The Cloister of the Heart

Yesterday I was touched to find a Facebook friend commenting on the fact that there had been no blogging from the monastery since the Visitation. The simple explanation, that I had nothing to say, might raise an eyebrow or two among those who wonder whether I ever have anything to say, but let that pass. We are great believers in sharing what we have with others, but one must first have something to share; so, inevitably, there have to be times when we stand back and concentrate on the inner life of the community, as we have during the past few days.

What do we mean by ‘inner life’? By and large, the unseen life of prayer and study on which the Benedictine monastic life is based. In medieval times, this was very much the life of the cloister, where one walked and prayed and worked. In nuns’ monasteries the cloister was reserved to the community, with guests admitted only occasionally (or not at all, if medieval bishops had had their way).

We have no cloister as such, here at Hendred, no ‘reserved space’ for the community, so we have to work a little harder at cultivating the cloister of the heart. It means, unfortunately, that sometimes we may have to tell people we cannot undertake activities, good in themselves, which we judge to be inconsistent with what we have professed or even, as in the past few days, close our doors (physical and digital) to visitors. Is that selfish? It depends. Ultimately, our whole way of life is based on the premise that God matters supremely, that seeking him in prayer is what we are called to do. That isn’t the easy or ‘romantic’ thing it is sometimes made out to be. As every novice quickly learns, it can be very demanding. Indeed, if I were asked what has been the most challenging thing I have ever attempted, I would answer, being a nun; and I suspect you can only really understand that if you are a nun yourself.

During the past week we launched another online retreat, sharing something of our cloistered life with the world. Even as we did so, I was conscious of the fact that we can share only a little. I hope what we do share is worthwhile, that our online cloister is a place where heart speaks to heart.

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D. Catherine Gascoigne

D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai
D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai

On 21 May 1676 died D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai, and a ‘doughty dame’ if ever there was one. She was the daughter of Sir John Gascoigne and his wife, Anne Ingleby. At the time she was born, Catholics in England were subject to severe legal penalties. Attendance at the services of the Church of England was required by the law. Failure to do so meant being listed as a Recusant; there were fines and often confiscation of property, along with tedious restrictions such as not being allowed to own a horse. Priests saying Mass could still be imprisoned, just as earlier they had risked being executed. To be a Catholic was to be under siege. The idea of living a monastic life in England was unthinkable, so when Catherine and a group of like-minded young women felt called to be Benedictine nuns they had no choice but to journey abroad. In 1623, under the auspices of the English Benedictine Congregation, they set up house in Cambrai, Flanders.

The early history of the community is stirring, especially to someone familiar with it as part of the living tradition of her monastery of formation, but this post is about D. Catherine herself and the part she played. The Cambrai community was initially helped by three nuns from Brussels, who were charged with teaching the novices and preparing them for profession of vows. Unfortunately, although diligent and generous, the Brussels nuns were very much influenced by the Jesuits and their way of systematic meditation, whereas D. Catherine and the nascent Cambrai community fell naturally into the older way of prayer taught by Fr Augustine Baker, the Benedictine Vicarius of the community (Fr Baker had revived the medieval English form of contemplative prayer which is very different from the formal meditative method then currently in vogue). It was, as you may imagine, an explosive situation and there was great relief when the Brussels nuns returned home and D. Catherine was elected abbess in 1629.

The problems were not at end, however. The community was poor, and Fr Baker and his teaching fell under suspicion . The orthodoxy of the Cambrai community was questioned and a committee of enquiry was set up by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation in 1633. D. Catherine was resolute and faced her opponents with quiet courage, giving an account of her prayer in such simple, moving terms that anyone reading it cannot but admit its truthfulness and power. ‘Goe on couragiously, you have choosen the best way: we beseech Allmighty God to accomplish that union which your hart desireth’ said the Fathers; but in 1655 D. Catherine was again facing ecclesiastical censure. She refused to give up Fr Baker’s treatises, arguing that they were entirely orthodox and of immense value to the community and the Church. She won, of course, but it was a close run thing.

