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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Unknown Saints: the Example of Cosmas and Damian

The basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian with its wonderful (though much restored) mosaics is one of my favourite Roman churches, not least because whenever I have visited it, I seem to have been the only person there — a rare experience in Rome. We know quite a lot about its history but about the saints to whom it is dedicated nothing at all for certain, only that they existed. Pious tradition maintains that they were Arab physicians, reputedly twin brothers, who were martyred in Syria in the third century after a lifetime spent in the service of the poor. They are said to have treated people without payment and are honoured today as patrons of doctors, surgeons, and dentists and protectors of children. 

Tourists probably barely register any of this in their hurry to look at the mosaics and take one more photograph before moving on to the next site, but for those of us hundreds of miles away, there is time for reflection. The basilica and the saints who give it its name are a reminder of the hollowness of our contemporary celebrity culture. It is not necessary to be a ‘name’ to be great. It is necessary to ‘do’. For me, Cosmas and Damian epitomise ‘anonymous sanctity’. That is to say, they represent the thousands upon thousands of people who, through the ages and in our own day, speak powerfully of God through their holiness of life. Most of them are unknown to us or commemorated by an accident of history, as here, in a building in the Forum of Vespasian. But they are the Church, the Body of Christ, preachers of the gospel, doers of his word, not hearers only. As such, they are an inspiration and perhaps, sometimes, a check on our vanity and complacency. I suspect most of us can think of someone we’ve met who has radiated this quality of holiness, bundled us up in the love of God and tossed us back into the world a humbler and more hopeful person. I am glad to say that I have met many such, both in the monastery and outside.

It would be tempting to leave matters there, content with a beautiful thought about the holiness of others, but it won’t do. We must apply it personally, and that is much harder. To be an unknown saint is not only a huge honour, it is a vocation — yours and mine. How will we try to live it today?

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The Duty of Delight

Christians often get a bad press, and no wonder. Our ambition is vast, eternal life and participation in the redemption of mankind no less, yet our achievement is not exactly commensurate. Everyone knows Nietzsche’s remark, ‘I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.’ Few of us would dispute that many Christians have a tendency to look glum and some seem to take special delight in castigating the shortcomings and sins of others. If you don’t believe me, take a look at social media. Even I have been taken aback by some of the things written by people I like to think of as my friends. But why should the nasties have the last word, especially on a great feast such as today’s, when we celebrate St Gregory the Great, apostle of the English? To Nietzsche I would oppose Dorothy Day and her championing of what she called ‘the duty of delight’. It is a phrase I think Gregory might have liked, for he was a master of the pithy expression, and although he was undoubtedly unenthusiastic about some things, Greeks and sailing ships, for example, he had a largeness of heart and mind I personally find very attractive.

From 1 September until 4 October the Christian Churches are marking the Season of Creation during which we give thanks for the world in which we live and seek to increase our love and reverence for everything in it. One of the best ways of doing that is also the simplest: to take delight in it. No matter how busy you are today — and Gregory often complained that he was so busy his soul was in danger of shipwreck, so you are in good company — no matter how ill or tired or just plain crotchety, take a moment to look at the sky, listen to the sounds outside your window or touch some living thing, even that half-dead houseplant you regularly forget to water, and give thanks. Just as grace grows in the spirit of gratitude, so does delight. I guarantee that will put a smile on the glummest of faces. It would be nice to prove Nietzsche wrong, wouldn’t it?

Note: if you are interested in previous posts more specifically about Gregory, please do a search in the sidebar. Here is one which may be of interest as it carries on from yesterday’s consideration of the prologue and deals with today’s section:
https://www.ibenedictines.org/2019/09/03/the-worker-monk/

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Five Reasons Not to Like Religious People

You might think that, in my line of business, I would like ‘religious’ people (please note the inverted commas). The truth is, I have five reasons to dislike them. Here they are:

