Reverence in Prayer: RB 20

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 20, is one I should like to quote in full. Alternatively, you can listen to it being read, as in community, on our main website here.

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (Trans. Wybourne)

Even in translation, I think you can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original. It is good sixth-century Latin in which not a word is wasted. Note that there is nothing rarified about the underlying concepts. Benedict starts by considering something with which we are all familiar. When we want to ask a favour of someone who is more powerful than we are, we do so with humility and respect. Prayer, too, begins with our neediness, our recognition that in the sight of God we have nothing that he has not given us. So often we approach prayer as though it were a meeting of two Superpowers, God and self, where we address God with a list of ideas we think he might usefully implement. (I exaggerate, but not much.) Benedict will have none of that. We come before God with nothing, awaiting his favour.

Next, Benedict warns against garrulousness. We don’t need to repeat ourselves over and over again. Indeed, no words are necessary. As we saw earlier this week, words often get in the way, bend under the weight of meaning, splinter and divide. Our prayer must come from the heart, and a repentant heart at that: a heart pierced by the sense of sin, laid open by God himself. It follows that prayer will be short and pure. This paradox often causes a lot of difficulty. Go back to that first sentence again. When we want to ask a favour of someone, we may spend ages preparing but the actual asking is likely to be the work of a few seconds. So too with prayer. Much of the time that we give to it is a kind of preparation. We consider the beauty and holiness of God, we are grateful, we may be moved to praise, but prayer itself is the work of a moment.

Benedict is very aware of the pitfalls in prayer, the ways in which we can deceive ourselves. He is insistent that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. In community especially, he knows that prayer can be manipulated for irreligious ends; so even here, at this most intimate moment of our religious lives, he establishes an order, a way of acting that overrides personal preference. The superior decides when prayer in common is to end and all must obey.

It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the liturgical code, in the course of which Benedict has set out the parameters for community prayer. The prayer of the individual is always part of the prayer of the community, the one feeds into the other. There is no opposition between contemplative prayer and liturgical prayer since both flow from the same source. The only bar to prayer is one that Benedict notes again and again: lack of humility, a failure to accept our creaturely condition. That is not to say that we won’t find prayer difficult, even distasteful at times, but there is a serenity and confidence about his writing on prayer, as there is in the lives of those who are prayerful, that the rest of us may find encouraging. Ultimately, God is even keener on prayer than we are. He will not withold himself from us.

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Talking about God

Monday’s post about the language of filation and sonship brought a number of interesting emails. I should like to quote from one which expresses, better than I ever could, both the difficulty of predicating anything about God and the necessity of the struggle to do so.

These [reflections] are all bound up with my growing sense of the relative irrelevance of words. I say this as one for whom words are an overriding passion, and of course they remain the way into the Word: there are combinations of words which slit open the eternal like knives. That is just one of the paradoxes so fundamental to our religion that I am beginning to wonder if anything non-paradoxical can be true!

. . . My true refuge from linguistic problems, minor and major, is Pseudo-Denys and the unknowability of God. If one cannot even say ‘God is good’, then surely one cannot, in any literal sense, say ‘God is our Father’. From the darkness of Denys I fly to the Syrians and specifically to St  Ephrem, who describes God as ‘clothing himself in language’, now putting on metaphors for our sake, now stripping this one off again and fetching another out of the wardrobe – all because our minds are small and limited. For Ephrem the whole of Scripture is one great metaphor. I find this infinitely consoling, probably because my mind is at ease with metaphor: it creates a great space in which one can move around unimpeded; I leave systematic theology to the seriously clever.

I know the writer well enough to take that remark about systematic theology with a smile of complicity. The point is, however we talk about God, however helpful or indeed unhelpful we may find the language of scripture or theology, the language of prayer transcends all limitations. It is wonderfully subversive, because types and shadows fall away in the face of the reality of God.

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Serving God with Mammon

Yesterday’s release of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Note on Financial Reform has been variously received. I went through the text yesterday evening (it’s only 18 pages) and suggest you read it for yourselves rather than any commentary (mine included). It’s a long time since I worked in finance myself, but many of the questions it addresses are familiar; so too are some of the suggestions it makes regarding the future. It has, however, left me thinking about the whole concept of money, wealth creation and stewardship, particularly in light of our own needs. When is enough enough?

The economic basis of what we are and do is slender: a small business, to which we devote time and energy, and which must provide not only for our own needs and the needs of those who come to us for help, but also our service of the visually impaired, our internet outreach and much else besides. Without the generosity of friends and benefactors, much would have to go or be scaled down. We are at a critical point: we have vocations but nowhere to accommodate them; we have found a house which would enable us to do much more for others than we can at present; and the only thing stopping us is lack of money. If you haven’t yet looked at our presentation on the future of the monastery, please do so.

There are many practical ways of helping: a loan, investment in our Charitable Bond, a donation. You can’t serve both God and Mammon, perhaps, but you can serve God with Mammon.

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Sons in the Son

There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.

I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.

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Gaddafi Reconsidered

Earlier this year I blogged about tyranny and the Gaddafi regime. You can find the post here. I haven’t changed my opinion about the legitimacy of resisting tyranny, but this morning I find myself considering another problem, one that has been prompted by the expressions of glee and horrifying photos circulating on the internet. There is something not quite right about what is going on: ‘Every man’s death diminishes me.’ True, but it is more than that. As a Catholic, I believe that praying for the dead, ALL the dead, is a sacred duty because we share a common humanity and because, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all children of the one Father.

Gaddafi alive was monstrous; Gaddafi dead is pathetic. If we forget our own humanity in face of that, what hope is there for us?

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Retrospect: the Christian New Media Conference

I had intended to gather together a host of links so that those of you who weren’t able to attend the conference might get something of its flavour, but the sheer volume of material has overwhelmed me. In any case, I must admit I’m more interested in some of the questions the conference has thrown up, but first, I’d better explain my limitations. As a nun, my connection with the digital world is different from most people’s. My engagement stems from RB 53, Benedict’s teaching on hospitality, and a community commitment to ‘being hospitable’ online. It is an engagement hedged round with qualifications, notably the amount of time I can give and, to some extent, the subjects I can address (I know nothing about small children, for example). I’m not an expert in anything, but like most people who live a life of silence, I can ‘tire the sun with talking’. That’s my forte, and I’m sticking to it!

One of the themes that kept surfacing at the conference was the role of the #digicreative. I am all for beauty and technical excellence, but I found myself wondering more and more what a digicreative is and what he or she does. Creating content is more important than ‘creativity’ as such. One of the marvellous things about technological advances of recent years is that ANYONE, whatever their level of technical skill or artistic merit, can produce a blog or website with a host of features more or less out of the box. Having something worth saying or doing with the technology is another matter. I’d be very sorry if the Christian presence on the web and in social media ever got side-tracked into something secondary. I work on the basis that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. I tell myself that if I had the time, our web sites would be transformed; but I don’t, so they aren’t. Tough.

Another idea that interested me was that of the digital sabbath: turning off one’s phone and computer one day a week. We never do that here because we are, in a way, a ‘public organization’, but we do make it clear that we won’t necessarily respond to people instantly because we have other, and to us more urgent, calls on our time. We are, first and foremost, nuns and whatever value we can bring to our online engagement would disappear if we ever forgot that. But how does it work out for other people? To me, that need to switch off the phone, etc, suggests a degree of engagement I’ve never experienced. Is it possible that Twitter, Facebook and so on can become habit-forming? Is switching off the phone a way of reassuring oneself that one isn’t addicted or does it mean more focus on God and people offline? I’d love to know.

Perhaps the most important question the conference raised for me was purely theological. How does our online activity fit into and enhance our understanding of God and the Church? I came away with a renewed sense of the sacramentality of what we do online, in the sacred space that is the internet. It has been reinforced since by interaction with many of the people I met at the conference. I’d love to thank you all individually, but there’s one bit of ‘technology’ for which there is no upgrade: we’re stuck with the brains we are born with, and mine is unequal to the task. Thank you, everyone who was at the conference and made it so special.

Update
Here’s a link to some photos, videos, audio boos and blog posts on the Conference: http://bit.ly/nMBTO8

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Money and Madness

With inflation at 5.2%, interest rates the lowest they’ve ever been, and unemployment, especially among the young, assuming quite frightening proportions, the ‘other-worldly’ message of the Churches can seem far removed from reality. In vain we argue that it is the true reality: that we are more than the sum of what we possess, infinitely more than what may ‘possess’ us. But our words sound hollow, especially when most of us are involved in fund-raising for this or that. Our language of gift and tithe is alien to many. Are we mad or simply a bit thick, unable to comprehend the new world economic order in which the haves will tend to acquire more and the have-nots to have less and less? Wasn’t it ever so?

Yes and no. The perfect community of Acts 4 has always left me unconvinced. We’re fallen creatures and it shows. The best we can hope to do is to embrace a frugal lifestyle that allows us to be generous to others. We must learn to love not having as once we loved having. One of the great things about being a nun is that we can really live the dispossession of the gospels. Here at Hendred it’s no fiction: the community finances are permanently on a knife-edge, but we still aim to be as hospitable as possible. We don’t experience the poverty of many in the so-called Third World, but by many of the indices used to assess poverty in Britain, we are down there with the best of them, and I myself wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is when one is utterly dependent on the mercy of God that one knows true freedom. The trouble is, most of us don’t really want to be free. We prefer the chains of habit and possession. Maybe the rather grim economic future we all face will make us think again about our priorities: we may not have much money, but perhaps the very lack of it will help us regain our sanity.

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10 Rules for Online Engagement

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in the Christian New Media Conference in London. I’ll write about the conference when I have had more time to digest what I learned. For now, I’ll just share with you part of my own contribution. I call it ‘Ten Rules’, but that is merely a nod in the direction of my monastic heritage. Like the ‘Ten Simple Rules for the Spiritual Life’ of Diadochus of Photice, these are merely guidelines, suggestions, for ensuring our online relationships are truly Christian. They make no claim to novelty: I am grateful to everyone who has helped define them.

Two points to remember as you read them. Before we go online, we need to ask ourselves why we are doing so and what our purpose is. A little reflection will show that the ‘friend’ model of online relationship I’m writing about is not suitable for every situation; and if you are wondering what the ‘friend’ model is based on, I can’t do better than quote St Aelred: ‘You and me, with Christ making a third.’

  1.  Pray. Bring Christ into the relationship at the very beginning, and let your prayer have more of the ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening’ than ‘Lord, open my lips that I may declare your praise . . .’
  2.  Listen. Engage with others, don’t preach at them. Know when to be quiet. It’s O.K. to have nothing to say!
  3.  Respect. Don’t abuse anyone or vent your anger online. It will scare off some people and make others feel uncomfortable in your presence.
  4.  Encourage. Give help when you can; affirm, compliment, if appropriate.
  5.  Spend time: you can’t build good relationships in just a few minutes. You have to be serious about wanting to build a relationship and prepared to commit yourself.
  6.  Share: not only what you are doing, but also what others are doing. This particularly applies to Twitter — don’t use it just for self-advertisement!
  7.  Be welcoming: you need people who disagree with you.
  8.  Be grateful: whingers are not very attractive, nor are those who take things for granted.
  9.  Be yourself: truthfulness is essential. ‘You’ online should be the same person as ‘you’ offline.
  10.  Love. Like prayer, it’s obvious, but unless you pray, unless you love those with whom you come into contact online, you’re wasting your time as well as theirs.

The digital revolution has created a new kind of eternity. What we do online is there for ever, so let’s make sure it is worthwhile and consistent with what we believe.

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St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.

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