Saints Peter and Paul 2016

by Digitalnun on June 29, 2016

SS Peter and Paul by El Greco: Hermitage Museum

SS Peter and Paul by El Greco: Hermitage Museum

The Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul has always been one of my favourite feasts. I am not alone in feeling we know these two ‘flawsome’* saints almost as well as we know our own family. This morning, however, I was reflecting how much we don’t know about them. Peter was obviously married because we are told he led Jesus to heal his mother-in-law, but his wife flits namelessly through the pages of history. What did she think of her husband’s enthusiasm for that strange Galilean preacher who took him away from his home and fishing-boat for long periods of time? Did they have children to whom she moaned about their improvident father? Did the children grumble that Dad was never there when they wanted him? Then what of St Paul, wordy and emotional, did anyone ever reply to his letters, especially the harsh ones that called everyone to account, even Peter himself? Was that ‘thorn in the flesh’ about which scripture scholars have speculated endlessly a trial to others as well as Paul himself, or was it just another rhetorical device to drive the point home?

We shall never know the answers to these questions this side of heaven but I think they illustrate something important about the nature of the Church. Although Peter and Paul are about as different as it is possible for two people to be, they are both necessary parts of the Church’s make-up; and the Church herself, because she is the Body of Christ, transcends our knowledge and understanding inasmuch as we can never know all there is to know about her. The ‘unfathomable riches of Christ’ which she mediates are exactly that: unfathomable. This calls for humility in the believer — not the ‘humility’ of those not prepared to think or study or change their mind about anything, but the humility of those who do their theology on their knees, whose every thought has been taken captive for Christ.

May SS Peter and Paul pray for us and for all who will be ordained today as their successors in handing on the faith.

A search in the sidebar will reveal a plethora of previous posts on SS Peter and Paul.


We Are What We Pray

by Digitalnun on June 28, 2016

I have been thinking about yesterday’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 20, On Reverence in Prayer, and wondering anew at its beauty and perceptiveness. In one sense, Benedict says very little about prayer. He is almost English in his reticence. In another, almost every line of the Rule speaks of his attitude to prayer. It is quite clear that, for him, we are what we pray. Whether praying alone in our monastic cell or with the brethren in choir, whether we are talking with a guest or tapping out a blog post on the computer, whether we are working in the garden or performing some household task, whether we are filing a tax return or driving a car, we are the person prayer has made; and the prayer we make is the person we are. We cannot separate the praying self from the self we are at every other moment. That is a thought that gives me pause. Whenever I am testy or unkind or selfish, that is the prayer I am making to God, just as much as when I am patient, kind or generous. How glad I am, therefore, that the Lord looks at us all with eyes of compassion and love!


Worry and St Cyril of Alexandria

by Digitalnun on June 27, 2016

Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in  later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.

I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.

I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.



A Short Pause

by Digitalnun on June 25, 2016

It has been a demanding fortnight. Just as we were going on retreat, I was alerted to an attack on our monastery web sites. I dealt with it as best I could but, by the time we had arrived at our retreat destination, hackers had exploited a vulnerability and our sites were down. It has taken a lot of time and a fair bit of money to put things right, but the new security we have in place should prevent the same thing happening again. Is there any analogy here with the E.U. Referendum? Many people are stunned by the result and are waiting anxiously to see what will happen next — and I don’t just mean in the U.K. I know I have been rather repetitive on the subject, but every nation state is part of a greater whole. We inhabit the same planet. What happens in one part of the world affects those who live in another.

It will take time and money to resolve many of the questions that are forming in people’s minds. Pious platitudes about God being in charge are fine as far as they go, but they do not really comfort (i.e. strengthen) those who who have a sick thump in the stomach about what the future may hold for them and those they hold dear. And for those with an historical imagination, or even a grasp of politics and economics, there are some very grave questions indeed. Although it is early to talk of the break-up of the U.K. or the E.U., the loss of jobs and opportunities, sooner or later we shall have to face the consequences of Thursday’s vote. Optimists say the future for Britain will be better, brighter; the future for the E.U. will be better, brighter without Britain; but none of these assertions is actually based on fact as yet, only on opinion. Which brings me to the rub.

During the past few months, but especially over the last few days, many people have voiced opinions in damaging and divisive ways. In Social Media some have never let an opportunity for expressing their own views pass them by. There have been accusations and counter-accusations, name-calling, imputations of bad faith, expressions of unholy glee or diabolical despair. That is not the way to build unity or make the future safe for those who come after us. At the risk of stretching my web site analogy to breaking-point, may I suggest that what we all need to do now is to take a short pause. Instead of trying to browbeat others into thinking as we do, let’s listen to our own rhetoric, turn it back on ourselves and see how we like it. Let’s think about those who don’t see things as we do. For me personally there was never any question of an in/out campaign as such. It wasn’t a case of winning or losing but making the right choice as best I could, and not for narrow self-interest. I assume everyone else made their decision on the same basis even if they came to different conclusions. I am troubled about the result but for me the important thing now is to work and pray with the situation we have — and the very first thing we all need to do is to put things right with those we have injured, belittled or treated as less than Christ. Because, you see, it is Christ we wound in the person of the other.

