The Annunciation

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

Loveliest of all Marian feasts, the Annunciation reflects  a moment of unequalled faith, both on the part of God and of Mary. That God should put such trust in humanity, and Mary such trust in him! One cannot fail to be encouraged. We are, as Hopkins rightly perceived, not mere carbon but immortal diamond, capable of holding within ourselves the immensity of God.

I think it is the little details of the story that make such an impact. We see Mary almost thunderstruck by the angel’s message. As so often, awe comes out of a dazed kind of doubt or disbelief. A momentary questioning, followed by a wondering acceptance of so great a destiny. How many of us would be reckoning our lost hopes and fears rather than embracing what God asked of us?

Mary is a model for all who would be contemplatives in the way in which she treasures things in her heart. She is a model for every Christian, male or female, in her readiness to embrace the demands of the Word. On this day, above all others, she is a reminder that youth can do great things for God, that age and experience count for nothing beside love of God. It is a day for wonder and gratitude, a day for reaffirming our love and trust. It is also a day for rejoicing that God has such great love for us.

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Nuns on the Run

I would have preferred the statelier ‘Gad-abouts and Gyrovagues’, but given that language is about communication, using monastic jargon, even humorously, has its drawbacks.

Yesterday we went to Douai to join the community for Mass and a festive meal which was very pleasant and a world away from our usual humbler liturgy. Today we have a few deadlines to meet, then tomorrow we are off again, in the metaphorical sense. BBC 1 Breakfast TV may give you a glimpse of part of the monastery not usually open to visitors while Digitalnun makes her way to the Great Wen to take part in Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ programme. We’ll never know what the TV shows or doesn’t except by hearsay, but Quietnun may well listen in to the radio in order to add prayer support. That’s what she says, anyway.

All this begs the question: why do many people regard an occasional egress from the cloister in order to take part in serious discussion or engage with others on subjects of common interest as somehow not quite right for nuns? One of the long-range effects of the 817 Council of Aachen and subsequent canonical additions by Carlo Borrromeo (to mention only the most important) has been to make the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns diverge on this point. Given that there is no ‘Second Order’ among Benedictines (Benedictines antedate the whole concept of a Religious Order) one wonders whether this is something that we shall need to address in coming years. As William remarks in one of the ‘Just William’ books, ‘Girls aren’t so mere as they were in your day, Dad.’

 

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The Monk, the Nun and the Silicon Chip

Today is the feast of St Benedict and all true Benedictines will be celebrating with sober joy (it’s amazing what one can manage during Lent if one puts one’s mind to it). I must confess that we had set our hearts on inaugurating our new online retreat service today, but the many demands of the last few days seemed to have put paid to that. However, one should never underestimate a nun’s determination.

Inspired by our holy Father’s injunction to pray earnestly whenever one begins a good work, and enthralled as always by the possibilities of the silicon chip, we have beavered away in the night hours and this morning can present to you the first release of our Online Retreats with its easy-to-remember domain name, ‘onlineretreats.org’.

Everything was working as it should last night; I sincerely hope it is still doing so this morning. You can check  for yourself at http://www.onlineretreats.org. For the time being, we’re only releasing one of the modules so that if a glitch manifests itself, tracking the problem should be easier than if we are dealing with half a dozen. The next challenge is to turn it all into an iPhone app. Enjoy.

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Seeing only Jesus

The last few days have been moderately awful, even without the horrors experienced by the people of Japan and Libya. Several of our friends have been going through what one might reasonably call ‘a bumpy patch’, while we ourselves have been struggling to meet a deadline, not helped by a number of additional demands over which we had no control. So we reach the Second Sunday of Lent tired and scratchy and what do we find? One of the most beautiful and arresting liturgies of the Church year.

In the middle of this season of fasting and penance, the collect invites us to ‘feast interiorly on the Word’, then the gospel takes us up on to Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration. How embarrassingly petty seem all the irritations of the past week. Even those things which tugged at the heart strings are transformed by being taken into this mysterious presence whose calm and beauty illumine our inner darkness. ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.’ That surely is the secret: to see only Jesus whatever may befall.

A long time ago, when I used to be asked to produce Office hymns at the drop of a wimple, I tried to express something of this moment of  Transfiguration in words:

A single moment holds
Eternity’s vast span,
As wondering earth beholds
God’s heaven revealed in Man.

Both sun and moon grow dim
And lesser stars yield place
As Light from Light they hymn
In Christ’s transfigured face.

Now Law and Prophets speak
Of what must soon befall
The One who dares to seek
Salvation for us all.

Here Peter, James and John
Stand awed by this strange sight
As whom they gaze upon
Shines whiter than the light.

The Father’s voice is heard —
Bright cloud hides all around —
His Son, the listening Word,
Alone, alone is found.

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Fridays in Lent

Perhaps because I am writing this half asleep, after a week of short nights and long days and a particularly full one yesterday (BBC TV were filming a short feature for Breakfast TV on 23 March, we had guests for supper, there was a loaded inbox, deadlines to meet, you know the kind of thing: a leisurely day in the monastery), I am wondering what my Friday penance ought to be. The custom of marking Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent, as days when we perform some special act of penance is a very salutary one, in both senses of the word; but practically speaking, when one already has a Lenten programme spelled out in one’s Lent Bill (Benedictines) or in one’s resolutions for Lent (everyone else), Fridays are a problem. What does one give up or take on that is not already covered?

