Organized Selfishness?

One of the most damning things that can be said about any organisation or institution is that it has become self-serving. Benedictine communities, in particular, are always at risk of descending into organized selfishness. It is not that we give way to really big sins (though some, alas, have), but we can become tolerant of those we consider small — and many communities have the resources, in terms of buildings and opportunities, to acquiesce in them. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad, but we may become mediocre. The Office, as Dom David Knowles once remarked, can be kept up with every appearance of care and attention long after the heart has gone out of a community, but the signs of selfishness multiply. Our comfort becomes important. Little indulgences in the matter of food or drink or holidays are not questioned or are brushed aside as trivial. Once, when I was attending a monastic bursars’ meeting, the men discussed the level of holiday money each monk should be given. Against the names of the nuns’ communities were the initials n/a, not applicable. When I said it should stand for ‘not available’, I was laughed at; but my point was serious. Women are just as likely as men to become tired or need a break from regular duties at times, but to assume that every monk needs at least one holiday a year and nuns never is plainly stupid. The Rule exhorts us to consider need and acknowledges that needs differ.

I don’t think, however, that Benedictines should take all the blame for appearing at times insensitive to others. Many communities, especially of women, are financially hard-pressed. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. But outsiders can be very demanding or unrealistic in their demands. Whenever someone decides to tell us what to wear, for example, I tend to adopt my ‘blotting-paper expression.’ We do, in fact, wear a traditional habit, happily and contentedly, but it is far from being of the essence. Benedict’s only concern about monastic clothing is that it should be suitable for the climate, available in the locality and fit the wearer (RB 55). Those most anxious to fulfil their own fantasies about monastic life are usually the last to consider the cost, difficulty or even the safety of maintaining a particular form of habit. It is the same with the activities in which we engage in order to keep our communities going and to serve the wider community. One of my Facebook followers regularly reminds me of the disapproval of some people of our online engagement. I don’t rise to the bait because I can see that many of those who have been loudest in their criticism are now rushing to take advantage of live-streaming, social media and the opportunities offered by the latest technologies. I rejoice in that because it is a way of reaching out to those who would never knock on the monastery door.

I think we can sometimes forget that we do not become monks and nuns for ourselves alone. We have a role in both Church and society that we must fulfil, faithfully, generously, unselfishly. We pray unremittingly, yes; but we know our prayer won’t always be as whole-hearted as it should. We are hospitable, of course; but there are limits to our hospitality and what we can manage, and we should not feel guilty when others say to us ‘you should’ which is actually shorthand for ‘it is my opinion that’. Our community lives won’t always be sweetness and light, but we can try to be kind and honest and accepting. Above all, we can do our best to be open to grace, to the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit (RB 7. 6-70). We can show that we love the young, reverence the old, care for the earth and everything in it as though it were a sacred altar vessel, bow down before Christ in the stranger and in one another, do what is better for the other and, hopefully, ‘at length, under God’s protection, attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue’ (RB 73.9).

I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.

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Vocations Sunday 2020

The fourth Sunday of Easter, often called Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when the whole Church prays for vocations. Most often, vocations to the priesthood are meant, although in recent years vocations to consecrated (or religious) life have been included. You might think that this would be a safe topic to tackle in a blog post, but I can assure you, it isn’t always.

In the past, for example, I’ve been scolded for saying that I thought everyone was a vocation, inasmuch as we are all called into being by God and are unique and precious in his eyes. The particular way in which we live out that primary vocation — whether as a single person, married, ordained, a religious — is, I would argue, secondary and may change over time, according to our circumstances or the decision of the Church. What doesn’t change is God’s love for us and our need to respond to his love, whether we be lay, ordained or consecrated. 

Very softly, therefore, may I say that whoever you are who may be reading or listening to these words, you are loved by God and called to be part of his Church, and that is a wonderful vocation. It is, in fact, the most important vocation of all, because it makes you part of the Body of Christ — and we can never be more than that!

I can’t say anything about priesthood except that I pray daily for our priests and those training for the priesthood. You are a great gift to the rest of us. The way in which you live your vocation is humbling and inspiring, and the sacrifices you make are an indication of the generosity with which you serve. May you be blessed and encouraged, and may others join you!

Now I suppose I should say something about monastic life for women, but what? Recent church legislation has made it more difficult because one ends up trying to explain what one does not fully understand oneself. 

What I can say, and say with full conviction, is that being a Benedictine is the joy of my life and if you are trying to discern whether God is calling you to this particular form of service in his Church, then I think what Benedict says in chapter 58 of his Rule is clear, simple and helpful.

Our vocation is always to a specific community. We become Benedictines at X or Y and take on the colour and cast of the community we aspire to join. So, get to know the community. Read their web site (many would-be members of our own community omit this step), see if their way of living the Rule is one with which, over time, you think you could identify. Read the Rule — it will only take you an hour, if that. Ask questions. be prepared to learn. Above all, give the process time. Benedict tells the community not to give anyone an easy entrance but to test the spirits to see whether they come from God. That doesn’t mean putting obstacles in anyone’s way but rather taking seriously the need to discern along with the candidate for admission whether this is the right place for them. Can they grow in this way of life? Have they sufficient health? Are they ready to learn or do they already know all the answers? You get my gist.

What form monastic life for women will take in the future is matter for speculation, but I am certain it will never die out because God will always continue to call people to seek him through prayer, obedience and renunciation of the joys of marriage and children. What I might call the accidentals of monastic life — the clothes we wear, the language in which we pray the liturgy, the work we do — though far from negligible may change. What doesn’t change is our commitment to God and his commitment to us.

Perseverance isn’t a showy quality, but it is a necessary one. We are only gradually fashioned into what God desires to make of us, and at times it can be a messy and painful business. Many a novice has comforted herself with the thought that everything would be all right if it weren’t for the superior and the community, but they are precisely what we need, not just as novices but throughout our lives. We go to God together. Those we find annoying at twenty-five may still be annoying us, and being annoyed by us, at eighty-five. The difference is that we may have begun to see in them what God sees: the image of his Son. Because that is the point of monastic life: being transformed into Christ. Or, as St Benedict says at the end of his chapter on humility, ‘we shall come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear and begin to observe without struggle . . . all those precepts we did not previously observe without fear . . . for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB 7.68, 69)

Audio version

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Something for Vocations Sunday 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016
The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

I wonder how many people today will hear a homily that speaks of the wonder and joy of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated (old-time, religious) life? How many will hear one that speaks of the importance of marriage or family life, of the beautiful but often difficult vocation of those called to be single, or indeed anything beyond a dutiful bidding prayer that somehow mixes up sheep, shepherds and labourers in vineyards? I ask because I am convinced of the supreme value of knowing, loving and serving God and would like everyone to find joy in the things of the Spirit and in the fulfilment of their unique call from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a good day for reflecting on our own own vocation and, in addition to praying for others, thinking and praying about how we ourselves have responded to God’s call in the past, and how we should respond in the future. Have we helped or hindered others in following Christ? Is there something more that the Lord asks of us? Are we ready to listen, or do we want to turn a deaf ear?

I myself am a Benedictine, and a very happy Benedictine at that, yet part of me wishes I had been graced with the vocation  of a Carthusian or hermit so I could live ‘alone with the Alone’. I say that without any rose-tinted misconceptions about the demands of the eremitical life. I only just scrape by as a coenobite and would never manage as a hermit. But God is, and I pray always will be, the most important person in my life — which is why I am a nun, why I am enthusiastic about monastic life in general and the life of this community in particular, and why I want to share its blessings with as many people as possible.

Sometimes a visual image can help, so the photo at the beginning of this post shows the altar-end of our oratory while the one below shows the choir-end. Our oratory is a plain and workman-like space, as monastic life itself is plain and workman-like. There is careful attention to detail, but nothing fussy or superfluous. It is the most important part of the monastery, and I think it is eloquent of how we understand Benedictine life and try to live it. If it is a terible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, it is also, as the saints assure us, the most delightful. May God draw many to experience his love and mercy, to savour the sweetness of the Lord and be his true disciples.

The choir-end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory
The choir end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

I give below links to a few previous posts on vocation which, together with the information on our main website, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk (www.benedictinenuns.net for small-screen devices) and our Facebook page, may prove helpful. I hope so.

Some Posts about Vocation

Praying for Vocations

Vocation and Reality

Further Thoughts on Vocation

A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Vocations Sunday

A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

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The Point of Being Pointless

Occasionally, I am asked questions that I spend my whole life trying to answer. For example, someone recently emailed asking me to explain the monastic vision and how it differs from any other kind of vision. I still haven’t replied, because this blog and what we say on our main website are probably the best answer I can give; but the fact that something is hard or would take a lifetime to articulate fully is no excuse for not trying to say something. Tomorrow, Candlemas or, more formally, the Presentation of the Lord, is the high-point of the Year of Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer; so here is an attempt, brief and of necessity incomplete, to try to express one nun’s understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine engaged in the monastic search for God.

My starting-point is the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict, the one illumining the other. We are engaged on a journey back to God from whom we have strayed. For most people the path marked out will be the ordinary one of marriage/partnership and family life, or the less usual one of singleness. For the monk or nun, however, there is an essential solitariness (cf monos) that goes beyond being single. The only way I can begin to describe it is as an emptiness only God can fill: a stripping away of self-will, of ownership of anything or anyone, a complete and utter dispossession. From most people’s point of view, that is nonsense: it is natural to surround ourselves with people and things, to make a home in the world. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing wrong with that and much that is right, provided we don’t become obsessive about acquiring more and more. But the monk or nun isn’t called to make a home in the world, nor are we called to live lives that make sense in a way others understand. We are simultaneously on the edge of society, like John the Baptist, and at its heart, like Thérèse of Lisieux. What we do (or don’t do), how we spend our time, the great cycle of public and private prayer that determines the shape of our days is, from a worldly perspective, entirely pointless. We may incidentally become great scholars, artists, educators, champagne-makers or what-have-you, but that is not what we are aiming at; it is not the point of our lives.

For a monk or nun there is only one aim: to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Many people are able to achieve that through a normal family life; we can’t, and it is because we can’t that we are drawn to monastic life. From the outside, there is much that seems contradictory. We talk about being possessionless, yet monasteries tend to acquire property over time, some of it very expensive property; we stress obedience, yet there are those whose concept of obedience is, shall we say, at best elastic; we are very conscious of failure, both individual and corporate. From the inside, the contradictions are fewer. It is possible to live lives of real austerity in the midst of plenty; to go on, day after day, cheerfully fulfilling tasks for which we feel no attraction; to fall and get up again. Little by little, that constant exposure to scripture and prayer, that daily experience of imperfect human nature under an imperfect superior in an imperfect community, does its work. In old monks and nuns one often sees a beauty and a holiness that, for me at least, convince me it is all worthwhile. The point of being pointless, so to say, can never be expressed in utilitarian terms because, in the end, it is all about love — love given and received, love made visible in Jesus Christ.

On Candlemas Day, please pray for all who are trying to live religious life as well as we can.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail