‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly — Or Is It?

One of the debates that regularly surfaces at this time of year is when we should begin celebrating Christmas. The Advent purists argue for Christmas Eve; those with a more relaxed attitude simply go with the flow and start celebrating on 1 December; and people like ourselves do a kind of dance between the two. Our liturgy and our private modus vivendi is Advent through and through, but our public face is more accepting of the fact that most people find such distinctions baffling. Of course, we have the advantage of going on celebrating throughout the Octave and the Christmas season, but here and now we are trying to maintain the spirit of joyful expectancy that characterises Advent. How do we do so in a world that doesn’t really like waiting for anything and is always keen to brush anything negative or difficult out of sight?

Silence

I think we start with silence. Usually we begin Advent with three days of total silence. That didn’t happen this year because we had a prolonged power-cut to contend with, but the quality of silence we try to maintain is important. It is easy to fill our silence with noise — an endless inner chatter, our explosive reactions to events, too much self-indulgence in social media. It is when we begin thinking about these that we realise how addicted we have become and how difficult it is to assert any kind of discipline over ourselves. Yet, if we are to have anything worth saying, we do need to exercise some restraint. One area I think about particularly is my use of humour. Bad jokes abound at this time of year. Most are just not very funny, but some are wounding and offensive so we need to take care. That doesn’t mean calling others out for not meeting our standards: it means calling ourselves out for having got the tone wrong or not thought sufficiently about the consequences. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but not at someone else’s expense.

Sharing

I think we also need to think seriously about how we share our good fortune with others. It is easy to make a donation to a charitable organization or pledge a small amount of our time to lending a hand at a soup kitchen or facility for the homeless. Here at the monastery we try both to give of our abundance, as it were, and make time for the people who write to us. There never seems to be enough time to answer every letter, card or email but we do try, and that is what matters. Once upon a time we did not write at all during Advent (being ultra-purist). Now we content ourselves with trying to limit telephone calls and the less helpful kinds of interaction.

Forgiveness

My third suggestion comes from thinking about today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 40.1–11. Forget, for a moment, your favourite musical setting of those words, and concentrate on the meaning. God in Christ has forgiven us utterly. Forgiveness is never easy, especially if we think we are the one doing the forgiving. We are not so noble, nor so strong. But if we are to unite our Advent with our Christmas, our longing with its fulfilment, we have to take on board the need to forgive and to accept forgiveness. In other words, we have to let Christ be born anew in us every day of our lives. Then indeed we can agree ’tis the season to be jolly, can’t we?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Being Welcoming in a Time of COVID

Photo by Hombre on Unsplash

A Reality Check on Being Welcoming

I must admit that every time we re-read RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, I linger over its opening phrase: all guests are to be received tamquam Christus, as though Christ. This identification of the guest with Christ forms a kind of refrain throughout the chapter and has inspired many a writer to wax lyrical about Benedictine hospitality. It has also sometimes led to unreal expectations on the part of the guest, depending on how he or she sees Christ, and on the part of the one doing the welcoming. We all believe we would drop everything to welcome Christ, but in practice, this side of the Second Coming, meals still have to be cooked, rooms cleaned and all the unseen work of the monastery continued, no matter how much we want to lavish attention on the guest — or how much the guest wants our attention.

St Benedict’s Teaching on Hospitality

The Rule’s rituals of welcome — prayer, the kiss of peace, sharing food, washing the weary traveller’s hands and feet, reading scripture — and the exhortations to humility and kindness combine to produce an impression of austere but dignified welcome, very suited to sixth-century Italy but perhaps not quite so well suited to twenty-first century Europe or North America. We tend to want to be more ‘spontaneous’, more tactile even, and meeting the spiritual needs of the guest is rarely the first thought that crosses our mind. Taking hospitality online, as we have during the past twenty years or so, introduces new complexities. How much time should we give; how should we respond to the difficult, argumentative or downright rude? In short, how do we find new ways of being genuinely welcoming while at the same time preserving the very thing that makes our hospitality worthwhile in the first place, namely, our existence as a monastic community, dedicated to searching for God and helping others to search for him, too. Now there is COVID, and the situation has become more complex still.

