Armistice Day 2018

Today
we pray for all who have died in
or as a consequence of war,
whether as combatants or civilians;
we pray for
those maimed in body or mind,
those still subject to armed conflict,
and those who grieve.
We ask the Lord’s forgiveness,
a firm purpose of amendment,
and the grace to seek peace and pursue it.
Amen.

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Remembering and Praying

Throughout the year a vast tide of blood-red poppies has been sweeping over the land. They cascade from church pulpits and castle battlements, flow down lamp posts and spill out into municipal parks and private gardens. Poppies are tied to radiator grilles, pinned to buttonholes, printed on scarves and dangle from pet collars. Silhouettes of World War I Tommies stand in graveyards, surprise us on street corners, burst out of hedges and break the skyline as no real soldier ever would. On Sunday, in a huge act of collective remembrance, Britain will mark the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with memorial services and parades, a two-minute silence and the plangent tones of a bugler sounding the Last Post. It will not be without controversy, however; for, as each year passes, and the personal connection some of us have with those who died in World War I or II begins to fade, the whole idea of remembering becomes more problematic, particularly as we do not seem to agree about what we are remembering or why.

Problems with the idea of remembrance
For me, as a Catholic, the act of remembering is relatively uncomplicated because it is always associated with prayer. During the two-minute silence, I pray for the dead — all the dead who have died in war, whatever side they were on — and I ask God to teach us how to live at peace with one another. A friend once challenged me on this, asking how I could pray for those who have been guilty of war crimes. My reply was simple: prayer isn’t a reward for being good (i.e. being on the ‘right’ or winning side); it isn’t some kind of Good Conduct medal we bestow on those we deem worthy of it; it is an acknowledgement that sin and suffering have scarred the face of humanity and we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. This kind of prayer is a prayer of repentance, a plea for help in which gratitude and regret are equally mixed; and it is our privilege to offer it for the dead and for ourselves.

But what of those who don’t or can’t pray, for whom Remembrance Sunday has nationalistic, even jingoistic, overtones, or who see the commemoration as an exercise in collective nostalgia, shot through with sentimentality? Is there a point at which we should stop remembering, or is the problem more to do with how we remember? There is something to be said for both. To my mind, a centenary marks a natural division. Those who fought in the First World War are now all dead, as are those who took part in the earlier conflicts we now forget or leave to the historians to recall. How we remember is more complicated. We do not simply pray for the dead on Remembrance Sunday, we surround the day with the trappings of Establishment and nationalism or kidnap it to advance an agenda of our own about Brexit, race or empire, to name just a few. I question whether that is what those who took part in World War I or World War II would wish us to do — or even understand.

How older generations looked at war
For instance, I have been pondering how my parents and grandparents thought about war. The men went off to fight because it was their duty, so they said, but they had no personal animosity or grievance against those with whom they fought. They did not hate; they did not think themselves superior; they believed, most of the time, in the cause for which they fought, but they weren’t blind to the contradictions inherent in it. One of my grandfathers was blown up in an early British tank, survived that, then spent the rest of the war as a P.o.W. in a Silesian salt mine. He considered himself lucky, despite what it did to his health. My other grandfather served in what later became the Fleet Air Arm, saw some terrible action but also survived, then lost two of his sons in World War II. Yet he bore his losses silently. I never heard him speak a single word against anyone. War wasn’t glorious, it was brutal; building the peace was what mattered, and that was the task he and others of his generation took to heart.

I can remember my father talking about his experience at El Alamein and other battlefronts, always hoping the world would never again be plunged into total war, always sad that there had been so much loss of life on both sides, so many civilians killed, so much beauty and history destroyed. I also remember the father of a friend, who had himself been imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, rapping on the dinner table and saying that the lesson we had to learn from history was not what Nazis could do to Jews but what human beings can do to one another. I don’t think they were unique, but how I wish we heard their voices now rather than the highly selective voices of the media and popular historians!

Has our focus changed?
Are we in danger of losing the kind of historical perspective I have tried to sketch and substituting something less truthful, precisely because those voices have fallen silent? During the course of this year I have begun to feel that we are. The poppies and the silhouettes and other artworks are fine, but perhaps they change the focus of what we are supposedly commemorating and allow other elements to creep in. War as spectacle, war as the voicing of views and attitudes that have more to do with us than with the fallen, makes me uneasy. As a corollary, I would argue that this year’s commemoration of the Armistice should be the last. That does not mean that we should cease to pray or reflect on what war is and does — far from it. Nor do I think that we should abandon those who suffer even now from war and the effects of war. On the contrary, I should like to see much more help and understanding for those who suffer PTSD, whose limbs and lives have been shattered, for example. But I think we need to question more rigorously what our acts of remembrance are meant to achieve and why we surround them with so much that is alien, if that is the right word, to those who actually did the fighting and dying we commemorate.

A commentator said recently that in politics people are driven by four things, love, hope, hate and fear, and the two most powerful are hate and fear. It is true that society has a way of creating objects of hatred and fear, and I have asked myself several times whether we are simply prolonging the quarrels and tragedies of the past as a way of avoiding some unpalatable truths in the present. The British obsession with Germany and with Hitler is a case in point. We refuse to let it go and thereby show ourselves still bound, and, what is worse, perpetrate a new injustice. We do not need the memory of war to validate what we are now.We gain nothing by picking away at old wrongs; we need to learn from them instead. Perhaps we forget that we are not the heroes we celebrate, nor do we become heroes by association or by demonising some enemy, old or new. Do we use the past as a way of avoiding commitment to what the present and future ask of us?

A recommitment to service
To an earlier generation concepts like duty and service meant something. They were the motivation for conduct that might otherwise seem unfathomable. I daresay there are some who regard the stoicism with which our parents and grandparents endured privation and loss as silly, but we can think and say such things because of the sacrifices they made. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the dead to reflect more deeply on the values of duty and public service and how we measure up to them today? Quite how we do that I’m not sure because the language of public discourse seems to have lost that important element of civility. We talk of deals and our own best interest, what’s good for us in the narrowest sense, not what would make the world a better place. But it does not have to be so. We can think anew about how to serve, how to do our duty, what our duty consists in, and surely everyone would benefit.

If this should be the last Armistice Day we mark in a public way, renewing our commitment to service would be a sign that the poppies and the bugle calls were not mere sentimentality or self-indulgence but tokens of our having learned the lessons of the past, of our being ready to forge a new and better future. It would be proof that the Great War for Civilisation was not fought in vain. I pray it may be so.

Two earlier posts on Remembrance Sunday

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/08/remembrance-sunday-2015/

https://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/11/10/remembrance-sunday-2013/

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The Secret of Benedictine Prayer

I should like to quote a few sentences about prayer written in the sixth century:

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (RB 20, trans. Wybourne)

That’s it. That’s all St Benedict has to say about what we might call private or individual prayer after devoting twelve chapters to the common liturgical prayer of the community. Of course, the whole Rule is about our relationship with God and is permeated with the spirit of prayer, but Benedict’s explicit treatment of the subject is very short, very simple and takes a lifetime to understand fully. In a few brief sentences, silvery in their alliteration and poetic form, he gives us what we may think of as the secret of Benedictine prayer. It is to be short and pure.

It is no accident that chapter 20 comes at the end of the so-called liturgical code. The common prayer of the community flows into the private prayer of the monk and back again. But whereas the liturgical prayer of the community is minutely prescribed, the prayer of the individual is not. Benedict’s insistence that prayer should be short and pure doesn’t mean it should be perfunctory — far from it! It is to be intensely focused, and most of us cannot manage that for very long without becoming tired or disheartened. The few moments of individual prayer that come at the end of every Hour of the Divine Office are not to be unduly prolonged by the superior. Too long a pause and some will start fidgeting and distract others. Better that the signal to rise should be given and individuals decide for themselves whether to return to choir to pray longer.

Prayer always comes to us as sheer gift, but we can still try to manipulate it (and God), usually by droning on and on, which is why Benedict says that tears of compunction and purity of heart are what are needed, not many words. Tears of compunction have a long and beautiful history in monastic tradition. They are a sign of the truly repentant heart, of those who trust God completely and are therefore able to acknowledge how far short of the glory of God they are, and how the mercy of God spans the abyss between.

I think, however, that the word ‘purity’ is really key to the whole chapter. It locates Benedict’s teaching in the monastic tradition of the desert, of Cassian and early writers on prayer, and echoes the Lord’s own exhortation not to heap up words as the pagans do. Just as the Rule encourages us to live a pure (single-minded) life, so Benedict wants our prayer to be single-minded in its focus on God. That is why the pauses in the Divine office matter and why every Hour concludes with a few moments of silent prayer. As the words die away we are left contemplating the Word himself. Without this focus on God we do not allow the liturgy to have its full effect in us and our private prayer misses the mark. To achieve this focus on God we need a measure of self-discipline and restraint, even of things that are otherwise good and helpful. In other words, Benedict is urging us all to face God in prayer without defences, without anything that could get in the way of our being open to him, and he is wise enough to know that most of us cannot keep that up for very long. Strain is the enemy of prayer because it produces tension and turns our gaze away from God back on ourselves. The short, pure prayer Benedict encourages is the mystic’s ‘longing dart of love’, the ‘short prayer that pierceth heaven,’ the poet’s ‘heaven in ordinarie’. It is simultaneously easy and difficult; a gift, but one we have to work for.

Unlike many other great writers, Benedict was not systematic in his treatment of prayer. There are no divisions into mansions or nights, nothing to capture our imagination or enable us to understand the process of being stripped bare of what we once relied upon. There is just the ‘simple, naked intent unto God’ as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says; and it is enough. That is the secret of Benedictine prayer.

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When Love Grows Cold

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

Hardly a phrase one would associate with St Teresa of Avila, is it? But if one looks at the divisions in the Church, the sorry state of British politics or the sheer ugliness of much of which passes as ‘international relations’, one could surely be forgiven for thinking we have all gone mad. But it is more than that. I think, quite simply, we have forgotten how to love. We are all too busy pressing our own agenda — often, let it be said, an apparently good and worthwhile agenda — to notice that the well-spring of our actions isn’t, as we would like to think, love, but something much closer to selfishness. We are not good at self-knowledge and tend to hide the truth from ourselves. ‘The lie in the soul is a true lie’ is utter nonsense. A lie is a lie is a lie. So, is there a remedy? I think there is, and one of which St Teresa is herself a great exponent: prayer.

People often ask what prayer is (which makes a nice change from those anxious to tell me what prayer is) as though it were some strange activity in which one may occasionally indulge, but only as a last resort. My answer, that prayer is allowing God to love us and loving him in return often seems to disappoint. It is like Naaman being told to bathe in the Jordan to heal his leprosy — too simple, too easy. I smile a little smile at such times and think, ‘You try it, and you’ll soon see!’ For, of course, to pray perseveringly, day in, day out, not just when the mood seizes or when one feels the need, is a form of asceticism, properly understood — and how few are willing to submit to such a discipline!

Most of us are quite good at recognizing what is wrong with the world and we take to Social Media or blogging to share our insights (criticisms) with others. I wonder how many of us take to our knees instead or as well? St Teresa’s great work for her Order and for the Church rested upon her largely unseen life of prayer. We read her letters or pore over The Interior Castle and think how wonderful she was and how attractive the way in which she teaches us to pray, but at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning or after a hard day at work, the enthusiasm drains away, and who can blame us?

Today’s challenge, therefore , is simultaneously hard and easy: it is to resolve, yet again, to make time for prayer and stick to it — not prayer as endless petitions; not prayer as flowery phrases or telling God what he already knows; but prayer as allowing God to love us and loving him in return. The prayer of love and silence comes to us as sheer gift but it transforms life because it leads to Life himself.

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Never Despair of God’s Mercy

rocks in a lake

The title of this post comes from today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict. It is the last tool of good works named in the chapter and one on which most of us rely all our life (RB 4.76). This morning, with the folly of Brexit again before our eyes and the Church as much in turmoil as ever, it is something to cling to, like a rock. But rocks are not only places of refuge: they can also provide the footing from which to launch ourselves into the deep. The mercy of God is like that, too. It upholds us in times of trouble and propels us forward when we need to go further into the mystery of God and our own vocation. It takes thought, prayer and humility to decide which is which. Let us pray that we may each discern correctly what is being asked of us today.

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The Language of Death and Dying

Regular readers will know that I tend to be fairly straightforward about death and dying. ‘Brutally blunt’ was the term used by someone blessed with greater sensitivity, or perhaps a richer vocabulary, than I. The truth is, I have watched at the bedsides of too many people in their last hours to be squeamish about the process of dying, and my own illness forces me to contemplate my own death with as much regularity as the precepts of the Rule could desire. (As an aside, Benedict refers to death and judgement several times and exhorts the monk to keep death daily before his eyes, RB 4.47). Death, then, is no stranger; and though I do not think I would ever follow St Francis in calling it ‘Sister Death,’ I do not care for the various euphemisms we use to try to rob the word of its power. When I die, I shall die: I shall not ‘pass’ or ‘pass away’. Still less shall I ‘fall asleep’ or ‘lose my battle with cancer’. Does it matter? I think it does.

Traditionally, Christianity has always seen death as an entrance into the fullness of life. It is as much a part of life as being born, and just as precious. To be with someone in their last hours is a great privilege. Yes, it’s nice if the process of dying is attended with clean sheets, quietness and an absence of struggle, but often it isn’t. It can be messy, painful and as far removed from the idealised version as it is possible to be; but the moment when God comes to claim his own, when sin and failure fall away and the true beauty of the soul is glimpsed, is always a moment of sheer wonder. The power of God is active in a way we rarely advert to at other times, so we have no need to dress death up with circumlocutions as though it were somehow an affront to our humanity. It is the realisation of our humanity, the completion of our humanity.

Today, many will be recalling the anniversaries of those who have died. For those of us who lived through them, the events of 9/11 seem unforgettable, but memories fade, and the personal connections dissolve. I like the fact that Catholicism has never seen any need to distinguish between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the monastery, for example, every Hour of the Divine Office, every meal we eat, ends with a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed. We pray for ALL the faithful departed, not just those known to us. By that simple remembrance, we unite with those who have died, of course, but also with those who grieve and with those who have no words to form a prayer; and just as the words we sing or the food we eat are, so to say, a fleshly reality, so death itself becomes not an absence of life but truly part of it.

The language of death and dying is beautiful in its honesty and its starkness. Let us honour it and pray that we ourselves will meet death with courage and truthfulness when it comes. In the meantime, let us not shy away from it or try to pretend death doesn’t exist. It does, and we should rejoice in that fact — because where Christ has gone before, we hope to follow.

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Sitting on a Fence or Jumping on a Band-waggon?

The events of the last few days have shaken many ordinary Catholics — not in our faith, but in our perception of the Church’s leadership and its ability to deal with the apparently never-ending revelations of abuse, corruption and cover-ups. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is merely the latest but potentially most damning accusation of all. That fact makes me want to repeat something I have said many times already: unless or until we know the full facts, we should be wary of adding further fuel to the fire by rash accusations or counter-accusations of our own. Sitting on a fence may not seem very brave — it is certainly uncomfortable — but it is better than jumping on a band-waggon. Just think for a moment. To make a false accusation against another is calumny and defamation of character. It is a serious matter. At the moment both Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò are having very grave allegations made against them. Most of us are not in a position to judge. We may have our suspicions, but suspicions are not evidence and usually reflect our own previous opinions about various matters. Unfortunately, this has led to some very ugly in-fighting made public online and soon, no doubt, in the press. I daresay that is exactly what the devil wants. Destroying the unity of the Church, setting us against one another, creating an atmosphere of chaos and toxic distrust, is not the work of the Holy Spirit! Those using the opportunity this discord brings to advance an agenda of their own should ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering those who have suffered or could be exposed, now or in the future, to abuse — which is, after all, where we began and is the terrible sin the Church must address.

I was thinking about this in the context of St Monica’s feast today. She is conventionally portrayed as ‘merely’ the mother of a much greater figure, St Augustine of Hippo, and as such often given rather short shrift. She had an impossible husband and a drink problem, and the years of her widowhood were far from easy. It all sounds rather dreary, so no wonder we look at the son and tend to forget the mother. But there is something about St Monica that I think we do well to remember: she was a woman of extraordinary persistence in prayer. Would Augustine have become a saint without her? Who can say, but surely those ceaseless prayers, that persevering faith, count for something. St Monica encourages us ordinary Catholics to go on praying, believing, hoping and, above all, trying to maintain the bond of charity which unites the Church. The unholy glee with which some Catholics have greeted the latest revelations is, indeed, unholy and destructive. May we never be party to it. May we not fail those whose wounds the whole Church now knows about and must try to heal.

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Health, Happiness and the NHS

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon, since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation and the 70th birthday of the National Health Service. I owe an enormous debt to both and make no apologies for an intensely personal post.

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I was doing some research in Ourense, Galicia, where the canon-archivist was very keen to show the enigmatic Inglesa his pride and joy: a statue of Our Lady of Consolation that had been much beloved of English seamen. I had so far acculturated to Spanish ways that I actually dropped to my knees and prayed — for England, of course, but even more, with all the egocentricity of youth, for myself and future path in life. I did not know that it would lead me to an English Benedictine monastery under the patronage of that self-same Lady of Consolation, nor that one of my kinswomen had been a member of the community back in the eighteenth century. But it did, and I think that the emphasis on compassion, on strengthening, the choice of dedication gave the community has been a marker in many monastic lives. Here at Howton Grove, where we are under the patronage of the Blessed Trinity, we continue the tradition, I hope, albeit in a different form from that of the seventeenth century when Cambrai was established.

It seems to me very suitable that the NHS should have begun on the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, though I doubt whether its first architect would have been so appreciative of the link! During the last seventy years the NHS has undergone many transformations and will doubtless undergo many more, but one thing it has done superbly well, especially for the poor. It has taken away the worry of ‘how will I afford treatment?’ I myself have two rare diseases, one of them a rare and aggressive form of cancer that has been kept at bay far longer than I have any right to expect by a treatment programme entirely funded by the NHS. The community couldn’t afford the treatment I’ve had; we couldn’t even afford the insurance premiums for the treatment I’ve had. So, yes, I am just one more person who owes her life to the NHS, but there is a little more to it than that.

I began by referencing Our Lady of Consolation for a reason. I haven’t much time for those who moan and groan about the NHS being underfunded or who are scathing about its poor outcomes in some areas because I happen to believe that we are each of us chiefly responsible for our own health. It is up to us to adopt as healthy a life-style as we can and I don’t expect the NHS to make good any defects in my own ‘self-care’, as it were. The NHS is flawed, as any large organisation will be flawed; but that isn’t the point. The existence of the NHS has freed us from an anxiety about ourselves that can be quite crippling. The question we must therefore ask is, what do we do with that freedom? Are we givers of comfort and encouragement or merely consumers thereof? There are times when my own illness makes me look inward and feel very sorry for myself, but I hope there are more times when it forces me to look outwards at the sufferings of others. When I can do nothing else, when I am too sick to write or respond to requests, I can try to pray — and somehow, in ways I can’t explain, I think that does achieve something. Despite all the sadness, anger and division in the world, despite all the moral, physical, mental and spiritual sickness that exists, there is a way of spreading health and happiness. It is called prayer, and it costs . . . everything.

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The Personally Important

Sometimes reading through the prayer requests we receive each day acts as a valuable corrective to all the storm and stress flooding the internet. While the headlines are worrying us with their concerns about nuclear war, corruption in high places and the terrible effects of abortion, slavery and gun/knife crime, most people are concerned with matters nearer home, what I call ‘the personally important’. That differs for each of us and varies according to circumstance. Sometimes it is difficult to articulate what is needed, or, for whatever reason, someone may feel hesitant or embarrassed about naming their fear or current preoccupation. As a result, they find it easier to pray for people or needs ‘out there’ than for themselves or the things that keep them awake at night or fill their days with anxiety.

I think myself that a reluctance to pray for oneself or the things that are personally important is a pity. We are the apple of God’s eye. There is nothing he would not do for us (which is not the same as always agreeing with us what is best for us). Learning to trust God with ourselves, so to say, is a necessary part of learning to trust God with the needs of the world. Perhaps the problem is that we have a false idea of prayer and it gets in the way of our actually praying. Prayer is really very simple, it is we who make it complicated. We have only to turn our gaze towards God, trusting that he will see and understand.

Today could we each spend a few minutes asking the Holy Spirit to pour the gift of prayer into our hearts, to take away all barriers and teach us how to be simple and natural in God’s presence? No matter how old we are, no matter how long we have been praying, those first steps remain as vital as ever, in every sense of the word.

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The Importance of the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Yesterday we began re-reading the chapters of the Rule that deal with the liturgical prayer of the community. Over the next two weeks we shall go through the various Offices (Hours) of the day, the psalms to be said, the number and kind of lessons to be read, the postures we should adopt and so on. I’m told that some communities have abandoned reading these chapters on the grounds that their daily Office no longer conforms to the pattern of the Rule. Our own Office does not conform in every respect — for example, we have an English Office of Lauds which follows a different arrangement of psalmody (as provided for in the Rule) — but we certainly pay close attention to Benedict’s liturgical code because it is normative. By that I mean that it gives us the principles on which our community prayer should be based, and enough detail to ensure that we do not devise some whacky scheme of our own that takes us away from the objective nature of the liturgy. Do these matter? I think they do.

One of the dangers of liturgical ‘creativity’ is that often it isn’t actually creative but really quite deadly. It can substitute a highly subjective and time-limited view of reality for an older, more challenging one. What we often forget is that we have to work at the liturgy. For instance, we have to pray the psalter as Christ prays it, and usually that means letting go of our own ideas. Here we pray all 150 psalms every week, as stipulated by St Benedict, without any worries about whether the cursing psalms should cross a Christian’s lips or not. If they crossed Our Lord’s, they can certainly cross ours. Nor are we bothered by notions of quantity being the enemy of quality. The psalter is complete in itself, carefully arranged, ideally suited to the rhythms of liturgical time, the day and the week. When we lose touch with that, we lose touch with much else that is relevant.

One of the joys of being a Benedictine is that we are remarkably free of the devotionalism that has marked the growth of the Church in later ages.* That means we have no let-out. We cannot substitute the personal for the communal. We have to make the liturgy the focus of our personal prayer as well as of our prayer as a community; and because at one level that is all very simple, psalms and scripture for the most part, we have to become thoroughly saturated with what would today be called a biblical spirituality, familiar not just with the texts but with the way in which they have been interpreted and understood by the Fathers. Even the chants we use to sing the words of the liturgy are biblical in origin, having their roots in the synagogue music of the time of Christ.

So, if you are reading through the Rule day by day, as we do in the monastery, be encouraged. These supposedly dry chapters on liturgy have much to teach us. They end in chapter 20, with one of the most perfect statements of what prayer is and how we should prepare for it. It presupposes all that has gone before, because one of the things we all have to learn, sooner or later, is that there are no short-cuts in prayer unless God chooses. And that is the rub. The liturgy is a gift, and it is given by God.

*Please don’t misunderstand me: I would be the last person to undervalue the significance of Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, for example, although they play no part in our community prayer because they did not exist in Benedict’s time or for centuries after. They are left to the individual’s personal attraction on the Bakerite principle, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all.’

Addendum
A couple of people have asked about our arrangement of the psalms in the Divine Office. The diagram below gives the psalm scheme for Ordinary Sundays of the Year and Ferias, with the exception that the Sunday Lauds canticle is recited after psalm 116. The sections are Vigils, Lauds, Midday Office (which incorporates the lesser Hours), Vespers and Compline. We follow the Septuagint numbering of the psalms.

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