Standing in Another’s Shoes

Two snippets of news mentioned by the BBC almost in passing: the murderer of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was applauded and showered with rose petals when he appeared in court; in Egypt, people are being encouraged to attack Christian churches on the eve of the Coptic Christmas (7 January). Most people in Britain probably feel sick at the prospect: we don’t glorify violence unless it is somehow “sanitized” by being part of a war in defence of  some good or other.

Possibly both the death of Mr Taseer and the threatened attacks on Egyptian Christians are seen as a holy war in defence of Islam, but before we assume that religious extremism is the sole motivation, we should consider the highly volatile political situation in both countries. Neither Pakistan nor Egypt is a western democracy; neither functions as we would expect a western country to do. In the west religion is often ignored or treated as a figure of fun. Not so in Pakistan or Egypt.

The marginalisation of religion in the west has consequences we are only just beginning to recognize. Our assumptions about human rights and human dignity are not necessarily shared by those who view the world from a different religious perspective. Maybe our own indifference to religion makes it harder for us to understand and therefore engage with the people of Pakistan or Egypt. Standing in another’s shoes is something we all need to do more often.

Podcasts

iTunes has finally approved our podcast stream after we moved the feed to Audioboo. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sorting out our podcast collection and begin a new series. Thank you to all who offered help and advice, and especially those who tackled Apple on our behalf. To find our podcasts on iTunes, look for iBenedictines.

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Spiritual Direction

From time to time one of us is asked if we will act as a “spiritual director” to someone. Our reaction always surprises those who know nothing of our community history or the part played in it by Fr Augustine Baker. There is generally a slight hesitation, followed by a quiet smile and even quieter affirmation, “The Holy Spirit is the best spiritual director.” This sometimes leads our interlocutors to wonder if we are Catholic at all, or at any rate not quite right in the head. (I sometimes wonder about the latter, too, but that is by the bye.)

It is what we don’t say that is important. There are many more spiritual directors in the world than there is true spiritual direction. To be able to guide others in the ways of God is a rare gift, a charism, and it is not given to all. The nuns of Cambrai (from whom we are descended) had a hard battle to avoid being pressured into a way of prayer and spirituality entirely alien to them under the name of “spiritual direction”. It was largely thanks to the fortitude of D. Catherine Gascoigne and her community, who were subject to some pretty stiff ecclesiastical penalties, that Fr Baker’s eminently sane teaching survived to shape the lives of the nuns who followed after. Fr Baker is now recognized as a master of the spiritual life and his insistence on “liberty of spirit” continues to inform those communities which took his teaching to heart.

But to say that spiritual direction is a rare gift and that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” For us, “liberty of spirit” presupposes life in community under the Rule and a superior, where there are daily checks on behaviour; it involves constant prayer and study and, above all, regular reception of the sacraments. Very often the sacraments are left out of the equation but for growth in holiness they are essential, especially the one many people ignore: confession.

Confession is not the same as spiritual direction. As a sacrament, we can be quite sure that the Lord is at work in it, no matter how “inadequate” we or the confessor happen to be. There is no similar guarantee with spiritual direction. That is not to say that spiritual directors are frauds and charlatans, far from it, but it is why we will not undertake that role. Those who have the gift can contribute a great deal to those who seek instruction and guidance; those who haven’t can do a great deal of harm. We do not give spiritual direction, but we do pray, as best we can, for all who seek our help.

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Value

Facebook is apparently valued at $50 billion, which means it is more “valuable” than Tesco though less subject to public scrutiny because it is not a publicly quoted company (one wonders how long that will be true). What does that say about value in our society? Remember the dot com boom of the 1990s, when people stopped reading balance sheets and ploughed fortunes into companies which had never actually made any money? Then the backlash, the return to “only manual labour really counts” kind of thinking, and now, at long last, the painful realisation that having any kind of job is real riches.

Throughout these ups and downs I have valued (there’s that word again!) Benedict’s sanity on the matter. He appreciated manual labour, knowing that working with one’s hands guards against excessive spiritualisation of reality; but I don’t think he exalted any one activity above another. Everything could, indeed should, be of use to the community and part of the quest for God. So, whether I am working in the garden or sitting at my desk doing the accounts is all one, really. I may enjoy the garden more but that is irrelevant. The value of what I do is in its purpose: service of the community. I don’t think one can put a price on that, do you?

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Hungry for God

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest
Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest

It isn’t often that Digitalnun manages to get a nice photograph of Quietnun (she usually pulls faces, ducks her head or discovers something important to do elsewhere) but the element of surprise was in my favour when I found her at my desk the other day.

It’s more than just a nice photo, however.  It’s a good image of both how and why we engage with the internet. People are sometimes surprised to discover that we do not spend all day online but fit in our blogging and tweeting here and there, as we have a moment or two free. That’s why we can “disappear” for whole weeks at a time: there are other things claiming our attention.

The really important question is why we engage with the internet at all. It is, for us, an important aspect of traditional Benedictine hospitality: welcoming others to the monastery. People come to the monastery for all kinds of reasons but usually, either implicitly or explicitly, in search of God (although they might not be ready to name what they seek as God). The only thing we have to offer is our own (limited) experience of God,  and what we have imbibed from our years of study, praying the liturgy and living in community. It is not much, but it is something; and as regular readers will have noticed, we try not to be too pedagogic or learned in our approach (although a certain amount of learning has gone into what we do) but “accessible”.

Our blog does not necessarily appeal to those who make use of our web site or follow us on Twitter or Facebook, but we are always keen to know if there is anything we are not doing which we could do and which you would find useful. Bear in mind, please, that we are few in numbers and do not have deep pockets – just “an infinite desire”, as St Catherine of Siena once said.

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Epiphany 2011

The Three Magi
The Three Magi

Readers of Colophon may remember that we used this image of the Magi for our post about Epiphany last year. The Autun sculptor has captured beautifully both the mystery and the humanity of these three seekers after truth. I particularly love the tender way the angel is wakening one by touching his little finger as the other two lie fast asleep. One can imagine him whispering, “Get up, this is the way!”

Often we resolve problems or come to a deeper appreciation of things by not explicitly attending to them. Sleeping on the problem, going for a walk, playing something on the piano or weeding a flower-bed: all are tried and trusted methods of allowing our minds to break free of the constraints we put upon them when we are trying to work something out.

For the Christian there is another and more effective way of breaking free of these constraints, and that is prayer. Not prayer as instant solution or easy way out, but prayer as quiet, persevering seeking after God. The Magi loved truth and undertook an enormous journey in pursuit of it. They found what they sought where they must least have expected to find it: in a small child born in an obscure part of a Roman province. We often seek truth in odd places and can be disconcerted to discover that it lies much nearer home. May Epiphany reveal to you the wonder of him who is Light from Light, our journey’s goal, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(If you wish to reread the Colophon entry for Epiphany 2010, the best way of doing so is to go via our web site and click on the archive for January 2010. At the moment the JS-Kit comments script is making things work very slowly, so we need to decide whether to  drop the comments, which we are reluctant to do, or find another way of archiving them. We’ll take our own advice and sleep on it.)

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A Brave Beginning

Our Lady of Perpetual Succour
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

January: the door of the year, the month that looks both ways, a hinge between two worlds; in the most literal sense, a critical time. How will 2011 be for any of us? The one certain thing is that we shall all change in the course of it.

For the godly-minded, today is also the oldest Marian feast in the calendar, that of Mary the Mother of God, and the Church’s World Day of Prayer for Peace. A connection between the two may be found in the fact that today is also the Octave Day of Christmas, the day when Christ was circumcised and, as St Paul says, “in his own flesh made the two one”. Catholic tradition has long seen in the blood shed at the circumcision a type of the blood shed on the Cross to redeem us. Mary gave us the Prince of Peace to be our Saviour, stood beside his Cross as he was dying and became mother of the Church (i.e. us) when the Beloved Disciple took her to his home. It seems fitting that the first day of the new year should be placed under her protection.

And for the rest? No doubt there will be rejoicing and merriment, and some valiant attempts at self-improvement in the form of New Year Resolutions. January is indeed a critical time and as we get older we know better than to prophesy or announce our plans. Let us just begin bravely. The outcome we can safely leave to God.

May you have a very happy New Year!

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A Cheerful End

I know that if I say we are at the end not just of a year but of the first decade of the twenty-first century someone will correct me. For bloggers, correction is both a blessing and a bane. It is a blessing when it puts right an error, advances an argument, or throws light on something previously obscure (Digitalnun would add, when it makes us smile as well). It’s a bane when it it is simply the outpouring of rudeness or venom which does nothing constructive. I can’t help feeling we’ve seen an awful lot of negative correction during the past ten years, not just in the blogosphere but also in the world at large.

Here in Britain I think many people have been dismayed to find how much corruption simmers beneath the surface of our public life and in the shock of that discovery have exaggerated the effects. Some MPs fiddled their expenses so now we are cynical about all politicians; some bankers behaved greedily and irresponsibly so now bank-bashing is a legitimate blood sport. Religion is not exempt.  Some clergy abused children and young people so now all Catholics are the spawn of Satan; some Islamist extremists murdered so now all Muslims are terrorists. Even the weather attracts our ire. We’ve had two harsh winters in succession and it’s highlighted the inadequacy of some of our preparations, so we castigate our local authorities for not doing more. Now ‘flu is spreading and our misery knows no bounds. At the year’s end, with budget cuts and job cuts and VAT rises to look forward to, we are not at our most cheery.

Cheeriness, however, is not a virtue; cheerfulness is, though I fear you will not find it listed in any textbook of moral theology, more’s the pity. Cheeriness is merely the state of being happy and optimistic and is limited to self; cheerfulness is causing happiness and optimism in others and knows no bounds. If iBenedictines has a wish for its readers at the end of 2010 it is simply this: be cheerful. There’s more true religion in that than you might think, but correct me if I’m wrong.

