Patriotism is not Enough

The solemnity of St George tends to bring out much that is good, a little that is bad, and, if I am honest, a certain amount of silliness as well, among the English. Leaving aside those learned discussions about the origins of the dragon-slaying legend, the displacement of St Edmund as patron saint of the English, and the feast for the eyes that St George-themed paintings and sculpture have produced over the years, what are we left with? For some there is only that red and white flag showing our tribal allegiance, prominently displayed at football matches or on the number plates of cars. For others, there is the annual St George’s Day Dinner, with sentimental speeches pledging fidelity to ‘our own dear Queen, God bless her!’ and a selective recall of history that is both enchanting and infuriating. For many more, the day brings with it either an embarrassed indifference or a sober assessment of England’s role in the world and what are regarded as typically English characteristics. Perhaps we could spend a moment or two looking at these latter.

English Qualities: Myth and Reality

Everyone knows that the most characteristic quality of the Englishman or woman in every age is emotional reserve. Along with that goes a highly-developed sense of duty, honesty and sense of fair play. We pride ourselves on our sense of humour, but not enough to make fools of ourselves learning another language. We just speak English more loudly. We can safely assert that the English are not very imaginative but we do make good administrators. We are entirely clueless about the Arts, depressingly bad cooks, and kinder to animals than to our children. Bluff and gruff, that’s us. Only, it ain’t absolutely true.

Merrie England was not all myth, and in the sixteenth century Erasmus paints a very different picture of England from the one we have now. He didn’t think much of our beer(!), but the cheese was better than that in Basle and he found the English habit of kissing one another on every possible occasion utterly delightful. Everyone sang or played an instrument, and, at least in the circles in which he moved, there was an ease with languages, especially Latin, that made communication easy. Then, I suppose, the rot set in. The English became a little more dour, more intent on empire-building and the martial qualities that go with conquest and administration. By the time we get to the Victorians, the myth becomes reality.

England Today: Values and Virtues

Today, I think very few would claim that the English are emotionally reserved, although there remains an awkwardness about the kind of display of personal emotion we see in Prince Harry. To speak of duty is to invite derision. There are serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of some holding public office, and the uncomfortable feeling that we can no longer count on anyone’s word being their bond. Administration is not our forte, if it ever was, and although we can claim to be more imaginative than allowed in the past, we are just as mono-glottal, inward-looking and dull as ever we were. Is there any hope for us then, as a nation and as individuals?

I think there is. English love of country never descends into nationalism, ‘my country right or wrong,’ except among the eccentric. Despite what I see as the tragedy of Brexit, we are still open to collaboration with others and appreciate their good points. Even after the current Government’s cut in the aid budget, we continue to be one of the most generous providers of help to other countries, both as a state and as individuals. Our cooking has improved but so too has our awareness of the need to share what we have with the hungry. We’re still not good at languages, but we remain kind to animals and we are becoming kinder to our children.

The qualities I have singled out are not obviously Christian virtues but they contain within them some important Christian values. Thinking of Erasmus, though, and his remarks about music-making and kissing, maybe one quality we largely lack nowadays is joyfulness. Easter is the season of joy, and alleluia is its song. Let us not stop at patriotism but ring out our joy to the Lord.

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Easter Tuesday 2021

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Every Easter Tuesday I try to say something new about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the Risen Christ, and every year I fail. The failure is not because there is nothing new to say but because, like Mary, I find myself falling to my knees, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The meeting between Jesus and Mary is one in which we all share — the moment our souls are touched by grace and we recognize him as our Saviour.

It is no accident that Mary sees her Lord through a mist of tears. The human heart must be washed clean if it is to see clearly, and it tends not to be the big, dramatic sins that obscure our vision so much as the little faults and infidelities we allow to become habitual. Mary’s gaze has the simplicity and freshness of the garden in which Jesus stands. For us, that may be more difficult to achieve but the great privilege of monastic life is to do our theology on our knees. It keeps us grounded, and I think it enables us to see what otherwise we might miss. The wounds in Christ’s feet, now channels of grace and healing, hold our gaze as they held Mary’s, and they make sense of what could easily be baffling: we have a God who is near, not one afar off; one who has shared with us the human experience of birth and death and now shares with us the divine gift of resurrection. Mary’s privilege will one day be ours, too. But there is more.

