Leaping into Action

Lovely though it would be to linger over the first section of the prologue of St Benedict to his Rule, with its insistence on listening, the glory of obedience and the necessity of prayer, by verse 8 we are plunged into action. From now until the end of the Rule we shall be hastening, running, following, and all with an urgency that will not be denied. The Rule is concerned with our salvation in Christ: we must do now what will profit us for eternity, so there can be no dawdling on the way.

At first sight, that runs counter to the popular view that monasticism is about opting out, slowing down, stillness; and insofar as the opting out and so on is mere avoidance of responsibility or engagement with others, the implied criticism is just. We do not become monks and nuns to be less involved with humanity but more. It is the way in which we are involved that differs.

Without prayer, without the daily search for God, monastic life is nothing. Nor can it be a kind of ‘off and on’ process, with periods when we cease to be monastic. It cannot be crammed into an hour or two of the day’s activities. It is what we might call a ‘whole life plan’. Every moment of every day must be ordered towards the monastic purpose. That is why I think Benedict uses such active verbs and has us running everywhere. It is his way of insisting on the intensity of our engagement and reminding us that we have only one life in which to fulfil our vocation. For some, that life will be long; for others, short. Whatever, as our younger friends say, what matters is that we make a start. Now.

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Listening with the Ear of the Heart

The first sentence of the prologue of St Benedict to his Rule begins

Obsculta, o fili, pracepta magistri et inclina aurem cordis tui . . .
Listen carefully, my son, to the teaching of the master and bend close the ear of your heart
. . .

These words have invited much reflection on what it means truly to listen and the relationship that exists between master and disciple. Every modern commentator is keen to draw attention to the meaning of obsculta. There is nothing casual or half-hearted about this kind of listening. It requires close attention, hard work, care. It means more than just absorbing words. It must embrace nuance, intention, and the subtleties that can easily escape us today, when we are used to scanning at high speed or rushing to add our own contribution before we have fully grasped the meaning of what we have just heard. It is one reason why the monastic practice of lectio divina is so demanding. We have to surrender to the word of God, allow it to master us, change us — and most of us object to that. We are too full of our own noise to listen properly.

The phrase inclina aurem cordis tui is important for understanding both the scope and the intention of the listening to which we are exhorted. In themselves, the words are unremarkable, an ecclesiastical commonplace, but when Benedict uses them, I think he is reminding us that the heart is the place where we meet God. He is not a theorist, in the way that some are. He is immensely practical and his spirituality, if we may call it that, is based on experience. It is experience of God that prompts him to write, and that he seeks to foster in his monks. Our listening therefore has a purpose that goes beyond the words themselves to the purpose of our monastic life as a whole: to seek and find God. If you look at the next few chapters of the Rule, you will see that Benedict refers quite often to the heart. That may be, as some have argued, in contradistinction to the Master but the effect is to reinforce this sense of purpose.

Beloved of Benedictines though the opening words of the prologue are, we have to admit that they fit into a well-known genre of wisdom literature, such as we find in the Bible or some of the early monastic documents, e.g. Pseudo-Basil. Familiarity with them has probably deadened us to the realisation that Benedict’s choice of words is unusual for him. Although the wisdom tradition of the Bible often uses filial language in such contexts, Benedict doesn’t. In fact, there is only one other place where he refers to the monk as filius (RB 2.29). There is no paternalism here. The master-disciple relationship is characterised as loving, but the fatherly advice (admonitionem pii patris) that Benedict gives is of a different order from that of the Rule of the Master on which much of the prologue is based. So, why does he use such language here? My own guess is that he simply wants to make an impact, make us listen, because what he wants to say in the Rule is of such importance.

The earnestness of Benedict’s opening address is sometimes overlooked by those who have never actually tried to live according to the Rule in community. It is possible to be lulled into a false sense of how beautiful it all is. It is beautiful, yes; but it is beautiful because it is true and because it is intended to lead us further along the way. It will not be long before Benedict is talking about obedience and participation in the sufferings of Christ, and if we are to do that, we must make a huge effort now to learn how to listen.

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When Courage Fails

For several days I have been trying to avoid, as far as I can, being drawn into any of the arguments that occupy the headlines or excite social media. At one level, it hasn’t been easy. I have had to remind myself many times that party politics are forbidden territory for Catholic clergy and should be for Catholic religious, too. Whether the parties concerned are British, French, American or whatever is irrelevant. We do not endorse one party over another. That does not mean that we do not have opinions or do not discuss matters of political moment, but we do not take a party line. That leaves us free to weigh arguments and to engage with all kinds of people, even those whose opinions we find unsympathetic. Some of our American friends find it odd that we do not endorse whichever party they happen to favour but most respect our party political neutrality. That is especially important in the year when a presidential election is being held.

Neutrality, however, is not necessarily a virtue; and there is always the danger that refusing to engage in a dispute may not only be cowardly but also lead to further misunderstanding. For example, I’ve noticed a great deal of comment, principally from non-Catholics, on the case of Fr Matthew Hood and the consequences of his having been baptized by a deacon using an invalid form of words. It would have been easy to launch into an explanation of classic Catholic sacramental theology but my courage failed as I thought of all the hoo-ha that would result and the amount of time and energy it would require to answer the sincere but not always well-informed objections of those who read what I wrote. So, I have kept quiet and spent my time thinking about how such ambiguities were resolved in former times, the ex opere operato principle and so on and so forth, and whether we always look at the sacraments from the right end of the telescope, so to say. Certainty matters, of course it does, but our experience of lockdown must have made even those living in the West aware that access to the sacraments is also a major challenge for our times.

So, what have I been doing while I’ve been offline? The daily round always absorbs most of my time and energy and there have been a number of ‘extras’ recently, not all of them welcome, if truth be told. I haven’t done all that I hoped to do during the past fortnight, but I’m glad to have completed the series of Rule of St Benedict readings for the Anchor™ Digitalnun podcasts. You can now listen to the reading for the day in English via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, etc. rather than having to go to our web site. I’ve also caught up with some, but by no means all, of my correspondence. At the moment I’m hampered by not being able to sit comfortably or for very long (don’t ask!) but I hope to get our September newsletter out shortly — and there is that wildflower garden to make a start on. Let’s hope my courage won’t fail when it comes to that!

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Anchored in Reality: RB 68

One aspect of the Rule of St Benedict I have come to appreciate more and more is the way in which it anchors us in reality. One might think that a community sharing a common purpose, living under a Rule exhorting everyone to show consideration towards others and expressly enjoining moderation in the commands given by those in authority, would have no problems with impossible demands, except, perhaps, from those who are sick (cf RB 36.4). Then we read RB 68, which is about how to respond if asked to do the impossible, and realise that Benedict is well aware that theory and practice don’t always meet. In an age when it has become fashionable to protest, loudly and vigorously, about anything with which we disagree or regard as unfair, his approach to finding a solution to disputes, as distinct from merely making a noise about things, can be helpful.

First, he says the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when we see its impossibility (RB 68.1). So, no immediate escalation of difficulty by making a song and dance about it. We must allow time for the demand to be reflected upon and, if necessary, investigated. Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can we raise an objection, and even then, we can’t just blurt out the objection, we are to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to our superior/the person making the demand (RB 68.3). There’s some good understanding of human nature in that. We talk about ‘going off the deep end’, forcing someone to listen to us because we are het up about something and don’t care what effect we have on others. So often anger is like waves crashing around, upsetting everything in sight, not just the individual who is lashing out. As far as Benedict is concerned, any form of argumentativeness is ruled out (not argument, please note, but argumentativeness), and if the superior/person making the demand declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

Now, of course, not all commands can, or necessarily should, be obeyed or complied with. The fact that we are asked or even commanded to do something does not free us from our moral obligations, nor are we meant to put our brains to sleep. What I think Benedict is aiming at in this short chapter is a wisdom that goes beyond that of this present age. He wants the community to be at peace, and that inevitably means being realistic about conflicts. Ultimately, he can appeal to love and grace. In a secular situation we cannot make the same appeal, but I think we can allow the dynamic of love and grace to work within us. That is why I call this chapter an anchor for the storms of life. It goes beyond the material. We can apply it to the emotional shipwrecks we sometimes find ourselves in, to lack of forgiveness and the perpetuation of old feuds. It makes us confront reality, not run away from it. Something, I suggest, we all need to do, not just Benedictines.

RB 68
You can listen to the Rule of St Benedict chapter 68 being read aloud here:

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A Retreat We Didn’t Expect

Last week, when I announced that the community would be making its annual eight-day retreat, most people wished us well, assured us of their prayers and thought no more about it. A few expressed envy. Eight whole days alone with God! Nothing to do but become holy! How wonderful! If only it were so. We have just survived the most gruelling retreat I think any of us has ever experienced, and none of us is very keen to repeat the experience. I suspect monastic readers will have an inkling where this is leading, but for those of you who are not monastic but full of innocent enthusiasm, let me explain.

The community’s retreat is carefully planned — the work of the house has to continue but the eight days we spend in retreat are the nearest we come to a holiday, so rest and relaxation are meant to be  part of it. We try to avoid appointments that take us out of the monastery or bring others in, disengage from the internet, social media and other forms of communication, and try to focus more completely on the more hidden side of our lives. We have some shared lectio divina, so that there is a common element, but in general we follow Fr Baker’s advice, ‘Follow your call; that’s all in all.’ If that includes some time spent drowsing over a novel in the garden or dabbling in watercolours, so be it. 

Usually it works well, in the sense that we look back fondly on our retreat time and acknowledge its blessings gratefully. I’m not sure that would be true this time. The retreat began began badly, with a great deal of upset caused by someone outside the community. Next, there were seemingly endless interruptions, minor domestic crises and sleepless nights (not helped by the fact that I twice forgot to unplug the main telephone overnight, so that we had nuisance calls in the small hours). Finally, there were unexpected demands from various bodies that we supply them with statistical information, financial subscriptions or whatever, and do so IMMEDIATELY. The milk of charity turned to yoghurt in my veins when, having duly worked out and supplied the required information, we received automated Out of Office replies telling us that those who had made the demands were now on holiday. It is alleged, though I couldn’t possibly comment on the truth of the matter, that something like a parsonical ’damn’ was heard to shatter the silence of the monastic scriptorium as yet another unhelpful email zipped through the ether.

So, was it all negative? Something to grumble about, a wasted opportunity? A retreat that left us dazed and crotchety, not to mention tired? Certainly, it wasn’t the retreat we planned or expected. It was actually much better than anything we could have devised. That doesn’t mean it was enjoyable. It wasn’t, but it did teach us something that idling in paradise or shaping everything to suit ourselves could not. It showed us how much we need God, how much we lack patience (a very Benedictine virtue) and how necessary it is to be ready to begin again every day of our lives. In other words, the retreat did what a retreat should do, and the fact that we didn’t enjoy it or wish to repeat it demonstrates how necessary it was for us, both as individuals and as a community. Today, therefore, we give thanks for our retreat — and are relieved that we don’t have to go through the process for another year.

Audio version

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Unconscious Narcissism

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of VJ Day, it would be tempting to recall veterans of the war in the East I knew in my youth, especially survivors of the Japanese prison camps, or some of the lovely Japanese friends I made at Cambridge, but to do so would be to give in to a kind of unconscious narcissism that has become more and more prevalent as social media have come to dominate much of our behaviour. We have become so accustomed to stating our own opinion, giving others the benefit of our advice, or simply turning every post or comment of others into a vehicle for self-advertisement that we no longer, or only rarely, recognize that we are doing so. What do I really know of the sufferings of those prisoners of war or those affected by the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Come to think of it, what do I really know of Japanese culture beyond what my friends have shown me? In both cases, my horror and delight are second-hand, mediated, appropriated.

There is nothing wrong in that, you may argue, but the purposes to which I put them may be. If today you or I are tempted to wade into a fight on Twitter or any other platform, maybe we should ask ourselves what we gain from it? Do we genuinely seek information, want to clarify a view, or contribute to a debate; or do we want to show off, voice our anger, scoop up some sympathy for ourselves under the guise of sympathy for another? When we have become the centre of our own universe, we often misjudge others — and our own motives. What I think we can all agree on as we look back on the tragedies of World War II is that they should never happen again. Let us pray that we may be selfless enough to ensure that they don’t.

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A Little Further on the Way

I apologize for inflicting another sarcoma-related post on you but sometimes it is the easiest way of updating people.

Yesterday I had a good chat with my oncologist about my latest PET scan. It came as no surprise to learn that three of the metastases in my lungs have grown, one of them noticeably.

Of course, part of me was disappointed at the news. I’d love to have been told that my disease had stabilized, but I knew it hadn’t. When I say I’ll just have to grin and bear it, I’m not being brave. I’m simply trying to find a way of coping with something over which I have no control, don’t fully understand, and wish were not happening at all. But it is happening, and there is no escape. I have always loathed the kind of piety that can lapse into sentimentality or leave someone with guilt feelings because they cannot emulate the model it proposes. I won’t go gentle into that good night, I’m sure of that. I’ll go as I have lived, though I hope there won’t be too much raging on my part — and no going anywhere for a good while yet.

I would like this post to be an encouragement to those of you who are treading a similar path to mine. It may be cancer or a stroke or heart attack or some other illness that you are trying to deal with as best you can. You may have very little time left, or you may have more than you expected (I’ve lasted much longer than anyone thought I would). The pain and limitations of your illness may be wearing you down; you may be anxious about your family/community, or worried because you have no one in particular to help you at a time when you must rely on others. You may have lost hope and feel utterly depressed. Being told that such feelings are probably a side-effect of whatever treatment you are having (or not having) won’t lift the burden from your shoulders, especially not at two in the morning when you are just a sweaty, sleepless bundle of anxiety and fear. The only comfort I can offer is the one I cling to, at least when I can. We are part of the Communion of Saints. Even in our darkest, most difficult moments, we are not alone. 

I think that is why I believe that no matter how bumpy life becomes, our lives are never wasted, never meaningless. Somewhere in the midst of all the contradictions there is love, a love we might never otherwise have known but for our illness.

Love is the unfamiliar Name 
Behind the hands that wove 
The intolerable shirt of flame 
Which human power cannot remove.

There is something else we do well to remember. Those who love us, who deal with us when we are at our weakest and most demanding, who forgive us our grumbles and cantankerousness, not only show us God’s love and forgiveness. They are his love and forgiveness — incarnate, here and now. They are a foretaste of eternity. Let us give thanks for them and pray for them. Truly, theirs is the harder, lonelier, path to tread.

(Comments have been turned off for this post.)

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Preparing for a Retreat and Embracing the Unexpected

On Sunday, which this year will be kept as the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we hope to begin our annual retreat. I say hope because every year something unexpected seems to come along and many of our carefully made plans go a little haywire. Last year we intended to read Pauline Matarasso’s Clothed in Language — a marvellous book — as shared lectio divina. At the last moment, the bookseller delayed delivery by a few days so we ended up reading something different entirely. It changed the character of our retreat, but it was clearly what we needed even if it wasn’t what we intended.

This year we have tried very hard to ensure that we don’t have any workmen doing repairs in the house or any deadlines to meet, but embracing the unexpected is actually a function of a retreat. There is always a temptation to try to arrange things to suit ourselves. We’d like the weather to be perfect, our health untroubled, the food glorious and the books we read and the liturgy we celebrate uplifting. It doesn’t work like that. The purpose of a retreat is to bring us closer to God and there is no getting round the fact that his way of doing things tends to be different from our own. So, we are preparing for the unexpected, and that really means we are waiting, wondering, possibly a little apprehensive, but in a good way. Whatever happens, we shall be changed by our retreat. We may not see the change in ourselves; it may not happen immediately; but it will happen. Of that we can be sure.

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The Language of the Liturgy

This will be a short post, I promise, and it is one I never thought I’d write. I’ve been following in a half-hearted way the debate about the Scottish hierarchy’s approval of the English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) bible for the publication of its new lectionary. As someone who prays a lengthy monastic Divine Office in Latin and English each day and has, in the past, done a bit of liturgical translation (more from Latin than from Greek and only once from Hebrew), you will understand that I notice liturgical language. I care about language in general but especially the language we use in prayer. I don’t claim to be a good writer myself, but I do try to convey meaning as clearly and effectively as I can. That is why you will occasionally come across a flight of fancy or purple passage that I hope will add something to the words on the page, conveying a nuance or level of meaning, hint at a beauty or truth, that would otherwise not be there. When translating a text, however, more restraint is required. The text is what matters, and it is the translator’s duty to try to convey its meaning as fully as possible, without getting in the way of the original author. Translation, therefore, especially of liturgical texts, requires thought and prayer as well as scholarship. It also requires awareness of how the text will be used and by whom.

This morning I happened upon an online discussion that made me realise, to a degree I never have before, that just as a woman can never know what it is like to be a man, no man can ever know what it is like to be a woman. To have dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ the effect of hearing the scriptures proclaimed in an exclusively masculine voice is something I think only a woman can really understand. I am not, and never have been, one of those who want to force the language of scripture into politically correct channels but I have been saddened by the proposed introduction of gendered language where it is unnecessary and where, for many years, we have been accustomed to a more neutral or inclusive rendering. If you do a google search, you will find there are several articles discussing this matter, all of them illustrated with examples the writer finds telling, on both sides of the debate.

The Scottish bishops have shown that any consideration of the sensitivities of women is not up for discussion, even if that leads to questionable accuracy in translation at times. There is nothing I can do about that. But it does leave me wondering why those praying the Magnificat in English find the old Latin phrase, ancilla Domini, which means ‘handmaid of the Lord’ and is an undeniably feminine form, translated as ‘servant of the Lord’*. That could refer to either sex. Do the sensitivities work in one direction only? If so, perhaps a re-think would be in order. Please.

*In the Roman Liturgy of the Hours, which is not the work of the Scottish bishops, but will be familiar to many.

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Five Reasons Not to Like Religious People

You might think that, in my line of business, I would like ‘religious’ people (please note the inverted commas). The truth is, I have five reasons to dislike them. Here they are:

1. ‘Religious’ people are always right

because

2. They know God thinks exactly as they do

from which it follows that

3. They are happy, indeed specially qualified, to give everyone the benefit of their advice

which, because of 1 and 2, means

4. They may deliver their opinions/advice as unceremoniously as possible

with the result that often

5. They condemn others, frequently quite nastily.

This is, of course, a parody of true religion, but I think you will find it quite prevalent in the world today, whether the religion in question be Catholicism, Humanism or any other -ism. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking our own opinion universally valid and that it entitles us to behaviour completely at odds with the values we say we hold. Catholics who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching while sniping at everyone they disapprove of; intellectuals who ridicule the arguments of others instead of engaging with them; those who seek to eliminate racism while maintaining anti-semitic attitudes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can apply misplaced zeal to the questions of the day. I call it ‘religious’ because of the intensity with which the views are held. They bind the holder, whereas true religion sets free. There is no fear in true religion, no desire to score points, no wish to force the other to believe as we do (sorry, Augustine), just a desire to share the blessings we enjoy ourselves.

For a Christian, that means trying to win others for Christ by leading them to experience of him, not brow-beating them into submission. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was argued into belief, although I have met many who struggled to find the right spiritual home, as it were. It is not that kind of debate or exploration I am talking about but the more aggressive ‘I’m right; you’re wrong’ approach.

During the last few months, when lockdown restrictions have limited access to public worship and the sacraments, it has been sad to see how selfish and sometimes petty some of the online arguments have become. The Mass is so much more important than whether I myself can attend or not; reverence means so much more than whether one receives Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. St Laurence, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the Church’s treasure, he did not hesitate. He sought out the poor, recognizing in them the lineaments of the Master or, as Hopkins would say,

Christ lovely in limbs not his.

That’s the kind of religious person I like.

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