Today is the feast of St Benedict and all true Benedictines will be celebrating with sober joy (it’s amazing what one can manage during Lent if one puts one’s mind to it). I must confess that we had set our hearts on inaugurating our new online retreat service today, but the many demands of the last few days seemed to have put paid to that. However, one should never underestimate a nun’s determination.
Inspired by our holy Father’s injunction to pray earnestly whenever one begins a good work, and enthralled as always by the possibilities of the silicon chip, we have beavered away in the night hours and this morning can present to you the first release of our Online Retreats with its easy-to-remember domain name, ‘onlineretreats.org’.
Everything was working as it should last night; I sincerely hope it is still doing so this morning. You can check for yourself at http://www.onlineretreats.org. For the time being, we’re only releasing one of the modules so that if a glitch manifests itself, tracking the problem should be easier than if we are dealing with half a dozen. The next challenge is to turn it all into an iPhone app. Enjoy.
Perhaps because I am writing this half asleep, after a week of short nights and long days and a particularly full one yesterday (BBC TV were filming a short feature for Breakfast TV on 23 March, we had guests for supper, there was a loaded inbox, deadlines to meet, you know the kind of thing: a leisurely day in the monastery), I am wondering what my Friday penance ought to be. The custom of marking Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent, as days when we perform some special act of penance is a very salutary one, in both senses of the word; but practically speaking, when one already has a Lenten programme spelled out in one’s Lent Bill (Benedictines) or in one’s resolutions for Lent (everyone else), Fridays are a problem. What does one give up or take on that is not already covered?
Some people read through at least part of the Passion in the early afternoon, on their knees. That means stopping what they are doing, which is not easy, especially when trying to meet a deadline, and switching to another mode, one which acknowledges that God is more important than anything we think important. Reading the Passion narrative in this way does have a penitential aspect but, more significantly, it reminds us why penance on Fridays is encouraged.
I don’t recommend that you should kneel down in your office or on your factory floor on Friday afternoon and get out your New Testament unless you want to be the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but if you too find the whole question of Friday penance rather perplexing, maybe you could find something just as simple that would be a help to you. It is not what we do but the love which accompanies it that matters. I’m not sure what I shall do today, but I’m pretty sure you will never know. The other aspect of Friday penance is keeping it a secret between God and ourselves.
Yesterday the whole world was stunned into silence. News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed left us without words. Even the enormities being perpetrated in Libya or Ivory Coast seemed small by comparison, as if the loss of human life could ever be a small matter! Yet I noticed that a few sick types were soon active on the internet, expressing glee that so many had been killed. There is something cold and closed about hatred, well summed up in Isaiah’s phrase about clenched fists and wicked words. To me, the clenched fist has never symbolized strength or power but only impotent rage: a hand unable and unwilling to receive. In the same way, the wicked word is deaf to all kindness, its own ugly clamour shutting out all but its own noise.
There is a promise attached to doing away with clenched fists and wicked words. Perhaps realising how vulnerable we all are is the first step in learning compassion. What happened yesterday in Japan reminded us that the world is not under our control, nor can the disaster be expressed in terms of statistics. Every one of those statistics has a name, an identity. As we learn, hour by hour, of the number of people who have been killed or gone missing, we need to remember that. We need to pray for them as individuals, to speak good words instead of bad and to open our hands to give.
Fasting has become fashionable, or at least, you will find a lot being written about it in the blogosphere. For us Benedictines, with our fairly rigorous Lenten fast and our regular Friday fast from September to Easter, that is not news. You will be pleased to know I have nothing to add to what has been said already. (Does she ever? Ed.) Similarly, much has been written about prayer which is good and useful, but this year I have noticed very little about the third element of our Lenten discipline, almsgiving.
Notice, first, that I call it a discipline, from the Latin, disciplina, a teaching. We are meant to learn something. Secondly, I use the word alms, from the Greek, eleēmosunē, meaning compassion. That is, we are meant to learn compassion during Lent. That in itself is worth thinking about, so too is the means recommended to us: sharing with others what has been given to us. Put like that, dropping a few coins into the hat of a busker or a couple of notes into a CAFOD envelope can seem horribly inadequate. It may be inadequate, of course, but the chances are that we are made uncomfortable more by the thought of our own imperfection than the inadequacy of our giving. Almsgiving becomes a contest, with the prize going to whoever can give most. You can see how absurd that is. Perhaps we should concentrate less on what we give and more on the manner with which we give. It is generosity of heart that counts, and we cannot fake that with God, no matter how many zeros we add to our gift.
