Hallowe’en, All Saints and All Souls

Pax pumpkin for Hallowe'en
The Pax Pumpkin

Hallowe’en barely registers at the monastery because once we have sung First Vespers of All Saints we shall be celebrating the triumph of good over evil. No ghosts or ghouls for us, no tacky accommodations with evil under the guise of ‘fun’. With All Souls on Monday, we complete a feast of the the unity of the Church Militant (us), the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (those in heaven).

For various reasons, I won’t be blogging for a day or two, so here is a round-up of a few previous posts, including one by the late Bro Duncan PBGV, to save you the bother of searching in the side-bar. There are several more, if you are bored.

The illustration alone is entirely new. I can’t say I’m exactly proud of my first attempt at pumpkin-carving, but it is amazing both it and I survived the process. The arrival of Anglo-American neighbours who have a wonderful line of pumpkins outside their front-door prompted me to think how we might join in the children’s fun without encouraging the very things I am doubtful about. So, the Benedictine motto, pax or peace, surrounded by a crown of thorns (please use your imagination), will be shining out into the Herefordshire skies, a little gleam of light amidst much darkness. There is a meaning there that goes beyond the obvious, I trust.

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Tell My Children I Love Them

Who could fail to have been moved by those words of a dying woman, uttered after being attacked in Nice yesterday? They express all that is best and most loving about mothers, about human beings. For a Christian, looking at a Crucifix, they express God’s love for us, his errant children, and they give us hope. We are loved, and we can choose to love in return.

As news of the attacks in France came in yesterday, I admit to feeling more than usual sadness. Something has changed. Those targeted attacks on the eve of lockdown, like the murder of Samuel Paty, do more than challenge the secular values of the French State. They challenge our faith. Either we believe the gospel, or we don’t. Either we will continue to love, or we won’t. Either we allow God to forgive in and through us, or we don’t. How we manage that, I don’t know. May God give us the grace. And may he comfort those bereaved children and all who mourn.

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My Lady Covid

Collectors of papal gaffes can now add another to their collection. At the end of yesterday’s General Audience the pope apparently referred to ‘this “lady” called Covid’. Not wise, your Holiness, not wise. From Eve onwards, women have been blamed for all the evils that have afflicted mankind (please note that word, mankind). Now Covid is to be characterised as a woman? I place that attempt at humour alongside the reference to female theologians as ‘the strawberry on the cake’ or the unfortunate 10-Euro ‘Earth Mother’ coin issued earlier this month by the Vatican mint. If women can be treated so lightly, or regarded as having no role but one, it is not surprising that legitimate questions about pastoral care, liturgical language and the scope allowed to women in the Church are similarly dismissed. What worries me is that many women will decide that they have received their own personal Ite, missa est. And that, your Holiness, would be a tragedy for us all, male or female.

P.S. I’m staying. Hope that isn’t too annoying of me.

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How Large Is Our Circle?

Terrestrial globe

Yesterday, when winds were high and seas rough, a small boat capsized off the coast of Dunkirk. Among those who lost their lives were children aged 8 and 5. A baby is also believed to have drowned, while some of the 15 people who were rescued are critically ill. Some have dismissed the tragedy with a call for stricter controls on immigration, while others have merely noted that the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in this way is over 7,000 this year, four times the total of previous years. At the same time, a row continues to rumble about whether children in need should be given free school meals during the half-term break. I cannot bring myself to repeat some of the things said or written by those who cling to the notion of the feckless poor being responsible for their own troubles. Hungry children are hungry children in my book, and we have a duty to look after them. But whether we are talking about migrants to Britain or British children, we are talking about people, human beings like ourselves.

One feature of the abandonment of globalism has been the adoption of fundamentally selfish policies by both individuals and governments. ‘What’s best for me/us’ is a convenient mantra, expressed in a thousand different forms from ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Take Back Control,’ but it inevitably means what is not so good, or even bad, for others. Tribal identities are defined as much by those they exclude as those they include. Once upon a time, people used to talk about the people in their circle. I apologize for being so predictable, but if you look at the illustration to this post, you’ll see a globe. When God made the world, he made it round. We’re all in his circle. Shouldn’t everyone be in ours?

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Are We All Becoming Bullies?

Before you respond with an indignant ’no,’ please bear with me for a moment. The word ‘bully’ has undergone a sea-change over the centuries. It was originally a term of endearment. Only since the seventeenth century has it come to mean someone who tries to force another person to do their bidding. Thinking about the bullies I have known and the way in which they acted, I have frequently wondered whether there isn’t a strange mixture of attraction and repulsion about bullying behaviour. The worst bully I ever encountered was, I suspect, a psychopath, with all the deadly charm of such. On the whole, however, I think we are apt to downplay the bully and the harm they do. Why is that?

Our attitude to bullying
One reason is probably our distanced attitude to bullying. If it does not directly affect us or someone we love, especially a child, it remains an abstraction. How many of us think of bullies in terms of the school playground — the bigger boy or girl who uses greater physical strength to humiliate someone who is ‘different’ or can’t fight back? Yet we’ve all met the bully who uses a constant drip of withering words to undermine another’s confidence. To an outsider, some marriages seem to be based on a bullying/bullied relationship which may not involve physical violence but is psychologically damaging. Bullying in the workplace is, if not a commonplace, certainly not rare, but comparatively few are ready to challenge it. Even in religious communities, I’m sorry to say, we can see bullying in operation, often thinly veiled by admiration of a ‘charismatic leader’ or the misapplication of a religious value such as obedience. We are aware of online bullying and dutifully express our horror when someone is trolled or receives rape or death threats, but I wonder how many of us stop to ask ourselves whether we contribute to a bullying culture, not by our silence or timidity as many might think, but by what we actually do and say?

Dissent from popular opinions
You must have noticed, as I have, that any questioning of a current orthodoxy or popular opinion tends to be dealt with scathingly. There is no argument, simply a howl of outrage or dismissal. I almost fear to name some of the matters where expression of another point of view is effectively prevented, but try this list. It has no particular order but deliberately includes a few subjects currently generating more heat than light:

Pope Francis
Donald Trump
Joe Biden
abortion
transgender persons
homosexuality
Brexit
COVID-19 lockdowns
mask-wearing
feminism
Black slavery and statues
gender-free and inclusive language, especially in the liturgy
Christianity
Islam
party politics
nuns’ habits
conservatism
socialism.

Unless you have never expressed an opinion of any of them, can you honestly say you have always entertained contrary opinions with courtesy and open-mindedness? It has been made clear to me, occasionally, that I can only state my own view of some subjects if I am prepared to receive the equivalent of a tongue-lashing and, in some cases, the threat of delation to Rome. Usually, neither bothers me, but recently I have begun to find it depressing, partly because of the amount of time and energy it takes to try to clear up misunderstandings (especially when one can’t respond as directly as one would wish), partly because of what it says about the society we have become. I don’t mean I think we have become less tolerant as such, though we may have. I’m more inclined to think we have become lazier and more aggressive than I think we were, and I’d like to know why.

Are we lazier and more aggressive than we used to be?
One reason may be that we have confused equality with egalitarianism and in striving to achieve the former have ended up with the latter. If I’m right, everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how ill-informed (though I’m not sure even I would dare to lecture parents on how to bring up their children). Remember how we all became experts in virology and associated sciences overnight once COVID-19 stalked the world? Or, for Catholics, how we all became experts in ecclesiology and infallible sniffers out of heresy once we discovered we could broadcast our opinions to the world? Many of us have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims, appropriating to ourselves the wrongs suffered by our ancestors or anyone with whom we can identify. People laugh when I say the Norman Conquest remains a bone of contention, but what’s a good Jutish girl like me supposed to say? That it was a Good Thing, with the advantages outweighing the disadvantages? My mention of the Norman Conquest may make you smile, but it is a useful example of how we can cling to our own version of history and refuse to accept that there may be another view worth considering. If we look further afield, we can see that the memory of colonialism and lots of other -isms continues to cause fury, heartache and division. 

Technological change: lazy reading, lazy listening
What I think most telling, however, I’d call an unintended consequence of the technological changes that have affected us all. Thanks to the internet and the web, we are always connected, always able to share information and opinions but, at the same time, the sheer quantity of information, both real and false, available to us has made us lazy readers and listeners. Our online experience and manner of being increasingly carries over into our ordinary, everyday face-to face encounters. We react more than we reflect. Because we don’t take the trouble to read/listen closely, because we skim read and are anxious to give an instant response, we don’t necessarily absorb what anyone else is saying, much less take time to weigh it. In other words, as communication has become easier, we have actually become less inclined to communicate. As a result, we often don’t genuinely engage — and I plead guilty to that as much as the next person. That, I think, is where the desire to control comes in. To keep our own world safe, we create echo-chambers for those who think as we do and exclude those who threaten our security by thinking differently. We are often more aggressive than we intend to be. Perhaps you begin to see why I question whether we are becoming bullies. If we can’t be bothered to marshall arguments, to think as well as speak, why not just batter the other person over the head — not physically, of course, but with the kind of scornful put-down that makes anyone reluctant to engage further?

