For anyone seeking to know the truth both dialogue and debate are important, but I would suggest that dialogue is the more important of the two. We all know how quickly a debate can become ill-tempered, an exchange of insults rather than of arguments. Frequently, those entering a debate do so with the intention of winning, of scoring points, and emerging victorious from the fray. We are less interested in establishing or exploring truth than conquering the other, and those with the best debating skills are often capable of arguing for either ‘side’ with equal effectiveness. Dialogue starts with the recognition that both have something to learn from the other. It is a quest for truth, for mutual enrichment. It is humbler and more receptive, though equally hard work. Those who engage in dialogue may change their opinions as the conversation continues; those engaged in debate rarely do so. There are many calls today for ‘less toxic politics’, a ‘listening Church’. Perhaps we need to think more about dialogue than debate, let go of the desire to triumph and be content to learn instead.
An Old Idea
Years ago I remember arguing that one of the problems of the internet was that it was too static, too predictable, and what we needed, especially those of us interested in the presentation of religion online, was a more immersive experience that went beyond what was then possible. The ‘informative’ web sites and forums were all very well but they failed to capture the essence of Christian belief and practice. We identified a particular difficulty in sharing the monastic experience with others. Romantic photos of buildings and individuals, accompanied by snippets of plainchant, were popular but didn’t contribute much to understanding. We did our best to address this difficulty with our online chapters, videos and podcasts, but it was still largely us broadcasting our view of life to others.
A Connected World
In the years since we have seen some remarkable developments. We may groan about Zoom meetings or live-streams, but the technologies available have made much more engagement possible for those who have neither the wealth nor the expertise to set things up for themselves. Now everyone is buzzing about the metaverse and the possibility of creating a parallel world of virtual reality which could reshape the entire internet — and I find myself hesitating.
The reason I hesitate is because I think there is a possibility of losing touch with reality and I am far from convinced the Churches have thought through the implications. By that, I don’t mean to oppose physical and virtual reality, which I see as equally ‘real’ though with different modes of being. I am thinking more of what I can best call moral reality. One of the striking aspects of life in the twenty-first century has been the privatisation of morality. If I think something is right, that entitles me to do pretty much anything in pursuance of my ideals or goals. I can murder someone because he or she is ‘wrong’ about something and ‘deserves’ to be eliminated; I can exalt my rights over your rights, on the roads or anywhere else I please. In short, I have become my own moral compass, unconstrained by the need to consider society or any other group. A virtual universe which we experience as ‘real’, which we can manipulate at will, is not without its dangers because it dispenses with many of the controls life usually imposes.
Once upon a time, people worried about video game violence and the blurring of the distinctions between violence on screen and violence off screen. Even after decades of research, no one seems entirely sure what effect it truly has. Part of the current debate about untrammelled violence following the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess has concentrated on the role of social media and the violent language used there and by our M.P.s themselves. The dignified, eirenical statement of the Amess family is a welcome reminder that the values of kindness and consideration are important to any civilized society, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. That it needed to be said is, however, sobering.
What Will the Churches Do?
Of course, as soon as one uses the word ‘civilized’, one begs a series of questions about what constitutes civilisation. For me, grounded in the Western Christian tradition, the answer is not difficult and includes a host of values that are shared with millions of other people. To someone else, with a different cultural heritage, such ideas and values may seem alien. What I am thinking about this morning, therefore, is how the Churches as multi-national institutions will respond to the challenge and opportunity offered by the development of the metaverse. Will they stand to one side, initially hostile or disapproving; or will they embrace the possibilities and allow them to enrich the experience they offer believers and non-believers alike? Maybe those of us preparing for Synod 2023 could add this to the list of matters we are thinking and praying about. Your thoughts on the subject would be welcome.
