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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On Being Tired

Here is a word of encouragement for anyone who is tired. For the last few days I have myself been feeling as though every effort were beyond me, so it comes from the heart. The community even has a word for this state of weariness — exhaustipation — from which you can see it is commoner than you may have imagined. Everyone experiences it from time to time. The problem is that tiredness is often associated with grumpiness and a feeling of guilt. We tell ourselves we should be doing more; and because we are angry with ourselves, we tend to lash out at our nearest and dearest. We may not say anything hurtful, but most of us are quite good at the pointed silence, the ‘hard stare’ of Paddington Bear or the selective deafness of the PBGV — endearing in them, but not so much in adult Human Beans.

The solution to the problem is actually very simple: a supernumerary nap, a quiet nodding off over a book (or even an email), a period of reflection requiring closed eyes and an absence of engagement with those around us, but with this difference. Our restorative nap needs to be ushered in with a prayer, so that even our sleep can become prayerful. I have always taken as the motto for what I call the Prayer of Gentle Drift those encouraging words from the Song of Songs, Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat. I sleep, but my heart keeps watch (Song of Songs, 5.2). In sleep, we cannot erect any barriers to God or his will as we do when we are awake and on our guard, so that’s worth thinking about. Solomon was a wise man. Let us be wise in our generation, too.

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