Monastic Life, Contemplative Life, and ‘Cor Orans’

Quietnun reads
The library is always an important part of a Benedictine house.

Yesterday was the feast of St Boniface, apostle of Germany. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to all who had been involved in the Anglo-Saxon Mission, including the nuns, of whom Boniface had a high opinion, especially St Leoba of Wimborne and Tauberbischofsheim. I found myself reflecting on the way in which Rudolph of Fulda’s Vita Leobae, composed in about 837, shows the sea-change that came over Benedictine life for women in the ninth century following the Capitularia of Aachen (817). From there it was a short step to today’s post which may be of use to those who, like me, are puzzling over the kind of life Cor Orans has in mind. It is only a sketch, written from my own understanding and experience of being a Benedictine nun, but I think it could be developed.

Cor Orans and the Contemplative Life for Women
Cor Orans states that it is an Instruction regarding women’s contemplative life. It explicitly addresses those who are cloistered or enclosed, i.e. those canon law calls moniales, nuns. What it fails to do, I think, is to consider the monastic life for women apart from and alongside the contemplative life, although it occasionally refers to monastic life and contemplative life as though they were one and the same. Its preferred term throughout is contemplative. Although that is understandable, given the usage of past times, I would say it is questionable nowadays because of the accretion of essentially non-monastic ideas that have grown up around the word contemplative. To some the distinction will seem unimportant; to others, I hope it will introduce a note of clarity. Equating the monastic and the contemplative life leads to assumptions that I would suggest are not valid, and I foresee  a lot of heartache resulting from the failure to be clear about both.

The whole Church is called to be contemplative
All Christians should be, in some sense, contemplative. It is the vocation of the Church as a whole. The particular way in which individuals live that vocation has been mapped out in the past and led to some unfortunate consequences. For instance, some people have the idea the idea that contemplation is somehow opposed to action, even perhaps superior to it, instead of being, as it really is, intimately connected with, and inseparable from, it. Or we assume that a particular way of praying — contemplative prayer— allows us to designate Benedictines, Carmelites, Poor Clares and so on as, one and all, contemplatives, as though that were a sufficient definition. Doing so tends to ignore the monastic element in our lives, and the very real differences that exist between us. It also downplays the contemplative element in the so-called active orders and in lay life generally, which, once pointed out, can be seen for the absurdity it is.

Being monastic
While not wishing to dispute the claim of Carmelites, Poor Clares or others to be monastic in many ways, I think it would be fair to say that not all are monastic in the same way that Benedictines are. The antiquity of our Rule and the sources on which Benedict relies are evidence of an older, perhaps I should say more primitive, form of monasticism. Likewise, many would argue that Benedictines are not contemplative in the same way Carmelites and Poor Clares are — I have certainly been told that we are not ‘really’ contemplatives. Over the centuries we have all evolved different structures, different ways of being that express our differing understandings of what we are about. The enclosure rules of the Carmelites, for example, have never really sat well with the Benedictines, any more than the severe fasts of the Poor Clares.* Where we place the emphasis — on the monastic or the contemplative element in our lives — thus becomes significant.

What is ‘special’ about the Benedictines?
Benedictines existed before the concept of religious orders and have always prized their independent and self-reliant character — what most people think of as autonomy. Our structures are simple, and in monasteries of nuns our public prayer is less given to the kind of devotions that are nowadays urged upon contemplative women’s communities. More than that, and most importantly, monks or nuns, we have always engaged with the culture of our times. That is not just an extra: it is part of how we are Benedictines. A Benedictine monastery should not only be a place where prayer and the pursuit of holiness are central, it should also be a place of learning, hospitality, welcome, a beacon that draws people to Christ, we might say, rather than a hidden stream. It should have a generous spirit, an appreciation of what is beautiful and true, and a sense of responsibility for others — an awareness of mission or purpose, if you like. The Wimborne nuns had an important part to play in the Anglo-Saxon Mission which they could not have sustained had they been bound by later ideas of enclosure and disengagement from society. I would say that, even today, despite centuries of legislation that have tended to circumscribe the lives of religious women, Benedictine nuns have more in common with Benedictine monks than they do with their Carmelite or Poor Clare peers because, for us, the emphasis is on being monastic rather than contemplative.

The Benedictine vows express this monastic emphasis very clearly. The vow of obedience is common to all traditions, although the way in which Benedictines interpret it may look slightly different to an outsider. We do not take vows of poverty or chastity, as such, but rather the older forms, stabilitas and conversatio morum. These include a commitment to community (stabilitas), a promise of lifelong single chastity and an undertaking to live frugally (conversatio morum), but also encompass much more. The vow of conversatio, in particular, is a vow to live as a monk or nun should live, in every detail. It cannot be reduced to anything less. I think myself that this is often misunderstood. To vow perpetual conversion, a constant turning to the Lord, to live as we should live, is impossible without developing, insofar as one can, familiarity with scripture and the Fathers, and cultivating an intense life of liturgical and private prayer, humility and service. It is the reason Benedictinism has been perpetually able to reinvent itself, so to say, to adapt to different circumstances and changing conditions. Without it, monasticism is mere fancy dress, an illusion. It has no heart. But contemplative prayer is only one element, albeit an important, even necessary, element, in a particular way of living our discipleship. Using the term monastic at once frees the kind of life it denotes from the false notions that have grown up around the use of the word contemplative. It is not esoteric, or reserved for a special few. It is graced ordinariness.

Recapturing the monastic ideal
I think we need to recapture that sense of what it is to be monastic in the Church and to see it as something that concerns us all. There is not, in essence, one kind of monastic life for men and another for women, although monks who are clergy will inevitably have duties that those who are not clergy don’t. In recent centuries the Church has tended to think in rigidly binary categories, male/female, active/contemplative. That in itself has done a great disservice to many active religious, male as well as female, whose service of the Church and of the world stems from their contemplative heart.** In the same way, I would suggest that it is time we looked again at the category contemplative and recognized that it is now an inadequate way of characterising religious women who live lives as diverse as, say, Benedictines and Poor Clares. The paradox of living a solitary life in the midst of community, of being alone with the Alone, is both a spiritual and a human reality. Isn’t it time we recognized it and allowed the monastic life for women to take its rightful place in our thinking and in Church legislation?

*In the seventeenth century, it became quite common for Benedictine nuns to take a vow of perpetual enclosure, but this was a result of tendencies within Counter-Reformation spirituality that were not, in origin, Benedictine. As a research student, I smiled over the fortress-like regulations for enclosure walls set by St Carlo Borromeo and wondered whether they were enforced or remained a figment of the legislator’s imagination.

**Religious brothers have not always been given the respect and attention that is their due.


Something for Vocations Sunday 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016
The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

I wonder how many people today will hear a homily that speaks of the wonder and joy of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated (old-time, religious) life? How many will hear one that speaks of the importance of marriage or family life, of the beautiful but often difficult vocation of those called to be single, or indeed anything beyond a dutiful bidding prayer that somehow mixes up sheep, shepherds and labourers in vineyards? I ask because I am convinced of the supreme value of knowing, loving and serving God and would like everyone to find joy in the things of the Spirit and in the fulfilment of their unique call from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a good day for reflecting on our own own vocation and, in addition to praying for others, thinking and praying about how we ourselves have responded to God’s call in the past, and how we should respond in the future. Have we helped or hindered others in following Christ? Is there something more that the Lord asks of us? Are we ready to listen, or do we want to turn a deaf ear?

I myself am a Benedictine, and a very happy Benedictine at that, yet part of me wishes I had been graced with the vocation  of a Carthusian or hermit so I could live ‘alone with the Alone’. I say that without any rose-tinted misconceptions about the demands of the eremitical life. I only just scrape by as a coenobite and would never manage as a hermit. But God is, and I pray always will be, the most important person in my life — which is why I am a nun, why I am enthusiastic about monastic life in general and the life of this community in particular, and why I want to share its blessings with as many people as possible.

Sometimes a visual image can help, so the photo at the beginning of this post shows the altar-end of our oratory while the one below shows the choir-end. Our oratory is a plain and workman-like space, as monastic life itself is plain and workman-like. There is careful attention to detail, but nothing fussy or superfluous. It is the most important part of the monastery, and I think it is eloquent of how we understand Benedictine life and try to live it. If it is a terible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, it is also, as the saints assure us, the most delightful. May God draw many to experience his love and mercy, to savour the sweetness of the Lord and be his true disciples.

The choir-end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory
The choir end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

I give below links to a few previous posts on vocation which, together with the information on our main website, ( for small-screen devices) and our Facebook page, may prove helpful. I hope so.

Some Posts about Vocation

Praying for Vocations

Vocation and Reality

Further Thoughts on Vocation

A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Vocations Sunday

A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015



A Valiant Woman

Or rather, two, indeed, three. My admiration for SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose memoria we keep today can be traced through this blog and its predecessor, e.g. here, but I have a very personal reason for keeping these two great martyr saints in mind. Eleven years ago to the day, a wet and windy Ash Friday 2003, three companions and I set out from Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, not knowing where the Lord would take us but determined to follow wherever he would lead. The oldest among us was D. Teresa Rodrigues who had spent more than fifty years as a nun of Stanbrook but who retained to the end great determination and fidelity to her vocation. She is the third valiant woman I recall today.

For SS Perpetua and Felicitas there was the red martyrdom of blood — and what a martyrdom it was! Their Passio is among the most thrilling and complex works to have survived from early Christianity. For D. Teresa there was the slower, ‘white martyrdom’ of monastic life, lived out in daily fidelity to Rule and observance, and in the little things that mark our lives. The names of the Carthaginians echo down the ages; D. Teresa’s will probably be forgotten; but all three are great encouragements to us as make our Lenten journey. They are the type of the valiant woman; and valour is not something strange or alien, it is a necessary part of the Christian life. We need courage; we need constancy; above all, we need to keep our eyes fixed, as they did, on our goal, the Easter of the Lord.

Today is also the Women’s World Day of Prayer.


Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Yesterday I read a thoughtful article by Br Gabriel T. Mosher O.P. on the subject of the shortage of vocations and the kind of everlasting discernment process many engage in rather than coming to an actual decision (you can read it here). Inevitably, some commentators concentrated on what I took to be a secondary argument about the objective superiority of religious life (Br Gabriel’s a Dominican, so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?) and, being unfamiliar with the precise terms the author used, took umbrage. So, I want to make it clear that what I am addressing is Br Gabriel’s main thesis: the way in which discerning a religious vocation becomes almost a way of life, with no final resolution.

I spend hours every week answering vocation questions. Some are perhaps rather trivial, but I try to take every one seriously because we all move at different speeds and what may seem minor to one may be quite major to another. As a community, we also ‘accompany’ people in their search for God. Some of those who are in regular contact have been discerning their vocation for years. I sometimes have the uneasy feeling that discerning has become — quite unintentionally — a way of avoiding commitment. If I am discerning, I do not have to face the ultimate test of placing myself and my sense of vocation in a concrete situation where others will judge whether I am called to this way of life or not. Moreover, if I am discerning, I can look for a community or rule of life that meets all my requirements/desiderata: I can take the risk out of commitment. The problem then is that no community on earth is ever likely to come up to my standards — they all seem to be full of cranks and crotchety old codgers I’d rather not have to deal with, and no situation is ever really risk-free. Finally, there is the fact that discerning can lead one into the trap of looking too much at oneself and forgetting the Lord. It is nice to talk about one’s soul with someone who is, or should be, sympathetic. I liked Br Gabriel’s snappy take on this, ‘Many will come and see . . . few will stay and pray.’

What can those of us who dwell in monasteries do to help people who find themselves endlessly discerning? Here at Howton Grove we are undertaking a major revision of our web sites and are keen to try one or two ideas which we hope will help those thinking about religious life. For example, we already insist on video conferencing before anyone makes the journey to Hereford to stay with the community for a period of discernment. If you are a young person, thinking about religious life, we’d be interested to know what you have found helpful, what has helped you towards a decision rather than just discerning. There is a kind of ‘vocational voyeurism’ that is unhelpful, both to the individual and the community. Our starting-point, however, is that people are full of goodwill and sincerity. We take discerners seriously because we take God seriously and we want to be of service. You can help us.


What We Don’t Blog About and What it Says About Us

Blogging, we are told, reveals what interests us and the kind of people we are. What we say and how we say it captures our essential essence. Le style est l’homme même indeed. But I wonder whether what we don’t say is just as revealing. The austere format of this blog suits me, but I know it puts some readers off. Perhaps, secretly, I don’t want the kind of readers who prefer visual imagery and catchy formats; so while I protest that I like the ‘monastic’ simplicity of the layout, I am actually trying to ensure that I only attract readers who are in sympathy with me? O devious Dame, if so!

You will find that I very rarely comment on what is going on in other churches. There has been no word from me on the subject of women in the episcopate or the doctrinal formulations of the Reformed or Protestant Churches, for example. That is not because I have no opinion, but because I do not want to be drawn into controversies I can never fully understand from the inside. I would need to be an Anglican or a Methodist or a Baptist to engage at any real depth. It is easy to see why. I may have read a fair amount of Anglican/Methodist/Baptist theology, but I have never lived as an Anglican/Methodist/Baptist so there is a gap between my theoretical understanding and my lived experience. Turn that back to front, and you may see why occasionally I am irritated by members of other churches making statements about the one to which I belong. It is not that I think they have no right to do so; it is just that I am not convinced they are always as well qualified to do so as I (note the ego!) think they should be.

I rarely comment on marriage or family life and have largely side-stepped the debate on same-sex marriage, yet I know that for many readers, they are questions of fundamental importance. My reticence stems from an awareness of my limitations. Why should I comment on that which is beyond me and about which others are infinitely better informed? Turn that around, and you may understand why I sometimes smile over comments that tell me how I ought to understand/live the monastic life. Many comments are helpful and make me examine my own practice, but there are a few that take us to cloud-cuckoo land!

I know I have many American readers, from both north and south, but I am very hesitant about commenting on U.S. politics. I have views, certainly, but I am not equal to the sheer intensity of American responses. The hatred of President Obama expressed by people I know to be good and kind leaves me speechless. I just don’t understand it — just as I don’t understand the apparent unwillingness to do anything about gun crime or the brinkmanship that has led to the latest shutdown of government. Turn that around, and as a European, I find the American tendency to think that what is good for Americans must be good for everyone else quite troubling.

Today you might have expected me to blog about St Thérèse of Lisieux, as I have done in the past; but I haven’t, because there are aspects of her life I find difficult. She was a great woman as well as a great saint, with more of steel in her than little flower, I think, but she plunges us into the stuffy world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, and I find that unattractive. I cannot relate to it in any meaningful way. In fact, I have never been drawn to Carmelite spirituality, much as I honour and hold dear those who are. I think that illustrates one final point about what we don’t blog about. No matter what we leave out, what we choose not to write about, someone, somewhere will have something to say that is worth reading, on precisely the subjects about which we ourselves are inadequate.

So, pray on — and blog on!


St Jerome: Teacher of Asceticism and Love

St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.

For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.

One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?


St Bede the Venerable

Bede is the only English Doctor of the Church and a fine example of monastic learning and holiness. We tend to think of him as the historian of the English Church but that is probably not how he saw himself. His scripture commentaries may well have seemed to him more important (he wrote the only patristic commentary on Mark, for example) but his great book, the one into which he poured a lifetime of thought and reflection, is probably De Templo, about which I have written in earlier posts. My point is the disjunction between what a person is to himself and what he is to others. Bede the monk is largely forgotten today, or only alluded to by way of historical colour, but in his own time, and in his own place, Bede the monk was all there was to consider. It was as a monk that he lived and died.

As a nun, I have no difficulty identifying with much of Bede’s life, the daily round of prayer and observance that lurks behind the sentences and slips in and out of the text like the interlace on a manuscript. It is for the way in which he lived that life that he is considered a saint: not because he was a great historian or wrote magnificent prose. Bede inspired affection, was a little worldly (remember that pepper!), delighted in learning and teaching, loved the life to which he was dedicated from boyhood. That is not a bad record for any monk. It is certainly one to which I would aspire myself (worldliness apart).


Vocation Invocation

Tonight young people from across Britain will be gathering at Oscott for a week-end of prayer and reflection on vocation. See the Invocation web site for more information and live updates here. We were asked to support the venture with our prayer (which we give freely) and our money (which we don’t have but would give if we could) but were not invited to contribute any personnel, which makes me wonder whether the organizers consider us rather negligible because our community is small in numbers. (I hope we are not negligible in terms of value or reach, but that’s another matter.)

Playing the numbers game is something we all have a tendency to do when it comes to vocation, and it is dangerous. Who is to say that a community of thirty is in a better condition than a community of twenty? Age, health, spiritual maturity and holiness of life are all factors to be taken into account. Counting the chickens isn’t a good idea, either. We ourselves haven’t any novices (no space), but we do have eight or nine discerners (can’t be more precise, because one never knows when someone might have ‘gone quiet’ because she is having second thoughts) but each one is an individual at a different stage of the journey; and as my old Junior Mistress used to say of herself in her eighties, ‘You haven’t persevered to the end yet.’

A Benedictine vocation is always to a specific community, something I think many people do not sufficiently understand. There is indeed a strong ‘family likeness’ among Benedictine communities because we all follow the same Rule and stem from the same stock, but there is also the strong individuality that is part of the secret of Benedictine monasticism’s longevity. That makes it difficult for anyone to speak ‘for the Benedictines’ as such, so pity whoever is tasked with that job at Oscott this week-end (though I have no doubt that the Benedictines there will do splendidly: they are Benedictines, after all.)

Let us pray for the young people gathering at Oscott, that their generosity may be blessed and they may be guided along the way that is best in each case. Let us pray also for the organizers and those entrusted with the work of guidance, that they may be responsive to the Holy Spirit. May the life of the Church be enriched by many more ready to follow Christ in the priesthood and the religious life.