Seeing only Jesus

The last few days have been moderately awful, even without the horrors experienced by the people of Japan and Libya. Several of our friends have been going through what one might reasonably call ‘a bumpy patch’, while we ourselves have been struggling to meet a deadline, not helped by a number of additional demands over which we had no control. So we reach the Second Sunday of Lent tired and scratchy and what do we find? One of the most beautiful and arresting liturgies of the Church year.

In the middle of this season of fasting and penance, the collect invites us to ‘feast interiorly on the Word’, then the gospel takes us up on to Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration. How embarrassingly petty seem all the irritations of the past week. Even those things which tugged at the heart strings are transformed by being taken into this mysterious presence whose calm and beauty illumine our inner darkness. ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.’ That surely is the secret: to see only Jesus whatever may befall.

A long time ago, when I used to be asked to produce Office hymns at the drop of a wimple, I tried to express something of this moment of  Transfiguration in words:

A single moment holds
Eternity’s vast span,
As wondering earth beholds
God’s heaven revealed in Man.

Both sun and moon grow dim
And lesser stars yield place
As Light from Light they hymn
In Christ’s transfigured face.

Now Law and Prophets speak
Of what must soon befall
The One who dares to seek
Salvation for us all.

Here Peter, James and John
Stand awed by this strange sight
As whom they gaze upon
Shines whiter than the light.

The Father’s voice is heard —
Bright cloud hides all around —
His Son, the listening Word,
Alone, alone is found.

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Information Overload and Compassion Fatigue

Two phrases which have become commonplace, ‘information overload’ and ‘compassion fatigue’, strike me as having enough truth to make them useful and enough untruth to make them dangerous. At the moment, it is difficult not to be caught up in the tragedies unfolding across the world: Japan, of course, but also Libya and Bahrain, Ivory Coast; and those by no means over but already gone from the headlines, the floods and earthquakes which have wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands if not millions. We know too much, but we know it only briefly; and though we do our best to respond, there comes a point when the wallet is, if not empty, at least not as full as it used to be and we are faced with making hard choices: life for you, but not for you.

In the monastery we are, to some extent, protected from both information overload and compassion fatigue. We don’t have unrestricted access to the media and we don’t have much material wealth to share with others. On the other hand, as anyone who has lived this kind of life will tell you, whatever we see or hear makes a much greater and more lasting impact precisely because our access to the media is limited, while not being able to help materially can be painful. So what do we do?

Our first response to any tragedy is prayer. For some people, prayer is a last resort, something one tries when everything else has failed; but to pray perseveringly, committing the outcome to God, trusting him absolutely yet ready to accept that prayer may not be answered as one would wish, is harder than it may seem, yet it is open to any Christian by virtue of the gift of prayer poured into our hearts at baptism. It is not a soft option, a cop-out. It means taking seriously Christ’s role as Eternal High Priest and uniting our prayer with his. It means taking time, wasting time. When we think we can’t take any more, can’t give any more, there is always that inner jar of nard to be broken and poured.

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Why Are Catholics So Nasty?

Whenever I want to think through a coding problem for a web site, I “waste” time by looking at a number of religious blogs. The distraction helps, and I often end up finding something useful or stimulating while the coding problem resolves itself once I have stopped thinking about it. Maybe it’s just the blogs I follow, but I have to say that the ones I enjoy most are not often Catholic. Indeed, the Catholic blogosphere is sometimes a very nasty place to be. Why should that be so?

I think it may have to do with the current fashion for damning Vatican II and all its works and exalting the minutiae of liturgical observance. Now, I am not uninterested in liturgy, said she with a dangerous gleam in her eye, but I believe reverence is more important than anything. Say the black and do the red, but don’t accuse those whose practice differs from your own of lack of orthodoxy or worse. Don’t cherry-pick the Councils, either, if you want to have a truly Catholic understanding of the Church. Those more papal than the pope worry me. The energy devoted to hating others seems inconsistent with what we profess to believe. Of course, it could just be that I am out of step with the times. I don’t mind that if I am in step with Christ and his Church, or at least not too far off-course, though I can’t judge.

In the novitiate we were urged to be always one with the mind of the Church. That means reading and reflecting and taking the trouble to find out for oneself, rather than just assuming. It also means being kind. I think we sometimes forget that. When Christians cease to love one another, they cease to be Christians except in name. The history of Christianity is marred by rows and we live today with the resulting divisions. As we prepare to go to Mass, I can’t help wondering how I shall answer the question, “What did you do to bring unity to my Church? Did you love as I have loved you?” I hope that I won’t have to say, I abused your gifts, I wrote nastily about others, I hated and divided; but shall I?

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Of God and Geeks

Many people use this blog as their first point of reference for our other sites so here is a little round-up of domestic news. iBenedictines itself has been optimized for use on mobile devices using wp-touch. As far as I can see, that has worked well. There is no such instant solution for a conventional web site, so we have built a new version of our monastery web site just for small screen mobile devices. It has its own domain, http://www.benedictinenuns.net, and you can, in fact, view it using a desktop or laptop. It doesn’t have all the content of the main site, but since we have recently added more material, it should keep you usefully occupied as you travel the Northern line (or is it the District, I forget). Finally, just in time for Lent, our online retreat service should be going live on http://www.catholicretreats.org.uk and http://www.benedictinesonline.org.uk. The actual launch date will be announced once our beta-testers have finished telling us everything they don’t like about the way we have set things up.

This is, of course, pretty low-grade geekiness by today’s standards, but it does have one redeeming feature, in our eyes, at least. It is all done out of love for God and in the hope of allowing his love to reach people who would never be seen inside a church, as well as those who who are already committed to him. It is an expression of Benedictine hospitality, twenty-first century style. If you look at the Future section of our web site, you’ll see that we don’t believe in substituting virtual for real encounters, but we’ve made a start on trying to find a way to offer an experience of monastic peace to those in search of it. Please pray that, if it be pleasing to God, our venture of faith may be blessed.

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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Saying Sorry is not for Wimps

Many readers of this blog probably sighed with relief when they heard that Britain’s state-owned woodlands are not to be sold off to the private sector; but I wonder what they made of the curious political tit-for-tat that followed the Environment Secretary’s announcement. I thought myself that Caroline Spelman handled a difficult situation with dignity, even graciousness, and was particularly struck by the absence of fudge in the way she began her announcement, ‘I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me before the House today.’ That is not what, sadly, we have become accustomed to hearing from some of our M.P.s. Even more interesting, though, was the way in which she countered an accusation that she had been ‘humiliated’. Whatever her private feelings on the matter, what she said was straight and to the point: ‘I’m sorry . . . One of the things we teach our children to do is say sorry. It is not a humiliation; it is my choice.’

Why do we think that admitting one is wrong and saying sorry is humiliating? Some of the most terrible miscarriages of justice in history, some of the most dreadful wars, owe their origins to someone’s inability to climb down and say sorry. We all know the kind of apology which is no apology at all and merely provides the one ‘apologizing’ with an opportunity to run through all the resentments that led to the explosive situation in the first place. But a genuine apology, made simply and humbly, is utterly disarming. Few have the courage to attempt that, and I have to say, at the risk of annoying my male readers, that women tend to manage it better than men. Perhaps because we cannot physically exert our will on another, perhaps because we are better at reading emotions than many men, we don’t find it necessary to maintain our position in the face of the evidence. We can concede without feeling defeated.

Jesus of Nazareth was one man who knew how to handle an apology. On Fridays our thoughts turn naturally to his Passion and death on the Cross. I am trembling on the edge of heresy when I say this, but I think his death is not only the occasion when man said sorry to God for all the sin committed by humankind, I think it is also the occasion when God said sorry to us and bowed his head before his creature, not because God had ever done us wrong but because the way in which an apology is accepted matters, too. Saying sorry is not for wimps but for the brave of heart and truly loving.

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Jesus is not my Boyfriend

We are made of stern stuff here in the monastery and are celebrating the feast of SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. Not for us the wine and roses of St Valentine’s Day, although I did hear someone reciting Donne after breakfast and stopped what I was doing to listen. There is no finer poet of love in the English language, engaging mind as well as heart.

Donne, however, is not my subject this morning but the misapplication of the Bride of Christ theme. From time to time I look at an American web site frequented by (mainly) young people discerning a vocation and cringe at some of the soppier expressions of what is, I am sure, at base a very genuine love of the Lord. The sponsa Christi imagery applied to nuns and consecrated virgins is certainly valid, but one should remember that it can only be applied to the individual because it has first been applied to the whole Church. Christ has no other Bride but his Church, whom he espoused on Calvary.

It follows that there is no other way for any of us to go to heaven save as a Bride of Christ. That applies as much to the curmudgeonly old bachelor as the lissome girl. Strange thought! But if today you are alone and feeling that there is no one very much to care about you, and no one in particular for you to love in return, consider this: by virtue of your baptism you are espoused to him before whom the sun and moon bow down. Jesus is not your boyfriend, but he loves you more than you could ever possibly imagine.

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Self-Doubt

Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)

There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.

So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.

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Out of Egypt

Henri Pirenne used to say that Africa began at the Pyrenees. I always thought he should have said that the Middle East began at the Pyrenees. Now, with the ethnic complexity of Europe as a whole, I think we can claim that the Middle East is all around and what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere has profound implications for us all — and I am not talking about oil prices!

I was looking at some statistics gathered by the BBC and was struck by how young the population of Egypt is. The median age is only 24 (in Yemen it is 17.89). You can check for yourself here. The combination of youth and violence is a heady one, so one must wonder not only how long President Mubarak can hang on, but also what we can expect in his stead from a fragmented and inexperienced opposition. Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen are experiencing their own political upheavals so that the stability of the whole region is in question.What the west fears more than anything is a power vacuum which might allow regimes dominated by Islamist extremists and some kind of ‘over-reaction’ from Israel.

Those who do not themselves believe may find the idea of Christians falling to their knees and praying for a peaceful outcome to these situations rather funny. What could be more pointless than asking God to solve a problem we ourselves cannot? That is to misunderstand what we are doing, and even more what we are asking God to do. Prayer for peace in the Middle East means taking something of the confusion and conflict into ourselves and lovingly, trustingly, holding it before the Lord. We cannot change what is happening in Egypt but perhaps we ourselves can change so that the risk of confrontation is reduced. We can become channels of God’s peace.

Long ago, one of the sages of Israel wrote, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ and it was to Egypt that Mary and Joseph fled with the Child Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod. No Christian can be indifferent to what happens there. We owe Egypt a huge debt of gratitude if nothing else.

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