An Unexpected Sabbath

Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?

For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.

At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.

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Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

How often have you toyed with the idea of becoming a hermit for a few days or dwelt lovingly on the thought that if everybody would just go away for a while and leave you in peace, everything would be perfect? Anyone who has ever tried the experiment knows we carry our demons within, and whether the desert we escaped to was real or imaginary, the one person we cannot flee is ourself. But what if you are now faced with ‘self-isolating’ or being quarantined for a fortnight along with others? Not so much being alone with the Alone as alone with a crowd — especially if the crowd is your nearest and dearest, your family? How will you fare? How will you even survive without committing murder? Time to call in the experts! Nuns are uniquely experienced in this business of living in a small space with companions who sometimes get on our nerves as much as we do theirs. So, here is Digitalnun’s guide to self-isolating for dummies.

First, accept the inevitable. We are going to be cooped up together for a while and it isn’t going to be easy. It will help if we have made some preparations beforehand. These include, if possible,

· enough stores of food and household goods to last a fortnight (but don’t go overboard: we deprive others if we stockpile);

· a menu plan;

· a routine which includes times for work, relaxation, silence, conviviality and, if a Christian, prayer;

· enough books, music, videos or whatever you and your family need to ensure that you do not spend too much time bickering over trifles;

· an emergency plan for obtaining help if needed;

· an emergency plan for giving help if needed.

You probably think this is all very basic and obvious. Of course it is. Much of monastic life is basic and obvious. Benedict was well aware of the stresses and strains of community life and sketched out in his Rule ways of coping with them. He was realistic enough to know we can be tempted to murder one another, especially when we cannot get away from other people; he understood the importance of routine and settling questions of what we are to eat and when to avoid making them the focus of disputes when there is not enough to occupy us. He recognized that silence is necessary not only to our spiritual health but also to our general well-being and can prove a healing balm in difficult situations. He realised, too, that we must have work to do (even if it is just decluttering a cupboard). Above all, he placed great emphasis on putting the needs of others first, of apologizing when things have gone wrong and not allowing feuds to simmer or grumbles to destroy the peace of the group. 

I wonder if we can tease out that last point, about putting the needs of others first, a little more? Some people have expended a lot of effort and even anger in trying to play down the seriousness of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In addition to pouring scorn on those who are anxious about themselves or their families, some have attacked policies designed to protect everyone from the virus. If one is in good health and certain of access to an ICU and ventilator should need arise, one could well argue that there is nothing to worry about — for oneself. But one’s neighbour with asthma or some other illness, the elderly person living alone down the road, or the citizen of a country with a practically non-existent healthcare system, what about them? And becoming indignant about the precautions we are asked to take in church for the sake of others, what does that say about us?

This is where I think the reason some of us become nuns and adopt a solitary life lived in community becomes highly relevant. We do so in order to become more filled with love of God and neighbour, more selfless, more Christ-like. We may not be very good at it, but everything in the monastery is designed to help us. Being forced into self-isolating or quarantine and all that goes with it may well be contrary to everything we desire or think right for us, but it is imposed on us for the good of others. We can learn from it. We can turn what at first sight seems a negative experience into a positive one. We can rediscover what it means to live simply; we can experience what it is like to live without access to the Sacraments or the social/work communities on which we rely for much of our daily interaction; we may even rediscover some of the joys of family life or, if we live alone, the joys of solitude. We can confront some of our inner demons and maybe conquer them. We can end up less of a dummy than we were before.

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What the COVID-19 Coronavirus Is and Is Not

Let’s start with what it is not. The Covid-19 coronavirus is not an excuse for scaremongering, stockpiling, spreading false information, exploiting or attacking those who are fearful or anxious about the implications of the disease. I have been astonished — that is the most neutral word I can find — at the behaviour of some who ought to know better, but I wonder how many have stopped to think about the morality of what they are doing. At the very moment the WHO has been trying to impress on us all the seriousness of the outbreak, some have been trying to undermine their work by wrenching statistics from their context or posing as experts in areas where they know no more than the average Tom, Dick or Henrietta.

Now that the whole of Italy is in lockdown, perhaps we might think about what the Covid-19 coronavirus is, rather than what we’d like it to be. It is a new form of coronavirus for which we currently have no vaccine. If you have read any account of how it attacks the body, you will understand why one would not wish to die from it. The later stages are simply horrific. Among those who have recovered, there is speculation that a few may experience lasting damage to the liver and kidneys. That just highlights how little we actually know. What we do know, without a doubt, is that it is spreading fast and having a major impact on the lives not only of the sick and those who care for them but also of others dealing with quarantine regulations and the fall-out, both social and economic, that such a disease causes. In other words, it is nasty, but exactly how nasty is best left to the virologists and medical officials who know what they are talking about to determine.