I’m sorry.


How to Apologize by Bro Duncan PBGV

by Digitalnun on June 11, 2016

Bro Duncan PBGV gives his advice

Bro Duncan PBGV gives his advice

It’s been a hot, sticky week, and if all human beans are like Them, there will have been some awkward moments when toes have been trodden on, misunderstandings have multiplied and typhoons in tea-cups have rattled the domestic calm. So here is a little lesson in how to apologize by one who is an expert in the subject. I seem to have to say sorry so often — for muddy paw-prints on the floor; positioning myself beside the oven when food is being taken from it; not hearing when I’m called; you know the kind of thing human beans get cross about. My eyes and tail are very eloquent when I have to say sorry, but human beans have to make do with mere words, which often seem to make things worse. So here are a few pointers from me you may find useful the next time you have to apologize.

Let’s begin with what we all know best: how to get it wrong. There are a few phrases you should try very hard to avoid or you may find yourself in the dog-house for ever.

The Wrong Way To Apologize

  • I apologize for any offence that may have been caused.
  • I’m sorry if you were offended.
  • I’m sorry if you found what I said or did offensive.
  • I’m sorry if I offended you.

All that ‘iffiness’ is unconvincing. Before we apologize, we have to acknowledge that we have done something wrong, even if we gave offence unintentionally. For some human beans that is almost an impossibility. ‘I have been misunderstood,’ they cry, or, ‘you must have had a humour by-pass,’ they say, as though the offence were somehow the fault of the one to whom the apology is due. Such apologies don’t usually end very well, believe me. No, you have to (wo)man-up to things and face facts, however hard that may be.

Then there are all those clever little additions which tend to undermine the apology — limitation clauses such as

  • In my defence, it was not entirely my fault (Calculating exact degrees of culpability probably won’t restore harmony.)
  • You can’t blame me for not knowing (But are you sure — shouldn’t you have known?)
  • It was the dog/the boss/Eve (i.e. Blame anyone but me—I’m the victim here. Not a good tactic.)
  • I was only doing what I was told. (Unfortunately, the excuse of mass-murderers and the like. Not recommended.)

or attempts to claim the moral high-ground with phrases like

  • Christian charity forbids my saying more. (Christian charity is probably what was wanting in the first place.)
  • I acted from the purest of motives but . . . (Possibly you did; more probably you didn’t.)

Contrast all these with

The Right Way to Apologize

  • I’m sorry.

Now, I know I am only a dog, but it seems to me that a simple ‘I’m sorry’ is the best apology there is. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’, please; no self-justifying rehearsal of the original grievance by way of exculpation; no attempt to wriggle out of things by blaming someone else, the medicine you have to take or the weather being too hot/too cold. If you’re sorry, say so — as simply and quickly as you can; then do your best to put things right.

But what if you can’t say sorry or put things right? Say the human bean you have injured is now dead, for example, or refuses to have anything to do with you? Then I think you must put your paws together and ask God to do what you cannot. He knows about forgiveness, after all. He doesn’t want you to be burdened with feelings of false guilt and shame. He wants you to be what he intended you to be from the beginning— a true image and likeness of himself — and he wants the other human bean to be like that, too. That doesn’t quite let you off the hook, of course. You have to try to put things right, if you can. Don’t use prayer as an excuse for not doing something you find difficult or don’t really want to do.

Lastly, I will let you into a BIG secret. We dogs share a very wonderful quality with our Creator. We forgive utterly. That doesn’t mean we don’t register unkindness or unfairness, or that we don’t consider them important. It’s simply that we don’t hold grudges or prolong quarrels. So, if you are having trouble apologizing, just try being more doggy. It won’t necessarily make everything better all at once, but it may open you up to becoming the human bean you are meant to be; and that will result in your becoming much nicer — nice enough, even, to be owned by a PBGV.* 😉

Dunc xx

*P.S. I’m still working on Them. They have a long way to go to becoming nice, but it’s my vocation, and I enjoy a challenge.

P.P. S. The community retreat begins tonight, Saturday, 11 June, and last until Saturday, 18 June. Please keep Them in your prayers as They will keep you.


Is the Convent Still Going?

by Digitalnun on June 10, 2016

Everything is grist to the blogger’s mill, so here is a little light relief from major matters like the destruction of Syria and the E.U. referendum, but one with a serious message underneath — and I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t the obvious one of the title.

