Autumnal Planting | Lenten Lilies

Wild daffodils
Wild Daffodils at Newent, Gloucestershire
© Copyright Pauline E and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Today is the Autumnal Equinox and gardeners all over England are busy planting bulbs for next spring. Yesterday I sat in a low chair and planted dozens of wild daffodil bulbs in our former vegetable patch — not the lovely little bright yellow Tenby type but the, to my eyes, even lovelier, narcissus pseudonarcissus, which is seen at its most glorious in the so-called Golden Triangle between Newent and Dymock in Gloucestershire.

I love the alternative names for these daffodils: they read like a litany of spring — verill, bell rose, bulrose, chalice flower, daffy-down-dilly, eggs and bacon, Lent cock, Lent rose, trumpet narcissus, yellow crowbell. Best of all, I love the name Lenten Lily. They do not last long. They are said to bloom first on Ash Wednesday and die on Easter Day. Housman wrote one of his typically melancholy poems about them, and I found myself repeating lines from it as I planted the bulbs:

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

It reminded me of something I think we are apt to forget, so busy are we with the daily round and the demands made on us by the present. We work for the future, knowing full well that the future is not ours to command. I myself may not live to see my Lenten lilies bloom, but someone will. Planting them is not only an act of faith in a future hidden from view but the expression of a desire to make that future a little brighter, a little lovelier for others. There are many people whose lives are bleak and unhappy; many children who don’t have enough to eat or the chance of going to school. What we can do to help may be little enough, but we have to start somewhere. We may be able to give time or money or expertise; if we can, we should. We may perhaps be able to plant a few flowers for others to enjoy. All of us can give prayer.

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A Little History is a Helpful Thing

Once upon a time there was a Greek archbishop of Canterbury and a North African abbot of the monastery of St Peter and Paul, also in Canterbury. Theodore, the Greek archbishop, came from Tarsus, where as a boy he had experienced the horrors of the Sassanid invasions and been exposed to Persian culture. He is likely to have studied at Antioch before the Muslim conquest of Tarsus in 637 led him first to Constantinople, then to Rome. We know that he was familiar with Syriac as well as Greek and Latin and skilled in theology, languages, law, medicine and the liberal arts of his day. Adrian, his North African contemporary was a Berber by birth, immensely learned and the abbot of a monastery near Naples. Adrian was twice offered the see of Canterbury but refused, suggesting his friend Theodore instead. Pope Vitalian agreed, but insisted that Adrian should accompany Theodore to England.

Theodore was 66 when he became archbishop and served for 22 years, during which time he transformed the Church in England, appointing bishops to vacant sees, tightening ecclesiastical discipline at the synod of Hertford, and reforming the Church’s organizational structure, sub-dividing large dioceses and establishing the parish system still largely intact until recently. Adrian meanwhile established at Canterbury a school of learning second to none, which had a profound impact on the clerical and monastic culture of its time. Alfred looked back to Adrian’s day as a golden age, when scholars came to England to learn rather than the English having to go abroad to study.

A little history with our muesli is a good thing, is it not? Or is there something more substantial for us to think about? Today is the feast day of both Theodore of Tarsus and Adrian of Canterbury, so we know that to their intellectual and administrative gifts we can add virtue and holiness of life. We can also admire Theodore’s energy, starting a reform programme in a foreign country at the age of 66, and Adrian’s humility in refusing a bishopric, but, above all, I suggest we should think about what their appointment to their respective roles says about the international character of the Church — her catholicity in other words — and the way in which she is enriched by the sharing of peoples and cultures.

Anglo-Saxon England was very different from modern Britain, and in no way could we return to the kind of world that existed then. We can, however, learn some important lessons from it as it was at its best: openness to others, readiness to engage with different cultures, respect and welcome for the stranger, the valuing and cultivation of scholarship. As we appear to head towards another lockdown, with all that that implies by way of narrowing of experience and human interaction, and abandon our place in Europe and the world more generally because of decisions about Brexit and international commitments, those values may prove harder to sustain than once they were. The fact that they are harder to sustain does not mean that they are impossible, nor does it mean that they are unimportant. It does mean, however, that we will have to work harder at them. May the prayers of Saints Theodore and Adrian help us.

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Religion and Politics

My American friends know that I often find U.S. politics bewildering, especially the way in which party politics and religion seem to intertwine. In this country, I think most priests and consecrated persons are careful to observe the party neutrality the Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins and are often perplexed by its absence among some in the States. That said, it is important that everyone should think about the moral and socio-economic issues involved in making political choices. The religiously-inlined will always look to their pastors and those they think of as having particular expertise for help in making such choices. But what is the point at which shared reflection and attempts at guidance become electioneering, i.e. urging others to vote for this person rather than that, for one party rather than another? It is a difficult line to tread, especially as I think most Americans are much more ‘definite’ in the expression of opinion than the British are.

As we pray for all those involved in the American presidential election, I suggest we should reserve a special place in our prayers for priests and consecrated persons, that what they say and do may be in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In saying that, I don’t want to open this post up to a political ding-dong. The only way I know of letting the Holy Spirit into a situation is to be quiet and listen — never easy for any of us.

Not Forgetting
Shanah Tovah to all our Jewish friends, and many thanks to all who have supported Buy a Nun a Book Day!

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Our Lady of Sorrows: Problem or Solution?

The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows comes the day after that of the Exaltation of the Cross. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it concentrates on the Crucifixion and Mary’s sharing in the suffering of her Son. The gospel reading is John 19. 25–27, in which the Beloved Disciple is entrusted to Mary, and Mary to him. For generations the liturgy of the day has provided comfort to those who mourn and reassurance to those who feel helpless in the face of suffering and death. We have in Mary a loving mother who understands, who has experienced what we experience. 

I do not dispute any of that. Indeed, I have sometimes tried to express what Our Lady means to me and ended up thinking how clumsy and inadequate my words were and taken refuge in the poetry or visual images of others. This morning, however, I was prompted to think about the limitations imposed by seeing Mary only as a sorrowful mother and how that affects our understanding of the Church and women in general.

Many of the heroes of Christianity — the saints — are seen though a single lens. We focus on Peter as the blundering ‘first pope’ and forget he was also a husband and almost certainly a father, too, that he had a life that was not all liturgy and councils. No doubt Mrs Peter had quite a lot to say to him about what he should be doing at home, no matter how important his role in the nascent Church. I rather like the idea that unbeknown to us, descendants of St Peter probably still walk this earth. I also like the idea that the lyrical Mary of the Magnificat is one and the same as the grieving Mary of the Stabat Mater. That is to say, the joy and sorrow of her life are entwined. She is one and the same person. It is her glory to be the Mother of God, but she is also the strong-minded Jewish woman who took the lead when Jesus went missing in the temple and did not scruple to call him to account at the wedding-feast in Cana.

One of the problems the Church has to face is that she still tends to see women solely as mothers. I bridle when told that Mary is the model for female contemplatives and that contemplatives should express the maternal dimension of the Church (cf Cor Orans). Quite apart from the fact that this ignores the long tradition of female monastics (which is how we would define ourselves), there is only one model for any Christian of any sex and that is Christ. Mary is an inspiration, but not our model. Moreover, I do sometimes wonder what conception of maternity some of those who most delight in exalting it actually have, not excluding Pope Francis who says many nice things about mothers my own mother and I daresay many other mothers would have pooh-poohed with alacrity. At the risk of inviting shrieks of outrage from many who find great depth and comfort in the notion of spiritual motherhood, may I say that I think it is a difficult concept that causes as many problems as it solves. Apart from anything else, it locks women into a one-dimensional role as nurturers and carers. We should all be nurturers and carers, whether male or female, but there are other roles to be performed, as St Paul reminds us in today’s first Mass reading (1 Corinthians 12.12-14, 27-31), and surely women have a contribution to make there as well.

So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us needing to reflect more deeply on the role of Mary in the Church and possibly working hard to free ourselves from an unreal and sentimental piety that blinds us to her true stature as Mother of God, the mulier fortis, the woman of grace blessed above all others, at whose feet I gladly lay my love and prayers for a broken and unhappy world.

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Survival Tactics

One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has simultaneously amused and horrified me has been the survival tactics adopted by various people. If their social media posts are to be believed, they have ranged from eating and drinking too much, making sourdough loaves, and de-cluttering to learning sanskrit, dieting and binge-watching Netflix. I wonder about those not posting on social media, those in low-paid jobs (or perhaps, no job at all), struggling with depression or another form of ill-health, those just desperate to get by and seeing no end in sight to their troubles. In the monastery, we have encountered a few practical difficulties, but the routine of prayer, work and observance goes on day after day, largely uninterrupted by events outside the cloister. We are, after all, accustomed to solitude, silence and dealing with most domestic emergencies by ourselves (boiler break-downs excepted). But that isn’t really a survival tactic, is it? It is simply ordinary monastic life. A survival tactic suggests to me a way of coping with the extraordinary, and today’s Mass readings strike me as providing a very profound one.

The first reading, Ecclesiasticus 27. 33 – 28.9, is a searing indictment of anger and resentment which bring death to the soul. The gospel, Matthew 18.21–35, is a direct warning of what to expect if we fail to forgive. But it is the second reading, Romans 14. 7–9, which provides a wider context for both. The way we ourselves live, our readiness to forgive, affects not just ourselves but others and taps into the life and forgiveness we experience in Christ. If we pause for a moment and reflect, that is extraordinary. It gives to our whole life a significance and purpose that we might not recognize. What we think and say and do matters. We can give life, or inflict death. St Basil says somewhere that if we have love in us, God dwells in us; but if we harbour hatred and resentment, the devil dwells within us. The choice is plain. Whatever our external circumstances, whatever restrictions the pandemic may impose upon us, we can channel this life-giving love and forgiveness towards others and in so doing discover that we have received the same gifts. A survival tactic? Yes, and more than that.

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Spiritual Wickedness

The first post I read on Facebook this morning was about the theft of a tabernacle from a church in Ontario (not made of precious metal, so it’s likely the consecrated Hosts were the target). That, and the ever-increasing number of attacks on churches in France and elsewhere, is a stark reminder that it isn’t only moral/social evils that confront us as Christians but the spiritual wickedness described in Ephesians 6.12:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against a spiritual wickedness in high places.

For Catholics, in particular, I think there has been a tendency during the past 50 years or so to play down the notion of spiritual evil. It has been trivialised, both by those who want to think of evil as an outdated concept and by those who label ‘evil’ anyone or anything they happen to disagree with or who regard a single issue as being determinative of right or wrong. For example, some of my friends who regard abortion as wrong have no difficulty in accepting capital punishment or the inequalities of economic systems that mean millions live in poverty. They proudly proclaim themselves to be pro-life, but I would argue that there is an inconsistency that undermines their claim. In the same way, I cannot dismiss attempts to steal the Blessed Sacrament as inconsequential or the work of a deranged mind. No, let us name evil for what it is: evil.

What I think we often fail to grasp is that evil is subtle. None of us would consent to it if we saw it for what it truly is. In the Rabbinic Targums we find Satan described as a beautiful and seductive creature. On Easter Night we are called upon to reject the glamour of evil. In other words, there is an attraction about evil to which we respond as human beings. It may be the promise of power or wealth or simply the allure of being ‘different’, but the sad truth is that evil has captivated many in the world today. Instead of getting angry, hurling abuse, railing against whatever we perceive to be wrong, I think we have to take up the weapons that the Lord Jesus himself specifies: prayer and fasting.

As soon as I say that, I know I’ll have lost some readers. The kind of prayer I’m talking about isn’t the dutiful ‘Oh, and please Lord, put an end to all evil in the world,’ as quickly forgotten as uttered. Nor is the fasting the kind of token fast that means giving up a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate and possibly feeling a little righteous for doing so. No, I am talking about the kind of prayer that perseveres, makes demands on our time, eats into other activities; the kind of fasting that makes us truly hungry, that invites God into the situation in which we find ourselves.

When I read that Facebook post this morning, my first reaction was to say the Lord’s Prayer — not to condemn the thieves, but to pray for them and to reaffirm my own love and trust in the Lord. I can make a pretty good guess how the sacred Hosts may be abused. I can do nothing about that in concrete terms, but prayer knows no boundaries of time or space. There is hope, despite the darkness. Ultimately, evil will not triumph, but we have a hard fight on our hands in the meantime.

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Foundation Day Anniversary 2020

The legendary Bro Duncan PBGV welcoming visitors to Howton Grove

On this day in 2004, with the approval of the Holy See, we received our formal decree of canonical erection as an autonomous Benedictine monastery from Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth. What a lot has happened since then! We are now in the diocese of Cardiff where circumstances mean that our once pioneering internet outreach has had to change form a little, though we hope it is still of service to the Church and the wider public. Today will be spent giving thanks for the blessings we have received and in praying for all our benefactors, living and dead. I daresay there will be a celebratory treat or two as well. Slightly against my better judgement, I’ve agreed to take part in this morning’s edition of BBC 1’s Sunday Morning Live — so a prayer for that, too, wouldn’t go amiss. Thank you.

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The Awful Earnestness of Women

This post is not going to be what some may have assumed from its title. I am using ‘awful’ in the way many now use ‘awesome’, meaning awe-inspiring. Earnestness, too, is a word we need to take a fresh look at. For too long it has been associated with the kind of seriousness we rightly call deadly, yet it is nothing of the sort. Earnestness springs from inner conviction and is shot through with sincerity. For me, what I have called the awful earnestness of women is something both sexes can admire and seek to emulate because it is a quality we see in Our Lady: resilience, purposefulness and determination in the service of God.

Why do I think women exhibit this quality so clearly? Partly, I think, because the opportunities open to women are still fewer than those open to men in much of the world. Therefore, intensity often has to take the place of breadth. For women in the West, personally unfamiliar with the constraints experienced by women living in other parts of the world, the idea of being held back by anything more than prejudice may seem preposterous. But for those whose educational and other opportunities are more limited, life is more like Jane Austen’s little bit of ivory, something to be worked over with delicacy and attention to detail. In the spiritual sphere, if I may call it that, the same is true. The scope allowed to women in the Catholic Church is still restricted if we think in terms of activity and decision-making, but if we think in terms of prayer and holiness, not at all, and surely that is what matters, whether we be male or female. Our business, our mission, is to become holy and by so doing lead others to holiness.

Resilience, purposefulness and determination are all necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be, but they are not dour qualities. We do not become holy by gritting our teeth. Again, I think we may take our tone from Mary. Every evening at Vespers we sing the Magnificat, that lyrical outpouring of trust and praise from the whole Church. It is the perfect, joyful expression of the awful earnestness of women — and men, too.

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The Duty of Delight

Christians often get a bad press, and no wonder. Our ambition is vast, eternal life and participation in the redemption of mankind no less, yet our achievement is not exactly commensurate. Everyone knows Nietzsche’s remark, ‘I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.’ Few of us would dispute that many Christians have a tendency to look glum and some seem to take special delight in castigating the shortcomings and sins of others. If you don’t believe me, take a look at social media. Even I have been taken aback by some of the things written by people I like to think of as my friends. But why should the nasties have the last word, especially on a great feast such as today’s, when we celebrate St Gregory the Great, apostle of the English? To Nietzsche I would oppose Dorothy Day and her championing of what she called ‘the duty of delight’. It is a phrase I think Gregory might have liked, for he was a master of the pithy expression, and although he was undoubtedly unenthusiastic about some things, Greeks and sailing ships, for example, he had a largeness of heart and mind I personally find very attractive.

From 1 September until 4 October the Christian Churches are marking the Season of Creation during which we give thanks for the world in which we live and seek to increase our love and reverence for everything in it. One of the best ways of doing that is also the simplest: to take delight in it. No matter how busy you are today — and Gregory often complained that he was so busy his soul was in danger of shipwreck, so you are in good company — no matter how ill or tired or just plain crotchety, take a moment to look at the sky, listen to the sounds outside your window or touch some living thing, even that half-dead houseplant you regularly forget to water, and give thanks. Just as grace grows in the spirit of gratitude, so does delight. I guarantee that will put a smile on the glummest of faces. It would be nice to prove Nietzsche wrong, wouldn’t it?

Note: if you are interested in previous posts more specifically about Gregory, please do a search in the sidebar. Here is one which may be of interest as it carries on from yesterday’s consideration of the prologue and deals with today’s section:
https://www.ibenedictines.org/2019/09/03/the-worker-monk/

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Leaping into Action

Lovely though it would be to linger over the first section of the prologue of St Benedict to his Rule, with its insistence on listening, the glory of obedience and the necessity of prayer, by verse 8 we are plunged into action. From now until the end of the Rule we shall be hastening, running, following, and all with an urgency that will not be denied. The Rule is concerned with our salvation in Christ: we must do now what will profit us for eternity, so there can be no dawdling on the way.

At first sight, that runs counter to the popular view that monasticism is about opting out, slowing down, stillness; and insofar as the opting out and so on is mere avoidance of responsibility or engagement with others, the implied criticism is just. We do not become monks and nuns to be less involved with humanity but more. It is the way in which we are involved that differs.

Without prayer, without the daily search for God, monastic life is nothing. Nor can it be a kind of ‘off and on’ process, with periods when we cease to be monastic. It cannot be crammed into an hour or two of the day’s activities. It is what we might call a ‘whole life plan’. Every moment of every day must be ordered towards the monastic purpose. That is why I think Benedict uses such active verbs and has us running everywhere. It is his way of insisting on the intensity of our engagement and reminding us that we have only one life in which to fulfil our vocation. For some, that life will be long; for others, short. Whatever, as our younger friends say, what matters is that we make a start. Now.

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