A pointer from the Rule of St Benedict
Today, in the monastery, we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. Every time we hear it, I find new depths of wisdom and insight. This morning I was struck by what Benedict says about how we should approach someone from whom we want to ask a favour, with humility and respect (RB 20.1). That brought me up short. I haven’t noticed much humility and respect in recent political debates, nor in many sections of social media, though often enough a favour was being sought, whether it be a vote, funding for a project or help of another kind. Maybe we should do a little re-thinking. Humility doesn’t mean pretending we are of no value, on the contrary, it means being honest about our real value; respect doesn’t mean fawning, it literally means taking a second look, i.e. giving enough time to the other to register their true worth. Humility and respect are, so to say, two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for genuine human — and consequently humane — engagement. If our interactions are characterised by humility and respect, there can be no bullying. On the contrary, there is much more chance of a meeting of minds, of co-operation and the creation of lasting peace and goodwill. Something worth aiming for, wouldn’t you say?

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Edward the Confessor, Wonder and Awe

Anonimo inglese o francese, dittico wilton, 1395-99 ca. 03 edoardo il confessore
Edward the Confessor from the Wilton Diptych:
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

In the last few days our liturgical calendar has commemorated a little group of pre-Conquest saints known mainly to historians and hagiographers: Ethelburga of Barking, Paulinus of York, Laurence, Mellitus, Wilfrid and today Edward the Confessor, the only English king to be formally recognized as a saint, and one whose claim to sanctity is probably open to question. I was brought up on Frank Barlow’s Edward the Confessor, which makes a case for Edward as an effective king, but must admit I was never wholly convinced. Still less am I convinced by the portrayal of Edward in his Vita, which is conventional and idealised:

[Edward] was a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.

We can find similar hagiographical tropes in the portrayal of the others I’ve mentioned, so, why bother with any of them today, especially someone like Edward? I think there are three reasons. The Communion of Saints is a reality transcending our limited notions of time and place. I ask the prayers of the saints in heaven as I ask the prayers of my fellow Christians on earth. I do not need to rank them according to some scale of holiness of my own: an alpha saint, a beta saint, and so on. The fact that someone lived long ago or far away is irrelevant. To the Lord the prayers of the saints, living and dead, are pleasing; and that is good enough for me. I don’t believe in DIY salvation and am happy to ask the help of others in approaching the throne of grace.

I’d also argue that there is something to be gained from studying the lives of those who, at first sight, inhabited a very different world from our own but who, on closer inspection, can be seen to have had to deal with many of the problems confronting us today. The growing hostility towards Christianity shown in the desecration of churches and statues, the increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the obvious the vulnerability of us all in the face of disease mirror many of the experiences of pre-Conquest England. We may not have quite reached the point of plague-stricken Jarrow, with only a Ceolfrith and a Bede to sing the Divine Office, but many religious communities have lost members to COVID-19 while more secular organizations have felt the impact of lockdown restraints and loss of income, leading to closure and social disruption.

But just as we can register points of similarity, I think it is good for us to be challenged by the differences. Too many of us have a somewhat narrow conception of what constitutes orthodox belief and practice and tend to judge others according to our own lights. For instance, I forget how many times I have been told that I must pray the Rosary or I am not a good Catholic. Our pre-Conquest saints did not know the Rosary, but they were good Catholics. Not only the saints but even ordinary layfolk, if they observed even half the regulations that applied to them, put us to shame with the way they kept Lent or the vigils of feasts. They were zealous where we are apt to be lukewarm. Above all, I think they had a simpler and more direct awareness of the transcendence of God. That does not mean that they were unsophisticated or stupid — far from it — but I would argue that it does mean they saw significance and purpose where we tend to see only randomness or chance. They possessed, in a way we sometimes do not, the gifts of wonder and awe in the presence of God.

Wonder and awe are not gifts many of us actively seek, I suspect. They make us acknowledge that we are not the measure of all things; that there exists someone greater than we are before whom, like Job, we can only keep silence. And we do not like keeping silence! We much prefer to express ourselves via social media or blog posts, giving others the benefit of our opinions, but maybe if we were to cultivate greater restraint in speech, there would be more room for wonder and awe in our lives; and wouldn’t that be a good thing? We treasure our awareness of the immanence of God, and rightly so, but perhaps that has led us to downplay or fail to recognize as we should the transcendence of God.

