On Being a Contemplative

I don’t often use the word ‘contemplative’, partly because its history in the Catholic Church has not always been happy, forcing a divide between the so-called active Orders and the cloistered, or even being used to set up a false hierarchy of spiritual prowess in which the contemplative outranks everyone else, and partly because I’m not sure that those to whom I might use the word would understand by it the same thing that I intend. Nowadays nearly everyone seems to claim to be a contemplative so it probably doesn’t matter very much, but I still cling to the idea that contemplative prayer is simpler and less structured than formal meditation or the devotions that form the staple of many godly people today. It is also, in my experience, less visual.

This was brought home to me by a recent discussion on Facebook where a good friend suggested we might introduce a few images as background to our podcasts. You may have noticed that Facebook, like the BBC website, is increasingly geared towards video and the use of images . The problem for us is that we are not very good at the visual. Ours is what one might call a Word-centred spirituality in which lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of a text, is fundamental. Visual images can intrude on this process. Apart from anything else, we have comparatively few in the monastery, so those we see tend to stay with us, for good or ill. We don’t have a TV or (usually) watch films. We live in the same space, doing more or less the same things day after day. It is, some would say, a spartan existence as far as visual stimuli are concerned. In some ways, that makes us more sensitive to the world around us: the changing of the seasons, the beauty of garden and sky, the ordering of the monastery building, have an impact on us they might not on a more casual observer.

I don’t want to sound precious or over-complicated, but that is one reason why we are hesitant about using more images on our web sites or even this blog. The Word demands our full attention. Some people find an image helpful. For others it can be a distraction. I myself use images sparingly because they have a big impact on me. For example, Nicholas Mynheer’s marvellous painting of the mothers of Jesus and Judas embracing that I posted during Holy Week stays vividly in my mind; so, too, do others.

This morning, as I was thinking about St Athanasius whose feast-day this is, I realised anew that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the perfect visual, the perfect image, one who is both God and man. Who could improve on that? Not me, certainly.

Audio version


The Devil Isn’t Fair

One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.

Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.

Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.

Mass readings
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11


Monastic Prophets

The one thing we all know about prophets is that they tend to be unpopular, especially among their own. Unfortunately, it does not follow that if we are unpopular we are prophets, though many have made that mistake. After the Second Vatican Council, it became common to talk about the ‘prophetic witness’ of monasticism and much of my early monastic life seems to have been spent listening to men in sandals speaking eloquently about the renunciations we undertake, the sacred space of the monastery buildings, and the unique communion we enjoy as members of a monastic community. Even at the time, part of me was registering something not quite right about it all. Dom David Knowles, of happy memory, combined real scholarship and exquisite prose with cheerful acknowledgement of the fact that he inserted a ‘purple page’ among every three or four that he wrote. He knew that words have power to move us, quite independent of the facts or opinions they express. He was, in some ways, a ‘failed’ monastic prophet himself, who had urged a simpler and purer way of life on his own community and been rejected. That rejection, and Dom David’s reaction to it, led to many years of estrangement and, I suspect, a profound loneliness out of which he created something immensely valuable, the prophetic witness he was meant to give, not the one he thought he was to give. I find it helpful to remember that when thinking about monastic prophets in general, but can we go a little deeper? How can monasticism be prophetic?

That mythical being, the average layperson, has a few preconceptions about monasticism. There is the romanticism of the habit, the gothic grandeur of the buildings, and the quaintness of much of the life — monks gliding along endless cloisters, singing beautifully in clouds of incense, and making us grin with their little foibles, their beer and wine-making and the honey from their bees. It is all deliciously other-worldly. When they speak to us of God, we listen, because they are the experts — and we can screen out anything we do not particularly want to hear. The nuns have a slightly harder time of it, because we like them to be hidden (except when we want access or photos on Instagram, of course) and we expect them to be demure and docile and good at listening to us. The problem comes when the monk or nun challenges this cosy view of things and asks some searching questions of the community or of society at large; when, in fact, they do the work of the prophet, seeking to bring us back to our senses and to God. In a way, we expect that of monks, at least of some monks, but of nuns not so much. So, the first problem we face is: are we listening, and are we listening to the right people, the genuine prophets, or only to those who say what we want to hear?