Whenever I want to think through a coding problem for a web site, I “waste” time by looking at a number of religious blogs. The distraction helps, and I often end up finding something useful or stimulating while the coding problem resolves itself once I have stopped thinking about it. Maybe it’s just the blogs I follow, but I have to say that the ones I enjoy most are not often Catholic. Indeed, the Catholic blogosphere is sometimes a very nasty place to be. Why should that be so?
I think it may have to do with the current fashion for damning Vatican II and all its works and exalting the minutiae of liturgical observance. Now, I am not uninterested in liturgy, said she with a dangerous gleam in her eye, but I believe reverence is more important than anything. Say the black and do the red, but don’t accuse those whose practice differs from your own of lack of orthodoxy or worse. Don’t cherry-pick the Councils, either, if you want to have a truly Catholic understanding of the Church. Those more papal than the pope worry me. The energy devoted to hating others seems inconsistent with what we profess to believe. Of course, it could just be that I am out of step with the times. I don’t mind that if I am in step with Christ and his Church, or at least not too far off-course, though I can’t judge.
In the novitiate we were urged to be always one with the mind of the Church. That means reading and reflecting and taking the trouble to find out for oneself, rather than just assuming. It also means being kind. I think we sometimes forget that. When Christians cease to love one another, they cease to be Christians except in name. The history of Christianity is marred by rows and we live today with the resulting divisions. As we prepare to go to Mass, I can’t help wondering how I shall answer the question, “What did you do to bring unity to my Church? Did you love as I have loved you?” I hope that I won’t have to say, I abused your gifts, I wrote nastily about others, I hated and divided; but shall I?
Tomorrow, Feast of the Chair of St Peter, we shall be making an important community announcement and on Tuesday, 1 March, we shall be launching a new online service. All Deo Volente, of course; but if you are interested, please keep an eye on this blog and on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk.
In the meantime, I have been fascinated to learn that monkeys apparently suffer from self-doubt, just like human beings (see http://bbc.in/hz0z7y). I can’t help wondering how today’s saint, St Peter Damian, who was such a keen reformer (especially of clerical morals), would have reacted to that, had he known.
Peter Damian is sometimes judged harshly by those who see only his zeal and none of his compassion. He was orphaned early and never lost a sense of identification with the poor. As a Camaldolse (hermit Benedictine) his form of life was strict, but he was a gifted peacemaker and his love of the Church, though sorely tried during some of the sixteen papacies through which he lived, never left him. He is widely credited with having died of overwork, which is not a virtue but a measure of his obedience, which was heroic. The scandals of the last few years have reminded us how much we need another Peter Damian, fearless in speaking the truth, relentless in urging repentance, absolutely sure of what the Church, at its purest and best, should be. May he pray especially for all our clergy and those charged with their formation.
Sundays are very busy days for monks, nuns and clergy. That doesn’t mean that they lose everything we mean by ‘sabbath’: sacred leisure, silence, joy in the Lord. We have the custom of saving the best of what we have for Sundays, so even the food we eat marks out this day as special; and because Benedictines often work in solitude at their appointed tasks, we try to make this day one on which we share something as a community — a walk, perhaps, or that most British of institutions, tea at four o’clock.
I wonder whether many Christians have lost the sense of the importance of sabbath. We are so busy with all the multitudinous activities that fill the week-end that Sunday can end up being just another day with church on top. If so, it would be a good idea to think again about how we keep the Lord’s day holy. ‘The sabbath was made for man’: we are meant to have time to enjoy it.
Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)
There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.
So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.
The parish Mass this morning began with “Shine, Jesus, shine” which, as some of you know, is the community’s least favorite hymn. Yesterday’s bookcase-building plans had to be laid aside, and there followed a sleepless night for Digitalnun, so possibly not all was interior sweetness and light. In such situations there’s nothing for it but to let one’s distractions roam over what one has to be grateful for.
So, in no particular order, this is what I gave thanks for earlier today: the grey light over the church; the faith of those who gathered there; the jackdaw strutting over the lawn; the bulbs piercing their way through the dark earth; the smell of coffee; Duncan’s comical nose; the beauty of a new book; someone near me absolutely pitch-perfect (even in “Shine”!); the quietness of the monastery; the fact that I can see, hear and walk; the gift of community.
Isn’t it absurd to waste time and energy disliking a hymn when the beauty and holiness of God is everywhere? Praise him.
One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).
Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.
In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.
In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.
So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.