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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Climb Every Mountain?

In the past nine days, ten climbers have died on the crowded slopes of Mount Everest. By and large, the media have treated the personal tragedies each of those deaths represent as a matter for regret and censure for the Nepalese government. The subtext is a chaotic lack of organization, greed and an unpreparedness among some that amounts to folly. That narrative is one that fits the West’s competitive and commercial spirit. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for Everest, you will scroll through paragraph after paragraph about expeditions to ‘conquer’ the mountain, routes to the summit and so on, until you come to a few short lines about the religious significance of the mountain for the majority of Nepalese and Tibetans. It is a holy place, a living goddess, not just a challenge, another peak to scale. Perhaps, like me, you will recall photos of the litter left by climbers and note, with some shame, that in April this year attempts began to clear another 10,000 Kg of waste. Is that how we treat the holy places of others?

Listening to today’s second Mass reading (Apocalypse 21. 10-14,22-23), which recounts John’s vision of ‘an enormous high mountain’ and the city of God descending from heaven, ought to make us think. Mountains have always been special places where the divine touches us. Sinai, Tabor, the ‘high places’ of Western Christianity, all have a story to tell that goes beyond rock and clay. 

I wonder whether, in our obsession with winning and proving our physical stamina, we have lost sight of something more important. ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness,’ sings the Psalmist. Until we recover that reverence, that sense of the holiness of the planet we inhabit, we shall never quite understand why we must forego some pleasures. Conservation isn’t just about cutting our carbon footprint or reducing our use of plastic — all things we or our governments essentially decide for ourselves — it is about realising that our very humanity obliges us to restraint, to a kind of humility that will never be popular and which most of us prefer to ignore. Hillary famously observed that he climbed Everest because it was there. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to, does it?

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A Lesson from St Bede

I have written so much about St Bede in previous years that this morning I want to offer only a single thought. We can easily become sentimental when we think of the young Bede and Abbot Ceolfrith diligently maintaining the Office in choir, or the old Bede sharing out his little treasures and insisting on writing one last line of the work on which he was engaged. We forget, or perhaps have never known, what it meant to be a monk in the Northumbria of the seventh and eighth centuries. The cold, the darkness, the monotonous diet. the routine of the monastery, endured cheerfully and with grace year after year in the quest for God — if we think about these at all, it is probably with a little romantic frisson of delight. How gloriously medieval! We forget or sentimentalise, but Bede knew and saw clearly; his life was not in the least sentimental. He was daily confronted with the reality of seeking God and finding him in his brethren and in every aspect of the life he led.

It was Bede’s fidelity and generosity in living his monastic vocation that made him a saint, not his learning or his charm or any of the things that we tend to associate with him. Above all, it was his patient obedience and the self-renunciation community life demanded that transformed him little by little. Substitute ‘family’ or ‘colleagues’ for ‘community’ and you will soon see where the matrix of sanctity lies for you — a lesson we can all learn from St Bede.

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Measuring Success and Failure

Today,  when Theresa May is widely expected to announce that she is stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party and setting out a timetable for her resignation as Prime Minister, there will be a renewed rush to assess her time in office by the criteria of success and failure. I often wonder what we mean by that. Is it as simple as saying, she said she would do something but didn’t (failure) or she did something she said she would (success)? What happens when someone does something we were not expecting? Does our attitude change, according to whether what is done or not done corresponds to our own ideas?

I began with the example of Theresa May because it is topical, but this post is not about politics but the subjectivity we bring to our judgements. Long, long ago, before I became a nun, my banking colleagues would often mutter the phrase, ‘Now we must be objective about this’ before proceeding to act on some apparently irrational basis. Though no-one would ever admit it, the decisions they made often turned out to be just as effective as those where the number-crunchers had sweated days and nights trying to provide rational, and hence demonstrable, grounds for doing something. All this is rather unsettling to those who like to believe that their way of thinking and decision-making is unarguable. Take, for example, the invocation of science by those who are not themselves scientists. Quietnun can become quite impassioned about those who think that science ‘proves’ an assertion is ‘right’. Her background in biochemistry means she lives in what might be called an ever-expanding intellectual universe, where she is constantly being encouraged to consider possibilities she had not previously imagined. Success and failure don’t come into it: the search is all in all.

Can we apply any of that to our own lives? Here at the monastery we quite often hear from people who think their lives are a failure because they haven’t managed to do something or other, and it would be foolish and fundamentally dishonest to pretend that the choices we make have no part to play in what happens to us. But many things are beyond our control. We didn’t decide our genetic inheritance, or the time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We do the best we can, but it must be the best. I do think, however, that we should be cautious about accepting the values we see in the society in which we live and judging our ‘best’ by them. Success in the West tends to be seen in material terms, even among those who would describe themselves as religious. The more we have, the more successful we are. Owning a big house and driving a fast car is a mark of our success. Even religious communities/clergy can play that game, boasting of the number of vocations they have received or the number of people who attended services. Failure is identified with loss.

