Organized Selfishness?

One of the most damning things that can be said about any organisation or institution is that it has become self-serving. Benedictine communities, in particular, are always at risk of descending into organized selfishness. It is not that we give way to really big sins (though some, alas, have), but we can become tolerant of those we consider small — and many communities have the resources, in terms of buildings and opportunities, to acquiesce in them. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad, but we may become mediocre. The Office, as Dom David Knowles once remarked, can be kept up with every appearance of care and attention long after the heart has gone out of a community, but the signs of selfishness multiply. Our comfort becomes important. Little indulgences in the matter of food or drink or holidays are not questioned or are brushed aside as trivial. Once, when I was attending a monastic bursars’ meeting, the men discussed the level of holiday money each monk should be given. Against the names of the nuns’ communities were the initials n/a, not applicable. When I said it should stand for ‘not available’, I was laughed at; but my point was serious. Women are just as likely as men to become tired or need a break from regular duties at times, but to assume that every monk needs at least one holiday a year and nuns never is plainly stupid. The Rule exhorts us to consider need and acknowledges that needs differ.

I don’t think, however, that Benedictines should take all the blame for appearing at times insensitive to others. Many communities, especially of women, are financially hard-pressed. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. But outsiders can be very demanding or unrealistic in their demands. Whenever someone decides to tell us what to wear, for example, I tend to adopt my ‘blotting-paper expression.’ We do, in fact, wear a traditional habit, happily and contentedly, but it is far from being of the essence. Benedict’s only concern about monastic clothing is that it should be suitable for the climate, available in the locality and fit the wearer (RB 55). Those most anxious to fulfil their own fantasies about monastic life are usually the last to consider the cost, difficulty or even the safety of maintaining a particular form of habit. It is the same with the activities in which we engage in order to keep our communities going and to serve the wider community. One of my Facebook followers regularly reminds me of the disapproval of some people of our online engagement. I don’t rise to the bait because I can see that many of those who have been loudest in their criticism are now rushing to take advantage of live-streaming, social media and the opportunities offered by the latest technologies. I rejoice in that because it is a way of reaching out to those who would never knock on the monastery door.

I think we can sometimes forget that we do not become monks and nuns for ourselves alone. We have a role in both Church and society that we must fulfil, faithfully, generously, unselfishly. We pray unremittingly, yes; but we know our prayer won’t always be as whole-hearted as it should. We are hospitable, of course; but there are limits to our hospitality and what we can manage, and we should not feel guilty when others say to us ‘you should’ which is actually shorthand for ‘it is my opinion that’. Our community lives won’t always be sweetness and light, but we can try to be kind and honest and accepting. Above all, we can do our best to be open to grace, to the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit (RB 7. 6-70). We can show that we love the young, reverence the old, care for the earth and everything in it as though it were a sacred altar vessel, bow down before Christ in the stranger and in one another, do what is better for the other and, hopefully, ‘at length, under God’s protection, attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue’ (RB 73.9).

I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.


22 thoughts on “Organized Selfishness?”

  1. Perfectly phrased and offered, as a pattern of life for each of us.
    Perhaps through the recognition we have absorbed during lockdown, we now see how much good we can hope to continue to offer. Yet it is the ‘slippage’ which is the point: a little less, as the good intentions slide, and each ‘less’ becomes a habit.
    One of the many gifts your writing brings us, is the reminder of what is possible: we all need that.

  2. Thank you for yout online ministry and all you do. I am a long way away from my Community and as an Oblate I truly cherish this contact.

  3. Dear Sister,
    Thank you for this. As an oblate I struggle with what conversio morum means for me, what should it mean for my family, and how to avoid a comfortable mediocrity. About the habit, or for that matter any form of clerical dress, as a deacon I ask myself ‘will this help, or hinder, the gospel?’ I don’t think any other criterion is valid. Thank you for your wonderful, inspiring posts.

  4. Picking up on one point, I believe it is imperative that your community maintains an online presence. It has the ability to reach people who might be searching and it seems to me that many people in the world today are searching, though they don’t know what it is they seek. Your presence also shines light into a virtual space where there is much darkness.

    On another note, everyone needs a holiday, a break away from the norm to re-charge their batteries. We attended Celebrate for several years to re-charge both our spiritual and physical batteries. This year, alas, for many, there will be no opportunity to do so, so we must pray for the mental and physical well-being of those who are fatigued.

    Thank you for your continued presence, your words of wisdom and for shining the light in a world that has become so much darker of late.

  5. Thank you for this post, as for your online presence as a whole. It has so much to say, even to those who are technically “non-monastic” but who are nevertheless called to be monastic in spirit – among whom are Dispersed communities like ours. The challenges of those small but enervating self-indulgences….!

  6. I am very glad you are on line – your words of wisdom, encouragement, and honesty are needed by everyone. You tell it like it is……….and give much food for thought about our own walk in this life and are we doing all we can….Being honest with oneself is a grace I believe and seeing our flaws is the only way to correct them, or at least try to.

  7. Brilliant as ever! Especially the bit about ‘you ought’. So many people (men for the most part in my experience) feel they have the right to tell women what to do and what to wear or what not to wear, be it the Benedictine habit, the Muslim veil, the office stilettos or the mini skirt. I well remember a certain priest telling me when I was 18 that my black tights, black polo neck and grey duffle coat made me look miserable. My revenge was to acquire some very black eye liner. Such were my generation’s rebellions.

    And on a more serious note, I shall try to follow your good advice at the end of the blog. Your blogs are the sermons I wish we could all hear in church and on line every day.

  8. For me, your very last sentence says it all: “I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.”
    Your hope is answered insofar as I am concerned! I hope and pray that your health will enable you to continue writing and blogging as you do.
    I echo the previous comments made here stressing the importance of maintaining an online presence not only to answer the needs of “casual” net-surfers seeking spiritual solace or a purpose to their life, but also as a counter to the more determined Internetter bent on causing mischief or on propagating half-truths about the Church and, most important of all, the role of women (and men for goodness’ sake before you say) in the Church. God Bless you 🙂

    • Thank you! Not everyone gets my punch-lines. Seriously, we (the community) wouldn’t be engaged online were it not for the fact that we think the Church, including the monastic part of the Church, must be everywhere people are. I’m grateful for your prayers.

  9. Perversely, the very fact that people write horrid comments on twitter is a sort of affirmation, I suppose. The devil sits on the altar steps, waiting whom he may devour! You must logically be doing something right, no?

    • I wasn’t thinking about Twitter or comments directed at me, particularly. I’m just as capable of reacting stormily, especially when I’ve just taken my daily dose of Prednisolone!

  10. The mania of prednisolone!!! Thank you for your digital presence. Always guiding. I always seem to be taking. How can I help the community?

  11. I lived with a community of nuns for a year in the 1990s. I was not attracted to their shortage of money for busfares and stamps or even a hair slide. All the priests I have known have had a car. With petrol. Even those living with the poorest in Latin America. There is something of choice, and solidarity with the poor, but grinding poverty is hard. And is it a gender thing??? I have always struggled with the story of Jesus and the rich young man. And fullness of life, what is that. Great to be thinking about these things again.

    • Sounds like you were with Religious Sisters rather than nuns (the need for hair slides suggests that!). I wonder how they coped. Thinking back to the bursars’ meeting I mentioned, I do recall that the amount of money the male communities had available for each monk was more than twice that which even the richest of the women’s communities had for each nun — no different from the situation throughout most of history. Fortunately, not having much money does sort out priorities.

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