Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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Spiritual Direction

From time to time one of us is asked if we will act as a “spiritual director” to someone. Our reaction always surprises those who know nothing of our community history or the part played in it by Fr Augustine Baker. There is generally a slight hesitation, followed by a quiet smile and even quieter affirmation, “The Holy Spirit is the best spiritual director.” This sometimes leads our interlocutors to wonder if we are Catholic at all, or at any rate not quite right in the head. (I sometimes wonder about the latter, too, but that is by the bye.)

It is what we don’t say that is important. There are many more spiritual directors in the world than there is true spiritual direction. To be able to guide others in the ways of God is a rare gift, a charism, and it is not given to all. The nuns of Cambrai (from whom we are descended) had a hard battle to avoid being pressured into a way of prayer and spirituality entirely alien to them under the name of “spiritual direction”. It was largely thanks to the fortitude of D. Catherine Gascoigne and her community, who were subject to some pretty stiff ecclesiastical penalties, that Fr Baker’s eminently sane teaching survived to shape the lives of the nuns who followed after. Fr Baker is now recognized as a master of the spiritual life and his insistence on “liberty of spirit” continues to inform those communities which took his teaching to heart.

But to say that spiritual direction is a rare gift and that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” For us, “liberty of spirit” presupposes life in community under the Rule and a superior, where there are daily checks on behaviour; it involves constant prayer and study and, above all, regular reception of the sacraments. Very often the sacraments are left out of the equation but for growth in holiness they are essential, especially the one many people ignore: confession.

Confession is not the same as spiritual direction. As a sacrament, we can be quite sure that the Lord is at work in it, no matter how “inadequate” we or the confessor happen to be. There is no similar guarantee with spiritual direction. That is not to say that spiritual directors are frauds and charlatans, far from it, but it is why we will not undertake that role. Those who have the gift can contribute a great deal to those who seek instruction and guidance; those who haven’t can do a great deal of harm. We do not give spiritual direction, but we do pray, as best we can, for all who seek our help.

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Hungry for God

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest
Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest

It isn’t often that Digitalnun manages to get a nice photograph of Quietnun (she usually pulls faces, ducks her head or discovers something important to do elsewhere) but the element of surprise was in my favour when I found her at my desk the other day.

It’s more than just a nice photo, however.  It’s a good image of both how and why we engage with the internet. People are sometimes surprised to discover that we do not spend all day online but fit in our blogging and tweeting here and there, as we have a moment or two free. That’s why we can “disappear” for whole weeks at a time: there are other things claiming our attention.

The really important question is why we engage with the internet at all. It is, for us, an important aspect of traditional Benedictine hospitality: welcoming others to the monastery. People come to the monastery for all kinds of reasons but usually, either implicitly or explicitly, in search of God (although they might not be ready to name what they seek as God). The only thing we have to offer is our own (limited) experience of God,  and what we have imbibed from our years of study, praying the liturgy and living in community. It is not much, but it is something; and as regular readers will have noticed, we try not to be too pedagogic or learned in our approach (although a certain amount of learning has gone into what we do) but “accessible”.

Our blog does not necessarily appeal to those who make use of our web site or follow us on Twitter or Facebook, but we are always keen to know if there is anything we are not doing which we could do and which you would find useful. Bear in mind, please, that we are few in numbers and do not have deep pockets – just “an infinite desire”, as St Catherine of Siena once said.

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Good Zeal

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 72 which you can listen to here, has the title “On the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have”. The title isn’t Benedict’s but I think he would have approved. It is modest and unassuming and, occurring as it does almost at the end of the Rule, suggests an acceptance of human frailty which is encouraging. Benedict has spelled out in great detail how the monk is to order his life and devoted several pages to the demands of living in community. Yet here he is soberly talking about the good zeal monks ought to have and must cultivate with the most ardent love as though it cannot be taken for granted, even in the monastery.

Zeal can be dangerous. We can go seriously wrong for what we believe are the best of motives. We have probably all met people so consumed by what they see as evil that they have become unpleasantly like what they detest. We may even have been guilty  of being too rigorous ourselves in situations which called for forgiveness and understanding. Zeal gone wrong leads to fanaticism and that, as we all know, can be poisonous.

Benedict’s antidote is to put energy and enthusiasm into that which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. As you might expect, he singles out for mention qualities he has already written about: patience in bearing with one another’s weaknesses “whether of body or character” (including X’s annoying little habits), eagerness to show respect and obedience to other members of the community (including that odious Y), seeking what is better for another rather than oneself and, above all, loving God, one’s superior and the brethren. He sums it all up by saying that we must put nothing whatever before Christ who, we pray, will bring us all together to everlasting life.

It is a beautiful and moving statement of the inner dynamic of monastic life but there are days when it sounds just a bit . . . effortful. That’s the problem with zeal. It has a bright, tooth-paste tang about it which most of us prefer in small doses. At this time of year, when the Christmas decorations are beginning to look a little tired and 2011 is almost upon us, we can use RB 72 as a reality check on how we actually live our lives.

So, before you write your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself one question. Do you put as much energy into your service of God and others as you do into making things comfortable for yourself? I blush to think of my own answer. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but comfort achieved at the expense of others is more questionable. I think even I could become zealous about that. At least, I hope so.

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O Adonai

Today’s O antiphon addresses God as both Lord and Leader. It emphasizes both the transcendence of God and his nearness to us, something many of us have difficulty getting our heads round. The holiness of God instills a strange kind of fear, perhaps awe would be a better word, a sense of the absolute “otherness” of God before whom we can only tremble. Yet this transcendent God is intimately bound up in every aspect of our lives: he is truly not a God far off, but near at hand. We call upon him to free us with outstretched arm from everything that holds us back from knowing and loving him, from being the people we are meant to be. Again, you can find texts and a recording of the antiphon here on the monastery web site.

Apart from liturgy, what else has been going on in the monastery? This was the week our laser printer died mid-print, and because of the  kind of work we do a replacement was essential. One duly arrived within 24 hours but it weighs 30Kg, so you can imagine the huffing and puffing as two nuns carried it up two flights of stairs. Now, if anyone wants a brand new, unopened, heavy-duty cycle original toner cartridge for a Xerox N2125, which cost about £180, please make us an offer.

The mobile version of our web site is now in live testingand can be viewed using an iPhone, iPad or Android device. We still have some Flash elements to eliminate, but you can view the mobile site here (link opens in new window). If we’ve done our coding right, from Monday onwards our web site will detect what you are using and direct you to either the desktop or mobile version as appropriate without your having to do anything. Nifty, eh? Please note that the search box in the sidebar will not be operative until Monday.

Finally, please could I ask for an end to the emails and so on regarding the Ordinariate? I, for one, am tiring of being told what the community here should think or believe. Some (not all!) of the communications have been rude or ill-informed or both, and though we are trying to respond courteously we think we might spend our time more profitably. I hope you understand.

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Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.

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News from Walsingham

Yesterday a press release announced that Sr Wendy Renate, Sr Jane Louise and Sr Carolyne Joseph had left the (Anglican) Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham “for a period of discernment with the intention of joining the Ordinariate when established”. Except to those who know the community concerned (we don’t), the announcement probably meant little. Indeed, if you look at the comments on certain blogs, you will find the matter treated with a levity and lack of charity that gets blogging a bad name.

It is worth thinking about the story behind this announcement. Both those who have left and those who remain deserve our prayers and at least a suspension of judgement. It is not easy for anyone to abandon that which is familiar, still less that which is greatly loved and has been the subject of a vow. The first Cistercians were abused as renegades and vow-breakers because they saw fidelity to what they had professed as obliging them to move away from the monastery of their profession. Their doing so greatly enriched the Church, but it was not obvious at the time. I’m sure many of their old community felt the loss of their brethren deeply; and in a curious way, their going does seem to have had a beneficial effect on Molesmes which was shaken out its complacency into a reform of its own.

Can we hope for the same at Walsingham? I don’t know, but I admit to feeling uneasy. As far as I can see, none of the provisions announced for the Ordinariate concerns religious. If you look at the Ordinariate web site, there is a link for clergy and a mention of future details for the laity. That reflects pretty accurately the “invisibility” of religious in most people’s thinking and the fact that there are comparatively few religious in the Church of England. There is no suggestion that the three Sisters who have left are thinking of applying to join an existing Catholic community so the path ahead is far from clear.

We have discussed the Ordinariate  in community many times and it is interesting that whatever our personal background, Catholic or Anglican, we are having difficulty in seeing what the Ordinariate offers that the Church as a whole does not. So, prayers for the Sisters who have left Walsingham, prayers for the Sisters who remain; and prayers for all of us, Catholic and Anglican, who must get to grips with what the Ordinariate is meant to be.

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A Little Light-heartedness

Monk tasting wine from a barrel
Sneaky Goings-On in the Cellar

Today is St Nicholas’s Day, so tonight Quietnun will be making toffee for our sweet-toothed friends. She doesn’t know that yet. It will be a nice  surprise for her (pity there’s no way of conveying irony in type).

Monks and nuns have always understood that a little light-heartedness in the cloister is a very good thing. There’s a charming letter from St Boniface in which he refers to giving a barrel of wine or beer “for a merry day with the brethren”. That’s exactly the right spirit. Advent is a time of preparation but its penitential character is sometimes exaggerated. There is a kind of “aching joy” about it all: we are joyful in hope, but experiencing the “not-yet-ness” of things means the joy is not complete.

Digitalnun is experiencing aching joy of quite a different kind. We rolled out the first phase of our revamped web site at the week-end. Most of it is working well, but the carefully crafted headers and quotations are not appearing as they should. Somewhere between trial and release the @font-face arguments ceased to work as they should, and one page is stubbornly refusing to enable links properly. We’ll try to get all that right before we  move on to the second phase.

In the meantime, thank you for comments about iBenedictines. One reader finds our minimalist design a little too bleak so we may revisit that in due course. Just don’t expect anything too soon!

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