Glimpses of God

The Earth seen from Apollo 17

The supreme norm of religious life, as of Christian life, is charity, yet how often that is forgotten in the rush to argue, debate and make one’s own opinion triumph over others’. Thankfully, most of the religious I know are too busy trying to love God and their neighbour to want to waste time scoring points or deluding themselves that God sees everything and everyone as they do. Benedictines, in particular, are well aware that it is not only what we say or do but how we say or do it that matters. Again and again, the Rule reminds us of the importance of reverence for other people, of weighing our words, of listening carefully before we speak. I attribute that to Benedict’s concern for the holiness of the community. He didn’t play the numbers game. He didn’t specify a complicated or expensive habit (the clothes of the monastery should fit the wearer, he says, but he leaves the abbot a lot of discretion about what can be had locally). Although he wanted his monks to have everything they needed in the enclosure, that was because he didn’t want them wandering about to the detriment of their souls. It is holiness, closeness to God, that matters to Benedict, as it matters to his followers today.

Most of the time our search for God is carried out in a kind of ‘unknowing’, following the monastic routine with no great highs or lows. We trust the Rule, our superior and our brethren to help us on our way. Just occasionally, we may be allowed a glimpse of God in prayer that transforms everything. Whenever I see any of those beautiful photographs of earth seen from space, I think of Benedict’s vision of the whole world. According to St Gregory, Benedict was allowed to see creation as God sees it. To see as God sees, what could be more wonderful, more humbling, than that? Even the thought of it leaves me at a loss for words — and perhaps that is the point.

Audio version

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Living Dangerously

Most of us know what it is to be misunderstood and have our good intentions pooh-poohed or disbelieved. If we’re honest, most of us also know what it is to misunderstand and treat others’ good intentions with suspicion or incredulity. Comparatively few of us, however, know how to clear up misunderstandings without making things worse. Only too often we say or do something that strikes the other person to the disagreement as being off-key. Hurt or angry feelings multiply and what began as minor ends as major. Recently, I’ve had a couple of experiences of that myself. In both cases I can say that I had no evil intention, and I assume my interlocutor didn’t, either. The fact that attempts to patch things up didn’t go as hoped doesn’t mean that trying to resolve differences is pointless or doomed to failure. I think we have to go on living dangerously, trying to resolve differences when we can, but the time may come when we have to recognize we are unequal to the task and have to leave the matter to God. Knowing when to do that requires humility, trust and charity in equal measure. To some, leaving a disagreement unresolved (or turning it over to God, as I have suggested) is tantamount to failure and a sign of weakness. A few of my friends suffer from the ‘I must win every argument’ idiocy. I can live with that. What I can’t do is live with it in myself, can you?

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Sabbath Calm and Chuntering On

The monastery is being besieged by aggrieved pub owners and hairdressers because of a throwaway remark I made earlier this week about H.M. Government being apparently more interested in them than in the Arts. If I were a pub owner or a hairdresser, no doubt I’d be besieging the monastery, too.* The fact is, we all tend to react to what most concerns us, or we admit to having a divided mind on some subjects where we can see both positives and negatives. At one level, for instance, I’m pleased the Government thinks it must do something to preserve Wetherspoons and the jobs it provides. At another, I’m less than pleased that the Government seems to think the Royal Albert Hall and the jobs it provides is expendable. As regards the opening of churches and places of worship, I admit to equally divided feelings, but I am very conscious of the fact that the monastery has a chapel, that the Blessed Sacrament is kept there, and that the Divine Office, with its steady round of prayer and worship, is maintained daily. I can do exactly what St Benedict recommends, go in at any time and pray. That isn’t possible for many of my fellow Christians. I am privileged in a way most are not, and I shall spend part of today praying for those who are not so blessed and reflecting on how the Church must meet the needs of its members.

I think that is one reason why Sundays are so important. It’s not just a question of liturgical significance, nor is it anything to do with the human need to rest, or not exactly. Sundays provide a moment of sabbath calm for reflection on all that has gone before. When God rested on the sabbath day and viewed all he had created, he found it not merely good but very good. Sometimes we need to pause to register the good in a situation or person. Otherwise we just go chuntering on, missing the moment and missing the blessing, too. It is no accident that St Benedict saw the pursuit of peace as a key element in monastic life. His peace wasn’t the mere absence of activity or conflict; it was much more like the sabbath calm in which God’s creativity takes full effect. May your Sunday be blessed with sabbath calm, too.

*joke

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Cherry-Picking the Rule of St Benedict

We are currently working our way through part of what is known as the Penal Code in the Rule of St Benedict — chapters 23 to 30, which deal with faults committed by the brethren and the way in which they are to be corrected. These are not the only places where Benedict considers faults, but they form a solid block of teaching that many who express enthusiasm for the Rule tend to ignore. It is true that some of the corrective measures Benedict advocates, such as corporal punishment, are culturally no longer acceptable, but I think the deliberate ignoring of much of what Benedict has to say about the correction of faults goes deeper than that. 

There is a reluctance, first of all, to admit that we are not perfect or that there are limits to our freedom. Why should we need correction? How have our actions harmed anyone else? But there is also a tendency we all share to cherry-pick the Rule. We like the nice, ‘spiritual’ bits about loving Christ and practising good zeal. If we are young, we especially like Benedict telling the abbot to consult younger members of the community because they often have an openness to the Spirit their elders lack; and if we are old, we are particularly fond of passages where Benedict insists on respect being shown to the elderly and sympathetic consideration given to their lack of strength. If we don’t actually live in a monastery, the scope is even wider. We can leave out everything we consider harsh or burdensome and end up simply acting a part, the script of which we have written for ourselves.

Today’s chapter of the Rule (26), about associating with the excommunicated, comes as a douche of cold water on all that. In a few short sentences Benedict does away with any presumption of our knowing better. He trusts the abbot to be fair in his judgement of a situation and to be fair in his imposition of punishment or correction. It is not for us to undermine that by wanting to be ‘more compassionate’ (sic) and taking it upon ourselves to associate with the excommunicated if we have not been given permission. We have a duty to speak up if we think something is wrong, but we must do so at the right time, in the right way, and be prepared to take the consequences. In short, we are expected to behave as adults in the monastery, to accept discipline, and to co-operate with others in our common purpose of seeking God. That is easy to recognize when we are engaged in overtly ‘holy’ actions such as singing the praises of God in choir or serving one another in the refectory or infirmary, not so easy when it comes to the regulation of our everyday behaviour and lapses in conduct to which we are all prone.

I may be wrong, but I suspect this readiness to trust, to co-operate, and to accept limitations on our freedom to act may be applicable outside the cloister, too.

Audio version

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Why I’m Staying with Twitter — For Now

You will probably have read that many Catholics are abandoning Twitter and joining Parler, a social media site that promises a more civilized platform for debate and interaction. Many have urged me to do the same, but the majority of them seem to have a rather narrower understanding of the role of religion in society than I do myself. I don’t wish to interact only with those who share my beliefs or who see social media as existing principally to reinforce attitudes I don’t necessarily share. Most of us end up interacting with a lot of people who do share our beliefs, but that wasn’t why the community to which I belong has been engaged with social media for so many years. We decided, long ago in digital terms, that online interaction would bring us into contact with people who would never ring the monastery doorbell or read a religious book. It would expose us to ideas and challenges we might not otherwise encounter, and the results would be beneficial to both parties. I think that has been largely true, on our side, at least; and I would like to think that our being online has benefited others as well.

It is not just content we are talking about but the manner of our being online that matters. That is where I personally must take a large share of responsibility, for my community has always trusted me to do my best to reflect its values and priorities. I’m allowed to be humorous, teasing, make mistakes, pursue trivia, argue back. But if I get it wrong, I’m expected to apologize; I’m expected to be patient (I am sometimes). Above all, I’m expected to be courteous, and if I can’t manage that because my brain is fuddled with chemo or the prednisolone is roaring within or I simply got out of bed on the wrong side, then to be polite because I am not ‘just’ Sister Catherine when I go online, I’m a member of the community, a Catholic, a Christian. I don’t know whether I succeed or not, nor what effect my efforts have on others, but my hunch is that staying on Twitter and refusing to share in the acrimony, the bad language and all the other negativities we often lament has a point. No social media platform will get any better unless we engage with it and try to make it so. Evangelism has many facets and breaking down misunderstandings and hostility is one of them.

That is why I’m staying with Twitter, for now at least. Why should the devil have all the best tunes, said George Whitefield, misquoting Luther. Why indeed? Digitalnun’s take on that is why should the devil have all the best Twitter, either?

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Bottoming Out

Recently I had what one might call a salutary experience. I was repairing a door jamb for which I had to get down on my knees. That is not easy for me but I managed it, painful though it was. Then disaster struck. I couldn’t get up, and no one was around. The pain intensified. My left leg, the one with lymphoedema and other nasties, was useless. My right leg felt weak and unreliable and wouldn’t provide me with enough spring to get up. My cries for help became more desperate, finally turning into sad little whimpers. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I managed to get onto my bottom and edge myself into the building. I had reached the point of wondering whether I could continue or would give in to the pain, when someone came past and helped me to my feet. I felt both silly and relieved and inclined to laugh at myself for making a mountain out of a molehill.

It is very easy to make mountains out of molehills, but we don’t always laugh at them. Trifling setbacks or negative experiences can be allowed to loom large in our lives, making us prey to self-pity or unremitting anger. We can magnify the shortcomings of others so that we no longer see them as they are, only the monsters our spite or misunderstanding has created. That is especially true for those of us who engage with social media on a regular basis. We can see the world through a distorting lens and fail to realise that we may contribute to the distortion by our own unthinking attitudes or the way we voice our complaints. We may see ourselves as beacons of light set high on a mountain when in fact we are more like little molehills down on the plain that people stumble over. The experience of being powerless, of having to rely on others, can indeed be salutary as I have said, because it it reminds us of our dependence on one another. More than that, it teaches us that when we need help we may have to rely on the most unlikely people, on apparent chance or on other factors beyond our control. In short, there is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation in any sense.

This morning there are many people who need help. Most of them are unknown to us. They are ‘out there’ in South America, Syria, Yemen; in the next town, the next street, next door:  easily forgotten or ignored. Just occasionally, we may register that we too need help. We ‘bottom out’ so to say, and that is when we discover that our pretensions to self-sufficiency are absurd, that grace is all around and we must rely on it to get us out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We have only to ask and grace will be given in abundance — not necessarily as we would like or choose, but given nonetheless. That is worth thinking about. Whether the need be material or spiritual, our own or another’s, let us pray that both we and they may be as open to receive as we are to give.

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Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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Prejudice and Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently. Partly, I know, it is the effect of reading or listening to the news in the light of our readings from scripture and the Rule of St Benedict; partly it is the effect of knowing my disease is progressing and my not wanting to die burdened with a refusal to forgive others; mainly, however, it is the experience of myself being forgiven that weighs with me. I can look back on my life and see how often people have given me the benefit of the doubt, granted me a second chance, just put up with me — especially those who have treated me the best when I’ve behaved the worst, i.e. the community I live with.

This morning, however, I admit to feeling discouraged. Recently I was sent a letter by someone I don’t know. It was a courteous and kindly letter, urging me to reflect on what the writer perceived to be the errors of Christianity and embrace Islam. My first thought was, if only some Christians were as courteous how much better would be the impression we give of our faith. I said as much on some Social Media accounts. Most people got my point (though not, I suspect, those with a tendency to rant and rave!). Others either didn’t, or decided to use the opportunity to voice their own views of Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, that’s where prejudice and fear began to raise their heads. It hasn’t got too bad, but I may have to step in and delete my original post because, as I often have to say, I don’t want that kind of negativity on any of my Social Media accounts. Informed debate (even, let’s be honest, on some matters, ignorant debate) is fine; attacks on others aren’t; and the historian in me bristles when old chestnuts are brought out with little regard for their validity.

Prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of the facts. It means a preconceived idea based neither on reason nor experience. It is usually, but not always, hostile and often proceeds from fear. Frequently, there is a small smattering of truth contained within it: not enough to justify it, but enough to give it a slight appearance of reasonableness. So, for example, we can say that politicians are self-serving. Some are; most aren’t; but the idea is current because of recent high-profile cases of corruption in high places both in this country and elsewhere. Our prejudice against the political class can be said to proceed from fear of its power over our lives. (Please note, I’m saying this by way of example because I don’t want to be drawn into specifics by those who take everything literally.)