The post-resurrection gospels are full of women whom the Lord comes to meet. They have no need to climb mountains or prepare elaborate sacrifices to find him. He surprises them as they go about their ordinary tasks. This morning Mary is lingering by the tomb when she encounters Christ. There is that momentary lack of recognition characteristic of all the post-resurrection appearances, but then everything changes. Jesus is the same, but different, but how is he different? For Fra Angelico, there is no ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ to suggest a gardener, but Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. When he recognizes her, she is able to recognize him. There is something to ponder there. We think we must go in search of God and sometimes become sad and angry when we feel we have failed to find him, not realising that the initiative always remains his. He finds us; he names us; he calls us.

One further point. Look at the garden and what is beyond the garden. The trees outside are fairly uniform but within, what a variety! Where Christ is, there is always abundance. It was to restore the fullness of life to the world that God gave his only Son. This morning Mary experiences what that means, and she is charged with telling the Church in every generation. We have been redeemed by one who knows us by name and lives for evermore.

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A Word of Encouragement for Followers of Classical Monasticism

St Benedict
St Benedict

A transferred solemnity always feels a little odd, and the fact that the popular Universalis app fails to mention St Benedict at all has led to one or two people questioning whether we have got our dates muddled here at Howton Grove. No, we haven’t, this really is the day when we celebrate the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, which was displaced by the fifth Sunday of Lent yesterday. It is a day of solemn joy in the monastery. St Benedict was keen on Lent, but he was also keen on joy. The whole of his Rule can be said to be woven around the theme of Easter, for which Lent is preparation and joy the outcome; so today we rejoice, for what was, what is, and what is yet to come.

That said, I have been thinking about what I would call classical monasticism, living in community under a rule and superior, with both the scope and limitations that a fixed place and circumstances allow. It has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Monks and nuns who follow this older way are sometimes treated with a curious kind of disregard, as though the way we live is archaic, no longer valid. Is the only kind of monasticism worth talking about a newer kind, not necessarily bound by vows, often dispersed or specifically rejecting some aspect of the Rule (e.g. lifelong single chastity, renunciation of private ownership) in favour of a more individualistic approach? I think it is time that we who have done our best to persevere in the more classical form speak up, especially the nuns, and encourage one another.

Why do I think that important? There is the obvious reason, that without the handing on of the monastic tradition in its classical form, there is always the risk of its being lost or submerged under the partisan vision of some charismatic founder-figure who cherry-picks what he/she likes/dislikes, to the detriment of the whole. The roots of the word monasticism provide the essential clue. Monks and nuns live alone with God. Prayer and observance are our métier, day in, day out. Our buildings may not be as beautiful, our habits as romantic, as those who choose for themselves, but it is our very renunciation of choice, of self, that is crucial.

Nuns play an especially important role here because we are not clergy and are not usually asked to serve in ways some of our male brethren are. We can live the classical form of monasticism in a purer, less distracted way than many of them can. Of course, where women in the Church are concerned, there is another danger. Despite some useful provisions, Cor Orans has demonstrated the danger of assuming that contemplative is interchangeable with monastic.For Benedictines, the rules about numbers and governance reflect a completely different religious tradition from that with which we are familiar, and it has caused some communities much needless heartache and expense. Even among our friends, who belong to Orders strictly so called, there has been some raising of eyebrows at what is expected or imposed. Women are not inferior men, incapable of making decisions about how to lead their lives.

However, my chief reason for saying that I think classical monasticism needs encouragement is because, as far as I can see, it continues to promote holiness — which is what monasticism is about. It doesn’t matter if a community is old or poor, not making a very good job of livestreaming or whatever the fashion of the day may be, not attracting new recruits or whatever, if it is producing holiness in its members, if it is leading others to holiness, then I’d say it is doing all right. Instead of dismissing such communities, I think we should encourage them — and encourage those who are thinking about how best to serve God to take another look. I like to think St Benedict would agree. He saw the whole world caught up in a beam of light. Isn’t that what monks and nuns should be: light for the world?