In time, D. Catherine’s talents came to be recognized more widely. She was called upon to oversee the reform of another monastery in Flanders. When she was dying, she wrote to  the then President of the English Benedictine Congregation, Fr Benedict Stapylton, asking for ‘a new and very ample confirmation’ of Fr Baker’s writings, ‘as being the greatest treasure that belongs to this poor community’, for she saw clearly that the only true wealth of a monastic community is its holiness and prayerfulness.

What has D. Catherine Gascoigne to teach us today? Personally, I have always found her inspiring, more so than her more immediately attractive companion, D. Gertrude More. Her quietness, her firmness in the face of opposition from those who should have supported her, her fidelity to prayer and monastic observance, her care for the community committed to her are admirable qualities. I am also grateful for something very few know. She would never have been able to become a nun had she not suffered from smallpox. The Bishop of London refused her a licence to go abroad, saying she was too beautiful. She prayed for her beauty to be taken from her, and it was; so the licence was duly given. Chance, too, has its part to play in our history.

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Changing an Online Identity

Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira
Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira

We all do it. From time to time we change our online identities. We give our web sites makeovers; we change our profile pictures on Facebook; we find a new template for our blog; we redesign our avatars for Twitter or whatever. Having for years used an image of myself listening to an iPod (which the community did not then own), I think it is time to highlight another characteristically Benedictine activity, seeing.

The first word of our Rule is Obsculta, listen, but the idea of seeing, watching, opening our eyes to the light that comes from God, is also important. Both looking and listening are images of what we do in prayer. As it happens, the photo James took shows me reading the Divine Office, a form of lectio divina, carried out, not in choir on this occasion, but in a quiet interval at the RSA, close to the noise and bustle of the Strand. The fact is, all times and seasons are good for prayer; and it is just possible that the person sitting opposite you on the train, eyes glued to a small screen, or jogging along the pavement with earphones firmly attached, is actually somewhere else, in ‘the land of spices’, one with ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’, finding their deepest and truest identity in God.

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Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.

For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.

None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.

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So You Want to be a Nun, do you?

From time to time I dip into a forum frequented by people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. One of the things it has taught me is that many people reflect on religious vocation in ways more reminiscent of a career choice than vocation as I understand it. I don’t say this to criticize, merely to remark. There is much assessment of habits, devotions, penances, liturgy and a weighing up of ‘tradition’ (which does not always equate to Tradition). It seems so far from what really matters. While I think it is good to ask oneself whether one will fit in and grow in a particular community or Order, I am more hesitant about the ‘shopping list of requirements’ that some potential candidates produce. Indeed, I can look back on a huge volume of letters and emails the novice mistress and I have sent out explaining that the desire to be a nun does not necessarily imply a vocation; that more is required than just saying, ‘I’ll enter with you.’

Today we begin reading RB 58, Benedict’s extended treatment of admission of candidates to the community. More and more, I realise its wisdom. He starts off by saying that newcomers should not be granted too easy an entrance, that we should test the spirits to see whether they be from God. I wish everyone would read that before they think of applying! There can be such indignation and hurt when it is pointed out that the community has a say in the matter, that what we are seeking is God’s will rather than our own. Sometimes people think a small community will be a push-over, taking anyone on any terms. The reverse is true. No community will last if it has members who are uncommitted or unsuited to monastic life. While a certain degree of eccentricity can be tolerated in a large community, crankiness in a small one is not a good idea. I am pleased to say that we have a number of people who want to enter with us, if we can get big enough premises, but we don’t count the chickens before they are hatched. It is remarkable how many vocations disappear as the entrance date draws near and the reality begins to dawn. Those that survive are usually very good and strong.

Please pray for those discerning a religious vocation. Western society is not very supportive of those who want to make a counter-cultural choice. Families can be very hostile and the economic climate makes it difficult to fulfil some of the canonical requirements. If you are yourself thinking of becoming a nun, it is worth pondering what Benedict says the community must look for in a candidate: are you truly seeking God; are you eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for the things that will humble you? Answer those questions and I think you’ll have less difficulty with the rest. A vocation is, after all, a response to an invitation from God, who can do all things.

Note: The vocation pages on our main web site provide some information about becoming a nun; the FAQ is regularly updated.

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Monastic Habits Good and Bad

Yesterday and today we are reading chapter 55 of the Rule, on the clothing and footwear of the brethren. Not a very promising subject for reflection, you might think. Don’t monks and nuns just do what they’ve always done, and wear an odd sort of dress that is meaningful/romantic/quaint/ridiculous, depending on your point of view? Not quite.

Benedict’s little treatise on clothing has some interesting points to make. First of all, he is concerned, as elsewhere in the Rule, to avoid every appearance of luxury; so he lists what he thinks is sufficient for every monk to have and no more. He is well aware that we can amass unnecessary items, which then become possessions (see previous post). He has no time for scruffiness or sloppiness and wants monks away from home to dress rather better than they do in the monastery. He also seems to expect them to do their own laundry. In a monastery of nuns, none of this comes as a surprise. We have a summer habit and a winter habit, a pair of shoes and a pair of sandals, plus a ‘best habit’ trottted out on important occasions. We also have work-clothes, ‘the scapular for work’ mentioned in the Rule, and I think we are good about the laundry. But notice that Benedict is remarkably flexible about the actual form of the habit. ‘The monks must not complain about the colour or coarseness of any of these items [of clothing] but make do with what can be obtained in the district where they live and can be bought cheaply.’

A whole theology has grown up around the monastic habit which is indeed beautiful, and for those of us privileged to wear it, deeply significant. A habit such as ours probably also works out marginally cheaper than wearing lay clothes because it can be patched and darned so often; but Benedict is much more relaxed about it than many of our contemporaries. I am happy to wear a traditional habit but I hate the way in which some attack those who don’t, especially religious sisters. Belittling the dedication of others, making puerile jokes about them, presuming to dictate what they should wear isn’t very pleasant; worse still, it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what the habit is and the place it plays in our lives. We don’t take the habit on ourselves; we receive it at our Clothing as something that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is a sign, no more, no less, of our having taken the yoke of the Rule upon our shoulders. That commitment, that dedication, goes far deeper than what we wear.

The Saxon princess Edith, a nun of Wilton, was rebuked by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester for wearing a purple tunic above her hair-shirt (a common practice then) with the words, ‘Man looks at the outward show; the Lord looks at the heart’. In return, he received the best put-down ever given by one saint to another, ‘Quite so my Lord; and I have given mine.’

 

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The Problem of Possessions

RB 54 takes up a subject Benedict has already treated in RB 33, the problem of ownership and radical dispossession. Unlike most other religious, Benedictines do not take a vow of poverty; yet if we are serious about our monastic life, the degree of ‘dispossession’ is probably greater than among many who do. For example, in the community to which I belong, RB 54 is observed literally. No one receives anything from another without permission, and no one presumes to keep anything unless it has been authorised. Even at the communal level, strict watch is kept over any superfluity. A kind friend in the U.S. recently offered us an iPad and it was quite hard for a community of Apple geeks to say ‘no’; but we could not justify accepting something that was not truly necessary for the work we do. (Note for the curious: we got a donation instead which we applied to more urgent but less stylish needs.)

Possessions can be a problem: too many or two few and one wastes time and energy worrying about them. Living by the providence of God is something most Christians would applaud in theory, but it is incredibly difficult to do as one gets older and/or there are family members to worry about as well as oneself. There is no easy solution. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we do need to keep an eye on what we amass. Lent, with its call to almsgiving, is a good time for taking stock. Perhaps we could do more than take last season’s books and clothes to the Charity Shop?

