by Digitalnun on October 30, 2014
Sometimes my readers make me feel knee-high to a grasshopper. They manage to lead lives of great generosity and holiness in the midst of circumstances I would find unbearable. Here I am in the monastery, well-fed (too well-fed, to be honest), surrounded by books and music and gardens, with a handsome hound (a.k.a. Bro Duncan PBGV) and a very holy nun (a.k.a. Quietnun) to cheer and chivvy me by turns, the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church to inspire me and the Rule of St Benedict to guide me, yet I still don’t quite make the grade. I fail as often as I try. I am a sinner through and through. And that’s not a little bit of hyperbole, like that of the Spaniard who had ‘El Gran Peccador’ carved on his tombstone, it is the simple truth.
Can anything redeem that bald statement, or is it all negative? I think being a sinner, and knowing and acknowledging that one is a sinner, means one is open to grace, which is what really matters. Our very need cries out to God for help, and we know he will never spurn our cry. I like to quote the example of the Desert Father who described his life as falling down and getting up again. To be a good sinner all we need do is follow his example, trusting in the mercy of God and asking his help to amend for the future. Grace will work its miracle in us, if we allow it.
by Digitalnun on October 29, 2014
All of us carry within us an internal calendar with days and years marked out in different ways: gold for the days of greatest happiness, black for the days of greatest grief. Occasionally, we are able to share these moments of deepest feeling with others; but, for the most part, they are private, locked away in the inmost recesses of mind and heart. It can be hard when a day of mourning coincides with a festival. How to explain that Christmas Day is not all joy and gladness when it is also the anniversary of the death of someone closer than life itself? It is hard in a different way when one is bubbling with happiness on a day when the rest of the world is wearing a sad and solemn face, subdued by the knowledge of some terrible tragedy.
We try to adjust: smile a little when we are sad, sometimes look grave when we are happy. That is not to do violence to our feelings (though it may seem like it) nor to feign or dissimulate (though it may feel like it), it is to accept what it means to be human; and that is nobler and more generous than we may realise. The trouble comes when those around us do not allow us to grieve or censure us for being happy when they are not. It strikes a discordant note, makes us feel we have somehow done something ‘wrong’, and leaves us feeling helpless and out of sorts. We did not choose to feel like this.
The chances are that today you will come across someone whose internal calendar is at odds with your own. Before you rush to criticize (why is he so surly this morning?) or try to hector them into sharing your mood (why doesn’t she wipe that smile off her face?), reflect a moment. Kindness is the one thing that can lift a mood or cope with another’s joy when one’s own feelings are quite different. It doesn’t need to be effortful. A quick smile, a considerate word is all that is necessary — a form of blessing we can practise every day.
by Digitalnun on October 28, 2014
Once again the liturgical calendar asks us to celebrate two virtual unknowns: the apostles Simon, surnamed the Zealot, and Jude, otherwise known as Thaddeus, who had the misfortune to share the same name as Judas Iscariot, betrayer of the Lord. It is a fine mix, one that I myself find helpful.
Take Simon first. If he was indeed a Zealot, he must have made an uncomfortable companion at times. The Zealots were the spiritual heirs of the Maccabees, but they were not necessarily men of peace. The nationalistic fervour of many led them to perpetrate acts of violence and resistance to Rome which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. It is a curious paradox, that those who most longed for the purity of religion were themselves unwitting agents of the destruction of its most potent symbol. That is the problem with zeal. It can easily become destructive. It may even descend into the ‘evil zeal of bitterness’ of which St Benedict writes, that separates from God and leads to hell. (cf RB 72.1) Clearly, in the case of St Simon, zeal was transformed into something wholly good, the kind that leads to God and everlasting life. (cf RB 72.2) That transformation can only have been wrought by being brought into contact with Jesus Christ: he is the agent of change, the Person who turned the hot-headed Simon into a man of God. That is something we need to remember when our anger or idealism is tending to run away with us. Anger and idealism have similar roots, which is why we are apt to mistake the one for the other. Only by bringing the light of Christ to bear on them can we see the difference. St Simon is an excellent patron for those of us who act first and think second. He shows us how zeal can become holiness — not changing its nature but achieving its full potential.
Who does not feel sorry for Jude? To be for ever associated with the man who betrayed Jesus, and often confused with him by the less literate! It is a horrible fate, made scarcely more bearable by that small change of name which fools nobody. But I think the fact that we have a St Judas as well as a traitor Judas is highly suggestive. We are a Church of sinners. Only grace prevents our being worse than we are. But Jude/Judas reminds us that grace is ultimately triumphant, if it is not rejected. By his fidelity, today’s saint compensated, as it were, for the other’s infidelity. He showed that love could achieve great things. His popular association with lost causes tells us something important about the nature of Christian hope and being open and receptive to God’s action. Too often we try to limit God by saying, ‘That’s not possible'; or, conversely, we try to make God into a magician, expecting him to step in when we have made a mess of things and are unable or unwilling to do anything ourselves. St Jude is a saint who challenges us to respect the nature of God, and to love him faithfully and trustingly. He is an excellent patron for those of us whose faith is wobbly, who know we don’t have answers but who want to be faithful.
Simon and Jude: the apostles of plodding on — one with his zeal transformed, the other with his fidelity making up for loss and betrayal. Together they give us hope that we, even we, can become saints.
Personal note: I love the image of the two apostles in the Santa Croce altarpiece at the National Gallery. It is copyright but you can view it here.
by Digitalnun on October 26, 2014
Nuns pray. It’s what we do, day in, day out. Our prayer takes many forms. In the Divine office we seek to hallow the different hours of the day and mark the unfolding of the liturgical calendar with an ancient form of prayer derived chiefly from the scriptures and early Christian writings (the so-called Fathers of the Church). There is also the slow, meditative prayer of lectio divina — what you might call the characteristic activity of the Benedictine — and the simple, uncluttered, contemplative prayer of the individual, which proceeds from and flows back into the Divine Office and lectio divina. In addition to these, there is intercessory prayer. One of the chief ways in which you might have come across this is via our email prayerline, which is open every minute of every day. People name their requests for prayer and send them to us via the form supplied. Complete anonymity is assured. We in our turn read through the requests and take them into our prayer.
Recently, we have noticed a new development. Some people are happy to take us at our word, and the little message we send assuring them of our prayer is enough. Others, however, have begun to ask us to send emails or letters to reassure them that we are indeed praying for them. I have come to dislike that very much. To begin with, I think it was just my curmudgeonly nature asserting itself. Another email to send! I wasn’t happy, either, at the idea of breaking the guarantee of anonymity surrounding prayer requests. If we enter into correspondence with one, why not with another? How would we manage to keep up, anyway? But then I began to think a little more about why I was so irritated and realised that it wasn’t just the thought of having to send another email/breaking anonymity. Asking for assurance that we are praying is very like saying, I don’t really trust you; yet trust at the heart of intercessory prayer. We name our need to God, trusting in his love and mercy. Prayer isn’t magic; and we don’t (or shouldn’t) demand of God that he ‘prove’ himself to us. Our prayer reflects the nature of our belief in and about God, and I think the way in which our email prayerline operates should, too.
So, if you have sent in any request for prayer, please take my word for it that your request has been read and either has been, or will be, taken before the Lord in prayer. What he chooses to do with it is his business. I think we can safely leave it up to him don’t you?
by Digitalnun on October 24, 2014
It was rather a shock to learn that some people don’t seem to realise I’m a dog — a real, live, actual dog; and not just any dog but an old-fashioned scent hound, with a low-slung body, large ears and a nose you could perch a mountain on. Being a dog is the essence of my being, from the tip of my nose to the tip of my tail. I am all shaggy doggyness and sheer doggedness, even when I’m asleep, which is quite often now I’m getting on in years (sigh).
For those who want precision in all things, I’m a PBGV (Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen) of the truest type — happy, handsome (or so I’m told), and insatiably curious about Life. Most of the time my curiosity takes the form of exploring everyone and everything, especially if it’s edible or chase-able. That is what it means to be a hound-dog; and, sadly, that is all anyone ever thinks a dog bothers about. But I have a big secret to share with you, what you might call the secret of my inner life, only that’s a bit OTT for me. I, Duncan, am a canine contemplative and have a duty contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (‘to contemplate and share with others the fruits of contemplation’).
Being a dog gives me a special perspective on this God business. It’s no accident that His name is my name in reverse. I love everyone, and so does God. My happiest moments are spent sharing food with people; so are His — in the Eucharist here below, in the Heavenly Banquet up above. I am always listening for the voice of my friends, and so is He. I am ever eager to help, to cheer, to comfort, just as God is. Sometimes, when I think it advisable, I disappear for a bit and go about my private business, ‘off the radar’, so to say. Of course, I am always within earshot, but humans have to learn not to take me from granted. God was telling me the other day that He has the same problem. I guess it’s even tougher for Him as He has even more people wanting His attention. I’m not soppy, but I am very fond of the nuns who form my little pack. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Them, even to laying down my life for Them. God says the same, but with this difference. In the person of His Son, Jesus, He did exactly that, and not just for a little group like my nuns but for everybody on earth.
God and I have a lot in common, which is why I think He likes to chat to me sometimes. He knows I’ll never betray His confidence or let Him down. I’m happy to follow where He leads. It’s a pity that after He made us dogs He went on to create humans, because they aren’t nearly as good at following in his footsteps. He should have realised that with us He’d reached the peak of His creation. That’s the trouble with God. He never knows when to stop. He is really too good and too generous. So can I share with you my thought for the day? It may be that you have rather neglected God of late, throwing Him the occasional bone, as it were, but not really spending time with Him or enjoying His company. Why don’t you change that and spend a few minutes with Him today, doing nothing in particular but just chilling out with Him? It would please Him enormously. It would also please me.
Dunc xx (@BroDuncanPBGV)
by Digitalnun on October 22, 2014
Holiness is not something strange or above and beyond the reach of us. In fact, it is all around us, for the simple reason that God is everywhere. There is no part of the Universe where God is not. That is a comforting fact when we are faced with a lonely or discouraging experience. It is also a challenging fact when we are tempted to selfishness or moral cowardice or anything else that is less than perfect. You notice I call it a fact, not a thought. That is because most of us are apt to be a little choosey about what we deign to call ‘holy’. We like our holy places to conform to our own ideas of what they should be; we like our saints to be what we would secretly like to be ourselves. I have not the slightest hesitation in admitting that I never found St John Paul II personally sympathetic, but he is a saint, and one who challenges me much more than I find comfortable. I thank God for saints such as he.
by Digitalnun on October 21, 2014
According to UNICEF, twelve children die every hour as a result of violence, most of it not linked to war. That is an appalling statistic. It means that every five minutes somewhere in the world a child is being done to death, most probably by adults charged with their care. Very often we note such things with a shudder, utter a silent prayer, and then move on to the business of the day. We forget that children have no real voice. They aren’t in a position to make much fuss. They don’t lobby politicians, launch Social Media campaigns or otherwise engage public attention. Here in Britain we are inclined to be a bit sentimental about childhood. Child abuse and child poverty grab the headlines when they are uncovered, but the kind of violence UNICEF was talking about tends to be under the radar. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments thinking about these things — not condemning the perpetrators, which can often be a fruitless exercise in vicarious anger, but rather but thinking about how we can protect the young. Violence against children is not acceptable, but how do we create a society where we all believe and act on that principle?
by Digitalnun on October 18, 2014
You might be expecting me to write about the Magnificat, as I have often done in the past (e.g. see here) or about evangelisation, the medical profession, painting or women-in-the-gospel, all of which are fairly predictable themes for this feast day; but what struck me forcibly this morning was, what would St Luke write about if he were alive on earth today? In one way, I think his subject would be unchanged: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. But I think there might also be a fairly devastating critique of the way in which we Christians live and proclaim our faith. Do we truly believe what we say we believe? Do we want to share the Good News with others? Or are we so very British and diffident that we find enthusiasm (literally, being filled with God) in rather poor taste?
This morning, somewhere in Pakistan, Asia Bibi is living with the knowledge that she has been condemned to death by hanging because she refused to convert to Islam when accused under the country’s blasphemy laws. Reports of the case suggest a squabble on the fruit farm which got out of hand. A cup of cold water (how biblical is that!), tempers fraying, an escalation of words on both sides and then a life imperilled. Two politicians who spoke in defence of Asia Bibi have already been murdered and the Government of Pakistan is now in the ‘difficult’ position of upholding a verdict many see as unjust. The trouble is, governments do not care as much about justice as they say they do; and unless some face-saving formula can be found, Asia Bibi will surely die.
What would St Luke make of that? I think he would applaud Asia Bibi for her steadfastness of purpose and condemn the Pakistani government and judiciary for their cowardice and political chicanery. But I suspect his severest words would be for those of us in the West who do nothing more than wring our hands, metaphorically speaking, in the face of such outrages. We are too concerned about upsetting other nations, unless there is some economic advantage to be had. We have become lukewarm in our faith, preferring our domestic disputes about marriage and divorce, liturgy and practice, even, at times, the cut of our vestments, to the life and death issues faced by our brothers and sisters in less comfortable parts of the world. Praying the Magnificat in the light of what Asia Bibi faces is an unsettling experience. I suspect that is exactly what most of us need: a shake-up by the Holy Spirit. The questions posed by St Luke in his gospel are just as relevant today as they were in the first century. Answering them is just as difficult, too.
by Digitalnun on October 17, 2014
After a certain age, sleepless nights become commonplace. We may lie awake pondering the awfulness of Ebola and the sluggish international response; or we may toss and turn over some more immediate, personal problem concerning family or finances. I wonder how many of us, however, register the sounds of night-time. Here in the country, where traffic slows almost to a stop, the soft soughing of the wind and the snuffles and shrieks of small creatures mean that the night is never completely silent. The nocturnal soundscape has its moments of violence—the high-pitched bark of the vixen or the scream of the rabbit caught by a predator are not easily forgotten— but the general impression is of life proceeding purposefully on its course. Our lying awake is part of that process, not to be resisted or fought against, nor always to be filled with displacement activity (think, cups of tea and the radio). In Christian tradition, the night hours are specially privileged times of prayer. They form a kind of desert moment in our busy lives. Peter of Celles loved the long winter nights when he could give himself more completely to seeking God without the interruptions of business or people. We can all learn from him. Whether sleeping soundly (no barriers to God) or lying awake watchfully (keeping vigil), we can still claim to have had a good night. The important thing is to have allowed God some share in it.