Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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).Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail