The Invisible Nun

I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.

Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.

The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.

Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.

Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.

The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.

I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?

Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.

The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.

We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.

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Self-Doubt

Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)

There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.

So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.

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Calm of Mind

The parish Mass this morning began with “Shine, Jesus, shine” which, as some of you know, is the community’s least favorite hymn. Yesterday’s bookcase-building plans had to be laid aside, and there followed a sleepless night for Digitalnun, so possibly not all was interior sweetness and light. In such situations there’s nothing for it but to let one’s distractions roam over what one has to be grateful for.

So, in no particular order, this is what I gave thanks for earlier today: the grey light over the church; the faith of those who gathered there; the jackdaw strutting over the lawn; the bulbs piercing their way through the dark earth; the smell of coffee; Duncan’s comical nose; the beauty of a new book; someone near me absolutely pitch-perfect (even in “Shine”!); the quietness of the monastery; the fact that I can see, hear and walk; the gift of community.

Isn’t it absurd to waste time and energy disliking a hymn when the beauty and holiness of God is everywhere? Praise him.

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Beatitude

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time is Matthew 5. 1-12, the Beatitudes. No matter how often we hear them (and it is important to hear them, not just scan the text with our eyes), the words fall into that unusual category of being both fulfilled yet still not quite fulfilled. We are blessed, but not eternally blessed. We have just enough of heaven now to long for what is to come.

Let us not forget that those who are poor in spirit can claim heaven now as well as hereafter; that the gentle have a right to the earth now as well as hereafter; and so on through the Beatitudes, no matter how often we fail to perceive what we have already been given.

The most challenging Beatitude of all is probably “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Purity of heart enables us to see as God sees, without the distortion of sin or pride. In that wonderful clarity we may hope to catch a glimpse, a reflection, of God himself, knowing that one day we shall see him as he is, perfect in beauty, the joy of all the living. That is why purity of heart is the great goal of monastic life, that for which all our observances are meant to prepare us, in the hope that one day we may enjoy the vision of God.

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St Benet Biscop

St Benet Biscop
St Benet Biscop

This little miniature of St Benet Biscop shows him holding a church. A typical medieval motif, you might think; except that this church is not one of the monastic churches he built in Northumbria but is meant to represent St Peter’s in Rome. Benet is an early example of the strong link between the English Church and the papacy. Even today, we have an annual Peter Pence collection which traces its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and is a mark of England’s special regard for the successor of St Peter.

Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible is a production of the Jarrow scriptorium (it actually lacks the Book of Baruch, but that is a mere bagatelle compared with what it does contain).

It is not this, however, that made him a saint. Contemporaries remarked on his patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is honoured as having admitted the genius of Benedict of Nursia. There was something recognizably English about Benet in both his ability and his piety.

Bede’s description of Benet should inspire us all. He describes him as being “full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.” Many of our Catholic “opinion makers”, bloggers and the like, seem to have forgotten that in their eagerness to score points off one another or advance their own view of what others should do. St Benet Biscop’s example should encourage us to lay aside all sniping and carping to practise the good zeal which alone builds up.

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St Aelred of Rievaulx

St Aelred of Rievaulx
St Aelred of Rievaulx

In common with other English Benedictines, we keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow is sacred to St Benet Biscop). Aelred’s reputation has undergone many changes in the last fifty years, and I’m not sure that the current version is any nearer the truth of the man.

I suspect Aelred was both immensely attractive and absolutely maddening at the same time. He drew many to monastic life, yet after his death the fractures in community quickly began to show. He could write like an angel, yet those who read Aelred today without knowing or caring for the monastic discipline underpinning his writing see only part of the picture. He was more than just a “charismatic leader” with a beguiling pen and a gift for friendship.

The preface for the feast, which draws on Aelred’s own writings, is worth pondering and praying. Above all, those who have any kind of leadership or managerial role should seek out his Oratio Pastoralis (Pastoral Prayer) and pray it often.

Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

Tenderly you drew Saint Aelred 
to the school of your service
where, having tasted of the sweetness of your love,
he became the gentle father of many sons,
a merciful shepherd to the weak,
and a model of spiritual friendship.

Inflamed by the love of Christ,
he embraced the Cross
as the pattern of monastic conversion,
and so attained the repose of those who love you,
the true and eternal Sabbath of the blessed.

And so, on his feast day, we join with him to adore you,
and with all the company of Angels and Saints,
sing the ageless hymn of your praise: sanctus, sanctus, sanctus . . .

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Bible or Mozart?

Yesterday Digitalnun was having some free time to mark the last day of the “Christmas holidays” and decided to listen to the radio while tidying her desk. Alas, the BBC offered two equally delectable choices: King James or Mozart. (Overseas readers may be mystified: the BBC has been playing “every note Mozart ever wrote” on Radio 3, while over on Radio 4 there was a celebration of the King James version of the Bible, with copious readings by gorgeous voices.) It was a struggle but Mozart won. Digitalnun has some way to go, I fear.

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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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