St Benedict and Data Protection

Today is the Transitus of St Benedict, the day when we commemorate his entry into heaven. For us, it is the great feast of the saint, infinitely more important than the Translatio or Translation of his relics, which we celebrate in July. You might therefore expect a paeon of praise in iBenedictines, but that is not what you are going to get, or only incidentally.

St Benedict was a practical man and I think he would have had something useful to say about one of today’s hot topics, data protection, especially as it affects millions of Facebook users. Contrary to the belief of many, I don’t think St Benedict was particularly reclusive in his mature age. The monastery at Monte Cassino is high up, certainly, but it commands an important crossing-point, and I think what the Rule has to say about guests and visitors is a clue to the sheer numbers the community had to deal with in the course of a year. Benedict expected to have to engage with others but the way in which that engagement is surrounded with prayer and common-sensical safeguards for the peace and unity of the community is striking (see, for example, RB 53, 61). Within community Benedict had some tricky situations to deal with also, but he was always discreet and urged that the senpectae, for instance, should be such that they could support the weak and wobbly without publicising their difficulties (RB 46.6). Throughout the Rule, we find references to the need to be considerate, circumspect, and careful about what we say and how we say it. In short, Benedict expects everyone in the monastery to keep the good of others in mind and do nothing that would hurt or harm them.

How does that apply to today’s world, where the buying and selling of information is at the basis of so much commercial activity? You may question that reference to ‘buying and selling’ , but if you use any ‘free’ service on the internet, you are trading some information about yourself in return for what is offered. A problem arises when the amount of information demanded is excessive or put to uses that go far beyond what we could reasonably expect. Who would have thought, for example, that doing quizzes on Facebook could have led to the current debacle with Cambridge Analytica? I myself have always steered clear of such quizzes and limited the amount of information I allow Facebook to have access to (plus I download my Facebook data from time to time) but is it enough? Am I at risk? The answer must surely be, yes, to some extent; but on the other hand, being on Facebook allows me to have a page for the monastery which many people find useful, and a group for our oblates which makes contact between us very easy. The trade-off is thus clear, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because what we have learned about the uses to which Cambridge Analytica allegedly put the information it gathered is worrying.

Here in the West we place great store by democracy, freedom of speech and our reliance on a justice system we believe to be essentially fair, no matter how much we may dispute individual instances of its workings. However, it must be clear to everyone that these things do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they ‘eternal verities’. They are vulnerable to change and even destruction. They can only continue because we support them, i.e. we as individuals hold precious the values that underlie their existence. That is where I think St Benedict still has much to teach us. His insistence on the right of everyone in the monastery to be treated with love and respect, and the duty of everyone to exercise what we today might call a duty of care towards others, is a very sound basis on which to consider how we use the information we hold. That isn’t ‘pi in the sky’ thinking. It is something that affects all of us and is part of the nitty-gritty of creating and sustaining a just and humane society.

I said I wouldn’t be praising St Benedict today, but perhaps awareness of how much we owe him, his Rule, and the influence of his disciples is reason enough to celebrate. Much that we value in Western society is attributable to his wise and kindly emphasis on human as well as divine values. He never used the term ‘data protection’ but he certainly understood the need for privacy and its importance in protecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. May we do the same.

A Little Bit of Data Protection of Our Own:
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The Welcome We Give

Re-reading St Benedict’s chapter on the doorkeepers of the monastery this morning made me think again about the way in which we welcome others (see RB 66). We have had some spectacular failures in the past when people have turned up without warning late at night or been aggressive or rowdy. If we were a bigger community, or if we had more confidence in our ability to restrain someone who is out of control, I daresay we wouldn’t be troubled by the remembrance. Partly, I know, it is because of the expectations others have of us and our awareness that we can never meet them fully. Our less thoughtful visitors do not expect us to be tired or ill or have anything happening in our lives that would lessen our availability or our readiness to give them a meal or a bed for the night. Part of me wishes that we could be, as it were, reckless in our charity; but prudence is a virtue, and to act imprudently is folly — one of those sins that choke the life of the believer. So, we go on as well as we can, being welcoming at the door and welcoming online, but with some limits.

