Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.

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Moonlight and Roses

The Rose of Sharon
The Rose of Sharon

Today the Catholic Church celebrates SS Cyril and Methodius while the rest of the world, or so it seems, celebrates St Valentine or, more accurately, Valentine’s Day. I seem to have written about this far too much, but I woke up with Donne’s ‘Hail, Bishop Valentine’ running through my head, so I bow to the inevitable. Moonlight and roses you shall have.

Moonlight, first. Reflecting the light of the sun, the moon’s strange, silvery glow has always had a more feminine aspect than its more fiery counterpart, which is usually identified with masculinity and godhead. An old name for the moon is Our Lady’s Lamp. It is a name that expresses beautifully the relationship between Christ and his Church. He has no need, no desire, for any other Bride but us, but it is the whole Church that is his Bride, not any particular part of it, and we reflect, to greater or lesser degree, his love and grace. Whether we are male or female is, in this context, immaterial because the Church is always feminine before God.

And roses? Again it is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary that comes into view. She is the biblical Rose of Sharon (Song of Songs, 2.1), the purple and white flowers St Bernard identifies with humility (purple) and purity (white), the rosa mystica of which the Litany of Loretto sings and of whom St John Henry Newman writes

Mary is the most beautiful flower ever seen in the spiritual world. It is by the power of God’s grace that from this barren and desolate earth there ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory; and Mary is the Queen of them all. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore, is called the Rose, for the rose is called of all flowers the most beautiful. But, moreover, she is the Mystical or Hidden Rose, for mystical means hidden.

From ‘Meditations and Devotions’ published 1893.

The beauty of the rose, the loveliness of the moon, and both can be applied to us! Today, we celebrate the fact that we are God’s valentine, loved infinitely and tenderly, and we are privileged to reflect back some of that same love with our own love and devotion. Whatever our state in life, whether we be single, married, widowed or consecrated, we can take Mary as a model of loving fidelity and generosity. Obscure and of no account in our own eyes we may be, but to God we are his very heaven.

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Putting the Social Back into Social Media

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest: going online
Quietnun in Digitalnun’s Nest: going online

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we pray for the sick and those who have care of them; it is also Safer Internet Day, intended to encourage safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones. For me, there is a clear connection between the two.

Everyone knows, I think, that the community to which I belong chose to use the internet, including social media, as a way of responding to St Benedict’s concern for hospitality. Being short of money, physical space and numbers, and wanting to ensure that the monastic heart of our existence should not be compromised by too much noise or over-exposure to outside influences, the web offered lots of possibilities for engagement with others. It promised to be an excellent way of fulfilling the old idea of contemplata aliis tradere. By and large, I think it has fulfilled its promise and, as early adopters, I hope we have made a small but useful contribution to that.

Over time, many things have changed and the ugly side of the web has become more prominent. Think false information, anger, trolling, porn, hatred. These have made the community here more determined than ever to use online technologies for good. To a fellow believer I would express it as trying to take Christ into a situation, a world, from which more and more are trying to exclude him. In the early days we saw being active online as being where people were (and therefore where the Church should be). We now see it in rather starker terms. It is where a battle between good and evil is being fought, where we confront those principalities and powers of which St Paul writes. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but using traditional language to describe a current phenomenon does have advantages. It prevents us from seeing what we are experiencing now as completely without precedent and reminds us that the old disciplines of prayer and fasting may have something to say to us today that we need to hear.

Take social media, for example. I have often urged prayer before we go online and especially before we make use of social media. I have not been quite so enthusiastic about digital fasts because, in my experience, they rarely work as a way of bringing long-term discipline into a situation we may feel has got out of hand. That said, I acknowledge that, for some people, the need to come off social media for a while is essential because it has taken over their lives. It is a kind of Lenten discipline that enables one to re-focus. Fortunately for me, my life as a nun takes precedence over everything else so I am not free to go online whenever I choose or would like to. There is a kind of built-in restraint that is invaluable. There is, however, another way of looking at things I would like to suggest as worth pondering and perhaps acting on: bringing the social back into social media.

It is very easy to forget what the word ‘social’ means. It comes from the Latin word for a friend or ally (socius). It gives us the name we use for the community of human beings in which we live, society (societas). For St Thomas Aquinas, what we now call the State was simply societas christiana. The idea of being connected with one another in a relationship of friendship, mutual support and sympathy, is thus culturally an important one for all users of social media, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them. It is our disregard of that which I would say is at the root of much of our current unease with social media and the way in which they are used.

