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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What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

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Old Saints | New Times

To many people today’s feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux will not mean very much. He is just one more medieval saint whose name appears in the Universal Calendar. A short note mentioning that he was a gifted writer and preacher responsible for the spread of the Cistercian ideal and the foundation of many monasteries makes him sound as dull as ditchwater. We turn aside to someone or something we deem more ‘relevant’. If we are interested in monastic history, we may recall the story of his bringing 29 prospective postulants with him when he became a Cistercian, thus saving the order from dying, his dispute with Abelard, his political involvement and perhaps his championing of scripture studies and the simplicity in architecture and music we associate with the Cistercians. We may even remember that in the fourteenth century his name was honoured by a rabbi in Cologne as one who had defended Jews at a time when most Christians were hostile. Those who have actually read his sermons and letters will probably have a different picture of him as a man of God, one who knew what prayer was and whose love of the Lord was intensely personal. That said, he still remains a difficult saint for many people today. He is remote and it seems nothing will bring him closer. Or will it?

My own admiration for St Bernard is no secret (he appears in a number of posts in this blog, for example) and one of the things I love him for is his anger. Read his letters. Bernard knew how to handle incandescent rage but in such a way that one feels the world was better for it. It pours forth from him as cleansing fire, devouring every falsity or feigned excuse in its path. Bernard’s anger is glorious, there is no other word for it. And today, when one looks at any site on the internet or dips into social media of any kind, one can see how different his anger is from the childish petulance we so often display — the endless negative criticism, the profanity that is too lazy to find words to express its thought, the sheer vapidity of our ‘debate’. I would therefore argue that St Bernard is very much a saint for our times, very relevant to today: the angry man who was not angry, the saint who was not a cypher. Would it be too much to hope that seeking to learn from him how to handle our own anger we might be led upon that most monastic of paths, the one that desires to be empty of anger and all negative passions that we may become full of God? One of Bernard’s best-known treatises is his meditation on the degrees of humility in the Rule of St Benedict which, characteristically, he turns round as a treatise on pride. Paradox lies at the heart of Christianity. Life comes out of death. New wisdom is drawn from old wells, and St Bernard’s is very deep indeed.

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Neither Bang Nor Whimper: the Death of St Maximilian Kolbe

The earth did not move from its foundations when St Maximilian Kolbe died. Everyone else in the bunker had already died, so it only remained for the guards to inject him with carbolic acid, wait for him to die, then remove his body and burn it. End of story. Just one more death at Auschwitz, one more inconvenient opponent of the Nazi regime disposed of. With time, one might expect all the singularities of this man to be forgotten along with the manner of his death; but it proved not to be so. Today we recall his devotion to Our Lady, his championing of the latest and best technology in promoting his religious ideals, and, above all, his volunteering to die in the place of a stranger. In other words, that apparently hidden death is not forgotten, is not meaningless.

Many people struggle with the idea of death, with the sense of loss, especially if the death is of someone young or someone we love. Glib words about uniting our own death with the death of Jesus on the Cross tend to remain just that — glib words — unless or until we are given grace to see the love that lies behind the loss. In the case of St Maximilian, we tend to focus on his extraordinary power of love and self-sacrifice, but perhaps we should look at the love that drew him, the love of the Lord for him that enabled him to do what he did. His death was not an act of bravado, at its deepest level perhaps not even a response to God as we commonly understand that term, but acceptance of God’s invitation to be fashioned into an icon of his beloved Son. The initiative remains God’s always, and neither bang nor whimper quite fit; nor can death, with its promise of being united eternally with One who has loved us from the beginning, ever be meaningless. 

Thank You
Thank you for your prayers and good wishes. I am getting over the latest chemotherapy and can now see with both eyes, though it will take a few days longer for them to co-ordinate properly.

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The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.

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On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.

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The Importance of Fathers

A quick search in the sidebar of this blog reveals that I have often written about St Joseph on his feastday. In a way, that is odd. For far too long I subscribed to the view that Joseph was an almost disposable element in the Infancy narrative, and his early disappearance from the gospels and the absence of patristic commentary confirmed me in my opinion. It took Bossuet to make me realise what a great man he was, and that his greatness was precisely that of a father.

If, like me, you have happy memories of your own father, it does not require much of an imaginative leap to recognize how important Joseph was in the life of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But if you don’t, if your father has been absent or in some way inadequate, it must be much harder. So many of the qualities we admire in Jesus must have come from Joseph. In the same way, family members will often remark that we are ‘a chip off the old block’ and recognize in us traits that we had no idea once existed in another. When they are perceived as negative or in some way damaging, there is a double handicap to overcome. It is not just our own flaws but those we have inherited that we must deal with. Yet none of us is defined by our father or limited by his flaws. Fathers give us life, they help to form us, but their role changes over time. The one constant is that they go on loving us, as Joseph went on loving Jesus.

It seems to me that fatherhood is a tough call. To combine both strength and tenderness is not easy. To love one’s family, to be like Joseph a man of integrity and courage, is to give a wonderful example to others. More than that, it is to ensure the flourishing of those we are closest to, to give and sustain life. That is a great vocation. Today, let us pray for all fathers and the families they care for.

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Monday Morning Blues

It seems to be a feature of modern life that many people regard Monday morning with a slight inward shrinking if not downright distaste. Monday means a resumption of daily toil, obedience to timetables not of one’s own choosing and a mournful re-engagement with all that was left undone on Friday. In Britain at least, the weather is either much worse than it was on Sunday, thus adding to the general gloom, or infinitely better, compounding the sense of reluctance we feel. Yet Monday is really no worse than any other day of the week. The problem, surely, is that we cannot quite convince ourselves of that.

Neither St Benedict nor St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast this is, seems to offer much help. The Father of Western Monasticism continues serenely on his way, urging us to be on the alert for God in every situation, while the Doctor Angelicus invites us to concentrate on the reality of truth and virtue, subjects perhaps too abstract for those suffering from Monday Morning Blues. There are, however, two other titles given to St Thomas that are revealing. He is known as the Doctor Communis because for many centuries his status as theologian and philosopher was unrivalled in the Catholic Church; while Pope St John Paul II called him Doctor Humanitatis because of his sensitivity and openness to the value of all cultures. Perhaps we too need to cultivate a little more openness, not just to people but to the possibilities that this new day offers.

It may seem difficult, but Monday morning offers us all an opportunity we did not have before. We may be reluctant to admit that or too bound up in our own misery to open our eyes to it. There is no guilt in that, but maybe we could try a little exercise in alternative thinking and seeing which would give us a different perspective. Invert the colours on your computer display (which you can do via the accessibility feature) and you will discover that blue converts to a warm and welcoming orange. Perhaps that is the true colour of Monday morning.

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What Constitutes a Civilized Society?

Over the past few days I have read several comments both for and against the recently-enacted legislation regarding abortion in New York state. To me, the idea of abortion is abhorrent; the idea of permitting abortion at any stage up to birth is mind-boggling. Having said that, I quite see why many of those who are in favour of the legislation argue that such cases would be exceptional and rare. Hard cases, however, do not usually make for good law, nor do they make for good argument. One troubling side to the comments I have read is their sheer viciousness — and that goes for those who are opposed to the legislation as much as for those who are in favour. It seems we cannot agree on our core values, nor can we agree how to conduct ourselves when those values have to be examined and debated. U.K. readers may find an uncomfortable parallel in our current discussion of Brexit. It is as though we have forgotten what it means to be civilized.

crucifix

How does this apply in the context of today’s feast, that of the Conversion of St Paul? I think we sometimes forget that Saul of Tarsus was a good man but became a better one when he was captured by the love of Christ. As an observant Jew, Saul must have been upright, generous, supremely moral, loving God and the traditions of his forefathers. But that experience on the road to Damascus changed him. Everything the Christian Paul writes is filled with the love of Christ. It transforms what we would call his ‘world view’. His zeal remains, but it is tempered with a humility and sympathy that was not so noticeable before. Would it be very wrong to say that the Risen Christ had a civilizing influence on him? I don’t mean by that to belittle Paul’s conversion or to suggest that he was not, in the conventional sense, a civilized man before his conversion. I mean that after his conversion Paul was much more aware of the value and need of every human being, Jew or gentile, so much so that he was ready to give up all that he held most dear for their sake. The proud citizen of Rome suddenly understood that to be a Christian civis was to accept responsibility for the good of others, to place the good of others before one’s own.

I wonder whether that sheds any light on what we mean by a civilized society. In the West, the role of religion, especially Christianity, is more and more downplayed. There are times, indeed, when being deliberately hostile or offensive towards the most cherished beliefs of others is regarded as being not merely acceptable but a mark of ‘freedom’ or ‘maturity’. Views with which one disagrees are simply dismissed. To argue that abortion and euthanasia are wrong is to invite the charge of being lacking in compassion, yet how compassionate are we really if we do not care for the young, the old and the sick? We may have similar qualms about the morality of capital punishment, the inequalities that mean many go hungry while the West suffers an epidemic of obesity, and so on. Sometimes I have the uneasy feeling that much contemporary morality is based on nothing more than ‘what’s best for me’ — the law of the jungle rather than of civilsation as traditionally understood.

We were discussing this in chapter this morning and asking ourselves what we could do about it. One person mentioned the decline in the use of Christian symbolism and suggested that it had a greater significance than many were prepared to admit. It is comparatively rare nowadays to go into a house where a crucifix or cross is on display. Our custom in the monastery is to have a crucifix in every room — a small, silent reminder of our purpose and of what our duty is. Perhaps those of us who are Christian could think about that. Showy displays of fervour are definitely not what are needed, but in my experience most people find it difficult to be deliberately rude or unkind or selfish when facing a crucifix. It is when we remove our gaze that the trouble starts and the old Adam reasserts himself. Perhaps that was Paul’s secret. He kept his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. We should do the same.

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