Vocation Invocation

Tonight young people from across Britain will be gathering at Oscott for a week-end of prayer and reflection on vocation. See the Invocation web site for more information and live updates here. We were asked to support the venture with our prayer (which we give freely) and our money (which we don’t have but would give if we could) but were not invited to contribute any personnel, which makes me wonder whether the organizers consider us rather negligible because our community is small in numbers. (I hope we are not negligible in terms of value or reach, but that’s another matter.)

Playing the numbers game is something we all have a tendency to do when it comes to vocation, and it is dangerous. Who is to say that a community of thirty is in a better condition than a community of twenty? Age, health, spiritual maturity and holiness of life are all factors to be taken into account. Counting the chickens isn’t a good idea, either. We ourselves haven’t any novices (no space), but we do have eight or nine discerners (can’t be more precise, because one never knows when someone might have ‘gone quiet’ because she is having second thoughts) but each one is an individual at a different stage of the journey; and as my old Junior Mistress used to say of herself in her eighties, ‘You haven’t persevered to the end yet.’

A Benedictine vocation is always to a specific community, something I think many people do not sufficiently understand. There is indeed a strong ‘family likeness’ among Benedictine communities because we all follow the same Rule and stem from the same stock, but there is also the strong individuality that is part of the secret of Benedictine monasticism’s longevity. That makes it difficult for anyone to speak ‘for the Benedictines’ as such, so pity whoever is tasked with that job at Oscott this week-end (though I have no doubt that the Benedictines there will do splendidly: they are Benedictines, after all.)

Let us pray for the young people gathering at Oscott, that their generosity may be blessed and they may be guided along the way that is best in each case. Let us pray also for the organizers and those entrusted with the work of guidance, that they may be responsive to the Holy Spirit. May the life of the Church be enriched by many more ready to follow Christ in the priesthood and the religious life.

 

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Prayer in a Digital Age

As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.

Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.

At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.

Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.

Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.

*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.

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Pentecost 2011

The images used for the Holy Spirit are so evocative: wind, fire, water, all things  we cannot predict the course of, and whose power we cannot tame.  Even the dove image reminds us that the Spirit sees in ways we do not and cannot. On this great feast of Pentecost let us rejoice that God is everlastingly creative, always ‘doing a new thing’. May we, too, be recreated, made new, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

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The Humility of St Barnabas

When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.

We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’

Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.

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New York! New York! or A Nun Travels the World

Well, not quite; but with Bishop Crispian’s blessing, Digitalnun is about to take part in a couple of conferences which will see her out of the cloister and plunged into a world far removed from the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

Church and Media Conference 2011
First, there is the Church and Media Conference 2011 at the Hayes Conference Centre, 13 and 14 June, which promises ‘a unique opportunity for media professionals and faith leaders to engage in lively and informed debate.’ Being neither a professional nor a leader, and with no particular claim to being either lively or informed, this presents Digitalnun with something of a challenge, especially as she will be giving the closing keynote. However, debate is good and she is quite excited about listening to some of the very knowledgeable people who will be attending. Many thanks to Andrew Graystone and the Conference organizers for inviting her. An unintended bonus is that Quietnun and Duncan will have some quiet time while she is away.

The Benedictine Development Symposium

At Pentecost, the Church was endowed with the gift of tongues in order to make known the Good News. The internet and social media are simply another ‘tongue’ we must all learn to speak with some degree of fluency. This will be one of the subjects addressed at the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, 5 to 9 July, where Digitalnun has been invited to share some of the insights the community has gained during the past few years. The great generosity of Mike Browne, the Symposium members and the Priory of Christ the King in funding her visit is a mark of the seriousness with which religious organizations are now tackling what is, to many, still rather strange and new.

New York! New York!
And finally, from 10 to 17 July, a few days in New York, where Digitalnun will be meeting with a number of people who are interested in what the monastery is doing and who, hopefully, might look favourably on the community’s desire to obtain permanent accommodation. There are still a few free slots in the timetable if anyone would like Digitalnun to ‘sing for her supper’, as it were. Again, we are enormously grateful to those who have made this part of the trip possible, especially the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians who, not for the first time, have come to the rescue of Benedictines abroad by offering accommodation, and the kind friends and well-wishers who have underwritten some of the other expenses and smoothed the way for the visit.

It wouldn’t be honest to pretend that this will be all hard work and no play. A day off has been arranged, and it is quite likely that it will be spent either in the Met or at The Cloisters. Digitalnun is still a lapsed but unrepentant medievalist.

A serious question
Of course, all this invites reflection on the contribution monasticism can make to the world today. It would be a mistake to think that any activity, however good, could ever replace the quiet, persevering search for God we make in prayer, work and study. The cloistered life always has been, always will be, one that comparatively few understand and even fewer actually live. But because it is at the heart of the life of the Church and part of its missionary impulse, monasticism is a necessary part of the Christian world order and therefore must speak and pray in the language of the internet as much as any other.

How that is worked out varies from community to community. We don’t have a physical cloister here at Hendred but we think of the internet as the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart, somewhere we seek God and, on occasion, find Him.

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Blogosphere and Twittersphere Ghettos

Have you ever asked yourself whether you limit the blogs you read on a regular basis or the people you follow on Twitter to a very narrow group? I ask myself that question often, especially as I don’t have much time for blog reading. When I do, I try to make sure that I include blogs whose writers hold very different opinions from me, but I am not sure I always succeed. It requires effort. Similarly, in order to make sure I actually read what is on my Twitterstream, I only follow approximately one tenth of the people who follow me, but although my Twitterati are definitely weighted in the direction of religion and technology, I always aim to include a few whose views are ‘challenging’.

One of the great dangers of belonging to a group, any kind of group, is that one never looks outside. One takes all one’s ideas and values from within the group and creates a comfortable ghetto for oneself. I am utterly convinced of the truth of Catholicism and think there is nothing more exciting than exploring Catholic orthodoxy, but I treasure the insights of those who don’t. Perhaps the problem is that most of us are aware how little we know and are a bit reluctant to admit it. The other side of engaging with those whose views conflict with our own is the need for persevering prayer to the Holy Spirit and the hard work of making sure that we are genuinely informed. In these last few days before Pentecost it might be useful to reflect on the ghettos we have created for ourselves. Sometimes they are the result not of conviction but of laziness; and somehow, I don’t think the Holy Spirit is very keen on laziness.

Benedict XVI on World Communications Day, 5 June 2011

I liked this extract from the pope’s message but omitted to include it yesterday.

There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.

To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

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Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?

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Darning a Habit

I have just spent the morning darning and patching my habit. Sewing is not something I enjoy or do well, but walking around in black bin bags (the alternative) is scarcely dignified. Thrift isn’t among the virtues as such, but if one truly reveres the world and everything in it, one cannot be prodigal with resources — not even old fabric. There is value even in a few old threads, or so I told myself as I struggled to repair the thoughtlessness of the past, now showing itself as rents and holes. Darned and patched, I will henceforth try to uphold the dignity of the monastic habit . . . and trust the dignity of the monastic habit will uphold me.

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Ascension Sunday and World Communications Day

With luck, I’ll not have to write the words ‘Ascension Sunday’ next year as we live in hope that the feast will be restored to its proper day, but World Communications Day is likely to be with us for some time to come. Is there any link between the two? Does celebration of the Ascension enrich our understanding of world communications?

The theme for this year’s World Communications Day is Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age. It isn’t difficult to make a case for a link between the two with truth and proclamation. When the Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples were scarcely allowed to gaze into heaven before they were sent on their way to proclaim the Good News of salvation. Similarly, we are urged to use every means open to us to proclaim Christ and champion truth in our everyday lives. So far so good, but what are we to do about ‘authenticity of life in the digital age’? Is that just another empty phrase that falls from the lips of clergy trying very hard to sound ‘relevant’ in a world that has largely given up listening to them?

I have to admit that I have difficulty with the word ‘authentic’. Generally, I use it to mean ‘genuine’ but ‘genuineness of life in the digital age’ doesn’t convey very much to me. ‘Authentic’ can mean ‘faithfully resembling an original’ but with the original in question not spelled out, that doesn’t really help, either. A third meaning of ‘authentic’ is ‘based on facts, reliable’ which is certainly helpful as regards how one would wish to communicate, but I’m not sure it really fits the idea of living as such. Could it be that this phrase, so often used in religious documents, is reflecting the Existentialists’ ’emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life’? Well, that’s all right as far as it goes, but doesn’t it leave out something rather important? One of the gifts with which God graces human beings is humour, fun, a delight in the world he has created.

There are many places in the gospels where we see the Lord Jesus teasing people or playfully responding to the quips of others. Worried disciples had to be reassured that every hair on their head had been numbered or that taxes would be paid even if their purse was empty (surely there was a chuckle as Peter went off to fish in the lake for his half-shekel); the Syro-Phoenician woman won Jesus over with her repartee; the Samaritan Woman almost bantered her way into salvation. Even the excess of that first miracle at Cana has more than a hint of joyful exuberance about it. Shouldn’t our lives have something of the same?

To me ‘authenticity of life in the digital age’ shouldn’t be all grim purposefulness but should include an element of light-heartedness. So, whether we tweet or blog or FB, let it be as whole people, able to laugh as well as mourn, to joke as well as preach. I can’t help feeling that the Ascension had some divine humour in it. As the Lord Jesus ascended, the disciples were left gazing skywards and had to be prodded into action by a vision of angels. Even now, they did not fully understand. Surely, a huge smile spread over heaven.

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The Cloister of the Heart

Yesterday I was touched to find a Facebook friend commenting on the fact that there had been no blogging from the monastery since the Visitation. The simple explanation, that I had nothing to say, might raise an eyebrow or two among those who wonder whether I ever have anything to say, but let that pass. We are great believers in sharing what we have with others, but one must first have something to share; so, inevitably, there have to be times when we stand back and concentrate on the inner life of the community, as we have during the past few days.

What do we mean by ‘inner life’? By and large, the unseen life of prayer and study on which the Benedictine monastic life is based. In medieval times, this was very much the life of the cloister, where one walked and prayed and worked. In nuns’ monasteries the cloister was reserved to the community, with guests admitted only occasionally (or not at all, if medieval bishops had had their way).

We have no cloister as such, here at Hendred, no ‘reserved space’ for the community, so we have to work a little harder at cultivating the cloister of the heart. It means, unfortunately, that sometimes we may have to tell people we cannot undertake activities, good in themselves, which we judge to be inconsistent with what we have professed or even, as in the past few days, close our doors (physical and digital) to visitors. Is that selfish? It depends. Ultimately, our whole way of life is based on the premise that God matters supremely, that seeking him in prayer is what we are called to do. That isn’t the easy or ‘romantic’ thing it is sometimes made out to be. As every novice quickly learns, it can be very demanding. Indeed, if I were asked what has been the most challenging thing I have ever attempted, I would answer, being a nun; and I suspect you can only really understand that if you are a nun yourself.

During the past week we launched another online retreat, sharing something of our cloistered life with the world. Even as we did so, I was conscious of the fact that we can share only a little. I hope what we do share is worthwhile, that our online cloister is a place where heart speaks to heart.

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