Making a Friend of Death

In our monastic calendar the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus is a very jolly affair because, for us, it is primarily a feast of friendship. We don’t have to agonize about the different roles of Mary and Martha or ponder the effects on Lazarus of those three days in the tomb. Instead, we can reflect on the three siblings’ friendship with Jesus, and the influence on him of all the hours spent in their company. This morning, however, the BBC web site has announced new guidelines for the care of the dying proposed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. It is obviously time to think about Lazarus again.

Many people shy away from death and dying. In the West, it is quite possible to reach late middle age without ever having seen a dead body or held the hand of a dying person. We are often confused, awkward. We don’t know what to say or do. Instead of seeing the dying person, we see something else, something strange and perhaps terrifying. Very few death-beds are really dignified, as most of us understand that term. There is, instead, a mess of feeding-cups, morphine-pumps, crumpled bed-clothes and — often — the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital. But it is not these that confer or withhold dignity from the dying person. It is the atmosphere of love and reverence surrounding them that matters. Even in the most appalling circumstances, a gesture of love and reverence can be transformative.

When Lazarus came to die, I think we can be confident that he was surrounded with love and devotion. In death his body was treated with as much reverence as in life — washed, anointed, bound in linen cloths and placed in a tomb. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to wake him from death, he was ready. The binding cloths fell away and Lazarus stepped once more into the sunlight. He had experienced death as a friend, and it was his Friend who called him from it.

It is said that St Francis added the verses about ‘Sister Death’ to his Canticle of the Sun just a few moments before he died:

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.

He had learned that death was not to be feared: dying was only the means to attain eternal life. Sin held more terror for him. Most of us are not so brave, or clear-sighted. We fear death as Francis feared sin. We see the death of our body as the end of everything, rather than an entry into glorious freedom. Perhaps we need to wait a little. We cannot manufacture an understanding we do not yet have. In the Benedictine tradition, we are exhorted to keep death daily before our eyes. We are to make a friend of death and live each day as though it were our last, with joy, gratitude and selflessness. I think Lazarus, called from the tomb, would have understood that, don’t you?


Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!


How to Be a Friend by Bro Duncan PBGV

BigSis (a.k.a. Digitalnun) is speeding towards York for a conference, so I have commandeered the keyboard. Please don’t tell on me, ‘cos she may think I’ve been taking liberties. I take them all the time, in fact, but she doesn’t realise: she just thinks it’s my doggy nature . . .

Dogs are often described as ‘man’s best friend’, which is true, but I sometimes think you humans haven’t got a clue about friendship and what it really means. You always seem to be looking for something in return. Your friendship is often just a sophisticated kind of cup-board love, which is what you accuse us of. How often do you see on Facebook some post saying ‘we’ll see who actually reads this’, and you get to the end and there’s something or other about you won’t be friends any more if you don’t post this to your own timeline. Kibble and cats! You humans need to be more like us dogs. If you are friends with someone, you ask nothing in return except to be a friend; and being a friend isn’t difficult. You don’t need to give lots of bikkies (though I must admit, I’m always glad when a few come my way); you don’t need to lavish lots of ‘quality time’ on your friend (I’m happy just to be in my basket when They are around); you don’t need to murmur sweet nothings (I don’t mind being called ‘you old rat-bag’, honest I don’t: it’s the tone that matters); you just have to be ready to love them.

Call me quixotic if you like, but I am thinking of starting a New Movement for the Advancement of Canine Values. Friendship will be top of the list. I wonder how you humans measure up to us dogs, eh?


Dunc xx


St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns

Were today not Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of St Etheldreda (Audrey) and All Holy English Nuns. You can read about Etheldreda and several others in Bede if you don’t know anything of them. This morning, however, I am thinking not so much of those for whom we have vitae, letters and other memorials but the anonymous ones we commemorate under that catch-all title, ‘All Holy English Nuns’. There is something immensely attractive to a Benedictine in knowing that she stands in an unbroken tradition stretching back long before the Conquest to a time when Anglo-Saxon nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as their counterparts today. They are an inspiration to us here at Howton Grove Priory. Their zeal for holiness, their learning, their generosity in service are qualities we seek to emulate. The fact that their names are lost to us is unimportant. We can still ask their prayers and follow their example. One area where that example is very telling is that of friendship. You have only to read the letters to and from St Boniface to realise how very good Anglo-Saxon nuns were at friendship.

Striving to be friends of God should surely help us to be friends with one another — and if you have any doubts on that score, just re-read John 15.


A Delinquent Dog

There are some people who regard their dogs as spiritual directors. Even though I am English, I think that is going rather far — not because I do not honour Bro Duncan but because, as readers of this blog are aware, I am a little sceptical about spiritual directors in general, believing that the needful gift is rare. Bro Duncan does very well as a watchdog for the community and fulfils the role of porter admirably, greeting everyone and being especially attentive to the very old and very young, with whom he has a special affinity. (Not surprising given that his own joints are beginning to creak, and standing just 15 inches high at the shoulder, his world view has always been that of a little child). He is a very companionable dog, very gentlemanly and discreet. At least, I thought he was.

Recently he spent a day in kennels getting a haircut and returned home a different dog. He looked better, he smelled better, but his behaviour! For the first time in his life he decided that the visitors’ sofa was exactly what he needed for chilling out (he is not allowed on furniture); instead of pleading with kohl-rimmed eyes for a share of the visitors’ biscuits or dancing on his hind legs with supplicating front paws, he attempted to intercept the movement from plate to mouth; worst of all, he looked very smug about his antics.

It is clear we have a delinquent dog on our hands and are like the parents of teenagers, wondering what will happen next and asking ourselves where have we gone wrong. For once, the Rule of St Benedict is scarcely a help. However, I know we must be patient with our errant brother because there is one lesson that, spiritual director or no, he has always taught us: everyone is his very best friend. I can’t help wondering whether, if we human beings made fewer distinctions and treated everyone as, potentially at least, our very best friend, the world would be a kinder and more pleasant place.

(Note: if you are old enough to enjoy a little silliness, Bro Duncan has his own Twitter account, @BroDuncanPBGV.)



We keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow being the feast of St Benet Biscop for us) so my thoughts naturally turn to friends. Friends, please note, not friendship. Friends are people — awkward, imperfect, challenging, delightful to be with; friendship is an abstraction, a way of thinking and reflecting on what friends are and mean.

Today let us give thanks for our friends in all their quirky individuality and pray that we may be better friends in return. Christ is always the third person present in any friendship, so let us be friends in a way that he would approve; and if we can think of any friends from whom we are estranged or whom we have neglected, let’s make an effort to put things right.


The Friendships of Jesus

Allow me a very large generalisation. For many centuries the Catholic Church has been a bit ‘undecided’ about friendship. Generation after generation of novices and seminarians were warned of the dangers of ‘particular friendships’ and encouraged to avoid any kind of emotional intimacy with others. Of course it didn’t work. People are too sensible not to realise that friendship is a gift, one that can bring people closer to God. Remember Aelred of Rievaulx and his insistence that Christ should be the centre of any Christian friendship? Quite.

Perhaps we would be less afraid of friendship, and readier to accept that the gift of friendship is not without its obligations and duties, if we spent more time thinking about the friendships of Jesus. The household at Bethany was clearly a place where Jesus was happy to be, where he could enjoy the company of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The accounts in John’s gospel of his interaction with the three siblings are all interesting, but I think today’s account of the raising of Lazarus highlights something we too often forget: Jesus loved his friends, just as we do. It wasn’t a case of his being God in human form and therefore somehow immune to feeling. Jesus didn’t act a part, didn’t pretend to a grief he didn’t feel. He shed tears for Lazarus. He mourned his loss. Something of himself was gone when Lazarus lay in the grave. Yes, we know that he raised Lazarus to life, we understand, at least in part, the sign; but I think we misunderstand Jesus if we pass too quickly over the grief and the tears. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, yes; one who has borne the grief of the whole world on his shoulders; one who can weep with us, not just for us.