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?
My American friends know that I often find U.S. politics bewildering, especially the way in which party politics and religion seem to intertwine. In this country, I think most priests and consecrated persons are careful to observe the party neutrality the Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins and are often perplexed by its absence among some in the States. That said, it is important that everyone should think about the moral and socio-economic issues involved in making political choices. The religiously-inlined will always look to their pastors and those they think of as having particular expertise for help in making such choices. But what is the point at which shared reflection and attempts at guidance become electioneering, i.e. urging others to vote for this person rather than that, for one party rather than another? It is a difficult line to tread, especially as I think most Americans are much more ‘definite’ in the expression of opinion than the British are.
As we pray for all those involved in the American presidential election, I suggest we should reserve a special place in our prayers for priests and consecrated persons, that what they say and do may be in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In saying that, I don’t want to open this post up to a political ding-dong. The only way I know of letting the Holy Spirit into a situation is to be quiet and listen — never easy for any of us.
Not Forgetting Shanah Tovah to all our Jewish friends, and many thanks to all who have supported Buy a Nun a Book Day!
This will be a short post, I promise, and it is one I never thought I’d write. I’ve been following in a half-hearted way the debate about the Scottish hierarchy’s approval of the English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) bible for the publication of its new lectionary. As someone who prays a lengthy monastic Divine Office in Latin and English each day and has, in the past, done a bit of liturgical translation (more from Latin than from Greek and only once from Hebrew), you will understand that I notice liturgical language. I care about language in general but especially the language we use in prayer. I don’t claim to be a good writer myself, but I do try to convey meaning as clearly and effectively as I can. That is why you will occasionally come across a flight of fancy or purple passage that I hope will add something to the words on the page, conveying a nuance or level of meaning, hint at a beauty or truth, that would otherwise not be there. When translating a text, however, more restraint is required. The text is what matters, and it is the translator’s duty to try to convey its meaning as fully as possible, without getting in the way of the original author. Translation, therefore, especially of liturgical texts, requires thought and prayer as well as scholarship. It also requires awareness of how the text will be used and by whom.
This morning I happened upon an online discussion that made me realise, to a degree I never have before, that just as a woman can never know what it is like to be a man, no man can ever know what it is like to be a woman. To have dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ the effect of hearing the scriptures proclaimed in an exclusively masculine voice is something I think only a woman can really understand. I am not, and never have been, one of those who want to force the language of scripture into politically correct channels but I have been saddened by the proposed introduction of gendered language where it is unnecessary and where, for many years, we have been accustomed to a more neutral or inclusive rendering. If you do a google search, you will find there are several articles discussing this matter, all of them illustrated with examples the writer finds telling, on both sides of the debate.
The Scottish bishops have shown that any consideration of the sensitivities of women is not up for discussion, even if that leads to questionable accuracy in translation at times. There is nothing I can do about that. But it does leave me wondering why those praying the Magnificat in English find the old Latin phrase, ancilla Domini, which means ‘handmaid of the Lord’ and is an undeniably feminine form, translated as ‘servant of the Lord’*. That could refer to either sex. Do the sensitivities work in one direction only? If so, perhaps a re-think would be in order. Please.
*In the Roman Liturgy of the Hours, which is not the work of the Scottish bishops, but will be familiar to many.
You might think that, in my line of business, I would like ‘religious’ people (please note the inverted commas). The truth is, I have five reasons to dislike them. Here they are:
1. ‘Religious’ people are always right
2. They know God thinks exactly as they do
from which it follows that
3. They are happy, indeed specially qualified, to give everyone the benefit of their advice
which, because of 1 and 2, means
4. They may deliver their opinions/advice as unceremoniously as possible
with the result that often
5. They condemn others, frequently quite nastily.
This is, of course, a parody of true religion, but I think you will find it quite prevalent in the world today, whether the religion in question be Catholicism, Humanism or any other -ism. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking our own opinion universally valid and that it entitles us to behaviour completely at odds with the values we say we hold. Catholics who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching while sniping at everyone they disapprove of; intellectuals who ridicule the arguments of others instead of engaging with them; those who seek to eliminate racism while maintaining anti-semitic attitudes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can apply misplaced zeal to the questions of the day. I call it ‘religious’ because of the intensity with which the views are held. They bind the holder, whereas true religion sets free. There is no fear in true religion, no desire to score points, no wish to force the other to believe as we do (sorry, Augustine), just a desire to share the blessings we enjoy ourselves.
For a Christian, that means trying to win others for Christ by leading them to experience of him, not brow-beating them into submission. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was argued into belief, although I have met many who struggled to find the right spiritual home, as it were. It is not that kind of debate or exploration I am talking about but the more aggressive ‘I’m right; you’re wrong’ approach.
During the last few months, when lockdown restrictions have limited access to public worship and the sacraments, it has been sad to see how selfish and sometimes petty some of the online arguments have become. The Mass is so much more important than whether I myself can attend or not; reverence means so much more than whether one receives Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. St Laurence, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the Church’s treasure, he did not hesitate. He sought out the poor, recognizing in them the lineaments of the Master or, as Hopkins would say,
The supreme norm of religious life, as of Christian life, is charity, yet how often that is forgotten in the rush to argue, debate and make one’s own opinion triumph over others’. Thankfully, most of the religious I know are too busy trying to love God and their neighbour to want to waste time scoring points or deluding themselves that God sees everything and everyone as they do. Benedictines, in particular, are well aware that it is not only what we say or do but how we say or do it that matters. Again and again, the Rule reminds us of the importance of reverence for other people, of weighing our words, of listening carefully before we speak. I attribute that to Benedict’s concern for the holiness of the community. He didn’t play the numbers game. He didn’t specify a complicated or expensive habit (the clothes of the monastery should fit the wearer, he says, but he leaves the abbot a lot of discretion about what can be had locally). Although he wanted his monks to have everything they needed in the enclosure, that was because he didn’t want them wandering about to the detriment of their souls. It is holiness, closeness to God, that matters to Benedict, as it matters to his followers today.
Most of the time our search for God is carried out in a kind of ‘unknowing’, following the monastic routine with no great highs or lows. We trust the Rule, our superior and our brethren to help us on our way. Just occasionally, we may be allowed a glimpse of God in prayer that transforms everything. Whenever I see any of those beautiful photographs of earth seen from space, I think of Benedict’s vision of the whole world. According to St Gregory, Benedict was allowed to see creation as God sees it. To see as God sees, what could be more wonderful, more humbling, than that? Even the thought of it leaves me at a loss for words — and perhaps that is the point.
One of the most popular features of our web sites has been our Prayerline. It enables people to ask for prayer at any hour of the day or night by means of filling in a simple form. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and we have been touched and humbled by the trust many have shown in sharing their concerns.
Over time, however, and increasingly frequently since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have noticed that more and more people are choosing to telephone their requests or send emails to some of the monastery email accounts we use for business purposes or don’t monitor in the same way we do the Prayerline. We want to make sure your requests get through, so we have been trialling a voicemail/SMS addition to the online Prayerline. It has worked well so far. Consequently, from today, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, there are now five ways of asking the nuns to pray for you:
send a request via one of the dedicated Prayerline contact forms on our web sites, e.g. https://is.gd/7eiPWk;
telephone our Prayerline voicemail on +44 (0)7434 626951 and leave a message — this is a UK number and your usual service provider charges will apply;
text +44 (0)7434 626951 with your request — this is a UK number and your usual service provider charges will apply;
write by snailmail, but please don’t expect us to reply or enter into correspondence with you. We will certainly pray, but we are physically unable to keep up with all the letters and emails we receive.
We hope this will make things easier for everyone. We are also experimenting with making some spiritual content available over the telephone for those who don’t have access to the internet. It is early days yet, but the results look promising.
Many clergy will be preaching about the Holy Eucharist in their live-streamed worship today, and I don’t think I can add anything useful, given the fact that the majority of the faithful in England and Wales won’t be able to attend Mass or receive Holy Communion. However, this extract from an old blog post may act as a reminder to those of us who can’t attend Mass today that prayer must always have a Eucharistic context even if we are not physically in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament:
An austerely Protestant friend once confided to me that she didn’t really ‘get’ the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Two things in particular bothered her. One was the Church’s refusal to open reception of the sacrament to all Trinitarian Christians as her own denomination did, and the other was Catholic devotion to the reserved sacrament. She had been to Spain and been rather aghast at a Corpus Christi procession and the way in which people flopped to their knees as the priest passed by under a canopy of white silk, holding ‘some great gold thinggy in his hands’. I tried to explain.
Catholics have a very high doctrine of the Eucharist. We believe that it is much more than a memorial meal. It is a sacrifice, one with the sacrifice of Calvary. Bread and wine are transformed by the action of the priest into the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour, and it is necessary to share the faith of the Church in order to share in the sacrament. This did not satisfy her, nor did my patient offering of all the relevant numbers in the Catechism, Dominus Est and so on. I had slightly more success when I read through the Eucharistic Prayers with her and threw in some little tidbits of history and theology from Jungmann and others. However, it was when we went into a nearby Catholic church during Adoration that light began to dawn.
The sight of many people kneeling in silent prayer before the Host in the monstrance affected my friend profoundly. The candles, the flowers, the faint smell of incense probably helped, too; but it was the prayer and the depth of the silence that moved her most. That wasn’t faked; it wasn’t in any way exclusionary; it was simply a group of people united in their love of the Lord, kneeling before him and listening.
Too much togetherness or too much distance often leads to the same thing: a broken relationship. Sometimes the break is temporary, sometimes permanent, and it is not for the outsider to judge or apportion blame. The world’s current experience of lockdown is placing new strains on many, but seventeen hundred years ago an ex-soldier and convert from paganism to Christianity named Pachomius introduced something novel into the life of desert ascetics who were physically or temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life: coenobitic monasticism. He grouped his monks into communities and provided common buildings for their use, with a rule of life based largely on the prayers they were to say together. He never lost his regard for the eremitical life but fostered the development of communal endeavours and in so doing provided an alternative to the rigours of a solitary existence, with all the dangers that poses to those who are not suited to it.
I wonder if we need a new Pachomius in Church and society today? Not literally, of course, but someone who will look with clear-eyed love at the suffering of those trying to conform to a way of life that is beyond them and yet who still desire to follow Christ and to be good and useful members of society. I have a hunch that a constant watering-down of what is asked of us may not be the best way to go. Most of us like a challenge, provided we find it do-able and not completely beyond our strength. The novices of a community are usually the ones who are least attracted to adaptations of the time-table or liturgy to accommodate senior members! In society more generally, there is an impatience with lockdown restrictions that reflects the keenness of youth to be up and doing. It is how we manage this that is proving difficult.
When we turn to the Church, we face particular problems. I often wonder whether the large, expensive, and sometimes cumbersome organization we call the Church is sustainable in the future. Some would argue that the future lies in smaller, less ‘traditional’ groupings, loosely modelled on monasticism. It is well-known that I have reservations about some of the so-called ‘new’ monastic communities — some, not all, and for reasons that go to the heart of what monasticism is — but the experience of living at a time when not just I but most of the Church is effectively unable to receive the sacraments must surely demand of the pope and bishops a response we have not yet received. How do we live in a world where the old structures, the old certainties, are crumbling? We talk about the ‘new normal’ and rightly so, because the ‘old normal’ will never return. A few clergy have expressed delight that they have larger congregations for live-streamed services than they used to have in church. Will those online congregations return to the pews, or will they fade away once lockdown restrictions are removed or amended? Who knows?
Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, when all is made new. This year, perhaps more than any other in my lifetime, I shall be praying for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the great mender of broken relationships, the great builder of community. Let us never forget that and think, mistakenly, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Our hope remains high because we depend on the Spirit.
One of the ways in which I annoy my friends is by asking them not to include me in the photo- and video-sharing in which they delight. That is not asceticism as such, although anyone seriously trying to live monastic life needs to think about how they use their time, which belongs to the monastery just as much as their bodies and wills (cf RB 58.25 and passim on obedience). It is a consequence of rural broadband speeds being slow and unreliable. Those living in towns and cities tend not to be aware of the limitations this imposes. For example, all the excitement about live-streaming church services tends to become more muted where the fields and the furrows take over from the tarmac. We are resigned to blurry images and hiccuping speech. Fortunately, we no longer have to go out into the garden and climb a ladder when we want to use a mobile, but we still suffer from breaks in the signal and the frustrations that follow. What this means in practice is that our definition of ‘normal’ is different from those who enjoy faster connection speeds or the facilities of a more urban environment.
Where the Church is concerned, that is significant. It must be clear to everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for how we worship, how we celebrate the sacraments, and how we experience community; but how we interpret those consequences, and the ideas we take from them, will vary according to what is ‘normal’ for us. I wonder if that is where those who live in the countryside, whose incomes are often lower than those of town-dwellers and who have fewer choices, will lose out. If so, I think it is where the rural monastery has the possibility of a renewed flourishing. Time was when I assumed that the old ideal of a large monastery situated in the middle of nowhere, dependent on an agrarian economy, was a relic of the Victorian Gothic imagination, wholly unsuited to the world of the silicon chip. I still think the large monastery of former times is less likely, but the role of the rural monastery itself is more certain.
We think of ourselves here as small and insignificant, of no importance to the diocese and no interest to most of the people around us, but that may be to look at ourselves through the wrong end of the telescope. Here, day after day, prayer is made real; here, day after day, we try to live up to Benedict’s ideal of hospitality. Above all, the focus is not on us but on Christ; and that, surely, is where the eyes of the Church must always be. So, even if for many people living nearby their experience of church is now confined to those blurry live-streams in their living-rooms, we can say that here the Church has a living, beating heart, ready to embrace all. It may be somewhat obscure, it may not have the grandeur of the old monasteries or large public buildings we have tended to associate with the Church in the past, nor any of the silicon chip wizardry of online celebrations, but it is here. It’s normal for us. Could it become normal for others, too?
Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?
I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.
As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’.
Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?
Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.
Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends.
That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.
Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.
Today, on the third Sunday of Easter, when we read the Emmaus gospel, the vast majority of the Church will not be able to receive the Eucharist. Let that sink in for a moment. Today very few members of the Church will be able to receive holy Communion wherever they live. We are taught, correctly, that every Mass is a public Mass, even if celebrated behind closed doors with none but the priest physically present. We are also taught, correctly, that every Mass is offered for every member of the Church, as the Eucharistic Prayers make plain. Finally, we we reminded that we can make a spiritual communion when sacramental communion is impossible. I don’t dispute any of that, nor am I among those loudly lamenting not being able to attend Mass as though I, and I alone, were experiencing loss or deprivation. I know many people — priests, religious and lay — are suffering in ways none ever thought possible. But it must be evident to everyone that the current lockdown and all that flows from it poses some important questions of ecclesiology, i.e. what we mean and understand by the word ‘church’.
A number of theologians have argued, in some cases for years, that online Communion should be possible. I don’t see how that could ever be squared with a Catholic understanding of the sacraments so it forms no part of my question here. And I have only a question, not an answer, but I believe it is important because its implications stretch much further than lockdown. Is the present situation, where, by and large, the Eucharist is the preserve of only one part of the Church, viz. priests and a few religious communities with a resident chaplain, right? Are we really being what the Lord intends? I have always been struck by the fact that Cleopas and his companion recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, not during his long exposition of the scriptures. The celebration of the Eucharist and the sharing of Communion was the essential moment of disclosure, recognition and union.
The Church rightly regards the Eucharist as a great treasure and sets many rules and regulations to guard it from profanation or misuse. At the same time, what is more vulnerable, more open to being treated casually or disrespectfully, than a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, the very things the Lord chose to give himself to us? How do we reconcile the desire to ensure that the Eucharist is treated with love and reverence and the desire that it should do what it is intended to do, constitute the Body of Christ?
I don’t know the answer, as I said, but this Sunday, amid the busyness of live-streaming services, adding extra prayers to the Rosary and what you will, I hope we will all take a few moments to think about the nature of the Church, the role of the Eucharist, and our need for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I sense we are at a kind of ecclesiological cross-roads — which is not a bad metaphor for an Emmaus moment, is it?