No Condolences Yet, Please

This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.

A Herefordshire oak seen from the monastery
An old battered oak not far from the monastery

Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning. 

On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.

But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.

But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.

Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?

I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.

Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener. 

I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life.  A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.

So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.

When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.

My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.

*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.

P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!

Audio version

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Embracing Uncertainty

People often say to me, ‘Your faith must help your cancer.’ To which, if they will listen, I generally reply, ‘No, cancer helps my faith.’ What I mean by that is that my experience of cancer has impressed on me the fact that we are not in control, and control isn’t the most important thing in life anyway.

Today the whole world is being asked to embrace an uncertainty such as we have not experienced in a long time. Those who say, ‘ Our faith will get us through,’ are undoubtedly sincere but do not always recognize that faith isn’t something any of us can summon up at will, nor is it much use as a crutch. Our belief should encourage us to hope and prompt us to show love to others, but most of us know dark times when our belief falters, our hope evaporates and love is just a word. That is human and natural and not something we should scold ourselves for — still less, anyone else.

As always, I think we need to turn to the gospels and see how Jesus coped with the temptation to despair or rebel against the Father (if you don’t think he was ever tempted, I suggest re-reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent or the accounts of the agony in the garden at Gethsemane). He truly struggled. Many people are struggling now. Here in the monastery, where we are familiar with lockdown (only we call it ‘enclosure’) and practise a form of social distancing (only we call it ‘solitude’), we know that the single most important thing we can do for anyone is to pray, and pray we do. In prayer we embrace the uncertainty of life, for prayer is God’s gift. It all depends on him, but because it all depends on him, we need to stay alert and be co-operative.

That applies to every situation, including the one in which we find ourselves now where the rapid acceleration of COVID-19 is causing great distress and anxiety. In the U.K. this morning the message is clear: stay at home. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, just stay at home. That need not be a negative experience, but for many it will be very hard, requiring a renunciation of self few have been required to make before. I am reminded of Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers, encouraging a younger monk with the words, ‘Stay in your cell and it will teach you all things.’ Perhaps that sentence is one to ponder as we enter lockdown, and to remember it was love that prompted the monk’s withdrawal into the desert in the first place. We cannot know what the future holds, but faith, hope and love come together in an uncertainty that is, paradoxically, very sure. Let us embrace it as best we can.

For an audio version:

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Learning to Pray Again

Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

During the past few days I have become increasingly uneasy about the response of some Christians to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In Catholic circles there has been outright war in cyberspace over the suspension of public celebration of the Mass in many countries. Some priests and pastors have chosen to defy their bishops; others have opted for live-streaming the Mass, organizing Eucharistic processions, or launching into videos or podcasts intended to meet the pastoral needs of their congregations. Lay people and others have condemned the decision to suspend the Mass and accused others of lacking faith or even, in extreme cases, of doing spiritual harm to themselves by denying what is essential to their being. Now that the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York have suspended public services in England, the war zone has become even wider. It is all rather noisy and confusing. Indeed, it led me yesterday to question whether we ourselves should step back a little from our own online engagement because the religious cyberspace is becoming rather crowded.*

Then, thanks to a friend, I read a no-nonsense response to the current situation from Don Antonio Gómez, the bishop of Teruel and Albarracín. He is not responsible for anything I say here, but he helped crystallize my thoughts. We are behaving like sheep, and rather unruly and bad-tempered sheep at that, with pastors treating their people as unable to do anything of themselves, and people treating their pastors as super-daddies, without whom they will perish. We will all perish if we go on scrapping and arguing as we are now, priests and people alike. So, let’s be clear about a few basic points.

The Church will never fail because she is founded on the rock that is Christ. During the long years of the Interdict in England, when none of the Sacraments could be celebrated, faith did not die, nor did anyone lack the graces he/she needed. The Nagasaki Christians survived for centuries without the Mass. I am not saying that not having Mass publicly celebrated is a good thing, no, never. One of the sad things about my illness is that I can rarely be present at Mass, but I may have begun to learn from that experience something worth sharing with others. God is bigger than our human perceptions. He can work through anything, and he often chooses experiences which seem to us negative to teach us something far from negative. For example, if we are lamenting being deprived of the Mass, we may well need to see the Mass in less consumerist terms, i.e. it is not about me and what I want for my spiritual life but what the Mass means for the Church as a whole, which must necessarily include those unable to have Mass because of lack of priests or illness or political repression. Mass is being celebrated somewhere every hour of every day. It is the eternal sacrifice of the Church, in which we all take part whether physically present or not. Let’s not forget that.

I am no great fan of broadcast Masses, as some of you know, so how do I link the Mass at which I am not present with my own experience, here and now? Quite simply, it is done though prayer — and I do mean prayer, not prayers. I have seen innumerable exhortations to say this or that prayer to make a spiritual communion. I don’t want to knock them. I am sure many people find them helpful and good. But could I put in a plea for fewer words, more silence, for the prayer of simple longing and adoration? For the prayer of lectio divina and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) in which we allow the Word of God to take charge; for the prayer of baffled quiet and blundering incompetence in which God does all because we cannot do anything? Instead of rushing from one thing to another, perhaps we are being asked to slow down, to give time to prayer, even to waste time in prayer?

This is proving to be a strange Lent. We have been asked to give up many things we would never have dreamed of being asked to give up. We have been asked to be unselfish in ways we would never have contemplated. Could it be that now we are being asked to learn to pray again? To give up some of the rituals we have not valued quite as much as we think we did, so that we may learn again how very precious they are? To give up some of our old words so that the Word of God may fill our being in new ways? In short, to allow Christ to pray in us?

Additional but related content:
Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

Where Angels Fear to Tread

An Unexpected Sabbath

*Some people address tweets and posts to me as a way of gaining attention for themselves, but it can cause consternation among those who think I share their views — which often I don’t. I’m also a bit sceptical about the quality of some of the broadcast material. We do not need to fill every void.

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The Woman at the Well

Is there anyone who does not love today’s gospel, John 4. 5–42? It turns all our ideas of what is proper upside down. A Samaritan woman (shock, horror, not an orthodox believer— the wrong sex, too) comes to the village well when all the respectable women have long since gone and encounters a strange rabbi who asks her for a drink. The dialogue that ensues shows her to be lippy and smart and not afraid of breaking the conventions of the time. She is happy to talk to a man, and he with her. There is an ease and humour about what follows we would do well to note whenever we are tempted to be stuffy or stand on our dignity. Scripture scholars tell us that the five husbands, who were not actually husbands, represent the five idolatrous kingdoms, but I myself find that they have much greater impact if we take them literally as the woman’s previous lovers. Here is a woman with a colourful past, as my parents’ generation would say, who questions Jesus, won’t be put down, and leads a whole community to faith. She is the most unlikely evangelist ever, and she does it all by simply being herself.

One of the great problems we face is learning how to be ourselves. I don’t mean that in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing sense. Rather, we need to accept that, flawed though we are, we are truly loved by God, and he goes on loving us no matter how often we fall short of what, with his grace, we might become. Many people can’t quite believe that and waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to win a love to which they feel they have no claim, not recognizing that God’s love comes to us as sheer gift and will never fail or forsake us. All that beating of breasts and lamenting one’s failures strikes me as being a form of appeasement, unworthy of the God of Christian revelation. Lent provides us with an opportunity to get back to basics. We begin by correcting our distorted image of God as a harsh taskmaster, allowing him to speak to our hearts, to reveal himself to us in the scriptures and sacraments, in times of quiet prayer and secret almsgiving. It is a process, not achieved in a single moment.

If we are fortunate enough never to have been burdened with a distorted image of God, there is still work for us to do. The early Cistercians, for example, never tired of talking about restoring the likeness of God to God’s image in us. Without using those terms, I think the Woman at the Well understood better than most that she was already valued, loved by God and able to be herself in his presence. She already reflected the image of her Creator. Her meeting with Jesus restored the likeness some refused to acknowledge and enabled her to share that gift with everyone she met. Something to think about, I suggest.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

How often have you toyed with the idea of becoming a hermit for a few days or dwelt lovingly on the thought that if everybody would just go away for a while and leave you in peace, everything would be perfect? Anyone who has ever tried the experiment knows we carry our demons within, and whether the desert we escaped to was real or imaginary, the one person we cannot flee is ourself. But what if you are now faced with ‘self-isolating’ or being quarantined for a fortnight along with others? Not so much being alone with the Alone as alone with a crowd — especially if the crowd is your nearest and dearest, your family? How will you fare? How will you even survive without committing murder? Time to call in the experts! Nuns are uniquely experienced in this business of living in a small space with companions who sometimes get on our nerves as much as we do theirs. So, here is Digitalnun’s guide to self-isolating for dummies.

First, accept the inevitable. We are going to be cooped up together for a while and it isn’t going to be easy. It will help if we have made some preparations beforehand. These include, if possible,

· enough stores of food and household goods to last a fortnight (but don’t go overboard: we deprive others if we stockpile);

· a menu plan;

· a routine which includes times for work, relaxation, silence, conviviality and, if a Christian, prayer;

· enough books, music, videos or whatever you and your family need to ensure that you do not spend too much time bickering over trifles;

· an emergency plan for obtaining help if needed;

· an emergency plan for giving help if needed.

You probably think this is all very basic and obvious. Of course it is. Much of monastic life is basic and obvious. Benedict was well aware of the stresses and strains of community life and sketched out in his Rule ways of coping with them. He was realistic enough to know we can be tempted to murder one another, especially when we cannot get away from other people; he understood the importance of routine and settling questions of what we are to eat and when to avoid making them the focus of disputes when there is not enough to occupy us. He recognized that silence is necessary not only to our spiritual health but also to our general well-being and can prove a healing balm in difficult situations. He realised, too, that we must have work to do (even if it is just decluttering a cupboard). Above all, he placed great emphasis on putting the needs of others first, of apologizing when things have gone wrong and not allowing feuds to simmer or grumbles to destroy the peace of the group. 

I wonder if we can tease out that last point, about putting the needs of others first, a little more? Some people have expended a lot of effort and even anger in trying to play down the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In addition to pouring scorn on those who are anxious about themselves or their families, some have attacked policies designed to protect everyone from the virus. If one is in good health and certain of access to an ICU and ventilator should need arise, one could well argue that there is nothing to worry about — for oneself. But one’s neighbour with asthma or some other illness, the elderly person living alone down the road, or the citizen of a country with a practically non-existent healthcare system, what about them? And becoming indignant about the precautions we are asked to take in church for the sake of others, what does that say about us?

This is where I think the reason some of us become nuns and adopt a solitary life lived in community becomes highly relevant. We do so in order to become more filled with love of God and neighbour, more selfless, more Christ-like. We may not be very good at it, but everything in the monastery is designed to help us. Being forced into self-isolating or quarantine and all that goes with it may well be contrary to everything we desire or think right for us, but it is imposed on us for the good of others. We can learn from it. We can turn what at first sight seems a negative experience into a positive one. We can rediscover what it means to live simply; we can experience what it is like to live without access to the Sacraments or the social/work communities on which we rely for much of our daily interaction; we may even rediscover some of the joys of family life or, if we live alone, the joys of solitude. We can confront some of our inner demons and maybe conquer them. We can end up less of a dummy than we were before.

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What the COVID-19 Coronavirus Is and Is Not

Let’s start with what it is not. The Covid-19 coronavirus is not an excuse for scaremongering, stockpiling, spreading false information, exploiting or attacking those who are fearful or anxious about the implications of the disease. I have been astonished — that is the most neutral word I can find — at the behaviour of some who ought to know better, but I wonder how many have stopped to think about the morality of what they are doing. At the very moment the WHO has been trying to impress on us all the seriousness of the outbreak, some have been trying to undermine their work by wrenching statistics from their context or posing as experts in areas where they know no more than the average Tom, Dick or Henrietta.

Now that the whole of Italy is in lockdown, perhaps we might think about what the Covid-19 coronavirus is, rather than what we’d like it to be. It is a new form of coronavirus for which we currently have no vaccine. If you have read any account of how it attacks the body, you will understand why one would not wish to die from it. The later stages are simply horrific. Among those who have recovered, there is speculation that a few may experience lasting damage to the liver and kidneys. That just highlights how little we actually know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that it is spreading fast and having a major impact on the lives not only of the sick and those who care for them but also of others dealing with quarantine regulations and the fall-out, both social and economic, that such a disease causes. In other words, it is nasty, but exactly how nasty is best left to the virologists and medical officials who know what they are talking about to determine.

So, why are some people deliberately flouting common-sense precautions, such as regular handwashing, or ridiculing arrangements intended to slow the rate of its spread? Is it because they are inconvenient, or put some small fetter of responsibility on those who want to be completely free? Why are some clergy pooh-poohing instructions designed to protect as many people as possible from infection? Is it because they fear that once people have got out of the habit of Mass-going they may never return? Why are we being so selfish? Could it be that we are not making the connection with Lent and its call to be generous, to put the needs of others first? That can be particularly difficult when it means foregoing our own opinions or what we think is in our own best interest. St Benedict, as usual, leaves us in no doubt that we are always to do what is better for another. I hesitate to say that Covid-19 is an opportunity to learn that, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity to put it into practice.

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Another Kind of Blindness

When my sight was restored last year, I went around marvelling at everything I had previously taken, not for granted exactly, but as part of the expected order of things, wonderful, but not so wonderful that I would stop and stare for minutes at a time. When a water-drop hanging from the kitchen tap (faucet) can hold one’s gaze, one knows one has never really looked before. Seeing a world in a water-drop, in a familiar indoors setting rather than outside, where the beauty of landscape, waterscape and skyscape attract our eyes, is unexpected, sudden, a moment of vision.

I think those who listened to Jesus speaking about the times they had or had not served him experienced something of the same (cf today’s gospel, Matthew 25. 31-46). Both those who helped and those who didn’t ask much the same question, but with one significant difference. The virtuous ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ They did not recognize or recall when they had served the Lord in others. The selfish ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?’ Unlike the virtuous, they seem to keep an inner tally of their good deeds and are convinced that they have not missed any opportunity. Both are blind: the virtuous to their own generosity; the selfish to their hardness of heart.

Our Lenten pilgrimage will confront us with many harsh truths about ourselves, but I think we can take encouragement from today’s gospel. We won’t know when we are being truly generous; we won’t necessarily know when we are meeting the Lord. But we can be quite sure when we aren’t — when we close our eyes and hearts to those in need. The need in question may not be material. The cup of cold water that revives the flagging spirits, the shared meal that puts fresh hope into the downcast, the warm welcome that transforms stranger into brother or sister: there are many ways of expressing these. It is up to us to search them out. Of one thing we can be sure, we shall never lack for opportunity.

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Resilience

Herefordshire is one of the least populated counties in England. There are, I believe, only about 191,000 people living here, though we have a large number of cattle and sheep and one of the most beautiful landscapes you could ever wish to see. Four times in the past four months homes and businesses have been flooded out while farmers have had to watch as their fields and orchards have disappeared under several feet of muddy brown water. Medieval churches have been flooded — an almost unheard-of event, and an indication that this is no ordinary flooding — roads have broken up under the stress of water pressure and there is a general dankness almost everywhere, along with piles of debris. There have been many acts of quiet heroism and neighbourly concern which show the goodness and generosity of local people, while Dave Throup, our Environment Agency Manager, has won himself a fan club for his diligence in keeping everyone informed about what is happening. Our local Anglican clergy have been out and about while here at the monastery we have done our best to be as supportive as we can to those in distress. Often it is a tight-lipped distress that manifests itself in irony or the kind of joke that most outsiders would scarcely recognize for what it is: a brave, bold attempt to go on and face whatever comes with gentle humour and persistence .

We are told that this week is likely to see further flooding as river levels are rising again and the ground is saturated. For a few days Herefordshire and our adjacent counties of Shropshire and Worcestershire have attracted the attention of broadcasters, but one wonders what will happen when the waters eventually begin to subside. No doubt we shall be forgotten again. For that is one of the messages we are receiving here at the monastery, that Herefordshire is largely forgotten at Westminster. People are not angry about it, but they are beginning to be tired. The North attracts attention; the West Country attracts attention; Herefordshire not so much. It is sad that only suffering makes the headlines.

Please pray for the people of Herefordshire, and everyone affected by the floods. Resilience is a beautiful quality but how quickly we shall all recover from the impact of the floods is, this morning, difficult to guess. As nuns, our duty is to pray and offer what help we can here at the monastery. I hope it will be enough. The Church does not exist in a vacuum apart from society but must be in its midst — in muddy boots and waders, if need be.

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On Lecturing Others

None of us likes being lectured, although most of us seem to enjoy giving others the benefit of our advice. But let’s stop there a moment and reflect. That dreadful phrase of our childhood, ‘I’m telling you for your own good’ loses none of its effect as we grow older. It may not actually be couched in those words, but how often do we hear spouses setting each other right or people completely unknown to one another taking someone to task for some perceived shortcoming or making light of their expertise. It happens to women a lot. A rather good engineer of my acquaintance can be quite funny on the subject of people (especially men, I fear) assuming she knows nothing about engineering because she is a woman. I, too, have occasionally smiled deep into my wimple when someone has decided I can’t possibly know anything about a subject on which, strangely enough, I am moderately well-informed. It all makes for humility, we say, as we shrug off the annoyance and get on with life.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Some people will never let a matter drop until they feel they have ‘won’. Here at the monastery we try to cope with a constant stream of requests for prayer, distressed calls (especially recently, with the flooding in our area and some terrible events I’ve mentioned on Twitter, including the petrol-bombing of a young family’s home), the running of the monastery and its charity in all their complexity, and, of course, the awkward business of my having a stage 4 cancer which makes me less able to contribute to the community as much as I’d like. We make mistakes, which we acknowledge. We apologize, but still the lectures come. Can we turn this experience of being on the receiving end of criticism into something helpful for the times, alas all too frequent, when we want to give others the benefit of our advice?

St Benedict is very clear that authority over others is not be assumed by anyone in the monastery unless appointed by the abbot. That includes the power of correction, which is reserved to the superior and those with whom he shares his authority. He does, however, make an interesting exception of the visiting monk. The visiting monk is, by definition, not just an ordinary visitor, that is, someone whose ideas are possibly ill-informed, but someone who is familiar with monastic ideals and practice, and has some understanding of how a monastic community functions.

St Benedict says of the visiting monk that he should be carefully listened to, in case he makes any observations about the monastery which are for the community’s good (RB 61.4), but he must do so reasonably, humbly and charitably; and it is for the abbot to weigh his observations prudently. Do the criticisms we make of others ‘for their own good’ meet these criteria, or are they more of an attempt to justify our own position? Benedict is very keen on our doing things at an appropriate time. So, do we make our criticisms at an appropriate moment — or at a time that suits us, irrespective of what someone else may be going through? Finally, do we seek charity or are we trying to score points? Not only monastic superiors but every parent knows that not all complaints are justified, nor should all criticisms be considered valid. Some are over-stated; some, alas, are malicious or just plain silly.

There is a further point St Benedict does not make but which I think important. We need to know when to let matters drop. We may not quite need to echo Cromwell’s ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken,’ but maybe thinking twice before we assume others need our advice would be a good idea. For those of what used to be called ‘a positive nature’ that may be the hardest lesson of all. It is one I struggle with myself. As Horace said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again’. We all remember when we have been deeply hurt by what has been said to us; we are less mindful of how our own words may have hurt someone else. That throws us back on St Benedict’s teaching on restraint in speech (cf RB 6), but that’s for another post.

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