This can get quite complicated when we think about the way in which the Church has become split over ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’. We bandy words about and claim that our party is the ‘right’ one, usually because it is more numerous. A couple of years ago, when Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, I wrote a short post on how to judge a monastery (see here). I expressed some doubts about using numbers as the sole, or even the main, criterion of authenticity or viability, in more secular terms, success. It seemed to me then, and even more now that Cor Orans has given definite form and scope to the Constitution, that looking only at the numbers is akin to applying the prosperity gospel to monastic life. The more you have, the more God has blessed you. That doesn’t seem very prophetic to me and begs the question, what is it that the Church has a right to demand from those of us who live the monastic life? How can we be prophets for our times?

The answer I gave in my earlier post is still the one I would give today — holiness  is the first and most important witness any of us can give — but I think I would want to expand on that a little. There is a great deal in our lives that is truly counter-cultural, and though I love the habit we wear as a sign of our continuity with the Benedictines of the past, and have no scruples about the pursuit of beauty in our liturgy or our buildings, I regard these things as secondary. It is doing the work of the monk that matters; and the work of the monk is largely prayer, silence, chastity, obedience, community and learning. There are several items there that are definitely not popular. Take the romantic gloss off a lifelong commitment to single chastity and you will find many a monk or nun who has experienced a great loneliness even in the midst of community. Obedience is wonderful, until it breaks your heart; and that commitment to prayer, day in, day out, can lead to many a secret battle with one’s own demons, not to mention Brother X or Sister Y, who are impossible. However, it is learning that I should like to dwell on for a moment.

We are often told that the first monks and nuns eschewed learning, not so the Benedictines. Reading slowly, carefully, consistently, always listening for the voice of the Lord, is characteristic of lectio divina, but it is also characteristic of the scholar’s search for truth and the learned person’s quest for understanding. Many people today seem to have lost interest in truth and understanding because it requires effort and because it may confront us with ideas we’d rather not consider or make us give up positions we have long held or find comfortable. It unsettles us, and most of us do not like being unsettled. Enter the Benedictines! We are not preachers or teachers, but we are men and women of prayer and reflection. We may say little, but that little should always be seasoned with salt. It should come from a full mind as well as a full heart. Benedictines have always engaged with the culture of the times and I believe it is even more important that we do so now, when the whole idea of a specifically Christian culture is under siege from all sides.

When historians of the future look back on the twenty-first century, it may be in the monasteries that they will find the prophetic flame, that witness to the transcendence of God and the importance of holiness that we attempt to articulate in our words and, even more, in our deeds. It will never make us popular, and experience suggests that there will be more failures than successes, but, as they say in Spain, ‘Vale la pena.’ It’s worth the bother, because our salvation, and the salvation of the whole world, is at stake.*

* I am here expressing the orthodox Catholic view that, although our Saviour has redeemed us, we each of us have free will, and free will allows us either to accept or reject the salvation offered us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Lent Book 2017

An important part of a Benedictine’s experience of Lent is the so-called Lent Book, given out at the beginning of Lent by the superior of the community and to be read ‘straight through, in its entirety ‘ (RB 48. 14–16). We cannot be sure whether St Benedict intended the book to be one of scripture or some other codex from the library. I think myself he probably meant scripture, because the instructions he gives for the way in which it is to be read (per ordinem ex integro), and the care with which senior monks are instructed to ensure that everyone takes this duty seriously (et videant ne forte inveniatur frater acediosus, etc) suggests we are dealing with something inherently holy, the practice of lectio divina in its purest form.

There are two point to note: the choice is made for us by another, and the reading we are to do is situated in Benedict’s chapter on daily manual work. In other words, our Lent Book, if received with faith and goodwill, will be something the Lord desires us to hear, not necessarily what we want to hear — and we’ll have to work at it. That doesn’t mean we scurry to the nearest commentary or exegetical essay, though they are good and useful adjuncts to study. Rather, it means that we should take time over the text, praying beforehand that the Holy Spirit will illumine our understanding, seeking to take away a word or phrase that we can meditate on through the course of the day, and always ending with a prayer of thanksgiving, no matter how dry, barren and apparently pointless the whole process has seemed to us to be.

This year, for various reasons, I am unable to make individual recommendations, but here at the monastery we shall be reading I and II Corinthians. St Paul wrote more to the church in Corinth than to anyone else and the problems he had to deal with are distressingly familiar: disunity in the Church; questions about morality and how far a Christian should or could accommodate to the prevailing mores of a cosmopolitan society; what love means in practice as well as theory; the reality of the Resurrection and the true nature of Christ. There is a lot there on which to ponder as we make our way towards Holy Week and the joy of Easter. Perhaps you, too, would like to join us in our lectio divina.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Pausing Before Christmas

Today will probably present the last opportunity many of us have for a short pause before we are hurled into the maelstrom of Christmas preparations and celebrations. Some will be excited and hopeful; others tired and perhaps a bit crotchety; most of us will probably be too busy to register how we feel, we shall just get on with things.

I think ‘just getting on with things’ is exactly right. We are not called to be wondermen or wonderwomen. We are called to be human; and being human means accepting that we are weak and fallible at times. No matter how hard we try to make things perfect for others (or even ourselves), they never will be in this life. We live with imperfection, and it is a very good thing that we do. Otherwise, we should become completely impossible!

Today, if you can, try to make space for a minute or two alone with the Lord. Read through the readings for Christmas Mass, especially the Preface, and find a word or phrase you can take with you through the next few days. Return to it when you feel you are becoming stressed or agitated; silently recall it if you feel low; keep it close to you if you have to do something or spend time with someone you don’t much like. Let the Word take root in you, that you may welcome Him afresh on Christmas morning.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Few Words about our Prayerline

Nuns pray. It’s what we do, day in, day out. Our prayer takes many forms. In the Divine office we seek to hallow the different hours of the day and mark the unfolding of the liturgical calendar with an ancient form of prayer derived chiefly from the scriptures and early Christian writings (the so-called Fathers of the Church). There is also the slow, meditative prayer of lectio divina — what you might call the characteristic activity of the Benedictine — and the simple, uncluttered, contemplative prayer of the individual, which proceeds from and flows back into the Divine Office and lectio divina. In addition to these, there is intercessory prayer. One of the chief ways in which you might have come across this is via our email prayerline, which is open every minute of every day. People name their requests for prayer and send them to us via the form supplied. Complete anonymity is assured. We in our turn read through the requests and take them into our prayer.

Recently, we have noticed a new development. Some people are happy to take us at our word, and the little message we send assuring them of our prayer is enough. Others, however, have begun to ask us to send emails or letters to reassure them that we are indeed praying for them. I have come to dislike that very much. To begin with, I think it was just my curmudgeonly nature asserting itself. Another email to send! I wasn’t happy, either, at the idea of breaking the guarantee of anonymity surrounding prayer requests. If we enter into correspondence with one, why not with another? How would we manage to keep up, anyway? But then I began to think a little more about why I was so irritated and realised that it wasn’t just the thought of having to send another email/breaking anonymity. Asking for assurance that we are praying is very like saying, I don’t really trust you; yet trust at the heart of intercessory prayer. We name our need to God, trusting in his love and mercy. Prayer isn’t magic; and we don’t (or shouldn’t) demand of God that he ‘prove’ himself to us. Our prayer reflects the nature of our belief in and about God, and I think the way in which our email prayerline operates should, too.

So, if you have sent in any request for prayer, please take my word for it that your request has been read and either has been, or will be, taken before the Lord in prayer. What he chooses to do with it is his business. I think we can safely leave it up to him don’t you?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Shrove Tuesday Like No Other

Yesterday, speaking quietly in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Within minutes the world was awash with speculation. First, was it true? Then, what was the real reason for his resignation? And finally, what were the implications for the Church? It was the best-kept secret of the digital age, but once it was out it spread like wildfire. Everyone became an instant expert on the papacy and began broadcasting their little nuggets of knowledge to all and sundry.

Anyone who saw the video of the pope making his announcement must surely have concluded that what the pope said was actually true: at 85 he is feeling the burden of his years and believes he can best serve the Church by making way for another. The voice was a little indistinct, the Latin phrases a trifle slurred, as though reading his prepared statement was an effort. It was, however, a typically clear and charitable statement, marked with the personal humility which has been so much a feature of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He is, first and foremost, a scholar pope, with all the strengths and some of the weaknesses that implies.

Inevitably, some looked back to the occasion in 2009 when Benedict XVI laid his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V and wondered whether it was more than a pious gesture, a hint of what was to come; others, myself among them, noted that the resignation statement had been signed on 10 February, feast of St Scholastica (St Benedict’s twin sister, a model of prayer), released on 11 February, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Day of the Sick, and timed so that a new pope could be in place by Holy Week, the Great Week of the Church’s liturgical year. A scholar pope, alert to the significance of history and liturgy, is quite capable of holding all these things in mind, but I believe the statement Benedict XVI issued is probably the simplest and least crafted of all his writings. It is the statement of a man who must answer to God not only for his own soul but also for the soul of every other member of the Church. Sometimes, people say exactly what they mean, especially when their true audience is God.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, so I shall resist the temptation to dredge up my own selection of facts and fancies and concentrate instead on how I see the link between yesterday’s announcement and the holy season we are about to celebrate.

We were powerfully reminded yesterday that the Church is a universal institution. How small and sometimes silly looked the ‘national’ reactions of some individuals, the vapid theorising about who the next pope ‘should’ be and the agenda the commentator would like to see being pursued! Lent is a reminder that salvation is not just about us. Our Lenten observance is not an arrangement between the two superpowers (God and us), it is something of truly cosmic significance: it involves others and unites past, present and future. We may think that what we are doing concerns our own personal salvation and nothing more, but that is an impossibility. We journey to God together, as a people, as a Church; so our personal penances, our attempts to make up for the negligences of other times, our turning away from sin, are all part of this greater movement towards God. That is one reason why our living Lent as well as we can is so important. What we do affects others.

We were also reminded yesterday of the importance of prayer, charity and gratitude in the life of every Christian. The penances we have chosen for ourselves this Lent may be dangerous. They may make us smug and self-satisfied if we are able to persevere with them, or conversely, they may make us cantankerous or depressed if we can’t. The penances God chooses to send us, however, won’t be dangerous at all. They will open us up to the mystery of his being in a way that nothing of our own devising ever could. They will evoke prayer and charity, if we accept them in the right way; they will stretch us, confound us, make us grow. The question is, are we ready for them, prepared to welcome them with gratitude? If we spend the forty days of Lent listening for the voice of the Lord in everything, prepared to embrace his will in everything, however contrary, we shall make a good Lent — but it won’t be a bit like what we had intended. It will be so much bigger.

One further point from yesterday that applies to Lent. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of his desire to continue serving the Church though a life of prayer. Every Christian life should be a life of prayer, but we are apt to make it very complicated. During Lent we Benedictines return to a primitive mode of monastic existence. One of the things we do is read through a book of the Bible in a very simple way. The books are assigned by the superior (i.e. not chosen by ourselves) and read straight through as lectio divina (i.e. slowly and prayerfully, without recourse to a 1,001 interpretative articles or commentaries). For the academically inclined, that can be quite hard. It isn’t a case of laying aside our critical faculties in favour of becoming holy asparagus, more a case of attuning our ear to a different kind of speech, of slowing down, becoming less busy.

So, instead of reading a whole host of good books about prayer, try spending a few more minutes in silence before the Lord. Instead of devouring a library on the subject of scripture, read scripture itself, but do so in a more reflective manner, chewing over the words until you find one that stays with you through the day. Make this Lent one in which you come to know the Lord; and remember, you can only do so in his way, and at a moment of his choosing.