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Good Zeal

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 72 which you can listen to here, has the title “On the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have”. The title isn’t Benedict’s but I think he would have approved. It is modest and unassuming and, occurring as it does almost at the end of the Rule, suggests an acceptance of human frailty which is encouraging. Benedict has spelled out in great detail how the monk is to order his life and devoted several pages to the demands of living in community. Yet here he is soberly talking about the good zeal monks ought to have and must cultivate with the most ardent love as though it cannot be taken for granted, even in the monastery.

Zeal can be dangerous. We can go seriously wrong for what we believe are the best of motives. We have probably all met people so consumed by what they see as evil that they have become unpleasantly like what they detest. We may even have been guilty  of being too rigorous ourselves in situations which called for forgiveness and understanding. Zeal gone wrong leads to fanaticism and that, as we all know, can be poisonous.

Benedict’s antidote is to put energy and enthusiasm into that which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. As you might expect, he singles out for mention qualities he has already written about: patience in bearing with one another’s weaknesses “whether of body or character” (including X’s annoying little habits), eagerness to show respect and obedience to other members of the community (including that odious Y), seeking what is better for another rather than oneself and, above all, loving God, one’s superior and the brethren. He sums it all up by saying that we must put nothing whatever before Christ who, we pray, will bring us all together to everlasting life.

It is a beautiful and moving statement of the inner dynamic of monastic life but there are days when it sounds just a bit . . . effortful. That’s the problem with zeal. It has a bright, tooth-paste tang about it which most of us prefer in small doses. At this time of year, when the Christmas decorations are beginning to look a little tired and 2011 is almost upon us, we can use RB 72 as a reality check on how we actually live our lives.

So, before you write your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself one question. Do you put as much energy into your service of God and others as you do into making things comfortable for yourself? I blush to think of my own answer. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but comfort achieved at the expense of others is more questionable. I think even I could become zealous about that. At least, I hope so.

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Becket and Conscience

St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket

The feast of St Thomas Becket always takes me back to Cambridge days and the difficulty of making up my mind about Becket. I always wanted to see him as the doughty champion of the Church, clear-eyed in his acceptance of the consequences of clashing with the king. But I was enough of a historian to worry that many of his contemporaries were less convinced. Gilbert Foliot, for example, did not see Becket as a hero; and Foliot was a man of great integrity. I finally decided that I could accept Becket’s holiness without necessarily thinking him right in all his judgements (it is significant that no one, not even his worst enemies, ever accused Becket of unchastity which, at that time, would have scuppered any claim to sanctity, but the cause for which he died was quickly superseded by a compromise).

My student dilemma is one we are regularly faced with in the secular sphere. Recent events in Russia leave one “wondering” about the justice system there. What is happening in the Ivory Coast has a definite whiff of sulphur about it; and as for what we know of Afghanistan, who could say, hand on heart, that the western forces have made the situation there any better, despite the huge sacrifice of people and resources on every side?

All of us have to make decisions based on imperfect and often contradictory evidence. We must do the best we can. Sometimes doing the best we can may lead to martyrdom of one kind or another. More often it means being misunderstood or misprized, usually by those whose opinion we most value. Let us not undervalue the courage and persistence that requires. The daily death to self, the trying to do the right thing, makes the whole of life a martyrdom, a witness for Christ.

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Christmas Feasts

The Christmas feasts come thick and fast this week: St John the Evangelist; Holy Innocents; St Thomas of Canterbury; Mary the Mother of God; and before we have had time to draw breath, Epiphany, which is for many the greatest feast of Christmastide, when gentiles are admitted alongside Jews to experience the salvation of God.

All these feasts are a reminder that we are not to linger beside the crib. The martyrdom of Stephen (not celebrated this year because of Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family) showed us clearly that following Christ will be costly. What then of John, whose feast we keep today?

There is so much mystery about John. Is he the Beloved Disciple; did he actually write all the works attributed to him; was he spared a martyr’s death; did he live and die at Ephesus? Above all, what kind of man was he, how did he understand God, why does he seem so different from all the other early writers of the Church?

Forests have been felled and seas of ink consumed in an effort to answer these questions, but I think we can, without argument, claim him as the Church’s first mystic. Mysticism gets a bad press these days, mainly because of the vapid, New Age travesty of the same: the reality is much less cosy, much closer to John’s own terrifying vision on Patmos, a glimpse of God as he is, as terrible as he is beautiful.

John’s profound meditation on the meaning of Christ’s words and actions, his insistence on the primacy of love and forgiveness in building up the Christian community, is a lesson for us all. It is only when we welcome the Word into our lives and allow ourselves to be changed by him that we begin to understand what is asked of us and what it means to be a child of God. What happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has opened for us the way to salvation, but the journey cannot be completed without passing through Death and Resurrection.

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