Prayer and Reassurance

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the need many people have to be reassured that the community prays for them and their intentions. Not only that, but pray in a way they have specified. Now, while I understand devotion to a particular saint or to the Rosary, say, as a form of prayer, I would still want to insist that prayer itself is bigger than personal preference or devotion, bigger than any sacramental, no matter how good or holy. It is also, very definitely, not magic. God does not need certain formulae or rituals to agree to our requests. He knows what is good for us, and his love for us is unchanging. He likes us to bring our concerns and worries to him because what he desires is us, in all our mucky imperfection — everything implied in our being children of God — but superstition plays no part in that. We cannot, as it were, bend God to our will by our words. Love alone has the power to change things, and it is God’s weakness that he loves us infinitely.

Not an infantile relationship

Being children of God doesn’t mean being infantile in our relationship with him. Most of us have known the relationship with our own parents change over time, from the absolute dependence of babyhood, through the companionable adult years, to the caring roles we assume as our parents grow older and frailer. With God we never assume a caring role, but friendship with God is something we do strive for: a loving adult relationship. 

First steps in prayer

Our first steps in prayer are probably rather noisy. The analogy with babyhood is almost painfully accurate. We chatter away, merrily ‘ear-bashing’ God, bawling out our demands and frequently sulking when we don’t get what we want: God doesn’t listen to me; he never answers my prayers; I’m not going to talk to him or believe in him any more. Some of us never get beyond that stage. Hopefully, however, we shall mature and grow in grace and experience, then our prayer tends to become quieter. It is less about us and our wants, more about listening and simply being with God. Inevitably, wonder begins to take the place of preoccupation with our own concerns. A friendship develops; and as it deepens, so does our trust and acceptance. Friends don’t need many words, often none at all. The understanding is mutual. One of the amazing things about this kind of friendship is that it draws others in. The circle becomes wider and wider, as it were, to embrace first this person, then that, and ultimately, one hopes, the whole world. That is Christian prayer in operation, the prayer Christ prays unceasingly to the Father and into which we are drawn.

What reassurance do we need?

With such a powerful prayer as this, do we need the reassurance of certain formulae and rituals? I’d say not not, but we must remember we don’t all receive the same grace or in the same way. Those who use our prayerline receive a little generalised message saying we will pray for them, but those who email us in other ways or tweet or message us usually don’t — if we responded to all of them individually, there would be days we had no time to pray! So, please be reassured that your requests for prayer are acted upon by us and, more importantly, heard by the Lord himself. He will answer as and when he chooses. Trust Him.

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Of Tears and Laughter on September 11

The twentieth anniversary of September 11 was always going to be hard. No one who was alive in 2001 can forget the terrible sight of aircraft crashing into the twin towers, nor what followed after. Seeing people crammed onto window ledges or deliberately leaping from them to certain death brought home to us the intensity of the hatred that inspired such hideous acts. Today, in Afghanistan, the story is still not ended and we are as helpless as we were twenty years ago. People suffer, are maimed for life, die. We pray for peace, for the healing of wounds, but with a kind of reluctant half-belief. It is the best we can do. At least our prayer is real, we say. Tears express what we cannot put into words and today they will flow freely, not just in the U.S.A. but also in the 78 countries whose citizens died in the attack on the World Trade Centre and the aircraft brought down near the Pentagon.

If that were all there were to say, it would be to acknowledge the triumph of death and destruction over life and hope, and I’m not sure that we should. There is another image, also from New York, I would like to put before you*: a young girl laughing with astonishment and delight at finding herself in the finals of the U.S. Open. Whether she wins or loses tonight’s match is irrelevant. Emma Raducano has not only demonstrated that she is a very fine tennis-player but also that enjoyment — being filled with joy — is not dependent on success as such. She has clearly enjoyed playing in New York, and those armchair critics who were so dismissive of her when she showed nerves at Wimbledon might like to reconsider their earlier verdict. Life is not all about winning, though it must be nice when one does. The greatest prize is life itself— one we all share and should cherish.

*For copyright reasons, I can’t post a photo of Emma Raducano and her huge smile here.

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Sunbeams

It has not been the summer most of us would have wished. The weather has been uncertain; the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to disrupt lives and cause grief; while natural disasters — floods, fires, hurricanes — and political convulsions —most strikingly, the agony being undergone by the people of Afghanistan — have contributed to a sense of weariness, amounting at times to hopelessness. Wherever we look we see corruption and failed leadership from which the Church herself is far from exempt.

When everything seems so gloomy, it is time to look for the sunbeams: for the kindness we encounter, the unexpected help given us, the beauty of the world, the hint of God’s presence. That doesn’t mean pretending everything is marvellous when clearly it isn’t. Here at the monastery the last few weeks have been quite trying but it would be churlish to concentrate on the negative. Those little flashes of insight, that moment of luminous silence, the baby’s smile or the peaceful sleep of the very old may not amount to very much, considered individually, but together they remind us that the world is a good place to be. It is not being experienced as such by everyone, but we can help make it so for some.

Even if only one person is affected by what we are or do, we shall have played a part in cherishing the world — a world God loved so much he sent his only Son to redeem it. If talk of sunbeams seems embarrassingly twee, there is the awesome figure of the Sun of Justice to contemplate. It just depends how we see things. As Joseph Plunkett wrote:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice — and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

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In Search of Renewed Strength

We are obliged by canon law to make an annual retreat of eight days. In theory, that is wonderful; in practice, not always. Ours begins tonight and will end on 6 September. I have never known a retreat to go quite as planned. Most people assume (hope?) that it will be a week of unalloyed joy, as calm and beautiful as a summer sea:

A retreat as imagined

If only! The reality tends to be less serene. If we are doing the retreat properly, a few ‘nasties’ will arise from the depths of our being, to say nothing of what may batter us from outside. We can expect something more like this:

A retreat in reality

Although we try to keep household tasks to a minimum, we still have to cook, clean, do the laundry and deal with admin, the timetable for which is rarely set by ourselves, but the cellarer has also arranged a few treats for us and the monastic horarium is a little more flexible than at other times, so the ‘holy leisure’ element is not lost. Things, unfortunately, do have a tendency to go wrong. This is the time for computers and boilers to break down, unexpected visitors to call, for joints to creak and muscles ache — even, perhaps, for a fit of the glums to descend. It doesn’t matter. A retreat is about regaining some spiritual strength and we usually have to plumb the depths of our own weakness and inadequacy to realise how much we must trust God for everything.

This year the tragedies unfolding in Afghanistan, Lebanon and many other countries remind us how much we have to be grateful for, how blessed we are that we can even contemplate spending eight days focused more intently on seeking the Lord. We know that the fruits of the retreat will be hidden from us and may well come long after the retreat itself is concluded. We are, after all, entering into God’s time which runs on different principles from human time.

Our common lectio divina will be the gospel of Mark and the Epistle of Privy Counsel. We shall read the gospel straight through, to see it whole, as it were, rather than divided up into sections for Mass or the Divine Office. The Epistle of Privy Counsel is a text recommended to us and our forebears in community by Fr Baker as one to read over every two years. It is, I think, in many ways more important than its sister The Cloud of Unknowing, but it has a less catchy title and is more obviously demanding. We shall see.

Please pray for us as shall for you. Our daily posting of prayer intentions and Rule of St Benedict recordings should continue as normal on Facebook (https://facebook.com/benedictinenuns) and Twitter (@digitalnun). If you do not have a copy of The Epistle of Privy Counsel, there is a free PDF download in modern English here:

https://avalonlibrary.net/ebooks/Anonymous%20-%20The%20Cloud%20of%20Unknowing%20and%20Other%20Works.pdf

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Loving God with all our Mind

Mark and Matthew agree that we can, and should, love the Lord our God with all our mind (cf Mark 12.30 and Matthew 22.37), but I wonder how many of us fail to register that or settle for the easier (because apparently more demonstrable) loving God with all our heart, adding ‘with all our soul’ or ‘all our strength’ by way of affirmation. In the West, the heart has become the pre-eminent symbol of love and devotion but its popularisation has also led to, not a cheapening exactly, but certainly a lightness in use that can be disconcerting. We ‘like’ a tweet and a little heart appears alongside; we love, love, love chocolate when all we really mean is that it is a favourite treat; and then we have no words or symbols left when we want to express something deeper, more demanding. We have wasted our efforts on what a friend once called amour confiture — syrupy sentimentality.

That is not to deny the reality of anyone’s professions of love and devotion to God. But do we give sufficient thought to what it means to love God with all our mind? At the end of the day, I examine my conscience by thinking where my desire has been: what have I wanted, what have I dismissed as unimportant, what have I said or thought that shows where my desire has truly been. My words often trip me up, but when I think of the never-ending bilge that passes through my mind, not necessarily sinful thoughts but a near-constant inner monologue about everything under the sun, I realise how hard it is to ‘take every thought captive’ for Christ (cf II Corinthians 10.5). The old monks regarded control of thoughts an essential monastic discipline, but even after a lifetime in the monastery, I know I am as far from it as ever. I pray that I may learn some day, and perhaps you do, too, because I believe it has an important role in loving God with our whole mind — not just part of it, nor even the major part, but all of it.

To love with our mind means more than intellectual appreciation of what is good or the restraint of negative impulses in some sort of approximation of ancient virtue, while to love with all our mind takes us into the realm of transformation by grace. It means, surely, allowing the light of the Holy Spirit to illumine what is dark in us (or for us) and responding to God’s love without hesitation or reservation. There is no room for ‘I’ll love God if he answers my prayers as I want him to’ or ‘I’ll be like St Augustine and start my conversion tomorrow’ (!) There isn’t even any possibility of holding back ‘I’ll forgive everyone except X.’ The fundamental problem of loving God with all our mind is that we have to love as God loves with his mind — completely, mercifully, charitably. Far from being restrictive, doing so is both liberating and creative.

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Becoming Expert

Not very long ago, nearly everyone seemed to be an armchair epidemiologist. We regaled one another with our opinions on vaccines, lockdowns, mask-wearing and so on, cheerfully unaware that our (mis)understanding of mathematics often made our interpretation of statistical tables questionable, to say nothing of our failure to understand the science involved in tackling COVID-19. Rumours and ‘false information’ abounded. Now, it seems, we are all experts on Afghanistan. Partly, that is a reaction to the deep sense of shame many in the West feel about the way in which the U.S.A. and its allies have withdrawn from the country; partly, I think, it is our usual response to any item of news that engages our attention.

The problem is, the instant expert does not exist. We may have an instant insight, but that is not the same thing as expertise. To become expert in anything requires long training and practice, for at the root of the word lies the Latin verb ‘to try’. Sometimes people become discouraged when they begin to pray and do not find themselves immediately in what has been variously called the unitive way, the Seventh Mansion, and so on. Happily, St Benedict always adopts a commonsense approach, seeing the importance of prayer but not being prescriptive about methods. One who reads and is faithful to the liturgical prayer of the community, who shares generously in its common life and is careful about obedience and mutual charity, will grow in prayer. The growth is hidden from the individual; but that is true of any expert, who will always say they have more to learn. St Bernard, whose feast we celebrate today, understood this very well — and what an impact he had on the people of his time and still today!

Advance notice

We shall be migrating all our web sites to new servers on 24/5 August. There will probably be hiccups, but we hope to have them sorted before we begin our annual retreat, 29 August to 6 September.

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How do we Pray about Afghanistan?

Afghanistan: Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash

The shock and horror of what is happening in Afghanistan have left many in the West angry or numb. Some have taken to social media to vent their distress or accuse those they consider to be responsible. Others have found solace in tears or confided to their diaries thoughts they can scarcely put into words. As to what it means for the people of Afghanistan themselves, there we draw a blank. We can speculate, but imagination and knowledge of what has happened in the past will take us only so far. Afghans living in Britain may have some idea, but most of us do not. We are outsiders, with a guilty sense of being being at least partly responsible for  the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. 

While politicians and commentators take to the media to try to ‘explain’ what is happening and tell us what to expect in the future, the Church exhorts us to pray. That sounds easy enough, at least to those who do not believe or have never tried to pray. It is what the Church always says in times of crisis or tragedy, isn’t it? But how do we really pray when the heart is overwhelmed with feeling and there are no words that do not seem hollow and trite? How do we pray about something as big and painful as Afghanistan? 

Not Praying

Perhaps the first thing we should do is not even try. By that I mean, we need to abandon the idea of praying as a self-regarding exercise. We must forget that we are praying, take the spotlight off ourselves as doing a good act (praying for those in need) and remember Jesus on the cross, his words reduced to very few and ending with a great cry. We must forget all the words we love so much, too, and the way we try to cajole God into doing our will rather than paying attention to him and his will. Words are not necessary, and they bend and break under the strain of trying to express what lies deepest in our being. The Holy Spirit is more eloquent than any of us, and we can trust the Spirit to articulate what we cannot put into words. Most difficult of all, perhaps, we must try to forget the self and its emotions. When greatly affected by another’s pain, it is easy to turn everything round to what we feel, our sorrow, our pain, and forget why we were inspired to pray in the first place.

Why Pray?

Why do we want to pray? It is a question we need to ask because I am not sure we are always clear or honest with ourselves in the answers we give. Praying is what good Christians do, isn’t it? Yes, but there is more to it than that. We pray because we are made for union with God, and for that union to be perfect, it must include everyone. So, we want the suffering in Afghanistan to end, for peace and justice to be established, but we want more than that. We want God to have joy in what he has created, for his beloved sons and daughters to live in freedom and harmony, to experience a transformation in and through the Holy Spirit. The means God chooses to achieve that— the people, the events — may surprise us, but that is not really our business. Our business, humanly speaking, is to make what God desires and wills possible by responding to the invitation to pray, to align our will with his. In Jesus Christ we have the perfect example of prayer and obedience — a prayer and obedience so wonderful that the whole human race has been redeemed.

The Prayer of Christ

At a time of tragedy or crisis, we need to unite ourselves ever more profoundly with the prayer of Christ himself. To do that we have to be much quieter and more attentive than most of us like being. To pray with Christ and in Christ requires a radical change of stance. We no longer have the satisfaction of thinking we do anything. We throw ourselves and the whole world on the mercy of God. There is no safer place to be, but that act of renunciation, of relying on God alone, is infinitely costly. It is much easier to seek safety in words and gestures (which may be very eloquent/heroically generous) and thereby miss the essential. As a wise old monk once remarked, ‘It was not Christ’s death on the cross that redeemed us but the love and obedience that led him there.’ Love and obedience — they are what God asks of us in prayer, not eloquence, not brilliance, just our deepest, truest selves.

Not everyone is comfortable with the kind of prayer I have been describing, and I should be sorry if anyone were to conclude that I think it the only kind of prayer that is valid. We must always ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, but none of us should dismiss what I have described as being ‘not for me’ or impossible of attainment. Old friends don’t need to say much to each other, and it is cultivating friendship with God that the habit of prayer encourages. Confronted with the tragedy of Afghanistan, however, I think it is also the kind of prayer which protects us against two temptations that can paralyse our best efforts. They are (1) condemning others for what has happened and possibly wishing all kinds of ill upon them, and (2) spending time on our own solutions, most of which are probably naive or ill-informed or both.

Simply asking God to do what is best is much harder than railing against others. Giving time to prayer which doesn’t try to tell God what to do is harder still. To get up from our knees, seeing no obvious change yet determined to persevere, is hardest of all. It is to walk by faith not sight, to trust, to hope. It is what all Christians are called to do, and I think it is a good way of praying for Afghanistan.

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A Lesson from Pontian and Hippolytus

Comparatively few people will be celebrating today’s feast of SS Pontian and Hippolytus with a great sense of their individual personalities. Hippolytus was an important Church writer of the third century although, as with many details of his life, there is disagreement about the exact scope and content of his work, despite many writings having his name attached to them. In The Apostolic Tradition he gave us the first account of the ordination ritual of the early Church which is significant in itself. He may, or may not have been, elected as an anti-pope. What we do know is that he had a furious dispute with the pope of the day about some of the latter’s decisions, accusing him of too much leniency towards sinners. Beginning to sound familiar and contemporary?

Pontian, the pope with whom he had the dispute, was imprisoned by imperial authority and sent to the quarries in Sardinia. Hippolytus was also sent there and somehow the experience led to a reconciliation. Their deaths are recorded as martyrdom, and their names are for ever united in the Church’s calendar. I ask their intercession for long-running and bitter disputes that seem impossible of resolution, for ‘nothing is impossible with God’— a lesson we need to learn again and again.

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Enriching the World: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The so-called Passport Photo: c. 1938

The feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) which we celebrate today always produces a mixture of complicated emotions in me. I must have read almost everything she ever published after she became a nun, admire her deeply, yet confess to being disconcerted by her. Is it the philosopher in her I find difficult, the intensity of her sanctity, or something else altogether? I do not know, but this morning, when everything was dark when the community got up and some of the news darker still, I remembered the hope that sustained her to the last in Auschwitz, the glimmer of light she never failed to see, and the courage with which she and her sister Rosa went to their end. She is a saint of the Holocaust who combines in her own person both Jewish and Christian traditions, whose humanity contrasts with the inhumanity of the regime that killed her.

We need saints who challenge us out of our comfortable mediocrity. At first sight, St Teresa Benedicta is impossible of emulation. But is she really? Aren’t we all called to live as well as we can, whatever our circumstances? She did not have the long, quiet life in Carmel she might have expected, but she embraced the life she was actually given and, in so doing, has enriched the world — not just the ‘religious’ part of it but the whole of it. We are called to do the same.

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Light and Darkness: Transfiguration 2021

‘A-Day’ First atomic bomb explosion at Bikini in the Marshall Islands
1 July 1946

A Local Event and Hiroshima

This morning, at 8 o’clock, Western Power will switch off the electricity supply to this area and we shall be plunged into a temporary physical darkness. It should only last a day, but we won’t be able to supplement natural light at the flick of a switch or do many of the things we usually take for granted. At 8.15 a.m. on this day in 1945 a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and in its glare the world was changed for ever. A moral darkness descended on the human race. It is not just the number of those killed or the way in which they died that appalls, but the fact that another boundary was crossed. Nothing in war was now beyond limits and that would have an impact on the way in which we behaved henceforth. As Robert Oppenheimer remarked earlier, after watching the detonation of the first nuclear weapon, a piece of Hindu scripture had run through his mind: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ In vain did he spend the rest of his life urging stricter control of nuclear energy and more thought about the possible consequences of its development.

Physical and Moral Darkness

Physical darkness, moral darkness, how do they connect with an event that Christians believe took place roughly two thousand years ago in what we have come to call the Transfiguration? Was that episode in the life of Christ another kind of boundary-changer, the spiritual triumph of light over darkness, begun on Tabor and completed on Calvary? Many have speculated that the Transfiguration took place at night, which would have made its strange and luminous beauty even more wonderful to those who saw it. It is not the loveliness of the Transfiguration that matters, however, but its significance.

The Transfiguration

Mark’s account is brief (Mk 9.2-10). As always, there is no lingering over the detail. He moves quickly to meaning and purpose. This is God’s beloved Son to whom we are to listen and as a consequence find life. The vision of the unity of the Old and New Covenants is meant to do away with doubt and disbelief but, of course, it has done no such thing. We continue to live with doubt, fear, death. Today, as much as ever before, the old certainties are crumbling. Climate change and the loss of habits and species in the natural world parallels the loss of agreed values in the social and political order. Even our religious institutions have shown themselves to be often corrupt and untrustworthy. Sin, we find, is not an abstraction but a brutal reality in the lives of us all. In a sense, we are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, still living in the not-yet of the kingdom, of eternal life glimpsed but not yet fully grasped..

That is not the whole story, of course. Sin and death do not have the last word; the promise is fulfilled, only those of us alive today have yet to experience its fullness when, as we affirm, ‘all is made new’.

I am encouraged by the fact that liturgically the Transfiguration is very much a Benedictine feast, popularised by the Cluniacs. Benedictines are not much given to hype — or despair. We just go on, century after century, trusting in God and hoping, little by little, to be refashioned into the likeness of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. That surely is the connection, the answer to the conundrum. Just as on Tabor Jesus allowed his disciples to glimpse his glory as God, so, in our everyday lives, his grace transforms us, allowing us to achieve the impossible because, in the end, good will always triumph over evil, love over hatred, life over death. God wills that all should be saved. We think about that too little or somehow dismiss it as something that doesn’t really apply to us. Yet that is the hope the Transfiguration confers on us and the whole human race. We may not see the glory now nor realise how wonderful is the promise made to us, but it is there, shimmering and shining throughout time and eternity. We are, because of Him, ‘immortal diamond’. Let us give thanks, rejoice — and pray for peace.

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