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.
The solemnity of St George tends to bring out much that is good, a little that is bad, and, if I am honest, a certain amount of silliness as well, among the English. Leaving aside those learned discussions about the origins of the dragon-slaying legend, the displacement of St Edmund as patron saint of the English, and the feast for the eyes that St George-themed paintings and sculpture have produced over the years, what are we left with? For some there is only that red and white flag showing our tribal allegiance, prominently displayed at football matches or on the number plates of cars. For others, there is the annual St George’s Day Dinner, with sentimental speeches pledging fidelity to ‘our own dear Queen, God bless her!’ and a selective recall of history that is both enchanting and infuriating. For many more, the day brings with it either an embarrassed indifference or a sober assessment of England’s role in the world and what are regarded as typically English characteristics. Perhaps we could spend a moment or two looking at these latter.
English Qualities: Myth and Reality
Everyone knows that the most characteristic quality of the Englishman or woman in every age is emotional reserve. Along with that goes a highly-developed sense of duty, honesty and sense of fair play. We pride ourselves on our sense of humour, but not enough to make fools of ourselves learning another language. We just speak English more loudly. We can safely assert that the English are not very imaginative but we do make good administrators. We are entirely clueless about the Arts, depressingly bad cooks, and kinder to animals than to our children. Bluff and gruff, that’s us. Only, it ain’t absolutely true.
Merrie England was not all myth, and in the sixteenth century Erasmus paints a very different picture of England from the one we have now. He didn’t think much of our beer(!), but the cheese was better than that in Basle and he found the English habit of kissing one another on every possible occasion utterly delightful. Everyone sang or played an instrument, and, at least in the circles in which he moved, there was an ease with languages, especially Latin, that made communication easy. Then, I suppose, the rot set in. The English became a little more dour, more intent on empire-building and the martial qualities that go with conquest and administration. By the time we get to the Victorians, the myth becomes reality.
England Today: Values and Virtues
Today, I think very few would claim that the English are emotionally reserved, although there remains an awkwardness about the kind of display of personal emotion we see in Prince Harry. To speak of duty is to invite derision. There are serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of some holding public office, and the uncomfortable feeling that we can no longer count on anyone’s word being their bond. Administration is not our forte, if it ever was, and although we can claim to be more imaginative than allowed in the past, we are just as mono-glottal, inward-looking and dull as ever we were. Is there any hope for us then, as a nation and as individuals?
I think there is. English love of country never descends into nationalism, ‘my country right or wrong,’ except among the eccentric. Despite what I see as the tragedy of Brexit, we are still open to collaboration with others and appreciate their good points. Even after the current Government’s cut in the aid budget, we continue to be one of the most generous providers of help to other countries, both as a state and as individuals. Our cooking has improved but so too has our awareness of the need to share what we have with the hungry. We’re still not good at languages, but we remain kind to animals and we are becoming kinder to our children.
The qualities I have singled out are not obviously Christian virtues but they contain within them some important Christian values. Thinking of Erasmus, though, and his remarks about music-making and kissing, maybe one quality we largely lack nowadays is joyfulness. Easter is the season of joy, and alleluia is its song. Let us not stop at patriotism but ring out our joy to the Lord.
Close followers of our lighter-hearted social media postings will know that this week we were introduced to the concept of ‘Taco Tuesdays’ by our neighbours, with a very practical (and yummy) illustration of the same, received gifts of coffee and tea, and generally basked in the sunshine of other people’s kindness and generosity. If asked what we did for other people, we might be hard put to explain.
One cannot see prayer, though sometimes one may know the effects of it; one cannot listen in to telephone conversations with those in distress, though occasionally one may be heartened by such; unless one is the recipient, one cannot read the emails and messages we send out to dozens of people on an almost daily basis, though one may sometimes find them helpful. Nor can anyone see the private aspect of our lives, the hiddenness of our vocation as it were, because that is not for show. Instead, we are left with much that could genuinely be described as trivia. Ephemeral as that inevitably is, I’d like to suggest that it is tremendous trivia, the kind of trivia to which everyone can contribute and from which some, at least, will benefit.
To make the down-hearted smile; to surprise someone with laughter; to lift, even momentarily, the mood of someone who is achingly lonely — these are not trivial things. They are glimpses of God, and to be treasured as such. If Milton will forgive me, they also serve who only joke and jest; so let us make today lighter for someone if we can — with our tremendous trivia.
In one of his many sermons, St Augustine remarks that we are often more impressed by reading about the feeding of the five thousand than we are by seeing a whole field of wheat sprung from a few grains. I think he was wrong. There is so much to wonder at and be grateful for in the world around us, precisely because it comes from nature or human ingenuity. Yesterday there was that forty-second helicopter flight on Mars to marvel at — a triumph of engineering, vision and faith. Then, for us coffee addicts, there was the welcome news that a strain of coffee thought to tolerate higher growing temperatures had been re-discovered, thus potentially saving our favourite brew from disappearing off the face of the earth. I don’t know how much coffee-drinking the NASA engineers needed to accomplish their feat, but I’m sure there must be a connection of some kind.
That is my point. The natural, human and spiritual are interconnected. We often dissociate them in an effort to analyse and understand, but when we do so, we fail to see the possibilities they contain or give thanks. That flight on Mars, that re-discovered coffee plant, what potential they hold for all of us!
Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.
I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.
Image The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:
Some people like to live dangerously but, after a certain age, the majority seem to want some kind of security. The trouble is, whatever we think will provide security may not do so. Health may give way; house and home may be lost along with the job that we imagined would provide a livelihood; the person most dear to us may depart or die or perhaps never come into our lives at all. If we live long enough, old age will strip us of the strength and certainties of our youth. The conventional religious answer is to place our trust in God, to rely on him alone. That is fine in theory but extremely hard to do when feeling weak or helpless.
This morning there are many anxious people struggling with COVID-19. A report I read stated that most of those in Brazil requiring intubation are having to undergo the procedure without sedatives because the country has only 6% of the medication it needs. Intubation is ghastly enough without that! There are people in Ukraine waiting to see whether Russian tanks are going to cross over the border and invade their country. In Hong Kong, Myanmar, much of Africa, there is political uncertainty and fear of repression. Add to that what we now call ‘food insecurity’ and the threat of ethnic violence, and our own troubles seem small enough.
We express our solidarity with those who suffer through our prayer and by doing whatever we can to alleviate the distress of others. It is our privilege to provide the human response to the prayer of those placing their trust in God. Let’s think about that for a moment. Then be humbled and give thanks that God should place such trust in us.