On Not Being Catholic Enough

Our retreat ended yesterday evening, so this morning I have begun the process of catching up. One of the first things I did was to run through some of the comments/prayer requests on our Facebook page. One in particular caught my eye. A reader questioned why we prayed about climate change (in connection with Friday’s protests) but did not add a prayer for the conversion of all to the one, true Catholic faith. I suspect that our answer, that we try with our daily, public prayer intentions to encourage a Christian perspective on what is currently engaging people of all faiths or none, will not have been found very satisfactory. Even the addition, that we have sometimes had to ask people to ensure that what they post in response is consistent with Catholic faith and practice (no arguing about Eucharistic theology or abortion on the prayer page, for example), may not have helped. I feel confident that our reader is sincere and genuinely puzzled, but I am not sure how best to answer the underlying question, which is how we should express our Catholicism publicly in such places as our prayer page.

One of the difficulties we encounter here at the monastery is that every Catholic tends to have an opinion about what other Catholics should believe and how they should behave — and we don’t always meet the mark. I defy anyone to say that we are not orthodox in our beliefs, but for some the authentic test of Catholicism is located somewhere else, in Eucharistic Adoration or saying the Rosary, for example. In vain do we protest that, as Benedictines, not only are we pre-Eucharistic Adoration and pre-Rosary, and have such a strong sense of the Eucharistic centre of our lives and the importance of Our Lady, that we don’t find either devotion necessary. The Divine Office, the practice of lectio divina and our personal prayer in the Bakerite tradition suffice. That is the living tradition of our monastic heritage. It is gospel spirituality, if you like, and one reason why I think we can be open to the graces and insights of other Christian traditions without sacrificing or playing down the uniqueness of our own; but for some it simply means that we aren’t Catholic enough.

I think I can live with that, but it still leaves unanswered the question about how we should express our Catholicism. We pray daily for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all our doings, but that is no guarantee that we always ‘get it right’. In fact, I agree more and more with Fr Jean Leclercq (a great Benedictine) that there are mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us make. I have never made any secret of the fact that I personally would love everyone to know the joy of believing, but God seems to have his own ideas about that, and I, for one, am content that he should do things his own way and in his own time. The role of a monastic community is unspectacular: to be responsive to God and walk humbly before him, to be followers, not leaders. If, in so doing, we can encourage others, that is all to the good. We may not be Catholic enough for some, but I would argue that the essence of Catholicism is to place God first and to be compassionate and merciful to all, not with our own love but with his. It is sobering, and heartening, to realise that we shall never look into the eyes of anyone God has not first loved and willed to be redeemed. Perhaps that is something we all need to hear.

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The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

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Foundation Day 2019

Founding members of Holy Trinity Monastery
Founding members of Holy Trinity Monastery

I am writing this in advance of the fifteenth anniversary of our canonical Foundation as I doubt whether I shall be able to string two sentences together on that day because of the usual ‘chemo cosh’.

What does a Foundation Day signify? In the first place, it marks a new and definitive stage in a community’s growth. It is the Church’s official seal on, and recognition of, the community, conferring both rights and duties which are carefully spelled out in canon law and in the constitutions of the monastery itself. In the second place, I think it marks an important development in the life of the individual.

Earlier this week I touched on the individuality of the call to become a Benedictine, and I hope in a few days to be able to reflect on the communal aspect of the way in which that call is worked out. This morning, however, I want to emphasize that being formally incorporated into the Church as what canon law calls a ‘religious institute’ makes a difference to the individual as well. We follow the gospel and the Rule of St Benedict as we always have, or tried to, but our canonical status affects the form in which these are interpreted and the sanctions that may be applied if we fail. Our constitutions bind us as individuals, not just as a community, to interpret our obligations in a way that can, at times, be challenging. You have only to think of how difficult some contemplative communities of nuns are finding the new requirement that formation last for a minimum of nine years and what it must mean for the individuals it affects most directly. I could multiply examples, but that isn’t my purpose.

What I think is clear is that a Foundation Day is not merely for looking back on the past with gratitude and, where appropriate, sorrow and repentance for any failures we may be aware of; nor is it a case of rejoicing in the graces of the present or expressing hopes for the future. Of course we pray for the well-being of the resident community itself, our oblates, friends, benefactors and online community. Of course we pray for renewed fervour and zeal, for everything that will make us better Benedictines and more pleasing to God. But ultimately that commitment comes down to the individual’s readiness to make the community’s life her own; to kneel before God many times every day and reaffirm the commitment to follow the Lord wherever he leads; to be what Benedict calls a utilis frater, a reliable brother or sister (RB 7.18), who prefers nothing to the love of Christ. (RB 4. 21) Please pray for us as we do for you.

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What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

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The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.

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Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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Vocations Crisis? What Crisis?

Recently, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Benedictine, I was told it was all right to blog about Easter and so on but better to stay off controversial subjects. Taken out of context, the remark might have seemed dismissive or even patronising. It wasn’t, but it has encouraged me to try to re-think how we approach the idea of vocation in the Church. Do we play safe and spiritualise it so that God does everything and the human person involved is reduced to a mere cypher? Or do we forget God entirely and concentrate on the human person so much that we become mired in an unhelpful kind of ‘vocational psychology’ that leads nowhere? Is there a way of reconciling the two, so that we are honest about the dynamic of vocation, not as it was in the past or as it might be in the future, but as it is now in 2019, with all that that implies?

I’ve written so much about vocation over the years that it is plain where I stand. Of course God takes the initiative, but there has to be a response — and that’s where the trouble comes. No vocation, whether to marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, singlehood, or whatever, is roses and rapture all the way, nor does any vocation exist in isolation from others or from the times in which we live. To ignore the demands of a particular vocation as it is now is as misleading as failing to speak about its blessings. I wonder how many parish priests will dutifully preach about the need for more priests this morning but dodge the question of how badly the Church’s reputation has been damaged by the revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up and the difficulty of living with that. Then again, how many will dare to speak of the joy their own experience of priesthood has brought them? A loss of confidence only too easily conveys itself to others. It is there, in that loss of confidence, that I would locate any ‘crisis of vocations’ today. I think I would go further and argue that any such crisis is really of our own making. We do not quite trust God to see us through without what has become familiar to us.

Among religious, I think the loss of confidence is sometimes palpable. Communities wax and wane (not always in that order, be it noted) and it probably does not help when those who have lived a particular kind of vocation for fifty or sixty years are blithely informed that they are either not traditional enough for some or too traditional for others — ‘traditional’ being one of those words used to signify both approval and disapproval. Then again, it is easy to latch onto  one or other aspect of consecrated life and make it the be-all and end-all. Among women, the wearing or not wearing of a habit or using a particular form of prayer is sometimes used as a test of orthodoxy, with results that can be comical when not disastrous. Again, it is our unease in the face of the loss of the familar that is the problem. We know the Spirit is always doing something new, but when confronted with the new, we are apt to take fright and draw back rather than seeing it as an opportunity, a genuine turning-point (which is what a crisis is). I can only say that most communities I know are making a good attempt to be true to their calling in the Church despite the difficulties and discouragement they sometimes encounter.

With that mention of the Church, we come to the heart of the matter. People sometimes feel  they are ’second best’ because they haven’t become priests or religious but discovered in the course of formation that they were meant for something else. Or they torture themselves because they have left active ministry or their order/congregation and the Church treats them with ambivalence, sometimes even suspicion.  I think myself that the important thing is to find one’s place in the Church because that is how we follow Christ, as Church. To be members of the Church is what we are all called to be. What membership involves will differ for each of us. Prayer, generosity and fidelity are required of us all, whatever form our  vocation takes. I have no hesitation in saying that being a Benedictine has been the supreme blessing of my life. I have no difficulty in encouraging others to become Benedictines themselves, but I would never hide from anyone the fact that to surrender oneself into the hands of the living God is to surrender oneself into a consuming fire. And fire, as we know, has its own way of dealing with things.

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The Persecution of Christians

The bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians contained no surprises for those who keep au fait with such matters. Unless memory plays me false, I seem to remember someone remarking forty years ago that a couple of lartge jets would be all that would be needed to remove the entire Christian population of Israel. The situation today in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, India, China and many other places, however, is not merely one of petty persecution and decline but of ruthless violence intended to exterminate every Christian. Church leaders can say all they like about how wrong it is, but unless and until politicians recognize both the injustice and the danger it poses to many of the values we hold dear as a free society, it is difficult to see how matters can improve.

To some, Christians are merely reaping the consequences of colonialism and whatever they suffer is justified by reference to that. Identifying Christianity with colonialism has always seemed to me slightly questionable, but I accept that many have shied away from a defence of modern-day Christians because of what happened in the past. The trouble is, our historical perspective is often faulty or, at the very least, partial. We rightly condemn the evil of slavery, for example, while being remarkably ambivalent about the kinds of exploitation that exist today. It is easy to condemn the people of the past, but making those of the present pay is morally dubious. Where does responsibility lie? Can we really judge the past by the standards of the present?

The University of Cambridge is just embarking on a two-year investigation into its connection with slavery and the slave trade. It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn. My first reaction was that it was one of those politically correct exercises that fosters guilt but achieves little of substance. It is clearly not meant to be a historical investigation as such, and from what I have read it is not concerned with the modern forms of exploitation many of us find troubling. The nearest parallel I can find is with those public enquiries into the perceived failures of the army, police, medical profession, social workers and others that centre on the sadness and distress suffered by individuals or groups of people whose lives have been turned upside down by what they have experienced, but with this difference — we can’t change the past; we can’t ‘make it better’ for those who were enslaved or who were cruelly mistreated.

In the case of modern-day Christians, I think we face a particular difficulty. There are those who wish to eradicate Christianity and deliberately target Christians. Frequently, and especially if they are Westerners, they have very sketchy ideas about what Christians actually believe, but the one thing they all know is that Christians are meant to be forgiving. No matter how harsh the treatment meted out, no matter what suffering is inflicted, even to the loss of life in the most brutal and painful circumstances, the Christian must forgive. I am, as you may imagine, far from being impartial, but I believe that the forgiveness of Christians enduring persecution — at this very minute, remember — is not only worthy of record but a witness the whole world needs. We pray for them, of course, but perhaps we should glory in them even more for they show Christ to the world in a way that we more lily-livered types never can. They demonstrate by their fidelity and their refusal to hate that there is a better way; that the world can be transformed by grace.

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An Easter Drenched in Blood: 2019

As I was posting this morning’s prayer tweet, news came in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. Churches and hotels have been bombed and at least 137* are known to be dead. It was a bloody and brutal act, and there are fears that there is more to come. Yet we continue to sing ‘Alleluia’, to proclaim Christ’s triumph over sin and death, to assert that love and forgiveness are better than hatred and cruelty. Are we fools, living in a cosy world of make-believe; or are we clear-sighted, conscious of the reality of things and refusing to be daunted by evil or the lack of humanity we discover in ourselves and in others?

Note, I say in ourselves as well as others. If our pilgrimage to Easter has taught us anything, it must be that we are each capable of the most horrific evil. We are sinners in need of redemption; weak and fallible beings in need of a Saviour. This morning, as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, we pray for all Christian people, that we may have not only the courage of our faith but its compassion and forgiveness, too. So we can sing our ‘alleluias’, confident that the Risen Christ continues to be the source of our unity and peace, for he has shed his own blood for us and lives now to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. May he do so now, that the Father of all goodness may see and love in those dead and injured Sri Lankans ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his.’
ªnow 310.

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Drifting from the Shore

For the past few months life at the monastery has been distinctly challenging. About Cor Orans and its implications I’ll write at a more suitable time. It is enough to say that it continues to cause a great deal of heartache and eats into our time and resources in a way many find baffling. We’ve also had a lot of administration to deal with that has taken us well beyond our comfort zone being both unfamiliar and time-critical; and there has been the problem of my health. I have just returned from a fortnight in hospital, delighted to find that I am still alive and humbled by the generosity and kindness with which I have been treated (to say nothing of the skill and devotion of the team at the Churchill Hospital). It has made me reflect on what our Lenten journey is about. When life is pared down to the essentials and cannot be presumed upon to continue, one is forced to face what at other times one may try to hide from — and the utter transcendence of God is one of those things. But big words and big concepts can themselves be a form of evasion, so let’s think more directly about Lent.

We can take Lent too seriously. By which I mean that we think what we do is what matters: our prayers, our fasts, our almsgiving. It is all about me. But, of course, it isn’t. It is when our plans are upset and we find ourselves drifting from the shore into unexpected currents that we begin to learn what it is really about. Forget that pledge to say 150 psalms standing in the sea as the Celtic monks did — a smile at someone who is being tiresome may actually be harder but I guarantee it will bring its own reward. If the Lent book lies unread and fasting fell down at the first chocolate muffin hurdle, don’t waste time feeling guilty. Try an act of kindness or generosity that you weren’t expecting but which has come your way. In other words, don’t take Lent seriously in the sense that it has to fit your programme but take it very seriously indeed in the sense that it has to fit God’s programme.

This is the time of year when we are asked to pray especially for those preparing for baptism or reception into Full Communion at Easter; for those who are to be married, ordained or make religious profession during the Easter season; those who will be confirmed at Pentecost, and so on — all joyful things. It is also a time to pray for the dying, for those who are grieving while everyone else is singing Alleluia, for all the sadness that humanity endures. The only way we can do that is to allow our prayer to become one with that of the praying Christ. During these last few days before entering on Holy Week, therefore, may I suggest that we look closely at how Jesus spent this peak period of his life on earth? There was solemnity, yes, but also light-heartedness with friends. Our Lenten journey must follow the same pattern. So, do not waste time over failures, as they may appear to us, but concentrate on the ‘now’ of Lent. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord. What is asked of us is that we listen and respond today — not as we might have yesterday or as we might do in the future, but today.

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