1. ‘Religious’ people are always right

because

2. They know God thinks exactly as they do

from which it follows that

3. They are happy, indeed specially qualified, to give everyone the benefit of their advice

which, because of 1 and 2, means

4. They may deliver their opinions/advice as unceremoniously as possible

with the result that often

5. They condemn others, frequently quite nastily.

This is, of course, a parody of true religion, but I think you will find it quite prevalent in the world today, whether the religion in question be Catholicism, Humanism or any other -ism. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking our own opinion universally valid and that it entitles us to behaviour completely at odds with the values we say we hold. Catholics who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching while sniping at everyone they disapprove of; intellectuals who ridicule the arguments of others instead of engaging with them; those who seek to eliminate racism while maintaining anti-semitic attitudes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can apply misplaced zeal to the questions of the day. I call it ‘religious’ because of the intensity with which the views are held. They bind the holder, whereas true religion sets free. There is no fear in true religion, no desire to score points, no wish to force the other to believe as we do (sorry, Augustine), just a desire to share the blessings we enjoy ourselves.

For a Christian, that means trying to win others for Christ by leading them to experience of him, not brow-beating them into submission. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was argued into belief, although I have met many who struggled to find the right spiritual home, as it were. It is not that kind of debate or exploration I am talking about but the more aggressive ‘I’m right; you’re wrong’ approach.

During the last few months, when lockdown restrictions have limited access to public worship and the sacraments, it has been sad to see how selfish and sometimes petty some of the online arguments have become. The Mass is so much more important than whether I myself can attend or not; reverence means so much more than whether one receives Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. St Laurence, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the Church’s treasure, he did not hesitate. He sought out the poor, recognizing in them the lineaments of the Master or, as Hopkins would say,

Christ lovely in limbs not his.

That’s the kind of religious person I like.

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How to Cope with Life’s Injustices

Where do we start? I’ve been very quiet recently, not for any sinister reason but because I felt I must either say a great deal about some subjects or keep very quiet. On the subject of racism, for example, I can say very little. I don’t understand it and never have. It simply baffles me that skin colour could ever be used as a marker of supposed inferiority/superiority. On the subject of slavery and the slave trade, however, I would have to say a great deal because the subject is historically much more complex than many who see it solely in terms of Black Slavery from the sixteenth century onwards seem to realise — and the tragedy is that it still continues today. I prefer to leave these questions to others, so it is probably just as well that I have been busy with many of those things that keep a monastery going but which are neither romantic nor particularly interesting to outsiders.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one fails to register what is going on in the world outside the cloister or the injustices that are perpetrated. There are the big injustices: the corruption that bedevils political decision-making, often without our being fully aware of it; the economic exploitation that enriches some but impoverishes others; the suppression of freedoms and the manipulation of opinion that makes us all doubt whom we can really trust or what we can believe. Then there are the smaller injustices, those we experience personally and acutely: the failure to recognize our goodwill; the attack on our good name or the belittling of our attempts to be kind or generous; even the breakdown of relationships or our own health can come into this category. It isn’t always easy to respond with courage or the kind of bright-eyed determination we are taught to admire. Sometimes we just want to go into a corner, curl up in a heap and howl.

Cue the entrance of St Barnabas, whose feast-day this is. We might think he would have something of a chip on his shoulder for being the perpetual ‘second fiddle,’ first to Paul, then to John Mark. Even today his liturgical commemoration is ranked not as a full feast (festum) but as a memorial (memoria). In Acts 11.24 he is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. I think that explains why we can derive so much encouragement from Barnabas. He is not one of those on whom the spotlight naturally falls. He’s more of a peace-maker than an agitator or protestor. He introduced Paul to the apostles after his conversion and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys, which speaks volumes about his tact and patience. He defended gentile converts against the Judaizers, and when the break with Paul finally came, Barnabas seems to have gone on quietly preaching and teaching, happy to leave the first place to his more brilliant colleague. We might say that Barnabas’s life is an essay in living creatively with injustice, not condoning it nor grumbling about it but generously accepting it and not letting it get in the way of what really mattered.

Thinking about St Barnabas makes me question how I cope with the small injustices I encounter in my own life. It is an uncomfortable question but one I feel the need to address before I can properly think about some of the larger ones mentioned above. Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with our own shortcomings by concentrating on those of others or society in general. We forget that, like Barnabas, we have to work at becoming good ourselves before we can hope to encourage others to become good in their turn. The trouble is, we’ll never see the good in ourselves but we must hope that others will. That, surely, is the way to change the world — but it will never be easy.

Audio Version

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How to be a Good Leader

St Benedict didn’t actually write anything with such a title, but his two chapters on the abbot provide some excellent guidelines — and not just for monastics. At a time when we are experiencing something of a crisis of leadership in the Western world, it’s good to think about what leadership is, how it acts in the service of others, the constraints under which it must operate and the co-operation it must have from those who are led if it is to achieve anything of value. The feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, about whom I have written often in the past, provides us with an opportunity to reflect anew on the relationship between authority and obedience, power and service; and by one of those neat co-incidences only heaven and the calendar can arrange, this morning we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot with its portrait of a wise and kindly leader whose daunting task it is to be ‘the representative of Christ in the monastery’. (RB 2.2)

Most people know that Cluny was the mother-house of what was, in effect, the first religious order in the Church, eventually numbering over 2,000 houses, including several in England. Many also know that there were so many monks at Cluny itself that they had to be divided into separate choirs, constantly singing the praises of God in a laus perennis. Inevitably, expansion created problems and by the time of the French Revolution, the Cluniacs were so identified with the Ancien Régime that they were ripe for suppression. If one goes to Cluny today one can see little of the abbey remains for most of it was demolished in 1810 and the stone carted away. It is not the buildings that made Cluny great, however, but the people.

Earlier, on Twitter, I tried to give something of the personalities and achievements of four of the abbots of Cluny. Listed in date order these are:

Maiolus was both librarian and cellarer (bursar) before becoming abbot of Cluny. He refused to become pope when Otto II wanted him to do so but concentrated on making his community observant and learned. #scholarship

Odilo was abbot of Cluny for 55 years. He was a peace-maker, introducing the notion of truce from Fridays to Mondays and in Advent and Lent. From 1028-1033 he had most of Cluny’s treasures melted down to relieve the poor. #generosity

Hugh was abbot of Cluny for 60 years, during which time the number of houses under him increased from c. 60 to c. 2000,., He was an influential mediator and papal diplomat but still took his regular turn as monastic cook. #humility

Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny for 25 years, argued against persecution of the Jewish people, defended Abelard, had the Quran translated into Latin so that Islam could be studied from its sources, and refused to have anything to do with the Second Crusade. #integrity

As expected, Peter the Venerable has attracted most attention because his concerns resonate with contemporary values, but I have a suspicion many monks and nuns will be more drawn to Hugh. Noreen Hunt paints an unforgettable picture of him cooking beans in the monastery kitchen, and kitchen duty or its equivalent tends to loom larger in our lives than international diplomacy or monastic empire building. I think that is a useful clue to the nature of genuine leadership. It is with those who are led. It shares our difficulties and aspirations even as it tries to guide us. In the case of the monastic leader, the path to be trodden is that of holiness and zeal. Benedict singles out for special care the teaching of the abbot and his responsibility for the way in which the community acts, or fails to act, on his words. It follows that his teaching must be clear, consistent and entirely in accordance with the gospel, marked with compassion, yes, but also firm about what is unacceptable.

That Cluny lasted so long and produced so many saints is testimony to the leadership and zeal of its abbots and the desire of the community to become holy or, as we might say today, the best it could. There were consequences for society in general, too, many of them helpful, like the efforts to reduce war and violence. I wonder how today’s secular leadership measures up to that in its service of the common good, its exercise of authority and its use of power. Ideas, anyone?

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Of the Dragon’s Party: St George’s Day 2020

Jost Haller - Saint George slaying the dragon, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar
Unterlinden Museum / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Audio version at the end.

Although I love England, I have never subscribed to the kind of nationalism that wraps itself in the flag or becomes misty-eyed whenever confronted with a member of the Royal Family. Still less would I assert that ‘my country is the best/greatest/most important in the world’. Love can be clear-eyed and is at its truest when most humble. On St George’s Day, therefore, my patriotism is of the low-key kind that delights in the beauty of landscape and seascape, the basic decency of the English people, and makes no absurd claims about ‘greatness’. We are not in competition with one another. We are all God’s children, and I have no difficulty acknowledging that many bad things have been done in the name of England as well as many good ones.

St George has not always been our patron saint. He usurped St Edmund in the Middle Ages. As a result, we have some splendidly dynamic art – and a few problems. Take the legend, for example. Our Syrian hero comes upon a young woman being held captive by a dragon, so he decides to free her by slaying the dragon. Cue general applause. Rescuing damsels in distress is unobjectionable, surely. But is there something more to consider? Deep in the male psyche I suspect there lurks the desire to do deeds of derring-do, and rescuing those weaker than oneself is an excellent excuse for feats of arms. It has been the pretext for countless wars almost since time began. But did St George stop to ask the damsel whether she wanted to be rescued? And did he have to kill the dragon to achieve his aim? That is where the applause becomes a little uncertain and a dilemma appears.

So many misunderstandings begin with good intentions and a failure to see another’s point of view. We make assumptions and forget that others do not share them. We may not be in a position to start a war or arrange a ‘regime change,’ but most of us can give others the benefit of our advice, blithely unaware that it may not be as necessary or useful as we think. I did so myself yesterday and was justly rewarded by being treated as an old ‘has been’. Those who know and love Paradise Lost will agree that Milton was of the devil’s party without realising it. Today, as I celebrate St George, I think I’ll try to be one of the dragon’s party — more modest in my assumptions, more honest about my own fallibility and vulnerability . . . more English perhaps.

Note
St George’s nationality is much debated, although the concept of national identity was fluid at the time of his supposed birth. He is often said to have been born in Cappadocia, but was he Greek? Was he Syrian? Did the dragon he killed live in Libya? The different stories serve to remind us that the Church is bigger than national identities. In calling him Syrian, I am simply following the martyrology we use here — a reminder of our country’s involvement overseas and the complex issues that stem from it.

Audio Version

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Moonlight and Roses

The Rose of Sharon
The Rose of Sharon

Today the Catholic Church celebrates SS Cyril and Methodius while the rest of the world, or so it seems, celebrates St Valentine or, more accurately, Valentine’s Day. I seem to have written about this far too much, but I woke up with Donne’s ‘Hail, Bishop Valentine’ running through my head, so I bow to the inevitable. Moonlight and roses you shall have.

Moonlight, first. Reflecting the light of the sun, the moon’s strange, silvery glow has always had a more feminine aspect than its more fiery counterpart, which is usually identified with masculinity and godhead. An old name for the moon is Our Lady’s Lamp. It is a name that expresses beautifully the relationship between Christ and his Church. He has no need, no desire, for any other Bride but us, but it is the whole Church that is his Bride, not any particular part of it, and we reflect, to greater or lesser degree, his love and grace. Whether we are male or female is, in this context, immaterial because the Church is always feminine before God.

And roses? Again it is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary that comes into view. She is the biblical Rose of Sharon (Song of Songs, 2.1), the purple and white flowers St Bernard identifies with humility (purple) and purity (white), the rosa mystica of which the Litany of Loretto sings and of whom St John Henry Newman writes

Mary is the most beautiful flower ever seen in the spiritual world. It is by the power of God’s grace that from this barren and desolate earth there ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory; and Mary is the Queen of them all. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore, is called the Rose, for the rose is called of all flowers the most beautiful. But, moreover, she is the Mystical or Hidden Rose, for mystical means hidden.

From ‘Meditations and Devotions’ published 1893.

The beauty of the rose, the loveliness of the moon, and both can be applied to us! Today, we celebrate the fact that we are God’s valentine, loved infinitely and tenderly, and we are privileged to reflect back some of that same love with our own love and devotion. Whatever our state in life, whether we be single, married, widowed or consecrated, we can take Mary as a model of loving fidelity and generosity. Obscure and of no account in our own eyes we may be, but to God we are his very heaven.

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Floods of Tears and of Rain

New South Wales is awash with rain, so is much of the U.K. following Storm Ciara. Online news sites are treating us to the obligatory photos of water inundating houses, people paddling about on upturned waste bins or emerging from cars roof-deep in flood-water. Lighthouses are shown being swamped by massive waves while brave members of the R.N.L.I. battle to save surfers silly enough to go into the sea in such conditions. For those directly affected, it is miserable and will go on being miserable for a long time to come, but we shall soon be focusing on something else. Our appetite for the sensational is intense but short-lived. In any case, we prefer the secondary detail, the appealing stories of rescued pets and madcap attempts to resist the irresistible, to considering more difficult questions about climate change, weather and planning for the future. It is rather the same with St Scholastica, twin sister of St Benedict, whose feast we keep today. Many will speak of her tears but few will speak of the love for both God and her brother that summoned a storm when Benedict was being an idiot, or the strength of mind and heart that made her a saint in advance of him.

I’ve often written about St Scholastica and give below a few links to previous posts. If you follow them up, you will see that I have no time for the weak and emotional Scholastica portrayed by those whose ideas of sanctity (and of women) are far from reality. I daresay many would argue that the Scholastica narrative is made to conform to long-held ideas about the place of women in the Church and our tendency to behave in ways male authors find disturbing. I’ve done so myself at times. I think part of the problem is caused by the concentration on secondary matters. Take those tears, for example. They are a mere detail, but some people latch onto them and draw conclusions that, the more I think about them, are absurd.

Saints do not become saints by being wimps. St Scholastica was a strong woman. She could not have lived the life she did had she been given to fits and starts of excited emotion. Just as St Gregory says of Benedict that he cannot have written other than as he lived, so I think Scholastica cannot have lived other than as she was written about, as a truly devout and prayerful woman who had grown in knowledge and love of God her whole life long. How much she influenced St Benedict, we cannot know; but we do know that twins often have a special bond, and there was clearly mutual love and understanding between them. Benedict was wise enough to recognize that his sister had mastered something he himself had not yet learned but which was more important than the dutiful pursuit of monastic observance. He saw her being welcomed into heaven before him because she had learned that love of God comes first, before everything else. That is a lesson we too must learn. It does not matter whether we learn it early or late, provided we do. Not long after St Scholastica’s death, St Benedict also died — finally a master in the school of the Lord’s service. I like to think he had Scholastica, in part, to thank for that.

A few links

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A Word Fitly Spoken

‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). St Francis de Sales, the Catholic bishop of Geneva and patron saint of writers and journalists (and nowadays, surely, of bloggers, commentators and opinion-makers also) seems to have understood that very well. His courtesy was legendary, but there was nothing complicated about it. He wished to win others to Christ and saw that ‘whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love’. That didn’t mean that he watered down what he believed or that he endorsed views or actions he thought wrong, but he was never one to refuse to engage with those who thought or taught differently. On the contrary, he took more trouble than might have been expected to try to understand those whose opinions or beliefs differed from his. He recognized their goodwill and regarded dialogue as preferable to condemnation, convinced, as he was, that holiness was for everyone, not just ‘professional religious’ like monks and nuns.

We are almost at the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the questions we are asked to consider today is how we tackle prejudice and exclusion in ourselves and in our communities. I think St Francis de Sales, with his gentleness and love for others, has something to teach us all. In the seventeenth century, D. Prudentiana Deacon, a nun of Brussels sent to help the young Benedictine community at Cambrai, obviously thought so, too, for she translated some of his work into English. At first sight, St Francis de Sales is the antithesis of of Fr Augustine Baker, then vicarius of the monastery, and a great exponent of the medieval mystical tradition. A little thought, however, will soon show how wrong that is. Those who truly seek God in prayer cannot but love all his children; and those who love the children must surely seek to deepen their love for the Father.

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