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.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Benedict’s Bench: welcoming others

At this time of year we all think about hospitality. For many of us, that leads to concentration on the food and drink we provide rather than the quality of attention we give others. A letter from one of our Associates has reminded us what welcoming others is all about, so, with her permission, I am going to quote part of it today.

When I became an Associate, you urged me to consider hospitality, Benedictine hospitality. This came as something of a challenge to an introvert living on a track between fields, outside a very small, workaday village. Responding to the challenge, I dragged a wooden bench, ‘Benedict’s Bench’, out onto a small patch of land beside the field of cattle opposite my house . . . .

I sat on the bench, often with a cup of tea, whenever it was time for me to water the cattle . . .Watering cattle is one of those wonderful tasks that requires one to be present but only actually doing something, i.e. changing the hoselines, for a few minutes in the hour. It makes for good prayer time.

The first thing that happened was that I came to know and love the cows. The second that people started to drop by, to stop on their walks, to collect their post at watering time, to simply sit with their own cup of tea and enjoy the peace.

The bench changed much. Gradually I came to know [the local] people far, far better. A teenager with girlfriend problems turned up for an evening or two, another with exam results and a career choice looming. Mothers sat down and let their children play while we just sat together. Our cattle farmer arrived each morning, and when it wasn’t harvest, stayed on drinking tea.

Benedict’s Bench has had an extraordinary effect on me and this tiny community. We are organising a Christmas Dog Show in the village. (N.B. Bro Duncan – outdoor, with classes and agility runs for everyone) and despite the sensible advice to take in garden furniture over winter, the bench will stay. It has opened hearts.

The writer goes on to describe cattle-home, when this year the bench was joined by several tables and chairs, a side of beef, ham sandwiches, cake, sloe gin and all the accoutrements of a country feast. It is a heart-warming story but it begins with one small step, a gesture of faith and trust. P. has taught us something important about how to welcome others, not merely into our space but into our lives.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Love of Solitude

As a community we are happy about using the internet to share something of our monastic life with others. Our use of Facebook, Twitter, Google + and so on isn’t random (though it may sometimes appear so): we are doing our best to exercise the traditional hospitality of Benedictines in all the ways open to us. So why am I writing about solitude, and more precisely, love of solitude? For the simple reason that our online engagement presupposes an even greater degree of engagement with God and the things of God in silence and seclusion. Love of solitude is an important element of monastic life that no amount of ‘connectedness’ can or should obscure, but I think it may be something those not called to live the monastic life might gain from thinking about.

One of the problems contemporary culture confronts us with is that of discerning how much of ourselves to share with others, especially online. Do we ‘do’ social media, and if so, what limits do we need to observe? Are professional/semi-professional networks like Linkedin or BranchOut as necessary as having a business card once was, or do they blur the distinction between public and private? During the last few months there has been an explosion of interest in the use of social media by the Churches and some very acute observations have been made. I particularly commend anything written by P. M. Philips (Methodist) or Antonio Spadaro (Catholic). However, I’m not sure that we have yet covered all necessary aspects. Worrying about our personal safety, the security of our online data, or the longevity of some of our sillier postings/comments on blogs and so on, is essentially self-regarding. As Christians, we are called to look beyond ourselves, to God and others; and that’s where it all becomes a little complicated. Is all this online buzz really good for anyone? What part does solitude play in our lives?

Solitude, as we all know, can be good or bad: it can be selfish or selfless, creative or destructive. A lot depends on our attitude and intention. That is why I emphasize the need for a love of solitude. Some people are afraid of silence, of being alone; yet we all need to experience what it is like to do nothing in particular, to spend time being receptive rather than assertive, otherwise whatever we  say or do, online or offline, will be shallow or vapid. A solitude which is not loneliness or emptiness is not achieved without some sacrifice, but in a world where we are endlessly available to others via the internet/smartphones/whatever, solitude seems to me increasingly necessary.

Prayers please
We heard this morning that our founder and Ordinary, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, has bowel cancer. Please keep him in your prayers.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Praise of the Salesians

There is much to say about my recent trip to the U.S.A. but there is a lot of catching up to do first, so this will be no more than a brief ‘I’m back’ kind of post.

For the New York part of my stay I enjoyed the hospitality of the Salesian Sisters at Haledon, New Jersey. They couldn’t have been kinder or more generous (though I did wonder briefly whether the large mug and copious quantities of tea bags on 4 July had some Deeper Significance). There were lots of good things I noticed about the Sisters but one struck me very forcibly. I never once heard any of them grumble about any of the other Sisters or speak testily to them. It may be that they already are saints; they certainly are living as saints. Community life isn’t always easy, as anyone who has tried it will tell you. Being thrown together with a group of people one hasn’t chosen and to whom one is not related by blood, each of whom is blessed with idiosyncracies and foibles one doesn’t necessarily share, can be taxing. All credit, then, to the Salesians for being so considerate of one another, not just the guests. St Benedict would have approved.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Christ

It is no accident that immediately after Benedict’s brief chapter on the monastery oratory comes an extended treatment of hospitality. If we wish to welcome God into our lives, we must be ready to welcome his children, too. Sometimes, especially among those who think they have a monastic vocation but are only just beginning to understand that it is not just about the two superpowers, God and self, but about the whole Church, there can be a reluctance to accept that welcoming guests is an essential part of being a monk or nun. ‘Leave my prayer to make the tea? Dame, how could you ask such a thing?’ Very easily, as it happens, for the guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ, and I think most of us would leave what we have in hand to welcome him, wouldn’t we?

RB 53 is  a very good chapter to use as a way of examining just how real our prayer is. If prayer makes us more selfish, more self-concerned, something is not quite right. If prayer makes us more welcoming, more generous, more selfless, something is right, even if there is still a lot that needs attention. At this stage of Lent it is easy to become disheartened. We have tried SO hard, and failed so miserably and so often. No matter. Like the old Desert Father, we fall down and get up; we fall down and get up. Only the eye of Love himself can see what is being accomplished in us. Praise him.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail