A Bucket List for a Benedictine

Once upon a time, when we were trying to fundraise for a permanent home, we were advised to read the Mail Online because it covers all the news other online newspapers don’t deign to notice. This includes an almost daily ‘cancer story,’ which often contains a bucket-list of things the cancer sufferer would like to achieve or experience before he or she dies. Personally, I haven’t much time for these. I’m just hoping I’ll have time to tidy my sock drawer, get the accounts in order and burn all the rubbish before I go to meet my Creator.* But it is worth thinking about. What would a Benedictine hope to achieve or experience before dying?

I think first on the list would come the desire to have found, not merely sought, God in prayer, in community, in obedience to the superior. My well-known scepticism about some modern movements that call themselves Benedictine stems from the fact that they seem to short-circuit the process of seeking: they don’t demand that lifelong gift of the entire self that I’d say was essential to the monastic quest for God. Those of us who are Benedictines know that we need the kind of focus and discipline monasticism gives or we’d either give up or make accommodations that, inch by inch, would lead us away from God. We need to stick at this God-seeking of ours. Patience and perseverance in the quest are what matters, and the hope that one day we shall glimpse him of whom our heart has spoken.

Second on my bucket-list would come the desire to have shared the joy and peace of the cloister with others. It is not an easy joy or a facile peace. The crown of thorns that surrounds our motto, pax, has a two-fold nature: it is both the means of attaining what lies within, and a protection for what is attained. There never is, in this life, a moment when the guard can drop or we can say the struggle is at an end, pace St Benedict in RB 7.67. But we are curiously apt to try to keep good things to ourselves, so sharing, learning to be generous, is also a lifelong requirement.

Third I think I would put the desire to have enriched, in however small a degree, the lives of those with whom we may have no direct connection. The scholarship of the Benedictines, the music, the beautiful buildings, the concern for liturgy, they are all part and parcel of the wider vision I think monks and nuns have always had. What we do individually is insignificant; what we do as a community, as a fraterna acies, is much more than we can ever think or dream. Cassian once remarked that anyone who removed even a little dust from the oratory would not go unrewarded. I like to think that those of us who have not ourselves been anything very wonderful but have enabled others to achieve something will not go unrewarded, either.

So, three things in my bucket-list, which is itself very Benedictine (St Benedict’s Rule is full of three-fold patterns); three things for me to aim at personally, three things for the community and our oblates to aim at, too. And if you think they are difficult of achievement, just remember what St Benedict advises: ‘Where our nature is powerless, let us ask the Lord to supply the help of his grace.’ (RB Prologue 47)

*I wouldn’t mind having paid off the bank loan for the house, either; but it’s tidying the sock drawer that weighs on my mind.

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On the Third Day of Christmas

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People often ask what Christmas is like in the monastery and are sometimes disappointed to learn that it is much like any other day, only with even more liturgy, and it lasts longer: twelve days rather than the one or two allowed in the secular calendar. It is a feast, but like all monastic feasts, eating and drinking are secondary to the liturgy.* It is also a time when many people turn to us for prayer or help, and our email prayerline and our telephone are kept busy with requests of various kinds. Despite that, I would still say that the most distinctive feature of the monastic Christmas is its silence. It is a silence that I think St John the Evangelist, whose feast we keep today, would have understood and shared. Before the Word of God we are all rendered dumb. But our dumbness is not the muteness of one who is embarrassed or ashamed. It is the quietness of wondering love and adoration; and even in a monastery, we have to work hard at focusing mind and heart so that no exterior noise or activity can disturb our inner stillness.

If your Christmas has, until now, been filled with activity and noise, try to find a moment or two today when you can simply lap up the love of God and know, as if for the first time, that he is your Saviour and Redeemer. Happy feast!

*BBC Radio 4’s Christmas Eve edition of ‘Woman’s Hour’ included a feature on our kitchen and monastic attitudes to food and drink:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03m79cl (starts about 11.48 in).

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The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.

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Heaven in Ordinarie: the Poetry of Prayer

I offer you a thought so simple you may find it embarrassing, but I consider it worth making nonetheless.

Towards the end of every Office, when attention may be beginning to stray, we have a kind of threefold litany. In English it runs

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Amen.

May the help of God remain with us always.
And with our absent brethren. Amen.

In these three short phrases we express what we believe about the Church: that she exists to praise and thank God, a work which will continue into eternity; that the dead are members of the Church whom we pray for as we do the living; and that the company of believers extends beyond what we can see and hear to encompass all the baptized. It is a reminder, as we return to our work, that what we call rather abstractly ‘the liturgy’ is in fact a concrete realisation of our hope and trust in God. We give thanks; affirm our faith; and ask for God’s help in the most direct way possible.

George Herbert speaks of prayer as ‘heaven in ordinarie’, and I think these concluding versicles are a beautiful instance of what he meant. They trip off the tongue almost automatically several times a day, but they contain within themselves a whole world of meaning. They are the poetry of prayer no less than the psalms and canticles, and as with all poetry, they do not yield all their secrets at once. If you pray them today, try to do so a little more slowly, allowing the richness of their meaning to sink in.

