A Little Blog Housekeeping

Several weeks ago I canvassed readers’ opinions about possible changes to the blog. I think it would be fair to say that the consensus was ‘no change’. However, there were a number of things that needed tidying up, and I hope we have now dealt with most of them:

  • the RSS feed has been emptied of all bloated bits and pieces, so should work more speedily and reliably in future
  • the Facebook link has been redone so that it should post more reliably (it still can’t cope with scheduled posts, for some reason)
  • the sidebar has been re-ordered
  • the Google Translate widget has been made to work as it should (not before time)
  • the Donate Now button takes you to our Charity Choice link (so you can have second thoughts if you wish) rather than simply asking you how  much you want to give (no subtlety there)
  • the Amazon Shopping search bar has been corrected so that if you are in the UK and choose to use it for your online shopping, we get a referral fee
  • there is a tag cloud so you can see at a glance the subjects most often discussed on iBenedictines
  • the link to eBuzzing rankings is now displayed last of all, so you can have fun with it if you want.

There are a few more tweaks to make, but these are enough for now. And if you want a thought for today, how about some fasting and praying for the people of Syria and wherever there is violence? We may think we can do very little, but doing a little is better than doing nothing.


The Turn of the (Monastic) Year

Tonight after Vespers we enter the monastic ‘Little Lent’, a period that lasts until Lent itself begins. Throughout this period, Fridays are set aside as days when we fast and maintain a more complete silence than usual. They are desert days in the midst of autumn fuitfulness; days out of time during the winter cold. The simplification of life that these Fridays bring is always welcome, although I must admit that when it is very cold one does seem to spend more time thinking about the next meal than is quite proper! Everyone needs some desert time in their lives, but it is a mistake to think that it means going somewhere special or making a huge change in one’s routine. Some can do that, but many cannot. Our change of gear is barely perceptible to outsiders. What matters is the renewed focus on things of the Spirit; the intentional simplification of food and drink in order to be more attentive to him; the interior and exterior quietness — always ready to be interrupted for another’s need but carefully guarded from self-indulgent chat and gossip. These are not heroic things but they mark the monastic turn of the year as surely as the blackberries in our hedgerows or the fields of golden stubble all around. Paradoxically, they are part of the fruitfulness of asceticism, for without asceticism there can be no love.


Food and Drink

I like the fact that we reread St Benedict’s chapters on food and drink and the times of meals during Lent. They remind us that we are, all of us, dependent on eating and drinking for our survival — and that we can be surprisingly picky and difficult about what we eat and when. In the monastery we have a lively sense of the meal as sacramental. However, my years as monastic kitchener (cook) taught me that, no matter how holy and observant the community, the sense of sacramentality disappears from view remarkably quickly if the food on offer is not to somebody’s liking! Today, when soup kitchens and food banks are a feature of British life in a way they have not been since the Depression, our attitudes to food and drink need examining.

We are often told that we face an obesity crisis. At the same time, eating disorders wreck the lives of many, especially the young. Alcoholism and binge drinking (not to be equated) wreck many more. Dieting is now a recognized ‘industry’, and the current popularity of ‘fasting’ diets seems to make nonsense of the religious fasting of Lent. Or does it?

As always, motivation is key. If I don’t eat because I am too poor to buy food, my hunger is more than just a challenge to those who could supply my need. It is a condemnation of those could help but don’t. If I don’t eat because I want a slimmer waistline, that is a morally neutral act (provided I am not underweight). If I don’t eat because I am making some small sacrifice of food or drink as a gesture of love towards the Lord, that is potentially a good act. I say potentially, because we all know how easy it is to become proud of our ability to control our appetites. Fasting isn’t about control, it is about love, giving.

St Benedict is well aware that fasting in the monastery needs the support of the Rule to be effective. We do not choose for ourselves what we do; there is a common standard laid down by the superior. For some, that will mean doing less than they would like; for others, doing a little more. It’s an old-fashioned word, but mortification of the will is a better offering than some picayune ‘sacrifice’ of a potato or two. ‘What I want is love, not sacrifice,’ says the Lord. What a pity we so often forget that or use it as an excuse for doing nothing.


Lent, Popes and Plain Speaking

Depending on your preferred online reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lent had been forgotten amidst all the riot of discordant opinion about Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI.* To say that is a pity is an understatement. We are approaching the holiest time of the Christian year and we need to focus. Inevitably, there is a lot of interest in both Francis and Benedict, but if we are busier scooping up fascinating details about them or speculating about their intentions than living Lent, we may forget what really matters: preparing heart and mind for the solemn feast of Easter.

So, instead of getting into a fret about what may or may not be happening in the Vatican, why not ask yourself some hard questions to which you, and only you, know the answers. How is your prayer, fasting and almsgiving going? Does your Lent still have the purity of intention with which you began? Are you more aware of your own sin and the immense forgiveness of God? The next questions are trickier, and only those around you will be able to judge, if at all, the progress you have made. Have you become more charitable, more patient, in a word, more like our crucified Lord? Or have you been blessed with a grace so glorious and overwhelming that you have forgotten self entirely in your wonder and awe at the infinite goodness of God?

Sometimes a little plain speaking at this point of Lent is all we need to get us back on track. I would not dare to ask these questions had I not already asked them of myself and blushed at the answers I gave.

* I myself find attempts to exalt either pope at the expense of the other profoundly distasteful. I believe the papacy of both men to be important for the Church, but we lack perspective at present. I’d be grateful if readers would not use this blog to air derogatory opinions/engage in an argument which, by its very nature, can have no resolution. Prayer would be much more to the point.


The Exaltation of the Cross

It is no accident that Pope Benedict XVI begins his visit to Lebanon on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and I trust the prayers of all people of goodwill will accompany him. That frail figure dressed in white is vulnerable in a way most of us never experience . . .

Today we celebrate the triumph of the Cross, the victory of Life over death. It is a message of hope we badly need to hear, in the Middle East above all. Nearer home, the feast is often forgotten, just one of those names in the calendar people barely note. In monasteries this feast marks a turning-point. We begin the winter fast, often called the Little Lent, which will ensure that every Friday between now and Ash Wednesday will see us denying ourselves some food and drink in memory of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as the wounds dealt by sin are marked on His flesh for all eternity, so we too will mark our flesh with some small sacrifice in remembrance of Him. What else would you expect from ‘an incarnational religion’?


Lenten Transfigurations

I like the fact that we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent, and that the collect of the day invites us to feast interiorly on the word of God. That feasting on scripture is such a stark contrast to the fasting from food that marks ferias in Lent, while the revelation of God’s glory shining through our human flesh and blood is such a powerful reminder both of what we are now, God’s children, and what we are to become when we see him as he truly is.(1 John 3.3) St Paul caught the wonder of this when he wrote of our being changed from glory to glory. (2 Corinthians 3.18)

Mark’s account ends, ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.’ (Mk 9.8) Isn’t that what Lent is about? All our observances are meant to help us see Jesus more clearly, and because we see him more clearly, we reflect his beauty and glory more perfectly in our lives so that others can see Jesus in us. That is the Lenten transfiguration we aim at: becoming true icons of Jesus Christ.


Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.


Shrove Tuesday 2012

Shrove Tuesday: a day for being shriven (sacramental confession of our sins), for carnival (eating meat) and pancakes (clearing out the last of the butter, eggs and milk in the larder) before the Lenten fast begins — and for making merry, in the old-fashioned sense of rejoicing and having fun. It may be my warped sense of humour, but there has always seemed to me a marvellous inversion of the usual order of things on Shrove Tuesday. The Church traditionally kept the Vigils of great feasts with a fast; the Vigil of the great fast of Lent is kept with feasting. In both cases the purpose is the same: to impress upon us the solemnity of the occasion, its spiritual importance marked out by what we eat and drink and do.

Today we eat in honour of the Lord; tomorrow, and for forty days, we shall fast in honour of the Lord. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: these are the foundation of our Lent, but probably the most obvious to ourselves and others will be the fasting. It is worth thinking what our fast should be.


Financial Meltdown

Fears about the U.S. economy and European debt are fuelling fears of another financial meltdown. The major banks are in a less healthy position than they were a couple of years ago, and once the August holiday season is over, we can probably expect more equity sell-offs. Even gold prices have fallen, which is contrary to the trend we have seen in recent months. What does this mean for the Churches? I don’t know, but less income and increased need in society for the kind of services the Churches offer the poor and  struggling are a piquant mix.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not just for Lent. They are a way of preparing for difficult tasks at any time of year. Perhaps we all need to think about our response to the challenge of the times we live in and prepare ourselves for what may be to come. The certainties of yesteryear are gone forever. We must learn to live by the mercy of God.


Digital Housekeeping and Lenten Discipline

Yesterday evening I tidied up the Resources entry page on our main web site and redid the main contact form. I realised after I had done so that I had fallen into the biggest pit of all for web designers: doing something that is technically a bit challenging and produces a ‘clever’ effect but which actually obscures rather than enhances what one is trying to say. It will be back to the digital drawing board this evening, but in the meantime I think there is  a lesson to be drawn from this, for me at least.

During Lent we can become so focused on what we are doing, the things we’re giving up, the things we’re taking on, that we can lose sight of the object of the exercise. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are meant to draw us closer to God. They may make us nicer people. They may may make the world a nicer place for everybody to live in; but if they don’t draw us closer to God, aren’t we missing something important?