Today I shall ask the prayers of St Edward for the people of England as we face more restrictions in the attempt to ward off COVID-19. I shall also ask his prayers for the Church throughout the world and for all who are in need. As a royal saint, he was expected to be a patron of the Church, the major philanthropic institution of his day, to be generous to the poor and kindly to the sick. Perhaps that is not a bad indicator of sanctity, and one we can emulate in our different ways. But among all my other requests, I shall include one for the gifts of wonder and awe, for becoming more alert to the transcendence of God. Will you join me?

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Learning from the Dog and St Benedict

A sleeping Fauve
A sleeping Fauve

Early this morning I went into the room where our Basset Fauve de Bretagne (Bro Dyfrig BFdeB on Twitter) sleeps. He may have registered my presence vaguely, but there was no wag of the tail to indicate that he had done so. He just went on sleeping, trusting that my purposes were honourable and food not involved. Wise dog!

Trust often seems in short supply these days. We have all been let down by others at times, sometimes hugely. Even more painful, I’d say, is the knowledge that we ourselves have let others down. With so many challenges on the political landscape — a pandemic, Brexit, a presidential election in the U.S.A., growing concerns about human rights and personal freedoms in many countries of the world — it can be tempting to become cynical, to adopt disbelief as our customary attitude, to trust no-one. The trouble is, cynicism rarely achieves anything positive.

The best antidote to cynicism I know is to be found in the twelfth step of humility, which we read in the Rule of St Benedict today (RB 7. 62–70). It isn’t just for monastics. It reminds us that hope is real, transformation possible, and ultimately God is in charge. Our sleeping dog is a good Benedictine — his trust is perfect. How about yours and mine?

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St Bruno and Solitude

I will never forget the first time I met the Carthusian who was to be my confessor for many years. He asked simply, ‘Do you have peace?’ That question goes to the heart of any vocation. Everything else is transitory, but peace, abiding in God whatever the exterior circumstances of our life, whatever inner turmoil we may be experiencing, is permanent. It isn’t (usually) achieved once for all but is, like so much else, a process, something we grow into over time so that it becomes a constant in our lives, an habitual state of being.

The experience of solitude and silence seem to me an essential part of this process. They strip us of many elements of the ‘false self’ we use to hide from God, making us realise our dependence on him and on others. Our need for approbation, to draw attention to ourselves, to assert ourselves, all come down to this: an obscure sense that we are somehow not quite ‘enough’, not good enough, not attractive enough, not anything enough. That, of course, is to put the spotlight on self when the secret of true holiness is to put the spotlight on God and forget self. It isn’t easy to do, and most of us are reluctant to surrender what we think of as good or necessary in order to become something, or rather, someone, more closely fashioned on Christ.

St Bruno had no such hesitations. He seems to have spent much of his life avoiding a bishopric. He was a famous teacher, well-connected socially, someone who might have commanded the highest rewards of a clerical career. But he didn’t. He was drawn to the solitary life, and when he and two companions placed themselves under the direction of Hugh of Grenoble, the Carthusians were born. They have remained ever since one of the glories of the Church whose hidden lives have shown that what we tend to think of as success is, well, probably not such a success after all. St Bruno’s life as a Carthusian is often difficult to trace precisely because he avoided the limelight and concentrated on God alone. He was still the same man, still in demand for counsel, but now he met those demands in a different way. He became more, not less, loving because he lived a silent and largely solitary life. None of his gifts was wasted but they were all transformed.

A long time ago, I tried to express what St Bruno and the Carthusians meant to me and how I think we can emulate their prayerfulness, even if we cannot live as they live. Carthusian life is not romantic: it is tough, hard, wearing, which is why so few can live it, but we can all learn from it:

St Bruno makes me think of silence and solitude and snow. Cardinal Hume once remarked that every Benedictine should feel a certain sadness, a certain regret, that the great vocation of the Carthusian is not for him/her. But, of course, every vocation contains within it the need for silence and moral solitude, even if physical solitude is not a possibility. When Jesus told his disciples to go to their inner room and shut the door and pray to their Father in secret, he can hardly have meant to be taken literally since most people in first century Palestine had no private room to retreat to. We must make a Charterhouse of the heart, and allow our prayer to embrace every need.

