Feeling Helpless

Most of us would admit to feeling helpless at times. Illness, the sudden loss of a job, even a leak we can’t fix can leave us experiencing an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. No matter how hard we try, we find it difficult to put a truly brave face on things. Outside we may look as though we are coping; inside we are more of a mess. For many in the UK and throughout the EU, the Brexit crisis is stoking up fears about the future, while those who see their jobs disappearing with the collapse of the High Street and traditional manufacturing industries have more immediate worries. We have learned, painfully, how quickly a situation can go from ‘just managing’ to ‘not managing at all’. So, how does prayer fit into this?

One of the things we learn very quickly when we try to pray seriously is that prayer has many modes. There is joy and sorrow, hope and fear; times when prayer seems easy and natural, times when it seems impossibly hard and barren. The important point is to persevere, to accept the prayer God gives now, not the prayer he gave yesterday or may give tomorrow. That is to allow our helplessness to be transformed by grace. Unfortunately, we don’t see what is happening, though others may; and it is important to remember that feelings are not a very good guide to what is happening. We may well go on feeling helpless, powerless, even if we aren’t. It keeps us humble, if nothing else.

The humility we learn in prayer is the bedrock of Benedictine life. That needs thinking about. Humility seems so attractive in other people but in ourselves is often perceived as akin to weakness. Odd, isn’t it, that something that feels as wobbly and uncertain as helplessness should actually provide us with safe standing? Another paradox to get our minds around.

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Irrelevant to Today?

Last year, I penned a kind of shortened Cambridge Shorter History account of St Wulstan, whose feast we keep today, (see here). An earlier account of his role in ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland drew derision from some whose focus is Black Slavery, while more serious attempts to assess his character and activity appear to have bored my readers more than somewhat. So, is St Wulstan, who died in 1095, irrelevant to today — one of those musty old medieval male saints who belong in stained glass windows and are not part of the living faith of anyone nowadays? That depends.

We can make a case for considering Wulstan to be very modern indeed, principally by ignoring his historical context and seizing on aspects of his life that appeal to us. Take that interest in the slave trade, for example. It resonates with all who are concerned about the evils of human trafficking and exploitation. Or take his extraordinary ability to maintain his position under William the Conqueror. That surely provides food for thought among those who do not see their national identity being crushed out of existence by association with others. It even has something to say about our current preoccupations with Christian unity and liturgical observance, for Wulstan found a way of adopting and advancing Lanfranc’s reforms while making Worcester a centre of Old English culture and piety.

The difficulty only really comes when we have to take seriously the intellectual and spiritual world Wulstan inhabited and the way in which that affected his thoughts and actions. Even if we would describe ourselves as religious, those long unseen hours of prayer, those daily distributions of alms to the poor, those foot-washings, they are a world away from our usual experience. I don’t mean that we do not pray, or that we do not give alms; but the way in which we do those things has changed. The way in which we live has changed. More and more things clamour for our attention. Even in a monastery, we have to spend time on matters that would never have troubled Wulstan or his contemporaries. The world we inhabit is larger, noisier and apparently much more complex. So, where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us confronting something we may find uncongenial: the reality of a sanctity that, at one level, baffles and bewilders yet, at another, rings true. Wulstan was a saint and it is as such that he has a claim on us today. It is in his holiness, in his closeness to God, and in his activity as intercessor on our behalf that we find his relevance. It doesn’t matter that he comes from a different age or context from the one with which we are familiar. He is part of that great Communion of Saints that embraces the whole of creation. As such, he is very close to us even now. We can rejoice in his closeness and learn from him. St Wulstan, pray for us!

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What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
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Hope in Dark Times

Whatever one thinks about Brexit, no one can be indifferent to last night’s events in the House of Commons. Yet again we have been reminded that representative democracy (e.g. Parliament) and direct democracy (e.g. Referenda) do not sit very well together. We are now faced with a situation the majority of us feel we can do nothing to improve and which promises only more uncertainty and, indeed, suffering and loss. The human face of the Brexit question has tended to be obscured by clever, well-nourished men and women animatedly discussing statistics and mechanisms that look very different in the industrial areas of the Midlands/northern England and the fishing/farming communities of Wales and Scotland. Personal ambition, calculations of political advantage and some adroit positioning of company interests all come into play. But it is not a game we are playing. It is difficult not to be downcast and give in to the sense of hopelessness that goes with the grey of a January morning.