Yesterday in the supermarket Quietnun and I were accosted by someone who asked, ‘Is the convent still going?’ We were slightly startled at the nature of the greeting but answered as best we could (and I hope we were polite). Afterwards Quietnun, usually mild-mannered and ultra-forgiving, said, ‘People seem to think they can speak to us just anyhow and we must take it.’ What she meant, I think, was that the presupposition behind the words, that monasteries of nuns and convents of religious sisters are all in terminal decline, was actually a little hard to bear, given that we were both, quite clearly, alive and members of a community. One wouldn’t greet a married couple with the words, ‘Are you splitting up now?’ would one? People are usually very nice to us, but we do sometimes have to swallow remarks that would be unacceptable in other contexts. We smile non-committally and pass on, only a slight grinding of teeth and clenching of fists betraying our true feelings. Of course, we all act out of our store of preconceived ideas. Some of those that people have about nuns and sisters are, to us, distinctly odd; but then, so, I suspect, are some of our ideas about clergy and laity.

Occasionally, the misunderstandings give rise to chuckles. We once spent several minutes explaining why, for example, we were hoping to upsize to our present house only to have our interlocutor reply, ‘Yes, all religious are having to downsize these days.’ What can one do but laugh? We know, too, how hard it can be to convince even the authorites of our own Church that our being over 40 doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t help anyone with vocation questions. We smile, we shrug, and we get on with the business of trying to help those discerning, who are often over 40 themselves. Ageism is not for us.

Sometimes, however, I think we need to protest. Recently, Aleteia ran a poll on religious habits for nuns and sisters, asking its readers whether they preferered them habited or unhabited. It didn’t seem to appreciate the irony of talking about any woman in terms of her appearance, let alone a religious who has less freedom in the matter than others. Then, this morning, on Facebook, I noticed that old chestnut attributed to Fulton Sheen about hearing nuns’ confessions attracting boyish chortles. These things are trivial in themselves but they are indicative of something that isn’t so trivial. The Church can make as many pronouncements as she likes about the dignity of women but if they aren’t translated into daily life, they are just words.

Our attitudes, and the way we express them, do matter. It is no good lamenting the decline in female religious vocations, for example, if clergy and laity show, by their words and actions, that they do not have any respect for nuns and sisters but instead trivialise them, both as individuals and as communities or congregations. We are not angels, but we’re not brainless idiots, either. No one is going to join a community or congregation that is despised, treated as a figure of fun or dismissed as irrelevant or tiresome by other members of the Church — something that I think is worth considering. Equally, clergy-bashing is no way to attract men to the priesthood; nor is grumbling about the inadequacies of the laity the way to draw people to Christ.

My main point, however, is this. What is true of the Church is also true, mutatis mutandis, of everyone. Those we despise, treat as figures of fun or dismiss as irrelevant or tiresome are not defined by our attitudes. On the contrary, it is we ourselves who are defined by the attitudes we hold and express. There has been much wringing of hands over the situation in Syria, but it must be evident to everyone by now that we lack the political will to end the war there. We in the west do not want to engage Putin’s Russia head-on. So we allow the desperate plight of the Syrian people to fall from our headlines, discuss those who have fled to the west as a ‘problem to be solved’ and exhibit some rather jingoistic traits whenever the question of immigration comes up. Similarly, the E.U. referendum has raised immensely important and complex questions but it is easier to be rude about those campaigning on one side or the other than to investigate the questions themselves. Scorn is not an indicator of either deep thought or mature reflection but rather the reverse — and we do need to think and reflect, not just react.

If you have read this far, I have a challenge for you this morning. Have you ever asked yourself whether your ‘instinctive reactions’ to people and events are based on what in other people would be called prejudice, although in ourselves we prefer to call it principle or something equally high-minded? How far do our attitudes towards others tend to limit them, even perhaps belittle them? Do we need to examine how we treat others a little more closely? St Benedict was uncompromising about the need for mutual respect and courtesy in community. It wasn’t a superficial add-on, but fundamental to survival. The fact that we still have Benedictine communities fifteen hundred years after his death suggests to me that he knew what he was talking about. Something to ponder there, perhaps. (And, incidentally, the convent=the monastery is indeed still going, thanks be to God.)


