Enriching the World: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The so-called Passport Photo: c. 1938

The feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) which we celebrate today always produces a mixture of complicated emotions in me. I must have read almost everything she ever published after she became a nun, admire her deeply, yet confess to being disconcerted by her. Is it the philosopher in her I find difficult, the intensity of her sanctity, or something else altogether? I do not know, but this morning, when everything was dark when the community got up and some of the news darker still, I remembered the hope that sustained her to the last in Auschwitz, the glimmer of light she never failed to see, and the courage with which she and her sister Rosa went to their end. She is a saint of the Holocaust who combines in her own person both Jewish and Christian traditions, whose humanity contrasts with the inhumanity of the regime that killed her.

We need saints who challenge us out of our comfortable mediocrity. At first sight, St Teresa Benedicta is impossible of emulation. But is she really? Aren’t we all called to live as well as we can, whatever our circumstances? She did not have the long, quiet life in Carmel she might have expected, but she embraced the life she was actually given and, in so doing, has enriched the world — not just the ‘religious’ part of it but the whole of it. We are called to do the same.

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Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my readership has grown older and greyer. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I’m growing older and greyer myself and begin to appreciate better than before how much is owed to those who just ‘get on with things’ and are not in themselves particularly scintillating. Blogging is no longer as popular as it was for diffusing ideas and inviting debate but the format suits me and is more manageable than most alternatives. The unease I am voicing this morning therefore comes hedged with qualifications. I admit my own ignorance and the difficulty of judging a situation that is, by its very nature, known only partially and imperfectly. I recognize that only a very small part of the Church (the part that reads this blog) is likely to respond and that its demographic is not representative of the Church as a whole. So, I write as a Catholic, of a certain age and background, living in the West, more specifically England, with its unique experience of Catholicism, and heavily influenced by my interests in history and theology. But the question I ask is of wider significance because it concerns the very nature of the Church and her role in the world.

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Current Preoccupations of the Church

Sitting where I do, one might think the Church had no other interest than safeguarding regulations (the horse long bolted from that particular stable, I would suggest) and ever more complicated directives concerning COVID prevention, Mass attendance and online liturgies. All too often, this has ended up with a lot of form-filling and the compilation of statistics that a statistician would say revealed nothing of much use or importance.

From Holy Week (yes, Holy Week) until now, here in the monastery we have been working through an endless stream of safeguarding material provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. We agree that safeguarding is important. We have attended courses, adjusted our buildings and grounds, had an independent audit of our arrangements and practices and, crucially no doubt, paid our fee to the safeguarding service. Given our small numbers as enclosed (or cloistered) nuns, the absence of a chaplain and our clear policy of not allowing children to visit unless accompanied by a responsible adult, one might think we pose little risk. But the time we give to these matters is taken from time we might otherwise give to prayer and spreading the gospel, and that not only worries me, it suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church and her missionary character. We are not here to be defensive, surely? What are we defending anyway?

Like many others, I had hoped that the experience of lockdown and the creative way in which many tried to meet its challenges might have led to a profound enrichment of the Church’s missionary endeavour. However, if the anecdotal evidence I have received is to be believed, many clergy are simply sighing with relief that things can go back to normal (i.e what was understood to be normal before the pandemic began) though there is some anxiety about those who have been ‘lost’ to the Church and decided they are not returning to their parish for worship — or to make the financial contributions on which the parish relies. But is anyone asking why people have gone from their parishes?

Public Utterances and Public Spats

Ask anyone in this country what they know of the Catholic Church and one is likely to get some shocked references to abuse and cover-ups and perhaps an observation or two about the Latin Mass and the pope’s hostility to it. Neither is exactly the whole truth, but if people bother about churchy things at all, that is what they are likely to come up with. The very lame response to abuse and official attempts to mitigate its awfulness have not been impressive. There is a sense, which many Catholics share, that the Church is not really facing up to the sin in our midst; and in any case, is there no other narrative to be told other than one of regret and apology?

We have sometimes been asked to apologize for abuse committed in Ireland by religious sisters with whom we have no connection other than membership of the same Church. In vain do I say, it was wrong, we pray for those who have suffered (and those who caused the suffering), that it happened before we were born, we are doing our best to ensure that nothing of the same can ever happen again. But it is not enough. For some, the narrative of abuse and cover-up has become the whole narrative of the Church. What is not always recognized is the fact that, by and large, we have let it become so. Yes, we have let others set the agenda, and I think we may have got it wrong.

One consequence of this, not always sufficiently appreciated, is the effect on the morale of many clergy and their reluctance, amounting in some cases to crippling fear, to go out to others. Parishioners may lament the loss of the pastoral visit; some of the clergy are questioning whether the pastoral visit is simply going to end in tears (for the priest). An awkwardness has been introduced that need not be there. A wise bishop, alert to the needs of priests and people, can do much to help; but I wonder how many are.

The constant spats about Pope Francis’ decisions, even his legitimacy as pope, enthrall some sections of the Catholic Church and provide useful copy to online journalists and media types. Often those who are most vociferous are most ignorant, presenting as fact what is merely opinion, and opinion based on an inadequate knowledge of the sources. This applies to both left and right, liberals and conservatives, all who see themselves as being right when everyone else is wrong. What comes across, therefore, is a Church bitterly divided, more intent on scoring points than seeking truth, not a place where sinners will be made righteous through the experience of love and compassion but where the self-appointed righteous exclude all who are not like them.

A Harsh Judgement

I’m sure many will think what I have written is harsh and arrogant, that I am guilty of the very faults and shortcomings I see in others. But isn’t that the point? We are all, to some extent, blind and deaf. I do not believe that the Lord will ever abandon his Church, but I do think we are in danger of forgetting that is is his Church, that we have a mission to perform, and that currently we are not making a very good fist of it. Perhaps if we were to spend a few moments today thinking about what first drew us to Christ, to what changed for ever when we said ‘yes’ to him, the way ahead would be clearer. I’m sure it would be much more attractive to others also.

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Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

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Arbiter of All Things? Me, Of Course!

I am refusing to be drawn on the subject of Traditionis Custodes for reasons I’ve given in the past about needing to read, pray and reflect before responding to documents that stir the emotions (e.g. see this post about how to read an encyclical, though the document published yesterday is not an encyclical). I’ve also switched off comments for the links I’ve posted in Facebook and on this particular blog post — not because I am opposed to people expressing their views, far from it, but because among the instant reactions there is always a lot of tit-for-tat I don’t want to get involved in. Note that phrase: I don’t want to get involved in. It is my choice, my decision. If it sounds arrogant, so be it. I am the arbiter of all things, in this blog anyway.

The Carmelites of Compiégne

The Carmelites of Compiègne whose martyrdom we celebrate today, and the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai imprisoned alongside them (see, for example, this post) probably did not want to get involved in the French Revolution, either. But they did, and they acquitted themselves more than honourably, though at the time I daresay comparatively few knew very much about them. I have often wondered what they themselves felt and thought. What were their ideas of beauty, for example? How did they like to see the liturgy performed? I am speculating here, but did the Benedictines and the Carmelites have rather different experiences of Mass and the choral office? Their origins, their backgrounds, their spiritualities as we would call them today, even their financial circumstances, were different; and as an erstwhile historian myself, I would expect that to be reflected in their approach to monastic/contemplative life.

The Debate about Traditionis Custodes

I think we will find that much of the debate that follows on the publication of yesterday’s Traditionis Custodes will reflect some, at least, of the following:

• a personal, probably highly subjective, view of what is beautiful. That is often a ‘killer’ factor. Once we assume that our own preferences are universal, it can be difficult to see another’s point of view.

• a partial, possibly not always well-informed, awareness of history and the complexity of liturgical development. That can be difficult to handle. It is not only a question of fact (sometimes extremely difficult, even impossible, to establish) but, more importantly, of interpretation.

• a ‘feeling’ about Vatican II and what it intended. Older readers will probably understand better than younger ones what I mean by this.

• a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The Place of the Personal in this Debate

The first, the argument about beauty, is one I have engaged in many times. My years in the Stanbrook Abbey Press taught me that its austere and restrained ideals did not appeal to everyone. Where I sought simplicity and paring back, others preferred elaboration and detail. Never the twain shall meet, it seems. As for a personal opinion of Pope Francis, the less said the better because so much of it seems to be polarised.

I am sure you will understand why I urge prayer and reflection at this point. Fortunately, as Bro Dyfrig BFdeB will assure you, no one listens to me anyway, so the suggestions I make above are principally for myself to heed. -;) (It is International Emoji Day, so using one is in the spirit of the times, no?) Whatever our own opinion, let us pray for the unity of the Church, and especially for those who are baffled and hurt or using publication of Traditionis Custodes for an agenda of their own.

Links (opening in new tabs)

There is an official English language translation of Traditionis Custodes here: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html

and of the accompanying letter to the bishops here:
https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2021/documents/20210716-lettera-vescovi-liturgia.html

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The Holy Abbots of Cluny

The feast of the holy abbots of Cluny rarely excites the imagination of anyone outside the cloister. A few liturgists may perhaps refer to them in passing, those who know something of the story of Abelard and Heloise will probably smile at the mention of Peter the Venerable, but, by and large, they are all ‘long ago and far away’. Even my attempt to sketch a pen-portrait of four of them on Twitter this morning may have confused or bored as many as it enlightened. The trouble is, we are not very good at integrating history into our everyday lives or seeing the relevance of the past to the present. Instead of seeking to understand or explain the cruelties and injustices of Black Slavery, for example, we prefer to do away with any of its relics, from statues to church monuments, because that lets us off the hook of really engaging  with the subject. We all know slavery of any kind is wrong, so we don’t have to bother with why it is wrong. Unfortunately, that weakens our ability to judge other matters where decisions about rightness and wrongness are not so clear-cut. We forget that the argument is part of the answer, and the way in which we conduct that argument is an intrinsic part of working the answer itself out.

The abbots we commemorate today — Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — were not weak men, far from it, but we do not think of them as controversialists. St Odo, for instance, was particularly severe on the use of rough or judgemental language by his monks. I do not imagine, for example, that he would have endorsed the current trend among some Catholics to impugn the faith of public figures like Pope Francis or President Biden on the basis of their own understanding of Catholicism. He knew — as we are often reluctant to admit — that judgement in such matters is God’s business unless we have been given explicit authority, and even then, there are all kinds of caveats to be observed. It is no accident, I suppose, that his devotion to Our Lady was to Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Peter the Venerable became involved in many of the hot topics of his day, but he was a patient man, who knew that finding out what another thought or considered true was essential to opening up a dialogue with them. That, I suspect, is why he had the Quran translated into Latin rather than assuming he already knew what Muslims believed and taught. 

You notice how careful I have been in my use of verbs: imagine, suspect, think, suppose. That is because no matter how well we may think we know the people of the past, to attribute ideas and sentiments to them is a risky business. We may have good grounds for thinking as we do, but we do not have certainty. That applies as much to the present as to the past, though most of us forget that when we use social media!

One of the things that has always attracted me to Cluny is precisely that element of not knowing everything, of being ready to let God be God in all things, while still being firm and clear about the values we hold. By a happy co-incidence, today we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the kind of person the abbot should be, RB 2. May I suggest it has something to teach us all? Something the holy abbots of Cluny grasped very well.

N.B. If this post is not to your taste, you will find at least five more on the holy abbots of Cluny in this blog.

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Easter Wednesday 2021

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus: Provenance unknown, possibly from York

There are a number of dream-like elements in Luke”s account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). A stranger suddenly joins the disciples as they trudge wearily along. Something stops them recognizing him, just as something stopped Mary Magdalene recognizing him in yesterday’s gospel. Even Jesus’ questions and explanations of scripture leave them unable to make the connection. At table the stranger takes on the role of host, breaks bread and shares it with them. The evangelist goes on to say

And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’  They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.

The disciples are not permitted to linger in the presence of the Lord, any more than Mary was, but must proclaim the resurrection. Jesus, too, is not to linger with the disciples, though his mission is more hidden and will not be complete until he has returned to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit (cf John 16.5-16). That is clear enough, but why this mystery, what I have called the dream-like elements in the story?

I think myself it is not only extremely good story-telling, which makes a profound impact on the listener, it is also a way of making us aware of the change the resurrection has wrought. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The newness of life we celebrate takes us where we have never been before. It transforms everything, even the old and familiar. In other words, what the disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus and at table with their mysterious guest is an experience every Christian shares: an invitation to share in the life of God himself. As the priest prays whenever Mass is celebrated, ‘May we become sharers in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Amen. Alleluia.

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The Perils of Good Advice

We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.

Spiritual Advice

I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.

Classical Monasticism

Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.

A Warning

Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!

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Quoting Out of Context

We all love to quote, especially if by doing so we can suggest a whole chain of allusions and dress ourselves in borrowed plumes of learning and wit. Unfortunately, it can also be a little dangerous. Quoting out of context can sometimes lead to serious misunderstandings or a complete perversion of what the original author intended. I’ve been guilty of that myself, and suffered from it happening to me at times. I’m sure it’s also true of anyone reading this. We register the fact, but do we always register its significance?

Take the liturgy, for example. Advent presents us with a carefully-crafted thematic series of readings from which we can derive a much deeper understanding of what salvation means, but if we don’t read round the texts, so to say, we can miss much more. When people ask how to read the psalter, for instance, I often give them the psalm scheme we use in the Divine Office (150 psalms in the course of a week), then urge then to realise that the psalter is already an arranged book. To understand one particular psalm it helps to read those that precede and follow. It is the same with the Mass readings. Gospel passages read in context often have a sightly different emphasis from the one we assume when we hear them proclaimed at the ambo.

Of course, my point about quoting out of context has a much wider application than the liturgy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how easy it is for those of us who are not medically qualified or trained in the use of statistics to misinterpret the arguments of others and advance as fact what is actually a matter of opinion. In my view, the UK Government hasn’t helped with its frequent claims to be ‘following the science’ when it clearly has not recognized that ‘science’ doesn’t usually achieve a consensus all at once, nor is it necessarily infallible. Those of us who are not constitutional lawyers may have unintentionally taken sides in the dispute about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election without realising that opinion, by itself, is not sufficient justification for a course of action with definite, legal consequences. Those of us brave enough — or should I say bold enough — to plunge again into the muddy waters of the Brexit debate may rue the day when arguments were reduced to slogans and some very dodgy claims made about predictable/unpredictable outcomes.

Does this matter? Surely we all have a right to our opinions and their free expression? Yes, we do; but, as with any right, there is a responsibility attached, too. We may think of ourselves as insignificant but each of us has a role to play in forming public opinion, especially if we are users of social media and the like. We have a duty to ensure that our opinions are based on as thorough an appraisal of the arguments as we can make. That means careful listening, careful reading and careful expression in contexts where we may influence others. I can cheerfully go on proclaiming that the PBGV is the best breed of dog in the world (a highly subjective opinion, not to be uttered in the presence of Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, and one that only other PBGV devotees will take seriously) but I would do well to be more cautious in expressing my views on racial injustice or the ethics of using certain technologies. That is not because my opinion does not matter, but because these are matters of great importance and should be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

Already some are arguing that any COVID-19 vaccine which incorporates matter derived from aborted embryos cannot be used, citing as proof the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. That is to disregard or ignore an important clarification issued some years ago which states that, while it is preferable not to incorporate such tissue, it is permissible to use such vaccines where there is a grave risk to health. (For a summary of some of the arguments and relevant documents, see this article by Deacon Greg Kandra: https://is.gd/AwgY7T). Even as we try to be quieter during Advent, it seems we may need to speak out, providing context as well as memorable quotes. We await the coming of the Word at Christmas, so how could we be indifferent to the way we use words every day?

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St Catherine of Alexandria and the Language of Sainthood

St Catherine of Alexandria

St Catherine of Alexandria is no longer as fashionable a saint as she was in the Middle Ages, when she gave her name to colleges in Oxford and Cambridge and appeared in rood screens and stained glass windows of dazzling beauty. I think that rather gives the lie to the notion that the Middle Ages were a benighted backwater in our history, full of the worst kind of patriarchy. Catherine was admired for standing up to the emperor Maxentius and his abuse of power, even though it led to her torture and execution. She was seen for what she was — a brave woman, supremely confident in her faith — and revered for that. The artist who painted the scene above certainly managed to capture both Catherine’s confidence and the emperor’s discomfort. He may have thought he had won by having her executed, but she was the true victor in the contest.

Sometimes the language we use reveals more than we think it does. For example, when we speak of emigrants, exiles and ex-pats, we may be referring to the same people, but our language suggests a different stance towards them. Emigrant is a fairly neutral term for those who have chosen to leave their homeland, usually in search of a better life. When they arrive in their hoped-for new country, they are transformed into immigrants, which is not always so neutral; but if they are lucky enough to have sufficient wealth at their disposal, they are, of course, ex-pats. If they left their homeland as result of force majeure or under circumstances we think tragic, they are exiles. This simple illustration may help to explain something I find odd about the way Catherine of Alexandria is perceived today.

The language of hagiography has several themes, and in the case of women saints, the rigid categorisation into virgins, widows and martyrs (which has left the married in what used to be known, deplorably, as nec, nec). In the case of Catherine of Alexandria, I think I detect something of a shift in the language used about her which indicates why she is less popular now than she once was. We have become nervous about the historicity of her legend, so the fact of her martyrdom is glossed over. She has been downgraded, so to say, from a woman who spoke her mind and paid the price for it, a martyr saint, to one of those countless virgins who sing the praises of God but don’t, apparently, do much else. Her life on earth may still be described as exile from heaven but it has lost much of its original vigour.

It would be good to recover the sense of Catherine of Alexandria as a martyr, someone who stood up to the abuse of power, a worthy role model for men and women everywhere. What do you think?

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