Learning from Lockdown

Introduction
I’ve hesitated to publish this post although it has been among my drafts for some time. I’m not very happy about the parallels sometimes drawn between lockdown and enclosure (cloister), but I’m even less happy about the rush to return to ‘normal’ as though the pandemic were over and we can just forget everything that has happened. The number of infections across the globe is still increasing, and in the absence of an effective vaccine, it is likely that we shall be affected by lockdown measures again and again. May I share with you what I have learned thus far and invite you to share with me what you have learned?

I begin with a word of caution. The experience of lockdown has much to teach us, I believe, but it is a process, not something done-and-dusted. It needs more thought, more discussion, more prayer before we can fully assimilate what we have learned about ourselves and others, and before we can realistically assess the consequences. That over-worked word ‘discernment’ is part of the process, and I think we need to acknowledge that we are still too close to the experience, still too deeply affected by it, to achieve the clarity of focus we ideally need. What follows should be read with that in mind.

For some people, of course, it has been the merest blip in their existence. Lockdown does not seem to have affected them very much. In their eagerness to get back to ‘normal’, they barely register a passing regret for the time they have been able to spend in the garden or on the beach, ‘phones off, acquiring new skills perhaps, with an occasional foray into social media or Zoom to chart their progress in baking or learning a new language. I exaggerate, but there is truth in the exaggeration. For those with secure jobs, a decent amount of space to live in, and no particular worries about themselves or their families, it hasn’t been too terrible. They may even have been able to save money and get a trimmer waistline at the same time. It’s been inconvenient rather than anything more soul-searching.

Analogies between Lockdown and Cloister
For monks, but more especially nuns, there are some analogies between lockdown and the cloister. Restrictions on movement, reliance on the skill-pool within the community, and a routine which doesn’t vary much from day to day are some obvious points of similarity. But many of the experiences others take for granted don’t really affect us. We don’t have regular visits from our families. Attending concerts, plays or films or having meals out with friends isn’t part of our way of life. We haven’t felt the constraints some have because we don’t have, or don’t exercise, the freedoms they presuppose.

The more generous will wax lyrical about the greater silence they have experienced and how much they have valued not being called away from prayer or reading to attend to the needs of unexpected guests. A few will be honest enough to admit that this stripping away of what is ‘normal’ in their monastic lives has made them confront a more shadowy side of their being. They have realised, probably painfully, how dependent they are on others; how much of their selves they have invested in work or outreach; how much they need to be needed by their community or others. 

In short, I don’t think we can press the analogies too far. The differences are more telling. Monastic life is chosen; lockdown was, and is, imposed; the motive for each is different, and the kind of authority and obedience/compliance involved in each is different again.

Lockdown here in the monastery
I cannot truthfully say that our experience of lockdown here has been idyllic or anything like it. We have actually been shielding because of my illness and have had no difficulty identifying with those who have found the practical challenges of lockdown existence quite hard at times — getting up in the middle of the night to secure online food deliveries (we live in a very rural area), having to ‘bend the rules’ to obtain medical prescriptions, dealing with repairs to the house at one remove, so to say, and convincing those who do call that keeping a distance is wise: we don’t have immunity to disease just because we are nuns. Such things are minor in themselves but baulk larger when one has no choice but must add them to the daily round or try to explain without giving offence why we can’t do certain things.

I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, however. We enjoyed several weeks of greater physical silence from the A465, but I think it would be fair to say that we carry our silence inside and exterior noise doesn’t make as big an impact on us as one might think. It was certainly useful, while our floors were being repaired, to know that we could legitimately say to unexpected visitors that we were unable to receive them because we were shielding rather than have to go through the complications of welcoming them into a garden area and conversing at a distance. But as time has gone on, we have found more and more people looking to us for support in their loneliness and anxiety. Telephone calls and emails have multiplied. We have even introduced a dedicated ‘phone prayerline to help cope with the demand since our online forms are not enough and are not available to those without internet access.

For Catholics, of course, the sacraments are an essential part of our life in Christ. As a community, we have shared in the sense of abandonment and exclusion so many lay people have experienced. We are fortunate to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our chapel,* but we have not had Mass or any of the other sacraments. For reasons I need not go into here, live-streamed Masses are not for us; and in any case, rural broadband does not always allow easy access to what is available online. For us, the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) shapes our day and along with ‘private’ prayer, work and reading anchors us in reality. The whole house is dedicated to the search for God, and we feel that keenly. However, the absence of the sacraments from our lives must be taken seriously. In my own case, it has lasted much longer than lockdown has. It affects how I understand the Church and her mission and why I question some of the platitudes about pastoral care that are trotted out without, it seems to me, much thought or awareness of what it means for those who don’t feel anyone has much pastoral care or concern for them. This has implications for religious communities of women and for the Church as a whole.

Perhaps I could try to summarise my tentative conclusions as four short questions/lessons from lockdown. We cannot separate the human/social from the spiritual, the individual from the communal, but, as I said earlier, it is a process, work in progress, so not susceptible of clear or easy answers to each point.

The first question/lesson of lockdown
My first point would be that lockdown has highlighted the inequalities in society and in some religious communities. In the rush to take meetings and celebrations online, the poor, the technically disadvantaged, those living in the country, women, fall behind. I don’t know many single parents living in tower blocks but one recently expressed worry that their children’s education has been massively disrupted. There has been nothing to take the place of school that they could afford, and because the jobs they do are regarded as low-skilled, they know only too well that their employment is insecure. Their economic and social security is fragile at the best of times, and lockdown has not been for them the best of times. 

Older people, and sick people of all ages, have talked about their experience of isolation and their feeling of being pastorally abandoned because they can’t take part in their parish’s Zoom services (some of which are now ending, despite the less fit having to continue to stay away because they are shielding). There is often a sadness, an increasing reluctance to engage with others, that shows the distress within. We can only listen, and then just for such time as we can manage.

As a community of women, without a chaplain, we can identify with the pastoral concerns of the elderly and the sick but must admit that loneliness isn’t the same for us. We have chosen solitude, albeit lived with others. Although our lifestyle is frugal, we are not poor in the way many are poor. We have choices the truly poor do not. We have community, and although that is not always an easy blessing, it is a blessing. We have not had to face the difficulties of lockdown alone. We are privileged, and it is nonsense to suggest we are anything but privileged. How we use our privilege is another matter, requiring further reflection.

The second question/lesson of lockdown
The second lesson to be learned is more challenging for the Church as a whole. In fact, it is more of a question than a lesson. Lockdown has demonstrated that the familiar model of the parish as a territorial entity, run by the priest with the assistance of lay people in clearly-defined secondary roles, is in terminal decline. I have read the latest pastoral Instruction several times and am no more convinced than I was before that the Vatican really sees either the problem or the opportunities. If that is arrogant, I apologize: I write as a daughter of the Church, not as someone who has neither love nor respect for her.

The old ‘normal’ is never going to return, but there seems a reluctance to admit it. Why? Don’t we believe in the Holy Spirit any more? Has lockdown shown us the fragility of our faith and hope, made us more selfish perhaps? Have we become afraid of one another, as though everyone carries some deadly virus and the only safe option is to ignore, retreat, avoid? I may be overstating my case, but I have a hunch that the Church is going to haemorrhage members unless or until we can stop acting as though she were composed of various clubs, all rather suspicious of one another and convinced that they alone possess the truth. The Truth should possess us, but that can be scary. Better to keep God in a nicely gilded tabernacle than allow Him to change us.

I admit there is potential for disaster here, but isn’t there also potential for grace? Of course, it means throwing ourselves upon God in a way we may never have done in the past. In my own community I have seen an intensification of prayer that only a searing experience such as that of a pandemic could have brought about. What it may lead to, I don’t know. After World War II there was a huge increase in the number of vocations to monastic life. Many of those who had gone through the horrors of war were led to question the purpose of their existence and embraced monasticism with fervour. It could happen again, but if it does, it will not be in the same way. Society has changed enormously and with it the expectations of those who are drawn to the cloister.

What we must avoid at all costs is a kind of two-tier Church, in which some have access to the sacraments and others don’t; in which some are able to enjoy the fellowship of others in their worship but many can’t. To exclude from active, conscious participation the old, the sick and the poor would be contrary to the gospel, but I have been amazed at the coolness with which a few seem to contemplate that prospect.

The third question/lesson of lockdown
My third lockdown lesson is more personal, but I suspect others will nod in agreement. I have learned how impossible I am to live with. No one has complained; no one has been nasty; but for sheer cantankerousness, impatience and organized selfishness, I take the biscuit. When there are more demands than usual, especially from people, tempers can fray. Mine certainly has. When we have to rely on ourselves for fixing equipment we are not sure about or are thwarted in our desire to obtain necessary items for the community, anxiety levels shoot up. Mine have. I could go on, but you get my drift. Lockdown has revealed much I would have preferred to have kept hidden from myself.

Questions raised by an increase in self-knowledge are never comfortable, but they are necessary, however reluctant we may be to admit as much. I imagine that for most of us lockdown has been a mixture of the welcome and unwelcome. Some have learned they have strengths they never knew existed; others, like me, have discovered weaknesses they never dreamed they had. We have discovered who our friends are, and perhaps been disappointed in some we thought were our friends but who have proved otherwise. Many of our fixed ideas have been toppled, and we are still digesting the implications. At both the individual and the communal level, we have some hard thinking to do and some difficult choices to make.

The fourth question/lesson of lockdown
For some lockdown has been a time of loss and grief. Unlike many communities and families, we have been spared thus far the death of anyone in our immediate circle, thank God. We have not had to grieve without the customary rites of passing and death. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is how to die with dignity in a world of PPE and lockdown restrictions, where simple gestures such as holding the hand of a dying person can no longer to be taken for granted, where the Last Rites are not always possible, and funerals are bleak and lonely exercises that bring scant comfort to those who mourn. Recently, in conversation with someone whose husband had died of the virus and who was lonely and desolate, I was prompted to mention something I take for granted but she didn’t know about. At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, it is our custom to pray for the dead. She found comfort in that, in the knowledge that all over the world, monks and nuns would be praying day in, day out, for those who have died, including her husband. It reminded me that small things can make a difference.

There are times when it has seemed as though COVID-19 and lockdown were combining to rob us of our humanity, making us selfish and cruel. Heartening stories of the kindness of medical and nursing staff, the diligence of hospital chaplains and the like and the generosity of thousands of volunteers give the lie to that; but we all need to know that there is something we ourselves can contribute, something we can do, no matter how old, sick, poor or isolated we may be.

Conclusion
Lockdown, like most things in life, leaves me with more questions than answers. If we are to learn from our lockdown experience, we must reflect on it and be prepared to change. Perhaps in the end lockdown will lead to greater freedom, greater humanity and greater holiness. I hope so. The only thing I am really sure about is that it isn’t over yet.

*Thanks to Dom Andrew of Belmont, we have been able to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. We’re very grateful to him.

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Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Collective Obsessions and Seeking to Understand

Despite what I said in my previous post, or perhaps because of it, I have been trying to articulate and therefore understand my feelings of unease about some of the matters currently affecting us all, for example COVID-19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, the public arguments about transgenderism and so on. Perhaps you can help me?

I am not talking about having a particular stance, nor am I asking for your opinions on these matters as such. We all have our own views, and this is probably not the best place to debate those I have mentioned. My question has more to do with the dynamics of debate, the way we go from one subject to another and how we are to understand our collective obsessions and the way they affect us.

A little while ago everyone was talking about COVID-19 and giving the world the benefit of their opinion on the nature of the virus and its origins, the effectiveness of lockdown measures and, in the UK at least, the competence or otherwise of the Government’s response to the crisis. As someone said, overnight we all became epidemological experts, and if we had celebrity status, we expected our adoring public to hang on our suitably woke words and whacky medical recommendations.

