Bottoming Out

Recently I had what one might call a salutary experience. I was repairing a door jamb for which I had to get down on my knees. That is not easy for me but I managed it, painful though it was. Then disaster struck. I couldn’t get up, and no one was around. The pain intensified. My left leg, the one with lymphoedema and other nasties, was useless. My right leg felt weak and unreliable and wouldn’t provide me with enough spring to get up. My cries for help became more desperate, finally turning into sad little whimpers. Eventually, after what seemed an age, I managed to get onto my bottom and edge myself into the building. I had reached the point of wondering whether I could continue or would give in to the pain, when someone came past and helped me to my feet. I felt both silly and relieved and inclined to laugh at myself for making a mountain out of a molehill.

It is very easy to make mountains out of molehills, but we don’t always laugh at them. Trifling setbacks or negative experiences can be allowed to loom large in our lives, making us prey to self-pity or unremitting anger. We can magnify the shortcomings of others so that we no longer see them as they are, only the monsters our spite or misunderstanding has created. That is especially true for those of us who engage with social media on a regular basis. We can see the world through a distorting lens and fail to realise that we may contribute to the distortion by our own unthinking attitudes or the way we voice our complaints. We may see ourselves as beacons of light set high on a mountain when in fact we are more like little molehills down on the plain that people stumble over. The experience of being powerless, of having to rely on others, can indeed be salutary as I have said, because it it reminds us of our dependence on one another. More than that, it teaches us that when we need help we may have to rely on the most unlikely people, on apparent chance or on other factors beyond our control. In short, there is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation in any sense.

This morning there are many people who need help. Most of them are unknown to us. They are ‘out there’ in South America, Syria, Yemen; in the next town, the next street, next door:  easily forgotten or ignored. Just occasionally, we may register that we too need help. We ‘bottom out’ so to say, and that is when we discover that our pretensions to self-sufficiency are absurd, that grace is all around and we must rely on it to get us out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We have only to ask and grace will be given in abundance — not necessarily as we would like or choose, but given nonetheless. That is worth thinking about. Whether the need be material or spiritual, our own or another’s, let us pray that both we and they may be as open to receive as we are to give.

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Poor Worms and Tiny Mites

I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks  — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20

As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.

I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.

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The Obedience of St Cecilia

I was surprised to read this on Twitter today:

‘She (St Cecilia, whose feastday this is) was one of those strong souls for whom it costs nothing to obey the voice of God.’ Père Adolphe Roulland, MEP

Quite apart from the mere detail of its having cost Cecilia her life, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has found obedience to God entirely easy or undemanding. We have to make an effort to listen, and for most of us, most of the time, that means renunciation of some other good so that we can pay attention to the Lord. Frequently, it means choosing something we find hard or difficult. Even St Benedict reserves to the twelfth step of humility the less stressful obedience born of long experience and practice — and Cecilia was about twelve when she was martyred (cf RB 7. 67–70). Those of us who are not the stuff of which martyrs are made have an additional difficulty. We are not very good at assuring ourselves that the promises made us can be relied upon. I know that I am a coward. Faced with the choice between dying for Christ and living on with some sort of accommodation to whatever was asked of me, I have a horrible feeling I would opt to live on.

Happily, it doesn’t all depend on us. Leave grace out of the equation and the Church would have no martyrs, no heroes or heroines of faith. Whatever challenges today presents us with, it is worth remembering that grace is all around. We may not be called to martyrdom in the sense of dying for Christ, but we are all called to witness to him. Grace will be given as and when we need it. We have only to ask.

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The Corrosion of Trust

Pope Francis speaks openly of the possibility of schism within the Catholic Church; many are increasingly sceptical of what our politicians say or the so-called facts on which they base their policies; some in the U.K. have even begun to doubt the independence of the judiciary or the way in which the British constitution has typically functioned (Bagehot, thou shouldst be living at this hour!) Trust has been corroded, and the sad fact is that once that has happened, it is very difficult to rebuild.

I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I don’t. In the dark hours of this morning, after I had made my prayer and was thinking about today’s section of the Rule (RB 1. 16–22), Benedict’s reminder that ‘we are all one in Christ and serve alike in the same army of the one Lord’ struck me with renewed force. It may be a perverse reading of the text, but it gives me hope to think that, however obscure and powerless we may seem to ourselves, our personal trustworthiness does make a difference. The politicians’ ‘we are all in this together’ expresses an uncomfortable truth. We are all part of something bigger, and it is important that we live up to the demands that makes.

In a world where fake news, phishing emails and scams of every kind proliferate, being determined to be truthful and just matters. Today’s Mass readings (Colossians 3.12–17 and Luke 6. 27–38) reinforce the point. We can be better than we know, but it won’t be easy.

