Online Retreats

Yesterday we received the first feedback from our Online Retreats. Eleven* people took the trouble to sit down and write a thoughtful, and in some cases quite detailed, response to the whole experience as well as the particular questions raised by doing a retreat on lectio divina. Even in my tired and curmudgeonly state, I was immensely encouraged — by the obvious sincerity, the desire for God, the generous appreciation of what we are trying to do and the evident determination to carry the retreat on into daily life. We were particularly struck by one person’s comment that we had brought the monastery to them: that is exactly what we had hoped to do, to enable people to share in its inner life of prayer and worship.

What we were not prepared for was the fact that many found the title of one set of retreats, Five Minute Focus, bewildering. In our defence I can only say that we did not mean the ‘five minutes’ to be taken literally, although I suppose one could read through some of the retreat material in five minutes. We wanted to convey the idea of focusing on God, of regularly returning to him through the day in short ‘bursts’ or periods of attention. In the context of lectio divina or prayer that makes perfect sense. Perhaps we should have spelled that out. At least everyone who responded acknowledged that they had received ‘value for money’!

Both the dedicated Retreatline (email) and LiveChat have enabled users to ask questions and share reflections in confidence, so it looks as though the Five Minute Focus format is working well. We shall be tweaking things a little in the light of the responses we have received and may make adjustments to the Shared and Companion Retreats before launching them later this year. The one utterly devastating criticism (made by only one person, and in such a gentle, kind way one couldn’t take offence) was that we didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. As I have often been taken to task for having too much humour, I am nonplussed. I blame the dog. Wouldn’t you?

* Eleven people may not sound a huge sample, but the service has only been running a little over a week.

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Fridays in Lent

Perhaps because I am writing this half asleep, after a week of short nights and long days and a particularly full one yesterday (BBC TV were filming a short feature for Breakfast TV on 23 March, we had guests for supper, there was a loaded inbox, deadlines to meet, you know the kind of thing: a leisurely day in the monastery), I am wondering what my Friday penance ought to be. The custom of marking Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent, as days when we perform some special act of penance is a very salutary one, in both senses of the word; but practically speaking, when one already has a Lenten programme spelled out in one’s Lent Bill (Benedictines) or in one’s resolutions for Lent (everyone else), Fridays are a problem. What does one give up or take on that is not already covered?

Some people read through at least part of the Passion in the early afternoon, on their knees. That means stopping what they are doing, which is not easy, especially when trying to meet a deadline, and switching to another mode, one which acknowledges that God is more important than anything we think important. Reading the Passion narrative in this way does have a penitential aspect but, more significantly, it reminds us why penance on Fridays is encouraged.

I don’t recommend that you should kneel down in your office or on your factory floor on Friday afternoon and get out your New Testament unless you want to be the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but if you too find the whole question of Friday penance rather perplexing, maybe you could find something just as simple that would be a help to you. It is not what we do but the love which accompanies it that matters. I’m not sure what I shall do today, but I’m pretty sure you will never know. The other aspect of Friday penance is keeping it a secret between God and ourselves.

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Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is for many so identified with pancakes that it is known as Pancake Day pure and simple. Personally, I don’t mind that. The level of dissipation in the monastery is rather like Wordsworth’s, miserably low, but we shall have a festive meal (with pancakes) before we turn our thoughts to the main business of the day: confession. I often think that confession is the cindarella sacrament, frequently ignored or undervalued, but essential at so many levels. It needs prayerful preparation and a determination to be honest with oneself, which isn’t easy.

Another task for today is consideration of the Lent Bill. This monastic practice could be more widely known. We each of us consider how as individuals, not as a community, we can offer God “something above the usual measure of our service” in the matter of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (we already have a community take on these). However, no one decides for herself: all is subject to the judgement of another, either the superior, or in her case, that of another nun, the point being that there can be great pride and seeking of vainglory even in the most “religious” practice. We are also given the task of reading through one book of the Bible with special attention during Lent. Again, the choice is made for us by another. This is in addition to our normal lectio divina. I am praying devoutly that the choice for me won’t be Leviticus again. I find it fascinating, but there is only so much Leviticus one can take at one time.

There won’t be a blog post tomorrow; so, prospere procede. May you have a blessed Lent.

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Byte Sized Chunks

For the last day or two Digitalnun has been posting small chunks of Pope Benedict XVI’s address for World Communications Day over on the community’s Facebook page. They are a good summary of what Christian engagement with the internet generally, and social media in particular, should encompass; so why the little gobbets rather than the whole text or a link to it? Simple. The internet has changed the way we read. Online our attention span is rivalled only by the goldfish’s proverbial fifteen seconds. The papal document is too dense and daunting for many in the way in which it is presented on the Vatican web site, but split up into little chunks we can meditate on as we surf hither and hither, it works. It’s lectio divina for the silicon age.

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Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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