Never Despair of God’s Mercy

rocks in a lake

The title of this post comes from today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict. It is the last tool of good works named in the chapter and one on which most of us rely all our life (RB 4.76). This morning, with the folly of Brexit again before our eyes and the Church as much in turmoil as ever, it is something to cling to, like a rock. But rocks are not only places of refuge: they can also provide the footing from which to launch ourselves into the deep. The mercy of God is like that, too. It upholds us in times of trouble and propels us forward when we need to go further into the mystery of God and our own vocation. It takes thought, prayer and humility to decide which is which. Let us pray that we may each discern correctly what is being asked of us today.

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Meetings: Getting Them Right by Getting Them Wrong

Today the eyes of the world are turned to Hamburg and the expected meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. For our friends in the Church of England, the opening meeting of the General Synod is possibly more to the forefront because of the thorny questions that are to be discussed later. Media pundits have informed us that it won’t be words alone that everyone will be watching for, but body language and the other little giveaways that signal winning or conceding. All very entertaining at one level, and fruitful ground for the business psychologist and teacher of management techniques to exploit, but not necessarily the point.

Most of us have unconsciously absorbed the idea that we ought to win an argument; and we go into meetings determined to present our case as persuasively — or forcefully — as possible. Thus, we wait to see whether Mr Putin or Mr Trump will ‘triumph’. We do not wait to see who will prove the most wise, prudent or constructive, whose vision for the future offers the best hope for humanity, who is willing to concede something in order to obtain a greater good for us all. We think in absolutes, in terms of winning or losing, national or personal self-interest, and I think that may be why we so often get meetings wrong. We miss the opportunity they give us and settle for something much less.

No one, alas, is going to ask the opinion of an obscure British nun, but I’d like to suggest that there is a way of getting meetings right — basically, by getting them wrong. If we go into a meeting prepared to accept that the other party has reasonable grounds for holding his or her opinions, is as keen as we are to obtain the best possible outcome for everyone (and go on believing this no matter how irritating or confused may be their way of expressing themselves); if we really listen to the other, then try to respond constructively, even if it means we have to shift our own stance, then there is a chance that something good will be achieved. This isn’t at all the same as saying that we should bow to every wind or abandon what we believe to be true and necessary. It is much more what St Benedict alludes to in chapter three of the Rule, a way of discerning. That word is so much used by ‘religious’ types that we have probably forgotten that in origin it means to separate, to distinguish. For a meeting to be successful, we have to distinguish between the accidents of froth and presentation and the substance of intention and content. We have to exercise judgement, and that is best done coolly and with an awareness of the consequences for others.

I shall certainly be praying today for the meetings of the G20 members, especially that between the leaders of Russia and the USA. I hope they will have the courage to get things wrong so that they can get them right — for all of us.

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Learning To Say No

I suspect most of us, certainly most clergy and religious, would say that they do their best to say ‘yes’ to God in any and every situation. Sometimes this leads to acts of great heroism. Unfortunately, it can also lead to exhaustion and burn-out. Learning to say ‘no’, or rather, when to say ‘no’ is more difficult because it presupposes discernment, only possible through prayer and reflection, and a genuine desire to do God’s will rather than one’s own. The trouble is, I think, that we tend to confuse God’s will with our own will and are often very happy to lose ourselves in some sort of ‘good’ activity rather than face the shocking hollowness within. Conversely, if someone is tired or strained, we exhort them to rest without necessarily thinking through whether it is possible for them to rest: the sacraments must still be celebrated, food prepared and eaten, and so on and so forth. We come back to the idea of discernment and taking responsibility for our decisions.

Discernment is not especially difficult, but it does presuppose our having a choice to make and the necessary intellectual and moral acumen to make it. Sometimes there is no choice. Civilians caught up in the horror that is Syria or subject to Boko Haram raids in Nigeria have no choice in the matter: they must endure as well as they can. We who do have choices can be curiously reluctant to take responsibility for them. We are unlikely to receive a voice from heaven telling us to do this rather than that (just as well, I’d run straight to the doctor if I were to receive any such message), and even in the most austere of monasteries, obedience is rarely reduced to the absurdity of ‘do this because I say so’. No, we make up our own minds and are expected to use all the gifts God has given us to choose wisely and well. It is easy just to follow what everyone else seems to be saying or doing, even in the Church; but that isn’t always right, and that is where discernment becomes more complicated. Learning to say ‘no’ can be a very lonely business — and it isn’t always the loneliness of the prophet we’d like it to be but simply the loneliness of the oddball, the one who doesn’t fit in, who sees differently.

