Being Welcoming in a Time of COVID

Photo by Hombre on Unsplash

A Reality Check on Being Welcoming

I must admit that every time we re-read RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, I linger over its opening phrase: all guests are to be received tamquam Christus, as though Christ. This identification of the guest with Christ forms a kind of refrain throughout the chapter and has inspired many a writer to wax lyrical about Benedictine hospitality. It has also sometimes led to unreal expectations on the part of the guest, depending on how he or she sees Christ, and on the part of the one doing the welcoming. We all believe we would drop everything to welcome Christ, but in practice, this side of the Second Coming, meals still have to be cooked, rooms cleaned and all the unseen work of the monastery continued, no matter how much we want to lavish attention on the guest — or how much the guest wants our attention.

St Benedict’s Teaching on Hospitality

The Rule’s rituals of welcome — prayer, the kiss of peace, sharing food, washing the weary traveller’s hands and feet, reading scripture — and the exhortations to humility and kindness combine to produce an impression of austere but dignified welcome, very suited to sixth-century Italy but perhaps not quite so well suited to twenty-first century Europe or North America. We tend to want to be more ‘spontaneous’, more tactile even, and meeting the spiritual needs of the guest is rarely the first thought that crosses our mind. Taking hospitality online, as we have during the past twenty years or so, introduces new complexities. How much time should we give; how should we respond to the difficult, argumentative or downright rude? In short, how do we find new ways of being genuinely welcoming while at the same time preserving the very thing that makes our hospitality worthwhile in the first place, namely, our existence as a monastic community, dedicated to searching for God and helping others to search for him, too. Now there is COVID, and the situation has become more complex still.

The Effect of COVID

We are meant to be social beings but COVID has made us wary of one another. There has been a lot of isolation and loneliness to cope with; and for those who are most at risk if they catch COVID, there has been the added burden of trying to reconcile a warm welcome with a prudence easily misunderstood or ridiculed. Even the wearing of a mask to protect others can be derided. With Advent and the prospect of more mingling over the festive season, is there anything we can derive from St Benedict’s teaching on hospitality that might be useful to all, not just monks and nuns?

I think one of the most important things to take away from chapter 53 is the setting of boundaries. Just as the abbot must ensure that his community is not unduly troubled by guests, so the guest must moderate his or her expectations in the light of what is possible. The emphasis on the spiritual side of hospitality may not be fashionable but it is a reminder that everything we do has a spiritual aspect. So, our domestic festive gatherings may not be as uncomplicated as in past years but they can still be warm and generous because they are filled with love of God and of his children. It is not unreasonable, if clinically extremely vulnerable, to ask guests to take a lateral flow test before coming to one’s house. It is not unreasonable to reduce the number of people invited or re-think the kind of food and drink offered, so that there is less risk of contamination (e.g. via dips). These are small things but together they make a greater whole. Welcoming others in time of COVID may take a different form from the one with which we are familiar, but it can still be one of the most beautiful experiences in life, both for the welcomer and for the welcomed.

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The Oratory of the Heart

Light in the Darkness

The last few days have not been easy for anyone. Here in the UK we have had storm damage and power-cuts, seen the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID variant, and been battered by seemingly endless revelations of sleaze, corruption and unimaginable brutality, as in the case of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Add to that the personal tragedies and disappointments that do not usually make the headlines and the world begins to seem an unfriendly place. Advent has already reached the point of being cold, dark and wearing. The silence and mystery that so enthused us at the beginning has become for many more of a torment than an inspiration. We are crushed by the demands made upon us, irritated by the misunderstandings and criticisms that come our way, longing for light, warmth and peace. Then we read today’s section of the Rule, RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, and are shaken out of our negativity.

The Oratory of the Monastery

Most Benedictines care very deeply about their church or chapel and are meticulous in both their preparations for and performance of the liturgy. A crease in the altar linens, an obviously unpractised antiphon, a hurried reading — none of these will ever go unnoticed, by nuns, at any rate. Only the best is good enough for the Lord, and we are in the oratory several times a day, so that seeking to do and be the best we can is a constant in our lives. But there is more to it than that. If you read Benedict’s text carefully, you will see that the essential feature of the oratory is the reverence with which we make use of the space and time given us in which to pray. Reverence does not depend on the beauty of our surroundings, an emotional response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, nor even the amount of time available to us. Reverence comes from the heart, and it is the oratory of the heart that truly matters, for it is there that the Holy Spirit dwells and turns our every prayerful impulse into prayer according to the mind of God.

The Oratory of the Heart and its Transformative Power

All of us need encouragement much more than we need rebukes or criticisms. A heart open to God’s word and filled with his love and compassion cannot be negative or harshly judgemental. May I suggest that today, instead of considering all that is wrong in ourselves or in others, we allow God’s grace to work away quietly within us, making an oratory of our heart where he can delight to be. It is not only we who may be transformed.

. . . the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons. . .

They will hallow the Holy One of Jacob,
stand in awe of the God of Israel.

(from today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 29.17-24)
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Preparing for Advent

Who does not love Advent? The beauty of the liturgy, the haunting quality of the ancient chants we sing, the darkness, the silence, the mystery, they all combine to produce a sense of anticipation. Something very great and wonderful is about to happen. And then Christmas comes, and the mystery is revealed, and it is ‘only’ the birth of a child in awkward circumstances against a backdrop of political skullduggery and religious squabbling. The feast is barely here before most people seem to be taking down their Christmas decorations and thinking about holidays in the sun. I exaggerate, of course. Some of us do not begin to celebrate Christmas until the afternoon of Christmas Eve and will spend the octave looking at the mystery of the Incarnation and all that follows from it. Epiphany will burst upon us with its tria miracula, and only with the Baptism of the Lord will we formally say farewell to the Christmas season, with a last ‘look back’ at Candlemas. In the meantime, what do we do about Advent? How do we link this holy season with what comes after? How do we genuinely make it a time of preparation?

Advent sometimes gets passed over too lightly. Instead of seeing it as a way of deepening our understanding of the reality of what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, it has often become drenched in sentimentality and superficiality — a kind of ‘Christmas already’ but without Christ. It is too early for mince pies and Christmas carols, but we tend to ignore the riches the Church sets before us and wonder why Christmas, when it does come, is almost an anti-climax. We are bored with the Christmas story before we have even heard it properly. We may need to remind ourselves that Advent is a time for reading and reflecting on the scriptures that provide the context for what happens on Christmas day, for asking ourselves what the coming of the Messiah means to us personally as well as to the world. It is a time for registering that disappointment and failure are part of the Christian story, that ordinariness is shot through with grace.

So, in these last few days before Advent begins, may I suggest spending a little time thinking about how to make the most of the season? It will be a busy time, with many demands made on us. We cannot avoid the commercialism that besets us on every side, but we can turn it to good by ensuring that our own focus is on what truly matters. To read each day the Mass lessons; to ‘waste’ a little time in silence and recollection if we can; to scale down our expectations; these are all tried and trusted means of ensuring Advent does its work in us. For that is the point. It is not what others do but what we do that makes Advent fruitful, that prepares us for the coming of our Saviour.

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Eat, Drink and Be Merry the Monastic Way

Medieval Monasticism and Food

Go to any medieval monastic site and you are likely to find a display board which talks about monastic kitchens and food in a way meant to amuse as well as inform. There may be mention of the extraordinary quantities of food consumed (thank you, Barbara Harvey) or the use of pittances (extra portions of luxuries such as wine, fruit or nuts served on feast days such as Christmas or Easter). Sometimes there is a mildly disapproving reference to the meat-eating that went on in the frater or refectory for the sick. Undoubtedly, most monks and many nuns ate better, or at any rate more copiously, than their peasant counterparts. We forget the other side of the picture: the frequent fasts, the cold and damp, the fact that even in the cloister, there could be imbalances because what was available locally might not always be the best choice nutritionally. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of the monotony of their diet: the endless beans cooked at Cluny or the sameness of the fish consumed at Ely in the earlier years. Then there are the delightful surprises: Boniface sending a barrel of beer to Fulda for a ‘merry day among the brethren’ or an unexpected gift of cherries or spiced wine to mark a friendship or in thanksgiving for a favour received. What is more rarely averted to on these display boards are the chapters of the Rule of St Benedict we have just been reading about the measure of food, its preparation and service, the measure of drink, the times of meals, and the allowances to be made for the sick, the elderly and children. These are the context for monastic food, for the fasting and feasting that alternate in our lives.

Food and Drink in the Rule of St Benedict

What I think is striking is that Benedict devotes so much attention to food and drink in the first place. There is a very clear link between what we eat, how we eat, when we eat, and the liturgical life of the community. The kitchen servers, for example, begin their week of service with a triple blessing. To be excluded from the common table is a painful sanction, a form of excommunication. The cellarer, who is responsible for ensuring that the community is adequately fed, is reminded of the religious significance of his task: he must look upon everything entrusted to him as though sacred altar vessels, and the people he serves as having unique dignity and importance, never to be neglected or treated harshly. Meals are to be simple but such that everyone can share them, accompanied by reading so that their eucharistic character is maintained. It is in the abbot’s power to increase the allowance of food or drink if he judges it appropriate, and the sick, the elderly and children are explicitly exempted from the more rigorous aspects of the Rule’s teaching. All this amounts to a considered policy which recognizes the importance of food and drink and a humane approach to the community’s everyday life. There is discipline, care to avoid excess, but no intention of inflicting misery. We are to enjoy food and drink as we enjoy all God’s gifts.

The Situation Today

I once stayed in a monastery — admittedly not Benedictine — where the idea seemed to be that eating should be as unpleasant as possible. I felt as awkward as I had when attending a meal conspicuous for its excess. Both extremes make food the centre of attention and that is rather sad. Yet it is interesting how often what monks and nuns eat is the subject of discussion and sometimes censure, and perhaps it is our own fault. We don’t usually write about eating baked beans on toast but we do note the festive celebrations and the appearance of various delicacies on our tables. I have done so myself, quite recently, too; but it is not the whole story. Most monastic communities have taken to heart the need to provide a sound diet, as free from chemical additives and processing as possible, with only occasional luxuries. In a world where many go hungry, to do otherwise would be an insult to God. But we need to recognize that having the ability to make such choices in itself places us in a privileged position. I am glad, therefore, that every meal, no matter how inconsequential (and believe me, supper on fast days is decidedly ‘short commons’!) is preceded and followed by grace: a prayer of blessing beforehand and thanksgiving afterwards. That, and support for our local food bank, are a reminder that everything we have and are comes from God and is to be shared with others. That is the source of our joy, our merry-making, our true delight.

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Perseverance

The Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year is ‘perseverance’. Blithely ignoring the fact that most people probably associate the word with NASA’s Perseverance Rover and Mars, I’d like to bring us firmly down to earth by thinking about its meaning and how it applies to monastic life and, indeed, life generally.

‘Perseverance’ means going on steadfastly, despite difficulty or limited or no success in achieving a goal. The medieval origins of the word bear additional notes of strictness and resolution. Clearly, perseverance is not to be trifled with. It has a severe, determined face and can make huge demands on the individual. In the monastery, it is recognized as a necessary quality and has even given its name to the questioning of a novice’s intentions regarding commitment to the monastic life. Three times during his/her novitiate, the novice comes before chapter and is asked whether he or she wishes to continue seeking God in the monastery. If the answer is in the affirmative, a further period of probation is allowed before vows are made.

To persevere is therefore a daily re-engagement, a daily re-commitment. It is unshowy and unspectacular but the only way to ensure genuine growth. As with monasticism, so with marriage or anything else we value. Sticking at something through the proverbial ‘thick and thin’ isn’t a mark of lack of imagination but rather the reverse. It is a is an indication of hope and trust and belief — in God, in people, in ourself, even. It is, in its own humble way, a key to the Kingdom.

Today’s Feasts:

We celebrate today the feasts of St Hilda, St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Hugh of Lincoln, all well-known in various ways, and for those of more curious liturgical mind, St Nerses of Armenia. If you follow the link below, you will find three posts on St Hilda which throw a sidelight on the subject of this post as well. To attain holiness without perseverance is an impossibility and it has nothing whatever to do with ‘success’.

https://www.ibenedictines.org/?s=St+Hilda

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A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

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Compassion not Condemnation

No one who reads today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 27 On the Abbot’s Special Care for the Excommunicated, can feel easy about condemning others. Again and again, Benedict advocates patience, reaffirmation of love and support for the wobbly one, and is reminded of the example he himself must follow, that of the Good Shepherd who carried the straying sheep back to the flock on his own sacred shoulders (RB 27. 9, a telling addition to the gospel narrative). The emphasis is not on what the excommunicate must do in order to be reintegrated into community but what the abbot and community must do.

How often do we demand that another person change, show repentance or remorse, conform to our standards of acceptable behaviour and become what we require them to be? It is an arrogance that goes beyond the individual. We have seen something of the same in the run-up to COP26. Most people in the U.K. agree that caring for the environment and being good stewards of natural resources are important, but the methods adopted by Insulate Britain, for example, to force attention on their case have had a mixed reception. There has been a clashing of rights which reflects a clash of interests. At COP26 itself, the division in interest between rich and poor nations has been stark at times. Those of us living a comfortable life in the West don’t really know what it is like to live with sea levels just two metres below our country’s land mass and, as one delegate put it, no hill to run to if they rise.

Only a very wise person, or a very foolish one, would claim to know how to solve the challenge of climate change, but we must do the best we can. When dealing with those who are unconvinced, or whose self-interest is apparently opposed to our own, we need all the qualities an abbot must show when confronted with disruptive behaviour in an individual: patience, support, readiness to act. Above all, we need to show compassion rather than condemnation, a willingness to listen and, where we can, compromise.

Over to you, but, please, no angry rants. They won’t be published.

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De Disciplina Psallendi | The Discipline of Singing the Psalms

Although it is generally agreed that the chapter titles in the Rule of St Benedict are a later addition, they often throw fresh light on the subject Benedict is writing about. Take today’s section of the Rule, for example. McCann paraphrased the title of chapter 19 as ‘The Manner of Saying the Divine Office’, which is fine, but doesn’t convey the crispness and point of the Latin. De Disciplina Psallendi reminds us that singing the psalmody of the Divine Office is instructive, not something we take up accidentally or without registering its significance. It requires all that is implied by the English word ‘discipline’: focus, attention, listening to others, holding back our own dulcet tones, possibly, to achieve harmony, hard work. It is a discipline that changes us. Singing the psalms, entering into the prayer of Christ himself, hour by hour, day by day, enlarges our understanding and compassion. We learn how to celebrate the beauty of creation, the mirabilia Dei, give thanks, acknowledge our sin and plead for forgiveness, experience the desolation of God’s apparent absence, know the depths of our tawdry desire for vengeance. We cannot hide from God or ourselves when we sing the psalms. They are the song of a free people, people God has claimed as his own, a little taste of Eden and of the heaven to come

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Assisted Dying Bill: Do You Trust the Government?

Discussion of the Present Bill

Discussion of the proposed changes to the law envisaged by the Assisted Dying 2021 Bill, now facing its second reading in the House of Lords, has been fairly predictable. Lawyers, philosophers, religious leaders, medical practitioners, disabled advocacy groups, politicians and others have all had something to contribute on both sides of the argument. There have been harrowing tales of people dying in agony, usually from the perspective of a near relative, distressed at what they were witnessing; eloquent pleas to be freed from pain coming from the very sick; haunting articulation of vulnerability from those who fear that allowing assisted dying might easily lead to pressure to comply with another’s decision or, worse still, have no power of deciding for oneself at all. At its best, the discussion has been honest and respectful; at its worst, it has degenerated into abuse of those who think differently.

Trust

One of the big questions that has often been glossed over, however, is that of trust. Not just trust in the medical profession or one’s nearest and dearest but trust in the Government and its readiness to protect its citizens. Having seen the shameful way in which the present British Government placed elderly and vulnerable care home residents at risk in the earlier stages of the COVID outbreak, I am not as sanguine as I might once have been about the ‘robust measures’ to be put in place if the bill becomes law. Does no one really think that if it were to a government’s economic or political advantage, it might use the system, so to say, to rid itself of some non-productive elements (people, to you and me)?

Manipulation of Facts

One of the consequences of climate change is that pressure on resources increases. Who would like to guess whether that might also add another ingredient to the mix? Encouraging Uncle Henry to take the honourable route out of life when he is old and frail is one thing, perhaps, but resentment of the elderly and sick stirred up in recent years, especially during lockdown, has wider implications. Have you noticed that death from COVID is not often presented straightforwardly as a COVID death but given some interesting qualifications. We are usually told that the deceased had ‘underlying health conditions,’ as though that made his/her death less important, less of a human tragedy. There is some manipulation of facts here in the way the figures are presented but we seem to be deadened to its significance in other areas of life — or am I being unduly cynical?

A Personal View

You will understand that I do not think of human beings as disposable items and am personally unhappy with both the underlying premiss and some of the concrete proposals of this bill. I have argued the same when discussing some previous iterations of this bill. That is not my purpose this morning. I pray for those debating the bill; I pray for those affected by its outcome — in other words, for all of us. Whatever decision is made in this instance, many of the questions the bill touches upon, including rights over one’s body and the role of the State, have far-reaching implications, but we are not always as wise as we would like to be.

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