The Power of Symbols

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July had more symbolic significance than anything else for the course of the French Revolution, but even today it will be recalled in France with great republican fervour. We all have our own symbols. I ‘knew’ before I came here what a powerful symbol the American flag is for the people of the U.S.A., but seeing it proudly displayed on porches and in car lots, on all manner of buildings, both public and private, has brought home just how intense the focus on it is. I’m not sure we have anything really comparable in England, where no one gets very excited about anything except perhaps cricket and football, but the Church has an abundance of symbols, most of them simple and direct, like light, water, oil.

From time to time one hears someone saying that the Church needs to ‘update’ her use of symbols; that oil, for example, no longer has the significance it once had for people living in the Near East or around the Mediterranean. It’s true that oil is no longer used in quite the same way or for the same purposes, but that does not empty the symbol of its power. The life of the Church is expressed through sign and symbol: it is a language we all learn gradually as we come to see the impossibility of expressing through ordinary human words the extraordinary divine action in our lives. Symbols are powerful things and shouldn’t be underestimated.


Looking through the Window

It is hot here in New York, seriously hot, with a high humidity content. My habit is as limp as I am, so I have chosen to stay indoors and work next to the air conditioning rather than go to the Cloisters Museum as I had hoped. Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the noonday sun, but not sensible Englishwomen like me (? Ed.)

So, I have been looking at life through the window, as it were. The deer feed near to the convent in the early morning, and there are a couple of turkeys who seem to have taken up residence on the edge of the woodland. It is familiar and strange at the same time. It struck me this morning that ‘looking at life through a window’ is exactly how illness or age may force us to experience much that goes on around us. How much we miss when we cannot hear, smell, touch or taste. The same is true if sight goes and we must rely on the other senses.

I don’t feel deprived that I cannot smell, touch (or taste) those wild turkeys but I am glad that I have the choice, whether to go outside and experience the sensory beauty of the early morning or stay inside my air-conditioned room.  Not everyone has that choice. Thinking about that has certainly transformed my disappointment at not going to The Cloisters. Instead I give thanks for what I have, and want to pray for those who have much less. Please join me in that.


St Benedict, Patron of Europe

One of my private heresies is that Benedict was an Englishman. The minor fact of his having been born in Italy at a time when the English did not exist is cheerfully brushed away. How could someone with such reserve, such dry humour, such administrative genius have been anything but English? Of course, even I have to admit that no one nation has a monopoly on these characteristics. I suppose it would be better to say he was a fin-de-siècle Roman, without any fin-de-siècle nastiness.

Europe is very much in Benedict’s debt. His sons and daughters have, over many centuries, prayed and worked and studied their way to holiness; and in the course of doing so, have changed the face of the continent. We think of them today as missionaries and scholars, teachers and people of prayer. Europe is in urgent need of re-evangelisation, and although many wonderful Orders and Congregation have arisen in the Church, there is still a need for Benedictines, perhaps today more than ever. What we bring to the Church is hard to define, but easily recognized when encountered.

After thirty years in monastic life, I think I am just beginning to understand what it is all about: what it means to be a contemplative and a missionary, to be a cloistered nun and someone who reaches out to others with the Word of Life. We have espoused the internet and associated technologies in the same way that our predecessors embraced the quill pen and the printing press, and for much the same reasons; but we know that without the persevering life of prayer, which is largely unseen and unnoticed, everything we do on the net would be pointless. If Europe ever becomes a Christian society, it will be because prayer allowed God full scope to work his miracle of conversion.


Farewell Nebraska, Hello New York

The Benedictine Development Symposium at Schuyler, Nebraska, has come to an end and I’ll shortly be on my way to New York. It’s been a good conference: lots of ideas, professional expertise generously shared, and the genial kindness that marks Benedictines en masse. The monks of Christ the King have been unstinting in their hospitality and one has had the happy sense of being ‘at home among the brethren’. Most of the people I’ve met during the past few days, possibly all of them, I’m unlikely to meet again except online. It’s a reminder to me of how enriching the internet and associated technologies can be. As I give thanks for all I have received during the past few days, I also want to give thanks for the internet, which was both the cause of my being here and will be the means of my sharing what I have learned.


One Selfish Act Impoverishes the World

Yesterday I was checking my Twitter account and found a reference to the theft of the exquisite twelfth century manuscript known as the Codex Calixtinus (better known to me as the Códice Calixtino) from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. In a moment I was back thirty years to a golden afternoon when the acting archivist of the same cathedral entirely forgot about the English research student beavering away at her notes. He went off to lunch, and for nearly four hours there was just the Codex, the sunshine and me. When the canon finally returned, he had the Colombian Ambassador to Spain in tow, and it fell to me to explain some of the glories of the manuscript. Oh bliss, oh joy, oh rapture!

