The Right Thing to Do

It is almost impossible to talk about ‘the right thing to do’ without sounding like a politician. The phrase has been used and abused so often that it has become virtually meaningless. That is a pity, because there is nothing else that conveys the idea behind it so simply and beautifully.

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation. I am still left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated. We have seen something of that in recent discussion of marriage in this country. If we peep over the ecumenical fence, we can see our Anglican brethren tearing themselves in different directions over questions some of us find too perplexing for an answer yet.

Today is a good day to pray for all who have difficult decisions to make, who are keen to do the right thing because it is the right thing and nothing less will do. May SS John and Thomas pray for us all.

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Vocations Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also the forty-ninth anniversary of the Church’s Day of Prayer for Vocations. Do you ever ask yourself what exactly are we praying for on Vocations Sunday? Even more importantly, do you ever ask yourself whom we are praying for?

I suspect most of us are praying for someone else. Our prayer is, may he or she have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. May their son or daughter respond to the Lord’s invitation. (In many cases, most definitely may it be their son/daughter, not mine!) Very few of us consciously advert to the fact that when we pray for vocations we must also pray for ourselves. Vocation isn’t a once-for-all call in the sense that once we answer we need do nothing more. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum reminds us that we wake every day to hear what the Lord asks of us, and it is always something new. Vocation is on-going for each and every one of us.

When it comes to what we are praying for, many of us are probably more muddled than we like to admit (I know I am). We believe, in some vague way, for example, that priests and religious are a useful part of the Church; at any rate, they have ‘always’ been there, so we don’t want to lose them now. We need priests to celebrate the Sacraments, and religious can always be relied upon to pray for us when times are hard. Having a few around is therefore a good idea, a kind of celestial insurance policy if you like (I exaggerate, of course). Have we forgotten that when the Lord Jesus likened himself to a shepherd, he was using some very tough imagery about himself? It  should remind us that following him can never be comfortable or easy, that holiness is not, so to say, for wimps. Those who follow the Lord as priests or religious need to have similar qualities — toughness, courage and resilience, above all a willingness to sacrifice self, as well as the gentler and more immediately attractive qualities of love and compassion.

I like to pray on this Sunday for the graces I myself need to follow my vocation as a Benedictine nun as well as the graces others need to follow theirs. Whatever our vocation, all of us are called to be part of the Church. Together we make up the Body of Christ, flawless in beauty and holiness, perfect in faith, hope and love.

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Goodness and Wisdom

Goodness and wisdom probably don’t head the list of qualities being looked for when an organization is appointing a new managing director or CEO, but they are the first  that Benedict requires of an abbot (RB 64.2). The abbot’s personal qualities, however, are not the starting-point for his second chapter on the appointment of a superior (he has already treated the subject once in chapter 2): he begins with the way in which an abbot should be appointed, either by the whole community acting unanimously in the fear of God, or by some smaller part of it endowed with better judgement (RB 64.1).

I find that encouraging. Benedict’s view of human nature is positive. The abbot is chosen from the community, and he trusts the community to have the very qualities he seeks in the abbot. Leadership, in Benedict’s view, is not merely at the service of the community, it is a kind of distillation of all that is good and true in the community itself.

It was helpful to be reminded of that in the light of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Clearly there is concern about some members and some attitudes and actions inconsistent with Catholic belief and practice, but it is by no means the wholescale condemnation some have suggested.

Personally, I dislike the whoops of glee that sound in some quarters whenever there is a suggestion that priests or religious are being given a rap over the knuckles. In my experience, most priests and religious believe what they profess and are truly doing their best to serve the Lord and his Church. As a nun myself, I can’t help wondering whether there are some U.S. religious whose morale will have been delivered a severe blow. What affects one affects all, and not always positively. Perhaps today we could pray for those U.S. nuns and sisters whose lives are an inspiration and encouragement to others, who are genuinely good and wise, as well as those who have lost sight of the obligations of their vocation. We all need grace, and never more so than when we seem to be under a cloud of another’s making.

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Low Sunday

I love our homely English name ‘Low Sunday’ for Dominica in Albis, the Octave Day of Easter, when those baptized at the Easter Vigil traditionally laid aside their white garments and put on an Agnus Dei made of wax blessed by the pope to remind them of their newborn innocence in Christ. Another name is Quasimodo Sunday, from the words we sing at the introit of the Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. Alleluia, Alleluia. (‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile,’ etc, from 1 Peter 2.2). Low Sunday, however, is my favourite: it describes exactly that lowering of intensity we feel at the end of the Easter Octave. We have sung alleluia over and over again, rejoiced and given thanks: there seems nothing left to give. Joy, like grief, reaches a point where it almost numbs the senses.

Then we hear again the gospel of Thomas’s encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20. 19–31. I have often remarked that the Church uses John’s gospel at the peak moments of the Christian year. Surely this moment, when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and Thomas’s doubts are resolved, is a peak moment for all of us. It shows us not only what Christ accomplished through his Death and Resurrection but also why he suffered. His wounds are transfigured: love and compassion have made them beautiful, so that they are no longer blemishes but the source of grace and healing.

Christ’s Risen Body will always bear the wounds our sins have made upon them. That is not an easy thought. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, but at what cost! Surely we can tremble with Thomas at the enormity of the gulf that separates us from God, and the enormity of the love that spans the gap between. Low Sunday confronts us with the mercy and forgiveness of God less brutally than Good Friday, perhaps, but just as insistently.

The end of the Easter Octave is not the end of Easter. Low Sunday invites us to go deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Easter message. Just as the flame of the paschal candle continues to burn, so we too must continue to explore what it means to respond to our Lord’s invitation, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’.

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Mothering Sunday 2012

There are times when it can be very hard indeed to see the Church as our mother. The abuse scandals, the apparent harshness of some of her judgements, the inadequacy or incompetence of some her members, all conspire to make it difficult. But the lyricism of today’s liturgy reflects a profound truth. As Christians, born again of water and the Holy Spirit, the Church is truly our mother, nourishing us, nurturing us, setting us on the way to salvation. Teilhard de Chardin once remarked of the Church that it was like a mist surrounding the light, both revealing and concealing. There is only one way to reach the light itself, and that is by going through the mist.

Julian of Norwich wrote beautifully of the motherhood of God:

In our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. . . . The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. This is how our mother, Christ, works in mercy in all his beloved children who are submissive and obedient to him . . .

Christ our Lord is so ‘oned’ to the Church that his motherhood is now hers, just as his mother Mary is now ours also. That is a heartening thought, and hopefully an encouragement to all mothers* for whom this is not just Mothering Sunday but Mother’s Day as well.

*Our Facebook page contains our prayer intention for today which embraces all mothers, living and dead, and those who grieve because the gift of motherhood is not theirs.

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Patrick and Rowan: a tale of two bishops

I first met Rowan Williams when, as a youthful Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he came to tea at the monastery and three of us spent the afternoon discussing the psalter with him. It was, if truth be told, a slightly sticky occasion and only really lost all trace of self-consciousness when we moved from small talk to theology and poetry. I suspect that for many of us who are not Anglicans (and possibly for many who are) it is that ease with monasticism, theology and poetry that we first think of when we think of the archbishop. All that he has done, or tried to do, for the Anglican Communion during his tenure of Canterbury, the difficulties he has faced, the obloquy he has endured, remind me of Paul VI, with whom I think he would have had an affinity. He has done an impossible job to the best of his ability, and those of us who are less able can only be grateful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, Canterbury’s loss is Cambridge’s gain; and I am already looking forward to the books he will be writing.

St Patrick was bishop in very different times, but, mutatis mutandis, the challenges he faced bear comparison with those faced by Archbishop Rowan. To proclaim the gospel loud and clear, to help others understand subtle points of theology, to question the values of society, to retain in the midst of busyness a monastic calm and focus (though not a monk himself), these sound very contemporary, rightly so. A bishop can never be ‘popular’ in the way that a singer or movie star can be popular: he must stand up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost to himself. In the case of Patrick, his steadfastness led to Ireland’s becoming a missionary centre of the Church for hundreds of years, no mean achievement for an ‘outsider’.

Britain owes much to Ireland; in the person of Patrick, Ireland owes much to Britain — a reminder that, from a Christian perspective, so many of our quarrels and disagreements are unnecessary. They generate heat, as family squabbles always do, but they do not always serve to advance the message of the gospel. Today, as we pray for all who look upon St Patrick as their patron, let us also pray for Archbishop Rowan and the world-wide Anglican Communion.

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Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

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Greece in Flames

Anyone who doubts the impact of Europe’s financial crisis on the lives of ordinary people has only to look at the images and stories coming from Greece. Soup kitchens, abandoned children, street violence, these are not what we expect from a European country in the twenty-first century. We have all grown up with the notion of social and economic progress. Life is supposed to get better and better, but the last few years have shown that life does not get better for everyone. There is fear of a general economic meltdown and all the social evils which flow from that.

What is the Church’s response? By and large, what it has always been: practical help, prayer, and lobbying of political interests. The Orthodox Church in Greece is apparently feeding 250,000 people a day and its orphanages are struggling to cope with the number of abandoned children. That is humane, but everyone knows that something more is needed to address the roots of the problem. Suddenly Germany is the object of hatred. Berlin is blamed for the Euro crisis and for the suffering of the Greek people. It seems the European economic union is fragmenting before our eyes. Can it be long before the political union also is under strain?

Exaggerated? Perhaps, but it is high time we started to think about the future in more than narrowly personal terms. A ‘devaluation’ in our standard of living is inevitable and it challenges us to think through the implications of being Christian and the values by which we live. Selflessness and a sense of common purpose are essential. I think John Donne’s Meditation XVII is as apt here, as we watch the death throes of our accustomed order, as when we lament the death of an individual:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .

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Catholics and the Bible

I was surprised to find an Anglican friend commenting, almost in throw-away mode, that Catholics don’t read the bible much, or at any rate, not as much as Anglicans do. Is that true? Certainly, the Church puts before us a great deal of scripture during the course of the year and the use of the vernacular means that no one should be put off by having little Latin and less Greek (to say nothing of Hebrew). What is often forgotten is that scripture in the vernacular is not new. The Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament in 1609/10, just antedating the King James version. My recollection of the Catholic homes of my childhood is of seeing copies of these Rheims/Douay bibles alongside copies of the Vulgate. They were often modest volumes, printed on thin paper in a minute type size and small enough to be secreted in a large pocket. The really radical probably had copies of Ronald Knox’s translation somewhere, but it was the old bibles that charmed me. They spoke of a faith kept alive under difficult circumstances, not quite ‘respectable’, often hidden, always slightly ‘alien’ to the mass of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps the ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible’ idea comes from the way in which different traditions approach the scriptures. Many Catholics I know can quote huge chunks of the text but glaze over if one gives them, literally, chapter and verse. That doesn’t happen with my Protestant friends, who can conduct whole conversations bandying references back and forth. Possibly, the rich devotional life of Catholics needs to be considered, too. For example, the Jesus Psalter incorporates a lot of scripture as texts to meditate on, just as the Divine Office is itself made up almost entirely of psalms and scripture readings, but neither is a lectio continua of the whole bible such as one finds in many Protestant and Reformed churches.

So, perhaps my friend was right? I don’t know. What I do know is that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.

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St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.

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