The welcome we give online is something we all need to think about if we are internet users, not just nuns. We all know the importance of being kind and truthful, but there are two phrases of St Benedict I think are worth pondering carefully. He says whenever anyone knocks at the door, the doorkeeper should respond immediately with ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘God bless you’.(RB 6.3)  Now, I know many of my readers pray before they go online, but I wonder how many utter those words or their equivalent when they receive an email/message or surf a web site which seeks to engage them personally — especially if the engagement is critical of them or their views. To go online with a spirit of gratitude and blessing is very different from what most of us do most of the time: we go online to inform ourselves or others, and it is a short step from apparent neutrality to picking fault, to being fundamentally unwelcoming.

A second phrase caught my eye, too, the sentence about not wandering around outside the monastery because that is not good for our souls: instead, we should find everything necessary inside the enclosure. (RB 66.6) I myself rarely surf the net as such. I haven’t time, but I know it can be a temptation, especially if one is feeling bored or vaguely fractious: an hour or two of aimless pottering about online would be a good distraction, wouldn’t it? What I had never really considered was how such lack of focus can affect the way in which we welcome others. If our minds and heart are all over the place, so to say, how can we be truly present to another? How can we find the space in which to welcome God? The monastic practice of enclosure, which in our community includes some strict rules about use of the internet, is intended to guard against any such dissipation of energy. I suppose a secular equivalent would be to say, ‘switch off the ‘phone, live wholly in the present for a while, not the virtual reality we find so attractive.’

Simple thoughts, but gratitude and blessing are so much more welcoming than confrontation and condemnation or endless self-indulgence. I intend to try harder and hope you will also.


Visual Media and Debate

For some years now, here in the monastery we have relied on the BBC website for news updates. The articles have, by and large, been clearly written and easily read. The increasing use of video, however, has presented us with a double challenge. First, rural Broadband makes even the highly compressed video used by the BBC sometimes difficult to accces. Second, one cannot absorb video content as quickly or critically as the written word. It is more difficult to check something a second time, and depending on the kind of reporting or commentary in use, one is affected by accidentals such as the presenter’s clarity of voice or accent. Does that matter? I think it does. The BBC is merely following a growing trend to use visual media rather than the written word to convey both events and ideas. As a result, I think our ability to read a text closely is being affected, and there is a corresponding weakness in our ability to argue a case or debate a complicated subject. When language becomes an unfamilar tool or a blunt instrument in expressing thought, the quality of thinking itself declines. To put it another way, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it takes words to make the point.

Many years ago, when we began using podcasts and video as part of our online engagement, we were ahead of others in our adoption of the latest technologies. As time went on, and the sophistication demanded by users grew, we scaled down our efforts on the grounds that we had neither the time nor the money and human resources at the disposal of the bigger Orders and Congregations. It wasn’t all loss, however. It made us rethink our approach and this blog is one of the fruits of that rethinking. We have, as it were, decided that we must concentrate on the Word and on the merely human words that attempt to lead others to him. I said yesterday I thought it imperative that there should be a renewal of the Church so that we live our Christian values more deliberately and convincingly, but is such a renewal possible if even our faith comes to us in the equivalent of sound bytes and video clips? Are we in danger of losing something precious as video becomes for many the communication norm?

I have probably overstated the case, but I think it is worth pondering. As we draw closer to the General Election, I notice that the number of video clips being posted on Social Media is increasing. They have an impact, of course they do, but whether they help us think through the many complicated questions we need to decide, I am not so sure. It may be I am simply an old fuddy-duddy. I admit to loving words and the beauty and clarity they bring to our appreciation of both the abstract and the concrete. Above all, I value them because they reflect, however imperfectly, the creative Word of God. May all our words today be such as build up rather than tear down.


Have We Forgotten How To Argue?

One of the striking features of the pre-Election debates reported in the press or commented on in Social Media has been the absence of debate. By that I don’t mean the kind of staged, presidential-style T.V. debates among party leaders that some favour, but engagement in genuine argument rather than slogan-mongering or dismissive, sometimes libellous, personal remarks. We seem to have had far too many of the latter, perhaps because Social Media have made it possible for everyone to express an opinion, so nearly everyone does; perhaps because we have become unused to marshalling our thoughts into an argument, so we rarely do so; perhaps, because we have become afraid to argue because of the possible consequences, so we avoid it. Am I being unfair?

The way we read has a great deal to do with the way in which we argue. I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people will react to a headline without reading the actual article or post to which it relates. That can lead to some surprising conclusions, especially if the headline has been provided by someone other than the writer or is deliberately provocative (a form of ‘clickbait’). Here in the monastery slow, careful reading, weighing every word, is the norm, which is one of the reasons our online actvities are selective. We simply couldn’t process all the information and opinion on offer. But for those who don’t have such constraints, I think there is a huge challenge to make wise and discerning use of what is available. I don’t suppose many people think of their internet/Social Media activity in moral terms, but there is an important moral dimension. We have a duty to be truthful in what we write about others, not to make rash assumptions or wild accusations, and it can be easy to forget. What I say of the written word is also true of our use of photo and video. It isn’t fake news we have to worry about so much as the half-truth, the suggestio falsi.

I think the way in which we respond to criticism is also an indicator of our willingness to engage in argument. Some people seem to think that anything goes. An insult, especially if expressed with a few swear words, is enough to see off X or Y. Personally, I hate such remarks and find myself very unwilling to engage because I know I can’t (won’t) do so on the same terms. That doesn’t mean one should take them lying down. Trying to find a way to respond that might open up genuine debate is difficult and usually wins one few friends. Then there is the ‘poor little me, how dare you?’ attitude which can be equally difficult to deal with. The expression of certain views, no matter how thoughtfully and courteously argued, has become unacceptable to many. This is an area where Christians in particular find themselves at a disadvantage. For example, what possible political enlightenment was to be gained from hounding Tim Farron on whether he thought homosexuality or abortion was a sin? He has not proposed any change in the law as far as I can see, and no other party leader has been grilled in the same way on the same subjects, but had he said yes, he thought either was sinful, I suspect that would have led to a concentration on that, and that alone, as far as his party is concerned. We do not all have to think alike or hold the same views, which is why argument and debate are as important a part of the political process as they are of any other in which we engage.

Monasteries are not usually thought of as being places where people argue, but the chapter, the meeting of the whole community to discuss the business of the house or matters of importance, has been an integral part of Benedictine monasticism from the first. Debate can sometimes get very lively. But it cannot be sidestepped. I remember my Junior Mistress telling me, very solemnly, just before I was professed, that I had a duty to speak up and should never be afraid to do so. One would hope that, in a monastic setting, goodwill could always be assumed. Can we assume such in the debates and arguments in which we engage with others? Perhaps; perhaps not. However, we should be sure of our own goodwill, of our own readiness to engage in argument truthfully and fairly. In the end, it is only our own conduct that we can control, and for which we must answer. As we continue our novena to the Holy Spirit, let us ask for all the graces that would make us good argue-ers!

In similar vein, I have blogged about internet apologetics here:


Praying for Social Media Users and Developers

You may have registered that BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme came in part from Twitter’s U.K. headquarters this morning. It reminded me that we need to pray for Social Media users — not just ourselves, the end consumers, so to say, but those who work for the organizations that develop the technologies Social Media depend on and monitor their use. During Lent a number of people decided they were going to abandon some platforms, notably Facebook, and while I sympathize with their stated reasons (they had become addicted, it was taking up too much time, the nastiness of many posts, etc, etc), I know it is not the solution the community here will adopt. Social Media in various forms is here to stay for the foreseeable future; so not only ought we to try to learn how to make the best use of it, we ought also to try to make sure that it is in itself the best we can make it. This morning I’m praying especially for Twitter and Snapchat, both users and developers. Please join me.


A Generous Spirit

Yesterday’s announcement that, at the age of 95 and after a lifetime in the public gaze, the Duke of Edinburgh is to step down from public duties had a predictable result. There was general amusement at the cloak-and-dagger antics surrounding the breaking of the news (all those staff summoned to Buckingham Palace in the middle of the night); some fine tributes to his service of Queen and country and the intiatives with which he has been involved, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme; recollections of some of his more memorable utterances (including those that make us squirm); and some mean-spirited sneering, mainly by those too young to have fought in the last World War and with no idea what, in personal terms, his life may have cost him since he was smuggled out of Greece in an orange box. The reaction to the Palace’s announcement has made me think again about what it means to have a generous spirit.

There is a tendency in all of us to believe that our judgements of others are perfectly reasonable, just and, though we may not use the word, charitable. Public figures, most of whom we have never met, are lauded or dismissed according to our own ideas of what is right and proper. We do not hesitate to ascribe to them views they may or may not hold but which we believe their conduct somehow ‘justifies’. Thus, in this country, all Tories are bad and all Labour supporters are good, or vice versa, and Theresa May is an arch hypocrite and full of hubris, or Jeremy Corbyn is pathetically weak and wrong-headed; and we know, without a shred of evidence other than what is in our own minds, how evil they are and how evil their deeds. We use Social Media to proclaim our indignation or spill our bile through the comments sections of blogs and online news sites. The more definite we are in our opinions, the more we congratulate ourselves on being good, compassionate and wise citizens. Those who have more than we do in material terms are especially vulnerable to this kind of critique, but we also have a difficulty with those who are more intelligent, better educated or more talented. We do not like to feel in any way inferior, do we? And what is true of the way we treat public figures is, alas, also often true of those we meet in our everyday lives. Like it or not, we are sometimes mean.

I am quite sure that some readers will not see themselves in the above description, but I trust you will be content to let me say that it is true of me. We need to make judgements about other people’s truthfulness, reliability, goodwill and so on, and it would be very surprising if we didn’t sometimes let a little worm of envy or distaste (though we’d never call it that) creep in. After all, we are being altruistic, aren’t we? We are concerned about others as well as ourselves and we need to state our opinions plainly. I wonder. A generous spirit is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t mean we are any the less aware of faults or failings, any less on our guard against manipulation or wrong-doing, but it does mean we are prepared to be magnanimous, big-hearted, noble. Those adjectives have a smile about them, and that is so much more attractive than a sneer. In a world where it seems that, as individuals, we are able to do less and less to affect the course of events, we can make life kinder, more bearable, by our own conduct — and that is not a small thing. I am not advocating some kind of quietist retreat from the world, non-involvement or suspension of our critical faculties, only a readiness to pause, to give the benefit of the doubt, to hold back the cruel word and the instant verdict. In short, to allow the Holy Spirit a little space in which to act. What do you think?


When Everything Is Too Much


Pax logo by Digitalnun

Recently we have received a lot of emails and messages from people who feel everything is becoming ‘too much’. They are disheartened by many of the decisions taken by President Trump and his supporters; they are worried about the direction, or lack of direction, they see in UK politics; the E.U. and its policies are regarded as something of a nightmare; they do not trust President Putin; China is a mystery. Add to this, for church-goers, an uneasy sense that the Church they thought they knew is riven with all kinds of disagreements, and it is no wonder that many feel they cannot cope. When everything around us looks bleak, trying to deal with personal problems — family worries, financial difficulties, health concerns — can be overwhelming. The conventional religious response, urging us to pray, is fine as far it goes. We know it is true, but how do we pray when everything inside feels either dead or raging?

At the risk of landing myself in a sticky interview with the Vatican’s CDF, I’d say that one of the big problems here is how we see prayer. If prayer is an escape from reality rather than an ever-deepening plunge into reality, of course it is going to seem useless — because it is useless. Prayer that doesn’t start with the situation we’re in, with the person we are, with who God is, isn’t prayer at all: it is a fantasy, and not a very helpful one.

I am very fortunate in that, when I feel life is becoming too much, I usually have the option of going into our oratory and just sitting there before the Blessed Sacrament, inwardly raging or crying or whatever. Sometimes I don’t have that option: someone needs to be seen or I have a duty I cannot put off or, as now, builders are at work and the oratory is out of bounds for the duration. That is much more like the experience of most of our correspondents. Where can we find comfort, in the sense not merely of solace but of strength, at such times?

There is the comfort of knowing that there are other people (the Communion of Saints here and now) praying for us, even if they don’t know of our particular angst; but while we know that intellectually, we don’t often feel it. There is the comfort of the world around us, whether it be cityscape, landscape or seascape: all have their beauties, and if we can allow ourselves a moment or two to register them, they can have a very calming effect. We can read, play the piano, take the dog for a walk, do something we enjoy or which, at the very least, demands so much attention that we cannot dwell on our sorrows, however transitory they may actually prove to be. Well and good; but none of these is a cure in itself, not all of them are available to everyone, and modern life adds another dimension to the mix. If we use the internet or are involved in Social Media, there is the great weight of anger and derision constantly pressing upon us. The inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the USA and the judgement of the Supreme Court regarding the role of Parliament in the Brexit process has increased rather than lessened the outpouring of negative opinion. What can we do?

There are times when, for our own good, a certain degree of withdrawal and the cultivation of silence are the best thing we could do. We do not have to read everyone else’s opinion on this or that; still less do we have to reply or engage in what often seems a fruitless discussion. We have a right to be quiet. We do not need to win every argument, nor do we need to point out where others are wrong. That is not opting out, it is being sensible. It is saying, in effect, I must put up a little circle of thorns to protect my own inner peace, not because I want to be selfish but because without that peace, I know I shall have nothing to give others. I am running on empty and out of kilter, for now I will give myself time to regain my balance. Not everyone will agree, but those who object may not yet have discovered how drained one can become. May anyone who reads this post and thinks ‘that’s me at the moment!’ know that we are praying for you here at the monastery. The feeling of emptiness and strain will pass eventually. In the meantime, you are not alone, nor is what you are experiencing unusual. It is part of being human, and being human is a very wonderful thing to be.


Conservatives, Liberals and Populists

To an Englishwoman of my generation and background, the use of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse or condemnation is incomprehensible. They are descriptive terms only, and although one may sympathize with one or the other according to context, the idea of their representing an individual’s moral standing is questionable. As far as I can see, there is probably more sin in spewing contempt and hatred over someone who holds different opinions from oneself than there is in holding those opinions. I say ‘probably’ because, of course, the argument must be nuanced.

To give an example to make that last point clearer. If someone argues that women have a right to abortion, I part company with them because I do not believe we have the right to destroy life in the womb. I believe it is wrong, very wrong, and during the years when I was active in the Life movement, I did what I could not only to provide practical alternatives but also to try to help others see why abortion is wrong. What I did not do was hurl anger and abuse at those who argued for abortion, still less did I talk about women who had abortions in terms of  wickedness and sin. In other words, I made a pragmatic judgement — abortion is wrong and to be condemned — but did not equate that with a moral judgement of the person  — you are to be condemned because you support abortion.

So, on the question of abortion, I am to be labelled a conservative; on other matters, such as  the desirability of some form of state-sponsored  healthcare and social welfare, I daresay I am to be labelled a liberal. In different degrees, and with different mixes, that is true of most people. We hold a wide range of opinions, some of which may appear to others inconsistent but which to us make sense and are part of our outlook on life. A problem comes when this cheerful mix is overlaid with dark notions of populism and democracy run riot, and it becomes neither acceptable nor even possible to hold opinions different from the mainstream. That is the point at which genuine freedom is lost; but before then it dies a thousand deaths as it becomes more and more circumscribed by those who argue loudly for the current fashionable orthodoxy. To take one example, it seems to be slightly easier in the U.K. to wear a hijab in the workplace than it is a cross, yet both are, for their wearers, a sign of their religious adherence. We can see an erosion of freedom in the name of, well, what exactly? A vague, well-meaning attempt to secularise the workplace has become something quite different, a form of petty discrimination.

A couple of BBC Newsnight presentations on Plato’s Republic as an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump as President of the U.S.A. have been going the rounds and provoked some interesting reactions (you can see the second here: Their reading of the text is selective, but to anyone familar with it, the trajectory traced is perfectly legitimate. There is an inherent tendency in democracy to become more and more liberal and for freedoms to multiply, so that, in the end, we all do as we please and all differences or inequalities are done away with. However, as that does not lead to happiness, we look for a saviour, drawn from the elite but who makes great play of being hostile to it and in favour of ‘the little man’, who solves our problems for us by gradually taking away the very freedoms that led us to desire a saviour in the first place. This is populism in action: the kidnapping of democracy by democratic means. As an explanation of the rise of tyranny, it is seductive; and to anyone who has read the nightmare vision of society in Plato’s mature work, The Laws, the vision of The Republic is, at least in its earlier account of democracy, infinitely preferable. But it makes several assumptions many of us would question. For example, self-interest isn’t the only value we admit. Pace Mr Trump, most of us see ourselves as part of a bigger world than that defined by the nation state. We have global responsibilities, whether we like it or not, although we may disagree on what those responsibilities are.

Where does all this leave the Christian when confronted with the moral and political upheavals of our time? I am not sure. What I do think is clear is that the need to live with integrity was never plainer or more important. Just as I don’t think we should join in the abuse-hurling that has begun to characterise every level of political debate, so I don’t think we should opt out of all the difficulties that living in a democratic society implies. We have a duty to engage, but how we do so is as important as that we do so. Today’s gospel, Mark 3.22-30, has much to say on the destructiveness of division and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. It makes uncomfortable reading. I am reminded that tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva at a critical time, of whom one of the Calvinists against whom he argued said that, if ever they were to honour a saint, it would be he. He is the patron saint of writers and debaters. We are all now writers and debaters on blogs and Social Media. Prehaps if we spent less time shouting at one another and more time, like St Francis de Sales, thinking and praying, we might see more clearly what we have to do. In the end, labels are a minor matter; it is what we are that counts.


Back to the Beginning (Again)

Already the new year is beginning to look a little frayed about the edges. The hopes expressed beforehand, that this would be the year when we became more united, more peaceful, have already been destroyed by a hail of bullets in an Istanbul nightclub and countless other acts of violence around the world. Yet we persist in our optimism. We are determined that this year things should be better. We will make a new beginning.

The trouble is, there isn’t much to back up our desire to make a new beginning. For most people in the West, the new year is devoid of religious significance.* There is no collective act of repentance, no rituals to affirm a determination to change, nothing to support our efforts to be more united, more peaceful. For a Benedictine, however, there is the Rule of St Benedict which, together with the gospel and the liturgy, acts as a constant encouragement to try.

Yesterday we began reading though the Rule again from the beginning.** We shall read it through in its entirety three times in the course of the year, and no matter how familiar the words, we shall find ourselves being confronted by much that is new and sometimes difficult. Yesterday we were urged to strip ourselves of self-will, to listen and to follow — things most of us are reluctant to do, especially in a society that exalts selfhood in all its manifestations. Today we are told to wake up, pay heed, get going. It is the spiritual equivalent of a ruthless exercise programme, and it is intended to make us more aware of God, ourselves and other people.

Is there anything a lay person can take from this? I am not a believer in making complicated rules of life for oneself or in trying to be so ‘spiritual’ one neglects to be human. To pray as best one can, to work as best one can: that is already much. There is, however, one idea all of us can try this year which may sound ridiculously simple but which, like Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, may yield unexpected benefits. It has to do with awareness, something the Rule is very keen on.

How often do we see people shut themselves away from others (and sometimes themselves) by playing with their phones or plugging in their earpohones? How about deliberately choosing to wait five minutes before immersing ourselves in our virtual worlds and letting the real world, the one we can’t control, take precedence? We may notice things we had forgotten existed; we may have an opportunity to share a smile or exchange a greeting with someone who really needs that moment of human interaction and kindness. We may even meet Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his’. That, surely, would be a new beginning worth making.

*We haven’t always begun the secular new year on 1 January (it used to be 25 March, feast of the Annunciation). 1 January is the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, but comparatively few celebrate it as such.

**If you want to listen to the Rule of St Benedict, read day by day as it is in the monastery, you can do so on the desktop version of our web site here. Flash needed as I have yet to replace the player with a HTML5 version.


O Adonai: Our Need of Holiness 2016

Today’s O antiphon is my favourite because it weaves together several themes I have always considered important and turns them into the purest prayer:

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm!

We are back with Moses in the desert, ‘the humblest man alive’, with whom God speaks ‘face to face, as with a friend’ and the Holy One chooses to reveal himself to him at a moment of his own choosing, and in his own way. Did sheer curiosity lead Moses to the Burning Bush, or did he look more closely than we do, who would probably pass by the sight with some banal remark about how dry the scrub is this year? Would we dare to go into the dazzling darkness of the mountain and hear God speak, or would we be more likely to think a stormy day not the best time to climb its slopes and put off till tomorrow what God invites us to today? And if we did see the Burning Bush, and if we did receive the tablets of the Law on Sinai, would we realise their significance? Would we see that the whole earth has become holy ground and the divine law is inscribed on the tablets of human hearts — that everything has changed and redemption become possible? Finally, would we make that prayer, asking God to redeem us, to do what we cannot, confident that he will hear and answer?

I think we have here the secret of holiness: Moses looked at God, not himself; and he was so filled with what he saw that we are told the very skin of his face shone. Does our face glow with holiness? Do we make people happier, more determined to be charitable, kind, neighbourly; or do we leave them brooding over other people’s shortcomings and all that’s wrong in the world? Do we ‘waste time’ with God or do we try to avoid any encounter, filling our lives with irreproachably good activities we can use as a screen against him? Are we prepared to risk holiness? Our answers to these questions will tell us a lot about ourselves and our need of holiness. It is no good wanting the world to be other than it is unless we are prepared to be changed ourselves. Holiness is not an optional extra for a Christian or something we can safely leave to the ‘professionals’, it is the vocation of each and every one of us.

Recently I have been saddened by some of the remarks I’ve read on Social Media. One this morning was a sick jibe against religious sisters in the U.S.A. which, as one might expect, attracted more of the same from the writer’s followers. That is not holiness. It achieved nothing of value. I doubt it led to anyone’s conversion (it just made me think less of the writer). Even the laughter it provoked was of the kind St Benedict regards as unwholesome, destructive. To destroy is the devil’s work, and we can easily become part of it without realising what we are doing. We can contribute to the store of anger and ill-will in the world; and although it may seem insignificant in the general scheme of things, it matters — because everything, everyone, matters. We can build up or tear down: the choice is ours.

The responsorial psalm at Mass today acts as a kind of commentary on O Adonai, especially these verses:

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?
The man with clean hands and pure heart,
who desires not worthless things.

Clean hands, a pure heart and a desire for what is worthy. Isn’t that what we all need today and every day? Isn’t that what God desires of us, that he may give himself to us? To know our need of God is the beginning of holiness. We can be quite sure that he will respond generously. In fact, he already has — in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.