Tell My Children I Love Them

Who could fail to have been moved by those words of a dying woman, uttered after being attacked in Nice yesterday? They express all that is best and most loving about mothers, about human beings. For a Christian, looking at a Crucifix, they express God’s love for us, his errant children, and they give us hope. We are loved, and we can choose to love in return.

As news of the attacks in France came in yesterday, I admit to feeling more than usual sadness. Something has changed. Those targeted attacks on the eve of lockdown, like the murder of Samuel Paty, do more than challenge the secular values of the French State. They challenge our faith. Either we believe the gospel, or we don’t. Either we will continue to love, or we won’t. Either we allow God to forgive in and through us, or we don’t. How we manage that, I don’t know. May God give us the grace. And may he comfort those bereaved children and all who mourn.

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My Lady Covid

Collectors of papal gaffes can now add another to their collection. At the end of yesterday’s General Audience the pope apparently referred to ‘this “lady” called Covid’. Not wise, your Holiness, not wise. From Eve onwards, women have been blamed for all the evils that have afflicted mankind (please note that word, mankind). Now Covid is to be characterised as a woman? I place that attempt at humour alongside the reference to female theologians as ‘the strawberry on the cake’ or the unfortunate 10-Euro ‘Earth Mother’ coin issued earlier this month by the Vatican mint. If women can be treated so lightly, or regarded as having no role but one, it is not surprising that legitimate questions about pastoral care, liturgical language and the scope allowed to women in the Church are similarly dismissed. What worries me is that many women will decide that they have received their own personal Ite, missa est. And that, your Holiness, would be a tragedy for us all, male or female.

P.S. I’m staying. Hope that isn’t too annoying of me.

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St Bruno and Solitude

I will never forget the first time I met the Carthusian who was to be my confessor for many years. He asked simply, ‘Do you have peace?’ That question goes to the heart of any vocation. Everything else is transitory, but peace, abiding in God whatever the exterior circumstances of our life, whatever inner turmoil we may be experiencing, is permanent. It isn’t (usually) achieved once for all but is, like so much else, a process, something we grow into over time so that it becomes a constant in our lives, an habitual state of being.

The experience of solitude and silence seem to me an essential part of this process. They strip us of many elements of the ‘false self’ we use to hide from God, making us realise our dependence on him and on others. Our need for approbation, to draw attention to ourselves, to assert ourselves, all come down to this: an obscure sense that we are somehow not quite ‘enough’, not good enough, not attractive enough, not anything enough. That, of course, is to put the spotlight on self when the secret of true holiness is to put the spotlight on God and forget self. It isn’t easy to do, and most of us are reluctant to surrender what we think of as good or necessary in order to become something, or rather, someone, more closely fashioned on Christ.

St Bruno had no such hesitations. He seems to have spent much of his life avoiding a bishopric. He was a famous teacher, well-connected socially, someone who might have commanded the highest rewards of a clerical career. But he didn’t. He was drawn to the solitary life, and when he and two companions placed themselves under the direction of Hugh of Grenoble, the Carthusians were born. They have remained ever since one of the glories of the Church whose hidden lives have shown that what we tend to think of as success is, well, probably not such a success after all. St Bruno’s life as a Carthusian is often difficult to trace precisely because he avoided the limelight and concentrated on God alone. He was still the same man, still in demand for counsel, but now he met those demands in a different way. He became more, not less, loving because he lived a silent and largely solitary life. None of his gifts was wasted but they were all transformed.

A long time ago, I tried to express what St Bruno and the Carthusians meant to me and how I think we can emulate their prayerfulness, even if we cannot live as they live. Carthusian life is not romantic: it is tough, hard, wearing, which is why so few can live it, but we can all learn from it:

St Bruno makes me think of silence and solitude and snow. Cardinal Hume once remarked that every Benedictine should feel a certain sadness, a certain regret, that the great vocation of the Carthusian is not for him/her. But, of course, every vocation contains within it the need for silence and moral solitude, even if physical solitude is not a possibility. When Jesus told his disciples to go to their inner room and shut the door and pray to their Father in secret, he can hardly have meant to be taken literally since most people in first century Palestine had no private room to retreat to. We must make a Charterhouse of the heart, and allow our prayer to embrace every need.

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How To Read An Encyclical

Benedictines are notorious for thinking that slow and prayerful reading of a text is second nature to them. I am no exception. Yesterday lots of people had rushed onto social media to give their opinion of Fratelli Tutti before I had digested the first few paragraphs, and I see that this morning there are already some instant analyses and tit-for-tat arguments doing the round of cyberspace. At the risk of being presumptuous, may I share with you a way of reading an encyclical you may find helpful, and a blessing or prayer you may like to use before doing so?

First of all, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before beginning to read. I know it sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten. Without asking God to be in charge of our reading, how can we expect to understand what the writer intends — or be free enough to test the truth of what is written if we are too full of our own ideas and prejudices?

Secondly, we need to give the process of reading time. For example, the English translation of Fratelli Tutti strikes me as being awkward and I am having to look at other versions to try to work out whether it is the author or the translator that has puzzled me. Not everyone will be able to do that, but all of us can pause in our reading to reflect and follow up the references provided.

Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves how the encyclical addresses us personally — not X or Y or anyone else, but ourselves. What does it ask of us, and how shall we respond? We aren’t meant to go away thinking, ‘Well, that was interesting/beautiful/predictable/annoying/whatever.’ We are meant to take from the text something that will make us grow spiritually, and that won’t necessarily be a wholly positive experience. We can be challenged, upset, irritated, even angered. God can use those very human emotions to get through to us, if we let him.

Fourthly, I think we should end with thanksgiving. That is easy if we have found the text helpful and inspiring, not so easy if we haven’t; but no matter how barren our reading may seem to have been, no matter how difficult we may have found the text, grace can only grow in a spirit of gratitude. That doesn’t mean we abandon our critical faculties or meekly agree that everything in the encyclical is wonderful. It may be; it may not. But we can, and should, give thanks that the encyclical exists, that God speaks to us through the text, and that we are ready to listen and respond.

Finally, I promised you a prayer. Every new book that comes into the library here at the monastery has a blessing said over it. The text comes from a medieval Subiaco manuscript, i.e. it has impeccably Benedictine origins. Here is a rough and ready translation:

Almighty, everliving God, we ask that the power of the Holy Spirit may come down upon this book. May it be cleansed and purified through the invocation of your name and its meaning opened to our understanding. May your holy right hand bless and sanctify it, enlighten the hearts of those who read it and grant them true comprehension. Grant that they may keep safe the teaching revealed and put it into practice in accordance with your will, through the performance of good deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Two Hairy Brothers 6: Guardian Angels

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory,
Herefordshire

1 October, 2020

Dear Cousin Dunc,

I trust you are very cheery up there in Beyond. It’s a long time since we heard from you, and I must admit I miss you, especially now I’m becoming a bit old and creaky. Twelve last birthday, so no longer a young sprog!

Anyway, I have a theological question for you. What is an angel, and what are these Guardian Angels They are celebrating on 2 October? They seem to think these angel-types stick to Them through thick and thin, but I thought that was our job. Can you enlighten me, please?

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

The Heavenly Houndland
Beyond

2 October 2020

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

You’ll always be a young sprog in my eyes, no matter that your ginger is now streaked with grey, but I see you have learned some gravitas since we last corresponded. A theological question! That’s one for the books, I must say. I’ll do my best to reply.

There are quite a lot of angels in Beyond so I went and had a chat with my chum Raphael. (He’s the one who accompanied Tobias and his dog to Media, so he’s more dog-aware than most and always saves me some special tit-bit from the heavenly banquet to snack on between meals.) He said that the big yellow catechism book They keep in the library is a good place to start.

I had to overcome my natural reluctance to have anything to do with felines, but, apparently, ‘catechism’ is a Greek word that has nothing to do with cats so can be safely read by the likes of you and me.

I began at paragraph 325, which says God created everything, seen and unseen, and says quite a lot about angels, but stopped at paragraph 343 which says that man is the summit of God’s creation. Not entirely sure about that, but I let it pass.

Get this, though:

329 St Augustine says: “‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel.'” With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they “always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” they are the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word”.

330 As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness.

Of course, some of them are too good-looking for their own good and think far too much of themselves. Look at the One Down Below and what happened to him! A warning to us all about vanity, even if we are the handsomest dudes on the block.

