It has been suggested that a little book of some of the better blog posts in Colophon (you mean some were good? Ed.) would be worth making. I don’t think we are the people to make the selection, but if anyone would be interested in doing so, please would you get in touch? The whole blog is archived over on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/blog/colophon.php. It would mean going through the entries and noting which you think would be suitable for publication. Not exactly a service to humanity but definitely a work of supererogation!
We are made of stern stuff here in the monastery and are celebrating the feast of SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. Not for us the wine and roses of St Valentine’s Day, although I did hear someone reciting Donne after breakfast and stopped what I was doing to listen. There is no finer poet of love in the English language, engaging mind as well as heart.
Donne, however, is not my subject this morning but the misapplication of the Bride of Christ theme. From time to time I look at an American web site frequented by (mainly) young people discerning a vocation and cringe at some of the soppier expressions of what is, I am sure, at base a very genuine love of the Lord. The sponsa Christi imagery applied to nuns and consecrated virgins is certainly valid, but one should remember that it can only be applied to the individual because it has first been applied to the whole Church. Christ has no other Bride but his Church, whom he espoused on Calvary.
It follows that there is no other way for any of us to go to heaven save as a Bride of Christ. That applies as much to the curmudgeonly old bachelor as the lissome girl. Strange thought! But if today you are alone and feeling that there is no one very much to care about you, and no one in particular for you to love in return, consider this: by virtue of your baptism you are espoused to him before whom the sun and moon bow down. Jesus is not your boyfriend, but he loves you more than you could ever possibly imagine.
One of the minor pleasures of modern mass communications is seeing what world leaders like to have as backdrops. The President of the United States of America is invariably accompanied by flags; the President of Russia seems to prefer some nondescript bits and pieces of technology and some very grand paintings (not difficult when one has at one’s disposal the treasures of the Hermitage); the Egyptian Military Council has flags, of course, but also some rather stiff arrangements of flowers improbably placed around the Council’s horseshoe desk.
During World War II my father served in North Africa. Some of his books are filled with wild flowers picked on the battlefields or gathered on ‘sight-seeing’ trips during rare intervals of rest and recuperation. This morning I found several from Egypt: fragile, crinkled blooms of unfamiliar flowers. They made me reflect that tyranny, like the poor, is always with us, only the names change. The thought that today is the anniversary of the Dresden bombing is a further reminder of the dreadful things we can do in pursuit of freedom and peace. Those flowers around the Egyptian military are surely meant to be reassuring. Let us hope that they presage better things for all Egypt’s citizens.
How about a little light-heartedness to start the week-end? We all love being let into a secret, so today I’ll give you a little bit of nunspeak and what it really means. Please note: you are advised not to try these at home. They only really work in monasteries and among people strangely attired
“in your abundant leisure” = I know you haven’t a moment to spare and it’s probably hopeless asking, but . . .
“in case I die in the night” = I want you to know that I put something in the oratory/library/attic (delete as appropriate).
“I was in the prayer of gentle drift” = I feel asleep during prayer time.
“by virtue of holy obedience” = I’m pleading with you.
“Dear Sisters” = there’s been a disaster somewhere (probably in the kitchen).
Half the world has its eyes on Cairo at the moment, and there is every chance that this blog post will be overtaken by events. One aspect of the reporting which has fascinated me is the way in which it has shown the uneasy tension between the west’s ideals and interests. On the one hand, democracy is canonized; on the other, the west’s diplomatic and commercial interests seem paramount.
I’m not sure any western leader would really like to see a democratic Saudi Arabia (Osama bin Laden for President, anyone?) but it’s difficult to press purely selfish concerns in the light of what is happening in Egypt. Personally, I was much heartened by President Obama’s latest speech, in which he came down firmly on the side of his ideals. But he knows, as we all know, that if President Mubarak doesn’t go, he’s got to continue to work with him for many months. That is realpolitik, twenty-first century style.
To pray for our leaders, to pray for our governments, is no idle prayer.
I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.
Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.
The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.
Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.
Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.
Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.
The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.
I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?
Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.
The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.
We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.
Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)
There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.
So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.
The parish Mass this morning began with “Shine, Jesus, shine” which, as some of you know, is the community’s least favorite hymn. Yesterday’s bookcase-building plans had to be laid aside, and there followed a sleepless night for Digitalnun, so possibly not all was interior sweetness and light. In such situations there’s nothing for it but to let one’s distractions roam over what one has to be grateful for.
So, in no particular order, this is what I gave thanks for earlier today: the grey light over the church; the faith of those who gathered there; the jackdaw strutting over the lawn; the bulbs piercing their way through the dark earth; the smell of coffee; Duncan’s comical nose; the beauty of a new book; someone near me absolutely pitch-perfect (even in “Shine”!); the quietness of the monastery; the fact that I can see, hear and walk; the gift of community.
Isn’t it absurd to waste time and energy disliking a hymn when the beauty and holiness of God is everywhere? Praise him.
The news that the chances of developing breast cancer have gone up for women may have caused some concern this morning. As it happens, nuns are statistically more at risk than most other groups of women, although, by and large, we don’t don’t share the lifestyle choices that increase the risk (e.g. heavy drinking). I mention this because I wouldn’t want anyone reading what follows to think, “Oh, it’s all right for them. They don’t stand much chance of suffering from it.”
There are other illnesses that are just as life-threatening, but there is something about cancer that scares us mightily. Even if we have not experienced it personally, we all know people who have and are aware of the indignities and humiliations that cancer can inflict. In such situations, the conventional offerings of religion can sound hollow and false. As with any grief (and we do grieve when our bodies or the bodies of those we love are assailed with cancer), there is a part that religion cannot reach, the numb part at the centre of it all. That is why prayer for the sick is so important. We do not pray for them to get better, though that is certainly legitimate, we pray the prayer the sick cannot make for themselves. That is what praying for the sick means. Maybe this Friday we could pray especially for all those diagnosed with breast cancer and not sure how to cope, for their families and friends. It will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
Henri Pirenne used to say that Africa began at the Pyrenees. I always thought he should have said that the Middle East began at the Pyrenees. Now, with the ethnic complexity of Europe as a whole, I think we can claim that the Middle East is all around and what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere has profound implications for us all — and I am not talking about oil prices!
I was looking at some statistics gathered by the BBC and was struck by how young the population of Egypt is. The median age is only 24 (in Yemen it is 17.89). You can check for yourself here. The combination of youth and violence is a heady one, so one must wonder not only how long President Mubarak can hang on, but also what we can expect in his stead from a fragmented and inexperienced opposition. Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen are experiencing their own political upheavals so that the stability of the whole region is in question.What the west fears more than anything is a power vacuum which might allow regimes dominated by Islamist extremists and some kind of ‘over-reaction’ from Israel.
Those who do not themselves believe may find the idea of Christians falling to their knees and praying for a peaceful outcome to these situations rather funny. What could be more pointless than asking God to solve a problem we ourselves cannot? That is to misunderstand what we are doing, and even more what we are asking God to do. Prayer for peace in the Middle East means taking something of the confusion and conflict into ourselves and lovingly, trustingly, holding it before the Lord. We cannot change what is happening in Egypt but perhaps we ourselves can change so that the risk of confrontation is reduced. We can become channels of God’s peace.
Long ago, one of the sages of Israel wrote, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ and it was to Egypt that Mary and Joseph fled with the Child Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod. No Christian can be indifferent to what happens there. We owe Egypt a huge debt of gratitude if nothing else.