Significant Anniversaries

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.

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So You Want to be a Nun, do you?

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.

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The Friendships of Jesus

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.

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Spring Sunshine and the British Obsession

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.

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Monastic Habits Good and Bad

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.’

 

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The Problem of Possessions

RB 54 takes up a subject Benedict has already treated in RB 33, the problem of ownership and radical dispossession. Unlike most other religious, Benedictines do not take a vow of poverty; yet if we are serious about our monastic life, the degree of ‘dispossession’ is probably greater than among many who do. For example, in the community to which I belong, RB 54 is observed literally. No one receives anything from another without permission, and no one presumes to keep anything unless it has been authorised. Even at the communal level, strict watch is kept over any superfluity. A kind friend in the U.S. recently offered us an iPad and it was quite hard for a community of Apple geeks to say ‘no’; but we could not justify accepting something that was not truly necessary for the work we do. (Note for the curious: we got a donation instead which we applied to more urgent but less stylish needs.)

Possessions can be a problem: too many or two few and one wastes time and energy worrying about them. Living by the providence of God is something most Christians would applaud in theory, but it is incredibly difficult to do as one gets older and/or there are family members to worry about as well as oneself. There is no easy solution. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we do need to keep an eye on what we amass. Lent, with its call to almsgiving, is a good time for taking stock. Perhaps we could do more than take last season’s books and clothes to the Charity Shop?

Thank You
iBenedictines has climbed a few more places in the Wikio Top Blogs Religion and Belief category, thanks to our readers. That was a very nice surprise!

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Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Christ

It is no accident that immediately after Benedict’s brief chapter on the monastery oratory comes an extended treatment of hospitality. If we wish to welcome God into our lives, we must be ready to welcome his children, too. Sometimes, especially among those who think they have a monastic vocation but are only just beginning to understand that it is not just about the two superpowers, God and self, but about the whole Church, there can be a reluctance to accept that welcoming guests is an essential part of being a monk or nun. ‘Leave my prayer to make the tea? Dame, how could you ask such a thing?’ Very easily, as it happens, for the guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ, and I think most of us would leave what we have in hand to welcome him, wouldn’t we?

RB 53 is  a very good chapter to use as a way of examining just how real our prayer is. If prayer makes us more selfish, more self-concerned, something is not quite right. If prayer makes us more welcoming, more generous, more selfless, something is right, even if there is still a lot that needs attention. At this stage of Lent it is easy to become disheartened. We have tried SO hard, and failed so miserably and so often. No matter. Like the old Desert Father, we fall down and get up; we fall down and get up. Only the eye of Love himself can see what is being accomplished in us. Praise him.

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The Place of Prayer

RB 52 is all about the monastery’s place of prayer, the oratory. Its simplicity and directness are a useful reminder that some of the things we fuss about — aesthetics, liturgy, vestments, whatever — are secondary to our own inner disposition. Prayer happens because we want to pray, because part of us at least responds to God’s invitation to pray; sometimes we forget that he is always asking us to pray, to enter into union with him, but that is not how Benedict sees things. God is always there; it is we who are so often absent.

As regards the building and its furnishings, all Benedict has to say is, ‘The oratory should be what it is called and nothing else be done or kept there.’ That cuts to the heart of the matter: we pray where we are, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can create helpful conditions by keeping our place of prayer, whether the inner space of mind and heart or the outer space of the place where we pray, uncluttered; but that’s about it. The only other thing he asks of us is that we should be considerate of others and not hinder their prayer by our own noisy devotions.

It is all rather understated, isn’t it? But that is the monastic way of prayer: quiet, simple, persevering. So easy but oh, so difficult, too!

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Digital Housekeeping and Lenten Discipline

Yesterday evening I tidied up the Resources entry page on our main web site and redid the main contact form. I realised after I had done so that I had fallen into the biggest pit of all for web designers: doing something that is technically a bit challenging and produces a ‘clever’ effect but which actually obscures rather than enhances what one is trying to say. It will be back to the digital drawing board this evening, but in the meantime I think there is  a lesson to be drawn from this, for me at least.

During Lent we can become so focused on what we are doing, the things we’re giving up, the things we’re taking on, that we can lose sight of the object of the exercise. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are meant to draw us closer to God. They may make us nicer people. They may may make the world a nicer place for everybody to live in; but if they don’t draw us closer to God, aren’t we missing something important?

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Nun Jokes and April Fools

When did you last hear of a genuinely funny April Fool? One that was both clever and convincing but which didn’t leave anyone feeling diminished or taken advantage of? One that sticks in my mind was a pseudo-technical review in a respected printing journal some years ago. It concerned a scanning device built from a homely microwave by Chinese engineers. It was brilliant in every way: cutting-edge technology (scanners cost thousands of pounds back then), detailed fake analyses of performance and cost and so on and so forth. The name, alas, gave it away: Lirap One.

Most people enjoy jokes and a sense of humour usually comes fairly high up on the list of desirable qualities in a husband or wife. It is certainly a sine-qua-non of surviving community life, but, pace Freud, it is difficult to define or explain how it works. It doesn’t always travel well. The jokes I tell in Spanish, for example, work quite differently from the jokes I tell in English; and I’m not sure I would even attempt a joke in French. The British and Americans are divided by more than a common language: what is funny to one is not always funny to the other as we frequently learn to our cost.

Humour can be cruel, as every child knows, but I’m not sure we are any better than our forebears at ensuring that we don’t give offence when we make jokes, for all our attempts to outlaw certain subjects. When confronted with a particularly tiresome ‘nun joke’ for example, I sometimes ask the teller to substitute the words ‘black’ or ‘gay’ and see if it is still tellable. The results can be quite revealing.

One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that Jesus had a good sense of humour. The gentle teasing of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the parables he told, his dialogues with Peter and the other apostles, all  are eloquent of someone who knew how to laugh and make others laugh. Mind you, given the disciples he had (and still has) it was a very necessary quality. Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone.

 

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