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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Irrelevant to Today?

Last year, I penned a kind of shortened Cambridge Shorter History account of St Wulstan, whose feast we keep today, (see here). An earlier account of his role in ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland drew derision from some whose focus is Black Slavery, while more serious attempts to assess his character and activity appear to have bored my readers more than somewhat. So, is St Wulstan, who died in 1095, irrelevant to today — one of those musty old medieval male saints who belong in stained glass windows and are not part of the living faith of anyone nowadays? That depends.

We can make a case for considering Wulstan to be very modern indeed, principally by ignoring his historical context and seizing on aspects of his life that appeal to us. Take that interest in the slave trade, for example. It resonates with all who are concerned about the evils of human trafficking and exploitation. Or take his extraordinary ability to maintain his position under William the Conqueror. That surely provides food for thought among those who do not see their national identity being crushed out of existence by association with others. It even has something to say about our current preoccupations with Christian unity and liturgical observance, for Wulstan found a way of adopting and advancing Lanfranc’s reforms while making Worcester a centre of Old English culture and piety.

The difficulty only really comes when we have to take seriously the intellectual and spiritual world Wulstan inhabited and the way in which that affected his thoughts and actions. Even if we would describe ourselves as religious, those long unseen hours of prayer, those daily distributions of alms to the poor, those foot-washings, they are a world away from our usual experience. I don’t mean that we do not pray, or that we do not give alms; but the way in which we do those things has changed. The way in which we live has changed. More and more things clamour for our attention. Even in a monastery, we have to spend time on matters that would never have troubled Wulstan or his contemporaries. The world we inhabit is larger, noisier and apparently much more complex. So, where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us confronting something we may find uncongenial: the reality of a sanctity that, at one level, baffles and bewilders yet, at another, rings true. Wulstan was a saint and it is as such that he has a claim on us today. It is in his holiness, in his closeness to God, and in his activity as intercessor on our behalf that we find his relevance. It doesn’t matter that he comes from a different age or context from the one with which we are familiar. He is part of that great Communion of Saints that embraces the whole of creation. As such, he is very close to us even now. We can rejoice in his closeness and learn from him. St Wulstan, pray for us!

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When and How Should We Express Moral Outrage?

I wasn’t going to blog today because I have often written about St Thomas of Canterbury, and I am very keen to catch up on my ‘thank-yous’ to our Christmas benefactors. Three things have made me change my mind. The first was hearing a friend waxing indignant about the story behind Philomena, the second was finding a tweet in which the tweeter asked me, rather aggressively I thought, what I was doing about the two migrant children who have died in U.S. custody recently. In the latter case, I think either the tweeter assumed I must be a U.S. citizen or was hoping that by tweeting me she would capture my Twitter ‘audience’. In both cases, however, the moral indignation was plain, and I felt there was little I could do to assuage either person. I turned to Facebook and there found one of my online friends, whom I don’t know very well, complaining that if he expressed his horror of abortion most people tolerated his views because he is known to be a Catholic, and being pro-life is expected of Catholics. If, however, he expressed other views in line with Church teaching, especially some that are less well known, he seemed to attract a great deal of moral outrage, often expressed in very personal terms.

Now, it’s easy for me to say I agree that the treatment of many young Irish girls in the mother-and-baby homes of the past was appalling and that I am troubled by what we know of the treatment of young migrants detained by U.S. authorities, because that is no more than the truth. I don’t regard myself as personally responsible nor, crucially, do I see any way of helping other than through prayer and the financial aid the community provides refugees and migrants. I’m a Benedictine nun, not a religious sister belonging to any of the Orders or Congregations that ran the mother-and-baby homes, and I’m British not a U.S. citizen. But none of that will help either of my interlocutors, nor, I suspect, would anything similar help my FB friend to deal with his critics. We are facing the phenomenon of moral outrage seeking a target and not being sure where to find it. It is akin to the frequent demands, ‘Someone must pay for this’ and ‘heads must roll’ whenever incompetence or worse is discovered in politics, business or any public service. Just think of the comments on the police that followed the Gatwick Airport drone chaos!

Some of us probably try to channel our sense of outrage through letters and emails to those we think are in a position to change things, or we may use social media to try to draw attention to the wrong we believe needs righting. The difficulty, in most cases, is not letting our sense of outrage run away with us, so that we waste our fire, as it were, in a scatter-gun attack that simply annoys those caught in it. St Thomas of Canterbury (yes, I got him in!) was very astute in the quarrel he picked with Henry II and in his manner of conducting it. He tried to remain Henry’s friend while clearly demonstrating that some of their old shared behaviours were no longer acceptable now that he was a bishop. Henry, alas, felt a deep sense of personal betrayal as well as fury at the idea that the Church had liberties not under his control. We know how the story ends, and how a few years later a compromise with Rome made the quarrel between king and archbishop seem irrelevant. But we are left with the memory of a brave man, who stood up for what he believed and gave his life for it without calling down imprecations on the heads of his murderers. In that, I think he showed that there is more than one way of working to achieve what is right, that moral outrage can be expressed quietly and with consideration for others. It is easy to dash off an angry tweet or Facebook status. It relieves our feelings. But if we really want to do good, we might take a leaf from St Thomas’s book.

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A Virtual Vigil

I was reading over some of my previous posts on St John of the Cross, whose feast is today, in order to avoid repeating what I have already said when I broke off to scan the BBC web site for news of yesterday’s EU summit. Clearly, here in the UK we are plunging further and further into a political mess of our own making. As individuals, I am sure we have all prayed about it, but have we done so as a community? I know that in the monastery we haven’t really, although we have kept the subject in mind often enough.

Tonight, therefore, we shall be holding a virtual Vigil between 7.00 pm and 8.00 pm with the explicit intention of asking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help. Anyone who cares to join us can do so from anywhere, and at any time. We don’t prescribe any particular readings or formal prayers. I imagine we ourselves will just pray quietly and end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It isn’t much. It’s just a small gesture, but God has a way of taking small gestures and transforming them into something powerful. St John of the Cross was a man of very small stature and insignificant presence, we’re told, but how his love of God blazes across the centuries and what an immense amount he achieved — and all because he prayed, with an earnestness and perseverance that puts most of us — me certainly — to shame.

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Where Prayer Has Been Valid

Corbel at Holywell: Nabokov at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Yesterday we made a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well and prayed for all the sick and suffering people in the world, which means, in effect, for everyone. We are all in some measure sick — not quite what we should be, probably rather less than we could be — and we are all in some degree suffering — not obviously, perhaps, but ‘underneath’, where we do not care to shine too bright a light. Today’s Mass readings remind us that we find our strength in the Lord. He carries us, just as the corbel at St Winefride’s Well shows a man carrying his friend.

There is always a beautiful quietness at Holywell. The battered old stones hold so many prayers, while the gentle bubbling of the spring recalls the waters of Shiloh and all the miracles of healing recorded in scripture. To pray in such a place, to light a candle in such a place, is to assert once again the supremacy of God’s love, the triumph of good over evil and the power of grace to transform lives. That is the true miracle of healing, the end to which our journey through Advent leads us.

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Learning from St Dyfrig (Dubricius)

Today is the feast of St Dyfrig, also known as Dubricius or Devereux, who was born a few miles from here at Madley and is roughly contemporary with St Benedict (his dates are usually given as c. 465 to c. 550). Most of the information we have about him comes from the Book of Llandaff, written about five hundred years after his death. The Wikipedia article gives a good summary hereWhat interests me, however, is not so much the historicity or otherwise of the unique events recorded in the lectiones as what is common to many accounts of early British, Welsh and Irish saints. Two hagiographical tropes stand out in particular: illegitimate birth and a miracle of healing.

Dyfrig was the illegitimate son of Efrddyl, daughter of King Peibio Clafrog of Ergyng. The story goes that Peibo threw Efrddyl into the River Wye when he discovered she was pregnant, but was unsuccessful in drowning her. There was a reconciliation later on when Dyfrig cured his grandfather of leprosy by touching him, but it is his illegitimacy that is especially interesting. It is remarkable just how many British or Welsh saints were allegedly born of rape or incest. Some scholars have suggested that this may explain why so many were brought up in monasteries as the only option available to them or their luckless mothers. I wonder, however, whether there is a deeper significance, the hagiographer using the story of illegitimate birth to show the despised and feared outsider who is beloved of God overcoming every obstacle to growth in holiness. Dyfrig went on to have a brilliant ecclesiastical career, but his early years were precarious, and even his later priesthood could not be taken for granted, given the requirements then in force. He breaks the mould of expectation, so to say.

It is not difficult to see how we can apply this thinking to our own times. Most of us are blind to our own prejudices, but there are also collective prejudices which allow us to despise or undervalue others. The idea of a saintly banker, for example, would probably raise howls of derision in Britain today, but is there any reason for assuming all bankers are bad? Of course not, but many unthinkingly do. I’m sure you can think of others whom we have a tendency to dismiss or treat with contempt. Yet we have in Dyfrig a reminder that ‘God does not see as man sees: God looks at the heart.’ I am reminded that when St Edith was taken to task by St Aethelwold in those very words for wearing a princely garment above her hair-shirt (which he couldn’t see), she responded with a crisp, ‘Quite so, my Lord; and I have given mine.’  Something to ponder there, I suggest.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

When Love Grows Cold

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

Hardly a phrase one would associate with St Teresa of Avila, is it? But if one looks at the divisions in the Church, the sorry state of British politics or the sheer ugliness of much of which passes as ‘international relations’, one could surely be forgiven for thinking we have all gone mad. But it is more than that. I think, quite simply, we have forgotten how to love. We are all too busy pressing our own agenda — often, let it be said, an apparently good and worthwhile agenda — to notice that the well-spring of our actions isn’t, as we would like to think, love, but something much closer to selfishness. We are not good at self-knowledge and tend to hide the truth from ourselves. ‘The lie in the soul is a true lie’ is utter nonsense. A lie is a lie is a lie. So, is there a remedy? I think there is, and one of which St Teresa is herself a great exponent: prayer.

People often ask what prayer is (which makes a nice change from those anxious to tell me what prayer is) as though it were some strange activity in which one may occasionally indulge, but only as a last resort. My answer, that prayer is allowing God to love us and loving him in return often seems to disappoint. It is like Naaman being told to bathe in the Jordan to heal his leprosy — too simple, too easy. I smile a little smile at such times and think, ‘You try it, and you’ll soon see!’ For, of course, to pray perseveringly, day in, day out, not just when the mood seizes or when one feels the need, is a form of asceticism, properly understood — and how few are willing to submit to such a discipline!

Most of us are quite good at recognizing what is wrong with the world and we take to Social Media or blogging to share our insights (criticisms) with others. I wonder how many of us take to our knees instead or as well? St Teresa’s great work for her Order and for the Church rested upon her largely unseen life of prayer. We read her letters or pore over The Interior Castle and think how wonderful she was and how attractive the way in which she teaches us to pray, but at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning or after a hard day at work, the enthusiasm drains away, and who can blame us?

Today’s challenge, therefore , is simultaneously hard and easy: it is to resolve, yet again, to make time for prayer and stick to it — not prayer as endless petitions; not prayer as flowery phrases or telling God what he already knows; but prayer as allowing God to love us and loving him in return. The prayer of love and silence comes to us as sheer gift but it transforms life because it leads to Life himself.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail