The Chuckit List

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, is about forgiveness — something we all find difficult, especially if we try to forgive others in our own strength or think of it as a once-for-all process. It becomes even harder when we hear Jesus telling us that it is not those who have offended us we most need reconciliation with but those who have something against us. Forgiveness is clearly both simpler and more complicated than we might have thought, but there is no escaping it. We live by the mercy of God and that mercy is to be shared with others.

Yesterday, in a different and much sadder context, I was introduced to the concept of the Chuckit List. It is rather like a Bucket List in reverse: not a list of things we want to do or acquire, but a list of things we can let go. May I suggest that we each think about our own Chuckit List — of grudges, resentments, quarrels, prejudices, misunderstandings, estrangements — and resolve to let them go. In setting others free, we are ourselves liberated; and it is never too late to learn that lesson.

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Shape Nothing, Lips; Be Lovely-Dumb

Monastics on the Web

The prayer of Esther, given to us as the first reading at Mass today, is beautifully crafted. I like to think that much of the work we have done online over the years has also been beautifully crafted, in intention at least. It has always begun in prayer, and I hope it has led to prayer in those it has reached; but I mentioned the other day that we are changing the nature of our online engagement in ways we did not envisage even a year ago. Since 2003/4 our online outreach has been a major expression of our Benedictine hospitality, but what was novel and virtually unique in the UK eighteen years ago (coding nuns making their own web sites, doing podcasts and videos, holding online retreats and what would now be called webinars) no longer is. Moreover, our greatest hope, that other monastic communities would commit to the ‘interwebby thing’ has been realised, and the quantity and quality of material now available is wonderful, stretching right across the globe. Monasteries online have become mainstream so that it is comparatively easy for anyone who wishes to have access to the riches of the monastic tradition..

Discarded plans

Originally, we had approached our second lockdown Lent with plans to expand our own online outreach, lured by the false promise of superfast Broadband coming to our area this spring. But installation has again been pushed back to some unspecified date in the future and our plans likewise. We just don’t have the bandwidth to give effect to them.

Once the gnashing of teeth was over, we thought again. We had fallen into a trap we often warn others against. The fact that we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do something. We decided to take stock again, reflecting on both the positive and negative sides of our experience.

On the plus side, we have gained many, many friends, who are very supportive and a real blessing to us. Less positively, we haven’t been able to keep up with everyone in the way we’d like. The year I sent out 100+ emails with Lent Book suggestions and reading plans geared to the individual recipient, I realised we couldn’t go on at such a rate. We gave up producing audio books for the blind when advances in technology made them less useful yet balanced that by releasing a new series of podcasts, including a daily broadcast of the Rule of St Benedict. However, we could not hide from ourselves other, more important changes affecting the way our work was being received.

Changes we have noticed

In recent years our ‘audience’ has grown older, often requiring more personal responses, which takes time and commitment. There is much more curiosity about aspects of our life which, if directed at an ordinary person, could be regarded as intrusive. Although that doesn’t bother me greatly, it does bother other members of the community, who have a right to their privacy; and while we love seeing the Instagram accounts of other communities (dancing nuns et al), we know that isn’t a good fit for us. A lot of emotional energy can be taken up dealing with those who want us to be nuns after a pattern of their own, while some of the provisions of Cor Orans have left us wondering what the future holds for any of us. Add to that changes in community and the ever-increasing complexity of compliance with both governmental and ecclesiastical requirements and the time to do anything can be highly pressurised. How should we make the best use of such time as we have?

Everyone is speaking, but who is listening?

What has most affected us, however, is a change in people’s reading habits. Again and again we have noticed that words are hurried over, perhaps misread, sometimes used as a pretext for correcting us or, worse still, those who engage thoughtfully with our blog posts or tweets. It is part of our react rather than reflect culture. Someone will email a question we have already answered on one of our web sites or assume we have said/failed to say something and demand we explain ourselves. That can be amusing and frustrating in equal measure, especially when it happens again and again. For Benedictines brought up on the practice of lectio divina, of slow, attentive reading, it is also mystifying. It reinforces our sense that the web has become a very noisy place during lockdown, with everyone talking and few actually listening.

If that seems harsh, please consider your own experience. Every parish, every Christian community, seems to be holding Zoom meetings, live-streaming worship, sending out bulletins and generally making use of every bell and whistle in the digital toolbox, but how often do any of us stop to ask ourselves why? Are we trying to connect those who are not connected, spread the gospel, cheer people up, or advertise our wares, as it were? I’m sure all these apply, plus the feeling that we need to be seen to be doing something when our churches are stripped of people and our guest-houses are closed, but I want to ask whether we are using our busyness online to avoid facing a deeper question. Are we doing the reverse of what we intend, creating barriers to God with all our noise, no matter how imaginative or well-intentioned?

Put like that, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’; but it is still a question we must ask. Benedict was keen on taciturnitas, restraint in speech, because he was aware that too much speaking, too much noise, can lead us away from God. I think the same is true of our use of online resources also. My general rule of thumb has been half an hour’s prayer for every half hour spent online (uploading and downloading times excepted!) but I am coming round to the view that we (I) need to give more time to prayer if our (my) words are to have any point. That doesn’t mean we will give up our online engagement or go on a ‘digital fast’ as some call it, but I do think we’ll be more selective about what we give time to. I expect I’ll still go on tapping out blog posts and tweets and being frivolous on Facebook as long as I am able, but some of the community’s more ambitious multimedia projects are being placed on hold — and I myself am definitely stepping back from what I call fruitless disputes, especially here on the blog and in social media. We are re-centring, and not just as a Lenten exercise.

I end where I began, with today’s first Mass reading. Queen Esther’s prayer was heard. May ours be, too.

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Making a Splash?

Who does not love the story of Jonah? Every detail is perfect, with a rich vein of humorous exaggeration throughout. We’re told it took three days to cross the city of Nineveh, so this is conversion on a vast scale. Everyone, even the animals (!), put on sackcloth as as sign of repentance and joined in the general fast. Jonah himself comes in for some gentle teasing from the Lord, but it is clear he was an effective speaker and won the hearts of his listeners. Despite a regrettable tendency to run away and get cross when things didn’t turn out as he wanted, he was, ultimately, a success. We remember Jonah.

Jesus tells the crowds that ‘someone greater than Jonah is here’ but one wonders whether his rhetoric made as great an impression as Jonah’s is said to have done. Throughout the gospels we see him experiencing misunderstandings, opposition, and, ultimately, a kind of failure: death on the cross. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the failure was no failure at all; but at the time Jesus was not a big success. We remember Jesus, but we are conscious of the contradictions and the suffering that marked his triumph. The resurrection comes out of a dark place, darker than any whale’s belly.

And what of us? Do we want to make a splash, be celebrity saints, as it were? Someone once said rather cruelly of Thomas Merton that he was the kind of hermit who needed a neon sign outside his hermitage. We can be a little like that, wanting our good deeds to be noticed, especially during Lent, when we are trying harder to live holy lives. We can want to be remembered, have our fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but ideally without much hardship or contradiction. We forget that we are called to be followers of the Lord. We can never be holy except he makes us so, and that will always involve an experience of failure and, at times, discouragement. Let us pray for the grace to meet the challenge we face.

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Lenten Fruitfulness

Today is the memoria of St Polycarp, whose name means ‘fruitfulness’ in Greek (you can read an earlier post specifically about him, St Polycarp and the Grace of the Elderly, with some thoughts on ageing and dying, here: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2016/02/23/st-polycarp-and-the-grace-of-the-elderly/), but it is today’s Mass readings that I want to consider this morning.

Isaiah 55.10–11 assures us that the word of God always attains its purpose, while the gospel, Matthew 6.7-15, gives us the text of the Lord’s Prayer and reminds us that forgiving others will secure our forgiveness in return. It is a circle of grace that begins and ends in God. How often do we overlook that and try to batter God into submission to our will through all the penances and good works we take on? As if we could!

Those autumnal apples pictured above remind me of Keat’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (it’s his anniversary today, too) and the sheer abundance of God’s mercy. I think we forget how lavish God is in his care for creation, including us. Perhaps one of the things we need to do this Lent is to allow that amazingly generous, merciful God to replace the more niggardly, exacting image most of us have of him. That would make our Lent more fruitful — not easier, for more would be asked of us — but certainly more fruitful. Shall we try it?

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Unlocking Heaven

A simplified version of the Keys of St Peter

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

As I was mooching round the monastery early this morning, I reflected on today’s gospel (Matthew 16. 13–19) and the number of homilies which concentrate on the power of binding rather than loosing. Many limit interpretation of the text to sacramental confession, a debatable point in itself, while others seem to allow the power of binding and loosing to those they approve of, but not otherwise. Thus, a feast celebrating the unity of the Church under her principal teacher, Pope Francis, is turned into a weapon against him by some, who accuse him of all manner of sins and crimes, including apostasy. He is not, apparently, as Catholic as he should be; and he does not do as much binding as he ought.

Binding and Loosing

Why is there this obsession with binding rather than loosing? I am sorry to say that many of my Catholic friends seem to be rather keen on binding others, excluding them from the kingdom of heaven. Often it seems to be the result of enthusiasm for one aspect of the Church’s teaching blinding them to the necessity of others.

Chesterton wrote of the tendency to exaggerate one truth above another ending in a skewed understanding of Christianity as a whole. Indeed, it is one way in which orthodoxy can become heterodoxy. Sometimes I have the feeling that for some, Catholicism is now anti-abortionism and everyone is to be judged on the soundness or otherwise of their attitude towards it. Please don’t get me wrong. I am opposed to abortion, but I am also opposed to the conditions that make abortion seem acceptable or even desirable. I do not — cannot — condemn those who have had an abortion. That is not the same as condoning abortion, and Catholic social teaching has a great deal to say about our duty to ensure just and fair living conditions for all. I don’t see how we can maintain the one without the other.

If we have the power of binding, we also have the power of loosing, of allowing the mercy of God into any and every human situation. Of course, it is always easier to see the motes in our brethren’s eyes than the beams in our own, but it would make a refreshing change if, instead of concentrating on the power to bind others, we could celebrate this feast by thinking and praying about how we can free others. It is a power given not just to the clergy — in fact, not even mainly to the clergy — but to everyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ. It was to set us free that Christ came into the world, died and rose again. Let us not lose sight of that essential truth as we journey through Lent.

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In the Desert with Satan and the Wild Beasts

יוסי אוד yossi aud Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Sunday of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent always sees us in the desert with Jesus, confronting temptation. This year we read Mark’s account, and as it is so brief, I’ll quote it in full:

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.  

After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

Mark, 1. 12–15.

The first two sentences may be short but they are full of significance. The Greek verb used for the action of the Spirit is very strong. Jesus is, as it were, forced into the desert where his companions are Satan, the wild beasts and angels, none of them exactly comforting. Being looked after by an angel may sound better than being tempted by Satan or pursued by hungry leopards, but as soon as we think how angels are described in the Old Testament, our vision of charming little putti gives way to the awe-inspiring beings of fire and flame who surround the throne of God — not what one would call immediately reassuring.

The Temptations and the Public Ministry

Jesus in the desert is being exposed to the kind of radical insecurity few of us know in the West. He is to learn how to rely on God, and God alone. The temptations he faces, and which the other evangelists delight in detailing, are often used by preachers as an introduction to Lent. Indeed, I’ve used them like that myself, as many previous posts will attest. But Mark doesn’t allow us to linger in the desert or waste time speculating about Jesus’ experience. He turns our attention to John, the Forerunner, and the beginning of the Good News.

I don’t think that’s an accident. We are being asked to move in one swift bound from contemplation of the temptations Christ endured at the start of his public ministry to the purpose of that ministry. The temptations matter, of course, but not as much as the reason for Jesus’ life on earth taken as a whole. There is an urgency about Mark’s gospel that, more than anything else, convinces me of his belief in the importance of what he is saying. Our salvation is at stake; we cannot dawdle on the way. We must repent and believe, NOW.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage

Repentance has two aspects: being sorry for our sin, for (literally) missing the mark, and turning to the Lord — conversion, change. I think that turning to the Lord precedes being sorry for our sins because it is only in response to grace that we can even begin to see that we have sinned. Belief is similar in many ways. We have to be touched by God with the gift of faith before we can believe. We can’t argue ourselves into belief or will ourselves into belief. We have to wait for God to act, and most of us don’t like waiting for anyone or anything, not even God.

Lent can seem very long: forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Forty days of trying to come closer to the Lord. It is easy to want to give up, have a little rest by the wayside; but Mark will have none of that. Our pilgrimage to Easter starts now. Let us pray that we may be attentive to the Lord and follow his lead. We may meet Satan and a few wild beasts on the way, but there are those formidable angels, too. Perhaps they are a comfort, after all.

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Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Lockdown and Lent

A number of people have got quite stroppy with me recently, saying that they are not giving anything up for Lent, they have suffered enough during lockdown, thank you very much, their aim will be just to get through each day. I cannot quibble with part of that. Some people have suffered hugely; but I would query the idea that Lent requires some form of self-imposed suffering. That would make God a monster, delighting in the pain of his children; and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying God is not like that. Lent is about becoming closer to the Lord, becoming more free, more joyful. Christian tradition has always valued prayer, fasting and almsgiving as means to that end, but they are not ends in themselves, nor should they be interpreted narrowly. An illustration may make this clearer.

Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 58.9–14, with its references to clenched fists, wicked words and sharing with others, is an excellent way of examining our conscience. What is more useless than a clenched fist, which can neither give nor receive? What is more pointless than a wicked word, which injures both speaker and hearer? Even if we have nothing material to share with others, we can rein in the others and share as much by not doing as by doing. There are days when my illness makes me think I’m incapable of anything more than just existing, can’t be ‘nice’ to others or contribute in any meaningful sense to the common good. That’s when the real work of conversion begins, when we realise that what we value may be reinforcing an idea we have of ourselves that is actually hindering us on our way to God, making it all about us again, not him.

A Different Approach

So, don’t worry about giving up wine or chocolate or saying an extra decade of the rosary or whatever you decided to do for Lent. Take control of your thoughts first. Cultivate kindness and generosity of mind: it will lead to action. Watch your speech: restrain that angry word, pause before you tap out your opinion on social media, make friends with those who think differently from you. Be honest with yourself and trust God for the rest. To be fair, I haven’t seen this working in myself yet, but I have seen it in others, so there is hope for us all.

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Fasting and Greed

Being Thought Greedy

None of us likes to be thought greedy, so we make a 1,001 excuses for any unbecoming conduct we’re inclined to blush for, ranging from genuine need (‘I was starving’) to being misunderstood (‘I was just tidying things up’). The photo of the little boy with his head in a cake makes us smile, not recoil. It is how we like to think of our own weaknesses — endearing foibles rather than failings. Alas, it won’t wash. Greed isn’t just about food and drink or overindulgence in material things. We can be greedy for attention, comfort, celebrity status (by association, if nothing else), all kinds of things. We can be greedy for life itself at the expense of others.

Physical Fasting

I certainly believe in the value of actual, physical fasting from food and drink and I am grateful that, after a lifetime in the monastery, I can draw on the accumulated wisdom of generations of nuns. The monotony of our Lenten diet is part of our fast, but we don’t go in for extravagant gestures like the legendary religious sister (Order/Congregation discreetly veiled here) who decided she would eat nothing but one bowl of porridge every day during Lent and expired at the end of it. Nor do we confuse the physical fast with any other kind of ‘giving up’, e.g abandoning social media for a few weeks or foregoing a favourite pastime. Which brings me back to the subject of greed.

Greed

The antidote to greed isn’t fasting but generosity. Restraining ourselves from x or y can be a useful discipline, but it isn’t what the Lenten fast is about. Fasting, like everything else in Lent, is meant to lead us closer to God. The rumblings of our tummies are incidental. What we aim at is the clear-headedness and simplicity that will free our prayer and deepen our response to God, and experience shows that not being weighed down with too much food and drink is a help in that. Our greed, any tendency to possessiveness, to claim something or, worse still, someone, exclusively for ourselves requires more than a trifling sacrifice of a few morsels of food or drink to put right. It requires a complete change of attitude, and for most of us that is a longer and harder task. Maybe that is what Jesus is hinting at in today’s gospel. When the Bridegroom is gone from us, then we must fast in earnest and give of ourselves as he gave his life on the Cross. Lent is a good time for learning how to do that.

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False Gods

I hope my friend Elizabeth Scalia will not think I am borrowing too much from her excellent Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, but today’s first Mass reading, Deuteronomy 30. 15–20 made me think again about the idols we construct for ourselves and how they bar the way to God. It is not only, or even predominantly, the obviously bad things that lead us astray. Most of us agree that violence, selfishness, greed and so on are not the way to holiness and closeness to the Lord. The temptations of essentially good people are often ‘good’ themselves. I wonder how many people have woken up this morning determined to tackle a Lenten programme of self-improvement that would make a Desert Father wilt!

The clue, of course, is in the phrase ‘self-improvement’. Sometimes what we elect to do during Lent is about us, not God. Ash Thursday is a good day for taking a second look at what we have decided to do or not do during Lent. If what we are offering up places burdens on others (because we are tetchy or demanding) or is a covert form of achieving a secondary aim (e.g. mistaking dieting for fasting), then we need to re-think. The sole purpose of our Lenten observance is to draw us closer to Christ. That both simplifies and makes more joyful our pilgrimage to Easter, but it also requires us to let go some of our own ideas about what would be best. Smashing those false gods may be our first step on the way.

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Under Starter’s Orders: Ash Wednesday Joy

Benedictine Joy

I don’t see how I could ever have been anything but a Benedictine since I’ve always instinctively seen Lent as a time of joy (cf RB 49). Unfortunately, that has led to my making some big mistakes. I tease those who regard Lent as gloomily penitential (i.e. a hardship to be endured) or complain about some aspect of life they consider ‘Lenten’ (e.g. lockdown restrictions). I should remember that many people take words at face value and do, indeed, have a negative view of what Lent is. For them, Lent is all about giving up something loved, taking on something unpleasant, and being nasty to ourselves. If that is our own view of Lent, we shall end up being nasty to everyone, not just ourselves, and our experience will be anything but fruitful!

A Joyful Beginning

Please take a look at the little boy in the photograph. He doesn’t know what lies before him any more than we know what to expect this Lent, but he is cheerful and living in the moment. His focus is not himself but something, more probably someone, beyond himself. That is the secret of Ash Wednesday joy. We are at the beginning of a journey, an experience, that will lead us to Easter and the Risen Christ. We are, as they say in the racing world, under starter’s orders. How could that be anything but joyful? Thomas Merton was of similar mind: ‘Ash Wednesday is full of joy…The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.’ Our dust isn’t negligible. It is, after all, shot through with ‘immortal diamond’ as Hopkins said; but it is given to us, a gift we receive with glad hearts. Let us receive Ash Wednesday with glad hearts, too.

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