The Myth of Permanence

Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a great reputation and discovered that the chef who made it so departed some years earlier? Often the prices remain the same, but the heart has gone out of the cooking and the experience of dining there is more than a little disappointing. It is the same with monasteries. I can think of some which have been truly great but are now shadows of their former selves, living off a reputation for scholarship or music, say, which is no longer deserved. Others, like yet-to-be-discovered restaurants, are in the process of becoming something that one day may be valued by many.

Linking restaurants and monasteries in this way may help to explain why, for a Christian, the daily call to conversion is so important. Permanence here on earth is a myth: everything passes, everything perishes, reputations not excepted. Every day we must begin again. The restaurant is really only as “good” as its last meal, the monastery only as “good” as its current community; we ourselves only as “good” as we are now.

The past we can confidently leave to the mercy of God, the future to his providence; let’s rejoice in the opportunity of the present, which has been well described as the “sacrament of the present moment”. It is the only one in which we can meet God, for with him everything IS.

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Christian Unity Octave

I am late posting on the subject of Christian Unity, not because I don’t care about it but because I find myself more and more perplexed about what we mean by it. Possibly you are, too. I understand, I think, the importance of corporate unity (beware, reader, when Digitalnun writes in agnostic mode) and am myself a Catholic by conviction rather than mere accident of birth or upbringing, but — and it is a huge but — I find many of the activities in which we engage during this Octave of Prayer bewildering because they seem to avoid the elephant in the room: the unity we already have, and the unity we don’t.

I have no difficulty praying with other Christians, whatever their theological take on such questions as Priesthood or Eucharist. Equally, I have no difficulty discussing what keeps us apart institutionally because I believe that the more we understand one another, the closer will be our real unity. And there, of course, is the rub. We are already united through our common baptism but we seem to spend a lot of this week either pretending we have already attained corporate unity (“the differences between us don’t matter”) or talking about a unity we don’t, in our heart of hearts, actually want (“the nearer to Rome, the further from Home”).

Maybe one of the best things we could do during this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is to spend a few minutes considering both these aspects, the negative and the positive. How far does understanding of our own Church and the Churches to which others belong draw us together or keep us apart? In the gospels, Jesus seems much more concerned with right action than right belief, which left the early Church with all kinds of problems to sort out, from eating meat sacrificed to idols to unions between believers and non-believers. Much as we would like to return to that first gospel simplicity, we can’t. We have two thousand years of Christian experience to integrate into our own faith and practice; and if one believes, as I do, that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in every age, we cannot and must not dismiss that experience because it is God-given.

So, we pray for unity. To hear what the Holy Spirit is saying requires some very delicate tuning of mind and heart. To do what the Spirit urges requires courage and generosity. May we be found wanting in neither.

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Blue Monday

This is Blue Monday, the worst day of the year, or so Quietnun informed me straight after Lauds. (She has been reading too much social anthropology recently.) Why should the mere fact of New Year resolutions crumbling to dust, credit card bills plopping through the post box  and the darkness outside seeming never to end have any effect on people’s mood? And why should feeling a bit low be construed as moral failure? Is it all some vast conspiracy to make us feel worse than we do? Aren’t we allowed to be miserable any more?

Personally, I find quite trying the relentless joyfulness of those who wish to assure us that “Jesus loves you” while we’re attempting to deal with some catastrophe or other. It’s true, I agree, but maybe I don’t need to be reminded while I’m struggling to clear the drains or heading towards the bathroom with some malady or other. Anyway, what’s wrong with being tired and tetchy on occasion? Blue Monday is as good an excuse as any to be a little grumpy — just don’t make anyone else as miserable as you are yourself.

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Obedience, Ordinariate and Beatification

I should like to say something about the Ordinariate, though that is to invite another brow-bashing, and something about the beatification of John Paul II, though others may well have said it better, but today is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, disciples of St Benedict, and I cannot pass them by, though I hope to discover a link between all three. Bear with me.

In Book II of the Dialogues, St Gregory presents Maurus and Placid as types of the perfect disciple, the obedience of the one complementing the innocence of the other. Both were offered to St Benedict as child oblates, to be brought up in monastic life. One story tells how Placid fell into a lake and was carried away by the current. Benedict became aware of the impending tragedy and ordered Maurus to save his fellow monk. In obedience to his abbot’s command, therefore, Maurus walked upon the water as though upon dry ground and dragged Placid to the shore. Benedict attributed the miraculous rescue to his disciple’s obedience, Maurus to his abbot’s holiness.

