How To Read An Encyclical

Benedictines are notorious for thinking that slow and prayerful reading of a text is second nature to them. I am no exception. Yesterday lots of people had rushed onto social media to give their opinion of Fratelli Tutti before I had digested the first few paragraphs, and I see that this morning there are already some instant analyses and tit-for-tat arguments doing the round of cyberspace. At the risk of being presumptuous, may I share with you a way of reading an encyclical you may find helpful, and a blessing or prayer you may like to use before doing so?

First of all, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before beginning to read. I know it sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten. Without asking God to be in charge of our reading, how can we expect to understand what the writer intends — or be free enough to test the truth of what is written if we are too full of our own ideas and prejudices?

Secondly, we need to give the process of reading time. For example, the English translation of Fratelli Tutti strikes me as being awkward and I am having to look at other versions to try to work out whether it is the author or the translator that has puzzled me. Not everyone will be able to do that, but all of us can pause in our reading to reflect and follow up the references provided.

Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves how the encyclical addresses us personally — not X or Y or anyone else, but ourselves. What does it ask of us, and how shall we respond? We aren’t meant to go away thinking, ‘Well, that was interesting/beautiful/predictable/annoying/whatever.’ We are meant to take from the text something that will make us grow spiritually, and that won’t necessarily be a wholly positive experience. We can be challenged, upset, irritated, even angered. God can use those very human emotions to get through to us, if we let him.

Fourthly, I think we should end with thanksgiving. That is easy if we have found the text helpful and inspiring, not so easy if we haven’t; but no matter how barren our reading may seem to have been, no matter how difficult we may have found the text, grace can only grow in a spirit of gratitude. That doesn’t mean we abandon our critical faculties or meekly agree that everything in the encyclical is wonderful. It may be; it may not. But we can, and should, give thanks that the encyclical exists, that God speaks to us through the text, and that we are ready to listen and respond.

Finally, I promised you a prayer. Every new book that comes into the library here at the monastery has a blessing said over it. The text comes from a medieval Subiaco manuscript, i.e. it has impeccably Benedictine origins. Here is a rough and ready translation:

Almighty, everliving God, we ask that the power of the Holy Spirit may come down upon this book. May it be cleansed and purified through the invocation of your name and its meaning opened to our understanding. May your holy right hand bless and sanctify it, enlighten the hearts of those who read it and grant them true comprehension. Grant that they may keep safe the teaching revealed and put it into practice in accordance with your will, through the performance of good deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Lent Books 2020

Those familiar with the Rule of St Benedict will know that his approach to Lent is much simpler, and in some ways much harder, than we have become accustomed to in the West because the one thing he demands is that we give up what we most cherish: choosing for ourselves. In the monastery, we do not choose what we give up or take on as a Lenten penance or discipline without the superior’s scrutiny (or, in her case, that of another nun). It is not unknown for permission for something to be withheld or an addition to be made because the whole point of Lent is to enable us to draw closer to the Lord. Self-will has a horrible habit of intruding into this and scuppering our best efforts as we admire our own virtue or heroism just a teeny, weeny bit. So, maybe we should listen carefully to the guidance Benedict gives for a fruitful way of living Lent and lay aside, at least for a few weeks, our own ideas about how to proceed.

One of Benedict’s most important Lenten disciplines is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). Given the time at which he wrote and the way in which books were made up, almost certainly this meant a book of the Bible. That is exactly what we do in the monastery, read a book of scripture chosen for us by another. That means there can be no avoidance of books we would rather not read, and because we are meant to read the book as lectio divina, i.e. slowly and prayerfully, there can be no losing ourselves in concordances and commentaries. No, it is just us confronted by the Word of God. The thoughts that come, the difficulties we encounter, the encouragement we receive is from the Lord. Reading is therefore an act of faith as well as of love and devotion.

