Love of Solitude

As a community we are happy about using the internet to share something of our monastic life with others. Our use of Facebook, Twitter, Google + and so on isn’t random (though it may sometimes appear so): we are doing our best to exercise the traditional hospitality of Benedictines in all the ways open to us. So why am I writing about solitude, and more precisely, love of solitude? For the simple reason that our online engagement presupposes an even greater degree of engagement with God and the things of God in silence and seclusion. Love of solitude is an important element of monastic life that no amount of ‘connectedness’ can or should obscure, but I think it may be something those not called to live the monastic life might gain from thinking about.

One of the problems contemporary culture confronts us with is that of discerning how much of ourselves to share with others, especially online. Do we ‘do’ social media, and if so, what limits do we need to observe? Are professional/semi-professional networks like Linkedin or BranchOut as necessary as having a business card once was, or do they blur the distinction between public and private? During the last few months there has been an explosion of interest in the use of social media by the Churches and some very acute observations have been made. I particularly commend anything written by P. M. Philips (Methodist) or Antonio Spadaro (Catholic). However, I’m not sure that we have yet covered all necessary aspects. Worrying about our personal safety, the security of our online data, or the longevity of some of our sillier postings/comments on blogs and so on, is essentially self-regarding. As Christians, we are called to look beyond ourselves, to God and others; and that’s where it all becomes a little complicated. Is all this online buzz really good for anyone? What part does solitude play in our lives?

Solitude, as we all know, can be good or bad: it can be selfish or selfless, creative or destructive. A lot depends on our attitude and intention. That is why I emphasize the need for a love of solitude. Some people are afraid of silence, of being alone; yet we all need to experience what it is like to do nothing in particular, to spend time being receptive rather than assertive, otherwise whatever we  say or do, online or offline, will be shallow or vapid. A solitude which is not loneliness or emptiness is not achieved without some sacrifice, but in a world where we are endlessly available to others via the internet/smartphones/whatever, solitude seems to me increasingly necessary.

Prayers please
We heard this morning that our founder and Ordinary, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, has bowel cancer. Please keep him in your prayers.

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St James the Apostle, Patron of Spain

Many years ago, when I was living and working in Spain, I was in Santiago on the feast of St James. My abiding memory is of hundreds of Gallegan bagpipes being played, if that is the right word, in front of the cathedral. At the time, the Spanish economy was in the doldrums, the restoration of democracy after the Franco era was still fragile and no one seemed to be quite sure in which direction the Spanish Church was headed. To be young, British and female was to be an object of wonder to the locals, and one quickly learned that using castellano was not likely to endear one! Since then the economy has boomed and busted, there has been an extraordinary amount of immigration, a socialist government has crossed swords with the Church on several important issues, and the Church itself no longer wields the influence it once did. Demonstrations again fill Puerta del Sol, Madrid, and Spain has become, in name at least, a European country whose economy causes heads to shake in Paris and Bonn.

I am naturally sceptical about the legends surrounding St James and Spain, but they are an enduring element in the make-up of Spain’s self-understanding which I find fascinating. Henri Pirenne was only half-right when he said that Africa begins at the Pyrenees, but few would question the truth of the old Spanish tourist office poster slogan, ‘Spain is different’ . A nation with five languages, seventeen local governments, and more unemployed young people than any other country in Europe faces challenges most of us would baulk at. St James the Apostle was not an easy man but he seems to me an excellent patron for Spain. Today my prayers are for the peoples of Spain and their well-being.

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In Praise of the Salesians

There is much to say about my recent trip to the U.S.A. but there is a lot of catching up to do first, so this will be no more than a brief ‘I’m back’ kind of post.

For the New York part of my stay I enjoyed the hospitality of the Salesian Sisters at Haledon, New Jersey. They couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (though I did wonder briefly whether the large mug and copious quantities of tea bags on 4 July had some Deeper Significance). There were lots of good things I noticed about the Sisters but one struck me very forcibly. I never once heard any of them grumble about any of the other Sisters or speak testily to them. It may be that they already are saints; they certainly are living as saints. Community life isn’t always easy, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. Being thrown together with a group of people one hasn’t chosen and to whom one is not related by blood, each of whom is blessed with idiosyncracies and foibles one doesn’t necessarily share, can be taxing. All credit, then, to the Salesians for being so considerate of one another, not just the guests. St Benedict would have approved.

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Treasuring the Ordinary

There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.

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Solemnity of the Holy Trinity 2011

The Holy Trinity from Yates Thompson 13, a Book of Hours from the second quarter of the 14th century
The Holy Trinity: illustration from a Sarum Book of Hours, second quarter of the fourteenth century, now in the British Library.

It would be presumptuous to try to add anything new to the thousands of words, good and bad, written about the Most Holy Trinity. For me, Augustine’s De Trinitate is one of the most satisfying treatments of a profoundly difficult subject, but that is a conclusion I came to only after a nodding acquaintance with modern physics made sense of some of his more mystifying passages.

For some, it is more important that today is Father’s Day. Somehow the two celebrations come together; and if I cannot speak about the Trinity, perhaps I may say something about human beings.

If you think about it, the primary relationship of all of us is that of child — son or daughter, as the case may be. We may not have siblings, we may never be parents ourselves, but we are all the child of someone, or rather, of two persons. The human family reflects the divine, being at least a trinity of persons; but there the analogy ends, for in relation to God, we are, all of us, eternally filial. If we have had inadequate or bad parents or have never known our own parents, this filial relationship with God does not usually come easily. We have to learn an unfamiliar language and it can be painful.

Father’s Day may be another example of soulless commercialisation, but make the connection with today’s feast, and it becomes more than a sentimental commemoration of dear old Dad: it is a reminder of the importance of fatherhood, both human and divine.

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Blogosphere and Twittersphere Ghettos

Have you ever asked yourself whether you limit the blogs you read on a regular basis or the people you follow on Twitter to a very narrow group? I ask myself that question often, especially as I don’t have much time for blog reading. When I do, I try to make sure that I include blogs whose writers hold very different opinions from me, but I am not sure I always succeed. It requires effort. Similarly, in order to make sure I actually read what is on my Twitterstream, I only follow approximately one tenth of the people who follow me, but although my Twitterati are definitely weighted in the direction of religion and technology, I always aim to include a few whose views are ‘challenging’.

One of the great dangers of belonging to a group, any kind of group, is that one never looks outside. One takes all one’s ideas and values from within the group and creates a comfortable ghetto for oneself. I am utterly convinced of the truth of Catholicism and think there is nothing more exciting than exploring Catholic orthodoxy, but I treasure the insights of those who don’t. Perhaps the problem is that most of us are aware how little we know and are a bit reluctant to admit it. The other side of engaging with those whose views conflict with our own is the need for persevering prayer to the Holy Spirit and the hard work of making sure that we are genuinely informed. In these last few days before Pentecost it might be useful to reflect on the ghettos we have created for ourselves. Sometimes they are the result not of conviction but of laziness; and somehow, I don’t think the Holy Spirit is very keen on laziness.

Benedict XVI on World Communications Day, 5 June 2011

I liked this extract from the pope’s message but omitted to include it yesterday.

There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.

To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

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Darning a Habit

I have just spent the morning darning and patching my habit. Sewing is not something I enjoy or do well, but walking around in black bin bags (the alternative) is scarcely dignified. Thrift isn’t among the virtues as such, but if one truly reveres the world and everything in it, one cannot be prodigal with resources — not even old fabric. There is value even in a few old threads, or so I told myself as I struggled to repair the thoughtlessness of the past, now showing itself as rents and holes. Darned and patched, I will henceforth try to uphold the dignity of the monastic habit . . . and trust the dignity of the monastic habit will uphold me.

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Wind

Part of me wants to get very constitutional and say something about the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary, but super injunctions are less troublesome hereabouts than the wind to which we have been subject. We haven’t had the tornado the people of Joplin have had to endure with such terrible loss of life, nor even the gales that have battered Scotland — just a relentless, cold, dry wind. Everything is shrivelling. The sky, for the most part, is grey and presumably may become greyer still if the Icelandic ash affects our perception of the upper sky. It is a bleak spring, with wheat and arable farmers looking grave and gardeners becoming plaintive about the poor prospects for summer.

And yet this reminder of the power of the wind, of our dependence on the weather, is also strangely comforting. We spend much of life in an artificial environment, with light and temperature controlled, foods available irrespective of season, ignorant of our own fragility. Wind, unseen and uncontrollable, reminds us that there are forces at work which will never be tamed, that the wild survives even in the heart of the city. I like the thought that the Holy Spirit is blowing through the midst of our urban wastelands as well as through the wasteland of our hearts, don’t you?

Quiet Days
We are hoping to have a few quiet days as a community this week, to recharge the batteries. There may be a few timetable changes, so please check beforehand if you are thinking of joining us for the Divine Office. Mass on Monday, 30 May, will be at 10.00 a.m.

Quiet Days Update
O foolish Benedictine! I thought that letting everyone know we are trying to have a few quiet days would gently warn people off visiting/making enquiries about visiting. It has had the opposite effect. However, we are genuinely tired and are therefore closing our doors completely, even for the Divine Office. The only public celebration during the next few days will be Mass on Monday. I hope you understand.

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Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.

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A Morning Walk

This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.

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