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.
St Matthias doesn’t make the headlines very often. Ask the average churchgoer and eyes will tend to glaze, ‘Um, er, didn’t he replace Judas or something?’ Indeed he did. Matthias’s election shows us the early Church in action, acknowledging the importance of the Twelve and claiming both the right and the duty of continuing the succession. Matthias’s fidelity, his having been with the disciples from the beginning, his obscurity and his humility, are tremendously appealing. I made profession of vows on his feast and have always found him, and the gospel of the day, John 15, inspiring. On the eve of Good Shepherd Sunday, he is a good saint to ask for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.
On 22 November 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first pope in history to publish an official document via the internet (allegedly using the laptop pictured here). Today, on the Octave Day of Easter, he is being beatified, not because he was flawless but because he was demonstrably holy. Beatification is recognition of having lived a life of heroic virtue. For some it may seem too much, too soon; but goodness is a quality most of us find attractive, however much we may dislike the tackiness that surrounds some aspects of the process of beatification (vials of blood kept as relics, anyone?). I have no difficulty asking the prayers of Pope John Paul II and I pray that he may encourage many to aspire to holiness of life.
By the time you read this, Digitalnun will be on her way to Rome, not for the beatification (she arrives too late for that) but for the Bloggers’ Conference hosted by the Vatican — another internet ‘first’, but perhaps a rather overdue one. Please pray for all who are attending. If there is to be real dialogue, we shall need the gift of the Holy Spirit in abundance: to listen, to ponder, to argue with wisdom and respect, and all within a little space.
Later today Prince William and Catherine Middleton will marry at Westminster Abbey. Judging by the amount of media attention this event has already attracted, one can confidently predict that there will be no shortage of instant experts to comment on everything, from the bride’s dress to the security arrangements. Mention of security arrangements does highlight the fact that this is not an ‘ordinary’ marriage but one that will be lived out in the glare of publicity. Very few of us could survive such scrutiny and, sadly, the British royal family’s marital history is not encouraging: there have been many breakdowns, with attendant sadnesses for everyone concerned. All the more reason, then, for us to pray for William and Catherine on their wedding day.
In 1366 another Catherine, a Dominican Tertiary, experienced a ‘mystical marriage’ with Jesus which transformed her life. She began to serve the poor and take an interest in world affairs, becoming in time a fierce critic of clerical mores. She was an adviser of both Pope Gregory XI and Urban VI and died at the early age of 33. Her Letters and her Dialogues are both remarkable, although not to everyone’s taste. A Doctor of the Church, she is a type of the mulier fortis. Love her or loathe her, Catherine of Siena is not easily ignored. Were she alive today, I feel sure she’d be a blogger. Perhaps we women bloggers should take her as our patron?
The video of the talks at the recent Faith 2.0: Religion and the Internet Conference has now been uploaded to YouTube.