O Adonai: the holiness of God

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
 

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.

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Mindfulness of God

The section of the Rule that we read today, RB 7. 10 to 18, is a key text, not merely for Benedictines but for all Christians. To understand why Benedict links mindfulness of God with humility we must take a step back and consider the story of Adam and Eve. It was forgetting God that allowed pride to to take hold in their hearts, distort their vision and lead them into sin. It’s exactly the same with us. When we forget God, we are apt to sin because our vision becomes crooked and self looms too large. Consciousness of God makes us see ourselves as we are, and humility is, in essence, truthfulness. To be truthful about ourselves means there can be no room for pride.

For some, the idea that God is always watching them is disconcerting. I myself find it encouraging. To know that nothing escapes his notice, that the very hairs of one’s head have been numbered, that even when I sin his love continues to enfold me, is to know that God is indeed a loving and compassionate God. Maybe our problem is not so much mindfulness as fear. We forget God because we are afraid of so great a love. Put like that, isn’t it rather silly of us?

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Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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Something for the In-Laws

Everyone loves today’s first reading at Mass (Ruth 1:1, 3–6; 14–16, 22). Looking at the wedding flowers in the church and reflecting how often the ‘Wherever you go’ passage is used of the love of the bride for her groom, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d do better to use it as an encouragement (and exhortation) to the in-laws. Ruth makes that beautiful declaration to her mother-in-law. It tells us something important about the relationship between the two women: the love and mutual concern they had built up over a period of years and its resilience in the face of many trials.

It can’t have been easy for either: Ruth, the Moabitess, the complete outsider, being welcomed into the Jewish family circle; Naomi, the mother of two sons, seeing them both marry ‘out’ and then die before her. It could have led to endless discontent and bickering, but it didn’t. At a time of supreme difficulty, famine, the bond between the two women showed itself immensely strong. We should rejoice that it did, for Ruth was to become one of the ancestors of Jesus — a reminder that there are no ‘outsiders’ in the family of God.

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Love of Truth

The Dominican motto, ‘Veritas’, has always attracted me. If I weren’t a Benedictine, I would want to be a Dominican and I suspect many others would, too. St Dominic, whose feast we keep today, was influenced by the Benedictines, and I think the whole Church has been influenced by St Dominic and his sons and daughters. With the benefit of hindsight, we may not always agree with the way in which truth was sought or what was done to preserve its conclusions, but with the ideal itself we cannot quibble. Truth matters.

Love of truth in all its forms must surely lead to love of Truth himself. That is why there is no human endeavour that is not capable of leading us to God. It is also why integrity matters so much. We cannot be truthful in speech and untruthful in deed. Careless or substandard work is as much a distortion of truth as telling a lie.

Sometimes we become downcast when we realise that we can do very little for God or other people. Love can seem a bit of an abstraction, particularly if we are confined to the circle of self because of age, poverty or serious illness. But whatever our circumstances, we can live truthfully. We can reflect the truth and beauty of God just by being. That is not little. That is true greatness.

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The Power of the Crucifix

Crucifix by Giotto
Crucifix by Giotto

The crucifix, with its poignant twisted body and bleeding wounds, is a powerful reminder that suffering and death are part of our lives. When we look on ‘the one they have pierced’ we remember also the love that held him there: ‘See, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.’ Who would not take courage from that?

 

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Corpus Christi 2011

No moans, please, about celebrating this great feast on a Sunday instead of the more familiar Thursday (I don’t like it either), but a moment’s pause to consider what it is we are celebrating. The ‘automatic’ answer isn’t wrong, but it may be inadequate. IF we really believe that the Holy Eucharist is what we say it is, our only possible approach is in awed silence, on our knees before a Mystery so profound. Love and reverence go together, as St Paul was wont to remind us. Let today therefore be a day of great joy, great love, great and holy fear, for truly, God is with us.

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That Vatican Blogmeet Again

I suspect that by now anyone interested in the historic Bloggers’ Meeting at the Vatican on 2 May 2011 will have found links a-plenty. In case you haven’t, you can listen to all the audio files here (about half-way down the page). The best address, in my opinion, was given by Elizabeth Scalia, (a.k.a.The Anchoress), here, and the best post-meeting reflection by Anna Arco here. If it’s photos you are after, I suggest you look here or at the video on romereports.com. The live-streaming of the event was not wholly successful because of inadequate bandwidth. (Indeed, I appeared to be in a wi-fi blackspot as I was unable to get Twitter to load during the meeting.) I couldn’t attend the alternative meeting the day after organized by Hilary White, nor can I go to the London meeting today about forming a Guild of Catholic Bloggers. However, the internet is awash with information and comment, and even a cursory look through the Twitterstream #vbm11 gives  a lively idea of what was happening as it happened.

So, what’s to say that hasn’t been said? First, I must record my personal gratitude for having been encouraged to apply to attend, my delight at having been one of the lucky 150 invited and my very great thanks for the sponsorship which made acceptance possible. It was wonderful to meet bloggers who previously were only names, although there was far too little time to talk. There was such a buzz in the aula.

Richard Rouse and others had put a lot of hard work into organizing the event at short notice. We tend to take for granted such things as simultaneous translation, but a little note of congratulation should go out to the translator who, without missing a beat, rendered Brazilian Portuguese into excellent English, even though it was not on the official ‘language menu’. Communication was truly the order of the day.

