Encouraging the Clergy

The feast of St Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney, celebrated today, is the day we traditionally pray with special fervour and gratitude for parish clergy. Not being a priest, I don’t know how far the Curé d’Ars inspires, encourages or perhaps even daunts, those to whom he is presented as a role model. I have known parish priests who have followed a contemporary version of his austere lifestyle, living off the plainest food, denying themselves every luxury, leading a life of prayer and sacrifice in an effort to serve God and his Church. Others have been more relaxed in their approach to the good things of life and will doubtless recall that today is the day when Dom Pérignon allegedly invented champagne*. The one thing they have all had in common is an opinion about their bishop and the people they serve.

Criticism of the Clergy

It is easy to knock the clergy for what they are not. Every time I hear some sort of patronising comment or belittling remark, I shrivel up inside — not so much because I am hurt as because the perpetrator is hurting himself. Sadly, such remarks are often the result of the priest himself feeling a need to assert his value in the face of apparent indifference and disregard. Too many feel that their bishop has little connection with them and only a cursory interest in their concerns. Too many feel that their congregations are distant from them, critical of everything they say and do. As to the media, the lack of respect for Christian clergy, Catholic especially, is sometimes shocking in its intensity and hostility. We do not justify our own sins by reference to those of others. While no one would attempt to defend the terrible history of abuse and cover-up in the Church, it is wrong to assume that every priest is guilty or regard the guilt of some as justification for negativity towards all.

How to Encourage the Clergy and Why

So, on this bright and sunny morning, I wonder how to encourage the priests we know. We pray for them, of course. We listen. In happier days we were able to offer the hospitality of the monastery, a shared meal, discussion of matters of common (or even uncommon) interest. Sometimes what is most needed is probably reassurance, that what the clergy are and do matters. Occasionally, a challenge has to be thrown out, but always, I trust, with courtesy and love. The Curé d’Ars was plain-spoken, but no one ever left his presence feeling diminished. There is something there we could all learn from, clerical or lay. Together we build up the Body of Christ, or, as St Benedict says, serve alike under the banner of the same Lord, but to do so we must encourage one another. May I invite any clergy reading this to tell us, laity and religious, how we can encourage them in their particular task and mission?

*He didn’t, but he introduced some important improvements in method, quality controls, corks for bottling and so on.

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Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my readership has grown older and greyer. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I’m growing older and greyer myself and begin to appreciate better than before how much is owed to those who just ‘get on with things’ and are not in themselves particularly scintillating. Blogging is no longer as popular as it was for diffusing ideas and inviting debate but the format suits me and is more manageable than most alternatives. The unease I am voicing this morning therefore comes hedged with qualifications. I admit my own ignorance and the difficulty of judging a situation that is, by its very nature, known only partially and imperfectly. I recognize that only a very small part of the Church (the part that reads this blog) is likely to respond and that its demographic is not representative of the Church as a whole. So, I write as a Catholic, of a certain age and background, living in the West, more specifically England, with its unique experience of Catholicism, and heavily influenced by my interests in history and theology. But the question I ask is of wider significance because it concerns the very nature of the Church and her role in the world.

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Current Preoccupations of the Church

Sitting where I do, one might think the Church had no other interest than safeguarding regulations (the horse long bolted from that particular stable, I would suggest) and ever more complicated directives concerning COVID prevention, Mass attendance and online liturgies. All too often, this has ended up with a lot of form-filling and the compilation of statistics that a statistician would say revealed nothing of much use or importance.

From Holy Week (yes, Holy Week) until now, here in the monastery we have been working through an endless stream of safeguarding material provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. We agree that safeguarding is important. We have attended courses, adjusted our buildings and grounds, had an independent audit of our arrangements and practices and, crucially no doubt, paid our fee to the safeguarding service. Given our small numbers as enclosed (or cloistered) nuns, the absence of a chaplain and our clear policy of not allowing children to visit unless accompanied by a responsible adult, one might think we pose little risk. But the time we give to these matters is taken from time we might otherwise give to prayer and spreading the gospel, and that not only worries me, it suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church and her missionary character. We are not here to be defensive, surely? What are we defending anyway?

Like many others, I had hoped that the experience of lockdown and the creative way in which many tried to meet its challenges might have led to a profound enrichment of the Church’s missionary endeavour. However, if the anecdotal evidence I have received is to be believed, many clergy are simply sighing with relief that things can go back to normal (i.e what was understood to be normal before the pandemic began) though there is some anxiety about those who have been ‘lost’ to the Church and decided they are not returning to their parish for worship — or to make the financial contributions on which the parish relies. But is anyone asking why people have gone from their parishes?

Public Utterances and Public Spats

Ask anyone in this country what they know of the Catholic Church and one is likely to get some shocked references to abuse and cover-ups and perhaps an observation or two about the Latin Mass and the pope’s hostility to it. Neither is exactly the whole truth, but if people bother about churchy things at all, that is what they are likely to come up with. The very lame response to abuse and official attempts to mitigate its awfulness have not been impressive. There is a sense, which many Catholics share, that the Church is not really facing up to the sin in our midst; and in any case, is there no other narrative to be told other than one of regret and apology?

We have sometimes been asked to apologize for abuse committed in Ireland by religious sisters with whom we have no connection other than membership of the same Church. In vain do I say, it was wrong, we pray for those who have suffered (and those who caused the suffering), that it happened before we were born, we are doing our best to ensure that nothing of the same can ever happen again. But it is not enough. For some, the narrative of abuse and cover-up has become the whole narrative of the Church. What is not always recognized is the fact that, by and large, we have let it become so. Yes, we have let others set the agenda, and I think we may have got it wrong.

One consequence of this, not always sufficiently appreciated, is the effect on the morale of many clergy and their reluctance, amounting in some cases to crippling fear, to go out to others. Parishioners may lament the loss of the pastoral visit; some of the clergy are questioning whether the pastoral visit is simply going to end in tears (for the priest). An awkwardness has been introduced that need not be there. A wise bishop, alert to the needs of priests and people, can do much to help; but I wonder how many are.

The constant spats about Pope Francis’ decisions, even his legitimacy as pope, enthrall some sections of the Catholic Church and provide useful copy to online journalists and media types. Often those who are most vociferous are most ignorant, presenting as fact what is merely opinion, and opinion based on an inadequate knowledge of the sources. This applies to both left and right, liberals and conservatives, all who see themselves as being right when everyone else is wrong. What comes across, therefore, is a Church bitterly divided, more intent on scoring points than seeking truth, not a place where sinners will be made righteous through the experience of love and compassion but where the self-appointed righteous exclude all who are not like them.

A Harsh Judgement

I’m sure many will think what I have written is harsh and arrogant, that I am guilty of the very faults and shortcomings I see in others. But isn’t that the point? We are all, to some extent, blind and deaf. I do not believe that the Lord will ever abandon his Church, but I do think we are in danger of forgetting that is is his Church, that we have a mission to perform, and that currently we are not making a very good fist of it. Perhaps if we were to spend a few moments today thinking about what first drew us to Christ, to what changed for ever when we said ‘yes’ to him, the way ahead would be clearer. I’m sure it would be much more attractive to others also.

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Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

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Family Rows

Today, 26 July, is the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ. Usually I manage to write something appreciative of grandparents and their role in our lives but today my heart is not in it. I am more conscious of the squabbles and rows consuming Church and society (and perhaps our own families and communities, too) to feel I can contribute anything positive. It is more than a mere energy lapse or fleeting feeling of ennui. It is a recognition of our helplessness in the face of much negativity, coupled with a desire not to give in to fashionable points of view simply because they are fashionable but ‘to test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.’

Prince Harry and the Royal Family

Take, for instance, something British readers and viewers will be only too well aware of: the very public row within the Royal Family in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are principals. (Did I say that neutrally enough? What follows is not neutral.) I am not a Royal-watcher; I don’t have any ‘side’ to uphold; but the way in which Prince Harry is behaving strikes me as childish and vindictive, likely to wound his grandmother the Queen, and certain to wound his father, Prince Charles.

I do not know what it is like to lose one’s mother at an impressionable age and under very sad circumstances, but I am beginning to think that the duke is actually exploiting the situation. It makes him different, special, confers on him the right to behave in a less than adult manner. And why? Because he has never learned the importance of forgiveness, of letting go, of truly being himself rather than a person for ever defined by a tragic event that occurred in his childhood. We are told he does not want to use his royal advantage, yet at he same time he makes full use of his royal privilege. Has none of the expensive therapists and counsellors to whom he has access suggested to him that the way to be truly free is, as I said, to let go of the injuries, real or imagined, done to himself? Will he end up a lonely old man, like his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, one entry in whose diary reads, ‘Spent all day watching Wallis buy a hat.’?