Books for Lent
In previous years we invited people to apply to the monastery for a suggestion about what scripture to read but numbers grew so great that we have now fixed upon an alternative method of ensuring that the Lent Book is not a matter of personal choice. Members of the community — nuns, oblates and associates — will all receive their personal assignment. But if you would like to share in this practice, please take the first vowel in your first name and read the book listed below:

the Gospel of Mark. The earliest, shortest and in many ways simplest of the four gospels (it has no Infancy narrative, and the traditional ending at chapter 16 excludes the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus), it nevertheless conveys a strong sense of Jesus as Suffering Servant and Son of God but cloaked in the ‘messianic secret’. How do we see Jesus? Is he hidden from us — or are we trying to hide from him?

e — Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55. The Book of Isaiah is the first of the major prophets in Christian tradition, so highly regarded it is sometimes called ‘the fifth gospel’. These chapters include the four ‘Servant Songs’ important for our understanding of Jesus’ role as Messiah. 

i — The Letters of St John. It is often said that St John has only one theme, love. Is that true, or does he have something to teach us about faith and membership of the Christian community that poses some searching questions?

o —  I and II Corinthians. Read this in the context of what was happening in Corinth and what St Paul says has an uncomfortably contemporary ring to it. How do we live our faith today?

u — Deuteronomy. This book would have been familiar to Jesus because it contains many of the precepts and ordinances by which he lived as a Jew. For us, today, however, it presents a challenge. It contains the Ten Commandments and details of the covenant between God and his people. How do we live them? Do we really believe them?

A method of reading
Begin by asking the Holy Spirit to come upon you as you read. Try to find a word or sentence that you can carry with you for the rest of the day (or night, if you can’t get down to reading until the evening) and never close the book without thanking God for the gift he has given. Try to make this a daily practice. If, despite your good intentions, you find it impossible, do not despair. There is an alternative ‘Lent book’ chosen for us by the Church: the Mass readings for every day of Lent. One way or another, our Lenten reading can lead us to the joy of Easter. Be encouraged!

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Golden Words and Golden Deeds

St John Chrysostom, whose feast-day this is, would probably not find favour with some people today. His attitude to Jews was unsympathetic to say the least, and although he was ardent in his zeal for holiness, his zeal could make him divisive. He was positively rude about clergy who fussed about their dress and perfumed their hair and was censorious of Christian women who attended synagogue services because of the beauty of the liturgy they encountered (ironic, when one considers the Liturgy known by his name). He was, however, decisive about where our priorities should lie and used all his considerable eloquence to argue his case:

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

From Homily 50, On St Matthew’s Gospel

There is a challenge there for Benedictines. We are known to have a special care for the liturgy. The celebration of the Divine Office gives shape to our days, but we must never allow it to become an avoidance of God, a way of escaping our brethren and their needs. If we do, we end up like the rich man in the Letter of St James, who wishes others well but has no intention of doing anything to help. Our words then may be golden, but our deeds are no more than rusty and twisted iron. I think this is the point at which prayer is tested, and tested to the core.

I don’t believe that ‘activism’ — however one chooses to define it — is a substitute for prayer; but prayer that does not make us more generous, more concerned about others, more willing to sacrifice, is prayer only half-begun. To look, even for a moment, at the beauty of the Lord, to have one’s own gaze held in contemplation of the Love that embraces all of us, is to be changed utterly and for ever. The difficulty is, of course, that we can see the change in others but never in ourselves. The moment we shift our gaze to self, we are back with the rusty iron again. That is one of the reasons lifelong commitment in community, with its daily rubbing away at the rust, is the best context for growing in holiness for those of us who would be no good at ‘going it alone’. Monastic communities come in for a lot of criticism these days, some of it justified, some of it not, but there is a wisdom and a store of experience that is, potentially at least, a treasure for the whole Church, not just those of us who live a cloistered life.

Buy a Nun A Book Day
Buy a Nun a Book Day will soon be here (17 September, feast of St Hildegard). The idea behind the day is simple. It’s an opportunity to get to know a nun or religious sister, find out what book she’d like, then either give her the book or make a donation towards the cost of it. When we first thought of the idea, it was to try to help smaller, poorer communities, especially in the developing world, which, like us when we first began, were hard pressed to stock their library or were embarrassed at being used as a dumping ground for books other people wanted to get rid of. And, of course, there is always that book someone wants to read that the librarian says can’t be afforded. How could a book-lover resist that?

