Contemplative Silence

Rievaulx Abbey: Michael D Beckwith, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

An article in today’s Guardian about English Heritage’s plan to introduce an hour of silence at some of its monastic sites made me chuckle and groan in equal proportions. It isn’t that I don’t think the call to focus, immerse oneself in the moment and allow the beauty and serenity of the setting to permeate one’s being is a bad idea. On the contrary. Slowing down, switching off one’s ‘phone and really listening, seem to me vitally important — vitally being underlined in that sentence — and any attempt to encourage these is to be applauded.

I admit to a passing irritation with the repetition of the old inaccuracies about monks and nuns when it would have taken very little trouble to get matters right. Benedictines and Cistercians, for example, don’t make vows of poverty and chastity as such, although they are assumed under the older formula of conversatio morum, a promise to live monastic life as it should be lived. The glancing reference to the penal code in the Rule of St Benedict made me sigh a little because it harped upon some of the more dramatic elements without regard to the frequency with which they were/are employed. (I suspect the use of corporal punishment and bread-and-water fasts in earlier centuries may have been exaggerated, and I’d be surprised if they were used at all nowadays.)

What really got under my wimple, however, was the idea that silence is a form of escape. If silence were nothing more than a fleeting avoidance of the rush and ruck of the world about us, it would still have value; but that isn’t what monastic or contemplative silence is. Monastic silence is an engagement, not an escape; and to be honest, it isn’t always pleasant. In silence we confront the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God, other people, and everything that is. It is a discipline, an ascesis, but I’d want to argue that it is more than that. It is a fundamental form of connection. Love prompts us to practice silence; and love is the fulfilment of its purpose.

SSL Certificate
You may get a warning from your browser that this site is unsafe because the SSL certificate has expired. We have had problems with our hosting service but will be updating the certificate as soon as possible. In the meantime, you can override the warning by simply stating that you accept and wish to proceed to the site. I apologize for the bother this will cause some of you.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Tears and Laughter on September 11

The twentieth anniversary of September 11 was always going to be hard. No one who was alive in 2001 can forget the terrible sight of aircraft crashing into the twin towers, nor what followed after. Seeing people crammed onto window ledges or deliberately leaping from them to certain death brought home to us the intensity of the hatred that inspired such hideous acts. Today, in Afghanistan, the story is still not ended and we are as helpless as we were twenty years ago. People suffer, are maimed for life, die. We pray for peace, for the healing of wounds, but with a kind of reluctant half-belief. It is the best we can do. At least our prayer is real, we say. Tears express what we cannot put into words and today they will flow freely, not just in the U.S.A. but also in the 78 countries whose citizens died in the attack on the World Trade Centre and the aircraft brought down near the Pentagon.

If that were all there were to say, it would be to acknowledge the triumph of death and destruction over life and hope, and I’m not sure that we should. There is another image, also from New York, I would like to put before you*: a young girl laughing with astonishment and delight at finding herself in the finals of the U.S. Open. Whether she wins or loses tonight’s match is irrelevant. Emma Raducano has not only demonstrated that she is a very fine tennis-player but also that enjoyment — being filled with joy — is not dependent on success as such. She has clearly enjoyed playing in New York, and those armchair critics who were so dismissive of her when she showed nerves at Wimbledon might like to reconsider their earlier verdict. Life is not all about winning, though it must be nice when one does. The greatest prize is life itself— one we all share and should cherish.

*For copyright reasons, I can’t post a photo of Emma Raducano and her huge smile here.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Family Rows

Today, 26 July, is the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ. Usually I manage to write something appreciative of grandparents and their role in our lives but today my heart is not in it. I am more conscious of the squabbles and rows consuming Church and society (and perhaps our own families and communities, too) to feel I can contribute anything positive. It is more than a mere energy lapse or fleeting feeling of ennui. It is a recognition of our helplessness in the face of much negativity, coupled with a desire not to give in to fashionable points of view simply because they are fashionable but ‘to test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.’

Prince Harry and the Royal Family

Take, for instance, something British readers and viewers will be only too well aware of: the very public row within the Royal Family in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are principals. (Did I say that neutrally enough? What follows is not neutral.) I am not a Royal-watcher; I don’t have any ‘side’ to uphold; but the way in which Prince Harry is behaving strikes me as childish and vindictive, likely to wound his grandmother the Queen, and certain to wound his father, Prince Charles.

I do not know what it is like to lose one’s mother at an impressionable age and under very sad circumstances, but I am beginning to think that the duke is actually exploiting the situation. It makes him different, special, confers on him the right to behave in a less than adult manner. And why? Because he has never learned the importance of forgiveness, of letting go, of truly being himself rather than a person for ever defined by a tragic event that occurred in his childhood. We are told he does not want to use his royal advantage, yet at he same time he makes full use of his royal privilege. Has none of the expensive therapists and counsellors to whom he has access suggested to him that the way to be truly free is, as I said, to let go of the injuries, real or imagined, done to himself? Will he end up a lonely old man, like his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, one entry in whose diary reads, ‘Spent all day watching Wallis buy a hat.’?

The Church and Traditionis Custodes

If the situation of the duke is tragic, what can I say of the Church following the issuing of Traditionis Custodes? Part of me wanted to leap into the fray, bristling with historical and liturgical insights born of long and sustained study and practical experience, or so I would argue; but I wisely held off, realising I needed to think and pray more; and now I realise that it would be arrogant and sheer folly to seek to add to the discussion. Arrogant, because there are others more learned and eloquent to analyse the text, the pope’s intentions and the complexity of the historical background of the Mass in the West. Folly, because I know my temper is on a short string — social media and email make it easy for people to engage in ways I find rude or patronising — and I do not want to say something I later regret or cannot put right.

Liturgy matters immensely to me, of course it does, but the way in which, by and large, discussion has been conducted has been deeply troubling. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not right. It is irreverence of the most terrible kind. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity within the Church, and the only way for any of us to approach it, metaphorically speaking, is on our knees. Bad or inadequate history, personal preference, fear of the unknown, they can blind us to the significance of words and actions and we can destroy what we most long to flourish. We forget, a little too readily, that every human being is entitled to respect and to his/her good name. Insults and accusations are not helpful.

This morning, therefore, I am praying for all families, natural and institutional, experiencing discord. Often it is a grandparent who sees most clearly and is best at binding up the wounds that are tearing everyone within apart. Let us ask the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anne to heal the divisions we experience and to give those of us who are older something of their grace and compassion, that we may meet every new challenge with wisdom and kindness.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Sick Society and RB 36?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

St Benedict’s View of Sickness

Blue gloves and face coverings are now so familiar in the West, we have almost forgotten what they symbolize. They say we are sick, as indeed we probably are, but with a sickness that goes beyond the physical. All I have written in the past about RB 36 and Care of the Sick (and I have written a great deal as a quick search of this blog will reveal) has tended to concentrate on an analysis of the text and our movement from giving care to receiving care. This morning, however, as we re-read the chapter, I was struck by how clear and uncompromising Benedict is about what we owe each other.

Care of the sick comes above and before everything else, ante omnia et super omnia, no matter how good, holy, apparently necessary or advantageous anything else may be. In the light of the very mixed signals coming from the U.K. government, that is worth thinking about. Politicians and civil servants may be confused; economists may be reluctant to concede that striving for growth is not always appropriate; and scientists will continue to argue, as scientists should, about the best way to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of respiratory and other viruses following in its wake. For the majority of us, the response will be more personal and individual.

Concerns about Current Attitudes

I am not alone in feeling uneasy about the ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attitude many Western countries have shown regarding sharing anti-COVID vaccines with poorer nations. In the same way, I find quite alarming the readiness of some heads of state to sacrifice the health and lives of the people they were elected to serve to frankly loopy ideas of their own that lead to much suffering and loss. But it is not an easy question to solve at national/international level.

At a personal level, it is much simpler. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards others and that includes being prepared to sacrifice a personal good for a greater social good. As you might expect, given my respiratory vulnerability, the prospect of ‘Freedom Day’ does not fill me with unalloyed joy. Until now, I have regularly worn a mask to protect others and have been irritated by workmen and others who refuse to wear one inside our house — only a few, but enough to remark upon. I suspect even more will refuse after 19 July, especially those who take their ideas of right and wrong from what is allowed by the law, i.e. if it is not a criminal or civil offence, it is alright.

Serving Christ

A Benedictine would say we serve Christ in the person of the sick. What is often overlooked is that the sick serve Christ in the person of the well. For the one doing the caring, it is a case of being alert to the needs of the sick person and being patient with them; for the sick it is a case of not being over-demanding, of allowing the carer to serve — hard as that may seem at times! Where, I think, both come together, is in their response to the moral dimension of sickness. There is a lot going on about healthcare in the UK, a lot that tugs at our understanding. I don’t pretend to have any answers, only questions gradually taking shape. It would be good if you would share yours — without blaming or party-political ranting, please.

The Rule of St Benedict in English for 15 July, RB 36, On Sick Brethren

RB36
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Owning the Ugliness and Imperfection of Life

During my most recent hospital stay (yes, there have been rather a lot lately), I found myself devoid of energy, tethered to a 24/7 drip, with an oxygen supply on a short cord and, ultimate indignity, catheterized. My eyes blurred and, despite having access to hundreds of books on my ‘phone, it was several days before my joy in reading returned. People could not have been kinder or more considerate. Despite being under enormous pressure, the hospital staff sorted me out (take another bow, Hereford County Hospital), fed me, helped me wash, and were endlessly patient, while the hospital chaplain anointed me and gave me Holy Communion for a journey I was destined not to make just then.

I’ve been home for almost a week now. You might think that my being a nun obliges me to relentless optimism, to being upbeat in every situation. If you do, you know nothing about being a nun! While I was being looked after in every sense of the word, others were experiencing a whole gamut of negative emotions and events. Even I, in my fortunate situation, found things to criticize or grumble at, and it is fundamentally dishonest to pretend otherwise.

For instance, while I sat back and thought about the next meal (salad. Ed), Anglican friends were sharing openly their feelings about Vision and Strategy and some ill-considered comments seeming to misprize the value of a professional clergy; others were beating their breasts as revelation followed revelation of corruption and deliberate attempts to deceive. Friends confided concerns about attacks on their families or on themselves personally, and more than one admitted to serious money worries or strains on their marriage/partnership. We don’t smile bravely through these things. There are times when sharing the pain, acknowledging our own helplessness, being floored by it all, is the only human response and none of us should be ashamed of that. There is just one little caveat I think worth mentioning because I have caught myself indulging in the behaviour involved: moral distancing of a self-serving nature.

We talk disparagingly about ‘this government’ as though we had no part in its election or shaping the climate of opinion in which a political party can be elected. We declare so-and-so cannot be Catholic because he/she does not conform to our idea of what a Catholic should be, as though we were the arbiter of all things and could speak for God. So it goes on. We heap derision on those whose minds are slower or whose values differ from our own. In other words, we wrap ourselves round with a false but comforting sense of superiority which we wouldn’t if we recognized it for what it truly is: a refusal to own the ugliness and imperfection of life in which we share as much as we do in its beauty and holiness.

I don’t like leaving a post with a negative thought, so may I suggest a good exercise for today would be to give thanks for the blessings we enjoy and asking the grace of humility, of being grounded in truth and holiness? We cannot and should not be upbeat all the time. We are called to be human, and that means allowing the reality of our own experience and that of other people to register with us. As the late Bro Duncan PBGV used to say in his simple way, ‘Be more dog.’ Don’t complicate things with ideas that get in the way of truth; don’t pretend, but do your best to follow the Lord, who knew what it was to be tired, misunderstood, at odds with those he loved. We surely cannot be better than he was and is.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

What a Difficult Day Can Teach Us

Photo by Chitto Cancio on Unsplash 

A Difficult Day

Yesterday was a difficult day for many people. Unless there is some on-going horror to be worked through, the dawning of another day changes the mood and gives perspective. In the West, a decent night’s sleep or an unexpected kindness can prove transformative. They remind us what whimsical creatures we are and how apt to let the enemy of the moment, be it pain or muggy weather or some disappointment, dominate our lives.

Yesterday I stayed off social media because I was feeling a little below par myself and was surprised this morning to see how many people had not only been having a bad day themselves but had been busy sharing their irritation with others. Sometimes the way that irritation is expressed speaks volumes, especially when listened to with the ear of love and attention. Of course, it is quite a big ask to listen to a ‘moaner’ lovingly and attentively! (Please note the use of quotation marks.) Sometimes, with the best will in the world, we can only conclude that they are out of sorts; sometimes we can glimpse a deeper pain within — and it does nothing to assuage that pain to talk about how much worse must be the experience of those in less affluent parts of the world. Pain is pain.

Monastic Prayer

One aspect of monasticism that is not always sufficiently recognized is that monks and nuns withdraw from the world, so to say, in order to be closer to it. Many people ask us for prayers, often specifying a particular outcome they desire. There is no harm in that and much that is good; but monastic prayer has to go beyond such specifics. It has to embrace all the pain and hurt, sin and failure, difficult days and disappointments, that we experience as human beings. I do not know what it is like to be a parent in Ethiopia watching my child die of starvation; I do not know the despair of someone locked into an over-crowded prison cell in South America; I do not know the agony of decision-making of someone who feels they must choose this minute between two evils. I do not know, but my own experience of difficulty and of a gracious God whose love and mercy are beyond anything I could ever dream or imagine, mean that these unknowns can be brought into prayer. 

Giving a Difficult Day Time

If a difficult day merely turns us in on ourselves or makes us snappy with others, we need to give it more time. Not everything is made plain all at once. Just as we grow physically and mentally over the years (or, at least, I hope we do), so does our understanding and our ability to use that understanding for good. We learn to reflect as well as react. We can turn a difficult day into a learning day. That may sound trite and obvious but with the challenges the world faces, it is not to be despised. Let us continue to pray for the G7 Summit, for those whose decisions affect us most personally, for ourselves and our impact on others. And as for those seemingly intractable problems, those we personally can do nothing about, let us entrust them to the mercy of God. God knows, and God will.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Too Woke for our Own Good?

Every time I read of the latest manifestation of ‘wokeness’, I am inclined to groan and pass on to something more interesting. It seems but a short step from ‘wokeness’ to ‘cancelling’, and both strike me as being absurd. Should we spend time even thinking about them?

If an American citizen wants to remove a portrait of the Queen from an M.C.R., I merely ask myself if she will achieve as much in her lifetime as Elizabeth II. If 150 dons decide that they will not teach anyone from Oriel unless the Fellows remove a statue of Rhodes, I simply lament the intellectual and moral cowardice, as I see it, of those who believe in silencing others rather than engaging in proper debate. In such cases, I might even go so far as to sing the merits of the Little Place in the Fens, although it certainly doesn’t have a faultless record.

What, however, I’m forced to acknowledge is the power of sign and symbol, and the ambiguity of many of those in current use. For example, ‘taking the knee’ as a protest against racism causes me no difficulty, even if some of those using it are doing so without any great depth of conviction (who can tell?). It is a beautiful gesture, taken from Byzantine court ritual and subsequently incorporated into Christian worship. If, however, it is used to identify with the political aims of the BLM movement, I find that much more troubling.

There is no need to multiply examples. When the G7 summit opens tomorrow, one of the challenges the leaders will face is the different way in which they express and interpret values and motivation. Let us pray they are not too woke for their own (and our) good but achieve something of substance for us all.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On Being Unable to Breathe

Breathlessness is something I know a little about, having lived several years with advanced sarcoidosis and metastatic leiomyosarcoma in my lungs, but even so, the horror of what COVID-19 sufferers without access to oxygen are going through is beyond me. Every photo of someone in India or Brazil struggling to breathe makes me think how scared they must be, how helpless their family, friends and medical team (if they are lucky enough to have one) must feel, and how outrageous it is that we were all so unprepared.

Breathlessness of the kind experienced by those with bad COVID-19 is not some transient feeling of being puffed. It is more like an inner suffocation that makes movement, speech, all the things we take for granted, well nigh impossible. It is exhausting and relentless.* We read that Western countries are sending various kinds of aid, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. I regularly use the one and pray I am never put on the other (if you know anything about ventilators, you will know why). What troubles me this morning, however, is the thought that the oxygen concentrators are unlikely to produce enough flow to be of any substantive help. Those with COVID-19 will go on suffering, their symptoms barely alleviated. Unless we have had COVID-19 ourselves or have had an analogous experience, e.g. a bad asthma attack, we won’t really understand, no matter how hard we try.

I do not know what we as individuals can do other than speak to our governments and donate to aid agencies, but both the situation in India and the rows about vaccines have highlighted the simple truth that we are one world, dependent on one another. Selfishness and generosity seem to go hand in hand among us, and no one has a monopoly on folly, but perhaps we need to reflect on what it means not to be able to breathe — not only in the obvious, physical sense, but also in the less obvious moral and ethical sense. Are we suffocating ourselves by shrugging off the sense of interconnectedness we ought to have? ‘Gesture aid’ is very like virtue-signalling: well-meant, but inadequate except as a way of easing our own conscience. It may sound over-dramatic but today the suffering Christ is to be found in a thousand places, in streets where people are dying for lack of air and an inability to breathe. That matters; so does our response.

* I have relied on the description given by someone who had COVID-19 badly. It sounds very like what those with serious lung disease experience, but worse.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail