People often say to me, ‘Your faith must help your cancer.’ To which, if they will listen, I generally reply, ‘No, cancer helps my faith.’ What I mean by that is that my experience of cancer has impressed on me the fact that we are not in control, and control isn’t the most important thing in life anyway.
Today the whole world is being asked to embrace an uncertainty such as we have not experienced in a long time. Those who say, ‘ Our faith will get us through,’ are undoubtedly sincere but do not always recognize that faith isn’t something any of us can summon up at will, nor is it much use as a crutch. Our belief should encourage us to hope and prompt us to show love to others, but most of us know dark times when our belief falters, our hope evaporates and love is just a word. That is human and natural and not something we should scold ourselves for — still less, anyone else.
As always, I think we need to turn to the gospels and see how Jesus coped with the temptation to despair or rebel against the Father (if you don’t think he was ever tempted, I suggest re-reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent or the accounts of the agony in the garden at Gethsemane). He truly struggled. Many people are struggling now. Here in the monastery, where we are familiar with lockdown (only we call it ‘enclosure’) and practise a form of social distancing (only we call it ‘solitude’), we know that the single most important thing we can do for anyone is to pray, and pray we do. In prayer we embrace the uncertainty of life, for prayer is God’s gift. It all depends on him, but because it all depends on him, we need to stay alert and be co-operative.
That applies to every situation, including the one in which we find ourselves now where the rapid acceleration of COVID-19 is causing great distress and anxiety. In the U.K. this morning the message is clear: stay at home. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, just stay at home. That need not be a negative experience, but for many it will be very hard, requiring a renunciation of self few have been required to make before. I am reminded of Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers, encouraging a younger monk with the words, ‘Stay in your cell and it will teach you all things.’ Perhaps that sentence is one to ponder as we enter lockdown, and to remember it was love that prompted the monk’s withdrawal into the desert in the first place. We cannot know what the future holds, but faith, hope and love come together in an uncertainty that is, paradoxically, very sure. Let us embrace it as best we can.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we pray for the sick and those who have care of them; it is also Safer Internet Day, intended to encourage safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones. For me, there is a clear connection between the two.
Everyone knows, I think, that the community to which I belong chose to use the internet, including social media, as a way of responding to St Benedict’s concern for hospitality. Being short of money, physical space and numbers, and wanting to ensure that the monastic heart of our existence should not be compromised by too much noise or over-exposure to outside influences, the web offered lots of possibilities for engagement with others. It promised to be an excellent way of fulfilling the old idea of contemplata aliis tradere. By and large, I think it has fulfilled its promise and, as early adopters, I hope we have made a small but useful contribution to that.
Over time, many things have changed and the ugly side of the web has become more prominent. Think false information, anger, trolling, porn, hatred. These have made the community here more determined than ever to use online technologies for good. To a fellow believer I would express it as trying to take Christ into a situation, a world, from which more and more are trying to exclude him. In the early days we saw being active online as being where people were (and therefore where the Church should be). We now see it in rather starker terms. It is where a battle between good and evil is being fought, where we confront those principalities and powers of which St Paul writes. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but using traditional language to describe a current phenomenon does have advantages. It prevents us from seeing what we are experiencing now as completely without precedent and reminds us that the old disciplines of prayer and fasting may have something to say to us today that we need to hear.
Take social media, for example. I have often urged prayer before we go online and especially before we make use of social media. I have not been quite so enthusiastic about digital fasts because, in my experience, they rarely work as a way of bringing long-term discipline into a situation we may feel has got out of hand. That said, I acknowledge that, for some people, the need to come off social media for a while is essential because it has taken over their lives. It is a kind of Lenten discipline that enables one to re-focus. Fortunately for me, my life as a nun takes precedence over everything else so I am not free to go online whenever I choose or would like to. There is a kind of built-in restraint that is invaluable. There is, however, another way of looking at things I would like to suggest as worth pondering and perhaps acting on: bringing the social back into social media.
It is very easy to forget what the word ‘social’ means. It comes from the Latin word for a friend or ally (socius). It gives us the name we use for the community of human beings in which we live, society (societas). For St Thomas Aquinas, what we now call the State was simply societas christiana. The idea of being connected with one another in a relationship of friendship, mutual support and sympathy, is thus culturally an important one for all users of social media, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them. It is our disregard of that which I would say is at the root of much of our current unease with social media and the way in which they are used.
There is a very active Tweeter in the USA who does not seem to be unduly bothered by the truth or falsehood of what he tweets. As far as I can see, he is a narcissist whose main aim is to exalt himself at the expense of everyone else. There are some users of Facebook and Instagram who plainly see those platforms as being marketing opportunities. All they want from us is our money, whether in the form of cash or data. All this may strike you as being very cynical. I prefer to think of it as a kind of sickness in need of healing. We cannot turn the clock back to those heady and visionary days when the web was seen as a way of connecting everyone and the internet promised to make knowledge of all kinds freely available, but what we can do is ensure that our own use of the opportunities we are given is not merely responsible but creative and, I hope, healing.
We do not often stop to think of the creative and healing possibilities of social media, but they exist, and I believe we should each try to cultivate them. It isn’t only the lonely who go online. It isn’t only the dysfunctional. But we should not scorn them if they do. The community’s use of social media has brought us into contact with thousands of people who would never otherwise have got to know us. We have accompanied a few of them through some dark moments in their lives. I think — hope— we may have helped one or two find a happier way of being. Along with the photos of cats and dogs, and the little jokes that delight some and exasperate others, I think social media have enabled us to open the cloister to many who are not called to live there permanently but who have discovered that it has value, even for them in their busy, secular lives. What I write of here is not unique to us. Everyone who uses social media can use it for good or ill, to build up or tear down; and we do not always have to be solemn about it. Laughter is a good medicine, but let it be the right kind of laughter, not the kind St Benedict regarded as destructive. Let us make friends online by being friendly, by being truly social.
Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.
The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?
Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.
Since 1953, when Pius XII first instituted this day under the title Pro Orantibus, Catholics have been encouraged to give thanks to God for ‘those who pray’ and give spiritual and material support to monks, nuns and hermits who live what is called the cloistered life, i.e. whose main work is prayer rather than other forms of service such as teaching or nursing. For Benedictines, however, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady has additional resonances. For example, in the English Benedictine Congregation it is celebrated as the Dies Memorabilis, the day when the pre-Reformation Congregation’s privileges were conferred on its post-Reformation successor. For me, personally, its is the anniversary of my Clothing, of my formal entrance into monastic life.
Having said that, I wonder what impact, if any, this day makes on the average church-goer? Some have registered the enormous shake-up for cloistered nuns that Cor Orans represents. Others will be at pains to show their love and support for the communities with which they have a personal connection. But for the vast majority, I suspect, the day will pass by without any special awareness or acknowledgement. Perhaps that is in itself a clue to the origins of the malaise that many have identified in the Church. Put very simply, and I hope non-polemically, if we do not pray, everything goes wrong. It is tempting to lay the blame for abuse and all the other wrongs we identify in the Church on this group or that, on individual or organisational failures and infidelity to the Church’s teaching, etc, etc. I am by no means suggesting that we spiritualize away responsibility, but I think there is something fundamental we ALL need to remember. We are called to holiness. No matter how wonderful our good works, no matter how virtuous our conduct, we can do nothing without God’s grace. It is being close to him that makes us holy, and we cannot be close if we do not pray.
So, today is not just a reminder to be thankful for the cloistered life. It is a day to be aware of the importance of prayer in the life of every one of us; and if we have become a little careless or perfunctory in our prayer, to resolve to do better — to become like Mary ‘full of grace’.
From time to time someone will ask whether I have done such-and-such — usually, have I finished the book I’m writing, or updated the web site, or done any of the thousand and one things they regard as important and which they know are on my to-do list. The problem is, of course, that my to-do list is actually unachievable. It contains far too much for one lifetime, especially one monastic lifetime where all the doing has to be fitted into an overall scheme of prayer and community life. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt what is on the list, but I have learned to be flexible about the priorities. The person in distress who telephones and takes up an hour or more becomes the priority of the moment, the way in which God is asking one to use his gift of time. If it means the community meal is late, or other tasks have to be abandoned, tough. The ever-increasing amount of administration required by law or the demands of living in a house where we do all the general maintenance and so on make further inroads into one’s time. Mutatis mutandis, I imagine it is much the same for most of my readers. So, how do we make all this doing into prayer, into a way of becoming closer to the Lord?
St Benedict is very straightforward on the matter. He tells us that every good work we undertake should begin with prayer. In the monastery that means that every job we do begins with a silent commendation of the task to God. We pray before reading, switching on the computer, eating, driving, weeding, writing, doing the accounts, before doing anything, in fact. We do not pray with many words, just a lifting up of the heart and mind to God — and that is the point. Into our busiest moments we need to inject a little interior silence, a small space in which God can act. It is inevitable, with a General Election next week, that everyone should have become much noisier than usual. We are all keen to share our valuable insights (=opinions) with others, and some of us like to immerse ourselves in the storm and fury of media debate. We react rather than reflect, and all those beautiful gifts of the Spirit for which we have been praying so earnestly become forgotten in the rush and tumble of our words.
On the eve of Pentecost, let’s try to find a moment to pause, to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit find a chink in our armour against him. Our priorities may need re-thinking. Our to-do list may be placing absurd burdens on us or on others. Above all, we may be living with such interior clamour that we are wearying ourselves unecessarily. We do not need words to reassess our lives, just a willingness to allow God’s grace to work within us. Of one thing we can be sure, his generosity in responding to our need.
We all know what makes us indignant. Sometimes our outrage is accompanied by a nice warm glow of self-approval as we condemn what everyone else seems to accept uncomplainingly: war, poverty, disease, that sort of thing. I exaggerate, but for a reason.
There is a lot of indignation circulating online at the moment, but I’m not sure it is achieving anything very much or that it is always genuine, in the sense that it represents a truly compassionate response to a grave situation. The problem with indignation is that it often generates more heat than light. Our emotions are worked up, but our brain cells barely function. We seethe at the Save the Children report that over 1,700,000 children in Yemen (yes, you read that right, one point seven million) are severely undernourished and in need of ‘protective assistance’ because of war, but we do not know what to do about it. We may sign a petition; we may give money to aid agencies; but beyond that, we are at a loss. It is at that point that something sinister often seems to happen. We begin to feel guilty, as though we were responsible for what has happened, or, worse, we try to pin the guiilt on another. It helps if the other is an institution of some sort — a government, a church, an -ism of some kind. Either way, our indignation is in danger of feeding on itself because, of course, neither we nor the institution that becomes the focus of our rage is necessarily capable of changing things. That is particularly true, I think, when we are talking about the situation in non-Western countries. Our indignation gets us nowhere; it clouds what little vision we have and may even work against what we hope to achieve because anger feeds anger.
To return to that terible statistic about Yemen. We must translate that statistic into nearly two million children’s faces — children who, if they grow up at all, will always bear in their bodies and minds the dreadful consequences of these years of malnourishment and conflict. This morning the media are awash with reports of the terrible bombings in Jakarta and Diyarbakir, and rightly so; but those children, who will plead for them? More to the point, who will be prepared to give up an entrenched position so that they may live? We in the West earnestly desire peace for the people of Yemen, Syria and wherever there is conflict. We know perfectly well that the reasons for the present conflicts are many and various, but ultimately all our efforts, all our indignation, will avail nothing unless the people fighting one another want to change. Our prayer today must surely be for a change of heart, for an overcoming of every obstacle — in ourselves, as in others.
The Synod on the Family opens today in Rome. Those who have followed some of the pre-Synod debates as reported in the media (a significant qualification) may be expecting fireworks; those who haven’t will be expecting nothing at all, or a few damp squibs at best. For what it’s worth, I offer three things I have found useful to think and pray about during the months of preparation.
First, an Extraodinary Synod such as this is a powerful reminder of the universal nature of the Church. Here in England Catholics are so accustomed to being a religious minority that we sometimes fail to register how big the Church actually is, and how varied its experience of life and family. There are more Catholic Christians in the world than any other kind. Those of us who live in the West tend to assume our view of things is the ‘only’ one, so are often jolted out of our complacency when confronted by the Church in Africa or Asia or South America. I expect something of the same to happen when the Synod discusses the family. The problems we obsess about in the West are not necessarily the same as those that preoccupy those living in fear of persecution or who daily experience the reality of hunger and poverty.
Secondly, there tends to be confusion about the difference between doctrine (which cannot change) and discipline (which can and does), even among Catholics who, in every other respect, are well-educated and thoughtful people. This can lead to both unrealistic demands for change where none is possible, and intransigence about the possibility of change where it is not only possible but also desirable. That is where the whole Church, not just the Synod participants, has a particularly important role in praying not only for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Synod’s deliberations but in the acceptance and implementation of its conclusions afterwards.
Thirdly, the composition of the Synod has highlighted something I’ve touched on in other posts: the question of who can, and who cannot, share in the decision-making processes of the Church. That is essentially a theological question, although it is often treated as though it were merely a sociological one. It is an important question, and one likely to resurface in particularly acute form as a kind of subtext to the Synod. The experts on family life are those who live it, are they not, and the rumblings of dissatisfaction voiced by many about the predominantly clerical composition of the various bodies who prepared the lineamenta for the Synod deserves to be heard. That said, to be heard does not necessarily mean to be agreed with. We ought not to lose sight of the fact that a Synod is about discerning God’s will, not about achieving our own.
Three very simple thoughts on the Synod, but I hope they will be useful to others. The most important is to recognize our duty of prayer, for without actively seeking to know the mind of God, we are wasting our time. No amount of hot air can compensate for a failure to heed the Holy Spirit! May God guide his Church as he sees fit. Amen.