The Awful Earnestness of Women

This post is not going to be what some may have assumed from its title. I am using ‘awful’ in the way many now use ‘awesome’, meaning awe-inspiring. Earnestness, too, is a word we need to take a fresh look at. For too long it has been associated with the kind of seriousness we rightly call deadly, yet it is nothing of the sort. Earnestness springs from inner conviction and is shot through with sincerity. For me, what I have called the awful earnestness of women is something both sexes can admire and seek to emulate because it is a quality we see in Our Lady: resilience, purposefulness and determination in the service of God.

Why do I think women exhibit this quality so clearly? Partly, I think, because the opportunities open to women are still fewer than those open to men in much of the world. Therefore, intensity often has to take the place of breadth. For women in the West, personally unfamiliar with the constraints experienced by women living in other parts of the world, the idea of being held back by anything more than prejudice may seem preposterous. But for those whose educational and other opportunities are more limited, life is more like Jane Austen’s little bit of ivory, something to be worked over with delicacy and attention to detail. In the spiritual sphere, if I may call it that, the same is true. The scope allowed to women in the Catholic Church is still restricted if we think in terms of activity and decision-making, but if we think in terms of prayer and holiness, not at all, and surely that is what matters, whether we be male or female. Our business, our mission, is to become holy and by so doing lead others to holiness.

Resilience, purposefulness and determination are all necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be, but they are not dour qualities. We do not become holy by gritting our teeth. Again, I think we may take our tone from Mary. Every evening at Vespers we sing the Magnificat, that lyrical outpouring of trust and praise from the whole Church. It is the perfect, joyful expression of the awful earnestness of women — and men, too.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Language of the Liturgy

This will be a short post, I promise, and it is one I never thought I’d write. I’ve been following in a half-hearted way the debate about the Scottish hierarchy’s approval of the English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) bible for the publication of its new lectionary. As someone who prays a lengthy monastic Divine Office in Latin and English each day and has, in the past, done a bit of liturgical translation (more from Latin than from Greek and only once from Hebrew), you will understand that I notice liturgical language. I care about language in general but especially the language we use in prayer. I don’t claim to be a good writer myself, but I do try to convey meaning as clearly and effectively as I can. That is why you will occasionally come across a flight of fancy or purple passage that I hope will add something to the words on the page, conveying a nuance or level of meaning, hint at a beauty or truth, that would otherwise not be there. When translating a text, however, more restraint is required. The text is what matters, and it is the translator’s duty to try to convey its meaning as fully as possible, without getting in the way of the original author. Translation, therefore, especially of liturgical texts, requires thought and prayer as well as scholarship. It also requires awareness of how the text will be used and by whom.

This morning I happened upon an online discussion that made me realise, to a degree I never have before, that just as a woman can never know what it is like to be a man, no man can ever know what it is like to be a woman. To have dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ the effect of hearing the scriptures proclaimed in an exclusively masculine voice is something I think only a woman can really understand. I am not, and never have been, one of those who want to force the language of scripture into politically correct channels but I have been saddened by the proposed introduction of gendered language where it is unnecessary and where, for many years, we have been accustomed to a more neutral or inclusive rendering. If you do a google search, you will find there are several articles discussing this matter, all of them illustrated with examples the writer finds telling, on both sides of the debate.

The Scottish bishops have shown that any consideration of the sensitivities of women is not up for discussion, even if that leads to questionable accuracy in translation at times. There is nothing I can do about that. But it does leave me wondering why those praying the Magnificat in English find the old Latin phrase, ancilla Domini, which means ‘handmaid of the Lord’ and is an undeniably feminine form, translated as ‘servant of the Lord’*. That could refer to either sex. Do the sensitivities work in one direction only? If so, perhaps a re-think would be in order. Please.

*In the Roman Liturgy of the Hours, which is not the work of the Scottish bishops, but will be familiar to many.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Five Reasons Not to Like Religious People

You might think that, in my line of business, I would like ‘religious’ people (please note the inverted commas). The truth is, I have five reasons to dislike them. Here they are:

1. ‘Religious’ people are always right

because

2. They know God thinks exactly as they do

from which it follows that

3. They are happy, indeed specially qualified, to give everyone the benefit of their advice

which, because of 1 and 2, means

4. They may deliver their opinions/advice as unceremoniously as possible

with the result that often

5. They condemn others, frequently quite nastily.

This is, of course, a parody of true religion, but I think you will find it quite prevalent in the world today, whether the religion in question be Catholicism, Humanism or any other -ism. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking our own opinion universally valid and that it entitles us to behaviour completely at odds with the values we say we hold. Catholics who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching while sniping at everyone they disapprove of; intellectuals who ridicule the arguments of others instead of engaging with them; those who seek to eliminate racism while maintaining anti-semitic attitudes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can apply misplaced zeal to the questions of the day. I call it ‘religious’ because of the intensity with which the views are held. They bind the holder, whereas true religion sets free. There is no fear in true religion, no desire to score points, no wish to force the other to believe as we do (sorry, Augustine), just a desire to share the blessings we enjoy ourselves.

For a Christian, that means trying to win others for Christ by leading them to experience of him, not brow-beating them into submission. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was argued into belief, although I have met many who struggled to find the right spiritual home, as it were. It is not that kind of debate or exploration I am talking about but the more aggressive ‘I’m right; you’re wrong’ approach.

During the last few months, when lockdown restrictions have limited access to public worship and the sacraments, it has been sad to see how selfish and sometimes petty some of the online arguments have become. The Mass is so much more important than whether I myself can attend or not; reverence means so much more than whether one receives Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. St Laurence, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the Church’s treasure, he did not hesitate. He sought out the poor, recognizing in them the lineaments of the Master or, as Hopkins would say,

Christ lovely in limbs not his.

That’s the kind of religious person I like.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for a Feast

Tomorrow, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, is our patronal feast. God willing, we shall celebrate it in both choir and refectory, with a liturgy as splendid as we can make it, and a dinner more elegant than usual. But all this requires preparation and begs the question: how should we prepare for a feast? At Christmas and Easter, for example, most Christian households will cook and eat special foods and exchange gifts of some kind among family members. In a monastery the material celebrations tend to be more restrained and preparations are more focused on the liturgy. Choir practice looms large on the agenda, the chapel is cleaned and polished to within an inch of its life, and while there is certainly more activity in the kitchen, other preparations are perhaps not so obvious.

In normal times, there would be sacramental confession and a chapter of faults so that, as far as possible, we may be at peace with God, one another and ourselves. Chapter of faults is an opportunity to apologize to one another for the ways in which we have failed the community, by being careless or negligent, for example, or having a little tantrum about nothing in particular. It is a way of restoring relationships, acknowledging the imperfections and insensitivities that often weigh heavier on others than they do on ourselves. Then there is the reading for the feast, so that we enter upon it with a renewed sense of the Trinity’s immensity. There is always something more to learn, something more to reflect on. The mystery of the Trinity can never be exhausted by our puny human intellects, so we read and pray, read and pray.

The past week has been busier and rather more fraught than any of us anticipated. It is good to be able to look forward to the feast (which begins with Vespers tonight) and welcome it as a sabbath rest, a sharing in God’s own rest. The feast for which we are preparing now is a foretaste of the eternal feast to come. O Quanta qualia illa sabbata! May the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless us all.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Recognizing the Risen Christ

Who does not love the gospels we read this week, with their stories of meeting the Risen Christ? How one’s whole being thrills with Mary Magdalene as she hears the Lord calling her by name or with those weary disciples, their hearts burning within them as the scriptures are explained to them on the road to Emmaus, and then that amazing moment of recognition as Jesus breaks bread with them. We shall see the Risen Christ on the sea-shore, put our hands into the mark of the nails, be questioned by him, be commissioned by him. We shall know him, yet not know him; recognize him yet still perhaps doubt. In a word, we shall be plunged into the mystery of the Resurrection — and it will all be new, strange, unsettling and the most profound joy we have ever known.

For most, the way in which we are celebrating Easter this year is without precedent. We have been discovering anew the power and holiness of the domestic church — making a chapel of our living room, an altar of our table and a lectern or pulpit of our tablet or smartphone. For some, live-streamed worship has taken the place of gathering physically with the parish community; for others, there has been a more conscious and regular participation in the ancient prayer of the Church known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Whichever it is, the intention is the same: to meet the Risen Christ, to adore him, to love him, to serve him. That is why, no matter how engaged we are with worship, we cannot neglect him in our brothers and sisters, many of whom are suffering terribly at this time.

For a cloistered nun like me, that poses a special challenge but it is one I suspect my older or less able readers may share. Yes, we can pray; but can we do anything practical to help those in need? For many of us the answer will be a disappointing ‘no’. We haven’t the money or resources, physical or otherwise, to help others directly. Happily, that also means we can’t pat ourselves on the back that we have done something good and worthwhile. We actually have to live our faith. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have an ambiguity that draws us in. We don’t see him healing or preaching. He just is; but he is in a way that is intensely alive and life-giving. I have a hunch that we who call ourselves his disciples are meant to be the same. We may not do very much, but through our prayer and our readiness to respond to the Lord, we are inviting the Risen Christ into the heart of a sick and suffering world which he alone can heal and give new life to. It is a humbler role than we might like, perhaps, but it is the one that will prove most fruitful.

We may not always recognize the Risen Christ as we would wish, but I’m confident he will always recognize us; and that is what matters. Cleopas and his companion walked seven long miles in Jesus’ company, but only recognized him when he himself chose to disclose himself to them. Let us be try to be ready for that moment in our own lives.

Audio version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Last Supper: Jesus and Judas at Table

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved.

Early this morning, as on every Maundy Thursday, I went into the kitchen and baked some unleavened bread. It will accompany our meals between now and Easter morning. It is the bread of affliction, the bread of suffering, a reminder of the reality of sin and redemption — something we taste, chew over, absorb into ourselves. Today it has a wonderful freshness and zest about it and will accompany our recalling of the Last Supper with joy and gladness. Tomorrow, when we fast the great fast of Good Friday, it will be stale, crumbly, eaten without relish. By Holy Saturday it will be rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death. It is a small way of making the huge events of the paschal Triduum approachable, knitted to the substance of our lives in a direct, uncomplicated way.

This morning, however, as I kneaded the dough, I was thinking about the interaction of Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper. Jesus washed the feet of his friend, as he washed the feet of the other disciples. We are so used to seeing the villainy of Judas that we forget or do not register the fact that Jesus loved him and washed his feet gladly, even though, according to John, he had a premonition that it was Judas who would betray him. There is, however, a dramatic pause. It is not until Jesus shares bread with him that the die is cast. 

Scholars have long argued whether Judas received what we know as the Eucharist, with most deciding that he didn’t. A lot depends on the kind of festal meal we think Jesus was celebrating with his disciples (John, for example, does not call it a passover meal) and the sequence of rituals within that meal. As I pulled and thumped the dough I asked myself whether the problem is not whether Judas actually shared in the Eucharist but our unwillingness to accept that Jesus could be so vulnerable, so open to abuse, as to offer his very self to his betrayer. Put like that, I think we know the answer. He offers himself to us and to all, sinful though we are, every time the Mass is offered. It is how we live with the tension of being simultaneously sinful yet forgiven. We like the idea of God’s mercy extending to us, but to others? Not always so much!

Tonight, for most of us, there will be no Eucharist, no sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. We shall experience loss and emptiness as never before. But rather than concentrating on our loss, our own sense of deprivation, perhaps we could move our focus elsewhere, to the Agony in the Garden and the suffering of Jesus as he struggled to come to terms with what lay ahead of him. The idea of Jesus needing help may seem odd to some, but I think it provides a point of contact. Jesus needed his friends. He wanted Peter, James and John to watch with him. He needed Judas, too, as his friend. He wanted him by his side, but Judas had gone outside into the darkness. Pray God we never follow.

Audio Version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Parting of Friends: Jesus and Judas

Today we recall the parting of friends. Judas betrays Jesus and sets in motion the events we shall be re-living over the next few days. Put like that, everything is low-key, seemingly inevitable. We miss the drama, the anguish, the tortured love that goes on loving. For what we often forget is that Jesus loved Judas, and Judas loved Jesus. No matter that each was deeply disappointed in the other; no matter that there was a parting of ways; love did not, and could not, turn to hatred. 

Judas seems to have wanted Jesus to restore Israel’s political independence. His messianic hope was apparently focused on this world only. I say ‘seems’ and ‘apparently’ because we do not know. For centuries he has been demonised as the arch-betrayer, the clever man with astute financial skills, who sent Jesus to his death and was rewarded with what he desired most, a few more coins for his purse. What did Jesus want from Judas? Would it be too simplistic to say, he wanted his friendship, his company, that he enjoyed being with him and hoped that Judas would understand his mission as he himself had come to understand it? When Judas stepped out into the night, didn’t he long for him to turn back? Didn’t consciousness of their being on separate paths wound him? And when Judas began to see the consequences of his action, didn’t he feel a similar pain? When friends fall out, there is sadness on both sides.

Jesus did not approve of Judas’s betrayal, he condemned it, but he did not condemn Judas himself. To me that ‘Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!’ is a cry of pain, of sympathy even, for the suffering Judas will experience as a result of his actions. I think we sometimes forget that, as Christians, we cannot endorse that which we believe to be wrong but that does not mean we love the perpetrator any the less. Society often gets itself into a bind. On the one hand it believes that someone is responsible for every perceived wrong and should be made to pay for it; on the other, that there should be universal tolerance of anything and everything. That can be particularly hard for those of us trying to live a Christian life, but I think we can take heart from the interaction between Jesus and Judas. Jesus condemns the sin in no uncertain terms, but not the sinner. The public utterance and the private feeling may strike the casual reader as being at odds with one another. In reality,  they are all of a piece. God’s love never comes to an end. In the Dialogues, Catherine of Siena hears from the Lord that he has mercy for Judas, too. He died for him, as he died for you and me. Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus died for Judas. The question I ask myself, therefore, is: if Judas is not forgiven, are we?

Audio Version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Palm Sunday 2020

The Entry into Jerusalem
The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto

Those with good memories will have noticed that this image has been used before on iBenedictines. There is something about the donkey’s mild eye and switching ears that, for me, captures the strangeness of this moment. Jesus enters Jerusalem to the hosannas of those who will soon be shouting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ He does so on the the back of a beast of burden, yet is he who carries our sins, he who bears the heaviest load of all. He does so gladly, just as Giotto’s donkey seems to rejoice that he carries our Saviour.

Today, wherever we are, we are one with those on the road into Jerusalem. We, too, are cutting down green boughs and spreading our cloaks before Jesus, even if only metaphorically. We sing our hosannas, knowing that we also could change to hostile cries and jeers in an instant. We do that every time we fail to recognize Christ in others, every time we set ourselves up to be judge, jury and executioner over the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, anyone to whom we are antagonistic or hostile, for whatever reason. But we also know that if we allow Jesus into our hearts, we won’t do that. The choice before us is therefore stark. Will we make a way for him into our hearts or not? Will we let him trample down everything that is inconsistent with his lordship? Will we be his Jerusalem?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mass in a Time of COVID-19

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of St John Paul II. He was a man of very definite opinions, as others often discovered to their cost. His role in the collapse of several dictatorships is widely recognized although not yet fully documented. Within the Church, too, he could be formidable. This morning I was thinking about one of his Apostolic Letters, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which came out in 1994 and stated that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.’ The problem for many was the way in which this teaching was subsequently expanded to prohibit any discussion of the matter. As far as I know, it is the only subject that may not be discussed by Catholics, which makes it quite difficult to address something the Church is going to have to deal with increasingly in the future, and which our current experience of COVID-19 has highlighted: access to the Mass and other sacraments.

Let me be quite clear. I am not disputing the teaching of the Catholic Church nor am I arguing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. What I am doing is asking whether the present situation is challenging our understanding of the Church and the sacraments. For example, if we forget for the moment those emoting about being unable to go to Mass as though they alone were affected, or those lamenting having to celebrate ‘their’ Mass behind closed doors, we face an uncomfortable truth. The only people to have physical access  to the Mass at present are men — male clergy. Of course, every Mass is offered for the whole Church, living and dead, and we can participate by spiritual communion; but the only people who can actually receive Holy Communion at present are the clergy.

I think that affects how we see the composition of the Church and the role of the sacraments within it. There is a kind of irony in the fact that under Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken against clericalism, the Church should have become extremely ‘clerical’ in her approach to the sacraments. Mass has become, in a certain sense, ‘privatised’. There is a movement, largely led by Protestant theologians, which is arguing for the validity of a digital Eucharist and online Communion. I myself do not see how such a thing could ever be countenanced according to Catholic sacramental theology, but the underlying questions are another matter. The Eucharist was given to the whole Church, not just part of it. How does the Church qua institution make that a reality?

Live-streaming Mass, making a spiritual communion, that is the experience of the greater part of the Church today. What was once confined to the invisible Church — the old, the sick, those in countries where priests are few and far between — has now become universal. Mass in a time of COVID-19 is very different from what most of us have known for most of our lives, and so with the other sacraments. I don’t, for one moment, deny the validity or even the necessity of the current arrangements, but I am glad that we are beginning to ask some very important questions about the Eucharist and other sacraments. The pro multis of the words of Eucharistic consecration are not to be lightly abandoned or understood in a restrictive sense, are they? Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us into a fuller understanding of this treasure entrusted to the Church.

Audio version

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail