On Being a Contemplative

I don’t often use the word ‘contemplative’, partly because its history in the Catholic Church has not always been happy, forcing a divide between the so-called active Orders and the cloistered, or even being used to set up a false hierarchy of spiritual prowess in which the contemplative outranks everyone else, and partly because I’m not sure that those to whom I might use the word would understand by it the same thing that I intend. Nowadays nearly everyone seems to claim to be a contemplative so it probably doesn’t matter very much, but I still cling to the idea that contemplative prayer is simpler and less structured than formal meditation or the devotions that form the staple of many godly people today. It is also, in my experience, less visual.

This was brought home to me by a recent discussion on Facebook where a good friend suggested we might introduce a few images as background to our podcasts. You may have noticed that Facebook, like the BBC website, is increasingly geared towards video and the use of images . The problem for us is that we are not very good at the visual. Ours is what one might call a Word-centred spirituality in which lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of a text, is fundamental. Visual images can intrude on this process. Apart from anything else, we have comparatively few in the monastery, so those we see tend to stay with us, for good or ill. We don’t have a TV or (usually) watch films. We live in the same space, doing more or less the same things day after day. It is, some would say, a spartan existence as far as visual stimuli are concerned. In some ways, that makes us more sensitive to the world around us: the changing of the seasons, the beauty of garden and sky, the ordering of the monastery building, have an impact on us they might not on a more casual observer.

I don’t want to sound precious or over-complicated, but that is one reason why we are hesitant about using more images on our web sites or even this blog. The Word demands our full attention. Some people find an image helpful. For others it can be a distraction. I myself use images sparingly because they have a big impact on me. For example, Nicholas Mynheer’s marvellous painting of the mothers of Jesus and Judas embracing that I posted during Holy Week stays vividly in my mind; so, too, do others.

This morning, as I was thinking about St Athanasius whose feast-day this is, I realised anew that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the perfect visual, the perfect image, one who is both God and man. Who could improve on that? Not me, certainly.

Audio version

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A Little Online Housekeeping

This is not a spiritual post (Are they ever? Ed) but a brief explanation of some intended/hoped for changes to our online presence over the next few weeks. We don’t intend to make any major changes to this blog but will continue to add audio of the text whenever feasible. Your comments are always welcome and we are delighted that (nearly) everyone is courteous and thoughtful towards others when engaging in debate. THANK YOU.

For some years we’ve maintained a ‘Daily Reading from the Rule of St Benedict’ audio section on both our large-screen and small-screen web sites (www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and www.benedictinenuns.net). However, we are now moving most of our spoken audio to the Anchor™ platform and featuring the Rule readings on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/benedictinenuns, where you will also find daily prayer intentions, information about the Church, links to Vatican documents, etc., and our Twitterstream, @digitalnun, https://twitter.com/digitalnun. The Facebook page is being restructured to make it easier to use, but our slow internet connection has hampered some of our efforts so it is very much a work in progress. Again, feedback would be welcome.

Our two main web sites about the monastery are being rolled into one, equally easy to use on both a large or small screen. The content has been largely re-written — several times. The new site will incorporate the online retreat material we used to issue under a separate domain name, plus our first blog, Colophon, and archive material we think may still be useful. We are not sure when we are going to be able to release our new site, however. It will mainly depend on Rome, which has issued quite a lot of new legislation for contemplative nuns in the last few years, and my own health. We are also going to be adding a new domain name to our current selection which we think will enable more people to find us online if they wish.

We have no plans to add an Instagram account as we are not a very ‘visual’ community but we are always glad to be alerted to platforms which might be of use to people seeking God. We’d love to be able to re-introduce our interactive online meetings but we’ll probably have to wait for 5G and use tethering to make that possible It can’t be done on rural broadband with pathetically slow and uncertain connection speeds.

We will continue to have all our sites professionally monitored 24/7 to ensure that they are safe for you to use. Sadly, hackers and scammers are no respecters of persons or institutions. Our online donation facility at VirginMoneyGiving is unchanged for those who wish to support our work financially.

The one thing you can be sure won’t change is the community’s prayer for everyone with whom we come into contact, and our gratitude for your support and interaction.

