Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Christ

It is no accident that immediately after Benedict’s brief chapter on the monastery oratory comes an extended treatment of hospitality. If we wish to welcome God into our lives, we must be ready to welcome his children, too. Sometimes, especially among those who think they have a monastic vocation but are only just beginning to understand that it is not just about the two superpowers, God and self, but about the whole Church, there can be a reluctance to accept that welcoming guests is an essential part of being a monk or nun. ‘Leave my prayer to make the tea? Dame, how could you ask such a thing?’ Very easily, as it happens, for the guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ, and I think most of us would leave what we have in hand to welcome him, wouldn’t we?

RB 53 is  a very good chapter to use as a way of examining just how real our prayer is. If prayer makes us more selfish, more self-concerned, something is not quite right. If prayer makes us more welcoming, more generous, more selfless, something is right, even if there is still a lot that needs attention. At this stage of Lent it is easy to become disheartened. We have tried SO hard, and failed so miserably and so often. No matter. Like the old Desert Father, we fall down and get up; we fall down and get up. Only the eye of Love himself can see what is being accomplished in us. Praise him.

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The Place of Prayer

RB 52 is all about the monastery’s place of prayer, the oratory. Its simplicity and directness are a useful reminder that some of the things we fuss about — aesthetics, liturgy, vestments, whatever — are secondary to our own inner disposition. Prayer happens because we want to pray, because part of us at least responds to God’s invitation to pray; sometimes we forget that he is always asking us to pray, to enter into union with him, but that is not how Benedict sees things. God is always there; it is we who are so often absent.

As regards the building and its furnishings, all Benedict has to say is, ‘The oratory should be what it is called and nothing else be done or kept there.’ That cuts to the heart of the matter: we pray where we are, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can create helpful conditions by keeping our place of prayer, whether the inner space of mind and heart or the outer space of the place where we pray, uncluttered; but that’s about it. The only other thing he asks of us is that we should be considerate of others and not hinder their prayer by our own noisy devotions.

It is all rather understated, isn’t it? But that is the monastic way of prayer: quiet, simple, persevering. So easy but oh, so difficult, too!

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Information Overload and Compassion Fatigue

Two phrases which have become commonplace, ‘information overload’ and ‘compassion fatigue’, strike me as having enough truth to make them useful and enough untruth to make them dangerous. At the moment, it is difficult not to be caught up in the tragedies unfolding across the world: Japan, of course, but also Libya and Bahrain, Ivory Coast; and those by no means over but already gone from the headlines, the floods and earthquakes which have wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands if not millions. We know too much, but we know it only briefly; and though we do our best to respond, there comes a point when the wallet is, if not empty, at least not as full as it used to be and we are faced with making hard choices: life for you, but not for you.

In the monastery we are, to some extent, protected from both information overload and compassion fatigue. We don’t have unrestricted access to the media and we don’t have much material wealth to share with others. On the other hand, as anyone who has lived this kind of life will tell you, whatever we see or hear makes a much greater and more lasting impact precisely because our access to the media is limited, while not being able to help materially can be painful. So what do we do?

Our first response to any tragedy is prayer. For some people, prayer is a last resort, something one tries when everything else has failed; but to pray perseveringly, committing the outcome to God, trusting him absolutely yet ready to accept that prayer may not be answered as one would wish, is harder than it may seem, yet it is open to any Christian by virtue of the gift of prayer poured into our hearts at baptism. It is not a soft option, a cop-out. It means taking seriously Christ’s role as Eternal High Priest and uniting our prayer with his. It means taking time, wasting time. When we think we can’t take any more, can’t give any more, there is always that inner jar of nard to be broken and poured.

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