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.


New Ways of Doing Old Things

Oblates Day 2013
Oblates Day 2013: busy with iPad and Macbook, as befits an internet-aware community

Yesterday we had the joy of oblating Margaret in Canada to our community here in England. We did so by means of a group videoconference, which meant that fellow oblates as far apart as Michigan (U.S.) and Norfolk (U.K.) could take part in real time, together with those attending Oblates’ Day at the monastery. The tradition of associating lay people and clerics with the monastic community as oblates or confraters is very ancient; using online technology to bridge the gap between countries and individuals is much more modern — although we can lay claim to having been doing so for several years.

New ways of doing old things: that is part of the challenge the Church, not just monasteries, faces in every generation. How are we to be faithful to what we have received in a world that is constantly changing? There is a temptation to do one of two things — either embrace the new and jettison the old, or stick with the old and resolutely refuse to change anything. That is not the Catholic way, nor is it the monastic way. One of the best parts of our online Oblate Chapter yesterday was a discussion about how the larger community of oblates and associates can be linked with and contribute to the work of the nuns, especially online. I’m not letting any secrets out of the bag yet, but the words ‘Fifth Column’ may take on a new meaning sometime in the new year.


Of Nuns and Sisters

Would you object to a little light-heartedness on this wet and windy Friday in Lent? Admittedly, my purpose is serious, but one does not always need a sledge-hammer to make a point.

One of the oddities of the world today is that people talk about nuns when they mean religious sisters and about sisters when they mean nuns. We are indeed all sisters, but not all of us are nuns. Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter (well, not to me, anyway); but there are occasions when precision of meaning matters very much — when dealing with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at the Vatican, for example, or applying the relevant canon law to such things as vows, enclosure (cloister) and the like.

One of the main differences between nuns and sisters is that we nuns are useless. We are ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’, so we don’t teach, nurse, do social work or anything else that the world values. We may write, speak or do things online or within the enclosure (cloister) of the monastery, such as receiving guests or, as in our case, running an audio book creation and postal loan service for the blind, but our lives are largely hidden from public view. We may run small businesses to support ourselves and fund our charitable outreach, but again, they must be such as can be carried on from within the enclosure. Nuns usually wear habits of varying degrees of antiquity (both senses), sigh over their mountains of unanswered correspondence (no time, no time) and suck their teeth whenever they hear the phrase ‘the good sisters’ or are asked ‘what do you do all day?’.

Religious sisters, by contrast, are very useful indeed. They are out in the thick of things and can be found virtually anywhere, working with the poor and marginalised, the druggies and the drop-outs, teaching at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, specialising in law, physics or what you will. They don’t always wear habits and are often unfairly criticized for not doing so. In this country they tend not to have a very political profile, but elsewhere they challenge existing power structures, bring compassion to death row prisoners and act as a salutary thorn in the side of the establishment. We in the cloister admire them very much: they do what we couldn’t, and we pray for them daily. They in their turn are very supportive of us.

The Church needs both nuns and sisters. It is not that the nuns pray and the sisters act. They represent two vital aspects of the Church, and of course they overlap, are complementary, form part of the ‘seamless robe’ that is Catholicism. St Bernard talked of Mary and Martha as sisters, of the same stock, with different characters, but both equally members of the same family, both necessary. During this past week we have heard Pope Francis give a very clear call to service. That service can only be sustained if it is rooted in prayer and sacrifice, and I am confident that the Church’s nuns and sisters will respond whole-heartedly. Please pray for us all.


Male and Female Models of Holiness

Today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, the Second Step of Humility, RB 7. 31–33, reads as follows:

The second step of humility is not to love one’s own will nor delight in fulfilling one’s own desires, but imitate in deed that saying of the Lord, ‘I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.’ Likewise, it is written, ‘Self-indulgence incurs punishment, but constraint wins a crown.’

I wonder whether monks and nuns are encouraged to understand this key text on humility differently? For the monk, who is often a priest, humility frequently takes a more active form. Even if he has no pastoral responsibility, his service as hebdom means that the monk will be expected to preach to his brethren on occasion and share the fruits of his prayer and lectio divina with others. The nun (and I do mean nuns here, not sisters), unless she happens to be the superior or novice mistress/junior mistress, has no preaching or teaching role except extraordinarily. In the past, this has tended to create two different models of humility. For men, the humility of leadership; for women, the humility of obedience or, as I prefer to call it, the humility of the handmaiden.

In the Church both leadership and obedience and the humility they express are rooted in the humility of Christ. He alone is the true leader, the supremely obedient one, the perfect pattern of humility. I do wonder, however, whether these two aspects of humility — leadership humility and obedience humility — have in practice tended to become more separate than they are in theory, and led to two different models of holiness. I have never really been convinced by arguments about complementarity as they tend to peter out into simplistic notions of biology or lead to rancorous disputes about ‘what St Paul actually meant’. Nor do I want to exalt reason to the exclusion of any other God-given quality. Mind and heart are equally involved in the quest for God; mind and heart are both redeemed, or nothing is.

The Church needs the gifts of all her children. Some must be exercised through sacrifice, but I question whether we should expect women and girls in the twenty-first century to model their holiness on what was appropriate in the first. That is a challenge for those us who are Benedictines. We have a rich and gracious history and many wonderful examples of monastic holiness to draw on, but the people joining us today have grown up in a very different world, with very different experiences and expectations. How do we ensure that the humility we try to grow into in the monastery is truly the humility of Christ, and not some deformation of our own? In Him, we are told, there is neither male nor female. I believe we need to think and pray about the models of holiness we propose with much more care than we may have hitherto.


