Nuns on the Run

I would have preferred the statelier ‘Gad-abouts and Gyrovagues’, but given that language is about communication, using monastic jargon, even humorously, has its drawbacks.

Yesterday we went to Douai to join the community for Mass and a festive meal which was very pleasant and a world away from our usual humbler liturgy. Today we have a few deadlines to meet, then tomorrow we are off again, in the metaphorical sense. BBC 1 Breakfast TV may give you a glimpse of part of the monastery not usually open to visitors while Digitalnun makes her way to the Great Wen to take part in Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ programme. We’ll never know what the TV shows or doesn’t except by hearsay, but Quietnun may well listen in to the radio in order to add prayer support. That’s what she says, anyway.

All this begs the question: why do many people regard an occasional egress from the cloister in order to take part in serious discussion or engage with others on subjects of common interest as somehow not quite right for nuns? One of the long-range effects of the 817 Council of Aachen and subsequent canonical additions by Carlo Borrromeo (to mention only the most important) has been to make the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns diverge on this point. Given that there is no ‘Second Order’ among Benedictines (Benedictines antedate the whole concept of a Religious Order) one wonders whether this is something that we shall need to address in coming years. As William remarks in one of the ‘Just William’ books, ‘Girls aren’t so mere as they were in your day, Dad.’

 

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In Praise of Books

Saturday morning is a good time for indulging a not-so-private enthusiasm for books and reading. I admit I love books: their shape, colour, texture, smell (I got over loving the taste at about age three). I love reading them; I love handling them; I love looking at them on their shelves or wherever they happen to be. Because I am, in some degree, a maker of books myself, I lap up typefaces and layouts, silently noting good or bad typography, choice of paper, ink and binding. I smile over unintentional contradictions, chuckle over misplaced punctuation, purr when I find a gerund or gerundive correctly used. Books are for reading I tell myself, so I don’t mind when the pages are scribbled on, turned down at important passages, loved literally to bits. I like reading on the monastery’s iPod Touch as well. At night, in bed, it’s light and comfortable to hold and there’s a great range of free books I actually want to read, such as Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, still the most readable guide to Iberia.

Tonight is World Book Night and it’s calculated that over a million books will be given away free at various venues — pubs, clubs and churches, to name but a few. We shall be safely tucked up in bed when all that happens, but tomorrow morning after Mass we shall be giving away new books on Newman and the saints, about thirty all told. You have to be there to get a book, so no email requests, please; and, of course, if you are minded to make a donation towards our Monastery project, we won’t turn it down. Happy reading!

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Of God and Geeks

Many people use this blog as their first point of reference for our other sites so here is a little round-up of domestic news. iBenedictines itself has been optimized for use on mobile devices using wp-touch. As far as I can see, that has worked well. There is no such instant solution for a conventional web site, so we have built a new version of our monastery web site just for small screen mobile devices. It has its own domain, http://www.benedictinenuns.net, and you can, in fact, view it using a desktop or laptop. It doesn’t have all the content of the main site, but since we have recently added more material, it should keep you usefully occupied as you travel the Northern line (or is it the District, I forget). Finally, just in time for Lent, our online retreat service should be going live on http://www.catholicretreats.org.uk and http://www.benedictinesonline.org.uk. The actual launch date will be announced once our beta-testers have finished telling us everything they don’t like about the way we have set things up.

This is, of course, pretty low-grade geekiness by today’s standards, but it does have one redeeming feature, in our eyes, at least. It is all done out of love for God and in the hope of allowing his love to reach people who would never be seen inside a church, as well as those who who are already committed to him. It is an expression of Benedictine hospitality, twenty-first century style. If you look at the Future section of our web site, you’ll see that we don’t believe in substituting virtual for real encounters, but we’ve made a start on trying to find a way to offer an experience of monastic peace to those in search of it. Please pray that, if it be pleasing to God, our venture of faith may be blessed.

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Fat and Holy

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico
St Thomas by Fra Angelico

One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).

Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.

In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.

In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.

So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.

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Light in Afghanistan

Apparently, some Taliban groups in Afghanistan are allowing girls to go to school and women to return to teaching. These are local agreements brokered by tribal leaders, strictly limited in scope but a sign of hope nonetheless. There had been a fear that, in their haste to get out of a situation which has seen so much loss of life, both Britain and the U.S.A. would be prepared to sacrifice human rights, especially those of women; so it is heartening to see a change of this kind being brought about by the people themselves.

Why, then, the muted response? A few years ago I blogged about a young Afghani girl who had acid flung in her face because she had dared to go to school. She is now blind and disfigured, condemned to a difficult and marginal existence because no one will marry her (the Taliban have not moved on other aspects of their beliefs). Her story is not unique. The statistics for female illiteracy worldwide are still shocking and, like it or not, the subjugation of women is still a reality in many parts of the world. The sad fact is that we in the west tend to shake our heads and do nothing. Our gaze is elsewhere. Some even mutter darkly about “feminism” as though women were the source of all ills (nothing new there, then).

Education for both men and women is the key to overcoming these blindspots and allowing the development of a just and equitable society. I’m reminded that one of the old definitions of justice is “right order”. There is surely a rightness about little girls being taught to read and expand their horizons. So, light in Afghanistan? Yes, just a chink.

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Rioting in London

Those who benefited from the student grants of old have probably had mixed feelings about the proposed changes in university funding and, in particular, the financial burdens being placed on students of the future. When we were young, universities were fewer, student numbers were fewer (can you believe, when I was at Cambridge only one undergraduate in ten was a woman?), and our expectations of the State were lower; but we knew we were immensely privileged and wanted as many as possible to share that privilege. Education was worthwhile: it meant hard work and sacrifice and laid obligations on us which we cheerfully accepted. It made idealists of us.

Looking at what happened in London yesterday, my own idealism began to slip. I thought I understood why the Government proposed the changes it has; I thought I understood how the scheme will work; and I thought I understood why so many people are angry; but I sat on the fence because I thought I also understood the wider economic argument. The violence and vandalism we saw yesterday are completely unacceptable. They show the argument has been lost, and in losing the argument we  have lost something greater still, the sense of what higher education is.

Long ago, a charming and brilliant friend who had devoted her life to the W.E.A. mused aloud, “education is too good to be wasted on the young.” I don’t agree; but I do think education is too precious to be wasted. Breaking windows and throwing paint are like Xantippe’s piss-pot. I hope they will not distract us from the serious matters we need to address.

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