Sometimes there are no words, but a Cross or a Crucifix can hold our attention when we feel dry and empty. This is a day for spending a few moments in silence, just listening to the Lord.
Our procession takes us to the dusty streets of Jerusalem two thousand years ago and the fickleness of popular acclaim. Even here, in the midst of a lovely English spring, there is a hint of menace. We know that all is not right, that those who are now shouting ‘hosanna’ will very soon be shouting ‘crucify him, crucify him’. The Passion narrative is one we must enter into, not merely hear with our ears. For each of us it will be different; for each of us it will be new. Do not be surprised if this week you are tired or a little less calm than usual. Holy Week makes demands on the believer at every level. We cannot truly celebrate the Resurrection if we have not accompanied the Lord Jesus along every step of the way beforehand. May God bless your Holy Week and make it fruitful. Pray for us, as we pray for you.
I spent much of yesterday trying to catch up with things. Among the letters and emails were a couple that made an impact because of their sheer unpleasantness. The writers clearly thought that it didn’t matter how they wrote or what they said. If a word fitly spoken is ‘like apples of gold in pictures of silver’, a word carelessly spoken can be more of a maggot, eating away at the heart of things and causing putrefaction. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, we should think about how we use words, and whether we build up or tear down.
It is very easy to assume that we are ‘speaking the truth in love’ and use that as a justification for dishing out all manner of hurt. In my experience, a little love achieves more than a large amount of unvarnished truth. Who was ever lectured into becoming better? Most of us know that it is being loved and trusted that encourages us to try harder to merit the love and trust shown us. Benedict assumes that the abbot will have to use correction at times, but only when more positive methods have failed.
As we reflect on how we have used words, we may come to see that we need to ask forgiveness of others. As with so many aspects of the spiritual life, it is not just the forgiveness of God that we need but the forgiveness of the community, whether that community be our family or a wider group. ‘Sorry’ is a very little word, sometimes hard to say, but capable of breathing fresh life into many a difficult situation. Admitting that we may be wrong, that we may have caused hurt, allows the grace of God to flow freely; just as withholding forgiveness from others builds up a barrier. So, if I have given offence in what I have written in the past few months, I apologize and ask your forgiveness. When we read the Passion narrative tomorrow, we shall be reminded that the Lord suffered the anguish of the Cross for our sins; and none is easier or more prevalent than sins of speech.
Digitalnun is one of the lucky 150 who have been invited to the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference, see here. There may be an interruption in normal blogging service while I look for cheap flights and somewhere to stay. Please pray for the success of the whole venture.
Faith 2.0 Conference Audio
All the audio of the presentations is now available on the RSA web site, divided into morning and afternoon sessions (be aware there is a LOT of excellent material).You can listen to Digitalnun’s keynote below and there is an online version of an interview with Aleks Ktotoski here (link opens in new window). Many of those who participated in the Conference have uploaded reports and assessments which can be found using Twitter or Facebook.
Those of us who took part in the Faith 2.0 Religion and the Internet Conference at the RSA yesterday will each of us have carried away different memories of the event. I’m sure that (nearly?) everyone found it immensely worthwhile. It was great to be able to share what was happening in the auditorium with people around the world via the excellent livestream, and the organizers (Durham University and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation) are to be congratulated on their meticulous planning and attention to detail to ensure that everyone was looked after with real kindness.
There was, I think, a tremendous affirmation of the importance of real, face-to-face encounter alongside online or virtual meetings. As I travelled back, I could not help thinking that the internet has unleashed a power we haven’t yet truly understood. Like printing, it enables us to communicate more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Like nuclear fission, it can generate both heat and light. It is an energy, a force, and we are privileged to be shapers of what it will become and how it will be used. Perhaps we need another conference, not about how the internet can serve religion, but how religion can serve the internet to ensure that its power is used for good and peaceful purposes.
On Thursday Digitalnun will be a guest of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at the Faith 2.0 Conference being held in association with Durham University at the RSA . If you can’t be there in person, you can watch the livestream by following this link: http://www.thersa.org/events/watch-live. (Digitalnun is speaking in the graveyard spot after lunch so expect a background of gentle snores.)
The subject addressed by the Conference is important and the line-up of participants suggests it will be a lively event; but, as always, it is what we take away and put into action that will count. Watch this space.
Yesterday was the forty-eighth anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s important encyclical on world peace and justice; today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space-flight. Half a century ago we worrying about a nuclear conflict between the west and the Soviet Union but we had great faith in the ability of science to help create a better world. We still believed in progress. Today we are worrying about nuclear leaks from Fukushima and watching the violence in Africa and the Middle East with an uneasy sense that maybe, just maybe, climate change and the pressure on natural resources may prove to be even more damaging to human life and happiness. We are not sure what we believe any more, are we?
I am tempted to say that I suspect it has always been so, that every generation has its own fears and dark terrors that may look a little exaggerated to the next. The twentieth century should have brought peace and prosperity to more people than ever before in history. It didn’t; it brought war and death and deprivation on a scale previously unknown. I am sceptical about the way in which we recall some events, the way we pile up anniversary on anniversary without necessarily distinguishing between them. ‘Those who do not learn the lessons of history are fated to repeat them.’ Perhaps. Sometimes I wonder whether the trouble is that we are too busy marking and partying in the name of celebration to do the learning.
From time to time I dip into a forum frequented by people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. One of the things it has taught me is that many people reflect on religious vocation in ways more reminiscent of a career choice than vocation as I understand it. I don’t say this to criticize, merely to remark. There is much assessment of habits, devotions, penances, liturgy and a weighing up of ‘tradition’ (which does not always equate to Tradition). It seems so far from what really matters. While I think it is good to ask oneself whether one will fit in and grow in a particular community or Order, I am more hesitant about the ‘shopping list of requirements’ that some potential candidates produce. Indeed, I can look back on a huge volume of letters and emails the novice mistress and I have sent out explaining that the desire to be a nun does not necessarily imply a vocation; that more is required than just saying, ‘I’ll enter with you.’
Today we begin reading RB 58, Benedict’s extended treatment of admission of candidates to the community. More and more, I realise its wisdom. He starts off by saying that newcomers should not be granted too easy an entrance, that we should test the spirits to see whether they be from God. I wish everyone would read that before they think of applying! There can be such indignation and hurt when it is pointed out that the community has a say in the matter, that what we are seeking is God’s will rather than our own. Sometimes people think a small community will be a push-over, taking anyone on any terms. The reverse is true. No community will last if it has members who are uncommitted or unsuited to monastic life. While a certain degree of eccentricity can be tolerated in a large community, crankiness in a small one is not a good idea. I am pleased to say that we have a number of people who want to enter with us, if we can get big enough premises, but we don’t count the chickens before they are hatched. It is remarkable how many vocations disappear as the entrance date draws near and the reality begins to dawn. Those that survive are usually very good and strong.
Please pray for those discerning a religious vocation. Western society is not very supportive of those who want to make a counter-cultural choice. Families can be very hostile and the economic climate makes it difficult to fulfil some of the canonical requirements. If you are yourself thinking of becoming a nun, it is worth pondering what Benedict says the community must look for in a candidate: are you truly seeking God; are you eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for the things that will humble you? Answer those questions and I think you’ll have less difficulty with the rest. A vocation is, after all, a response to an invitation from God, who can do all things.
Note: The vocation pages on our main web site provide some information about becoming a nun; the FAQ is regularly updated.
Allow me a very large generalisation. For many centuries the Catholic Church has been a bit ‘undecided’ about friendship. Generation after generation of novices and seminarians were warned of the dangers of ‘particular friendships’ and encouraged to avoid any kind of emotional intimacy with others. Of course it didn’t work. People are too sensible not to realise that friendship is a gift, one that can bring people closer to God. Remember Aelred of Rievaulx and his insistence that Christ should be the centre of any Christian friendship? Quite.
Perhaps we would be less afraid of friendship, and readier to accept that the gift of friendship is not without its obligations and duties, if we spent more time thinking about the friendships of Jesus. The household at Bethany was clearly a place where Jesus was happy to be, where he could enjoy the company of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The accounts in John’s gospel of his interaction with the three siblings are all interesting, but I think today’s account of the raising of Lazarus highlights something we too often forget: Jesus loved his friends, just as we do. It wasn’t a case of his being God in human form and therefore somehow immune to feeling. Jesus didn’t act a part, didn’t pretend to a grief he didn’t feel. He shed tears for Lazarus. He mourned his loss. Something of himself was gone when Lazarus lay in the grave. Yes, we know that he raised Lazarus to life, we understand, at least in part, the sign; but I think we misunderstand Jesus if we pass too quickly over the grief and the tears. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, yes; one who has borne the grief of the whole world on his shoulders; one who can weep with us, not just for us.
It’s wonderful how a few hours of warm sunshine and clear skies can put a smile on people’s faces, and slightly disturbing to acknowledge how much the weather influences our mood and the way in which events unfold. Historically, it tends to be the ‘forgotten factor’. From the outcome of battles to changes in population distribution we can blame the weather. Isn’t it nice to know our national obsession, the stuff of our small-talk, is actually deeply significant? The next time you pass the time of day by remarking on the weather, stop and think: you are touching the untouchable, talking about that which shapes much of our lives, as unpredictable, unknowable and uncontrollable as, dare I say it, God himself.
Yesterday and today we are reading chapter 55 of the Rule, on the clothing and footwear of the brethren. Not a very promising subject for reflection, you might think. Don’t monks and nuns just do what they’ve always done, and wear an odd sort of dress that is meaningful/romantic/quaint/ridiculous, depending on your point of view? Not quite.
Benedict’s little treatise on clothing has some interesting points to make. First of all, he is concerned, as elsewhere in the Rule, to avoid every appearance of luxury; so he lists what he thinks is sufficient for every monk to have and no more. He is well aware that we can amass unnecessary items, which then become possessions (see previous post). He has no time for scruffiness or sloppiness and wants monks away from home to dress rather better than they do in the monastery. He also seems to expect them to do their own laundry. In a monastery of nuns, none of this comes as a surprise. We have a summer habit and a winter habit, a pair of shoes and a pair of sandals, plus a ‘best habit’ trottted out on important occasions. We also have work-clothes, ‘the scapular for work’ mentioned in the Rule, and I think we are good about the laundry. But notice that Benedict is remarkably flexible about the actual form of the habit. ‘The monks must not complain about the colour or coarseness of any of these items [of clothing] but make do with what can be obtained in the district where they live and can be bought cheaply.’
A whole theology has grown up around the monastic habit which is indeed beautiful, and for those of us privileged to wear it, deeply significant. A habit such as ours probably also works out marginally cheaper than wearing lay clothes because it can be patched and darned so often; but Benedict is much more relaxed about it than many of our contemporaries. I am happy to wear a traditional habit but I hate the way in which some attack those who don’t, especially religious sisters. Belittling the dedication of others, making puerile jokes about them, presuming to dictate what they should wear isn’t very pleasant; worse still, it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what the habit is and the place it plays in our lives. We don’t take the habit on ourselves; we receive it at our Clothing as something that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is a sign, no more, no less, of our having taken the yoke of the Rule upon our shoulders. That commitment, that dedication, goes far deeper than what we wear.
The Saxon princess Edith, a nun of Wilton, was rebuked by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester for wearing a purple tunic above her hair-shirt (a common practice then) with the words, ‘Man looks at the outward show; the Lord looks at the heart’. In return, he received the best put-down ever given by one saint to another, ‘Quite so my Lord; and I have given mine.’