Next came the brutal death of George Floyd, which ignited a series of riots and protests that is still going on. The way he was treated was wrong, unambiguously wrong, no matter that some want to argue that he had a criminal record as though that somehow ‘justified’ what was done to him. Some of what has followed, however, — further deaths, looting, statue toppling and so on — strikes me as being troubling, though not all equally serious. Death and injury will always be more serious than daubing a wall with graffiti or tumbling a bad statue into a river. Politicians and others have rushed to issue suitably contrite statements and take actions which, to an outsider, look to be panic-driven rather than a considered response to a complex and many-faceted situation.

At the same time, some comments of J.K. Rowling have added further fuel to a fire that has been raging for some time over transgenderism. I hope my transgender friends will allow me to say that casting accusations of transphobia at people doesn’t really meet the case. One can believe that biological sex cannot be changed without disliking or having a prejudice against those who have had gender reassignment or identify as being a different sex from the one they were assumed to be at birth. It is always going to be difficult to talk about deeply held beliefs without causing hurt, but should the fact that it is difficult mean we simply dismiss views we ourselves don’t hold by condemning the person who holds them? If I may use an analogy. My being a Catholic is central to my existence, but that has never stopped my being friends with those who don’t share my beliefs or are even hostile to them.

My problem with what I have called collective obsessions is this. First, we tend to deal with them sequentially. One minute we are flooded with comment on COVID-19; the next it is racism; then transgenderism. But when the shouting dies down, what have we done to effect any change? My second is more personal: how do these matters affect us at a deeper level of consciousness and our Weltanschauung?

We may have clapped and cheered the NHS for ten weeks, but what have we done to limit the spread of COVID-19 or help those whose lives have been most affected by it? There is an emotional response to the work being done by healthcare professionals, but can we go beyond that? We may have denounced racism and slavery, but how aware are we of the slavery that exists in Britain today or that brutalises the lives of people living in other countries? Only this morning I read on the BBC news web site of a little girl of 7 who had been working as a maid in Pakistan and was tortured to death by her ’employers’ (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53008093). If I say that worries me more than any statue, am I to be immediately condemned for not being alert to the discrimination and injustice suffered as a result of present-day racism in this country or the role of historical remembrance in perpetuating racist attitudes? Are they mutually exclusive? And with regard to transgenderism, what effort have we personally made to understand? If one does not condemn a particular view, is one complicit with it? Or is one simply saying, I don’t know enough, haven’t thought enough, to express an opinion — and do I need to have an opinion on everything, anyway?

I suspect my questions don’t really have answers, and I must be prepared for comment from those who don’t want to engage with the questions but merely want a platform to express their views. So be it. I must go on asking, however, because otherwise I know that I shall not be trying to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in many and various ways, not least through events and the perplexity we experience in the face of them. Our collective obsessions may be fleeting, but they can have a huge effect on our lives and the lives of other people. Ultimately, they matter. We must take them seriously.

Audio Version

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How to Cope with Life’s Injustices

Where do we start? I’ve been very quiet recently, not for any sinister reason but because I felt I must either say a great deal about some subjects or keep very quiet. On the subject of racism, for example, I can say very little. I don’t understand it and never have. It simply baffles me that skin colour could ever be used as a marker of supposed inferiority/superiority. On the subject of slavery and the slave trade, however, I would have to say a great deal because the subject is historically much more complex than many who see it solely in terms of Black Slavery from the sixteenth century onwards seem to realise — and the tragedy is that it still continues today. I prefer to leave these questions to others, so it is probably just as well that I have been busy with many of those things that keep a monastery going but which are neither romantic nor particularly interesting to outsiders.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one fails to register what is going on in the world outside the cloister or the injustices that are perpetrated. There are the big injustices: the corruption that bedevils political decision-making, often without our being fully aware of it; the economic exploitation that enriches some but impoverishes others; the suppression of freedoms and the manipulation of opinion that makes us all doubt whom we can really trust or what we can believe. Then there are the smaller injustices, those we experience personally and acutely: the failure to recognize our goodwill; the attack on our good name or the belittling of our attempts to be kind or generous; even the breakdown of relationships or our own health can come into this category. It isn’t always easy to respond with courage or the kind of bright-eyed determination we are taught to admire. Sometimes we just want to go into a corner, curl up in a heap and howl.

Cue the entrance of St Barnabas, whose feast-day this is. We might think he would have something of a chip on his shoulder for being the perpetual ‘second fiddle,’ first to Paul, then to John Mark. Even today his liturgical commemoration is ranked not as a full feast (festum) but as a memorial (memoria). In Acts 11.24 he is described as ‘a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. I think that explains why we can derive so much encouragement from Barnabas. He is not one of those on whom the spotlight naturally falls. He’s more of a peace-maker than an agitator or protestor. He introduced Paul to the apostles after his conversion and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys, which speaks volumes about his tact and patience. He defended gentile converts against the Judaizers, and when the break with Paul finally came, Barnabas seems to have gone on quietly preaching and teaching, happy to leave the first place to his more brilliant colleague. We might say that Barnabas’s life is an essay in living creatively with injustice, not condoning it nor grumbling about it but generously accepting it and not letting it get in the way of what really mattered.

Thinking about St Barnabas makes me question how I cope with the small injustices I encounter in my own life. It is an uncomfortable question but one I feel the need to address before I can properly think about some of the larger ones mentioned above. Sometimes we try to avoid dealing with our own shortcomings by concentrating on those of others or society in general. We forget that, like Barnabas, we have to work at becoming good ourselves before we can hope to encourage others to become good in their turn. The trouble is, we’ll never see the good in ourselves but we must hope that others will. That, surely, is the way to change the world — but it will never be easy.

Audio Version

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Reaching Zero-Point

Figure on cliffside walkway holding head with hands
By Edvard MunchNational Gallery of Norway, Public Domain, Link

From time to time, I think we all reach zero-point. We have no energy left; we’re emotionally drained; everything seems to be going wrong or, if not wrong, too much is being asked of us; and, of course, we feel guilty as well for what we (and sometimes others, also) perceive as failure or a shortcoming. That is when St Benedict’s sixth step of humility takes on fresh significance, but not necessarily the one we assume.

The sixth step of humility is for a monk to be content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything, and in respect of whatever tasks are laid upon him, to regard himself as a bad and worthless worker, saying to himself with the prophet, ‘I am reduced to nothing and am all ignorance; I have become like a dumb beast before you, yet I am always with you.’

R.B. 7. 49–50, quoting Ps. 72 (73): 22–23; cf Cassian, Institutes IV, 39.

Being content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything sounds dull and unattractive, especially when we feel worn out. I regret to say it can be used as a weapon or, more revealingly, provide evidence of envy or even ill-will when applied to other people. Why should X need that? Why should Y want such and such? Surely this is good enough for them — ‘good enough’ being determined by the speaker, not the one in need. Nuns are usually treated very kindly and generously by others but there have been a few hilarious instances of wondering whether someone’s intention was to send us to an early grave (giving dodgy electrical equipment, for example) or otherwise ‘keep us in our place’ by suggesting we are stupid or gullible. Benedict, of course, is not talking about material things only, nor is he encouraging a false humility which is no humility at all. He is asking for honesty and truthfulness and a recognition that we are not necessarily the best judges of self or conduct. We must resist the temptation to think better or worse of ourselves than we are. Both are forms of vanity, and that has no place in a monastery. Vanity is, quite literally, an emptiness which should be filled with the Spirit.

The sixth step of humility therefore invites us to reflect on our own conduct and treatment of others rather than wasting time thinking how badly they treat us, wishing we had what they do, or congratulating ourselves on how mortified we are in our acceptance of everything humble and horrible in our lives. We can be content without becoming complacent, with our focus on others rather than ourselves. As Benedict says again and again in different ways, we are to put others and their good first. I wonder how often we do?

When applied to a whole people, or even to a significant proportion of a people, the argument that ‘they’ should be content with what we decide for them can become deadly. We see it today in Yemen, in the race riots in the U.S.A., in many of the attitudes underlying the social unrest in Britain. But do we see it in our own treatment of those nearest (and hopefully, dearest) to us? The sad truth is that we cannot hope to change society for the better if we do not start with ourselves. If we want others to be kind, truthful, considerate, peaceful, we must try to become so ourselves. It would be wonderful if we could leave that to times when we feel brimful of energy and zeal. Unfortunately, it is usually when we have reached zero-point that we have to act. As Benedict’s quotation from the psalms reminds us, however, when we cease to rely on ourselves and rely instead on God, miracles can happen. It is when we leave God out of the equation that we end up not merely at zero-point but in wholly negative territory.

Audio version

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Wisdom, Understanding and Counsel

Is it significant that during these nine days of prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit the first three are dedicated to the inter-related but often misunderstood gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel? You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it is. Although I have been re-posting a series on the gifts of the Spirit that I wrote back in 2016 and intend to continue doing so, this morning I was struck by how pertinent they are to a debate going on in the political sphere concerning the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and his recent flouting of the government’s avowed policy regarding lockdown. It may be possible, therefore, to add to what I’ve already written.

Let me say at once I have no interest in arguing the rights or wrongs of Mr Cummings’ conduct here. That is not the point of this post. Instead, I’d like to invite you to reflect on why we begin our novena to the Holy Spirit by asking for these particular gifts. Wisdom is a quality we associate with God himself, of course, and most of us are aware that we are not especially wise; understanding is something most of us seek but don’t always attain; but counsel, oh, how happy we are to give others the benefit of our opinion or advice! With what speed do we rush to inform others of our insights or share our experience! How confidently we assert our predictions for the future! But if we have neither wisdom nor understanding, our counsel is worthless. We must be filled before we can give to others.

I think that is why the Dominic Cummings affair is relevant to what we are doing now. He is a special adviser to Boris Johnson and, as such, bears a great responsibility to ensure that the advice he gives is sound. It is easy for us to criticize politicians and their advisers but if we are not praying for them, and in particular, if we are not praying for them to receive the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, we are not exactly helping, are we? We need wise government in both Church and State; we need understanding, and we need good counsel. This morning, may I suggest that we need to ask for these gifts not just for ourselves but for all whose conduct and decisions affect the lives of others — including those we find personally objectionable or unsympathetic?

Audio version


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Broken Relationships | Building Community

Too much togetherness or too much distance often leads to the same thing: a broken relationship. Sometimes the break is temporary, sometimes permanent, and it is not for the outsider to judge or apportion blame. The world’s current experience of lockdown is placing new strains on many, but seventeen hundred years ago an ex-soldier and convert from paganism to Christianity named Pachomius introduced something novel into the life of desert ascetics who were physically or temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life: coenobitic monasticism. He grouped his monks into communities and provided common buildings for their use, with a rule of life based largely on the prayers they were to say together. He never lost his regard for the eremitical life but fostered the development of communal endeavours and in so doing provided an alternative to the rigours of a solitary existence, with all the dangers that poses to those who are not suited to it.

I wonder if we need a new Pachomius in Church and society today? Not literally, of course, but someone who will look with clear-eyed love at the suffering of those trying to conform to a way of life that is beyond them and yet who still desire to follow Christ and to be good and useful members of society. I have a hunch that a constant watering-down of what is asked of us may not be the best way to go. Most of us like a challenge, provided we find it do-able and not completely beyond our strength. The novices of a community are usually the ones who are least attracted to adaptations of the time-table or liturgy to accommodate senior members! In society more generally, there is an impatience with lockdown restrictions that reflects the keenness of youth to be up and doing. It is how we manage this that is proving difficult.

When we turn to the Church, we face particular problems. I often wonder whether the large, expensive, and sometimes cumbersome organization we call the Church is sustainable in the future. Some would argue that the future lies in smaller, less ‘traditional’ groupings, loosely modelled on monasticism. It is well-known that I have reservations about some of the so-called ‘new’ monastic communities — some, not all, and for reasons that go to the heart of what monasticism is — but the experience of living at a time when not just I but most of the Church is effectively unable to receive the sacraments must surely demand of the pope and bishops a response we have not yet received. How do we live in a world where the old structures, the old certainties, are crumbling? We talk about the ‘new normal’ and rightly so, because the ‘old normal’ will never return. A few clergy have expressed delight that they have larger congregations for live-streamed services than they used to have in church. Will those online congregations return to the pews, or will they fade away once lockdown restrictions are removed or amended? Who knows?

Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, when all is made new. This year, perhaps more than any other in my lifetime, I shall be praying for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the great mender of broken relationships, the great builder of community. Let us never forget that and think, mistakenly, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Our hope remains high because we depend on the Spirit.

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A Warning Against Hypocrisy

Yesterday I alluded to the portrait of the abbot as Christian leader in the first part of chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict and the different ways in which four abbots of Cluny exemplified its ideals. This morning I’d like to turn to verses 11 to 15 and their warning against hypocrisy.

Benedict tells us that the abbot must teach more by example than by words, especially when confronted with those of harder heart and duller understanding (people like me, in other words), and then goes on to insist that what he teaches, he must himself observe. So, there can be no two standards of observance in the monastery, one for the abbot and another for the other monks; no two interpretations of lockdown restrictions, one for government ministers and another for the rest of us; no two expectations of moral behaviour, one for men and boys, another for women and girls. Above all, there must be no preaching one thing and doing another.

It’s quite easy to become hypocritical without really meaning to. The origins of the word in Greek theatre provide the clue. We can play a part, pretend. Often our pretending is a sign of our wanting to be better, more interesting than we think we are. ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’, whatever that might be. Sometimes, however, we are led to making judgements of others that have more to do with our not wanting them to be as good as they are rather than any just appreciation of their merits or defects. There is so much opinion floating around these days that we are frequently lazy about checking facts. We make assumptions, allow our ignorance to go unchallenged, do harm by not thinking things through.

What St Benedict wrote fifteen hundred years ago to guide the leader of a small community of men seeking to follow Christ is still relevant today. We have to guard against hypocrisy, but in ourselves rather than in others. Something to think about, I suggest, when tempted to call out the sins and shortcomings of others in social media and the like.

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How to be a Good Leader

St Benedict didn’t actually write anything with such a title, but his two chapters on the abbot provide some excellent guidelines — and not just for monastics. At a time when we are experiencing something of a crisis of leadership in the Western world, it’s good to think about what leadership is, how it acts in the service of others, the constraints under which it must operate and the co-operation it must have from those who are led if it is to achieve anything of value. The feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, about whom I have written often in the past, provides us with an opportunity to reflect anew on the relationship between authority and obedience, power and service; and by one of those neat co-incidences only heaven and the calendar can arrange, this morning we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot with its portrait of a wise and kindly leader whose daunting task it is to be ‘the representative of Christ in the monastery’. (RB 2.2)

Most people know that Cluny was the mother-house of what was, in effect, the first religious order in the Church, eventually numbering over 2,000 houses, including several in England. Many also know that there were so many monks at Cluny itself that they had to be divided into separate choirs, constantly singing the praises of God in a laus perennis. Inevitably, expansion created problems and by the time of the French Revolution, the Cluniacs were so identified with the Ancien Régime that they were ripe for suppression. If one goes to Cluny today one can see little of the abbey remains for most of it was demolished in 1810 and the stone carted away. It is not the buildings that made Cluny great, however, but the people.

Earlier, on Twitter, I tried to give something of the personalities and achievements of four of the abbots of Cluny. Listed in date order these are:

Maiolus was both librarian and cellarer (bursar) before becoming abbot of Cluny. He refused to become pope when Otto II wanted him to do so but concentrated on making his community observant and learned. #scholarship

Odilo was abbot of Cluny for 55 years. He was a peace-maker, introducing the notion of truce from Fridays to Mondays and in Advent and Lent. From 1028-1033 he had most of Cluny’s treasures melted down to relieve the poor. #generosity

Hugh was abbot of Cluny for 60 years, during which time the number of houses under him increased from c. 60 to c. 2000,., He was an influential mediator and papal diplomat but still took his regular turn as monastic cook. #humility

Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny for 25 years, argued against persecution of the Jewish people, defended Abelard, had the Quran translated into Latin so that Islam could be studied from its sources, and refused to have anything to do with the Second Crusade. #integrity

As expected, Peter the Venerable has attracted most attention because his concerns resonate with contemporary values, but I have a suspicion many monks and nuns will be more drawn to Hugh. Noreen Hunt paints an unforgettable picture of him cooking beans in the monastery kitchen, and kitchen duty or its equivalent tends to loom larger in our lives than international diplomacy or monastic empire building. I think that is a useful clue to the nature of genuine leadership. It is with those who are led. It shares our difficulties and aspirations even as it tries to guide us. In the case of the monastic leader, the path to be trodden is that of holiness and zeal. Benedict singles out for special care the teaching of the abbot and his responsibility for the way in which the community acts, or fails to act, on his words. It follows that his teaching must be clear, consistent and entirely in accordance with the gospel, marked with compassion, yes, but also firm about what is unacceptable.

That Cluny lasted so long and produced so many saints is testimony to the leadership and zeal of its abbots and the desire of the community to become holy or, as we might say today, the best it could. There were consequences for society in general, too, many of them helpful, like the efforts to reduce war and violence. I wonder how today’s secular leadership measures up to that in its service of the common good, its exercise of authority and its use of power. Ideas, anyone?

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Normal for Whom?

One of the ways in which I annoy my friends is by asking them not to include me in the photo- and video-sharing in which they delight. That is not asceticism as such, although anyone seriously trying to live monastic life needs to think about how they use their time, which belongs to the monastery just as much as their bodies and wills (cf RB 58.25 and passim on obedience). It is a consequence of rural broadband speeds being slow and unreliable. Those living in towns and cities tend not to be aware of the limitations this imposes. For example, all the excitement about live-streaming church services tends to become more muted where the fields and the furrows  take over from the tarmac. We are resigned to blurry images and hiccuping speech. Fortunately, we no longer have to go out into the garden and climb a ladder when we want to use a mobile, but we still suffer from breaks in the signal and the frustrations that follow. What this means in practice is that our definition of ‘normal’ is different from those who enjoy faster connection speeds or the facilities of a more urban environment. 

Where the Church is concerned, that is significant. It must be clear to everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for how we worship, how we celebrate the sacraments, and how we experience community; but how we interpret those consequences, and the ideas we take from them, will vary according to what is ‘normal’ for us. I wonder if that is where those who live in the countryside, whose incomes are often lower than those of town-dwellers and who have fewer choices, will lose out. If so, I think it is where the rural monastery has the possibility of a renewed flourishing. Time was when I assumed that the old ideal of a large monastery situated in the middle of nowhere, dependent on an agrarian economy, was a relic of the Victorian Gothic imagination, wholly unsuited to the world of the silicon chip. I still think the large monastery of former times is less likely, but the role of the rural monastery itself is more certain.

We think of ourselves here as small and insignificant, of no importance to the diocese and no interest to most of the people around us, but that may be to look at ourselves through the wrong end of the telescope. Here, day after day, prayer is made real; here, day after day, we try to live up to Benedict’s ideal of hospitality. Above all, the focus is not on us but on Christ; and that, surely, is where the eyes of the Church must always be. So, even if for many people living nearby their experience of church is now confined to those blurry live-streams in their living-rooms, we can say that here the Church has a living, beating heart, ready to embrace all. It may be somewhat obscure, it may not have the grandeur of the old monasteries or large public buildings we have tended to associate with the Church in the past, nor any of the silicon chip wizardry of online celebrations, but it is here. It’s normal for us. Could it become normal for others, too?

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