On Being Oneself

A few weeks ago, when I posted some thoughts about online engagement, my friend Tim Hutchings very sensibly asked whether some of my suggestions didn’t cancel themselves out, making us less ‘ourselves’ online than we are offline. I think the specific question he raised was addressed in the comments, but there is a bigger question that concerns all of us, whether we go online or not. How can we be ourselves in a world that, by and large, is always pressuring us to be something other than we are? The world of advertising wants us to be thinner, richer, more ‘stylish’ than most of us could ever dream of being (i.e to buy what it is selling). The world of Church wants us to be . . . what exactly?

I often ask myself what the homilist thinks he is doing (in the Catholic Church, the sermon is always preached by a priest or deacon, who must be male). Do the admonitions to be more prayerful, more generous, more this or that really affect us? When I’m exhorted to act in a certain way ‘because you are a nun’, does it ever change me? I have to say that, by and large, I stick with being me, trusting that God doesn’t make junk and sees something incomparably wonderful in each one of us, even me. That isn’t a pretext for not trying to be more prayerful, generous, etc (see above), I think it is to recognize a fundamental truth: we go to heaven, if we go at all, as ourselves — smudged with sin, only half-understanding, full of contradictions, the person God created and redeemed. Being oneself is ultimately the only way in which to give God glory.

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Steve Jobs, R.I.P.

Not long ago I wrote an article about how Steve Jobs and Apple had transformed the way in which we communicate and the debt we all owe in consequence, especially the Church. Today’s homepage on Apple’s web site demonstrates what is good about Apple products: it’s simple, stylish and extremely effective. If only all Church communication were equally so.

Steve Jobs was a showman, with a flair for knowing what people wanted and would buy. He was also autocratic, apparently not easy to work with. But among the many tributes to him pouring across the web, I like this reminder of the other side of Jobs, the man who had looked into the face of death and was not afraid:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Steve Jobs, 2005.

Requiescat in pace.

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Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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Something for the In-Laws

Everyone loves today’s first reading at Mass (Ruth 1:1, 3–6; 14–16, 22). Looking at the wedding flowers in the church and reflecting how often the ‘Wherever you go’ passage is used of the love of the bride for her groom, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d do better to use it as an encouragement (and exhortation) to the in-laws. Ruth makes that beautiful declaration to her mother-in-law. It tells us something important about the relationship between the two women: the love and mutual concern they had built up over a period of years and its resilience in the face of many trials.

It can’t have been easy for either: Ruth, the Moabitess, the complete outsider, being welcomed into the Jewish family circle; Naomi, the mother of two sons, seeing them both marry ‘out’ and then die before her. It could have led to endless discontent and bickering, but it didn’t. At a time of supreme difficulty, famine, the bond between the two women showed itself immensely strong. We should rejoice that it did, for Ruth was to become one of the ancestors of Jesus — a reminder that there are no ‘outsiders’ in the family of God.

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Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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The Googlification of Research

We often receive requests for help with research projects. Whenever we can, we try to respond positively although doing so can take a sizeable chunk out of the day (some might say, a disproportionate amount of time, given the size of the community, but helping others is an aspect of hospitality so we do our best). I am beginning to be concerned, however, by the number of requests which suggest that the very nature of research is changing. Asking for leads, a few specific questions after the background reading has been done, discussion of a point that has arisen when looking again at the source material: all these are fine by me. I am less happy with the kind of research which consists in endless questions that a very little work by the researcher could have answered.

Let me give some examples. Frequently, we’ll receive long lists of questions about nuns/monastic life, whether we blog or engage with social media, etc, etc. Usually, these are already answered on our community web site or are pretty self-evident. (If you made contact with us via these pages, presumably you would realise that one of us blogs, wouldn’t you?) Then there are the lists of questions about other communities or organizations, e.g. Anglican sisters, about which we are not qualified to speak; there are also what I call the speculative lists, which ask questions along the lines of ‘do you think that the Church (who She?) is doing (a) a good job, (b) a bad job or (c) an indifferent job of . . .?’ Who cares what we think, and anyway, how are we to assess what two billion Catholics are doing? (People often forget that the Church is universal when conducting their surveys.) TV companies, novelists, journalists looking for a feature article, people doing dissertations, all send their little lists and hope for an answer by return.

I think Google is to blame. We have become accustomed to tapping in a few search terms and coming up with pages of resources; so why should people be any different? Send a list of questions and back will come the answers. Turn them into a few nice- looking charts (so easy with the software available today), add a few sentences of interpretation containing all the most fashionable buzz words (do another Google search to find them) and, hey presto, we have the dissertation nailed, the report ready. I exaggerate, of course, but underneath the exaggeration is a belief that the quantification of thought is no substitute for thought itself, that research is precisely that: a systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions. There are no short-cuts to research, just as there are no short-cuts in the most exciting search of all, the search for God.

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Praying in a Different Mode

For the past couple of weeks, while away from the monastery, I have experienced many different forms of liturgical prayer. Instinctively, of course, I recall the forms I am familiar with. The rather lengthy Vigils with which we habitually begin the day has no real counterpart in the Roman Office or the many variants derived from it. Yet without that long exposure to psalmody, scripture and the Fathers the day seems somewhat ‘lightweight’. However, on the principle that when in Rome, etc. I have been trying to learn to pray in a different mode, as it were. It has reminded me that liturgy is not about what we ‘do for God’ but entirely about what God does for us. He has no need of our psalmody or our singing, but he gives us both as a way of approaching the mystery of his being. So, yes, I do miss Vigils and Latin Vespers and lots of other things, but I am perfectly content because I know that it is praying in this way, now, and in no other, that I can hope to meet God. Something to remember when attending Mass, too.

 

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The Power of Symbols

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July had more symbolic significance than anything else for the course of the French Revolution, but even today it will be recalled in France with great republican fervour. We all have our own symbols. I ‘knew’ before I came here what a powerful symbol the American flag is for the people of the U.S.A., but seeing it proudly displayed on porches and in car lots, on all manner of buildings, both public and private, has brought home just how intense the focus on it is. I’m not sure we have anything really comparable in England, where no one gets very excited about anything except perhaps cricket and football, but the Church has an abundance of symbols, most of them simple and direct, like light, water, oil.

From time to time one hears someone saying that the Church needs to ‘update’ her use of symbols; that oil, for example, no longer has the significance it once had for people living in the Near East or around the Mediterranean. It’s true that oil is no longer used in quite the same way or for the same purposes, but that does not empty the symbol of its power. The life of the Church is expressed through sign and symbol: it is a language we all learn gradually as we come to see the impossibility of expressing through ordinary human words the extraordinary divine action in our lives. Symbols are powerful things and shouldn’t be underestimated.

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