Being Welcoming in a Time of COVID

Photo by Hombre on Unsplash

A Reality Check on Being Welcoming

I must admit that every time we re-read RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, I linger over its opening phrase: all guests are to be received tamquam Christus, as though Christ. This identification of the guest with Christ forms a kind of refrain throughout the chapter and has inspired many a writer to wax lyrical about Benedictine hospitality. It has also sometimes led to unreal expectations on the part of the guest, depending on how he or she sees Christ, and on the part of the one doing the welcoming. We all believe we would drop everything to welcome Christ, but in practice, this side of the Second Coming, meals still have to be cooked, rooms cleaned and all the unseen work of the monastery continued, no matter how much we want to lavish attention on the guest — or how much the guest wants our attention.

St Benedict’s Teaching on Hospitality

The Rule’s rituals of welcome — prayer, the kiss of peace, sharing food, washing the weary traveller’s hands and feet, reading scripture — and the exhortations to humility and kindness combine to produce an impression of austere but dignified welcome, very suited to sixth-century Italy but perhaps not quite so well suited to twenty-first century Europe or North America. We tend to want to be more ‘spontaneous’, more tactile even, and meeting the spiritual needs of the guest is rarely the first thought that crosses our mind. Taking hospitality online, as we have during the past twenty years or so, introduces new complexities. How much time should we give; how should we respond to the difficult, argumentative or downright rude? In short, how do we find new ways of being genuinely welcoming while at the same time preserving the very thing that makes our hospitality worthwhile in the first place, namely, our existence as a monastic community, dedicated to searching for God and helping others to search for him, too. Now there is COVID, and the situation has become more complex still.

The Effect of COVID

We are meant to be social beings but COVID has made us wary of one another. There has been a lot of isolation and loneliness to cope with; and for those who are most at risk if they catch COVID, there has been the added burden of trying to reconcile a warm welcome with a prudence easily misunderstood or ridiculed. Even the wearing of a mask to protect others can be derided. With Advent and the prospect of more mingling over the festive season, is there anything we can derive from St Benedict’s teaching on hospitality that might be useful to all, not just monks and nuns?

I think one of the most important things to take away from chapter 53 is the setting of boundaries. Just as the abbot must ensure that his community is not unduly troubled by guests, so the guest must moderate his or her expectations in the light of what is possible. The emphasis on the spiritual side of hospitality may not be fashionable but it is a reminder that everything we do has a spiritual aspect. So, our domestic festive gatherings may not be as uncomplicated as in past years but they can still be warm and generous because they are filled with love of God and of his children. It is not unreasonable, if clinically extremely vulnerable, to ask guests to take a lateral flow test before coming to one’s house. It is not unreasonable to reduce the number of people invited or re-think the kind of food and drink offered, so that there is less risk of contamination (e.g. via dips). These are small things but together they make a greater whole. Welcoming others in time of COVID may take a different form from the one with which we are familiar, but it can still be one of the most beautiful experiences in life, both for the welcomer and for the welcomed.

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Perseverance

The Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year is ‘perseverance’. Blithely ignoring the fact that most people probably associate the word with NASA’s Perseverance Rover and Mars, I’d like to bring us firmly down to earth by thinking about its meaning and how it applies to monastic life and, indeed, life generally.

‘Perseverance’ means going on steadfastly, despite difficulty or limited or no success in achieving a goal. The medieval origins of the word bear additional notes of strictness and resolution. Clearly, perseverance is not to be trifled with. It has a severe, determined face and can make huge demands on the individual. In the monastery, it is recognized as a necessary quality and has even given its name to the questioning of a novice’s intentions regarding commitment to the monastic life. Three times during his/her novitiate, the novice comes before chapter and is asked whether he or she wishes to continue seeking God in the monastery. If the answer is in the affirmative, a further period of probation is allowed before vows are made.

To persevere is therefore a daily re-engagement, a daily re-commitment. It is unshowy and unspectacular but the only way to ensure genuine growth. As with monasticism, so with marriage or anything else we value. Sticking at something through the proverbial ‘thick and thin’ isn’t a mark of lack of imagination but rather the reverse. It is a is an indication of hope and trust and belief — in God, in people, in ourself, even. It is, in its own humble way, a key to the Kingdom.