The first panel provided the most interesting talks. All were from thoughtful bloggers who reflected on such diverse topics as the nature of the blogosphere (e.g. the problem of charity and promotion of the ego) and ways of engaging people with faith (Fr Roderick Vonhogen must be one of the most media-savvy people in the Church). The second panel said some good things, although the language used tended to be more impersonal and abstract: definitely less blog-like! It was encouraging to hear about the Vatican’s plans for a new web portal and more creative use of social media; encouraging, too, to hear it stated that bloggers perform a valuable and valued service within the Church.

For me, the most remarkable thing was that the meeting took place at all. It reinforced my sense of the universalism of the Petrine ministry. However, I did come away with some questions.

I think bloggers fall into two categories: those who are in some sense professional journalists or otherwise ‘appointed’ to blog, and those who are enthusiastic amateurs (like Digitalnun). Some of the questions raised at the meeting about accreditation and copyright struck me as being of more concern to professionals than to amateurs. Those who blog in order to report news (or rumours) have a different take on things from those of us who merely share our bathtub thoughts about this and that. I don’t feel I need or want accreditation, nor any kind of policing (loyalty to the Church and to my monastic community would, I trust, prevent my straying too far into heterodoxy). I suppose I am suspicious of ‘badges’. I am not a  Catholic blogger but a blogger who is Catholic, as likely to blog about dogs as dogma. Most bloggers are responsible people who do their homework before launching forth into the blogosphere with their opinions, and I think the Vatican officials who spoke duly acknowledged that fact. But, and it is quite a big ‘but’, I did occasionally wonder whether the distinction being made between the institutional Church (as represented by the Vatican officials) and the rest of us was perhaps a little too clear-cut. We are all members of the one Body. Maybe that is what we need to emphasize.

And for the rest . . .

My two days in Rome were different from any I’d experienced before. I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the crowds who had gathered for the beatification were beginning to disperse but public transport was at a standstill. It was a long hard slog with my luggage from the Piazza Cavour, where the airport shuttle left me, to Paulo III, on the heights of the Via Aurelia; but the frequent need to stop and draw breath (Rome is not kind to people with sarcoid) made for some lovely exchanges. A beautiful Mexican stopped and chatted away and a lovely threesome from the U.S.A., grandmother, mother and baby, helped me drag my case the last couple of hundred yards.

Rome itself is not very welcoming to Benedictine nuns in full habit, especially on their own. The Swiss Guard salute rather endearingly as one passes by, but some of the locals go out of their way to be unpleasant. Is that why so many nuns and sisters look rather dour? I don’t know. Meals are another problem: cafes and restaurants are O.K. if one is with someone but can be awkward if one isn’t. If hungry, I usually opt for something from a supermarket or, if there isn’t time, from one of the street stalls. The trouble is, I can hear my grandmother saying, ‘No lady ever eats in the street’, which oughtn’t to worry me but does. Funny, that.

However, while in Rome I was able to see D. Margaret at Sta Cecilia (for the first time in at least six years); Abbot Cuthbert and Bro. Michael from Farnborough and I met in St Peter’s Square, as one does, and went off in search of coffee; and Muriel Sowden and I had a good face-to-face chat, our first since connecting on Facebook.

Really the best part of my visit came at the end, when Sr Lucy FMA bore me off to their Generalate and I was overwhelmed with kindness. It was lovely to be in a big community again, and I must say I was very impressed by their spirit. Sr Lucy could not have been more considerate. Finding that my flight out was not due until the afternoon, she arranged to take me to Subiaco for morning Mass and an unforgettable tour with Sr Mary and Sr Connie, devoid of tourists (!). It was immensely moving to kneel in St Benedict’s cave and be able to pray there for Benedictines the world over, and all our oblates and friends. Finally, I was driven to the airport.

It was a short visit but one I shall remember always with affection and gratitude. The gifts God chooses to give are always so much better than those one seeks for oneself. Thank you, Sr Lucy.

 

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A Different Kind of Lent

God has very gently but definitely decided that our plans for Lent should be different from what we had expected. It happens every year, but as always, there is something we could not have foreseen, an entirely new twist. It all began with a mega-migraine for Quietnun. By Shrove Tuesday every thought of carnival and pancakes had disappeared and the monastery had assumed a Lenten simplicity and seriousness. The spareness inside matched the cold spring sunshine outside.

On Tuesday evening came news that a dear friend, who had spent twenty-three years as a nun but who had had to leave for health reasons, was in a hospice, in the final stages of a long, slow death from cancer. Tuesday night was spent praying for her; at mid-day on Ash Wednesday we heard that she had died. Her Lent now over, surely she will soon be Eastering with the saints for ever.

As I walked to church, I could not help reflecting that we had entered the mystery of death and rebirth we shall celebrate at Easter; had already experienced something of our own human frailty; were being asked to hope in spite of all. The ashes we received were made from the palms carried in procession on Palm Sunday last year: a reminder that human triumphs do not last very long, only God is eternal. I thought, too, that the love of the Lord is everlasting and his mercies new every morning. This Lent we are called to live in awareness of his mercy in a way we never have before. God has written our Lent Bill.

(Please see the Shrove Tuesday post for an explanation of what a Lent Bill is; and I didn’t get Leviticus, I got St John’s Gospel.)

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