The Effect of COVID

We are meant to be social beings but COVID has made us wary of one another. There has been a lot of isolation and loneliness to cope with; and for those who are most at risk if they catch COVID, there has been the added burden of trying to reconcile a warm welcome with a prudence easily misunderstood or ridiculed. Even the wearing of a mask to protect others can be derided. With Advent and the prospect of more mingling over the festive season, is there anything we can derive from St Benedict’s teaching on hospitality that might be useful to all, not just monks and nuns?

I think one of the most important things to take away from chapter 53 is the setting of boundaries. Just as the abbot must ensure that his community is not unduly troubled by guests, so the guest must moderate his or her expectations in the light of what is possible. The emphasis on the spiritual side of hospitality may not be fashionable but it is a reminder that everything we do has a spiritual aspect. So, our domestic festive gatherings may not be as uncomplicated as in past years but they can still be warm and generous because they are filled with love of God and of his children. It is not unreasonable, if clinically extremely vulnerable, to ask guests to take a lateral flow test before coming to one’s house. It is not unreasonable to reduce the number of people invited or re-think the kind of food and drink offered, so that there is less risk of contamination (e.g. via dips). These are small things but together they make a greater whole. Welcoming others in time of COVID may take a different form from the one with which we are familiar, but it can still be one of the most beautiful experiences in life, both for the welcomer and for the welcomed.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Assisted Dying Bill: Do You Trust the Government?

Discussion of the Present Bill

Discussion of the proposed changes to the law envisaged by the Assisted Dying 2021 Bill, now facing its second reading in the House of Lords, has been fairly predictable. Lawyers, philosophers, religious leaders, medical practitioners, disabled advocacy groups, politicians and others have all had something to contribute on both sides of the argument. There have been harrowing tales of people dying in agony, usually from the perspective of a near relative, distressed at what they were witnessing; eloquent pleas to be freed from pain coming from the very sick; haunting articulation of vulnerability from those who fear that allowing assisted dying might easily lead to pressure to comply with another’s decision or, worse still, have no power of deciding for oneself at all. At its best, the discussion has been honest and respectful; at its worst, it has degenerated into abuse of those who think differently.

Trust

One of the big questions that has often been glossed over, however, is that of trust. Not just trust in the medical profession or one’s nearest and dearest but trust in the Government and its readiness to protect its citizens. Having seen the shameful way in which the present British Government placed elderly and vulnerable care home residents at risk in the earlier stages of the COVID outbreak, I am not as sanguine as I might once have been about the ‘robust measures’ to be put in place if the bill becomes law. Does no one really think that if it were to a government’s economic or political advantage, it might use the system, so to say, to rid itself of some non-productive elements (people, to you and me)?

Manipulation of Facts

One of the consequences of climate change is that pressure on resources increases. Who would like to guess whether that might also add another ingredient to the mix? Encouraging Uncle Henry to take the honourable route out of life when he is old and frail is one thing, perhaps, but resentment of the elderly and sick stirred up in recent years, especially during lockdown, has wider implications. Have you noticed that death from COVID is not often presented straightforwardly as a COVID death but given some interesting qualifications. We are usually told that the deceased had ‘underlying health conditions,’ as though that made his/her death less important, less of a human tragedy. There is some manipulation of facts here in the way the figures are presented but we seem to be deadened to its significance in other areas of life — or am I being unduly cynical?

A Personal View

You will understand that I do not think of human beings as disposable items and am personally unhappy with both the underlying premiss and some of the concrete proposals of this bill. I have argued the same when discussing some previous iterations of this bill. That is not my purpose this morning. I pray for those debating the bill; I pray for those affected by its outcome — in other words, for all of us. Whatever decision is made in this instance, many of the questions the bill touches upon, including rights over one’s body and the role of the State, have far-reaching implications, but we are not always as wise as we would like to be.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Metaverse: Promise or Threat?

An Old Idea

Years ago I remember arguing that one of the problems of the internet was that it was too static, too predictable, and what we needed, especially those of us interested in the presentation of religion online, was a more immersive experience that went beyond what was then possible. The ‘informative’ web sites and forums were all very well but they failed to capture the essence of Christian belief and practice. We identified a particular difficulty in sharing the monastic experience with others. Romantic photos of buildings and individuals, accompanied by snippets of plainchant, were popular but didn’t contribute much to understanding. We did our best to address this difficulty with our online chapters, videos and podcasts, but it was still largely us broadcasting our view of life to others.

A Connected World

In the years since we have seen some remarkable developments. We may groan about Zoom meetings or live-streams, but the technologies available have made much more engagement possible for those who have neither the wealth nor the expertise to set things up for themselves. Now everyone is buzzing about the metaverse and the possibility of creating a parallel world of virtual reality which could reshape the entire internet — and I find myself hesitating.

Hesitations

The reason I hesitate is because I think there is a possibility of losing touch with reality and I am far from convinced the Churches have thought through the implications. By that, I don’t mean to oppose physical and virtual reality, which I see as equally ‘real’ though with different modes of being. I am thinking more of what I can best call moral reality. One of the striking aspects of life in the twenty-first century has been the privatisation of morality. If I think something is right, that entitles me to do pretty much anything in pursuance of my ideals or goals. I can murder someone because he or she is ‘wrong’ about something and ‘deserves’ to be eliminated; I can exalt my rights over your rights, on the roads or anywhere else I please. In short, I have become my own moral compass, unconstrained by the need to consider society or any other group. A virtual universe which we experience as ‘real’, which we can manipulate at will, is not without its dangers because it dispenses with many of the controls life usually imposes.

Once upon a time, people worried about video game violence and the blurring of the distinctions between violence on screen and violence off screen. Even after decades of research, no one seems entirely sure what effect it truly has. Part of the current debate about untrammelled violence following the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess has concentrated on the role of social media and the violent language used there and by our M.P.s themselves. The dignified, eirenical statement of the Amess family is a welcome reminder that the values of kindness and consideration are important to any civilized society, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. That it needed to be said is, however, sobering.

What Will the Churches Do?

Of course, as soon as one uses the word ‘civilized’, one begs a series of questions about what constitutes civilisation. For me, grounded in the Western Christian tradition, the answer is not difficult and includes a host of values that are shared with millions of other people. To someone else, with a different cultural heritage, such ideas and values may seem alien. What I am thinking about this morning, therefore, is how the Churches as multi-national institutions will respond to the challenge and opportunity offered by the development of the metaverse. Will they stand to one side, initially hostile or disapproving; or will they embrace the possibilities and allow them to enrich the experience they offer believers and non-believers alike? Maybe those of us preparing for Synod 2023 could add this to the list of matters we are thinking and praying about. Your thoughts on the subject would be welcome.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Learning to Be Grateful

Yesterday was, for me as for everyone else, a mixture of good and bad. Towards evening, as I did a quick check of our social media accounts, a little worm of envy and discontent began to surface. How much I’d like to be able to go for a walk, but I can’t because of my illness; wouldn’t it be nice to have a brief holiday and enjoy new scenes, but it’s out of the question; what wouldn’t I give to be able to clear my in-tray or get people to respond to requests, but it’s not going to happen. You know the kind of thing that occurs when we focus on ourselves and can compile your own list of ‘if onlys’. At bottom, they are all about ourselves and what’s ‘wrong’ or missing in our life, even when we try to convince ourselves that we are being selfless and desiring some good for another. Parents know only too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of wanting to influence their children’s decisions, and it is not unknown for those who don’t have children to think they have the solution to all the world’s problems. (Have a look at Twitter if you don’t believe me.) It is not enough, however, to be aware of the dangers: we have to do something about them.

Last night I decided to take myself in hand and think about some of the good things that had happened during the day. I shared some of them on Twitter and was heartened by the response of others. Some who replied I know to be very ill or living in difficult circumstances, but they were still acknowledging what was good in their lives and giving thanks. Learning to be grateful in a culture that often seems selfish and self-absorbed isn’t easy, but it is essential. The most important act of a Christian society is eucharist, giving thanks, but how often we dissociate that from our everyday lives. Perhaps, when we examine our conscience at night, we should not only ask ourselves where our desire has been, where we have failed or sinned, but also where we have received grace, where we have reason to be grateful. We might be surprised by the results.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Tears and Laughter on September 11

The twentieth anniversary of September 11 was always going to be hard. No one who was alive in 2001 can forget the terrible sight of aircraft crashing into the twin towers, nor what followed after. Seeing people crammed onto window ledges or deliberately leaping from them to certain death brought home to us the intensity of the hatred that inspired such hideous acts. Today, in Afghanistan, the story is still not ended and we are as helpless as we were twenty years ago. People suffer, are maimed for life, die. We pray for peace, for the healing of wounds, but with a kind of reluctant half-belief. It is the best we can do. At least our prayer is real, we say. Tears express what we cannot put into words and today they will flow freely, not just in the U.S.A. but also in the 78 countries whose citizens died in the attack on the World Trade Centre and the aircraft brought down near the Pentagon.

If that were all there were to say, it would be to acknowledge the triumph of death and destruction over life and hope, and I’m not sure that we should. There is another image, also from New York, I would like to put before you*: a young girl laughing with astonishment and delight at finding herself in the finals of the U.S. Open. Whether she wins or loses tonight’s match is irrelevant. Emma Raducano has not only demonstrated that she is a very fine tennis-player but also that enjoyment — being filled with joy — is not dependent on success as such. She has clearly enjoyed playing in New York, and those armchair critics who were so dismissive of her when she showed nerves at Wimbledon might like to reconsider their earlier verdict. Life is not all about winning, though it must be nice when one does. The greatest prize is life itself— one we all share and should cherish.

*For copyright reasons, I can’t post a photo of Emma Raducano and her huge smile here.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Search of Renewed Strength

We are obliged by canon law to make an annual retreat of eight days. In theory, that is wonderful; in practice, not always. Ours begins tonight and will end on 6 September. I have never known a retreat to go quite as planned. Most people assume (hope?) that it will be a week of unalloyed joy, as calm and beautiful as a summer sea:

A retreat as imagined

If only! The reality tends to be less serene. If we are doing the retreat properly, a few ‘nasties’ will arise from the depths of our being, to say nothing of what may batter us from outside. We can expect something more like this:

A retreat in reality

Although we try to keep household tasks to a minimum, we still have to cook, clean, do the laundry and deal with admin, the timetable for which is rarely set by ourselves, but the cellarer has also arranged a few treats for us and the monastic horarium is a little more flexible than at other times, so the ‘holy leisure’ element is not lost. Things, unfortunately, do have a tendency to go wrong. This is the time for computers and boilers to break down, unexpected visitors to call, for joints to creak and muscles ache — even, perhaps, for a fit of the glums to descend. It doesn’t matter. A retreat is about regaining some spiritual strength and we usually have to plumb the depths of our own weakness and inadequacy to realise how much we must trust God for everything.

This year the tragedies unfolding in Afghanistan, Lebanon and many other countries remind us how much we have to be grateful for, how blessed we are that we can even contemplate spending eight days focused more intently on seeking the Lord. We know that the fruits of the retreat will be hidden from us and may well come long after the retreat itself is concluded. We are, after all, entering into God’s time which runs on different principles from human time.

Our common lectio divina will be the gospel of Mark and the Epistle of Privy Counsel. We shall read the gospel straight through, to see it whole, as it were, rather than divided up into sections for Mass or the Divine Office. The Epistle of Privy Counsel is a text recommended to us and our forebears in community by Fr Baker as one to read over every two years. It is, I think, in many ways more important than its sister The Cloud of Unknowing, but it has a less catchy title and is more obviously demanding. We shall see.

Please pray for us as shall for you. Our daily posting of prayer intentions and Rule of St Benedict recordings should continue as normal on Facebook (https://facebook.com/benedictinenuns) and Twitter (@digitalnun). If you do not have a copy of The Epistle of Privy Counsel, there is a free PDF download in modern English here:

https://avalonlibrary.net/ebooks/Anonymous%20-%20The%20Cloud%20of%20Unknowing%20and%20Other%20Works.pdf

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

How do we Pray about Afghanistan?

Afghanistan: Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash

The shock and horror of what is happening in Afghanistan have left many in the West angry or numb. Some have taken to social media to vent their distress or accuse those they consider to be responsible. Others have found solace in tears or confided to their diaries thoughts they can scarcely put into words. As to what it means for the people of Afghanistan themselves, there we draw a blank. We can speculate, but imagination and knowledge of what has happened in the past will take us only so far. Afghans living in Britain may have some idea, but most of us do not. We are outsiders, with a guilty sense of being being at least partly responsible for  the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. 

While politicians and commentators take to the media to try to ‘explain’ what is happening and tell us what to expect in the future, the Church exhorts us to pray. That sounds easy enough, at least to those who do not believe or have never tried to pray. It is what the Church always says in times of crisis or tragedy, isn’t it? But how do we really pray when the heart is overwhelmed with feeling and there are no words that do not seem hollow and trite? How do we pray about something as big and painful as Afghanistan? 

Not Praying

Perhaps the first thing we should do is not even try. By that I mean, we need to abandon the idea of praying as a self-regarding exercise. We must forget that we are praying, take the spotlight off ourselves as doing a good act (praying for those in need) and remember Jesus on the cross, his words reduced to very few and ending with a great cry. We must forget all the words we love so much, too, and the way we try to cajole God into doing our will rather than paying attention to him and his will. Words are not necessary, and they bend and break under the strain of trying to express what lies deepest in our being. The Holy Spirit is more eloquent than any of us, and we can trust the Spirit to articulate what we cannot put into words. Most difficult of all, perhaps, we must try to forget the self and its emotions. When greatly affected by another’s pain, it is easy to turn everything round to what we feel, our sorrow, our pain, and forget why we were inspired to pray in the first place.

Why Pray?

Why do we want to pray? It is a question we need to ask because I am not sure we are always clear or honest with ourselves in the answers we give. Praying is what good Christians do, isn’t it? Yes, but there is more to it than that. We pray because we are made for union with God, and for that union to be perfect, it must include everyone. So, we want the suffering in Afghanistan to end, for peace and justice to be established, but we want more than that. We want God to have joy in what he has created, for his beloved sons and daughters to live in freedom and harmony, to experience a transformation in and through the Holy Spirit. The means God chooses to achieve that— the people, the events — may surprise us, but that is not really our business. Our business, humanly speaking, is to make what God desires and wills possible by responding to the invitation to pray, to align our will with his. In Jesus Christ we have the perfect example of prayer and obedience — a prayer and obedience so wonderful that the whole human race has been redeemed.

The Prayer of Christ

At a time of tragedy or crisis, we need to unite ourselves ever more profoundly with the prayer of Christ himself. To do that we have to be much quieter and more attentive than most of us like being. To pray with Christ and in Christ requires a radical change of stance. We no longer have the satisfaction of thinking we do anything. We throw ourselves and the whole world on the mercy of God. There is no safer place to be, but that act of renunciation, of relying on God alone, is infinitely costly. It is much easier to seek safety in words and gestures (which may be very eloquent/heroically generous) and thereby miss the essential. As a wise old monk once remarked, ‘It was not Christ’s death on the cross that redeemed us but the love and obedience that led him there.’ Love and obedience — they are what God asks of us in prayer, not eloquence, not brilliance, just our deepest, truest selves.

Not everyone is comfortable with the kind of prayer I have been describing, and I should be sorry if anyone were to conclude that I think it the only kind of prayer that is valid. We must always ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, but none of us should dismiss what I have described as being ‘not for me’ or impossible of attainment. Old friends don’t need to say much to each other, and it is cultivating friendship with God that the habit of prayer encourages. Confronted with the tragedy of Afghanistan, however, I think it is also the kind of prayer which protects us against two temptations that can paralyse our best efforts. They are (1) condemning others for what has happened and possibly wishing all kinds of ill upon them, and (2) spending time on our own solutions, most of which are probably naive or ill-informed or both.

Simply asking God to do what is best is much harder than railing against others. Giving time to prayer which doesn’t try to tell God what to do is harder still. To get up from our knees, seeing no obvious change yet determined to persevere, is hardest of all. It is to walk by faith not sight, to trust, to hope. It is what all Christians are called to do, and I think it is a good way of praying for Afghanistan.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail