St Antony and the Eremitical Vocation

St Antony’s feast-day baulks larger in the monastic calendar than it does in most others because we look upon him as a monastic prototype. His life-story is fascinating and complex — an instance of multi-layered hagiography, to be approached with an eye for detail and an ear for what is unspoken — but it is as a hermit that he is chiefly remembered: a man who went into the desert to be alone with God.

This is a day when we pray for all hermits and thank God for their strange and beautiful vocation. A strange vocation I call it, because it is very rare and very unsettling (or should be) to those who have not received an eremitical call; beautiful, because to live with and for God alone is a gift to be marvelled at.

Benedict was not very keen on hermits, despite, or perhaps because of, his own experience. I have known two genuine hermits with some degree of familiarity: one was a nun, the other is a priest. Both loved people and got on easily with them. Their vocation was not a turning away from others but an engagement with them at a far, far deeper level than any ordinary activity could have made them. I’d dare to say their prayer was, and is, one of the pillars upholding the world.

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Them and Us

I like Americans. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of that fact and would probably be indifferent if they did. However, I am very conscious that, although we speak the same language (more or less), our ‘thought worlds’ are different. A politician’s ability to speak French marks him out as one of a privileged elite in the States; here an inability to do so marks him out as a bit of a liability. We value what’s left of our welfare state, believing that everyone should have access to healthcare and education irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay for it; in the States that’s often condemned as creating an ‘entitlement culture’ at odds with the pioneering spirit of self-help and advancement. As with Americans, so with some of our nearer neighbours. The Scots member of the community has often interpreted for me ‘what is really being said’ in some of the more surprising statements about Scottish independence.

We have the same problem with liturgy, except that it’s worse because we are handed a text which needs the mediation of a human voice to disclose its meaning, and every voice interprets. I was thinking about this at Mass yesterday, when a different priest celebrated Mass here in Hendred. The words and gestures were ostensibly the same, but a completely different kind of celebration took place because the priest gave them a slightly different emphasis. Sometimes liturgical ‘discussions’ end in an unholy row, with all participants claiming that theirs is the ‘right’ (=only admissible) way of saying/doing anything. The world is divided into them and us, with us the good guys and them the baddies. I doubt if it is so simple. Perhaps we need to think harder about the meaning of the words before we assume that we know what is being said.

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Keeping Faith

There has been a lot of comment on the Pope’s Memo regarding the Year of Faith (2012). Some of it has reminded me how grateful I am that this blog has never, as far as I know, become a battleground for conservatives and liberals, never ‘Catholic’ in the narrowly partisan sense, but has always been enriched by contributions from many differing Christian and non-Christian traditions. Yet I trust that no one reading it would have the slightest doubt that I write as a Catholic, from a Catholic perspective born of study of scripture and the Fathers and that immersion in prayer which is at the heart of monastic life. Some, I know, would prefer to see a more overtly theological stance or more explicit discussion of liturgy, but I think I can safely leave that to others. I am more concerned with the foothills of Christian living, and for that reason I am looking forward to what the coming year will bring.

The Year of Faith promises much, but if there is one aspect I would want to emphasize, it is this. All theological disciplines, every attempt to articulate or express faith, should begin, and end, in prayer. Only prayer can keep us centred on Christ and in charity with one another, because only prayer can enable us to face the truth of God and of ourselves. No one, having seen him- or herself for what he or she truly is, could ever despise or disparage another. The Year of Faith is not an opportunity for neighbour-bashing in the name of religion but for learning how much further we each have to go to realise our vocation of holiness. Keeping faith will also keep us humble.

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Contemplative Computing

From time to time, someone asks how long I spend online. It is the wrong question. A better question would be, how am I online. My questioners often assume that the way in which they relate to technology, the way in which they use blogging and social media, must necessarily be the same for me, but I don’t think it is. The idea of  contemplative computing has been around for a while, but it is one that appeals to me because it complements my sense of the internet as a sacred space. I suspect that, like M. Jourdain babbling prose, I have been practising it all my computing life but it may be worth trying to tease out some of its characteristics.