A Domestic Matter

Today I am hoping to get some painting done in the monastery and I have been amused, and occasionally puzzled, by the reactions of online friends. There have been imaginative suggestions about how Bro Duncan might aid the process;  witty suggestions for colours with a liturgical twist; and the inevitable, ‘I suppose you’re painting it all magnolia’ (no, not a drop of magnolia in sight) and ‘those are pricey paints you’re using’ (not really: good paint covers better, faster and lasts longer). What has genuinely puzzled me are the people who think that nuns never have to bother with decorating, or somehow manage it all by magic (I wish we could).

Which brings me to my thought for the day. Our prayerline and, indeed, our email inbox, are always full of requests for prayer. We regularly receive requests from people wishing to discuss their faith or lack of it, or some other perceived difficulty in their lives. In other words, a lot of people engage with us in times of distress and anxiety. Many we never hear from again; others say thank you for what they have received. Not one of them has ever sneered at us for ‘not living in the real world’ (a charge frequently heard from those who disagree with the opinions we express) or questioned our ability to understand the lives they lead. Clearly, when we are needed, we are ordinary people. But mention something as everyday as decorating, and some people are evidently baffled. It doesn’t fit their idea of what we should be.

What I say here of nuns obviously applies to everyone, and that is my real point. Do we box other people in with our view of them? Do we effectively demand that they conform to our ideas about what they should be and do? The parents who want their child to be a doctor or a lawyer, when the child actually wants to be a dancer or a musician; the husbands and wives who want their partners to be what they cannot; the expectations we have of others which can never be met. Sometimes we use this kind of thinking to excuse ourselves from responsibility: ‘he wasn’t what he should be, so why should I . . .’ It is easy to think about these things in the abstract, but we need to start with the reality nearer home. Today is CAFOD’s family fast day, when we are asked to fast in order that others may eat. I daresay many of us think of the hungry in terms of stereotypes: the starving in Africa or Asia, for example. Perhaps today we could take a fresh look at the people we pass in the street. There are many in Britain today who go hungry and whom we need to help, as well as those in other parts of the world. Hunger is a domestic matter, not something we can pretend only happens elsewhere.

How will you help today?


One Year On

This time last year Quietnun and I were in the U.S.A. I had gone there to attend the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, where I was scheduled to give a talk about our online ministry, followed by meetings with Quietnun in New York and various places in Connecticut and New Jersey. Most of our meetings concerned the development of the community and the need for permanent accommodation, but we also managed a couple of visits with our postulant-to-be and some good friends nearby. It was fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Never having been in the States as nuns, we were surprised by how kindly we were treated by everyone. The legendary friendliness of Americans is real enough, so we had to keep reminding ourselves we were guests in a foreign country. The fact that we spoke a similar language did not mean we could assume perfect understanding!

Where are we now, one year on? We have learned a lot; and we have found what we hope will prove to be a permanent home here in Herefordshire. That was not at all our idea when we went to the States last year. We have been powerfully reminded that our ways are not always God’s ways, that following his leadings means we have to give up ideas of our own and be prepared, at whatever age, to start anew. It means abandoning the loved and familiar. We had already done that twice, but who are we to limit the call and grace of God? So, one year on, a little like Abraham, we find ourselves having taken up our tent pegs and moved on into the unknown.

Probably most of you can resonate with that to some degree. One bumbles along, more or less happily, thinking nothing will ever change, and then some event, some person perhaps, causes a change we are totally unprepared for. Why should this happen to me, why should it happen now? In our case, we accepted the move to Howton Grove with joy because it means that others can now join the community. Other changes can be much harder to accept. We struggle, don’t we, hoping against hope that something will not come to pass. Our email prayerline is full of people’s secret fears and dreads: that a cancer may not spread; that the bank will not foreclose on a mortgage; that a son or daughter who is estranged may return to the family; that a husband or wife may not divorce. What has not changed for us, and never will, is the duty to take all these concerns into our prayer and intercede for others.

Today, if you have time, spend a moment or two in prayer for those faced with difficult transitions. They will never know you have prayed for them, but by praying you invite God into situations from which he may have been, in some sense, excluded. Intercessory prayer is dangerous, of course, but being surprised by God may be exactly what someone, somewhere, needs.


St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns 2012

The feast of St Etheldreda and all holy English nuns tends not to mean much to most people. It is smiled at or quietly passed over, but a thousand years ago, when nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as they have become, it would have got a different reaction. Anglo-Saxon nuns were formidable: many were learned, witty, extremely influential, as well as holy. No one who had dealings with them had any doubt that they were very able. When St Ethelwold of Winchester was a little patronising toward St Edith of Wilton, he was rebuked in no uncertain terms. Nuns nowadays would probably be expected to hold their tongues — or else!

I am sometimes troubled by the unthinking condescension of priests and others who assume, wrongly, that because a woman becomes a nun she somehow gives up, along with her material possessions, every gift of mind and heart with which she was previously endowed. It troubles me because it is unjust, I suppose, but also because it impoverishes the Church by trying to force people into a mould they were not designed for. I know nuns who were research chemists, barristers, university lecturers, doctors, bankers — and that’s just among the cloistered. Of course there is room for the nun as figure of fun, but the joke can be taken too far or can come uncomfortably close to being really nasty. There was an unfortunate incidence of what I mean on a well-known American blog earlier this week (no names, no pack-drill, because I don’t want to publicize it or the comments it evoked).

From time to time we are assured that the Church values the cloistered life and are exhorted to pray for vocations. However, we also have to foster vocations. If we merely pay lip-service to the idea that a monastic vocation is a worthwhile way of serving God and others, then I think we are kidding ourselves when we pray for vocations. We don’t really want them at all. The acid test is: would you be pleased if your daughter were to become  a nun? If your instinctive reaction is, ‘No!’, think again. Could God be asking you to accept the unthinkable, to foster a monastic vocation within your own family?


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


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.

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


St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.