The Blessing of Silence

Yesterday was full of appointments and meetings. At the end of the day to go into my cell (room) and experience its silence was a blessing in the natural as well as supernatural order. Why do we so often fear silence and surround ourselves with sound, any sound, rather than allow ourselves to be lapped in silence?

Perhaps because I am a nun and silence is for me as natural as breathing, I don’t quite ‘get’ the desire for sound. (I refuse to call it noise, because that is disparaging.) Maybe it is something to do with the connection between silence, sleep and death. All three, in different ways and in different degrees, make it impossible for us to exert our will over others. Silence equates to powerlessness; but I’d want to say, it is not powerlessness as commonly understood. The deepest, most complete silence the world has ever known began on Calvary and ended with the Resurrection. We experience it afresh every year on Holy Saturday and in times of prayer when the Word silently transforms our being.

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Asking for Miracles

People tend to divide into two groups when it comes to asking God for favours: those who never do, and those who never do anything else. Prayer is more than just petition, but it does, at times, include petition. Sometimes people will say, ‘I’ll pray for others, but not for myself’ and then wonder why they are making such a bad fist of being Christian. We sometimes forget that conversion has to start with ourselves, and it is a grace we must ask for in prayer.

I have no difficulty asking God for favours. Indeed, right now, I am asking him for nothing less than a miracle. We have done everything we can to prepare the way but we have reached the end of doing. We ask with perfect confidence and trust, prepared for a ‘no’ as well as a ‘yes’, because the point about asking God for anything is that we ask not for our will to be done but for our will to be aligned with his. That alignment of will is the secret of Mary’s obedience, the heart of her prayer for the Church. Genoito moi kata ta rhema sou, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Let it be to me according to your Word. Amen.

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Five Loaves, Two Fish and a Lonely Place

Yesterday’s gospel (Matthew 14. 13 to 21) describes the feeding of the five thousand as occurring in a ‘lonely place’ to which Jesus and his disciples had retired ‘in order to be by themselves’. For those for whom the week-end is as busy as, if not busier than, ordinary week-days, it is worth pausing over that reference to a ‘lonely place’ and ‘being by themselves’. It is a reminder that finding time for prayer and meditation is not a selfish act but absolutely necessary for a truly Christian life.

For most of us, the lonely places have to be interior; and although we don’t necessarily expect them to be invaded by clamouring crowds, we mustn’t be surprised if they are. Paradoxically, it is where we expect least that we often receive most. If yesterday was too busy then today, on the ‘bus or the train into work perhaps, we might try to find a little time to be by ourselves with God. How else shall we have anything of value to share with others?

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Prayer in a Digital Age

As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.

Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.

At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.

Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.

Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.

*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.

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Changing an Online Identity

Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira
Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira

We all do it. From time to time we change our online identities. We give our web sites makeovers; we change our profile pictures on Facebook; we find a new template for our blog; we redesign our avatars for Twitter or whatever. Having for years used an image of myself listening to an iPod (which the community did not then own), I think it is time to highlight another characteristically Benedictine activity, seeing.

The first word of our Rule is Obsculta, listen, but the idea of seeing, watching, opening our eyes to the light that comes from God, is also important. Both looking and listening are images of what we do in prayer. As it happens, the photo James took shows me reading the Divine Office, a form of lectio divina, carried out, not in choir on this occasion, but in a quiet interval at the RSA, close to the noise and bustle of the Strand. The fact is, all times and seasons are good for prayer; and it is just possible that the person sitting opposite you on the train, eyes glued to a small screen, or jogging along the pavement with earphones firmly attached, is actually somewhere else, in ‘the land of spices’, one with ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’, finding their deepest and truest identity in God.

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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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