Foundation Day 2019

Founding members of Holy Trinity Monastery
Founding members of Holy Trinity Monastery

I am writing this in advance of the fifteenth anniversary of our canonical Foundation as I doubt whether I shall be able to string two sentences together on that day because of the usual ‘chemo cosh’.

What does a Foundation Day signify? In the first place, it marks a new and definitive stage in a community’s growth. It is the Church’s official seal on, and recognition of, the community, conferring both rights and duties which are carefully spelled out in canon law and in the constitutions of the monastery itself. In the second place, I think it marks an important development in the life of the individual.

Earlier this week I touched on the individuality of the call to become a Benedictine, and I hope in a few days to be able to reflect on the communal aspect of the way in which that call is worked out. This morning, however, I want to emphasize that being formally incorporated into the Church as what canon law calls a ‘religious institute’ makes a difference to the individual as well. We follow the gospel and the Rule of St Benedict as we always have, or tried to, but our canonical status affects the form in which these are interpreted and the sanctions that may be applied if we fail. Our constitutions bind us as individuals, not just as a community, to interpret our obligations in a way that can, at times, be challenging. You have only to think of how difficult some contemplative communities of nuns are finding the new requirement that formation last for a minimum of nine years and what it must mean for the individuals it affects most directly. I could multiply examples, but that isn’t my purpose.

What I think is clear is that a Foundation Day is not merely for looking back on the past with gratitude and, where appropriate, sorrow and repentance for any failures we may be aware of; nor is it a case of rejoicing in the graces of the present or expressing hopes for the future. Of course we pray for the well-being of the resident community itself, our oblates, friends, benefactors and online community. Of course we pray for renewed fervour and zeal, for everything that will make us better Benedictines and more pleasing to God. But ultimately that commitment comes down to the individual’s readiness to make the community’s life her own; to kneel before God many times every day and reaffirm the commitment to follow the Lord wherever he leads; to be what Benedict calls a utilis frater, a reliable brother or sister (RB 7.18), who prefers nothing to the love of Christ. (RB 4. 21) Please pray for us as we do for you.

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The Worker Monk

I like the fact that we read today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, which envisages God looking for a worker among the multitude of peoples (vv 14–20), on the same day that we celebrate the feast of St Gregory the Great. Gregory was the first monk to become pope, an admirer of St Benedict (who is the subject of Book II of Gregory’s Dialogues) and responsible for sending St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. On previous occasions I have written about the enormous contribution he made to liturgy and papal administration — and the enigmatic nature of his personality, insofar as we can know it from his writings. Today I would like to emphasize just one trait. Gregory had a huge appetite for work and is widely credited with having shaped the medieval papacy. He was a worker monk, if you like, always longing for the cloister but always busy about many things. Today’s section of the Prologue could have been written just for him.

My saying that will probably surprise many. Certainly, Gregory was not always an obvious seeker after peace (cf RB Prol 17). His dealings with the Church in the East, for instance, were made more complicated by the fact that he never learned Greek, while his attempts to engage his clergy in providing charitable relief to the poor were often marked by a severity that Benedict would not have countenanced. Gregory was no Benedictine. But — and it is an important ‘but’ — Gregory had a profound sense of what it meant to be the servant of God. His energy, his zeal, and his ability were all placed at the service of God and the Church. He understood what was implied in seeking to find God, and because he himself responded fully to God’s invitation, he was able to draw others to respond, too.

St Benedict speaks of God looking for his worker (singular). It is the individual who is called to respond to the invitation God offers; it is the individual’s fidelity that will lead to his finding the way of life (cf RB Prol 20). We know that Benedict will go on to map out how this individual response is to be lived in community, but here, at the beginning, there is just one person listening and responding, one person who must take upon his/her shoulders the yoke of obedience, living by the commandments and the precepts of the gospel. In an age when numbers are often taken to be a sign of success, even in the Church, it is good to be reminded of the significance of the individual, of the difference one person can make if they truly wish to serve God.

History has recorded many of St Gregory’s achievements. Most of us will never know in this life whether we have achieved anything of importance to God or anyone else. But we trust, and we go on, knowing that what matters is that we try to be pleasing to God. The promise of finding the way of life, of finding God himself, draws us on. All we have to do is . . . work at it.

This post was scheduled for publication at 6.30 a.m. while I was on my way to Oxford. For some reason, it didn’t get published then.

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The Monastic Awakening

Yesterday we began the autumn re-reading of the Rule of St Benedict and I was struck, yet again, by popular misconceptions of monastic life as being leisurely to the point of laziness. True, much of our life is routine, and in that routine there are rarely any grand projects or huge enterprises to engage our energies (I speak of nuns here; monks, at least the ordained among them, frequently have different paths to follow). But if we read the Rule carefully and note the verbs Benedict uses, we can see at once that monastic life is meant to be anything but lazy. In the first few paragraphs we are exhorted to listen closely, faithfully fulfil instructions, labour at obedience, wield strong and glorious weapons — and pray. Today’s portion of the Prologue, vv 8 to 13, has us being roused from sleep, opening our eyes to the light, listening hard and running while we have the light of life. Tomorrow, the Lord will be seeking out his worker and giving us a programme to follow. It is all just a little exhausting, especially at four o’clock in the morning.

I jest, of course, about the four o’clock in the morning exhaustion. The truth is, anyone who signs up to monastic life is signing up to searching for God in every moment of every day, in all that we are and do. It is an urgent quest. Benedict’s contrast between the sloth in which we mainly exist and what I call the monastic awakening is stark and demanding. He knows that we will fail often, but we are never to give up. Perseverance isn’t a showy virtue but it is essential to monastic life. Our motivation is God; he is the prize, too.

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What Price Integrity?

Yesterday two events occurred that, in their different ways, have set people talking, not always kindly. In Inner Mongolia Antonio Yao Shun was ordained bishop, the first to be recognized simultaneously by both the Vatican and the Chinese State under the controversial Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of Parliament for a record five weeks, sparking fears that he intends to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny between 14 October, when the new session will begin, and 31 October. To some, what is at present a political crisis could become a constitutional crisis. On the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, it is worth reflecting how these two events say something about our understanding of integrity and what we used to refer to as realpolitik.

Let’s take the ‘easy’ one first. China broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, forcing Chinese Catholics to go underground until religious practice was tolerated again in the 1980s. By then, however, Catholics faced the choice of either continuing to worship in churches loyal to the pope but subject to state persecution or in churches forming part of the state system, with bishops and priests appointed by the state and disowning papal authority.

Over time, many accommodations were made, with the Provisional Agreement being seen by many as the logical outcome. Some, however, thought the Provisional Agreement a sell-out. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong took to Facebook in January 2018 to say that he thought the pope had betrayed Chinese Catholics. According to those who had suffered under the Communist regime, the sacrifices they had made were now regarded as being of little consequence. It was a poor reward for years of trying to be faithful and living lives of integrity. From the other side, it was the old, old story: how do we best serve the needs of the present, and does that mean that we abandon the positions held in the past, regardless of the human cost?

The prorogation of Parliament is more complicated because, at one level, it is a perfectly legal measure for which there is ample precedent. The problem is its timing, its length, the involvement of the Queen (who has to agree to the Prime Minister’s request but is already attracting hostility in some quarters for doing so) and the suspicions of many as to the government’s motivation and intention. It does not help that Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth is sometimes perceived to be a little flexible, saying one thing one day and another the next. No doubt the ‘will of the people’ will be invoked as a sacred mantra by some while others will urge that a representative democracy requires exhaustive Parliamentary scrutiny of all proposed legislation and agreements; and never the twain shall agree. The problem then is: what is the right and honourable course to follow? Where does personal or institutional integrity come into the mix? Are they one and the same, or can they be at odds with one another?

I think the life and death of St John the Baptist do shed a little light on both these questions, the Church in China and the role of Parliament in Britain.

St John was prepared to pay the price for speaking what he believed to be the truth to Herod and anyone else who would listen. Note I say what he believed to be the truth. I happen to believe that what St John said was true — that it was consistent with everything we know of Jewish and subsequently Christian ideas of God and morality — but we have to allow for the fact that the emphases he gave, and the way in which he spoke, were individual. That partly explains Herod’s fascination with him, despite St John’s condemnation of his behaviour. But it also explains why not everyone was convinced, even though they were persons of goodwill. I think we can apply that to the Vatican’s agreement with the Republic of China and the row over the suspension of Parliament.

How we ourselves view the ordination of Bishop Yao Shun or the prorogation of Parliament will vary according to our knowledge, experience, hopes for the future and our role. What I suggest we need to take on board is that opinion or preference are not necessarily the best guide to acting with integrity. This morning let us pray for Chinese Catholics and the members of the House of Commons who must actually live the integrity this post can merely talk about — and perhaps pay the price for it.

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The Myths By Which We Live

© Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The word ‘myth’ tends to have two quite different meanings in modern English: one is that of a traditional story used to illustrate or explain some phenomenon; the other is that of some fiction, widely held but ultimately untrue. As an example of the first, think of the old ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. It’s more than an adage, it contains elements of myth. In this case, that of eating fruit making for a healthy diet which means less need for physicians. It’s an uncomplicated example of something true expressed in traditional form.

Now let’s take something more ambiguous. You may have noticed how often World War II has been invoked recently, especially by those who wish to downplay the possible complications of  a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Very few of us now alive played any part in that war and yet, again and again, we hear or see ‘we managed this or that during the War so we can cope with x or y.’ Actually, we didn’t do any such thing; our parents and grandparents did, and I am far from sure they would approve our hijacking of their story for our own ends today. The myth of Britain standing alone against the dark forces of Nazism is a powerful one containing elements of both truth and exaggeration beyond the scope of this post to analyse. What I would question, however, is its appropriateness as an argument in the Brexit debate. To me, it is slightly absurd and can come perilously close to demonising others. It is what I would call an ambiguous myth with elements of fiction in it.

I know some readers will take my introductory illustrations as the subject of this post. They aren’t, but I hope they will help with understanding something less easily examined because most of us don’t often reflect on the stories that make up part of our inner landscape. I want to ask whether there are some religious myths that are having an equally powerful but possibly distorting influence on our lives as Christians and more particularly as Catholics. Take, for example, our idea of a kind of Golden Age Catholicism which we locate in a time other than our own (of course) and which, amazingly, seems to reflect all our own preferences and prejudices. Thus, we have scraps over the liturgy, vestments, devotions, church art and architecture, music and what you will. The essential element in all these conflicts is the fact that we are right and everyone else is wrong, and we have history, or at least our favourite interpretation of it (our myth), on our side to prove it. The results can be disastrous.

The history of the Church is full of examples of misunderstandings and misapplied zeal. At the moment, for example, there is an attempt by some to make everyone receive Holy Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand. Now, there are some good reasons for that, but the way in which some people are presenting their case is so irreverent and accusatory that it undermines their position. It is, quite literally, hateful. Unfortunately, under the guise of a concern for reverence we can all become hugely irreverent. Our desire to impose our own vision on others can extend even to the most personal element in anyone’s life, their prayer. I have myself been taken to task for not praying in the way that some well-meaning folk think I should (I am not a Carmelite nor a Jesuit and find Fr Baker’s simple, old-fashioned, indeed very medieval, way of prayer much more natural to me than anything more structured). 

In monastic life the myths by which we live tend to be more subtle. Our founding fathers or mothers all had to undergo great hardships and trials at the beginning (mainly true) and encountered much opposition (not always true) but won through in the end to live in perfect peace and amity with their local bishop and powerful personages (if only!). But the myth is important and helps to shape the character of the community and define its values. It is when it ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance that we have to be careful. The community living off its past reputation for holiness or the activities in which it once engaged can prevent its current members from being fully open to what the Holy Spirit is asking of it now. For instance, we were early adopters of an internet-based hospitality in which the production of free audio books for the blind and visually-impaired was a significant element. That is not the case today. Technology moves on at an astonishing rate and religious institutes with more resources than are available to us have recognized the potential of web-based activities. We have ceased to produce audio books and are looking again at how we use the internet to reach out to people. We have no plans to give up our online ministry, but we know we must adapt to changing times and circumstances, not cling rigidly to the past. There must be no compromise about our primary aim, which is to seek God, but integrating that search with our service of others requires thought and prayer and will inevitably involve mistakes of one kind or another. The myth must be re-assessed.

I hope I have written enough to suggest a few questions. What are the myths by which you live, either as an individual or as a family — or perhaps as some other entity, e.g. a business? Do they help, or do they imprison you in a past or an attitude that is not genuinely life-giving? In other words, do your own myths encourage you to go forward into an uncertain future or do they hold you back, fearful of what may lie ahead? How does grace come into the picture? As summer comes slowly to an end, the idea of fruitfulness comes to the fore. Oughtn’t it to play a part in our own lives, too?

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Old Saints | New Times

To many people today’s feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux will not mean very much. He is just one more medieval saint whose name appears in the Universal Calendar. A short note mentioning that he was a gifted writer and preacher responsible for the spread of the Cistercian ideal and the foundation of many monasteries makes him sound as dull as ditchwater. We turn aside to someone or something we deem more ‘relevant’. If we are interested in monastic history, we may recall the story of his bringing 29 prospective postulants with him when he became a Cistercian, thus saving the order from dying, his dispute with Abelard, his political involvement and perhaps his championing of scripture studies and the simplicity in architecture and music we associate with the Cistercians. We may even remember that in the fourteenth century his name was honoured by a rabbi in Cologne as one who had defended Jews at a time when most Christians were hostile. Those who have actually read his sermons and letters will probably have a different picture of him as a man of God, one who knew what prayer was and whose love of the Lord was intensely personal. That said, he still remains a difficult saint for many people today. He is remote and it seems nothing will bring him closer. Or will it?