Many people are confident that their vision of the Church is the correct one, indeed the only one tenable. Others are sure that they must do this or that if they are to be truly Christian (it is even worse when they assume that of others, too). To cut through all this we need, as I said, to pray perseveringly, ask ourselves what is really required, and be prepared to accept the consequences. I have recently adopted a much tougher stance with the enquiries we receive at the monastery. I haven’t the energy I used to have, so I do the best I can with what I can rather than struggling to reply to every one. Occasionally, I feel guilty, because I know that I am probably missing something important, but I have to remember I am not the only person involved. Learning to say ‘no’ is not merely good for our physical and mental health; it is also good for our spiritual health. It reminds us that God is in charge, not us; that it is what he wills, rather than what we think he should will, that ultimately matters.

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The Gift of Understanding

Today, in our novena to the Holy Spirit, we pray for the gift of understanding. Have you ever stopped to consider what that really means? The meaning of wisdom, for which we prayed yesterday, is fairly obvious, but understanding? It is more than mere comprehension. When Solomon prayed in the temple for an understanding heart, he was praying for the grace of discernment, the grace of right judgement, that he might govern his people Israel wisely and well ( 1 Kings 3. 7–12). To understand requires humility, the ability to let go of one’s own ideas and absorb another’s. But it doesn’t mean letting go of one’s crictical faculties, far from it. To understand implies a sifting out of true and false, important and unimportant, of coming to a decision about the matter to be understood; but because it is a work of the Holy Spirit, it is a process accompanied by love and compassion.

There is a French saying to the effect that to understand all is to forgive all; and there is a lot of truth in that. So many of our disputes are based on misunderstandings, on our determination always to be ‘right’, always to have the upper hand. I like the fact that in English we have to stand under in order to understand. That is contrary to almost everything that contemporary society values. We no longer prize humility or the slow and patient work of the saint or scholar. We want immediate results. We sell ourselves as a big success even when we aren’t. We mistake aggression for courage, point-scoring for argument, sound-bites for solid reasoning. That is why I think we need understanding more than ever today. We all know how lovely it is to have a friend who ‘understands us’ but we sometimes forget that we need to be understanding too. Let us pray today that the gift of understanding may be given us in abundance.

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Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Yesterday I read a thoughtful article by Br Gabriel T. Mosher O.P. on the subject of the shortage of vocations and the kind of everlasting discernment process many engage in rather than coming to an actual decision (you can read it here). Inevitably, some commentators concentrated on what I took to be a secondary argument about the objective superiority of religious life (Br Gabriel’s a Dominican, so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?) and, being unfamiliar with the precise terms the author used, took umbrage. So, I want to make it clear that what I am addressing is Br Gabriel’s main thesis: the way in which discerning a religious vocation becomes almost a way of life, with no final resolution.

I spend hours every week answering vocation questions. Some are perhaps rather trivial, but I try to take every one seriously because we all move at different speeds and what may seem minor to one may be quite major to another. As a community, we also ‘accompany’ people in their search for God. Some of those who are in regular contact have been discerning their vocation for years. I sometimes have the uneasy feeling that discerning has become — quite unintentionally — a way of avoiding commitment. If I am discerning, I do not have to face the ultimate test of placing myself and my sense of vocation in a concrete situation where others will judge whether I am called to this way of life or not. Moreover, if I am discerning, I can look for a community or rule of life that meets all my requirements/desiderata: I can take the risk out of commitment. The problem then is that no community on earth is ever likely to come up to my standards — they all seem to be full of cranks and crotchety old codgers I’d rather not have to deal with, and no situation is ever really risk-free. Finally, there is the fact that discerning can lead one into the trap of looking too much at oneself and forgetting the Lord. It is nice to talk about one’s soul with someone who is, or should be, sympathetic. I liked Br Gabriel’s snappy take on this, ‘Many will come and see . . . few will stay and pray.’

What can those of us who dwell in monasteries do to help people who find themselves endlessly discerning? Here at Howton Grove we are undertaking a major revision of our web sites and are keen to try one or two ideas which we hope will help those thinking about religious life. For example, we already insist on video conferencing before anyone makes the journey to Hereford to stay with the community for a period of discernment. If you are a young person, thinking about religious life, we’d be interested to know what you have found helpful, what has helped you towards a decision rather than just discerning. There is a kind of ‘vocational voyeurism’ that is unhelpful, both to the individual and the community. Our starting-point, however, is that people are full of goodwill and sincerity. We take discerners seriously because we take God seriously and we want to be of service. You can help us.

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From Mysticism to Mischief-Making by Way of Misunderstanding

A report in the Italian-language edition of Zenit has set the media buzzing again about the reasons for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation. The first problem, as always, is establishing what he actually said, to whom, and in what language. Not surprisingly, we have an unattributable story which has been quoted piecemeal,  without any understanding of the language of prayer and discernment.