Anyway, there’s much more of the same, about how the angels are mighty spirits, messengers of God, singing God’s praises and intimately involved in the life of the Church. St Basil is quoted, ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life’. That’s the role of the Guardian Angel, but I noticed the Church has never defined that as an article of faith. We just accept it as the ‘mind of the Church’. St Jerome, who was regrettably more of a Big Cat man than a Dog man put it this way: ‘How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it. (Comm. in Matt., xviii, lib. II).

You and I probably agree that we share that guardianship role with angels but we have to accept that not everyone recognizes the canine contribution to the economy of salvation, not even some Human Beans. A pity, rather. It would transform their view of the world and make them much nicer.

I was looking down at the world from Beyond and thought to myself how busy all the angels must be, especially the Guardian Angels. There is such a lot of wrongness going on, and Human Beans being thoroughly nasty to one another. St Thomas, who should have been more of a Dog man, given that he was a Domini canis, said that only the lowest orders of angels were sent to guard Human Beans (Summa Theologica I:113:4). That’s one for their pride, isn’t it?

Mind you, if what St Thomas says is true, it means what we dogs do is very important.  We have to teach Human Beans so many things — how to be loving, uncomplaining, endlessly forgiving. We can teach them how to adore Him by gazing and gazing with eyes like melting chocolate buttons, and we can use our pester-power for the good of others. Human Beans aren’t blessed with four paws and a big nose, but they can still learn how to be more dog. I did my best with Them, and I’m pleased to see that you continue my work.

Look after Them until we’re all together in Beyond. They’ll thank you one day and recognize your true stature as a servant of the Most High. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we and our kind aren’t angels in disguise, don’t you?

Best woofs,

Bro Duncan xx

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What is Expected of a Monastery in Time of Pandemic?

It has been heartening to see that many communities which once looked a little askance at our attempts to harness the possibilities of the internet and the web to create and sustain online community are now doing everything we once did, only better. It is particularly encouraging that many women’s communities have embraced video and live-streaming and are using social media to reach people who might otherwise not know of their existence. A recent telephone call, however, has made me think more deeply about what we are not doing, and the reasons for that. What is expected of a monastery in time of pandemic? Comfort? Challenge? Community? Yes, all these things, but something more, surely. Oughtn’t a monastery to be a place of encounter with God, whether that encounter be in a physical space or online? And isn’t that especially true in time of pandemic, when many certainties and expectations no longer hold good?

For us, the web is an extension of our monastery, more specifically our parlour: the place where we interact with visitors. For a long time we thought of it as an extension of our cloister, our online scriptorium, the way in which we could share some of the riches of the monastic tradition. But that put the emphasis on what we were giving rather than what we were receiving, and it didn’t do much to communicate what is, after all, the essential feature of monastic life, the seeking of God. For some time I have been wondering how a monastery conveys the sense of being on holy ground, of being in the presence of God. That question seems to me to have become even more urgent as we experience the restrictions of lockdown and quarantine and are finding more and more people are distanced from the sacramental life of the Church. 

For some, I know, the answer is to be found in live-streamed worship or imaginative attempts to create an online church or sacred space. For monasteries of monks and for larger communities of nuns, for anyone, in fact, with the human, technical and financial resources, that seems to me a more than adequate answer. But for small communities like ours, it is really a non-starter. We don’t have Mass here, and live-streaming our choir would be an exercise in bathos! That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, however. The question is, what? Is there anything we can do, consistent with our monastic vocation, that would be of help to others, that would allow that sense of God to permeate more fully the little bit of the web that we occupy?

I know better than to ask the question generally because I know we would be inundated with well-meant suggestions, often wholly impossible to achieve or reflecting an idea of monasticism we do not share. I do, however, ask your prayers that we be open to the Holy Spirit and make wise decisions. Ultimately, our goal is that of RB 72. 12, that Christ may bring us all alike to life everlasting. Amen.

