fairy’ discipline and lamenting its effect on contemporary theology. Personally, I would argue that it is precisely the abandonment of philosophy as a necessary discipline that leads to the weakness of much contemporary theology (no names, no pack drill). Woolly thinking does not give glory to God. On the contrary, thinking about God, asking questions about God and the things of God can only contribute to our love and wonder. I often think of monastic life as doing theology on our knees, but reading, thinking, meditating are an essential part of the process that leads to prayer.
Of course, we are not all philosophers. I’m not one myself; but anyone who is serious about their following of Christ must surely be concerned with discovering more and more about truth, what the early Church believed about Christ, how that belief has developed over the centuries, how we are to understand and apply it nowadays. And we can’t do any of that without ways of thinking, questioning, arguing, using a language that expresses and defines even as it admits its limitations. We seem to be so concerned sometimes to be, on the one hand, ‘doctrinally lite’ or, on the other, ‘ritually exact’ that we miss something important: not only the utter transcendence of God but also his infinite tenderness and compassion. We will never succeed in articulating God, so to say, but surely it is a worthwhile endeavour to try to do what we can.
Tomorrow we shall be celebrating the feast of St Hildegard, Benedictine polymath and Doctor of the Church. Many people know something of her music, but I wonder how many have read her Scivias or engaged with some of her more difficult texts? She is a worthy patron of International Buy a Nun a Book Day (see here for an explanation of BANAB-Day): a reminder that in seeking to know more about God, we are seeking to know God himself.
As I have explained, we ourselves are not publishing a wish-list for books this year. People have been very generous to us, and we would like others to benefit from the idea.
by Digitalnun on September 6, 2016
Anniversaries always invite reflection, but memory plays artful tricks, sometimes allowing us to appreciate the good things better but also, sometimes, allowing the bad more scope than they should have. When, on 6 September 2004, Bishop Crispian Hollis signed the decree canonically establishing us as an autonomous monastery of diocesan right, we had no idea what the future would hold. Our finances were perilous; we lived in a rented house; we had been covered with obloquy by those who did not know the full facts but were certain of the unassailability of their own position. Our friends were few but true. It was an excellent starting-point but perhaps not one we ourselves would have chosen.
The next few years can be described as a gradual unfolding of the community’s vocation. We took on the work of providing free audio books for the blind and visually impaired (St Cecilia’s Guild, now Veilaudio), the editing of the Catholic Directory for England and Wales, and much typesetting and book production for the diocese of Portsmouth and others. At the same time we began to develop our online ministry, building our first set of web sites with what were then innovative features such as weekly podcasts, online conferences, video talks, a blog, online retreats and so on. All this to the accompaniment of the community’s regular round of public and private prayer, the building up of a library and the slow acquisition of the wherewithal to furnish our oratory. I sometimes wonder how we managed it, but along with the unfolding of our vocation came the gift of friends.
Our years in East Hendred were happy but we came to realise that we needed more permanent accommodation, free of damp and mould. To raise funds to buy a house we were greatly helped by our friends and by the oblates and associates we now numbered as part of our community. Our move here to Herefordshire in 2012 signalled the beginning of another chapter in the life of the community, one that is still being written. My illness has, unfortunately, made demands on the community we did not expect, but we have also learned from it — and if I am able to finish the revision of our web sites, you will see what I mean by that.
The strapline to our community web site is ‘Sharing a vocation with the world’. It wasn’t dreamed up by us, but I think it expresses very neatly soemething of the dynamic of our monastery, rooted in the traditional Benedictine disciplines of prayer and work but also engaging with others as openly as possible in a modern form of hospitality. It isn’t always easy to maintain such openness, and there are times when we disappoint those who seek more than we can give, but it is worth trying.
As we give thanks for all who have helped us over the years, please pray for us that ‘following the guidance of the gospel, we may walk in His paths’ and may be found worthy of the great vocation entrusted to us. Please pray, too, for all those with whom we are connected: our friends, oblates, associates and online community. We may be few here at Howton Grove, but world-wide we number thousands. Thanks be to God.
by Digitalnun on September 4, 2016
Today’s canonisation of Mother Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) has provoked controversy, especially among those with little understanding of religious thought or language. I think Mother Teresa demonstrates something people tend to forget when they talk about saints. A saint does not have to be one’s personal cup of tea to have something important to teach us; nor does she have to be ‘perfect’ according to our own notions of what a saint should be in order to be holy. In fact, it is often the way saints challenge us to examine our certainties — above all, our ‘certainties’ about God — that makes us realise that holiness is much more multi-faceted than we thought. There are many ways to God, and all of us need to be humble and attentive if we are not to stumble on our journey.
I am not exactly a Mother Teresa fan myself. That is to say, I don’t find what I know of her character congenial, and on the few occasions I’ve spent time with any of her Sisters, I’ve been preoccupied with the holes in my socks and the very un-Benedictine arrangement of their chapels. She is, therefore, exactly the kind of saint I need. She challenges all my ideas of what is important. She did what I, and so many others, cannot, in her service of the poor and destitute; and I am humbled, and often made uncomfortable, to think that her way of following Christ was both much simpler and more arduous than my own.
Of course Mother Teresa had flaws. But the flaws of saints are like the wounds of the Risen Christ, channelling the love of God to others through their very brokenness. Mother Teresa did not glory in her shortcomings; she struggled with them and over the years allowed them to scoop her out to be ever more open to God and others. But those who expect others to be perfect rarely see that. It is easy to criticize the homes for the dying, especially in retrospect, but at the time, with the need so great and resources so few, what alternative was there? I daresay someone with better knowledge of hygiene/medicine, more imaginative ideas about work, a less determined and autocratic style, might fit our (my) notions of the right way of doing things better than Mother Teresa did. But the fact is, there wasn’t anyone else. Those who decry her work among the poor, for example, are not always themselves conspicuous for their work among the poor. Like St Teresa of Avila before her, Mother Teresa knew she had to be the hands and feet of Christ if he were to serve the poor and dying she encountered all around. And that sense of being but the servant of Christ is something we all need to have. Per Christum ad Christum. We are sometimes so keen to see Christ in the person of those we serve that we forget it is he who serves in us. Mother Teresa never forgot; and I think in that we come very close to what I call the secret of sanctity.
We now have three great Teresas among the company of saints: the Doctor of Avila, shrewd and humorous, who defied conventional ideas about what a contemplative nun should be to reform the Carmelite Order and at the same time gave us teaching on prayer and community of singular limpidity and directness; the Doctor of Lisieux, ardent and intense, who failed to conform to her contemporaries’ ideas of holiness and in so doing gave us her ‘Little Way’ that is, paradoxically, a Great Way; and Mother Teresa, the hard-headed doctor of love and compassion, who brought Christ to the streets of Kolkata and the slums of the human heart in countless other places, too. Three Teresas: three quite different expressions of holiness; three examples to encourage and help us.
What I think they all share, to a unique degree, is an intense focus upon Christ that burns away everything secondary: with St Paul they declare, ‘No longer I, but Christ lives in me.’ That does not mean that any of them ceased to be what she had been before. They were always recognizably themselves. Indeed, I think one might say they were true icons of Christ, paradoxically both alike and yet as individual and unique as he. They were all women, too, without any hierarchical status or importance, which is in itself a useful reminder that God shapes the Church as he wills and for his own purposes.
Today let us ask the prayers of St Teresa of Kolkata, that we may radiate Christ in a world that has never yet accepted him, that crucifies him anew in the war zones of Syria and defaces him in every human being treated without love or respect. And perhaps those of us who would describe ourselves as bookish, inclined to let others deal with the messiness of human poverty and need, perhaps we could ask ourselves whether that isn’t sometimes an evasion, a reluctance to allow Christ to be all in all and make saints, yes saints, of us, too.
Note on Canonisation
A long and complex series of investigations and processes must be gone through before a person is proclaimed a saint. There is a straightforward explanation of some of the main steps here: http://bit.ly/2bKd4n2. Once someone is proclaimed a saint, we believe that he or she is part of the Church Triumphant, able through their prayers to help those of us struggling in the Church Militant here on earth, or as part of the Church Suffering being prepared for the vision of God in purgatory.
The photograph is by Manfredo Ferrari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
by Digitalnun on September 2, 2016
Plans are now under way for Bro Duncan PBGV’s Memorial Orchard. A man has been consulted, who will undertake the necessary pruning-back of existing trees, ground clearance and planting and staking, which we are now, alas, unable to do ourselves. We intend, if we can, to plant at least one each of the following:
- Coe’s Golden Drop — a lovely, very sweet gage developed in Suffolk in the eighteenth century
- Russet dessert apples — probably Egremont rather than the Herefordshire variety; they mature late and are good keepers, as well as having an excelllent flavour one either loves or loathes; we love them
- Blenheim Orange/Herefordshire Beefing cooking apples — the latter is a very old local variety, dating from about 1700
- Concorde and Doyenne du Comice pears, the former mainly to help fertilize the latter
- and, if there is room and we can find one on a dwarfing rootstock, a King James Mulberry.
We have other varieties of apple, pear and plum in front of the barn, plus, of course, our treasured quince, cob-nut, peach and fig trees, all of which were ‘assisted’ in life by the attentions of our Hairy Brother.
Although we may not live to see the fruits of our endeavours, it doesn’t matter. I am reminded of Dr Feckenham, the last abbot of Westminster, who was a-setting trees in his orchard when Elizabeth I’s commissioners arrived to take him away. There is something very English and very Benedictine about planting in hope, knowing that God gives the increase and it is his to decide who will enjoy the fruit of our labours.
We are very grateful for all the contributions we have received towards the orchard. You can still contribute via our Charity Choice page, if you wish, for what monk, nun or monastic dog ever turned down the offer of help/a treat? Certainly not our late lamented Bro Duncan PBGV!
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.
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.