So, just two simple thoughts, culled from todays Mass readings, which seem to me peculiarly apposite. The first reading, Hebrews 2.14–18, makes the point that we are enslaved not so much by death as by the fear of death. Fear of what may happen, what might happen, only too often ends up paralysing us. I speak with some conviction on this point. I have known, ever since I was first diagnosed, that my cancer is incurable. My initial prognosis wasn’t very good, but I have been fortunate enough to live my life without spending time wondering when it will end. After all, as I cheerfully informed a friend, I could fall under a ‘bus (though, living where we do, a timber lorry is a more likely modus moriendi). The point is, the what-ifs must not be allowed to cripple the what-ares. We must make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves, and our politicians must be alerted to the fact that many of us are not very happy with the way in which they have conducted themselves and hold them responsible for the mess we are in. This morning the future looks bleak, but with goodwill and hard work, surely something positive can be achieved?

My second point is more explicitly ‘religious’, but you must expect that in a blog written by a nun. In the gospel we read that in the early hours before dawn, Jesus went off to a lonely place and prayed there (cf Mark 1.29-39). That, essentially, is the vocation of a Benedictine: to have in her heart a lonely place where Christ may pray unceasingly to his Father. It is prayer made in the darkest of times but always in union with the one who is a compassionate and trustworthy high priest. As such, it is powerful prayer — not because of us, but because of Him. That is the kind of prayer of which we all stand in need today: the prayer of hope and trust.

N.B. Opinions expressed in this post are the responsibility of the writer and not to be attributed to the community.

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A Question About Generosity

The other day someone asked me something to which I paid little attention at the time but which I have thought about since: how does someone with a life-limiting disease such as cancer feel/respond when they are asked to pray for someone who has a bad cold, or when they read some heartening story about someone who has ‘beaten’ the disease they themselves have. I can’t remember the answer I gave. I imagine it was along the lines of ‘All requests for prayer are taken seriously. What may seem minor to one person may loom large in the life of another. Our business is to pray, not to judge the person who asks.’ Anyone who has ever had a bad cold will heartily concur. It does feel like death — or what we imagine death to be like — and we do want people to pray for us.

The question about reacting to another’s good news is trickier. I’d like to say, I rejoice for them and give thanks; and most times I do. But I must confess there are times when the gladness and rejoicing have to be squeezed out rather than oozing freely. I recall with shame when a dear friend telephoned to tell me that what we had both feared might be a cancerous growth turned out not to be. As he said over and over again, ‘Thank God, it’s not cancer!’ part of me was echoing the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Of course I rejoiced for mt friend, but I would like to be free of my own leiomyosarcoma and it would be dishonest not to admit that my gladness was tinged with more than a dollop of . . . not envy exactly, but something very like it. There was definitely a green tinge to my rejoicing.

We are so often urged to be generous. In origin, the word means to be noble, magnanimous, unstinting. Unfortunately, we tend to limit it to more prosaic meanings. We talk about being generous with money or time and conveniently forget that before we can be either we must be magnanimous, big-hearted. Of the three gifts the Magi brought to Jesus, surely the gold is most clearly a sign of love and generosity. Even today, gold is regarded as precious, a symbol of the desire to lavish the costliest of gifts on the beloved. But, alas for us, we are called upon to lavish the gold of our hearts on those who are not necessarily beloved (or at least, not as beloved as perhaps they ought to be). We are called upon to be generous to all. It may not be money or time we have to give. It may be something as simple as a smile of welcome, a listening ear, a small kindness that goes virtually unnoticed. We are called upon to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who grieve; in short, to look beyond ourselves and find and worship Christ in the other. I hope the next time I read one of those ‘I beat cancer’ stories, I shall do exactly that.

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New Year Resolutions

Already the New Year is beginning to look a little bedraggled. Christmas decorations have been taken down, trees lie in wet clumps beside the recycling bins, and the message of peace and goodwill to all has been drowned out by political spats, military coups and horrific violence. Yesterday, while we were celebrating the wonderful solemnity of Epiphany, a few brave spirits dressed in lycra passed by on shiney new bicycles, determination to get fit writ large upon their faces. I shuddered and averted my gaze, because I don’t really do New Year resolutions, certainly not the kind that require effort from lungs and muscles. Instead I read a number of comments about the old tradition of chalking one’s doors for Epiphany, then wondered how many would be observing today as Plough Monday. Away from the countryside, there aren’t many ploughs to bless, though I daresay we could (nearly) all dance to mark what was once the beginning of the agricultural year.

There is, of course, a connection between New Year resolutions, Plough Monday and life as a Benedictine — patience. No New Year resolution brings instant results; even in these days of GM crops and GPS tracking and assessment, farmers still have to wait to see the fruit of their toil; and as for being a Benedictine, that takes a whole lifetime to achieve. Today we read the final section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict in which he assures us that we ‘shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may be deemed worthy to share also in his Kingdom’ (RB Prol 50). It is a task that lasts usque ad mortem, until death. In the next 73 chapters Benedict will spell out how to give practical effect to our desire to follow Christ. Some of it will be difficult; some of it clean contrary to our own ideas; but it is advice we can trust because it has produced century after century of holiness. We can safely say of St Benedict that there is nothing weird or whacky about his teaching, no mendacious promises of instant fixes for what is wrong with our souls. He offers us only a plain, perservering pursuit of peace: a life of prayer, work and service in community. It will be costly, but the reward is great.

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The Danger of Cynicism

Cynicism is often thought to be cool. Standing aside and apart from the common herd suggests to the cynical intellectual or moral superiority. It is a sign of being special: a looking down on others from the heights of better knowledge or understanding. Forgive me for saying so, but I think that is rot. Cynicism is actually both depressingly common and commonly depressing. Why so? Because, among other things, it destroys wonder.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding thrilling those first images of Ultima Thule or the far side of the moon. Part of me registers the huge cost involved and the political and economic motivation that co-exists alongside the more purely scientific desire to explore the unknown, but wonder is my predominant emotion, my immediate response. Cynicism doesn’t come into it.

I think that is heartening for all sorts of reasons, not least because I believe that wonder is an important part of prayer. If prayer is no more than a list of requests (sometimes, let’s be honest, demands) or a series of apologies for sins real or imagined, the focus tends to remain firmly on ourselves, and we can easily become cynical because, not surprisingly, God does not see as we see, so our ideas about how our prayer should be answered are often disappointed. Allow a little wonder in and everything is transformed. We are not addressing a God ‘out there’ but a God near to us, who loves us, wishes to be known by us, and whose ideas are infinitely more amazing than our own.

So, whatever else you do today, do please allow yourself a few moments of wonder — at the beauty of the sky, the kindness of strangers, even the miracle of being alive one more day.

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Fitting Everything In

I sometimes wonder how other people manage to fit everything in. They look after their families, do their jobs, care for house and garden and STILL have time to read, write, watch videos and cultivate all kinds of hobbies, from extreme sports to needlepoint. By contrast I, who ought to have all the time in the world, am in a perpetual state of trying to keep up. Could it be that I exaggerate the ability of others to remain on top of things and underestimate my own ability to do the things that really matter?

Today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict (Prol. 14–20) goes straight to the point. A Benedictine is, by definition, a worker for God (Prol. 14), motivated by a desire for life (Prol 15) — life which, in all its fullness, can only be obtained by the renunciation of evil and the pursuit of goodness. So, we are exhorted to turn away from evil speech, do good, and seek after peace (Prol. 17). That will prepare us to hear the Lord’s invitation to follow the way of life (Prol. 20). Simple, isn’t it? Only, most of us don’t find it easy but almost impossibly hard, which is why we have to try and try again, spending our whole lives listening for that invitation in the midst of all the other activity we undertake. However much we want to hear and heed the voice of the Lord, we still need a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on our tables; importantly, we still need one another if we are to grow in holiness.

For the monk or nun, therefore, the challenge of fitting everything in remains. The only difference is motivation and approach — how and why we do things, rather than what we do. We ought not to be acting from selfish motives — what’s best for me, or even what’s best for my community — but from more altruistic ones — what’s best for everyone; and the way in which we do things ought to be less of a hectic scramble. I say ‘ought’ because we all fall short of the ideal. Perhaps that is a good thing. Those super-organized beings we admire from afar can be rather difficult to live with, making saints of everybody else rather than themselves!

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Looking Both Ways: 2019

Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.
Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.

Today is the first day of January, a month which, like the old pagan god Janus, looks two ways, back into the past and forwards into the future. It marks the beginning of the secular year, one more in that vast chain of being that binds us to all who have gone before and all who will come after. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, herself the hinge between the Old and New Covenants; and finally, it is the Octave Day of Christmas, a day that symbolizes both completion and a new beginning. So many glittering paradoxes, so many ideas to try to understand! Perhaps we could think about just one.

The Incarnation marks the intersection of time and eternity, the point at which the Creator enters his creation in a unique way, but it is dependent upon the consent and co-operation of a single human being, Mary. That fact alone should give us pause. It is a rewriting of the Magnificat, as the humility of God meets the greatness of Mary’s response and we are saved. Today is a day for gratitude, for rejoicing, and for renewed hope. We cannot change the past; the future is unknown; but we are given the present in which to ‘do now what may profit us for all eternity’, as St Benedict says.

May 2019 be filled with the blessings of peace, joy and unity for all.

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Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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