No Comfort: There Is None

by Digitalnun on June 8, 2016

For all of us there comes a time when we are unable to comfort someone we love. There is nothing we can say or do that will ease their pain. We can only mutely register their need and pray that God will do what we cannot. It is at such times that we know our own fragility and are humbled by our incapacity. We discover that all our ambitions and dreams are as nothing compared with this desire to help another. We are finally freed from our obsession with self, but at the cost of feeling a pain so intense that it numbs us utterly. Overstatement? If you think so, you probably have not yet experienced what I am describing. This morning that experience of aching helplessness is being undergone at many a hospital bedside, in prison waiting-rooms, refugee camps and behind the curtains of respectable houses on respectable streets that give every appearance of knowing no need. Most of us have a busy day ahead, filled with plans for this and that, shot through, I hope, with moments of joy and gladness. Let us remember, and pray for, those less fortunate — those who grieve silently, inwardly, for whom there is no comfort, given or received. It is the work of the Communion of Saints and, as such, our work, too.


A Matter of Perspective

by Digitalnun on June 7, 2016


The prayer gazebo at Howton Grove Priory

The Prayer Gazebo at Howton Grove Priory

I normally photograph our prayer gazebo from the front, so that one can see the cross hanging from one of the beams. Yesterday I photographed it from the rear. One cannot see the cross, only the raspberries growing into the gazebo and helping to fill it with cool green light even on the sunniest of days. A change of perspective; a change of understanding; but not, fundamentally, a change of purpose. The gazebo is still a place of prayer, a place of refreshment.

There is more to this than mere whimsy. As human beings, we are constantly changing, constantly in search of something better. That is why drawing our lines in the sand is, very often, only as effective as drawing a line in sand can be, i.e. not at all. The Brexit/Bremain debate has reached a point where most people are heartily sick of the scare-mongering and dodgy statistics on both sides. If leaving the E.U. means Britain would be contributing more to the world (and demanding less for herself) than she is as a member of the E.U., my vote would be to leave. Conversely, if leaving the E.U. means Britain would be contributing less to the world (and demanding more for herself), my vote would be to remain. It is, for me, a matter of perspective, but also one that touches on my understanding of the nation-state’s role and purpose in the world. As I have often said before, ‘what’s best for us’ depends on how one defines ‘us’, and I, for one, cannot separate how I understand that from how I understand any and everything in the light of the gospel. How I vote on 23 June will require some hard thought and much prayer.


Human Stem Cells and Pig DNA

by Digitalnun on June 6, 2016

On 5 May this year, the Observatorio Bioética of the Catholic University of Valencia published a thoughtful article by Justo Aznar (which you can read in English here) that neatly summarises some of the medical and ethical problems posed by the creation and use of chimeras. Today’s BBC report of work being undertaken in the U.S. to grow human organs inside pigs by means of gene editing simply highlights how far medical research has progressed towards the creation of animal-human hybrids.

I don’t pretend to have the scientific, philosophical or theological skills necessary to discuss this matter in any depth, but there is one question I think we can all legitimately ask and that is: how far can we justify the kind of risk-taking such research involves on the grounds of its potential benefit? I imagine most people would say that organ transplants are a good thing in themselves because they enable us to cope with diseases that would otherwise kill us or condemn us to a lifetime of painful treatment. But there are so many unknowns in the work currently being undertaken that we do not know what we might be unleashing. Does that impose any limits? Does the fact that we can do something necessarily mean it is right to do it? I suspect I may not be the only person waking up this morning and wondering whether we are closer than ever before to a nightmare of our own making — a nightmare we didn’t intend or foresee. What do you think?


The First Commandment

by Digitalnun on June 2, 2016

There are times when a sentence of scriptures sings and sizzles with meaning. This morning, it was as though I had heard the gospel of the day, Mark 12.28–34, for the first time.

One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.

What struck me forcibly was the restatement of that first commandment. We tend to be so anxious to rush on to the second that we do not feel the full impact of the first. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength? To love God absolutely? Most of us, I think, would say we aspire to love God in that way but are aware that we don’t. There are pockets of reserve, occasions when God definitely isn’t at the forefront of our lives, instances of rebellion, sin and failure. In the past I have annoyed many people in the Catholic blogosphere by suggesting that the way in which we blog reveals a great deal about how we think of God and the place he occupies in our lives. To some, he is a hammer with which to batter others — and that applies equally whether we self-identify as liberals or conservatives. To others, he is a kind of warm, fuzzy blanket to be thrown over every difficult or painful situation, someone with whom we are on apparently matey terms. We may not be pope, but we speak for God, being quite certain that his opinion must be the same as ours.

I must confess that I find all this rather difficult. Sometimes, when I am irritated by something or someone, I have the good sense to go into the oratory. I have to learn again and again, it seems, that human anger does not work God’s purposes, that a raging heart is never a truly reverent heart. It is too noisy, too full of itself. Before the altar, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, my burning concerns turn to dust and ashes. It is in silence, love and adoration that we make room for God to be all-in-all. Only then, only when we are filled with God, can we go out and take him to others. The second commandment is like the first, but it is not a substitute for it. God comes first — always.