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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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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