‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.

This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?

We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.

I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?

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The Perils of Good Advice

We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.

Spiritual Advice

I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.

Classical Monasticism

Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.

A Warning

Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!

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Shape Nothing, Lips; Be Lovely-Dumb

Monastics on the Web

The prayer of Esther, given to us as the first reading at Mass today, is beautifully crafted. I like to think that much of the work we have done online over the years has also been beautifully crafted, in intention at least. It has always begun in prayer, and I hope it has led to prayer in those it has reached; but I mentioned the other day that we are changing the nature of our online engagement in ways we did not envisage even a year ago. Since 2003/4 our online outreach has been a major expression of our Benedictine hospitality, but what was novel and virtually unique in the UK eighteen years ago (coding nuns making their own web sites, doing podcasts and videos, holding online retreats and what would now be called webinars) no longer is. Moreover, our greatest hope, that other monastic communities would commit to the ‘interwebby thing’ has been realised, and the quantity and quality of material now available is wonderful, stretching right across the globe. Monasteries online have become mainstream so that it is comparatively easy for anyone who wishes to have access to the riches of the monastic tradition..

Discarded plans

Originally, we had approached our second lockdown Lent with plans to expand our own online outreach, lured by the false promise of superfast Broadband coming to our area this spring. But installation has again been pushed back to some unspecified date in the future and our plans likewise. We just don’t have the bandwidth to give effect to them.

Once the gnashing of teeth was over, we thought again. We had fallen into a trap we often warn others against. The fact that we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do something. We decided to take stock again, reflecting on both the positive and negative sides of our experience.

On the plus side, we have gained many, many friends, who are very supportive and a real blessing to us. Less positively, we haven’t been able to keep up with everyone in the way we’d like. The year I sent out 100+ emails with Lent Book suggestions and reading plans geared to the individual recipient, I realised we couldn’t go on at such a rate. We gave up producing audio books for the blind when advances in technology made them less useful yet balanced that by releasing a new series of podcasts, including a daily broadcast of the Rule of St Benedict. However, we could not hide from ourselves other, more important changes affecting the way our work was being received.

Changes we have noticed

In recent years our ‘audience’ has grown older, often requiring more personal responses, which takes time and commitment. There is much more curiosity about aspects of our life which, if directed at an ordinary person, could be regarded as intrusive. Although that doesn’t bother me greatly, it does bother other members of the community, who have a right to their privacy; and while we love seeing the Instagram accounts of other communities (dancing nuns et al), we know that isn’t a good fit for us. A lot of emotional energy can be taken up dealing with those who want us to be nuns after a pattern of their own, while some of the provisions of Cor Orans have left us wondering what the future holds for any of us. Add to that changes in community and the ever-increasing complexity of compliance with both governmental and ecclesiastical requirements and the time to do anything can be highly pressurised. How should we make the best use of such time as we have?

Everyone is speaking, but who is listening?

What has most affected us, however, is a change in people’s reading habits. Again and again we have noticed that words are hurried over, perhaps misread, sometimes used as a pretext for correcting us or, worse still, those who engage thoughtfully with our blog posts or tweets. It is part of our react rather than reflect culture. Someone will email a question we have already answered on one of our web sites or assume we have said/failed to say something and demand we explain ourselves. That can be amusing and frustrating in equal measure, especially when it happens again and again. For Benedictines brought up on the practice of lectio divina, of slow, attentive reading, it is also mystifying. It reinforces our sense that the web has become a very noisy place during lockdown, with everyone talking and few actually listening.

If that seems harsh, please consider your own experience. Every parish, every Christian community, seems to be holding Zoom meetings, live-streaming worship, sending out bulletins and generally making use of every bell and whistle in the digital toolbox, but how often do any of us stop to ask ourselves why? Are we trying to connect those who are not connected, spread the gospel, cheer people up, or advertise our wares, as it were? I’m sure all these apply, plus the feeling that we need to be seen to be doing something when our churches are stripped of people and our guest-houses are closed, but I want to ask whether we are using our busyness online to avoid facing a deeper question. Are we doing the reverse of what we intend, creating barriers to God with all our noise, no matter how imaginative or well-intentioned?

Put like that, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’; but it is still a question we must ask. Benedict was keen on taciturnitas, restraint in speech, because he was aware that too much speaking, too much noise, can lead us away from God. I think the same is true of our use of online resources also. My general rule of thumb has been half an hour’s prayer for every half hour spent online (uploading and downloading times excepted!) but I am coming round to the view that we (I) need to give more time to prayer if our (my) words are to have any point. That doesn’t mean we will give up our online engagement or go on a ‘digital fast’ as some call it, but I do think we’ll be more selective about what we give time to. I expect I’ll still go on tapping out blog posts and tweets and being frivolous on Facebook as long as I am able, but some of the community’s more ambitious multimedia projects are being placed on hold — and I myself am definitely stepping back from what I call fruitless disputes, especially here on the blog and in social media. We are re-centring, and not just as a Lenten exercise.

I end where I began, with today’s first Mass reading. Queen Esther’s prayer was heard. May ours be, too.

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Quoting Out of Context

We all love to quote, especially if by doing so we can suggest a whole chain of allusions and dress ourselves in borrowed plumes of learning and wit. Unfortunately, it can also be a little dangerous. Quoting out of context can sometimes lead to serious misunderstandings or a complete perversion of what the original author intended. I’ve been guilty of that myself, and suffered from it happening to me at times. I’m sure it’s also true of anyone reading this. We register the fact, but do we always register its significance?

Take the liturgy, for example. Advent presents us with a carefully-crafted thematic series of readings from which we can derive a much deeper understanding of what salvation means, but if we don’t read round the texts, so to say, we can miss much more. When people ask how to read the psalter, for instance, I often give them the psalm scheme we use in the Divine Office (150 psalms in the course of a week), then urge then to realise that the psalter is already an arranged book. To understand one particular psalm it helps to read those that precede and follow. It is the same with the Mass readings. Gospel passages read in context often have a sightly different emphasis from the one we assume when we hear them proclaimed at the ambo.

Of course, my point about quoting out of context has a much wider application than the liturgy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how easy it is for those of us who are not medically qualified or trained in the use of statistics to misinterpret the arguments of others and advance as fact what is actually a matter of opinion. In my view, the UK Government hasn’t helped with its frequent claims to be ‘following the science’ when it clearly has not recognized that ‘science’ doesn’t usually achieve a consensus all at once, nor is it necessarily infallible. Those of us who are not constitutional lawyers may have unintentionally taken sides in the dispute about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election without realising that opinion, by itself, is not sufficient justification for a course of action with definite, legal consequences. Those of us brave enough — or should I say bold enough — to plunge again into the muddy waters of the Brexit debate may rue the day when arguments were reduced to slogans and some very dodgy claims made about predictable/unpredictable outcomes.

Does this matter? Surely we all have a right to our opinions and their free expression? Yes, we do; but, as with any right, there is a responsibility attached, too. We may think of ourselves as insignificant but each of us has a role to play in forming public opinion, especially if we are users of social media and the like. We have a duty to ensure that our opinions are based on as thorough an appraisal of the arguments as we can make. That means careful listening, careful reading and careful expression in contexts where we may influence others. I can cheerfully go on proclaiming that the PBGV is the best breed of dog in the world (a highly subjective opinion, not to be uttered in the presence of Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, and one that only other PBGV devotees will take seriously) but I would do well to be more cautious in expressing my views on racial injustice or the ethics of using certain technologies. That is not because my opinion does not matter, but because these are matters of great importance and should be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

Already some are arguing that any COVID-19 vaccine which incorporates matter derived from aborted embryos cannot be used, citing as proof the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. That is to disregard or ignore an important clarification issued some years ago which states that, while it is preferable not to incorporate such tissue, it is permissible to use such vaccines where there is a grave risk to health. (For a summary of some of the arguments and relevant documents, see this article by Deacon Greg Kandra: https://is.gd/AwgY7T). Even as we try to be quieter during Advent, it seems we may need to speak out, providing context as well as memorable quotes. We await the coming of the Word at Christmas, so how could we be indifferent to the way we use words every day?

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House of Prayer or Robbers’ Den? The Case for Spiritual Distancing.

Today’s gospel, Luke 19. 45–48, neatly encapsulates many people’s attitude to the Church, though I suspect those most hostile to her would not necessarily pick up the scriptural references but simply condemn her as ‘rich and corrupt’. Try applying the gospel text to ourselves as believers, and the words begin to sizzle uncomfortably. Is my heart a place where the Lord can pray unceasingly, or is it full of contradictory desires and selfish wants that not only block prayer but make me hypocritical — always a charge against Christians, but sometimes justified.

In a monastery you might think we have it all under control, but alas, that is not so. We have to learn, day by day, how to make the heart open to the Lord. Liturgy, the practice of lectio divina and, above all, living in community are great helps but none of them can take the place of the daily, personal conversion of heart expected of us. We vow it, so it must be possible; but it is a never-ending work in progress. One important aspect of conversion is the readiness to listen to people and opinions we don’t immediately find attractive; and by listening I mean more than waiting just long enough to hear the words but only in order to reject them. I mean really trying to understand what is meant and weighing it carefully to see whether it applies to us or not.

We are exhorted to be always on the alert for the voice of God, but it can be difficult to sift out other voices that do not come from him. I think that is why Benedict is so keen on humility, mercy and restraint of speech. He knows we are apt to assume we’re right about everything and be harsh on those who disagree with us. I know I am! But if we are truly to turn to the Lord and make our hearts a house of prayer, we need to practise what I’m tempted to call ‘spiritual distancing’. Older writers called it ‘detachment,’ and it means more than being indifferent to wealth or ease or avoiding sin. It means a wholly different ‘take’ on life which places God at the centre. Part of that involves cultivating freedom from our own opinions and preferences, and that can be more difficult than overcoming other, more material, forms of self-indulgence.

May I make a suggestion? Today, when tempted to react negatively, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you need to think about before you reply. It won’t necessarily stop you screaming at the radio or sending off that angry tweet, but it may open an unexpected pathway to grace in your life — and that can never be a bad thing, can it?

Audio version

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Are We All Becoming Bullies?

Before you respond with an indignant ’no,’ please bear with me for a moment. The word ‘bully’ has undergone a sea-change over the centuries. It was originally a term of endearment. Only since the seventeenth century has it come to mean someone who tries to force another person to do their bidding. Thinking about the bullies I have known and the way in which they acted, I have frequently wondered whether there isn’t a strange mixture of attraction and repulsion about bullying behaviour. The worst bully I ever encountered was, I suspect, a psychopath, with all the deadly charm of such. On the whole, however, I think we are apt to downplay the bully and the harm they do. Why is that?

Our attitude to bullying
One reason is probably our distanced attitude to bullying. If it does not directly affect us or someone we love, especially a child, it remains an abstraction. How many of us think of bullies in terms of the school playground — the bigger boy or girl who uses greater physical strength to humiliate someone who is ‘different’ or can’t fight back? Yet we’ve all met the bully who uses a constant drip of withering words to undermine another’s confidence. To an outsider, some marriages seem to be based on a bullying/bullied relationship which may not involve physical violence but is psychologically damaging. Bullying in the workplace is, if not a commonplace, certainly not rare, but comparatively few are ready to challenge it. Even in religious communities, I’m sorry to say, we can see bullying in operation, often thinly veiled by admiration of a ‘charismatic leader’ or the misapplication of a religious value such as obedience. We are aware of online bullying and dutifully express our horror when someone is trolled or receives rape or death threats, but I wonder how many of us stop to ask ourselves whether we contribute to a bullying culture, not by our silence or timidity as many might think, but by what we actually do and say?

Dissent from popular opinions
You must have noticed, as I have, that any questioning of a current orthodoxy or popular opinion tends to be dealt with scathingly. There is no argument, simply a howl of outrage or dismissal. I almost fear to name some of the matters where expression of another point of view is effectively prevented, but try this list. It has no particular order but deliberately includes a few subjects currently generating more heat than light:

Pope Francis
Donald Trump
Joe Biden
abortion
transgender persons
homosexuality
Brexit
COVID-19 lockdowns
mask-wearing
feminism
Black slavery and statues
gender-free and inclusive language, especially in the liturgy
Christianity
Islam
party politics
nuns’ habits
conservatism
socialism.

Unless you have never expressed an opinion of any of them, can you honestly say you have always entertained contrary opinions with courtesy and open-mindedness? It has been made clear to me, occasionally, that I can only state my own view of some subjects if I am prepared to receive the equivalent of a tongue-lashing and, in some cases, the threat of delation to Rome. Usually, neither bothers me, but recently I have begun to find it depressing, partly because of the amount of time and energy it takes to try to clear up misunderstandings (especially when one can’t respond as directly as one would wish), partly because of what it says about the society we have become. I don’t mean I think we have become less tolerant as such, though we may have. I’m more inclined to think we have become lazier and more aggressive than I think we were, and I’d like to know why.

Are we lazier and more aggressive than we used to be?
One reason may be that we have confused equality with egalitarianism and in striving to achieve the former have ended up with the latter. If I’m right, everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how ill-informed (though I’m not sure even I would dare to lecture parents on how to bring up their children). Remember how we all became experts in virology and associated sciences overnight once COVID-19 stalked the world? Or, for Catholics, how we all became experts in ecclesiology and infallible sniffers out of heresy once we discovered we could broadcast our opinions to the world? Many of us have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims, appropriating to ourselves the wrongs suffered by our ancestors or anyone with whom we can identify. People laugh when I say the Norman Conquest remains a bone of contention, but what’s a good Jutish girl like me supposed to say? That it was a Good Thing, with the advantages outweighing the disadvantages? My mention of the Norman Conquest may make you smile, but it is a useful example of how we can cling to our own version of history and refuse to accept that there may be another view worth considering. If we look further afield, we can see that the memory of colonialism and lots of other -isms continues to cause fury, heartache and division. 

Technological change: lazy reading, lazy listening
What I think most telling, however, I’d call an unintended consequence of the technological changes that have affected us all. Thanks to the internet and the web, we are always connected, always able to share information and opinions but, at the same time, the sheer quantity of information, both real and false, available to us has made us lazy readers and listeners. Our online experience and manner of being increasingly carries over into our ordinary, everyday face-to face encounters. We react more than we reflect. Because we don’t take the trouble to read/listen closely, because we skim read and are anxious to give an instant response, we don’t necessarily absorb what anyone else is saying, much less take time to weigh it. In other words, as communication has become easier, we have actually become less inclined to communicate. As a result, we often don’t genuinely engage — and I plead guilty to that as much as the next person. That, I think, is where the desire to control comes in. To keep our own world safe, we create echo-chambers for those who think as we do and exclude those who threaten our security by thinking differently. We are often more aggressive than we intend to be. Perhaps you begin to see why I question whether we are becoming bullies. If we can’t be bothered to marshall arguments, to think as well as speak, why not just batter the other person over the head — not physically, of course, but with the kind of scornful put-down that makes anyone reluctant to engage further?

A pointer from the Rule of St Benedict
Today, in the monastery, we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. Every time we hear it, I find new depths of wisdom and insight. This morning I was struck by what Benedict says about how we should approach someone from whom we want to ask a favour, with humility and respect (RB 20.1). That brought me up short. I haven’t noticed much humility and respect in recent political debates, nor in many sections of social media, though often enough a favour was being sought, whether it be a vote, funding for a project or help of another kind. Maybe we should do a little re-thinking. Humility doesn’t mean pretending we are of no value, on the contrary, it means being honest about our real value; respect doesn’t mean fawning, it literally means taking a second look, i.e. giving enough time to the other to register their true worth. Humility and respect are, so to say, two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for genuine human — and consequently humane — engagement. If our interactions are characterised by humility and respect, there can be no bullying. On the contrary, there is much more chance of a meeting of minds, of co-operation and the creation of lasting peace and goodwill. Something worth aiming for, wouldn’t you say?

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Unconscious Narcissism

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VJ Day, it would be tempting to recall veterans of the war in the East I knew in my youth, especially survivors of the Japanese prison camps, or some of the lovely Japanese friends I made at Cambridge, but to do so would be to give in to a kind of unconscious narcissism that has become more and more prevalent as social media have come to dominate much of our behaviour. We have become so accustomed to stating our own opinion, giving others the benefit of our advice, or simply turning every post or comment of others into a vehicle for self-advertisement that we no longer, or only rarely, recognize that we are doing so. What do I really know of the sufferings of those prisoners of war or those affected by the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Come to think of it, what do I really know of Japanese culture beyond what my friends have shown me? In both cases, my horror and delight are second-hand, mediated, appropriated.

There is nothing wrong in that, you may argue, but the purposes to which I put them may be. If today you or I are tempted to wade into a fight on Twitter or any other platform, maybe we should ask ourselves what we gain from it? Do we genuinely seek information, want to clarify a view, or contribute to a debate; or do we want to show off, voice our anger, scoop up some sympathy for ourselves under the guise of sympathy for another? When we have become the centre of our own universe, we often misjudge others — and our own motives. What I think we can all agree on as we look back on the tragedies of World War II is that they should never happen again. Let us pray that we may be selfless enough to ensure that they don’t.

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Why I’m Staying with Twitter — For Now

You will probably have read that many Catholics are abandoning Twitter and joining Parler, a social media site that promises a more civilized platform for debate and interaction. Many have urged me to do the same, but the majority of them seem to have a rather narrower understanding of the role of religion in society than I do myself. I don’t wish to interact only with those who share my beliefs or who see social media as existing principally to reinforce attitudes I don’t necessarily share. Most of us end up interacting with a lot of people who do share our beliefs, but that wasn’t why the community to which I belong has been engaged with social media for so many years. We decided, long ago in digital terms, that online interaction would bring us into contact with people who would never ring the monastery doorbell or read a religious book. It would expose us to ideas and challenges we might not otherwise encounter, and the results would be beneficial to both parties. I think that has been largely true, on our side, at least; and I would like to think that our being online has benefited others as well.

It is not just content we are talking about but the manner of our being online that matters. That is where I personally must take a large share of responsibility, for my community has always trusted me to do my best to reflect its values and priorities. I’m allowed to be humorous, teasing, make mistakes, pursue trivia, argue back. But if I get it wrong, I’m expected to apologize; I’m expected to be patient (I am sometimes). Above all, I’m expected to be courteous, and if I can’t manage that because my brain is fuddled with chemo or the prednisolone is roaring within or I simply got out of bed on the wrong side, then to be polite because I am not ‘just’ Sister Catherine when I go online, I’m a member of the community, a Catholic, a Christian. I don’t know whether I succeed or not, nor what effect my efforts have on others, but my hunch is that staying on Twitter and refusing to share in the acrimony, the bad language and all the other negativities we often lament has a point. No social media platform will get any better unless we engage with it and try to make it so. Evangelism has many facets and breaking down misunderstandings and hostility is one of them.

That is why I’m staying with Twitter, for now at least. Why should the devil have all the best tunes, said George Whitefield, misquoting Luther. Why indeed? Digitalnun’s take on that is why should the devil have all the best Twitter, either?

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Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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On Being Perverse

A light-hearted post for Friday, I thought. Something that nods vaguely in the direction of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict (the seventh step of humility, RB 7. vv 51–54) and its insistence that we should be modest about ourselves, not in a Uriah Heep way, but genuinely. But, alas, I made the mistake of looking at a news web site where a large photo of President Donald Trump stared back at me and there was mention of his latest problems with Twitter.

Now, I have to admit that Mr Trump’s doings and sayings often enthrall me, but not usually in a good way. I feel rather the same about the doings and sayings of Mr Johnson, our Prime Minister. But many people think that, because I’m a nun, I shouldn’t have an opinion about politicians, and if I do, I ought not to express it; so may I be perverse instead?

You will have noticed that, in addition to the verified Twitter accounts of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, there are, at any one time, usually a number of parody accounts. Some have caught the tone of their originals so well that one has to look twice to be sure one is reading a parody, not the real thing. I find that disconcerting at times. In the same way, I find the adoption of aliases also a little vexing. Coming from someone who has been using ‘Digitalnun’ as her pseudonym since the late 1980s, my objection is rather illogical, but I said I was being perverse.

I wonder about some of the aliases chosen. Is ThomasAquinas (not to be confused with Fr Thomas Aquinas O.P.) really a Thomist after the Angelic Doctor’s heart? Does God truly speak for God, and are the utterances of the Twitter Jesus anything like those of our Lord and Saviour? (The answer in all three cases is ‘no’.) To take a great name and use it for oneself suggests modesty (good) but can be misleading (bad) or even a little silly (like a baby trying to emulate the grandiloquence of Dr Johnson). It depends in each case.

So, here is my apology for a thought this morning. If you use an alias for your social media accounts, why? Are you honouring someone you admire, trying to be funny or hiding your own identity out of fear of repercussions? I’m not sure how to answer that question myself. Digitalnun seemed a good idea at the time. I’ve always liked the anonymity of the ‘by a Benedictine of . . . ‘ approach. Perhaps I should re-think, too. Then at least I could argue that I wasn’t being perverse.

Happy St Boniface’s Day!

Audio version

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