Some people read through at least part of the Passion in the early afternoon, on their knees. That means stopping what they are doing, which is not easy, especially when trying to meet a deadline, and switching to another mode, one which acknowledges that God is more important than anything we think important. Reading the Passion narrative in this way does have a penitential aspect but, more significantly, it reminds us why penance on Fridays is encouraged.

I don’t recommend that you should kneel down in your office or on your factory floor on Friday afternoon and get out your New Testament unless you want to be the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but if you too find the whole question of Friday penance rather perplexing, maybe you could find something just as simple that would be a help to you. It is not what we do but the love which accompanies it that matters. I’m not sure what I shall do today, but I’m pretty sure you will never know. The other aspect of Friday penance is keeping it a secret between God and ourselves.

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Catholic Women Don’t Preach

They blog instead. Or, I daresay, they lecture their spouses occasionally, if they are married, or their communities, if they happen to be nuns (we call it “giving a conference”). Dr Johnson, as everyone knows and some regularly misquote, thought that a woman’s preaching was very like a dog’s standing on its hind legs, remarkable but not necessarily done well. Having listened to the preaching of several Anglican and Methodist friends, I have to dissent from the Great Cham’s opinion on the surest of all grounds, that of experience. Some of the most brilliant preaching I have ever heard has come from women. Why is the Catholic Church so iffy about allowing women into the pulpit?

Partly, we know, it is because of what the Catholic Church believes about the Mass (which is where most preaching occurs) and the sacrament of Orders. It is quite wrong to see this as an equality issue although it is sometimes presented as such, by those who wish to uphold the status quo as well as those who wish to attack it. I don’t think “equality” really comes into it, but what we believe about the Mass and Orders may affect perceptions in other areas. For all kinds of reasons, women in the Catholic Church are still seen primarily as wives and mothers, even if they are neither or have many other roles in addition. We don’t usually define men in terms of their being husbands and fathers (although American Catholic men seem touchingly ready to define themselves that way). The argument from complementarity works well on paper but is less convincing in action. I have a sneaking feeling that some of those most passionate in its advocacy are secret admirers of the article on “woman” in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. (I read it, entranced, at the age of eleven and have wondered ever since whether it would be possible to meet such a being.)

Blogging is a low-cost way of addressing an audience and many Catholic women, including me, have taken to it with delight. It doesn’t need an imprimatur (remember them?) or a sacrament or anything in particular to validate what is said. I do believe that anyone claiming to be a Catholic blogger should take the trouble to find out what the Church actually teaches before launching into the ether, and I hope I’m scrupulous in that regard, though that is for others to judge. The trouble is, I am still haunted by Dr Johnson’s little joke. Am I preaching when I jot down my posts, musing aloud in public (which is what I like to think) or performing some kind of verbal acrobatics? Doughty dame or dancing dog, who knows?

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Information Overload and Compassion Fatigue

Two phrases which have become commonplace, ‘information overload’ and ‘compassion fatigue’, strike me as having enough truth to make them useful and enough untruth to make them dangerous. At the moment, it is difficult not to be caught up in the tragedies unfolding across the world: Japan, of course, but also Libya and Bahrain, Ivory Coast; and those by no means over but already gone from the headlines, the floods and earthquakes which have wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands if not millions. We know too much, but we know it only briefly; and though we do our best to respond, there comes a point when the wallet is, if not empty, at least not as full as it used to be and we are faced with making hard choices: life for you, but not for you.

In the monastery we are, to some extent, protected from both information overload and compassion fatigue. We don’t have unrestricted access to the media and we don’t have much material wealth to share with others. On the other hand, as anyone who has lived this kind of life will tell you, whatever we see or hear makes a much greater and more lasting impact precisely because our access to the media is limited, while not being able to help materially can be painful. So what do we do?

Our first response to any tragedy is prayer. For some people, prayer is a last resort, something one tries when everything else has failed; but to pray perseveringly, committing the outcome to God, trusting him absolutely yet ready to accept that prayer may not be answered as one would wish, is harder than it may seem, yet it is open to any Christian by virtue of the gift of prayer poured into our hearts at baptism. It is not a soft option, a cop-out. It means taking seriously Christ’s role as Eternal High Priest and uniting our prayer with his. It means taking time, wasting time. When we think we can’t take any more, can’t give any more, there is always that inner jar of nard to be broken and poured.

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Care of the Sick

If you don’t know chapter 36 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Care of the Sick, I recommend it as a corrective to sloppy thinking about those who are unwell or who have become infirm because of age. Benedict maintains a balance between meeting the genuine needs of the sick and preventing their carers from being exploited or becoming exhausted. It is Christ who serves through us and Christ who is served in us. That thought may not be enough to stop us being irritable or demanding or whatever, but it may help in stressful situations where it is ‘the other person’ who is the cause of all our woe (or so we believe). If you would like to listen to RB as it is read in the monastery, please go here and click on the ‘RB Box’ in the sidebar.

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