Holier than Thou

One of the professional hazards of being a nun is to be thought a party-pooper, a bubble-buster or an old vinegar-face. By definition, we disapprove of everything human or joyous (apparently). Then again, we ought to be living on bread and water and looking pale and anaemic as we waft delicately down gothic cloisters. The fact that we don’t and won’t is a mark against us. Being holier than thou, you see, takes many forms, with the inverse just as dangerous as the other.

As it happens, I think many of those frequently accused of being holier than thou — not so much nuns but decent, generous-hearted Christians of every denomination, people who quietly do their duty in the face of tacit and sometimes not so tacit opposition — are actually the least likely to be so. They are too aware of their own failings to waste time comparing themselves with others, or condemining them for faults not their own. They do not take refuge in the blithe assurance of the pharisees in today’s gospel (Matt: 23.27–32), ‘We would never have joined in shedding the blood of the prophets, had we lived in our fathers’ day.’ They know that they might not have seen clearly enough to avoid the mistakes of their forebears. They are humble in their self-knowledge.

So, who does point the finger and why? First, there are those who do not believe but still think they know what Christianity is and how Christians should behave. They tend to be very keen on our turning the other cheek when insulted or misjudged and affect to be terribly shocked at any display of material comfort. They also have long but often selective memories. They are the people who haunt Twitter with their oh-so-funny allusions to ‘Sky Pixies’ and make wild accusations about the iniquitous doings of Christians generally, but especially clergy and religious.

Second, there are those who are themselves believers but who are incautious in their judgement of others. They don’t mean to be holier than thou, but they often end up sounding sanctimonious. Their very idealsim leads them astray. ‘What would Jesus do? is, in this context, a condemnation rather than a prayer. If someone sincerely disagrees with them on some point, they are dismissed as being somehow wanting. They don’t believe as they should. Those finding others wanting need to be exceptionally well-informed themselves but aren’t always, which only compounds the difficulty.

Can we eliminate this tendency to be holier than thou? I suspect not. Those who don’t believe will continue to act on their half-knowledge of what the Church is and what she teaches. They will continue to look for a Church of saints and be disappointed when they encounter only a Church of sinners.  Those who do believe will continue to want a Church that measures up to their ideals and be disappointed that she never does. The rest of us must just get on with things, trying to become holy in the only way that matters: in God’s eyes, not those of anyone else. That is the real challenge, and the only one that counts.

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The Point of Being Pointless

Occasionally, I am asked questions that I spend my whole life trying to answer. For example, someone recently emailed asking me to explain the monastic vision and how it differs from any other kind of vision. I still haven’t replied, because this blog and what we say on our main website are probably the best answer I can give; but the fact that something is hard or would take a lifetime to articulate fully is no excuse for not trying to say something. Tomorrow, Candlemas or, more formally, the Presentation of the Lord, is the high-point of the Year of Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer; so here is an attempt, brief and of necessity incomplete, to try to express one nun’s understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine engaged in the monastic search for God.

My starting-point is the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict, the one illumining the other. We are engaged on a journey back to God from whom we have strayed. For most people the path marked out will be the ordinary one of marriage/partnership and family life, or the less usual one of singleness. For the monk or nun, however, there is an essential solitariness (cf monos) that goes beyond being single. The only way I can begin to describe it is as an emptiness only God can fill: a stripping away of self-will, of ownership of anything or anyone, a complete and utter dispossession. From most people’s point of view, that is nonsense: it is natural to surround ourselves with people and things, to make a home in the world. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing wrong with that and much that is right, provided we don’t become obsessive about acquiring more and more. But the monk or nun isn’t called to make a home in the world, nor are we called to live lives that make sense in a way others understand. We are simultaneously on the edge of society, like John the Baptist, and at its heart, like Thérèse of Lisieux. What we do (or don’t do), how we spend our time, the great cycle of public and private prayer that determines the shape of our days is, from a worldly perspective, entirely pointless. We may incidentally become great scholars, artists, educators, champagne-makers or what-have-you, but that is not what we are aiming at; it is not the point of our lives.

For a monk or nun there is only one aim: to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Many people are able to achieve that through a normal family life; we can’t, and it is because we can’t that we are drawn to monastic life. From the outside, there is much that seems contradictory. We talk about being possessionless, yet monasteries tend to acquire property over time, some of it very expensive property; we stress obedience, yet there are those whose concept of obedience is, shall we say, at best elastic; we are very conscious of failure, both individual and corporate. From the inside, the contradictions are fewer. It is possible to live lives of real austerity in the midst of plenty; to go on, day after day, cheerfully fulfilling tasks for which we feel no attraction; to fall and get up again. Little by little, that constant exposure to scripture and prayer, that daily experience of imperfect human nature under an imperfect superior in an imperfect community, does its work. In old monks and nuns one often sees a beauty and a holiness that, for me at least, convince me it is all worthwhile. The point of being pointless, so to say, can never be expressed in utilitarian terms because, in the end, it is all about love — love given and received, love made visible in Jesus Christ.

On Candlemas Day, please pray for all who are trying to live religious life as well as we can.

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The Baptist’s Cry

The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God  in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?

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All Benedictine Saints

On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.

Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.

 

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Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us

Devotees of Lord Sugar’s business methods may find today’s post rather baffling. What I say follows on from yesterday’s post and deals with the second half of Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. It is all about value, but not quite as that is often understood. It is about management in which substance is rated above style.

Benedict’s first point is that the cellarer must be humble (RB 31.13). No strutting his stuff or playing the status game. No, he must be grounded in reality (for that is what humility means) and that is the surest of all foundations for whatever he undertakes. The way in which that humility is worked out and manifested is interesting, especially when he is in what we would call a tight corner or asked for something impossible:

 . . . when he lacks the wherewithal to meet a request, he should give a good word in answer, as it is written, ‘A good word is above the best gift.’ (RB 31.13 quoting Sirach 18.17)

So, no bawling, no bullying, no primadonna tantrums, but courtesy and gentleness even in the most stressful situations. That is something to aim at, even if we fail dismally at times. Benedict goes on to say that the cellarer must not go beyond his authority. His powers are great, but if the abbot has said there is something he shouldn’t deal with, then he shouldn’t ‘presume to meddle with what has been forbidden him.’ (RB 31.15) Few of us like to think of ourselves as meddlers, but that is precisely what we are if we stray outside the boundaries of our duty. At a practical level, it can cause confusion and resentment. It can also lead us to have over-grandiose conceptions of our own ability, and that is never a good idea. The list of failed companies where the CEO had thought him/herself immune to market forces or even simple economics is long and growing longer.

Benedict’s cellarer is expected to be fair. If he isn’t, if he provokes others, then he is responsible for their failures. The example given in the Rule concerns the cellarer’s duty to provide for the brethren’s meals. If he is haughty or makes them wait unnecessarily, playing the power game again, ‘he must bear in mind what scripture says someone deserves “who tempts one of these little ones to evil.”‘ (RB 31.16, quoting Matthew 18.6) If you look at the scripture referred to in that sentence, you can see how very seriously Benedict takes the matter. Someone who does not act responsibly is a dead weight on the community—better he were not there at all.

Fairness is not all one-way, however, for Benedict recognizes that it is possible for an individual to be burdened with unrealistic demands, endlessly harassed by those who think that just because he is cellarer he must be constantly available to meet their every whim. On the contrary, Benedict stipulates that if the community is comparatively large, the cellarer must be given assistants to help him in his work and, tellingly, ‘Necessary items are to be applied for and distributed at appropriate times.’ (RB 31.18) How often does someone in a managerial position feel that his/her time is eaten up with small requests that interrupt the ‘real’ work of the day. Benedict has already made it plain that those small requests are, in fact, part of the real work of the day, but everyone in the monastery must ensure that they never become outrageously burdensome. He is asking, in effect, for a co-operative management style, having as his aim the peace and contentment of the community, for he concludes his chapter by stating that his reason for asking these things is ‘that no one may be upset or troubled in the house of God.’ (RB 31.19) That last touch, the reminder that the monastery and everyone and everything in it are God’s domain, is surely enough to remind any cellarer that it is God’s will he must do, not his own.

All very well in the monastery, you may say, but what are the practical applications outside? I think what Benedict says of the cellarer’s attitudes and behaviour are easily translatable into a secular context, although the language we use might differ a little. Good managers, whether they are running ICI or a small household, tend to have similar qualities. They are good at getting the best from other people because they respect others and are prepared to work collaboratively with them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily share their decision-making with them, but they are good at making people feel they are part of an enterprise rather than just a cog in a faceless machine. Courtesy, engagement (the ‘good word’), a sense of service, these are all important to the success of any business. They help create value. For Benedict, the supreme value  is the sanctification of the community members; for the rest of us, it is more likely to be a healthy balance-sheet and a happy workforce. Neither is to be despised.

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All Saints Day 2013

I made the mistake of re-reading last year’s post for this day and realised that it says most of what I want to say this year too, so I’ll spare you the repetition. There’s just one thing to add. A twitterstorm yesterday afternoon has heightened my awareness of the need for real holiness among the people of God. I don’t mean the kind of self-conscious ‘sanctity’ that seems chiefly to consist in adopting all the currently fashionable attitudes of liberal left or conservative right, I mean the kind of holiness that costs: the holiness of prayer, sacrifice and service; the kind of holiness that shakes us out of our complacency and changes us for ever; the holiness that reflects the holiness of God himself. It is that kind of holiness we celebrate today, not only among the saints in heaven but also among the saints on earth.

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A Solitary Life

Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a solitary life. Many people live alone but do not necessarily live a lonely life. What is the difference between being alone, being solitary and being lonely?

I’d say that being alone is principally a physical fact. There are no other people around. One can feel alone in the midst of a crowd, of course, but doesn’t that just mean that there aren’t any other people whom one knows or can relate to in a personal way? It is as if they weren’t there.

To be lonely is more of a metaphysical or emotional fact. Whether there are people around or not makes no difference. If there are others around, one knows that one’s own being there doesn’t matter to them. It is as if one weren’t there oneself. One is isolated: a little island in the sea of indifferent humanity.

To be solitary is something different again. For me the word is full of religious overtones because, in the Catholic tradition, to be solitary, alone with the Alone, is a privilege and a joy. It is not necessarily an absolute solitude, however. There is a solitary side to community life, for example, that few will speak about; but that intensely private life of prayer and sacrifice is an essential part of what it means to be monastic, and I am well aware that it is not confined to monks and nuns. The Church has her hermits, but she also has her ‘solitaries in the world’ whose lives light up the darkness that envelops us. Today would be a good day for giving thanks for these anonymous men and women of God whose lives of quiet holiness, outside the formal structures of religion, are such a blessing to us all.

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Chumminess and Our Guardian Angel

Attitudes to the feast of our Holy Guardian Angels can be quite revealing of how we approach the holy. Some people are clearly embarrassed by the very idea. For them, angels are chubby little putti, charming adornments to Rococo ceilings, but not to be taken seriously. We have outgrown all that, surely?  For others, angels are a constant presence — chums in the original sense of the word—sent to guide and guard us through life’s troubles. If a little sentimentality mingles with our devotion, what’s wrong with that? And then there are those who are awed by these mighty spirits sent to serve, these messengers of God whose dwelling is fire and flame. Their presence with us is a sign of the holy and we tremble at the thought. Siegfried Sassoon once wrote to D. Felicitas Corrigan that he had seen an angel. She replied very crisply that she did not think an angel of God could be so circumscribed as his description suggested. (I suspect D. Felicitas knew something about angels; she certainly had the measure of Sassoon!)

Have you ever stopped to consider the presence of angels all around you? St Benedict refers to their constantly reporting our deeds to God as they make their way up and down the ladder between earth and heaven Jacob saw in his vision. It is an arresting thought. We are more and more aware of State surveillance, of the long reach of the internet into our private lives, but we have forgotten that everything about us is known to God. Nothing escapes His merciful eye. The problem for most of us is how to live with that knowledge without being either crushed by it or making it into some kind of bugbear. You might try asking the prayers of your guardian angel to help you.

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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.

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Thinking about Saints

Today we celebrate the memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman. Unusually, his feastday is kept not on the date of his death but on the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism. That tells us something important about the way in which the Church views his life and work. The gradual development in Newman’s theological understanding is held up to us as a model to emulate but also, I think, as an encouragement. If we seek truth ardently, we shall be rewarded by an ever greater understanding.

On Sunday the pope declared two very different saints Doctors of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine nun, and John of Avila, the diocesan priest. In declaring them doctors, the pope was saying, in effect, here are two people on whose holiness of life and soundness of teaching you may rely. Very few saints are accorded that status in the Catholic Church, indeed only 35 to date.

I think all three saints share what we would today call a concern for evangelisation, for right teaching and fidelity to the mind of the Church. Hildegard was something of a polymath and pushed the boundaries of what was expected of a Benedictine nun. In her letters and her teaching she instructed many of the clergy. John of Avila, by contrast, is remembered chiefly for the personal holiness and zeal which informed his preaching and a book of advice addressed to a nun, Audi Filia. Hildegard’s missionary zeal spread out from the cloister; John’s flowed back in. And Newman? Newman is an interesting case of someone who wrote and spoke voluminously and probably did his greatest thinking about the Catholic Church and her mission as an Anglican. All three remind us that the saints of the Church do not conform to a single pattern; there is hope even for us, if we are prepared to make the sacrifice. The holiness of each one was rooted in the Cross of Christ and in the renunciation of self that discipleship demands. That isn’t a very fashionable doctrine, but it is a true one. Some things never change.

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