No moans, please, about celebrating this great feast on a Sunday instead of the more familiar Thursday (I don’t like it either), but a moment’s pause to consider what it is we are celebrating. The ‘automatic’ answer isn’t wrong, but it may be inadequate. IF we really believe that the Holy Eucharist is what we say it is, our only possible approach is in awed silence, on our knees before a Mystery so profound. Love and reverence go together, as St Paul was wont to remind us. Let today therefore be a day of great joy, great love, great and holy fear, for truly, God is with us.
St John the Baptist tends to be a great favourite among monks and nuns. His humility, courage, joyful asceticism and fiery proclamation of the Truth are immensely appealing. I have written so much about him in the past that I feel obliged to limit this post to a single thought.
Jesus, Mary and John were related by blood and possibly shared a few character traits along with their DNA. We are accustomed to thinking about Christ in isolation, save for a few incidents where Mother-and-Child interaction reminds us that he did indeed live as a family member for most of his life. Where was John, his slightly elder contemporary? In boyhood, did Jesus look up to John; or was Jesus always the leader? Did they play together at family gatherings, or were Elizabeth and Zechariah not the mixing types? The family life of Jesus began in Bethlehem. Today’s feast reminds us that it did not end there.
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).
When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?
Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?
I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.
In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.
Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.
There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?
I feel a sense of connectedness to these two saints that I don’t feel to many others of the period. First, there is Fisher: a Cambridge man of course, of ascetic mind and temper, but fond of his sister (a nun) and capable of gentle humour. The cane he used on his walk to the scaffold is kept over the way at Hendred House, and when I first held it I was struck by how small he must have been. Somehow, one always expects giants of the faith to be giants physically. Then there is More, with his quicksilver mind and delight in his family, a more complex character than Fisher. His drinking cup is kept at Hendred House as a family relic, but we claim a small association of our own as the community at Cambrai from which we are ultimately descended had among its founders D. Gertrude (Helen) More, his great-great-granddaughter.
Today, many claim Fisher and More as their own, ignoring the inconvenient truth that they died upholding the primacy of Rome over the English Church. It is a sobering thought that these two saints were clear where we are often confused. They challenge us today, not least in their understanding of the universalism of the Church. May Saints John and Thomas pray for us all.
There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.
It would be presumptuous to try to add anything new to the thousands of words, good and bad, written about the Most Holy Trinity. For me, Augustine’s De Trinitate is one of the most satisfying treatments of a profoundly difficult subject, but that is a conclusion I came to only after a nodding acquaintance with modern physics made sense of some of his more mystifying passages.
For some, it is more important that today is Father’s Day. Somehow the two celebrations come together; and if I cannot speak about the Trinity, perhaps I may say something about human beings.
If you think about it, the primary relationship of all of us is that of child — son or daughter, as the case may be. We may not have siblings, we may never be parents ourselves, but we are all the child of someone, or rather, of two persons. The human family reflects the divine, being at least a trinity of persons; but there the analogy ends, for in relation to God, we are, all of us, eternally filial. If we have had inadequate or bad parents or have never known our own parents, this filial relationship with God does not usually come easily. We have to learn an unfamiliar language and it can be painful.
Father’s Day may be another example of soulless commercialisation, but make the connection with today’s feast, and it becomes more than a sentimental commemoration of dear old Dad: it is a reminder of the importance of fatherhood, both human and divine.
Trinity Sunday is our patronal feast, so there will be special preparations in the monastery today: mainly, I suspect, additional polishing in the oratory and some baking in the kitchen! Life, as we often remind ourselves, is not all liturgy and loveliness, but we need our highs as well as our lows and Sunday is the great feast of every week. It is our sabbath, and everything about it should have a sabbath quality of joy and blessedness. That doesn’t happen without preparation. So, if you would enjoy your Sunday and make of it a true sabbath, you need to do a little preparation today, especially since rest is an essential part of sabbath blessedness.
Tonight young people from across Britain will be gathering at Oscott for a week-end of prayer and reflection on vocation. See the Invocation web site for more information and live updates here. We were asked to support the venture with our prayer (which we give freely) and our money (which we don’t have but would give if we could) but were not invited to contribute any personnel, which makes me wonder whether the organizers consider us rather negligible because our community is small in numbers. (I hope we are not negligible in terms of value or reach, but that’s another matter.)
Playing the numbers game is something we all have a tendency to do when it comes to vocation, and it is dangerous. Who is to say that a community of thirty is in a better condition than a community of twenty? Age, health, spiritual maturity and holiness of life are all factors to be taken into account. Counting the chickens isn’t a good idea, either. We ourselves haven’t any novices (no space), but we do have eight or nine discerners (can’t be more precise, because one never knows when someone might have ‘gone quiet’ because she is having second thoughts) but each one is an individual at a different stage of the journey; and as my old Junior Mistress used to say of herself in her eighties, ‘You haven’t persevered to the end yet.’
A Benedictine vocation is always to a specific community, something I think many people do not sufficiently understand. There is indeed a strong ‘family likeness’ among Benedictine communities because we all follow the same Rule and stem from the same stock, but there is also the strong individuality that is part of the secret of Benedictine monasticism’s longevity. That makes it difficult for anyone to speak ‘for the Benedictines’ as such, so pity whoever is tasked with that job at Oscott this week-end (though I have no doubt that the Benedictines there will do splendidly: they are Benedictines, after all.)
Let us pray for the young people gathering at Oscott, that their generosity may be blessed and they may be guided along the way that is best in each case. Let us pray also for the organizers and those entrusted with the work of guidance, that they may be responsive to the Holy Spirit. May the life of the Church be enriched by many more ready to follow Christ in the priesthood and the religious life.
As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.
Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.
At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.
Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.
Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.
*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.
The images used for the Holy Spirit are so evocative: wind, fire, water, all things we cannot predict the course of, and whose power we cannot tame. Even the dove image reminds us that the Spirit sees in ways we do not and cannot. On this great feast of Pentecost let us rejoice that God is everlastingly creative, always ‘doing a new thing’. May we, too, be recreated, made new, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.