Thank You
iBenedictines has climbed a few more places in the Wikio Top Blogs Religion and Belief category, thanks to our readers. That was a very nice surprise!

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Nuns on the Run

I would have preferred the statelier ‘Gad-abouts and Gyrovagues’, but given that language is about communication, using monastic jargon, even humorously, has its drawbacks.

Yesterday we went to Douai to join the community for Mass and a festive meal which was very pleasant and a world away from our usual humbler liturgy. Today we have a few deadlines to meet, then tomorrow we are off again, in the metaphorical sense. BBC 1 Breakfast TV may give you a glimpse of part of the monastery not usually open to visitors while Digitalnun makes her way to the Great Wen to take part in Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ programme. We’ll never know what the TV shows or doesn’t except by hearsay, but Quietnun may well listen in to the radio in order to add prayer support. That’s what she says, anyway.

All this begs the question: why do many people regard an occasional egress from the cloister in order to take part in serious discussion or engage with others on subjects of common interest as somehow not quite right for nuns? One of the long-range effects of the 817 Council of Aachen and subsequent canonical additions by Carlo Borrromeo (to mention only the most important) has been to make the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns diverge on this point. Given that there is no ‘Second Order’ among Benedictines (Benedictines antedate the whole concept of a Religious Order) one wonders whether this is something that we shall need to address in coming years. As William remarks in one of the ‘Just William’ books, ‘Girls aren’t so mere as they were in your day, Dad.’

 

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The Monk, the Nun and the Silicon Chip

Today is the feast of St Benedict and all true Benedictines will be celebrating with sober joy (it’s amazing what one can manage during Lent if one puts one’s mind to it). I must confess that we had set our hearts on inaugurating our new online retreat service today, but the many demands of the last few days seemed to have put paid to that. However, one should never underestimate a nun’s determination.

Inspired by our holy Father’s injunction to pray earnestly whenever one begins a good work, and enthralled as always by the possibilities of the silicon chip, we have beavered away in the night hours and this morning can present to you the first release of our Online Retreats with its easy-to-remember domain name, ‘onlineretreats.org’.

Everything was working as it should last night; I sincerely hope it is still doing so this morning. You can check  for yourself at http://www.onlineretreats.org. For the time being, we’re only releasing one of the modules so that if a glitch manifests itself, tracking the problem should be easier than if we are dealing with half a dozen. The next challenge is to turn it all into an iPhone app. Enjoy.

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A Different Kind of Lent

God has very gently but definitely decided that our plans for Lent should be different from what we had expected. It happens every year, but as always, there is something we could not have foreseen, an entirely new twist. It all began with a mega-migraine for Quietnun. By Shrove Tuesday every thought of carnival and pancakes had disappeared and the monastery had assumed a Lenten simplicity and seriousness. The spareness inside matched the cold spring sunshine outside.

On Tuesday evening came news that a dear friend, who had spent twenty-three years as a nun but who had had to leave for health reasons, was in a hospice, in the final stages of a long, slow death from cancer. Tuesday night was spent praying for her; at mid-day on Ash Wednesday we heard that she had died. Her Lent now over, surely she will soon be Eastering with the saints for ever.

As I walked to church, I could not help reflecting that we had entered the mystery of death and rebirth we shall celebrate at Easter; had already experienced something of our own human frailty; were being asked to hope in spite of all. The ashes we received were made from the palms carried in procession on Palm Sunday last year: a reminder that human triumphs do not last very long, only God is eternal. I thought, too, that the love of the Lord is everlasting and his mercies new every morning. This Lent we are called to live in awareness of his mercy in a way we never have before. God has written our Lent Bill.

(Please see the Shrove Tuesday post for an explanation of what a Lent Bill is; and I didn’t get Leviticus, I got St John’s Gospel.)

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