So, why are some people deliberately flouting common-sense precautions, such as regular handwashing, or ridiculing arrangements intended to slow the rate of its spread? Is it because they are inconvenient, or put some small fetter of responsibility on those who want to be completely free? Why are some clergy pooh-poohing instructions designed to protect as many people as possible from infection? Is it because they fear that once people have got out of the habit of Mass-going they may never return? Why are we being so selfish? Could it be that we are not making the connection with Lent and its call to be generous, to put the needs of others first? That can be particularly difficult when it means foregoing our own opinions or what we think is in our own best interest. St Benedict, as usual, leaves us in no doubt that we are always to do what is better for another. I hesitate to say that Covid-19 is an opportunity to learn that, but it is undoubtedly an opportunity to put it into practice.

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Three Types of Valour

Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer, originally known as the Women’s World Day of Prayer because of its beginnings in 1887 with Mary Ellen Fairchild James’s call for a day of prayer by women for the home missions. It soon grew beyond its U.S. and Free Church base and now embraces more than 170 countries and Christians of all traditions (and sexes) with its emphasis on ecumenism and reconciliation. At its heart, however, remains prayer inspired by, and led by, women. On Sunday secular society celebrates International Women’s Day. It, too, began in the U.S.A. when the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York in 1909. In 1910, at the International Socialist Woman’s Conference, Clara Zetkin, a German, proposed that 8 March be honoured as a day in memory of working women, their aspirations and rights.

Over the years both events have attracted derision from some, support from others, but only those most deeply committed will know what it has cost to stand up to the mainstream and proclaim that women and girls are not mere adjuncts to society but intrinsic parts of it. For a Benedictine, the two days have a resonance with the monastic emphasis on work and prayer. To pray and work for justice and peace is not an additional extra but an essential element in what it means to be Christian. One does not have to look very far to see how unwelcome that can be. It upsets the cosy order of things. Whether the wrong to be addressed is a patronising attitude towards women in the Church, the failure to allow girls equal access to education in some countries or disregard for the inhuman working conditions imposed upon women in others, it takes courage to identify and challenge the situation.

I mentioned three types of valour, though, didn’t I? Today is also the memoria of SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose passion (account of their martyrdom) is one of the most thrilling documents to have come down to us from the early days of the Church. You can read it online here. Perpetua was just twenty-two, well-educated, with a young child; Felicitas was her servant, several months’ pregnant. Together they faced hideous cruelty but refused to give up their faith. The text that has come down to us is complex, with many layers of reference and meaning, but I think it demonstrates that women’s roles cannot be confined to those dictated by others. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit guides women as well as men, and women are loved by God as much as men are.

I hope readers will think about that last sentence a little because one of the things I realised recently in corresponding with a Catholic priest was that he had a difficulty. On the one hand, he truly loves Our Lady and sees in her a holiness that is unique; on the other, he is extremely uncomfortable with women generally, seeing them as intellectually and morally inferior. I wondered about that, but I think it may be because, deep down, he thinks that only men count, and if only men count, it is because God loves them more than He does women. I may be wrong, but that thought has enabled me not to bristle at some of the things Fr X has said which otherwise might have set my wimple into a spin.

Where I think Fr X and I would agree is that Our Lady is the bravest of all the women I have mentioned in this post. To accept the role of Mother of God, to be theotokos, goes beyond our human comprehension and takes us into the realm of the Spirit. None of us knows how much the faithful fulfilment of her role cost her, but I suspect most parents will have an inkling. That is why yesterday, today and tomorrow we ask her intercession, not just for the Church, not just for women and girls, but for the whole world, for everyone in need — but it may take a fourth kind of valour to do that, the kind given by humility and the knowledge that we, like her, are the anawim, the poor of God.

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Fallen Heroes | Jean Vanier

The news that an internal investigation by l’Arche International has concluded that its late founder, Jean Vanier, sexually abused at least six women and was an associate of the disgraced priest, Thomas Phlippe, has been met with horror and profound sadness. 

The horror is because we have yet another revelation of abuse in the Catholic Church by someone whose work for the disabled made him a hero to many. But there have been so many such revelations that even as we register the terrible sin, we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief: the abuser was a layman, not a priest or religious; none of the abused was a child or disabled. How easily we forget what a dreadful experience it must have been for those who were abused and how they are condemned to live with its consequences for the rest of their lives. Have we become so accustomed to cases of abuse that we no longer see them for what they really are but try to find ways of downplaying their significance or arguing for a ‘less worse’ scenario? The most we can say is that l’Arche itself seems to have acted with commendable frankness and transparency, but facts remain facts. Jean Vanier’s name has been tarnished for ever. He is a hero no more; the halo has slipped.

I think that is why the news has also been greeted with more than ordinary sadness. Despite the abuse, Vanier did a lot of good — more than most of us will achieve in our lifetimes. We need to remember that, as well as the bad things; but, of course, we want our heroes to be flawless, and in the Catholic Church we are keen to make saints of our heroes. When we see they are neither, we are disappointed, maybe even feel a little foolish. I was once at a meeting where Jean Vanier spoke. What he said was inspiring, but I felt uncomfortable at the way he was being treated. At any moment, I thought, someone is going to genuflect before him. Happily, no-one did, but it was clear that no-one was going to challenge anything he said, either. Every word was received as incontrovertible wisdom. The sense of santo subito in the room was palpable.

Where does all that leave us now? In community we shall be praying, first and foremost, for those who have been abused; for l’Arche, its communities and supporters as they face the fall-out from the report; for forgiveness for Jean Vanier himself; and for ourselves and all who admired the work Jean Vanier did. That last may surprise you, but I think that in mourning his fall from grace and the suffering inflicted on others by his actions, we are also mourning for ourselves. We have lost an icon and our trust has been dented. More than that, we have been confronted with something we usually prefer not to admit or have difficulty fully understanding. We, like him, are a mixture of good and bad. We hope the good outweighs the bad, but sin is a brutal fact in our lives which Lent will bring into sharp focus. We may like to think we would never murder anyone, commit abuse or steal, but we are all capable of evil and can never be sure that we won’t fall into sin — especially those sins we like to think we are safe from.

Sunday’s Mass readings (Leviticus 19. 1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3. 16–23; Matthew 5. 38–48) speak to us of the holiness of God, the sacredness of the human body, and our need to emulate God’s love and compassion. There is more than enough there for us to reflect on and to stimulate prayer for forgiveness and healing. They seem to me to encapsulate Jean Vanier’s vision for l’Arche and for a more compassionate society. It would be a tragedy if, because of the hurt that has been done and the scandal now attaching to his name, the work of l’Arche were to be discredited and more were to suffer. Let’s pray it may not be so.

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Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.

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Putting the Social Back into Social Media

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest: going online
Quietnun in Digitalnun’s Nest: going online

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we pray for the sick and those who have care of them; it is also Safer Internet Day, intended to encourage safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones. For me, there is a clear connection between the two.

Everyone knows, I think, that the community to which I belong chose to use the internet, including social media, as a way of responding to St Benedict’s concern for hospitality. Being short of money, physical space and numbers, and wanting to ensure that the monastic heart of our existence should not be compromised by too much noise or over-exposure to outside influences, the web offered lots of possibilities for engagement with others. It promised to be an excellent way of fulfilling the old idea of contemplata aliis tradere. By and large, I think it has fulfilled its promise and, as early adopters, I hope we have made a small but useful contribution to that.

Over time, many things have changed and the ugly side of the web has become more prominent. Think false information, anger, trolling, porn, hatred. These have made the community here more determined than ever to use online technologies for good. To a fellow believer I would express it as trying to take Christ into a situation, a world, from which more and more are trying to exclude him. In the early days we saw being active online as being where people were (and therefore where the Church should be). We now see it in rather starker terms. It is where a battle between good and evil is being fought, where we confront those principalities and powers of which St Paul writes. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but using traditional language to describe a current phenomenon does have advantages. It prevents us from seeing what we are experiencing now as completely without precedent and reminds us that the old disciplines of prayer and fasting may have something to say to us today that we need to hear.

Take social media, for example. I have often urged prayer before we go online and especially before we make use of social media. I have not been quite so enthusiastic about digital fasts because, in my experience, they rarely work as a way of bringing long-term discipline into a situation we may feel has got out of hand. That said, I acknowledge that, for some people, the need to come off social media for a while is essential because it has taken over their lives. It is a kind of Lenten discipline that enables one to re-focus. Fortunately for me, my life as a nun takes precedence over everything else so I am not free to go online whenever I choose or would like to. There is a kind of built-in restraint that is invaluable. There is, however, another way of looking at things I would like to suggest as worth pondering and perhaps acting on: bringing the social back into social media.

It is very easy to forget what the word ‘social’ means. It comes from the Latin word for a friend or ally (socius). It gives us the name we use for the community of human beings in which we live, society (societas). For St Thomas Aquinas, what we now call the State was simply societas christiana. The idea of being connected with one another in a relationship of friendship, mutual support and sympathy, is thus culturally an important one for all users of social media, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them. It is our disregard of that which I would say is at the root of much of our current unease with social media and the way in which they are used.

There is a very active Tweeter in the USA who does not seem to be unduly bothered by the truth or falsehood of what he tweets. As far as I can see, he is a narcissist whose main aim is to exalt himself at the expense of everyone else. There are some users of Facebook and Instagram who plainly see those platforms as being marketing opportunities. All they want from us is our money, whether in the form of cash or data. All this may strike you as being very cynical. I prefer to think of it as a kind of sickness in need of healing. We cannot turn the clock back to those heady and visionary days when the web was seen as a way of connecting everyone and the internet promised to make knowledge of all kinds freely available, but what we can do is ensure that our own use of the opportunities we are given is not merely responsible but creative and, I hope, healing.

We do not often stop to think of the creative and healing possibilities of social media, but they exist, and I believe we should each try to cultivate them. It isn’t only the lonely who go online. It isn’t only the dysfunctional. But we should not scorn them if they do. The community’s use of social media has brought us into contact with thousands of people who would never otherwise have got to know us. We have accompanied a few of them through some dark moments in their lives. I think — hope— we may have helped one or two find a happier way of being. Along with the photos of cats and dogs, and the little jokes that delight some and exasperate others, I think social media have enabled us to open the cloister to many who are not called to live there permanently but who have discovered that it has value, even for them in their busy, secular lives. What I write of here is not unique to us. Everyone who uses social media can use it for good or ill, to build up or tear down; and we do not always have to be solemn about it. Laughter is a good medicine, but let it be the right kind of laughter, not the kind St Benedict regarded as destructive. Let us make friends online by being friendly, by being truly social.

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Brexit Day 2020

Diego Velazquez : Public Domain

Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent with the U.K. trying to become a member of what was then called the Common Market and protesting vociferously whenever General de Gaulle said ‘Non’ — which was often. Much of my adulthood has been accompanied by seemingly endless arguments about fisheries, agriculture and ‘Brussels bureaucracy,’ with several attempts by British politicians to renegotiate terms. Today, after a lot of shouting, the U.K. is leaving what we now know as the European Union. Some are waving Union flags; others are dressing in sackcloth and ashes. With my unique talent for annoying everyone, whatever ‘side’ they are on, I give my own personal view of the matter.* Today is the day the U.K. reaffirms its status as a protestant nation, distrustful of what lies across the water; and I reaffirm my catholic and Benedictine identity as a member of something bigger and more important than the modern nation state or even the E.U. itself.

Tonight, at eleven o’clock, therefore, I shall be in the monastery chapel, giving thanks for all the good things our membership of the E.U. has brought; asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted by our choosing to exit the E.U.; and praying for wisdom and right judgement for everyone in the post-Brexit future. You will notice that sentence does not limit itself to consideration of the U.K. or E.U. alone. So much of the political and economic discussion in the last few years has been on the level of ‘what I think is best for us,’ where ‘us’ is narrowly defined. I do not think we have always done that, and I take heart from two things that we may not always do so in the future.

The first is very personal. My father’s war service made him an ardent Europeanist; the breaking-up of the British empire made him an ardent champion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. In the later years of his life he returned to the Catholicism of his forebears on the grounds that it was the only form of Christianity corresponding to his world view. It was, as he once remarked to me, ‘big enough.’ How we regain that larger vision, I do not know; but I am convinced that our interdependence as a world will eventually lead to a re-thinking of our alliances. Either that, or we shall destroy ourselves and the planet on which we live.

The second will strike many as a little recondite, even subversive. The number-plate on our car bears the E.U. symbol of a blue flag with twelve golden stars arranged in a circle. I cannot look at it without thinking of the twelve golden stars arranged in a circlet around the head of Our Lady (cf Revelation 12.1). I am convinced that God has his own way of dealing with things and is particularly good at dealing with our failures and disappointments. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and be prepared to do whatever he asks. When Mary told the servants at Cana to do that, water was turned into wine. Those shedding tears of grief today may find them turned into tears of joy tomorrow. May God bless everyone, whether for or against membership of the E.U., and help us all to work for a better future for the world.

*The community has no particular view. I stress that this is my own view.

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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