The Inner Desert

For many Benedictines the feast of St Antony is bitter-sweet. On the one hand there is the immense pull of the desert, the desire to live ‘alone with the Alone’; on the other, there is the recognition that St Benedict’s ambivalence about hermits is fully justified — especially in our own case. The eremitical vocation is rare and very far from being what many assume it is. Few can live it generously and well. The rest of us have to admit the gulf between what we would like to be and what we actually are. We are inspired by the one but wisely held in check by the reality of the other.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony can be read at many levels. One element often passed over by modern readers are the battles between Antony and the demons. Some smile over this evidence of ancient credulity; others explain it away with reference to psychology; comparatively few make the effort to understand its place in the narrative of the saint’s life or the spiritual life generally.

It is true, I think, that anyone who seriously attempts to pray will, sooner or later, encounter evil. How this manifests itself differs, but one predictable element is the way in which evil tries to draw an individual away from prayer and virtuous living and, ultimately, from God. Again and again, Athanasius insists upon Antony’s constancy and the cheerful serenity with which he met every attack upon him. He persevered in the discipline of the monastic way and eventually attained a freedom and joy that everyone remarked upon. Little by little, he was transformed by grace.

I think there is something here for all of us. There are books and blogs without number which will tell you that prayer is a great adventure and the Christian life a wonderful progression from glory to glory. That is true up to a point, but most of our lives are anything but glorious, and prayer, if we are honest, is often a hard slog. That time on our knees might be better spent doing something more obviously useful, mightn’t it? My own answer would be a resounding ‘no’. I can think of no greater tragedy than to have spent our lives avoiding God by filling our days with activity which allowed him no space.

The image of the desert is important in scripture and in the life of Antony. Most of us can resonate with the sense of bleakness and isolation it conjures up, also perhaps its beauty and variety. We know that the desert is a privileged place of meeting between God and mankind. Few of us will ever live in a real desert, but each of us has an inner desert, somewhere unknown to any but ourselves, where our deepest struggles take place. It is where we await the coming of grace, and, just like Antony, we must persevere if we are to experience grace in all its fullness. For most of us that will be the work not of a single day or year but of a lifetime. That is why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, promising to live each day as a monk or nun should live, in continual conversion to the Lord.

 

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What is a Retreat?

People often ask what a retreat is, and then question why nuns should need to make one. Those of you who have done one of our online retreats will know that it took me eight minutes to sketch an answer to the first part of the question without attempting the second. However, as the community begins its annual retreat tonight (and I shall be offline save for the daily FB prayer intention on our Page and some pre-written posts which will appear, as if by magic, in this blog), I thought it might be good to say something about what a retreat is and what it is meant to help us do or become.

Essentially a retreat is a time when we try to let go of as much of the busyness of life as we can in order to spend more time in prayer and meditation on the scriptures. It means a shift of focus, hopefully a deepening of attention to God. Often the first few days are rather bleak. It isn’t as easy to let go as we thought — even in a monastery! One by one our defences against God are taken down, and even though that is what we most desire, it is painful and seems contradictory. We want to pray, but prayer is the one thing we can’t manage. We want to come closer to God, and it is as though two opposing magnetic poles were at work. We want to focus on God but all we see is ourselves, and not the selves we hope the rest of the world sees, but the selves that deep down we know ourselves to be: grubby, and not very impressive.

Sometimes that is the whole work of the retreat: to let us see ourselves as we are and know that we are loved, despite all our blemishes and shortcomings. Sometimes, we are permitted to go further: to catch a glimpse of the beauty and holiness of God that makes us want to change radically, to become, however inadequately, more ‘worthy’ of His love. Conversion does not usually happen all at once with a road-to-Damascus finality. It is a process that gradually unfolds in our lives. That’s why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, a promise to open ourselves to this process every day.

During these days of retreat (we emerge on 5 September), we shall be undergoing a kind of death-to-life experience, a conversion, if you like. Our part is to free the time and give God scope to work, trusting that He will do what seems best to Him. Please pray for us as we do for you. Often the fruits of a retreat are not seen until long after, but if we are sincere in our searching, we know that he will respond. God is never outdone in generosity.

St Monica
Today is the feast of St Monica, patron saint of the widowed. Here’s what I wrote about her last year: http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/08/27/widowhood.

BBC R4 Sunday Programme
Yesterday’s BBC R4 ‘Sunday’ programme (in which Digitalnun took part with Vicky Beeching and Bishop Alan Wilson) can be found on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01m4bwc/Sunday_26_08_2012/

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Resurrection Meals

When I was cook in a large community, I used to think Easter was all about eating. After the Lenten fast, the explosion of festive meals, profession anniversaries and so on taxed the culinary imagination as well as the store cupboard. Scripturally, of course, it was spot on. A feast is precisely that: a feast.

Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus feature eating and drinking, but I think they introduce a new note. It is not merely a matter of rejoicing but more fundamentally of recognizing who Jesus is. Take the barbecue on the beach we recall today (John 21). Peter seems to have been disconcerted by the sight of Jesus on the seashore and jumped into the water to escape him; the other disciples were confused; but eating and drinking with Jesus changed everything. For Peter, strengthened in faith, given a mission and enabled to make good his earlier cowardice with a threefold profession of love, it was a moment of conversion. He saw the Lord and knew him as if for the first time.

I wonder whether our own meals have anything of this conversion quality about them. We are good at celebrating, we make a conscious effort to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ and share with the stranger, but do we expect to encounter the Risen Christ at them? On Twitter this morning I suggested we should each try to share a meal with someone today, even if it is only a shared cup of coffee. For those living alone or constrained by lack of funds, the sharing may have to be in intention rather than actual, but I cannot help recalling that line which assures us we may entertain angels unawares. How much more so the Son of God!

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 1

Over the next few days I shall be writing a series of posts about St Benedict’s teaching on Lent. Today’s is concerned with the first few sentences of RB 49, On the Observance of Lent, which read as follows:

The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten quality; but since few are capable of that, we therefore urge the whole community during these days of Lent to lead lives of surpassing purity, and in this holy season wash away the negligences of other times. That may be properly done by abstaining from all sinful habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.

Let’s unpack that a little. Monastic life is a life of continual conversion, of turning back to the Lord, changing for the better, living a life of repentance in the sense of metanoia. Indeed one of our vows, conversatio morum, is precisely a vow to undertake this turning to the Lord every day of our lives. It is the dynamic of Benedictine life. What does Lent add to this? Surely it is the extra focus provided by a period of more concentrated effort.

Benedict accepts that we fall away from our ideals, that we become negligent. His remedy is to help us regain our initial fervour. The first thing he asks of us is a profound purity. It is sad that this beautiful word has come to be associated with sexual purity alone. In origin, it means much more: a focus upon God that is free from any contamination or distraction. It is concentrated energy, with a warmth and generosity about it that our narrower meaning does not really convey. So, Benedict asks us to focus on God and our search for him in community in a way that is truly joyous, and the tools he gives us are those we shall be exploring in more depth later this week

  • abstaining from sin
  • prayer with tears
  • reading
  • compunction of heart
  • self denial

Here I will just say a word about the first, abstaining from sin. We all know what sin is and how attractive we find it, despite our best intentions. The problem with sin is not only that it draws us away from God but that it quickly becomes habitual. Before we think about what we should ‘do’ for Lent in terms of what we should give up or take on, we need to look at our lives very honestly and ask ourselves if we have fallen into a habit of sin. If we have, it is there that our Lent should begin: with an attempt to root out sin from our lives. That is far more important than giving up sugar in our tea or saying one of the penitential psalms every day. It is the difference between life and death, but most of us are cowards when it comes to acknowledging our sins. That is why Benedict urges us elsewhere to begin every good act with prayer. To see our lives for what they are, to be able to bear the knowledge that act of seeing confers, we need the grace of the Holy Spirit. We can be sure that grace will never be withheld from anyone who asks. In other words, we can be sure that God will accompany us on every step of our Lenten journey.

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St Benedict, Patron of Europe

One of my private heresies is that Benedict was an Englishman. The minor fact of his having been born in Italy at a time when the English did not exist is cheerfully brushed away. How could someone with such reserve, such dry humour, such administrative genius have been anything but English? Of course, even I have to admit that no one nation has a monopoly on these characteristics. I suppose it would be better to say he was a fin-de-siècle Roman, without any fin-de-siècle nastiness.

Europe is very much in Benedict’s debt. His sons and daughters have, over many centuries, prayed and worked and studied their way to holiness; and in the course of doing so, have changed the face of the continent. We think of them today as missionaries and scholars, teachers and people of prayer. Europe is in urgent need of re-evangelisation, and although many wonderful Orders and Congregation have arisen in the Church, there is still a need for Benedictines, perhaps today more than ever. What we bring to the Church is hard to define, but easily recognized when encountered.

After thirty years in monastic life, I think I am just beginning to understand what it is all about: what it means to be a contemplative and a missionary, to be a cloistered nun and someone who reaches out to others with the Word of Life. We have espoused the internet and associated technologies in the same way that our predecessors embraced the quill pen and the printing press, and for much the same reasons; but we know that without the persevering life of prayer, which is largely unseen and unnoticed, everything we do on the net would be pointless. If Europe ever becomes a Christian society, it will be because prayer allowed God full scope to work his miracle of conversion.

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Treasuring the Ordinary

There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.

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St Augustine of Canterbury and the Problem of Conversion

I have a soft spot for Augustine. He wasn’t conventionally brave and kept dawdling on his way through Gaul, so un-eager was he to encounter the Anglo-Saxons. Gregory the Great wasn’t keen on his miracles attracting too much attention, but Augustine was quite happy to make sure the stories didn’t spread. Modest, yes; a monk (though not a Benedictine); with a profound reverence for the pope and the ability to stand firm in the face of opposition, Augustine was obviously an effective preacher. Today we stand more in need of his prayers than his preaching: for the conversion of England, which must be one of the most secular countries in Europe; for the Church, which is constantly in need of renewal; and for all the various organs of government on which we rely for the good ordering of civil society. St Augustine, pray for us.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
I haven’t commented on the suppression of the Cistercian community because some of the reporting in the secular press has been sensationalist and some of the commentary in the blogosphere has been of the ‘ya, boo, sucks’ variety. The suppression of any monastic community is a personal and institutional tragedy, calling for prayer not gibes.

A Vatican spokesman has mentioned ‘liturgical and financial irregularities’ as well as a questionable ‘lifestyle’. Others have commented adversely on Abbot Simone Fioraso’s stewardship. To an outsider it all sounds pretty damning; but we must remember that we are outsiders with imperfect knowledge and understanding. Let us pray that the suppression of the community will lead to good; and let us pray especially for those to whom the loss of the community, however flawed, comes as a great sadness.

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Wind

Part of me wants to get very constitutional and say something about the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary, but super injunctions are less troublesome hereabouts than the wind to which we have been subject. We haven’t had the tornado the people of Joplin have had to endure with such terrible loss of life, nor even the gales that have battered Scotland — just a relentless, cold, dry wind. Everything is shrivelling. The sky, for the most part, is grey and presumably may become greyer still if the Icelandic ash affects our perception of the upper sky. It is a bleak spring, with wheat and arable farmers looking grave and gardeners becoming plaintive about the poor prospects for summer.

And yet this reminder of the power of the wind, of our dependence on the weather, is also strangely comforting. We spend much of life in an artificial environment, with light and temperature controlled, foods available irrespective of season, ignorant of our own fragility. Wind, unseen and uncontrollable, reminds us that there are forces at work which will never be tamed, that the wild survives even in the heart of the city. I like the thought that the Holy Spirit is blowing through the midst of our urban wastelands as well as through the wasteland of our hearts, don’t you?

Quiet Days
We are hoping to have a few quiet days as a community this week, to recharge the batteries. There may be a few timetable changes, so please check beforehand if you are thinking of joining us for the Divine Office. Mass on Monday, 30 May, will be at 10.00 a.m.

Quiet Days Update
O foolish Benedictine! I thought that letting everyone know we are trying to have a few quiet days would gently warn people off visiting/making enquiries about visiting. It has had the opposite effect. However, we are genuinely tired and are therefore closing our doors completely, even for the Divine Office. The only public celebration during the next few days will be Mass on Monday. I hope you understand.

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Emmaus Moments

We read the Emmaus gospel twice during Eastertide, once during the Octave and again today, the third Sunday of Easter, but life is full of Emmaus moments: times when the veil is lifted and we see, as if for the first time, something that has been there all along but of which we had previously been unaware. These mini-revelations can become epiphanies, revelations of God himself.

Yesterday I went into the greenhouse to check on my seedlings and looked up to see the raindrops falling from the roof — beautiful iridescent drops of water, falling as thickly as those Julian of Norwich saw falling from the eaves of her house so many centuries ago. She likened them, if you remember, to herring scale, but what she was referring to were the drops of blood that fell from Christ’s head as he hung on the Cross. If you look, even here, on a rainy day in a quiet English village, you can can ‘see his blood upon the rose/and in the stars the glory of his eyes’. Emmaus moments are many.

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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