SS Peter and Paul 2011

The Catholic Church can claim to be the oldest surviving institution in the western world but it is built upon foundations that look ridiculously flimsy. Neither Peter nor Paul is an obvious candidate for greatness: Peter always putting his foot in it and running away when things got tough; Paul talking the sun down and regularly falling out with his colleagues. Yet we know that each in his own way fulfilled the mission of an apostle and brought to the infant Church a necessary grace. We are here today because generations of Christians have followed in their footsteps, ‘sharing in the prayers and the breaking of bread’. Today we give thanks for their fidelity, just as we give thanks for Benedict XVI’s sixty years of priesthood and faithful service of Christ and his Church.

Last night the pope used an iPad to launch the news.va web site and tweeted his first tweet. Peter might have wondered, but I think Paul would have been quick to follow suit; and what a tweeter and blogger he would have proved! The Tradition handed down by the apostles is alive and active. It flows from the past but takes us somewhere new every moment. It is like the beauty of God himself, ever ancient, ever new. On this feast of Peter and Paul, let us also give thanks for the eternal youthfulness of the Church and for the beauty that we find in her.

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Reclaiming Nuns for God

St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen
St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen

Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy  to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).

When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?

Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?

I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.

In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as  odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.

Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.

There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?

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Prayer in a Digital Age

As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.

Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.

At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.

Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.

Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.

*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.

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Pentecost 2011

The images used for the Holy Spirit are so evocative: wind, fire, water, all things  we cannot predict the course of, and whose power we cannot tame.  Even the dove image reminds us that the Spirit sees in ways we do not and cannot. On this great feast of Pentecost let us rejoice that God is everlastingly creative, always ‘doing a new thing’. May we, too, be recreated, made new, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

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New York! New York! or A Nun Travels the World

Well, not quite; but with Bishop Crispian’s blessing, Digitalnun is about to take part in a couple of conferences which will see her out of the cloister and plunged into a world far removed from the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

Church and Media Conference 2011
First, there is the Church and Media Conference 2011 at the Hayes Conference Centre, 13 and 14 June, which promises ‘a unique opportunity for media professionals and faith leaders to engage in lively and informed debate.’ Being neither a professional nor a leader, and with no particular claim to being either lively or informed, this presents Digitalnun with something of a challenge, especially as she will be giving the closing keynote. However, debate is good and she is quite excited about listening to some of the very knowledgeable people who will be attending. Many thanks to Andrew Graystone and the Conference organizers for inviting her. An unintended bonus is that Quietnun and Duncan will have some quiet time while she is away.

The Benedictine Development Symposium

At Pentecost, the Church was endowed with the gift of tongues in order to make known the Good News. The internet and social media are simply another ‘tongue’ we must all learn to speak with some degree of fluency. This will be one of the subjects addressed at the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, 5 to 9 July, where Digitalnun has been invited to share some of the insights the community has gained during the past few years. The great generosity of Mike Browne, the Symposium members and the Priory of Christ the King in funding her visit is a mark of the seriousness with which religious organizations are now tackling what is, to many, still rather strange and new.

New York! New York!
And finally, from 10 to 17 July, a few days in New York, where Digitalnun will be meeting with a number of people who are interested in what the monastery is doing and who, hopefully, might look favourably on the community’s desire to obtain permanent accommodation. There are still a few free slots in the timetable if anyone would like Digitalnun to ‘sing for her supper’, as it were. Again, we are enormously grateful to those who have made this part of the trip possible, especially the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians who, not for the first time, have come to the rescue of Benedictines abroad by offering accommodation, and the kind friends and well-wishers who have underwritten some of the other expenses and smoothed the way for the visit.

It wouldn’t be honest to pretend that this will be all hard work and no play. A day off has been arranged, and it is quite likely that it will be spent either in the Met or at The Cloisters. Digitalnun is still a lapsed but unrepentant medievalist.

A serious question
Of course, all this invites reflection on the contribution monasticism can make to the world today. It would be a mistake to think that any activity, however good, could ever replace the quiet, persevering search for God we make in prayer, work and study. The cloistered life always has been, always will be, one that comparatively few understand and even fewer actually live. But because it is at the heart of the life of the Church and part of its missionary impulse, monasticism is a necessary part of the Christian world order and therefore must speak and pray in the language of the internet as much as any other.

How that is worked out varies from community to community. We don’t have a physical cloister here at Hendred but we think of the internet as the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart, somewhere we seek God and, on occasion, find Him.

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Blogosphere and Twittersphere Ghettos

Have you ever asked yourself whether you limit the blogs you read on a regular basis or the people you follow on Twitter to a very narrow group? I ask myself that question often, especially as I don’t have much time for blog reading. When I do, I try to make sure that I include blogs whose writers hold very different opinions from me, but I am not sure I always succeed. It requires effort. Similarly, in order to make sure I actually read what is on my Twitterstream, I only follow approximately one tenth of the people who follow me, but although my Twitterati are definitely weighted in the direction of religion and technology, I always aim to include a few whose views are ‘challenging’.

One of the great dangers of belonging to a group, any kind of group, is that one never looks outside. One takes all one’s ideas and values from within the group and creates a comfortable ghetto for oneself. I am utterly convinced of the truth of Catholicism and think there is nothing more exciting than exploring Catholic orthodoxy, but I treasure the insights of those who don’t. Perhaps the problem is that most of us are aware how little we know and are a bit reluctant to admit it. The other side of engaging with those whose views conflict with our own is the need for persevering prayer to the Holy Spirit and the hard work of making sure that we are genuinely informed. In these last few days before Pentecost it might be useful to reflect on the ghettos we have created for ourselves. Sometimes they are the result not of conviction but of laziness; and somehow, I don’t think the Holy Spirit is very keen on laziness.

Benedict XVI on World Communications Day, 5 June 2011

I liked this extract from the pope’s message but omitted to include it yesterday.

There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.

To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

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Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?

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That Vatican Blogmeet Again

I suspect that by now anyone interested in the historic Bloggers’ Meeting at the Vatican on 2 May 2011 will have found links a-plenty. In case you haven’t, you can listen to all the audio files here (about half-way down the page). The best address, in my opinion, was given by Elizabeth Scalia, (a.k.a.The Anchoress), here, and the best post-meeting reflection by Anna Arco here. If it’s photos you are after, I suggest you look here or at the video on romereports.com. The live-streaming of the event was not wholly successful because of inadequate bandwidth. (Indeed, I appeared to be in a wi-fi blackspot as I was unable to get Twitter to load during the meeting.) I couldn’t attend the alternative meeting the day after organized by Hilary White, nor can I go to the London meeting today about forming a Guild of Catholic Bloggers. However, the internet is awash with information and comment, and even a cursory look through the Twitterstream #vbm11 gives  a lively idea of what was happening as it happened.

So, what’s to say that hasn’t been said? First, I must record my personal gratitude for having been encouraged to apply to attend, my delight at having been one of the lucky 150 invited and my very great thanks for the sponsorship which made acceptance possible. It was wonderful to meet bloggers who previously were only names, although there was far too little time to talk. There was such a buzz in the aula.

Richard Rouse and others had put a lot of hard work into organizing the event at short notice. We tend to take for granted such things as simultaneous translation, but a little note of congratulation should go out to the translator who, without missing a beat, rendered Brazilian Portuguese into excellent English, even though it was not on the official ‘language menu’. Communication was truly the order of the day.

The first panel provided the most interesting talks. All were from thoughtful bloggers who reflected on such diverse topics as the nature of the blogosphere (e.g. the problem of charity and promotion of the ego) and ways of engaging people with faith (Fr Roderick Vonhogen must be one of the most media-savvy people in the Church). The second panel said some good things, although the language used tended to be more impersonal and abstract: definitely less blog-like! It was encouraging to hear about the Vatican’s plans for a new web portal and more creative use of social media; encouraging, too, to hear it stated that bloggers perform a valuable and valued service within the Church.

For me, the most remarkable thing was that the meeting took place at all. It reinforced my sense of the universalism of the Petrine ministry. However, I did come away with some questions.

I think bloggers fall into two categories: those who are in some sense professional journalists or otherwise ‘appointed’ to blog, and those who are enthusiastic amateurs (like Digitalnun). Some of the questions raised at the meeting about accreditation and copyright struck me as being of more concern to professionals than to amateurs. Those who blog in order to report news (or rumours) have a different take on things from those of us who merely share our bathtub thoughts about this and that. I don’t feel I need or want accreditation, nor any kind of policing (loyalty to the Church and to my monastic community would, I trust, prevent my straying too far into heterodoxy). I suppose I am suspicious of ‘badges’. I am not a  Catholic blogger but a blogger who is Catholic, as likely to blog about dogs as dogma. Most bloggers are responsible people who do their homework before launching forth into the blogosphere with their opinions, and I think the Vatican officials who spoke duly acknowledged that fact. But, and it is quite a big ‘but’, I did occasionally wonder whether the distinction being made between the institutional Church (as represented by the Vatican officials) and the rest of us was perhaps a little too clear-cut. We are all members of the one Body. Maybe that is what we need to emphasize.

And for the rest . . .

My two days in Rome were different from any I’d experienced before. I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the crowds who had gathered for the beatification were beginning to disperse but public transport was at a standstill. It was a long hard slog with my luggage from the Piazza Cavour, where the airport shuttle left me, to Paulo III, on the heights of the Via Aurelia; but the frequent need to stop and draw breath (Rome is not kind to people with sarcoid) made for some lovely exchanges. A beautiful Mexican stopped and chatted away and a lovely threesome from the U.S.A., grandmother, mother and baby, helped me drag my case the last couple of hundred yards.

Rome itself is not very welcoming to Benedictine nuns in full habit, especially on their own. The Swiss Guard salute rather endearingly as one passes by, but some of the locals go out of their way to be unpleasant. Is that why so many nuns and sisters look rather dour? I don’t know. Meals are another problem: cafes and restaurants are O.K. if one is with someone but can be awkward if one isn’t. If hungry, I usually opt for something from a supermarket or, if there isn’t time, from one of the street stalls. The trouble is, I can hear my grandmother saying, ‘No lady ever eats in the street’, which oughtn’t to worry me but does. Funny, that.

However, while in Rome I was able to see D. Margaret at Sta Cecilia (for the first time in at least six years); Abbot Cuthbert and Bro. Michael from Farnborough and I met in St Peter’s Square, as one does, and went off in search of coffee; and Muriel Sowden and I had a good face-to-face chat, our first since connecting on Facebook.

Really the best part of my visit came at the end, when Sr Lucy FMA bore me off to their Generalate and I was overwhelmed with kindness. It was lovely to be in a big community again, and I must say I was very impressed by their spirit. Sr Lucy could not have been more considerate. Finding that my flight out was not due until the afternoon, she arranged to take me to Subiaco for morning Mass and an unforgettable tour with Sr Mary and Sr Connie, devoid of tourists (!). It was immensely moving to kneel in St Benedict’s cave and be able to pray there for Benedictines the world over, and all our oblates and friends. Finally, I was driven to the airport.

It was a short visit but one I shall remember always with affection and gratitude. The gifts God chooses to give are always so much better than those one seeks for oneself. Thank you, Sr Lucy.

 

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Beatification, Blogging and JP II

John Paul II uses the internet to publish
John Paul II uses the Internet to Publish, November 2001

On 22 November 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first pope in history to publish an official document via the internet (allegedly using the laptop pictured here). Today, on the Octave Day of Easter, he is being beatified, not because he was flawless but because he was demonstrably holy. Beatification is recognition of having lived a life of heroic virtue. For some it may seem too much, too soon; but goodness is a quality most of us find attractive, however much we may dislike the tackiness that surrounds some aspects of the process of beatification (vials of blood kept as relics, anyone?). I have no difficulty asking the prayers of Pope John Paul II and I pray that he may encourage many to aspire to holiness of life.

By the time you read this, Digitalnun will be on her way to Rome, not for the beatification (she arrives too late for that) but for the Bloggers’ Conference hosted by the Vatican — another internet ‘first’, but perhaps a rather overdue one. Please pray for all who are attending. If there is to be real dialogue, we shall need the gift of the Holy Spirit in abundance: to listen, to ponder, to argue with wisdom and respect, and all within a little space.

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A Royal Wedding

Later today Prince William and Catherine Middleton will marry at Westminster Abbey. Judging by the amount of media attention this event has already attracted, one can confidently predict that there will be no shortage of instant experts to comment on everything, from the bride’s dress to the security arrangements. Mention of security arrangements does highlight the fact that this is not an ‘ordinary’ marriage but one that will be lived out in the glare of publicity. Very few of us could survive such scrutiny and, sadly, the British royal family’s marital history is not encouraging: there have been many breakdowns, with attendant sadnesses for everyone concerned. All the more reason, then, for us to pray for William and Catherine on their wedding day.

In 1366 another Catherine, a Dominican Tertiary, experienced a ‘mystical marriage’ with Jesus which transformed her life. She began to serve the poor and take an interest in world affairs, becoming in time a fierce critic of clerical mores. She was an adviser of both Pope Gregory XI and Urban VI and died at the early age of 33. Her Letters and her Dialogues are both remarkable, although not to everyone’s taste. A Doctor of the Church, she is a type of the mulier fortis. Love her or loathe her, Catherine of Siena is not easily ignored. Were she alive today, I feel sure she’d be a blogger. Perhaps we women bloggers should take her as our patron?

Media Links
The video of the talks at the recent Faith 2.0: Religion and the Internet Conference has now been uploaded to YouTube.

Opening Address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytixq3-voh0&feature=relmfu
First Panel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPETf37g9_w&feature=relmfu
Second Panel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Im1HZXoofZ8&feature=relmfu
Keynote (Digitalnun): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYI2isQaqUs&feature=relmfu Faith 2.0 video
Third Panel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_3a2hf3y0s&feature=related

And for a gentle interview between Fr Rocky and Digitalnun on Relevant Radio’s Drew Mariani Show yesterday, go here. (Starts about 2.49 and last approx 15 minutes)

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