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St Joseph: Icon of Masculinity

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

I detest the phrase toxic masculinity. There is nothing ‘toxic’ about masculinity any more than there is about femininity. True, there are behaviours which are deeply unpleasant, even dangerous, more usually associated with men than women, but masculinity per se is a gift from God, to be celebrated as the grace it is rather than derided and denied. Happily, in St Joseph, we have an icon of masculinity that is positive and encouraging.

I confess it took me a long time to see the greatness of St Joseph. All those saccharine statues of grey-bearded men holding a lily in one hand and a blue-eyed, flaxen-curled Jesus in the other put me off. The medieval tendency to see him as a figure of fun, an unwitting cuckold, was slightly more appealing if only because it treated him as a person rather than an abstraction. Then I read St Teresa of Avila and Bossuet and began to realise that the Jesus-and-Mary narrative had blinded me to the significance of the Jesus-and-Joseph narrative. Fathers are as important as mothers, and the unassuming holiness of Joseph helped make Jesus the man he was.

It was Joseph, surely, who taught Jesus what it meant to be an observant Jew: to read, to pray, to take his place in society, at ease among both men and women, to work and to play. How rarely do we allow ourselves to reflect on those facts! There is much more we should like to know but can only speculate about. Was Joseph young or old when he married Mary? Did marriage and family life fulfil his human hopes or not? We think of his Old Testament namesake, the place of dreams in his life, the flight into Egypt, the place of exile and slavery, the personal renunciations he embraced. Are we to assume Joseph did not question because he obeyed so completely? Did he not feel pain at times, confusion? And what about life at Nazareth? Was he a great Dad, in the way that men are expected to be today? Did he struggle to make ends meet at times, spend sleepless nights worrying about the future? We shall never know exactly, but we see in Jesus the fruit of his masculinity, of his being a man, a real Mensch. When Jesus hung upon the cross in obedience to his heavenly Father, he did so as Joseph’s son, one who had taken on the lineaments of his adoptive father here on earth.

May St Joseph pray for all fathers, living and dead; those from whom the gift of fatherhood has been withheld; and those who have never known a father’s love and care.

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Playing the Blame Game

A short post today, by way of contrast with yesterday’s. I have always had a soft spot for the saint we commemorate today, Hilary of Poitiers. His very name suggests cheerfulness, and though I daresay the Arians who suffered from his attempts to put them right were unenthusiastic about his efforts, Hilary has continued to be a beacon of sound learning and encouragement in the Church to the present. I think he was probably the best Latin writer of the fourth century (before Ambrose, that is). His daughter Abra became a sanctimonialis and is commonly regarded as a saint, while he did much to encourage Martin of Tours in his monastic enterprise; so, I owe him my gratitude. He endured exile graciously for the most part, and I can’t think of any instance of his blaming others for the difficulties he himself experienced. How different that is from our own times, when someone always has to be held responsible and made to pay — often literally.

Unfortunately, a desire for vengeance — which is what playing the blame game really is — does not always serve the purposes of justice. If one has not oneself suffered the injury another has experienced, it can seem wrong or unsympathetic to argue that the injured party should not be crying out for compensation of some kind. But perhaps that is what we have to do sometimes. Not every wrong can be put right by the payment of a wergild or the award of a sum of money, especially if demanded from those who have no connection with the original wrong-doing. I was thinking about this in the context of a number of recent claims against NHS hospital trusts and asking myself whether we have too easily assumed negligence when in actual fact a mistake has been made. We are all fallible, and I pity those who have to try to sort out the genuinely blame-worthy from those who are not. May they have the clarity of mind and warmth of heart of St Hilary himself.

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Gaudete Sunday (III Sunday of Advent) 2020

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments and pealing organ music, ought to be an occasion of pure joy, oughtn’t it? A moment of relaxation in our Advent journey when we rejoice with all our hearts. Then we look at the world about us and sigh. Hundreds of schoolboys abducted from their boarding school in Katsina, Nigeria; post-Brexit trade talks taken to the knife-edge amid threats from the British side to use Royal Navy gunboats to patrol U.K. waters; a dying U.S. presidency which, in the view of many, is storing up trouble for the future; and a pandemic that seems to be regaining much of its original virulence even as it leads to job losses and insecurity among those least equipped to deal with them.

