Like Shining from Shook Foil

by Digitalnun on September 2, 2014

lunch at Howton Grove Priory

Lunch at Howton Grove Priory: Photo © Keith Waldegrave. All rights reserved

If the glory of God is the human person fully alive (Irenaeus), and the world is charged with the grandeur of God (Hopkins), laughter is surely a divine gift, a light that illumines from within — especially when, as in the case of Quietnun, the laughter is joyful, pure and free. Laugh on, laugh on!

 

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Good Zeal

by Digitalnun on August 30, 2014

I have written quite a lot about RB 72, On the Good Zeal Monks Ought to Have, (try this post, for example), but zeal continues to fascinate, especially in others. What is it that fills some people with great energy and enthusiasm but leaves the rest of us barely capable of raising a languid eyebrow? It would be good to know, because then one might have more chance of summoning up some zeal when it is most required. On the whole, however, I think we have not so much become lazy as afraid of zeal. The announcement that the Government warning on terrorist threats has gone up a notch, from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe,’ probably won’t have made much practical difference to most of us. There will have been a slight shiver, perhaps, and a moment’s thought about the prospect of biological warfare being unleashed by IS, but most of us will have gone back to our usual concerns readily enough. We don’t understand extremist zeal, and there isn’t anything we can do about it, is there?

Actually, there is. The evil zeal of bitterness which seeks to destroy can be opposed by the good zeal, cultivated with most ardent love, which leads to God (cf RB 72.1). If we have become afraid of zeal, it is because we have got out of the habit of cultivating the kind of zeal that refuses to allow evil to get the upper hand. This zeal, as St Benedict presents it, isn’t for wimps. It isn’t what I call ‘doormat’ virtue, which isn’t really virtue at all, nor is it passive. It is an active and energetic pursuit of what makes for peace and justice, a putting Christ before all things, by people who have an eternal end in view and who can make their own the prayer with which Benedict concludes: ‘May [Christ] bring us all together to everlasting life.’ We are not helpless in the face of IS terror, nor any other kind of extremist zeal, unless we choose to be.

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Rejection

by Digitalnun on August 29, 2014

Unless we have lived charmed lives, we have all experienced rejection in one form or another. We know how painful it is to be rejected, literally ‘thrown back’, by someone we love or in whom we had placed hope and trust. Not getting the university place we had set our heart on or that job we wanted so badly can be crushing. We are left feeling inadequate, a failure. We plumb the depths of self-doubt, perhaps even despair. I wonder if that is how John the Baptist felt on the morning of his execution.

The liturgy blithely assures us that the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the feast we celebrate today, was a glorious martyrdom — and so it was, but perhaps not quite in the way we often assume. The Forerunner experienced an unjust death just as Jesus Christ was to do. But I wonder whether the feast is more helpful to us if we consider not John’s triumph, but the loneliness and fear that must have accompanied his final days and hours. He had longed to prepare a way for the Messiah. He had burned with love for his fellow Jews; but, ultimately, he was made to pay the price for honesty and integrity.

It isn’t difficult to make a splendid sacrifice in front of the cameras, so to say; it isn’t difficult to stand up for what one believes when the microphones of the world are turned in one’s direction; but to remain steadfast in the darkness and dirt of a Palestinian prison, when there is no one to hear and apparently no one to care, is much harder. All at once the martyrdom of St John the Baptist takes on a very contemporary quality.

I think we honour his feast best by praying for all who speak the truth and must pay the price for it: those silenced by the regimes they live under or ridiculed and abused into submission. Let’s pray also for those who experience another kind of rejection: the three million Syrians who have fled the war in their home country; the Christians and other religious minorities who have been forced out of Iraq; all who know what it is to live in fear of death at the hands of those close to them.