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The Immaculate Conception and Ecumenism

Last year, in this blog post, I tried to explain, as simply as I could, what this feast is about. For days afterwards the monastery inbox was filled with questions about Catholic devotion to Our Lady and the scriptural basis of the various doctrines attached to her name. What struck me was the amount of sheer ignorance about Marian doctrine even among those who were theologically well-read. It was not malicious ignorance, it wasn’t intentional in any way; it just was; and it reminded me that there is often a huge gulf in perception between, say, Catholics and Orthodox on the one hand, and ‘everyone else’ — a gross simplification, for which I apologize, but I don’t know how else to express it.

I wonder whether it is this kind of gulf that, practically speaking, that makes ecumenical understanding quite arduous at times. Despite the ancient division between us, Catholics and Orthodox have an understanding that goes beyond words. We’re like old cousins who share the same family history and can be comfortable with each other, even though we have gone along divergent paths. If pressed, we’ll stand together, even if at other times we have the most unholy scraps. There is not always the same ease with members of other Churches. It isn’t liturgical custom or ritual which matters so much as that shared belief which underpins and shapes the liturgy itself.

I know I have not put this very well, and speed readers in particular may take great offence at what they think I am saying, but this feast of Our Lady is a good one on which to ask a fundamental question about Christian unity. I think we often have different understandings and different expectations. Because we already share so much we can be inclined to minimalize the differences. Early in the new year we shall again be dedicating an octave of prayer to attaining the unity for which Christ prayed. It is not too early to start asking ourselves whether we are praying for what Christ prayed, or something else.

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St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?

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Light and Darkness

In community we are trying a little experiment for Advent. Instead of singing Vespers (Evening Prayer) at five or six every evening, we are timing it to coincide with the waning of the light. Benedict does, indeed, say that Vespers should be so timed that it can be completed without the use of lamplight, but in the modern world most communities have adopted the practical, if rather prosaic, custom of a fixed hour. At least, that way, most of the community will turn up!

What have we to report of our experiment so far? First, we have been captivated by the sheer beauty of the darkness stealing across the lawn outside; the grey November sky flushed with touches of palest pink; the clouds softly luminous; beads of rain slipping down the windows like liquid crystals. Then there is the power of the words we sing and the haunting beauty of the accompanying chants. All this week we proclaim that ‘on that day there will be a great light’ (et die illa, erit lux magna). The contrast between the gathering darkness and the great burst of light that signifies the Incarnation, between the bleakness of early winter and the messianic promise of mountains running with sweetness (et stillabunt montes dulcedinem) is truly dramatic; but it is with the Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, ‘Loving Creator of the stars,’ that time and eternity meld and merge. The promise to Abraham realised in the flesh of Jesus is written across the sky in the little points of light we call stars.

The liturgy is a great teacher of prayer and theology but it is not divorced from the world around us. Singing Advent Vespers as light changes to darkness is a wonderful reminder of the dynamic of salvation, of the mystery of the Incarnation and of our own infinite need of God.

Advent Season
The Liturgy section of our main website has information about Advent, recordings of the ‘O’ antiphons and so on.

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Of Music and Musicians

The feast of St Cecilia is a good day on which to think about music and musicians. Let me say straight away that I am very average choir fodder. Indeed, when being taught to sing plainchant, I so exasperated my teacher that she exclaimed, ‘It’s just a matter of intelligence!’ Whereupon, to my eternal discredit, I did an off-the-cuff translation of one of the trickier hymns in the Hymnale. Pride 1; humility nil.

Inability to sing or play should not be confused with the ability to enjoy. There are very few who do not enjoy music, although we certainly don’t all enjoy the same music. I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving.

Fundraising Update
We’ll be issuing a statement later today after we have met with our advisers. We’ll tweet when it’s up.

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Sons in the Son

There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.

I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.

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The Mass: ever ancient, ever new

I rarely comment on liturgy, not because I am uninterested or lack any opinions (far from it!), but because I am sometimes uneasy about the way in which the subject is discussed. The introduction yesterday of a new translation of the Mass has prompted a few thoughts, however.

The language of prayer used in church has always an objective character. It is not a question of ‘what works for me’ but of what expresses the Church’s faith. It is, if you like, theology turned into poetry and drama. The words matter; the actions matter; the setting matters. It is a holy sacrifice in which we are called to share; so what we are matters, too. Every form of Mass sanctioned by the Church is, in the most literal sense, traditional: something precious handed on through the generations — one with every other Mass that ever has been or ever could be celebrated, one with the sacrifice of Calvary itself. Sometimes I think we forget that. Because we are interested in liturgy, because we enjoy the ‘doing’ of it, we treat liturgy like anything else, allowing ourselves a freedom I’m not sure we actually have. Liturgy in the Catholic Church is a ‘given’: one that requires whole-hearted collaboration and provides endless scope for true creativity (note the emphasis) of course, but a ‘given’ nonetheless.

We have decided in community that we shall say nothing, good or bad, about the new translation until six months have elapsed. If anyone is familiar with the Latin texts and has some years’ experience of liturgical translation, it is important to lay aside any prejudices or preconceived notions. We need to see the Mass with fresh eyes; listen to it with fresh ears. Discussion can get in the way of that, and with the approval of the new translation, the time for discussion is in any case effectively over.

Liturgical discussions often turn nasty because they are not really about liturgy at all. They are an excuse to vent negative feelings, using an irreproachable subject as pretext. The Mass is too important for that, too holy for that. Maybe over the next six months we shall have an opportunity not only to rediscover the Mass but also to discover something new about ourselves, too. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the more we seek to know God, the more we get to know ourselves.

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