Fundraising Update

It is time we brought you up to date. As many of you know, we live in a rented house which isn’t big enough to receive people who want to join the community or spend time in retreat. In fact, it isn’t really big enough for our charitable outreach as it stands (audio books for the visually impaired, online ministry, etc), much less the outreach we plan. We have one postulant entering next year, please God, and then we shall be FULL. That is very hard on those who are waiting in trust for room to become available.

We have identified a house which would enable us to do a great deal more and, in our view, represents a good investment. As we have no inherited wealth and the income generated by our work is needed to keep everything else going, we have had to appeal for help in buying it — thus giving you the opportunity of becoming a monastic founder.

On our main website you will find details of our Charitable Bond. This is regulated by the FSA and is a way in which you can lend money for a specified period of time and secure a modest return on your capital. We are also appealing for donations, which can be made securely online via our dedicated Charity Choice page (no money is deducted by the bank for this service, and it will even take care of Gift Aid for you).

In short, there are many ways of helping and we would like to thank those who have already contributed very generously. This has become a genuinely ecumenical endeavour, supported by people of many differing religious traditions, and some of no particular belief. During the next fortnight, we shall be making a big effort to secure the remaining finance we need. Please help us if you can. Thank you.

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All Souls

All Souls, the Day of the Dead, is something Catholicism does rather well. Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

In the monastery, prayer for the dead, like prayer for the absent brethren, comes at the end of every Hour of the Work of God and at the end of every meal. We are constantly reminded of our connection with those who have ‘gone before’. They are as familiar to us in death as they were in life and death itself is much less terrible as a result. I find purgatory a very comforting doctrine. I like the idea of being prepared for the vision of God; I like the idea that the Church will continue to pray for me when I can no longer pray for myself. Best of all, I like the hope of mercy that purgatory proclaims.

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Something about Sunday

While many of our fellow citizens are taking the opportunity to have an extra long lie-in this Sunday, we Christian folk are busy in our churches and chapels, proclaiming the Word of God, celebrating his Sacraments and trying to be, at least for a few hours, what we long to be at all times: an icon of Christ, praying continuously to the Father, and radiating his love and compassion to all whom we meet. One of the great things about being a nun, of course, is that in the monastery it is Sunday every day, in a sense. Whatever we are doing, the focus is (or should be) always on Christ. It is when we take our gaze off him that things begin to go awry.

The words of the first reading at Mass, (Malachi 1.14 to 2.2, 8 to 10), are very sobering. They remind us that, whether we have been entrusted with the ministerial priesthood or not, as sharers in the priesthood of all believers we have a duty to live lives of transparent integrity. Perhaps this Sunday we could spend a few moments considering how we do that during the rest of the week. So often when we fail it is not for lack of goodwill but for lack of forethought.

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Reverence in Prayer: RB 20

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 20, is one I should like to quote in full. Alternatively, you can listen to it being read, as in community, on our main website here.

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (Trans. Wybourne)

Even in translation, I think you can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original. It is good sixth-century Latin in which not a word is wasted. Note that there is nothing rarified about the underlying concepts. Benedict starts by considering something with which we are all familiar. When we want to ask a favour of someone who is more powerful than we are, we do so with humility and respect. Prayer, too, begins with our neediness, our recognition that in the sight of God we have nothing that he has not given us. So often we approach prayer as though it were a meeting of two Superpowers, God and self, where we address God with a list of ideas we think he might usefully implement. (I exaggerate, but not much.) Benedict will have none of that. We come before God with nothing, awaiting his favour.

Next, Benedict warns against garrulousness. We don’t need to repeat ourselves over and over again. Indeed, no words are necessary. As we saw earlier this week, words often get in the way, bend under the weight of meaning, splinter and divide. Our prayer must come from the heart, and a repentant heart at that: a heart pierced by the sense of sin, laid open by God himself. It follows that prayer will be short and pure. This paradox often causes a lot of difficulty. Go back to that first sentence again. When we want to ask a favour of someone, we may spend ages preparing but the actual asking is likely to be the work of a few seconds. So too with prayer. Much of the time that we give to it is a kind of preparation. We consider the beauty and holiness of God, we are grateful, we may be moved to praise, but prayer itself is the work of a moment.

Benedict is very aware of the pitfalls in prayer, the ways in which we can deceive ourselves. He is insistent that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. In community especially, he knows that prayer can be manipulated for irreligious ends; so even here, at this most intimate moment of our religious lives, he establishes an order, a way of acting that overrides personal preference. The superior decides when prayer in common is to end and all must obey.

It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the liturgical code, in the course of which Benedict has set out the parameters for community prayer. The prayer of the individual is always part of the prayer of the community, the one feeds into the other. There is no opposition between contemplative prayer and liturgical prayer since both flow from the same source. The only bar to prayer is one that Benedict notes again and again: lack of humility, a failure to accept our creaturely condition. That is not to say that we won’t find prayer difficult, even distasteful at times, but there is a serenity and confidence about his writing on prayer, as there is in the lives of those who are prayerful, that the rest of us may find encouraging. Ultimately, God is even keener on prayer than we are. He will not withold himself from us.

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Talking about God

Monday’s post about the language of filation and sonship brought a number of interesting emails. I should like to quote from one which expresses, better than I ever could, both the difficulty of predicating anything about God and the necessity of the struggle to do so.

These [reflections] are all bound up with my growing sense of the relative irrelevance of words. I say this as one for whom words are an overriding passion, and of course they remain the way into the Word: there are combinations of words which slit open the eternal like knives. That is just one of the paradoxes so fundamental to our religion that I am beginning to wonder if anything non-paradoxical can be true!

. . . My true refuge from linguistic problems, minor and major, is Pseudo-Denys and the unknowability of God. If one cannot even say ‘God is good’, then surely one cannot, in any literal sense, say ‘God is our Father’. From the darkness of Denys I fly to the Syrians and specifically to St  Ephrem, who describes God as ‘clothing himself in language’, now putting on metaphors for our sake, now stripping this one off again and fetching another out of the wardrobe – all because our minds are small and limited. For Ephrem the whole of Scripture is one great metaphor. I find this infinitely consoling, probably because my mind is at ease with metaphor: it creates a great space in which one can move around unimpeded; I leave systematic theology to the seriously clever.

I know the writer well enough to take that remark about systematic theology with a smile of complicity. The point is, however we talk about God, however helpful or indeed unhelpful we may find the language of scripture or theology, the language of prayer transcends all limitations. It is wonderfully subversive, because types and shadows fall away in the face of the reality of God.

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Serving God with Mammon

Yesterday’s release of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Note on Financial Reform has been variously received. I went through the text yesterday evening (it’s only 18 pages) and suggest you read it for yourselves rather than any commentary (mine included). It’s a long time since I worked in finance myself, but many of the questions it addresses are familiar; so too are some of the suggestions it makes regarding the future. It has, however, left me thinking about the whole concept of money, wealth creation and stewardship, particularly in light of our own needs. When is enough enough?

The economic basis of what we are and do is slender: a small business, to which we devote time and energy, and which must provide not only for our own needs and the needs of those who come to us for help, but also our service of the visually impaired, our internet outreach and much else besides. Without the generosity of friends and benefactors, much would have to go or be scaled down. We are at a critical point: we have vocations but nowhere to accommodate them; we have found a house which would enable us to do much more for others than we can at present; and the only thing stopping us is lack of money. If you haven’t yet looked at our presentation on the future of the monastery, please do so.

There are many practical ways of helping: a loan, investment in our Charitable Bond, a donation. You can’t serve both God and Mammon, perhaps, but you can serve God with Mammon.

DONATIONS
If you are moved to give straightaway, you can donate securely online, using a credit or debit card, using our personal Charity Choice link. If you are donating from the U.K., it will even take care of Gift Aid for you.

Donate now using Charity Choice

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Retrospect: the Christian New Media Conference

I had intended to gather together a host of links so that those of you who weren’t able to attend the conference might get something of its flavour, but the sheer volume of material has overwhelmed me. In any case, I must admit I’m more interested in some of the questions the conference has thrown up, but first, I’d better explain my limitations. As a nun, my connection with the digital world is different from most people’s. My engagement stems from RB 53, Benedict’s teaching on hospitality, and a community commitment to ‘being hospitable’ online. It is an engagement hedged round with qualifications, notably the amount of time I can give and, to some extent, the subjects I can address (I know nothing about small children, for example). I’m not an expert in anything, but like most people who live a life of silence, I can ‘tire the sun with talking’. That’s my forte, and I’m sticking to it!

One of the themes that kept surfacing at the conference was the role of the #digicreative. I am all for beauty and technical excellence, but I found myself wondering more and more what a digicreative is and what he or she does. Creating content is more important than ‘creativity’ as such. One of the marvellous things about technological advances of recent years is that ANYONE, whatever their level of technical skill or artistic merit, can produce a blog or website with a host of features more or less out of the box. Having something worth saying or doing with the technology is another matter. I’d be very sorry if the Christian presence on the web and in social media ever got side-tracked into something secondary. I work on the basis that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. I tell myself that if I had the time, our web sites would be transformed; but I don’t, so they aren’t. Tough.

Another idea that interested me was that of the digital sabbath: turning off one’s phone and computer one day a week. We never do that here because we are, in a way, a ‘public organization’, but we do make it clear that we won’t necessarily respond to people instantly because we have other, and to us more urgent, calls on our time. We are, first and foremost, nuns and whatever value we can bring to our online engagement would disappear if we ever forgot that. But how does it work out for other people? To me, that need to switch off the phone, etc, suggests a degree of engagement I’ve never experienced. Is it possible that Twitter, Facebook and so on can become habit-forming? Is switching off the phone a way of reassuring oneself that one isn’t addicted or does it mean more focus on God and people offline? I’d love to know.

Perhaps the most important question the conference raised for me was purely theological. How does our online activity fit into and enhance our understanding of God and the Church? I came away with a renewed sense of the sacramentality of what we do online, in the sacred space that is the internet. It has been reinforced since by interaction with many of the people I met at the conference. I’d love to thank you all individually, but there’s one bit of ‘technology’ for which there is no upgrade: we’re stuck with the brains we are born with, and mine is unequal to the task. Thank you, everyone who was at the conference and made it so special.

Update
Here’s a link to some photos, videos, audio boos and blog posts on the Conference: http://bit.ly/nMBTO8

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The Twelfth Degree

Humility is very attractive, in other people at any rate. Does it have an effect on the physiognomy or is it something that shows itself only in the moral sphere? It would take several blog posts to unpack what St Benedict has to say this morning (RB 7. 62 to 70), but there are two points I’d like to highlight: the monk (and equally, the nun) must ALWAYS show humility in their outward bearing and their doing so is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Take the outward show first. You might think that nothing would be easier to fake than the appearance of virtue. In a monastery, that’s not so easy. We become extremely sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviour. Any falsity, any lack of enthusiasm for the Divine Office or the task in hand quickly communicates itself. This awareness of the other is one of the great helps to Christian living that membership of a monastic community provides. The fraterna acies, the community battle-rank, is a source of strength and encouragement. I think it explains why Benedict was so keen on community living. Without community, the opportunities to grow in humility are fewer and the need to manifest humility less obvious.

Next, consider the action of the Holy Spirit. We all know how easy it is to take something to oneself: I did such and such; I overcame some fault or other. Benedict will have none of it. We are gradually cleansed of vice and sin by the action of the Holy Spirit. True, he may use our brethren to do the scouring, but it is always the work of God. In older monks and nuns, one often sees a transparency, a goodness that is hard to define but unmistakable when seen. A lifetime of virtuous living, of allowing the Holy Spirit to change us from within, tends to have an effect even on the face. It is the only make-over that costs nothing and yet everything, the only beauty that lasts beyond the grave.

BBC Radio Wales
The podcast of Digitalnun’s  9 October 2011 interview in the ‘All Things Considered’ series may be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/atc.

 

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Religious Language and the Web

You can see how important Benedict thought the right use of speech by looking at today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 60 to 61. The eleventh step of humility is concerned with speaking little but making every word count. It might have been written with Twitter in mind! The things Benedict condemns, either outright or by implication — harshness, mockery, the obscenity and cruelty we discussed yesterday, vapidity  and mere clamour — are temptations at any time but especially when we go online. Our nearest and dearest may long ago have given up listening to us, but online it’s another matter. We can express our opinions, however outrageous, to our heart’s content; but with that freedom comes responsibility, and it’s worth thinking about how we exercise it.

One of the things that has always interested me is how much religious language is used online. Does familiarity with such language in an online context cheapen our understanding of it elsewhere? I refuse to have ‘followers’ on Twitter, for example, because I’m a follower of Christ and of Him alone. But I think some people actually enjoy the messianic overtones and are for ever calculating how many followers they have, as though that conferred validity on what they say. We regularly use words like ‘authority’ in connection with anything from search engines to blogs; we have ‘communities’ for every interest under the sun; even the most blatantly commercial web site will have a ‘mission statement’; and we devoted (note the word) Apple products users are usually described as subscribing to the ‘cult’ of Apple.

Which brings me back to Benedict. He urges that when we do speak, we should do so gently, humbly, seriously, in a few well-chosen words. There is a quietness about his approach that is immediately attractive. I wonder what his voice was like. Judging by his Rule, I imagine he spoke gently, in a low tone of voice for the most part, but with immense authority, the kind that is innate rather than cultivated. Perhaps today we might think about our own voice on the web. Shrill? Frivolous? Or a voice which allows the Word to speak in and through us?

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Laughter in the Cloister

It’s Saturday, you’re short of time, and St Benedict has just a few words to say to you today: ‘The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written: “The fool raises his voice in laughter.”‘ You are probably thinking, ‘He can’t be serious. Life without laughter would be miserable,’ and you’d be right. To understand this short section of the Rule, you need to understand the kind of laughter Benedict is talking about, the resonances in the scripture he quotes (Sirach 21.20) and the oblique reference to the Institutes of Cassian, IV.39.10.

We think of laughter as a simple, joyous expression of amusement or delight. There is nothing nasty about it. Such laughter is not condemned by Benedict. A sense of humour is, as I indicated a few days ago, a great blessing in monastic life, and I am quite convinced that there are deliberate touches of humour in the Rule. The laughter Benedict rejects is, first, the laughter of disbelief, such as Sara laughed when she was told that she would conceive in her old age. It is, secondly, the laughter associated with scurilitas, a word for which we have no exact equivalent in modern English, the laughter associated with obscenity and cruelty.

In scripture the fool is one who lacks knowledge of God and is morally adrift, who does not believe God and goes wrong because of his disbelief. Benedict doesn’t want fools in his monastery. He doesn’t want obscenity or cruelty, either; and he knows that what begins as a good, clean joke can, on occasion, lead to something less innocent, destructive of both the individual and community. So, he is telling us this morning to be aware of the pitfalls, to use humour in the right way, that it may be a blessing not a curse.

It is precisely this thoughtful, considered approach to everyday things that makes the Rule of Benedict a useful guide to living a Christian life. Laugh on, but let it be with a laughter you are not ashamed of before God.

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