Yesterday was a difficult day for many people. Unless there is some on-going horror to be worked through, the dawning of another day changes the mood and gives perspective. In the West, a decent night’s sleep or an unexpected kindness can prove transformative. They remind us what whimsical creatures we are and how apt to let the enemy of the moment, be it pain or muggy weather or some disappointment, dominate our lives.
Yesterday I stayed off social media because I was feeling a little below par myself and was surprised this morning to see how many people had not only been having a bad day themselves but had been busy sharing their irritation with others. Sometimes the way that irritation is expressed speaks volumes, especially when listened to with the ear of love and attention. Of course, it is quite a big ask to listen to a ‘moaner’ lovingly and attentively! (Please note the use of quotation marks.) Sometimes, with the best will in the world, we can only conclude that they are out of sorts; sometimes we can glimpse a deeper pain within — and it does nothing to assuage that pain to talk about how much worse must be the experience of those in less affluent parts of the world. Pain is pain.
One aspect of monasticism that is not always sufficiently recognized is that monks and nuns withdraw from the world, so to say, in order to be closer to it. Many people ask us for prayers, often specifying a particular outcome they desire. There is no harm in that and much that is good; but monastic prayer has to go beyond such specifics. It has to embrace all the pain and hurt, sin and failure, difficult days and disappointments, that we experience as human beings. I do not know what it is like to be a parent in Ethiopia watching my child die of starvation; I do not know the despair of someone locked into an over-crowded prison cell in South America; I do not know the agony of decision-making of someone who feels they must choose this minute between two evils. I do not know, but my own experience of difficulty and of a gracious God whose love and mercy are beyond anything I could ever dream or imagine, mean that these unknowns can be brought into prayer.
Giving a Difficult Day Time
If a difficult day merely turns us in on ourselves or makes us snappy with others, we need to give it more time. Not everything is made plain all at once. Just as we grow physically and mentally over the years (or, at least, I hope we do), so does our understanding and our ability to use that understanding for good. We learn to reflect as well as react. We can turn a difficult day into a learning day. That may sound trite and obvious but with the challenges the world faces, it is not to be despised. Let us continue to pray for the G7 Summit, for those whose decisions affect us most personally, for ourselves and our impact on others. And as for those seemingly intractable problems, those we personally can do nothing about, let us entrust them to the mercy of God. God knows, and God will.
Every time I read of the latest manifestation of ‘wokeness’, I am inclined to groan and pass on to something more interesting. It seems but a short step from ‘wokeness’ to ‘cancelling’, and both strike me as being absurd. Should we spend time even thinking about them?
If an American citizen wants to remove a portrait of the Queen from an M.C.R., I merely ask myself if she will achieve as much in her lifetime as Elizabeth II. If 150 dons decide that they will not teach anyone from Oriel unless the Fellows remove a statue of Rhodes, I simply lament the intellectual and moral cowardice, as I see it, of those who believe in silencing others rather than engaging in proper debate. In such cases, I might even go so far as to sing the merits of the Little Place in the Fens, although it certainly doesn’t have a faultless record.
What, however, I’m forced to acknowledge is the power of sign and symbol, and the ambiguity of many of those in current use. For example, ‘taking the knee’ as a protest against racism causes me no difficulty, even if some of those using it are doing so without any great depth of conviction (who can tell?). It is a beautiful gesture, taken from Byzantine court ritual and subsequently incorporated into Christian worship. If, however, it is used to identify with the political aims of the BLM movement, I find that much more troubling.
There is no need to multiply examples. When the G7 summit opens tomorrow, one of the challenges the leaders will face is the different way in which they express and interpret values and motivation. Let us pray they are not too woke for their own (and our) good but achieve something of substance for us all.
The tenth degree of humility, which we re-read in today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7.59, always seems to cause trouble. Why should we not laugh? Is Benedict really such a sourpuss? The answer, of course, is to be found in an understanding of sixth-century culture. The laughter we are being warned against is the laughter of scorn and derision, the empty cackling of the fool, not the joyful and life-enhancing laughter of those who see the funny side of life.
Before we pass on to something of more consequence, perhaps we should pause for a moment and consider our own conduct. How often do we end up using laughter as a way of dismissing others, substituting ridicule for respect? A gentle tease can easily get out of hand; a snappy retort in social media can do more harm than we realise. No one is suggesting that we should forego spontaneity, but we may need to do a ‘rain check’ every now and then. Cheerfulness and good humour are true blessings. Let’s make the most of them and not hurt others with our insistence on being funny at their expense.
