Learning from Lockdown

Introduction
I’ve hesitated to publish this post although it has been among my drafts for some time. I’m not very happy about the parallels sometimes drawn between lockdown and enclosure (cloister), but I’m even less happy about the rush to return to ‘normal’ as though the pandemic were over and we can just forget everything that has happened. The number of infections across the globe is still increasing, and in the absence of an effective vaccine, it is likely that we shall be affected by lockdown measures again and again. May I share with you what I have learned thus far and invite you to share with me what you have learned?

I begin with a word of caution. The experience of lockdown has much to teach us, I believe, but it is a process, not something done-and-dusted. It needs more thought, more discussion, more prayer before we can fully assimilate what we have learned about ourselves and others, and before we can realistically assess the consequences. That over-worked word ‘discernment’ is part of the process, and I think we need to acknowledge that we are still too close to the experience, still too deeply affected by it, to achieve the clarity of focus we ideally need. What follows should be read with that in mind.

For some people, of course, it has been the merest blip in their existence. Lockdown does not seem to have affected them very much. In their eagerness to get back to ‘normal’, they barely register a passing regret for the time they have been able to spend in the garden or on the beach, ‘phones off, acquiring new skills perhaps, with an occasional foray into social media or Zoom to chart their progress in baking or learning a new language. I exaggerate, but there is truth in the exaggeration. For those with secure jobs, a decent amount of space to live in, and no particular worries about themselves or their families, it hasn’t been too terrible. They may even have been able to save money and get a trimmer waistline at the same time. It’s been inconvenient rather than anything more soul-searching.

Analogies between Lockdown and Cloister
For monks, but more especially nuns, there are some analogies between lockdown and the cloister. Restrictions on movement, reliance on the skill-pool within the community, and a routine which doesn’t vary much from day to day are some obvious points of similarity. But many of the experiences others take for granted don’t really affect us. We don’t have regular visits from our families. Attending concerts, plays or films or having meals out with friends isn’t part of our way of life. We haven’t felt the constraints some have because we don’t have, or don’t exercise, the freedoms they presuppose.

The more generous will wax lyrical about the greater silence they have experienced and how much they have valued not being called away from prayer or reading to attend to the needs of unexpected guests. A few will be honest enough to admit that this stripping away of what is ‘normal’ in their monastic lives has made them confront a more shadowy side of their being. They have realised, probably painfully, how dependent they are on others; how much of their selves they have invested in work or outreach; how much they need to be needed by their community or others. 

In short, I don’t think we can press the analogies too far. The differences are more telling. Monastic life is chosen; lockdown was, and is, imposed; the motive for each is different, and the kind of authority and obedience/compliance involved in each is different again.

Lockdown here in the monastery
I cannot truthfully say that our experience of lockdown here has been idyllic or anything like it. We have actually been shielding because of my illness and have had no difficulty identifying with those who have found the practical challenges of lockdown existence quite hard at times — getting up in the middle of the night to secure online food deliveries (we live in a very rural area), having to ‘bend the rules’ to obtain medical prescriptions, dealing with repairs to the house at one remove, so to say, and convincing those who do call that keeping a distance is wise: we don’t have immunity to disease just because we are nuns. Such things are minor in themselves but baulk larger when one has no choice but must add them to the daily round or try to explain without giving offence why we can’t do certain things.

I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, however. We enjoyed several weeks of greater physical silence from the A465, but I think it would be fair to say that we carry our silence inside and exterior noise doesn’t make as big an impact on us as one might think. It was certainly useful, while our floors were being repaired, to know that we could legitimately say to unexpected visitors that we were unable to receive them because we were shielding rather than have to go through the complications of welcoming them into a garden area and conversing at a distance. But as time has gone on, we have found more and more people looking to us for support in their loneliness and anxiety. Telephone calls and emails have multiplied. We have even introduced a dedicated ‘phone prayerline to help cope with the demand since our online forms are not enough and are not available to those without internet access.

