Shape Nothing, Lips; Be Lovely-Dumb

Monastics on the Web

The prayer of Esther, given to us as the first reading at Mass today, is beautifully crafted. I like to think that much of the work we have done online over the years has also been beautifully crafted, in intention at least. It has always begun in prayer, and I hope it has led to prayer in those it has reached; but I mentioned the other day that we are changing the nature of our online engagement in ways we did not envisage even a year ago. Since 2003/4 our online outreach has been a major expression of our Benedictine hospitality, but what was novel and virtually unique in the UK eighteen years ago (coding nuns making their own web sites, doing podcasts and videos, holding online retreats and what would now be called webinars) no longer is. Moreover, our greatest hope, that other monastic communities would commit to the ‘interwebby thing’ has been realised, and the quantity and quality of material now available is wonderful, stretching right across the globe. Monasteries online have become mainstream so that it is comparatively easy for anyone who wishes to have access to the riches of the monastic tradition..

Discarded plans

Originally, we had approached our second lockdown Lent with plans to expand our own online outreach, lured by the false promise of superfast Broadband coming to our area this spring. But installation has again been pushed back to some unspecified date in the future and our plans likewise. We just don’t have the bandwidth to give effect to them.

Once the gnashing of teeth was over, we thought again. We had fallen into a trap we often warn others against. The fact that we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do something. We decided to take stock again, reflecting on both the positive and negative sides of our experience.

On the plus side, we have gained many, many friends, who are very supportive and a real blessing to us. Less positively, we haven’t been able to keep up with everyone in the way we’d like. The year I sent out 100+ emails with Lent Book suggestions and reading plans geared to the individual recipient, I realised we couldn’t go on at such a rate. We gave up producing audio books for the blind when advances in technology made them less useful yet balanced that by releasing a new series of podcasts, including a daily broadcast of the Rule of St Benedict. However, we could not hide from ourselves other, more important changes affecting the way our work was being received.

Changes we have noticed

In recent years our ‘audience’ has grown older, often requiring more personal responses, which takes time and commitment. There is much more curiosity about aspects of our life which, if directed at an ordinary person, could be regarded as intrusive. Although that doesn’t bother me greatly, it does bother other members of the community, who have a right to their privacy; and while we love seeing the Instagram accounts of other communities (dancing nuns et al), we know that isn’t a good fit for us. A lot of emotional energy can be taken up dealing with those who want us to be nuns after a pattern of their own, while some of the provisions of Cor Orans have left us wondering what the future holds for any of us. Add to that changes in community and the ever-increasing complexity of compliance with both governmental and ecclesiastical requirements and the time to do anything can be highly pressurised. How should we make the best use of such time as we have?

Everyone is speaking, but who is listening?

What has most affected us, however, is a change in people’s reading habits. Again and again we have noticed that words are hurried over, perhaps misread, sometimes used as a pretext for correcting us or, worse still, those who engage thoughtfully with our blog posts or tweets. It is part of our react rather than reflect culture. Someone will email a question we have already answered on one of our web sites or assume we have said/failed to say something and demand we explain ourselves. That can be amusing and frustrating in equal measure, especially when it happens again and again. For Benedictines brought up on the practice of lectio divina, of slow, attentive reading, it is also mystifying. It reinforces our sense that the web has become a very noisy place during lockdown, with everyone talking and few actually listening.

If that seems harsh, please consider your own experience. Every parish, every Christian community, seems to be holding Zoom meetings, live-streaming worship, sending out bulletins and generally making use of every bell and whistle in the digital toolbox, but how often do any of us stop to ask ourselves why? Are we trying to connect those who are not connected, spread the gospel, cheer people up, or advertise our wares, as it were? I’m sure all these apply, plus the feeling that we need to be seen to be doing something when our churches are stripped of people and our guest-houses are closed, but I want to ask whether we are using our busyness online to avoid facing a deeper question. Are we doing the reverse of what we intend, creating barriers to God with all our noise, no matter how imaginative or well-intentioned?

Put like that, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’; but it is still a question we must ask. Benedict was keen on taciturnitas, restraint in speech, because he was aware that too much speaking, too much noise, can lead us away from God. I think the same is true of our use of online resources also. My general rule of thumb has been half an hour’s prayer for every half hour spent online (uploading and downloading times excepted!) but I am coming round to the view that we (I) need to give more time to prayer if our (my) words are to have any point. That doesn’t mean we will give up our online engagement or go on a ‘digital fast’ as some call it, but I do think we’ll be more selective about what we give time to. I expect I’ll still go on tapping out blog posts and tweets and being frivolous on Facebook as long as I am able, but some of the community’s more ambitious multimedia projects are being placed on hold — and I myself am definitely stepping back from what I call fruitless disputes, especially here on the blog and in social media. We are re-centring, and not just as a Lenten exercise.

I end where I began, with today’s first Mass reading. Queen Esther’s prayer was heard. May ours be, too.

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House of Prayer or Robbers’ Den? The Case for Spiritual Distancing.

Today’s gospel, Luke 19. 45–48, neatly encapsulates many people’s attitude to the Church, though I suspect those most hostile to her would not necessarily pick up the scriptural references but simply condemn her as ‘rich and corrupt’. Try applying the gospel text to ourselves as believers, and the words begin to sizzle uncomfortably. Is my heart a place where the Lord can pray unceasingly, or is it full of contradictory desires and selfish wants that not only block prayer but make me hypocritical — always a charge against Christians, but sometimes justified.

In a monastery you might think we have it all under control, but alas, that is not so. We have to learn, day by day, how to make the heart open to the Lord. Liturgy, the practice of lectio divina and, above all, living in community are great helps but none of them can take the place of the daily, personal conversion of heart expected of us. We vow it, so it must be possible; but it is a never-ending work in progress. One important aspect of conversion is the readiness to listen to people and opinions we don’t immediately find attractive; and by listening I mean more than waiting just long enough to hear the words but only in order to reject them. I mean really trying to understand what is meant and weighing it carefully to see whether it applies to us or not.

We are exhorted to be always on the alert for the voice of God, but it can be difficult to sift out other voices that do not come from him. I think that is why Benedict is so keen on humility, mercy and restraint of speech. He knows we are apt to assume we’re right about everything and be harsh on those who disagree with us. I know I am! But if we are truly to turn to the Lord and make our hearts a house of prayer, we need to practise what I’m tempted to call ‘spiritual distancing’. Older writers called it ‘detachment,’ and it means more than being indifferent to wealth or ease or avoiding sin. It means a wholly different ‘take’ on life which places God at the centre. Part of that involves cultivating freedom from our own opinions and preferences, and that can be more difficult than overcoming other, more material, forms of self-indulgence.

May I make a suggestion? Today, when tempted to react negatively, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you need to think about before you reply. It won’t necessarily stop you screaming at the radio or sending off that angry tweet, but it may open an unexpected pathway to grace in your life — and that can never be a bad thing, can it?

Audio version

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Praying for Wisdom

Solomon prayed for wisdom (cf today’s first Mass reading, 1 Kings 3.5, 7-12). I wonder how many of us do so on a regular basis — or do we pray for success, the achievement of some aim, or what we have decided would be good for someone else? I ask because during the last few weeks I have been so busy that the only thing to keep me anchored in any semblance of reality has been prayer, both liturgical and ‘private’. I haven’t asked God for anything except wisdom, knowing perfectly well that he will take care of all the people and concerns we commend to him day by day, hour by hour. But wisdom? Ah, yes. Left to myself I make a hideous mess of things. I need wisdom to guide me every minute. What I do or don’t do, what I think or say, has an impact on others as well as myself. The monastic timetable may seem, and in many respects is, inexorable; but within its constraints there are opportunities for individual choice.

I can be selfish under the guise of ‘needing’ to do x or y; I can be irascible ‘because I’m tired’, which means no one will make any demands of me; I can put off doing what I ought because something of lesser importance attracts me and so ‘justifies’ my preference. What I need is wisdom to help me make the right choice — one that promotes peace and love, not in a vapid, hippyish way but in a way that finds its origin and end in God himself, through discipleship and sacrifice. That is a tough call only God can answer — which is reason enough to ask him, surely?

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Prayerline

One of the most popular features of our web sites has been our Prayerline. It enables people to ask for prayer at any hour of the day or night by means of filling in a simple form. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and we have been touched and humbled by the trust many have shown in sharing their concerns.

Over time, however, and increasingly frequently since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have noticed that more and more people are choosing to telephone their requests or send emails to some of the monastery email accounts we use for business purposes or don’t monitor in the same way we do the Prayerline. We want to make sure your requests get through, so we have been trialling a voicemail/SMS addition to the online Prayerline. It has worked well so far. Consequently, from today, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, there are now five ways of asking the nuns to pray for you:

  • send a request via one of the dedicated Prayerline contact forms on our web sites, e.g.  https://is.gd/7eiPWk;
  • add your petition to the list of prayer intentions on our Facebook page at https://facebook.com/benedictinenuns — but remember it can be read by everyone, not just the nuns;
  • telephone our Prayerline voicemail on +44 (0)7434 626951 and leave a message — this is a UK number and your usual service provider charges will apply;
  • text +44 (0)7434 626951 with your request — this is a UK number and your usual service provider charges will apply;
  • write by snailmail, but please don’t expect us to reply or enter into correspondence with you. We will certainly pray, but we are physically unable to keep up with all the letters and emails we receive.

We hope this will make things easier for everyone. We are also experimenting with making some spiritual content available over the telephone for those who don’t have access to the internet. It is early days yet, but the results look promising.

Corpus Christi

Many clergy will be preaching about the Holy Eucharist in their live-streamed worship today, and I don’t think I can add anything useful, given the fact that the majority of the faithful in England and Wales won’t be able to attend Mass or receive Holy Communion. However, this extract from an old blog post may act as a reminder to those of us who can’t attend Mass today that prayer must always have a Eucharistic context even if we are not physically in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament:

An austerely Protestant friend once confided to me that she didn’t really ‘get’ the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Two things in particular bothered her. One was the Church’s refusal to open reception of the sacrament to all Trinitarian Christians as her own denomination did, and the other was Catholic devotion to the reserved sacrament. She had been to Spain and been rather aghast at a Corpus Christi procession and the way in which people flopped to their knees as the priest passed by under a canopy of white silk, holding ‘some great gold thinggy in his hands’. I tried to explain.

Catholics have a very high doctrine of the Eucharist. We believe that it is much more than a memorial meal. It is a sacrifice, one with the sacrifice of Calvary. Bread and wine are transformed by the action of the priest into the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour, and it is necessary to share the faith of the Church in order to share in the sacrament. This did not satisfy her, nor did my patient offering of all the relevant numbers in the Catechism, Dominus Est and so on. I had slightly more success when I read through the Eucharistic Prayers with her and threw in some little tidbits of history and theology from Jungmann and others. However, it was when we went into a nearby Catholic church during Adoration that light began to dawn.

The sight of many people kneeling in silent prayer before the Host in the monstrance affected my friend profoundly. The candles, the flowers, the faint smell of incense probably helped, too; but it was the prayer and the depth of the silence that moved her most. That wasn’t faked; it wasn’t in any way exclusionary; it was simply a group of people united in their love of the Lord, kneeling before him and listening.


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On Being a Contemplative

I don’t often use the word ‘contemplative’, partly because its history in the Catholic Church has not always been happy, forcing a divide between the so-called active Orders and the cloistered, or even being used to set up a false hierarchy of spiritual prowess in which the contemplative outranks everyone else, and partly because I’m not sure that those to whom I might use the word would understand by it the same thing that I intend. Nowadays nearly everyone seems to claim to be a contemplative so it probably doesn’t matter very much, but I still cling to the idea that contemplative prayer is simpler and less structured than formal meditation or the devotions that form the staple of many godly people today. It is also, in my experience, less visual.

This was brought home to me by a recent discussion on Facebook where a good friend suggested we might introduce a few images as background to our podcasts. You may have noticed that Facebook, like the BBC website, is increasingly geared towards video and the use of images . The problem for us is that we are not very good at the visual. Ours is what one might call a Word-centred spirituality in which lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of a text, is fundamental. Visual images can intrude on this process. Apart from anything else, we have comparatively few in the monastery, so those we see tend to stay with us, for good or ill. We don’t have a TV or (usually) watch films. We live in the same space, doing more or less the same things day after day. It is, some would say, a spartan existence as far as visual stimuli are concerned. In some ways, that makes us more sensitive to the world around us: the changing of the seasons, the beauty of garden and sky, the ordering of the monastery building, have an impact on us they might not on a more casual observer.

I don’t want to sound precious or over-complicated, but that is one reason why we are hesitant about using more images on our web sites or even this blog. The Word demands our full attention. Some people find an image helpful. For others it can be a distraction. I myself use images sparingly because they have a big impact on me. For example, Nicholas Mynheer’s marvellous painting of the mothers of Jesus and Judas embracing that I posted during Holy Week stays vividly in my mind; so, too, do others.

This morning, as I was thinking about St Athanasius whose feast-day this is, I realised anew that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the perfect visual, the perfect image, one who is both God and man. Who could improve on that? Not me, certainly.

Audio version

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Missing the Point?

It’s easy to miss the point of anything, isn’t it, and the fact that lockdown is giving some people too much time, and others too little, means that a querelous dissatisfaction with life is becoming more and more evident in some quarters. It often takes the form of angry little diatribes on Twitter or Facebook, childish squabbles that leave all parties feeling diminished. We all know people who have to be right all the time (not us, of course), who will pick away at minute details until one really wants to scream. Or there are those who like to reply to comments on our behalf, not always accurately and sometimes in ways that cause major misunderstandings we have to try to resolve. Then there are those who assume that because they read something ten, twenty or sixty years ago, it has achieved the status of eternal verity. Even as I write, there are disputes going on in social media about the ‘correct’ spacing after a full stop, the ‘correct’ timing of today’s prayer for healthcare workers and the ‘correct’ way to introduce people to Christianity.

If you don’t mind my pontificating a little, I can give you the answer to all three questions: single, doesn’t matter, depends. Only one, you notice, is specific. Years spent designing books and other printed matter means that the typographical standards known as Hart’s Rules are second nature to me — or at least, I know when I have broken them. But what about those other two, the ‘correct’ timing of today’s prayer for healthcare workers and the ‘correct’ way to introduce people to Christianity? Why do I claim that the answer should be ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘depends’? It has to do with what I believe about prayer.

Prayer is much more important than the times of prayer, by which I mean that whether we pray for healthcare workers at 11.00 a.m. or at 1.00 p.m. is, in an important sense, immaterial. There is no time in eternity. As Christians we pray in Christ, and that is what matters. Now, I can understand that someone arranging a church service, whether in church or online, has to fix a time for assembling people together, just as we do in the monastery for the Divine Office, but surely proportionality applies to an extraordinarily brief silent pause? One minute? I shall barely have time to register it! All the time that has been lavished on deciding whether it is to be observed at 11.00 a.m. or 1.00 p.m. would surely have been better employed in praying, would it not, because that is the point of the exercise?*

What about introducing someone to Christianity? I don’t think there is one ‘right’ way, particularly where adults are concerned. One has to try to meet the needs of the individual one is trying to help. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) provides a programme many have followed with advantage. I know the method I myself have adopted on occasion would not meet with everyone’s approval, though it seems to have worked, if by that one means the person concerned seems to have grown in faith and love of the Lord. The key words here are ‘faith’ and ‘love’. I am a great believer in reading and reading deeply and widely, but I know it is not enough. Unless we pray we shall only know about God, not God himself. If those who act as catechists do not encourage prayer, it seems to me that an opportunity is being missed, an opportunity of enormous significance for both the individual and the Church as a whole.

Lockdown means that a lot of people are becoming bored, chafing at its restraints and seeing only negativity. Trying to spiritualise the experience doesn’t help, especially if one has fixed ideas about what the spiritual is. This morning I tried to encourage someone to think of it as a temporary experience of cloister. As Benedictines, most of our searching for God is done outside choir, doing routine things in routine ways, often in circumstances that are anything but glamorous or romantic. Cleaning a bathroom, listening to another’s grumbles or complaints, coping with a headache or bout of hay fever, doing what someone else asks or decides rather than what we would choose, experiencing loneliness or anxiety or any other feeling of inadequacy or pain, these are not earth-shattering events perhaps, but they are the stuff of which saints can be made. The secret of transformation lies in prayer, and prayer is nothing other than the desire to be pleasing to God, the point of our existence.

  • I am not referring to the discussion on our own FB page but speaking more generally.

Note: No audio today as I am too breathless to record.

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Resurrexi

The Risen Christ with the Three Marys
The Risen Christ with the Three Marys

Christ is risen! Alleluia! There are no words adequate to this great joy. So, instead, here is an image of the Risen Christ meeting the women who came to anoint his dead body, and the nuns of Jouques singing the introit to the Day Mass of Easter, Resurrexi. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to describe this chant as being like a ping-pong sitting on a fountain of water, serene not shouty, as the deepest joy always is. A blessed Easter to you all!

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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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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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Friday Thoughts

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ
by D. Werburg Welch,
Copyright © Stanbrook Abbey.
Used by permission.

Later today many of those with week-end cottages in Wales will be hurtling down the A465 to get to their chosen destinations. Inside the monastery, we shall scarcely be aware of the rush, apart from noticing a few more headlights if we look at the main road. In effect, there will be two different time-scales at work. Outside, people will be pressing on, with as much speed as they can; inside, we shall be savouring the words of the liturgy, circling round the still point of eternity. No one on the road is likely to be aware of what is going on inside the monastery, and yet, without that quiet, monastic prayer, might there not be even more jangle and upset than there is? That is not to claim anything for the monastery. It is to acknowledge that the victory over sin and death won by Christ on the Cross extends to the present and is actualised, if I may use that word, by the prayer of believers.

Many people say they are too busy to pray or are called away from prayer by some urgent task. That is not, or should not be, the case with monks and nuns. By making prayer the heart of our day we sometimes incur the irritation of those who want us to do something else, but it is surely important that we remain true to our vocation. Our prayer is never for ourselves alone but for everyone. It is never prayed alone, either, but always in union with Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is his prayer that holds us, and the universe, in being — even if, perhaps especially if, we are hurtling along the A465.

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