St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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A Reed Shaken by the Wind?

Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 11. 2–11) is a stark contrast to the lyricism of the Mass’s first reading (Isaiah 35. 1–6, 10) and the explosion of colour and sound accompanying our celebration of Gaudete Sunday. John the Baptist is in prison, soon to be executed at the whim of a tyrant. He has heard about Jesus, but isn’t sure he is the One he, and all Israel, is longing for; so he sends some of his followers to question him. Jesus sends back an answer linking himself to Isaiah’s prophesy, then goes on to discuss John in terms some of us may find surprising.

We tend to think of John the Baptist as a ‘wild man,’ living on the edge of the desert, austere to the point of emaciation. He is obsessed with the coming of the Messaiah — joyful, fierce, capable of spell-binding utterance and blistering honesty, a man of contradictions. Herod didn’t know what to make of John yet liked to listen to him. The scribes and pharisees whom John called a ‘brood of vipers’ were also keen to hear him speak. Clearly, there was something irresistibly attractive about him — a strength, a clarity of purpose, on which others could rely, however uncomfortable it might prove at times. Yet Jesus’ first words about John are enigmatic. ‘What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’ The words are so unexpected that the irony is not immediately apparent. A reed looks fragile as it trembles in the wind, but who would have thought of John as fragile? Then there is that allusion to the garment of camel-hair and the contrast with the fine clothes worn in a palace. Finally, Jesus gets to the point: John is a prophet and, as such, a strong man, dressed in the garments of salvation, a challenge to our way of thinking and acting, just as Jesus himself is a challenge to us. 

Why did Jesus play with his audience in that way? A scripture scholar would probably wish to explain literary forms and semitic usages, but I think a much simpler explanation may suffice. Jesus wants his hearers to think. What was it about John that drew them to him? What was it about John that Jesus wanted his own disciples to emulate?

Let’s go back, for a moment, to the reed image. Reeds are found in marshy areas, in marginal lands. They have hollow stems, making them good conductors of sounds or liquids, and they can be used to manufacture almost anything from a basket to a roof. They are, in fact, immensely tough, amazing for all their seeming ordinariness. Without trying to stretch the analogy too far, we can say that John, too, was tough, living on the margins of society and with so little self-importance that he desired to grow less that Christ might grow greater, a human example of the amazing-in-ordinary. He was shaped by the Word of God to be his instrument. He proclaimed the demands of righteousness to all who would listen, showing no fear. He gave a baptism of repentance to those prepared to humble themselves, and baptized Jesus himself at the beginning of his public ministry. He did all this without fuss or fanfare, content to let Christ be all in all, ultimately laying down his life for him.

In a moment of exquisite tenderness, Jesus recognizes John’s stature and allows us to see how much he loved him. John was both forerunner and follower, the greatest among those yet born of women, a witness to truth and justice. We know that but don’t often think about the love Jesus had for John, nor do we frequently reflect on the dynamic between them. Perhaps we should do so more often, because if we could understand the relationship between them, we should understand better what it means to be a disciple and how to prepare for the coming of Christ. For many, John remains a little distant, a little severe, but if we think about the role he played in Jesus’ life, I think he becomes the warm and attractive figure he undoubtedly was, the ‘one joy man’ beloved of monks and nuns. The respect Jesus and John had for each other is telling. John, we could say, was necessary to Jesus in the accomplishment of his mission. That is a huge claim, and must be followed by an equally huge question. Are we also necessary? We might usefully ponder that as we enter the third week of Advent.

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On a Dark Night

I come from a monastic community that has always been extremely reticent about prayer and spiritual experience. D. Catherine Gascoigne, the first abbess of Cambrai, said all she wanted to say about prayer in half a dozen sentences; her contemporary, D. Gertrude More, was the exception that proves the rule — she had more of the prolixity of Fr Augustine Baker, her teacher. It remains a community joke that no one should ever write her spiritual autobiography. How fortunate we are that St John of the Cross was untroubled by such restraints, though I dare to say that I think many misunderstand him or read him superficially. His teaching on prayer is wise, deep and immensely challenging. Even after a lifetime of trying to pray, I am not sure that I quite ‘get’ him. I can revel in the beauty of his poetry, shudder at the way he was treated by his confrères, delight in his courage and the anecdotes we have about him, understand some of what he is saying, but there remains a distance, a degree of unknowing, which not only proves I was right to become a Benedictine rather than a Carmelite, but also that there are many ways of praying which, despite having much in common, also have their differences. We have to find the one that suits us, that is intended for us, and it can be a long and hard task to discover what it is.

The hardness of the task must not put us off, however. A few years ago I tried to express what I mean by that, and what I wrote then strikes me as still being valid. The darkness of Advent is a preparation for the coming of Light, just as the darkness of prayer is a preparation for the coming of the Giver of prayer, God himself; and the gifts that God gives are never intended for ourselves alone. They are to be shared:

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rock-face for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent, Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

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A Forgiving God?

On the memoria of St Ambrose the ‘godly internet’ will be awash with a single quotation: ‘No one heals himself by wounding another.’ Very few, however, will read what St Ambrose has to say in his treatise, Concerning Repentance, from which it is taken. You, dear reader, can, and in English, too, if you follow this link: St Ambrose on Repentance. If you do, you will find something that may make you think about two things that are very important this Advent.

First, Ambrose wasn’t judgemental in the way that we habitually use that word. He knew what he believed and was anxious to win the Novatians back to Catholic unity, so he advocated gentleness and patience rather than blistering attacks on the integrity of others. He could only do that because he believed in the forgiveness of God. I sometimes wonder whether we do. Do we really believe that others can repent, and that God’s mercy will embrace their desire to be reconciled? Some of the ‘debates’ taking place in the Church and the fierce and unforgiving language in which they are expressed might make an outsider question that. We are often more demanding than God, more certain that everyone should believe as we do — in short, more exacting, less forgiving.

Second, forgiveness is personal. During Advent it is important that we should, if possible, make our confession and be reconciled with God and one another. The sacrament of confession isn’t an endorsement of sin, as some maintain. We genuinely do have to repent, to seek forgiveness, be prepared to make amends and avoid sin for the future. Sometimes we will be asked by our confessor to go to someone we have injured and say ‘sorry’ if we haven’t already done so. That can be very hard, especially if the person we’re apologizing to is in no mood to forgive. We have to believe in the reality of grace before we can allow God to forgive in us, or accept forgiveness ourselves.

So, today’s Advent challenge is very simple. Am I willing to forgive and be forgiven? Do I believe in a God who forgives or do I not? Will I make my confession, or will I refuse the coming of God into my life?

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A Spoonful of Sugar

Today is St Nicholas’s day, when, with a good conscience, we can rot our teeth with toffee and gingerbread, punch our opponents on the nose, and, provided we have all the necessary safeguarding measures in place, enjoy the company of children, exchange gifts, pray for seafarers and do good by stealth. If you haven’t a clue what I mean, or don’t ‘do’ irony, these posts may help:

St Nicholas and Santa Claus
Death in the North Sea

We tend to be serious about Advent, but not always in the right way, as some of the responses to yesterday’s post made clear to me. Yes, it is a time for concentrating on the coming of the Messiah, but it is also a time for recognizing that we are already living in the Messianic age. The plainness most of us adopt throughout this short season of preparation for Christmas isn’t meant to be gloomy or misanthropic, ‘penitential’ in the popular sense of the word. On the contrary, our penance should be life-enhancing. There should, ideally, be something of the rubicund Father Christmas/Santa Claus about it — a generosity of spirit and intention, even if we can’t manage material generosity. Not all of us can do that, nor should anyone be made to feel guilty about it; but we must beware of complacency. ‘I can’t’ is sometimes a pretext for ‘I won’t’.

In earlier posts about St Nicholas, I have stressed the importance of prayer. It is one thing we, as nuns, are committed to giving to the Church and to the world, and never has it been more necessary. Recently, I looked at the statistics for the number of abortions performed in England and Wales, the number of children living in poverty in the UK as a whole, the numbers officially ‘in care’ and those estimated to be surviving on hand-outs from food banks, despite the fact that their parents may be doing two or three jobs to try to keep themselves above the breadline. It was a shocking contrast to all the ads for consumer goods that marked Black Friday and continue to besiege us that we may have the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This morning the prayer of the community is for conversion of heart for us all: for St Nicholas to be honoured by more generous giving to children in need, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. If a rich country like the U.K. can tolerate such shameful inequality, such cruel indifference to children, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Our giving may be no more than a spoonful of sugar, but even one spoonful has the potential to make a huge difference. Try it.

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The Obedience of St Cecilia

I was surprised to read this on Twitter today:

‘She (St Cecilia, whose feastday this is) was one of those strong souls for whom it costs nothing to obey the voice of God.’ Père Adolphe Roulland, MEP

Quite apart from the mere detail of its having cost Cecilia her life, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has found obedience to God entirely easy or undemanding. We have to make an effort to listen, and for most of us, most of the time, that means renunciation of some other good so that we can pay attention to the Lord. Frequently, it means choosing something we find hard or difficult. Even St Benedict reserves to the twelfth step of humility the less stressful obedience born of long experience and practice — and Cecilia was about twelve when she was martyred (cf RB 7. 67–70). Those of us who are not the stuff of which martyrs are made have an additional difficulty. We are not very good at assuring ourselves that the promises made us can be relied upon. I know that I am a coward. Faced with the choice between dying for Christ and living on with some sort of accommodation to whatever was asked of me, I have a horrible feeling I would opt to live on.

Happily, it doesn’t all depend on us. Leave grace out of the equation and the Church would have no martyrs, no heroes or heroines of faith. Whatever challenges today presents us with, it is worth remembering that grace is all around. We may not be called to martyrdom in the sense of dying for Christ, but we are all called to witness to him. Grace will be given as and when we need it. We have only to ask.

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The Lord’s Prayer and the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Today’s feast of St Ignatius of Antioch is one I have written about many times, but I don’t think I have ever really thought about it in the context of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 13. 12–14, which gives the reasons for ending the offices of Lauds and Vespers with the Lord’s Prayer said or sung out loud.

Benedict was clear-eyed about community life and knows how often we offend one another. However, we make a solemn pledge in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive one another, and Benedict insists that we remind ourselves of this covenant of forgiveness frequently and always at the end of the two peak periods of the Divine Office, Lauds and Vespers. It is the superior who is to recite the prayer, not because he is set above the brethren but because he must provide the unity and leadership the community needs. We give our assent by saying Libera nos a malo – deliver us from evil.

The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is not a mere matter of routine, the expected ending of a Christian service of worship: it goes to the heart of the monastic enterprise. We seek God in community under a rule and an abbot. That means frank acknowledgement of failure and a readiness to begin again — and allowing others to begin again, too. At the other offices, most of the prayer is said silently, except for the conclusion. For myself, I find in that a reminder that we do not always have to articulate everything, that sometimes forgiveness is better mediated through an accepting silence rather than an attempt to clear up every detail of misunderstanding and hurt.

Ignatius of Antioch left us seven letters which breathe charity and forgiveness. He remarks of the soldiers who guarded him that the better they were treated, the worse they seemed to behave; but that did not stop him trying to treat them well. He met a martyr’s death with courage. ‘I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.’ May we too meet the challenge of being transformed by grace as he was. We can start by making the Lord’s Prayer the rhythm of our lives.

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Golden Words and Golden Deeds

St John Chrysostom, whose feast-day this is, would probably not find favour with some people today. His attitude to Jews was unsympathetic to say the least, and although he was ardent in his zeal for holiness, his zeal could make him divisive. He was positively rude about clergy who fussed about their dress and perfumed their hair and was censorious of Christian women who attended synagogue services because of the beauty of the liturgy they encountered (ironic, when one considers the Liturgy known by his name). He was, however, decisive about where our priorities should lie and used all his considerable eloquence to argue his case:

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

From Homily 50, On St Matthew’s Gospel

There is a challenge there for Benedictines. We are known to have a special care for the liturgy. The celebration of the Divine Office gives shape to our days, but we must never allow it to become an avoidance of God, a way of escaping our brethren and their needs. If we do, we end up like the rich man in the Letter of St James, who wishes others well but has no intention of doing anything to help. Our words then may be golden, but our deeds are no more than rusty and twisted iron. I think this is the point at which prayer is tested, and tested to the core.

I don’t believe that ‘activism’ — however one chooses to define it — is a substitute for prayer; but prayer that does not make us more generous, more concerned about others, more willing to sacrifice, is prayer only half-begun. To look, even for a moment, at the beauty of the Lord, to have one’s own gaze held in contemplation of the Love that embraces all of us, is to be changed utterly and for ever. The difficulty is, of course, that we can see the change in others but never in ourselves. The moment we shift our gaze to self, we are back with the rusty iron again. That is one of the reasons lifelong commitment in community, with its daily rubbing away at the rust, is the best context for growing in holiness for those of us who would be no good at ‘going it alone’. Monastic communities come in for a lot of criticism these days, some of it justified, some of it not, but there is a wisdom and a store of experience that is, potentially at least, a treasure for the whole Church, not just those of us who live a cloistered life.

Buy a Nun A Book Day
Buy a Nun a Book Day will soon be here (17 September, feast of St Hildegard). The idea behind the day is simple. It’s an opportunity to get to know a nun or religious sister, find out what book she’d like, then either give her the book or make a donation towards the cost of it. When we first thought of the idea, it was to try to help smaller, poorer communities, especially in the developing world, which, like us when we first began, were hard pressed to stock their library or were embarrassed at being used as a dumping ground for books other people wanted to get rid of. And, of course, there is always that book someone wants to read that the librarian says can’t be afforded. How could a book-lover resist that?

We ourselves have benefited hugely from the response people have made to the idea. Quietnun and I still remember gratefully the day two lovely ladies turned up out of the blue to get to know us and gave us a generous book token as they departed. We shall be in retreat on 17 September, but if you wish to give a book to the community, there are two ways of doing so:

1. Our permanent Amazon wish-list contains a few titles, see https://www.amazon.co.uk/hz/wishlist/ls/1HAEXBPB4H3GL?ref_=wl_share
but as books can be expensive,
2. A donation towards buying these or other volumes too costly to be included can be made via our online giving facility: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/donation-web/charity?charityId=1015497&frequencyType=M&utm_source=extbtn&utm_campaign=donatebtn

Community Retreat
The community retreat this year is from 14 September to 21 September inclusive. During that time I’ll try to keep up the daily prayer tweet on Twitter and the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook community page, but I’ll not be blogging or replying to emails. Please pray for us as we shall for you.

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The Worker Monk

I like the fact that we read today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, which envisages God looking for a worker among the multitude of peoples (vv 14–20), on the same day that we celebrate the feast of St Gregory the Great. Gregory was the first monk to become pope, an admirer of St Benedict (who is the subject of Book II of Gregory’s Dialogues) and responsible for sending St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. On previous occasions I have written about the enormous contribution he made to liturgy and papal administration — and the enigmatic nature of his personality, insofar as we can know it from his writings. Today I would like to emphasize just one trait. Gregory had a huge appetite for work and is widely credited with having shaped the medieval papacy. He was a worker monk, if you like, always longing for the cloister but always busy about many things. Today’s section of the Prologue could have been written just for him.

My saying that will probably surprise many. Certainly, Gregory was not always an obvious seeker after peace (cf RB Prol 17). His dealings with the Church in the East, for instance, were made more complicated by the fact that he never learned Greek, while his attempts to engage his clergy in providing charitable relief to the poor were often marked by a severity that Benedict would not have countenanced. Gregory was no Benedictine. But — and it is an important ‘but’ — Gregory had a profound sense of what it meant to be the servant of God. His energy, his zeal, and his ability were all placed at the service of God and the Church. He understood what was implied in seeking to find God, and because he himself responded fully to God’s invitation, he was able to draw others to respond, too.

St Benedict speaks of God looking for his worker (singular). It is the individual who is called to respond to the invitation God offers; it is the individual’s fidelity that will lead to his finding the way of life (cf RB Prol 20). We know that Benedict will go on to map out how this individual response is to be lived in community, but here, at the beginning, there is just one person listening and responding, one person who must take upon his/her shoulders the yoke of obedience, living by the commandments and the precepts of the gospel. In an age when numbers are often taken to be a sign of success, even in the Church, it is good to be reminded of the significance of the individual, of the difference one person can make if they truly wish to serve God.

History has recorded many of St Gregory’s achievements. Most of us will never know in this life whether we have achieved anything of importance to God or anyone else. But we trust, and we go on, knowing that what matters is that we try to be pleasing to God. The promise of finding the way of life, of finding God himself, draws us on. All we have to do is . . . work at it.

This post was scheduled for publication at 6.30 a.m. while I was on my way to Oxford. For some reason, it didn’t get published then.

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