A Spoonful of Sugar

Today is St Nicholas’s day, when, with a good conscience, we can rot our teeth with toffee and gingerbread, punch our opponents on the nose, and, provided we have all the necessary safeguarding measures in place, enjoy the company of children, exchange gifts, pray for seafarers and do good by stealth. If you haven’t a clue what I mean, or don’t ‘do’ irony, these posts may help:

St Nicholas and Santa Claus
Death in the North Sea

We tend to be serious about Advent, but not always in the right way, as some of the responses to yesterday’s post made clear to me. Yes, it is a time for concentrating on the coming of the Messiah, but it is also a time for recognizing that we are already living in the Messianic age. The plainness most of us adopt throughout this short season of preparation for Christmas isn’t meant to be gloomy or misanthropic, ‘penitential’ in the popular sense of the word. On the contrary, our penance should be life-enhancing. There should, ideally, be something of the rubicund Father Christmas/Santa Claus about it — a generosity of spirit and intention, even if we can’t manage material generosity. Not all of us can do that, nor should anyone be made to feel guilty about it; but we must beware of complacency. ‘I can’t’ is sometimes a pretext for ‘I won’t’.

In earlier posts about St Nicholas, I have stressed the importance of prayer. It is one thing we, as nuns, are committed to giving to the Church and to the world, and never has it been more necessary. Recently, I looked at the statistics for the number of abortions performed in England and Wales, the number of children living in poverty in the UK as a whole, the numbers officially ‘in care’ and those estimated to be surviving on hand-outs from food banks, despite the fact that their parents may be doing two or three jobs to try to keep themselves above the breadline. It was a shocking contrast to all the ads for consumer goods that marked Black Friday and continue to besiege us that we may have the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This morning the prayer of the community is for conversion of heart for us all: for St Nicholas to be honoured by more generous giving to children in need, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. If a rich country like the U.K. can tolerate such shameful inequality, such cruel indifference to children, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Our giving may be no more than a spoonful of sugar, but even one spoonful has the potential to make a huge difference. Try it.

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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A God of Love

One of the saddest things I have read recently came from someone describing himself as an ex-Catholic who said that, in his experience, the Church was made up of perverts and abusers who took delight in condemning the sins of others. He particularly disliked the use of the crucifix, calling it morbid; while his own experience of abuse had left him with a profound distrust of the clergy and everything they say. Is it any wonder that his image of God — for he still believes, in an odd kind of way — is of an angry and hostile God who cares nothing for his creation? What would today’s solemnity of Christ the King mean to him?

I cannot answer that question, for obvious reasons, but I think it is one we must all address. What does today’s feast mean to us? Conventionally, the solemnity of Christ the King, with its clear, eschatological significance, is about the restoration of all things under Christ, King of the Universe. It is about lordship and service, divine love and sacrifice; but as soon as we use those terms, we are using religious language remote from the everyday experience of most people. Yet loving and being loved are not, usually, remote from our experience, thank God, nor is the idea of making sacrifices (pl) for others — ask any parent. It is the way in which we use those words in a religious context that confuses or injects a note of misunderstanding or unreality. Indeed, the very notion of kingship, biblical though it is, is alien to many whose ideas about it are drawn principally from history or from what they see of today’s European monarchies.

As always, I think the preface for today’s celebration gives us not only the theology of this feast in a nutshell but also some themes we can dwell on with profit. From the beginning, it strikes a note of rejoicing, referring to Christ our Saviour being anointed with the oil of gladness. We know that he went joyfully to the cross and surrendered his life for us, freely and gladly. It is the final vision, however, the promise of the kingdom, that holds out most hope:

an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

I do not know what my new-found friend would make of that. I suspect that beneath all the pain and suffering he has undergone, he still clings with part of his being to the hope that such a vision may be realised. It is a vision God is humble enough to ask our co-operation in achieving. As the old saints never tired of repeating, ‘Without him, we cannot; without us, he will not.’ The God of love invites; he does not force.

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Psalm 118 (119)

Once upon a time, and a very bad time it was, there was a fashion among (some) Benedictine communities to omit the section of the Rule that constitutes the so-called liturgical code (effectively, chapters 8 to 20, though some grudgingly conceded that 19 and 20 might be read) and to shorten the number of psalms recited each week, distributing the psalter over a two- or four- week cycle. At the same time, others in the Church decided that some psalms are just too violent for Christian lips to utter, so the Roman Office lost the cursing psalms completely. We, by contrast, have continued to say the whole psalter every week and enjoy a spectacularly good curse on Saturdays, though we do not follow exactly Benedict’s arrangement of the psalms. I am grateful, however, that we have continued to say Psalm 118 (119) in all its glorious repetitiveness as it ducks and weaves around the Law and the beauty and majesty of God. Yesterday and today the Rule reminds us of the importance of this psalm (cf RB 18). What it does not do is remind us of what I consider to be the best commentary on the psalm, that of St Ambrose.

In 22 chapters, variously described in translation as homilies or sermons (expositio in Latin), Ambrose dwells on the presence of the Word in the text of the psalm. He is discursive, but never boring. He takes us down some unexpected roads, but like his younger contemporary Augustine, whose Enarrationes on the same psalm are also well worth reading, he has a consistent theological purpose in view. There is a sustained emphasis on the unity of the Word with the Father and the Holy Spirit, such as one would expect at a time when Arianism flourished; there is a wonderfully rich ecclesiology, often expressed though a Marian typology linked to the Song of Songs; and there are Platonic and Pauline elements (e.g. in Ambrose’s account of the ascent of the soul and the Christian’s participatio in the imago Dei) that leave a lasting impression on the reader.

So, this morning’s challenge from the cloister is this: try reading Psalm 118 (119) straight through, then look at Ambrose’s commentary. If you do not already know Ambrose’s work, I guarantee you will find much that will transform your view of this psalm.

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The Lord’s Prayer and the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Today’s feast of St Ignatius of Antioch is one I have written about many times, but I don’t think I have ever really thought about it in the context of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 13. 12–14, which gives the reasons for ending the offices of Lauds and Vespers with the Lord’s Prayer said or sung out loud.

Benedict was clear-eyed about community life and knows how often we offend one another. However, we make a solemn pledge in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive one another, and Benedict insists that we remind ourselves of this covenant of forgiveness frequently and always at the end of the two peak periods of the Divine Office, Lauds and Vespers. It is the superior who is to recite the prayer, not because he is set above the brethren but because he must provide the unity and leadership the community needs. We give our assent by saying Libera nos a malo – deliver us from evil.

The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is not a mere matter of routine, the expected ending of a Christian service of worship: it goes to the heart of the monastic enterprise. We seek God in community under a rule and an abbot. That means frank acknowledgement of failure and a readiness to begin again — and allowing others to begin again, too. At the other offices, most of the prayer is said silently, except for the conclusion. For myself, I find in that a reminder that we do not always have to articulate everything, that sometimes forgiveness is better mediated through an accepting silence rather than an attempt to clear up every detail of misunderstanding and hurt.

Ignatius of Antioch left us seven letters which breathe charity and forgiveness. He remarks of the soldiers who guarded him that the better they were treated, the worse they seemed to behave; but that did not stop him trying to treat them well. He met a martyr’s death with courage. ‘I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.’ May we too meet the challenge of being transformed by grace as he was. We can start by making the Lord’s Prayer the rhythm of our lives.

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Ascension Day 2019

Forty days ago we began our celebration of Easter. It is not over yet, but today marks a special point. When Jesus ascends into heaven, all earthly limitations fall away. He, our High Priest, now  intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. Today’s readings are all about prayer, and I find in them a huge encouragement, for what is monastic life if not a life of prayer? Our prayer is now united with that of Christ himself and as such has a power and efficacy it would otherwise lack. He is the King of glory, the Lord of creation, the one who makes all things possible.

A personal decision
The reminder that monastic life is first and foremost a life of prayer makes this a good day for a small personal announcement. I have decided to take what I hope will prove a short break from blogging and social media. You do not need to be told that the community and I are praying, although I know many of you appreciate our attempts to share some of our reflections, etc

I have great difficulty reading and writing at present and find I am spending a lot of time on my own spelling mistakes. I know my typos are as irritating to others as they are to me. Under normal circumstances, I’d be glad to be told of errors but having to cut, paste and magnify everything sent to me is irksome and, to be honest, sometimes a little discouraging. So, rather than struggle to read tweets and messages, only to discover they are about my awful typing, I think it makes sense not to provide matter for dispute! I am hoping to have surgery on my eyes in the near future, so I shall be back annoying you — though not with typos, I trust — ere long, D.V. Please continue to use our 24/7 email prayerline for prayer requests and email the monastery about any other matter. Quitenun will do her best to maintain the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page.

Newsletter
If you did not see our May newsletter (the first for 18 months) you can read it using this link and, better still, subscribe to future issues: https://t.co/X1nHHfQ6CX

Dore Abbey
Finally, I’d like to mention something dear to my heart. We who live in the Golden Valley are privileged to have many fine churches on our doorstep but, like many small rural communities, we struggle to maintain them. Dore Abbey is a wonderful medieval survival badly in need of a new roof. Bro Duncan PBGV used to accompany us to Evensong there (dogs sit with their Human Beans in the pews) so I am sure he would endorse the appeal that has just been launched. I hope some of you will, too. Bless you! https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/doreabbey?utm_term=xnqZ7ndnY&fbclid=IwAR2zbSLvoLbWHMS-DXpmjBzMUpI0-Mn-TQ-DzTl6_blG1A8MaAOn-mOXJsg

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On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.

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Seeing Through Tears: Easter Tuesday 2019

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.

This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.

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Good Friday 2019

The cross at Notre Dame de Paris after the fire
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis } The cross stands while the world turns

Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.

At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.

Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?

sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.

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Maundy Thursday 2019

The Sacred Triduum begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the monastery we anticipate the Triduum with a day of special silence and prayer. At noon we have a solemn meal that recalls (but does not replicate) the kind of meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples while our reading of the Last Discourse as the final act of the day ensures we do not lose our focus as Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday. The liturgical celebration we begin tonight does not end until Easter morning. It is all one, as you can see from the fact that no dismissal is uttered from the end of Mass tonight until the end of the Easter Vigil. This is the high-point of the Christian year, and it is not a merely historical commemoration, a kind of play-acting that we engage in. By means of the liturgy we enter into the events we recall: we are one with what we are celebrating. What does that mean for us today on Maundy Thursday?

First and foremost, I think it means that we are each bound to scrutinize our own fidelity or lack of it to the commandment to love one another. Unless we are unusually complacent, I daresay most of us feel a little shame-faced when we consider how often we have missed opportunities to serve or done so in a way that was distinctly unloving and ungracious. Some of us may even have made consciousness of our own rectitude — in our own eyes at least — a source of boasting. How many, for example, have noisily turned their backs on the Church, saying they can have no part in her because of the terrible scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up? Then we read of Père Fournier going into the blazing heart of Notre Dame to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and know we are on firm ground again. That is what we expect of our priests! And tonight we recall the giving of that great treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. We give thanks and try to express our love and devotion in those precious hours at the Altar of Repose where we bring all the world’s sin and sorrow and our own pain and confusion.

Maundy Thursday is intense in its movement from Judas’s betrayal to the Agony in the Garden. It is intense in both its joy and its sorrow. We cannot live all our lives with such intensity but tonight we can and must. It is our entry into Christ’s Passion.

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