There is a very active Tweeter in the USA who does not seem to be unduly bothered by the truth or falsehood of what he tweets. As far as I can see, he is a narcissist whose main aim is to exalt himself at the expense of everyone else. There are some users of Facebook and Instagram who plainly see those platforms as being marketing opportunities. All they want from us is our money, whether in the form of cash or data. All this may strike you as being very cynical. I prefer to think of it as a kind of sickness in need of healing. We cannot turn the clock back to those heady and visionary days when the web was seen as a way of connecting everyone and the internet promised to make knowledge of all kinds freely available, but what we can do is ensure that our own use of the opportunities we are given is not merely responsible but creative and, I hope, healing.

We do not often stop to think of the creative and healing possibilities of social media, but they exist, and I believe we should each try to cultivate them. It isn’t only the lonely who go online. It isn’t only the dysfunctional. But we should not scorn them if they do. The community’s use of social media has brought us into contact with thousands of people who would never otherwise have got to know us. We have accompanied a few of them through some dark moments in their lives. I think — hope— we may have helped one or two find a happier way of being. Along with the photos of cats and dogs, and the little jokes that delight some and exasperate others, I think social media have enabled us to open the cloister to many who are not called to live there permanently but who have discovered that it has value, even for them in their busy, secular lives. What I write of here is not unique to us. Everyone who uses social media can use it for good or ill, to build up or tear down; and we do not always have to be solemn about it. Laughter is a good medicine, but let it be the right kind of laughter, not the kind St Benedict regarded as destructive. Let us make friends online by being friendly, by being truly social.

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Floods of Tears and of Rain

New South Wales is awash with rain, so is much of the U.K. following Storm Ciara. Online news sites are treating us to the obligatory photos of water inundating houses, people paddling about on upturned waste bins or emerging from cars roof-deep in flood-water. Lighthouses are shown being swamped by massive waves while brave members of the R.N.L.I. battle to save surfers silly enough to go into the sea in such conditions. For those directly affected, it is miserable and will go on being miserable for a long time to come, but we shall soon be focusing on something else. Our appetite for the sensational is intense but short-lived. In any case, we prefer the secondary detail, the appealing stories of rescued pets and madcap attempts to resist the irresistible, to considering more difficult questions about climate change, weather and planning for the future. It is rather the same with St Scholastica, twin sister of St Benedict, whose feast we keep today. Many will speak of her tears but few will speak of the love for both God and her brother that summoned a storm when Benedict was being an idiot, or the strength of mind and heart that made her a saint in advance of him.

I’ve often written about St Scholastica and give below a few links to previous posts. If you follow them up, you will see that I have no time for the weak and emotional Scholastica portrayed by those whose ideas of sanctity (and of women) are far from reality. I daresay many would argue that the Scholastica narrative is made to conform to long-held ideas about the place of women in the Church and our tendency to behave in ways male authors find disturbing. I’ve done so myself at times. I think part of the problem is caused by the concentration on secondary matters. Take those tears, for example. They are a mere detail, but some people latch onto them and draw conclusions that, the more I think about them, are absurd.

Saints do not become saints by being wimps. St Scholastica was a strong woman. She could not have lived the life she did had she been given to fits and starts of excited emotion. Just as St Gregory says of Benedict that he cannot have written other than as he lived, so I think Scholastica cannot have lived other than as she was written about, as a truly devout and prayerful woman who had grown in knowledge and love of God her whole life long. How much she influenced St Benedict, we cannot know; but we do know that twins often have a special bond, and there was clearly mutual love and understanding between them. Benedict was wise enough to recognize that his sister had mastered something he himself had not yet learned but which was more important than the dutiful pursuit of monastic observance. He saw her being welcomed into heaven before him because she had learned that love of God comes first, before everything else. That is a lesson we too must learn. It does not matter whether we learn it early or late, provided we do. Not long after St Scholastica’s death, St Benedict also died — finally a master in the school of the Lord’s service. I like to think he had Scholastica, in part, to thank for that.

A few links

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Friday Thoughts

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ
by D. Werburg Welch,
Copyright © Stanbrook Abbey.
Used by permission.