My own admiration for St Bernard is no secret (he appears in a number of posts in this blog, for example) and one of the things I love him for is his anger. Read his letters. Bernard knew how to handle incandescent rage but in such a way that one feels the world was better for it. It pours forth from him as cleansing fire, devouring every falsity or feigned excuse in its path. Bernard’s anger is glorious, there is no other word for it. And today, when one looks at any site on the internet or dips into social media of any kind, one can see how different his anger is from the childish petulance we so often display — the endless negative criticism, the profanity that is too lazy to find words to express its thought, the sheer vapidity of our ‘debate’. I would therefore argue that St Bernard is very much a saint for our times, very relevant to today: the angry man who was not angry, the saint who was not a cypher. Would it be too much to hope that seeking to learn from him how to handle our own anger we might be led upon that most monastic of paths, the one that desires to be empty of anger and all negative passions that we may become full of God? One of Bernard’s best-known treatises is his meditation on the degrees of humility in the Rule of St Benedict which, characteristically, he turns round as a treatise on pride. Paradox lies at the heart of Christianity. Life comes out of death. New wisdom is drawn from old wells, and St Bernard’s is very deep indeed.

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In Praise of Trustees 2019

Since regaining my sight, I’ve spent much of my time preparing for our annual audit and a trustees’ meeting. Yet again I have been reminded how much charities and non-profits owe to the skill and generosity of those who act as trustees, and how difficult it can be to find the right people. We have been blessed to have trustees who bring to their task not only expertise but a largeness of spirit that sits well with the ideals of the community. They support and challenge in equal measure, never interfering with the religious side of our lives but ensuring that we live up to our commitment to service. Behind the arithmetic of the Profit and Loss statement or the annual Balance Sheet lie not only the prayer and activity of the nuns, our oblates and associates, and the wonderful support we receive from our donors, but also the forethought and wise counsel of our trustees. This morning, publicly, we say ‘thank you’.

Email Subscriptions
For the last few days our automated system for alerting subscribers to new blog posts has gone berserk. We have taken the matter up with the subscription service we use and in the meantime apologize for the fact that emails for some posts have been duplicated while others have not been sent at all.

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On Parading One’s Knowledge

It is a difficult line to tread, between sharing one’s enthusiasm and parading one’s knowledge. A few months ago I was taken to task for expressing delight in some of the work being done by South American type designers. I made no comment on the suitability of the typefaces for any particular use but found myself drawn into an increasingly grumpy exchange on Twitter where my interlocutor was concerned principally with the accessibility of typefaces, especially online, if I remember correctly. At the end of the exchange, I felt as though I had been lectured well and truly and the person I’d been conversing with declared himself angry and went off for a walk to cool down. It was an example of the way in which sharing an enthusiasm can go horribly wrong if one does not take into account the possibility of its being misunderstood. I regret the misunderstanding and would love to put it right, but once one has got at cross purposes it can be very hard to put things straight. One just has to trust to God that He will deal with it and try to avoid making the same mistake in future. I have not made any comment on typefaces or printing since because I don’t want to upset people.

A similar thing can happen on other Social Media. One makes a small point or comment and someone decides to demonstrate that they know much more than one does oneself, or they expand one’s original comment as though one were completely unaware of any other aspect of the case or had intentionally left something out. My usual response is either to say ‘thank you’ or, if I have some doubts about what is said, to ignore the remark. Unfortunately, I do not always follow my own advice, and I am sure I have caused hurt and misunderstanding at times both by my own comments and by my response to other people’s comments. What can one do in such a situation?

I think there are only two possible responses: a simple ‘sorry’, without, please note, going over the rights and wrongs of the case again. That rarely leads to better understanding. ‘Falling out of faithful friends/Renewing is of love’ perhaps, but one has to be good friends to start with. In any case, I am not suggesting that one should avoid expressing one’s opinions or sharing one’s enthusiasms. I think it is the way we do so that needs a little thought. The second response is more humbling but ultimately a way of gaining deeper insight: to ask oneself why one made the comment in the first place. Was one really sharing an enthusiasm or bolstering one’s own ego by parading one’s knowledge? My own conscience is far from clear on that question. How about you?

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Neither Bang Nor Whimper: the Death of St Maximilian Kolbe

The earth did not move from its foundations when St Maximilian Kolbe died. Everyone else in the bunker had already died, so it only remained for the guards to inject him with carbolic acid, wait for him to die, then remove his body and burn it. End of story. Just one more death at Auschwitz, one more inconvenient opponent of the Nazi regime disposed of. With time, one might expect all the singularities of this man to be forgotten along with the manner of his death; but it proved not to be so. Today we recall his devotion to Our Lady, his championing of the latest and best technology in promoting his religious ideals, and, above all, his volunteering to die in the place of a stranger. In other words, that apparently hidden death is not forgotten, is not meaningless.

Many people struggle with the idea of death, with the sense of loss, especially if the death is of someone young or someone we love. Glib words about uniting our own death with the death of Jesus on the Cross tend to remain just that — glib words — unless or until we are given grace to see the love that lies behind the loss. In the case of St Maximilian, we tend to focus on his extraordinary power of love and self-sacrifice, but perhaps we should look at the love that drew him, the love of the Lord for him that enabled him to do what he did. His death was not an act of bravado, at its deepest level perhaps not even a response to God as we commonly understand that term, but acceptance of God’s invitation to be fashioned into an icon of his beloved Son. The initiative remains God’s always, and neither bang nor whimper quite fit; nor can death, with its promise of being united eternally with One who has loved us from the beginning, ever be meaningless. 

Thank You
Thank you for your prayers and good wishes. I am getting over the latest chemotherapy and can now see with both eyes, though it will take a few days longer for them to co-ordinate properly.

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Ethical Questions

One of the disadvantages of being a nun is that many people think there are a number of questions on which one should not express any opinion. It is acceptable to be against injustice, poverty, war and disease, of course — and to say so quite vigorously to anyone who will listen. Among Catholics it is acceptable to be pro-life, though not all would agree that to be pro-life means being against the death penalty or having reservations about the use of military force in certain situations. But to have opinions about politics or economics or the ethics and purposes of business or science, that is a much more questionable proposition. Why should that be so? I agree, for example, that it would be wrong for me to engage in party politics, but does my being a nun mean I should forget everything I ever learned about the world beyond the cloister or forfeit any right to have an opinion because I’m no longer actively involved in business and am definitely not a scientist? I certainly can’t say I’m no longer involved in politics. I have a vote, and I use it. Similarly, the monastery needs goods and services to function, and that involves us in making decisions about the use of resources and the ethics of the decisions we make. And as readers will know, I take a close interest in some scientific questions because they have a direct bearing on my own health.

How far is a politician’s personal morality to be taken into account when assessing his/her fitness for office? Does it matter if a politician lies or makes promises that cannot be fulfilled? If I say, for example, that I find both Mr Trump’s and Mr Johnson’s relationship to the truth somewhat curious, am I overstepping a limit or simply voicing what many others think? Either way, I am expressing an opinion. I ought not to do so lightly or without taking into account the possible consequences, knowing that it would be wrong to harm someone’s reputation. If I argue that making money is not the sole objective of business, am I saying anything very extraordinary? I don’t think so, because I believe that ethical questions are not abstract but affect us all very deeply. In the same way, scientific advances often run ahead of our ability to think about them critically. It is easy to tie ourselves up in knots, especially if we know that we have an imperfect grasp of facts or that the conclusions we come to may be unwelcome.

Take, for example, my question about the ethics and purposes of business. Most people would say that it is wrong to mislead or make false claims while recognizing that a whole industry (advertising) has been built up on the premiss that one can enhance the value of a product by presenting it to the public in the most flattering light. Unfortunately, that may mean ‘massaging the truth’, which is where it becomes a little more complicated. What about a business’s end purpose? Isn’t that to make money for its owners, the shareholders, and those who participate in its activities, the workers? Yes and no. If that were the sole purpose of business, it surely would not matter what a business did. Oughtn’t business in some way to contribute to the common good, and the way in which it does so ought to be consistent with that good? Given the number of companies scrambling to ensure that they have a greener footprint than they did ten years ago, that seems to be a message that has got through. But who decides these things or enables businesses to make ethical decisions?

With that question, I think we come to the heart of the matter. Ethics committees are only as effective as the people who constitute them. In recent years we have encountered a number of difficult cases in the world of science, where individuals have undertaken experiments because they could, not because there was an ethical argument for doing so. Many of us haven’t even begun to think about the kind of questions that the advance of A.I. will pose, but we can’t close our eyes to the fact that we do need to think about them. Whether we are Aristotelians, Kantians, Utilitarians or whatever, both as individuals and as a society, we need to consider how our personal values affect our existence, how we arrive at ethical decisions and the part those decisions play in both our present and future. I don’t think anyone should be excluded from that process — not even annoying nuns like me.

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