For Catholics, of course, the sacraments are an essential part of our life in Christ. As a community, we have shared in the sense of abandonment and exclusion so many lay people have experienced. We are fortunate to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our chapel,* but we have not had Mass or any of the other sacraments. For reasons I need not go into here, live-streamed Masses are not for us; and in any case, rural broadband does not always allow easy access to what is available online. For us, the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) shapes our day and along with ‘private’ prayer, work and reading anchors us in reality. The whole house is dedicated to the search for God, and we feel that keenly. However, the absence of the sacraments from our lives must be taken seriously. In my own case, it has lasted much longer than lockdown has. It affects how I understand the Church and her mission and why I question some of the platitudes about pastoral care that are trotted out without, it seems to me, much thought or awareness of what it means for those who don’t feel anyone has much pastoral care or concern for them. This has implications for religious communities of women and for the Church as a whole.

Perhaps I could try to summarise my tentative conclusions as four short questions/lessons from lockdown. We cannot separate the human/social from the spiritual, the individual from the communal, but, as I said earlier, it is a process, work in progress, so not susceptible of clear or easy answers to each point.

The first question/lesson of lockdown
My first point would be that lockdown has highlighted the inequalities in society and in some religious communities. In the rush to take meetings and celebrations online, the poor, the technically disadvantaged, those living in the country, women, fall behind. I don’t know many single parents living in tower blocks but one recently expressed worry that their children’s education has been massively disrupted. There has been nothing to take the place of school that they could afford, and because the jobs they do are regarded as low-skilled, they know only too well that their employment is insecure. Their economic and social security is fragile at the best of times, and lockdown has not been for them the best of times. 

Older people, and sick people of all ages, have talked about their experience of isolation and their feeling of being pastorally abandoned because they can’t take part in their parish’s Zoom services (some of which are now ending, despite the less fit having to continue to stay away because they are shielding). There is often a sadness, an increasing reluctance to engage with others, that shows the distress within. We can only listen, and then just for such time as we can manage.

As a community of women, without a chaplain, we can identify with the pastoral concerns of the elderly and the sick but must admit that loneliness isn’t the same for us. We have chosen solitude, albeit lived with others. Although our lifestyle is frugal, we are not poor in the way many are poor. We have choices the truly poor do not. We have community, and although that is not always an easy blessing, it is a blessing. We have not had to face the difficulties of lockdown alone. We are privileged, and it is nonsense to suggest we are anything but privileged. How we use our privilege is another matter, requiring further reflection.

The second question/lesson of lockdown
The second lesson to be learned is more challenging for the Church as a whole. In fact, it is more of a question than a lesson. Lockdown has demonstrated that the familiar model of the parish as a territorial entity, run by the priest with the assistance of lay people in clearly-defined secondary roles, is in terminal decline. I have read the latest pastoral Instruction several times and am no more convinced than I was before that the Vatican really sees either the problem or the opportunities. If that is arrogant, I apologize: I write as a daughter of the Church, not as someone who has neither love nor respect for her.

The old ‘normal’ is never going to return, but there seems a reluctance to admit it. Why? Don’t we believe in the Holy Spirit any more? Has lockdown shown us the fragility of our faith and hope, made us more selfish perhaps? Have we become afraid of one another, as though everyone carries some deadly virus and the only safe option is to ignore, retreat, avoid? I may be overstating my case, but I have a hunch that the Church is going to haemorrhage members unless or until we can stop acting as though she were composed of various clubs, all rather suspicious of one another and convinced that they alone possess the truth. The Truth should possess us, but that can be scary. Better to keep God in a nicely gilded tabernacle than allow Him to change us.

I admit there is potential for disaster here, but isn’t there also potential for grace? Of course, it means throwing ourselves upon God in a way we may never have done in the past. In my own community I have seen an intensification of prayer that only a searing experience such as that of a pandemic could have brought about. What it may lead to, I don’t know. After World War II there was a huge increase in the number of vocations to monastic life. Many of those who had gone through the horrors of war were led to question the purpose of their existence and embraced monasticism with fervour. It could happen again, but if it does, it will not be in the same way. Society has changed enormously and with it the expectations of those who are drawn to the cloister.

What we must avoid at all costs is a kind of two-tier Church, in which some have access to the sacraments and others don’t; in which some are able to enjoy the fellowship of others in their worship but many can’t. To exclude from active, conscious participation the old, the sick and the poor would be contrary to the gospel, but I have been amazed at the coolness with which a few seem to contemplate that prospect.

The third question/lesson of lockdown
My third lockdown lesson is more personal, but I suspect others will nod in agreement. I have learned how impossible I am to live with. No one has complained; no one has been nasty; but for sheer cantankerousness, impatience and organized selfishness, I take the biscuit. When there are more demands than usual, especially from people, tempers can fray. Mine certainly has. When we have to rely on ourselves for fixing equipment we are not sure about or are thwarted in our desire to obtain necessary items for the community, anxiety levels shoot up. Mine have. I could go on, but you get my drift. Lockdown has revealed much I would have preferred to have kept hidden from myself.

Questions raised by an increase in self-knowledge are never comfortable, but they are necessary, however reluctant we may be to admit as much. I imagine that for most of us lockdown has been a mixture of the welcome and unwelcome. Some have learned they have strengths they never knew existed; others, like me, have discovered weaknesses they never dreamed they had. We have discovered who our friends are, and perhaps been disappointed in some we thought were our friends but who have proved otherwise. Many of our fixed ideas have been toppled, and we are still digesting the implications. At both the individual and the communal level, we have some hard thinking to do and some difficult choices to make.

The fourth question/lesson of lockdown
For some lockdown has been a time of loss and grief. Unlike many communities and families, we have been spared thus far the death of anyone in our immediate circle, thank God. We have not had to grieve without the customary rites of passing and death. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is how to die with dignity in a world of PPE and lockdown restrictions, where simple gestures such as holding the hand of a dying person can no longer to be taken for granted, where the Last Rites are not always possible, and funerals are bleak and lonely exercises that bring scant comfort to those who mourn. Recently, in conversation with someone whose husband had died of the virus and who was lonely and desolate, I was prompted to mention something I take for granted but she didn’t know about. At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, it is our custom to pray for the dead. She found comfort in that, in the knowledge that all over the world, monks and nuns would be praying day in, day out, for those who have died, including her husband. It reminded me that small things can make a difference.

There are times when it has seemed as though COVID-19 and lockdown were combining to rob us of our humanity, making us selfish and cruel. Heartening stories of the kindness of medical and nursing staff, the diligence of hospital chaplains and the like and the generosity of thousands of volunteers give the lie to that; but we all need to know that there is something we ourselves can contribute, something we can do, no matter how old, sick, poor or isolated we may be.

Conclusion
Lockdown, like most things in life, leaves me with more questions than answers. If we are to learn from our lockdown experience, we must reflect on it and be prepared to change. Perhaps in the end lockdown will lead to greater freedom, greater humanity and greater holiness. I hope so. The only thing I am really sure about is that it isn’t over yet.

*Thanks to Dom Andrew of Belmont, we have been able to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. We’re very grateful to him.

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Organized Selfishness?

One of the most damning things that can be said about any organisation or institution is that it has become self-serving. Benedictine communities, in particular, are always at risk of descending into organized selfishness. It is not that we give way to really big sins (though some, alas, have), but we can become tolerant of those we consider small — and many communities have the resources, in terms of buildings and opportunities, to acquiesce in them. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad, but we may become mediocre. The Office, as Dom David Knowles once remarked, can be kept up with every appearance of care and attention long after the heart has gone out of a community, but the signs of selfishness multiply. Our comfort becomes important. Little indulgences in the matter of food or drink or holidays are not questioned or are brushed aside as trivial. Once, when I was attending a monastic bursars’ meeting, the men discussed the level of holiday money each monk should be given. Against the names of the nuns’ communities were the initials n/a, not applicable. When I said it should stand for ‘not available’, I was laughed at; but my point was serious. Women are just as likely as men to become tired or need a break from regular duties at times, but to assume that every monk needs at least one holiday a year and nuns never is plainly stupid. The Rule exhorts us to consider need and acknowledges that needs differ.