Later today many of those with week-end cottages in Wales will be hurtling down the A465 to get to their chosen destinations. Inside the monastery, we shall scarcely be aware of the rush, apart from noticing a few more headlights if we look at the main road. In effect, there will be two different time-scales at work. Outside, people will be pressing on, with as much speed as they can; inside, we shall be savouring the words of the liturgy, circling round the still point of eternity. No one on the road is likely to be aware of what is going on inside the monastery, and yet, without that quiet, monastic prayer, might there not be even more jangle and upset than there is? That is not to claim anything for the monastery. It is to acknowledge that the victory over sin and death won by Christ on the Cross extends to the present and is actualised, if I may use that word, by the prayer of believers.

Many people say they are too busy to pray or are called away from prayer by some urgent task. That is not, or should not be, the case with monks and nuns. By making prayer the heart of our day we sometimes incur the irritation of those who want us to do something else, but it is surely important that we remain true to our vocation. Our prayer is never for ourselves alone but for everyone. It is never prayed alone, either, but always in union with Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is his prayer that holds us, and the universe, in being — even if, perhaps especially if, we are hurtling along the A465.

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Recognizing a Prophet

Prophets do not make the easiest of companions. They tend to say and do things that make us uncomfortable and can sometimes be downright alarming. They see what we don’t. Unfortunately, those who claim to be prophets are often no such thing; but we can be taken in for a while because, deep down, we want to be reassured we have a guide, a way of accessing that which is beyond us with a certainty that removes the possibility of risk and failure. We talk about applying the Gamaliel principle but in practice rarely do. If the prophet speaks attractively or acts in a way that we approve, our judgement goes out of the window and we hail the saviour of the hour.

I exaggerate, of course, but there is an element of truth in that first paragraph. Whenever a cause becomes fashionable, our celebrity culture requires individuals to latch onto it and prove their wokeness by dragging the subject into every speech they make, every interview they give, every tweet they inflict on an adoring public. The original prophetic vision becomes distorted or is forgotten. Who now remembers how The Silent Spring changed the way many of us think about the world in which we live and our responsibility for what happens here?

It is the same with Christianity. In the Catholic Church, for example, there are currently a number of battles raging, with the champions being hailed as prophets by those dazzled by what they see. But what do they see? In some cases, I suspect it is a cracked reflection of their (our) own prejudices and preferences, given legitimacy by being associated with someone we regard as a prophet. Instead of taking responsibility ourselves, we prefer to rely on another’s vision and articulation of something we think important or necessary. It is a kind of vicarious faith that has little substance to it.

Today’s gospel (Mark 6. 1–6) confronts us with the question of how we recognize a genuine prophet. What is necessary in us, rather than in the prophet him/herself? From Jesus’ words we gather that a genuine prophet can only be recognized if we ourselves have a living faith — we cannot have what I called a vicarious faith. No one can believe for us. Maybe that is why recognizing a real prophet is so difficult. It is not just what they say and do that matters but what we say and do. To attain the clarity of vision we need, we have to be living the life of faith in all its fullness. Perhaps, instead of looking for prophets and guides outside, we should turn our gaze more inwards and consider what we find there. Only in that way can we hope to recognize the true prophets of our own day and respond to their message when it comes. As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, we must always be on the alert for God’s word and none of us knows in advance how it will come to us today or any day.

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World Cancer Day 2020

To be honest, I’d rather be writing about St Gilbert of Sempringham whose feast-day this is, but I spend so much time responding to people who write to the monastery about cancer, their fears, their experience, and so on, that World Cancer Day seems a more necessary subject.

The theme for this year’s day is ‘I can and I will’, a brisk and bracing one. Tell that to someone vomiting after chemotherapy or sore and bleeding after weeks of radiotherapy and I wager you’ll get a weak smile at best. Good advice is equally hard to take, well-meant though it is. I confess to my shame that I tend to respond with a howl of rage whenever exhorted to fight, told that I can beat this thing or am recommended the superfood of the moment. The truth is, cancer is not very pleasant, nor is its treatment, and only those going through it really understand. It is horrible for those who look after the person who has cancer; it is horrible for those who love them. I myself have managed six years with stage 4 of a rare and aggressive form of cancer, thanks to God’s grace and the skill and determination of those involved in my treatment and care, but I am quite realistic about the outcome. As a friend cheerfully remarked online, ‘There is no stage 5. After stage 4, you die.’

So, all those encouraging reports about improved survival rates, new treatments and so on which we in the West take for granted, are only half the truth. They don’t apply to everyone, and in the developing world, where oncologists are few and treatment possibilities limited, they don’t apply at all.

Today we are encouraged to raise money for research in the hope that we can reduce the incidence of cancer and perhaps find cures for some of the commonest forms. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the first search about World Cancer Day 2020 that I performed with the DuckDuckGo search engine produced a series of results beginning with ‘Cancer Market’, subdivided into UK Cancer Market, US Cancer Market and Canada Cancer Market. There was nothing about the spiritual side of cancer care and precious little about the daily hurdles most cancer patients have to surmount.

It isn’t popular to say so, but I think the spiritual side of cancer care is as important as the more obvious, physical side. Having cancer is a lonely business. There are long hours of questioning and self-doubt, times of infinite weariness, periods when one does not want to admit how much something hurts, when one just wants it all to stop. It is then, of course, that one is brought back to reality by someone else’s need or one is given the grace to laugh at oneself.

The Church offers an abundance of set prayers and blessings for the sick, but nearly all of them seem to expect the sick person to recover. I find it difficult to say ‘Amen’ to such. Would it not be more honest simply to ask the Lord to do what we already know he is doing, accompany the sick person until death? And don’t forget the carers! They have the harder job in many ways. Often they do not get the attention and support they need while the cancer sufferer is alive, and after the death of the patient are left dangling, as it were, with scant interest in them or the weariness and distress they have experienced. Being exhorted to have more faith is entirely wrong, in my view.

Faith does not take away all doubt nor does it remove all fear, but for the cancer sufferer it enables us to go on — not gloriously perhaps, but at least we go on. I used to hope I might limp into eternity. These days I suspect I’m more likely to waddle there. I don’t mind. It doesn’t depend on me, and I am content. ‘I can and I will?’ No. He can, and He will.

Personal Note
The treatment I was having with Trabectedin has now ceased because it is no longer working. There aren’t many options for metastatic leiomyosarcoma but the sarcoma team at the Churchill are exploring whatever might be available. Please don’t send sympathy — it is not my style and makes me feel awkward. Prayer is what matters, and especially for those who are younger than I am and face amputations, etc. and for the carers for whom it can be so hard. Thank you.

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Contentment

To be content without becoming complacent is not easy; harder still to be content with ‘the meanest and worst of everything’ — including, it must be said, others’ treatment of us — as St Benedict writes in the sixth step of humility which we read today (RB 7.49–50). It gets worse. He goes on to say that, in respect of any task laid upon us, we must regard ourselves as ‘bad and worthless workers,’ which is contrary to everything we are taught to believe about our own self-worth and value as human beings. If Jesus had not said something similar in the gospel (Luke 17.10), we might be tempted to dismiss what Benedict says as the meanderings of a mad monk with a ‘down’ on humanity. In fact, it is precisely because Benedict has such a high vision of what we are capable of that he writes as he does. It is the innerliness of the monastic life, if I may coin such a word, that provides the clue. The monk or nun must contain within him/herself the source of their joy.

Today we mark the anniversary of the dedication of our monastery chapel. It is very small, rather mean-looking to an outsider, but it is the most important room in the house and, as such, the locus of the most intense moments of our lives as individuals and as a community. It is where we take the requests for prayer we receive from all over the world; where we recite the Divine Office, hour by hour, day by day; where we go to pray silently; where we keep vigil, and where we give thanks. We are content with its plainness, its small size, even its battered wooden floor. The secret to such contentment is to live in the present, not the past or future. The difficulty comes when the present is painful and we want to escape it, but Benedict has already written of that in the fourth step of humility, where he tells us not to tire or give up. We can only do that if we cultivate a life of prayer. Stoicism by itself is not enough because it lacks the all-important element of love. It is love, and love alone, that enables us to bear ‘the intolerable shirt of flame’ with joy and peace, to go on when all seems pain and loss. It is the secret of the Cross — a secret each of us must learn one day .

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Brexit Day 2020

Diego Velazquez : Public Domain

Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent with the U.K. trying to become a member of what was then called the Common Market and protesting vociferously whenever General de Gaulle said ‘Non’ — which was often. Much of my adulthood has been accompanied by seemingly endless arguments about fisheries, agriculture and ‘Brussels bureaucracy,’ with several attempts by British politicians to renegotiate terms. Today, after a lot of shouting, the U.K. is leaving what we now know as the European Union. Some are waving Union flags; others are dressing in sackcloth and ashes. With my unique talent for annoying everyone, whatever ‘side’ they are on, I give my own personal view of the matter.* Today is the day the U.K. reaffirms its status as a protestant nation, distrustful of what lies across the water; and I reaffirm my catholic and Benedictine identity as a member of something bigger and more important than the modern nation state or even the E.U. itself.

Tonight, at eleven o’clock, therefore, I shall be in the monastery chapel, giving thanks for all the good things our membership of the E.U. has brought; asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted by our choosing to exit the E.U.; and praying for wisdom and right judgement for everyone in the post-Brexit future. You will notice that sentence does not limit itself to consideration of the U.K. or E.U. alone. So much of the political and economic discussion in the last few years has been on the level of ‘what I think is best for us,’ where ‘us’ is narrowly defined. I do not think we have always done that, and I take heart from two things that we may not always do so in the future.

The first is very personal. My father’s war service made him an ardent Europeanist; the breaking-up of the British empire made him an ardent champion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. In the later years of his life he returned to the Catholicism of his forebears on the grounds that it was the only form of Christianity corresponding to his world view. It was, as he once remarked to me, ‘big enough.’ How we regain that larger vision, I do not know; but I am convinced that our interdependence as a world will eventually lead to a re-thinking of our alliances. Either that, or we shall destroy ourselves and the planet on which we live.

The second will strike many as a little recondite, even subversive. The number-plate on our car bears the E.U. symbol of a blue flag with twelve golden stars arranged in a circle. I cannot look at it without thinking of the twelve golden stars arranged in a circlet around the head of Our Lady (cf Revelation 12.1). I am convinced that God has his own way of dealing with things and is particularly good at dealing with our failures and disappointments. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and be prepared to do whatever he asks. When Mary told the servants at Cana to do that, water was turned into wine. Those shedding tears of grief today may find them turned into tears of joy tomorrow. May God bless everyone, whether for or against membership of the E.U., and help us all to work for a better future for the world.

*The community has no particular view. I stress that this is my own view.

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Sunday of the Word of God and Emmaus Moments

The third Sunday of Ordinary Time has been designated by Pope Francis as the Sunday of the Word of God. There is a good summary of the ideas behind it, and suggestions about how to observe it pastorally, from the Liturgy Office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales here: https://liturgyoffice.org/News/sunday-of-the-word-of-god/. Anything that encourages people to read and meditate on scripture is to be welcomed, so perhaps a few words about lectio divina would be in order as a monastic contribution to the day.

The practice of lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of scripture, is so characteristic of Benedictines that one could almost say it defines us. The teaching of lectio divina, however, seems to be something of a growth industry among those who specialise in spirituality, and I have to say that some of it seems to me to be dangerously gnostic. I cannot emphasize too strongly that we must read and pray scripture with the Church, that is, with the mind of Christ.

If you are not familiar with lectio divina, here is a very simple guide:

  1. Try to find somewhere quiet, preferably in the morning.
  2. Ask the Holy Spirit to be with you as you read.
  3. Open your Bible and begin to read. I always suggest starting with one of the Mass readings for the day. That way, you will be reading in union with the whole Church.
  4. Read slowly, expectantly.
  5. You may find a word or sentence sings out for you from the page. If it does, savour it. If it doesn’t, be at peace. Something may come to you later.
  6. Thank God for the gift he has given.
  7. Carry the word you have received with you and let it speak to you as you go about your ordinary tasks.

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about consulting concordances or commentaries. That’s not because I’m against them — far from it! — but because the study of scripture is not quite the same as praying scripture, though the one does lead into the other and vice versa. The problem for many of us is that we have become too accustomed to thinking and have forgotten that wise sentence of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, ‘He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden, but by thought never.’ It is easy to end up doing some interesting research about scripture but forget its purpose, which is to lead us to God. Fortunately, even if we go wrong, so to say, the Holy Spirit can put us right. It is like dealing with distractions in prayer. Don’t worry or fuss, or try to bat them away with huge effort, just return quietly to your purpose.

On this Sunday of the Word of God, therefore, try to set aside a few minutes for reading and praying the scriptures. Let it become habitual, if you can. You may be surprised what great things God can do with something so small and simple. After all, he revealed himself to us as the Word made flesh at Christmas, and he continues to reveal himself daily in the breaking of the word of the scriptures and the holy Eucharist. Emmaus moments are to be treasured.

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