I like being a Benedictine nun. Ever since I first encountered the Rule of St Benedict, it has made sense to me. I like the way it puts Christ at the centre of everything and orders all our activity towards love and service of him, expressed not in some abstract way but concretely through love and service of very fallible human beings — the superior, community and guests. I like the way the Divine Office punctuates the day; the attention given to reading, study and hard work; the austerity and restraint which are our way of ensuring that we do not become focused on material things. I don’t myself find it an easy Rule to live by because it is always asking something more, pointing us towards a holiness not yet achieved. Over the centuries the Church has overlaid the original conception of St Benedict with ideas of her own. Thus, today, to be a Benedictine nun is to live a life ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’ with rules about enclosure and so on that often fascinate romantics and puzzle others. Like so much in life, many of these rules have to be taken on trust and lived as best we can.
To outsiders, especially those who have had no dealings with them, nuns are an unknown quantity: figures of fun, often enough, or a symbol of everything narrow and obscurantist. From time to time some well-meaning priest will talk about ‘the good Sisters’ praying for the rest of us behind their high walls (we don’t have walls, we’re not Sisters and I wouldn’t call us ‘good’, either!) or we’ll receive some dutiful encomium of the contemplative life penned by a pope or bishop, usually with a few ideas of their own about what we should be doing (these don’t always correspond to what we are doing, but not everyone is an expert in sixth century monasticism). We regularly receive letters from organizations enlisting our help for their causes and asking us to write back with the name of the nun assigned to pray for them (we don’t do that; the community prays). At least there is a recognition that God matters, and that prayer matters, too.
Most frequently, however, we are turned to in moments of crisis by ordinary people overwhelmed by some event or hardship they don’t really know how to deal with. They know that we will pray; and although their ideas about God may be very agnostic, they have a vague sense that it is worth asking someone to pray for them. I am often very moved by the requests we receive. No matter what form they take, we will always pray, seriously and perseveringly. Just occasionally, however, I am taken aback by the casual way in which some prayer requests are made, as though we were prayer-making sausage machines and God — the all-holy, transcendent One — nothing more than a menial to do their bidding. There is no sense of the absolute holiness of God; no sense of what prayer is.
The only explanation I can find for this way of approaching prayer is that it reflects our Western society only too well. We want something, so we put in an order to the supplier and treat the whole thing as a kind of commercial transaction. God will do our bidding, because that is what he is meant to do. He is a supplier of goods and services to humanity. I confess that it makes me uneasy, but I don’t know what to do about it. Or rather, I suppose I do. Somewhere in the life of every Benedictine there is, must be, something of that utter abandonment to the love and praise of God that characterized the saints. However inadequately, it is our role to break the jar of nard and allow its fragrance to waft abroad. Please pray that we may do so.
We have an email prayerline open 24/7 for prayer requests. You will find it in the Vocation section of our websites at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and www.benedictinenuns.net, or you can make use of it here. No details are made public.