St Augustine of Canterbury and the Gift of Piety

One of the paradoxes of monastic life is that we begin by knowing everything, and the closer we get to the end, the more we realise we know nothing at all. Yesterday a friend reminded me of something I had written a long time ago:

My novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper . . . . The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there. So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

That was, if I may say so, the gift of piety at work — or at least its beginnings. Piety is the gift for which we pray today in our novena to the Holy Spirit and one which St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast this is, possessed in abundance. He didn’t want to come to Britain and dawdled on the way, but as soon as Gregory the Great told him to make haste, he did. He didn’t much like what he found when he arrived, but he toiled away diligently. Miracles followed, and when Gregory expressed disapproval, Augustine made sure that they were not bruited abroad. To this day, they remain unknown. In short, Augustine learned day by day what his mission was to be and did his best to fulfil it, becoming in the process a great saint, one who loved the Lord with all his heart and desired to please him in everything. That is truly piety at work.

In popular parlance, being pious is almost a term of abuse. We tend to think of limp, Lydia Languishes of virtue, living horribly circumscribed lives and disapproving of everyone else. The more classically-minded think of pius Aeneas with all his trickery and often distant relationship with truth. The Church, however, has always been clear what she means by piety. It is what one might call an instinctive love and reverence for God that makes us want to worship him and do his will. It makes us want to be reverent; makes us want to be pleasing to God. It does not come all at once but it can be cultivated and grow. Piety is one of those gifts that require us to co-operate with grace. Its effect on others can be huge. Just think what St Augustine did for Christ in this country. Just think what we can do, too, (even, I daresay, in a hen-coop).

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Wisdom, Understanding and Counsel

Is it significant that during these nine days of prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit the first three are dedicated to the inter-related but often misunderstood gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel? You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it is. Although I have been re-posting a series on the gifts of the Spirit that I wrote back in 2016 and intend to continue doing so, this morning I was struck by how pertinent they are to a debate going on in the political sphere concerning the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and his recent flouting of the government’s avowed policy regarding lockdown. It may be possible, therefore, to add to what I’ve already written.

Let me say at once I have no interest in arguing the rights or wrongs of Mr Cummings’ conduct here. That is not the point of this post. Instead, I’d like to invite you to reflect on why we begin our novena to the Holy Spirit by asking for these particular gifts. Wisdom is a quality we associate with God himself, of course, and most of us are aware that we are not especially wise; understanding is something most of us seek but don’t always attain; but counsel, oh, how happy we are to give others the benefit of our opinion or advice! With what speed do we rush to inform others of our insights or share our experience! How confidently we assert our predictions for the future! But if we have neither wisdom nor understanding, our counsel is worthless. We must be filled before we can give to others.

I think that is why the Dominic Cummings affair is relevant to what we are doing now. He is a special adviser to Boris Johnson and, as such, bears a great responsibility to ensure that the advice he gives is sound. It is easy for us to criticize politicians and their advisers but if we are not praying for them, and in particular, if we are not praying for them to receive the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, we are not exactly helping, are we? We need wise government in both Church and State; we need understanding, and we need good counsel. This morning, may I suggest that we need to ask for these gifts not just for ourselves but for all whose conduct and decisions affect the lives of others — including those we find personally objectionable or unsympathetic?

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Broken Relationships | Building Community

Too much togetherness or too much distance often leads to the same thing: a broken relationship. Sometimes the break is temporary, sometimes permanent, and it is not for the outsider to judge or apportion blame. The world’s current experience of lockdown is placing new strains on many, but seventeen hundred years ago an ex-soldier and convert from paganism to Christianity named Pachomius introduced something novel into the life of desert ascetics who were physically or temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life: coenobitic monasticism. He grouped his monks into communities and provided common buildings for their use, with a rule of life based largely on the prayers they were to say together. He never lost his regard for the eremitical life but fostered the development of communal endeavours and in so doing provided an alternative to the rigours of a solitary existence, with all the dangers that poses to those who are not suited to it.

I wonder if we need a new Pachomius in Church and society today? Not literally, of course, but someone who will look with clear-eyed love at the suffering of those trying to conform to a way of life that is beyond them and yet who still desire to follow Christ and to be good and useful members of society. I have a hunch that a constant watering-down of what is asked of us may not be the best way to go. Most of us like a challenge, provided we find it do-able and not completely beyond our strength. The novices of a community are usually the ones who are least attracted to adaptations of the time-table or liturgy to accommodate senior members! In society more generally, there is an impatience with lockdown restrictions that reflects the keenness of youth to be up and doing. It is how we manage this that is proving difficult.

When we turn to the Church, we face particular problems. I often wonder whether the large, expensive, and sometimes cumbersome organization we call the Church is sustainable in the future. Some would argue that the future lies in smaller, less ‘traditional’ groupings, loosely modelled on monasticism. It is well-known that I have reservations about some of the so-called ‘new’ monastic communities — some, not all, and for reasons that go to the heart of what monasticism is — but the experience of living at a time when not just I but most of the Church is effectively unable to receive the sacraments must surely demand of the pope and bishops a response we have not yet received. How do we live in a world where the old structures, the old certainties, are crumbling? We talk about the ‘new normal’ and rightly so, because the ‘old normal’ will never return. A few clergy have expressed delight that they have larger congregations for live-streamed services than they used to have in church. Will those online congregations return to the pews, or will they fade away once lockdown restrictions are removed or amended? Who knows?

Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, when all is made new. This year, perhaps more than any other in my lifetime, I shall be praying for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the great mender of broken relationships, the great builder of community. Let us never forget that and think, mistakenly, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Our hope remains high because we depend on the Spirit.

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One Equal Love

No one likes a favourite, although most of us enjoy being someone’s favourite. The paradox is easily explained, at least in a family/community context. Our innate sense of justice is outraged when we see someone being treated better than we are for reasons that are not entirely obvious to us. What does my younger sister have that I lack that she should be so favoured? And so on and so forth. On the other hand, there is a certain secret pleasure to be derived from knowing oneself the beloved eldest son, for whom nothing is too good or too much trouble. Sometimes religious superiors do have favourites, more’s the pity, but not if they have read St Benedict on the subject. In the portion of the Rule we read today, chapter 2 verses 16 to 22, which you can listen to here, the abbot is given some very precise instructions about avoiding favouritism.

What is interesting is not so much the fact that Benedict endorses St Paul’s view that we are a new creation in Christ without any of the old distinctions applying as that he qualifies it. One equal love to be shown, one equal discipline to be imposed, yes, but. Someone found better in good works and obedience, in bonis actibus aut obedientia, does have a greater claim on the abbot’s love; the freeborn is not to be preferred to the slave unless there is some other reasonable ground for it, nisi alia rationabilis causa exsistat. The principle is clear: we are all one in Christ and serve alike under the banner of the same Lord, but the abbot must look at everything as God looks — and that’s where the nuances come in.

In God’s sight, says Benedict, we are distinguished for our good works and humility (RB 2. 22). I have heard some argue that that makes us at least semi-pelagians, but I don’t think it’s quite true. What I believe Benedict is trying to do is to encourage the abbot to take seriously his obligation to lead the community to grow in holiness — and that means both giving up his own personal preferences and studying the needs and talents of his monks. He is there to serve so he must make use of all his gifts, his powers of observation, his understanding of human nature, his judgement, to bring about the best result he can.

It is a difficult path to tread but familiar to many a parent or teacher. How to obtain the best from someone doesn’t necessarily mean equal shares of everything. In the Rule, for example, Benedict is very sensitive to the fact that some need more material goods, others fewer. What matters is to keep the end in view and to prevent any inequality in distribution acquiring a significance it does not have. Love is not measured out in pounds and pence or chocolate treats or what you will. Love hangs naked on the tree and makes us all sons in the Son. One equal love indeed.

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A Warning Against Hypocrisy

Yesterday I alluded to the portrait of the abbot as Christian leader in the first part of chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict and the different ways in which four abbots of Cluny exemplified its ideals. This morning I’d like to turn to verses 11 to 15 and their warning against hypocrisy.

