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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The Annual Retreat

You may wonder why contemplative nuns should need an annual eight-day retreat. I am half in agreement with you, if you do. If we lived monastic life as it should be lived, our recollection would be perfect and a retreat unnecessary; but in actual fact, none of us does live monastic life as it should be lived. We are not saints in heaven, just sinners struggling on earth, and a retreat is an excellent means of reminding ourselves of the fact.

For the next few days, therefore, the community will be almost invisible: no tweeting, no blogging, no Facebook, no Google +, save in the most exceptional circumstances.  What shall we be doing? That rather depends on the Holy Spirit. The whole point of a retreat is to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and union with God. It’s a rather open-ended contract. All we know is that, provided we aren’t deliberately obstructive, what God wills will come about and in a small way (or perhaps even a big way) the world will reflect God a little better than before. Pray for us as we do for you.

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The Challenge of St Bernard

Challenge is fashionable. We talk about a ‘challenging situation’ and mean one that we find difficult. I have not the slightest hesitation in describing St Bernard as ‘challenging’. It was, after all, his sermons that transformed my own academic study into a personal quest for God in the monastic way of life. But he is challenging in other ways.

He wrote like an angel, especially when he was angry (which was often). His Latin is as near to French prose as anything  I know, and there are times when he manages to say nothing and say it very brilliantly as most French writers do (no racist slur there). He was beastly to Abelard (who actually wasn’t very nice and certainly no romantic)  and he is usually condemned for preaching the Second Crusade, yet Bernard was kind to Jews at a time when no one was kind to Jews. Indeed, in the early fourteenth century we find a rabbi in Cologne recalling the help and protection afforded by the abbot of Clairvaux, so at least his reputation for good survived him (he died in 1153) instead of being interred with his bones, as is often the case. He had a great love of family and inspired lasting affection in those who knew him, yet he was not exempt from criticism. I rather like Cardinal Haimeric’s put-down, when he thought Bernard had been meddling in matters above him, ‘It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.’ But I like even better the response Bernard made, which disarmed Haimeric and showed the true monk, ‘Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption.’

Bernard has been called a protestant avant la lettre because he did not hold the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and because his understanding of  justification was often quoted by Calvin in his exposition of the sola fide principle. ‘Our words are ours, their ends none of our own.’ Bernard is scarcely to be blamed for any interpretation put upon his words in after centuries. No one could really accuse him of lacking orthodoxy. In his lyrical writing on the Blessed Virgin Mary, he himself admits that he sometimes runs on a little too far. Pius XII proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church and called him the ‘last of the Fathers’, but perhaps his best memorial is the fact that his name has become synonymous with the Order he did so much to foster. He was involved in the foundation of no fewer than 163 monasteries in his lifetime. At his death, the Cistercians, the first true Order in the Church, numbered 343 communities. Even today, in Spain, you will hear the Cistercians referred to as ‘los bernardos’. It is a fitting epithet.

 

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Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.

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Love of Truth

The Dominican motto, ‘Veritas’, has always attracted me. If I weren’t a Benedictine, I would want to be a Dominican and I suspect many others would, too. St Dominic, whose feast we keep today, was influenced by the Benedictines, and I think the whole Church has been influenced by St Dominic and his sons and daughters. With the benefit of hindsight, we may not always agree with the way in which truth was sought or what was done to preserve its conclusions, but with the ideal itself we cannot quibble. Truth matters.

Love of truth in all its forms must surely lead to love of Truth himself. That is why there is no human endeavour that is not capable of leading us to God. It is also why integrity matters so much. We cannot be truthful in speech and untruthful in deed. Careless or substandard work is as much a distortion of truth as telling a lie.

Sometimes we become downcast when we realise that we can do very little for God or other people. Love can seem a bit of an abstraction, particularly if we are confined to the circle of self because of age, poverty or serious illness. But whatever our circumstances, we can live truthfully. We can reflect the truth and beauty of God just by being. That is not little. That is true greatness.

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The Googlification of Research

We often receive requests for help with research projects. Whenever we can, we try to respond positively although doing so can take a sizeable chunk out of the day (some might say, a disproportionate amount of time, given the size of the community, but helping others is an aspect of hospitality so we do our best). I am beginning to be concerned, however, by the number of requests which suggest that the very nature of research is changing. Asking for leads, a few specific questions after the background reading has been done, discussion of a point that has arisen when looking again at the source material: all these are fine by me. I am less happy with the kind of research which consists in endless questions that a very little work by the researcher could have answered.

Let me give some examples. Frequently, we’ll receive long lists of questions about nuns/monastic life, whether we blog or engage with social media, etc, etc. Usually, these are already answered on our community web site or are pretty self-evident. (If you made contact with us via these pages, presumably you would realise that one of us blogs, wouldn’t you?) Then there are the lists of questions about other communities or organizations, e.g. Anglican sisters, about which we are not qualified to speak; there are also what I call the speculative lists, which ask questions along the lines of ‘do you think that the Church (who She?) is doing (a) a good job, (b) a bad job or (c) an indifferent job of . . .?’ Who cares what we think, and anyway, how are we to assess what two billion Catholics are doing? (People often forget that the Church is universal when conducting their surveys.) TV companies, novelists, journalists looking for a feature article, people doing dissertations, all send their little lists and hope for an answer by return.

I think Google is to blame. We have become accustomed to tapping in a few search terms and coming up with pages of resources; so why should people be any different? Send a list of questions and back will come the answers. Turn them into a few nice- looking charts (so easy with the software available today), add a few sentences of interpretation containing all the most fashionable buzz words (do another Google search to find them) and, hey presto, we have the dissertation nailed, the report ready. I exaggerate, of course, but underneath the exaggeration is a belief that the quantification of thought is no substitute for thought itself, that research is precisely that: a systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions. There are no short-cuts to research, just as there are no short-cuts in the most exciting search of all, the search for God.

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Digitalnun’s Story

Sadly, Odyssey Networks decided to change their policy about letting people they have interviewed embed the resulting video on their web site or blog. So, if you didn’t catch it in the first twenty-four hours, you will either have to buy the Call on Faith app, available from the iTunes store at 99cents (there is also an Android version) or view the lo-res version of the Call on Faith video on our main web site here.

If you do have the app, the video will be found here: http://m.4gotv.tv/cof/stf.xhtml?videoID=184965. The Call on Faith app comes highly recommended.

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In Praise of the Salesians

There is much to say about my recent trip to the U.S.A. but there is a lot of catching up to do first, so this will be no more than a brief ‘I’m back’ kind of post.

For the New York part of my stay I enjoyed the hospitality of the Salesian Sisters at Haledon, New Jersey. They couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (though I did wonder briefly whether the large mug and copious quantities of tea bags on 4 July had some Deeper Significance). There were lots of good things I noticed about the Sisters but one struck me very forcibly. I never once heard any of them grumble about any of the other Sisters or speak testily to them. It may be that they already are saints; they certainly are living as saints. Community life isn’t always easy, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. Being thrown together with a group of people one hasn’t chosen and to whom one is not related by blood, each of whom is blessed with idiosyncracies and foibles one doesn’t necessarily share, can be taxing. All credit, then, to the Salesians for being so considerate of one another, not just the guests. St Benedict would have approved.

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