Today’s Feasts:

We celebrate today the feasts of St Hilda, St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Hugh of Lincoln, all well-known in various ways, and for those of more curious liturgical mind, St Nerses of Armenia. If you follow the link below, you will find three posts on St Hilda which throw a sidelight on the subject of this post as well. To attain holiness without perseverance is an impossibility and it has nothing whatever to do with ‘success’.

https://www.ibenedictines.org/?s=St+Hilda

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A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

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Compassion not Condemnation

No one who reads today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 27 On the Abbot’s Special Care for the Excommunicated, can feel easy about condemning others. Again and again, Benedict advocates patience, reaffirmation of love and support for the wobbly one, and is reminded of the example he himself must follow, that of the Good Shepherd who carried the straying sheep back to the flock on his own sacred shoulders (RB 27. 9, a telling addition to the gospel narrative). The emphasis is not on what the excommunicate must do in order to be reintegrated into community but what the abbot and community must do.

How often do we demand that another person change, show repentance or remorse, conform to our standards of acceptable behaviour and become what we require them to be? It is an arrogance that goes beyond the individual. We have seen something of the same in the run-up to COP26. Most people in the U.K. agree that caring for the environment and being good stewards of natural resources are important, but the methods adopted by Insulate Britain, for example, to force attention on their case have had a mixed reception. There has been a clashing of rights which reflects a clash of interests. At COP26 itself, the division in interest between rich and poor nations has been stark at times. Those of us living a comfortable life in the West don’t really know what it is like to live with sea levels just two metres below our country’s land mass and, as one delegate put it, no hill to run to if they rise.

Only a very wise person, or a very foolish one, would claim to know how to solve the challenge of climate change, but we must do the best we can. When dealing with those who are unconvinced, or whose self-interest is apparently opposed to our own, we need all the qualities an abbot must show when confronted with disruptive behaviour in an individual: patience, support, readiness to act. Above all, we need to show compassion rather than condemnation, a willingness to listen and, where we can, compromise.

Over to you, but, please, no angry rants. They won’t be published.

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Metaverse: Promise or Threat?

An Old Idea

Years ago I remember arguing that one of the problems of the internet was that it was too static, too predictable, and what we needed, especially those of us interested in the presentation of religion online, was a more immersive experience that went beyond what was then possible. The ‘informative’ web sites and forums were all very well but they failed to capture the essence of Christian belief and practice. We identified a particular difficulty in sharing the monastic experience with others. Romantic photos of buildings and individuals, accompanied by snippets of plainchant, were popular but didn’t contribute much to understanding. We did our best to address this difficulty with our online chapters, videos and podcasts, but it was still largely us broadcasting our view of life to others.

A Connected World

In the years since we have seen some remarkable developments. We may groan about Zoom meetings or live-streams, but the technologies available have made much more engagement possible for those who have neither the wealth nor the expertise to set things up for themselves. Now everyone is buzzing about the metaverse and the possibility of creating a parallel world of virtual reality which could reshape the entire internet — and I find myself hesitating.

Hesitations

The reason I hesitate is because I think there is a possibility of losing touch with reality and I am far from convinced the Churches have thought through the implications. By that, I don’t mean to oppose physical and virtual reality, which I see as equally ‘real’ though with different modes of being. I am thinking more of what I can best call moral reality. One of the striking aspects of life in the twenty-first century has been the privatisation of morality. If I think something is right, that entitles me to do pretty much anything in pursuance of my ideals or goals. I can murder someone because he or she is ‘wrong’ about something and ‘deserves’ to be eliminated; I can exalt my rights over your rights, on the roads or anywhere else I please. In short, I have become my own moral compass, unconstrained by the need to consider society or any other group. A virtual universe which we experience as ‘real’, which we can manipulate at will, is not without its dangers because it dispenses with many of the controls life usually imposes.

Once upon a time, people worried about video game violence and the blurring of the distinctions between violence on screen and violence off screen. Even after decades of research, no one seems entirely sure what effect it truly has. Part of the current debate about untrammelled violence following the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess has concentrated on the role of social media and the violent language used there and by our M.P.s themselves. The dignified, eirenical statement of the Amess family is a welcome reminder that the values of kindness and consideration are important to any civilized society, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. That it needed to be said is, however, sobering.

What Will the Churches Do?

Of course, as soon as one uses the word ‘civilized’, one begs a series of questions about what constitutes civilisation. For me, grounded in the Western Christian tradition, the answer is not difficult and includes a host of values that are shared with millions of other people. To someone else, with a different cultural heritage, such ideas and values may seem alien. What I am thinking about this morning, therefore, is how the Churches as multi-national institutions will respond to the challenge and opportunity offered by the development of the metaverse. Will they stand to one side, initially hostile or disapproving; or will they embrace the possibilities and allow them to enrich the experience they offer believers and non-believers alike? Maybe those of us preparing for Synod 2023 could add this to the list of matters we are thinking and praying about. Your thoughts on the subject would be welcome.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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