We read Isaiah’s lyrical praise of the Messiah and his mission (Isaiah 61.1-2,10-11), sing the Magnificat in response and allow Paul’s words to the Thessalonians about rejoicing and praying at all times to sink in (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) and wonder, briefly, whether the Church inhabits the same universe as the rest of us. Then we come to the gospel, (John 1.6-8,19-28), and, as throughout the last few days, focus on the figure of John the Baptist, the saint Jean Daniélou memorably called ‘the one joy man’.

John the Baptist ought to have been a grump, living as he did on the edge of the desert, challenging those who didn’t want to change their ways; but he wasn’t. He was filled with joy, filled with the Spirit, a lamp alight and burning as he waited for the coming of the Son who would be the true Light to enlighten the world. His joy echoes down the centuries. It reminds us that joy doesn’t come from material security or everything going our way. It comes from closeness to the Lord, from trusting him, allowing his light into our darkness. If today the world seems very bleak, we can take courage from John, because there is one very significant fact we need to remember. John wasn’t sure he had encountered the Messiah in the person of Jesus. He questioned. He hesitated. The very one to whom he was forerunner was, in an important sense, unknown to him. I think we can all identify with that — and rejoice, too.

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St Catherine of Alexandria and the Language of Sainthood

St Catherine of Alexandria

St Catherine of Alexandria is no longer as fashionable a saint as she was in the Middle Ages, when she gave her name to colleges in Oxford and Cambridge and appeared in rood screens and stained glass windows of dazzling beauty. I think that rather gives the lie to the notion that the Middle Ages were a benighted backwater in our history, full of the worst kind of patriarchy. Catherine was admired for standing up to the emperor Maxentius and his abuse of power, even though it led to her torture and execution. She was seen for what she was — a brave woman, supremely confident in her faith — and revered for that. The artist who painted the scene above certainly managed to capture both Catherine’s confidence and the emperor’s discomfort. He may have thought he had won by having her executed, but she was the true victor in the contest.

Sometimes the language we use reveals more than we think it does. For example, when we speak of emigrants, exiles and ex-pats, we may be referring to the same people, but our language suggests a different stance towards them. Emigrant is a fairly neutral term for those who have chosen to leave their homeland, usually in search of a better life. When they arrive in their hoped-for new country, they are transformed into immigrants, which is not always so neutral; but if they are lucky enough to have sufficient wealth at their disposal, they are, of course, ex-pats. If they left their homeland as result of force majeure or under circumstances we think tragic, they are exiles. This simple illustration may help to explain something I find odd about the way Catherine of Alexandria is perceived today.

The language of hagiography has several themes, and in the case of women saints, the rigid categorisation into virgins, widows and martyrs (which has left the married in what used to be known, deplorably, as nec, nec). In the case of Catherine of Alexandria, I think I detect something of a shift in the language used about her which indicates why she is less popular now than she once was. We have become nervous about the historicity of her legend, so the fact of her martyrdom is glossed over. She has been downgraded, so to say, from a woman who spoke her mind and paid the price for it, a martyr saint, to one of those countless virgins who sing the praises of God but don’t, apparently, do much else. Her life on earth may still be described as exile from heaven but it has lost much of its original vigour.

It would be good to recover the sense of Catherine of Alexandria as a martyr, someone who stood up to the abuse of power, a worthy role model for men and women everywhere. What do you think?

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A Neat Co-Incidence

By one of those co-incidences that only the Holy Spirit can manage, we celebrate today two saints with the gift of healing — St Winefride and St Martin de Porres — and read chapter 27 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Special Care the Abbot Should Have for the Excommunicated. What could be better for the day of the presidential election in the U.S.A. and for when Austria and Afghanistan are in mourning for yesterday’s loss of life in terrorist attacks.

The real healing that takes place at Holywell is not a physical cure but an inward, spiritual one. I was completely unprepared for the impact the shrine would have on me when I first visited it. The legends surrounding St Winefride may stretch credulity, but no one can be unaffected by the sense of prayer that invests every stone. It is in truth a holy place. In the same way, St Martin de Porres, who was born poor, lived poor, and died poor, is the patron saint of racial harmony. Of mixed race himself, he understood the many and various ways in which race can be used to put people down, disparage them, treat them as ‘other’, less than human. He, too, has much to say to us today. And St Benedict? In chapter 27 he goes to great lengths to express the care the abbot must have for the weak and wayward, for those who cause him sleepless nights and infinite trouble. His is not a tyranny over the strong but service of those in need.

Today, when the people of the U.S.A. are called upon to vote for the man who will be their political leader for the next four years and the governments of Austria and Afghanistan must respond to the violence in their midst, the need for healing, for racial harmony and care of the least able members of society, has never been greater. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has shattered old certainties and exposed what we are truly made of, sometimes to our chagrin, but I think today’s neat conjunction of saints and saint’s reflections can nudge us in a more positive direction. Let us pray it may be so.

Note
The text of RB 27 is available as a podcast here : https://anchor.fm/digitalnun/episodes/Rule-of-St-Benedict–chapter-27-The-Abbots-Special-Care-for-the-Excommunicated–as-read-in-monasteries-on-4-March–4-July-and-3-November-eg92cd/a-a2k8v2a

Below are links to some of my previous posts about St Winefride’s Well.

  1. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/11/03/as-long-as-men-are-mortal-and-god-mercifulrb-27-and-st-winefrides-well/
  2. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/06/26/pilgrimage-to-st-winefrides-well/
  3. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/12/12/where-prayer-has-been-valid/
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Edward the Confessor, Wonder and Awe

Anonimo inglese o francese, dittico wilton, 1395-99 ca. 03 edoardo il confessore
Edward the Confessor from the Wilton Diptych:
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

In the last few days our liturgical calendar has commemorated a little group of pre-Conquest saints known mainly to historians and hagiographers: Ethelburga of Barking, Paulinus of York, Laurence, Mellitus, Wilfrid and today Edward the Confessor, the only English king to be formally recognized as a saint, and one whose claim to sanctity is probably open to question. I was brought up on Frank Barlow’s Edward the Confessor, which makes a case for Edward as an effective king, but must admit I was never wholly convinced. Still less am I convinced by the portrayal of Edward in his Vita, which is conventional and idealised:

[Edward] was a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.

We can find similar hagiographical tropes in the portrayal of the others I’ve mentioned, so, why bother with any of them today, especially someone like Edward? I think there are three reasons. The Communion of Saints is a reality transcending our limited notions of time and place. I ask the prayers of the saints in heaven as I ask the prayers of my fellow Christians on earth. I do not need to rank them according to some scale of holiness of my own: an alpha saint, a beta saint, and so on. The fact that someone lived long ago or far away is irrelevant. To the Lord the prayers of the saints, living and dead, are pleasing; and that is good enough for me. I don’t believe in DIY salvation and am happy to ask the help of others in approaching the throne of grace.

I’d also argue that there is something to be gained from studying the lives of those who, at first sight, inhabited a very different world from our own but who, on closer inspection, can be seen to have had to deal with many of the problems confronting us today. The growing hostility towards Christianity shown in the desecration of churches and statues, the increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the obvious the vulnerability of us all in the face of disease mirror many of the experiences of pre-Conquest England. We may not have quite reached the point of plague-stricken Jarrow, with only a Ceolfrith and a Bede to sing the Divine Office, but many religious communities have lost members to COVID-19 while more secular organizations have felt the impact of lockdown restraints and loss of income, leading to closure and social disruption.

But just as we can register points of similarity, I think it is good for us to be challenged by the differences. Too many of us have a somewhat narrow conception of what constitutes orthodox belief and practice and tend to judge others according to our own lights. For instance, I forget how many times I have been told that I must pray the Rosary or I am not a good Catholic. Our pre-Conquest saints did not know the Rosary, but they were good Catholics. Not only the saints but even ordinary layfolk, if they observed even half the regulations that applied to them, put us to shame with the way they kept Lent or the vigils of feasts. They were zealous where we are apt to be lukewarm. Above all, I think they had a simpler and more direct awareness of the transcendence of God. That does not mean that they were unsophisticated or stupid — far from it — but I would argue that it does mean they saw significance and purpose where we tend to see only randomness or chance. They possessed, in a way we sometimes do not, the gifts of wonder and awe in the presence of God.

Wonder and awe are not gifts many of us actively seek, I suspect. They make us acknowledge that we are not the measure of all things; that there exists someone greater than we are before whom, like Job, we can only keep silence. And we do not like keeping silence! We much prefer to express ourselves via social media or blog posts, giving others the benefit of our opinions, but maybe if we were to cultivate greater restraint in speech, there would be more room for wonder and awe in our lives; and wouldn’t that be a good thing? We treasure our awareness of the immanence of God, and rightly so, but perhaps that has led us to downplay or fail to recognize as we should the transcendence of God.

Today I shall ask the prayers of St Edward for the people of England as we face more restrictions in the attempt to ward off COVID-19. I shall also ask his prayers for the Church throughout the world and for all who are in need. As a royal saint, he was expected to be a patron of the Church, the major philanthropic institution of his day, to be generous to the poor and kindly to the sick. Perhaps that is not a bad indicator of sanctity, and one we can emulate in our different ways. But among all my other requests, I shall include one for the gifts of wonder and awe, for becoming more alert to the transcendence of God. Will you join me?

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St Bruno and Solitude

I will never forget the first time I met the Carthusian who was to be my confessor for many years. He asked simply, ‘Do you have peace?’ That question goes to the heart of any vocation. Everything else is transitory, but peace, abiding in God whatever the exterior circumstances of our life, whatever inner turmoil we may be experiencing, is permanent. It isn’t (usually) achieved once for all but is, like so much else, a process, something we grow into over time so that it becomes a constant in our lives, an habitual state of being.

The experience of solitude and silence seem to me an essential part of this process. They strip us of many elements of the ‘false self’ we use to hide from God, making us realise our dependence on him and on others. Our need for approbation, to draw attention to ourselves, to assert ourselves, all come down to this: an obscure sense that we are somehow not quite ‘enough’, not good enough, not attractive enough, not anything enough. That, of course, is to put the spotlight on self when the secret of true holiness is to put the spotlight on God and forget self. It isn’t easy to do, and most of us are reluctant to surrender what we think of as good or necessary in order to become something, or rather, someone, more closely fashioned on Christ.

St Bruno had no such hesitations. He seems to have spent much of his life avoiding a bishopric. He was a famous teacher, well-connected socially, someone who might have commanded the highest rewards of a clerical career. But he didn’t. He was drawn to the solitary life, and when he and two companions placed themselves under the direction of Hugh of Grenoble, the Carthusians were born. They have remained ever since one of the glories of the Church whose hidden lives have shown that what we tend to think of as success is, well, probably not such a success after all. St Bruno’s life as a Carthusian is often difficult to trace precisely because he avoided the limelight and concentrated on God alone. He was still the same man, still in demand for counsel, but now he met those demands in a different way. He became more, not less, loving because he lived a silent and largely solitary life. None of his gifts was wasted but they were all transformed.

A long time ago, I tried to express what St Bruno and the Carthusians meant to me and how I think we can emulate their prayerfulness, even if we cannot live as they live. Carthusian life is not romantic: it is tough, hard, wearing, which is why so few can live it, but we can all learn from it:

St Bruno makes me think of silence and solitude and snow. Cardinal Hume once remarked that every Benedictine should feel a certain sadness, a certain regret, that the great vocation of the Carthusian is not for him/her. But, of course, every vocation contains within it the need for silence and moral solitude, even if physical solitude is not a possibility. When Jesus told his disciples to go to their inner room and shut the door and pray to their Father in secret, he can hardly have meant to be taken literally since most people in first century Palestine had no private room to retreat to. We must make a Charterhouse of the heart, and allow our prayer to embrace every need.

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