On Being a Bucolic Benedictine

A smattering of Greek and an Anglo-Saxon weakness for apt alliteration determined the title for today’s post. I have spent much of the last few days in delicious idleness, watching the calves over the way. They are Herefords, all legs and eyes and bumbling charm. Seen through the drifts of plum blossom, they are enchanting. If I were more religious (!), I’d probably quote the psalms and their references to stall-fed cattle, bulls of Bashan and the like; but we are in rural England in springtime, and the dust and heat of ancient Israel seem very far away. All that will change in an instant on Palm Sunday, when we become one with those following Jesus into Jerusalem and trace, step by step, the events of that momentous week. Today, however, it is life, new life, that surrounds us here at the monastery and reminds us of the everlasting creativity of God.

One of the biggest temptations we face is to believe that everything has been done: that from here on, everything goes downhill, gets worse, ends in dissolution and decay. It is a fundamentally pessimistic view of life, one that cramps both mind and spirit. Many physicists of the nineteenth century believed, by and large, that their subject had been exhausted. There were just a few loose ends to tie up. No physicist today would say that. We are on the brink of discovering so much more. Every day seems to reveal more and more wonders, opens up vistas we had never dreamed of, invites us to go further, deeper.

The calves over the way may strike the casual observer as a symbol of all that is unchanging in the countryside, but anyone with an eye for cattle or even the most cursory knowledge of the breed will tell you that the size of the Hereford has changed enormously over the past century. At one time they were bred very small, so that being shipped out to South America they fitted the cargo pens to which they were consigned. Today’s Hereford stands taller, stockier, a much more substantial beast than his 1950s counterpart. I wonder what they will look like a century hence. Of one thing, I’m sure: they will have changed; and as my vow of conversatio morum daily reminds me, I too must change. Being a bucolic Benedictine is not an opting-out but an opting-in to living by grace and being transformed by it.

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Hallowing Hallowe’en Again

Anyone who has read my Universe column on the subject will know that I am not an enthusiast for Hallowe’en as it is now celebrated in this country. Happily, however, once we have sung First Vespers of the Solemnity of All Saints at five o’clock this evening, we shall be safely on the other side, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin and death and the prospect of eternal life. All will be light and gladness, and anyone who comes to our door ‘trick or treating’ will be sent away with a blessing and a sentence or two about the wonder of the Resurrection (sure to put them off trying it again next year). We don’t do ghosts and ghouls; we do saints instead; and I think we might all be happier and healthier if more of us did saints, especially on this night of the year.

Why the fascination with horror and the celebration of death and destruction which now accounts for £300 million of spending in the U.K.? Surely, it is something to do with getting in touch with our inner caveman, the pleasurable thrill of being slightly scared by things that go bump in the night, knowing that at any moment we can switch on the light and not be scared any longer. Only, it has gone rather further than that, hasn’t it? We have gone beyond the thrill of the horror story to sheer terror instead. I don’t want to go over ground I have already covered, but in my view many of today’s Hallowe’en artefacts are quite sinister and open the way to the occult. Those who have never had to confront evil will laugh dismissively and say it is ridiculous to get worked up over plastic skeletons or ouija boards, tarot cards and the like. Plastic skeletons are a matter of taste, but the ouija boards and tarot cards are a much more serious matter. Ignorance is not bliss: it is dangerous.

I am all for conviviality and hope many of you will be enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, but I hope it will be a celebration of light and life you share, not a celebration of darkness and destruction. There is so much tragedy in the world, we do not need to fabricate horror. There is so much evil, we do not need to manufacture feelings of shock or revulsion. Those 87 people found dead of thirst in the Sahara are a reminder of the reality of suffering and death. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls affirm the unity of the living and the dead, so tonight let us pray for all those whose experience of moral darkness — in Niger, Syria, the DRC, to name just three — is so much more intense and terrible than anything we can produce with our broomsticks and plastic cobwebs. Let’s hallow Hallowe’en again.

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Whitney Houston and Untimely Death

You would think we would be used to it by now. Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, so many popular singers have died early, often as a result of addictive behaviours involving drink and drugs. In Whitney Houston’s case, there was the added tragedy of drugs ruining her voice long before it would have naturally faded. She had to live with that, day in day out, and who can guess what that knowledge cost her?