Yesterday was, for me as for everyone else, a mixture of good and bad. Towards evening, as I did a quick check of our social media accounts, a little worm of envy and discontent began to surface. How much I’d like to be able to go for a walk, but I can’t because of my illness; wouldn’t it be nice to have a brief holiday and enjoy new scenes, but it’s out of the question; what wouldn’t I give to be able to clear my in-tray or get people to respond to requests, but it’s not going to happen. You know the kind of thing that occurs when we focus on ourselves and can compile your own list of ‘if onlys’. At bottom, they are all about ourselves and what’s ‘wrong’ or missing in our life, even when we try to convince ourselves that we are being selfless and desiring some good for another. Parents know only too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of wanting to influence their children’s decisions, and it is not unknown for those who don’t have children to think they have the solution to all the world’s problems. (Have a look at Twitter if you don’t believe me.) It is not enough, however, to be aware of the dangers: we have to do something about them.
Last night I decided to take myself in hand and think about some of the good things that had happened during the day. I shared some of them on Twitter and was heartened by the response of others. Some who replied I know to be very ill or living in difficult circumstances, but they were still acknowledging what was good in their lives and giving thanks. Learning to be grateful in a culture that often seems selfish and self-absorbed isn’t easy, but it is essential. The most important act of a Christian society is eucharist, giving thanks, but how often we dissociate that from our everyday lives. Perhaps, when we examine our conscience at night, we should not only ask ourselves where our desire has been, where we have failed or sinned, but also where we have received grace, where we have reason to be grateful. We might be surprised by the results.
Abuse in the Catholic Church in France
This morning the publication of a report into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in France is expected to contain horrific details. Anyone who has read the IICSA reports must wonder what further horrors are possible, but the scale and ubiquity of the abuse in France is said to be devastating. The report was commissioned by the Church and took two and a half years to complete. The commission conducting the inquiry was led by a layman, Jean-Marc Sauvé, and is said to have been given access to church, court, police and press records.
Already people are taking up ‘positions’. I suspect most have not read the report yet— I myself haven’t — but I think it fair to say that those who have been abused are never able fully to let go of the hurt they have experienced, no matter how hard they try (and most try very hard indeed). The hurt goes too deep, and is one of the reasons why abuse is so evil. Sadly, in my experience, abusers never really admit or take responsibility for what they have done. There are always ‘extenuating circumstances’ or appeals for forgiveness that ring a little hollow. Yes, Christians try to forgive, but that doesn’t mean accepting or endorsing sin.
The Other Consequences of Abuse
Although we are a small community of cloistered nuns, without a chaplain, we have always taken safeguarding seriously and have spent a lot of time and money trying to ensure that we and our premises pose as little risk to others as possible. Inevitably, however, we have been the butt of some people’s hurt and anger, because that is one of the consequences of abuse. Trust is corroded and everyone — everyone — is tarred with the same brush and condemned, frequently in the vilest of terms. Once upon a time, I tried the ‘logical’ response to attacks on the community here: No, we weren’t born when those events took place, we’ve never been members of that congregation, we’ve never lived in that country, and so on and so forth. But it won’t wash. We’re not talking about facts but emotions, and emotions need respecting as much as facts do. It doesn’t matter that we were not personally involved, we are members of the same Church and that is enough to condemn us.
The Church is still Holy
This morning I am bracing myself for more of the hate letters and accusations. If I’m feeling well, I can usually cope with them; if I’m feeling ill or receiving medical treatment that puts my temper on a hair-trigger, it is more difficult. I don’t want to cause more hurt by my clumsy responses. I have no wish to deny or play down the wickedness of abuse as my many posts on the subject will attest, but honesty and truth work both ways. The appalling behaviour of some members of the Church does not mean that the whole Church is ‘rotten to the core’ as one of my friends said yesterday. The core of the Church is Christ, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that or sully His perfect holiness. I cling to that as I cling to Him, because it is true. The institutions of the Church need a thorough overhaul, and as individuals we need to examine our own conduct, but I hazard a guess that there is more light than darkness because of that shining core, Christ the Lord.
For a Benedictine, I seem to have written a great deal about St Francis. I don’t think I have anything to add to posts such as this, from 2011, or, this, about struggling with the divine will, from 2012, or my thoughts about sentimentalising St Francis here. But perhaps we could hold one more idea in mind today. St Francis has become the patron saint of the environment and ecology, and is often invoked as the go-to saint whenever climate change or kindred matters are discussed within the Church. But, as any Franciscan will tell you, there is more to Francis than concern for birds and bees and the salvation of planet earth.
The Fulfilment of our Hope
Today marks the end of the liturgical Season of Creation, but not the end of the liturgical year: it is not the fulfilment of our hope, only a stage on the journey. St Francis understood this better than most. The warm, fuzzy images we often have of him sometimes obscure the saint of steely determination, who looked beyond the present to eternity, whose hope was not for this world only. El Greco captured something of this when he painted St Francis entering upon the last years of his earthly life, his body marked with the stigmata, his gaze fixed upon the Cross. The youthful saint of the first image gives way to the bleaker, more profound image of the second. It is a journey we must all make. May St Francis aid us with his prayers.
Our commercial hosting service’s transfer of our sites to new servers has caused us many problems which have taken time to sort out. Even now, there are matters I need to resolve. However, with regard to iBenedictines, I recommend that readers
(1) clear their browser cache and
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If you use https://ibenedictines.org (without the ‘www‘) or http:// (without the ‘s’ on http), a few browsers will continue to tell you that your connection is not private. You can override this by clicking on the ‘details’ or ‘more information’ links and proceeding to the site. So far, it is only in Safari that I have found the 301 redirect and the force https not working, and that’s because of the way I’ve set that particular browser to work!
The validity of the certificate has been checked and verified but if techy types notice anything else, please let me know as I installed the Let’s Encrypt certificate manually and there is always room for error on my part.
An article in today’s Guardian about English Heritage’s plan to introduce an hour of silence at some of its monastic sites made me chuckle and groan in equal proportions. It isn’t that I don’t think the call to focus, immerse oneself in the moment and allow the beauty and serenity of the setting to permeate one’s being is a bad idea. On the contrary. Slowing down, switching off one’s ‘phone and really listening, seem to me vitally important — vitally being underlined in that sentence — and any attempt to encourage these is to be applauded.
I admit to a passing irritation with the repetition of the old inaccuracies about monks and nuns when it would have taken very little trouble to get matters right. Benedictines and Cistercians, for example, don’t make vows of poverty and chastity as such, although they are assumed under the older formula of conversatio morum, a promise to live monastic life as it should be lived. The glancing reference to the penal code in the Rule of St Benedict made me sigh a little because it harped upon some of the more dramatic elements without regard to the frequency with which they were/are employed. (I suspect the use of corporal punishment and bread-and-water fasts in earlier centuries may have been exaggerated, and I’d be surprised if they were used at all nowadays.)
What really got under my wimple, however, was the idea that silence is a form of escape. If silence were nothing more than a fleeting avoidance of the rush and ruck of the world about us, it would still have value; but that isn’t what monastic or contemplative silence is. Monastic silence is an engagement, not an escape; and to be honest, it isn’t always pleasant. In silence we confront the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God, other people, and everything that is. It is a discipline, an ascesis, but I’d want to argue that it is more than that. It is a fundamental form of connection. Love prompts us to practice silence; and love is the fulfilment of its purpose.
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One of the things that has always puzzled me is the need many people have to be reassured that the community prays for them and their intentions. Not only that, but pray in a way they have specified. Now, while I understand devotion to a particular saint or to the Rosary, say, as a form of prayer, I would still want to insist that prayer itself is bigger than personal preference or devotion, bigger than any sacramental, no matter how good or holy. It is also, very definitely, not magic. God does not need certain formulae or rituals to agree to our requests. He knows what is good for us, and his love for us is unchanging. He likes us to bring our concerns and worries to him because what he desires is us, in all our mucky imperfection — everything implied in our being children of God — but superstition plays no part in that. We cannot, as it were, bend God to our will by our words. Love alone has the power to change things, and it is God’s weakness that he loves us infinitely.
