St Antony and the Eremitical Vocation

St Antony’s feast-day baulks larger in the monastic calendar than it does in most others because we look upon him as a monastic prototype. His life-story is fascinating and complex — an instance of multi-layered hagiography, to be approached with an eye for detail and an ear for what is unspoken — but it is as a hermit that he is chiefly remembered: a man who went into the desert to be alone with God.

This is a day when we pray for all hermits and thank God for their strange and beautiful vocation. A strange vocation I call it, because it is very rare and very unsettling (or should be) to those who have not received an eremitical call; beautiful, because to live with and for God alone is a gift to be marvelled at.

Benedict was not very keen on hermits, despite, or perhaps because of, his own experience. I have known two genuine hermits with some degree of familiarity: one was a nun, the other is a priest. Both loved people and got on easily with them. Their vocation was not a turning away from others but an engagement with them at a far, far deeper level than any ordinary activity could have made them. I’d dare to say their prayer was, and is, one of the pillars upholding the world.

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Friends

We keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow being the feast of St Benet Biscop for us) so my thoughts naturally turn to friends. Friends, please note, not friendship. Friends are people — awkward, imperfect, challenging, delightful to be with; friendship is an abstraction, a way of thinking and reflecting on what friends are and mean.

Today let us give thanks for our friends in all their quirky individuality and pray that we may be better friends in return. Christ is always the third person present in any friendship, so let us be friends in a way that he would approve; and if we can think of any friends from whom we are estranged or whom we have neglected, let’s make an effort to put things right.

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The Importance of Sisters

Today’s commemoration of the Cappadocians, St Basil the Great and his friend, St Gregory Nanzianzen, plunges us into a wonderfully saintly family history. Basil’s grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was a saint. His father, Basil the Elder, was a saint; his mother, Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and mother of eleven children, herself suffered for her faith although she seems never to have been considered a saint by the Western Church although the Orthodox Church venerates her as such. Two of Basil’s siblings are reckoned as saints, Macrina the Younger and Gregory of Nyssa. A third, Peter of Sebaste, is sometimes called a saint, sometimes not; a fourth, Dios, is credited with founding one of the most famous monasteries of Constantinople (though there is some dispute about the identity with Dios of Antioch). All in all, a very holy family and a very influential one, which championed the faith of Nicea against the Arians.

Interestingly, and unusually for the time, perhaps, the influence of women is well attested and celebrated. Basil is the great legislator of Eastern monasticism as Benedict is of Western: both were profoundly influenced by their sisters. Basil seems to have modelled his monastic community on his elder sister’s, just as Benedict is credited with having been taught the true nature of prayer and monastic discipline by his sister Scholastica. Perhaps when we write the biographies of great men we should pay more attention to their sisters, especially if they happen to be churchmen.

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Gaudete: the art of rejoicing

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments, musical instruments, and general air of rejoicing, marks a further stage on our pilgrimage to Christmas, but have you ever stopped to think what ‘rejoicing’ actually means? Is there an art of rejoicing that we have to learn or can we simply laugh a great laugh and be joyful in His presence? A bit of both perhaps.

I have been pondering that lyrical first reading from Isaiah 61. It is often used at monastic Clothings because of the reference to the ‘garments of salvation’. When I was clothed, my father sent me a small card on which he had inscribed not ‘he has clothed me in the garments of salvation’ but ‘he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity’. To anyone who did not know him, my father’s choice might have seemed puzzling. Why prefer the cloak of integrity to the garments of salvation? I think it has to do with the obligation that integrity lays upon us and the freedom and joy that fidelity to vocation confer. We cannot stretch the metaphor too far, but the garments of salvation are a sign of gladness of heart, a gift from the Lord, but to be wrapped in integrity is to assume a duty, that of being prophets in our own generation. Integrity is never very comfortable and will always lead to difficult and demanding situations. It is no accident that St John the Baptist was a man of the utmost integrity. He was also one of the most joyful. May he teach us not only how to be people of integrity but also the art of rejoicing.

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Of Music and Musicians

The feast of St Cecilia is a good day on which to think about music and musicians. Let me say straight away that I am very average choir fodder. Indeed, when being taught to sing plainchant, I so exasperated my teacher that she exclaimed, ‘It’s just a matter of intelligence!’ Whereupon, to my eternal discredit, I did an off-the-cuff translation of one of the trickier hymns in the Hymnale. Pride 1; humility nil.

Inability to sing or play should not be confused with the ability to enjoy. There are very few who do not enjoy music, although we certainly don’t all enjoy the same music. I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving.

Fundraising Update
We’ll be issuing a statement later today after we have met with our advisers. We’ll tweet when it’s up.

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St Gertrude

Our monastic calendar is out of step with much of the rest of the world, for we keep the feast of St Gertrude today rather than on 16 November. I tremble at the thought of writing about her as a friend, for you know where that got me when I wrote about St Martin, but for those who like their sanctity a little on the dry side, she was a great mystic, with a warm devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ, especially in his Passion and in the Eucharist, and had a tender love of Our Lady. That she is a patron of the West Indies and of cats is by the bye. (I’m not sure why cats should need a patron saint: can anyone tell me?)

That dessicated Gertrude does not greatly interest me. The child of five who entered the local monastery at Helfta, received an excellent education, became a nun and ended as a saint interests me enormously. She was an amazing woman, just as her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn, with whom she is often confused, was an amazing woman. Unlike Bede, whose life she uncannily echoes in some respects, Gertrude’s intellectual interests were mainly literary and philosophical to begin with. Only after a profound conversion experience did she turn her talents to the study of scripture and theology. She is proof positive that the cloister can produce people of great stature.

As is the way with many nuns’ writings, most of Gertrude’s have been lost. We have only the Herald of God’s Loving Kindness, written in conjunction with other members of the community (formerly known as the Life and Revelations of St Gertrude), and the Spiritual Exercises. They are not to everyone’s taste, but through them runs a deep love of the Lord, a quiet steadfastness of purpose and a very Benedictine sense of the importance of the liturgy. She reminds us that whatever gifts we may have been given are meant for the building up of the whole Church, that nothing is wasted which is placed at God’s service.

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Celebrity and Sanctity

I wonder how many of today’s celebrities will be remembered seventeen hundred years hence? The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

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Hopelessness

We’ve all experienced it: moments when hope dies and we are faced with something too big and bleak for comprehension. It may have been the death of someone we love, a diagnosis of terminal disease, the collapse of a business or some other dream of a better, brighter future. Hope is always a cinderella virtue, neglected until needed, and given at best a grudging welcome even then. As Christians, we don’t want to acknowledge, even to ourselves, how hopeless we feel.

It is at times like these that I find Catholicism a great help. I don’t have to pretend to a hope I don’t have. I can rage and rail and call on the aid of the saints, just as I call on the prayers of my friends on earth. Saints Simon and Jude, whose feast is today, are a case in point. St Jude is popularly known as the patron saint of hopeless causes. He is the saint whose aid we invoke when the going gets tough. It seems fitting that he is the patron saint of the Chicago Police Department, some obscure football clubs and many hospitals. He is a good friend to have in heaven.

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St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.

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St Francis as viewed by a Benedictine

If you go to Subiaco, where St Benedict lived as a hermit before deciding that coenobitic monasticism was a safer option for the rest of us, you will see one of the earliest paintings of St Francis in the chapel of St Gregory. The saint is shown without stigmata or halo, suggesting that it was executed during his lifetime. Interestingly, one eye is larger than the other, reminiscent of the icon of Christ at St Catharine’s Monastery, Sinai. Another fresco shows Cardinal Ugolino, later Pope Gregory IX, consecrating the chapel. A friar stands behind him. In my view, it is St Francis again, so perhaps he was present at the consecration. (Sadly, I can’t show you any photos as those we have are the Subiaco community’s copyright.)

These two images seem to me to tipify the Benedictine view of St Francis. He is recognized as being a kindred spirit although the way of life he drew up for his friars is very different from that of monks. He is also recognized as a holy man while yet alive. I think that says something important about both forms of religious life, something we may lose sight of as we bustle about doing our various good works today.

Benedictines sometimes forget the years Benedict spent in his cave, alone with God. Franciscans sometimes forget the saint of the stigmata, who was anything but sentimental. Both were men of huge compassion, open to the new, their lives rooted in prayer. Benedict probably was not a priest, Francis was a deacon; neither was in the least ‘clerical’ in the bad sense. Both had a tremendous sense of the holiness of God and his endless creativity. That portrait of St Francis in the heart of a Benedictine holy place is an encouragement to all of us to open our eyes and see what God is doing now.

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