A few years ago I noticed that when I checked my email, I found it quite stressful. I was reluctant to deal with the ‘difficult’ emails and so became tense. Yet that isn’t how I usually am with people or when I go to prayer — I am much more relaxed and ‘open’. Once I realised that and deliberately slowed down, the ‘difficult’ emails became much less troublesome. They were no more demanding than anything else. The problem arose from the fact that I saw checking email as something that should be done quickly. Our culture values speed, places a premium on ‘getting things done’, but monastic life works on different principles. Time is a gift to be lavished on whatever is necessary; and what is necessary may be as ‘unproductive’ as gazing at a cloud or focusing attention on a single word or sound. In other words, a more contemplative approach to the use of technology gradually transforms the experience of using that technology.

At #cnmac11 and subsequently, the idea of the digital sabbath came up again and again. Some people clearly felt that a regular break from using technology is necessary and beneficial, citing such positive goods as being more involved with family and friends, more attentive to what is going on around them and so on and so forth. One or two were frank enough to admit that they thought they had become addicted to their smartphone and having a ‘dry day’ from time to time helped them feel more in control.

There are two different issues here: [fear of] losing control and [fear of] losing focus. The connection is fear. If you are over 40, can you remember what it was like to use a smartphone for the first time? How anxious you probably were about pushing the right buttons, getting your text abbreviations correct, learning how to do smileys? It was a mildly alarming business and only when you felt master of the process could you forget yourself and actually enjoy using your phone to text, video or whatever. Then when your phone became like a fifth limb, a different anxiety came into play. What happens if the battery gives out or I misplace the phone, can I continue to function as normal? Am I too dependent? There we have fear again, which can only be allayed by a sense of control.

As any novice will tell you, the first lesson anyone learns in a monastery is that we are not in control. It is all right not to be in control. In fact, that is how we are most of the time, only we try not to acknowledge as much. Being in control is something our society admires, but it doesn’t take much to prove how illusory our control is. A break in the power supply, a failure of wi-fi access, and our wired world ceases to exist.

Lack of focus is another fear, but again, I think our problem arises from the fact that we have a very restricted way of looking at things. Much of my work is done at the computer and at various times during the day I respond to, or initiate, tweets on Twitter. It is not a distraction. If something requires concentrated energy, e.g. writing a letter, I switch Twitter off. At other times, my twitterstream is part of my work — as a community we are committed to using contemporary technology to try to reach out to others and are constantly exploring new ways of doing so: it’s a new twist on the old contemplata aliis tradere. The nearest analogy I can find to express this kind of multi-focus is that of playing in a string quartet. Every player must listen even when not playing himself, but the ebb and flow of sound doesn’t produce strain or a feeling of divided attention, rather it contributes to a sense of the quartet as a whole: the individual is taken up into the music created by all four. Silence, observing rests, is as much a part of this whole as actually playing.

Of course, I have a purpose in being online. I am not there simply to gratify curiosity or assuage boredom, so the question of focus may be easier for me, but I suspect many will be able to resonate with what I am saying. Just as lectio divina can be likened to Slow Reading, so a more contemplative approach to computing can be likened to Slow Living; and the amazing thing is, it doesn’t mean that we get less done (that concern with productivity again!) but that what we do is done better and more pleasurably. It may take a while, but I think contemplative computing may become more and more important to ensure that technology remains at the service of humanity rather than the other way round.

I should love to know what you think.

Update:
There must be something in the airwaves. I found this link this morning about a contemplative computing project: http://bit.ly/gtncVH

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In Tune or Out of Step?

On several occasions recently I have found myself wondering whether I am in a minority of one. For example, I did not think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Stephen Lawrence, published in the 9 January edition of The Guardian, very good. That is not to question her sincerity or the topicality of her subject. It was the treatment of her theme that I found weak and pedestrian. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t poetry, so it was a relief to find Ian Patterson saying as much in the London Review of Books. You can read his comment here. We all have our own ideas about poetry, I suppose, but when everyone else seems to be hailing something as ‘great’ or ‘moving’, one can question one’s own sanity as well as judgement.

Earlier in the week The Guardian printed an article by Mehdi Hasan entitled ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rick Santorum’. Point 8 stated, When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home, where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

Mehdi Hasan seems to have found this macabre at best and in a subsequent piece argued that those who thought he was wrong to criticize the Santorums were themselves wrong. Clearly, he has had no experience of the grief felt by the parents of stillborn children nor thought about the variety of mourning customs that exist. To me, it did not seem strange that the Santorums should wish to spend some time with their dead child, pray for him, welcome him into their family as a person. It is a very Catholic thing to do. You would not have got that impression reading some of the comments! Again, it was a relief to find this thoughtful piece on the web which not only deals with the need to mourn a stillborn child but the way in which responsible journalism needs to address such difficult subjects.

Finally, an article about the manufacture of altar-breads in the U.S.A. (which you can read here) raised interesting questions for me about the Eucharistic nature of work and the economics of cloistered communities. I shared the link on Facebook and was interested to see that many people jested where I myself was made thoughtful, probably because some of the difficulties mentioned in the article were close to home.

These three instances highlight the fact that we always bring our own perceptions (and sometimes our prejudices) to what we read. We interpret. We are, of necessity, subjective. We sometimes miss words and phrases as we skim through articles. I think, on the whole, monks and nuns tend to read very carefully. We are, after all, proponents of Slow Reading (lectio divina). That doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand any better or misinterpret less frequently, but I think it does make us more cautious about asserting that we have fully understood, less anxious, I hope, to ‘put others right.’ Maybe there is room for more  humility in how we read. That is something I hope to practise this coming year.

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School of the Lord’s Service

We reach the end of the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule today (RB Prol. 45 to 50: you can listen to the daily portion of RB read in English on our main web site, here). The words are so familiar they sometimes lose their edge, yet this dominici scola servitii is constantly presenting us with new challenges because its favourite teaching methods are suffering and patience. No one ‘likes’ suffering; no one ‘likes’ being patient; but if we are to lay ourselves open to the mystery of God, there is no alternative.

Suffering can make us bitter and self-absorbed. Benedict, however, is much more sanguine about human nature. He expects that  instead of our closing in on ourselves, we shall open out, become big-hearted (quite literally — dilatato corde) and ‘run on the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love beyond all telling’ (inennarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei). However familiar the words may become, the lesson must always be learned anew, for our hope is not for this world only. We have our hearts set on Christ and his Kingdom.

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Black and White

There are two colours that old-fashioned printers like me think about more than any other: black and white. What subtle gradations of white there are, and how important the white space on the page is! How many shades of black there are, and how delicately they affect our perception of what is printed! It is my firm opinion that until one can appreciate shades of black, white and grey one ought not to be let loose on colour as commonly understood. Colour is often used to compensate for weak design because it captures the eye and lends an obvious charm. It is rather like make-up applied to the human face: well-done it can add striking effects, but it can never achieve anything as simply perfect as bone and muscle can unaided. The key to good book design is structure: the harmonious blending of white space, typography and layout, all of them in the service of meaning. On the whole, with some important qualifications, I think that holds good for the design of digital pages, too. We need to think in black and white before we can express ourselves in colour.

Is there any analogy to be drawn with prayer? I think there is. Very often we get asked about prayer: what prayer is; how to pray; why God won’t answer my prayers (usually meaning, why won’t God do what I want). Sometimes we get lectured about prayer by Those Who Know (or think they do). We get people writing to us about some of the more difficult passages in mystical authors. We seem to be regarded both as experts in prayer (which we aren’t) or complete boobies (which I suspect we aren’t, either). So, when people ask my advice,  I always want to say, start at the beginning, don’t be afraid of the fact that you will never be as ‘advanced’ as you think you should be. God places the desire to pray in our hearts. ‘All’ we have to do is to allow him to pray in us. That is harder than you might think because it means taking our gaze off ourselves. The very learned and the very complicated must become very simple; and the process of becoming simple is never easy because we cling to our complexity for dear life. We do not like being stripped of the fig-leaves we have gathered for ourselves.