Personal Update I’m very grateful to be back at the monastery after my latest hospital stay. Thank you for your prayers. The ‘new normal’ is evolving.
Today many of the most awkward restrictions of lockdown in England will come to an end, and people will be free to mix in a way that hasn’t been possible for months. There will be much relief, a certain amount of rejoicing and perhaps a little anxiety among those who know that a dose of COVID-19 could be a death-sentence for them or those they love. Here at the monastery we shall be maintaining some of the restraints we have been practising throughout the past year, including visitors ‘by appointment only’. That may sound unfriendly, but it is a reflection of the difficulty my health places the community and me in.
During the past three and a half months there have been a few little blips, with the result that I am now unable to walk more than a few steps without becoming very breathless. A ‘phone conversation is only manageable if I know in advance someone is calling and I can prepare by sitting down and not attempting to do anything else for a few minutes. I tire quickly and, unfortunately, even if I can sleep, it isn’t restorative. All this is par for the course for people with advanced cancer and/or major respiratory illnesses. One consequence, I’m sorry to say, is that I tend to avoid face-to-face meetings and have gone from being a bad correspondent to a very bad correspondent. I value your letters, email and messages, but even if I had no other claims on my time, it would be impossible for me to answer them all; and in a small community such as ours, there is no one else to do so.
Health, however, is not essential to happiness in the way the Holy Spirit is, so please read on.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Novena we Pray
In May 2016 I tapped out a series of posts on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as the community prayed for them each day during the Novena; and I’ve often written about individual gifts at other times. You can find the original sequence of posts by using the search box on this blog. Today I offer you just a few, rather dry thoughts on the subject.
The nine days before the feast of Pentecost are very precious. They allow us to pray earnestly for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the renewal of his gifts within us. We are asking for a radical transformation of ourselves and of the world in which we live. Just think for a moment. What would we — or the world in general — be like if we were filled with wisdom, understanding, right judgement, fortitude, knowledge, piety (in the sense of reverence), and fear of the Lord (in the sense of wonder and awe)?
St Thomas Aquinas said that four of these gifts — wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and right judgement — direct the intellect, while the remaining three — fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord — direct the will towards God. He links them to the seven capital virtues. Of course, we can go further and, following the Vulgate, consider the twelve fruits, or rather, the twelve manifestations of the fruit [singular], of the Holy Spirit : charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity. (This list enlarges on the one Christians of all traditions will be familiar with from Galatians 5. 22–23, where St Paul lists nine visible attributes of Christians as the fruit [singular] of the Spirit). There is more than enough there to reflect on over the days before Pentecost, but I would like to add one further thought.
The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is the Spirit of Truth. Truth is not always comfortable. In fact, it can be difficult to accept and make us feel naked and defenceless. If we look at the world around us, how much untruth there is, how much defensive posturing! When we pray for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, perhaps we should be praying above all for this gift of truth, both in our own hearts and minds and in the heart and mind of every person on earth. Have we the courage to do so? Do we dare to be happy?
Yesterday Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Antiquum Ministerium, formally instituting the lay ministry of catechist. As you will see if you read the document, he is at pains to stress that this is a lay ministry:
6. The lay apostolate is unquestionably “secular”. It requires that the laity “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (cf. SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 31). In their daily life, interwoven with family and social relationships, the laity come to realize that they “are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (ibid., 33). We do well to remember, however, that in addition to this apostolate, “the laity can be called in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy, like those men and women who helped the apostle Paul in the Gospel, working hard in the Lord” (ibid.).
The role played by catechists is one specific form of service among others within the Christian community. Catechists are called first to be expert in the pastoral service of transmitting the faith as it develops through its different stages from the initial proclamation of the kerygma to the instruction that presents our new life in Christ and prepares for the sacraments of Christian initiation, and then to the ongoing formation that can allow each person to give an accounting of the hope within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). At the same time, every catechist must be a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue, who teaches for the Church. Only through prayer, study, and direct participation in the life of the community can they grow in this identity and the integrity and responsibility that it entails (cf. Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis, 113).
The only problem I have is not so much with the pope’s intentions as to how his instructions will be received by those to whom they are addressed. Are we going to see a further clericalisation of the laity? Years ago, I remember reading a great deal about the restoration of the permanent diaconate, how it would function quite differently from the transitional diaconate, but it didn’t universally work out like that. In some dioceses even the wearing of a clerical collar was prohibited; in others the new deacons appeared indistinguishable from priests, ‘all black and breviaries’ as one old nun said with a sigh.
We now have three lay ministries — lector, acolyte and catechist — and one wonders how they will develop in the post-pandemic Church. Evangelisation is as necessary as ever, and lay leadership of priestless communities is a ‘given’ in many parts of the world, but I have a suspicion that, initially at least, our understanding and development of these ministries will follow a familiar and ultimately clerical pattern. Perhaps that is the real challenge of Pope Francis’s decision: to pray and work for a fresh understanding of a role that has been with us from the beginning, of bringing others to faith, of sharing the riches of grace.
The feast of the holy abbots of Cluny rarely excites the imagination of anyone outside the cloister. A few liturgists may perhaps refer to them in passing, those who know something of the story of Abelard and Heloise will probably smile at the mention of Peter the Venerable, but, by and large, they are all ‘long ago and far away’. Even my attempt to sketch a pen-portrait of four of them on Twitter this morning may have confused or bored as many as it enlightened. The trouble is, we are not very good at integrating history into our everyday lives or seeing the relevance of the past to the present. Instead of seeking to understand or explain the cruelties and injustices of Black Slavery, for example, we prefer to do away with any of its relics, from statues to church monuments, because that lets us off the hook of really engaging with the subject. We all know slavery of any kind is wrong, so we don’t have to bother with why it is wrong. Unfortunately, that weakens our ability to judge other matters where decisions about rightness and wrongness are not so clear-cut. We forget that the argument is part of the answer, and the way in which we conduct that argument is an intrinsic part of working the answer itself out.
The abbots we commemorate today — Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — were not weak men, far from it, but we do not think of them as controversialists. St Odo, for instance, was particularly severe on the use of rough or judgemental language by his monks. I do not imagine, for example, that he would have endorsed the current trend among some Catholics to impugn the faith of public figures like Pope Francis or President Biden on the basis of their own understanding of Catholicism. He knew — as we are often reluctant to admit — that judgement in such matters is God’s business unless we have been given explicit authority, and even then, there are all kinds of caveats to be observed. It is no accident, I suppose, that his devotion to Our Lady was to Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Peter the Venerable became involved in many of the hot topics of his day, but he was a patient man, who knew that finding out what another thought or considered true was essential to opening up a dialogue with them. That, I suspect, is why he had the Quran translated into Latin rather than assuming he already knew what Muslims believed and taught.
You notice how careful I have been in my use of verbs: imagine, suspect, think, suppose. That is because no matter how well we may think we know the people of the past, to attribute ideas and sentiments to them is a risky business. We may have good grounds for thinking as we do, but we do not have certainty. That applies as much to the present as to the past, though most of us forget that when we use social media!
One of the things that has always attracted me to Cluny is precisely that element of not knowing everything, of being ready to let God be God in all things, while still being firm and clear about the values we hold. By a happy co-incidence, today we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the kind of person the abbot should be, RB 2. May I suggest it has something to teach us all? Something the holy abbots of Cluny grasped very well.
N.B. If this post is not to your taste, you will find at least five more on the holy abbots of Cluny in this blog.
It seems no time at all since we were thinking about ourselves as straying sheep (fourth Sunday of Easter), now here we are, on the sixth Sunday of Easter, invited to consider ourselves friends of God — if we obey his commandments (cf John 15. 9-17).
I wonder whether we really take on board what that means. We can probably quote a whole series of edifying lines taken from the saints, such as Aelred’s Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship’, but it is our homely English word ‘friend’, with its connotations of mutual affection, equality, freedom and trust that gets to the heart of the matter. Who would ever dream of any kind of ‘equality’ with God? In one sense, it is absolute nonsense. But when John puts onto the lips of Jesus those astonishing words ‘You are my friends . . . ‘ we must take notice.
In a few days we shall celebrate the Ascension and, a few days after that, Pentecost. Our role and responsibility as disciples is growing. We are not to be merely followers, we must become active collaborators; and we can only do that insofar as we have taken on the lineaments of friendship with God. Becoming friends takes time. Those often apparently wasted hours reading and praying are part of the process; so, too, are what I call the blank times, when we are so bound up in grief or sickness or some other negative experience that we do not see what the Lord is doing, or we try to limit Him because we feel obliged to limit ourselves.
The rather cheeky photo I chose to illustrate this post is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, not to insist that we must be x or y before God can love us. He loves us as we are and wants to be friends with us now. That doesn’t mean we can go on being horrible to everyone or leading a sinful life. On the contrary, friendship with God is bound up with conversion and obeying his commandments. We change because we want to be friends with him. But let us not forget that we are meant to find joy in our friendship with God and, even more, his friendship with us.
Breathlessness is something I know a little about, having lived several years with advanced sarcoidosis and metastatic leiomyosarcoma in my lungs, but even so, the horror of what COVID-19 sufferers without access to oxygen are going through is beyond me. Every photo of someone in India or Brazil struggling to breathe makes me think how scared they must be, how helpless their family, friends and medical team (if they are lucky enough to have one) must feel, and how outrageous it is that we were all so unprepared.
Breathlessness of the kind experienced by those with bad COVID-19 is not some transient feeling of being puffed. It is more like an inner suffocation that makes movement, speech, all the things we take for granted, well nigh impossible. It is exhausting and relentless.* We read that Western countries are sending various kinds of aid, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. I regularly use the one and pray I am never put on the other (if you know anything about ventilators, you will know why). What troubles me this morning, however, is the thought that the oxygen concentrators are unlikely to produce enough flow to be of any substantive help. Those with COVID-19 will go on suffering, their symptoms barely alleviated. Unless we have had COVID-19 ourselves or have had an analogous experience, e.g. a bad asthma attack, we won’t really understand, no matter how hard we try.
I do not know what we as individuals can do other than speak to our governments and donate to aid agencies, but both the situation in India and the rows about vaccines have highlighted the simple truth that we are one world, dependent on one another. Selfishness and generosity seem to go hand in hand among us, and no one has a monopoly on folly, but perhaps we need to reflect on what it means not to be able to breathe — not only in the obvious, physical sense, but also in the less obvious moral and ethical sense. Are we suffocating ourselves by shrugging off the sense of interconnectedness we ought to have? ‘Gesture aid’ is very like virtue-signalling: well-meant, but inadequate except as a way of easing our own conscience. It may sound over-dramatic but today the suffering Christ is to be found in a thousand places, in streets where people are dying for lack of air and an inability to breathe. That matters; so does our response.
* I have relied on the description given by someone who had COVID-19 badly. It sounds very like what those with serious lung disease experience, but worse.
There is an unpleasant sense that the U.K. government is becoming steeped in equivocation and sleaze. We expect better of our politicians yet, at the same time, are not in the least surprised whenever we come across evidence of failure or corruption. Sometimes, alas, it is a case of pots and kettles. We cannot expect integrity from others if we are not prepared to live lives of integrity ourselves. Disgust at what is being widely reported/alleged regarding donations, cover-ups, underhand deals, self-serving contracts and the like may prompt us to a little scrutiny of our own conduct. Are we as sea-green incorruptible as we would like to believe? Good government is a blessing but it is not an abstract one. Learning how to govern ourselves is a necessary step in learning how to govern others.
Over the years I have spent a great deal of time thinking and praying about vocation, more particularly, the vocation to be a nun. I must have written thousands of words in response to enquirers and in posts for this blog and its predecessor. Yet every Vocations Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, I ask myself whether the effort has been worthwhile. Has anyone been helped to find their path in life or have I merely added to the confusion and uncertainty they feel? Worse still, have I discouraged anyone, not only by what I have written but also by what I have done or failed to do?
That is a question not just for me but for everyone. We all play a part in the vocation of others and can help or hinder them (family and friends take note). Sometimes we forget that God loves every person he has created, even the villains of history or those we are inclined to dismiss as somehow unworthy of our love and attention, if not God’s. He has called every one of us by name. He has chosen us and wants our eternal happiness. That is what a vocation really is: an invitation to be with the Lord for all eternity in a bond of mutual love and joy. We begin now, as members of the Church, baptized into the death of Christ and sharers also in his resurrection.
Membership of the Church is our Primary Vocation
To be a member of the Church is thus our primary vocation, and there is none higher or greater. The way our primary vocation is worked out differs with each individual. For some it will be through the holiness of marriage, for others singleness, for others again priesthood or consecrated life, perhaps changing as we grow older or according to circumstance. What we do with our time, our work, is bound up with this but does not define or limit our vocation. God’s love is unchanging, no matter how little we ‘achieve’ or the failures of which we are conscious. As Julian of Norwich says, we are ‘oned with him’, and being oned with him means we are oned with everyone else, too. Together we make up the Body of Christ and Communion of Saints. Our connectedness goes beyond denominational labels or the accidents of time or physical proximity. St Benedict reminds us again and again that we go to God together. We are incomplete without each other, and so is the Kingdom. With that in mind, let us look for a moment at the vocation of a nun following the Rule of St Benedict.
Monastic Life for Women
The illustration used for this post evokes contradictory reactions in most of those who look at it. Those who do not know the sad story of the nun of Monza, Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva y Marino, will probably smile at Molteni’s painting. That is what a nun should be — young, beautiful and romantically pensive. Those who do know the story may make a moue of disgust at the scandal surrounding her name and utter dark comments about sexual perversion and murder. Such reactions reveal how many view monastic life for women and their expectations of it. Fortunately, not everyone goes in for such extremes, although a quick search on Google is not reassuring. If we look for light relief, the nun as figure of fun fares scarcely better than the nun as angel or demon. The exhortations of popes and bishops often seem wide of the mark, too, with their flowery language and ignorance of what a nun’s life is really like. Maybe I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that nuns are often portrayed as different from other women. We’re either impossibly holy or impossibly evil. Even by our admirers we can be seen as milksops at best, dangerously dictatorial and unfeeling at worst, in constant need of supervision and control. Allow me to present an alternative view.
Shepherds and Nuns
Let’s begin by thinking about the popular name for this Sunday: Good Shepherd Sunday. I haven’t met many women who are shepherds, but the three I have, although very different in age and size of flock they look after, impressed me with their toughness, their resilience and their obvious care for their sheep. In fact, they were rather like many of the nuns I know, for all that their ‘habits’ consisted mainly of wellies and old anoraks. There was a shrewdness and realism about them I found appealing, a determination just to get on with things and persevere whatever difficulties or setbacks they encountered. That may not sound very ‘spiritual’ but such qualities are very necessary in monastic life, perseverance above all.
Perseverance, Joy and Fruitfulness
I think the unshowy nature of perseverance distinguishes the reality of being a nun from unreal conceptions of what a nun is or should be. To put it bluntly, seeking God is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who give up easily. Prayer cannot be taken up one day and dropped the next. We cannot fritter away our time on inanities or waste our energies on anything with a tendency to destroy rather than build up. Selective obedience is not obedience at all and, though we might like to, we cannot dodge the dura et aspera of community life. Of course we most of us try, at one time or another, and we can be quite devious in the means we employ. Flopping to our knees or using personal ‘religious fervour’ as an excuse for skiving off the less congenial duties in monastic life is a recognized tactic easily spotted by the novice mistress. We must embrace the whole life, including its occasional tediums and companions we find just a teeny weeny bit tiresome, or we will never really begin. We soon discover that there is nothing romantic about the life we lead, it is all too grounded for that. Even those lovely habits and beautiful buildings have their drawbacks, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.
The novice mistress is obliged by the Rule to tell every candidate for admission of the difficulties ahead of her, but most novices experience them for themselves soon enough. We grow into monastic life and I think its most positive side is often experienced later, sometimes much later. It is only then that we see the meaning of certain practices or understand why some things are as they are. It takes a lifetime of prayer, reading and obedience to appreciate the riches lavished upon us in community or see how grace has fashioned others (never ourselves, alas!) into saints. That is one reason every community needs older members who have taken on the shape and form of the Rule through a lifetime of trying to live by it, whose experience can teach us so much. Their example is an encouragement, especially when we ourselves may be feeling tired or inadequate or simply unsure about going on. They show us how monastic life can be lived joyfully and fruitfully.
To speak of joy and fruitfulness in connection with a life that is highly disciplined and frequently austere may seem strange. There may be grudging acknowledgement of the joy, but fruitfulness, where does that come in? I think that is where we have to insist that monastic life is lived by faith. We do not see; we have to trust. For those who are prepared to give themselves completely not just to a way of life but to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, the rewards are very great. ‘We shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may be made worthy to share also in his Kingdom.’ (RB Prol. 50). That is the hundredfold of the Gospel, the answer to the question of the title. It is our privilege as nuns to seek and find the Lord, not for ourselves alone but for all. May I humbly, but with conviction, encourage any who may be thinking about monastic life to listen to the whispering of the Holy Spirit and follow the Risen Christ wherever he may lead you.