A Neat Co-Incidence

By one of those co-incidences that only the Holy Spirit can manage, we celebrate today two saints with the gift of healing — St Winefride and St Martin de Porres — and read chapter 27 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Special Care the Abbot Should Have for the Excommunicated. What could be better for the day of the presidential election in the U.S.A. and for when Austria and Afghanistan are in mourning for yesterday’s loss of life in terrorist attacks.

The real healing that takes place at Holywell is not a physical cure but an inward, spiritual one. I was completely unprepared for the impact the shrine would have on me when I first visited it. The legends surrounding St Winefride may stretch credulity, but no one can be unaffected by the sense of prayer that invests every stone. It is in truth a holy place. In the same way, St Martin de Porres, who was born poor, lived poor, and died poor, is the patron saint of racial harmony. Of mixed race himself, he understood the many and various ways in which race can be used to put people down, disparage them, treat them as ‘other’, less than human. He, too, has much to say to us today. And St Benedict? In chapter 27 he goes to great lengths to express the care the abbot must have for the weak and wayward, for those who cause him sleepless nights and infinite trouble. His is not a tyranny over the strong but service of those in need.

Today, when the people of the U.S.A. are called upon to vote for the man who will be their political leader for the next four years and the governments of Austria and Afghanistan must respond to the violence in their midst, the need for healing, for racial harmony and care of the least able members of society, has never been greater. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has shattered old certainties and exposed what we are truly made of, sometimes to our chagrin, but I think today’s neat conjunction of saints and saint’s reflections can nudge us in a more positive direction. Let us pray it may be so.

Note
The text of RB 27 is available as a podcast here : https://anchor.fm/digitalnun/episodes/Rule-of-St-Benedict–chapter-27-The-Abbots-Special-Care-for-the-Excommunicated–as-read-in-monasteries-on-4-March–4-July-and-3-November-eg92cd/a-a2k8v2a

Below are links to some of my previous posts about St Winefride’s Well.

  1. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/03/as-long-as-men-are-mortal-and-god-mercifulrb-27-and-st-winefrides-well/
  2. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/06/26/pilgrimage-to-st-winefrides-well/
  3. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/12/12/where-prayer-has-been-valid/
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A Lack of Leadership?

Like everyone else, we are praying that President Trump and his wife make a rapid recovery from COVID-19. The way in which some are expressing death-wishes for them is completely unacceptable for any person of goodwill, whatever their religious or political beliefs. That said, the bemusement of many commentators is readily understandable. There seem to be such a lot of contradictions and uncertainties bubbling to the surface. We have never been here before, and no one is really in a position to predict the outcome. There is a great deal of anxiety, both inside and outside the U.S.A. , but I wonder whether the President’s illness and the questions surrounding a possible transfer of power don’t confirm what many have been maintaining for some time: that America’s claim to be ‘leader of the free world’ no longer holds good because there has been a retreat from leadership in many areas. What is true of the U.S.A. is true of other countries and institutions, including the Church. There is a discernible lack of leadership that is very concerning.

I haven’t any magic remedies to propose, but this morning I found myself thinking about Bl. Columba Marmion who, as abbot of Maredsous, exercised a special kind of Benedictine leadership and, incidentally, wrote very powerfully about the monastic vocation. Benedictine leadership isn’t democratic, but it isn’t dictatorial, either. It is concerned for the good of all, prepared to take unpopular decisions, but always ready to listen, take counsel, reflect. It is, or should be, selfless. Today’s secular leaders tend to cultivate their image assiduously and appear to be always ready with a sound-byte. Perhaps that is why we seem to have a leadership vacuum in many areas or, at any rate, leadership which is often hesitant or confused. Perhaps if we could reassure our leaders that they do not have to have an opinion on everything, they might be able to give more time to thinking matters through.

You notice I have moved from the role of leaders to our own role. We can easily forget that leaders are drawn from our ranks and that we have a duty to enable them to be leaders. That means giving encouragement, scrutinizing, calling to account if need be, allowing them to lead but not allowing them to mislead. In many ways, being led is just as difficult as leading. Something to ponder and pray about, I suggest, as we face the future together.

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Religion and Politics

My American friends know that I often find U.S. politics bewildering, especially the way in which party politics and religion seem to intertwine. In this country, I think most priests and consecrated persons are careful to observe the party neutrality the Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins and are often perplexed by its absence among some in the States. That said, it is important that everyone should think about the moral and socio-economic issues involved in making political choices. The religiously-inlined will always look to their pastors and those they think of as having particular expertise for help in making such choices. But what is the point at which shared reflection and attempts at guidance become electioneering, i.e. urging others to vote for this person rather than that, for one party rather than another? It is a difficult line to tread, especially as I think most Americans are much more ‘definite’ in the expression of opinion than the British are.

As we pray for all those involved in the American presidential election, I suggest we should reserve a special place in our prayers for priests and consecrated persons, that what they say and do may be in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In saying that, I don’t want to open this post up to a political ding-dong. The only way I know of letting the Holy Spirit into a situation is to be quiet and listen — never easy for any of us.

Not Forgetting
Shanah Tovah to all our Jewish friends, and many thanks to all who have supported Buy a Nun a Book Day!

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When Courage Fails

For several days I have been trying to avoid, as far as I can, being drawn into any of the arguments that occupy the headlines or excite social media. At one level, it hasn’t been easy. I have had to remind myself many times that party politics are forbidden territory for Catholic clergy and should be for Catholic religious, too. Whether the parties concerned are British, French, American or whatever is irrelevant. We do not endorse one party over another. That does not mean that we do not have opinions or do not discuss matters of political moment, but we do not take a party line. That leaves us free to weigh arguments and to engage with all kinds of people, even those whose opinions we find unsympathetic. Some of our American friends find it odd that we do not endorse whichever party they happen to favour but most respect our party political neutrality. That is especially important in the year when a presidential election is being held.

Neutrality, however, is not necessarily a virtue; and there is always the danger that refusing to engage in a dispute may not only be cowardly but also lead to further misunderstanding. For example, I’ve noticed a great deal of comment, principally from non-Catholics, on the case of Fr Matthew Hood and the consequences of his having been baptized by a deacon using an invalid form of words. It would have been easy to launch into an explanation of classic Catholic sacramental theology but my courage failed as I thought of all the hoo-ha that would result and the amount of time and energy it would require to answer the sincere but not always well-informed objections of those who read what I wrote. So, I have kept quiet and spent my time thinking about how such ambiguities were resolved in former times, the ex opere operato principle and so on and so forth, and whether we always look at the sacraments from the right end of the telescope, so to say. Certainty matters, of course it does, but our experience of lockdown must have made even those living in the West aware that access to the sacraments is also a major challenge for our times.

So, what have I been doing while I’ve been offline? The daily round always absorbs most of my time and energy and there have been a number of ‘extras’ recently, not all of them welcome, if truth be told. I haven’t done all that I hoped to do during the past fortnight, but I’m glad to have completed the series of Rule of St Benedict readings for the Anchor™ Digitalnun podcasts. You can now listen to the reading for the day in English via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, etc. rather than having to go to our web site. I’ve also caught up with some, but by no means all, of my correspondence. At the moment I’m hampered by not being able to sit comfortably or for very long (don’t ask!) but I hope to get our September newsletter out shortly — and there is that wildflower garden to make a start on. Let’s hope my courage won’t fail when it comes to that!

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Wisdom, Understanding and Counsel

Is it significant that during these nine days of prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit the first three are dedicated to the inter-related but often misunderstood gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel? You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it is. Although I have been re-posting a series on the gifts of the Spirit that I wrote back in 2016 and intend to continue doing so, this morning I was struck by how pertinent they are to a debate going on in the political sphere concerning the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and his recent flouting of the government’s avowed policy regarding lockdown. It may be possible, therefore, to add to what I’ve already written.

Let me say at once I have no interest in arguing the rights or wrongs of Mr Cummings’ conduct here. That is not the point of this post. Instead, I’d like to invite you to reflect on why we begin our novena to the Holy Spirit by asking for these particular gifts. Wisdom is a quality we associate with God himself, of course, and most of us are aware that we are not especially wise; understanding is something most of us seek but don’t always attain; but counsel, oh, how happy we are to give others the benefit of our opinion or advice! With what speed do we rush to inform others of our insights or share our experience! How confidently we assert our predictions for the future! But if we have neither wisdom nor understanding, our counsel is worthless. We must be filled before we can give to others.

I think that is why the Dominic Cummings affair is relevant to what we are doing now. He is a special adviser to Boris Johnson and, as such, bears a great responsibility to ensure that the advice he gives is sound. It is easy for us to criticize politicians and their advisers but if we are not praying for them, and in particular, if we are not praying for them to receive the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, we are not exactly helping, are we? We need wise government in both Church and State; we need understanding, and we need good counsel. This morning, may I suggest that we need to ask for these gifts not just for ourselves but for all whose conduct and decisions affect the lives of others — including those we find personally objectionable or unsympathetic?

Audio version


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Brexit Day 2020

Diego Velazquez : Public Domain

Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent with the U.K. trying to become a member of what was then called the Common Market and protesting vociferously whenever General de Gaulle said ‘Non’ — which was often. Much of my adulthood has been accompanied by seemingly endless arguments about fisheries, agriculture and ‘Brussels bureaucracy,’ with several attempts by British politicians to renegotiate terms. Today, after a lot of shouting, the U.K. is leaving what we now know as the European Union. Some are waving Union flags; others are dressing in sackcloth and ashes. With my unique talent for annoying everyone, whatever ‘side’ they are on, I give my own personal view of the matter.* Today is the day the U.K. reaffirms its status as a protestant nation, distrustful of what lies across the water; and I reaffirm my catholic and Benedictine identity as a member of something bigger and more important than the modern nation state or even the E.U. itself.

Tonight, at eleven o’clock, therefore, I shall be in the monastery chapel, giving thanks for all the good things our membership of the E.U. has brought; asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted by our choosing to exit the E.U.; and praying for wisdom and right judgement for everyone in the post-Brexit future. You will notice that sentence does not limit itself to consideration of the U.K. or E.U. alone. So much of the political and economic discussion in the last few years has been on the level of ‘what I think is best for us,’ where ‘us’ is narrowly defined. I do not think we have always done that, and I take heart from two things that we may not always do so in the future.

The first is very personal. My father’s war service made him an ardent Europeanist; the breaking-up of the British empire made him an ardent champion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. In the later years of his life he returned to the Catholicism of his forebears on the grounds that it was the only form of Christianity corresponding to his world view. It was, as he once remarked to me, ‘big enough.’ How we regain that larger vision, I do not know; but I am convinced that our interdependence as a world will eventually lead to a re-thinking of our alliances. Either that, or we shall destroy ourselves and the planet on which we live.

The second will strike many as a little recondite, even subversive. The number-plate on our car bears the E.U. symbol of a blue flag with twelve golden stars arranged in a circle. I cannot look at it without thinking of the twelve golden stars arranged in a circlet around the head of Our Lady (cf Revelation 12.1). I am convinced that God has his own way of dealing with things and is particularly good at dealing with our failures and disappointments. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and be prepared to do whatever he asks. When Mary told the servants at Cana to do that, water was turned into wine. Those shedding tears of grief today may find them turned into tears of joy tomorrow. May God bless everyone, whether for or against membership of the E.U., and help us all to work for a better future for the world.

*The community has no particular view. I stress that this is my own view.

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Statistics

I love statistics. Like work, I can sit and look at them for hours. I am not clever enough to know how some are calculated, but I do tend to challenge a few (usually the financial ones) and, even more, the conclusions drawn from them. This morning, for example, I was thrilled to read that the number of murders, manslaughters and cases of infanticide in the U.K. fell in 2019 to 650, the lowest level for five years. For a population assessed to be 66.87 million, that may look impressive. But part of me wants to say, add in the number of abortions or people taking their own lives, and the figure rockets up; drill into the number of deaths by sex and age and the terrible toll wreaked on young men in particular becomes clear. There is still a lot of explaining to do before the statistics become helpful in terms of planning or working out how to reduce the number of deaths. It is so easy to forget that behind every statistic is a human face, a suffering face, and just look at the numbers.

Another statistic that took my eye this morning relates to the measles epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo: 310,000 are apparently infected, and 6,000 are said to have died already. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures from the Congo, one wonders whether the actual number of people involved is much higher. The solutions being proposed look inadequate and probably are inadequate, but only when the numbers reach a certain level will there be pressure to act — or so it seems.

What started me on this trail of thought was re-reading a comment I had made nearly seven years ago on an article written by a priest in a well-regarded Catholic journal (I was renewing my credentials with a commenting platform and my comment popped up before me). The article had contained unflattering observations on ‘the traditional orders’ and proposed some radical solutions based almost entirely on numbers. I had taken issue with this, little realising that some of the observations I was making in jest would reappear in Cor Orans as completely serious. Looking back, one of the things I noticed was that no-one appeared to have engaged with what I myself had written about the future of monastic life for women. Instead, many had used the opportunity to say what they thought about the habit, the liturgy and so on. There was no reason anyone should engage with me, of course, but in nearly two hundred comments, I had hoped someone other than myself might have been interested in the future of monastic life for women. Apparently not. The argument went down a different line from the one I had expected and ended up in a morass of contradictory figures and opinions, plus some fascinating insights into what really interests some American Catholics.

One should not conclude too much from that, but it illustrates a problem many of us have with statistics. First, we tend to believe them, if they fit our narrative. Second, we then use them rather crudely, citing them as ‘scientific proof’ of whatever it is we want to argue. (I am not referring to professional statisticians, who will be horrified by the suggestion that they could ever misuse their skill in such a way. I am referring to us amateurs.) Recently, I smiled over a friend’s evident sense of grievance at the amount of money the UK had contributed to the EU budget over the years of our membership. He correctly gave the figure in terms of umpteen millions. Re-worked as a contribution per capita per annum, it came to a pitifully small sum. Both figures were correct, but could be used in different ways to argue a case according to the individual’s preference.

Is there such a thing as a Christian approach to statistics? I don’t think so. But there is a Christian approach to truthfulness and fairness. A frequent theme in the Rule of St Benedict is his concern for fairness. From everyone being treated compassionately, according to need rather than status, to the constant exhortation to avoid favouritism in the monastery, Benedict wants everyone to know that there are no second-rank individuals in community. Nothing will be used to ‘do them down’. I wonder if there is something there for us all to ponder about the assumptions we make and the way in which we try to justify them, using, of course, irreproachably objective things like statistics.

Over to you.

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Seeing Clearly

The morning after a General Election is not generally remarkable for restrained or kindly behaviour. People are tired, emotions are raw, and many say or do things one hopes in more reflective mode they might not. There is quite a lot of ’emoting’ on social media, where the accusations and insults of the disappointed fly around in a profanity-laden whirlwind and the jubilations of the jubilant require a flak-jacket and ear-plugs to avoid. Some are prophesying a coming age of gold; others, doom and gloom. Some are preparing to leave the country; others are convinced that the U.K.’s finest hour is just around the corner. It all depends how we view things.

Today is the memoria of St Lucy and I think we can learn a useful lesson from her. According to the Acts of the Martyrs, she was martyred in Syracuse under Diocletian. Most of what we know about her is really just the conventional stuff of early hagiography. There is enough, however, to have given us some very fine Vesper antiphons, while artists through the centuries have seized on the detail that Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before she was killed. Not surprisingly, therefore, she is patron of the blind and visually impaired — all who do not see clearly. This morning I think she must be working overtime.

Physical blindness or visual impairment can be frightening, as I know from experience, but not to be able to see in a moral or intellectual sense can be more daunting still. We lose touch with reality, are thrown back on the inchoate thoughts and emotions that bubble on and on inside us like the Tennysonian brook. My sense is that something like that is affecting many people in Britain this morning, yet the Advent liturgy provides a valuable corrective. Isaiah 48. 17 is explicit where our trust and confidence should lie:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,I lead you in the way that you must go.

The Lord never abandons us, never allows our cloudy vision to hamper his plans for our well-being. However much we may disagree about political leadership, the Lord is our true Leader, the one who will guide us into the way of peace and salvation. If we follow him, all will ultimately be well. Easy to say, I know, but much harder to believe and act on, but that is precisely what we must do: believe and act, which means trusting and, as often as not, silencing the inner clamour that prevents us from doing so. God does not insist or force us. We have to allow our eyes to be opened to the possibilities that grace offers.

This morning let us pray for our newly-elected M.P.s and for ourselves, that we may see clearly and do what is right.

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Poor Worms and Tiny Mites

I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks  — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20

As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.

I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.

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A Word for the Weary

Weariness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, it is a more or less chronic condition that goes along with being the parents of small children, illness, or caring for someone who makes huge demands on our energy and patience. Today, in the U.K., I sense a kind of collective weariness about our forthcoming General Election. People are beginning to tire of the debate, the endless accusations, the promises that don’t quite add up, the gimmicks, the shoutiness of social media. For those of us observing Advent, there is also a kind of mid-season weariness to be factored in as well. Can we really be so close to the third Sunday of Advent when we don’t seem, to ourselves at least, to have even begun? Is there a word for the weary we can all take to heart, that will provide balm for our souls and encouragement for what lies ahead?

What a gift today’s Mass readings prove to be! Isaiah 40. 25–31 comforts us with the reassurance that even the young may stumble and tire but the Lord will bear us up as on eagle’s wings. Then in Matthew 11. 28–30 we have those comforting words of Jesus himself, inviting those who labour and are overburdened to come to him and share his yoke. But there is a snag. There always is a snag. Most of us don’t recognize that we are weary or overburdened. Those who go around proclaiming how tired they are or how much they need a holiday are not usually exhausted. They are still able to register what they think and feel. Their judgement is still at work. The truly exhausted are no longer able to judge their own exhaustion but tend to go on, becoming wearier and wearier, often more and more silent or sending out cries for help that go unnoticed by others. In my experience, it is not those who can articulate their distress who tend to have the break-downs but those who can’t. Can anything or anyone reach such depths of weariness?

The conventional answer to that question is that grace can touch and transform anyone at any time. Weariness is no obstacle to God. I agree with that, of course, but I think I would want to add a small nuance. St Benedict is very eloquent about the mutual support community members are to give one another. Much of it is unspoken, rather understated, but it relies on being aware of others and their needs. To give a simple illustration, last night was wet and windy and I admit to shivering a bit. When I went to bed I discovered that someone had put a hot water bottle between my sheets — unasked, just because she noticed. Hot water bottles are a very practical response to a perceived need, but it isn’t only, or even especially, practical needs we can help with. A smile, a prayer, a little patience may be all it takes to give someone else the courage to face another day — and in helping others, we may find that we have been helped, too. Those eagle’s wings take many forms.

General Election 2019
Whenever we have an important decision to make in the monastery, we stop discussing it for twenty-four hours before voting on it in chapter. That gives us time to think and pray without being distracted. Accordingly, apart from posting our prayer intentions, we shall be abandoning social media until tomorrow so that we can reflect more deeply on the choices we and the rest of the country have to make in the Election.

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