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The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.

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Trying to Stay Positive

Most of us have experience of trying to stay positive when everything seems to be negative. The weather’s ‘wrong’; our job’s ‘wrong’; people around us are ‘wrong’. Everywhere we look we see division, squabbles, blistering rows and the most heartless violence. In such circumstances it is difficult to remain upbeat. Often it looks to others and to ourselves like foolishness or a flight from reality. Our determination to hold to our course is interpreted as stubbornness, our refusal to give in to lowness of spirits is a mere pose. Or is it?

One of the things I have learned from having metastatic leiomyosarcoma is that many of our reactions to people and events are affected by matters beyond our control. The various drugs I have to take affect my mind as well as my body. Steroids make me peppery; the anti-emetics make me tired and depressed; the chemotherapy drug itself can reduce me to a little heap of negativity quite unlike my usual self. But — and it is, as always, an important ‘but’ — there is something else at work, something that, until now at least, has always got me through. It is grace, but not necessarily grace as usually portrayed. I have no doubt that the prayers of all praying for me play a huge part in keeping me going, but there is also an element of choice. I have to choose to keep going, and I honestly don’t know where the power for that comes from. I assume it is grace, an unmerited gift of God, but I don’t assume that it will always be there or that I’ll always respond. That is not to doubt God. On the contrary, it is to assert the glorious freedom of God and our own free will and to recognize that what is possible to one person at one time may not be to another at another time. I have, so far, been able to choose to go on; others, alas, have not.

What of those who can’t go on, who are too tired/ill/broken in spirit to make choices or stay positive? We are often severe on them without meaning to be. We avoid X because he is always down in the dumps; we think Y would do a lot better if she didn’t keep harping on about what’s wrong with her life. Either way, we tend to judge them wanting because they do not conform to our idea of the brave cancer patient/the doughty battler against all odds we would like them to be (fill in as appropriate). We do not stop to ask ourselves why they should conform to our expectations in the first place, and are sometimes very grudging in our assessment of what they are struggling to cope with.

There is a sentence in the Rule of St Benedict that is well worth pondering in this context: ‘Let them bear with the greatest patience one another’s infirmities, whether of body or character.’ (RB 72. 5) Body or character . . . there’s the rub. We frequently mistake the one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we can make distinctions, saying this person is worthy of our compassion and that person isn’t. We are asked to bear with every kind of weakness with the greatest patience, and I think that stands the whole concept of staying positive on its head.  The emphasis is not so much on the one trying to stay positive as on those who have any kind of dealings with him/her. So, the person locked in clinical depression, the one who feels he/she cannot go on, the person overwhelmed by sickness or sorrow, it is not for them to feel guilty because they cannot be positive, it is for us who know them or come into contact with them to stay positive; and I suspect we can only do that by grace. In the end, it all comes down to grace, doesn’t it?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Augustine: a Very Contemporary Saint

St Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, wrote so much and so well that it is almost impossible to get him into any kind of focus. Most people know and love his Confessions; many will have read his City of God; a few more will have read some of his treatises or his reflections on the psalter; I myself acknowledge having plundered his sermons on many occasions for readings in choir; but it is perhaps those who live according to his Rule who know him best. It is very short, and full of north African sunshine. His theme is love and his words simple, but I don’t think his thought is; and that’s the great challenge of reading Augustine today.

We have a tendency to assume that the way in which we read a text is the way the writer intended. Unfortunately, because most of us are not schooled in rhetoric or are unfamiliar with many of the references and allusions contained in his works  — even the text of the Bible he quotes is different from any we customarily use — there is often a gap in our understanding. Perhaps that is why his speculative theology is so attractive. One does not have to beaver away at understanding the context of North African Christianity but can attempt to follow his mind as it ranges over the created universe in pursuit of the Eternal Uncreated. (A propos of which, modern physics enhances one’s understanding of his treatise on the Trinity rather better, in my opinion, than all the footnotes of Augustine scholars, but that’s a dangerous point to argue!) Is that enough? Don’t we have a duty to get to know the Augustine who has been so influential in Christian history?

I think we do, and that is where his life-story becomes important and very contemporary. The profligate youth; the sudden conversion at the age of thirty-one; the thinker and teacher who engaged with the important issues of his day; these different aspects of Augustine helped determine his opinions and proved to have a long currency. His concept of Original Sin, for example, and his understanding of the workings of grace have made the Church of the West very different from the Church of the East. Today we tend to concentrate on his anthropology: his condemnation of abortion and slavery, his strict sexual morality, etc.; but to his contemporaries, Augustine’s teaching on the nature of the Church, her sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, and free will were possibly of greater moment. He became the pre-eminent Doctor of the Western Church, and it is not without significance that, as Augustine lay dying in 430, the Vandals were laying siege to the city of Hippo. The brilliant Christian culture of North Africa was about to sustain its first destructive blow. Everything was to change.

