Silence Days

From today, up to, and including, the First Sunday of Advent, we maintain complete silence in the monastery except for the liturgy and ‘necessary conversation’ — e.g. when the postman comes to the door. It is our way of bringing a sharp focus to bear on what Advent is about. It makes us realise how much noise we carry about within us, how many discordant thoughts and opinions. So, for three days we step back from that completely. I know from past experience it won’t be easy. If one drives one kind of noise out, another sneaks in to take its place. Punctuality for meals seems to undergo a mysterious sea-change. She who was always a minute late will now be five minutes early. Little quirks of behaviour that normally pass unremarked will become a source of profound irritation. On the plus side, one may be held entranced by the splash of light falling on a cupboard or feel, as if for the first time, the soft beauty of a wooden table or chair.

This change of pace and emphasis occurs when half the Western world seems to indulge in the mad materialism of Black Friday. I think that may be significant. We tend to confuse sufficiency and excess. Perhaps if we could all step back a little, even for half an hour, and think about what really makes for happiness, we might reassess our priorities. Silence is an eloquent teacher, if we are prepared to listen.

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Thanksgiving

The American custom of Thanksgiving Day has always appealed. Gratitude is such an attractive quality — one can almost hear the smile as one writes it. I have often wondered whether the habit of thanksgiving, along with plain religion and and a can-do spirit, are at the root of American philanthropy. Of course it helps to be blessed with material riches, but no one can accuse the U.S.A. of not being generous in its sharing with others. We have a Thanksgiving Day here in the monastery, the octave day of our foundation, when we thank God for our benefactors (you) and generally remind ourselves that everything is gift. That may sound trite to some, but saying thank you is never trivial. The most important act of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of praise and thanksgiving, saying thank you to God for the best of all gifts, Jesus Christ his Son.

A Greeting
We wish all our American friends a very happy Thanksgiving Day and assure you of our prayers.

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Fundraising Update 2

It is a nail-biting time here at the monastery. After saving every penny we could for the last seven years, we are slowly inching our way towards the deposit we need for a house of our own. Or rather, not ‘our’ house at all, but a house of God where all are welcome. We have made great strides in the past few days, but we still need to raise £150,000 (whether by way of our Charitable Bond, donations or the underwriting of mortgage payments). For an overview of the situation and details of the way we hope to finance this project, please go here.

In the meantime, please keep us and those who wish to join our community in your prayers. It is tantalising to realise that the hard economic times we are all experiencing offer a unique opportunity to establish the monastery in a part of south Oxfordshire which is developing rapidly and where the Christian presence needs strengthening. How better than by a monastery dedicated to prayer, with one door open to everyone on the internet and another to everyone passing by on the road?

Help the Nuns

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Fundraising Update

It is time we brought you up to date. As many of you know, we live in a rented house which isn’t big enough to receive people who want to join the community or spend time in retreat. In fact, it isn’t really big enough for our charitable outreach as it stands (audio books for the visually impaired, online ministry, etc), much less the outreach we plan. We have one postulant entering next year, please God, and then we shall be FULL. That is very hard on those who are waiting in trust for room to become available.

We have identified a house which would enable us to do a great deal more and, in our view, represents a good investment. As we have no inherited wealth and the income generated by our work is needed to keep everything else going, we have had to appeal for help in buying it — thus giving you the opportunity of becoming a monastic founder.

On our main website you will find details of our Charitable Bond. This is regulated by the FSA and is a way in which you can lend money for a specified period of time and secure a modest return on your capital. We are also appealing for donations, which can be made securely online via our dedicated Charity Choice page (no money is deducted by the bank for this service, and it will even take care of Gift Aid for you).

In short, there are many ways of helping and we would like to thank those who have already contributed very generously. This has become a genuinely ecumenical endeavour, supported by people of many differing religious traditions, and some of no particular belief. During the next fortnight, we shall be making a big effort to secure the remaining finance we need. Please help us if you can. Thank you.

Help the Nuns

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Serving God with Mammon

Yesterday’s release of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Note on Financial Reform has been variously received. I went through the text yesterday evening (it’s only 18 pages) and suggest you read it for yourselves rather than any commentary (mine included). It’s a long time since I worked in finance myself, but many of the questions it addresses are familiar; so too are some of the suggestions it makes regarding the future. It has, however, left me thinking about the whole concept of money, wealth creation and stewardship, particularly in light of our own needs. When is enough enough?

The economic basis of what we are and do is slender: a small business, to which we devote time and energy, and which must provide not only for our own needs and the needs of those who come to us for help, but also our service of the visually impaired, our internet outreach and much else besides. Without the generosity of friends and benefactors, much would have to go or be scaled down. We are at a critical point: we have vocations but nowhere to accommodate them; we have found a house which would enable us to do much more for others than we can at present; and the only thing stopping us is lack of money. If you haven’t yet looked at our presentation on the future of the monastery, please do so.

There are many practical ways of helping: a loan, investment in our Charitable Bond, a donation. You can’t serve both God and Mammon, perhaps, but you can serve God with Mammon.

DONATIONS
If you are moved to give straightaway, you can donate securely online, using a credit or debit card, using our personal Charity Choice link. If you are donating from the U.K., it will even take care of Gift Aid for you.

Donate now using Charity Choice

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The Cloister of the Heart

Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.

I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.

When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.

We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.

Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.

We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.

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Seventh Anniversary

Today is the seventh anniversary of the monastery’s foundation. It is a day for giving thanks, for looking back and looking forward. We are grateful to our benefactors, living and dead; we are grateful for our Oblates, Associates and Friends, our online community and those waiting patiently to enter the novitiate. Above all, we thank God who has never ceased to look after us, sometimes prodding us to follow paths we might have preferred to ignore, at other times holding us back from the profoundest folly. But we are very far from being complacent. A monastery is never a ‘finished work’, it is always in process of becoming.

It is helpful to consider what St Benedict says about the monastery in his Rule. Most of his text is concerned with the way in which the monks live: how they are to order their worship, how they are to dress, what they are to eat and drink, how they are to organize themselves, the disciplines they should observe. Of the monastery itself he says only that it should, if possible, contain within it everything necessary for monastic life — so that the monks have no excuse for wandering outside. There are clearly designated areas for eating and sleeping and an oratory ‘which should be what it says it is, and nothing else be done or kept there’. In other words, what Benedict calls variously the monastery (monasterium) or house of God (domus Dei) isn’t meant to be a place of privation but somewhere where the focus is clearly on God and the things of God. Everything about it should help both inmates and visitors to concentrate on him — everything.

Many of the things you might expect to find in a long-established monastery simply don’t exist here at Hendred, but that focus on God and the things of God should be evident to all or what right have we to exist? This morning at Mass the community will renew its vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience. As we do so, we shall be affirming our small and insignificant part in that long tradition of monastic living, of ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’. May he grant us the grace of perseverance.

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Living With Stress

A tweet from @Deborahhollamby caught my eye this morning. She was talking about the impact stress can have on our health. Anyone who suffers from an immune disorder knows how damaging stress can be, but what exactly is stress and how long have we been subject to it? I can’t find any references to ‘stress’ in the sense that we use the word earlier than the twentieth century; so is it a modern phenomenon? A case of re-minting an old word to give it a keener edge?

‘Distress’ has been around a lot longer; and to me, at least, its root meaning, from the Latin distringere, to pull or stretch apart, is both clearer and more evocative. We all know the feeling of being torn apart by worry or conflicting duties or events in our lives which make us unhappy. Is the way we cope with distress fundamentally different from the way in which we cope with stress?

Whether we call it stress or distress, we all have to live with imperfect circumstances that can make huge physical and emotional demands on us, but I do think monastic life offers some guidelines for dealing with it that should be better known. I have often mentioned that end-of-the-day review (examination of conscience) which allows us consciously to accept both the good and the bad and turn it all over to God. That act of turning things over to God isn’t a cop out. It is a recognition that we aren’t in charge, God is. When we take ourselves from centre stage, we allow God more scope; and that must be good.

It isn’t only the end-of-day review that helps. Every time we go into choir to sing the Divine Office, we sign ourselves with the Cross and with holy water. That is a powerful reminder both of our baptism and of our desire to stand before God with clean hearts, free from anything that might be unworthy of him. Sometimes we don’t just have to purify our hearts, we have to pacify them as well. Letting go is often hard to do, but being regularly called back into the Prayer of Christ is a way of freeing ourselves from the bonds that stress (or distress) create.

For those who don’t live in monasteries, this could seem a bit remote from reality; but most of us do have odd moments during the day when we have no particular duty or job to do. Such moments can be used for turning to the Lord, creating out of the chaos of our lives something that is quiet and still. If all else fails and the demons continue to haunt us, we can remember that Jesus’ quiet time was in Gethsemane and it was on the Cross that he finally, irrevocably turned everything over to God.

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The Googlification of Research

We often receive requests for help with research projects. Whenever we can, we try to respond positively although doing so can take a sizeable chunk out of the day (some might say, a disproportionate amount of time, given the size of the community, but helping others is an aspect of hospitality so we do our best). I am beginning to be concerned, however, by the number of requests which suggest that the very nature of research is changing. Asking for leads, a few specific questions after the background reading has been done, discussion of a point that has arisen when looking again at the source material: all these are fine by me. I am less happy with the kind of research which consists in endless questions that a very little work by the researcher could have answered.

Let me give some examples. Frequently, we’ll receive long lists of questions about nuns/monastic life, whether we blog or engage with social media, etc, etc. Usually, these are already answered on our community web site or are pretty self-evident. (If you made contact with us via these pages, presumably you would realise that one of us blogs, wouldn’t you?) Then there are the lists of questions about other communities or organizations, e.g. Anglican sisters, about which we are not qualified to speak; there are also what I call the speculative lists, which ask questions along the lines of ‘do you think that the Church (who She?) is doing (a) a good job, (b) a bad job or (c) an indifferent job of . . .?’ Who cares what we think, and anyway, how are we to assess what two billion Catholics are doing? (People often forget that the Church is universal when conducting their surveys.) TV companies, novelists, journalists looking for a feature article, people doing dissertations, all send their little lists and hope for an answer by return.

I think Google is to blame. We have become accustomed to tapping in a few search terms and coming up with pages of resources; so why should people be any different? Send a list of questions and back will come the answers. Turn them into a few nice- looking charts (so easy with the software available today), add a few sentences of interpretation containing all the most fashionable buzz words (do another Google search to find them) and, hey presto, we have the dissertation nailed, the report ready. I exaggerate, of course, but underneath the exaggeration is a belief that the quantification of thought is no substitute for thought itself, that research is precisely that: a systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions. There are no short-cuts to research, just as there are no short-cuts in the most exciting search of all, the search for God.

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Digitalnun’s Story

Sadly, Odyssey Networks decided to change their policy about letting people they have interviewed embed the resulting video on their web site or blog. So, if you didn’t catch it in the first twenty-four hours, you will either have to buy the Call on Faith app, available from the iTunes store at 99cents (there is also an Android version) or view the lo-res version of the Call on Faith video on our main web site here.

If you do have the app, the video will be found here: http://m.4gotv.tv/cof/stf.xhtml?videoID=184965. The Call on Faith app comes highly recommended.

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