An Unexpected Sabbath

Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?

For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.

At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

How often have you toyed with the idea of becoming a hermit for a few days or dwelt lovingly on the thought that if everybody would just go away for a while and leave you in peace, everything would be perfect? Anyone who has ever tried the experiment knows we carry our demons within, and whether the desert we escaped to was real or imaginary, the one person we cannot flee is ourself. But what if you are now faced with ‘self-isolating’ or being quarantined for a fortnight along with others? Not so much being alone with the Alone as alone with a crowd — especially if the crowd is your nearest and dearest, your family? How will you fare? How will you even survive without committing murder? Time to call in the experts! Nuns are uniquely experienced in this business of living in a small space with companions who sometimes get on our nerves as much as we do theirs. So, here is Digitalnun’s guide to self-isolating for dummies.

First, accept the inevitable. We are going to be cooped up together for a while and it isn’t going to be easy. It will help if we have made some preparations beforehand. These include, if possible,

· enough stores of food and household goods to last a fortnight (but don’t go overboard: we deprive others if we stockpile);

· a menu plan;

· a routine which includes times for work, relaxation, silence, conviviality and, if a Christian, prayer;

· enough books, music, videos or whatever you and your family need to ensure that you do not spend too much time bickering over trifles;

· an emergency plan for obtaining help if needed;

· an emergency plan for giving help if needed.

You probably think this is all very basic and obvious. Of course it is. Much of monastic life is basic and obvious. Benedict was well aware of the stresses and strains of community life and sketched out in his Rule ways of coping with them. He was realistic enough to know we can be tempted to murder one another, especially when we cannot get away from other people; he understood the importance of routine and settling questions of what we are to eat and when to avoid making them the focus of disputes when there is not enough to occupy us. He recognized that silence is necessary not only to our spiritual health but also to our general well-being and can prove a healing balm in difficult situations. He realised, too, that we must have work to do (even if it is just decluttering a cupboard). Above all, he placed great emphasis on putting the needs of others first, of apologizing when things have gone wrong and not allowing feuds to simmer or grumbles to destroy the peace of the group. 

I wonder if we can tease out that last point, about putting the needs of others first, a little more? Some people have expended a lot of effort and even anger in trying to play down the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In addition to pouring scorn on those who are anxious about themselves or their families, some have attacked policies designed to protect everyone from the virus. If one is in good health and certain of access to an ICU and ventilator should need arise, one could well argue that there is nothing to worry about — for oneself. But one’s neighbour with asthma or some other illness, the elderly person living alone down the road, or the citizen of a country with a practically non-existent healthcare system, what about them? And becoming indignant about the precautions we are asked to take in church for the sake of others, what does that say about us?

This is where I think the reason some of us become nuns and adopt a solitary life lived in community becomes highly relevant. We do so in order to become more filled with love of God and neighbour, more selfless, more Christ-like. We may not be very good at it, but everything in the monastery is designed to help us. Being forced into self-isolating or quarantine and all that goes with it may well be contrary to everything we desire or think right for us, but it is imposed on us for the good of others. We can learn from it. We can turn what at first sight seems a negative experience into a positive one. We can rediscover what it means to live simply; we can experience what it is like to live without access to the Sacraments or the social/work communities on which we rely for much of our daily interaction; we may even rediscover some of the joys of family life or, if we live alone, the joys of solitude. We can confront some of our inner demons and maybe conquer them. We can end up less of a dummy than we were before.

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Tenacity

We don’t often think of tenacity as being a particularly religious quality, but it can be a necessary one. Today’s Mass readings (Esther 4 and Matthew 7. 7–12) provide examples of persistence in prayer, but I think they also teach the importance of tenacity. We make known our need to the Lord, then we act.* Once we have decided on a course of action, we must hold to it otherwise our prayer is an empty babble. We are just saying ‘Lord, Lord’ and not really engaging, either with him or anyone else.

In the monastery, holding to a course of action to which we have committed ourselves (e.g living the monastic life) is usually called perseverance. These days the word can sound a little dull. We persevere against the odds; we stick stolidly to our duty. It is a trifle grim-sounding. Of course, to those of us trying to do the persevering it isn’t grim at all (well, only occasionally). Substitute the word tenacity for perseverance and we have something we can literally get our teeth into. It all becomes much more exciting — a challenge, an opportunity.

Esther’s prayer led her to courageous action; Jesus’ teaching on prayer emphasises the need for persistence and trust. In other words, whatever resolution we are led to make in prayer has to have effect in our lives. I wonder how we shall measure up to that today?

* I am speaking here of intercessory prayer.

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Repentance v. Remorse

Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.

Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.

When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.

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The Undeserving Poor

One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.

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Another Kind of Blindness

When my sight was restored last year, I went around marvelling at everything I had previously taken, not for granted exactly, but as part of the expected order of things, wonderful, but not so wonderful that I would stop and stare for minutes at a time. When a water-drop hanging from the kitchen tap (faucet) can hold one’s gaze, one knows one has never really looked before. Seeing a world in a water-drop, in a familiar indoors setting rather than outside, where the beauty of landscape, waterscape and skyscape attract our eyes, is unexpected, sudden, a moment of vision.

I think those who listened to Jesus speaking about the times they had or had not served him experienced something of the same (cf today’s gospel, Matthew 25. 31-46). Both those who helped and those who didn’t ask much the same question, but with one significant difference. The virtuous ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ They did not recognize or recall when they had served the Lord in others. The selfish ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?’ Unlike the virtuous, they seem to keep an inner tally of their good deeds and are convinced that they have not missed any opportunity. Both are blind: the virtuous to their own generosity; the selfish to their hardness of heart.

Our Lenten pilgrimage will confront us with many harsh truths about ourselves, but I think we can take encouragement from today’s gospel. We won’t know when we are being truly generous; we won’t necessarily know when we are meeting the Lord. But we can be quite sure when we aren’t — when we close our eyes and hearts to those in need. The need in question may not be material. The cup of cold water that revives the flagging spirits, the shared meal that puts fresh hope into the downcast, the warm welcome that transforms stranger into brother or sister: there are many ways of expressing these. It is up to us to search them out. Of one thing we can be sure, we shall never lack for opportunity.

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The Devil Isn’t Fair

One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.

Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.

Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.

Mass readings
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11

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Rebuilding the Ruins

I am fascinated by the different ways people view Lent. I can understand those who think of it in terms of giving up, of small penances intended to make an offering to the Lord, and I feel confident that the Lord accepts them for what they are — pledges of love and devotion. In the monastery we are much more inclined to take things on, to add to our daily commitment to prayer and service. The fast is stricter, the silence is (or should be) more profound, and our almsgiving more generous. It’s positive Lent versus negative Lent, if you like, though the end in view is the same: to come closer to the Lord. Then we read Isaiah 58. 9-14 and are made to think about Lent in a slightly different way.

Doing away with the clenched fist and wicked word is a challenge to most of us. We know that a clenched fist is unable to give or receive, it is simply a sign of belligerence, cold and closed, but it has its attractions. We can claim it as a sign of solidarity with the oppressed and ignore its limitations. Just what we need during Lent! The wicked word trips off the tongue easily enough but can do lasting damage — just as much as a clenched fist, in fact. It is particularly effective when used to express anger. Vicarious anger, when we whip up our fury at what we perceive to be another’s wrongdoing and label it justifiable or righteous is particularly seductive during Lent. It allows us to be angry and say what we like, with a warm glow of conscious rectitude.

For many of us, especially those with a little more self-knowledge or more candid family or friends, Lent will be a struggle with our inner demons, trying to control our emotions of anger and the temptation to lash out at others. Discouragement will soon set in, of course, as the failures mount up. Even worse would be to feel we were succeeding. The pride that does not know or admit its own weakness or sinfulness is very much like a clenched fist or a mouth spewing empty boasts. Horrible!

Isaiah does not limit what he says to control of hand and tongue, however. He goes on to speak of rebuilding the ruins. Have you ever thought of Lent as an opportunity to rebuild the ruins of your spiritual life, to lay new and better foundations for the life of grace? Put like that, I think St Benedict’s portrayal of Lent as a time of joy and hope may become much more immediate, much more personal to those who do not live in monasteries. But note this: when Isaiah speaks of rebuilding the ruins, he links it very closely to almsgiving, to sharing with others freely and gladly, and reverence for the Lord.

Almsgiving often seems to me to be forgotten when people talk about Lent, or restricted to CAFOD’s Family Fast Day and donations to some good cause or other, yet it means so much more than that. It comes from the Greek word for compassion, to feel with, suffer with, another; to show mercy. I think there may be something there worth pondering as we consider how to rebuild whatever is ruined in our own life or the lives of others; and the reverence with which we set about the task will surely draw us closer to the Lord we seek. I hope so.

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True Lent (With a Little Help from Herrick)

The Friday after Ash Wednesday generally sees the first little wobble in our Lenten discipline. The fast begins to bite; our ambitious plans for holy self-improvement are less attractive than they looked a week ago; and the nay-sayers who think we are motivated by a mixture of fear and sanctimonious priggishness are starting to get under our skin. Then the Church’s Mass readings deliver the coup de grace. Isaiah 58. 1–9 and Matthew 9. 14–15 are both about fasting, and leave us absolutely no wriggle-room. Giving up wine or chocolate or some other luxury isn’t the point at all. Our first duty is to fast from sin. There should also be restraint in our use of food and drink, because we need to feel in our flesh the commitment to conversion that we make through prayer. As always, however, the third element in our Lenten discipline, almsgiving, needs to be part of our fast. Giving up food and drink and giving generously to others are intimately connected.

So, what if you have decided to give up something other than food and drink, social media, say? That may be a very good thing for you to do if you find that you are becoming addicted, but it may also have an impact on others you do not intend. For example, yesterday I saw that one of my Facebook friends who, for various reasons to do with health, etc, relies on social media for many of her social interactions was sad that several online friends were going offline for the duration of Lent. For the person concerned, that means six weeks without the interaction and support online friendship can bring. It isn’t straightforward, is it? Perhaps that is why so many of us opt for the obvious.

Perhaps we could let Robert Herrick examine our conscience on the matter and maybe even re-consider some of the choices we have made.

IS this a fast, to keep
                The larder lean?
                            And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
                Of flesh, yet still
                            To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
                Or ragg’d to go,
                            Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole
                Thy sheaf of wheat,
                            And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
                From old debate
                            And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
                To starve thy sin,
                            Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

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