We ourselves have benefited hugely from the response people have made to the idea. Quietnun and I still remember gratefully the day two lovely ladies turned up out of the blue to get to know us and gave us a generous book token as they departed. We shall be in retreat on 17 September, but if you wish to give a book to the community, there are two ways of doing so:

1. Our permanent Amazon wish-list contains a few titles, see https://www.amazon.co.uk/hz/wishlist/ls/1HAEXBPB4H3GL?ref_=wl_share
but as books can be expensive,
2. A donation towards buying these or other volumes too costly to be included can be made via our online giving facility: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/donation-web/charity?charityId=1015497&frequencyType=M&utm_source=extbtn&utm_campaign=donatebtn

Community Retreat
The community retreat this year is from 14 September to 21 September inclusive. During that time I’ll try to keep up the daily prayer tweet on Twitter and the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook community page, but I’ll not be blogging or replying to emails. Please pray for us as we shall for you.

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A Book for Lent

One of St Benedict’s directives for Lent is that we should each be given a book that we should read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48). Debate has raged over whether a book of the bible is meant or some other volume. I myself have always inclined to the former view. Lent is a time for deepening our knowledge of Christ through reading the scriptures. Of course, we do that every day, but Lent has a special intensity and focus about it; and the fact that we do not choose for ourselves is important. Our Lent Book comes to us as a gift — sometimes a demanding or uncongenial one — and like all gifts has surprises in store for us.

In previous years, when I have suggested different books to different people, I have been heartened by the number who wrote afterwards, sometimes long afterwards, ‘I did not understand, but now I do! A Lent book does not reveal all its secrets at once. It works upon the soul slowly, agonisingly slowly at times. This year in community we are reading the Book of Psalms as our Lent Book. Given that we recite the whole of the psalter every week, including those psalms some more polite people think ‘not quite nice’ in the mouths of Christians, you may wonder why. The answer is simple. The psalter is the prayer-book of the early Church and, indeed, of Christ himself. It has psalms for every mood, including those we try to hide from ourselves or deny that we feel. Lent is about coming closer to God, and that means taking down the barriers we erect to try to keep him at a distance. So we pray the psalms and admit our desire to curse and rage and grumble just as often as we desire to give thanks and praise. The psalms show us ourselves as we are and the mercy God pours out upon us unceasingly. No wonder St Augustine exclaimed, ‘Psalterium meum, gaudium meum!’ (My psalter, my joy!)

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The Rise and Rise of Poetry

Occasionally there is good news. This week we heard that poetry sales in the UK continue to increase, helped by exposure on social media platforms (Instagram alone features 19 million poets with the hashtag #poetry). I turned to The Bookseller for further information specifically about the U.K. and discovered some impressive statistics. Apparently, 1.4 million people in the U.K. write poetry — the same number as those who attend contemporary dance and just slightly fewer than those who attend opera. Of course, The Bookseller isn’t so much concerned with whether the poetry the 1.4 million are writing is any good as whether it sells, but at least their poetry is being published.

When I was responsible for the Stanbrook Abbey Press, I regularly received manuscripts from budding poets. In all but a few cases, alas, I had to find gentle ways of suggesting the waste-paper basket was their best friend. Perhaps I was just unlucky; or perhaps — perish the thought! — I failed to recognize genius. However that may be, as an enthusiastic reader of poetry I am glad to think of all the new poets I have yet to discover and the new ways of thinking and seeing that will result. Good news doesn’t have to be political or economic, or concern the environment or any other cause we feel the need to fight for. Sometimes it appears ‘like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ between the leaves of a book — for many of us, a poetry book.

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Blog or Book: Which is it to Be?

Yesterday I published my 1700th blog post here on iBenedictines. There were several hundred more on its predecessor Colophon. That means a great many words have been tapped out on my keyboard and launched into the ether. What, if anything, have they achieved? I have thought aloud, irritated, amused, teased, and, somewhere along the line, I hope, have provoked others into thinking. I certainly value the contribution made by those who have commented, as I trust my readers do, too. I hope I have never been nasty or unfair to anyone, though I admit to being quite firm about what is acceptable and what isn’t in the comments section. The readership of the blog has changed over the years. Some read me no longer, or at least do not comment anymore; others persevere with every post. Now, however,  I have to make a decision. Should I finally get down to that book I have been thinking about for years, or should I go on blogging? For once, it is an either/or choice because I don’t have the energy to do both. In the past I managed to write before others got up or after they had gone to bed, but I don’t think I can do that any longer. So, assuming I live long enough, it is a straight contest: blog versus book.

Blogging has the advantage of engaging directly with its audience. Responses usually come quickly and often take the subject in different directions from the one originally intended. Notably, it is a form of writing that makes no financial demands on the reader. The monastery pays for the blog and everything associated with it, including the blogger’s dinner. The downside to blogging is that it can lead to extensive correspondence or unintended rows. I still recall with horror being accused of homophobia because I once ventured the opinion that I thought most children did best if they were able to grow up with a mother and father. I didn’t actually receive a death-threat, but it came pretty close. On the whole, however, I’d say blogging is infinitely forgettable. What is written today might as well be ‘in wind and running water writ’. It is truly ephemeral.

A book, on the other hand, is a weightier prospect altogether. It makes a pitch, not for eternity exactly, but for as long as the publisher is prepared to keep it on his or her list. There may be correspondence, positive or negative, but unless one happens to be unusually fortunate, a book can prove almost as ephemeral as a blog. There is, however, always the possibility that it may endure for while; or that someone may read it, perhaps years hence, who would never bother with a blog. And there is always the hope that there may be some small remuneration, a royalty payment or two, to reward one’s labours and put a smile on the cellarer’s face. Writing a book requires more discipline than a blog and a slightly different style. I’m not one of those who think a blog can be conversational while a book must be ‘literary’, but one cannot be quite so self-indulgent in the matter of words or the way one uses them. An allusion that today is funny or topical may be neither tomorrow. In any case, ideas change, and so do we. A book does not reflect such changes: it expresses what we thought and were at such and such a time. It fixes us for ever.

So, decisions, decisions, decisions. Watch this space.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for Lent 5

With this fifth post on preparing for Lent we return to my starting-point, RB 49, St Benedict’s chapter on the observance of Lent, and RB 48, with its reference to Lenten reading. (If you wish to follow through Benedict’s teaching in a more systematic way, please see the four posts from 2012 entitled Through Lent with St Benedict.)

At the beginning of Lent every member of the community is assigned a book of scripture, known as ‘the Lent Book’, to be read straight through in its entirety. It is meant to be read as lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading of a text that leads naturally to prayer. Therefore, we don’t, in the first instance, get out our commentaries or multiple translations of the text as though we were about to take an examination in scriptural studies. Instead we get down on our knees and read slowly, patiently, closely. Ideally, we take from our reading a word or phrase that we can chew over at other times in the day so that it becomes part of our very selves.

In previous years I have invited readers to send in a request for a Lent Book to be assigned them. The numbers have grown too great for me to continue to do that but at the end of this post you will find an alternative. The point to be emphasized is that we do not choose for ourselves. We accept what we are given, and if that means we struggle with the text, so much the better. We shall learn something we might never otherwise have done — and that is the point of all our Lenten discipline, to learn something that will bring us closer to God. If we haven’t time for a Lent Book as such, reading through the daily Mass readings is an excellent way of following the course of salvation history in union with the rest of the Church. Others may wish to add something more: a Lenten-themed book of some kind. There is no substitute for scripture, however, and the fact that Benedict includes the Lent Book in his chapter on daily manual labour should alert us to the fact that he expects us to put some effort into it.

Lent Books 2018
Members of the community — nuns, oblates and associates — will all receive their personal assignment. But if you would like to share in this practice, please take the first vowel in your first name and read the book listed below:

a the Book of Genesis. There are several passages that make us stop short. What sort of God is this? He is as far removed from the conventional picture of an Old Testament tyrant as it is possible to be. Are our ideas of God in need of a shaek-up?

e — the Gospel of John. There is almost too much in this gospel to take in, but its great parables and narrative of the Passion are essential parts of our preparation for Easter. Are we blind or lifeless, too?

i — The Book of Exodus. The liberation of the people of Israel is our liberation, too. The transcendent holiness of God should stop us being casual in the way we treat him. How do we measure up to that?

o — The Book of Ezekiel. Not for the faint-hearted, but another insight into the compassion of God and his burning zeal for his people. Where do we stand in relation to God?

u — I and II Corinthians. Read this in the context of what was happening in Corinth and what St Paul says has an uncomfortably contemporary ring to it. How do we live our faith today?

May God bless all who take this on themselves this Lent.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Clarity

Having written about brain fog yesterday, it seems only fair to write about clarity today. What do we mean by it? Most people, I think, would reply that we mean the quality of being clear, intelligible, sharply defined. Some of us, however, particularly those accustomed to singing the Divine Office in Latin, might want to overlay such a definition of clarity with something others might find unexpected. The word clarus in Latin is associated with glory, more specifically the divine glory (cf the antiphons for Vespers on Holy Saturday). That takes clarity into another dimension. Just as I argued yesterday that the danger of the many varieties of brain fog is that we use them as an excuse for not making the effort to distinguish between true and false, right action and wrong, so I would argue today that striving for clarity infuses a very ordinary, everday activity with touches of divine glory.

I always pray before I write, and one of the things for which I ask in prayer is that what I write may be clear and truthful. That it should be truthful is, I hope, self-evidently necessary; but clarity isn’t always so easy to achieve and many might argue that it can appear ‘simplistic’ and  ‘unprofessional’. (I am thinking here of the turgid prose that too often masks the thought of the academic or expert while proclaiming to the rest of the world that he/she is one who knows — and is keeping the secret close.) In an age where speed-reading and headline-skimming are more and more the norm, I am conscious of how easy it is not to make one’s meaning plain; and even if one does make one’s meaning plain to one’s own satisfaction, there will always be someone who uses words and concepts differently and therefore understands differently. But that doesn’t invalidate the quest for clarity, or lessen its importance.

To be clear, to reflect something of the divine glory, to allow that glory to permeate, infsofar as one can, both thought and speech is not a trvial matter. It is the work of a lifetime — and it is work.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Little Saturday Cheer

British library london.jpg
British library london” by Jack1956Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
 
We may be reading less and less but it seems our library buildings are getting better and better. The British Library has just achieved Grade 1 Listed status (see report here). It makes one’s heart rejoice. Time was when our churches and grand houses were the most accomplished buildings, but now it is our libraries. As an erstwhile book designer and printer, I salute this happy change and trust it does not mean that books will soon be as obsolescent as religion and privilege now appear to be.

There is just one little question in my mind. I have never worked in the new BL, though I spent many happy hours beavering away in the Reading Room of the old one. Is it a building that delights its users? Is it, in the phrase beloved of politicians, ‘fit for purpose’? I do hope so. There was a time in my life when I spent long hours in another award-winning library, the Seeley Library in Cambridge. It was the ugliest, most uncomfortable building I have ever read in. It almost killed my joy in history. Awards for one kind of excellence do not always equate to excellence in another. A building may be splendid in itself, but does it also fulfil its function splendidly?

When we came here to Howton Grove, the first thing we established was our oratory or chapel. Not long after came our library, with specially-made shelves, a good strong table and some comfortable chairs for readers. It is a mark of our reverence for the book and for learning that is characteristic of Benedictines the world over. Our library will never have listed status, but it is loved and used. Isn’t that what libraries are all about?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Bro Duncan PBGV and St Cyril of Jerusalem

We make a great team: Bro Duncan PBGV and DIgitalnun check their Twitterstream
We make a great team: Bro Duncan PBGV and Digitalnun check their Twitterstream.
Photo by Keith Waldegrave, © Trustees of Holy Trinity Monastery. All Rights Reserved

Unless you have foresworn Social Media for Lent, you are probably aware that the monastery dog, Bro Duncan PBGV, is at the vet’s hospital for sick animals, where he has been diagnosed with pancreatitis — a painful and sometimes life-threatening condition. He may be only a little fellow as hounds go, but he has left a big hole. Using a combination of telepathy and soulful staring, he communicates important spiritual truths simply and directly. He is a valuable member of the blogging team, although I am not sure he really understands that not every word with ‘cat’ in it refers to felines. For example, when I told him that the Mystagogic Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem (whose feast is today) are an excellent read, he looked sceptical. Even when I passed him a link to one of the many online translations (http://bit.ly/1Fz6FXb), he seemed unimpressed. There was a certain quickening of interest when I mentioned the section On Meats, but the big yawn that followed my reference to Baptism (Bro Duncan hates getting wet) told me I had lost my audience. May I hope that you will find St Cyril more interesting that Bro Duncan does? It’s a good text to read in Lent/Easter.

Note
Thank you for all the tender enquiries after Bro Duncan’s health. We’ll know more later today. Thank you, too, to those who have sent donations to help cover his vet’s bill. I’ve been asked to set up a Giving Page, but if you would like to contribute, our online donation facility at www.charitychoice.co.uk/benedictinenuns will take donations in any currency and allow UK taxpayers to Gift Aid their donations. Just mark ‘for the use of Bro Duncan’. Paypal can also be used in connection with the monastery email address.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail