A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.

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Monday Morning Blues

It is amazing how many people suffer from ‘Monday morning blues’. In the monastery one day follows another without the ‘week-end’ as such intervening — the liturgical calendar is the all-important demarcator of days and seasons. This Monday, however, is different. With Ash Wednesday only a couple of days away, if we have not yet thought through how we are going to make a fresh start during Lent, this is the day to do it. Inevitably, one starts with the negatives: where do I need to pull my monastic socks up? It can all seem a bit dispiriting.

The advice St Benedict gives for making a good Lent is remarkably straightforward, and I’ll be going through some of it in a later post, but here I want to draw attention to just one element. He says of our Lenten observance that whatever we do should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (cf RB 49. 6, 7). Joy and longing are not necessarily the first things we associate with Lent, but Benedict’s words remind me, at least, that ‘Monday morning blues’ can be  a trifle self-indulgent — or as Kirkegaard remarked, ‘The trouble with Christians is that they don’t look redeemed.’ Another challenge to meet!

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Gracious Living

While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.

Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.

There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.

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Reading the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

The chapters of the Rule we are reading at present (often called the Liturgical Code of the Rule of St Benedict) might seem unpromising material on which to meditate —  rather like the less digestible sections of the Book of Numbers. They are, however, an important part of the whole. Take away Benedict’s prescriptions for the common prayer of the community, and you take away something essential for understanding what monastic life is all about. It is a quest for God, lived in community and worked out through the small detail of life. As Benedictines, we don’t do great things for God. We are, if truth be told, bumblers along the way of perfection. The constant return to choir and the prayer of the community as a whole bears us up, helps us over the difficult places, and will eventually, please God, lead us to the ‘heights of wisdom and virtue’ of which St Benedict speaks. Being reminded again and again how simple, straightforward and scriptural our prayer in community should be is a great encouragement. ‘Bumbling along with Benedict’ may not sound very challenging, but it certainly challenges me.

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Is Dr Oddie Unfair?

A number of articles have appeared recently commenting on the sale by the monks of Ramsgate (now Chilworth) of several of their treasures. Yesterday William Oddie addressed the same story in the online edition of the Catholic Herald here. I do not wish to comment on the internal affairs of another community, although my views on conservation are well-known and regular readers of this blog will know something of the struggle we ourselves are having to obtain even the most basic permanent accommodation. That is not the point I wish to take up. Dr Oddie enlarges his argument to embrace some more general censures of contemporary religious and these, I think, need challenging.

He refers to the monks’ sale then says

How typical of today’s religious is this, in my view, astonishing example of secularity? How is one to know? In the nature of things, lay Catholics know little of what goes on behind the closed doors of a religious community. And yet, there are visible signs that must mean something. In the same edition of the paper, we see (p11) a photograph of Archbishop Vincent Nichols with a group of Sisters representing female religious communities of the Diocese of Westminster. Of 14 sisters, only five (possibly six) are wearing habits: the rest just look like ordinary lay women with handbags (what could be more unambiguously secular than a handbag?) and one is actually wearing trousers and a polo neck sweater.

Ah, so the real subject of his article is not the sale of pretiosa by Ramsgate but the dress of female religious? You notice Dr Oddie has nothing to say about male religious, who frequently wear lay clothes. What is particularly ‘secular’ about ‘handbags’ or ‘trousers and a polo neck sweater’, I wonder?  Could prejudice be masquerading as an argument? Please don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Dr Oddie’s columns but I think he has allowed one of his King Charles’s heads to get in the way here. Although he mentions that the Holy See recognizes that ‘for valid reasons of their apostolate’, religious may dress otherwise than in a habit, he continues in negative vein and concludes:

It is a question of the unambiguous witness which consecration to the religious life should present to the world. I ask simply, are we necessarily always getting that witness from our religious today? Perhaps there are occasions when they should ask that of themselves.

Perhaps Dr Oddie and those who agree with him should ask themselves what witness they give religious. It is easy to criticize others for not being what we should like them to be, but I wonder whether Dr Oddie actually knows anything of the lives of the people he writes of so slightingly. Even allowing for journalistic exaggeration, I was left feeling that the article overlooked the generosity and fidelity with which most religious live their vocation. I know none of the religious sisters to whom Dr Oddie takes such exception, but I would dare to say that their fidelity to prayer and observance, the austerity of their lifestyle, and the renunciation of self that each of them represents counts for something in the eyes of God. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters?

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St Scholastica and Single-heartedness

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict. All we know about her comes from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. We are told that once a year she and her brother used to meet to discuss spiritual matters. On one occasion she wished her brother to stay longer, but he, anxious not to spend the night away from his monastery, refused. Scholastica prayed, and the result of her prayers was a storm so fierce and long that he was compelled to stay and passed the night discussing holy matters with her. He humbly acknowledged that she had prevailed with God because she loved much. The second reference to her occurs when Benedict sees a dove flying skywards and realises that it is an image of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven.

Pretty stories, or something more? It rather depends whom and what you want to believe. For some, Scholastica is no more ‘real’ than St Benedict, simply an image of prayer, the ‘feminine’ aspect of monasticism. For others, Scholastica is indeed an historical person, but merely an adjunct to the story of St Benedict. If she is remembered at all it is because she was, as the preface of the day says, ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ and his bones were allegedly placed in the same grave as hers. I myself think the truth is more complex.

The Dialogues are not history as we understand it today. Scholastica’s appearance in the narrative has a didactic purpose. She is presented in the first incident as the  teacher of St Benedict. He had to learn, first, that his purely human legislation (not spending a night away from the monastery) might, on occasion, and for good reason, be abrogated. More importantly, he had to learn that the  power of prayer proceeds from the love and fervour with which it is practised. At many points in the Rule Benedict insists that prayer be short and pure, that we shall not be heard for our many words but for our purity of heart and devotion; the motive he gives for almost every act is love of Christ. This is particularly noticeable in those passages adapted from the Rule of the Master and gives a completely different character to RB. Benedict learned his lesson well.

With the second incident, the vision of Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven, we come to a favourite topos or theme in hagiography. It confirms the holiness of both the visionary and the subject of his vision. Like the burial of brother and sister in a single grave (or side by side, as now) Benedict and Scholastica are both examples of Benedictine holiness, neither complete without the other. We cannot always be doing; we cannot always be praying in the formal sense; we can, and should, always be monastic, single-hearted in the service of our Lord.

May St Scholastica pray for us all.

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True and False Humility

Saturday is a busy day, not one for thinking Deep Thoughts, is it? Unfortunately, today happens to be the one on which we read RB 7. 51 to 54, the so-called Seventh Step of Humility, which confronts us with the difference between true and false humility.

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart, humbling oneself and saying with the prophet, ‘I am indeed a worm and not a human being, a byword among men and laughing-stock of the people. I was exalted and have been humbled and brought to confusion;’ (cfr Pss 21[22].7 and 87[88].16) and further, ‘It was good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments.’ (Ps 118[119].71, 73)

At first sight, St Benedict seems rather OTT, urging us to go around admitting our inferiority and comparing ourselves with worms. However, if we pay close attention to his opening words, the quotations from the psalms are given a different context, a much more challenging one. It is easy to say, ‘I’m no good’. It lets us off the hook. We can simultaneously excuse ourselves for any shortcoming and at the same time bask in our own abasement. That is false humility. What St Benedict actually says is rather different.

We are asked, first of all, to believe in our own unimportance. That is not quite the same as proclaiming our unworthiness. In fact, it is a much quieter business altogether, which is why most of us don’t like it. True humility doesn’t draw attention to itself. Secondly, we are given a context for our unimportance. Benedict quotes the Passion psalms, to remind us that our humility is grounded in Christ. We need to think about that. To recognize that we are not the centre of the universe yet are made in the image and likeness of God, endowed with a beauty and perfection which is truly God-given, is to see clearly both our infinite worth and our utter dependence upon God. There can be no room for pride in that because it is the vision of truth. In the same way, to realise that our littleness is taken up into Christ’s greatness, that our small disappointments and failures are transformed by the sacrifice of Calvary, is to understand that humility gives us a safe place on which to stand, indeed, the only safe place: in Christ.

This short paragraph of the Rule is a gem, worth mulling over as we go about our Saturday tasks.

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Candlemas and Consecrated Life

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord, otherwise known as Candlemas, is also the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. I wonder how many people in the British Isles ever come across what we used to call religious, and if they do, do they know it? If you bumped into me in the street you would certainly register the funny clothes (Benedictine habit), and I hope my conduct would not be unbecoming, but would you really know I am a nun?

That is not an idle question. When Jesus was presented in the temple he was ‘ransomed back from God’ by his human family. When a religious vows him- or herself to God, it works the other way on. When we look at the life of Jesus, every word, every act, speaks of his desire to save, heal, make whole. That is what those who are not themselves religious should see in us. Pray it may be so, for those of us privileged to live under vows know what a sorry job we make of things. Still, as my old Junior Mistress was wont to say, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ God doesn’t make junk, no matter how much we mess things up.

A Little Light Relief

Vocation videos are not my cup of tea, but this one has the redeeming grace of being funny and insightful. Benedictine, of course!

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Monastic Obedience

Today we read just a single verse of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7.34:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient unto death.’ (The scriptural reference is to Philippians 2.8)

The lay reader often passes over this with a vague sense that it is all right for monks and nuns but hardly applicable to life in general. Those who have tried to make sense of it in a lay context generally end up talking about the mutual obedience of marriage or the multiple levels of authority and obedience in the workplace. All well and good, but I think we touch here one of the reasons why I am hesitant about some aspects of ‘lay monasticism’, as it is sometimes called, because it does not have, cannot have, the same radical obedience at its heart.

For a Benedictine, obedience is of value insofar as, and in the measure that, it incorporates us into Christ. We obey ‘for the love of God’, ‘imitating the Lord’, and the obedience we give allows of no reservation, no holding back: ‘in ALL obedience’ means exactly what it appears to mean. Only sin is excepted (which includes folly, as my Junior Mistress pertinently remarked). The obedience, moreover, is given to a fallible human being, not to some saint or sage (unless one happens to live under a saint or a sage). It is incarnated and worked out in the dailiness of our lives.

We none of us know what will be asked of us when we vow this obedience, but it is there, shaping every moment of every day from our first entry into monastic life until the hour of our death. We surrender our freedom in order to attain a greater freedom in Christ. This paradox of monastic obedience is not easily explained. It has to be lived as one of those ‘small fidelities’ I alluded to in an earlier post. That is why our old monks and nuns are so precious. They show us what a lifetime of obedience can achieve: the formation of Christ in them, their hope of glory.

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Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

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