On Not Being Catholic Enough

Our retreat ended yesterday evening, so this morning I have begun the process of catching up. One of the first things I did was to run through some of the comments/prayer requests on our Facebook page. One in particular caught my eye. A reader questioned why we prayed about climate change (in connection with Friday’s protests) but did not add a prayer for the conversion of all to the one, true Catholic faith. I suspect that our answer, that we try with our daily, public prayer intentions to encourage a Christian perspective on what is currently engaging people of all faiths or none, will not have been found very satisfactory. Even the addition, that we have sometimes had to ask people to ensure that what they post in response is consistent with Catholic faith and practice (no arguing about Eucharistic theology or abortion on the prayer page, for example), may not have helped. I feel confident that our reader is sincere and genuinely puzzled, but I am not sure how best to answer the underlying question, which is how we should express our Catholicism publicly in such places as our prayer page.

One of the difficulties we encounter here at the monastery is that every Catholic tends to have an opinion about what other Catholics should believe and how they should behave — and we don’t always meet the mark. I defy anyone to say that we are not orthodox in our beliefs, but for some the authentic test of Catholicism is located somewhere else, in Eucharistic Adoration or saying the Rosary, for example. In vain do we protest that, as Benedictines, not only are we pre-Eucharistic Adoration and pre-Rosary, and have such a strong sense of the Eucharistic centre of our lives and the importance of Our Lady, that we don’t find either devotion necessary. The Divine Office, the practice of lectio divina and our personal prayer in the Bakerite tradition suffice. That is the living tradition of our monastic heritage. It is gospel spirituality, if you like, and one reason why I think we can be open to the graces and insights of other Christian traditions without sacrificing or playing down the uniqueness of our own; but for some it simply means that we aren’t Catholic enough.

I think I can live with that, but it still leaves unanswered the question about how we should express our Catholicism. We pray daily for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all our doings, but that is no guarantee that we always ‘get it right’. In fact, I agree more and more with Fr Jean Leclercq (a great Benedictine) that there are mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us make. I have never made any secret of the fact that I personally would love everyone to know the joy of believing, but God seems to have his own ideas about that, and I, for one, am content that he should do things his own way and in his own time. The role of a monastic community is unspectacular: to be responsive to God and walk humbly before him, to be followers, not leaders. If, in so doing, we can encourage others, that is all to the good. We may not be Catholic enough for some, but I would argue that the essence of Catholicism is to place God first and to be compassionate and merciful to all, not with our own love but with his. It is sobering, and heartening, to realise that we shall never look into the eyes of anyone God has not first loved and willed to be redeemed. Perhaps that is something we all need to hear.

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Golden Words and Golden Deeds

St John Chrysostom, whose feast-day this is, would probably not find favour with some people today. His attitude to Jews was unsympathetic to say the least, and although he was ardent in his zeal for holiness, his zeal could make him divisive. He was positively rude about clergy who fussed about their dress and perfumed their hair and was censorious of Christian women who attended synagogue services because of the beauty of the liturgy they encountered (ironic, when one considers the Liturgy known by his name). He was, however, decisive about where our priorities should lie and used all his considerable eloquence to argue his case:

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

From Homily 50, On St Matthew’s Gospel

There is a challenge there for Benedictines. We are known to have a special care for the liturgy. The celebration of the Divine Office gives shape to our days, but we must never allow it to become an avoidance of God, a way of escaping our brethren and their needs. If we do, we end up like the rich man in the Letter of St James, who wishes others well but has no intention of doing anything to help. Our words then may be golden, but our deeds are no more than rusty and twisted iron. I think this is the point at which prayer is tested, and tested to the core.

I don’t believe that ‘activism’ — however one chooses to define it — is a substitute for prayer; but prayer that does not make us more generous, more concerned about others, more willing to sacrifice, is prayer only half-begun. To look, even for a moment, at the beauty of the Lord, to have one’s own gaze held in contemplation of the Love that embraces all of us, is to be changed utterly and for ever. The difficulty is, of course, that we can see the change in others but never in ourselves. The moment we shift our gaze to self, we are back with the rusty iron again. That is one of the reasons lifelong commitment in community, with its daily rubbing away at the rust, is the best context for growing in holiness for those of us who would be no good at ‘going it alone’. Monastic communities come in for a lot of criticism these days, some of it justified, some of it not, but there is a wisdom and a store of experience that is, potentially at least, a treasure for the whole Church, not just those of us who live a cloistered life.

Buy a Nun A Book Day
Buy a Nun a Book Day will soon be here (17 September, feast of St Hildegard). The idea behind the day is simple. It’s an opportunity to get to know a nun or religious sister, find out what book she’d like, then either give her the book or make a donation towards the cost of it. When we first thought of the idea, it was to try to help smaller, poorer communities, especially in the developing world, which, like us when we first began, were hard pressed to stock their library or were embarrassed at being used as a dumping ground for books other people wanted to get rid of. And, of course, there is always that book someone wants to read that the librarian says can’t be afforded. How could a book-lover resist that?

We ourselves have benefited hugely from the response people have made to the idea. Quietnun and I still remember gratefully the day two lovely ladies turned up out of the blue to get to know us and gave us a generous book token as they departed. We shall be in retreat on 17 September, but if you wish to give a book to the community, there are two ways of doing so:

1. Our permanent Amazon wish-list contains a few titles, see https://www.amazon.co.uk/hz/wishlist/ls/1HAEXBPB4H3GL?ref_=wl_share
but as books can be expensive,
2. A donation towards buying these or other volumes too costly to be included can be made via our online giving facility: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/donation-web/charity?charityId=1015497&frequencyType=M&utm_source=extbtn&utm_campaign=donatebtn

Community Retreat
The community retreat this year is from 14 September to 21 September inclusive. During that time I’ll try to keep up the daily prayer tweet on Twitter and the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook community page, but I’ll not be blogging or replying to emails. Please pray for us as we shall for you.

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The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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Foundation Day 2019

Founding members of Holy Trinity Monastery
Founding members of Holy Trinity Monastery

I am writing this in advance of the fifteenth anniversary of our canonical Foundation as I doubt whether I shall be able to string two sentences together on that day because of the usual ‘chemo cosh’.

What does a Foundation Day signify? In the first place, it marks a new and definitive stage in a community’s growth. It is the Church’s official seal on, and recognition of, the community, conferring both rights and duties which are carefully spelled out in canon law and in the constitutions of the monastery itself. In the second place, I think it marks an important development in the life of the individual.

Earlier this week I touched on the individuality of the call to become a Benedictine, and I hope in a few days to be able to reflect on the communal aspect of the way in which that call is worked out. This morning, however, I want to emphasize that being formally incorporated into the Church as what canon law calls a ‘religious institute’ makes a difference to the individual as well. We follow the gospel and the Rule of St Benedict as we always have, or tried to, but our canonical status affects the form in which these are interpreted and the sanctions that may be applied if we fail. Our constitutions bind us as individuals, not just as a community, to interpret our obligations in a way that can, at times, be challenging. You have only to think of how difficult some contemplative communities of nuns are finding the new requirement that formation last for a minimum of nine years and what it must mean for the individuals it affects most directly. I could multiply examples, but that isn’t my purpose.

What I think is clear is that a Foundation Day is not merely for looking back on the past with gratitude and, where appropriate, sorrow and repentance for any failures we may be aware of; nor is it a case of rejoicing in the graces of the present or expressing hopes for the future. Of course we pray for the well-being of the resident community itself, our oblates, friends, benefactors and online community. Of course we pray for renewed fervour and zeal, for everything that will make us better Benedictines and more pleasing to God. But ultimately that commitment comes down to the individual’s readiness to make the community’s life her own; to kneel before God many times every day and reaffirm the commitment to follow the Lord wherever he leads; to be what Benedict calls a utilis frater, a reliable brother or sister (RB 7.18), who prefers nothing to the love of Christ. (RB 4. 21) Please pray for us as we do for you.

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The Worker Monk

I like the fact that we read today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, which envisages God looking for a worker among the multitude of peoples (vv 14–20), on the same day that we celebrate the feast of St Gregory the Great. Gregory was the first monk to become pope, an admirer of St Benedict (who is the subject of Book II of Gregory’s Dialogues) and responsible for sending St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. On previous occasions I have written about the enormous contribution he made to liturgy and papal administration — and the enigmatic nature of his personality, insofar as we can know it from his writings. Today I would like to emphasize just one trait. Gregory had a huge appetite for work and is widely credited with having shaped the medieval papacy. He was a worker monk, if you like, always longing for the cloister but always busy about many things. Today’s section of the Prologue could have been written just for him.

My saying that will probably surprise many. Certainly, Gregory was not always an obvious seeker after peace (cf RB Prol 17). His dealings with the Church in the East, for instance, were made more complicated by the fact that he never learned Greek, while his attempts to engage his clergy in providing charitable relief to the poor were often marked by a severity that Benedict would not have countenanced. Gregory was no Benedictine. But — and it is an important ‘but’ — Gregory had a profound sense of what it meant to be the servant of God. His energy, his zeal, and his ability were all placed at the service of God and the Church. He understood what was implied in seeking to find God, and because he himself responded fully to God’s invitation, he was able to draw others to respond, too.

St Benedict speaks of God looking for his worker (singular). It is the individual who is called to respond to the invitation God offers; it is the individual’s fidelity that will lead to his finding the way of life (cf RB Prol 20). We know that Benedict will go on to map out how this individual response is to be lived in community, but here, at the beginning, there is just one person listening and responding, one person who must take upon his/her shoulders the yoke of obedience, living by the commandments and the precepts of the gospel. In an age when numbers are often taken to be a sign of success, even in the Church, it is good to be reminded of the significance of the individual, of the difference one person can make if they truly wish to serve God.

History has recorded many of St Gregory’s achievements. Most of us will never know in this life whether we have achieved anything of importance to God or anyone else. But we trust, and we go on, knowing that what matters is that we try to be pleasing to God. The promise of finding the way of life, of finding God himself, draws us on. All we have to do is . . . work at it.

This post was scheduled for publication at 6.30 a.m. while I was on my way to Oxford. For some reason, it didn’t get published then.

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The Monastic Awakening

Yesterday we began the autumn re-reading of the Rule of St Benedict and I was struck, yet again, by popular misconceptions of monastic life as being leisurely to the point of laziness. True, much of our life is routine, and in that routine there are rarely any grand projects or huge enterprises to engage our energies (I speak of nuns here; monks, at least the ordained among them, frequently have different paths to follow). But if we read the Rule carefully and note the verbs Benedict uses, we can see at once that monastic life is meant to be anything but lazy. In the first few paragraphs we are exhorted to listen closely, faithfully fulfil instructions, labour at obedience, wield strong and glorious weapons — and pray. Today’s portion of the Prologue, vv 8 to 13, has us being roused from sleep, opening our eyes to the light, listening hard and running while we have the light of life. Tomorrow, the Lord will be seeking out his worker and giving us a programme to follow. It is all just a little exhausting, especially at four o’clock in the morning.

I jest, of course, about the four o’clock in the morning exhaustion. The truth is, anyone who signs up to monastic life is signing up to searching for God in every moment of every day, in all that we are and do. It is an urgent quest. Benedict’s contrast between the sloth in which we mainly exist and what I call the monastic awakening is stark and demanding. He knows that we will fail often, but we are never to give up. Perseverance isn’t a showy virtue but it is essential to monastic life. Our motivation is God; he is the prize, too.

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What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

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The Myths By Which We Live

© Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The word ‘myth’ tends to have two quite different meanings in modern English: one is that of a traditional story used to illustrate or explain some phenomenon; the other is that of some fiction, widely held but ultimately untrue. As an example of the first, think of the old ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. It’s more than an adage, it contains elements of myth. In this case, that of eating fruit making for a healthy diet which means less need for physicians. It’s an uncomplicated example of something true expressed in traditional form.

Now let’s take something more ambiguous. You may have noticed how often World War II has been invoked recently, especially by those who wish to downplay the possible complications of  a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Very few of us now alive played any part in that war and yet, again and again, we hear or see ‘we managed this or that during the War so we can cope with x or y.’ Actually, we didn’t do any such thing; our parents and grandparents did, and I am far from sure they would approve our hijacking of their story for our own ends today. The myth of Britain standing alone against the dark forces of Nazism is a powerful one containing elements of both truth and exaggeration beyond the scope of this post to analyse. What I would question, however, is its appropriateness as an argument in the Brexit debate. To me, it is slightly absurd and can come perilously close to demonising others. It is what I would call an ambiguous myth with elements of fiction in it.

I know some readers will take my introductory illustrations as the subject of this post. They aren’t, but I hope they will help with understanding something less easily examined because most of us don’t often reflect on the stories that make up part of our inner landscape. I want to ask whether there are some religious myths that are having an equally powerful but possibly distorting influence on our lives as Christians and more particularly as Catholics. Take, for example, our idea of a kind of Golden Age Catholicism which we locate in a time other than our own (of course) and which, amazingly, seems to reflect all our own preferences and prejudices. Thus, we have scraps over the liturgy, vestments, devotions, church art and architecture, music and what you will. The essential element in all these conflicts is the fact that we are right and everyone else is wrong, and we have history, or at least our favourite interpretation of it (our myth), on our side to prove it. The results can be disastrous.

The history of the Church is full of examples of misunderstandings and misapplied zeal. At the moment, for example, there is an attempt by some to make everyone receive Holy Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand. Now, there are some good reasons for that, but the way in which some people are presenting their case is so irreverent and accusatory that it undermines their position. It is, quite literally, hateful. Unfortunately, under the guise of a concern for reverence we can all become hugely irreverent. Our desire to impose our own vision on others can extend even to the most personal element in anyone’s life, their prayer. I have myself been taken to task for not praying in the way that some well-meaning folk think I should (I am not a Carmelite nor a Jesuit and find Fr Baker’s simple, old-fashioned, indeed very medieval, way of prayer much more natural to me than anything more structured). 

In monastic life the myths by which we live tend to be more subtle. Our founding fathers or mothers all had to undergo great hardships and trials at the beginning (mainly true) and encountered much opposition (not always true) but won through in the end to live in perfect peace and amity with their local bishop and powerful personages (if only!). But the myth is important and helps to shape the character of the community and define its values. It is when it ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance that we have to be careful. The community living off its past reputation for holiness or the activities in which it once engaged can prevent its current members from being fully open to what the Holy Spirit is asking of it now. For instance, we were early adopters of an internet-based hospitality in which the production of free audio books for the blind and visually-impaired was a significant element. That is not the case today. Technology moves on at an astonishing rate and religious institutes with more resources than are available to us have recognized the potential of web-based activities. We have ceased to produce audio books and are looking again at how we use the internet to reach out to people. We have no plans to give up our online ministry, but we know we must adapt to changing times and circumstances, not cling rigidly to the past. There must be no compromise about our primary aim, which is to seek God, but integrating that search with our service of others requires thought and prayer and will inevitably involve mistakes of one kind or another. The myth must be re-assessed.

I hope I have written enough to suggest a few questions. What are the myths by which you live, either as an individual or as a family — or perhaps as some other entity, e.g. a business? Do they help, or do they imprison you in a past or an attitude that is not genuinely life-giving? In other words, do your own myths encourage you to go forward into an uncertain future or do they hold you back, fearful of what may lie ahead? How does grace come into the picture? As summer comes slowly to an end, the idea of fruitfulness comes to the fore. Oughtn’t it to play a part in our own lives, too?

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Old Saints | New Times

To many people today’s feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux will not mean very much. He is just one more medieval saint whose name appears in the Universal Calendar. A short note mentioning that he was a gifted writer and preacher responsible for the spread of the Cistercian ideal and the foundation of many monasteries makes him sound as dull as ditchwater. We turn aside to someone or something we deem more ‘relevant’. If we are interested in monastic history, we may recall the story of his bringing 29 prospective postulants with him when he became a Cistercian, thus saving the order from dying, his dispute with Abelard, his political involvement and perhaps his championing of scripture studies and the simplicity in architecture and music we associate with the Cistercians. We may even remember that in the fourteenth century his name was honoured by a rabbi in Cologne as one who had defended Jews at a time when most Christians were hostile. Those who have actually read his sermons and letters will probably have a different picture of him as a man of God, one who knew what prayer was and whose love of the Lord was intensely personal. That said, he still remains a difficult saint for many people today. He is remote and it seems nothing will bring him closer. Or will it?

My own admiration for St Bernard is no secret (he appears in a number of posts in this blog, for example) and one of the things I love him for is his anger. Read his letters. Bernard knew how to handle incandescent rage but in such a way that one feels the world was better for it. It pours forth from him as cleansing fire, devouring every falsity or feigned excuse in its path. Bernard’s anger is glorious, there is no other word for it. And today, when one looks at any site on the internet or dips into social media of any kind, one can see how different his anger is from the childish petulance we so often display — the endless negative criticism, the profanity that is too lazy to find words to express its thought, the sheer vapidity of our ‘debate’. I would therefore argue that St Bernard is very much a saint for our times, very relevant to today: the angry man who was not angry, the saint who was not a cypher. Would it be too much to hope that seeking to learn from him how to handle our own anger we might be led upon that most monastic of paths, the one that desires to be empty of anger and all negative passions that we may become full of God? One of Bernard’s best-known treatises is his meditation on the degrees of humility in the Rule of St Benedict which, characteristically, he turns round as a treatise on pride. Paradox lies at the heart of Christianity. Life comes out of death. New wisdom is drawn from old wells, and St Bernard’s is very deep indeed.

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