Perseverance

The Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year is ‘perseverance’. Blithely ignoring the fact that most people probably associate the word with NASA’s Perseverance Rover and Mars, I’d like to bring us firmly down to earth by thinking about its meaning and how it applies to monastic life and, indeed, life generally.

‘Perseverance’ means going on steadfastly, despite difficulty or limited or no success in achieving a goal. The medieval origins of the word bear additional notes of strictness and resolution. Clearly, perseverance is not to be trifled with. It has a severe, determined face and can make huge demands on the individual. In the monastery, it is recognized as a necessary quality and has even given its name to the questioning of a novice’s intentions regarding commitment to the monastic life. Three times during his/her novitiate, the novice comes before chapter and is asked whether he or she wishes to continue seeking God in the monastery. If the answer is in the affirmative, a further period of probation is allowed before vows are made.

To persevere is therefore a daily re-engagement, a daily re-commitment. It is unshowy and unspectacular but the only way to ensure genuine growth. As with monasticism, so with marriage or anything else we value. Sticking at something through the proverbial ‘thick and thin’ isn’t a mark of lack of imagination but rather the reverse. It is a is an indication of hope and trust and belief — in God, in people, in ourself, even. It is, in its own humble way, a key to the Kingdom.

Today’s Feasts:

We celebrate today the feasts of St Hilda, St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Hugh of Lincoln, all well-known in various ways, and for those of more curious liturgical mind, St Nerses of Armenia. If you follow the link below, you will find three posts on St Hilda which throw a sidelight on the subject of this post as well. To attain holiness without perseverance is an impossibility and it has nothing whatever to do with ‘success’.

https://www.ibenedictines.org/?s=St+Hilda

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A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

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Compassion not Condemnation

No one who reads today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 27 On the Abbot’s Special Care for the Excommunicated, can feel easy about condemning others. Again and again, Benedict advocates patience, reaffirmation of love and support for the wobbly one, and is reminded of the example he himself must follow, that of the Good Shepherd who carried the straying sheep back to the flock on his own sacred shoulders (RB 27. 9, a telling addition to the gospel narrative). The emphasis is not on what the excommunicate must do in order to be reintegrated into community but what the abbot and community must do.

How often do we demand that another person change, show repentance or remorse, conform to our standards of acceptable behaviour and become what we require them to be? It is an arrogance that goes beyond the individual. We have seen something of the same in the run-up to COP26. Most people in the U.K. agree that caring for the environment and being good stewards of natural resources are important, but the methods adopted by Insulate Britain, for example, to force attention on their case have had a mixed reception. There has been a clashing of rights which reflects a clash of interests. At COP26 itself, the division in interest between rich and poor nations has been stark at times. Those of us living a comfortable life in the West don’t really know what it is like to live with sea levels just two metres below our country’s land mass and, as one delegate put it, no hill to run to if they rise.

Only a very wise person, or a very foolish one, would claim to know how to solve the challenge of climate change, but we must do the best we can. When dealing with those who are unconvinced, or whose self-interest is apparently opposed to our own, we need all the qualities an abbot must show when confronted with disruptive behaviour in an individual: patience, support, readiness to act. Above all, we need to show compassion rather than condemnation, a willingness to listen and, where we can, compromise.

Over to you, but, please, no angry rants. They won’t be published.

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De Disciplina Psallendi | The Discipline of Singing the Psalms

Although it is generally agreed that the chapter titles in the Rule of St Benedict are a later addition, they often throw fresh light on the subject Benedict is writing about. Take today’s section of the Rule, for example. McCann paraphrased the title of chapter 19 as ‘The Manner of Saying the Divine Office’, which is fine, but doesn’t convey the crispness and point of the Latin. De Disciplina Psallendi reminds us that singing the psalmody of the Divine Office is instructive, not something we take up accidentally or without registering its significance. It requires all that is implied by the English word ‘discipline’: focus, attention, listening to others, holding back our own dulcet tones, possibly, to achieve harmony, hard work. It is a discipline that changes us. Singing the psalms, entering into the prayer of Christ himself, hour by hour, day by day, enlarges our understanding and compassion. We learn how to celebrate the beauty of creation, the mirabilia Dei, give thanks, acknowledge our sin and plead for forgiveness, experience the desolation of God’s apparent absence, know the depths of our tawdry desire for vengeance. We cannot hide from God or ourselves when we sing the psalms. They are the song of a free people, people God has claimed as his own, a little taste of Eden and of the heaven to come

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Assisted Dying Bill: Do You Trust the Government?

Discussion of the Present Bill

Discussion of the proposed changes to the law envisaged by the Assisted Dying 2021 Bill, now facing its second reading in the House of Lords, has been fairly predictable. Lawyers, philosophers, religious leaders, medical practitioners, disabled advocacy groups, politicians and others have all had something to contribute on both sides of the argument. There have been harrowing tales of people dying in agony, usually from the perspective of a near relative, distressed at what they were witnessing; eloquent pleas to be freed from pain coming from the very sick; haunting articulation of vulnerability from those who fear that allowing assisted dying might easily lead to pressure to comply with another’s decision or, worse still, have no power of deciding for oneself at all. At its best, the discussion has been honest and respectful; at its worst, it has degenerated into abuse of those who think differently.

Trust

One of the big questions that has often been glossed over, however, is that of trust. Not just trust in the medical profession or one’s nearest and dearest but trust in the Government and its readiness to protect its citizens. Having seen the shameful way in which the present British Government placed elderly and vulnerable care home residents at risk in the earlier stages of the COVID outbreak, I am not as sanguine as I might once have been about the ‘robust measures’ to be put in place if the bill becomes law. Does no one really think that if it were to a government’s economic or political advantage, it might use the system, so to say, to rid itself of some non-productive elements (people, to you and me)?

Manipulation of Facts

One of the consequences of climate change is that pressure on resources increases. Who would like to guess whether that might also add another ingredient to the mix? Encouraging Uncle Henry to take the honourable route out of life when he is old and frail is one thing, perhaps, but resentment of the elderly and sick stirred up in recent years, especially during lockdown, has wider implications. Have you noticed that death from COVID is not often presented straightforwardly as a COVID death but given some interesting qualifications. We are usually told that the deceased had ‘underlying health conditions,’ as though that made his/her death less important, less of a human tragedy. There is some manipulation of facts here in the way the figures are presented but we seem to be deadened to its significance in other areas of life — or am I being unduly cynical?

A Personal View

You will understand that I do not think of human beings as disposable items and am personally unhappy with both the underlying premiss and some of the concrete proposals of this bill. I have argued the same when discussing some previous iterations of this bill. That is not my purpose this morning. I pray for those debating the bill; I pray for those affected by its outcome — in other words, for all of us. Whatever decision is made in this instance, many of the questions the bill touches upon, including rights over one’s body and the role of the State, have far-reaching implications, but we are not always as wise as we would like to be.

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Dialogue versus Debate

For anyone seeking to know the truth both dialogue and debate are important, but I would suggest that dialogue is the more important of the two. We all know how quickly a debate can become ill-tempered, an exchange of insults rather than of arguments. Frequently, those entering a debate do so with the intention of winning, of scoring points, and emerging victorious from the fray. We are less interested in establishing or exploring truth than conquering the other, and those with the best debating skills are often capable of arguing for either ‘side’ with equal effectiveness. Dialogue starts with the recognition that both have something to learn from the other. It is a quest for truth, for mutual enrichment. It is humbler and more receptive, though equally hard work. Those who engage in dialogue may change their opinions as the conversation continues; those engaged in debate rarely do so. There are many calls today for ‘less toxic politics’, a ‘listening Church’. Perhaps we need to think more about dialogue than debate, let go of the desire to triumph and be content to learn instead.

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Metaverse: Promise or Threat?

An Old Idea

Years ago I remember arguing that one of the problems of the internet was that it was too static, too predictable, and what we needed, especially those of us interested in the presentation of religion online, was a more immersive experience that went beyond what was then possible. The ‘informative’ web sites and forums were all very well but they failed to capture the essence of Christian belief and practice. We identified a particular difficulty in sharing the monastic experience with others. Romantic photos of buildings and individuals, accompanied by snippets of plainchant, were popular but didn’t contribute much to understanding. We did our best to address this difficulty with our online chapters, videos and podcasts, but it was still largely us broadcasting our view of life to others.

A Connected World

In the years since we have seen some remarkable developments. We may groan about Zoom meetings or live-streams, but the technologies available have made much more engagement possible for those who have neither the wealth nor the expertise to set things up for themselves. Now everyone is buzzing about the metaverse and the possibility of creating a parallel world of virtual reality which could reshape the entire internet — and I find myself hesitating.

Hesitations

The reason I hesitate is because I think there is a possibility of losing touch with reality and I am far from convinced the Churches have thought through the implications. By that, I don’t mean to oppose physical and virtual reality, which I see as equally ‘real’ though with different modes of being. I am thinking more of what I can best call moral reality. One of the striking aspects of life in the twenty-first century has been the privatisation of morality. If I think something is right, that entitles me to do pretty much anything in pursuance of my ideals or goals. I can murder someone because he or she is ‘wrong’ about something and ‘deserves’ to be eliminated; I can exalt my rights over your rights, on the roads or anywhere else I please. In short, I have become my own moral compass, unconstrained by the need to consider society or any other group. A virtual universe which we experience as ‘real’, which we can manipulate at will, is not without its dangers because it dispenses with many of the controls life usually imposes.

Once upon a time, people worried about video game violence and the blurring of the distinctions between violence on screen and violence off screen. Even after decades of research, no one seems entirely sure what effect it truly has. Part of the current debate about untrammelled violence following the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess has concentrated on the role of social media and the violent language used there and by our M.P.s themselves. The dignified, eirenical statement of the Amess family is a welcome reminder that the values of kindness and consideration are important to any civilized society, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. That it needed to be said is, however, sobering.

What Will the Churches Do?

Of course, as soon as one uses the word ‘civilized’, one begs a series of questions about what constitutes civilisation. For me, grounded in the Western Christian tradition, the answer is not difficult and includes a host of values that are shared with millions of other people. To someone else, with a different cultural heritage, such ideas and values may seem alien. What I am thinking about this morning, therefore, is how the Churches as multi-national institutions will respond to the challenge and opportunity offered by the development of the metaverse. Will they stand to one side, initially hostile or disapproving; or will they embrace the possibilities and allow them to enrich the experience they offer believers and non-believers alike? Maybe those of us preparing for Synod 2023 could add this to the list of matters we are thinking and praying about. Your thoughts on the subject would be welcome.

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Synod 2021 — 2023: the Process Begins

The official logo

Yesterday evening, in Rome, Pope Francis formally inaugurated the process that will culminate in the synod we are to refer to as Synod 2021 — 2023. You can find the preparatory documents, Vademecum, Letter to those living a monastic or contemplative life, the timetable, details about how the logo may be used and other material here: https://www.synod.va/en.html (link opens in new tab). It is important that you should read the material for yourself, reflect on it and pray about it. Like other bloggers, I may occasionally comment on questions that have been raised; but for now, I think it is enough simply to say the process has begun. The community will be praying for everyone involved, for openness to the Holy Spirit and for wisdom, generosity and courage in following his promptings.

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Learning to Be Grateful

Yesterday was, for me as for everyone else, a mixture of good and bad. Towards evening, as I did a quick check of our social media accounts, a little worm of envy and discontent began to surface. How much I’d like to be able to go for a walk, but I can’t because of my illness; wouldn’t it be nice to have a brief holiday and enjoy new scenes, but it’s out of the question; what wouldn’t I give to be able to clear my in-tray or get people to respond to requests, but it’s not going to happen. You know the kind of thing that occurs when we focus on ourselves and can compile your own list of ‘if onlys’. At bottom, they are all about ourselves and what’s ‘wrong’ or missing in our life, even when we try to convince ourselves that we are being selfless and desiring some good for another. Parents know only too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of wanting to influence their children’s decisions, and it is not unknown for those who don’t have children to think they have the solution to all the world’s problems. (Have a look at Twitter if you don’t believe me.) It is not enough, however, to be aware of the dangers: we have to do something about them.

Last night I decided to take myself in hand and think about some of the good things that had happened during the day. I shared some of them on Twitter and was heartened by the response of others. Some who replied I know to be very ill or living in difficult circumstances, but they were still acknowledging what was good in their lives and giving thanks. Learning to be grateful in a culture that often seems selfish and self-absorbed isn’t easy, but it is essential. The most important act of a Christian society is eucharist, giving thanks, but how often we dissociate that from our everyday lives. Perhaps, when we examine our conscience at night, we should not only ask ourselves where our desire has been, where we have failed or sinned, but also where we have received grace, where we have reason to be grateful. We might be surprised by the results.

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