St Gertrude

Our monastic calendar is out of step with much of the rest of the world, for we keep the feast of St Gertrude today rather than on 16 November. I tremble at the thought of writing about her as a friend, for you know where that got me when I wrote about St Martin, but for those who like their sanctity a little on the dry side, she was a great mystic, with a warm devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ, especially in his Passion and in the Eucharist, and had a tender love of Our Lady. That she is a patron of the West Indies and of cats is by the bye. (I’m not sure why cats should need a patron saint: can anyone tell me?)

That dessicated Gertrude does not greatly interest me. The child of five who entered the local monastery at Helfta, received an excellent education, became a nun and ended as a saint interests me enormously. She was an amazing woman, just as her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn, with whom she is often confused, was an amazing woman. Unlike Bede, whose life she uncannily echoes in some respects, Gertrude’s intellectual interests were mainly literary and philosophical to begin with. Only after a profound conversion experience did she turn her talents to the study of scripture and theology. She is proof positive that the cloister can produce people of great stature.

As is the way with many nuns’ writings, most of Gertrude’s have been lost. We have only the Herald of God’s Loving Kindness, written in conjunction with other members of the community (formerly known as the Life and Revelations of St Gertrude), and the Spiritual Exercises. They are not to everyone’s taste, but through them runs a deep love of the Lord, a quiet steadfastness of purpose and a very Benedictine sense of the importance of the liturgy. She reminds us that whatever gifts we may have been given are meant for the building up of the whole Church, that nothing is wasted which is placed at God’s service.

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Patience

Patience is often described as the Benedictine’s fourth vow. It is a theme that occurs again and again in the Rule, where we are reminded that we ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ’. (RB Prol. 50) The newcomer to monastic life is to be ‘tested in all patience’.  (RB 58.11) Indeed, patiently bearing with delays and contradictions is one of the signs looked for as the mark of a genuine vocation. It all sounds rather wonderful until one has to practise it. For the plain truth is that patience is hard work. It means embracing suffering, not just stoically putting up with it, and doing so with a quiet heart. (RB 7. 35) Patience requires a great deal of trust and humility as well as self-control.

Patience, trust, humility: these are not qualities that our society cultivates or values very much. We prefer to be self-assertive, thrusting not trusting, testing everything by our own standards and rather despising those who are patient and humble, as thought they were milksops. In fact, it takes real strength of character to be patient, to accept adversity quietly, without anger or upset. Similarly, trust and humility are not for wimps but for those who are brave enough to look themselves in the face and know themselves for what they are.

Today each one of us will be given the opportunity to exercise a little patience, to show a little trust and be a little humble. Are we big enough to meet the challenge?

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Fundraising Update 2

It is a nail-biting time here at the monastery. After saving every penny we could for the last seven years, we are slowly inching our way towards the deposit we need for a house of our own. Or rather, not ‘our’ house at all, but a house of God where all are welcome. We have made great strides in the past few days, but we still need to raise £150,000 (whether by way of our Charitable Bond, donations or the underwriting of mortgage payments). For an overview of the situation and details of the way we hope to finance this project, please go here.

In the meantime, please keep us and those who wish to join our community in your prayers. It is tantalising to realise that the hard economic times we are all experiencing offer a unique opportunity to establish the monastery in a part of south Oxfordshire which is developing rapidly and where the Christian presence needs strengthening. How better than by a monastery dedicated to prayer, with one door open to everyone on the internet and another to everyone passing by on the road?

Help the Nuns

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Care of the Sick: RB 36

With all the talk of failures in NHS care of the sick and especially the elderly, I was glad to have to re-read what Benedict says on the subject this morning. We could take the chapter apart, line by line, and use it as a manifesto for good health-care practice, but doing so might be rather tedious. Instead, I should like to concentrate on just two sentences.

The shock of Benedict’s opening sentence may be lost on anyone who does not live in community. Here we are, gathered together as a community of prayer and praise, with an elaborate liturgical structure to our day, and what does Benedict say? ‘Care of the sick should come before and above everything else, so that they may be truly served as Christ himself.’ (Rb 36. 1) That seems to contradict what he says elsewhere about the opus Dei, the Work of God, coming first in our lives. In truth, there is no contradiction, for the opus Dei embraces more than the hours spent in choir: it is the whole life of the monk. We are called to glorify God at every moment, and Benedict is very clear that persons represent God to us. The abbot, the old, the young, the guest and the sick are singled out for special mention. The sick demand our  attention because they are more dependent on us than the rest; to neglect them is to make a nonsense of our professions of love and devotion to God. We must be prepared to let go of anything that stands between us and meeting their need, even things good in themselves.

Notice, however, that Benedict sees this service of the sick as having something of a covenant relationship . ‘The sick themselves should appreciate that they are being served out of reverence for God, and let them not with their excessive demands weary their brethren as they serve them.’ (RB 36. 4) Although he goes on to say that the sick must be patiently borne with, it is clear that Benedict is well aware that illness can be made an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. If we are ill, we can at least try to lighten the burden on those looking after us, if only by not grumbling too much.

It’s all a little idealistic, did you say? Well, of course, in community, we are striving after an ideal of holiness so we need frequent reminders such as RB 36. I think the significance of the chapter is wider than care of the sick, however. Reading it, I am reminded of the way in which I assess my priorities for the day. Very often my priorities don’t seem to be God’s. Could it be that I am myself one of the sick being served by others without my being fully cognizant of the fact?

 

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13 November 2011

For most people this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, pure and simple, when we recall the sacrifice of those who died in defence of our freedom. It is a day for prayer and gratitude and solemn acts of remembering. Here is it is also Oblates’ Day, when we welcome those of our oblates and associates who can get here to a day of quiet fellowship at the monastery. The 13 November is the feast of All Benedictine Saints so is suitably challenging: holiness, and nothing less, is what we aim at, and we have a ‘great crowd of witnesses’ to encourage us. Today will have challenges peculiar to itself, however, as half the community is down with what looks suspiciously like ‘flu or a similar virus. It reminds me of that lovely Hasidic saying, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I trust there is a broad grin in heaven today.

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On Being Oneself

A few weeks ago, when I posted some thoughts about online engagement, my friend Tim Hutchings very sensibly asked whether some of my suggestions didn’t cancel themselves out, making us less ‘ourselves’ online than we are offline. I think the specific question he raised was addressed in the comments, but there is a bigger question that concerns all of us, whether we go online or not. How can we be ourselves in a world that, by and large, is always pressuring us to be something other than we are? The world of advertising wants us to be thinner, richer, more ‘stylish’ than most of us could ever dream of being (i.e to buy what it is selling). The world of Church wants us to be . . . what exactly?

I often ask myself what the homilist thinks he is doing (in the Catholic Church, the sermon is always preached by a priest or deacon, who must be male). Do the admonitions to be more prayerful, more generous, more this or that really affect us? When I’m exhorted to act in a certain way ‘because you are a nun’, does it ever change me? I have to say that, by and large, I stick with being me, trusting that God doesn’t make junk and sees something incomparably wonderful in each one of us, even me. That isn’t a pretext for not trying to be more prayerful, generous, etc (see above), I think it is to recognize a fundamental truth: we go to heaven, if we go at all, as ourselves — smudged with sin, only half-understanding, full of contradictions, the person God created and redeemed. Being oneself is ultimately the only way in which to give God glory.

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Celebrity and Sanctity

I wonder how many of today’s celebrities will be remembered seventeen hundred years hence? The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

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A Deep Sense of Shame

The sex abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have appalled everyone. As a woman, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could think of abusing a child or young person. I’m sure most men feel the same way. In vain do some argue (what is actually true) that Catholic clergy are statistically less likely to be abusers than married men. The stories of abuse, the cover-ups, the ineptitude of many ‘official’ responses have left us all reeling. As a Benedictine, I feel a deep sense of shame that Benedictine monks have been among the offenders. I’ve known some of them, and it is painful to record that I’ve heard them preach, received the sacraments at their hands, even been lectured on how I ought to live while they themselves were breaking their vow of chastity and injuring those entrusted to their care. How does one deal with one’s feelings of disgust and betrayal?

One way would be to say, I will have nothing more to do with any of them. They are all hypocrites and liars and have profaned the holy of holies. A little bit of me does want to do that, if I’m honest. A bigger bit of me wants to say, perhaps even this can be a source of purification for the Church. Perhaps there will be less arrogance among the clergy. An even bigger bit of me wants to lament the evil that has been done and pray for all who suffer as a result, especially those who are losing many of the services the Church has traditionally provided because of the discrediting of the institution along with some of its members — the compensation payments to those who have been abused do not come out of thin air. Most of all, however, I want the Church, and the Monastic Order in particular, to ask itself how this could have come about. A scandal is literally something that causes us to stumble, that deflects us from the right way. Some people have accused us as nuns as being in some way in ‘collusion’ with the monks. That is nonsense, but I think it highlights the fact that a deep sense of shame is not enough. The past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed and everyone of us has a part to play in that.

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The Eco Approach

Anything and everything (except sin, of course) can reflect the beauty and holiness of God. The trouble is, we tend to substitute the beauty and holiness of things for the beauty and holiness of God. Even in a monastery, you can find people so determined to save the earth that they overlook or undervalue the importance of persons. I find that troubling. It is a reminder that any good cause can take over our lives, giving us a lop-sided view of things. Yes, let us do all we can to preserve the beauty of earth and sky, rivers and seas; let us do all we can to preserve the biodiversity of the planet; but let’s not forget that there is only one creature made in the image and likeness of God.

To preserve our humanity in the face of all that militates against it is also an ‘ecological endeavour’, one on which much of the future of the planet depends. If that sounds a bit pompous, this question may make my meaning clearer: unless we work together to roll back the consequences of some of our more stupid actions, can the earth recover of itself? We (most of us) accept that we are the problem. May we not also be the solution?

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Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?

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