Not an infantile relationship
Being children of God doesn’t mean being infantile in our relationship with him. Most of us have known the relationship with our own parents change over time, from the absolute dependence of babyhood, through the companionable adult years, to the caring roles we assume as our parents grow older and frailer. With God we never assume a caring role, but friendship with God is something we do strive for: a loving adult relationship.
First steps in prayer
Our first steps in prayer are probably rather noisy. The analogy with babyhood is almost painfully accurate. We chatter away, merrily ‘ear-bashing’ God, bawling out our demands and frequently sulking when we don’t get what we want: God doesn’t listen to me; he never answers my prayers; I’m not going to talk to him or believe in him any more. Some of us never get beyond that stage. Hopefully, however, we shall mature and grow in grace and experience, then our prayer tends to become quieter. It is less about us and our wants, more about listening and simply being with God. Inevitably, wonder begins to take the place of preoccupation with our own concerns. A friendship develops; and as it deepens, so does our trust and acceptance. Friends don’t need many words, often none at all. The understanding is mutual. One of the amazing things about this kind of friendship is that it draws others in. The circle becomes wider and wider, as it were, to embrace first this person, then that, and ultimately, one hopes, the whole world. That is Christian prayer in operation, the prayer Christ prays unceasingly to the Father and into which we are drawn.
What reassurance do we need?
With such a powerful prayer as this, do we need the reassurance of certain formulae and rituals? I’d say not not, but we must remember we don’t all receive the same grace or in the same way. Those who use our prayerline receive a little generalised message saying we will pray for them, but those who email us in other ways or tweet or message us usually don’t — if we responded to all of them individually, there would be days we had no time to pray! So, please be reassured that your requests for prayer are acted upon by us and, more importantly, heard by the Lord himself. He will answer as and when he chooses. Trust Him.
It has not been the summer most of us would have wished. The weather has been uncertain; the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to disrupt lives and cause grief; while natural disasters — floods, fires, hurricanes — and political convulsions —most strikingly, the agony being undergone by the people of Afghanistan — have contributed to a sense of weariness, amounting at times to hopelessness. Wherever we look we see corruption and failed leadership from which the Church herself is far from exempt.
When everything seems so gloomy, it is time to look for the sunbeams: for the kindness we encounter, the unexpected help given us, the beauty of the world, the hint of God’s presence. That doesn’t mean pretending everything is marvellous when clearly it isn’t. Here at the monastery the last few weeks have been quite trying but it would be churlish to concentrate on the negative. Those little flashes of insight, that moment of luminous silence, the baby’s smile or the peaceful sleep of the very old may not amount to very much, considered individually, but together they remind us that the world is a good place to be. It is not being experienced as such by everyone, but we can help make it so for some.
Even if only one person is affected by what we are or do, we shall have played a part in cherishing the world — a world God loved so much he sent his only Son to redeem it. If talk of sunbeams seems embarrassingly twee, there is the awesome figure of the Sun of Justice to contemplate. It just depends how we see things. As Joseph Plunkett wrote:
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice — and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
We are obliged by canon law to make an annual retreat of eight days. In theory, that is wonderful; in practice, not always. Ours begins tonight and will end on 6 September. I have never known a retreat to go quite as planned. Most people assume (hope?) that it will be a week of unalloyed joy, as calm and beautiful as a summer sea:
If only! The reality tends to be less serene. If we are doing the retreat properly, a few ‘nasties’ will arise from the depths of our being, to say nothing of what may batter us from outside. We can expect something more like this:
Although we try to keep household tasks to a minimum, we still have to cook, clean, do the laundry and deal with admin, the timetable for which is rarely set by ourselves, but the cellarer has also arranged a few treats for us and the monastic horarium is a little more flexible than at other times, so the ‘holy leisure’ element is not lost. Things, unfortunately, do have a tendency to go wrong. This is the time for computers and boilers to break down, unexpected visitors to call, for joints to creak and muscles ache — even, perhaps, for a fit of the glums to descend. It doesn’t matter. A retreat is about regaining some spiritual strength and we usually have to plumb the depths of our own weakness and inadequacy to realise how much we must trust God for everything.
This year the tragedies unfolding in Afghanistan, Lebanon and many other countries remind us how much we have to be grateful for, how blessed we are that we can even contemplate spending eight days focused more intently on seeking the Lord. We know that the fruits of the retreat will be hidden from us and may well come long after the retreat itself is concluded. We are, after all, entering into God’s time which runs on different principles from human time.
Our common lectio divina will be the gospel of Mark and the Epistle of Privy Counsel. We shall read the gospel straight through, to see it whole, as it were, rather than divided up into sections for Mass or the Divine Office. The Epistle of Privy Counsel is a text recommended to us and our forebears in community by Fr Baker as one to read over every two years. It is, I think, in many ways more important than its sister The Cloud of Unknowing, but it has a less catchy title and is more obviously demanding. We shall see.
Please pray for us as shall for you. Our daily posting of prayer intentions and Rule of St Benedict recordings should continue as normal on Facebook (https://facebook.com/benedictinenuns) and Twitter (@digitalnun). If you do not have a copy of The Epistle of Privy Counsel, there is a free PDF download in modern English here:
Mark and Matthew agree that we can, and should, love the Lord our God with all our mind (cf Mark 12.30 and Matthew 22.37), but I wonder how many of us fail to register that or settle for the easier (because apparently more demonstrable) loving God with all our heart, adding ‘with all our soul’ or ‘all our strength’ by way of affirmation. In the West, the heart has become the pre-eminent symbol of love and devotion but its popularisation has also led to, not a cheapening exactly, but certainly a lightness in use that can be disconcerting. We ‘like’ a tweet and a little heart appears alongside; we love, love, love chocolate when all we really mean is that it is a favourite treat; and then we have no words or symbols left when we want to express something deeper, more demanding. We have wasted our efforts on what a friend once called amour confiture — syrupy sentimentality.
That is not to deny the reality of anyone’s professions of love and devotion to God. But do we give sufficient thought to what it means to love God with all our mind? At the end of the day, I examine my conscience by thinking where my desire has been: what have I wanted, what have I dismissed as unimportant, what have I said or thought that shows where my desire has truly been. My words often trip me up, but when I think of the never-ending bilge that passes through my mind, not necessarily sinful thoughts but a near-constant inner monologue about everything under the sun, I realise how hard it is to ‘take every thought captive’ for Christ (cf II Corinthians 10.5). The old monks regarded control of thoughts an essential monastic discipline, but even after a lifetime in the monastery, I know I am as far from it as ever. I pray that I may learn some day, and perhaps you do, too, because I believe it has an important role in loving God with our whole mind — not just part of it, nor even the major part, but all of it.
To love with our mind means more than intellectual appreciation of what is good or the restraint of negative impulses in some sort of approximation of ancient virtue, while to love with all our mind takes us into the realm of transformation by grace. It means, surely, allowing the light of the Holy Spirit to illumine what is dark in us (or for us) and responding to God’s love without hesitation or reservation. There is no room for ‘I’ll love God if he answers my prayers as I want him to’ or ‘I’ll be like St Augustine and start my conversion tomorrow’ (!) There isn’t even any possibility of holding back ‘I’ll forgive everyone except X.’ The fundamental problem of loving God with all our mind is that we have to love as God loves with his mind — completely, mercifully, charitably. Far from being restrictive, doing so is both liberating and creative.