Redeeming Black Friday and Preparing for Advent

by Digitalnun on November 27, 2015

It is easy to scoff at Black Friday madness and condemn its materialism. All those people spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need in a frenzy of commercialism! We can distance ourselves from it by resolving not to take part and supporting Buy Nothing Friday instead, can’t we? Whichever course we take, however, has its difficulties.

If we have enough money to be able to buy most of the things we need, and many of the things we want, without having to worry about discounts and bargains, then Black Friday is merely an invitation to greed, our greed. We exteriorise that by condemning the companies that pander to our greed with tempting offers of this or that. We often go further by condemning those who rush out and buy — not actively perhaps, but with our slightly superior smile and a more or less smug assurance that we won’t be buying anything on Black Friday. After all, where’s the need? We can buy on Thursday or Saturday or whenever we choose. It can be painful to admit that there are people who can only afford certain things because they are heavily discounted. We may not approve of their buying choices, but before we condemn them, perhaps we could reflect that we enjoy a material freedom others don’t simply because we have more money at our disposal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one pound or a million: we have more. We are able to choose.

Then there is the counterblast, Buy Nothing Friday. The problem with that is that it can be an empty gesture, mere virtue signalling. If we are to give it any real meaning, we need to dig deeper and think about our use of material things in general, not just money; and that is where it all gets rather tricky. One of the good things about being a nun is that other people will often say what they think we should or should not have in the way of material goods. It can be tedious, but it can also be a healthy check on any tendency to luxury or self-indulgence. Lay people have to work it out for themselves, and that is much harder in a society where having things is not only perceived as a measure of one’s success in life but often portrayed as the way to achieve success in life. And, at this time of year, what parent or grandparent can be immune to that persuasive ‘Everybody else has . . .’? The pester power of children merely reinforces our desire to give the best of everything to those we love.

I think myself that the best way of redeeming Black Friday is to use commonsense and humility. If something one intends to buy is heavily discounted today, why not buy it and give what one has ‘saved’ to charity? Just don’t boast about the bargain or pretend that one isn’t really taking part in Black Friday commercialism. Then I’d want to go further and use this day as a way of reflecting on how to prepare for Advent and the simplicities it should encourage in our lives. I have written about that every year so won’t repeat myself: last year’s the post is here. Our use of material goods shouldn’t be unreflecting or automatic, but we don’t need to tie ourselves up in ethical knots about it. As St Paul says, we are free to use everything, although not everything may be helpful in itself. That means, we can use pretty much anything to help us focus on what really matters — even Black Friday.


How To Be Happy

by Digitalnun on November 26, 2015

If you want to be happy, be grateful; if you want to make others happy, tell them you are grateful for their existence. It is as simple as that. Giving thanks is something human beings are created for, and we do it best when we forget ourselves and simply rejoice in the gift of being, especially God’s. That is what monks and nuns do all day long, thank and praise God that he is; and when we fail to do that, or allow our grumbles and gripes to get the upper hand, everything goes wrong. Instead of a huge smile spreading across the face of creation, there is a snarl of selfishness instead. It makes others unhappy, as well as ourselves. We turn inwards, become preoccupied, add to the world’s misery and pain.

Today our friends in the U.S.A. are celebrating Thanksgiving. In an important sense, every day should be a day of thanksgiving. Whether American or not, why don’t we all take a moment or two to register how much we can and should give thanks for? We don’t have to pretend to be grateful for things that distress us, but we can always find someone or something for which to give thanks without any falsification. People sometimes say they have asked God for something and he hasn’t answered their prayer in the way they wanted, so they are giving up on him — conveniently forgetting that he hasn’t given up on them. Perhaps saying ‘thank you’ might change their perspective, allowing God a little space in their lives. No one really likes being reduced to the level of a shopping-list or fairy godmother, not even God.

We don’t know what today will hold, but let’s begin it by giving thanks for the gift of a new day, for all that has been, all that is, and all that is still to come.


The End Times

by Digitalnun on November 25, 2015

This last week before Advent is full of sombre warnings about the end times and the coming reign of God. With the mounting tension between Russia and Turkey and the seemingly inescapable rise of Wahabist violence and religious intolerance, it would be easy to identify world events with Armageddon. Easy, but wrong. What scripture refers to as the end times is actually the beginning of something new, something infinitely better. However gloomy we may feel about the international situation, however worried we may be that we are on the brink of yet another war, we must hold fast to our hope and prepare ourselves for what is to come. This is a time for prayer, for the reformation of our lives, for hastening the coming day of the Lord by the purity and zeal with which we live. We are not helpless puppets. God has dignified us with an essential role in his plan of salvation, but it is not something we can put off to a tomorrow that never comes. It is today that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. He who has neither beginning nor end is also at work, and what he wills must eventually come to pass. Our deliverance is at hand!


Making Mistakes and Public Satisfaction

by Digitalnun on November 24, 2015

Chapter 45 of the Rule of St Benedict which we read today, On Those Who Make Mistakes in the Oratory, is one of those little chapters of the Rule the non-monastic reader is likely to skip. What does it really matter if we stumble over a word in our recitation of the Divine Office or mangle a psalm-tone? Fluffing a word or two is hardly a sin, and although singing slightly flat or slightly sharp may vex our neighbour (who would probably say there is no such thing as ‘slightly flat’ or ‘slightly sharp’), it surely doesn’t merit performing a ritual of satisfaction, does it? Benedict clearly thought otherwise; so perhaps we should, too.

The careful performance of our public prayer is a sign of the reverence we have for God and for the oratory itself (cf RB 20 and RB 52). When we take the psalms or other scriptures on our lips, we are giving voice to the Word of God. To do so carelessly would obviously be wrong; but we can forget that our reverence should extend to the community in which we proclaim God’s word. Benedict must have had a sensitive ear because one of the qualities he demands of those who sing or read is that they should edify their hearers (cf RB 38.12). There is no concept of ‘Buggins’ turn’, no nonsense about all having an equal right to read or intone.

Put simply, Benedict sees the Divine Office as something that should engage our full attention, both before, during and after its celebration. It is to be performed, a word that means fulfilled through doing rather than implying anything theatrical. If we make a mistake, we are to acknowledge the fact openly. To an outsider, the ritual gestures of making satisfaction in choir may seem odd, but they have a double effect. The one who has blundered is able to apologize silently; and those who may have been thrown off-key or winced at our lack of preparation are, in theory at least, mollified. More importantly, they reaffirm our shared belief in the seriousness of what we are doing and the presence of God in our midst as we pray. They may even prompt us to think about our conduct in other areas of life, where an honest admission of failure and an apology may be called for; and that is something for all of us to consider, monastic or not.


The Glory Within

by Digitalnun on November 21, 2015

Today’s feast of the Presentation of Our Lady strays a long way from historical Judaism but I think we can see in it an important truth, a metaphor, if you like, of the way in which God dwells within every human being. When Mary stepped into the Temple, the Shekinah — the glory of God — took on a new and important form, dwelling within her, not merely over her. Even though she was still a child, and did not yet bear within her the infant Christ, the Fathers have consistently taught that she was sanctified from the first moment of her conception. She was holy in a way that no one before her had been holy, illumined by the Glory within; and since she gave birth to our Saviour and we have been incorporated into Christ by baptism, that same gift of the indwelling Spirit has been ours, too.

We are close to Advent now, and it is a short leap from that thought of the child Mary being dedicated in the Temple to St John of the Cross’s

Del Verbo divino
la Virgen preñada
viene de camino:
¡si le dais posada!

With the Divine Word made pregnant, the Virgin walks down the road — if you will give her shelter!

‘If’: what a world of meaning is in that word! Today’s feast can be covered with a sickly sentimentality but at its heart lies a question each of us must answer. Will we welcome Christ in whatever form he chooses to come to us — even in the uncertain form of those we are tempted to overlook or fear?

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A Little Plea to Monastic Historians

by Digitalnun on November 19, 2015

Yesterday I was reading a book on monastic history by a well-regarded historian. No names, no pack-drill, as they say; but the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. The monastic life the historian was describing and interpreting was so far removed from the reality I have experienced that I found it unrecognizable. Now, you may say that the monastic life of the twenty-first century is a world away from that of the tenth or twelfth, and you would be right; but as Georges Duby argued so persuasively when writing about medieval marriage, many things do not change. There is a commonalty of experience that enables the married person of today to understand much of the life of his/her medieval forebear. But when we come to a life we have not ourselves lived, we have to put our imagination to work very intensely; and that isn’t always easy.

Most people know what it is like to live in a family; comparatively few know what it is like to live in a monastic community. That can affect how we view things and, more important, how we interpret them. So, for example, unless we have experienced the liturgy day after day for years on end, we may mistake how formative it is in the life of the monk. Unless we have actually lived enclosure, we may fundamentally misinterpret how it is understood in the life of the nun. If we do not see how feast and fast flow together, we may stumble in our interpretation of diet. Above all, we may forget that most people, most of the time, are quite sincere about what they do and the reasons for which they do it. They may be mistaken; they may, at times, be unwilling; but, on the whole, I don’t think most people are cynical. Men and women in the Middle Ages didn’t see autonomy in the way we do; a parent’s right to choose one’s husband or wife or determine one’s occupation in life was more generally accepted than it is in the West today.

Therefore, my dear monastic historian, may I ask a favour of you? Before you start writing about monasticism in terms of liminality or achieved status or power elites, please would you familiarise yourself with some of the basic texts and practices of monastic life itself? Read the bible, all the bible (monks and nuns have a quite depressing familiarity with even the most obscure parts of it, and always have had); read the Rule of St Benedict and, if possible, learn it by heart as they do and did; immerse yourself in the silence in which monks and nuns pass the greater part of their day; think long and deeply about the role of the abbot or abbess and a life of single chastity, not as something to be resented or resisted but as that which is intrinsic to the monastic understanding of conformity to Christ. It won’t be time wasted, because it will give you some insight into a life that is, to be frank, a bit odd, a bit difficult to understand. Without God at its centre, monastic life makes no sense at all. Failure to see that makes pretty poor history, too.


The Ordinariness of Life

by Digitalnun on November 18, 2015

The terrible events of the last few days have brought home to everyone in the West how fragile life is and how easily hopes and plans for the future can be dashed. Yet here in the monastery we continue to read through the Rule of St Benedict in the accustomed way. While others are talking in apocalyptic terms about the way in which the world has changed for ever, we ruminate upon reading in the refectory, what we are to eat and drink and the times of meals. It is all very humdrum, all very ordinary. That is the point. Human life is ordinary, and we become holy through our very ordinariness. Fidelity to the small tasks of every day, rather than grand, heroic gestures, is, for most of us, the vocation to which we are called. Whether we live it out in community, as monks and nuns, as members of a family or as single people, the same qualities are required, though the way in which we respond will vary according to age and circumstances. As St Benedict reminds us in today’s chapter (RB40, On the Measure of Drink), we may have to put up with much that is unsatisfactory or not to our liking, but if we can learn to bless God, rather than grumble, we shall triumph over every obstacle.  We shall have learned, in fact, how to make something extarordinary out of the ordinariness of life.


Bro Duncan PBGV Speaks His Mind

by Digitalnun on November 16, 2015

I have been listening to BigSis and LittleSis discussing world events and am frustrated by my inability to tell them what I think, so I’ll tell you instead.

Many big human problems are, in essence, little ones, but you complicate matters with your pride and your long memories of injustice and your inability to forgive. You think you are being brave when you make lots of noise and brandish guns and grenades. You congratulate yourselves when you kill someone. Worst of all, you try to drag God into it. Whether you call him God or Allah doesn’t matter, you blaspheme when you destroy his children, but you don’t seem to recognize that. I’m not sure what sort of heaven or paradise you think you will earn, but I suspect it may be too hot for comfort. Think, for a moment, of all the tears you have caused to stream down the cheeks of people just like yourselves, who love their families and want them to live long and happily. Think of all the pain, and ask yourselves, does it have to be like this?

I have been thinking about all the dogs in France waiting for a Special Someone to come home who won’t be coming home after the terrible attacks on Friday. I don’t think there will be many dogs in Raqqa doing the same after the bombing last night, but I expect there will be lots of cats waiting for their staff to turn up and being disappointed. We dogs and cats are united in this: in our condemnation of violence and the glee with which you humans greet your mutual destruction. BigSis was telling me about all the angry words she has been reading and how people accuse each other of being ‘wet’ and ‘naive’ if they don’t subscribe to the current orthodoxy, and how Muslims are living in fear of retaliation and Christians are worried about further attacks on them and everyone is going round blaming everyone else; and I just want to shout, ‘Stop!’ And I think God wants to shout ‘Stop!’ too, only you humans aren’t listening to him.

I’m not a very clever dog and I don’t do politics or stuff like that but living with Them I have learned something important about Christianity. You can’t stop being Christian when you are under attack. That’s when you really learn what it means to live by the mercy of God, when you learn what it means to forgive and make peace with your enemy. No one ever said it would be easy. When you come to the monastery, the first thing you see is a big cross with the figure of Christ hanging on it. That is the price of mercy and forgiveness. We dogs instinctively understand that; so why don’t you?


Tragedy in Paris

by Digitalnun on November 14, 2015

Last night I kept vigil, not just for the people of Paris killed or injured in the terrorist attacks, or their grieving families and friends, but for all of us. When such dreadful things happen, there is a tendency to want vengeance, to express lots of emotion and fear, often in violent language. This morning Social Media is awash with ugly sentiments. At such times it is easy to preach, but not so easy to practise, restraint. I think, however, that it is vitally important. We must not pass the poison on — not because that is what the terrorists want (I have no idea what they want) but because to do so is to diminish our own humanity; and I think our humanity matters. This morning, when everyone is in shock, please take a moment just to listen. Ignore the clamour inside; forget yourself; listen to what the Holy Spirit is urging; and remember the Benedictine motto, pax, peace. It is surrounded by a crown of  thorns which both protect and bar the way, reminding us that to choose peace and love rather than hatred and violence is true heroism, true valour, and comes at enormous cost.


Saints Made for Sinners

by Digitalnun on November 13, 2015

Yes, you read that right: saints made for sinners. The feast of All Benedictine Saints is a huge encouragement to those of us who are constantly sliding into sin and failure. We don’t want saints who seem to have led impossibly holy lives from their mother’s womb: the kind who never say an unkind word or do an ungenerous act, who have a natural attraction to prayer and penance and everything we have to struggle with. Nor do we want saints whose lives are incredibly dramatic, full of road-to-Damascus conversions and deeds of holy derring-do. We want saints who are ordinary; who battle with temptation much as we do; who become holy through lives of unspectacular fidelity and goodness. In short, we want saints made of the same material as we are, because we too want to become holy, and if the only model of holiness available to us were the extraordinary one sketched above, we would be spiritual no-hopers.

The fact that we aren’t spiritual no-hopers is largely attributable to all those obscure  saints whose names we’ll never know this side of eternity but who became people the Light shone through. Among them must be thousands of Benedictines — monks, nuns, sisters, oblates and confraters. They show us that we too can become holy, just by being what we are meant to be. There is nothing grand or heroic about being a Benedictine, nothing particularly inspiring. We are spiritual plodders, the ‘poor bloody infantry’ of the Church, serving together under the same banner, standing side by side in the fraterna acies of the community and gradually — oh, how gradually! — learning what it means to follow Christ the Lord. We fight the good fight with what St Benedict called the strong and glorious weapons of obedience and hope, one day, to share everlasting life with all who have loved and served God. Let us ask the prayers of the Benedictine saints we commemorate today, that we too may be granted the grace of perseverance and attain the goal for which we strive.