An Unexpected Sabbath

Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?

For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.

At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.

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The Woman at the Well

Is there anyone who does not love today’s gospel, John 4. 5–42? It turns all our ideas of what is proper upside down. A Samaritan woman (shock, horror, not an orthodox believer— the wrong sex, too) comes to the village well when all the respectable women have long since gone and encounters a strange rabbi who asks her for a drink. The dialogue that ensues shows her to be lippy and smart and not afraid of breaking the conventions of the time. She is happy to talk to a man, and he with her. There is an ease and humour about what follows we would do well to note whenever we are tempted to be stuffy or stand on our dignity. Scripture scholars tell us that the five husbands, who were not actually husbands, represent the five idolatrous kingdoms, but I myself find that they have much greater impact if we take them literally as the woman’s previous lovers. Here is a woman with a colourful past, as my parents’ generation would say, who questions Jesus, won’t be put down, and leads a whole community to faith. She is the most unlikely evangelist ever, and she does it all by simply being herself.

One of the great problems we face is learning how to be ourselves. I don’t mean that in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing sense. Rather, we need to accept that, flawed though we are, we are truly loved by God, and he goes on loving us no matter how often we fall short of what, with his grace, we might become. Many people can’t quite believe that and waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to win a love to which they feel they have no claim, not recognizing that God’s love comes to us as sheer gift and will never fail or forsake us. All that beating of breasts and lamenting one’s failures strikes me as being a form of appeasement, unworthy of the God of Christian revelation. Lent provides us with an opportunity to get back to basics. We begin by correcting our distorted image of God as a harsh taskmaster, allowing him to speak to our hearts, to reveal himself to us in the scriptures and sacraments, in times of quiet prayer and secret almsgiving. It is a process, not achieved in a single moment.

If we are fortunate enough never to have been burdened with a distorted image of God, there is still work for us to do. The early Cistercians, for example, never tired of talking about restoring the likeness of God to God’s image in us. Without using those terms, I think the Woman at the Well understood better than most that she was already valued, loved by God and able to be herself in his presence. She already reflected the image of her Creator. Her meeting with Jesus restored the likeness some refused to acknowledge and enabled her to share that gift with everyone she met. Something to think about, I suggest.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

How often have you toyed with the idea of becoming a hermit for a few days or dwelt lovingly on the thought that if everybody would just go away for a while and leave you in peace, everything would be perfect? Anyone who has ever tried the experiment knows we carry our demons within, and whether the desert we escaped to was real or imaginary, the one person we cannot flee is ourself. But what if you are now faced with ‘self-isolating’ or being quarantined for a fortnight along with others? Not so much being alone with the Alone as alone with a crowd — especially if the crowd is your nearest and dearest, your family? How will you fare? How will you even survive without committing murder? Time to call in the experts! Nuns are uniquely experienced in this business of living in a small space with companions who sometimes get on our nerves as much as we do theirs. So, here is Digitalnun’s guide to self-isolating for dummies.

First, accept the inevitable. We are going to be cooped up together for a while and it isn’t going to be easy. It will help if we have made some preparations beforehand. These include, if possible,

· enough stores of food and household goods to last a fortnight (but don’t go overboard: we deprive others if we stockpile);

· a menu plan;

· a routine which includes times for work, relaxation, silence, conviviality and, if a Christian, prayer;

· enough books, music, videos or whatever you and your family need to ensure that you do not spend too much time bickering over trifles;

· an emergency plan for obtaining help if needed;

· an emergency plan for giving help if needed.

You probably think this is all very basic and obvious. Of course it is. Much of monastic life is basic and obvious. Benedict was well aware of the stresses and strains of community life and sketched out in his Rule ways of coping with them. He was realistic enough to know we can be tempted to murder one another, especially when we cannot get away from other people; he understood the importance of routine and settling questions of what we are to eat and when to avoid making them the focus of disputes when there is not enough to occupy us. He recognized that silence is necessary not only to our spiritual health but also to our general well-being and can prove a healing balm in difficult situations. He realised, too, that we must have work to do (even if it is just decluttering a cupboard). Above all, he placed great emphasis on putting the needs of others first, of apologizing when things have gone wrong and not allowing feuds to simmer or grumbles to destroy the peace of the group. 

I wonder if we can tease out that last point, about putting the needs of others first, a little more? Some people have expended a lot of effort and even anger in trying to play down the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In addition to pouring scorn on those who are anxious about themselves or their families, some have attacked policies designed to protect everyone from the virus. If one is in good health and certain of access to an ICU and ventilator should need arise, one could well argue that there is nothing to worry about — for oneself. But one’s neighbour with asthma or some other illness, the elderly person living alone down the road, or the citizen of a country with a practically non-existent healthcare system, what about them? And becoming indignant about the precautions we are asked to take in church for the sake of others, what does that say about us?

This is where I think the reason some of us become nuns and adopt a solitary life lived in community becomes highly relevant. We do so in order to become more filled with love of God and neighbour, more selfless, more Christ-like. We may not be very good at it, but everything in the monastery is designed to help us. Being forced into self-isolating or quarantine and all that goes with it may well be contrary to everything we desire or think right for us, but it is imposed on us for the good of others. We can learn from it. We can turn what at first sight seems a negative experience into a positive one. We can rediscover what it means to live simply; we can experience what it is like to live without access to the Sacraments or the social/work communities on which we rely for much of our daily interaction; we may even rediscover some of the joys of family life or, if we live alone, the joys of solitude. We can confront some of our inner demons and maybe conquer them. We can end up less of a dummy than we were before.

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What the COVID-19 Coronavirus Is and Is Not

Let’s start with what it is not. The Covid-19 coronavirus is not an excuse for scaremongering, stockpiling, spreading false information, exploiting or attacking those who are fearful or anxious about the implications of the disease. I have been astonished — that is the most neutral word I can find — at the behaviour of some who ought to know better, but I wonder how many have stopped to think about the morality of what they are doing. At the very moment the WHO has been trying to impress on us all the seriousness of the outbreak, some have been trying to undermine their work by wrenching statistics from their context or posing as experts in areas where they know no more than the average Tom, Dick or Henrietta.

Now that the whole of Italy is in lockdown, perhaps we might think about what the Covid-19 coronavirus is, rather than what we’d like it to be. It is a new form of coronavirus for which we currently have no vaccine. If you have read any account of how it attacks the body, you will understand why one would not wish to die from it. The later stages are simply horrific. Among those who have recovered, there is speculation that a few may experience lasting damage to the liver and kidneys. That just highlights how little we actually know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that it is spreading fast and having a major impact on the lives not only of the sick and those who care for them but also of others dealing with quarantine regulations and the fall-out, both social and economic, that such a disease causes. In other words, it is nasty, but exactly how nasty is best left to the virologists and medical officials who know what they are talking about to determine.

So, why are some people deliberately flouting common-sense precautions, such as regular handwashing, or ridiculing arrangements intended to slow the rate of its spread? Is it because they are inconvenient, or put some small fetter of responsibility on those who want to be completely free? Why are some clergy pooh-poohing instructions designed to protect as many people as possible from infection? Is it because they fear that once people have got out of the habit of Mass-going they may never return? Why are we being so selfish? Could it be that we are not making the connection with Lent and its call to be generous, to put the needs of others first? That can be particularly difficult when it means foregoing our own opinions or what we think is in our own best interest. St Benedict, as usual, leaves us in no doubt that we are always to do what is better for another. I hesitate to say that Covid-19 is an opportunity to learn that, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity to put it into practice.

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Three Types of Valour

Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer, originally known as the Women’s World Day of Prayer because of its beginnings in 1887 with Mary Ellen Fairchild James’s call for a day of prayer by women for the home missions. It soon grew beyond its U.S. and Free Church base and now embraces more than 170 countries and Christians of all traditions (and sexes) with its emphasis on ecumenism and reconciliation. At its heart, however, remains prayer inspired by, and led by, women. On Sunday secular society celebrates International Women’s Day. It, too, began in the U.S.A. when the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York in 1909. In 1910, at the International Socialist Woman’s Conference, Clara Zetkin, a German, proposed that 8 March be honoured as a day in memory of working women, their aspirations and rights.

Over the years both events have attracted derision from some, support from others, but only those most deeply committed will know what it has cost to stand up to the mainstream and proclaim that women and girls are not mere adjuncts to society but intrinsic parts of it. For a Benedictine, the two days have a resonance with the monastic emphasis on work and prayer. To pray and work for justice and peace is not an additional extra but an essential element in what it means to be Christian. One does not have to look very far to see how unwelcome that can be. It upsets the cosy order of things. Whether the wrong to be addressed is a patronising attitude towards women in the Church, the failure to allow girls equal access to education in some countries or disregard for the inhuman working conditions imposed upon women in others, it takes courage to identify and challenge the situation.

I mentioned three types of valour, though, didn’t I? Today is also the memoria of SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose passion (account of their martyrdom) is one of the most thrilling documents to have come down to us from the early days of the Church. You can read it online here. Perpetua was just twenty-two, well-educated, with a young child; Felicitas was her servant, several months’ pregnant. Together they faced hideous cruelty but refused to give up their faith. The text that has come down to us is complex, with many layers of reference and meaning, but I think it demonstrates that women’s roles cannot be confined to those dictated by others. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit guides women as well as men, and women are loved by God as much as men are.

I hope readers will think about that last sentence a little because one of the things I realised recently in corresponding with a Catholic priest was that he had a difficulty. On the one hand, he truly loves Our Lady and sees in her a holiness that is unique; on the other, he is extremely uncomfortable with women generally, seeing them as intellectually and morally inferior. I wondered about that, but I think it may be because, deep down, he thinks that only men count, and if only men count, it is because God loves them more than He does women. I may be wrong, but that thought has enabled me not to bristle at some of the things Fr X has said which otherwise might have set my wimple into a spin.

Where I think Fr X and I would agree is that Our Lady is the bravest of all the women I have mentioned in this post. To accept the role of Mother of God, to be theotokos, goes beyond our human comprehension and takes us into the realm of the Spirit. None of us knows how much the faithful fulfilment of her role cost her, but I suspect most parents will have an inkling. That is why yesterday, today and tomorrow we ask her intercession, not just for the Church, not just for women and girls, but for the whole world, for everyone in need — but it may take a fourth kind of valour to do that, the kind given by humility and the knowledge that we, like her, are the anawim, the poor of God.

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Tenacity

We don’t often think of tenacity as being a particularly religious quality, but it can be a necessary one. Today’s Mass readings (Esther 4 and Matthew 7. 7–12) provide examples of persistence in prayer, but I think they also teach the importance of tenacity. We make known our need to the Lord, then we act.* Once we have decided on a course of action, we must hold to it otherwise our prayer is an empty babble. We are just saying ‘Lord, Lord’ and not really engaging, either with him or anyone else.

In the monastery, holding to a course of action to which we have committed ourselves (e.g living the monastic life) is usually called perseverance. These days the word can sound a little dull. We persevere against the odds; we stick stolidly to our duty. It is a trifle grim-sounding. Of course, to those of us trying to do the persevering it isn’t grim at all (well, only occasionally). Substitute the word tenacity for perseverance and we have something we can literally get our teeth into. It all becomes much more exciting — a challenge, an opportunity.

Esther’s prayer led her to courageous action; Jesus’ teaching on prayer emphasises the need for persistence and trust. In other words, whatever resolution we are led to make in prayer has to have effect in our lives. I wonder how we shall measure up to that today?

* I am speaking here of intercessory prayer.

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Repentance v. Remorse

Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.

Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.

When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.

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The Undeserving Poor

One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.

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Another Kind of Blindness

When my sight was restored last year, I went around marvelling at everything I had previously taken, not for granted exactly, but as part of the expected order of things, wonderful, but not so wonderful that I would stop and stare for minutes at a time. When a water-drop hanging from the kitchen tap (faucet) can hold one’s gaze, one knows one has never really looked before. Seeing a world in a water-drop, in a familiar indoors setting rather than outside, where the beauty of landscape, waterscape and skyscape attract our eyes, is unexpected, sudden, a moment of vision.

I think those who listened to Jesus speaking about the times they had or had not served him experienced something of the same (cf today’s gospel, Matthew 25. 31-46). Both those who helped and those who didn’t ask much the same question, but with one significant difference. The virtuous ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ They did not recognize or recall when they had served the Lord in others. The selfish ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?’ Unlike the virtuous, they seem to keep an inner tally of their good deeds and are convinced that they have not missed any opportunity. Both are blind: the virtuous to their own generosity; the selfish to their hardness of heart.

Our Lenten pilgrimage will confront us with many harsh truths about ourselves, but I think we can take encouragement from today’s gospel. We won’t know when we are being truly generous; we won’t necessarily know when we are meeting the Lord. But we can be quite sure when we aren’t — when we close our eyes and hearts to those in need. The need in question may not be material. The cup of cold water that revives the flagging spirits, the shared meal that puts fresh hope into the downcast, the warm welcome that transforms stranger into brother or sister: there are many ways of expressing these. It is up to us to search them out. Of one thing we can be sure, we shall never lack for opportunity.

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