Feeling Helpless

Most of us would admit to feeling helpless at times. Illness, the sudden loss of a job, even a leak we can’t fix can leave us experiencing an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. No matter how hard we try, we find it difficult to put a truly brave face on things. Outside we may look as though we are coping; inside we are more of a mess. For many in the UK and throughout the EU, the Brexit crisis is stoking up fears about the future, while those who see their jobs disappearing with the collapse of the High Street and traditional manufacturing industries have more immediate worries. We have learned, painfully, how quickly a situation can go from ‘just managing’ to ‘not managing at all’. So, how does prayer fit into this?

One of the things we learn very quickly when we try to pray seriously is that prayer has many modes. There is joy and sorrow, hope and fear; times when prayer seems easy and natural, times when it seems impossibly hard and barren. The important point is to persevere, to accept the prayer God gives now, not the prayer he gave yesterday or may give tomorrow. That is to allow our helplessness to be transformed by grace. Unfortunately, we don’t see what is happening, though others may; and it is important to remember that feelings are not a very good guide to what is happening. We may well go on feeling helpless, powerless, even if we aren’t. It keeps us humble, if nothing else.

The humility we learn in prayer is the bedrock of Benedictine life. That needs thinking about. Humility seems so attractive in other people but in ourselves is often perceived as akin to weakness. Odd, isn’t it, that something that feels as wobbly and uncertain as helplessness should actually provide us with safe standing? Another paradox to get our minds around.

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The Danger of Cynicism

Cynicism is often thought to be cool. Standing aside and apart from the common herd suggests to the cynical intellectual or moral superiority. It is a sign of being special: a looking down on others from the heights of better knowledge or understanding. Forgive me for saying so, but I think that is rot. Cynicism is actually both depressingly common and commonly depressing. Why so? Because, among other things, it destroys wonder.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding thrilling those first images of Ultima Thule or the far side of the moon. Part of me registers the huge cost involved and the political and economic motivation that co-exists alongside the more purely scientific desire to explore the unknown, but wonder is my predominant emotion, my immediate response. Cynicism doesn’t come into it.

I think that is heartening for all sorts of reasons, not least because I believe that wonder is an important part of prayer. If prayer is no more than a list of requests (sometimes, let’s be honest, demands) or a series of apologies for sins real or imagined, the focus tends to remain firmly on ourselves, and we can easily become cynical because, not surprisingly, God does not see as we see, so our ideas about how our prayer should be answered are often disappointed. Allow a little wonder in and everything is transformed. We are not addressing a God ‘out there’ but a God near to us, who loves us, wishes to be known by us, and whose ideas are infinitely more amazing than our own.

So, whatever else you do today, do please allow yourself a few moments of wonder — at the beauty of the sky, the kindness of strangers, even the miracle of being alive one more day.

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Rooted, or Are We?

One hundred days to Brexit, announce the media, with varying degrees of gladness or dismay. Meanwhile, we are preparing to sing O Radix Jesse at Vespers tonight:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delaying no longer!

Is this another instance of the Church working on completely different lines from the rest of society? Or do we pray in a way that encompasses the demands of Brexit and every other difficulty we face at this time? Consider that line, ‘at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek’. It is awkward in English, but it contains an important truth: God is in control and those who seek him, unlikely as it may seem, will one day find him. God wants to be found; he desires to lead us. Being a Gentile is at first sight a disadvantage, excluded as we assume we are from the Covenant and the privileges of the people of Israel; but the prophecies we have been reading throughout this period of Advent have been reminding us that the Covenant has been opened to all. Amazingly, as St Paul says, we, the wild olive, have been grafted onto the ancient tree. But there is more that is encouraging and surprising in equal measure.

Those who hold power in this world do so for only a time. They can do much good or much harm, but ultimately their power is transitory. Before God the powerful are struck dumb, because God sees with a clarity they do not possess. Only purity of heart, the purity of love and generosity, can enable anyone to see as God sees, and we all fall short of that but especially, perhaps, those whose main focus is their own advantage. It is sobering to remember that, but it is true. We need to see as God sees.

Today’s antiphon is not some form of pious escapism. It is a reminder not to lose heart, not to give up. God wills what is good for us, and no matter how contrary the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how dire we think the state of the country or how irresponsible our politicians, there is hope — but it is a hope that requires more of us than mere wishing. The Root of Jesse stands as an ensign to the peoples. We must rally to his standard, and that means exposing ourselves to danger, to misunderstanding and, as this world sees it, even to failure. The victory is won, but we must still fight. 

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Dancing for Joy | Gaudete Sunday 2018

Today our churches will be a riot of rose vestments, incense and music, but very few, I suspect, will be filled with dancing. Catholics don’t do that sort of thing, except perhaps in parts of Africa where dance is intrinsic to the local culture. In the West, liturgical dance tends to be something of an embarrassment. It conjures up visions of middle-aged persons executing vague swoops and dives to the accompaniment of drums and guitars: a kind of church-goers’ Strictly without the glitz. In Spain, they take a more relaxed attitude: As Henri Pirenne remarked, ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. That certainly applies to Seville, the city of dance. Those who have witnessed the beautiful Baile de los Seises, that strange, slow dance  of the choristers before the altar of the cathedral, will have been told how hard-won their privilege is. In the seventeenth century the Vatican took seventeen years to agree that the ancient dance might continue, but only ‘for as long as the choristers’ clothes do not wear out’. Of course, they never have. A patch here, an addition there, new shoes or breeches now and then; so the dance goes on.

It is important that the dance should go on because it symbolizes much more than may be apparent at first glance. One of today’s Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14–18, provides us with an unforgettable image of God dancing for joy over his children. We can identify with David, dancing for joy as the Ark of the Covenant is brought back to Jerusalem, but God dancing for joy over us! That is a joy to fill the whole of creation. As this last week of Advent begins, we rejoice at the nearness of our God, but only because he has first rejoiced over us:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a victorious warrior.
He will exult with joy over you,
he will renew you by his love;
he will dance with shouts of joy for you
as on a day of festival.

This is the Wisdom from on high whom we shall invoke in tomorrow’s ‘O’ antiphon, the God of infinite power and love who reaches from end to end of the universe, who will teach us the way of truth — and whose joyful dance will never end.

O antiphons:
For texts, translations and music of the ‘O’ antiphons, beginning on 17 December, please see http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html (Flash needed for the audio).

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A Virtual Vigil

I was reading over some of my previous posts on St John of the Cross, whose feast is today, in order to avoid repeating what I have already said when I broke off to scan the BBC web site for news of yesterday’s EU summit. Clearly, here in the UK we are plunging further and further into a political mess of our own making. As individuals, I am sure we have all prayed about it, but have we done so as a community? I know that in the monastery we haven’t really, although we have kept the subject in mind often enough.

Tonight, therefore, we shall be holding a virtual Vigil between 7.00 pm and 8.00 pm with the explicit intention of asking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help. Anyone who cares to join us can do so from anywhere, and at any time. We don’t prescribe any particular readings or formal prayers. I imagine we ourselves will just pray quietly and end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It isn’t much. It’s just a small gesture, but God has a way of taking small gestures and transforming them into something powerful. St John of the Cross was a man of very small stature and insignificant presence, we’re told, but how his love of God blazes across the centuries and what an immense amount he achieved — and all because he prayed, with an earnestness and perseverance that puts most of us — me certainly — to shame.

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Does it Matter What the Churches Do?

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.

The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?

Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Pro Orantibus: World Day of Cloistered Life

Since 1953, when Pius XII first instituted this day under the title Pro Orantibus, Catholics have been encouraged to give thanks to God for ‘those who pray’ and give spiritual and material support to monks, nuns and hermits who live what is called the cloistered life, i.e. whose main work is prayer rather than other forms of service such as teaching or nursing. For Benedictines, however, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady has additional resonances. For example, in the English Benedictine Congregation it is celebrated as the Dies Memorabilis, the day when the pre-Reformation Congregation’s privileges were conferred on its post-Reformation successor. For me, personally, its is the anniversary of my Clothing, of my formal entrance into monastic life.

Having said that, I wonder what impact, if any, this day makes on the average church-goer? Some have registered the enormous shake-up for cloistered nuns that Cor Orans represents. Others will be at pains to show their love and support for the communities with which they have a personal connection. But for the vast majority, I suspect, the day will pass by without any special awareness or acknowledgement. Perhaps that is in itself a clue to the origins of the malaise that many have identified in the Church. Put very simply, and I hope non-polemically, if we do not pray, everything goes wrong. It is tempting to lay the blame for abuse and all the other wrongs we identify in the Church on this group or that, on individual or organisational failures and infidelity to the Church’s teaching, etc, etc. I am by no means suggesting that we spiritualize away responsibility, but I think there is something fundamental we ALL need to remember. We are called to holiness. No matter how wonderful our good works, no matter how virtuous our conduct, we can do nothing without God’s grace. It is being close to him that makes us holy, and we cannot be close if we do not pray.

So, today is not just a reminder to be thankful for the cloistered life. It is a day to be aware of the importance of prayer in the life of every one of us; and if we have become a little careless or perfunctory in our prayer, to resolve to do better — to become like Mary ‘full of grace’.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail