Serving the Cause of Right

Palm Sunday was glorious, wasn’t it? The sun shone, the procession was a riot of colour and waving palm fronds, and only the reading of the Passion narrative reminded us that in a few days the hosannas will be replaced by shouts of ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ The Monday of Holy Week dawns bleaker and colder. We read Isaiah 42. 1–7 and realise, with a start, that while we genuinely wish to be the Lord’s true servants and model ourselves on him, almost everyone believes they are ‘serving the cause of right’. The High Priest did; the Sanhedrin did; even Pilate thought he was doing his duty by Rome and the province he was governing. Our problem is not always seeing what is actually right but instead allowing ourselves to be guided by principles that smack of self-interest or may do harm to others by perpetrating injustice or untruth.

A few days ago Arnaud Beltrame, a lieutenant colonel in the Gendarmerie, showed us what it means to serve the cause of right. He gave himself up in place of a hostage and paid with his life. Few are called upon to make such decisions with so little opportunity to think through the consequences. There was surely more at work there than training or discipline. To give one’s life for another can only be possible when there have been lots of acts of self-surrender and service beforehand. Perhaps today we could think about the ways in which we must learn to serve and the renunciations we have to make. As St Augustine says of martyrdom, the way cannot be hard when it has been trodden by so many before us, but we must each of us walk it in our own way and in our own time. Holy Week give us a unique opportunity to learn how to serve the cause of right. May we not funk it.

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Preparing for Holy Week 2018

We shall soon be in Holy Week, the Great Week of the year, when we trace hour by hour the Lord’s Passion, culminating in his death on the cross on Good Friday and his resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday. Some of the concerns of other times fall away so that we concentrate on what really matters. Few of us, however, are able to mark Holy Week in ‘ideal’ circumstances. Work has still to be done, meals prepared and eaten; we may be ill or out of sorts, those around us may be cantankerous or demanding; we may be preoccupied with our role as priest or choir director and overwhelmed by all that is expected of us. It can be hard to accept that this is the best Holy Week for us, the one that will bring us closest to the Lord, provided we place no deliberate obstacle in his path.

There is really only one way to prepare for Holy Week. Centuries ago Walter Hilton included the Parable of the Pilgrim in his Scale of Perfection. The pilgrim’s constant refrain, ‘I will be at Jerusalem,’ is one we must echo. Whatever happens, whatever difficulties we encounter, we must keep our goal in mind and fix our gaze on Jesus. That simplifies everything. I myself, for example, will not be able to mark the Triduum as I would wish (I’ll be having chemotherapy on Maundy Thursday) but I am quite sure that I can still celebrate Holy Week and Easter with fervour and devotion. If we canot have the hours of prayer we long for, then we must make the most of the minutes we can have; if we cannot take part in all the great celebrations, above all the Easter Vigil, then we must  keep vigil in our hearts. Above all, we must allow Holy Week to do its work in us, and if we sense we are distracted, bored, filled with feelings of guilt or just numb and indifferent, we must trust that God’s grace is working powerfully within us — the same trust our Lord Jesus Christ displayed as he hung on the cross. That is what it means to live Holy Week in union with him.

Walter Hilton
If you are interested in Hilton, there are a couple of talks on him here, at the end of the page: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/talks.html. Flash needed.

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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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We are revising our contact lists in the light of the GDPR. If you would like to receive our occasional email newsletters, please use the MailChimp link below to sign-up. http://eepurl.com/dlQ7x5

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