Today, when Christianity in North Africa is only a shadow of its former self, when the Churches of East and West are divided and secular morality has moved very far from the positions held by St Augustine, one might argue that it would be vain to look to him for any guidance. Yet there is a perennial freshness about Augustine’s work that makes him as relevant to us today as he was to his fifth-century contemporaries. He makes us think, and he makes us pray. Who could ask more of him than that?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Disappointment

We all know what it is to be disappointed, when ‘ah’ turns to ‘oh’ on a downward note, and a brave smile replaces a bright one. I was fascinated to learn that the word originally meant precisely what it says: to remove from office. Perhaps an element in disappointment, then, is the feeling that one has been deprived of something that is one’s due. It isn’t merely an unfulfilled hope that is being dashed but a (more or less) legitimate expectation.

All very well, but how do we deal with it? I daresay at Christmas there will be many a person saying, ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ as they open a gift they don’t much care for, not realising how those words can numb the heart of the well-intentioned giver. We can ignore; feign; insist on acting as though nothing had happened. Very few of us have the ability to accept with perfect equanimity that things haven’t turned out quite as we had hoped. The tacite conscientia of the Fourth Degree of Humility is beyond most of us — except by grace. When it is a question of something more than present-giving, how we deal with disappointment can have effects that go far beyond anything we intended. Some of the horrors of the Second World War surely grew out of the disappointments of the First and the determination of Clémenceau and others to make Germany pay. Disappointment and humiliation are evil bedfellows.

In recent weeks we have had a number of disappointments here at the monastery, so this post is being written very much in via rather than safely on the other side of disappointment surmounted. My most recent PET scan revealed that the secondaries in my lungs and liver are growing merrily and have now invaded my right hip (bone) and, indignity of indignities, even my sit-upon! Fortunately, the pain is bearable at present, and beginning to walk like a drunken sailor is just one more eccentricity to cultivate. Of course I am disappointed. Of course it is difficult. But somewhere in that disappointment we as a community, no less than I personally, have to find meaning and grace. I am sure it is possible, but it may take a while to figure out how.

Note: we have a server problem which means all emails addressed to @benedictinenuns.org.uk addresses are currently being rejected. Prayer requests made via our online contact form are still getting through. We hope to get it fixed as soon as possible.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

How to Be a Good Sinner

Sometimes my readers make me feel knee-high to a grasshopper. They manage to lead lives of great generosity and holiness in the midst of circumstances I would find unbearable. Here I am in the monastery, well-fed (too well-fed, to be honest), surrounded by books and music and gardens, with a handsome hound (a.k.a. Bro Duncan PBGV) and a very holy nun (a.k.a. Quietnun) to cheer and chivvy me by turns, the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church to inspire me and the Rule of St Benedict to guide me, yet I still don’t quite make the grade. I fail as often as I try. I am a sinner through and through. And that’s not a little bit of hyperbole, like that of the Spaniard who had ‘El Gran Peccador’ carved on his tombstone, it is the simple truth.

Can anything redeem that bald statement, or is it all negative? I think being a sinner, and knowing and acknowledging that one is a sinner, means one is open to grace, which is what really matters. Our very need cries out to God for help, and we know he will never spurn our cry. I like to quote the example of the Desert Father who described his life as falling down and getting up again. To be a good sinner all we need do is follow his example, trusting in the mercy of God and asking his help to amend for the future. Grace will work its miracle in us, if we allow it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Gift of Encouragement

One definition of the verb to encourage is to give active help or to raise confidence to the point where one dares to do what is difficult. On the feast of St Barnabas, the Son of Encouragament, it is worth thinking about this, and the different words we use to express different shades of meaning. We embolden others, for example, to overcome shyness or diffidence; we hearten others in an effort to inspire them to fresh endeavours; and those we try to hearten or inspire, we usually try to foster or nurture as well. What is common to all is the need for us to do something in the service of others. We can’t encourage by sitting mute and doing nothing. We must ourselves risk failure if we want to help others. We can’t embolden others if we lack the courage to tackle their shyness and diffidence; and we certainly can’t put fresh heart into anyone if we are quailing at the thought of doing so.

I think St Barnabas, ‘the apostle no one talks about’, is a splendid example of an encourager. His life was so completely focused on his mission that we have almost forgotten him in our remembrance of what he achieved; and what he achieved was the building up of the young Church in circumstances that were indeed daunting. Most of us need encouraging at times. What we often forget is that we also need to encourage others. Let us ask the prayers of St Barnabas that we may learn from him the art of giving encouragement.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail