Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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The Invisible Nun

I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.

Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.

The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.

Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.

Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.

The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.

I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?

Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.

The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.

We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.

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Self-Doubt

Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)

There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.

So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.

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Religious Mockery

Yesterday was a busy day so I didn’t have time to do more than register a blog pooh-poohing the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and the Church’s canonisation process. They are hardly to be equated, but the blogger took her information from a former Catholic and seemed to think that was good enough to link them both in the magical mystery realm.

Quite apart from the fact that I don’t think it’s a very good idea to take one’s understanding of anything theological from someone who has rejected both the theology and its presuppositions, I was surprised to find I was upset (about the Eucharist, not the canonisation error where the ignorance shown was laughable and did indeed make me smile hugely). Religious debate has always seemed to me good and valuable but mockery is hard to take when what is being mocked is God himself. I can’t think what the equivalent of  the title “Transubstantiation and Santa Claus” would be, but I know no one in the monastery would use it of anyone’s religious beliefs. The blogger did not mean to give offence or cause hurt, which is important to remember. I wish I had had time to go into the questions raised but I didn’t, and it is the nature of blogging that yesterday’s post is one with eternity.

So why am I going on about religious mockery today? In this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that blog post was a reminder that we have a long way to go before we Christians really understand and respect one another. St Benedict in his Rule never lets us forget that reverence for God must spill over into reverence for people and for all that is. Even the goods and utensils of the monastery are to be regarded as sacred altar vessels, capable of holding the mystery of God. Mockery, scurillitas, is something he condemns again and again because it is fundamentally opposed to reverence. If we are to to learn how to appreciate the gifts God has bestowed on us, we must learn how to revere one another, how to respect one another’s beliefs.

Yesterday I really understood why.

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The Myth of Permanence

Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a great reputation and discovered that the chef who made it so departed some years earlier? Often the prices remain the same, but the heart has gone out of the cooking and the experience of dining there is more than a little disappointing. It is the same with monasteries. I can think of some which have been truly great but are now shadows of their former selves, living off a reputation for scholarship or music, say, which is no longer deserved. Others, like yet-to-be-discovered restaurants, are in the process of becoming something that one day may be valued by many.

Linking restaurants and monasteries in this way may help to explain why, for a Christian, the daily call to conversion is so important. Permanence here on earth is a myth: everything passes, everything perishes, reputations not excepted. Every day we must begin again. The restaurant is really only as “good” as its last meal, the monastery only as “good” as its current community; we ourselves only as “good” as we are now.

The past we can confidently leave to the mercy of God, the future to his providence; let’s rejoice in the opportunity of the present, which has been well described as the “sacrament of the present moment”. It is the only one in which we can meet God, for with him everything IS.

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Christian Unity Octave

I am late posting on the subject of Christian Unity, not because I don’t care about it but because I find myself more and more perplexed about what we mean by it. Possibly you are, too. I understand, I think, the importance of corporate unity (beware, reader, when Digitalnun writes in agnostic mode) and am myself a Catholic by conviction rather than mere accident of birth or upbringing, but — and it is a huge but — I find many of the activities in which we engage during this Octave of Prayer bewildering because they seem to avoid the elephant in the room: the unity we already have, and the unity we don’t.

I have no difficulty praying with other Christians, whatever their theological take on such questions as Priesthood or Eucharist. Equally, I have no difficulty discussing what keeps us apart institutionally because I believe that the more we understand one another, the closer will be our real unity. And there, of course, is the rub. We are already united through our common baptism but we seem to spend a lot of this week either pretending we have already attained corporate unity (“the differences between us don’t matter”) or talking about a unity we don’t, in our heart of hearts, actually want (“the nearer to Rome, the further from Home”).

Maybe one of the best things we could do during this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is to spend a few minutes considering both these aspects, the negative and the positive. How far does understanding of our own Church and the Churches to which others belong draw us together or keep us apart? In the gospels, Jesus seems much more concerned with right action than right belief, which left the early Church with all kinds of problems to sort out, from eating meat sacrificed to idols to unions between believers and non-believers. Much as we would like to return to that first gospel simplicity, we can’t. We have two thousand years of Christian experience to integrate into our own faith and practice; and if one believes, as I do, that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in every age, we cannot and must not dismiss that experience because it is God-given.

So, we pray for unity. To hear what the Holy Spirit is saying requires some very delicate tuning of mind and heart. To do what the Spirit urges requires courage and generosity. May we be found wanting in neither.

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