Hens and Their Role in My Vocation

Yesterday I mentioned that my novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper. A small Twitter-storm followed, with people eager to know how hens could have such an impact. To understand, you would have to be a Benedictine novice yourself — preferably one who doesn’t like the cold or feathers — sent to dig trenches in the snow so the wretched darlings could continue to cross the orchard in their accustomed way. But, as the wiser among you will have realised, I am not really concerned with hens (sorry, poultry-lovers), but something rather more challenging: the difference between accepting and embracing vocation.

I use the word ‘vocation’ here to mean anything asked of us by the circumstances of our life. In a monastic context, it has a more precise meaning: that which constitutes our fundamental response to God as expressed through a life lived in common under a Rule and superior. But I think anyone will understand that the demands of being a parent, for example, constitute a vocation. We also have a tendency to see certain types of employment as being a vocation — e.g. teaching, nursing, medicine — which is hard on those whose work attracts less positive accolades — e.g. bankers, lawyers and sewage farm workers. We may have greater difficulty seeing illness or exile or other negative experiences as also being part of our vocation; and that’s where the difference between accepting and embracing really tells.

It can be very hard to accept that which is contrary to everything we hoped or longed for — widowhood, for example, or the death of a child. Everything within us rebels at the loss. Over time we may come to an acceptance that is part willed, part the effect of other experiences masking, at least for a while, the rawness we feel. To move from accepting to embracing the loss, to see it as God sees it, is the work of grace; and we do not all receive grace in the same measure or at the same time. It is, however, something we aim at, or should aim at. As Julian of Norwich remarked, ‘Love was his meaning;’ and until we have grasped that, we have not really understood anything at all.

To return to my hens. The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there.

So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Deep Sense of Shame

The sex abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have appalled everyone. As a woman, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could think of abusing a child or young person. I’m sure most men feel the same way. In vain do some argue (what is actually true) that Catholic clergy are statistically less likely to be abusers than married men. The stories of abuse, the cover-ups, the ineptitude of many ‘official’ responses have left us all reeling. As a Benedictine, I feel a deep sense of shame that Benedictine monks have been among the offenders. I’ve known some of them, and it is painful to record that I’ve heard them preach, received the sacraments at their hands, even been lectured on how I ought to live while they themselves were breaking their vow of chastity and injuring those entrusted to their care. How does one deal with one’s feelings of disgust and betrayal?

One way would be to say, I will have nothing more to do with any of them. They are all hypocrites and liars and have profaned the holy of holies. A little bit of me does want to do that, if I’m honest. A bigger bit of me wants to say, perhaps even this can be a source of purification for the Church. Perhaps there will be less arrogance among the clergy. An even bigger bit of me wants to lament the evil that has been done and pray for all who suffer as a result, especially those who are losing many of the services the Church has traditionally provided because of the discrediting of the institution along with some of its members — the compensation payments to those who have been abused do not come out of thin air. Most of all, however, I want the Church, and the Monastic Order in particular, to ask itself how this could have come about. A scandal is literally something that causes us to stumble, that deflects us from the right way. Some people have accused us as nuns as being in some way in ‘collusion’ with the monks. That is nonsense, but I think it highlights the fact that a deep sense of shame is not enough. The past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed and everyone of us has a part to play in that.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Love of Truth

The Dominican motto, ‘Veritas’, has always attracted me. If I weren’t a Benedictine, I would want to be a Dominican and I suspect many others would, too. St Dominic, whose feast we keep today, was influenced by the Benedictines, and I think the whole Church has been influenced by St Dominic and his sons and daughters. With the benefit of hindsight, we may not always agree with the way in which truth was sought or what was done to preserve its conclusions, but with the ideal itself we cannot quibble. Truth matters.

Love of truth in all its forms must surely lead to love of Truth himself. That is why there is no human endeavour that is not capable of leading us to God. It is also why integrity matters so much. We cannot be truthful in speech and untruthful in deed. Careless or substandard work is as much a distortion of truth as telling a lie.

Sometimes we become downcast when we realise that we can do very little for God or other people. Love can seem a bit of an abstraction, particularly if we are confined to the circle of self because of age, poverty or serious illness. But whatever our circumstances, we can live truthfully. We can reflect the truth and beauty of God just by being. That is not little. That is true greatness.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail