New Every Morning

I am surely not alone in having found the events of last week a trifle trying. Add to that one’s own personal difficulties or annoyances — in my case not being well and the guilty feeling that engulfs me when not able to meet requests for help/attention as I’d like — and one can end up in a state of negativity that is as exhausting as it is disheartening. All over the world it seems other people are experiencing exactly the same, with little hope of any remedy. Poverty, sickness, corruption, political chaos, a sense of betrayal by the Church or other institutions on which we thought we could rely — it is all black, bleak and broken. Only, I’d say it isn’t quite.

Yesterday evening I walked into our chapel to pray for one of our oblates who is going through a tough time. The little silver lamp that burns before the tabernacle was glowing brightly in the darkness. I’d like to say I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of Presence, but I wasn’t. It was, to be honest, a rather barren experience: the prayer of hanging on rather than anything more obviously comforting. But I think that is precisely the prayer most of us are called to make most of the time. We know that the mercies of the Lord never end, that they are new every morning, but connecting that knowledge with our daily experience isn’t easy.

Today’s gospel (Luke 18. 1–8) is often presented as being about persistence in prayer. I think it goes deeper than that. God is not an unjust judge, only willing to give us a hearing if we pester him night and day. On the contrary, his ears are always attuned to our prayer, but Luke’s deeply subversive portrayal of God is meant to shock us into a more adult relationship. Luke’s God is not a fairy godmother, handing out treats to all and sundry, irrespective of whether they are good for them or not, but rather a God who confounds all our expectations, a God of infinite compassion and holiness whose justice exceeds our own grudging conceptions. In short, Luke’s God really is God, not the pale imitation of him that we are apt to construct in order to shield ourselves from the reality.

Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.

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The eRosary

The Vatican’s eRosary: expensive gimmick or aid to prayer?

Yesterday the BBC website ran a brief article on the Vatican’s launch of an eRosary bracelet — a snip at £85. I did what any twenty-first century nun would do, enquired of others via Social Media whether they had any experience of it. Of course, not one had, though I learned quite a lot about what they did have and what they thought about the principles involved (too expensive being a recurring theme).

I have often explained that, for us as Benedictines, the Rosary is a purely private devotion. I personally take the view that whatever helps someone to pray must be good, and a prayer that concentrates, as the Rosary does, on the life, death and resurrection of Christ and some of the doctrines that flow from that is of special value. But I’m not sure about expensive gadgets or an app that ‘checks’ how we pray. Big Brother and Loving God are not one and the same. If you have an eRosary or experience of using it, do please let me know what you think of it. It may encourage me to dust off an app I designed some time ago but never actually got round to releasing . . . .

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The Lord’s Prayer and the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Today’s feast of St Ignatius of Antioch is one I have written about many times, but I don’t think I have ever really thought about it in the context of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 13. 12–14, which gives the reasons for ending the offices of Lauds and Vespers with the Lord’s Prayer said or sung out loud.

Benedict was clear-eyed about community life and knows how often we offend one another. However, we make a solemn pledge in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive one another, and Benedict insists that we remind ourselves of this covenant of forgiveness frequently and always at the end of the two peak periods of the Divine Office, Lauds and Vespers. It is the superior who is to recite the prayer, not because he is set above the brethren but because he must provide the unity and leadership the community needs. We give our assent by saying Libera nos a malo – deliver us from evil.

The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is not a mere matter of routine, the expected ending of a Christian service of worship: it goes to the heart of the monastic enterprise. We seek God in community under a rule and an abbot. That means frank acknowledgement of failure and a readiness to begin again — and allowing others to begin again, too. At the other offices, most of the prayer is said silently, except for the conclusion. For myself, I find in that a reminder that we do not always have to articulate everything, that sometimes forgiveness is better mediated through an accepting silence rather than an attempt to clear up every detail of misunderstanding and hurt.

Ignatius of Antioch left us seven letters which breathe charity and forgiveness. He remarks of the soldiers who guarded him that the better they were treated, the worse they seemed to behave; but that did not stop him trying to treat them well. He met a martyr’s death with courage. ‘I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.’ May we too meet the challenge of being transformed by grace as he was. We can start by making the Lord’s Prayer the rhythm of our lives.

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Enhancing Shower Activity

Last night, on the Shipping Forecast, we were advised that an advancing weather front would result in ‘enhancing shower activity’ (i.e. more rain). Usually, such gobbledegook leaves me muttering about plain English and doing a fairly good impression of Colonel Blimp. Not this time. I was entranced by a vision of raindrops dancing across the grey waters of the North Sea, shimmering and shining with all the colours of the rainbow as light pierced the gloom. It was the word ‘enhanced’ that got me. I know its ordinary meaning is just to intensify or increase (in + altus in Latin, meaning to elevate, via a complicated path in Norman French) but that is to ignore its sound; and to go from enhancing to dancing is a good instance of how words affect us at many different levels, not all of them subject to logical analysis. That is why poetry matters; why translation is such a difficult art; why the Word made flesh makes even the most garrulous of us dumb with wonder, love and praise.

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Lesson from a Failed Banker and Ex-Jailbird

Today is the feast of St Callistus — failed banker, ex-jailbird, ex-slave, probably something of an invalid — oh, and pope. And not only pope, but the man who, despite much opposition from such luminaries as Tertullian and Hippolytus (who did not think him strict enough and spread what most historians consider false rumours about him), grasped the importance of reconciling sinners to the Church. He argued that the power of binding and loosing was given not just to Peter himself but to every successor of Peter and that mercy should be shown to the repentant. In the days of the Donatist schism that was a matter of great urgency. I think it is still a matter of great urgency for us today. We are so often inclined not to show mercy, being rather more rigorous than God who seems to tolerate those we disagree with or believe to be seriously wrong about anything or everything (usually the latter).

I am certainly not arguing that nothing matters, that all beliefs are equally valid and that we can endorse anything we please, expecting God to follow suit. Of course not! But today’s feast and Callistus’s decree remind us powerfully of the importance of charity and mercy in our interactions with one another and the way in which they echo God’s own mercy towards us. We are often tempted to assume that we know what others think or mean and judge accordingly, and that can make us unduly harsh or self-confident when a little more reflection and a little more willingness to listen might transform the situation and our understanding of it.

It isn’t just the successor of Peter who has the power of binding and loosing. In a non-sacramental sense, all of us do. We can set others free from the chains of hatred and unforgiveness, if we choose. In so doing, we unbind ourselves. How that works out in particular situations, I can’t say; but I have a hunch that trying to be more forgiving, charitable and merciful will make the world a bit friendlier, a bit more peaceful and, dare I say it, more godly, too. Isn’t that worth trying? And in case you think that we can keep all this delightfully abstract, may I suggest we all examine our consciences. Is there someone against whom we hold a grudge or who we think has done us harm or behaved badly whom we need to forgive? To whom, in short, we must show mercy, as a brother or sister equally flawed, equally living by the mercy of God?

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Saying Thank You

In days of yore, i.e. when I was younger and lived in a big community, we did not use alarm clocks. Instead, a nun was deputed to go along the corridor, open the door of each monastic cell, and say to the sleepy-head within, Benedicite. To which the correct response was Deo Gratias. Thus, the first word to pass our lips was always ‘Thank you, God.’ (There were longer and more complicated formulae for certain feasts, but we can ignore them.)

For what were we saying ‘thank you’? For the gift of sleep now rudely ended? For the possibilities of the new day? Or were we simply acknowledging God as God, and thanking Him for being? I like to think the latter, because to thank God for being God implies much more than gratitude. It is an expression of love and delight, wonder and praise; and is there any better way to start a new day?

Today I hope to thank several people for gifts of books sent to mark Buy a Nun a Book Day and various kindnesses received in recent weeks. I have had to do some delving to find addresses for some; others preferred to give anonymously; but all are included in the community’s thanksgiving. It may sound a little trite — sentimental even — but I hope that our thankfulness is more than recognition of what we owe others, a kind of arithmetical gratitude without much heart. Horrible thought! I hope it is, rather, an expression of wonder and delight, an affirmation of the value of individuals and of their importance to us as the people they are.

I am sure you can guess the question with which I shall end. Whom will you thank today?

(Note: I have written quite often about St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast is today. A search in the sidebar search box will provide some entries for those who are interested.)

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Why I am Always Behind and the Loneliness of People Today

Some of my more direct friends occasionally ask me why I haven’t got round to doing such and such yet. The answer I give tends to vary. There is always the honest ‘laziness, sheer laziness’ or the intellectually more respectable ‘lack of inspiration’; but I think I am more likely to try to steer the conversation away from the question, especially if it is something both the questioner and I want me to do. That isn’t as deliberately evasive as it may seem. My not being well can be used as a valid excuse for some of my dilatoriness. Even ordinary tasks take much longer than they used to, as anyone seeing me doing odd jobs in the house or garden will testify. But that is not the point. There is a sadder reason, which has nothing to do with me at all: loneliness and its impact on people who may not seem lonely to others but are, often desperately so.

Much of my day is taken up with the routine of monastic life: prayer, lectio divina, household tasks, and the administrative duties associated with running any organization, to which should be added the community’s online ministry. But most days we also receive a lot of emails/letters and, increasingly, telephone calls, that don’t fall into any special category and can’t be dealt with in a few minutes. They are the cries of lonely people, often not asking for anything in particular but just to be heard. They pose a challenge to us as nuns, but also to society in general.

I am not sure why people contact us, but I think it has something to do with trust. Without knowing us, people trust us to take them and their difficulties seriously — and to be kind. We try, but we often fail, too. The man who telephoned late one evening when I was in the middle of chemotherapy and ‘just wanted to talk’ wasn’t very happy when I explained that I wasn’t up to a long conversation just then. He ‘phoned again ten minutes later and was rather put out to get the same nun on the line, as I would have been in his position; but we are not counsellors or therapists and it is no good trying to be or do what we cannot, especially when feeling drained.

Taking people seriously and being kind: not rocket science, as they say, but it does demand time and effort because, inevitably, need arises according to its own timetable not ours; and truly listening to people is hard work. I think we are immensely privileged as a community because those who turn to us do trust us, and very often they have had bad experiences in the past. What worries me, if that is the right word, is the loneliness behind the calls we receive. I always feel chastened when someone ends a conversation or message with the words, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been able to speak about this to anyone else.’ I can understand that there might be things one would be reluctant to discuss with family or friends, but the matters I am referring to do not, by and large, fall into the category of embarrassing or awkward. It is simply loneliness and the feeling of isolation that makes them difficult to talk about.

So, here is your challenge from the cloister for today: switch off your smartphone, take your eyes off that screen and pay attention to the person nearest you. Don’t be so anxious to pour out your own thoughts and feelings that you fail to notice theirs. Learn to be a friend, to be kind. Not only will you be helping to make the world a better place, you may even, indirectly, be helping a procrastinating nun get something done. Or maybe not.

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Political Humility

The ugly scenes in the Commons yesterday may have left many wondering whether we can sink any lower. The terrible truth is, yes we can. Violent language too easily turns to violent deeds. We have only to think of the murder of Jo Cox to recognize how quickly whipping up hatred can lead to death and destruction. The only word I can find to describe the current situation in the U.K. is ‘chaos,’ and it doesn’t look a very creative chaos to me. It is, literally, shocking — shocking us out of our absurd beliefs about ourselves (decent, moderate people) our democracy (Parliamentary democracy, the best in the world) and our future, whether in or out of the E.U. (jam tomorrow, either way). The attempt to pitch Parliament against the people may succeed; we may end up with a country, or should I say countries, given that the Union itself must be at risk, more divided than ever before.

Where do the Churches stand in all this? Has any of them anything to say that is worth hearing? One may be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church is so involved with her own interior problems that she has scarcely registered what is happening to the nation as a whole. Here in the monastery we pray diligently and try to keep abreast of events, but we would be the first to admit that our engagement with politics is necessarily at one remove since we do not adhere to any party line nor take any part in any party political debate. I think our role must be to encourage others; to remind people of good will that not only does what is said or done matter, but also the way in which it is said or done; that actions have consequences; and that the common good is not ‘what’s best for me’ but something larger and more demanding. The section of the Rule of St Benedict that we read today is very pertinent, especially these words:

We descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility. And the ladder erected is our life in this world. (RB 7.7–8)

Humility may not be an obvious quality to associate with politicians but that is not to say it is unnecessary. Dare we hope that our M.P.s will take note? Will we pray that they do?

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Greta Thunberg and Climate Change

One would have to have been living on another planet not to be aware of Greta Thunberg and her campaign to make us all more aware of climate change and the urgent need to change our behaviour. So far, so good. As Benedictines, we are very conscious of the obligation to treat everything on earth with reverence. As individuals, we are convinced of the reality of climate change (Quietnun, being a scientist by training, is particularly eloquent on the subject) and try to ensure that everything we do as a community is consistent with that. But that does not mean that we endorse any one approach to the matter, or that we are entirely comfortable with the way in which some people argue their case. For instance, the exhortations of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, measured against their jet-setting lifestyle, are hardly compelling. The case of Greta Thunberg is much more complex.

Let me say at once that I myself am a little uneasy. What she says strikes me as being true and necessary, and there is a consistency about her conduct that speaks volumes not only about her but also about her family. I am not so sure that I agree with some of her methods, the school strikes being a particular worry of mine. Two things really trouble me, however. First, there is the question of manipulation. How far is she being used by others? At sixteen, she is having to deal with situations most of us would find difficult even at a much older age; and knowing that she has Asperger’s makes me wonder whether undue pressure is being put on her. Second, the amount of vicious scorn poured on her by older adults is completely indefensible. Sometimes it takes the form of outright attacks which betray the envy and hostility of the perpetrators; sometimes it takes the form of seeming concern for her well-being that fools no-one. What nobody can dispute is that Greta Thunberg has done more in a year to highlight the urgency and potential disaster of climate change issues than the rest of us have in over forty years.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with two very real concerns. Whenever a young person challenges the complacency of an older generation, there will be sparks. We all admire the fervour and courage of young people, but we do not always take them seriously or we find reasons to play down their importance. In the case of Greta Thunberg there is a danger that the message will be lost because of hostile reactions to the messenger. There is also the danger that she herself will be damaged by the experience she is currently undergoing. The media have a habit of fêting the latest novelty, be it person or idea, then dropping it equally quickly. Just as I think we have a duty to pray for wisdom and decisive action in the matter of climate change, so I would argue that we have a duty to pray for Greta Thunberg herself. We should be grateful to her; and we should care for her as we would for any other young person — more so, perhaps, because she is being exposed to demands and pressures that go far beyond the ordinary. Whether we agree with her is not the point: she is an exceptional person and our response should be akin to the challenge she presents.

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On Not Being Catholic Enough

Our retreat ended yesterday evening, so this morning I have begun the process of catching up. One of the first things I did was to run through some of the comments/prayer requests on our Facebook page. One in particular caught my eye. A reader questioned why we prayed about climate change (in connection with Friday’s protests) but did not add a prayer for the conversion of all to the one, true Catholic faith. I suspect that our answer, that we try with our daily, public prayer intentions to encourage a Christian perspective on what is currently engaging people of all faiths or none, will not have been found very satisfactory. Even the addition, that we have sometimes had to ask people to ensure that what they post in response is consistent with Catholic faith and practice (no arguing about Eucharistic theology or abortion on the prayer page, for example), may not have helped. I feel confident that our reader is sincere and genuinely puzzled, but I am not sure how best to answer the underlying question, which is how we should express our Catholicism publicly in such places as our prayer page.

One of the difficulties we encounter here at the monastery is that every Catholic tends to have an opinion about what other Catholics should believe and how they should behave — and we don’t always meet the mark. I defy anyone to say that we are not orthodox in our beliefs, but for some the authentic test of Catholicism is located somewhere else, in Eucharistic Adoration or saying the Rosary, for example. In vain do we protest that, as Benedictines, not only are we pre-Eucharistic Adoration and pre-Rosary, and have such a strong sense of the Eucharistic centre of our lives and the importance of Our Lady, that we don’t find either devotion necessary. The Divine Office, the practice of lectio divina and our personal prayer in the Bakerite tradition suffice. That is the living tradition of our monastic heritage. It is gospel spirituality, if you like, and one reason why I think we can be open to the graces and insights of other Christian traditions without sacrificing or playing down the uniqueness of our own; but for some it simply means that we aren’t Catholic enough.

I think I can live with that, but it still leaves unanswered the question about how we should express our Catholicism. We pray daily for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all our doings, but that is no guarantee that we always ‘get it right’. In fact, I agree more and more with Fr Jean Leclercq (a great Benedictine) that there are mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us make. I have never made any secret of the fact that I personally would love everyone to know the joy of believing, but God seems to have his own ideas about that, and I, for one, am content that he should do things his own way and in his own time. The role of a monastic community is unspectacular: to be responsive to God and walk humbly before him, to be followers, not leaders. If, in so doing, we can encourage others, that is all to the good. We may not be Catholic enough for some, but I would argue that the essence of Catholicism is to place God first and to be compassionate and merciful to all, not with our own love but with his. It is sobering, and heartening, to realise that we shall never look into the eyes of anyone God has not first loved and willed to be redeemed. Perhaps that is something we all need to hear.

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