St Jude and Lost Causes

St Jude is one of those saints Catholicism ‘does’ rather well. Although his identity is matter for conjecture (not his existence, his identity— see here, for example), he has been adopted as the patron saint of hopeless or lost causes. There is an old prayer which runs

O most holy apostle, Saint Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the Church honours and invokes you universally, as the patron of hopeless causes, and of things almost despaired of. Pray for me, who am so miserable. Make use, I implore you, of that particular privilege accorded to you, to bring visible and speedy help where help was almost despaired of. Come to my assistance in this great need, that I may receive the consolation and succour of heaven in all my necessities, tribulations, and sufferings, particularly (here make your request) and that I may praise God with you and all the elect throughout eternity. I promise you, O blessed Jude, to be ever mindful of this great favour, always to honour you as my special and powerful patron, and gratefully to encourage devotion to you. Amen.

That prayer expresses the comfortable familiarity Catholicism has with her saints; her honouring them first and foremost as servants and friends of Christ; her confidence that they will interest themselves in our affairs; and her conviction that nothing is too unimportant or ‘hopeless’ to be brought before God. St Benedict was well aware that impossible things can sometimes be asked of us (he devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to the subject), but devotion to St Jude takes that awareness one step further. In asking the prayers of St Jude, we acknowledge not only our creatureliness, but also our tendency to lose hope, to despair. St Benedict may exhort us, as the last and greatest of the tools of good works, never to despair of God’s mercy (RB 4.74), but St Jude is there for when we tremble on the brink of doing so. He is a good saint to have in our armoury of prayer.


World Youth Day Statistics

It has been refreshing to see WYD being noticed by the media, but I am fascinated by the widely differing estimates of the numbers participating, from one million to three million. Add in those joining in from afar and I suppose the statistics become even more wobbly. Why do we want to know the numbers anyway? We are, of course, impressed by numbers, for good or ill. I have mentioned before that when we were seeking help in obtaining permanent accommodation for the community we were constantly being told we were ‘too small’ for help to be given, even though we needed the accommodation in order to grow. I suppose something similar is at work in Rio: numbers are bumped up or downplayed according to the individual’s ideas about Catholicism, and their hopes or fears for its future.

A lot of people are very keen to tell everyone about the huge numbers of Catholics lost to the Church in recent years (which is undeniable), the failure of the Church to capture the imagination of young people (which is more arguable), and the general awfulness of Catholicism in general (which is nonsense); so when we see large crowds of young people gathering in Rio to celebrate their faith, it undermines the assurance of those who want to proclaim the death of organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular. I wouldn’t mind betting that the lower estimates come from those who are not exactly friendly to religion, and the higher ones from those who are Catholic themselves. Personally, I don’t think the numbers matter one bit. What really matters is that we pray in union with Pope Francis and all the others gathered in Rio. Faith cannot be measured in numbers but its effects can be seen everywhere we look.

Digitalnun Interview
Digitalnun has been on the radio again, this time it was for the CBC Sunday Edition being broadcast today. There is a link for online listening here. It lasts about 23 minutes. (With apologies for the media hype.)


Bleak Prospects for Christian Unity?

There are times when unity seems almost within our grasp; at others it appears an impossible dream. In my own lifetime I have seen popes and patriarchs embrace, Catholics and Protestants work and worship together — and the opposite. More and more I am convinced that unity is not optional, that it is willed by our Saviour, but the principal obstacle lies in our understanding of the word ‘Church’. A patchy and inadequate grasp of theology, allied to a patchy and inadequate knowledge of history, is a piquant mix, particularly if there is little real charity to connect the two.

Another problem, surely, is that we all think about unity in different ways and have different goals in view. For example, as a Catholic, I look more to reunion with the Orthodox East than with Anglicanism or western Protestantism, because our schism is older and, to me, both more shameful and simultaneously easier yet more difficult to overcome. (I trust my Anglican and Protestant friends won’t misunderstand the point I am making and huffily conclude I don’t love them any more/value them less.) Here in Britain, the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and developments within the Anglican Church have led to further complications in the ecumenical story.

So, where are we, on this snowy Sunday of the Christian Unity Octave, 2013? I think we are being powerfully reminded that unity is a gift willed and given by God, but always in his way and on his terms. Unity will only be attained if we work and pray for it, and I believe prayer to be the most important part of that. To be truly open to the Holy Spirit, to be truly learned in scripture and theology, to be truly charitable is not something we can do by our own efforts. We have a way of distorting all these good things for our own ends and our own idea of what should be. We have to let go of all that and let God set the agenda. Ultimately, it is a question of trust and believing in Him. Are we willing to take the risk?

Note: the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18 January to 25 January, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul.


The Problem of Yoga

News that Fr John Chandler has banned yoga classes in his church hall has made the national headlines. On the one hand, we have Fr Chandler saying he banned the classes and refunded the booking fee when he learned that they were being billed as ‘spiritual yoga’ :

Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise. Being a Catholic church we have to promote the gospel, and that’s what we use our premises for.

We did say that yoga could not take place. It’s the fact that it’s a different religious practice going on in a Catholic church. It’s not compatible. We are not saying that yoga is bad or wrong.

On the other, we have Corrie Withell, who was intending to give the classes, saying

As a nation we have an obesity epidemic. I was trying to bring some exercise to the community and coming across blocks like this is frustrating.

In other words, we have the classic situation of two people addressing the same question from two completely different perspectives. Fr Chandler is arguing that yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice, and because Catholic premises are not supposed to be used for the practice of non-Christian religions, he has banned the classes from taking place. (Each priest is at liberty to decide for himself what he thinks appropriate, there is no national/international policy.) Ms Withell, by contrast, sees yoga as as a helpful exercise programme, not a religious activity at all. In this she has been supported by Ravindra Parmar, President of the Vedic Society Hindu Temple of Southampton. However, meditation is said by many to be an integral part of yoga, and that is where I suspect the heart of the problem lies.

Anyone who has been involved with the Dialogue InterMonastique (D.I.M.) knows that there is a lot of common ground between Christian, Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation, but there are also some  important differences. Christianity is monotheistic, with belief in a God who is Person. Most Christians are rather hazy about the beliefs and teachings of other religions (and, quite often, about their own). One would hope that Fr Chandler is better informed than most, if only because the area where he serves is ethnically and culturally diverse. Whatever Ms Withell’s personal beliefs may or may not be, she may have misjudged the uneasiness felt by the priest with her use of the term ‘spiritual yoga’. Many people want to be spiritual without being religious and do not realise the dilemma they pose the religious!

Perhaps the most useful lesson we can learn from this particular dispute is the need to inform ourselves about the beliefs and practices of others, rather than simply assuming that we know. I am certainly not taking sides. Fr Chandler has highlighted for me the problem of how to be Catholic in a plural society, and Ms Withell has made me think again about how much religious knowledge we can take for granted.


May is Mary’s Month

Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a mark of both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, so much so that those innocent of Church history sometimes express surprise that St Benedict never mentions Mary in the Rule, unless we are to understand that she is included among ‘the saints’ to whom he refers in general terms. Indeed, judging by today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 73, he is keener for the monk to take Scripture and the Fathers as models than Mary or any other saint or martyr.

It would be wrong, however, to deduce from this that Benedictines are indifferent to Mary or have no devotion to her. On the contrary, it is because Mary is so close to us, Our Lady as we call her in England, that we do not make much of a razzmatazz about her. We ask her prayers, and are confident that she prays for us as she prays for the whole Church, with a tender sympathy and interest. May is a month peculiarly dedicated to her honour: one in which we rejoice in her as Mother of God who leads us closer to her beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

Some years ago we produced a little booklet of poems as a kind of monastic jeu d’esprit, a May Day gift for Mary. We hope you will enjoy it.

If you like Ladyflower, have a look of some of our other digital books on our main web site,


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.


Keeping Faith

There has been a lot of comment on the Pope’s Memo regarding the Year of Faith (2012). Some of it has reminded me how grateful I am that this blog has never, as far as I know, become a battleground for conservatives and liberals, never ‘Catholic’ in the narrowly partisan sense, but has always been enriched by contributions from many differing Christian and non-Christian traditions. Yet I trust that no one reading it would have the slightest doubt that I write as a Catholic, from a Catholic perspective born of study of scripture and the Fathers and that immersion in prayer which is at the heart of monastic life. Some, I know, would prefer to see a more overtly theological stance or more explicit discussion of liturgy, but I think I can safely leave that to others. I am more concerned with the foothills of Christian living, and for that reason I am looking forward to what the coming year will bring.

The Year of Faith promises much, but if there is one aspect I would want to emphasize, it is this. All theological disciplines, every attempt to articulate or express faith, should begin, and end, in prayer. Only prayer can keep us centred on Christ and in charity with one another, because only prayer can enable us to face the truth of God and of ourselves. No one, having seen him- or herself for what he or she truly is, could ever despise or disparage another. The Year of Faith is not an opportunity for neighbour-bashing in the name of religion but for learning how much further we each have to go to realise our vocation of holiness. Keeping faith will also keep us humble.