As any medievalist worth her salt will tell you, this little story is charged with meaning. It shows us a kind of trinity of listening. Benedict was praying when he learned of his disciple’s distress. It was how he became aware of the danger Placid was in and why he was able to act, in obedience to the voice of the Spirit. Maurus had no such supernatural aid, but he obeyed the voice of his abbot, in whom he saw the person of Christ commanding him (cfr RB 5). Placid, plucked from the water, said he saw the abbot’s cowl about him, bearing him up so that he could be saved: the good of obedience flowing back to him from whom it issued.

So how does this link up with either the beatification of John Paul II or the Ordinariate? Let’s take the pope first. In life, John Paul II bore the proudest of all earthly titles, Servant of the Servants of God. What is a servant if not one who obeys, who listens attentively? The Servant of the Servants of God must listen through a clamour of human voices to what he hopes and trusts is the voice of God. In death John Paul has become simply the Servant of God. No human voice can now disturb the clarity of his hearing. That is why we can invoke his prayers with confidence that they will be heard.

And the Ordinariate? Today three former bishops of the Church of England are to be ordained as Catholic priests. The way in which this is being presented in the media as an act of disaffection or, worse, defection, is disturbing. No one can really know the heart of another. Colophon has said many a time that to act for a negative reason is to act for no reason at all. Now iBenedictines echoes that stream of thought. There is only one reason for being a Catholic, for being ordained: because one believes heart and soul that it is the right thing to do, that nothing and no one matters as much as that voice of the Lord urging and insisting, “This is the way. Follow it!” Anything less will not do.

Let us pray today for all Benedictines, for all who are being ordained and for all who find obedience a struggle, which is to say every man-jack (or woman-jill) of us.

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Light in Afghanistan

Apparently, some Taliban groups in Afghanistan are allowing girls to go to school and women to return to teaching. These are local agreements brokered by tribal leaders, strictly limited in scope but a sign of hope nonetheless. There had been a fear that, in their haste to get out of a situation which has seen so much loss of life, both Britain and the U.S.A. would be prepared to sacrifice human rights, especially those of women; so it is heartening to see a change of this kind being brought about by the people themselves.

Why, then, the muted response? A few years ago I blogged about a young Afghani girl who had acid flung in her face because she had dared to go to school. She is now blind and disfigured, condemned to a difficult and marginal existence because no one will marry her (the Taliban have not moved on other aspects of their beliefs). Her story is not unique. The statistics for female illiteracy worldwide are still shocking and, like it or not, the subjugation of women is still a reality in many parts of the world. The sad fact is that we in the west tend to shake our heads and do nothing. Our gaze is elsewhere. Some even mutter darkly about “feminism” as though women were the source of all ills (nothing new there, then).

Education for both men and women is the key to overcoming these blindspots and allowing the development of a just and equitable society. I’m reminded that one of the old definitions of justice is “right order”. There is surely a rightness about little girls being taught to read and expand their horizons. So, light in Afghanistan? Yes, just a chink.

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Brotherly Love

Donna Rice was returning home from a trip to buy school uniforms with her sons, Jordan and Blake. Unfortunately, the place they were in was Toowoomba and they were caught up in the “inland tsunami”. A rescuer managed to reach them as they stood on the roof of their car and started to tie a rope round Jordan. The thirteen year-old insisted, however, that his younger brother Blake be rescued first. Blake was indeed rescued, but Jordan and his mother were swept away.

This story will go round the world, and rightly so. Of the many stories of heroism coming out of Queensland, it is one of the most affecting. I daresay Jordan and Blake were like any other brothers, completely unsentimental, given to scrapping with each other but fiercely loyal in the face of any outside interference. Yet in the shock and horror of that moment in the floodwaters, Jordan made a choice many an adult might not have been able to make. Fear can make even the most generous selfish. It takes a pure heart to choose another’s good instinctively, to sacrifice self.

As we pray for the Rice family in their grief, let us also thank God for this reminder that human beings, even very young ones, can live lives of great grandeur. It adds a new emphasis to Jesus’ exhortation to become as little children. Adults, take note.

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St Benet Biscop

St Benet Biscop
St Benet Biscop

This little miniature of St Benet Biscop shows him holding a church. A typical medieval motif, you might think; except that this church is not one of the monastic churches he built in Northumbria but is meant to represent St Peter’s in Rome. Benet is an early example of the strong link between the English Church and the papacy. Even today, we have an annual Peter Pence collection which traces its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and is a mark of England’s special regard for the successor of St Peter.

Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible is a production of the Jarrow scriptorium (it actually lacks the Book of Baruch, but that is a mere bagatelle compared with what it does contain).

It is not this, however, that made him a saint. Contemporaries remarked on his patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is honoured as having admitted the genius of Benedict of Nursia. There was something recognizably English about Benet in both his ability and his piety.

Bede’s description of Benet should inspire us all. He describes him as being “full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.” Many of our Catholic “opinion makers”, bloggers and the like, seem to have forgotten that in their eagerness to score points off one another or advance their own view of what others should do. St Benet Biscop’s example should encourage us to lay aside all sniping and carping to practise the good zeal which alone builds up.

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St Aelred of Rievaulx

St Aelred of Rievaulx
St Aelred of Rievaulx

In common with other English Benedictines, we keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow is sacred to St Benet Biscop). Aelred’s reputation has undergone many changes in the last fifty years, and I’m not sure that the current version is any nearer the truth of the man.

I suspect Aelred was both immensely attractive and absolutely maddening at the same time. He drew many to monastic life, yet after his death the fractures in community quickly began to show. He could write like an angel, yet those who read Aelred today without knowing or caring for the monastic discipline underpinning his writing see only part of the picture. He was more than just a “charismatic leader” with a beguiling pen and a gift for friendship.

The preface for the feast, which draws on Aelred’s own writings, is worth pondering and praying. Above all, those who have any kind of leadership or managerial role should seek out his Oratio Pastoralis (Pastoral Prayer) and pray it often.

Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

Tenderly you drew Saint Aelred 
to the school of your service
where, having tasted of the sweetness of your love,
he became the gentle father of many sons,
a merciful shepherd to the weak,
and a model of spiritual friendship.

Inflamed by the love of Christ,
he embraced the Cross
as the pattern of monastic conversion,
and so attained the repose of those who love you,
the true and eternal Sabbath of the blessed.

And so, on his feast day, we join with him to adore you,
and with all the company of Angels and Saints,
sing the ageless hymn of your praise: sanctus, sanctus, sanctus . . .

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Bible or Mozart?

Yesterday Digitalnun was having some free time to mark the last day of the “Christmas holidays” and decided to listen to the radio while tidying her desk. Alas, the BBC offered two equally delectable choices: King James or Mozart. (Overseas readers may be mystified: the BBC has been playing “every note Mozart ever wrote” on Radio 3, while over on Radio 4 there was a celebration of the King James version of the Bible, with copious readings by gorgeous voices.) It was a struggle but Mozart won. Digitalnun has some way to go, I fear.

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Baptism of the Lord 2011

The Baptism of the Lord
The Baptism of the Lord

Liturgically, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of Christmastide and the beginning of Ordinary Time, just as it marks the end of the hidden years at Nazareth and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It is the third of the great theophanies that characterize this season. We have already celebrated the revelation to the Jews at Christmas and to the gentiles at Epiphany; now, for the first time, we have a revelation of the mystery of the Trinity.

The Fathers loved to comment on this Baptism which foreshadows our own. They delighted in the idea of Christ’s body going into the Jordan and making all the waters of the earth holy; they became lyrical when they thought of the descent of the Holy Spirit or the voice of the Father affirming that this was indeed his Beloved. It therefore comes as a surprise to many to learn that this feast is of comparatively recent institution in the Church (1955). It always used to be one of the events celebrated at Epiphany, as the liturgy of that day still makes clear. Why do we need a separate feast, and what does it mean today?

For myself the answer is to be found in the collect for the day, where we dare to pray that as Christ shared with us his humanity, so we may come to share in his divinity. It is a breathtaking prayer and reminds us that we are more than just a jumble of genes. Whatever sins we commit, however much we fail both as individuals and as a Church, whatever enormities society as a whole permits, there is hope: hope of redemptiom, hope of transformation. The Baptism of the Lord is not an event in the distant past; it is reality for us here and now in 2011 and reminds us that ultimately life and goodness triumph over death and evil.

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