As soon as I say that, you can see where I am going. When the Son of God became man, he stripped himself of the glory that was his. He accepted rejection and endured a painful death on the Cross. But he was no failure. Nor are we in God’s eyes if we seek to be true to Him.

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On Going With The Flow

Yesterday I intended to ask a number of companies for quotations for the monastery’s insurance and arrange for our car to have a mobile M.O.T. Nothing too strenuous, you see, to allow me to fulfil my monastic duties and deal with a backlog of correspondence. What I actually did was contact a number of builders regarding the urgent replacement of some windows, re-paint a laundry pulley, realise that the end of our financial year is almost upon us (so I’ll have to find a way of dealing with various reports) and performed a corporal work of mercy in the vegetable patch by watering some very dry plants. My guess is that most readers could identify with that in general, if not with the specifics. We are constantly having to drop what we think important in order to deal with the urgent. The secular-minded call it ‘going with the flow’, the more religiously-inclined tend to dignify it as responding to what God asks of us here and now.

Part of me agrees with that, of course. We must always be on the alert for what God is actually asking, rather than what we would like God to be asking; but, to be honest, there are times when we wish that God could have another agenda for us. Unfortunately, dwelling too long on the ‘if onlys’ of life tends to make us selfish. Most of us have more than enough to make us profoundly grateful. I know I do. This morning, as I contemplated my trifling irritations, I was chastened by the thought of what others are suffering: those bewildered by grief; those living in poverty; those who don’t have any security whatsoever. Going with the flow is fine, but it would be an immense pity if it made us indifferent to others or lessened our sense of gratitude for the blessings we enjoy. An obvious thought, perhaps, but we can’t always be deep, can we?

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Inequalities | St Matthias

I should like to think it was a whispering of the Holy Spirit that made the Institute for Fiscal Studies announce its investigation into inequalities in Britain and the risk they pose to democracy at the very time I had been musing on today’s feast of St Matthias and a few ideas culled from Thomas Picketty. I know it wasn’t, but there may still be something to be said for thinking about inequality in the context of today’s feast.

During the Easter season we are confronted with some idealised portraits of the early Church. There is the well-known account of Acts 4 which suggests that the first disciples shared everything with truly sacrificial love so that no-one was in want. Then we read St Paul or St James and encounter the familar world of squabbling and selfishness that seems to mark the Church in every age. The ideal remains an ideal, but it is not as perfectly realised as we might hope.

Then there is the election of St Matthias, as recorded in Acrs 1. I must admit to feeling sympathy with him and wonder how he got on with Peter and the rest. Was he taken for granted, treated as a hanger-on rather than as a genuine disciple until that moment when they realised they needed to make up the number of the Twelve? He had been with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, but never as one of the close inner circle. Were there petty resentments and occasional harsh words — a feeling of being exclided or undervalued on one side and superiority on the other? Who knows? The apostles became saints, but they didn’t start that way.

Even now, when Matthias was to be chosen as an apostle, it was made clear his role was to make up the number of the Twelve, to replace Judas; whatever merits he possessed, he had to recognize he wasn’t the only possibility, and he was subject to scrutiny by those who had been chosen directly by the Lord. The choice between him and Barsabbas had no fore-gone conclusion. It is almost as if Matthias did not exist in his own right but was the eternal second-best. Almost, but not quite. The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles prayed and made their choice. The election of Matthias is claimed as a work of the Holy Spirit, and what higher endorsement can there be than that?

Within the Church, as within society in general, many inequalities exist and it takes wisdom as well as hard work to discern which are crippling and should be eliminated, and which are merely accidental and can’t be altered (like the fact that my sister was blessed with the fair hair I longed for as as child but wasn’t). I think today’s feast reminds us of something that may make us uncomfortable. We think a great deal about poverty and relieving the lot of the poor, but we do not always think about how we deal with inequality. Even within the Church we can ignore or undervalue those we think unimportant or take for granted, or treat some with less regard than we do others, yet it is often the steadfastness of those ‘unimportant people’ that keeps everything going. Inequality can be more dangerous than poverty, as I think both Thomas Picketty and Sir Angus Deaton would agree. It is certainly less excusable.

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Vocations Crisis? What Crisis?

Recently, in the course of a conversation with a fellow Benedictine, I was told it was all right to blog about Easter and so on but better to stay off controversial subjects. Taken out of context, the remark might have seemed dismissive or even patronising. It wasn’t, but it has encouraged me to try to re-think how we approach the idea of vocation in the Church. Do we play safe and spiritualise it so that God does everything and the human person involved is reduced to a mere cypher? Or do we forget God entirely and concentrate on the human person so much that we become mired in an unhelpful kind of ‘vocational psychology’ that leads nowhere? Is there a way of reconciling the two, so that we are honest about the dynamic of vocation, not as it was in the past or as it might be in the future, but as it is now in 2019, with all that that implies?

I’ve written so much about vocation over the years that it is plain where I stand. Of course God takes the initiative, but there has to be a response — and that’s where the trouble comes. No vocation, whether to marriage, priesthood, consecrated life, singlehood, or whatever, is roses and rapture all the way, nor does any vocation exist in isolation from others or from the times in which we live. To ignore the demands of a particular vocation as it is now is as misleading as failing to speak about its blessings. I wonder how many parish priests will dutifully preach about the need for more priests this morning but dodge the question of how badly the Church’s reputation has been damaged by the revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up and the difficulty of living with that. Then again, how many will dare to speak of the joy their own experience of priesthood has brought them? A loss of confidence only too easily conveys itself to others. It is there, in that loss of confidence, that I would locate any ‘crisis of vocations’ today. I think I would go further and argue that any such crisis is really of our own making. We do not quite trust God to see us through without what has become familiar to us.

Among religious, I think the loss of confidence is sometimes palpable. Communities wax and wane (not always in that order, be it noted) and it probably does not help when those who have lived a particular kind of vocation for fifty or sixty years are blithely informed that they are either not traditional enough for some or too traditional for others — ‘traditional’ being one of those words used to signify both approval and disapproval. Then again, it is easy to latch onto  one or other aspect of consecrated life and make it the be-all and end-all. Among women, the wearing or not wearing of a habit or using a particular form of prayer is sometimes used as a test of orthodoxy, with results that can be comical when not disastrous. Again, it is our unease in the face of the loss of the familar that is the problem. We know the Spirit is always doing something new, but when confronted with the new, we are apt to take fright and draw back rather than seeing it as an opportunity, a genuine turning-point (which is what a crisis is). I can only say that most communities I know are making a good attempt to be true to their calling in the Church despite the difficulties and discouragement they sometimes encounter.

With that mention of the Church, we come to the heart of the matter. People sometimes feel  they are ’second best’ because they haven’t become priests or religious but discovered in the course of formation that they were meant for something else. Or they torture themselves because they have left active ministry or their order/congregation and the Church treats them with ambivalence, sometimes even suspicion.  I think myself that the important thing is to find one’s place in the Church because that is how we follow Christ, as Church. To be members of the Church is what we are all called to be. What membership involves will differ for each of us. Prayer, generosity and fidelity are required of us all, whatever form our  vocation takes. I have no hesitation in saying that being a Benedictine has been the supreme blessing of my life. I have no difficulty in encouraging others to become Benedictines themselves, but I would never hide from anyone the fact that to surrender oneself into the hands of the living God is to surrender oneself into a consuming fire. And fire, as we know, has its own way of dealing with things.

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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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Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.

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The Dies Non

Yesterday the community ground to a halt — by which I mean that, after all the sadness and sorrow of Holy Week and all the joyful alleluias of the Easter Octave, we had sung ourselves out, as it were, and needed to pause. Even Bro Dyfrig BFdeB lay flaked out in his man cave, barely able to wag a tail or stretch out his tongue for a treat (I exaggerate a trifle, perhaps). Even though we still have many thank-yous to write and business to attend to, I have invoked the only power worth having as prioress and declared today a Dies Non.

A Dies Non is one of the more useful monastic inventions. It means literally a day that isn’t. So we return to the time of our novitiate, when the only duties St Benedict lays on his novices are to eat, sleep and meditate — or, as we would say today, eat, sleep and pray (cf RB 58). That leaves us free to do whatever we find most relaxing or most neccessary.

People sometimes speak as though work were a problem, and overwork a particular difficulty of our age. That may be true for many, but I have a suspicion that leisure is even more of a challenge. We simply don’t know what to do with our time and feel we must always be filling it with busy-ness. The reasons are many and varied. We often seem to feel a need to justify ourselves, and we locate our value in what we do; or we have a horror of what we may find within if we allow ourselves to let go of all the usual props to our existence. I have known guests run away from the monastery before the end of their scheduled stay because they couldn’t cope with the silence or the demons that emerged from the depths when they tried to pray.

I confidently predict that our Dies Non will mean many little tasks around the monastery will get seen to because the community understands the difference between idleness and leisure and knows that the most important leisure-time of all is that which we spend in prayer — what St Bernard called otium negotissimum or very busy/active leisure. Something to think about, perhaps, even if you are very busy today?

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