A Tale of Two Tunics

An idle thought struck me at Mass this morning. In today’s gospel, Mark 6. 7–13, we hear the Lord sending the Twelve out on what we would now call missionary work. His instructions are precise: they are to take nothing for the journey — no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purse; they are to wear sandals but not take a spare tunic. That absence of a spare tunic has always bothered me. It is often presented as an aspect of the ‘lean, mean, missionary machine’ idea, in which those who are to preach and teach in Christ’s name are to travel light, taking nothing that is not strictly necessary, depending rather on God to supply all their material needs. As a young girl, I concluded that the first missionaries were probably dreadfully smelly. Later, I began to think that those first missionary journeys were quite short, as though, until the institution of the Eucharist (‘no bread’) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (‘nothing for the journey’), the disciples were not fully equipped for their task. Even today, more commentaries than I care to remember later, I am still puzzling over the text.

St Benedict remarks, in the course of his chapter on the clothing and footwear of the brethren (RB 55), that when we go out of the monastery, our tunics and cowls should be better than the ones we normally wear. It is still our custom today to put on our ‘best’ habit when we have to go anywhere on monastery business. I think the reason we do so is so that, whatever the austerities practised within community, our public face should be like that of the faster, who no one should know is fasting. We represent our community best when we draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. Can the same be said of the missionary?

The life of a monk or nun is largely hidden, by its very nature; the life of a missionary, by contrast, is almost entirely public. For us, the habit preserves the privacy of the community — it may hide its penury; it certainly hides any excessive individualism. For the missionary, with just the clothes he stands up in, what we see is what we get: he or she must radiate Christ, allowing nothing to get in the way. Both missionary and monastic have the same end in view, but we approach it from different angles, so to say. My tale of two tunics may sound a bit far-fetched, but for me at least there is the germ of an idea there. Would someone like to take it further?

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St Benedict, Co-Patron of Europe

For many Benedictines the 21 March feast of St Benedict is the big one. It occurs during Lent and is celebrated with a kind of spartan splendour which seems very apt for the father of western monasticism. The 11 July feast, by contrast, is a rather truncated affair (no I Vespers, for example) and overlaid by other concerns. When Paul VI declared St Benedict Patron of Europe, however, he touched upon something important: the role of Benedictine monasticism in giving shape to what we now call ‘Europe’.

It is scarcely possible to mention Europe nowadays without hearing a groan or mutterings about economic collapse; but Europe as an idea, as a political and cultural entity, as a source of both intellectual and material creativity, is not to be dismissed so summarily. What, I wonder, is the contribution that Benedictines make to the Europe of today? Medievalists tend to talk in terms of learning and literature, art and agriculture, acknowledging the diversity of monastic endeavours in the past. We cannot see the present so clearly, but I have a hunch that the monastic contribution is by no means spent. Maybe the large monasteries of the past, with their great estates and highly regulated way of life, will be seen no more, but it is the genius of St Benedict to be interpreted afresh in every generation. ‘Behold I am doing a new thing.’ These are exciting times in which to be a disciple of St Benedict.

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St Benedict: father of western monasticism

By a curious irony, while we are celebrating the Transitus or birthday into life of St Benedict, the patriarch of western monasticism, our Anglican brethren are commemorating Thomas Cranmer. Better Cranmer than Cromwell was my first thought. My second was more questioning: how do our conflicts look from the perspective of eternity? I do not presume to suggest an answer, any more than I think Benedict would have done. He was a modest man, though what he asks of his followers is anything but modest.

All those wonderful books which tell us how moderate Benedict’s demands are must have been written by people who have never tried to meet them. There is nothing ‘moderate’ about living a life centred on Christ; an obedience requiring constant listening for the voice of God in any and every situation; a daily conversion; a genuine love of the brethren, no matter how uncongenial one may find them (or they us).

Many people overlook a phrase Benedict uses near the beginning of the Rule, where he says that monastic life must be lived ‘following the guidance of the gospel’. There are no half-measures in the gospel, any more than there are in the Rule. Today, as we give thanks for Benedict and ask his prayers for all Benedictines, those of us who have taken the yoke of his Rule on our shoulders might ask ourselves the question, how do I measure up to his demands? How well or otherwise have I met the challenge nihil amori Christi praeponere, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ? That is a question others may want to ask themselves as well.

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Patrick and Rowan: a tale of two bishops

I first met Rowan Williams when, as a youthful Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he came to tea at the monastery and three of us spent the afternoon discussing the psalter with him. It was, if truth be told, a slightly sticky occasion and only really lost all trace of self-consciousness when we moved from small talk to theology and poetry. I suspect that for many of us who are not Anglicans (and possibly for many who are) it is that ease with monasticism, theology and poetry that we first think of when we think of the archbishop. All that he has done, or tried to do, for the Anglican Communion during his tenure of Canterbury, the difficulties he has faced, the obloquy he has endured, remind me of Paul VI, with whom I think he would have had an affinity. He has done an impossible job to the best of his ability, and those of us who are less able can only be grateful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, Canterbury’s loss is Cambridge’s gain; and I am already looking forward to the books he will be writing.

St Patrick was bishop in very different times, but, mutatis mutandis, the challenges he faced bear comparison with those faced by Archbishop Rowan. To proclaim the gospel loud and clear, to help others understand subtle points of theology, to question the values of society, to retain in the midst of busyness a monastic calm and focus (though not a monk himself), these sound very contemporary, rightly so. A bishop can never be ‘popular’ in the way that a singer or movie star can be popular: he must stand up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost to himself. In the case of Patrick, his steadfastness led to Ireland’s becoming a missionary centre of the Church for hundreds of years, no mean achievement for an ‘outsider’.

Britain owes much to Ireland; in the person of Patrick, Ireland owes much to Britain — a reminder that, from a Christian perspective, so many of our quarrels and disagreements are unnecessary. They generate heat, as family squabbles always do, but they do not always serve to advance the message of the gospel. Today, as we pray for all who look upon St Patrick as their patron, let us also pray for Archbishop Rowan and the world-wide Anglican Communion.

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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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St Antony and the Eremitical Vocation

St Antony’s feast-day baulks larger in the monastic calendar than it does in most others because we look upon him as a monastic prototype. His life-story is fascinating and complex — an instance of multi-layered hagiography, to be approached with an eye for detail and an ear for what is unspoken — but it is as a hermit that he is chiefly remembered: a man who went into the desert to be alone with God.

This is a day when we pray for all hermits and thank God for their strange and beautiful vocation. A strange vocation I call it, because it is very rare and very unsettling (or should be) to those who have not received an eremitical call; beautiful, because to live with and for God alone is a gift to be marvelled at.

Benedict was not very keen on hermits, despite, or perhaps because of, his own experience. I have known two genuine hermits with some degree of familiarity: one was a nun, the other is a priest. Both loved people and got on easily with them. Their vocation was not a turning away from others but an engagement with them at a far, far deeper level than any ordinary activity could have made them. I’d dare to say their prayer was, and is, one of the pillars upholding the world.

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Keeping Faith

There has been a lot of comment on the Pope’s Memo regarding the Year of Faith (2012). Some of it has reminded me how grateful I am that this blog has never, as far as I know, become a battleground for conservatives and liberals, never ‘Catholic’ in the narrowly partisan sense, but has always been enriched by contributions from many differing Christian and non-Christian traditions. Yet I trust that no one reading it would have the slightest doubt that I write as a Catholic, from a Catholic perspective born of study of scripture and the Fathers and that immersion in prayer which is at the heart of monastic life. Some, I know, would prefer to see a more overtly theological stance or more explicit discussion of liturgy, but I think I can safely leave that to others. I am more concerned with the foothills of Christian living, and for that reason I am looking forward to what the coming year will bring.

The Year of Faith promises much, but if there is one aspect I would want to emphasize, it is this. All theological disciplines, every attempt to articulate or express faith, should begin, and end, in prayer. Only prayer can keep us centred on Christ and in charity with one another, because only prayer can enable us to face the truth of God and of ourselves. No one, having seen him- or herself for what he or she truly is, could ever despise or disparage another. The Year of Faith is not an opportunity for neighbour-bashing in the name of religion but for learning how much further we each have to go to realise our vocation of holiness. Keeping faith will also keep us humble.

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Celebrity and Sanctity

I wonder how many of today’s celebrities will be remembered seventeen hundred years hence? The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

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