The Church and Traditionis Custodes

If the situation of the duke is tragic, what can I say of the Church following the issuing of Traditionis Custodes? Part of me wanted to leap into the fray, bristling with historical and liturgical insights born of long and sustained study and practical experience, or so I would argue; but I wisely held off, realising I needed to think and pray more; and now I realise that it would be arrogant and sheer folly to seek to add to the discussion. Arrogant, because there are others more learned and eloquent to analyse the text, the pope’s intentions and the complexity of the historical background of the Mass in the West. Folly, because I know my temper is on a short string — social media and email make it easy for people to engage in ways I find rude or patronising — and I do not want to say something I later regret or cannot put right.

Liturgy matters immensely to me, of course it does, but the way in which, by and large, discussion has been conducted has been deeply troubling. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not right. It is irreverence of the most terrible kind. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity within the Church, and the only way for any of us to approach it, metaphorically speaking, is on our knees. Bad or inadequate history, personal preference, fear of the unknown, they can blind us to the significance of words and actions and we can destroy what we most long to flourish. We forget, a little too readily, that every human being is entitled to respect and to his/her good name. Insults and accusations are not helpful.

This morning, therefore, I am praying for all families, natural and institutional, experiencing discord. Often it is a grandparent who sees most clearly and is best at binding up the wounds that are tearing everyone within apart. Let us ask the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anne to heal the divisions we experience and to give those of us who are older something of their grace and compassion, that we may meet every new challenge with wisdom and kindness.

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Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?

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Be More Guinea Pig

On almost the hottest day of the year, a friend found herself chasing her children’s escaped guinea pigs under a hedge. It would be fair to say she has a modest opinion of their qualities as pets, but, loving all God’s creatures as she does, and meekly accepting that Mom will always have to care for them, she set off in pursuit. When we had stopped laughing at her account of her adventure, she concluded, ‘No one ever says, “Be More Guinea Pig”.’ O rash young friend, how could I resist such a challenge?

All the guinea pigs I’ve ever known have been kept as pets. I’ve never had to deal with any being used for research purposes or, worse still, eat one. To an untrained eye like mine, they are quiet, rather unexciting, just like most human beings, but they do have some characteristics we share. They are social creatures, thriving best in groups of two or more, but can easily show aggression. They can learn quite complex paths to food (just as well since they spend so much time eating) but are easily startled. They can suffer from ailments familiar to us, such as scurvy or asthma. The little happy hops they perform when excited are known as pop-corning and are delightfully uninhibited. But, ‘Be MoreGuinea Pig’? Where does that come in?

Be More Guinea Pig

Those of us living in England could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is making guinea pigs of us all, in the popular sense of that phrase, as it lifts the legal restrictions used hitherto as a defence against the spread of COVID-19. No one can predict whether it will be a success or disaster. ‘Freedom Day’ may end up making lemmings of us all, hurtling over a cliff we knew was there but believed would not be a danger to us. It is to be hoped that individuals will not be reckless but give thought to how best to keep themselves and other people safe. For Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. The Rule urges us to do what is better for another, which reflects the gospel precept to love our neighbour. Whether guinea pigs can be said to love their fellow guinea pigs, I would not dare to say; but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

There is another side to guinea pigs that has impressed me more and more over the week-end. The guinea pig’s primary method of communication with other guinea pigs is via a complex series of vocalizations. If you look at the list of those given in Wikipedia, they are not language as we understand the term, but most of them seem to be positive. It has grieved me beyond measure that so much of the discussion of Traditionis Custodes has been fundamentally irreverent and negative. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not godly, no matter how ‘justified’ one may think oneself — and that applies to both liberals and conservatives. I hope later this week to share some of my own reflections on the document, but I am not ready yet. Knee-jerk reactions, a rush to let off fireworks, to curry favour with one ‘side’ or another, no, they are not for me.* Guinea pigs are more reflective animals. Be more Guinea Pig. Please.

*I won’t publish comments that try to kidnap the argument of this post into pro or anti Traditionis Custodes tirades.

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Arbiter of All Things? Me, Of Course!

I am refusing to be drawn on the subject of Traditionis Custodes for reasons I’ve given in the past about needing to read, pray and reflect before responding to documents that stir the emotions (e.g. see this post about how to read an encyclical, though the document published yesterday is not an encyclical). I’ve also switched off comments for the links I’ve posted in Facebook and on this particular blog post — not because I am opposed to people expressing their views, far from it, but because among the instant reactions there is always a lot of tit-for-tat I don’t want to get involved in. Note that phrase: I don’t want to get involved in. It is my choice, my decision. If it sounds arrogant, so be it. I am the arbiter of all things, in this blog anyway.

The Carmelites of Compiégne

The Carmelites of Compiègne whose martyrdom we celebrate today, and the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai imprisoned alongside them (see, for example, this post) probably did not want to get involved in the French Revolution, either. But they did, and they acquitted themselves more than honourably, though at the time I daresay comparatively few knew very much about them. I have often wondered what they themselves felt and thought. What were their ideas of beauty, for example? How did they like to see the liturgy performed? I am speculating here, but did the Benedictines and the Carmelites have rather different experiences of Mass and the choral office? Their origins, their backgrounds, their spiritualities as we would call them today, even their financial circumstances, were different; and as an erstwhile historian myself, I would expect that to be reflected in their approach to monastic/contemplative life.

The Debate about Traditionis Custodes

I think we will find that much of the debate that follows on the publication of yesterday’s Traditionis Custodes will reflect some, at least, of the following:

• a personal, probably highly subjective, view of what is beautiful. That is often a ‘killer’ factor. Once we assume that our own preferences are universal, it can be difficult to see another’s point of view.

• a partial, possibly not always well-informed, awareness of history and the complexity of liturgical development. That can be difficult to handle. It is not only a question of fact (sometimes extremely difficult, even impossible, to establish) but, more importantly, of interpretation.

• a ‘feeling’ about Vatican II and what it intended. Older readers will probably understand better than younger ones what I mean by this.

• a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The Place of the Personal in this Debate

The first, the argument about beauty, is one I have engaged in many times. My years in the Stanbrook Abbey Press taught me that its austere and restrained ideals did not appeal to everyone. Where I sought simplicity and paring back, others preferred elaboration and detail. Never the twain shall meet, it seems. As for a personal opinion of Pope Francis, the less said the better because so much of it seems to be polarised.

I am sure you will understand why I urge prayer and reflection at this point. Fortunately, as Bro Dyfrig BFdeB will assure you, no one listens to me anyway, so the suggestions I make above are principally for myself to heed. -;) (It is International Emoji Day, so using one is in the spirit of the times, no?) Whatever our own opinion, let us pray for the unity of the Church, and especially for those who are baffled and hurt or using publication of Traditionis Custodes for an agenda of their own.

Links (opening in new tabs)

There is an official English language translation of Traditionis Custodes here: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html

and of the accompanying letter to the bishops here:
https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2021/documents/20210716-lettera-vescovi-liturgia.html

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A Sick Society and RB 36?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

St Benedict’s View of Sickness

Blue gloves and face coverings are now so familiar in the West, we have almost forgotten what they symbolize. They say we are sick, as indeed we probably are, but with a sickness that goes beyond the physical. All I have written in the past about RB 36 and Care of the Sick (and I have written a great deal as a quick search of this blog will reveal) has tended to concentrate on an analysis of the text and our movement from giving care to receiving care. This morning, however, as we re-read the chapter, I was struck by how clear and uncompromising Benedict is about what we owe each other.

Care of the sick comes above and before everything else, ante omnia et super omnia, no matter how good, holy, apparently necessary or advantageous anything else may be. In the light of the very mixed signals coming from the U.K. government, that is worth thinking about. Politicians and civil servants may be confused; economists may be reluctant to concede that striving for growth is not always appropriate; and scientists will continue to argue, as scientists should, about the best way to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of respiratory and other viruses following in its wake. For the majority of us, the response will be more personal and individual.

Concerns about Current Attitudes

I am not alone in feeling uneasy about the ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attitude many Western countries have shown regarding sharing anti-COVID vaccines with poorer nations. In the same way, I find quite alarming the readiness of some heads of state to sacrifice the health and lives of the people they were elected to serve to frankly loopy ideas of their own that lead to much suffering and loss. But it is not an easy question to solve at national/international level.

At a personal level, it is much simpler. Like it or not, we have a duty of care towards others and that includes being prepared to sacrifice a personal good for a greater social good. As you might expect, given my respiratory vulnerability, the prospect of ‘Freedom Day’ does not fill me with unalloyed joy. Until now, I have regularly worn a mask to protect others and have been irritated by workmen and others who refuse to wear one inside our house — only a few, but enough to remark upon. I suspect even more will refuse after 19 July, especially those who take their ideas of right and wrong from what is allowed by the law, i.e. if it is not a criminal or civil offence, it is alright.

