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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Control of Speech

Earlier this week I wrote about silence, but control of the tongue, which Benedict addresses in the portion of the Rule we read today, RB  7. 56 to 58, refers to something different. It is, so to say, a preparation for silence, a precondition. It requires effort, self-knowledge, discipline; and it is an essential component of humility because, of course, we naturally think our own ideas and viewpoints interesting, worth sharing with others. To choose not to speak or write (or blog or tweet or whatever), is not an act of negativity but a deliberate choice of something other, what Benedict elsewhere calls taciturnitas, restraint in speech.

Now the interesting thing about restraint in speech is that it implies understanding and communication, but sometimes without words, without being voiced, and at other times a very careful choice of words, an apt expression of what we think or believe. The words we do speak must always be good and wholesome, such as build up. To ensure that they are, we need time for reflection. How many of us have spoken before we thought and lived to regret it? What Benedict is urging upon us today is precisely that weighing of our words which will sometimes lead us to speak out and at other times to keep quiet. It is all about speech, not silence; and until we have learned something about speech, I do not think we can ever begin to understand silence.

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The Blessing of Silence

Yesterday was full of appointments and meetings. At the end of the day to go into my cell (room) and experience its silence was a blessing in the natural as well as supernatural order. Why do we so often fear silence and surround ourselves with sound, any sound, rather than allow ourselves to be lapped in silence?

Perhaps because I am a nun and silence is for me as natural as breathing, I don’t quite ‘get’ the desire for sound. (I refuse to call it noise, because that is disparaging.) Maybe it is something to do with the connection between silence, sleep and death. All three, in different ways and in different degrees, make it impossible for us to exert our will over others. Silence equates to powerlessness; but I’d want to say, it is not powerlessness as commonly understood. The deepest, most complete silence the world has ever known began on Calvary and ended with the Resurrection. We experience it afresh every year on Holy Saturday and in times of prayer when the Word silently transforms our being.

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The Monastery’s Future

On the day when the national minimum wage goes up by a princely 15p an hour, Greece announces her inability to make the required deficit reductions this year or next, and thousands of 65-year olds think they will have to work for ever, we have the temerity to bring you a revised audiovisual presentation on the monastery and its future.


Bad timing? I hope not.  Monasteries think in terms of centuries and eternity rather than the present alone. That is worth pondering, especially since every time you go online you leave indelible traces of your presence. Do, please, tell others about the presentation if you think it would interest them. Our main web site gives details of the many ways in which you can help. Every penny counts, but even if you feel you can’t spare anything, we value your good wishes and prayer.

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A Sense of Humour and the Fourth Degree

Today we read RB 7. 35 to 43: St Benedict’s Fourth Degree of Humility. The more I read this passage, the more I see in it. Humility, joy, patience, perseverance, generosity, obedience, these are all necessary for a monastic quality of living, whether we be monks and nuns or trying to live as Benedictine oblates or associates outside the cloister. There is just one thing missing from the text: a sense of humour.

The gentle jokes of the cloister (like the one in yesterday’s blog post) are a good way of relieving the tension of a fraught situation, making those who feel awkward a little more at home and helping everyone through moments of trial or difficulty. The trouble is, of course, that not everyone will see the joke. That is why the jokes must be gentle, not undermining anyone or making them feel small. It takes time to learn how to laugh at oneself, but it is a skill worth mastering. A sense of humour can contribute a great deal to community life, and when it is used in the right way can be genuinely edifying. Benedict urges the cellarer, when he has nothing else to give, to give a good word. There are times when just a smile or a little joke may be even better.

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The Cloister of the Heart

Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.

I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.

When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.

We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.

Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.

We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.

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Mindfulness of God

The section of the Rule that we read today, RB 7. 10 to 18, is a key text, not merely for Benedictines but for all Christians. To understand why Benedict links mindfulness of God with humility we must take a step back and consider the story of Adam and Eve. It was forgetting God that allowed pride to to take hold in their hearts, distort their vision and lead them into sin. It’s exactly the same with us. When we forget God, we are apt to sin because our vision becomes crooked and self looms too large. Consciousness of God makes us see ourselves as we are, and humility is, in essence, truthfulness. To be truthful about ourselves means there can be no room for pride.

For some, the idea that God is always watching them is disconcerting. I myself find it encouraging. To know that nothing escapes his notice, that the very hairs of one’s head have been numbered, that even when I sin his love continues to enfold me, is to know that God is indeed a loving and compassionate God. Maybe our problem is not so much mindfulness as fear. We forget God because we are afraid of so great a love. Put like that, isn’t it rather silly of us?

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Connecticut Connections

Bridgettines and Benedictines
Bridgettines and Benedictines in Darien, CT

Last week Quietnun and I made a return visit to the U.S.A. for a series of meetings which took us from Connecticut to Georgia in something of a whirlwind tour. As before, everyone was enormously kind and helpful, even the much-maligned Homeland Security staff who had the job of frisking us at every airport. In London one is accustomed to the occasional jibe or unpleasantness, but we never encountered anything like that in the States. So, lesson number one, the legendary friendliness of Americans, like the exquisite courtesy of Madrileños, is something we could all well emulate.

Our friend Meg made our visit very easy, helping us with transport arrangements and throwing open her home to us while she decamped elsewhere. So, for a few days, Derby CT had a small Benedictine community in its midst. The latter part of our stay was spent with the lovely Bridgettine community at Darien CT, from which it was  a short train journey into New York city. Mother Eunice and her sisters made us very welcome, and we enjoyed the quiet beauty of the Sound and the prayerful atmosphere of the community chapel.

Americans are much quicker to grasp the significance of what we are trying to do as a community and much more understanding of the struggle we face in trying to meet the demands of monastic life with the slender resources we have at our disposal. Indeed, several people asked whether we would consider moving to the States and I must say, by the end of our trip we were beginning to wonder whether that might be something we should think about.

We saw enough of New England on our travels to be charmed by its beauty. Digitalnun kept saying useless things like, ‘Ooo, listen to that lovely accent. I bet that’s what Shakespearean English sounded like,’ while Quietnun went native with her ‘Wows!’ and ‘Ay-mens’. Along with the business meetings went some rather more fun events, including a delightful evening spent with friends in Milford.

Georgia was hot and humid and we didn’t have time to venture beyond Atlanta, but again we were fascinated by the city’s architecture and the local accents. I don’t know why Americans keep saying they have no history to speak of. They have as much history as anyone else, it’s just that it’s recorded in different ways. Derby, for example, was ‘founded’ in the seventeenth century but that only refers to the date of settlement. Before then, as some of the local names indicate, Native Americans were in the area and their history is not recorded in books.

One of the great joys of our visit was to meet our New York discerner again. She has now formally applied to join the community, so please keep her in your prayers.

It will take a while for us to catch up with everything but in the meantime we thank God for our visit. May God bless all those we met on our travels and who gave so generously of their time, especially Meg, who welcomed us ‘tamquam Christus’. Were it not for our internet outreach, we would never have made the connection. Now that is a thought worth pondering, isn’t it?

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Only in America

Got back from the U.S.A. yesterday and have been fully occupied with catching-up: collecting Bro Duncan from the kennels and taking him straight to the vet’s (yes, I know), doing huge amounts of washing, skimming through post and emails (we had eight days with very little internet access), so it wasn’t until this morning that I had any time to think about President Abbas’s call to the U.N. for recognition of the State of Palestine and some of its implications for the seemingly-moribund Middle East peace process. I hope that Palestine will be recognised, and that Palestine and other Arab countries will, in turn, recognise Israel. Much will depend on  the U.S. stance, but having read President Obama’s very pro-Israel address, I am rather doubtful.

Being doubtful, however, is not the same thing as being pessimistic. Human beings can, and do, cross the divides of religion, politics and culture. If we didn’t, we would be in a state of permanent war. Why am I hopeful, despite my doubts? A little incident will explain.

On Wednesday we were in the Rockerfeller Center in New York. Coming towards us was a Hasidic Jew. I expected him to pass us by. Two gentiles, and women at that (note my prejudices). On the contrary, he stopped, greeted us, and a short conversation in German, English and biblical Hebrew ensued, from which we learned that he was an Israeli rabbi, a doctor of psychology and a mystic who saw in Catholic contemplatives a couple of kindred spirits. That gives me hope. Peace processes and other big questions are ultimately resolved by the goodwill of individuals.

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Seventh Anniversary

Today is the seventh anniversary of the monastery’s foundation. It is a day for giving thanks, for looking back and looking forward. We are grateful to our benefactors, living and dead; we are grateful for our Oblates, Associates and Friends, our online community and those waiting patiently to enter the novitiate. Above all, we thank God who has never ceased to look after us, sometimes prodding us to follow paths we might have preferred to ignore, at other times holding us back from the profoundest folly. But we are very far from being complacent. A monastery is never a ‘finished work’, it is always in process of becoming.

It is helpful to consider what St Benedict says about the monastery in his Rule. Most of his text is concerned with the way in which the monks live: how they are to order their worship, how they are to dress, what they are to eat and drink, how they are to organize themselves, the disciplines they should observe. Of the monastery itself he says only that it should, if possible, contain within it everything necessary for monastic life — so that the monks have no excuse for wandering outside. There are clearly designated areas for eating and sleeping and an oratory ‘which should be what it says it is, and nothing else be done or kept there’. In other words, what Benedict calls variously the monastery (monasterium) or house of God (domus Dei) isn’t meant to be a place of privation but somewhere where the focus is clearly on God and the things of God. Everything about it should help both inmates and visitors to concentrate on him — everything.

Many of the things you might expect to find in a long-established monastery simply don’t exist here at Hendred, but that focus on God and the things of God should be evident to all or what right have we to exist? This morning at Mass the community will renew its vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience. As we do so, we shall be affirming our small and insignificant part in that long tradition of monastic living, of ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’. May he grant us the grace of perseverance.

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