Was St Benedict an Elitist?

St Benedict ends chapter 38 of his Rule, On the Reader for the Week, with the statement that the brethren are not to sing or read according to rank but according to the edification they give their hearers (RB 38.12). To some, this presents no difficulty. St Benedict had a sensitive ear and merely wished to ensure competence among those who perform some public office in choir or refectory. Others are more squeamish. We live in a world where we play down differences for fear of wounding others or stifling their talents. At the same time, we are aware that inequality is growing. Usually, we measure this in terms of inequalities of wealth or access to some perceived good such as nutrition or healthcare. The difficulty comes when we are confronted, as Benedict was, by inequalities of ability that are innate. For example, I am not much of a singer; my monastic ‘twin,’ who entered the monastery at the same time as I did, had a glorious voice which had been expertly trained. Only an idiot, or someone with a tin ear, would have preferred my singing to hers, and thankfully, as far as I am concerned, nobody did.

Not everyone would agree that that was a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly understandable situation. We still tend to assume that elitism of any kind is bad. I certainly agree that inequalities of wealth and power have a very dangerous side to them, and I reject completely the sense of entitlement many of the rich and powerful assume. There is nothing nastier than seeing someone treat others as rubbish. But I do question whether we sometimes condemn what we see as elitism because we lack the generosity to celebrate the giftedness of others. St Benedict was wise enough and kind enough to regard every monk in his community as infinitely precious to God, no matter what his shortcomings as an individual. But he didn’t allow that to interfere with a very sound judgement about an individual’s suitability for the task in hand. Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us, monastic or not.

St Gertrude
if you are looking for a post on St Gertrude, try this: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/11/17/st-gertrude-the-catholic-church-and-women/

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Aftermaths and Consequences

Yesterday we bade a temporary farewell to the builders who have been doing repairs to the monastery. There is a huge amount of cleaning, touching up of paintwork and other tasks to be done, but we assure ourselves it will all be worthwhile in the end. What we are faced with is merely the aftermath or consequence of their efforts. Some, alas, are unintended, like discovering that moths have eaten so much of the calefactory floor covering that it will have to be replaced, but that is by the way. The important lesson is that any activity, any task, involves more than may appear on the surface. Aftermaths and consequences matter.

It is easy to talk about such things in the context of house repairs, political events like elections, or institutional or personal crises; but I wonder how often we apply the idea to our own lives and think about the impact we have on others, not in the vain, narcissistic sense, but in the constructive, helpful sense. A few days ago one of our oblates died. She has left behind the very precious memory of a kind and generous person who dealt with life’s bumps and contradictions with wit and determination. I can’t help reflecting that my personal ‘gallery of heroes’, so to say, is peopled by those whose lives have left a similar kind of memory. Perhaps we might each ask ourselves what sort of aftermath or consequence there will be to our own time on earth, and if we don’t like what we see, change course now, while we still can.

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Remembrance Sunday 2019

There are times when we are empty of words, bereft of thought and feeling, knowing only the numbness of grief. We who live close to the S.A.S. at Pontrilas can never forget the brutality of war or the price some pay that the rest of us may live freely. And the wars of conquest and domination, the wars fought over resources or born of old enmities and the refusal to forgive, the terror and suffering inflicted on the innocent in the name of some ideology, what of them? Today, as we pray for all who died in the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we pray also for forgiveness for our own folly and the folly of those who went before, for the obstinacy that will not allow peace to flourish — for the wars that originate in selfishness and pride.

When St Benedict gave to his monks the aim of seeking after peace and pursuing it, he was giving them what we might call a ‘whole life programme’. Peace is not the work of a minute or two. It is not attained by an annual ceremony or wishy-washy goodwill or the kind of sentimentality that refuses to look facts in the face. It requires hard work and sacrifice. Sometimes, it may even cost lives.

Last year’s post on Remembrance Sunday https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/11/10/remembering-and-praying/ contains links to some earlier posts on the subject. Several more may be found by using the search bar.

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Troubled Thoughts for Troubled Times

November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?

When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?

First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.

Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!

Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?

I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?

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Death, Be Not Proud

Yesterday thirty-nine people — thirty-eight adults and one teenager — were discovered dead in a refrigerated trailer in Essex. We do not yet know who they were nor where they came from, though the Essex Police and their colleagues from other Forces have moved quickly to begin investigations. The media have reacted as we would expect, expressing horror and revulsion, then turning to other topics. This morning Twitter, for example, is replete with squabbles about politics, ‘inspirational quotes’ and the usual rag-bag of opinions, ranging from the thoughtful to the whacky. For some of us, however, those deaths in the trailer are not so easily forgotten, nor should they be. Our common humanity demands that we remember.

At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, we pray for the dead. Some outside the community would like to limit such prayer to the ‘faithful departed’ in the strictest sense (i.e. those baptized as Catholics), but we have never done that, preferring to pray for all who have died, especially those who have no-one else to pray for them or who have died in terrible circumstances. The thought of those desperate people dying in an airless, frozen darkness is horrible. Not for them the beautiful rituals with which we surround death in the monastery — the prayers by the bedside, the anointing, the candles, the holy water, the accompaniment of the sacraments. A prayer, a kind thought, a remembrance, is little enough, surely?

Too little perhaps, because behind the horror and tragedy of those deaths is the scandal of people smuggling and trafficking. We need to do more than lament the circumstances, we need to eradicate the evil. That will take courage and vigilance and the kind of activism many of us baulk at. It will also mean sacrifice, because unless we tackle the causes of migration to the West people will continue to take huge risks — and there will always be others ready to exploit them. There will be more deaths, more tragedies.

We do what we can, of course. Here in the monastery we pray, and we do not lose hope. Donne’s sonnet ends with the lines

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Amen to that.

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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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Accepting Responsibility or Wriggling Out of It?

Following the defeat of his attempt to secure the House of Commons’ agreement to his Brexit deal, Mr Johnson sent three letters to the European Union: an unsigned photocopy of the request for a delay as outlined by the Benn Act; an explanatory note from the U.K.s ambassador to the E.U.; and a personal, signed, letter saying why he does not want a delay. Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the failure to sign the first letter struck me as childish — a moment of shame for all of us in the U.K. as the Prime Minister made it plain that he refused to accept responsibility for what he was obliged by law to do. There have been many similar instances during the past few years of prominent people — not just politicians — wriggling out of responsibility. At one level, their actions can be dismissed as mere posturing. At another, I think they suggest something much more troubling: unwillingness to accept that there are limits on our personal freedom by virtue of the obligations we have assumed. ‘Falling on one’s sword’ may sound a quaint idea to some, but behind it lies a long tradition of accepting responsibility, of being someone on whom others can rely — and that is the crux. Shrugging off responsibility makes one unreliable.

How often do we hear people caught up in the scandals of the moment declare they they have done nothing wrong? They cling to their positions even after it has become clear that they have failed to act when they should or have been complicit in dubious transactions. One aspect of the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that has rocked the trust of many has been the failure of some bishops to accept responsibility for what has happened in their dioceses. But, lest we think this shrugging off of responsibility is something that affects others not us, let’s pause a moment and examine our own conscience. When did we last drive too fast, putting others at risk, and justified ourselves to ourselves with the thought that nothing untoward was likely to happen; when did we turn away when someone needed our help because we were busy and preoccupied with our own needs or wishes; when did we ignore the beggar in the street on the grounds that she was a drug-abuser and any money we gave would have been used to feed a destructive addiction; when did we make a promise we didn’t keep or fulfilled only minimally and legalistically? In other words, just how reliable are we? Always, or only when it suits us? It is no accident that St Benedict describes the watchful brother who is conscious of his duty to God and others as a utilis frater, a reliable brother, one on whom we — and He — can depend. (cf RB 7.18). Something for us all to ponder, I would suggest.

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New Every Morning

I am surely not alone in having found the events of last week a trifle trying. Add to that one’s own personal difficulties or annoyances — in my case not being well and the guilty feeling that engulfs me when not able to meet requests for help/attention as I’d like — and one can end up in a state of negativity that is as exhausting as it is disheartening. All over the world it seems other people are experiencing exactly the same, with little hope of any remedy. Poverty, sickness, corruption, political chaos, a sense of betrayal by the Church or other institutions on which we thought we could rely — it is all black, bleak and broken. Only, I’d say it isn’t quite.

Yesterday evening I walked into our chapel to pray for one of our oblates who is going through a tough time. The little silver lamp that burns before the tabernacle was glowing brightly in the darkness. I’d like to say I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of Presence, but I wasn’t. It was, to be honest, a rather barren experience: the prayer of hanging on rather than anything more obviously comforting. But I think that is precisely the prayer most of us are called to make most of the time. We know that the mercies of the Lord never end, that they are new every morning, but connecting that knowledge with our daily experience isn’t easy.

Today’s gospel (Luke 18. 1–8) is often presented as being about persistence in prayer. I think it goes deeper than that. God is not an unjust judge, only willing to give us a hearing if we pester him night and day. On the contrary, his ears are always attuned to our prayer, but Luke’s deeply subversive portrayal of God is meant to shock us into a more adult relationship. Luke’s God is not a fairy godmother, handing out treats to all and sundry, irrespective of whether they are good for them or not, but rather a God who confounds all our expectations, a God of infinite compassion and holiness whose justice exceeds our own grudging conceptions. In short, Luke’s God really is God, not the pale imitation of him that we are apt to construct in order to shield ourselves from the reality.

Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.

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The eRosary

The Vatican’s eRosary: expensive gimmick or aid to prayer?

Yesterday the BBC website ran a brief article on the Vatican’s launch of an eRosary bracelet — a snip at £85. I did what any twenty-first century nun would do, enquired of others via Social Media whether they had any experience of it. Of course, not one had, though I learned quite a lot about what they did have and what they thought about the principles involved (too expensive being a recurring theme).

I have often explained that, for us as Benedictines, the Rosary is a purely private devotion. I personally take the view that whatever helps someone to pray must be good, and a prayer that concentrates, as the Rosary does, on the life, death and resurrection of Christ and some of the doctrines that flow from that is of special value. But I’m not sure about expensive gadgets or an app that ‘checks’ how we pray. Big Brother and Loving God are not one and the same. If you have an eRosary or experience of using it, do please let me know what you think of it. It may encourage me to dust off an app I designed some time ago but never actually got round to releasing . . . .

Automated alerts for new blog posts
I think we have finally resolved the problems that prevented some people from receiving the automated email alerts when new blog posts are published. If you signed up but have not been receiving the post notifications, please would you sign up again and remember that we use a double opt-in system, so you will need to confirm your original request. That is to ensure no-one signs up on your behalf!

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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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