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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A Patron Saint for Twitter

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.

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The Birthday of Our Lady

A couple of years ago I wrote of this feast:

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.

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St Mary Magdalene

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).

 

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SS Peter and Paul 2011

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.

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Birthday of St John the Baptist

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.

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Reclaiming Nuns for God

St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen
St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen

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?

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