According to Zenit, ‘a few weeks ago’ (i.e. before 19 August, when the story was published) Pope Benedict allegedly said to ‘someone’ in a private audience (i.e. an anonymous source in a private meeting, so not intended for formal reporting or publication), in reply to a question about the reason for his resignation, that ‘God told me to’, ‘immediately clarifying that it was not any kind of apparition or phenomenon of that kind, but rather “a mystical experience” in which the Lord gave rise in his heart to an “absolute desire” to remain alone with him in prayer.’

I think most people who pray will have no difficulty with this. Pope Benedict was merely saying that, after much prayer and discernment, he had come to the conclusion that it was time for him to step aside and devote himself to serving the Church by prayer. The reasons he gave publicly earlier in the year are no different from the ones he gave privately to that anonymous source except in their expression. Reported speech doesn’t convey the way in which words are spoken, nor do those who are outside a religious tradition necessarily understand the way in which words are used. ‘God told me to’ is religious shorthand, if you like, for a long process of prayer and discernment. It doesn’t mean a private revelation with Hollywood-style special effects, it means long hours of  searching for God’s will, coming to a conclusion and then testing that conclusion by every means open to one. In Benedict XVI’s case, surely that meant weighing up his own health and the demands of the papacy, the problems faced by the Church and his ability to get on top of them, the ‘talent’ within the College of Cardinals and finally a humble acceptance that he might have done all that he could as pope. The fact that this was accompanied by an ‘absolute desire’ to be alone with God rings true. Every monk and nun has experienced that same desire growing in their heart — and ‘growing’ is the operative word. To one who prays perseveringly, the desire to be with God grows ever greater, no matter how hard or unrewarding the experience of prayer may seem to be.

For many, of course, it is that reference to ‘mystical experience’ which is troublesome; so let us be clear, mystical experience is not what most people think it is. It does not involve apparitions, lights, voices, sweet smells, levitations, extraordinary revelations or anything of the kind, except incidentally and only in the early stages. Any writer on prayer will tell you that such things should be disregarded and are often delusions of the devil. No, mystical experience is beyond all that. It can be dark, painful, searing. It has to do with the will rather than the affections. A better word for it might be contemplative prayer. And as with all prayer, its authenticity must be tested by its fruits, what scripture calls, ‘testing the spirits to see if they come from God’. Is the desire/resolution formed in prayer good or bad, is it consistent with the Church’s doctrine, does it lead to greater charity, and so on.

I don’t think anyone who has read Benedict XVI’s writings can be in any doubt that they proceed from an intense interior life of prayer. By resigning the papacy he has demonstrated that he believes prayer to be the most important service he can offer the Church at this stage of his life. Prayer has no limitations, no boundaries; like love, it can never hurt anyone and achieves victories far greater than many realise. It is at the intersection between time and eternity. The media may want to make a little mischief by misunderstanding what the pope emeritus allegedly said, but all the mischief-making in the world cannot alter the facts. We are blessed to have in Benedict XVI someone who prays for the Church and the world with unremitting zeal and fidelity; and I, for one, am glad of that.

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A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Lent has brought with it more than the usual number of vocation enquiries, which I am slowly working my way through, so it may be useful to say a few words about discernment — not just vocational discernment, but discernment in general.

First, let us be clear what Christian discernment is not. Discernment is not the Holy Spirit perching on one’s shoulder and whispering into one’s ear, ‘This is the way, follow it.’ (No prizes for placing the scriptural allusion!) There are occasions when God may choose to make clear his choice for us in dramatic ways, but not often. He respects us and our manner of being, and he works with what we have, not with what we don’t. As Aquinas remarked, Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit. (‘Grace does not do away with nature but perfects it.’) In other words, discernment is, first of all, a natural process before it becomes a supernatural one. We use reason, information and reflection — rather as the cardinals will be using them to discern who should be the next pope. Grace informs this natural discernment, but it does not do away with the need to do the hard work of finding out and thinking through the possibilities.

In the case of vocational discernment, there is a twofold process at work. The candidate for monastic life has to think about what she is seeking, what attracts her to a particular community, her own strengths and weaknesses; the community has to think about these things, too — and how will she fit in here, how will she grow, how the community will grow because of her presence. It would be nice, but unrealistic, if all this could be conducted at a ‘spiritual’ level. In practice, there will be consideration of such things as health, temperament, background, or, as one old novice mistress of my acquaintance used to say, ‘teeth and laughter are as good a guide as any’. She wasn’t being frivolous. Experience had taught her that good health and a willingness to learn were a sound foundation for the novitiate. Degrees in monastic history or the ability to sing plainsong were not.

It is when we bring prayer into the mix that I think many people become confused. What exactly are we doing? We are not asking God to short-circuit the natural discernment process (though sometimes he does), nor are we asking him to absolve us of responsibility for the choices we make. I think we are asking him to become involved in the process and enable us to overcome some of our habitual blindness and prejudice. Provided we are not putting up any deliberate barriers, I believe we can trust that he will be with us. In other words, when we pray for guidance, it will be given us, but we need some delicate tuning in to the Holy Spirit to recognize it for what it is: part of a process, not the whole story.

Although, after the process of discernment, we may say someone or something is ‘God’s choice’, we have to beware of understanding those words literally. God does not guarantee the ‘rightness’ of our decisions, only that he will be involved in and work with the choices we make. Thus, we believe, for example, that whoever the cardinals choose as pope will be someone God will bless and uphold as supreme pastor of the Church. In that sense, we speak of him as ‘the man God has chosen’. Whether the man in question will live up to the demands of his office is another matter. We all have free will — even popes — which is one reason why Infallibility is a necessary protection against human error.

This way of looking at things is not as clear-cut as some other traditions of discernment in the Church but I believe it is worth thinking about because it applies to so many of the decisions we have to make in life. Some are of immense consequence — life choices in every sense of the word. Others are more trifling but still make huge demands on our emotional and intellectual energy. And we have to cope with all of them without knowing that we are absolutely right. Discernment is about judgement and perception; and as we grow older, we can all look back rather ruefully on occasions when we made bad choices for which we cannot blame the Holy Spirit.

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The Essential Nun

I have spent some time this week attempting to answer various enquiries which have come to us through the Vocation section of our main website. I have dutifully explained the canonical requirements for admission to a religious community, the significance of religious names, visits to parents, the meaning and form of various parts of the habit, the kinds of service undertaken by different Orders, the major differences between nuns and sisters and so on and so forth. It is tiring, but I try to answer as quickly and completely as I can. I also try to be kind, although I have noticed that some people are less than pleased when confronted with some of the canonical realities!

The problem is, all this talk about ecclesiastical requirements, the habit and the other details of religious life, though necessary, rather misses the point. A monastic vocation boils down to something few of my correspondents ever seem to mention: being utterly captivated, spellbound, by God — his beauty, truth, holiness, love and goodness — and wanting to spend one’s life as close to him as possible. Once one has been granted even a very little glimpse (and most of us must make do with a very little glimpse indeed), everything else becomes secondary, including the marvellous graces God has bestowed. (Abbess Elizabeth Sumner, of happy memory, once remarked with a conspiratorial smile that one shouldn’t admit candidates who were already in St Teresa’s Seventh Mansion as they wouldn’t have anywhere left to go. Monastic life could teach them nothing.)

I am certainly not questioning the sincerity of those who write, still less am I suggesting that one should lard a vocational enquiry with rhapsodic praise of God. I am merely reminding myself, and thereby others too, that a monastic vocation is really a very simple business — simple in the sense that it relies upon the fact that God calls, and he enables. Every nun places her vocation before the Church for discernment and ratification, but the starting-point, that which provides the energy needed to sustain the search, to accept all the contradictions and difficulties along the way, cannot be other than God. That is one of the reasons why I am uncomfortable when people focus too narrowly on the habit or any other sign of monastic commitment. Unless both heart and mind be given, whole and  entire, unless we take upon ourselves the shape and form of our vocation at every moment, something essential is missing. We have the outward show but not the reality. I can think of nothing sadder or more terrible for a nun, can you?

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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Gentleness with Self

For many years it’s been my practice to try to get up an hour earlier than the horarium demands in order to have more time for prayer and reading before the busy-ness of the day starts. Recently, it’s been proving harder to do. It’s cold and dark, and my bodyclock has been in rebellion. If St Teresa of Avila could admit that there were days when she couldn’t swat a fly for the love of God, why should I have any problem with my duvet difficulty? Because, of course, I do: I’m slightly rattled that I want to sleep when I feel I should ‘really’ be praying.

It’s very easy to beat oneself up about what one has not done: to feel a failure because one has not lived up to standards one has set oneself. I think that often causes a great deal of unnecessary anguish. Sometimes it is the anguish of mortified pride, because what we decide to do, even though good in itself, is not always of obligation. We are annoyed with ourselves for failing to do what we wanted, not what God asked.

We are currently reading St Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). I hope to comment more extensively tomorrow, but today I should like to draw your attention to just two points: according to Benedict, the most important quality the cellarer should possess is humility, and again and again it is stressed that he should do neither more nor less than is required of him by the abbot. The desire to do more can be commendable, but it can also be a form of spiritual ambition which is anything but godly. To tell them apart may require some delicate discernment. I may be wrong, but I suspect my need of sleep is greater than my need of extra prayer at the moment. God is being gentle with me. I just have to learn to be gentle with myself.

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