In the face of untimely death we are all a little subdued, a little sad. We may not have known the dead person, but we recognize that something is not quite right: the expected order of things has been overturned. The religious among us may whisper something about ‘God’s purposes’ but, whether we have faith or not, we must confront the reality of death. The life we know now must come to an end, and neither the moment nor the manner of it is for us to choose. ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ True, but let us not forget the grief of those who mourn and reflect on the ways in which society colludes with destructive behaviours. As we pray for Whitney Houston, let us also pray for all who are in thrall to drugs, alcohol or anything else that limits human freedom and dignity.

 

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Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.

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Looking through the Window

It is hot here in New York, seriously hot, with a high humidity content. My habit is as limp as I am, so I have chosen to stay indoors and work next to the air conditioning rather than go to the Cloisters Museum as I had hoped. Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the noonday sun, but not sensible Englishwomen like me (? Ed.)

So, I have been looking at life through the window, as it were. The deer feed near to the convent in the early morning, and there are a couple of turkeys who seem to have taken up residence on the edge of the woodland. It is familiar and strange at the same time. It struck me this morning that ‘looking at life through a window’ is exactly how illness or age may force us to experience much that goes on around us. How much we miss when we cannot hear, smell, touch or taste. The same is true if sight goes and we must rely on the other senses.

I don’t feel deprived that I cannot smell, touch (or taste) those wild turkeys but I am glad that I have the choice, whether to go outside and experience the sensory beauty of the early morning or stay inside my air-conditioned room.  Not everyone has that choice. Thinking about that has certainly transformed my disappointment at not going to The Cloisters. Instead I give thanks for what I have, and want to pray for those who have much less. Please join me in that.

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Treasuring the Ordinary

There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.

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Dumb Animals

I have spent much of the night sitting up with a sick dog. (Before you besiege the monastery, let me assure you the vet is on the case and the appropriate remedy will be applied.) Unlike sitting up with a sick person, sitting up with a sick animal means responding to signs rather than words. Of course, we anthropomorphize and misread many of the signs our domestic wolf is really sending us. The shaggy head, the liquid brown eyes, seem redolent of deepest misery, but who is to say? I have not reached morning with any great insights to share with the world. There have been no midnight revelations about the condition humaine, no sudden illuminations. The reality is, and remains: one sick dog, one tired nun. Sometimes life is like that.

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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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Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility

The BBC has highlighted the fact that our Cro-Magnon ancestors were not only opportunistic cannibals but apparently dab hands at turning left-over skulls into carefully crafted drinking vessels (see http://bbc.in/idMRaK). Skull cups are found in many traditions but, by and large, we thoroughly modern people find the idea of drinking from a dead person’s cranium rather repellant.

Our squeamishness does not extend to some aspects of contemporary life which, if we could think about them with the kind of distance time lends, might not be so acceptable: abortion, napalm bombs, land-mines, to name but a few. The one thing these have in common is a very ambivalent attitude to human life, with some lives being valued above others. Once we let go of the idea that all life is sacred, that my life is worth neither more nor less than yours, then I think we get into a moral quagmire with no firm footing.

Looking at those Cro-Magnon drinking cups, I can’t help feeling that there was a strange kind of reverence involved in their fashioning. Maybe our problem is that our power to kill and destroy is so great that we dare not consider what we are doing. Our squeamish sensibility protects us from facing up to the consequences of what we do. Sadly, it also deadens our sense of reverence.

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A Brave Beginning

Our Lady of Perpetual Succour
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

January: the door of the year, the month that looks both ways, a hinge between two worlds; in the most literal sense, a critical time. How will 2011 be for any of us? The one certain thing is that we shall all change in the course of it.

For the godly-minded, today is also the oldest Marian feast in the calendar, that of Mary the Mother of God, and the Church’s World Day of Prayer for Peace. A connection between the two may be found in the fact that today is also the Octave Day of Christmas, the day when Christ was circumcised and, as St Paul says, “in his own flesh made the two one”. Catholic tradition has long seen in the blood shed at the circumcision a type of the blood shed on the Cross to redeem us. Mary gave us the Prince of Peace to be our Saviour, stood beside his Cross as he was dying and became mother of the Church (i.e. us) when the Beloved Disciple took her to his home. It seems fitting that the first day of the new year should be placed under her protection.

And for the rest? No doubt there will be rejoicing and merriment, and some valiant attempts at self-improvement in the form of New Year Resolutions. January is indeed a critical time and as we get older we know better than to prophesy or announce our plans. Let us just begin bravely. The outcome we can safely leave to God.

May you have a very happy New Year!

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