Something for Liturgists to Remember

We are almost at the end of the liturgical code in the Rule of St Benedict. We have read through the chapters that tell us how many and which psalms and canticles are to be said at the various Hours of the day and noted Benedict’s instructions about the way in which they are to be performed. We stand in honour of the gospel; we sing the Invitatory psalm of Vigils rather slowly, so that latecomers have time to arrive; we know when to sing alleluia and when not. But it is only after all these regulations that we come to chapter 19 and Benedict’s treatment of the dispositions we need to sing the Divine Office worthily. How many liturgists today would think of leaving to the end of their treatise what most of us would think of as the starting-point?

Benedict reminds us that God and his angels are always present and urges us to ‘sing the psalms in such a way that mind and voice may be in harmony.’ (RB 19.7) There are times when the routine of the Office may overtake us, when we sing the words and perform the ritual gestures with less than full attention, but that is clearly not the ideal. I think the placing of this chapter is an oblique comment on the temptation to think that the correct performance of the liturgy is enough; it isn’t. Our hearts and minds must be fully engaged, too, and as anyone committed to reciting the Divine Office every day will admit, that is not always easy. Moreover, although Benedict makes plain elsewhere that he isn’t keen on those with very modest singing or reading abilities acting as cantors or giving out antiphons, he assumes that the choral office will be the prayer of the whole community. It is not the preserve of the chosen few. The corollary is, of course, that everyone has the duty to prepare properly. Those who need better knowledge of the psalms and lessons, for example, are told to devote the time between Vigils and Lauds to studying them (RB 8.3). As we shall see elsewhere in the Rule, mistakes caused by negligence are subject to correction. Benedict will not excuse any slovenliness or inattention.

So, what can we take from this for today, especially if we are not monks or nuns? I think in the first instance we can take heart. Prayer is important, and the common prayer of the community, be it the local congregation or that of the universal Church, has special value. It requires of us more than mechanical participation. It is a means of entering into the prayer of Christ himself, ‘the chief prayer of the psalms’ as St Augustine calls him, which means we must make an effort to be attentive. Little by little prayer changes us. One day, we may change the world — but only insofar as we have allowed Christ to become all in all to us.

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The Gentleness of Christ

I love Dante’s characterisation of St Luke, whose feastday it is, as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, scribe of the gentleness of Christ. Gentleness isn’t a quality that gets a very good press these days. We seem to admire more those who are loud in their own praise, the doers of deals, the ‘strong men’ of the Kremlin and the White House. Those who do value gentleness are often considered to be milksops, people who exalt weakness because they are incapable of strength. What a topsy-turvy way of looking at things! Only the truly strong and brave know how to be gentle, because to be gentle is to admit the truth of any and every situation and meet it with dignity and resilience. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the gentle man par excellence; the one who, in Julian’s words, ‘was never wroth’ but looked upon our sins with the eye of mercy, even as he hung upon the cross to die for us.

Can we emulate such gentleness in our own lives? The English origins of the word suggest nobility, and we would all like to be noble; but there is something more if we look at the Latin gentilis from which our English word comes. Gentilis literally means belonging to the same clan or gens; so to be gentle is to be of the same family, the same blood or, as we might say today, one with the other. I think that if we look at the life of Christ, especially as portrayed by St Luke, we can see immediately how closely Jesus identified with others. His courtesy towards women, his patience with his disciples even when they were jockeying for position, these spring from an understanding and human sympathy that we can try to cultivate. To be gentle with others is not to say ‘anything goes’ or allow others to trample us at will. It is to find in Christ the courage and strength we need to meet everyone and everything with the same compassion and generosity of spirit — to be, in other words, channels of his love and grace to the world.

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Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.

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Never Despair of God’s Mercy

rocks in a lake

The title of this post comes from today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict. It is the last tool of good works named in the chapter and one on which most of us rely all our life (RB 4.76). This morning, with the folly of Brexit again before our eyes and the Church as much in turmoil as ever, it is something to cling to, like a rock. But rocks are not only places of refuge: they can also provide the footing from which to launch ourselves into the deep. The mercy of God is like that, too. It upholds us in times of trouble and propels us forward when we need to go further into the mystery of God and our own vocation. It takes thought, prayer and humility to decide which is which. Let us pray that we may each discern correctly what is being asked of us today.

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The Language of Death and Dying

Regular readers will know that I tend to be fairly straightforward about death and dying. ‘Brutally blunt’ was the term used by someone blessed with greater sensitivity, or perhaps a richer vocabulary, than I. The truth is, I have watched at the bedsides of too many people in their last hours to be squeamish about the process of dying, and my own illness forces me to contemplate my own death with as much regularity as the precepts of the Rule could desire. (As an aside, Benedict refers to death and judgement several times and exhorts the monk to keep death daily before his eyes, RB 4.47). Death, then, is no stranger; and though I do not think I would ever follow St Francis in calling it ‘Sister Death,’ I do not care for the various euphemisms we use to try to rob the word of its power. When I die, I shall die: I shall not ‘pass’ or ‘pass away’. Still less shall I ‘fall asleep’ or ‘lose my battle with cancer’. Does it matter? I think it does.

Traditionally, Christianity has always seen death as an entrance into the fullness of life. It is as much a part of life as being born, and just as precious. To be with someone in their last hours is a great privilege. Yes, it’s nice if the process of dying is attended with clean sheets, quietness and an absence of struggle, but often it isn’t. It can be messy, painful and as far removed from the idealised version as it is possible to be; but the moment when God comes to claim his own, when sin and failure fall away and the true beauty of the soul is glimpsed, is always a moment of sheer wonder. The power of God is active in a way we rarely advert to at other times, so we have no need to dress death up with circumlocutions as though it were somehow an affront to our humanity. It is the realisation of our humanity, the completion of our humanity.

Today, many will be recalling the anniversaries of those who have died. For those of us who lived through them, the events of 9/11 seem unforgettable, but memories fade, and the personal connections dissolve. I like the fact that Catholicism has never seen any need to distinguish between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the monastery, for example, every Hour of the Divine Office, every meal we eat, ends with a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed. We pray for ALL the faithful departed, not just those known to us. By that simple remembrance, we unite with those who have died, of course, but also with those who grieve and with those who have no words to form a prayer; and just as the words we sing or the food we eat are, so to say, a fleshly reality, so death itself becomes not an absence of life but truly part of it.

The language of death and dying is beautiful in its honesty and its starkness. Let us honour it and pray that we ourselves will meet death with courage and truthfulness when it comes. In the meantime, let us not shy away from it or try to pretend death doesn’t exist. It does, and we should rejoice in that fact — because where Christ has gone before, we hope to follow.

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What’s the Point of It All?

Almost by accident (I use Google Alerts), I found myself mentioned in a recent Church Times article about the use of Social Media, mainly by Anglican clergy and academics. Along with the Church Mouse, Digitalnun seemed to be consigned to a list of ‘old has beens’ which made me smile. It reminded me of Wired back in the early 2000s prophesying the end of blogging. What I think the article and several of a similar nature have made clear, however, is that attitudes are changing. We are more aware of the limitations and pitfalls of any kind of internet engagement, and without a coherent idea of why we are here and what we hope to achieve (if anything), it is all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’ — especially in Social Media.

As a community we would say we know why we engage with people via the internet but we are also conscious that what we have done in the past may no longer be relevant. For the last few years we have concentrated on blogging and Social Media interaction, mainly because our Broadband is unreliable and we are not very good at visual images and videos. I still think there is value in such interaction, but the chances of having a good discussion on Twitter or Facebook, the two platforms beloved of the older user, are probably fewer than in the past because we are all tending to react rather than reflect; and trolls rear their ugly heads in some surprising quarters.

Overhauling our websites recently (publication still a little way off because of the complications of Cor Orans), I came to the conclusion that we need to revisit some of the things that we adopted early on but then gave up. For example, we more or less ceased podcasting when D. Teresa died in 2010, but podcasting is now growing exponentially and we are thinking about resuming on a regular basis. It is definitely a favourite with the under 35s and sits well with our interest in serving the needs of the blind and visually impaired. There is a catch, however: the traffic trundling past on the A465. Can we find a quiet place to record? The ear is a delicate instrument and picks up all kinds of sounds. We do not want to inflict aural agony on the listener, so we need to think about it.

The big question, of course, is whether this activity is really doing what we hope it is doing. We have always seen it as an expression of our monastic hospitality. It begins in prayer and leads back to prayer, and we hope that en route, as it were, it brings the reader/tweeter/friend into contact with the living God, even if he/she would not necessarily think of it in those terms. There are many people who have no contact with a monastery, or whose contact is at the most superficial level. By bringing the monastery into cyberspace, we hope that we can deepen that monastic experience and make it more available to others. That is where you come in.

What we would like to ask you is what you would like to gain from our websites and interaction on Social Media. Please don’t ask for lots of photos of nuns in olde-worlde habits or the live-streaming of the Divine Office. We are a small community and there are others who can supply such ‘needs’ more easily than we can. What we are asking you to do, I suppose, is to think about why you bother to read this blog, visit our websites, or interact with us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus or LinkedIn. You can help us plan for the future, and we would be immensely grateful.

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Enjoying Sunday

One of the things I think Catholics do particularly well is to enjoy their religion. We do not put on a gloomy and sanctimonious face when we go to church, nor do we spend overmuch time listening to sermons. We have our fasts, but we like our feasts, too. The ‘twenty minute Mass’ beloved of race-goers of old probably does not exist any more, but we are very good at adapting the liturgy to suit our needs: slow, and with many a prayerful pause, at the conventual Mass; rather brisker at the parish 8.30 a.m. Mass over, off we go, without any silly scrupulosity, to enjoy the rest of the day, doing whatever we want, or nothing at all, as our fancy takes us. Is there anything wrong with that? I think not. Far too often Christianity is presented as a religion of negatives, one that prevents us doing what we want, or makes us feel guilty if we do. Granted, Christianity does urge us to be truthful, honest, kind, compassionate, etc, etc, but these are good things that any sane person would want to be, and prayer, though frequently derided by those with no experience of it, does open us up to the wonder and beauty of God. Sunday is our sabbath, our day of rest, our joy, our delight: the first day of the week that sets the tone for the rest. Here in the monastery we spend more time in prayer and reading than is possible on other days, but we also eat a better dinner and have a strict rule that no one is to correct (i.e. argue with/scold/berate) another for anything. That means that there are usually no arguments, no clashes, and everyone is free to be herself, as God intends her to be, and is grateful for the gifts that the day brings. Is there something here for everyone, monastic or not?

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BBQs in the Graveyard

You may have read a recent report about three adults and seven children holding a BBQ in a West Yorkshire graveyard. Nothing wrong with that, you may think. After all, the early Christians regularly held feasts at the tombs of their dead and, even today, in southern Europe and Latin America it is not uncommon to find people eating and drinking and making merry in cemeteries to mark All Saints/All Souls. However, the couple who spotted the BBQ-ing group were shocked to see that they were using a tombstone for their BBQ. When remonstrated with, one of the men replied in a less than gracious manner. The rest is Social Media history.

Presumably, it was not principally the fact that the BBQ was being held in consecrated ground that gave offence but the use of a particular memorial and the churlish response to the suggestion that doing so was ‘disrespectful’. (There is no hint that the tombstone belonged to a family member of either the BBQ-ers or the complainers.) It is a clear case of two different standards of behaviour clashing. On the one side, there is the ‘I can do what I like’ approach; on the other, the ‘there are limits to what is acceptable’ point of view.

I daresay there are laws that cover what may or may not be done in Anglican churchyards but I doubt whether they explicitly mention BBQs. Part of me has no problem with partying in a graveyard, provided no damage is done and all waste is cleared away; part of me finds the use of a memorial to the dead as nothing more than a convenient table-top for cooking rather repugnant. I wonder what your response would have been, and how you would have dealt with the situation? Me, I suspect I would have taken the coward’s way out, and passed by on the other side, saying nothing but praying for the group and for the deceased.

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A Bad Day for Religion?

A couple of reports caught my eye as I skimmed the news headlines this morning. One suggested that societies become wealthier as they lose their religion, the other that a majority of people in this country think that religion is the main cause of wars.* Are we back to the Durkheim versus Weber debate, I wondered, as I paused to think what might have led to these conclusions. The idea that we may become materially richer once we drop the restraints of religion strikes me as being self-evident. Most of the religions I can think of, not just Judaism or Christianity, stress honesty, charity towards others and similar checks on the untrammelled pursuit of material gain. No morality works better than the Protestant Work Ethic when it comes to amassing money, surely? So, if you want to be rich, you had better aim at being fundamentally selfish and ditch your religion — but don’t be surprised if you aren’t necessarily happy. I imagine it is possible to be both rich and happy but it cannot be assumed, any more than being poor and happy can. There seems to be something in us as human beings that makes us want to be loved, and to be loved there generally has to be something that others find loveable. A selfish focus on gain for oneself isn’t usually that.

Religion as the cause of war or volence is trickier. Are we talking about religion or the public perception of religion? The rise of Islamist terrorism has tended to make us all nervous of the kind of religious fundamentalism that sees inflicting death on others as a good act. Those of a more historical bent like to remember the religious persecutions of earlier times, while those who have fallen foul of certain kinds of contemporary Christian fundamentalism are quick to point out that there is still much hatred being heaped upon those who do not subscribe to its tenets or conform to its expectations. (And, lest anyone be in any doubt, the fundamentalism I speak of can be found in the Catholic Church as well as in other denominations.) I have a  suspicion that blaming religion for wars and violence may be more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a carefully considered argument. It is socially acceptable to say so, but what is socially acceptable isn’t necessarily true.

That leads me back to my original question: is this a bad day for religion? I’d say it is a bad day for bad religion, certainly. But it would be silly to stop there. It is an opportunity for those of us who claim to be religious to examine how we actually live our religion and resolve to do better. Chesterton once observed that it wasn’t that Christianity had been tried and found wanting but that it had never been tried at all. That is an uncomfortable reminder that the way in which those of us who are Christians try to live the gospel really matters. We may never be rich in this world’s goods (see above) but to be rich towards God and his children, that is our aim. And the shocking truth is that if we who are Christians really were all that we are called to be, no one would ever think of blaming religion for the wars and violence that scar the face of the earth, for they wouldn’t exist; nor would anyone be calculating how much material wealth might flow from our dropping religion because the world would be a very different place, where the inequalities of the present order would be, quite literally, unthinkable. Utopian? Of course, but anyone who has read Utopia will know what More was criticizing and why. Couldn’t we make this into a good day for religion by our response?

*The BBC reported the first, Theos the second, but I don’t have the links to hand.

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The Fragility of Hope

Is it just me, or do the news headlines of the last few weeks seem to be full of sadness? We read of natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and wildfires, taking their toll of human life; disease spreading fear and death into countries already ravaged by war and civil unrest; the unremitting violence of terrorists and thugs; and then the high-profile deaths of some who have taken their own lives or who have been brutally battered in their homes or on our supposedly ‘safe’ streets. We read of broken promises, agreements reneged upon and political spats that may have consequences for years to come. It all seems very dark, and then we add to it the stories few others may know about: the family torn apart by alcoholism, the would-be nun living in a homeless shelter because her bishop has closed the monastery in which she used to live, the famous person close to despair. It is difficult, in such circumstance, to keep our hope up, especially if we think of hope as something that innoculates us against doubt or fear. Depression, anxiety, even a fleeting feeling of being down in the dumps, are realities we have to face.

This morning I found my own personal encouragement in something that may strike others as strange. In today’s gospel (Mark 3. 20-35) we read that those hostile to Jesus said, ‘Beelzebul is in him!’ Think about that for a moment. It is an utter travesty of the truth, but Jesus had to live with it. The argument he uses to refute the scribes’ allegation impresses us, because we know the truth of the matter, but I wouldn’t mind betting that at the time, both to him and his hearers, it looked a little weak. There was no act of power to substantiate what he said. We do not often think of Jesus as needing hope.* Trust in the Father, yes, but hope, no. I think, however, that this is an instance of Jesus’ living by hope, uncertain of the outcome, but continuing nonetheless. It is a variant of what I have called elsewhere ‘just plodding on’. In our weakest moments, when everything seems black, that is all we can do. We cannot summon up a feeling of faith we do not have; we just have to go on.

Please pray today for those who feel they cannot go on; and give thanks for those whose humanity enables them to reach out to others in their need and give them comfot.

* I speak of Jesus in his humanity, not as he was and is as the Second Person of the Trinity.

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