Obedience, Ordinariate and Beatification

I should like to say something about the Ordinariate, though that is to invite another brow-bashing, and something about the beatification of John Paul II, though others may well have said it better, but today is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, disciples of St Benedict, and I cannot pass them by, though I hope to discover a link between all three. Bear with me.

In Book II of the Dialogues, St Gregory presents Maurus and Placid as types of the perfect disciple, the obedience of the one complementing the innocence of the other. Both were offered to St Benedict as child oblates, to be brought up in monastic life. One story tells how Placid fell into a lake and was carried away by the current. Benedict became aware of the impending tragedy and ordered Maurus to save his fellow monk. In obedience to his abbot’s command, therefore, Maurus walked upon the water as though upon dry ground and dragged Placid to the shore. Benedict attributed the miraculous rescue to his disciple’s obedience, Maurus to his abbot’s holiness.

As any medievalist worth her salt will tell you, this little story is charged with meaning. It shows us a kind of trinity of listening. Benedict was praying when he learned of his disciple’s distress. It was how he became aware of the danger Placid was in and why he was able to act, in obedience to the voice of the Spirit. Maurus had no such supernatural aid, but he obeyed the voice of his abbot, in whom he saw the person of Christ commanding him (cfr RB 5). Placid, plucked from the water, said he saw the abbot’s cowl about him, bearing him up so that he could be saved: the good of obedience flowing back to him from whom it issued.

So how does this link up with either the beatification of John Paul II or the Ordinariate? Let’s take the pope first. In life, John Paul II bore the proudest of all earthly titles, Servant of the Servants of God. What is a servant if not one who obeys, who listens attentively? The Servant of the Servants of God must listen through a clamour of human voices to what he hopes and trusts is the voice of God. In death John Paul has become simply the Servant of God. No human voice can now disturb the clarity of his hearing. That is why we can invoke his prayers with confidence that they will be heard.

And the Ordinariate? Today three former bishops of the Church of England are to be ordained as Catholic priests. The way in which this is being presented in the media as an act of disaffection or, worse, defection, is disturbing. No one can really know the heart of another. Colophon has said many a time that to act for a negative reason is to act for no reason at all. Now iBenedictines echoes that stream of thought. There is only one reason for being a Catholic, for being ordained: because one believes heart and soul that it is the right thing to do, that nothing and no one matters as much as that voice of the Lord urging and insisting, “This is the way. Follow it!” Anything less will not do.

Let us pray today for all Benedictines, for all who are being ordained and for all who find obedience a struggle, which is to say every man-jack (or woman-jill) of us.

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Light in Afghanistan

Apparently, some Taliban groups in Afghanistan are allowing girls to go to school and women to return to teaching. These are local agreements brokered by tribal leaders, strictly limited in scope but a sign of hope nonetheless. There had been a fear that, in their haste to get out of a situation which has seen so much loss of life, both Britain and the U.S.A. would be prepared to sacrifice human rights, especially those of women; so it is heartening to see a change of this kind being brought about by the people themselves.

Why, then, the muted response? A few years ago I blogged about a young Afghani girl who had acid flung in her face because she had dared to go to school. She is now blind and disfigured, condemned to a difficult and marginal existence because no one will marry her (the Taliban have not moved on other aspects of their beliefs). Her story is not unique. The statistics for female illiteracy worldwide are still shocking and, like it or not, the subjugation of women is still a reality in many parts of the world. The sad fact is that we in the west tend to shake our heads and do nothing. Our gaze is elsewhere. Some even mutter darkly about “feminism” as though women were the source of all ills (nothing new there, then).

Education for both men and women is the key to overcoming these blindspots and allowing the development of a just and equitable society. I’m reminded that one of the old definitions of justice is “right order”. There is surely a rightness about little girls being taught to read and expand their horizons. So, light in Afghanistan? Yes, just a chink.

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Brotherly Love

Donna Rice was returning home from a trip to buy school uniforms with her sons, Jordan and Blake. Unfortunately, the place they were in was Toowoomba and they were caught up in the “inland tsunami”. A rescuer managed to reach them as they stood on the roof of their car and started to tie a rope round Jordan. The thirteen year-old insisted, however, that his younger brother Blake be rescued first. Blake was indeed rescued, but Jordan and his mother were swept away.

This story will go round the world, and rightly so. Of the many stories of heroism coming out of Queensland, it is one of the most affecting. I daresay Jordan and Blake were like any other brothers, completely unsentimental, given to scrapping with each other but fiercely loyal in the face of any outside interference. Yet in the shock and horror of that moment in the floodwaters, Jordan made a choice many an adult might not have been able to make. Fear can make even the most generous selfish. It takes a pure heart to choose another’s good instinctively, to sacrifice self.

As we pray for the Rice family in their grief, let us also thank God for this reminder that human beings, even very young ones, can live lives of great grandeur. It adds a new emphasis to Jesus’ exhortation to become as little children. Adults, take note.

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St Benet Biscop

St Benet Biscop
St Benet Biscop

This little miniature of St Benet Biscop shows him holding a church. A typical medieval motif, you might think; except that this church is not one of the monastic churches he built in Northumbria but is meant to represent St Peter’s in Rome. Benet is an early example of the strong link between the English Church and the papacy. Even today, we have an annual Peter Pence collection which traces its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and is a mark of England’s special regard for the successor of St Peter.

Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible is a production of the Jarrow scriptorium (it actually lacks the Book of Baruch, but that is a mere bagatelle compared with what it does contain).

It is not this, however, that made him a saint. Contemporaries remarked on his patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is honoured as having admitted the genius of Benedict of Nursia. There was something recognizably English about Benet in both his ability and his piety.

Bede’s description of Benet should inspire us all. He describes him as being “full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.” Many of our Catholic “opinion makers”, bloggers and the like, seem to have forgotten that in their eagerness to score points off one another or advance their own view of what others should do. St Benet Biscop’s example should encourage us to lay aside all sniping and carping to practise the good zeal which alone builds up.

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St Aelred of Rievaulx

St Aelred of Rievaulx
St Aelred of Rievaulx

In common with other English Benedictines, we keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow is sacred to St Benet Biscop). Aelred’s reputation has undergone many changes in the last fifty years, and I’m not sure that the current version is any nearer the truth of the man.

I suspect Aelred was both immensely attractive and absolutely maddening at the same time. He drew many to monastic life, yet after his death the fractures in community quickly began to show. He could write like an angel, yet those who read Aelred today without knowing or caring for the monastic discipline underpinning his writing see only part of the picture. He was more than just a “charismatic leader” with a beguiling pen and a gift for friendship.

The preface for the feast, which draws on Aelred’s own writings, is worth pondering and praying. Above all, those who have any kind of leadership or managerial role should seek out his Oratio Pastoralis (Pastoral Prayer) and pray it often.

Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

Tenderly you drew Saint Aelred 
to the school of your service
where, having tasted of the sweetness of your love,
he became the gentle father of many sons,
a merciful shepherd to the weak,
and a model of spiritual friendship.

Inflamed by the love of Christ,
he embraced the Cross
as the pattern of monastic conversion,
and so attained the repose of those who love you,
the true and eternal Sabbath of the blessed.

And so, on his feast day, we join with him to adore you,
and with all the company of Angels and Saints,
sing the ageless hymn of your praise: sanctus, sanctus, sanctus . . .

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Bible or Mozart?

Yesterday Digitalnun was having some free time to mark the last day of the “Christmas holidays” and decided to listen to the radio while tidying her desk. Alas, the BBC offered two equally delectable choices: King James or Mozart. (Overseas readers may be mystified: the BBC has been playing “every note Mozart ever wrote” on Radio 3, while over on Radio 4 there was a celebration of the King James version of the Bible, with copious readings by gorgeous voices.) It was a struggle but Mozart won. Digitalnun has some way to go, I fear.

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Baptism of the Lord 2011

The Baptism of the Lord
The Baptism of the Lord

Liturgically, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of Christmastide and the beginning of Ordinary Time, just as it marks the end of the hidden years at Nazareth and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It is the third of the great theophanies that characterize this season. We have already celebrated the revelation to the Jews at Christmas and to the gentiles at Epiphany; now, for the first time, we have a revelation of the mystery of the Trinity.