I daresay security at the archives is now much stricter than it was then (I don’t think I noticed any back in the seventies) but it was not good enough to prevent the theft. The manuscript can never be sold on the open market, it is too well-known; so presumably it was stolen to order, to satisfy the greed of some private ‘collector’. It was an act of pure selfishness which, at a stroke, has deprived the whole world of an irreplaceable treasure.

It is difficult to enter into the mindset of those who will do anything to satisfy their greed. Our heritage from the past is so vulnerable. I often used to think that Spaniards were remarkably casual about theirs, but in the seventies I don’t think I ever encountered one who was dishonest. It would have been a dishonour, and who is more jealous of his honour than a Spaniard? Let us pray that the manuscript will be returned unharmed, and even more, that the desire to possess at the expense of everyone and everything else may be eradicated. A fine sentiment, but unlikely to be realised soon, I fear.


A Question for Formators

Yesterday an interesting question arose (one among many) concerning use of the internet by those in monastic/religious/priestly formation. Our own policy here at Hendred is clear. Essentially, during the novitiate access to the internet will be restricted. Emails to family and friends (within reason), Skype calls to parents, occasional use for study purposes, yes. Facebook, Twitter, surfing YouTube? No. There is so much that needs to be done during the novitiate if we are to understand and co-operate with the graces being offered us to grow in prayer that there really isn’t time for anything more. We need to focus, even become ‘bored’ with God if the novitiate is to do its work — at least, that’s our view and our policy for now.

Other Benedictines present at the Symposium here at Schuyler spoke of a much more liberal use of the internet allowed to those in formation, including active use of Facebook. The question raised was ‘how much does this usage lead to real engagement with others?’ To an observer it looked as though there was an over-concentration on uploading and commenting on photos. Is this good or bad? Well, I have already said that at Henred we’d be rather sceptical, but ultimately it is a case of ‘by their fruits shall ye know them’. God has a habit of making saints by some unlikely means.


4 July and Kingship

Here I am in New York, or as near as makes no difference, surrounded by the love and welcome of the Salesian sisters, the FMA, preparing to celebrate 4 July with them before I head off to Schuyler, Nebraska, where I have been invited to share something of our community’s experience of making the internet ‘the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart’.

Yesterday I was too dazed to take much in, but this morning I was very struck by a phrase used in the Morning Office. Where we talk about being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, the translation used here referred to a nation of priests. I’m sure that fits the republican and democratic sentiments of the American people and conveys what the author of the sacred text intended, but it left me pondering how difficult it must be for those who live in republics to embrace the scriptural notions of kingship.

We take the language of prayer and worship for granted. Being exposed to the kind of minor cultural shock I underwent this morning has the refreshing effect of making us more attentive. It may not be quite in the spirit of 4 July, but I have spent the morning reflecting on biblical ideas about kingship and the coming reign of God. My lectio divina was inspired by hearing a single word, truly an ‘apple of gold in pictures of silver’.

Web Site Updates

We are still implementing the updating and revision of our community web site. The home page has been simplified and some new links added. In response to various requests, the Media section now has an ‘As Others See Us’ page which brings together some links from the past six months. If you think we have overlooked something important, pro or anti, it matters not, please let us know. We often miss articles or comments in blogs; so if you have said something you think we should know about, please get in touch.


Dealing with Disappointment

Flaky broadband yesterday meant that I wasn’t able to blog. Ironically, an email from BT this morning assured us of ‘the U.K.’s most reliable wireless connection’. The mismatch between aspiration and experience is something we are all familiar with, whether it concerns ourselves or goods and services we rely on.  No doubt Andy Murray is feeling very deflated this morning, but in his case, disappointment will surely lead to a renewal of effort, analysis of where he went wrong/might have done better. He may become an even better player for having lost an important game, but that will be no solace now. He must experience disappointment to the full.

How we deal with disappointment says a lot about us. We give thanks readily enough when things go the way we want, but when they don’t? That is the real test of how far we live in a state of gratitude.


SS Peter and Paul 2011

The Catholic Church can claim to be the oldest surviving institution in the western world but it is built upon foundations that look ridiculously flimsy. Neither Peter nor Paul is an obvious candidate for greatness: Peter always putting his foot in it and running away when things got tough; Paul talking the sun down and regularly falling out with his colleagues. Yet we know that each in his own way fulfilled the mission of an apostle and brought to the infant Church a necessary grace. We are here today because generations of Christians have followed in their footsteps, ‘sharing in the prayers and the breaking of bread’. Today we give thanks for their fidelity, just as we give thanks for Benedict XVI’s sixty years of priesthood and faithful service of Christ and his Church.

Last night the pope used an iPad to launch the web site and tweeted his first tweet. Peter might have wondered, but I think Paul would have been quick to follow suit; and what a tweeter and blogger he would have proved! The Tradition handed down by the apostles is alive and active. It flows from the past but takes us somewhere new every moment. It is like the beauty of God himself, ever ancient, ever new. On this feast of Peter and Paul, let us also give thanks for the eternal youthfulness of the Church and for the beauty that we find in her.