The Triumph of the Cross 2011

I have written so much about this feast in the past that I am in danger of boring myself, so this morning just a slightly quirky thought to share with you. For Benedictines, this feast, like the Cross it commemorates, is a hinge, a turning-point in the year, for it marks the beginning of the winter fast and our preparation for Easter. It is a case of liturgy and observance making explicit a theological truth we might not otherwise understand. The Cross stands throughout the ages and the world turns on its axis. It is the pivot of human history.

We are constantly reminded of the cosmic significance of what happened on Calvary by the crosses and crucifixes in our churches and chapels. Is there any difference between the two, apart from the obvious one of having, or not having, a figure of Christ? Our processional cross here in the monastery has a corpus, a representation of Christ crucified. Should the community ever have an abbess, she will wear a pectoral cross without any figure on it. Why the difference?

Our processional cross reminds us that Christ is our leader. Where he goes, we follow. It wouldn’t really matter whether we used a plain cross or a crucifix; the symbolism is the same. The plain abbatial cross, on the other hand, represents an older tradition in the Church. It implies a close identification between the wearer and the sacrifice of Calvary. As we sing on Good Friday, Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit: Venite adoremus. ‘Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world: come, let us adore.’ We reverence the wood of the Cross, the actual physical instrument of the Lord’s death; and our future abbess, mindful that she ‘holds the place of Christ’ in the monastery as St Benedict enjoins, must identify herself with the sacrificial act of our Saviour. She must become, so to say, one with the Crucified, prepared to lay down her life for the community she serves. She must be the hinge of the community, as the Cross is the hinge of the world.

The Triumph of the Cross is a great and beautiful feast. It is also one which challenges us to the core of our being. Christian service cannot be other than sacrificial, prepared to give everything, even life itself.

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A Flaw in the Spell-Check

I am, in general, an admirer of Apple’s products. They tend to be simple to use, stylish and remarkably rugged. If I have one criticism, it is that they are also expensive — but that is by the bye. I have, however, discovered a terrible flaw in the inbuilt spell-check associated with their Keynote software. It does not like the possessive ‘its’, preferring to treat the word as a colloquial form of ‘it is’. Now, when I write ‘its’, I generally mean ‘its’; and I don’t like a rogue apostrophe being introduced. Heaven knows, I have enough trouble convincing people I am even semi-literate, so I could do without Apple’s ‘help’ in rendering me incomprehensible as well.

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Cain’s Question

Reports that twenty-four men have been rescued from conditions of slavery at a travellers’ camp in Bedfordshire have been deeply shocking. (See the BBC accounts) The fact that the men come from vulnerable backgrounds and were kept in appalling conditions underlines the inhumanity of their captors. All right-thinking people will surely condemn what was done to them. Or will they? It is amazing how often we can turn a blind eye to the suffering or exploitation in our midst. It is not that we don’t care; it is that we don’t see, don’t want to become ‘involved’.

Quite what was going on in that travellers’ camp we may never know, but each of us must ask ourselves anew, am I my brother’s keeper? To what extent do we have a duty to become involved when we suspect others of suffering or being exploited? I don’t know. Even in monastic communities we can fail to see signs of distress in our brethren. Perhaps there is more than a bit of Cain in all of us.

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Grieving

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 will have reminded everyone of the grief that thousands experience as a result of that day. Not only those killed then, but all those killed in subsequent acts of terror or war come to mind. We think of those we ourselves have loved and who have died. We understand grief, of course; but do we understand grieving?

I know I often refer to the origins of words in this blog, but to remember that ‘grieve’ is related to Old French ‘grever’, meaning to burden or encumber, and ultimately to the Latin word ‘gravis’, meaning heavy or weighty, is to understand something of the burden that grieving imposes. We are literally weighed down. And while grief can be a more or less fleeting feeling of loss and sadness, grieving is a longer and more difficult process as we try to accept and adapt. We have to accept the loss of someone we love,  but we also have to adapt to the altered condition in which we find ourselves, living with absence rather than presence. That takes time, and our society doesn’t allow much time. ‘Move on, move forward’, we say, but the heart lags behind.

As we pray today for those  killed on 9/11, those dying a slow death as a result of the toxic dust and fumes unleashed by the catastrophe, those killed in subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorist acts throughout the world, let us also pray for a better understanding of grieving, that we may give others time and space in which to accept and adapt. Catholic tradition reminds us that death is not an ending of life but an entrance into another form of life. We are encouraged to pray for the dead and to ask the prayers of those who have gone before. That has always seemed to me a reassurance that grieving is natural and something we do in union with others. Grief, by contrast, is a lonely business: ‘Un seule être vous manque / Et tout le monde est dépeuplé’. Let us not forget that we grieve together.

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Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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The Birthday of Our Lady

A couple of years ago I wrote of this feast:

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, ‘Naked Lady’, is a reference to Mary.

I failed to mention my theory, which I daresay many will shoot down in flames, that devotion to Mary has been both a help and a hindrance to women in the Church. On the one hand we have been given a model of Christian discipleship we can make peculiarly our own: Mary, the strong woman of Nazareth, whose love and faith were unequalled; who gave us our Saviour; who intercedes for us now and at the hour of our death. On the other, we have the ideal no one can ever measure up to: the perfect woman, the eternal mother, someone remote from the inadequacy and messiness of our own lives.

Much of the history of women in the Church can be written as a study of the tension between these two conceptions of Mary. That is why this feast has always seemed to me important. It reminds us of the reality behind the narrative of Christ’s birth, his human lineage; and just as the genealogies of Christ weave into the story some surprising figures, so our ignorance of Mary’s antecedents means we cannot assume that her background was fairytale perfect. We must remember Mary, born an ‘ordinary’ human being, growing up with no one thinking her in any way special, with no education to speak of, no glorious future mapped out for her (a mere girl!), never apparently destined for any great service — and yet, the Mother of God whom all generations would call blessed. Today we think of her small and vulnerable, possibly even a disappointment to her parents, and ask ourselves: would we have passed her by as just another baby, just another girl?

May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, help us to see ‘Christ, lovely in limbs not his.’ Amen.

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Seventh Anniversary

Today is the seventh anniversary of the monastery’s foundation. It is a day for giving thanks, for looking back and looking forward. We are grateful to our benefactors, living and dead; we are grateful for our Oblates, Associates and Friends, our online community and those waiting patiently to enter the novitiate. Above all, we thank God who has never ceased to look after us, sometimes prodding us to follow paths we might have preferred to ignore, at other times holding us back from the profoundest folly. But we are very far from being complacent. A monastery is never a ‘finished work’, it is always in process of becoming.

It is helpful to consider what St Benedict says about the monastery in his Rule. Most of his text is concerned with the way in which the monks live: how they are to order their worship, how they are to dress, what they are to eat and drink, how they are to organize themselves, the disciplines they should observe. Of the monastery itself he says only that it should, if possible, contain within it everything necessary for monastic life — so that the monks have no excuse for wandering outside. There are clearly designated areas for eating and sleeping and an oratory ‘which should be what it says it is, and nothing else be done or kept there’. In other words, what Benedict calls variously the monastery (monasterium) or house of God (domus Dei) isn’t meant to be a place of privation but somewhere where the focus is clearly on God and the things of God. Everything about it should help both inmates and visitors to concentrate on him — everything.

Many of the things you might expect to find in a long-established monastery simply don’t exist here at Hendred, but that focus on God and the things of God should be evident to all or what right have we to exist? This morning at Mass the community will renew its vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience. As we do so, we shall be affirming our small and insignificant part in that long tradition of monastic living, of ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’. May he grant us the grace of perseverance.

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The Mass: ever ancient, ever new

I rarely comment on liturgy, not because I am uninterested or lack any opinions (far from it!), but because I am sometimes uneasy about the way in which the subject is discussed. The introduction yesterday of a new translation of the Mass has prompted a few thoughts, however.

The language of prayer used in church has always an objective character. It is not a question of ‘what works for me’ but of what expresses the Church’s faith. It is, if you like, theology turned into poetry and drama. The words matter; the actions matter; the setting matters. It is a holy sacrifice in which we are called to share; so what we are matters, too. Every form of Mass sanctioned by the Church is, in the most literal sense, traditional: something precious handed on through the generations — one with every other Mass that ever has been or ever could be celebrated, one with the sacrifice of Calvary itself. Sometimes I think we forget that. Because we are interested in liturgy, because we enjoy the ‘doing’ of it, we treat liturgy like anything else, allowing ourselves a freedom I’m not sure we actually have. Liturgy in the Catholic Church is a ‘given’: one that requires whole-hearted collaboration and provides endless scope for true creativity (note the emphasis) of course, but a ‘given’ nonetheless.

We have decided in community that we shall say nothing, good or bad, about the new translation until six months have elapsed. If anyone is familiar with the Latin texts and has some years’ experience of liturgical translation, it is important to lay aside any prejudices or preconceived notions. We need to see the Mass with fresh eyes; listen to it with fresh ears. Discussion can get in the way of that, and with the approval of the new translation, the time for discussion is in any case effectively over.

Liturgical discussions often turn nasty because they are not really about liturgy at all. They are an excuse to vent negative feelings, using an irreproachable subject as pretext. The Mass is too important for that, too holy for that. Maybe over the next six months we shall have an opportunity not only to rediscover the Mass but also to discover something new about ourselves, too. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the more we seek to know God, the more we get to know ourselves.

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The Annual Retreat

You may wonder why contemplative nuns should need an annual eight-day retreat. I am half in agreement with you, if you do. If we lived monastic life as it should be lived, our recollection would be perfect and a retreat unnecessary; but in actual fact, none of us does live monastic life as it should be lived. We are not saints in heaven, just sinners struggling on earth, and a retreat is an excellent means of reminding ourselves of the fact.

For the next few days, therefore, the community will be almost invisible: no tweeting, no blogging, no Facebook, no Google +, save in the most exceptional circumstances.  What shall we be doing? That rather depends on the Holy Spirit. The whole point of a retreat is to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and union with God. It’s a rather open-ended contract. All we know is that, provided we aren’t deliberately obstructive, what God wills will come about and in a small way (or perhaps even a big way) the world will reflect God a little better than before. Pray for us as we do for you.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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