Benedict tells us that the abbot must teach more by example than by words, especially when confronted with those of harder heart and duller understanding (people like me, in other words), and then goes on to insist that what he teaches, he must himself observe. So, there can be no two standards of observance in the monastery, one for the abbot and another for the other monks; no two interpretations of lockdown restrictions, one for government ministers and another for the rest of us; no two expectations of moral behaviour, one for men and boys, another for women and girls. Above all, there must be no preaching one thing and doing another.

It’s quite easy to become hypocritical without really meaning to. The origins of the word in Greek theatre provide the clue. We can play a part, pretend. Often our pretending is a sign of our wanting to be better, more interesting than we think we are. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’, whatever that might be. Sometimes, however, we are led to making judgements of others that have more to do with our not wanting them to be as good as they are rather than any just appreciation of their merits or defects. There is so much opinion floating around these days that we are frequently lazy about checking facts. We make assumptions, allow our ignorance to go unchallenged, do harm by not thinking things through.

What St Benedict wrote fifteen hundred years ago to guide the leader of a small community of men seeking to follow Christ is still relevant today. We have to guard against hypocrisy, but in ourselves rather than in others. Something to think about, I suggest, when tempted to call out the sins and shortcomings of others in social media and the like.

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How to be a Good Leader

St Benedict didn’t actually write anything with such a title, but his two chapters on the abbot provide some excellent guidelines — and not just for monastics. At a time when we are experiencing something of a crisis of leadership in the Western world, it’s good to think about what leadership is, how it acts in the service of others, the constraints under which it must operate and the co-operation it must have from those who are led if it is to achieve anything of value. The feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, about whom I have written often in the past, provides us with an opportunity to reflect anew on the relationship between authority and obedience, power and service; and by one of those neat co-incidences only heaven and the calendar can arrange, this morning we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot with its portrait of a wise and kindly leader whose daunting task it is to be ‘the representative of Christ in the monastery’. (RB 2.2)

Most people know that Cluny was the mother-house of what was, in effect, the first religious order in the Church, eventually numbering over 2,000 houses, including several in England. Many also know that there were so many monks at Cluny itself that they had to be divided into separate choirs, constantly singing the praises of God in a laus perennis. Inevitably, expansion created problems and by the time of the French Revolution, the Cluniacs were so identified with the Ancien Régime that they were ripe for suppression. If one goes to Cluny today one can see little of the abbey remains for most of it was demolished in 1810 and the stone carted away. It is not the buildings that made Cluny great, however, but the people.

Earlier, on Twitter, I tried to give something of the personalities and achievements of four of the abbots of Cluny. Listed in date order these are:

Maiolus was both librarian and cellarer (bursar) before becoming abbot of Cluny. He refused to become pope when Otto II wanted him to do so but concentrated on making his community observant and learned. #scholarship

Odilo was abbot of Cluny for 55 years. He was a peace-maker, introducing the notion of truce from Fridays to Mondays and in Advent and Lent. From 1028-1033 he had most of Cluny’s treasures melted down to relieve the poor. #generosity

Hugh was abbot of Cluny for 60 years, during which time the number of houses under him increased from c. 60 to c. 2000,., He was an influential mediator and papal diplomat but still took his regular turn as monastic cook. #humility

Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny for 25 years, argued against persecution of the Jewish people, defended Abelard, had the Quran translated into Latin so that Islam could be studied from its sources, and refused to have anything to do with the Second Crusade. #integrity

As expected, Peter the Venerable has attracted most attention because his concerns resonate with contemporary values, but I have a suspicion many monks and nuns will be more drawn to Hugh. Noreen Hunt paints an unforgettable picture of him cooking beans in the monastery kitchen, and kitchen duty or its equivalent tends to loom larger in our lives than international diplomacy or monastic empire building. I think that is a useful clue to the nature of genuine leadership. It is with those who are led. It shares our difficulties and aspirations even as it tries to guide us. In the case of the monastic leader, the path to be trodden is that of holiness and zeal. Benedict singles out for special care the teaching of the abbot and his responsibility for the way in which the community acts, or fails to act, on his words. It follows that his teaching must be clear, consistent and entirely in accordance with the gospel, marked with compassion, yes, but also firm about what is unacceptable.

That Cluny lasted so long and produced so many saints is testimony to the leadership and zeal of its abbots and the desire of the community to become holy or, as we might say today, the best it could. There were consequences for society in general, too, many of them helpful, like the efforts to reduce war and violence. I wonder how today’s secular leadership measures up to that in its service of the common good, its exercise of authority and its use of power. Ideas, anyone?

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Normal for Whom?

One of the ways in which I annoy my friends is by asking them not to include me in the photo- and video-sharing in which they delight. That is not asceticism as such, although anyone seriously trying to live monastic life needs to think about how they use their time, which belongs to the monastery just as much as their bodies and wills (cf RB 58.25 and passim on obedience). It is a consequence of rural broadband speeds being slow and unreliable. Those living in towns and cities tend not to be aware of the limitations this imposes. For example, all the excitement about live-streaming church services tends to become more muted where the fields and the furrows  take over from the tarmac. We are resigned to blurry images and hiccuping speech. Fortunately, we no longer have to go out into the garden and climb a ladder when we want to use a mobile, but we still suffer from breaks in the signal and the frustrations that follow. What this means in practice is that our definition of ‘normal’ is different from those who enjoy faster connection speeds or the facilities of a more urban environment. 

Where the Church is concerned, that is significant. It must be clear to everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for how we worship, how we celebrate the sacraments, and how we experience community; but how we interpret those consequences, and the ideas we take from them, will vary according to what is ‘normal’ for us. I wonder if that is where those who live in the countryside, whose incomes are often lower than those of town-dwellers and who have fewer choices, will lose out. If so, I think it is where the rural monastery has the possibility of a renewed flourishing. Time was when I assumed that the old ideal of a large monastery situated in the middle of nowhere, dependent on an agrarian economy, was a relic of the Victorian Gothic imagination, wholly unsuited to the world of the silicon chip. I still think the large monastery of former times is less likely, but the role of the rural monastery itself is more certain.

We think of ourselves here as small and insignificant, of no importance to the diocese and no interest to most of the people around us, but that may be to look at ourselves through the wrong end of the telescope. Here, day after day, prayer is made real; here, day after day, we try to live up to Benedict’s ideal of hospitality. Above all, the focus is not on us but on Christ; and that, surely, is where the eyes of the Church must always be. So, even if for many people living nearby their experience of church is now confined to those blurry live-streams in their living-rooms, we can say that here the Church has a living, beating heart, ready to embrace all. It may be somewhat obscure, it may not have the grandeur of the old monasteries or large public buildings we have tended to associate with the Church in the past, nor any of the silicon chip wizardry of online celebrations, but it is here. It’s normal for us. Could it become normal for others, too?

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The Language of Sacrifice: a new kind of Mass?

Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?

I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.

As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’. 

Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?

Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.

Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends. 

That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.

Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.

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Vocations Sunday 2020

The fourth Sunday of Easter, often called Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when the whole Church prays for vocations. Most often, vocations to the priesthood are meant, although in recent years vocations to consecrated (or religious) life have been included. You might think that this would be a safe topic to tackle in a blog post, but I can assure you, it isn’t always.

In the past, for example, I’ve been scolded for saying that I thought everyone was a vocation, inasmuch as we are all called into being by God and are unique and precious in his eyes. The particular way in which we live out that primary vocation — whether as a single person, married, ordained, a religious — is, I would argue, secondary and may change over time, according to our circumstances or the decision of the Church. What doesn’t change is God’s love for us and our need to respond to his love, whether we be lay, ordained or consecrated. 

Very softly, therefore, may I say that whoever you are who may be reading or listening to these words, you are loved by God and called to be part of his Church, and that is a wonderful vocation. It is, in fact, the most important vocation of all, because it makes you part of the Body of Christ — and we can never be more than that!

I can’t say anything about priesthood except that I pray daily for our priests and those training for the priesthood. You are a great gift to the rest of us. The way in which you live your vocation is humbling and inspiring, and the sacrifices you make are an indication of the generosity with which you serve. May you be blessed and encouraged, and may others join you!

Now I suppose I should say something about monastic life for women, but what? Recent church legislation has made it more difficult because one ends up trying to explain what one does not fully understand oneself. 

What I can say, and say with full conviction, is that being a Benedictine is the joy of my life and if you are trying to discern whether God is calling you to this particular form of service in his Church, then I think what Benedict says in chapter 58 of his Rule is clear, simple and helpful.

Our vocation is always to a specific community. We become Benedictines at X or Y and take on the colour and cast of the community we aspire to join. So, get to know the community. Read their web site (many would-be members of our own community omit this step), see if their way of living the Rule is one with which, over time, you think you could identify. Read the Rule — it will only take you an hour, if that. Ask questions. be prepared to learn. Above all, give the process time. Benedict tells the community not to give anyone an easy entrance but to test the spirits to see whether they come from God. That doesn’t mean putting obstacles in anyone’s way but rather taking seriously the need to discern along with the candidate for admission whether this is the right place for them. Can they grow in this way of life? Have they sufficient health? Are they ready to learn or do they already know all the answers? You get my gist.

What form monastic life for women will take in the future is matter for speculation, but I am certain it will never die out because God will always continue to call people to seek him through prayer, obedience and renunciation of the joys of marriage and children. What I might call the accidentals of monastic life — the clothes we wear, the language in which we pray the liturgy, the work we do — though far from negligible may change. What doesn’t change is our commitment to God and his commitment to us.

Perseverance isn’t a showy quality, but it is a necessary one. We are only gradually fashioned into what God desires to make of us, and at times it can be a messy and painful business. Many a novice has comforted herself with the thought that everything would be all right if it weren’t for the superior and the community, but they are precisely what we need, not just as novices but throughout our lives. We go to God together. Those we find annoying at twenty-five may still be annoying us, and being annoyed by us, at eighty-five. The difference is that we may have begun to see in them what God sees: the image of his Son. Because that is the point of monastic life: being transformed into Christ. Or, as St Benedict says at the end of his chapter on humility, ‘we shall come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear and begin to observe without struggle . . . all those precepts we did not previously observe without fear . . . for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB 7.68, 69)

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On Being a Contemplative

I don’t often use the word ‘contemplative’, partly because its history in the Catholic Church has not always been happy, forcing a divide between the so-called active Orders and the cloistered, or even being used to set up a false hierarchy of spiritual prowess in which the contemplative outranks everyone else, and partly because I’m not sure that those to whom I might use the word would understand by it the same thing that I intend. Nowadays nearly everyone seems to claim to be a contemplative so it probably doesn’t matter very much, but I still cling to the idea that contemplative prayer is simpler and less structured than formal meditation or the devotions that form the staple of many godly people today. It is also, in my experience, less visual.

This was brought home to me by a recent discussion on Facebook where a good friend suggested we might introduce a few images as background to our podcasts. You may have noticed that Facebook, like the BBC website, is increasingly geared towards video and the use of images . The problem for us is that we are not very good at the visual. Ours is what one might call a Word-centred spirituality in which lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of a text, is fundamental. Visual images can intrude on this process. Apart from anything else, we have comparatively few in the monastery, so those we see tend to stay with us, for good or ill. We don’t have a TV or (usually) watch films. We live in the same space, doing more or less the same things day after day. It is, some would say, a spartan existence as far as visual stimuli are concerned. In some ways, that makes us more sensitive to the world around us: the changing of the seasons, the beauty of garden and sky, the ordering of the monastery building, have an impact on us they might not on a more casual observer.

I don’t want to sound precious or over-complicated, but that is one reason why we are hesitant about using more images on our web sites or even this blog. The Word demands our full attention. Some people find an image helpful. For others it can be a distraction. I myself use images sparingly because they have a big impact on me. For example, Nicholas Mynheer’s marvellous painting of the mothers of Jesus and Judas embracing that I posted during Holy Week stays vividly in my mind; so, too, do others.

This morning, as I was thinking about St Athanasius whose feast-day this is, I realised anew that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the perfect visual, the perfect image, one who is both God and man. Who could improve on that? Not me, certainly.

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