by Digitalnun on September 14, 2014
If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.
The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.
by Digitalnun on September 4, 2014
The first thing anyone sees when they come to the monastery is this large and beautiful crucifix facing them as they step through the door. In every room of the monastery they will find another, smaller crucifix. They act as a reminder that this is God’s house, and whether one lives here permanently as we do, or stays only a few hours as a guest, God’s loving gaze is upon us at all times. We live every hour in the presence of God and his angels (cf RB 7.28) and that simple fact is at the heart of everything we say or do (or should be!), both as individuals and as a community. It is, quite literally, fundamental.
Monastic life is a ‘slow living, slow growth’ kind of existence. Unless one is unusually saintly, one can’t become a monk or nun in just a year or two or without the intention of lifelong commitment. The whole of the Rule of St Benedict is concerned with maturation in Christ, of being gradually transformed by the practices of monastic living into someone who reflects the holiness of God (cf RB 73). It takes time to do that, so we have to stick at it, living out the vow of conversatio morum in quiet, unspectacular ways. Perseverance, going on and not giving up, no matter how many mistakes we make or wrong turns we take, that is what matters. Community living, subject to a rule and superior, scrapes away at selfishness and pride, revealing what we are really made of. The faces of old monks and nuns sometimes have a beauty and serenity born of much struggle, and if one is fortunate enough to talk with them, one goes away blessed with a sense of great wisdom expressed in a few lapidary phrases.
Once a year we make an eight day retreat when we take stock of our lives and try to deepen our commitment to what I call monastic fundamentals. This year we have decided to go offline completely; so from 5 to 13 September inclusive, I won’t be blogging and the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page and Twitter will be automated scheduled posts. If anyone needs to contact us REALLY urgently, we’d ask you to use our mobile number as we are also switching off the house telephone (it has a maddening tendency to ring in the middle of the night!). Please pray for us as we pray for you.
by Digitalnun on September 3, 2014
I have always loved this image of St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English. The Holy Spirit whispering into his ear may be a rather hackneyed artistic convention, but I think it is also a reminder of the huge difference between writers then and now. The Romantics taught us to see the writer as a demi-god, a creative whose ‘one talent it was death to hide’. We think of dark and moody geniuses, starving to death in cold attics or roaming the Ligurian coast; or, if our idea of the writer has moved on a bit, we think of celebrity authors tapping out their regular 3,000 words a day, with a literary agent to handle the PR and constant appearances in the media to nurse their image. Not so with Gregory, or with the Late Antique or early medieval writers generally. Neither their words nor their ends were entirely their own. They were not masters but servants.
I think that waiting upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the hours of preparation by way of reading and prayer, may be the secret of Gregory’s brevity and acuity. His letters, for example, are, for the most part, deceptively short, but what a wealth of content they display! Greek friends may be less vocal in their admiration (for even a holy pope may have his shortcomings, and Gregory certainly did), but he wrote sensibly and compassionately about conversion, marriage, women and many other topics. He was a monk, so perhaps it was the monastic habit of thinking much and saying little that enabled him, even as pope, to avoid that shipwreck of the soul he so much feared. The weak joke ascribed to him, Non Angli, sed angeli, (‘Not Angles, but angels’) may be apocryphal but it, too, reminds us of another important truth. A self-centred charity is no charity at all. If we really believe what we profess, we’ll want to share the Good News with others, and that is the most charitable thing we can do. Something to ponder on St Gregory’s day or any day.
by Digitalnun on September 2, 2014
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
by Digitalnun on August 25, 2014
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.