Being Special

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 60 On Priests who May Wish to Live in the Monastery, is not just for priests and monastics. It is for all who are special or think they are or are considered such by others. In short, it is really for all of us, because in a few short sentences Benedict gets to the nub of a problem that is always cropping up in society: how far does talent, wealth or any other advantage set us apart from others. His answer is, not at all. Those who have received more should give an example of humility, and that is valid whether we live in a monastery or not.

Commentators are still picking over the recent riots and advancing various theories about why they happened. Careful readers will have noticed that I made some very similar remarks about rioters and looters as I have made in the past about bankers and politicians. The sad fact is that the greed and criminality we have witnessed on our streets is really no different from the greed and criminality we have witnessed in the boardrooms of our banks or in the expenses claims of some of our politicians. If, now, there are calls for severe punishment for those who ran amok earlier this week, shouldn’t there be renewed calls for something of the same for those who have set such a bad example in the past? No one is so special that he or she is exempt from moral responsibility.

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Rag-Bag Thoughts by Ragged Nun

It has been an ‘interesting’ week, hasn’t it? Week-ends don’t happen in monasteries. In fact, we are gearing up to receive a parish group here on Saturday, and Sunday is always full; so there won’t be much time to pause and look back on the past few days. One of the distinguishing characteristics of monastic life is that we try to ‘digest’ the day’s events on the day itself rather than postpone them to some future time which may never come. Hence Benedict’s insistence that, before the day’s end, we should make peace with anyone we have had a dispute with. We reflect on the day, giving thanks for graces received, asking for enlightenment, pardon or strength. It is a time for honesty. If we are feeling ragged and running on empty, we need to acknowledge the fact because God cannot fill a closed heart or mind.

Perhaps Friday, which is the end of the working week for many people, would be a good day on which to think about the week past and bring it into one’s prayer. More than that, let’s not go home for the week-end without saying ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or even, ‘that’s O.K., it’s been difficult, hasn’t it?’ Forgiveness can transform a situation as anyone who heard Tariq Jahan this week would agree.

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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Edith Stein, Mob Violence and the Absence of a Moral Compass

Today is the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein. It is also a day when Britain is again in shock. The idea of mob violence, torching and looting in some of our major cities is hard to get one’s head round. Life in Britain is meant to be predictable and ‘safe’. The police are armed only in exceptional circumstances. We respect people; we respect property; we form orderly queues; we don’t think the death penalty has any part to play in civilized society. But our civilized society isn’t proving very civilized at present.

For an older generation, there are echoes of the 1930s. The Nazis rose to power because they had a ‘solution’ to the apparent disintegration of German society after the First World War. Violence, as we all know, was part of that ‘solution’. It meant the death of St Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rose, and millions of others besides. No doubt, following the riots in London and elsewhere, there will be calls for ‘crackdowns’, appeals to ‘bring back flogging’ and other variations on the theme. Extremist parties will win votes because people are afraid, while others will speak of the rioters as ‘deprived’ and ‘frustrated’. Very few will have the courage to address the real problem, that of growing up without a moral compass, without a set of values that recognizes the need to observe the laws and customs by which society operates.

What we are seeing in our streets is not a protest movement, nor is it the result of poverty (to say so is to insult the poor). It is sheer criminality: violence and greed running unchecked. It is indefensible. Today our prayers are for all who have suffered as a result of the riots, which includes the rioters themselves. They are prayers for peace and the restoration of order; but let us not forget to ask the prayers of St Teresa Benedicta to preserve us from  the destruction of the tolerance and mutual concern which underlie a civilized society. She understands better than most where the violence could lead.

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Love of Truth

The Dominican motto, ‘Veritas’, has always attracted me. If I weren’t a Benedictine, I would want to be a Dominican and I suspect many others would, too. St Dominic, whose feast we keep today, was influenced by the Benedictines, and I think the whole Church has been influenced by St Dominic and his sons and daughters. With the benefit of hindsight, we may not always agree with the way in which truth was sought or what was done to preserve its conclusions, but with the ideal itself we cannot quibble. Truth matters.

Love of truth in all its forms must surely lead to love of Truth himself. That is why there is no human endeavour that is not capable of leading us to God. It is also why integrity matters so much. We cannot be truthful in speech and untruthful in deed. Careless or substandard work is as much a distortion of truth as telling a lie.

Sometimes we become downcast when we realise that we can do very little for God or other people. Love can seem a bit of an abstraction, particularly if we are confined to the circle of self because of age, poverty or serious illness. But whatever our circumstances, we can live truthfully. We can reflect the truth and beauty of God just by being. That is not little. That is true greatness.

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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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