Sometimes those who write about prayer suggest that it is a wonderful adventure, full of light and colour. I hope it is, eventually. My experience, however, suggests that if we wish to learn to pray, we must first learn to think in black and white, in the colours of Calvary as well as of Eden. We must read the scriptures and learn to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Just like the printer designing a page, we must give the process time and never be afraid of beginning again. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning.

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A Marmite Toast Moment

The last few weeks have been rather trying for the community (a classic British understatement, if ever there was one). As far as I can see, we can do nothing except put up with it as well as we can. I will therefore share with you the secret of maintaining a cheerful countenance in the face of disappointment and difficulty (though it won’t work in Scandinavia).

When the wine of life turns to vinegar and you feel knee-high to a worm, when prayer seems hollow and even the dog avoids you, there is only one thing for it: Marmite toast. That hot, savoury, tangy delight with its wicked afternote of forbidden saltiness will soothe the sore in spirit and revive the faltering courage of those sunk in gloom. If Delia Smith can do God for the spiritually hungry, surely nuns can do food for those down in the dumps? A ‘Marmite toast moment’ is so much better than giving in or giving up. Sometimes religion needs to take a very practical form. Taste and see!

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The Importance of Sisters

Today’s commemoration of the Cappadocians, St Basil the Great and his friend, St Gregory Nanzianzen, plunges us into a wonderfully saintly family history. Basil’s grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was a saint. His father, Basil the Elder, was a saint; his mother, Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and mother of eleven children, herself suffered for her faith although she seems never to have been considered a saint by the Western Church although the Orthodox Church venerates her as such. Two of Basil’s siblings are reckoned as saints, Macrina the Younger and Gregory of Nyssa. A third, Peter of Sebaste, is sometimes called a saint, sometimes not; a fourth, Dios, is credited with founding one of the most famous monasteries of Constantinople (though there is some dispute about the identity with Dios of Antioch). All in all, a very holy family and a very influential one, which championed the faith of Nicea against the Arians.

Interestingly, and unusually for the time, perhaps, the influence of women is well attested and celebrated. Basil is the great legislator of Eastern monasticism as Benedict is of Western: both were profoundly influenced by their sisters. Basil seems to have modelled his monastic community on his elder sister’s, just as Benedict is credited with having been taught the true nature of prayer and monastic discipline by his sister Scholastica. Perhaps when we write the biographies of great men we should pay more attention to their sisters, especially if they happen to be churchmen.

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Facing Both Ways

1 January, Octave Day of Christmas and Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the oldest Marian feast in the calendar), the day when we make (and break) our New Year resolutions, is, as its name proclaims, the doorway of the year, facing both ways like the old pagan god Janus* from which it takes its name. It wasn’t always the beginning of the year, of course: that used to be Lady Day, 25 March, feast of the Annunciation. But calendar reforms and changes in public perception (‘in the year of Our Lord’ and ‘in the year of grace’ being seen as rather quaint, if not unacceptably exclusive) mean that we now end one year and begin another with barely a nod in the direction of religion.

That facing both ways, however, is valid whether we are religious or not. We look back on the old year and assess its triumphs and failures and look forward to the new, assessing its potential. We are not altogether there, not altogether here. The religious might say we are at the interface of time and eternity.

Today’s feast is so rich in allusion, so deep in theology that we can forget that it too faces both ways: back into time, forward into eternity (which is outside time). The Word which was from the beginning took flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. That is what we celebrate throughout the Christmas season. We start our secular year with a reminder that God’s love for us is infinite, Incarnate Love, which wills that all should be saved. Just as the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day foreshadows the shedding of his blood on the cross, so the symbolism of the eighth day expresses perfection, salvation.

We face both ways, into the abyss of our nothingness and the abyss of God’s love, but with this assurance: ‘The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ That must give us confidence as we begin 2012.

A happy and blessed New Year to you all.

* I originally wrote Januarius: my old Latin mistress would have boxed my ears for such a mistake and many thanks to John for pointing out the error.

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