April Sunshine, April Tears

Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.

I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.

Image
The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:

https://images.app.goo.gl/6vZcRHhSUb4m3oQ26

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Ears Have Walls: a problem for Tweeting Brides of Christ?

I wonder how many people will read ‘walls have ears’ rather than ‘ears have walls’? I wonder, too, how many will know the source of the quotation. It comes from graffiti seen in Paris in 1968, that year of endless radical questioning. To me it expresses very neatly a common problem. We tend to see and hear what we expect. St Benedict’s opening to his Rule, Obsculta, ‘Listen carefully,’ not only shows awareness of this tendency but also offers an immediate corrective. We are to pay attention, think, allow ourselves to be shaped and stretched by what we encounter, but how difficult most of us find that. We prefer our comfort zone — most of us, anyway.

A Religious Life Thread on Twitter

Yesterday there was a Twitter thread on religious life, more specifically the use of Bridal imagery in relation to religious women. It was not easy to follow because some who joined late responded to tweets that had been sent much earlier, while others introduced ideas/themes that, though fascinating and enriching in themselves, were secondary to the matter in hand. 

The thread began because @CarmelNunsGB noticed a poll by a non-religious asking the question ‘Are nuns and religious sisters married?’ The wording of the question suggested unfamiliarity with traditional language yet at the same time invited reflection on the meaning and purpose of such language. It evoked a wide-ranging response from the #NunsofTwitter and others.

Brides of Christ and Nuptial Imagery

Some people were happy to think of themselves as Brides of Christ; others definitely weren’t. Some insisted on limiting application of nuptial imagery to the Church as a whole (cf St Paul); others found even that difficult. We touched on religious profession (Catholic and Anglican, of both nuns and religious sisters), marriage, the rite of Consecration of Virgins, the diaconate, the use of signs and symbols (e.g. rings), eschatology, and individual experience, with some valuable insights from an Orthodox perspective. I had to bow out of the discussion early because of other duties but not before I had posited a link between the rite of Consecration of Virgins and the diaconate. 

Taking the Subject Further

It would be good to take these topics further, especially as they relate to the post-pandemic Church, but some of them, e.g. discussion of the diaconate in relation to women and the nature of religious/monastic profession, presuppose a level of scholarship we do not all possess. In an ideal situation, I think a writer would need

  • A sense of period and historical development. The fourth century is not the same as the fourteenth, and the fourteenth is different again from the twenty-first. This sense of period is rarer than one might think.
  • Familiarity with the sources — historical, theological, liturgical — and the scriptures and legal forms on which they depend. That means hard work, knowledge of languages and intelligent interpretation. 
  • Theological literacy, and awareness of how the Western Tradition has evolved. 
  • Judgement. Probably the most difficult quality of all, but the most important. Not every shred of ‘evidence’ is equally valid but it isn’t always easy to recognize that.

I’d love to explore some of the questions the thread raised, but a very little reflection showed how ill-prepared I would be for such a task. But there is another reason, just as pertinent, which I think throws light on the nature of religious community and the kind of obligations we assume when we join one. My community asked me not to do so.

Post-Vatican II Reflection on Religious Life*

If I may be allowed a very broad generalisation, the best reflection on religious life* comes from religious themselves, those who actually try to live the values they profess. Much post-Vatican II commentary on religious life emanating from the Vatican itself has reflected an anthropology and sociology I, and others, find unconvincing. For women, in particular, the results have been disappointing; but it is not just women who have been affected. The concentration on clerical control and the reluctance to see women as fully participant in the life of the Church has had negative consequences for the Church as a whole. It is actually quite difficult to discuss some subjects openly and freely without attracting the kind of attention that chokes off such discussion because of its virulence. My community does not want me to give anyone grounds for misunderstanding — in other words, contributing to the negativity often encountered, especially online.

Discussing Hot Questions

I know the community is especially nervous about my discussing the diaconate. Since St John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, Catholics have been forbidden to discuss the ordination of women to the priesthood and many have taken that to include discussion of the diaconate as well. Some will recall the high price Lavinia Byrne paid for Women at the Altar (which she wrote before the Apostolic Letter was published). I regret to say that even today some people regard it as their duty to delate others to Rome for opinions they may or may not actually hold, but which the delator thinks they do and have expressed. Although such a drastic reaction to anything I might write is unlikely (the benefits of obscurity!), I do know how much time and energy can be taken up dealing with objections and criticisms, many of which are the consequence of sheer carelessness (on my part, or that of the reader) or misunderstanding. My community has a right to my time and energy, so, in this I must comply.

A Tension in Religious Life

My decision highlights a tension inherent in religious life, and in membership of the Church more generally. We all have a commitment to our communities whether they be little or large, religious or secular. That commitment may be experienced at times as a freedom, an energiser, at others as a restraint. It would be easy to make a show of bravado along the lines of ‘publish and be damned’ but it would be just bravado, and rather selfish bravado at that. We are called to build one another up, to hasten the coming of the Kingdom. That may mean questioning, challenging, refusing to be sidelined or silenced. It may also mean patience, not saying all one wishes, listening rather than adding to the clamour.

I believe some subjects do need to be discussed quite urgently or we are likely to see a further loss of members of the Church and of the religious communities that form part of her. As I said at the beginning, ears have walls. I hope someone with the necessary learning and love of the Church will break them down. It won’t be me, but I will be praying for them.

*The term ‘consecrated life’ is used nowadays, but the term ‘religious life’ will be more familiar to many readers.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Betrayal: Tuesday of Holy Week 2021

Today, as we eavesdrop on the dialogue about betrayal between Jesus and Peter (cf John 13) we are confronted with a bleak truth. We all know the pain of being betrayed, but we are less likely to ackowledge the pain of betraying others. Yet that is exactly what we do, all the time! The tragedy is that we do not always recognize the ways in which we let others down, or we impersonalise them so that they remain ‘other’ and never take on an individual, human face. The UK’s reduction in its aid budget, from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP, is not just a scaling down by one of the world’s most generous givers, it is also a betrayal of those who were relying on it to fund healthcare and education projects, for example. Then there are the more obviously personal betrayals: the broken promises, the cheating on relationships, the selfish choice we make.

As we go deeper into Holy Week, it would be good to take stock. Instead of worrying about how others have hurt us, perhaps we could spend a few moments thinking how we have hurt others, asking forgiveness if we can, but at any rate resolving not to fall into old patterns of behaviour. It can be helpful to look at what drives us to betray others. It may be money, the need to appear successful, even laziness. For each of us it will be different, but discovering our own weakness may enable us to understand better the betrayals of Judas and Peter, and the loneliness Christ experienced as a result.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Jar of Nard: Monday of Holy Week 2021

Alabaster jar photographed by Argie Hernandez

Yesterday we wreathed our processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his ultimate victory over sin and death. Today starts more soberly, with the alabaster jar of nard Mary poured over the feet of Jesus to prepare him for his burial.

None of the disciples demurred at yesterday’s marks of rejoicing. They cost nothing as far as they were concerned, and they may even have felt some reflected glory. It would have been better if their leader had entered the city in a more obviously dignified way, but the applause of the crowd was sweet to their ears. Jesus was, however briefly, undeniably a class act, a celebrity. Today’s more private anointing among friends at Bethany was another matter and Judas, diligent steward that he was, pointed out that a better use might have been made of the money spent: ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’

Poor Judas, he was always getting things wrong. Of course the poor matter; of course we must share with them; but there is also room for that jar of nard, and for the love of which it is a sign. Mary has understood what Judas has not. Her reckless, extravagant act is a response to the love Jesus has shown. It has no other purpose than to delight the Lord — a moment of humanity and care at a bleak and dangerous time. Holy Week will take us into some dark places, will confront us with betrayal and disbelief, torture and death, but we cannot accompany the Lord in his Passion if we do not also accompany him with our love and prayer. Just as that broken jar of nard filled the house at Bethany with its scent, so our prayer should fill the whole world with its fragrance. We too may need to be broken, poured out, pay a great price, but we know an even greater price has been paid for us. ‘To ransom a slave, you gave away a Son.’ (from the Easter Exsultet) There is no greater love than that, and it is that love which draws us today.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Perils of Good Advice

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

Spiritual Advice

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

Classical Monasticism

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

A Warning

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

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Word of Encouragement for Followers of Classical Monasticism

St Benedict
St Benedict

A transferred solemnity always feels a little odd, and the fact that the popular Universalis app fails to mention St Benedict at all has led to one or two people questioning whether we have got our dates muddled here at Howton Grove. No, we haven’t, this really is the day when we celebrate the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, which was displaced by the fifth Sunday of Lent yesterday. It is a day of solemn joy in the monastery. St Benedict was keen on Lent, but he was also keen on joy. The whole of his Rule can be said to be woven around the theme of Easter, for which Lent is preparation and joy the outcome; so today we rejoice, for what was, what is, and what is yet to come.

That said, I have been thinking about what I would call classical monasticism, living in community under a rule and superior, with both the scope and limitations that a fixed place and circumstances allow. It has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Monks and nuns who follow this older way are sometimes treated with a curious kind of disregard, as though the way we live is archaic, no longer valid. Is the only kind of monasticism worth talking about a newer kind, not necessarily bound by vows, often dispersed or specifically rejecting some aspect of the Rule (e.g. lifelong single chastity, renunciation of private ownership) in favour of a more individualistic approach? I think it is time that we who have done our best to persevere in the more classical form speak up, especially the nuns, and encourage one another.

Why do I think that important? There is the obvious reason, that without the handing on of the monastic tradition in its classical form, there is always the risk of its being lost or submerged under the partisan vision of some charismatic founder-figure who cherry-picks what he/she likes/dislikes, to the detriment of the whole. The roots of the word monasticism provide the essential clue. Monks and nuns live alone with God. Prayer and observance are our métier, day in, day out. Our buildings may not be as beautiful, our habits as romantic, as those who choose for themselves, but it is our very renunciation of choice, of self, that is crucial.

Nuns play an especially important role here because we are not clergy and are not usually asked to serve in ways some of our male brethren are. We can live the classical form of monasticism in a purer, less distracted way than many of them can. Of course, where women in the Church are concerned, there is another danger. Despite some useful provisions, Cor Orans has demonstrated the danger of assuming that contemplative is interchangeable with monastic.For Benedictines, the rules about numbers and governance reflect a completely different religious tradition from that with which we are familiar, and it has caused some communities much needless heartache and expense. Even among our friends, who belong to Orders strictly so called, there has been some raising of eyebrows at what is expected or imposed. Women are not inferior men, incapable of making decisions about how to lead their lives.

However, my chief reason for saying that I think classical monasticism needs encouragement is because, as far as I can see, it continues to promote holiness — which is what monasticism is about. It doesn’t matter if a community is old or poor, not making a very good job of livestreaming or whatever the fashion of the day may be, not attracting new recruits or whatever, if it is producing holiness in its members, if it is leading others to holiness, then I’d say it is doing all right. Instead of dismissing such communities, I think we should encourage them — and encourage those who are thinking about how best to serve God to take another look. I like to think St Benedict would agree. He saw the whole world caught up in a beam of light. Isn’t that what monks and nuns should be: light for the world?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Joseph: Icon of Masculinity

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

I detest the phrase toxic masculinity. There is nothing ‘toxic’ about masculinity any more than there is about femininity. True, there are behaviours which are deeply unpleasant, even dangerous, more usually associated with men than women, but masculinity per se is a gift from God, to be celebrated as the grace it is rather than derided and denied. Happily, in St Joseph, we have an icon of masculinity that is positive and encouraging.

I confess it took me a long time to see the greatness of St Joseph. All those saccharine statues of grey-bearded men holding a lily in one hand and a blue-eyed, flaxen-curled Jesus in the other put me off. The medieval tendency to see him as a figure of fun, an unwitting cuckold, was slightly more appealing if only because it treated him as a person rather than an abstraction. Then I read St Teresa of Avila and Bossuet and began to realise that the Jesus-and-Mary narrative had blinded me to the significance of the Jesus-and-Joseph narrative. Fathers are as important as mothers, and the unassuming holiness of Joseph helped make Jesus the man he was.

It was Joseph, surely, who taught Jesus what it meant to be an observant Jew: to read, to pray, to take his place in society, at ease among both men and women, to work and to play. How rarely do we allow ourselves to reflect on those facts! There is much more we should like to know but can only speculate about. Was Joseph young or old when he married Mary? Did marriage and family life fulfil his human hopes or not? We think of his Old Testament namesake, the place of dreams in his life, the flight into Egypt, the place of exile and slavery, the personal renunciations he embraced. Are we to assume Joseph did not question because he obeyed so completely? Did he not feel pain at times, confusion? And what about life at Nazareth? Was he a great Dad, in the way that men are expected to be today? Did he struggle to make ends meet at times, spend sleepless nights worrying about the future? We shall never know exactly, but we see in Jesus the fruit of his masculinity, of his being a man, a real Mensch. When Jesus hung upon the cross in obedience to his heavenly Father, he did so as Joseph’s son, one who had taken on the lineaments of his adoptive father here on earth.

May St Joseph pray for all fathers, living and dead; those from whom the gift of fatherhood has been withheld; and those who have never known a father’s love and care.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Cleansing and Healing Waters

Photo by mrjn Photography on Unsplash

Today’s Mass readings are deliciously watery. We have the life-giving waters that stream from the Temple (Ezekiel 47. 1–9, 12) and the quieter waters of the Pool of Bethesda that also cleanse and heal (John 5.1-3, 5-16). Cleanse and heal, please note, rather than cure. I wonder how often we pray for someone or something to be cured, asking for the restoration of a situation as it was before illness or disappointment struck? Biblically, however, it seems to me that we pray for cleansing and healing, to be made whole again, sound, rather than cured. The distinction may be a false one, but it makes sense to me. It is not my old life I want back again, but a new one freed of the limitations the old imposed. I take heart from the fact that the body of the Risen Christ still bore the wounds of crucifixion. Even the most appalling evil can be redeemed and transformed.

Yesterday was a difficult day for many, for all kinds of reasons. We cannot undo its sorrows as though they had never been, but we can open them up to the healing power of God. It may not happen all at once. Indeed, we may not be aware of anything at all happening; but just as water can wear away a stone, so God’s love and mercy can transform our lives. We can be cleansed and healed.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Lenten Lilies for Mothering Sunday

One of the joys of my return from hospital has been seeing the changes in the garden, albeit viewing them from a safe distance indoors. Daffodils, especially wild daffodils (the Lenten Lilies of the title), remind me of some of the ambiguities of Laetare or Mothering Sunday.

We celebrate today as a feast of joy and motherhood, sometimes descending into sentimentality, sometimes becoming so abstract that we forget that actual motherhood is hard work — frequently, smelly and tiring. The token bunch of daffs dutifully handed over to Mum may be exactly that: tokenism, but sincerely meant and with a beautiful face to it. However, to see the Church as Mother, which is what the Church herself invites us to do, is, I think, increasingly difficult because so many have experienced hurt at her hands. There is no token bunch of daffs that will quite bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Is there any way to make sense of this?

I find my own answer in the garden. The wild daffodils I like so much are planted in soil. They grow out of the Herefordshire mud and loam. For most of the year they are unseen, lying deep in the earth. They bloom briefly yet brilliantly. So with the Church. She is flawed because she is made up of flawed creatures like you and me, but she is also shot through with grace, with truly infinite possibilities we may see only rarely. She shares in the muckiness of ordinary motherhood, as she also shares its glories.

Today, let us pray for all mothers, living or dead, for those who feel they’ve failed, those who don’t understand the concept of motherhood, those who need to be set free, and for our mother the Church.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Unlocking Heaven

A simplified version of the Keys of St Peter

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

As I was mooching round the monastery early this morning, I reflected on today’s gospel (Matthew 16. 13–19) and the number of homilies which concentrate on the power of binding rather than loosing. Many limit interpretation of the text to sacramental confession, a debatable point in itself, while others seem to allow the power of binding and loosing to those they approve of, but not otherwise. Thus, a feast celebrating the unity of the Church under her principal teacher, Pope Francis, is turned into a weapon against him by some, who accuse him of all manner of sins and crimes, including apostasy. He is not, apparently, as Catholic as he should be; and he does not do as much binding as he ought.

Binding and Loosing

Why is there this obsession with binding rather than loosing? I am sorry to say that many of my Catholic friends seem to be rather keen on binding others, excluding them from the kingdom of heaven. Often it seems to be the result of enthusiasm for one aspect of the Church’s teaching blinding them to the necessity of others.

Chesterton wrote of the tendency to exaggerate one truth above another ending in a skewed understanding of Christianity as a whole. Indeed, it is one way in which orthodoxy can become heterodoxy. Sometimes I have the feeling that for some, Catholicism is now anti-abortionism and everyone is to be judged on the soundness or otherwise of their attitude towards it. Please don’t get me wrong. I am opposed to abortion, but I am also opposed to the conditions that make abortion seem acceptable or even desirable. I do not — cannot — condemn those who have had an abortion. That is not the same as condoning abortion, and Catholic social teaching has a great deal to say about our duty to ensure just and fair living conditions for all. I don’t see how we can maintain the one without the other.

If we have the power of binding, we also have the power of loosing, of allowing the mercy of God into any and every human situation. Of course, it is always easier to see the motes in our brethren’s eyes than the beams in our own, but it would make a refreshing change if, instead of concentrating on the power to bind others, we could celebrate this feast by thinking and praying about how we can free others. It is a power given not just to the clergy — in fact, not even mainly to the clergy — but to everyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ. It was to set us free that Christ came into the world, died and rose again. Let us not lose sight of that essential truth as we journey through Lent.

Automated New Blog Post Notifications
These have not been working as they should but I hope to get matters sorted out today.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail


Deprecated: Directive 'allow_url_include' is deprecated in Unknown on line 0