Feasting, Fasting and Good Nutritional Balance Online

We have probably all been shocked by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, people squabbling over packets of loo rolls or loading impossibly large amounts of food and drink into the back of their cars, not to mention the heart-wrenching photos of an elderly man or woman standing forlorn in the midst of the chaos, shopping-list and empty basket in hand. It has been a powerful reminder of how selfish we can be, how easily we return to the law of the jungle — only it isn’t the law of the jungle, but something much worse. It is the law of fear and anxiety. We are afraid that we might have to go without; afraid that there might not be enough to go round; afraid of a future we thought we could predict and control but now find we can’t. What we have been seeing is literally panic rather than panic-buying. The results are the same, but the origins lie deeper and are less susceptible of rational control.

We, of course, do not panic. In fact, we are inclined to take a rather severe view of those who do. So, instead, we tell stories of acts of unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness — strangers sharing scarce items, neighbours offering help or leaving little gifts anonymously, postcards through the letterbox to ensure that people know whom to contact in case of need. It is all heartening and reassuring of the decency of the majority of our fellow human beings. We smile over the jokes and clever memes on social media, enjoy clips of the balcony performances of opera singers, and share links to enchanting Youtube videos intended to keep our spirits up. The religiously-minded rush to Zoom and other platforms to maintain contact and provide cyber-worship while we all become a little starry-eyed over the possibilities opening up to us. Then a bubble-buster comes along with an inconvenient question. Is it possible to be a ‘panic-buyer’ in cyberspace as well as in a supermarket? Is there such a thing as feasting, fasting and maintaining a healthy nutritional balance online? I think the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

If, like us, you live in a rural area, where the Broadband service is at best slow and at worst patchy or non-existent, you will understand the point I’m making more easily than if you live where blistering upload and download speeds are obtainable. Access to the internet is a resource like any other. Over the next few weeks and months it is likely that demand will go up hugely — just think of all those educational establishments taking classes online, for example. It is to be hoped that supply will be able to keep up. Even so, we know that there is an ecological cost involved, and that streaming video and audio uses more energy than other uses of the internet — about 50% of the total before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, there is more to be thought about than just, can we do something. The question is, should we do something?

That is one of the reasons we ourselves have decided not to add to the amount of religious audio or video being put online at the moment (there’s still quite a lot available on our main site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) and why we don’t often listen to, or view, the contributions of others (another is the need for silence and recollection in the monastery, which we protect as well as we can).

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of our (your) own internet usage in terms of feasting, fasting and maintaining nutritional balance. I myself think that the internet is a great way for those finding the isolation imposed by COVID-19 difficult to keep in touch with others and maintain some sense of normality, including, for many, worship. That I would liken to maintaining nutritional balance and good health. I also think it is a great resource for learning, dealing with boredom, and stretching the imagination. It can be glorious fun. That I would liken to feasting. And fasting? That is where discernment comes in. For example, I don’t think it necessary for us to add to our online engagement at present, and I don’t think that every parish, congregation or community needs to livestream everything every day. Nor do I think it quite in keeping with Lent to be spending unlimited amounts of time online (in the monastery we actually have rules about that, so it is easier for us to maintain some restraint). But that’s just me and the community here.

I’d be interested to know what you think.

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Three Types of Valour

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

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

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

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

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

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Repentance v. Remorse

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

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

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

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Fallen Heroes | Jean Vanier

The news that an internal investigation by l’Arche International has concluded that its late founder, Jean Vanier, sexually abused at least six women and was an associate of the disgraced priest, Thomas Phlippe, has been met with horror and profound sadness. 

The horror is because we have yet another revelation of abuse in the Catholic Church by someone whose work for the disabled made him a hero to many. But there have been so many such revelations that even as we register the terrible sin, we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief: the abuser was a layman, not a priest or religious; none of the abused was a child or disabled. How easily we forget what a dreadful experience it must have been for those who were abused and how they are condemned to live with its consequences for the rest of their lives. Have we become so accustomed to cases of abuse that we no longer see them for what they really are but try to find ways of downplaying their significance or arguing for a ‘less worse’ scenario? The most we can say is that l’Arche itself seems to have acted with commendable frankness and transparency, but facts remain facts. Jean Vanier’s name has been tarnished for ever. He is a hero no more; the halo has slipped.

I think that is why the news has also been greeted with more than ordinary sadness. Despite the abuse, Vanier did a lot of good — more than most of us will achieve in our lifetimes. We need to remember that, as well as the bad things; but, of course, we want our heroes to be flawless, and in the Catholic Church we are keen to make saints of our heroes. When we see they are neither, we are disappointed, maybe even feel a little foolish. I was once at a meeting where Jean Vanier spoke. What he said was inspiring, but I felt uncomfortable at the way he was being treated. At any moment, I thought, someone is going to genuflect before him. Happily, no-one did, but it was clear that no-one was going to challenge anything he said, either. Every word was received as incontrovertible wisdom. The sense of santo subito in the room was palpable.

Where does all that leave us now? In community we shall be praying, first and foremost, for those who have been abused; for l’Arche, its communities and supporters as they face the fall-out from the report; for forgiveness for Jean Vanier himself; and for ourselves and all who admired the work Jean Vanier did. That last may surprise you, but I think that in mourning his fall from grace and the suffering inflicted on others by his actions, we are also mourning for ourselves. We have lost an icon and our trust has been dented. More than that, we have been confronted with something we usually prefer not to admit or have difficulty fully understanding. We, like him, are a mixture of good and bad. We hope the good outweighs the bad, but sin is a brutal fact in our lives which Lent will bring into sharp focus. We may like to think we would never murder anyone, commit abuse or steal, but we are all capable of evil and can never be sure that we won’t fall into sin — especially those sins we like to think we are safe from.

Sunday’s Mass readings (Leviticus 19. 1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3. 16–23; Matthew 5. 38–48) speak to us of the holiness of God, the sacredness of the human body, and our need to emulate God’s love and compassion. There is more than enough there for us to reflect on and to stimulate prayer for forgiveness and healing. They seem to me to encapsulate Jean Vanier’s vision for l’Arche and for a more compassionate society. It would be a tragedy if, because of the hurt that has been done and the scandal now attaching to his name, the work of l’Arche were to be discredited and more were to suffer. Let’s pray it may not be so.

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Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.

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Moonlight and Roses

The Rose of Sharon
The Rose of Sharon

Today the Catholic Church celebrates SS Cyril and Methodius while the rest of the world, or so it seems, celebrates St Valentine or, more accurately, Valentine’s Day. I seem to have written about this far too much, but I woke up with Donne’s ‘Hail, Bishop Valentine’ running through my head, so I bow to the inevitable. Moonlight and roses you shall have.

Moonlight, first. Reflecting the light of the sun, the moon’s strange, silvery glow has always had a more feminine aspect than its more fiery counterpart, which is usually identified with masculinity and godhead. An old name for the moon is Our Lady’s Lamp. It is a name that expresses beautifully the relationship between Christ and his Church. He has no need, no desire, for any other Bride but us, but it is the whole Church that is his Bride, not any particular part of it, and we reflect, to greater or lesser degree, his love and grace. Whether we are male or female is, in this context, immaterial because the Church is always feminine before God.

And roses? Again it is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary that comes into view. She is the biblical Rose of Sharon (Song of Songs, 2.1), the purple and white flowers St Bernard identifies with humility (purple) and purity (white), the rosa mystica of which the Litany of Loretto sings and of whom St John Henry Newman writes

Mary is the most beautiful flower ever seen in the spiritual world. It is by the power of God’s grace that from this barren and desolate earth there ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory; and Mary is the Queen of them all. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore, is called the Rose, for the rose is called of all flowers the most beautiful. But, moreover, she is the Mystical or Hidden Rose, for mystical means hidden.

From ‘Meditations and Devotions’ published 1893.

The beauty of the rose, the loveliness of the moon, and both can be applied to us! Today, we celebrate the fact that we are God’s valentine, loved infinitely and tenderly, and we are privileged to reflect back some of that same love with our own love and devotion. Whatever our state in life, whether we be single, married, widowed or consecrated, we can take Mary as a model of loving fidelity and generosity. Obscure and of no account in our own eyes we may be, but to God we are his very heaven.

