On Re-Reading the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict

Today we begin the second reading of the Rule of St Benedict that occurs during the course of the year. I like the fact that it co-incides with the feast of St Athanasius, about whom I have written extensively in the past (see here or here, for example), because it was his Life of Antony that was to prove so powerful in drawing people to the monastic way of life, and his treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God that  can be said to inform much of Benedict’s sense of our journeying back to the Father by way of Christ.

One thing that becomes clearer as each year passes is how beautifully Christocentric the Rule is. Today’s passage of the Prologue focuses on the ‘true King, Christ our Lord’ for whom we must fight with ‘the strong and glorious weapons of obedience’. Many people see obedience as a kind of weakness. We all want to be leaders. The idea of listening to another, acting on another’s instructions, is just a teeny bit . . . limp. So, we pick and choose. We will obey in this, but not in that. The vow of obedience may oblige us to obey in all that is not sin, but that still leaves quite a lot of scope for  half-hearted or nominal obedience. (‘O tepidity, I do abhor thee! ‘— Fr Baker) The idea of fighting for Christ with our obedience is an alien notion, because to fight means to risk being wounded, defeated even, and who wants that?

St Antony had to fight the demons who assailed him, and Athanasius leaves us in no doubt what a struggle he had. We have to fight our own demons, and they can be anything from greed to laziness. St Benedict talks of our stripping ourselves of the self-will which encumbers us, weighs us down, holds us back. It can be painful; it makes us vulnerable in ways we never dreamed possible; but it is necessary because it makes us free — free to fight, free to follow. The bright hope of following Christ to glory is held out to us at the very beginning of our monastic life. The tragedy is, we can turn back on the way without necessarily abandoning the cloister. We can refuse to listen, refuse to obey.

Let us pray today for all monks, nuns, oblates and others who find inspiration in the Rule of St Benedict, that the hard labour of obedience may bring us back to the Father, no matter how many siren voices may tempt us astray.

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Constant Failures

How is Lent going? Are you still full of enthusiasm, or are you ruefully beginning to count how many good intentions have fallen by the wayside? Has there been a little fudging on the fasting front, perhaps, or sudden blindness/deafness when confronted by someone in need? And all that extra prayer you promised yourself, where did that go?

Note I said, ‘promised yourself’. The trouble with Lenten resolutions is that very often they are about us. It is an old joke in the monastery that the Lent Bill written by God bears no relation to the one we ourselves write. We were going to do great things for God but, strangely, we find we can’t do the little ones he actually asks. Being patient with X or curbing the withering reply, no, that’s too much to ask. We are tired and hungry and our temper is uncertain. Let’s get on with the Bigger Programme we set ourselves and leave these trifling details to others. Well, NO.

I freely admit that my Lent has, so far, been a constant failure. Everything I set myself to do and be has collapsed around my ankles. I’m not proud of that, I’m certainly not happy about that; but I think it may be the lesson I need to learn — yet again. I am constantly failing, but the emphasis should be on the constant not the failure. What God asks of us is that we try, and go on trying no matter how often we fail. Today’s gospel, Matthew 7. 7–12, is one I find very challenging. To treat others as one would be treated oneself, yes, I can see how that would be not merely a Lenten programme in itself but, as Jesus says, ‘the meaning of the Law and the Prophets’. Pray for me as I do for you, that together we may arrive at the great feast of Easter, still failures in the ordinary sense of the word, no doubt, but definitely constant, standing firm on the rock that is Christ.

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The Church’s Powerful Women

What does that phrase convey to you? Whom do you think of as the Church’s powerful women? My guess is that the majority of Catholics would be hard put to name any living woman as such. A little scratching of the head might produce a few names from the past: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, say, or Teresa of Avila. The idea of women exercising power in the Church is alien to most, and the names we remember tend to come from a comparatively small group of people who did comparatively similar things, e.g. found an order/congregation/institute of charity or write. The more historically-minded could provide a list of Late Antique empresses and medieval queens who exerted a lot of influence in the Church, not all of it good, but that mythical beast, the (wo)man in the pew, would probably end up with very few names. Among them would almost certainly be that of today’s saint, Hild or Hilda of Whitby, but I wonder whether it would be the Hilda of history or the Hilda of modern myth who would be celebrated?

A close reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us several interesting facts about Hilda and suggests many more. She may once have been married. ‘Everyone called her mother,’ says Bede, a phrase he uses of no other nun. She was certainly of mature age (33) when she abandoned her plan to go to Chelles, the leading monastery for women of the day, and answered Aidan’s call to establish a monastery in Northumbria. The monasteries she founded all followed the Celtic pattern and were double houses for both men and women. Bede emphasizes her gifts as an administrator — and her sensitivity to poetry. She plucked Caedmon from the cow-byre to be a singer of psalms and sacred songs. Her role at the Synod of Whitby has been much discussed, and I think it may explain why Hilda has been mythologized in recent times.

What happened at Whitby must have been quite earth-shattering for many of the participants. Indeed, the monks of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision to embrace the Roman date for Easter and withdrew first to Iona, then later, to Ireland. For those who did accept the decision, Hilda among them, it meant the loss of much that was dear and familiar. Little by little, or in some cases overnight, the old Celtic practices gave way to the ‘new’ Roman ones. Even the shape of the monks’ tonsure changed. Perhaps only those who have lived monastic life themselves can really appreciate what these changes meant to the individuals concerned. There was continuity but also change, and it is often the little things that cost most.

Hilda undoubtedly played a key role in getting the decision accepted. Such was her reputation for wisdom and prudence that many would have looked to her for guidance. Crucially, what many overlook is that in accepting the Roman date of Easter Hilda was placing the desire for unity in Church practice above any other consideration. As a Celtic Christian, she already acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but here she was, stating that a theoretical acknowledgement had to be translated into actual practice.

People sometimes speak of Hilda as though she were a role model for female bishops. She is undoubtedly a role model for Christian leadership, but I think myself it is more helpful to see her in the monastic context, where leadership is exercised without hierarchical status. Power, in Church terms, is such an odd thing. I think we sometimes mistake the importance of the different elements in building up the Church. Administration is a gift, a charism, not to be undervalued; but it is a gift meant to lead to holiness, and holiness without compassion is an impossibility. Hilda did not set herself up over and against the existing hierarchy of the Church but used her many gifts of heart and mind to bring others to the Christ she knew and loved so well. It is no accident that, holy herself, her monastery became a nursery of saints. May she pray for us all.

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St Benedict Was Not A Liberal

St Benedict
With rather alarming frequency, someone will say to me, ‘I like St Benedict. He is so moderate.’ I like St Benedict, too, but I often wonder about the ‘moderate’ bit. Very often my enthusiast will go on to say things like, ‘He never asks too much. He is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature. He’s really quite liberal’. I agree that he is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature, but I reserve judgement about the ‘moderate’ nature of what he asks of his monks and nuns. As to his being the sixth-century equivalent of a North Oxford liberal (sorry, Oxford), there I disagree profoundly. Whatever else he was, St Benedict wasn’t a liberal. But he wasn’t a conservative, either, and to try to view him in those terms is fundamentally to misunderstand who he was and what he was about.

Let’s start with what I will readily concede. St Benedict was indeed a kind and, in sixth-century terms, very gentle man. He was concerned about the mealtimes of both the old and the young, not wanting them to suffer unduly from the monastic timetable. He knew the sick might be neglected if the authority of the Rule didn’t provide for them. He wanted everyone to be at peace and knew that, as superior, he might not be everyone’s first choice as confidante, so he provided for senpectae, old and wise brethren, whose special duty was to support the wavering. He advised the abbot to be very careful and restrained when he had to punish anyone, lest he break the vessel by rubbing too hard to remove the rust. He was also a modest man, ready to listen to the criticisms of a visiting monk and to accept a re-ordering of the way in which the psalms are said ‘if anyone has a better arrangement.’ But St Benedict was also completely and utterly given to the search for God in the monastery and there are other passages of the Rule that need thinking about.

Take, for example, the pattern of threes that we find throughout and the frequent references to the Gloria Patri. These are not to be ignored. Arianism was still a worry in sixth-century Italy, and Benedict was insisting on doctrinal orthodoxy in his community. It shows, too, in his choice of reading matter before Compline or in the texts that he advises for growth in monastic life. There is nothing wish-washy about this side of St Benedict. Nor is there anything very ‘liberal’ in his views on obedience or humility, if by liberal one means easy-going. It isn’t so much that the devil is in the detail as the real monk. Benedict never calls anyone who has fallen short of the ideal a monk; he either has no name — quisquis, anyone — or is simply frater, brother. Being a monk is, for St Benedict, a long and hard pursuit. The novice master is specifically warned to tell the novice about all the hardships through which we make our way to God. If that were not enough, Benedict spells out, time and time again, that half-measures won’t do. We must prefer nothing to the love of Christ, cultivate the good zeal of chapter 72 ‘with the most ardent love’ and press on to the end for which we look.

Today is the Solemnity of St Benedict, Patron of Europe. It is also known as the Translatio or Translation of the Relics (as distinct from the Transitus or Death, kept on 21 March, which is for us the ‘big’ feast of St Benedict). It is a good day for thinking about the way in which we ourselves live. Are we apt to make allowances for ourselves that perhaps we ought not to make, mistaking the infinite love and mercy of God for the kind of permissiveness I’ve been writing about? God forgives, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily approves. St Benedict has a lot to say about living virtuously that is applicable outside the monastic context. It takes less than an hour to read through the Rule. It would be a good way to celebrate his feast, and to pray for Europe.

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Righteousness and Self-Righteousness

There is nothing worse than the self-made man or woman who worships his or her creator. (Think about it.) Not far behind come those who mistake self-righteousness for the real thing: the righteousness given by God. The self-righteous (and we can all be self-righteous at times) are cruelly self-deceived — deaf, blind and inclined to be hard on others. They make magnificent assumptions about themselves and others. The fact that I was born into this particular family, went to that school or am a member of such and such a Church means that I am sure of success in this life and salvation in the next. I am, so to say, untouchable; and if I deign to notice you, it will be merely to compare and contrast my superior status with your inferiority. And to all that, Isaiah says the equivalent of ‘poppycock’.

The truth is, we none of us have anything that was not given, and given on trust. But for the gifts and graces we have received to bear fruit, we need a teacher. We have to learn how to be honest, kind, generous to those less fortunate. We do not necessarily know by instinct the right thing to do in any and every situation. We have to apply principles, tests, work things out for ourselves, make mistakes, start afresh, fail; and often we learn more from ‘the bread of suffering and the water of distress’ (Isaiah 30.20) than we do from being at ease and enjoying a life of plenty.

The teacher of whom Isaiah speaks we recognize in Jesus. We think of him as a great healer, a miracle-worker, compassion personified. We sometimes forget that he could be severe and challenging, too. One of my own private heresies is that on the day of judgement we shall look into the eyes of Christ and see mirrored there what he sees in us. Let us pray that, before that moment comes, we shall have learned to become like him. Then will our moonlight shine seven times brighter than the sun. (Isaiah 30.26)

Note:
Today is the feast of St Ambrose. You can read more about him here or do a search in the sidebar for previous posts about him.

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Why Are We Waiting? Advent 2013

Today is the first Sunday of Advent in the year of Our Lord 2013, and we are still waiting. What are we waiting for, and why? The Lord has come; the Lord has redeemed us on the Cross; so why do we begin again this annual cycle of reading the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah? Are we play-acting, pretending to wait for that which is already here? Of course not. We are doing two important things. First, we are entering into liturgical anamnesis — a remembrance which is more than a mere recalling of events. It would be more accurate to call it a participation in those events despite the distances of time and place that separate us from them. We are indeed awaiting our Saviour, and each of us knows that there are whole areas of our lives that need his redeeming touch. Second, we are telling the story of how we came to be, and story-telling, the narrative of our past, is an important part of our identity as Christians. It is how we make sense of the world and our part in it.

As we shall see, Advent divides into two unequal parts, each of them beautifully expressed by the two Prefaces of the Mass. The first Preface of Advent, used from today until 16 December, concentrates on Christ’s coming again in glory at the end of time, and the hope his promise brings:

‘ . . . he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise
in which now we dare to hope.’

That is how we begin Advent: with hope, watching and waiting for the day that will bring the realisation of all our hopes, and not ours only, but those of all the world.

May you have a blessed Advent.

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The Church: Resentment and Reality

This is not a theological post (although I shall try to write one on the subject some day), more a musing-aloud about something that perplexes me. When people refer to ‘the Church’, what do they have in mind? For example, even practising Catholics will sometimes refer to the Church as though it were something other — most frequently, the clergy, the Vatican, or some amorphous institution quite separate from that which they experience whenever they go to Mass and of which they are themselves members. Those who profess no belief can be forgiven for using the term even more loosely. What tends to be common both to believers and non-believers when they speak thus, however, is a kind of resentment of the Church — especially, its wealth, power, and rules.

The wealth of the Church is certainly arguable, for not only is some of it bound up in works of art that are, literally, priceless (and therefore a net drain on resources), but there is no single body called ‘the Church’ that owns it all. Ownership is vested in different groups: dioceses, religious orders, individual communities, and so on. The power of the Church is easier to reckon because there are millions of people throughout the world  who live by its doctrines and help shape the society to which they belong. The numerous agencies of the Church providing healthcare, education and other services are another example of power, if you like, though in this case exercised through service. It is when we come to the rules of the Church, the disciplines it expects its adherents to observe, that the real difficulty begins. Then there is a kind of double whammy. Sometimes ‘the Church’ is regarded as wrong to impose rules (e.g. the ban on abortion) or is held to be deeply hypocritical because some of its members break them (as in the case of sexual abuse). There is even the notion that people today are responsible for what happened in the past, even if they had no connection with that past other than being members of the same Church. Two examples may help explain what I mean.

When I was first asked, in all seriousness, to apologize for the Crusades, I looked rather blank. I have not the slightest idea whether any of my ancestors were involved and feel no sense of personal responsibility for them. When asked to apologize for (unproven) allegations of abuse by religious sisters in another country, I pointed out that (a) I’m a nun, not a religious sister, (b) I’m English and (c) I wasn’t even born when the alleged events took place so doubted whether my responsibility were any greater than my interlocutor’s, who was at least a citizen of the country in question and an adult when the alleged abuse took place. It didn’t go down well. I was accused of tying to wriggle out of responsibility. In fact, I was trying to get at the truth. What is the degree of responsibility individuals have, as members of the Church, especially for events in the past? Is it different in kind from the responsibility we have as citizens for whatever our country may have done in the past? Is there a cut-off point, an unwritten statute of limitations, as it were, or is resentment distorting reality?

I have no answer to those questions. What principally concerns me is working out how to satisfy the demands of truth and charity when faced with the consequences of what I’d call lazy but commonplace thinking. In the end, what people think the Church is is almost as important as what the Church actually is, and we who belong to her must do the best we can to reflect the mind of Christ in any and every situation. Perhaps, deep down, I resent that a little, but it is the reality I know I must try to live. Q.E.D.?

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Bullying

This is Anti-Bullying Week, apparently, so we can expect lots of media interest in bullying and its tragic consequences. We are all against bullying in any shape or form, but I wonder whether any of us will stop to ask ourselves whether we have ever been, or worse still, actually are, bullies. We are quick to talk about being bullied, being victims of another’s rage or hatred; we are much slower to acknowledge the ways in which we try to force others to do our bidding. It may be a rather hidden form of bullying we go in for, scarcely noticeable to outsiders, but it is bullying nonetheless. If the other person won’t do what I want, I will force them. The weapons used may be physical violence, words, or more passive forms of aggression, such as silence or tears. It doesn’t really matter: the intention is violent, even if the action isn’t.

The roots of the word ‘bully’ are to be found in an old Dutch term for a lover or friend. Over the centuries, there has been a sea-change in meaning, but I think it’s worth thinking about the relationship between bullying and love. It is a poor excuse to talk about bullying as inverted love, as though that somehow made everything all right, but the connection between bully and bullied is a strangely powerful one. Just as kidnap victims tend to form bonds with their captors, so those who are bullied often feel that they are reinforcing the bully’s behaviour. They blame themselves for what has gone wrong. That is nonsense, but bullies assume that it lets them off the hook.

I think one of the ways in which we could all make a positive contribution to Anti-Bullying Week would be to examine our own conduct. Inevitably, we will find things we do not like. We must bring them into the light of God’s love for healing and transformation. The message of the Cross is that bullying stops there. Once for all, Christ has taken on his own shoulders the sin and shame of us all. We can change; we can eradicate bullying from our own lives and, at least partially, from the society in which we live; but first of all we must acknowledge the depth of our need. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a bully’ is harder to say than ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ but it may be exactly what we need to say.

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The Cursing Psalms

We are currently re-reading St Benedict’s chapters on the Divine office, often called the Liturgical Code, which may explain why I am keen to advocate having a good curse from time to time. I don’t mean profanity, but the praying of the so-called cursing psalms, e.g. Psalm 108 (109), which cheerfully asks the Lord to ensure that our adversary’s life should be short, his children wanderers and beggars and his wife a widow, or Psalm 57 (58) which has the splendid prayer, ‘O God, break the teeth in their mouths!’ Why, you may ask, should a normally mild-mannered nun be recommending that I pray such horribly vengeful prayers? It isn’t nice.

My answer is that we aren’t nice ourselves. We can kid ourselves that we are nicer than we are if we don’t own up to the darker, still unredeemed side that we harbour within until our dying breath. We pray the cursing psalms, but not against our enemy, real or imagined, but against all that is violent and troubled within us. We take the un-nice bits of ourselves to God, knowing that he alone can transform them by his grace. I think this is important, especially when we look at the violence convulsing Syria and other parts of the world. We know that for there to be peace outside, there must be peace inside; and we shall never attain that inner peace unless we first acknowledge, then renounce, everything that makes for war and violence in our own hearts. Praying the cursing psalms which, as Christians, we do in union with Christ, is a very good place to start. But there is more, for how could Christ pray those psalms save in union with us? Doesn’t that give pause for thought? Do we dare to be ‘nicer’ than he?

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Just Another Lenten Saturday

Saturdays in Lent have a quality all their own: slightly bleak, especially if the weather is bad, and somehow not particularly memorable. A lot of life is like that, if we’re honest, but I find St Benedict’s call to live lives of ‘surpassing purity during this holy season’ and his emphasis on joy quite striking (RB 49). Like most nuns, I love the stripping away to essentials of both liturgy and daily life at this time. The chant is unaccompanied, the food very plain (we fast every day except Sunday), and we try, within the limits of our budget and personal talents, to give more to others than we are able to do at other times of year. It reminds me that most of our monastic life is hidden and both much more ordinary than many people assume and perhaps a little more extraordinary at the same time. It has something of the transforming quality of Holy Saturday/Easter Night about it. My favourite quotation from the Desert Fathers captures the essence of this transformation: ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night, it sees Christ rising.’

That is our prayer for ourselves and for all who read this blog at any time of year.

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