The Meaning of Snow

snow at the monastery 18/3/2018

All night snow fell, hushing everything. This morning the world is full of mystery as familiar sights take on strange shapes and forms. Snow lies thick on the cider mill, the fruit trees and the lawns. The Black Mountains are white again and there is a beautiful, luminous silence which quietens mind and heart. It is a precious time, one in which to learn again the meaning of prayer, fidelity and perseverance. Too many people want to fill the world with clamour, shrieking loudly that this is wrong or that is bad and they alone have the answer to all our problems. The truth is, there is only one solution to every wrong, every human failure: Christ Jesus our Lord. The snow understands that. Its bright, warm mantle covers everything, dresses it all anew in white — the bride clothes of the Church. This morning, here in Herefordshire, the union between Christ and his Church is written in the landscape. It is a huge encouragement, a blessing, as we go deeper into Lent.

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Of Old Men and Children: RB 37

St Benedict was no sentimentalist. Even though he thought that human nature would make us tender-hearted towards the most vulnerable, he nevertheless stipulated that the Rule must protect both the very old and the very young. He adds that they should not have to observe the rigour of the Rule as regards mealtimes but be allowed to eat earlier. Thus, in two short sentences, he sums up what we, in our wordier way, seem to need endless reports and official recommendations to ensure: how to look after those unable by reason of age or infirmity to look after themselves.

It is worth thinking about that for a moment. A monastic community is not (usually) made up of people tied to one another by the natural bonds of family or kinship. Quite often there are substantial differences in background and outlook as well as age and fitness. It is the shared enterprise, the  quest for purity of heart and the realisation of the Kingdom, that unites the community. That is why mutual encouragement and sharing one another’s burdens is so important. It is also why Benedict never, for one moment, suggests that anyone in community is superfluous or beyond the scope of the community’s love and concern. No matter how weak some are or how badly individuals may behave, the community has what we would call today a duty of care that every single member must exercise towards his/her fellows.

How do we measure up to that in society today? How often do we hear mumblings about how ‘the Government’ has failed us because X did not get the medical care we thought he should, or ‘the Council’ has failed us because it did not provide Y with the childcare solution we think it should? Yes, we pay taxes and expect services in return, especially for the young (e.g. education) and the old (e.g. healthcare), but that does not mean we can ignore our own individual responsibility to look after those who need help. During Lent we have an opportunity to think more deeply about the meaning of almsgiving and what may be asked of us. It is comparatively easy for most of us to drop a few pence into a Charity collection box, but to give time to that grumpy old neighbour or provide a safe environmnet for the young to play in may prove much more demanding. Perhaps that would be a useful subject for us to ponder today?

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Bumbling On

We have reached that stage of Lent when I am just bumbling on. In case this state of affairs is unfamiliar to you, let me describe some of its main characteristics. All efforts to make good the negligences of other times, as counselled by St Benedict, seem to be fading fast. The prospect of chemotherapy later this week and a number of urgent tasks there is no one else to do is making me grumpy. ‘Fervour’ is a word I have excised from my vocabulary. Instead of a halo, I have horns. All I can do is bumble on as best I can, falling down and picking myself up again, always getting things wrong but continually trying anew. The trumpets won’t sound for us bumblers, but perhaps there may be a penny whistle as Easter approaches.

Do not underestimate bumblers or bumbling. Like the tortoise, we may last the course better than the hare. The secret of bumbling is this: to place everything in the hands of the Lord and do our best to follow wherever he leads. There is no need to look at ourselves or try to measure our own progress. We have set out on the way that leads to salvation and are content to limp into heaven if need be. It is enough.

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Staying Safe and Warm

Well-meaning exhortations to stay safe and warm have been falling as thickly as snowflakes recently. Part of me is tempted to respond with a crisp reference to the Letter of St James, but that would be mean-spirited and curmudgeonly. I think of those who are much worse off than we are, who really have nothing to complain of: those sleeping rough, those without adequate heating or with empty store cupboards, those too weak or ill to do more than pile on another blanket (if they have one) and hope for the best. Throughout the U.K., mainland Europe and the eastern seabord of the U.S.A. there must be many thousands shivering their way through the day’s misery, and this is not one of those problems that can be solved by the intervention of an aid agency or some official support service. It can only be alleviated by human kindness, by simple, personal acts of love and concern. Staying safe and warm is not just for those who are rich enough or able enough to ensure that they remain comfortable whatever the weather. It is for everyone.

So, the question for today is, how can I help those who aren’t safe or warm? Do I even know who/where they are? This is where today’s Lenten almsgiving begins for us as a community, and perhaps for you, too.

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A Bleak Start to Spring: the Joy of Asceticism

Today is the first day of spring, difficult to believe when there is a blizzard blowing and regular radio alerts to avoid unnecessary travel. It is also the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales, when we remember his dying exhortation to ‘be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things’ — or, if we are inconveniently historical-minded, remember also his gruelling asceticism, which involved monks pulling the plough themselves, drinking only water and living off bread and salt. The relationship between joy and asceticism is one many find strange; and looked at from the outside, I suppose it is. But from within, it makes pefect sense. Asceticism is a necessary discipline, though the particular forms it takes are variable.

During Lent the whole Church undergoes a kind of collective asceticism, with everyone trying to free themselves from the negligences of other times. Older writer used to call it the ‘spring-cleaning’ of the soul: a time when we get rid of the clutter and allow grace to do its work in us. I like the idea of Christian souls becoming more highly burnished with love and zeal the closer we get to Easter, but I admit it can be exhausting. By this stage of Lent our enthusiasm can be waning. The extra time to be spent in prayer is shrinking; the fasting has many exceptions; and almsgiving is on hold while the charity sector sorts itself out. It is, in truth, a bleak start to spring.

Bleak it may be, but it is spring nonetheless: a time of growth and preparation for future fruitfulness. The snow has beaten down the daffodils in the garden but they are still there, ready to straighten up once the cold wind has passed. The buds on the fruit trees are in suspended animation, but not for long. So too with us. We may be feeling a dip in fervour for the moment, but we keep our goal in sight. St Benedict loved Lent and wanted his monks’ lives always to have a Lenten quality. Like his near-contemporary St David, he saw the connection between asceticism and joy, or, as we might say today, the connection between self-discipline and true self-fulfilment. Without asceticism there can be no real love, no real joy. Stick at it!

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A Leap of Faith

BRo Duncan PBGV takes a leap in the snowThroughout Europe a Siberian blast is sending us all into a collective shiver. Here in Britain the ‘Beast from the East’ makes our customary preoccupation with the weather a source of much merriment if we’re sitting round a warm fireside, or much misery if waiting cold and numb for a ‘bus or train that is late or never comes. Our attitude is constantly shifting, and it does not take much to turn us from one to the other.

Lent can be a bit like that. There are some mornings when we awake full of fervour and good will, ready to ‘do battle with the dragon black’. At others, we can barely bring ourselves to come out from under the duvet. It is no use exhorting our unenthusiastic selves to ‘stop idling’ or ‘get going’. All that tends to do is to induce feelings of guilt or failure. Instead, we have to trust (which is faith by another name). Lent is not working out quite as we hoped or intended, but provided we don’t put up any deliberate obstacles to grace, it is working out as the Lord intended. Just going on despite our failures and backslidings — what monastics call perseverance — is what counts. We have to make a daily leap of faith, almost without realising what we are doing. It may not be a very large or brave one, but it will be enough to set us on the road to salvation, to Easter joy and bliss. Be encouraged!

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What’s in a Name?

People are sometimes puzzled by the fact that our community has two names. We are both Holy Trinity Monastery and Howton Grove Priory. The first shows that we are under the patronage of the Most Holy Trinity and was the name we chose when we were canonically established as an autonomous monastic community in 2004. At the time we lived in rented accommodation, and the impermanence of our situation was reflected in our decision to call ourselves just a monastery. It has since become our legal name and is the one by which we are recognized by the Charity Commission and Companies House (in law, we are an Incorporated Charity). But English Benedictine monasteries have always tended to take the name of the place where they are geographically, so since moving to Howton Grove we have become known as Howton Grove Priory (we are not big enough to be an abbey, so we are just a priory). There is something important about identifying with where we live, connecting with the soil on which we stand. It grounds us, literally.

So, what does calling ourselves Christian mean; and why do we further refine the meaning by identifying as Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or whatever? If we stop to reflect what a large claim we are making when we call ourselves Christians, most of us would probably end up as confused as the disciples on Mount Tabor when they glimpsed the glory of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. We are saying to all the world not merely that we are disciples of Christ, his humble followers, but that we have in an important sense been incorporated into Christ through baptism. We are no longer ‘just’ anything. We have been transformed. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, it is one thing to have been changed ontologically, quite another to live out the transformation in our daily lives.

But what about those other labels we give ourselves: do they matter or are they just tribal identifiers, so to say? My own answer would be that they do indeed matter. By calling myself a Catholic of the Latin or Roman Rite (as distinct from the Eastern Rite), I let everyone know what I believe about the Church, the sacraments, the whole economy of salvation. I don’t pretend to understand all that I believe, but I trust the Church’s guidance on these matters because where I have been able to test what she teaches, I have found her teaching true. For example, it matters greatly to me that the Church is consistent in her teaching about the sanctity of human life, with no quibbles or accommodations. It helps me think about some of the perpelexing moral issues we face in society today. Above all, it convinces me that it matters how we respond — what we say or do in these areas of life. Similarly, I have always found the Catholic take on Christology both immensely challenging and encouraging. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my gist.

This Sunday, why not spend a few moments thinking about the way in which the names we have taken on ourselves reflect what we truly are; and if they do not, let us ask the help of him who can do all things. Lent is a time of transformation. Grace is all around. We have only to accept it, that we may become what we are meant to be.

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Of Data Protection, Photos and Compassion

During the past few months we have been familiarising ourselves with the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force on 25 May 2018. We have dutifully completed online courses to ensure we understand most of what we are dealing with, redrafted our web site Privacy Statements, deleted old contact lists, prepared new sign-up forms for our newsletters*, found keys to locks we never thought of using before and generally tried to make sure we are doing what we ought. As we have no intention of sharing any personal information with others nor any thought of marketing anything, it has seemed at times an enormous waste of effort; but it is the law, and we must obey. The question, as so often, is: cui bono? Who will actually benefit from what we are doing?

In our case, my own answer is a rather doubtful one because of the very limited amount of information we hold, but lack of privacy and the exploitation of personal data is fast becoming a major problem in society. No matter how careful we are as individuals, it seems we are always on the verge of having our identities stolen or becoming the victims of fraud, and there are remarkably few ways of obtaining redress.

The trouble is that at exactly the same time as we are trying to make life more secure in one way (data protection laws), we are effectively undermining personal security in another. It has become commonplace to photograph everything from the food on our plate to what we see in the street and to upload the results to one of the many sites that are basically image collections. The idea of asking permission rarely seems to occur to anyone. As you can imagine, we sometimes get snapped as we go about our lawful occasions (the habit is a big draw) and I often want to ask the photographers whether they realise that what they are doing is an invasion of privacy and might even be putting someone at risk (e.g. our car has a distinctive number plate). I think we can handle that, but not everyone could; and it is naive to think that anything posted online is somehow ‘anonymous’ or untraceable, as many have found to their cost.

Data protection laws are fine, but wouldn’t it be better to try to create a culture of thoughtfulness towards others which takes into account people’s need for privacy and security? The individual bears as much responsibility as an organization does in this respect, but it isn’t really something we can legislate for — and anyway, who would want to do that?

Thoughtfulness is one of the qualities we admire in others, but how often do we make the connection with almsgiving (from the Greek for showing mercy or compassion, i.e. fellow-feeling) and link it with what we are about during Lent? Being compassionate towards others is an essential part of our Lenten discipline and it extends beyond giving money or time to good causes. It means adopting a particular way of living, of being always concerned about others and doing what is best for them rather than ourselves. It may seem slightly absurd to associate taking a photo without permission/thought of the consequences with compassion, but unless we make the connection those of us who love taking photos may find that we have failed to protect others from an unwarranted intrusion into their lives, that we have been perpetrators of a wrong. Put like that, isn’t it worth thinking first?

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Giving Up Nastiness for Lent

I don’t know about you, but for me Lent has been all downhill since Ash Wednesday. It began so well, with a nice little burst of fervour as we chomped through our dry bread for breakfast; continued as we said the Office, remembering to omit ‘alleluia’, and probably reached its peak as we sat down to vegetable soup in the evening with that cold, hollow feeling that only a fast of the Universal Church can induce. Then came Ash Thursday. And with Ash Thursday came chemotherapy and its side-effects, from which I am only just beginning to emerge, as moody and morose as it is possible to be. But, alas, with Ash Thursday came the news that all the electrical work we had done a couple of years ago had failed its mandatory Five Year Electrical Check and has to be done again. Then, on Ash Friday, we awoke to discover that one of the reglazed panes of glass in the haywain had cracked to smithereens and had to be replaced. I barely dare look at the dog, for fear of discovering that he is in need of urgent medical attention, and I haven’t yet ventured into the garden, just in case.

The net result of all this is that fervour has taken a nosedive. Lent begins to look immensely long. My Lent Bill, which looked so embarrassingly modest before I began, now seems almost impossible of attainment. Truly, the penances the Lord ‘chooses’ for us are much more effective than any we choose for ourselves. I was musing on this earlier today and realised that, as often happens, I had missed the obvious. While I have been scratchy and irritable and even slightly peeved that I have not been able to set out on my programme of Lenten penances (note the egotism there), I have been failing to make the most of the opportunities offered by the events of everyday. I very much doubt whether I’ll ever be reconciled to the nausea and tiredness my treatment brings; but I could try being nicer to those around me. I very much doubt whether I’ll ever rejoice at having to spend more money on work I thought we had already had satisfactorily completed; but I could try not to grumble about it quite so much. In short, whatever happens, there is one thing I can always do. I can give up nastiness for Lent.

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Another School Shooting in the U.S.A.

Yesterday’s events at Parkland, Florida, have saddened us all. There is always something peculiarly shocking about the loss of young lives, and as we pray for the dead and injured, our hearts go out to the bereaved and shocked parents. Inevitably, there will be calls for better gun control in the U.S.; and equally inevitably, there will be opposition from the N.R.A. and from U.S. citizens who believe that any change in the law would be a violation of their rights.

As an Englishwoman, I have to admit that I simply do not understand how any nation can justify the kind of gun policy we see in the States, nor the fundamentally unhistorical basis of its present formulation. The armed militias of the eighteenth century did not have access to semi-automatic weapons. The kind of mass shooting that occurred yesterday could not have taken place in the way it did had the perpetrator used an eighteenth century gun, with its slow loading and slow firing mechanisms. That, however, is a technicality. The underlying problem for me, as for so many others, is what causes anyone to take up a gun and shoot others because of some sort of private grievance (I am assuming that there is no history of mental illness involved); and why anyone should advocate that more guns are needed for protection, rather than gun controls, including more thorough background checks. I do not know; I do not understand; and I am unimpressed by the simplistic answers that are flooding over Social Media.

One aspect of Lent is being honest about ourselves and what we do. This morning I am sure there are many in the U.S.A. who are thinking about their country’s gun policy. There are also many in Britain doing the same. After Dunblane, we made the possession of small firearms illegal, and we have not had to endure another such horrific shooting since. Is it enough just to be grateful that the government of the day acted swiftly? I think not. We learned from that experience, and I think we have a duty to say plainly that others could, too. I don’t believe in interfering in the internal affairs of another country, but when human lives are at stake, don’t we have a duty to speak up? Today’s first Mass reading, Deuteronomy 30. 1–15, confronts us with a choice between life and death, between following God’s ways and allowing our hearts to stray after idols. I hope my U.S. friends will not misunderstand when I say that idolising one element of the Constitution, and one with potentially such deadly consequences, can hardly be consistent with godliness. Please, America, cherish your children; don’t make it so easy for them to be killed.

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