In community, I assign books of the bible to our oblates and associates at the beginning of Lent. If you would like me to assign one to you, please email or use the contact form at the head of this site.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Through Lent with St Benedict: 4

Today we come to Benedict’s ‘last word’ on Lent, but it isn’t in the chapter he devotes to Lent itself (RB 49) it’s in the one before, On Daily Manual Labour (RB 48):

During the days of Lent, they should devote themselves to reading from the morning until the end of the third hour; and from then until the tenth hour they should do the work assigned to them. In these days of Lent they should each receive a book from the library, to be read straight through in its entirety. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.

Aha, you may think, she has already commented on that in an earlier post, A Book for Lent. Indeed I have, but here I want to draw your attention to some other aspects of this text.

Prayerful reading, lectio divina, is the characteristic activity of the monk. In a sense, it guarantees that we shall be in touch with God and he with us. When we pray or work we can go wrong; we can be so full of ourselves that we chase after our own ideas and end up making a mess of things. Not so when we listen to God. We may not ‘meet God’ in our work or prayer, but we can be quite sure we shall meet him in our reading because scripture is the word he has spoken definitively to the Church.

So, Lent without reading of this kind is a nonsense. Moreover, you notice where Benedict places his teaching on Lenten reading? In his chapter on work. Lectio divina doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it; and Benedict expects us to devote a sizeable chunk of time to doing so.

Why is that important? The emphasis on reading scripture is a reminder of what I call the ‘slow down and shut up’ approach to the spiritual life. Lent is a time for focusing, so we read one book, not zillions of them, and we read slowly, allowing God to speak to our hearts. We have to keep in mind that Benedict’s way of reading was different from ours. We skim, speed read, forget most of what we have just read. Benedict, by contrast, expected his monks to commit to memory much of what they read so that they had a rich inner library to which to return again and again in the course of the day. That is not a bad idea for us in the twenty-first century, when we are bombarded from dawn till dusk with all kinds of information clamouring for our attention.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent but they all rest upon the supposition that we are familiar with the Word of God. In his insistence on the importance of reading, Benedict reminds us that even if the more ‘active’ side of Lent is impossible, we can be attuned to what God wants of us through our practice of lectio divina. Our word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word obaudire, meaning to listen carefully, listen hard. He knows well enough that anyone who truly listens to God will enter into a dialogue of love and union with him that is beyond all words and all doing. He will enter into the silence of God himself.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Catholics and the Bible

I was surprised to find an Anglican friend commenting, almost in throw-away mode, that Catholics don’t read the bible much, or at any rate, not as much as Anglicans do. Is that true? Certainly, the Church puts before us a great deal of scripture during the course of the year and the use of the vernacular means that no one should be put off by having little Latin and less Greek (to say nothing of Hebrew). What is often forgotten is that scripture in the vernacular is not new. The Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament in 1609/10, just antedating the King James version. My recollection of the Catholic homes of my childhood is of seeing copies of these Rheims/Douay bibles alongside copies of the Vulgate. They were often modest volumes, printed on thin paper in a minute type size and small enough to be secreted in a large pocket. The really radical probably had copies of Ronald Knox’s translation somewhere, but it was the old bibles that charmed me. They spoke of a faith kept alive under difficult circumstances, not quite ‘respectable’, often hidden, always slightly ‘alien’ to the mass of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps the ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible’ idea comes from the way in which different traditions approach the scriptures. Many Catholics I know can quote huge chunks of the text but glaze over if one gives them, literally, chapter and verse. That doesn’t happen with my Protestant friends, who can conduct whole conversations bandying references back and forth. Possibly, the rich devotional life of Catholics needs to be considered, too. For example, the Jesus Psalter incorporates a lot of scripture as texts to meditate on, just as the Divine Office is itself made up almost entirely of psalms and scripture readings, but neither is a lectio continua of the whole bible such as one finds in many Protestant and Reformed churches.

So, perhaps my friend was right? I don’t know. What I do know is that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail