One of the (many) things I have never managed to be organized about is the Friday #ff on Twitter. It is a brilliant idea: letting other people know whom one has found interesting/entertaining/stimulating, but for anyone wearing a cowl or clerical collar it is a bit double-edged. It is as easy to give offence by omission as by commission.
Today’s saint, Jerome, would not have thought twice about letting everyone know his opinion of anyone or anything. I suspect he would have been an active user of Twitter and Facebook for he burned with zeal and tended to scorch those he considered lacking in faith or commitment. It is one of the things I like about him (plus the fact that he got on well with nuns), but all those lonely hours spent grappling with the text of scripture surely taught him an important truth, one that Benedict XVI highlighted when he set the theme for next year’s World Communications Day. Silence, taking in, suspending judgement, allowing the text to master us rather than thinking that we should master the text, are essential if we are to allow the Word of God full scope in our lives.
I think Jerome would make a good patron saint for Twitter. He was pithy, wise, opinionated, all in one. Above all, he loved God and made God’s Word his constant joy and study. Not a bad model for twitterati to follow.
The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, ‘Naked Lady’, is a reference to Mary.
I failed to mention my theory, which I daresay many will shoot down in flames, that devotion to Mary has been both a help and a hindrance to women in the Church. On the one hand we have been given a model of Christian discipleship we can make peculiarly our own: Mary, the strong woman of Nazareth, whose love and faith were unequalled; who gave us our Saviour; who intercedes for us now and at the hour of our death. On the other, we have the ideal no one can ever measure up to: the perfect woman, the eternal mother, someone remote from the inadequacy and messiness of our own lives.
Much of the history of women in the Church can be written as a study of the tension between these two conceptions of Mary. That is why this feast has always seemed to me important. It reminds us of the reality behind the narrative of Christ’s birth, his human lineage; and just as the genealogies of Christ weave into the story some surprising figures, so our ignorance of Mary’s antecedents means we cannot assume that her background was fairytale perfect. We must remember Mary, born an ‘ordinary’ human being, growing up with no one thinking her in any way special, with no education to speak of, no glorious future mapped out for her (a mere girl!), never apparently destined for any great service — and yet, the Mother of God whom all generations would call blessed. Today we think of her small and vulnerable, possibly even a disappointment to her parents, and ask ourselves: would we have passed her by as just another baby, just another girl?
May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, help us to see ‘Christ, lovely in limbs not his.’ Amen.
Friend of Jesus and apostle to the apostles, Mary Magadalene has nevertheless suffered centuries of opprobrium as a ‘scarlet woman’. No doubt it suited some to identify the seven demons cast out of her as demons of lust, but really there is no justification for doing so. Our only biblical source — Luke — barely mentions her before telling us about her role at Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the Middle Ages we find legends which detail her activity as a leader of the early Church and portray her as ending her life as a hermit in the wilderness, where she was clad only in her long hair. She was indeed a mulier fortis, an admirable model for women today.
There is a photo of Pedro de Mena’s image of Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifix, 1664, which is now in the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregori, Valladolid, here (many thanks to Dr Southworth for providing the link). It is not only great art but also one of the most moving depictions of Mary Magdalene that I know. However, here is a link you may also enjoy, to a modern web-based ‘Book of Hours’ by Jan Richardson, The Hours of Mary Magdalene. It makes use of many of the Magdalene legends and will make you think (I hope).
The Catholic Church can claim to be the oldest surviving institution in the western world but it is built upon foundations that look ridiculously flimsy. Neither Peter nor Paul is an obvious candidate for greatness: Peter always putting his foot in it and running away when things got tough; Paul talking the sun down and regularly falling out with his colleagues. Yet we know that each in his own way fulfilled the mission of an apostle and brought to the infant Church a necessary grace. We are here today because generations of Christians have followed in their footsteps, ‘sharing in the prayers and the breaking of bread’. Today we give thanks for their fidelity, just as we give thanks for Benedict XVI’s sixty years of priesthood and faithful service of Christ and his Church.
Last night the pope used an iPad to launch the news.va web site and tweeted his first tweet. Peter might have wondered, but I think Paul would have been quick to follow suit; and what a tweeter and blogger he would have proved! The Tradition handed down by the apostles is alive and active. It flows from the past but takes us somewhere new every moment. It is like the beauty of God himself, ever ancient, ever new. On this feast of Peter and Paul, let us also give thanks for the eternal youthfulness of the Church and for the beauty that we find in her.
St John the Baptist tends to be a great favourite among monks and nuns. His humility, courage, joyful asceticism and fiery proclamation of the Truth are immensely appealing. I have written so much about him in the past that I feel obliged to limit this post to a single thought.
Jesus, Mary and John were related by blood and possibly shared a few character traits along with their DNA. We are accustomed to thinking about Christ in isolation, save for a few incidents where Mother-and-Child interaction reminds us that he did indeed live as a family member for most of his life. Where was John, his slightly elder contemporary? In boyhood, did Jesus look up to John; or was Jesus always the leader? Did they play together at family gatherings, or were Elizabeth and Zechariah not the mixing types? The family life of Jesus began in Bethlehem. Today’s feast reminds us that it did not end there.
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).
When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?
Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?
I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.
In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.
Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.
There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?
I feel a sense of connectedness to these two saints that I don’t feel to many others of the period. First, there is Fisher: a Cambridge man of course, of ascetic mind and temper, but fond of his sister (a nun) and capable of gentle humour. The cane he used on his walk to the scaffold is kept over the way at Hendred House, and when I first held it I was struck by how small he must have been. Somehow, one always expects giants of the faith to be giants physically. Then there is More, with his quicksilver mind and delight in his family, a more complex character than Fisher. His drinking cup is kept at Hendred House as a family relic, but we claim a small association of our own as the community at Cambrai from which we are ultimately descended had among its founders D. Gertrude (Helen) More, his great-great-granddaughter.
Today, many claim Fisher and More as their own, ignoring the inconvenient truth that they died upholding the primacy of Rome over the English Church. It is a sobering thought that these two saints were clear where we are often confused. They challenge us today, not least in their understanding of the universalism of the Church. May Saints John and Thomas pray for us all.
When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.
We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’
Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.
When Paul VI moved the feast of the Visitation to 31 May, he ensured that May, ‘Mary’s month’, would finally have a feast of Our Lady, and what a beautiful feast it is!
There is something very moving about Mary’s making the difficult journey to visit her kinswoman when she was herself pregnant. Equally moving is Elizabeth’s amazed and humble greeting, ‘Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?’ We tend to think of the Visitation as the feast of the Magnificat, that glorious canticle of praise that fell from Mary’s lips, but perhaps for us it is Elizabeth’s question that matters. Why should the saints, chief of whom is Mary, bother themselves with us?
The Visitation is yet another reminder of the strength of the communion of saints, of the bonds of prayer and mutual concern that bind us together. The communion of saints is a reality here and now as well as hereafter. When times are hard, there is a tendency to put ourselves first, arguing that we cannot afford to be generous to others. Some British charities are experiencing the truth of this as donations decline and the work they do for for the poor or disadvantaged has to end. Today we have the example of Mary and Elizabeth to encourage us: we can and must help others and in so doing we may help more than we know. We must be saints for others.
I have a soft spot for Augustine. He wasn’t conventionally brave and kept dawdling on his way through Gaul, so un-eager was he to encounter the Anglo-Saxons. Gregory the Great wasn’t keen on his miracles attracting too much attention, but Augustine was quite happy to make sure the stories didn’t spread. Modest, yes; a monk (though not a Benedictine); with a profound reverence for the pope and the ability to stand firm in the face of opposition, Augustine was obviously an effective preacher. Today we stand more in need of his prayers than his preaching: for the conversion of England, which must be one of the most secular countries in Europe; for the Church, which is constantly in need of renewal; and for all the various organs of government on which we rely for the good ordering of civil society. St Augustine, pray for us.
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
I haven’t commented on the suppression of the Cistercian community because some of the reporting in the secular press has been sensationalist and some of the commentary in the blogosphere has been of the ‘ya, boo, sucks’ variety. The suppression of any monastic community is a personal and institutional tragedy, calling for prayer not gibes.
A Vatican spokesman has mentioned ‘liturgical and financial irregularities’ as well as a questionable ‘lifestyle’. Others have commented adversely on Abbot Simone Fioraso’s stewardship. To an outsider it all sounds pretty damning; but we must remember that we are outsiders with imperfect knowledge and understanding. Let us pray that the suppression of the community will lead to good; and let us pray especially for those to whom the loss of the community, however flawed, comes as a great sadness.