 

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Ice Bucket Challenges and St Augustine

by Digitalnun on August 28, 2014

Ice bucket challenges have raised awareness of, and funds for, an illness that comparatively few people know much about, but I have to admit they leave me cold (no pun intended). I think that is because I believe one should help others whenever one can with ‘time, treasure or talent’, as the case may be. I don’t see why one shouldn’t have fun into the bargain, but wasting fresh water and energy to make ice does strike me as a little daft. St Augustine, whose feast we keep today, had some wise things to say about being charitable. For example,

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.

or this

Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.

If, like me, you are averse to the notion of having icy water poured over your head, you could take to heart these two sentences of St Augustine and give as much as you can to as many as you can, starting with the needy around you. It isn’t always a material need that has to be met, but a spiritual, intellectual or emotional one. Scope for all!

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False Nun Syndrome and Its Secular Counterparts

by Digitalnun on August 27, 2014

Before you yawn and turn to something more interesting, let me reassure you that this blog post is about more than the title might suggest. I use the example of nuns because that is what I know best, but a little thought will soon show you where all this is leading.

From time to time, on Facebook, Twitter, in emails and on the street, I encounter False Nun Syndrome. It has various manifestations, but its chief characteristic is a desire to create nuns after the whims and fancies of the (human) creator. The ideal nun should be young, beautiful, smiling and silent — especially silent. She should be dressed in antique robes (the robes are important) and ready, at the drop of a veil-pin, to surround the unbidden guest with sympathy, tea and homemade cake. She must never, ever suggest she has a mind or opinions of her own, and should the beautiful brows ever beetle in anger or irritation, she must know that she is a complete and utter failure. The reality is, of course, that nuns and sisters are just like anyone else and can be middle-aged or elderly, ugly, opinionated and badly dressed. What matters is the fidelity with which each one lives her vocation before God — and that is largely a matter of individual conscience, duly informed and lived out in the particular institute to which she belongs.

So, do we find False Nun Syndrome appearing anywhere else? I think we do. We find it in all kinds of human relationships, where one person seeks to dominate another. It can also be called Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome. The husband who demands that his wife should always dress in a certain way; the wife who demands that her husband should always act in a certain way; the parents who demand that their child should be top of the class/outstanding at sport/play the violin, or what you will: these are all, in their different ways, guilty of wanting others to be as they want them to be and not as they are. It can cause conflict and private anguish; and in the case of children can scar them for life. It is closely linked to the arrogance I wrote about yesterday, and like arrogance it is often unremarked by the perpetrator who genuinely thinks he or she is doing the right thing. How many a parent has wailed, ‘I only wanted what was best for him’ on discovering that all the carefully-made plans have led to a break-down or worse?

There is a humility I think we all need to cultivate with regard to one another. It is not the same as indifference or lack of care or abdicating responsibility to challenge or correct. On the contrary, it means caring enough really to listen, really to look: seeing and hearing the real person, not the false person we wish to create. It means allowing the other person to be him or herself and adjusting our own views to cope. False Nun Syndrome is usually met with a wry smile or (as only too often in my case, alas) with an irritable little outburst. Much more dangerous is Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome and the damage that can do. Maybe this would be a good day to ask whether there is just the merest smidgeon of that in us? We may not have husbands or wives or children, but unless we live alone on a desert island, my guess is that there is someone, somewhere we do not always see whole and complete but only as we want them to be.

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The Problem of Arrogance

by Digitalnun on August 26, 2014

Arrogance is a swaggering, brutal word. It suggests someone with a loud voice, an overbearing manner and probably a florid complexion into the bargain. Unfortunately, arrogance can come in rather more humdrum form — not so much overweening self-confidence as complete disregard of others, an almost risible inability to register what others are thinking or feeling. From time to time I delve into the spam folder on this blog and find comments spluttering expletives and self-righteous denunciations, so bound up in the writer’s own views as to be incapable of taking on board anyone else’s. I suspect these writers have very few friends if they converse like that offline!

The problem with arrogance is that it makes claims for itself at the expense of others. It is selfish; and because it is selfish, it can be destructive. It is suspicious of others’ motives, grudging of others’ success. The contempt it shows is simply a mark of its being turned in on itself. The best image I can think of is not the lip curled into a snarl but the clenched fist, ready to pound a table or another’s nose, the hand that will neither give nor receive. Maybe that is why the prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah came, he would uncurl the clenched fist; why, as evening comes, we sing the Magnificat, with its bright promise that the arrogant and powerful are cast down and the humble raised up.

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Oyez, Oyez, Buy a Nun a Book Day Draws Near

by Digitalnun on August 25, 2014

International Buy a Nun a Book Day

International Buy a Nun a Book Day

It will soon be here, International Buy a Nun a Book Day, on 17 September, the feast of St Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church and Benedictine polymath. The idea behind the day is simple. Nuns and Sisters (especially missionaries) often don’t have the opportunity to choose a book for themselves. They have to rely on what is already in the monastery/convent library, if they have one, or on what they are given (which is why you will often find lots of lives of St John Paul II on religious bookshelves!).

This is YOUR chance to show a nun or sister that you value her by delighting her with a book. So,

  • find a nun or sister
  • ask her what book or ebook she would like
  • present her with a copy on 17 September
  • pray for her.

You will find that some will ask you for titles they can use in their work. Others may ask for poetry or a novel that would normally be unavailable to them. The requests will be as many and various as the nuns and sisters themselves. If you can’t afford a book, a book token for a smaller sum will be received with just as much gratitude and pleasure. (Note: Amazon do not allow gifts of Kindle editions in the UK, but you can buy a Kindle gift card.)

What we ask you NOT to do is to use this day as an opportunity to offload unwanted books from your own collection (unless, of course, one of them happens to be wanted by the intended recipient). Take them to Oxfam or some other charitable organization rather than dumping them on the nuns and sisters!

Update: we shall post our own wish-list in due course on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/benedictinenuns, but for now we just want to spread the word about #BNABDay.

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The Mind of God

by Digitalnun on August 24, 2014

One of the things that makes me chuckle, when it does not make me weep, is the certainty some people have that they know what God thinks. The second reading at Mass today should disabuse us of any such foolish notion:

How rich are the depths of God – how deep his wisdom and knowledge – and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his methods! Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counsellor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything? All that exists comes from him; all is by him and for him. To him be glory for ever! Amen. (Romans 11. 33–36)

In those few sentences I think St Paul captures the essence of God’s otherness, his utter transcendence. The trouble is, we do not like being reminded of our own limitations. We exalt reason as a God-given gift, then forget that it is a gift, and one that will take us only so far. St Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi has come down to us as a neat theological encapsulation of Jesus’ divine nature and salvific mission, but the evangelist uses the simplest of words, words that might well have sprung from the lips of a Galilean fisherman who grasped intuitively what most of us struggle all our lives to understand: Jesus is our Saviour, the Word made flesh, Son of the living God. We can only wonder and give thanks.

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The Right and Wrong Kinds of Piety

by Digitalnun on August 22, 2014

A ‘Kemble cup’ is a Herefordshire expression for a parting drink. Its origin lies in the last hours of St John Kemble, whose feast we keep today. Falsely accused of complicity in the Titus Oates plot, he was apprehended and sentenced to death (at the age of 80). Before his execution he insisted on saying his prayers and finishing a cup of sack, inviting his jailers to join him. Fr Kemble is exactly my kind of saint: not pious as many understand piety, but truly devout because truly human.

In my (limited) experience, Catholics and Evangelicals both have a difficulty with piety. Put simply, we have a tendency to overdo it. Whether it be multiplying statues and devotions, or scripture quotations and Hallelujahs, we surround ourselves with an aura of godliness that doesn’t always bear inspection. We say the words and we do the deeds, but are we being completely honest with God or ourselves? Is the piety true or false? I have always believed in being as honest as one can with God, admitting one’s doubts, fears, anger, whatever is the struggle of the moment. Yes, one would like to live with a serene and untroubled faith — but that wouldn’t be real; and a real faith is what one needs.