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How To Read An Encyclical

Benedictines are notorious for thinking that slow and prayerful reading of a text is second nature to them. I am no exception. Yesterday lots of people had rushed onto social media to give their opinion of Fratelli Tutti before I had digested the first few paragraphs, and I see that this morning there are already some instant analyses and tit-for-tat arguments doing the round of cyberspace. At the risk of being presumptuous, may I share with you a way of reading an encyclical you may find helpful, and a blessing or prayer you may like to use before doing so?

First of all, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before beginning to read. I know it sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten. Without asking God to be in charge of our reading, how can we expect to understand what the writer intends — or be free enough to test the truth of what is written if we are too full of our own ideas and prejudices?

Secondly, we need to give the process of reading time. For example, the English translation of Fratelli Tutti strikes me as being awkward and I am having to look at other versions to try to work out whether it is the author or the translator that has puzzled me. Not everyone will be able to do that, but all of us can pause in our reading to reflect and follow up the references provided.

Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves how the encyclical addresses us personally — not X or Y or anyone else, but ourselves. What does it ask of us, and how shall we respond? We aren’t meant to go away thinking, ‘Well, that was interesting/beautiful/predictable/annoying/whatever.’ We are meant to take from the text something that will make us grow spiritually, and that won’t necessarily be a wholly positive experience. We can be challenged, upset, irritated, even angered. God can use those very human emotions to get through to us, if we let him.

Fourthly, I think we should end with thanksgiving. That is easy if we have found the text helpful and inspiring, not so easy if we haven’t; but no matter how barren our reading may seem to have been, no matter how difficult we may have found the text, grace can only grow in a spirit of gratitude. That doesn’t mean we abandon our critical faculties or meekly agree that everything in the encyclical is wonderful. It may be; it may not. But we can, and should, give thanks that the encyclical exists, that God speaks to us through the text, and that we are ready to listen and respond.

Finally, I promised you a prayer. Every new book that comes into the library here at the monastery has a blessing said over it. The text comes from a medieval Subiaco manuscript, i.e. it has impeccably Benedictine origins. Here is a rough and ready translation:

Almighty, everliving God, we ask that the power of the Holy Spirit may come down upon this book. May it be cleansed and purified through the invocation of your name and its meaning opened to our understanding. May your holy right hand bless and sanctify it, enlighten the hearts of those who read it and grant them true comprehension. Grant that they may keep safe the teaching revealed and put it into practice in accordance with your will, through the performance of good deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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A Lack of Leadership?

Like everyone else, we are praying that President Trump and his wife make a rapid recovery from COVID-19. The way in which some are expressing death-wishes for them is completely unacceptable for any person of goodwill, whatever their religious or political beliefs. That said, the bemusement of many commentators is readily understandable. There seem to be such a lot of contradictions and uncertainties bubbling to the surface. We have never been here before, and no one is really in a position to predict the outcome. There is a great deal of anxiety, both inside and outside the U.S.A. , but I wonder whether the President’s illness and the questions surrounding a possible transfer of power don’t confirm what many have been maintaining for some time: that America’s claim to be ‘leader of the free world’ no longer holds good because there has been a retreat from leadership in many areas. What is true of the U.S.A. is true of other countries and institutions, including the Church. There is a discernible lack of leadership that is very concerning.

I haven’t any magic remedies to propose, but this morning I found myself thinking about Bl. Columba Marmion who, as abbot of Maredsous, exercised a special kind of Benedictine leadership and, incidentally, wrote very powerfully about the monastic vocation. Benedictine leadership isn’t democratic, but it isn’t dictatorial, either. It is concerned for the good of all, prepared to take unpopular decisions, but always ready to listen, take counsel, reflect. It is, or should be, selfless. Today’s secular leaders tend to cultivate their image assiduously and appear to be always ready with a sound-byte. Perhaps that is why we seem to have a leadership vacuum in many areas or, at any rate, leadership which is often hesitant or confused. Perhaps if we could reassure our leaders that they do not have to have an opinion on everything, they might be able to give more time to thinking matters through.

You notice I have moved from the role of leaders to our own role. We can easily forget that leaders are drawn from our ranks and that we have a duty to enable them to be leaders. That means giving encouragement, scrutinizing, calling to account if need be, allowing them to lead but not allowing them to mislead. In many ways, being led is just as difficult as leading. Something to ponder and pray about, I suggest, as we face the future together.

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