It is not eloquence but obedience that makes us pleasing to the Lord.
Perhaps because I am writing this half asleep, after a week of short nights and long days and a particularly full one yesterday (BBC TV were filming a short feature for Breakfast TV on 23 March, we had guests for supper, there was a loaded inbox, deadlines to meet, you know the kind of thing: a leisurely day in the monastery), I am wondering what my Friday penance ought to be. The custom of marking Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent, as days when we perform some special act of penance is a very salutary one, in both senses of the word; but practically speaking, when one already has a Lenten programme spelled out in one’s Lent Bill (Benedictines) or in one’s resolutions for Lent (everyone else), Fridays are a problem. What does one give up or take on that is not already covered?
Some people read through at least part of the Passion in the early afternoon, on their knees. That means stopping what they are doing, which is not easy, especially when trying to meet a deadline, and switching to another mode, one which acknowledges that God is more important than anything we think important. Reading the Passion narrative in this way does have a penitential aspect but, more significantly, it reminds us why penance on Fridays is encouraged.
I don’t recommend that you should kneel down in your office or on your factory floor on Friday afternoon and get out your New Testament unless you want to be the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but if you too find the whole question of Friday penance rather perplexing, maybe you could find something just as simple that would be a help to you. It is not what we do but the love which accompanies it that matters. I’m not sure what I shall do today, but I’m pretty sure you will never know. The other aspect of Friday penance is keeping it a secret between God and ourselves.
They blog instead. Or, I daresay, they lecture their spouses occasionally, if they are married, or their communities, if they happen to be nuns (we call it “giving a conference”). Dr Johnson, as everyone knows and some regularly misquote, thought that a woman’s preaching was very like a dog’s standing on its hind legs, remarkable but not necessarily done well. Having listened to the preaching of several Anglican and Methodist friends, I have to dissent from the Great Cham’s opinion on the surest of all grounds, that of experience. Some of the most brilliant preaching I have ever heard has come from women. Why is the Catholic Church so iffy about allowing women into the pulpit?
Partly, we know, it is because of what the Catholic Church believes about the Mass (which is where most preaching occurs) and the sacrament of Orders. It is quite wrong to see this as an equality issue although it is sometimes presented as such, by those who wish to uphold the status quo as well as those who wish to attack it. I don’t think “equality” really comes into it, but what we believe about the Mass and Orders may affect perceptions in other areas. For all kinds of reasons, women in the Catholic Church are still seen primarily as wives and mothers, even if they are neither or have many other roles in addition. We don’t usually define men in terms of their being husbands and fathers (although American Catholic men seem touchingly ready to define themselves that way). The argument from complementarity works well on paper but is less convincing in action. I have a sneaking feeling that some of those most passionate in its advocacy are secret admirers of the article on “woman” in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. (I read it, entranced, at the age of eleven and have wondered ever since whether it would be possible to meet such a being.)
Blogging is a low-cost way of addressing an audience and many Catholic women, including me, have taken to it with delight. It doesn’t need an imprimatur (remember them?) or a sacrament or anything in particular to validate what is said. I do believe that anyone claiming to be a Catholic blogger should take the trouble to find out what the Church actually teaches before launching into the ether, and I hope I’m scrupulous in that regard, though that is for others to judge. The trouble is, I am still haunted by Dr Johnson’s little joke. Am I preaching when I jot down my posts, musing aloud in public (which is what I like to think) or performing some kind of verbal acrobatics? Doughty dame or dancing dog, who knows?
Two phrases which have become commonplace, ‘information overload’ and ‘compassion fatigue’, strike me as having enough truth to make them useful and enough untruth to make them dangerous. At the moment, it is difficult not to be caught up in the tragedies unfolding across the world: Japan, of course, but also Libya and Bahrain, Ivory Coast; and those by no means over but already gone from the headlines, the floods and earthquakes which have wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands if not millions. We know too much, but we know it only briefly; and though we do our best to respond, there comes a point when the wallet is, if not empty, at least not as full as it used to be and we are faced with making hard choices: life for you, but not for you.
In the monastery we are, to some extent, protected from both information overload and compassion fatigue. We don’t have unrestricted access to the media and we don’t have much material wealth to share with others. On the other hand, as anyone who has lived this kind of life will tell you, whatever we see or hear makes a much greater and more lasting impact precisely because our access to the media is limited, while not being able to help materially can be painful. So what do we do?
Our first response to any tragedy is prayer. For some people, prayer is a last resort, something one tries when everything else has failed; but to pray perseveringly, committing the outcome to God, trusting him absolutely yet ready to accept that prayer may not be answered as one would wish, is harder than it may seem, yet it is open to any Christian by virtue of the gift of prayer poured into our hearts at baptism. It is not a soft option, a cop-out. It means taking seriously Christ’s role as Eternal High Priest and uniting our prayer with his. It means taking time, wasting time. When we think we can’t take any more, can’t give any more, there is always that inner jar of nard to be broken and poured.
If you don’t know chapter 36 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Care of the Sick, I recommend it as a corrective to sloppy thinking about those who are unwell or who have become infirm because of age. Benedict maintains a balance between meeting the genuine needs of the sick and preventing their carers from being exploited or becoming exhausted. It is Christ who serves through us and Christ who is served in us. That thought may not be enough to stop us being irritable or demanding or whatever, but it may help in stressful situations where it is ‘the other person’ who is the cause of all our woe (or so we believe). If you would like to listen to RB as it is read in the monastery, please go here and click on the ‘RB Box’ in the sidebar.
No looting, no shouting, no angry scenes: the dignity and self-restraint of the Japanese as they suffer the unimaginable horrors of earthquake and tsunami, and now the looming menace of nuclear disaster, is chastening. We in Britain sometimes seem to make a virtue of anger and complaint: proof that we are not to be done down or deprived of our rights. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to a culture of blame and a kind of organized selfishness. We invoke the spirit of the Blitz but our response to difficulty or disaster sometimes lacks the substance.
World War II is no longer a living memory except for the elderly. For those of us with no first-hand experience of it, talk of Japanese Prisoner-of-War camps or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remote, something that belongs to the past. Looking at the images of devastation in Japan, I couldn’t help feeling that it was very like a re-run of the destruction wreaked by war, but with this difference: here it was the power of nature at work, rather than the power of man. Hokusai’s depiction of a tsunami is powerfully evocative of the terror nature can inspire, yet it is, paradoxically, a calm terror. We see the magnificence of the Great Wave, we know it will destroy, yet there is also tranquillity, acceptance.
According to a Shinto understanding of the world, we inhabit the earth by gracious permission of the gods. They are not particularly interested in us or in what happens to us. Is that the secret of Japanese stoicism, our unimportance to the gods? I don’t know. A Christian understanding of God, one who has numbered every hair of our head, who regards us as the apple of his eye, doesn’t make the terror or the tragedy any less, but it does give hope that death is not the end of the story. As we continue to pray for the Japanese, for those caught up in the strife in Libya, we may need to draw on that hope more and more.
Yesterday the whole world was stunned into silence. News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed left us without words. Even the enormities being perpetrated in Libya or Ivory Coast seemed small by comparison, as if the loss of human life could ever be a small matter! Yet I noticed that a few sick types were soon active on the internet, expressing glee that so many had been killed. There is something cold and closed about hatred, well summed up in Isaiah’s phrase about clenched fists and wicked words. To me, the clenched fist has never symbolized strength or power but only impotent rage: a hand unable and unwilling to receive. In the same way, the wicked word is deaf to all kindness, its own ugly clamour shutting out all but its own noise.
There is a promise attached to doing away with clenched fists and wicked words. Perhaps realising how vulnerable we all are is the first step in learning compassion. What happened yesterday in Japan reminded us that the world is not under our control, nor can the disaster be expressed in terms of statistics. Every one of those statistics has a name, an identity. As we learn, hour by hour, of the number of people who have been killed or gone missing, we need to remember that. We need to pray for them as individuals, to speak good words instead of bad and to open our hands to give.
Fasting has become fashionable, or at least, you will find a lot being written about it in the blogosphere. For us Benedictines, with our fairly rigorous Lenten fast and our regular Friday fast from September to Easter, that is not news. You will be pleased to know I have nothing to add to what has been said already. (Does she ever? Ed.) Similarly, much has been written about prayer which is good and useful, but this year I have noticed very little about the third element of our Lenten discipline, almsgiving.
Notice, first, that I call it a discipline, from the Latin, disciplina, a teaching. We are meant to learn something. Secondly, I use the word alms, from the Greek, eleēmosunē, meaning compassion. That is, we are meant to learn compassion during Lent. That in itself is worth thinking about, so too is the means recommended to us: sharing with others what has been given to us. Put like that, dropping a few coins into the hat of a busker or a couple of notes into a CAFOD envelope can seem horribly inadequate. It may be inadequate, of course, but the chances are that we are made uncomfortable more by the thought of our own imperfection than the inadequacy of our giving. Almsgiving becomes a contest, with the prize going to whoever can give most. You can see how absurd that is. Perhaps we should concentrate less on what we give and more on the manner with which we give. It is generosity of heart that counts, and we cannot fake that with God, no matter how many zeros we add to our gift.
God has very gently but definitely decided that our plans for Lent should be different from what we had expected. It happens every year, but as always, there is something we could not have foreseen, an entirely new twist. It all began with a mega-migraine for Quietnun. By Shrove Tuesday every thought of carnival and pancakes had disappeared and the monastery had assumed a Lenten simplicity and seriousness. The spareness inside matched the cold spring sunshine outside.
On Tuesday evening came news that a dear friend, who had spent twenty-three years as a nun but who had had to leave for health reasons, was in a hospice, in the final stages of a long, slow death from cancer. Tuesday night was spent praying for her; at mid-day on Ash Wednesday we heard that she had died. Her Lent now over, surely she will soon be Eastering with the saints for ever.
As I walked to church, I could not help reflecting that we had entered the mystery of death and rebirth we shall celebrate at Easter; had already experienced something of our own human frailty; were being asked to hope in spite of all. The ashes we received were made from the palms carried in procession on Palm Sunday last year: a reminder that human triumphs do not last very long, only God is eternal. I thought, too, that the love of the Lord is everlasting and his mercies new every morning. This Lent we are called to live in awareness of his mercy in a way we never have before. God has written our Lent Bill.
(Please see the Shrove Tuesday post for an explanation of what a Lent Bill is; and I didn’t get Leviticus, I got St John’s Gospel.)
Shrove Tuesday is for many so identified with pancakes that it is known as Pancake Day pure and simple. Personally, I don’t mind that. The level of dissipation in the monastery is rather like Wordsworth’s, miserably low, but we shall have a festive meal (with pancakes) before we turn our thoughts to the main business of the day: confession. I often think that confession is the cindarella sacrament, frequently ignored or undervalued, but essential at so many levels. It needs prayerful preparation and a determination to be honest with oneself, which isn’t easy.
Another task for today is consideration of the Lent Bill. This monastic practice could be more widely known. We each of us consider how as individuals, not as a community, we can offer God “something above the usual measure of our service” in the matter of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (we already have a community take on these). However, no one decides for herself: all is subject to the judgement of another, either the superior, or in her case, that of another nun, the point being that there can be great pride and seeking of vainglory even in the most “religious” practice. We are also given the task of reading through one book of the Bible with special attention during Lent. Again, the choice is made for us by another. This is in addition to our normal lectio divina. I am praying devoutly that the choice for me won’t be Leviticus again. I find it fascinating, but there is only so much Leviticus one can take at one time.
There won’t be a blog post tomorrow; so, prospere procede. May you have a blessed Lent.