So, this morning, a word of encouragement for all those who feel they are somehow substandard Christians because they aren’t quite ‘good enough’; because they go to church reluctantly sometimes, or eat or drink too much, or have messy personal relationships or just don’t quite ‘get it’. Faith is a funny thing. It tends to come and go. Moments of great enthusiasm are often followed by long periods of lassitude and weariness. What matters is perseverance, not piety as that is commonly understood. One of the Desert Fathers was asked the secret of his spiritual life. He replied, ‘I fall down, and I get up. I fall down, and I get up.’ That is the right kind of piety, and one we can all practise.

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The Murder of James Foley

by Digitalnun on August 21, 2014

The barbaric murder of James Foley is being picked over by the media, as is only to be expected. The fact that the IS spokesman who did the foul deed is apparently British will have set alarm bells ringing in Britain, where there is already considerable concern about the role of British jihadists and the radicalisation of young Muslims by extremist clerics. Even here, in my monastic fastness, I feel uncomfortable. I have Muslim friends — kindly, civilized people, predominantly second or third generation British and middle class — who are as appalled by this kind of violence as anyone else. But, perhaps because I am a woman and a religious, I have also encountered another face of Islam, one that is much more hostile, much less ready to accommodate itself to British notions of law and justice or socially acceptable behaviour. It is this other face of Islam I find increasingly troubling.

One cannot argue with a gun or a knife, any more than one can ‘dialogue’ with someone who thinks one has no rights or value as a human being. The murder of James Foley, like the murder of Lee Rigby, confronts us with a form of Islamist violence that we do not know how to deal with. It is beyond our experience, outside our conceptual world. We can only ask, rather pathetically, ‘How can people do such things?’

In the past Britain has been, nominally at least, a Christian country. We haven’t always lived up to Christian ideals, but there has been general agreement on the Judaeo-Christian basis of much of our law, morality and social behaviour. That sort of cohesion is now breaking down. We have both an increasingly secular and an increasingly religious divide — but the religious divide is not Christian. A few days ago, newspapers were reporting that the most common newborn boy’s name in Britain is now Mohammed and it is the stated wish of some groups to establish areas where Sharia is applied to everyone living there. That presents a peculiar difficulty to our liberal Western minds. Are there limits to what is acceptable? How do we reconcile the demands of some Islamist groups with our societal norms?

It is a question that affects Christians no less than our secular-minded countrymen. To be expected to be complaisant in the face of Islamist outrages because Christians are, by definition, loving and forgiving is to forget that Christian tolerance is really only a pale form of Christian patience; and Christian patience means more than just putting up with things. We are children of Light, dedicated to the service of Truth. A readiness to forgive injuries does not mean that we condone them. A willingness to accept others’ differences and to defend their right to freedom of religious belief and practice does not necessarily mean we regard them as equal to our own. We walk a difficult path, seeking to be true to what we believe while allowing others to be true to what they believe. But still we must ask the question: do we have a common basis for deciding moral questions any more? Do we have a genuinely common response to the kind of militant Islam fostered by IS?

Inevitably, there will be calls for revenge, for more violence to try to end the violence we have seen in Syria and Iraq and, indeed, on the streets of Woolwich. No doubt Western governments are already planning ‘appropriate responses’ to try and guarantee the safety of their citizens. We know that our safety cannot be guaranteed unless there is a change in attitudes, and no one knows how to do that. It has been said that to adopt an ‘eye for an eye’ approach, tit-for-tat violence, leads ultimately to a world full of blind people. Can we be any more blind than we already are? IS fighters are determined to exterminate all who think or believe differently from themselves. Will there come a point when their brutality proves too much and destroys themselves as well as others? Is it possible for so much cruelty not to have a backlash? I do not know, but for all our sakes, Christian and Muslim alike, for the sake of everyone now living and for the sake of the children yet to be born, I hope and pray it may do, and soon.

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