Simple Goodness by Bro Duncan PBGV

From my vantage point in Beyond, I often wonder why Human Beans just don’t get it. They rush around trying to fix what can’t be fixed and become very complicated about things that are really very simple. Take goodness, for example. Dogs understand goodness perfectly. Everyone is our very best friend and to be treated as such. True, we may have a special soft spot for the most hopeless among them, the ones who are always getting things wrong, but we are very delicate in the way we express it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat beside BigSis and gazed at her with my big brown eyes to show sympathy and understanding or trotted along in front of LittleSis, my tail gently waving to reassure her that everything was going to be all right! Even the Ginger Fiend is learning that life isn’t all treats and tummy rubs. We have to be there for Them. Which brings me to my point.

I was asking St Aelred the other day whether there wasn’t a problem with Human Beans misunderstanding his teaching on friendship and stuff. He looked at me very shrewdly and, being a good teacher, asked me what I thought. Well, simples! Human Beans do get him wrong very often. Probably it takes a dog to get to the heart of the matter. Love of others should lead to love of God or it is not real love. My dearest wish is for everyone I knew and loved on earth to be with me in Beyond where we can rejoice with God for ever and ever. That is real love, I have no doubt; and it is very patient, humble and persevering. I know I have a big task ahead of me, but I put my paws together regularly and never lose hope.

Very few now remember much about St Aelred except his love of God and his love of his brethren, and that’s as it should be. Human Beans can learn from that sort of forgetting. It doesn’t matter how handsome or successful we are, how learned or ‘inspiring’, simple goodness — loving others — is what counts. But it must be genuine love of others, not covert manipulation or self-seeking (a bit like some of the Young Sprog’s earlier attempts to win a supernumerary Dentastix. ‘Nuff sed.). I think that’s why we dogs don’t have very long lives by human standards. We learn very quickly to love deeply, constantly and forgivingly. We’re good at simple goodness — thank goodness!

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The First Commandment

There are times when a sentence of scriptures sings and sizzles with meaning. This morning, it was as though I had heard the gospel of the day, Mark 12.28–34, for the first time.

One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.

What struck me forcibly was the restatement of that first commandment. We tend to be so anxious to rush on to the second that we do not feel the full impact of the first. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength? To love God absolutely? Most of us, I think, would say we aspire to love God in that way but are aware that we don’t. There are pockets of reserve, occasions when God definitely isn’t at the forefront of our lives, instances of rebellion, sin and failure. In the past I have annoyed many people in the Catholic blogosphere by suggesting that the way in which we blog reveals a great deal about how we think of God and the place he occupies in our lives. To some, he is a hammer with which to batter others — and that applies equally whether we self-identify as liberals or conservatives. To others, he is a kind of warm, fuzzy blanket to be thrown over every difficult or painful situation, someone with whom we are on apparently matey terms. We may not be pope, but we speak for God, being quite certain that his opinion must be the same as ours.

I must confess that I find all this rather difficult. Sometimes, when I am irritated by something or someone, I have the good sense to go into the oratory. I have to learn again and again, it seems, that human anger does not work God’s purposes, that a raging heart is never a truly reverent heart. It is too noisy, too full of itself. Before the altar, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, my burning concerns turn to dust and ashes. It is in silence, love and adoration that we make room for God to be all-in-all. Only then, only when we are filled with God, can we go out and take him to others. The second commandment is like the first, but it is not a substitute for it. God comes first — always.

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Sunday Worship: The Heart of the Matter

From time to time I find myself slipping into ex-M.C. mode when I attend Mass or some other liturgical celebration. Without meaning to, I register confusion or fussiness in the sanctuary or even plain disregard of the rubrics or canon law. I wince inwardly when the lessons are read poorly or the music badly performed; and I have been known to come close to nodding off/counting the heresies during one or two homilies. Quietnun similarly goes into ex-sacristan mode when confronted with ill-chosen vestments or altar linen that hasn’t been washed or pressed properly. If anyone knew, we’d be the bane of their lives; but fortunately, they don’t (you do, but that’s another matter. Please don’t reveal our shameful secret).

This morning’s Sunday Mass was much like any other. There was nothing very much for the critic in us to praise or condemn, but imagine how humbling it was to come home and read this prayer request (I’ve changed one or two details but the gist remains the same):

Dear God,
Please look after my brother, Tom. I’m worried about him as nothing ever seems to go right for him. I know you can take care of him like you’ve taken care of me all my life. Thank you, God. I love you, Chris

There you have it: love of God, trust and concern for others. What could be more perfect? Isn’t that what our Sunday worship should express? It is surely the most perfect praise any of us can give. Next time you are tempted, like me, to groan about the way the liturgy is conducted, or the shortcomings, as you see them, of those presiding or fulfilling various functions, why not remember Chris and simply tell God you love Him? That, after all, is the heart of the matter, but how often we forget!

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Pushy Mum (and Dad) Syndrome

We are all familiar with Pushy Mum Syndrome: the mother whose energies are entirely devoted to advancing her child’s chances in life. All her ugly ducklings are swans, if only the world would see; and how hard she works to make sure the world does see! Pushy Dad Syndrome also exists but can be harder on the little chip off the old block, who is expected to be everything his father never was — and more. I wonder whether Mr and Mrs Zebedee would recognize themselves in that description, the pushiness and the fiery temper being among their traits passed on to their sons. When the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask a special place in the Kingdom for her sons, I daresay both parents justified their ambition by claiming it was not for themselves. They were only interested in the good of their children. The put-down Mrs Zebedee received must have delighted the other disciples, though they may have shivered at what Jesus had to say about servanthood (Matthew 20.17–28).

Today’s gospel alerts us to two things most of us would rather not think about: the way in which we can deceive ourselves about our true motives — doing things for the good of others is surely irreproachable — and our reluctance to embrace the sacrifice that following Jesus necessarily involves. Scrutinising our own motives isn’t easy and often requires someone else to show us what we would rather not see. It can be painful, but we need to remember that truth is ultimately not only freeing but healing, too. As to sacrifice, we are surely far enough into Lent for everyone to realise that it is not the little sacrifices we take on ourselves that count, but the unexpected ones God sends us that matter. If that sounds rather severe on this lovely spring morning, there is something more we could reflect on. God desires only what is best for us, genuinely so. In him there is no trace of Pushy Mum or Pushy Dad, only infinite love and goodness.

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The Exaltation of the Cross 2014

If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.

The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Suggestions for further reading from this blog (link in blue)
Exaltation of the Cross 2011
Exaltation of the Cross 2013

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The Importance of Almsgiving

At the risk of repeating myself, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of almsgiving in our Lenten discipline. On Ash Wednesday our focus tends to be on prayer and fasting, which is as it should be. Our awareness of personal sin and the need of individual conversion is uppermost. We mark the beginning of the penitential season with a rigorous fast and an exterior sign of our inner resolve. Today, however, the ashes are washed from our heads and we turn a beaming face to the world (‘let no one know you are fasting . . .’). What should be the one thing everyone notices? Not our small acts of self-denial or the extra time spent in prayer, surely? No, our compassion, our almsgiving, should be what everyone notices about the Christian practice of Lent.

It has been well said that if you want to know God, show love to your neighbour. When I was a young nun I thought the way to know God was to pray ardently and read deeply, but living in community showed me that, important though those are, the only way to know love fully is to show love oneself. The example of the old nuns taught me what my theology text books did not and could not. The small sacrifices we make during Lent only have meaning if they increase love. So, if you are giving up chocolate or wine as a small gesture of love for the Lord, don’t forget to give the money you save to those who cannot afford either. You will be repaid a hundredfold. Don’t forget the most precious gift you can give is your time. So, over and above any material gift, give your time to those who need it. That visit to someone you have been putting off, that letter you have been meaning to write, even the smile with which you greet the office bore, they are all forms of almsgiving which will enrich your life as well as that of others. They will allow God a way in.

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A Flaring Torch

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

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Secret Fears

Our email prayerline reminds us that most people are not consumed with worry about LIBOR, Leveson or the presidential election in the States. They worry about cancer, children, foreclosure, exam results, jobs and family finances. The big questions debated in the media are acknowledged, but it is the personal that predominates. We may be concerned about climate change or the future of the NHS but the secret fears we voice in prayer tend to be much more individual. Yes, I want to pray for all sick children, but especially my son/daughter whom I love so much I can scarcely bring myself to name what I dread. The aching tenderness of these petitions makes the gift of the Son of God and his death on the Cross all the more to be marvelled at. Truly he is a God of tenderness and compassion.

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Monastic Obedience

Today we read just a single verse of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7.34:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient unto death.’ (The scriptural reference is to Philippians 2.8)

The lay reader often passes over this with a vague sense that it is all right for monks and nuns but hardly applicable to life in general. Those who have tried to make sense of it in a lay context generally end up talking about the mutual obedience of marriage or the multiple levels of authority and obedience in the workplace. All well and good, but I think we touch here one of the reasons why I am hesitant about some aspects of ‘lay monasticism’, as it is sometimes called, because it does not have, cannot have, the same radical obedience at its heart.

For a Benedictine, obedience is of value insofar as, and in the measure that, it incorporates us into Christ. We obey ‘for the love of God’, ‘imitating the Lord’, and the obedience we give allows of no reservation, no holding back: ‘in ALL obedience’ means exactly what it appears to mean. Only sin is excepted (which includes folly, as my Junior Mistress pertinently remarked). The obedience, moreover, is given to a fallible human being, not to some saint or sage (unless one happens to live under a saint or a sage). It is incarnated and worked out in the dailiness of our lives.

We none of us know what will be asked of us when we vow this obedience, but it is there, shaping every moment of every day from our first entry into monastic life until the hour of our death. We surrender our freedom in order to attain a greater freedom in Christ. This paradox of monastic obedience is not easily explained. It has to be lived as one of those ‘small fidelities’ I alluded to in an earlier post. That is why our old monks and nuns are so precious. They show us what a lifetime of obedience can achieve: the formation of Christ in them, their hope of glory.

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Presentation of Mary

Today we send greetings and good wishes to the monks and nuns of the English Benedictine Congregation for whom this is a Dies Memorabilis while we ourselves keep the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady: one of those minor feasts which Catholicism uses to teach the real meaning of devotion to Mary. She is the Mother of God, yes, but she is also a human being — one who, like us, had to learn the meaning of her vocation. The fact that the feast is tagged on to an event recorded only in the apocryphal gospels is not really the point. What we are meant to grasp is the idea of growing in faith and obedience; of consecration to God’s service; of learning to live in the love of the Lord. The feast of the Presentation of Mary may be liturgically ‘minor’, but if we take its lessons to heart, its effect in our lives will be anything but.

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