New Year Resolutions

Already the New Year is beginning to look a little bedraggled. Christmas decorations have been taken down, trees lie in wet clumps beside the recycling bins, and the message of peace and goodwill to all has been drowned out by political spats, military coups and horrific violence. Yesterday, while we were celebrating the wonderful solemnity of Epiphany, a few brave spirits dressed in lycra passed by on shiney new bicycles, determination to get fit writ large upon their faces. I shuddered and averted my gaze, because I don’t really do New Year resolutions, certainly not the kind that require effort from lungs and muscles. Instead I read a number of comments about the old tradition of chalking one’s doors for Epiphany, then wondered how many would be observing today as Plough Monday. Away from the countryside, there aren’t many ploughs to bless, though I daresay we could (nearly) all dance to mark what was once the beginning of the agricultural year.

There is, of course, a connection between New Year resolutions, Plough Monday and life as a Benedictine — patience. No New Year resolution brings instant results; even in these days of GM crops and GPS tracking and assessment, farmers still have to wait to see the fruit of their toil; and as for being a Benedictine, that takes a whole lifetime to achieve. Today we read the final section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict in which he assures us that we ‘shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may be deemed worthy to share also in his Kingdom’ (RB Prol 50). It is a task that lasts usque ad mortem, until death. In the next 73 chapters Benedict will spell out how to give practical effect to our desire to follow Christ. Some of it will be difficult; some of it clean contrary to our own ideas; but it is advice we can trust because it has produced century after century of holiness. We can safely say of St Benedict that there is nothing weird or whacky about his teaching, no mendacious promises of instant fixes for what is wrong with our souls. He offers us only a plain, perservering pursuit of peace: a life of prayer, work and service in community. It will be costly, but the reward is great.

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Preparing for the New Year

This is the time of year when every broadcaster, newspaper or online magazine is full of retrospectives of the year 2017. Several also include suggestions for making 2018 the year when we’ll all be slimmer, wealthier and in every way more wonderful than we were in 2017. Trouble is, it doesn’t work like that. A few people will indeed manage to learn a new language, shed a few pounds or otherwise fulfil some personal ambition, but most of us will reach the end of January realising that we are pretty much the same person we were in September 2017, just a little older and possibly a little crankier. So, is it all stuff and nonsense? Can we prepare for the New Year in any meaningful way, and does it matter anyway?

Certainly, the advent of a new year does provide an impetus for change. There is something about its untarnished quality that is immensely attractive. It is full of possibilities; and the fact that New Year’s Day falls on the eighth day of the Christmas Octave is highly suggestive (please see some of my earlier posts on the meaning of the octave if you don’t know why). Some people like to mark the New Year by apologizing to others for the wrongs they have done them. Unfortunately, the apologies on Social Media don’t always read as the writers intend so that I find myself wondering whether the apology is meant to absolve the one making it rather than put things right with the one receiving it. Saying sorry to God takes everything a step further. It is an essential step because without recognizing the fact of sin in our lives, we can hardly expect to be set free from it and become open to the grace God offers us every minute. Real change can only come about when we respond to that grace. And in case you think I am talking rarefied spirituality here, let me assure you I mean something with immediate and practical effect in our lives. To live a virtuous life is no mean achievement, but it can only be done by grace.

I like the fact that on 1 January we begin re-reading the Rule of St Benedict. The Prologue opens with a call to prayer and to a renewal of obedience — listening — to God. That surely is the best way of preparing for the New Year. Everything else is secondary. Those New Year resolutions that rarely last beyond January may help us identify areas of our lives that need some attention, but they are scarcely important in themselves. Nor is New Year’s Day our only opportunity to change. If you think about it, every moment is new. Every moment is potentially transformative. Every moment God is doing a new thing — if we let him. The old saying is true, ‘Without Him we cannot; without us He will not.’ If we make only one resolution for 2018, let it be to allow God to act in and through our lives.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Two Hairy Brothers: 4

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory
,
Herefordshire

30 December 2016

Dear Cousin Dunc,

BigSis says that, if I’m good and stop chewing my sore paw, she’ll let me do the blog tomorrow. Trouble is, I haven’t many thoughts in my head other than the usual — food, sleep and walks. Can you advise?

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

P.S. I bet Christmas in Beyond was . . . heavenly.

Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

The Heavenly Houndland
Beyond

30 December 2016

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

You’re obviously coming on by leaps and bounds, young sprog. My literary career didn’t begin until I was quite mature; but I’m sure you’ll make a good blogger in time. As to advice, well, it is the end of the year and human beans tend to get silly and sentimental, especially if they’ve had too much to drink. Perhaps you could say something about being determined to make 2017 a better year for everybody? Keep it simple and they’ll lap it up.

Your affectionate old cousin,

Duncan

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory
,
Herefordshire

31 December 2016

Dear Cousin Dunc,

Thank you for your advice. I lay awake in my basket all night long thinking about what I should say today — and then, pow!, it hit me. I should write about what I know best. I know I think about food, sleep and walks most of the time, but I realise that I always think about them with gratitude. P’raps what human beans need is more gratitude and fewer grumbles, then they would be happier — just like you and me, in fact.

So, I thought about saying that, as 2016 comes to an end, instead of moaning and groaning about everything that went wrong and all the disappointments the old year held, we could say thank you for all the things that went right: for the times we got up and the sun was shining, and our paws weren’t sore, and our food bowls were full, and someone gave us a tummy rub or whatever the human bean equivalent is, and life was wonderful because it is life and is to be treasured, every single moment of it. And I thought I could add that even the difficult bits can be O.K. I was very sad to leave my old home in Wallingford, but the monastery isn’t too bad and BigSis and LittleSis do everything They can to make sure I’m happy.

Then I thought some more (it was a long night) and decided I could remind human beans that dogs don’t keep a score of wrongs done (we’re a bit like our Heavenly Master in that respect) and they could try to make peace with those they’ve hurt or let down and begin the New Year with joy and gladness and a dogged determination to try to be kinder and more generous to everyone. That’s much better than making resolutions about losing weight or learning Swahili, and possibly harder, too.

Finally, I thought about the advice you gave me when I was professed: to be myself, but to be my best self. The more I think about it, the more true I realise it is. I think you are the wisest dog I know, Cousin Dunc; and I will try to follow your advice in 2017.

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

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A Monastic Year in Retrospect: 2014

Winter at HTM

Today has dawned grey and silvery, bright with frost and the sharp tang of woodsmoke. While the rest of the world busies itself with New Year resolutions and a more or less dreary catalogue of what went wrong in 2014, here in the monastery we are thinking about the good zeal we ought to have (RB 72) and what we can do to make sure that 2014 ends on a positive note, with wrongs, insofar as in us lies, righted, forgiveness given and received, and hope and trust restored. You might think that was easy for us, but we live in the same world as you do, and have just as many quirks of character. Indeed, I sometimes think that the reason for Benedict’s insistence on our bearing charitably with one another is because monks and nuns are more quirky than most and make bigger demands on one another.

To put things right with another, we must first admit that something has gone wrong. That can be difficult, especially if we secretly think the other person responsible. Unfortunately, thinking like that tends to lead to another rehearsal of the original grievance; and we all know where that ends. I think we have to ask ourselves what we most desire: victory or harmony. That doesn’t mean we do violence to our sense of right and wrong or pretend to a fault we genuinely believe we haven’t committed, but it does mean humbly acknowledging that somewhere along the line, we haven’t been all we might have been. Aquinas wrote of that which, though not sin, had something of  the nature of sin about it; and we all know how easy it is to perform what used to be called an act of charity in such an uncharitable way that it is quite the opposite. The end of the year is a good time to reflect on these things and see what we can do about them.

Here in the monastery today and tomorrow will be days of mutual apology and reconciliation, of giving thanks, of thinking about the events of 2014 and our way of living through them, all with the firm purpose of trying to do better in 2015. 2014 was not an easy year for us, but it has been a year of blessing. Learning to give thanks in all circumstances doesn’t come naturally to most of us, any more than forgiveness does. Maybe that is why St Benedict ends his chapter on good zeal with a simple but heartfelt prayer: May they prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. Amen.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Last Day of the Year

It may be perverse of me, but I think the last day of the year is just as important as the first. It is a time for giving thanks for blessings received, asking forgiveness for wrongs committed, forgiving those who have wronged us, and asking grace for the future. Already, even before January, the month that looks both ways, begins, we are aware of needing to make decisions about both past and future. We cannot reject the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. We cannot determine the future, but we can allow it to be permeated with the love and mercy of God.

In the monastery on the last day of the calendar year, we read chapter 73 of the Rule of St Benedict and are reminded that the Rule itself is only a beginning of holiness, a first step towards the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue described by St Benedict. For me, it will be the 96th time I have heard that chapter read in community. I can look back and see how often I have failed to live up to its demands. I can look forward in hope to trying to live it better in 2014; but most of all, I can decide, here and now, to try to live today as it should be lived because ‘today’ is all we ever really know. So, for me, no New Year resolutions as such, only a renewed sense of purpose about what I am called to be and do. I think (hope?) that is probably enough. It is certainly the best I can do.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Listening

We begin the new year by celebrating the oldest Marian feast in the calendar and re-reading the Rule of St Benedict, starting with the Prologue. Just as the Rule begins with the word Obsculta, ‘Listen’, so Mary’s whole life was a constant listening to God in humble obedience to his will. Now that the fireworks and the partying are over, how will you spend 2013? Will you be listening, or will you be doing all the talking? If you want to know the answer, take a look at your new year resolutions (if you’ve made any). If they are mere wishes, things you’d like to happen, but with no serious attempt on your part to make them come about, it could be that you are mainly talking. If, on the other hand, they are serious attempts at improvement, which will require effort and commitment on your part, it could be that you’ve begun listening. Prospere procede!

Note
Last year I wrote about today’s feast as the hinge of the year. I think it’s still valid, see here.

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