Serving Christ

A Benedictine would say we serve Christ in the person of the sick. What is often overlooked is that the sick serve Christ in the person of the well. For the one doing the caring, it is a case of being alert to the needs of the sick person and being patient with them; for the sick it is a case of not being over-demanding, of allowing the carer to serve — hard as that may seem at times! Where, I think, both come together, is in their response to the moral dimension of sickness. There is a lot going on about healthcare in the UK, a lot that tugs at our understanding. I don’t pretend to have any answers, only questions gradually taking shape. It would be good if you would share yours — without blaming or party-political ranting, please.

The Rule of St Benedict in English for 15 July, RB 36, On Sick Brethren

RB36
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Kitchen Work

Tomatoes for the Table

It is strange how, in the past and perhaps even today, certain kinds of work are regarded as menial and the people who do them as inferior. I remember some sort of gathering at which a Swedish nun and I were introduced to someone as the monastery’s cooks. The person to whom we were introduced couldn’t move away quickly enough but seemed to think better of it once she learned more about our backgrounds. It was then our turn to be a little reserved.

St Benedict in his chapter on the monastery’s kitcheners (RB 35), which we begin re-reading today, not only assumes everyone who can will take their turn at cooking and serving but also that such service increases charity in a community and secures a richer reward for the individual. Our competence is secondary, though that can be difficult to accept. Even culinary disasters (I’ve perpetrated a few myself) can be an occasion of grace, not just Gaviscon.

Why do we think of some work as important and other work as inconsequential? I don’t know, but I have a hunch it has to do with our endless status-seeking. The boss of an organisation probably has the most expensive computer, even if he/she uses it least. It tells other people how important they are to the organization and reassures them that their status is assured. We all have to eat, so unless we are a celebrity cook, work in the kitchen attracts no kudos. Forgive me for being boring and predictable, but how many people are we relying on today to do work we couldn’t or wouldn’t do for ourselves? Let us be grateful for them.

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Owning the Ugliness and Imperfection of Life

During my most recent hospital stay (yes, there have been rather a lot lately), I found myself devoid of energy, tethered to a 24/7 drip, with an oxygen supply on a short cord and, ultimate indignity, catheterized. My eyes blurred and, despite having access to hundreds of books on my ‘phone, it was several days before my joy in reading returned. People could not have been kinder or more considerate. Despite being under enormous pressure, the hospital staff sorted me out (take another bow, Hereford County Hospital), fed me, helped me wash, and were endlessly patient, while the hospital chaplain anointed me and gave me Holy Communion for a journey I was destined not to make just then.

I’ve been home for almost a week now. You might think that my being a nun obliges me to relentless optimism, to being upbeat in every situation. If you do, you know nothing about being a nun! While I was being looked after in every sense of the word, others were experiencing a whole gamut of negative emotions and events. Even I, in my fortunate situation, found things to criticize or grumble at, and it is fundamentally dishonest to pretend otherwise.

For instance, while I sat back and thought about the next meal (salad. Ed), Anglican friends were sharing openly their feelings about Vision and Strategy and some ill-considered comments seeming to misprize the value of a professional clergy; others were beating their breasts as revelation followed revelation of corruption and deliberate attempts to deceive. Friends confided concerns about attacks on their families or on themselves personally, and more than one admitted to serious money worries or strains on their marriage/partnership. We don’t smile bravely through these things. There are times when sharing the pain, acknowledging our own helplessness, being floored by it all, is the only human response and none of us should be ashamed of that. There is just one little caveat I think worth mentioning because I have caught myself indulging in the behaviour involved: moral distancing of a self-serving nature.

We talk disparagingly about ‘this government’ as though we had no part in its election or shaping the climate of opinion in which a political party can be elected. We declare so-and-so cannot be Catholic because he/she does not conform to our idea of what a Catholic should be, as though we were the arbiter of all things and could speak for God. So it goes on. We heap derision on those whose minds are slower or whose values differ from our own. In other words, we wrap ourselves round with a false but comforting sense of superiority which we wouldn’t if we recognized it for what it truly is: a refusal to own the ugliness and imperfection of life in which we share as much as we do in its beauty and holiness.

I don’t like leaving a post with a negative thought, so may I suggest a good exercise for today would be to give thanks for the blessings we enjoy and asking the grace of humility, of being grounded in truth and holiness? We cannot and should not be upbeat all the time. We are called to be human, and that means allowing the reality of our own experience and that of other people to register with us. As the late Bro Duncan PBGV used to say in his simple way, ‘Be more dog.’ Don’t complicate things with ideas that get in the way of truth; don’t pretend, but do your best to follow the Lord, who knew what it was to be tired, misunderstood, at odds with those he loved. We surely cannot be better than he was and is.

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