So, how do prejudice and fear link with forgiveness? That is where I’d say we have to do some hard thinking. Many people assume that forgiveness has to do with concrete acts: saying or doing what is wrong. But words and deeds proceed from thoughts and attitudes, which is why monastic tradition has always paid close attention to setting a guard on the thoughts that run through our minds incessantly. We don’t stop thinking, but we do have to check any tendency to let our thoughts run away with us into negative channels. Sometimes it seems to me that we carry a pent-up sea within ourselves, its waves crashing and breaking on many a different shore. It is a far-fetched analogy, perhaps, but just as the health of all life on the planet is intimately linked with the health of the oceans, so our willingness to ‘take every thought captive for Christ’ plays an essential part in our spiritual health. We let go of our prejudice and fear by inserting ourselves into his forgiveness, letting him forgive in and through us. And, as always, we find that if we do that, we ourselves are forgiven. Something to ponder, I suggest, when we read the headlines today.

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The Covenant of Forgiveness

Once upon a time, and still now in some communities for aught I know, chapters 8 to 19 of the Rule of St Benedict, the so-called Liturgical Code, dealing with the structure of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), the distribution of psalmody and so on, are omitted from public reading. The reason usually given is that the said communities have adopted a different form of the Divine Office, so there is no point in reading what St Benedict had to say about it. For those of us who do persevere with reading those neglected chapters, there is a very striking and important passage in today’s section, RB 13. 12–14.

Benedict remarks that the Offices of Lauds and Vespers should never end without the superior’s finally reciting the Lord’s Prayer. No surprise there, you might think. What Christian service does not include the Lord’s Prayer as a matter of course? But note the following.

First, it falls to the superior as promoter of peace and unity within the community, to say or sing the prayer aloud, not the community as a whole, though we are all expected to join in at the end with ‘deliver us from evil’, even at the lesser Offices where the bulk of the prayer is said silently. (RB 13.12). Second, the reason given for the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘the removal of those thorns of scandal or mutual offence’ that are apt to occur in community (RB 13. 12). How true that is! Finally, we come to the stinger: we are reminded that we make a covenant of forgiveness by saying the Lord’s Prayer (RB 13. 13). A covenant is a solemn, unbreakable agreement. We ask forgiveness as we ourselves forgive, so any tendency to reserve just a teeny weeny bit of unforgiveness, to put the other on probation as it were or harbour a little resentment or grudge, rebounds on our own head.

During this time of COVID-19 pandemic many people have taken to singing ‘Happy birthday’ twice over as they wash their hands. Personally, I have used the Lord’s Prayer. It takes the same amount of time, and the fact that it accompanies the washing of hands has acted as a reminder both of the Lord’s forgiveness and our need to forgive and accept the forgiveness of others. It doesn’t make it any easier, but constant dripping may wear away the heart of stone — even one’s own.

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Our Own Worst Enemy?

It may be a hackneyed phrase but, like most of most of its kind, it contains a lot of truth. We are often our own worst enemy, and when Jesus tells us in today’s gospel to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5.43–48), I don’t think we necessarily have to exteriorise the enemy. Most of us are conscious of an inner struggle. We talk about the old Adam (or Eve) asserting itself or ruefully admit to having behaved less charitably than we should have.

When we do exteriorise our enemy, we tend to make unflattering comparisons between them and us or even demonise the other. Anyone can fall under the curse of our anger and become an enemy: those who don’t share our beliefs, those who are richer, more obviously beautiful or talented, even those who are younger or healthier. We can always find a ‘reason’ for regarding others with hostility, and it is SO much easier when we can convince ourselves that they are persecuting us in some way.

It won’t wash, I’m afraid. There will always be some who seem to hate us without cause but I think we should worry much more about the hating we do ourselves. After all, we can’t do much about other people, but we can do something about ourselves. We can resolve to try to be kind, generous, truthful, forgiving. We may fail a thousand times a day (I know I do) but we can try — and that is all God asks of us. The enemy within can be prayed for just as much as the enemy without. The only difference is that we have to be humble enough to acknowledge the existence of the former. Pride, alas, often veils our sight and provides us with excuses for our own bad conduct. St Benedict spoke of the ‘evil zeal of bitterness’ that separates from God and leads to hell (RB 72.1). That is not where any of us should wish to end up, is it?

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