Monday Morning Tease

Tomorrow, Feast of the Chair of St Peter, we shall be making an important community announcement and on Tuesday, 1 March, we shall be launching a new online service. All Deo Volente, of course; but if you are interested, please keep an eye on this blog and on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk.

In the meantime, I have been fascinated to learn that monkeys apparently suffer from self-doubt, just like human beings (see http://bbc.in/hz0z7y). I can’t help wondering how today’s saint, St Peter Damian, who was such a keen reformer (especially of clerical morals), would have reacted to that, had he known.

Peter Damian is sometimes judged harshly by those who see only his zeal and none of his compassion. He was orphaned early and never lost a sense of identification with the poor. As a Camaldolse (hermit Benedictine) his form of life was strict, but he was a gifted peacemaker and his love of the Church, though sorely tried during some of the sixteen papacies through which he lived, never left him. He is widely credited with having died of overwork, which is not a virtue but a measure of his obedience, which was heroic. The scandals of the last few years have reminded us how much we need another Peter Damian, fearless in speaking the truth, relentless in urging repentance, absolutely sure of what the Church, at its purest and best, should be. May he pray especially for all our clergy and those charged with their formation.

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Cracking the Code

How about a little light-heartedness to start the week-end? We all love being let into a secret, so today I’ll give you a little bit of nunspeak and what it really means. Please note: you are advised not to try these at home. They only really work in monasteries and among people strangely attired

“in your abundant leisure” = I know you haven’t a moment to spare and it’s probably hopeless asking, but . . .

“in case I die in the night” = I want you to know that I put something in the oratory/library/attic (delete as appropriate).

“I was in the prayer of gentle drift” = I feel asleep during  prayer time.

“by virtue of holy obedience” = I’m pleading with you.

“Dear Sisters” = there’s been a disaster somewhere (probably in the kitchen).

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The Invisible Nun

I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.

Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.

The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.

Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.

Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.

The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.

I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?

Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.

The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.

We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.

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Self-Doubt

Yesterday I wrote a blistering piece about the role of women in Church and society but decided to sleep on it before publishing it in iBenedictines. I’m under no illusions about the reach of this blog, so it wasn’t exactly an exercise in ‘damage limitation’, more a ‘do I want a permanent record of my anger?’ self-questioning. Anger is a fleeting emotion (for me, at any rate) but can be destructive, especially when it achieves a kind of permanence in the written word. Self-questioning in such contexts is good and valuable, and I often wish some bloggers would think more and write less. (That applies to me, too, but I do try to be constructive and polite, wimper, wimper.)

There is a point, however, where self-questioning passes into self-doubt and I’m not so sure about the wisdom or advisability of that. When one feels entirely alone in perceiving an injustice, self-doubt can cripple one’s ability to act. One is not going to change the way in which the institutional Church overlooks or undervalues the contribution of women (despite many fine statements to the contrary) but perhaps quietly upsetting a few ‘apostolic apple-carts’ will ultimately achieve more.

So, I leave you with the question that prompted my anger yesterday, though I won’t tell you why the question arose. Would anyone really care (and I do mean really) if contemplative communities like ours no longer existed? And before anyone gives the stock answers about ‘hidden witness’ and all that, please ask yourselves the even bigger question: what do I really believe? The answer might surprise you.

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Intercessory Prayer

A reader emailed to ask how to pray for others, meaning principally, I suspect, how to intercede for them. What follows is sketchy and imperfect but I hope that others will add their own insights.

First of all, I think we have to distinguish between mediation and intercession. There is only one mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that he is always praying in and for us, which means that our prayer is always united to his. That is what makes our prayer powerful with God: however inept or inadequate it may seem to us, it is the prayer of Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest. As such, it is perfect.

When we ask others to pray for us — Our Lady, the saints, our fellow Christians — we are asking their intercession, asking them to pray for us and on our behalf; and we use a different kind of language from that which we use when we are addressing God. The nearest analogy I can find is friendship. When something matters to us, we take our friends into our confidence and share with them our hopes and fears. What more natural than to ask our friends to join their prayers with ours? In doing so, we have the example of the apostles and early Church to encourage us: St Paul, for instance, asks the prayers of the believers in Rome (Romans 15.30) and himself prays for the needs of the Philippians (Philippians 1. 3-4). That is no more than we should expect from our reading of the Old Testament. Who can forget the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom or Moses interceding for the Israelites in battle? When things really matter, we are moved to pray about them, to ask God’s help.

Whenever we pray, we pray as dear children of God, whose every concern is of interest to him. That does not mean that God necessarily agrees with our ideas about how things should be, any more than a human parent might. Sometimes people imagine that if they pray “hard” enough, if they have faith “enough”, they can somehow force God’s hand, and if they fail, it is because they lack faith or perseverance. I’m not sure I believe in such a strange God. I think it is much more likely that they are praying with false expectations. It is not as though God has made his mind up and we can nag him into changing it. He is not so fickle. We ask that we ourselves may change in accordance with his will. Take our sick person again. When we pray for him we don’t tell God what to do, although we do have the courage to ask for what we desire. We may be longing for the sick person to recover, but God may see things differently. As a result, our prayer may not be answered as we hope: the sick person may not recover, but the prayer is not wasted. God is never outdone in generosity. Some other gift will follow, something we or the sick person need more, peace and acceptance perhaps, a gift made possible because we have opened up the channel, so to say.

One of the wonderful things about God is that he does not compel. He invites, he urges, but he leaves us free either to accept or reject his invitation. Interceding for others opens up a way for God to act that would otherwise be closed. Take our sick person once more. Say he has no faith and cannot or will not pray himself. If we pray, we allow God to come into a situation from which he is otherwise excluded. That is part of our dignity as Christians, part of the gift of prayer poured into hearts at baptism.

Some people think that to intercede for others means endlessly repeating some formula of prayer. To do so would be beyond the strength of most of us. Here at the monastery we receive many requests for prayer each day through our email prayerline or some other means. We print them out and place them in the oratory. Each member of the community will read them through and then go to her prayer with the intention of holding them before God. No words are needed, indeed they get in the way. What matters is the intention: the “simple, naked intent unto God” of which Fr Baker speaks. At times prayer may be prolonged by the inspiration of grace; at other times it may  be cut short or distracted. Again, I don’t think God is counting the minutes but I do think he is counting the seriousness and earnestness of our prayer.

To pray for others is not easy but I believe it is extremely valuable. There are no barriers of time or space or understanding in prayer. We may never know in this life what prayer has achieved because we see “as in a glass, darkly”, but one day all will be light.

Oremus pro invicem. Let us pray for one another.

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The Myth of Permanence

Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a great reputation and discovered that the chef who made it so departed some years earlier? Often the prices remain the same, but the heart has gone out of the cooking and the experience of dining there is more than a little disappointing. It is the same with monasteries. I can think of some which have been truly great but are now shadows of their former selves, living off a reputation for scholarship or music, say, which is no longer deserved. Others, like yet-to-be-discovered restaurants, are in the process of becoming something that one day may be valued by many.

Linking restaurants and monasteries in this way may help to explain why, for a Christian, the daily call to conversion is so important. Permanence here on earth is a myth: everything passes, everything perishes, reputations not excepted. Every day we must begin again. The restaurant is really only as “good” as its last meal, the monastery only as “good” as its current community; we ourselves only as “good” as we are now.

The past we can confidently leave to the mercy of God, the future to his providence; let’s rejoice in the opportunity of the present, which has been well described as the “sacrament of the present moment”. It is the only one in which we can meet God, for with him everything IS.

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Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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