I don’t think, however, that Benedictines should take all the blame for appearing at times insensitive to others. Many communities, especially of women, are financially hard-pressed. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. But outsiders can be very demanding or unrealistic in their demands. Whenever someone decides to tell us what to wear, for example, I tend to adopt my ‘blotting-paper expression.’ We do, in fact, wear a traditional habit, happily and contentedly, but it is far from being of the essence. Benedict’s only concern about monastic clothing is that it should be suitable for the climate, available in the locality and fit the wearer (RB 55). Those most anxious to fulfil their own fantasies about monastic life are usually the last to consider the cost, difficulty or even the safety of maintaining a particular form of habit. It is the same with the activities in which we engage in order to keep our communities going and to serve the wider community. One of my Facebook followers regularly reminds me of the disapproval of some people of our online engagement. I don’t rise to the bait because I can see that many of those who have been loudest in their criticism are now rushing to take advantage of live-streaming, social media and the opportunities offered by the latest technologies. I rejoice in that because it is a way of reaching out to those who would never knock on the monastery door.

I think we can sometimes forget that we do not become monks and nuns for ourselves alone. We have a role in both Church and society that we must fulfil, faithfully, generously, unselfishly. We pray unremittingly, yes; but we know our prayer won’t always be as whole-hearted as it should. We are hospitable, of course; but there are limits to our hospitality and what we can manage, and we should not feel guilty when others say to us ‘you should’ which is actually shorthand for ‘it is my opinion that’. Our community lives won’t always be sweetness and light, but we can try to be kind and honest and accepting. Above all, we can do our best to be open to grace, to the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit (RB 7. 6-70). We can show that we love the young, reverence the old, care for the earth and everything in it as though it were a sacred altar vessel, bow down before Christ in the stranger and in one another, do what is better for the other and, hopefully, ‘at length, under God’s protection, attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue’ (RB 73.9).

I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.

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Homo Vastans: Weaponising Space

There are many subjects I’d like to blog about but know I’m not qualified to do so. I haven’t read or discussed enough, thought enough, prayed enough. This self-imposed restraint is no virtue. It’s simply self-preservation, because in a world where we all tend to react rather than reflect, some of the reactions one encounters can be hard to take. This morning I was thinking about George Weigel’s recent article in The Tablet, the Vatican’s latest instruction to the clergy, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church, and a host of more secular concerns. Then I read that the UK and USA have accused Russia of firing a missile in space ‘with the characteristics of a weapon’. That brought me up short.

We have already polluted space with masses of obsolete technology (i.e. junk) spinning endlessly through the ether. We have made space yet one more area to take our silly disputes over ‘ownership’, with the fairly naked intention of exploiting space itself for economic gain. Now it looks as though we are planning to take our wars there, too. Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with viewing everything in such an ugly, bleak way? I can’t blog on this subject; but I do pray, and I ask you to pray, too. Otherwise, I fear we may end up as homo vastans on a truly horrific scale— a long way from the homo sapiens we always claimed to be.

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Valuing Time

Recently I was asked how much of my time a £20 note would represent and surprised my questioner by saying it wouldn’t have any value at all. I don’t measure the value of time in that way. For some people, £20 will barely register, but for different reasons. They are rich enough to see £20 as representing a second or two of their time, if that. For others, £20 is more than they can expect for a month’s hard labour. But to see time in terms of money or work strikes me as being essentially untrue to our nature as human beings. We are born, we live, we die, and what stretches between comprises so much more than money. If we are anxious to set a value on our time, for whatever reason, perhaps we should think again about its meaning. Benedict talks about our life being extended, so that we may amend our faults (RB Prol. 36). There is an urgency about the Rule that is deeply disturbing: we run, do battle, ‘while there is still time’ (RB Prol. 42). Time is not to be taken lightly: it is a preparation for what is beyond time, eternity.