Audio version

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A Little History is a Helpful Thing

Once upon a time there was a Greek archbishop of Canterbury and a North African abbot of the monastery of St Peter and Paul, also in Canterbury. Theodore, the Greek archbishop, came from Tarsus, where as a boy he had experienced the horrors of the Sassanid invasions and been exposed to Persian culture. He is likely to have studied at Antioch before the Muslim conquest of Tarsus in 637 led him first to Constantinople, then to Rome. We know that he was familiar with Syriac as well as Greek and Latin and skilled in theology, languages, law, medicine and the liberal arts of his day. Adrian, his North African contemporary was a Berber by birth, immensely learned and the abbot of a monastery near Naples. Adrian was twice offered the see of Canterbury but refused, suggesting his friend Theodore instead. Pope Vitalian agreed, but insisted that Adrian should accompany Theodore to England.

Theodore was 66 when he became archbishop and served for 22 years, during which time he transformed the Church in England, appointing bishops to vacant sees, tightening ecclesiastical discipline at the synod of Hertford, and reforming the Church’s organizational structure, sub-dividing large dioceses and establishing the parish system still largely intact until recently. Adrian meanwhile established at Canterbury a school of learning second to none, which had a profound impact on the clerical and monastic culture of its time. Alfred looked back to Adrian’s day as a golden age, when scholars came to England to learn rather than the English having to go abroad to study.

A little history with our muesli is a good thing, is it not? Or is there something more substantial for us to think about? Today is the feast day of both Theodore of Tarsus and Adrian of Canterbury, so we know that to their intellectual and administrative gifts we can add virtue and holiness of life. We can also admire Theodore’s energy, starting a reform programme in a foreign country at the age of 66, and Adrian’s humility in refusing a bishopric, but, above all, I suggest we should think about what their appointment to their respective roles says about the international character of the Church — her catholicity in other words — and the way in which she is enriched by the sharing of peoples and cultures.

Anglo-Saxon England was very different from modern Britain, and in no way could we return to the kind of world that existed then. We can, however, learn some important lessons from it as it was at its best: openness to others, readiness to engage with different cultures, respect and welcome for the stranger, the valuing and cultivation of scholarship. As we appear to head towards another lockdown, with all that that implies by way of narrowing of experience and human interaction, and abandon our place in Europe and the world more generally because of decisions about Brexit and international commitments, those values may prove harder to sustain than once they were. The fact that they are harder to sustain does not mean that they are impossible, nor does it mean that they are unimportant. It does mean, however, that we will have to work harder at them. May the prayers of Saints Theodore and Adrian help us.

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Spiritual Wickedness

The first post I read on Facebook this morning was about the theft of a tabernacle from a church in Ontario (not made of precious metal, so it’s likely the consecrated Hosts were the target). That, and the ever-increasing number of attacks on churches in France and elsewhere, is a stark reminder that it isn’t only moral/social evils that confront us as Christians but the spiritual wickedness described in Ephesians 6.12:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against a spiritual wickedness in high places.

For Catholics, in particular, I think there has been a tendency during the past 50 years or so to play down the notion of spiritual evil. It has been trivialised, both by those who want to think of evil as an outdated concept and by those who label ‘evil’ anyone or anything they happen to disagree with or who regard a single issue as being determinative of right or wrong. For example, some of my friends who regard abortion as wrong have no difficulty in accepting capital punishment or the inequalities of economic systems that mean millions live in poverty. They proudly proclaim themselves to be pro-life, but I would argue that there is an inconsistency that undermines their claim. In the same way, I cannot dismiss attempts to steal the Blessed Sacrament as inconsequential or the work of a deranged mind. No, let us name evil for what it is: evil.

What I think we often fail to grasp is that evil is subtle. None of us would consent to it if we saw it for what it truly is. In the Rabbinic Targums we find Satan described as a beautiful and seductive creature. On Easter Night we are called upon to reject the glamour of evil. In other words, there is an attraction about evil to which we respond as human beings. It may be the promise of power or wealth or simply the allure of being ‘different’, but the sad truth is that evil has captivated many in the world today. Instead of getting angry, hurling abuse, railing against whatever we perceive to be wrong, I think we have to take up the weapons that the Lord Jesus himself specifies: prayer and fasting.

As soon as I say that, I know I’ll have lost some readers. The kind of prayer I’m talking about isn’t the dutiful ‘Oh, and please Lord, put an end to all evil in the world,’ as quickly forgotten as uttered. Nor is the fasting the kind of token fast that means giving up a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate and possibly feeling a little righteous for doing so. No, I am talking about the kind of prayer that perseveres, makes demands on our time, eats into other activities; the kind of fasting that makes us truly hungry, that invites God into the situation in which we find ourselves.

When I read that Facebook post this morning, my first reaction was to say the Lord’s Prayer — not to condemn the thieves, but to pray for them and to reaffirm my own love and trust in the Lord. I can make a pretty good guess how the sacred Hosts may be abused. I can do nothing about that in concrete terms, but prayer knows no boundaries of time or space. There is hope, despite the darkness. Ultimately, evil will not triumph, but we have a hard fight on our hands in the meantime.

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The Awful Earnestness of Women

This post is not going to be what some may have assumed from its title. I am using ‘awful’ in the way many now use ‘awesome’, meaning awe-inspiring. Earnestness, too, is a word we need to take a fresh look at. For too long it has been associated with the kind of seriousness we rightly call deadly, yet it is nothing of the sort. Earnestness springs from inner conviction and is shot through with sincerity. For me, what I have called the awful earnestness of women is something both sexes can admire and seek to emulate because it is a quality we see in Our Lady: resilience, purposefulness and determination in the service of God.

Why do I think women exhibit this quality so clearly? Partly, I think, because the opportunities open to women are still fewer than those open to men in much of the world. Therefore, intensity often has to take the place of breadth. For women in the West, personally unfamiliar with the constraints experienced by women living in other parts of the world, the idea of being held back by anything more than prejudice may seem preposterous. But for those whose educational and other opportunities are more limited, life is more like Jane Austen’s little bit of ivory, something to be worked over with delicacy and attention to detail. In the spiritual sphere, if I may call it that, the same is true. The scope allowed to women in the Catholic Church is still restricted if we think in terms of activity and decision-making, but if we think in terms of prayer and holiness, not at all, and surely that is what matters, whether we be male or female. Our business, our mission, is to become holy and by so doing lead others to holiness.

Resilience, purposefulness and determination are all necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be, but they are not dour qualities. We do not become holy by gritting our teeth. Again, I think we may take our tone from Mary. Every evening at Vespers we sing the Magnificat, that lyrical outpouring of trust and praise from the whole Church. It is the perfect, joyful expression of the awful earnestness of women — and men, too.

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The Duty of Delight

Christians often get a bad press, and no wonder. Our ambition is vast, eternal life and participation in the redemption of mankind no less, yet our achievement is not exactly commensurate. Everyone knows Nietzsche’s remark, ‘I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.’ Few of us would dispute that many Christians have a tendency to look glum and some seem to take special delight in castigating the shortcomings and sins of others. If you don’t believe me, take a look at social media. Even I have been taken aback by some of the things written by people I like to think of as my friends. But why should the nasties have the last word, especially on a great feast such as today’s, when we celebrate St Gregory the Great, apostle of the English? To Nietzsche I would oppose Dorothy Day and her championing of what she called ‘the duty of delight’. It is a phrase I think Gregory might have liked, for he was a master of the pithy expression, and although he was undoubtedly unenthusiastic about some things, Greeks and sailing ships, for example, he had a largeness of heart and mind I personally find very attractive.

From 1 September until 4 October the Christian Churches are marking the Season of Creation during which we give thanks for the world in which we live and seek to increase our love and reverence for everything in it. One of the best ways of doing that is also the simplest: to take delight in it. No matter how busy you are today — and Gregory often complained that he was so busy his soul was in danger of shipwreck, so you are in good company — no matter how ill or tired or just plain crotchety, take a moment to look at the sky, listen to the sounds outside your window or touch some living thing, even that half-dead houseplant you regularly forget to water, and give thanks. Just as grace grows in the spirit of gratitude, so does delight. I guarantee that will put a smile on the glummest of faces. It would be nice to prove Nietzsche wrong, wouldn’t it?

Note: if you are interested in previous posts more specifically about Gregory, please do a search in the sidebar. Here is one which may be of interest as it carries on from yesterday’s consideration of the prologue and deals with today’s section:
https://www.ibenedictines.org/2019/09/03/the-worker-monk/

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