One of the maddening things about other people is that they often have different priorities from us. Not only that, they have different tastes, different values, different habits. In a monastery, of course, there is the advantage of having the same goal in view, though how we achieve it is frequently a matter of dispute (also known as ‘chapter discussion’). Today in the U.K. we shall learn who is to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and so our next Prime Minister. Not everyone will be delighted with the result, nor will everyone share his priorities or agree with his decisions. With both national and international tensions bubbling over, we may be thinking that the situation in which we find ourselves is dire. Perhaps we need a reminder that prayer isn’t a matter of last resort, something we do when we can’t think of anything else. It is what we do first, a genuine priority. On days like this it is a necessity, pure and simple.
St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length.
When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.
When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.
*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.
In recent months, as my eyesight decreased and I went around in a frustrating blur of light and shade, I became more and more aware of sound. Listening to the Italian Quartet playing Mozart or the clear fluting of a local blackbird could almost reduce me to tears. Almost, but not quite. What did cause a moist eye was hearing hate-filled speech on the radio: cruel voices clamouring for vengeance and calling it ‘justice’ instead; others making rash accusations and false promises, denigrating, stirring up hatred, doing the devil’s work with unholy glee. Being unable to see made it so much worse. There was no opportunity to register facial expressions or those little details that sometimes make the actual words less ugly — the pinched face, the obvious poverty of the surroundings, even the politician’s crumpled suit or ashen countenance. The problem was, how to deal with it all without being drawn into a reactive anger myself.
The conventional, pious answer would no doubt be to pray and do what one can to present an alternative view — the prayerful activism of the committed Christian. I have no problem with that, but it wasn’t the way that suggested itself to me. As a Benedictine, my way was to go deeper and deeper into silence, letting the anger and turmoil ebb away until it was, practically speaking, noiseless and unable to do harm.
To choose silence and stick to it isn’t easy. It means checking one’s own first angry response, the desire to give a smart answer or argue a case one is convinced one will win because, of course, one is right. It means acknowledging one’s own helplessness in the face of something that seems very powerful and hostile. Silence does not immediately soothe. In fact, initially it makes everything much more painful. One feels more, not less. Only with time does one begin to see why silence is important. It allows God into a situation which otherwise is full of human noise and discord. More than that, it allows God to be God in that situation, not our idea of God, which can be misleading and dangerous.
At present there is a lot of violence and anger informing our political discourse, our online activities, even, alas, our social relations. Some will respond with the kind of activism I mentioned above. Others may find more helpful the practice of silence — not the easy, empty silence of the cowardly but the more challenging silence that finds its origin and fulfilment in God.
I have never really understood why Human Beans think PBGVs (Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen) know all about laziness. The first sniff of a rabbit at five thousand paces and we are away. The merest chink of kibble in the food bowl or covert unwrapping of a morsel of cheese and we are by our Human Bean’s side. Even here, where we stretch out in the sunshine of God’s presence, waiting for Them to turn up at the Pearly Gates and make our heaven complete, every nerve is alive, on the alert for everything happening down below; and I must say, recent events have made me realise what silly-billies most of you Human Beans are.
After much thinking, I have come to the conclusion that it is because you are ever so slightly . . . lazy. You want instant solutions that require no effort or exertion on your part. If you have a ‘comfortable shape’, you want to attain your ideal body shape in a matter of days, without the pain of changing your diet or exercise regime. You believe that all your problems will be solved if you can rid yourselves of ‘difficult people’ — the ones you don’t like or fail to understand. You can ridicule them as ‘pompous fools’ or tell them to ‘go back where they came from’ or simply behave so brutally that they will want to get away from you as fast as their little legs will carry them. (In the case of PBGVs, whose legs are indeed little, that is very fast indeed: try saying ‘Vet!’ or ‘Time for your grooming!’ if you don’t believe me.) Then there are those Human Beans who want others to do all the work for them. I call them Instant Gratification Grabbers or IGGs for short. Rather than read a book or even scan a web page, they will send someone an email asking for all the information they require on a certain subject and be grumpy and grudging if they don’t get an instant reply. I have sometimes thought about taking such Human Beans hunting with me, but it wouldn’t be much fun. You need patience to catch rabbits, and lots of persistence, but those who want instant answers wouldn’t know about that.
The big problem, as I see it, is with Human Beans who want Instant God. They want God to be created in their own image and likeness, doing their bidding whenever they deign to notice him. So, they are happy to ignore him most of the time, but the moment something nasty or difficult occurs, there he must be, the kind of God they want at that minute, all trendy and treacle-y, endorsing the latest fashionable fad without so much as a Commandment or Gospel precept to trouble or challenge them. They don’t like the effort that goes into preparing for prayer, so they opt for short-cuts of their own devising, and as for a life of virtue! Well, that is but a fetter on a free spirit, is it not? Even worse, in my view, if they aren’t up to this themselves, they spend their lives condemning those who are. Laziness isn’t very nice, but condemning others for their laziness is even less nice (and I can only do it because I am Beyond and love everyone because I have fulfilled my True Nature as a PBGV and am writing this as a kind of latterday Sermo Canis ad Anglos).
So, my friends, may I urge you to take stock a little and see whether you have fallen into the trap of wanting Instant God? Have you become a little lazy in your thinking and doing, a little lazy in your preparations for prayer? You don’t need to become complicated about it. Take a lesson from me and my pals up here. I mentioned the way we stretch out in the sunshine of God’s love. That’s all there is to it, really. No one close to Him wants to be anything other than His joy and delight. Yes, it takes effort, but never was effort more richly rewarded. The results are not instant but they last for eternity. 🙂
Note from Digitalnun
I’m very grateful to Bro Duncan PBGV for blogging today. I’m delighted to say I can now see with one eye but I have a mountain of admin to catch up with and a daunting amount of correspondence, too. Thank you for your prayers and good wishes, all of which have been much appreciated.
Forty days ago we began our celebration of Easter. It is not over yet, but today marks a special point. When Jesus ascends into heaven, all earthly limitations fall away. He, our High Priest, now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. Today’s readings are all about prayer, and I find in them a huge encouragement, for what is monastic life if not a life of prayer? Our prayer is now united with that of Christ himself and as such has a power and efficacy it would otherwise lack. He is the King of glory, the Lord of creation, the one who makes all things possible.
A personal decision
The reminder that monastic life is first and foremost a life of prayer makes this a good day for a small personal announcement. I have decided to take what I hope will prove a short break from blogging and social media. You do not need to be told that the community and I are praying, although I know many of you appreciate our attempts to share some of our reflections, etc
I have great difficulty reading and writing at present and find I am spending a lot of time on my own spelling mistakes. I know my typos are as irritating to others as they are to me. Under normal circumstances, I’d be glad to be told of errors but having to cut, paste and magnify everything sent to me is irksome and, to be honest, sometimes a little discouraging. So, rather than struggle to read tweets and messages, only to discover they are about my awful typing, I think it makes sense not to provide matter for dispute! I am hoping to have surgery on my eyes in the near future, so I shall be back annoying you — though not with typos, I trust — ere long, D.V. Please continue to use our 24/7 email prayerline for prayer requests and email the monastery about any other matter. Quitenun will do her best to maintain the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page.
If you did not see our May newsletter (the first for 18 months) you can read it using this link and, better still, subscribe to future issues: https://t.co/X1nHHfQ6CX
Finally, I’d like to mention something dear to my heart. We who live in the Golden Valley are privileged to have many fine churches on our doorstep but, like many small rural communities, we struggle to maintain them. Dore Abbey is a wonderful medieval survival badly in need of a new roof. Bro Duncan PBGV used to accompany us to Evensong there (dogs sit with their Human Beans in the pews) so I am sure he would endorse the appeal that has just been launched. I hope some of you will, too. Bless you! https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/doreabbey?utm_term=xnqZ7ndnY&fbclid=IwAR2zbSLvoLbWHMS-DXpmjBzMUpI0-Mn-TQ-DzTl6_blG1A8MaAOn-mOXJsg
In the past nine days, ten climbers have died on the crowded slopes of Mount Everest. By and large, the media have treated the personal tragedies each of those deaths represent as a matter for regret and censure for the Nepalese government. The subtext is a chaotic lack of organization, greed and an unpreparedness among some that amounts to folly. That narrative is one that fits the West’s competitive and commercial spirit. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Everest, you will scroll through paragraph after paragraph about expeditions to ‘conquer’ the mountain, routes to the summit and so on, until you come to a few short lines about the religious significance of the mountain for the majority of Nepalese and Tibetans. It is a holy place, a living goddess, not just a challenge, another peak to scale. Perhaps, like me, you will recall photos of the litter left by climbers and note, with some shame, that in April this year attempts began to clear another 10,000 Kg of waste. Is that how we treat the holy places of others?
Listening to today’s second Mass reading (Apocalypse 21. 10-14,22-23), which recounts John’s vision of ‘an enormous high mountain’ and the city of God descending from heaven, ought to make us think. Mountains have always been special places where the divine touches us. Sinai, Tabor, the ‘high places’ of Western Christianity, all have a story to tell that goes beyond rock and clay.
I wonder whether, in our obsession with winning and proving our physical stamina, we have lost sight of something more important. ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,’ sings the Psalmist. Until we recover that reverence, that sense of the holiness of the planet we inhabit, we shall never quite understand why we must forego some pleasures. Conservation isn’t just about cutting our carbon footprint or reducing our use of plastic — all things we or our governments essentially decide for ourselves — it is about realising that our very humanity obliges us to restraint, to a kind of humility that will never be popular and which most of us prefer to ignore. Hillary famously observed that he climbed Everest because it was there. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to, does it?
I have written so much about St Bede in previous years that this morning I want to offer only a single thought. We can easily become sentimental when we think of the young Bede and Abbot Ceolfrith diligently maintaining the Office in choir, or the old Bede sharing out his little treasures and insisting on writing one last line of the work on which he was engaged. We forget, or perhaps have never known, what it meant to be a monk in the Northumbria of the seventh and eighth centuries. The cold, the darkness, the monotonous diet. the routine of the monastery, endured cheerfully and with grace year after year in the quest for God — if we think about these at all, it is probably with a little romantic frisson of delight. How gloriously medieval! We forget or sentimentalise, but Bede knew and saw clearly; his life was not in the least sentimental. He was daily confronted with the reality of seeking God and finding him in his brethren and in every aspect of the life he led.
It was Bede’s fidelity and generosity in living his monastic vocation that made him a saint, not his learning or his charm or any of the things that we tend to associate with him. Above all, it was his patient obedience and the self-renunciation community life demanded that transformed him little by little. Substitute ‘family’ or ‘colleagues’ for ‘community’ and you will soon see where the matrix of sanctity lies for you — a lesson we can all learn from St Bede.
Today, when Theresa May is widely expected to announce that she is stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party and setting out a timetable for her resignation as Prime Minister, there will be a renewed rush to assess her time in office by the criteria of success and failure. I often wonder what we mean by that. Is it as simple as saying, she said she would do something but didn’t (failure) or she did something she said she would (success)? What happens when someone does something we were not expecting? Does our attitude change, according to whether what is done or not done corresponds to our own ideas?
I began with the example of Theresa May because it is topical, but this post is not about politics but the subjectivity we bring to our judgements. Long, long ago, before I became a nun, my banking colleagues would often mutter the phrase, ‘Now we must be objective about this’ before proceeding to act on some apparently irrational basis. Though no-one would ever admit it, the decisions they made often turned out to be just as effective as those where the number-crunchers had sweated days and nights trying to provide rational, and hence demonstrable, grounds for doing something. All this is rather unsettling to those who like to believe that their way of thinking and decision-making is unarguable. Take, for example, the invocation of science by those who are not themselves scientists. Quietnun can become quite impassioned about those who think that science ‘proves’ an assertion is ‘right’. Her background in biochemistry means she lives in what might be called an ever-expanding intellectual universe, where she is constantly being encouraged to consider possibilities she had not previously imagined. Success and failure don’t come into it: the search is all in all.
Can we apply any of that to our own lives? Here at the monastery we quite often hear from people who think their lives are a failure because they haven’t managed to do something or other, and it would be foolish and fundamentally dishonest to pretend that the choices we make have no part to play in what happens to us. But many things are beyond our control. We didn’t decide our genetic inheritance, or the time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We do the best we can, but it must be the best. I do think, however, that we should be cautious about accepting the values we see in the society in which we live and judging our ‘best’ by them. Success in the West tends to be seen in material terms, even among those who would describe themselves as religious. The more we have, the more successful we are. Owning a big house and driving a fast car is a mark of our success. Even religious communities/clergy can play that game, boasting of the number of vocations they have received or the number of people who attended services. Failure is identified with loss.
As soon as I say that, you can see where I am going. When the Son of God became man, he stripped himself of the glory that was his. He accepted rejection and endured a painful death on the Cross. But he was no failure. Nor are we in God’s eyes if we seek to be true to Him.
Yesterday I intended to ask a number of companies for quotations for the monastery’s insurance and arrange for our car to have a mobile M.O.T. Nothing too strenuous, you see, to allow me to fulfil my monastic duties and deal with a backlog of correspondence. What I actually did was contact a number of builders regarding the urgent replacement of some windows, re-paint a laundry pulley, realise that the end of our financial year is almost upon us (so I’ll have to find a way of dealing with various reports) and performed a corporal work of mercy in the vegetable patch by watering some very dry plants. My guess is that most readers could identify with that in general, if not with the specifics. We are constantly having to drop what we think important in order to deal with the urgent. The secular-minded call it ‘going with the flow’, the more religiously-inclined tend to dignify it as responding to what God asks of us here and now.
Part of me agrees with that, of course. We must always be on the alert for what God is actually asking, rather than what we would like God to be asking; but, to be honest, there are times when we wish that God could have another agenda for us. Unfortunately, dwelling too long on the ‘if onlys’ of life tends to make us selfish. Most of us have more than enough to make us profoundly grateful. I know I do. This morning, as I contemplated my trifling irritations, I was chastened by the thought of what others are suffering: those bewildered by grief; those living in poverty; those who don’t have any security whatsoever. Going with the flow is fine, but it would be an immense pity if it made us indifferent to others or lessened our sense of gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. An obvious thought, perhaps, but we can’t always be deep, can we?
I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.
During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.
Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.
Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?
Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.