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We’re All Heroes Now

Or perhaps I should say, potentially heroes. Time was when to be a hero meant one of two things: one was either very, very brave or one came from the world of Greek myth where a certain low cunning could cheerfully co-exist with nobility of character. Nowadays, it is a little more complicated. The definition of ‘hero’ has been enlarged but it has also undergone some sea-changes. What we call Judaeo-Christian morality has intervened, making it difficult to applaud those whose sense of right and wrong is notably elastic. On the one hand we expect our heroes to be men and women of substance, with some moral backbone, but then again, we don’t, or rather, we apply our criteria selectively. It is usually enough that our heroes should have done something we consider remarkable or worthy of attention. We can now become heroes by being generous (good), doing our duty (good), achieving something judged great (good-ish), or simply surviving long enough for no-one to be able to find any other word to describe us (hmn).

My father often remarked that many men who fought during World War II were not heroes, but they did their duty, whether bravely or fearfully. He singled out for particular praise the stretcher-bearers and ambulance drivers who faced death daily in the service of others but were not universally regarded as heroic. I think we would all see them differently now. It takes a special kind of courage to go on, day after day, taking huge risks for others.

Tonight, as the nation claps for the NHS, we will be applauding those of our own time risking their lives to save others, but perhaps we should also be asking whether we are clapping and calling NHS staff ‘heroes’ to let ourselves off the hook. Are we indulging in a kind of mass sentimentality that makes us feel good but leaves the people we are applauding in exactly the same position they were before, often feeling badly treated and taken for granted? Call someone a ‘hero’ and we place on them the burden of being ‘heroic’. Should we really be doing that? What can we do to ensure that our tribute to the NHS is more than just empty noise?

I would suggest that we could each ask ourselves these questions. Are we fully co-operating with the measures intended to protect everyone from COVID-19? Are we accepting the restraints put on us with generosity and goodwill?* For the Benedictines among us, and those inspired by the Rule of St Benedict, are we grumbling or doing our best to encourage others during this time of uncertainty and difficulty? Are we being kind? Are we putting others and their needs first? Are we being Christ-bearers? In other words, are we being heroes in the modern, extended sense or are we expecting others to be heroic on our behalf? I wonder.

Audio Version

*That doesn’t mean accepting things uncritically. It does mean no moaning or trying to get round regulations just because it suits us — organized selfishness in other words.

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Missing the Point?

It’s easy to miss the point of anything, isn’t it, and the fact that lockdown is giving some people too much time, and others too little, means that a querelous dissatisfaction with life is becoming more and more evident in some quarters. It often takes the form of angry little diatribes on Twitter or Facebook, childish squabbles that leave all parties feeling diminished. We all know people who have to be right all the time (not us, of course), who will pick away at minute details until one really wants to scream. Or there are those who like to reply to comments on our behalf, not always accurately and sometimes in ways that cause major misunderstandings we have to try to resolve. Then there are those who assume that because they read something ten, twenty or sixty years ago, it has achieved the status of eternal verity. Even as I write, there are disputes going on in social media about the ‘correct’ spacing after a full stop, the ‘correct’ timing of today’s prayer for healthcare workers and the ‘correct’ way to introduce people to Christianity.

If you don’t mind my pontificating a little, I can give you the answer to all three questions: single, doesn’t matter, depends. Only one, you notice, is specific. Years spent designing books and other printed matter means that the typographical standards known as Hart’s Rules are second nature to me — or at least, I know when I have broken them. But what about those other two, the ‘correct’ timing of today’s prayer for healthcare workers and the ‘correct’ way to introduce people to Christianity? Why do I claim that the answer should be ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘depends’? It has to do with what I believe about prayer.

Prayer is much more important than the times of prayer, by which I mean that whether we pray for healthcare workers at 11.00 a.m. or at 1.00 p.m. is, in an important sense, immaterial. There is no time in eternity. As Christians we pray in Christ, and that is what matters. Now, I can understand that someone arranging a church service, whether in church or online, has to fix a time for assembling people together, just as we do in the monastery for the Divine Office, but surely proportionality applies to an extraordinarily brief silent pause? One minute? I shall barely have time to register it! All the time that has been lavished on deciding whether it is to be observed at 11.00 a.m. or 1.00 p.m. would surely have been better employed in praying, would it not, because that is the point of the exercise?*

What about introducing someone to Christianity? I don’t think there is one ‘right’ way, particularly where adults are concerned. One has to try to meet the needs of the individual one is trying to help. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) provides a programme many have followed with advantage. I know the method I myself have adopted on occasion would not meet with everyone’s approval, though it seems to have worked, if by that one means the person concerned seems to have grown in faith and love of the Lord. The key words here are ‘faith’ and ‘love’. I am a great believer in reading and reading deeply and widely, but I know it is not enough. Unless we pray we shall only know about God, not God himself. If those who act as catechists do not encourage prayer, it seems to me that an opportunity is being missed, an opportunity of enormous significance for both the individual and the Church as a whole.