Having acknowledged that, I must admit that like most people, I’m conscious of the way time seems lengthen or shorten according to what one is doing or experiencing. In a monastic context observance of the horarium or timetable makes an important contribution to the smooth running of the house and peace among its members. Punctuality is more than the politeness of kings: it is a practical expression of our monastic commitment. When the bell rings or another signal is given for a change of occupation, we are meant to lay aside whatever we have on hand, no matter how pleasant or engrossing it may be. That isn’t just a discipline, or at least, not in the way that word is often used. It is meant to be a freedom, a way of asserting that we are not bound by our own preferences or preoccupations.

Today many of us will probably feel we have either too little time to accomplish all that we think we need to do, or we will experience the longueurs of lockdown and isolation, illness or old age. Perhaps we could simplify things for ourselves and just rejoice that time is given us. It may be little or long, but it is a gift — a priceless gift. To state the obvious, shouldn’t we be thanking God for the gift of time?

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Living Dangerously

Most of us know what it is to be misunderstood and have our good intentions pooh-poohed or disbelieved. If we’re honest, most of us also know what it is to misunderstand and treat others’ good intentions with suspicion or incredulity. Comparatively few of us, however, know how to clear up misunderstandings without making things worse. Only too often we say or do something that strikes the other person to the disagreement as being off-key. Hurt or angry feelings multiply and what began as minor ends as major. Recently, I’ve had a couple of experiences of that myself. In both cases I can say that I had no evil intention, and I assume my interlocutor didn’t, either. The fact that attempts to patch things up didn’t go as hoped doesn’t mean that trying to resolve differences is pointless or doomed to failure. I think we have to go on living dangerously, trying to resolve differences when we can, but the time may come when we have to recognize we are unequal to the task and have to leave the matter to God. Knowing when to do that requires humility, trust and charity in equal measure. To some, leaving a disagreement unresolved (or turning it over to God, as I have suggested) is tantamount to failure and a sign of weakness. A few of my friends suffer from the ‘I must win every argument’ idiocy. I can live with that. What I can’t do is live with it in myself, can you?

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Sabbath Calm and Chuntering On

The monastery is being besieged by aggrieved pub owners and hairdressers because of a throwaway remark I made earlier this week about H.M. Government being apparently more interested in them than in the Arts. If I were a pub owner or a hairdresser, no doubt I’d be besieging the monastery, too.* The fact is, we all tend to react to what most concerns us, or we admit to having a divided mind on some subjects where we can see both positives and negatives. At one level, for instance, I’m pleased the Government thinks it must do something to preserve Wetherspoons and the jobs it provides. At another, I’m less than pleased that the Government seems to think the Royal Albert Hall and the jobs it provides is expendable. As regards the opening of churches and places of worship, I admit to equally divided feelings, but I am very conscious of the fact that the monastery has a chapel, that the Blessed Sacrament is kept there, and that the Divine Office, with its steady round of prayer and worship, is maintained daily. I can do exactly what St Benedict recommends, go in at any time and pray. That isn’t possible for many of my fellow Christians. I am privileged in a way most are not, and I shall spend part of today praying for those who are not so blessed and reflecting on how the Church must meet the needs of its members.

I think that is one reason why Sundays are so important. It’s not just a question of liturgical significance, nor is it anything to do with the human need to rest, or not exactly. Sundays provide a moment of sabbath calm for reflection on all that has gone before. When God rested on the sabbath day and viewed all he had created, he found it not merely good but very good. Sometimes we need to pause to register the good in a situation or person. Otherwise we just go chuntering on, missing the moment and missing the blessing, too. It is no accident that St Benedict saw the pursuit of peace as a key element in monastic life. His peace wasn’t the mere absence of activity or conflict; it was much more like the sabbath calm in which God’s creativity takes full effect. May your Sunday be blessed with sabbath calm, too.

*joke

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Bottoming Out

Recently I had what one might call a salutary experience. I was repairing a door jamb for which I had to get down on my knees. That is not easy for me but I managed it, painful though it was. Then disaster struck. I couldn’t get up, and no one was around. The pain intensified. My left leg, the one with lymphoedema and other nasties, was useless. My right leg felt weak and unreliable and wouldn’t provide me with enough spring to get up. My cries for help became more desperate, finally turning into sad little whimpers. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I managed to get onto my bottom and edge myself into the building. I had reached the point of wondering whether I could continue or would give in to the pain, when someone came past and helped me to my feet. I felt both silly and relieved and inclined to laugh at myself for making a mountain out of a molehill.

It is very easy to make mountains out of molehills, but we don’t always laugh at them. Trifling setbacks or negative experiences can be allowed to loom large in our lives, making us prey to self-pity or unremitting anger. We can magnify the shortcomings of others so that we no longer see them as they are, only the monsters our spite or misunderstanding has created. That is especially true for those of us who engage with social media on a regular basis. We can see the world through a distorting lens and fail to realise that we may contribute to the distortion by our own unthinking attitudes or the way we voice our complaints. We may see ourselves as beacons of light set high on a mountain when in fact we are more like little molehills down on the plain that people stumble over. The experience of being powerless, of having to rely on others, can indeed be salutary as I have said, because it it reminds us of our dependence on one another. More than that, it teaches us that when we need help we may have to rely on the most unlikely people, on apparent chance or on other factors beyond our control. In short, there is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation in any sense.

This morning there are many people who need help. Most of them are unknown to us. They are ‘out there’ in South America, Syria, Yemen; in the next town, the next street, next door:  easily forgotten or ignored. Just occasionally, we may register that we too need help. We ‘bottom out’ so to say, and that is when we discover that our pretensions to self-sufficiency are absurd, that grace is all around and we must rely on it to get us out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We have only to ask and grace will be given in abundance — not necessarily as we would like or choose, but given nonetheless. That is worth thinking about. Whether the need be material or spiritual, our own or another’s, let us pray that both we and they may be as open to receive as we are to give.

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Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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Prejudice and Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently. Partly, I know, it is the effect of reading or listening to the news in the light of our readings from scripture and the Rule of St Benedict; partly it is the effect of knowing my disease is progressing and my not wanting to die burdened with a refusal to forgive others; mainly, however, it is the experience of myself being forgiven that weighs with me. I can look back on my life and see how often people have given me the benefit of the doubt, granted me a second chance, just put up with me — especially those who have treated me the best when I’ve behaved the worst, i.e. the community I live with.

This morning, however, I admit to feeling discouraged. Recently I was sent a letter by someone I don’t know. It was a courteous and kindly letter, urging me to reflect on what the writer perceived to be the errors of Christianity and embrace Islam. My first thought was, if only some Christians were as courteous how much better would be the impression we give of our faith. I said as much on some Social Media accounts. Most people got my point (though not, I suspect, those with a tendency to rant and rave!). Others either didn’t, or decided to use the opportunity to voice their own views of Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, that’s where prejudice and fear began to raise their heads. It hasn’t got too bad, but I may have to step in and delete my original post because, as I often have to say, I don’t want that kind of negativity on any of my Social Media accounts. Informed debate (even, let’s be honest, on some matters, ignorant debate) is fine; attacks on others aren’t; and the historian in me bristles when old chestnuts are brought out with little regard for their validity.

Prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of the facts. It means a preconceived idea based neither on reason nor experience. It is usually, but not always, hostile and often proceeds from fear. Frequently, there is a small smattering of truth contained within it: not enough to justify it, but enough to give it a slight appearance of reasonableness. So, for example, we can say that politicians are self-serving. Some are; most aren’t; but the idea is current because of recent high-profile cases of corruption in high places both in this country and elsewhere. Our prejudice against the political class can be said to proceed from fear of its power over our lives. (Please note, I’m saying this by way of example because I don’t want to be drawn into specifics by those who take everything literally.)

So, how do prejudice and fear link with forgiveness? That is where I’d say we have to do some hard thinking. Many people assume that forgiveness has to do with concrete acts: saying or doing what is wrong. But words and deeds proceed from thoughts and attitudes, which is why monastic tradition has always paid close attention to setting a guard on the thoughts that run through our minds incessantly. We don’t stop thinking, but we do have to check any tendency to let our thoughts run away with us into negative channels. Sometimes it seems to me that we carry a pent-up sea within ourselves, its waves crashing and breaking on many a different shore. It is a far-fetched analogy, perhaps, but just as the health of all life on the planet is intimately linked with the health of the oceans, so our willingness to ‘take every thought captive for Christ’ plays an essential part in our spiritual health. We let go of our prejudice and fear by inserting ourselves into his forgiveness, letting him forgive in and through us. And, as always, we find that if we do that, we ourselves are forgiven. Something to ponder, I suggest, when we read the headlines today.

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How to Cope with Life’s Injustices

Where do we start? I’ve been very quiet recently, not for any sinister reason but because I felt I must either say a great deal about some subjects or keep very quiet. On the subject of racism, for example, I can say very little. I don’t understand it and never have. It simply baffles me that skin colour could ever be used as a marker of supposed inferiority/superiority. On the subject of slavery and the slave trade, however, I would have to say a great deal because the subject is historically much more complex than many who see it solely in terms of Black Slavery from the sixteenth century onwards seem to realise — and the tragedy is that it still continues today. I prefer to leave these questions to others, so it is probably just as well that I have been busy with many of those things that keep a monastery going but which are neither romantic nor particularly interesting to outsiders.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one fails to register what is going on in the world outside the cloister or the injustices that are perpetrated. There are the big injustices: the corruption that bedevils political decision-making, often without our being fully aware of it; the economic exploitation that enriches some but impoverishes others; the suppression of freedoms and the manipulation of opinion that makes us all doubt whom we can really trust or what we can believe. Then there are the smaller injustices, those we experience personally and acutely: the failure to recognize our goodwill; the attack on our good name or the belittling of our attempts to be kind or generous; even the breakdown of relationships or our own health can come into this category. It isn’t always easy to respond with courage or the kind of bright-eyed determination we are taught to admire. Sometimes we just want to go into a corner, curl up in a heap and howl.

Cue the entrance of St Barnabas, whose feast-day this is. We might think he would have something of a chip on his shoulder for being the perpetual ‘second fiddle,’ first to Paul, then to John Mark. Even today his liturgical commemoration is ranked not as a full feast (festum) but as a memorial (memoria). In Acts 11.24 he is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. I think that explains why we can derive so much encouragement from Barnabas. He is not one of those on whom the spotlight naturally falls. He’s more of a peace-maker than an agitator or protestor. He introduced Paul to the apostles after his conversion and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys, which speaks volumes about his tact and patience. He defended gentile converts against the Judaizers, and when the break with Paul finally came, Barnabas seems to have gone on quietly preaching and teaching, happy to leave the first place to his more brilliant colleague. We might say that Barnabas’s life is an essay in living creatively with injustice, not condoning it nor grumbling about it but generously accepting it and not letting it get in the way of what really mattered.

Thinking about St Barnabas makes me question how I cope with the small injustices I encounter in my own life. It is an uncomfortable question but one I feel the need to address before I can properly think about some of the larger ones mentioned above. Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with our own shortcomings by concentrating on those of others or society in general. We forget that, like Barnabas, we have to work at becoming good ourselves before we can hope to encourage others to become good in their turn. The trouble is, we’ll never see the good in ourselves but we must hope that others will. That, surely, is the way to change the world — but it will never be easy.

Audio Version

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