The Fathers loved to comment on this Baptism which foreshadows our own. They delighted in the idea of Christ’s body going into the Jordan and making all the waters of the earth holy; they became lyrical when they thought of the descent of the Holy Spirit or the voice of the Father affirming that this was indeed his Beloved. It therefore comes as a surprise to many to learn that this feast is of comparatively recent institution in the Church (1955). It always used to be one of the events celebrated at Epiphany, as the liturgy of that day still makes clear. Why do we need a separate feast, and what does it mean today?

For myself the answer is to be found in the collect for the day, where we dare to pray that as Christ shared with us his humanity, so we may come to share in his divinity. It is a breathtaking prayer and reminds us that we are more than just a jumble of genes. Whatever sins we commit, however much we fail both as individuals and as a Church, whatever enormities society as a whole permits, there is hope: hope of redemptiom, hope of transformation. The Baptism of the Lord is not an event in the distant past; it is reality for us here and now in 2011 and reminds us that ultimately life and goodness triumph over death and evil.

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Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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Standing in Another’s Shoes

Two snippets of news mentioned by the BBC almost in passing: the murderer of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was applauded and showered with rose petals when he appeared in court; in Egypt, people are being encouraged to attack Christian churches on the eve of the Coptic Christmas (7 January). Most people in Britain probably feel sick at the prospect: we don’t glorify violence unless it is somehow “sanitized” by being part of a war in defence of  some good or other.

Possibly both the death of Mr Taseer and the threatened attacks on Egyptian Christians are seen as a holy war in defence of Islam, but before we assume that religious extremism is the sole motivation, we should consider the highly volatile political situation in both countries. Neither Pakistan nor Egypt is a western democracy; neither functions as we would expect a western country to do. In the west religion is often ignored or treated as a figure of fun. Not so in Pakistan or Egypt.

The marginalisation of religion in the west has consequences we are only just beginning to recognize. Our assumptions about human rights and human dignity are not necessarily shared by those who view the world from a different religious perspective. Maybe our own indifference to religion makes it harder for us to understand and therefore engage with the people of Pakistan or Egypt. Standing in another’s shoes is something we all need to do more often.

Podcasts

iTunes has finally approved our podcast stream after we moved the feed to Audioboo. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sorting out our podcast collection and begin a new series. Thank you to all who offered help and advice, and especially those who tackled Apple on our behalf. To find our podcasts on iTunes, look for iBenedictines.

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Spiritual Direction

From time to time one of us is asked if we will act as a “spiritual director” to someone. Our reaction always surprises those who know nothing of our community history or the part played in it by Fr Augustine Baker. There is generally a slight hesitation, followed by a quiet smile and even quieter affirmation, “The Holy Spirit is the best spiritual director.” This sometimes leads our interlocutors to wonder if we are Catholic at all, or at any rate not quite right in the head. (I sometimes wonder about the latter, too, but that is by the bye.)

It is what we don’t say that is important. There are many more spiritual directors in the world than there is true spiritual direction. To be able to guide others in the ways of God is a rare gift, a charism, and it is not given to all. The nuns of Cambrai (from whom we are descended) had a hard battle to avoid being pressured into a way of prayer and spirituality entirely alien to them under the name of “spiritual direction”. It was largely thanks to the fortitude of D. Catherine Gascoigne and her community, who were subject to some pretty stiff ecclesiastical penalties, that Fr Baker’s eminently sane teaching survived to shape the lives of the nuns who followed after. Fr Baker is now recognized as a master of the spiritual life and his insistence on “liberty of spirit” continues to inform those communities which took his teaching to heart.

But to say that spiritual direction is a rare gift and that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” For us, “liberty of spirit” presupposes life in community under the Rule and a superior, where there are daily checks on behaviour; it involves constant prayer and study and, above all, regular reception of the sacraments. Very often the sacraments are left out of the equation but for growth in holiness they are essential, especially the one many people ignore: confession.

Confession is not the same as spiritual direction. As a sacrament, we can be quite sure that the Lord is at work in it, no matter how “inadequate” we or the confessor happen to be. There is no similar guarantee with spiritual direction. That is not to say that spiritual directors are frauds and charlatans, far from it, but it is why we will not undertake that role. Those who have the gift can contribute a great deal to those who seek instruction and guidance; those who haven’t can do a great deal of harm. We do not give spiritual direction, but we do pray, as best we can, for all who seek our help.

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