Lockdown means that a lot of people are becoming bored, chafing at its restraints and seeing only negativity. Trying to spiritualise the experience doesn’t help, especially if one has fixed ideas about what the spiritual is. This morning I tried to encourage someone to think of it as a temporary experience of cloister. As Benedictines, most of our searching for God is done outside choir, doing routine things in routine ways, often in circumstances that are anything but glamorous or romantic. Cleaning a bathroom, listening to another’s grumbles or complaints, coping with a headache or bout of hay fever, doing what someone else asks or decides rather than what we would choose, experiencing loneliness or anxiety or any other feeling of inadequacy or pain, these are not earth-shattering events perhaps, but they are the stuff of which saints can be made. The secret of transformation lies in prayer, and prayer is nothing other than the desire to be pleasing to God, the point of our existence.

  • I am not referring to the discussion on our own FB page but speaking more generally.

Note: No audio today as I am too breathless to record.

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Emmaus Moments 2020

Today, on the third Sunday of Easter, when we read the Emmaus gospel, the vast majority of the Church will not be able to receive the Eucharist. Let that sink in for a moment. Today very few members of the Church will be able to receive holy Communion wherever they live. We are taught, correctly, that every Mass is a public Mass, even if celebrated behind closed doors with none but the priest physically present. We are also taught, correctly, that every Mass is offered for every member of the Church, as the Eucharistic Prayers make plain. Finally, we we reminded that we can make a spiritual communion when sacramental communion is impossible. I don’t dispute any of that, nor am I among those loudly lamenting not being able to attend Mass as though I, and I alone, were experiencing loss or deprivation. I know many people — priests, religious and lay — are suffering in ways none ever thought possible. But it must be evident to everyone that the current lockdown and all that flows from it poses some important questions of ecclesiology, i.e. what we mean and understand by the word ‘church’.

A number of theologians have argued, in some cases for years, that online Communion should be possible. I don’t see how that could ever be squared with a Catholic understanding of the sacraments so it forms no part of my question here. And I have only a question, not an answer, but I believe it is important because its implications stretch much further than lockdown. Is the present situation, where, by and large, the Eucharist is the preserve of only one part of the Church, viz. priests and a few religious communities with a resident chaplain, right? Are we really being what the Lord intends? I have always been struck by the fact that Cleopas and his companion recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, not during his long exposition of the scriptures. The celebration of the Eucharist and the sharing of Communion was the essential moment of disclosure, recognition and union.

The Church rightly regards the Eucharist as a great treasure and sets many rules and regulations to guard it from profanation or misuse. At the same time, what is more vulnerable, more open to being treated casually or disrespectfully, than a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, the very things the Lord chose to give himself to us? How do we reconcile the desire to ensure that the Eucharist is treated with love and reverence and the desire that it should do what it is intended to do, constitute the Body of Christ?

I don’t know the answer, as I said, but this Sunday, amid the busyness of live-streaming services, adding extra prayers to the Rosary and what you will, I hope we will all take a few moments to think about the nature of the Church, the role of the Eucharist, and our need for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I sense we are at a kind of ecclesiological cross-roads — which is not a bad metaphor for an Emmaus moment, is it?

Audio version

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Of the Dragon’s Party: St George’s Day 2020

Jost Haller - Saint George slaying the dragon, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar
Unterlinden Museum / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Audio version at the end.

Although I love England, I have never subscribed to the kind of nationalism that wraps itself in the flag or becomes misty-eyed whenever confronted with a member of the Royal Family. Still less would I assert that ‘my country is the best/greatest/most important in the world’. Love can be clear-eyed and is at its truest when most humble. On St George’s Day, therefore, my patriotism is of the low-key kind that delights in the beauty of landscape and seascape, the basic decency of the English people, and makes no absurd claims about ‘greatness’. We are not in competition with one another. We are all God’s children, and I have no difficulty acknowledging that many bad things have been done in the name of England as well as many good ones.

St George has not always been our patron saint. He usurped St Edmund in the Middle Ages. As a result, we have some splendidly dynamic art – and a few problems. Take the legend, for example. Our Syrian hero comes upon a young woman being held captive by a dragon, so he decides to free her by slaying the dragon. Cue general applause. Rescuing damsels in distress is unobjectionable, surely. But is there something more to consider? Deep in the male psyche I suspect there lurks the desire to do deeds of derring-do, and rescuing those weaker than oneself is an excellent excuse for feats of arms. It has been the pretext for countless wars almost since time began. But did St George stop to ask the damsel whether she wanted to be rescued? And did he have to kill the dragon to achieve his aim? That is where the applause becomes a little uncertain and a dilemma appears.

So many misunderstandings begin with good intentions and a failure to see another’s point of view. We make assumptions and forget that others do not share them. We may not be in a position to start a war or arrange a ‘regime change,’ but most of us can give others the benefit of our advice, blithely unaware that it may not be as necessary or useful as we think. I did so myself yesterday and was justly rewarded by being treated as an old ‘has been’. Those who know and love Paradise Lost will agree that Milton was of the devil’s party without realising it. Today, as I celebrate St George, I think I’ll try to be one of the dragon’s party — more modest in my assumptions, more honest about my own fallibility and vulnerability . . . more English perhaps.

Note
St George’s nationality is much debated, although the concept of national identity was fluid at the time of his supposed birth. He is often said to have been born in Cappadocia, but was he Greek? Was he Syrian? Did the dragon he killed live in Libya? The different stories serve to remind us that the Church is bigger than national identities. In calling him Syrian, I am simply following the martyrology we use here — a reminder of our country’s involvement overseas and the complex issues that stem from it.

Audio Version

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Recognizing the Risen Christ

Who does not love the gospels we read this week, with their stories of meeting the Risen Christ? How one’s whole being thrills with Mary Magdalene as she hears the Lord calling her by name or with those weary disciples, their hearts burning within them as the scriptures are explained to them on the road to Emmaus, and then that amazing moment of recognition as Jesus breaks bread with them. We shall see the Risen Christ on the sea-shore, put our hands into the mark of the nails, be questioned by him, be commissioned by him. We shall know him, yet not know him; recognize him yet still perhaps doubt. In a word, we shall be plunged into the mystery of the Resurrection — and it will all be new, strange, unsettling and the most profound joy we have ever known.

For most, the way in which we are celebrating Easter this year is without precedent. We have been discovering anew the power and holiness of the domestic church — making a chapel of our living room, an altar of our table and a lectern or pulpit of our tablet or smartphone. For some, live-streamed worship has taken the place of gathering physically with the parish community; for others, there has been a more conscious and regular participation in the ancient prayer of the Church known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Whichever it is, the intention is the same: to meet the Risen Christ, to adore him, to love him, to serve him. That is why, no matter how engaged we are with worship, we cannot neglect him in our brothers and sisters, many of whom are suffering terribly at this time.

For a cloistered nun like me, that poses a special challenge but it is one I suspect my older or less able readers may share. Yes, we can pray; but can we do anything practical to help those in need? For many of us the answer will be a disappointing ‘no’. We haven’t the money or resources, physical or otherwise, to help others directly. Happily, that also means we can’t pat ourselves on the back that we have done something good and worthwhile. We actually have to live our faith. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have an ambiguity that draws us in. We don’t see him healing or preaching. He just is; but he is in a way that is intensely alive and life-giving. I have a hunch that we who call ourselves his disciples are meant to be the same. We may not do very much, but through our prayer and our readiness to respond to the Lord, we are inviting the Risen Christ into the heart of a sick and suffering world which he alone can heal and give new life to. It is a humbler role than we might like, perhaps, but it is the one that will prove most fruitful.

We may not always recognize the Risen Christ as we would wish, but I’m confident he will always recognize us; and that is what matters. Cleopas and his companion walked seven long miles in Jesus’ company, but only recognized him when he himself chose to disclose himself to them. Let us be try to be ready for that moment in our own lives.

Audio version

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Easter Monday: the Mission of the Women

It is curious how often the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are put into a kind of hierarchy of importance. The women going to the tomb to anoint his dead body are mentioned because they are, according to Matthew, chronologically the first to see the stone rolled away. Their meeting with the Risen Christ is noted (Matthew 28. 8–15), but the evangelist quickly passes on to the way in which the authorities of the day ‘squared’ the guards with a little judicious bribery. Tomorrow, when we read John’s account, we shall linger over Mary Magdalene’s meeting and its poignant detail, but not for long. By Wednesday we are on the road to Emmaus and an ambiguous encounter that reveals its full meaning only later; and by Thursday we are back with the men and their mission. From then on, women are less evident, appearing from time to time in the Acts or the Letters, but definitely in much more elusive roles.

It is unfortunate that this increasing invisibility of women has become a source of contention within the Church. It has led to anger and frustration and some very silly things being said and done on both sides. The fact that I write of ‘sides’ is an indication of how often the ministry of women has led to a loss of focus on Christ himself. Partly, I think that may be because a lot of preaching in the Catholic Church is done by men who are awkward around women. Personally, if I hear one more homily telling me that Mary is the model of holiness for women, I shall shriek. Male or female, Christ is our model. There can be no other. The Resurrection means that there is now no male, no female, no slave, no free, no Jew, no gentile, we are all one in Christ, as St Paul says. That is why the appearances to the women are important. It is not that they are incidental to the real business of the early Church and the evolving ministry of men. They are part of the mission of the whole Church to proclaim Christ, the whole Christ.

This morning, as we think about those women meeting Jesus as they come away from the tomb, it may be helpful to consider the obvious. They did not find Jesus where they expected to find him. They found him — or rather, he found them — where they did not expect, as they were coming away, disappointed at not being able to fulfil the task they had laid upon themselves. Sometimes we have to learn that what we think is important isn’t; that what God wills is ultimately best for us all; and that we shall meet God at a time and place of his choosing, not ours. We just have to be ready — and that is undoubtedly the hardest task of all.

Audio version

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Resurrexi

The Risen Christ with the Three Marys
The Risen Christ with the Three Marys

Christ is risen! Alleluia! There are no words adequate to this great joy. So, instead, here is an image of the Risen Christ meeting the women who came to anoint his dead body, and the nuns of Jouques singing the introit to the Day Mass of Easter, Resurrexi. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to describe this chant as being like a ping-pong sitting on a fountain of water, serene not shouty, as the deepest joy always is. A blessed Easter to you all!

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Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

Fra Angelico: Christ in Limbo, c. 1441-1442
Fra Angelico: Christ in Limbo

Holy Saturday: we are used to this being a time of silence and stillness, when earth awaits the resurrection and we do nothing because God is doing everything. We are used to its being a day without the sacraments, but this year we plumb the depths of emptiness and loss more deeply than ever. Even our churches are closed. There is no busy preparation of altar and font, no careful placing of flowers and candles, no last-minute rehearsal of music and ceremonies. We have only the weariness of death, the coldness of the tomb, and the long, dry psalms of the Divine Office, chanted recto tono, to sustain us. Tonight, when we might have expected a blaze of glory from the kindling of the new fire and the glad tones of the Exsultet, there will be only darkness, emptiness, silence. But if we think nothing is happening, if we think that God has somehow abandoned his people, that Easter is cancelled, so to say, we are very much mistaken. 

Holy Saturday is the time when Christ descends into the underworld to preach salvation to those who died before his coming. He goes to seek and save the lost. Today is a day of mercy, a mercy beyond compare. Traditionally, artists have portrayed Christ leading Adam and Eve out of Sheol, followed by a whole band of prophets and patriarchs and a nameless throng of people now rising to new life. On such a day as this, I like to think of Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as to a friend, of the unknown persons who form a distant part of my own family, of all the generations that existed before Christ, whom he desires to be with him in his glory. This is the day when captives are freed, when new life and hope spring up in the darkness, when the resurrection begins with the harrowing of hell.

It may be fanciful and probably bad theology to say that tonight, when we gather in choir to pray the Great Vigil, the church across the way and all churches throughout the world will not really be empty. They will be filled with the spirits of the just, risen to newness of life and singing the praises of God. And it will be because Christ has experienced death for all mankind and thus brought to completion his work of redemption. Even now, he is acting, awakening the dead, bringing joy and gladness. An ancient writer expressed this better than I ever could. Christ says to those who sleep in death, as one day we trust he will say to us also: ‘Rise! I am the life of the dead.’

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

Audio Version

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