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Recognizing a Prophet

Prophets do not make the easiest of companions. They tend to say and do things that make us uncomfortable and can sometimes be downright alarming. They see what we don’t. Unfortunately, those who claim to be prophets are often no such thing; but we can be taken in for a while because, deep down, we want to be reassured we have a guide, a way of accessing that which is beyond us with a certainty that removes the possibility of risk and failure. We talk about applying the Gamaliel principle but in practice rarely do. If the prophet speaks attractively or acts in a way that we approve, our judgement goes out of the window and we hail the saviour of the hour.

I exaggerate, of course, but there is an element of truth in that first paragraph. Whenever a cause becomes fashionable, our celebrity culture requires individuals to latch onto it and prove their wokeness by dragging the subject into every speech they make, every interview they give, every tweet they inflict on an adoring public. The original prophetic vision becomes distorted or is forgotten. Who now remembers how The Silent Spring changed the way many of us think about the world in which we live and our responsibility for what happens here?

It is the same with Christianity. In the Catholic Church, for example, there are currently a number of battles raging, with the champions being hailed as prophets by those dazzled by what they see. But what do they see? In some cases, I suspect it is a cracked reflection of their (our) own prejudices and preferences, given legitimacy by being associated with someone we regard as a prophet. Instead of taking responsibility ourselves, we prefer to rely on another’s vision and articulation of something we think important or necessary. It is a kind of vicarious faith that has little substance to it.

Today’s gospel (Mark 6. 1–6) confronts us with the question of how we recognize a genuine prophet. What is necessary in us, rather than in the prophet him/herself? From Jesus’ words we gather that a genuine prophet can only be recognized if we ourselves have a living faith — we cannot have what I called a vicarious faith. No one can believe for us. Maybe that is why recognizing a real prophet is so difficult. It is not just what they say and do that matters but what we say and do. To attain the clarity of vision we need, we have to be living the life of faith in all its fullness. Perhaps, instead of looking for prophets and guides outside, we should turn our gaze more inwards and consider what we find there. Only in that way can we hope to recognize the true prophets of our own day and respond to their message when it comes. As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, we must always be on the alert for God’s word and none of us knows in advance how it will come to us today or any day.

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Brexit Day 2020

Diego Velazquez : Public Domain

Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent with the U.K. trying to become a member of what was then called the Common Market and protesting vociferously whenever General de Gaulle said ‘Non’ — which was often. Much of my adulthood has been accompanied by seemingly endless arguments about fisheries, agriculture and ‘Brussels bureaucracy,’ with several attempts by British politicians to renegotiate terms. Today, after a lot of shouting, the U.K. is leaving what we now know as the European Union. Some are waving Union flags; others are dressing in sackcloth and ashes. With my unique talent for annoying everyone, whatever ‘side’ they are on, I give my own personal view of the matter.* Today is the day the U.K. reaffirms its status as a protestant nation, distrustful of what lies across the water; and I reaffirm my catholic and Benedictine identity as a member of something bigger and more important than the modern nation state or even the E.U. itself.

Tonight, at eleven o’clock, therefore, I shall be in the monastery chapel, giving thanks for all the good things our membership of the E.U. has brought; asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted by our choosing to exit the E.U.; and praying for wisdom and right judgement for everyone in the post-Brexit future. You will notice that sentence does not limit itself to consideration of the U.K. or E.U. alone. So much of the political and economic discussion in the last few years has been on the level of ‘what I think is best for us,’ where ‘us’ is narrowly defined. I do not think we have always done that, and I take heart from two things that we may not always do so in the future.

The first is very personal. My father’s war service made him an ardent Europeanist; the breaking-up of the British empire made him an ardent champion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. In the later years of his life he returned to the Catholicism of his forebears on the grounds that it was the only form of Christianity corresponding to his world view. It was, as he once remarked to me, ‘big enough.’ How we regain that larger vision, I do not know; but I am convinced that our interdependence as a world will eventually lead to a re-thinking of our alliances. Either that, or we shall destroy ourselves and the planet on which we live.

The second will strike many as a little recondite, even subversive. The number-plate on our car bears the E.U. symbol of a blue flag with twelve golden stars arranged in a circle. I cannot look at it without thinking of the twelve golden stars arranged in a circlet around the head of Our Lady (cf Revelation 12.1). I am convinced that God has his own way of dealing with things and is particularly good at dealing with our failures and disappointments. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and be prepared to do whatever he asks. When Mary told the servants at Cana to do that, water was turned into wine. Those shedding tears of grief today may find them turned into tears of joy tomorrow. May God bless everyone, whether for or against membership of the E.U., and help us all to work for a better future for the world.

*The community has no particular view. I stress that this is my own view.

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The Conversion of St Paul (Again)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1)

Caravaggio’s depiction of the conversion of St Paul is probably one of the best-known paintings of all time, but if you sift through the hundreds of images of it posted online you will notice how much variation there is in the colours and general ‘look’ of the painting. To an ex-printer like me, that comes as no surprise: cameras and monitors introduce an infinite number of small distortions, to say nothing of the different ways we, as individuals, perceive things, especially when we look at them from different angles or in different lights. Instead of dismissing that as ‘just one of those things’, perhaps we can use it as a way of understanding something much harder to put into words.

The longest, loneliest journey Saul of Tarsus ever made was from just outside Damascus, where he was blinded by the light of Christ, to the house of Ananias where his sight was restored and he received his mission to serve. He had been a good man before his conversion but he became a better one after, when he saw that his persecution of followers of The Way had been wrong and he realised that zeal alone is not enough. There must be love and compassion, too. His life henceforth was to be one of ever-expanding knowledge and love of Christ, which meant an ever-expanding love of members of the church. It meant a change of perspective, a re-assessment of values, hard work and sacrifice along with unexpected rewards.

We often forget that Paul grew in grace and understanding, just as our Lord Jesus Christ did and as we ourselves must. As the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end, we may be feeling a little disappointed. There may not have been any major break-throughs. In some places, there may not have been any very obvious efforts to come together in any significant way. We have been too occupied with our own problems or those of the denomination to which we belong.

Perhaps we can take comfort, in the sense of drawing strength and inspiration, from the way in which Caravaggio portrays the moment of the saint’s conversion. All is glare, shock. Saul has been thrown from his horse, blinded, felt condemnation in the voice he hears. But he consents to be led by the hand into the city, where he will become Paul. Becoming fully Paul will take the rest of his life. We see how it works out in the letters he wrote to the young churches and in what we can glean from the Acts of the Apostles. Our work for the unity of Christians will follow the same pattern. We must allow ourselves to be shocked into awareness of the importance of unity and be led by the Spirit into whatever it is God desires for his Church. We do not have answers yet. We do not even have the right questions. But if we do not deliberately place any obstacles in God’s way, we can be quite sure that one day what God desires will come about.

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A Word Fitly Spoken

‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). St Francis de Sales, the Catholic bishop of Geneva and patron saint of writers and journalists (and nowadays, surely, of bloggers, commentators and opinion-makers also) seems to have understood that very well. His courtesy was legendary, but there was nothing complicated about it. He wished to win others to Christ and saw that ‘whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love’. That didn’t mean that he watered down what he believed or that he endorsed views or actions he thought wrong, but he was never one to refuse to engage with those who thought or taught differently. On the contrary, he took more trouble than might have been expected to try to understand those whose opinions or beliefs differed from his. He recognized their goodwill and regarded dialogue as preferable to condemnation, convinced, as he was, that holiness was for everyone, not just ‘professional religious’ like monks and nuns.

We are almost at the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the questions we are asked to consider today is how we tackle prejudice and exclusion in ourselves and in our communities. I think St Francis de Sales, with his gentleness and love for others, has something to teach us all. In the seventeenth century, D. Prudentiana Deacon, a nun of Brussels sent to help the young Benedictine community at Cambrai, obviously thought so, too, for she translated some of his work into English. At first sight, St Francis de Sales is the antithesis of of Fr Augustine Baker, then vicarius of the monastery, and a great exponent of the medieval mystical tradition. A little thought, however, will soon show how wrong that is. Those who truly seek God in prayer cannot but love all his children; and those who love the children must surely seek to deepen their love for the Father.

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