The Googlification of Research

We often receive requests for help with research projects. Whenever we can, we try to respond positively although doing so can take a sizeable chunk out of the day (some might say, a disproportionate amount of time, given the size of the community, but helping others is an aspect of hospitality so we do our best). I am beginning to be concerned, however, by the number of requests which suggest that the very nature of research is changing. Asking for leads, a few specific questions after the background reading has been done, discussion of a point that has arisen when looking again at the source material: all these are fine by me. I am less happy with the kind of research which consists in endless questions that a very little work by the researcher could have answered.

Let me give some examples. Frequently, we’ll receive long lists of questions about nuns/monastic life, whether we blog or engage with social media, etc, etc. Usually, these are already answered on our community web site or are pretty self-evident. (If you made contact with us via these pages, presumably you would realise that one of us blogs, wouldn’t you?) Then there are the lists of questions about other communities or organizations, e.g. Anglican sisters, about which we are not qualified to speak; there are also what I call the speculative lists, which ask questions along the lines of ‘do you think that the Church (who She?) is doing (a) a good job, (b) a bad job or (c) an indifferent job of . . .?’ Who cares what we think, and anyway, how are we to assess what two billion Catholics are doing? (People often forget that the Church is universal when conducting their surveys.) TV companies, novelists, journalists looking for a feature article, people doing dissertations, all send their little lists and hope for an answer by return.

I think Google is to blame. We have become accustomed to tapping in a few search terms and coming up with pages of resources; so why should people be any different? Send a list of questions and back will come the answers. Turn them into a few nice- looking charts (so easy with the software available today), add a few sentences of interpretation containing all the most fashionable buzz words (do another Google search to find them) and, hey presto, we have the dissertation nailed, the report ready. I exaggerate, of course, but underneath the exaggeration is a belief that the quantification of thought is no substitute for thought itself, that research is precisely that: a systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions. There are no short-cuts to research, just as there are no short-cuts in the most exciting search of all, the search for God.

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Digitalnun’s Story

Sadly, Odyssey Networks decided to change their policy about letting people they have interviewed embed the resulting video on their web site or blog. So, if you didn’t catch it in the first twenty-four hours, you will either have to buy the Call on Faith app, available from the iTunes store at 99cents (there is also an Android version) or view the lo-res version of the Call on Faith video on our main web site here.

If you do have the app, the video will be found here: http://m.4gotv.tv/cof/stf.xhtml?videoID=184965. The Call on Faith app comes highly recommended.

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Reclaiming Nuns for God

St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen
St Etheldreda, Abbess and Queen

Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy  to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).

When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?

Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?

I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.

In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as  odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.

Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.

There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?

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Prayer in a Digital Age

As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.

Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.

At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.

Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.

Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.

*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.

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New York! New York! or A Nun Travels the World

Well, not quite; but with Bishop Crispian’s blessing, Digitalnun is about to take part in a couple of conferences which will see her out of the cloister and plunged into a world far removed from the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

Church and Media Conference 2011
First, there is the Church and Media Conference 2011 at the Hayes Conference Centre, 13 and 14 June, which promises ‘a unique opportunity for media professionals and faith leaders to engage in lively and informed debate.’ Being neither a professional nor a leader, and with no particular claim to being either lively or informed, this presents Digitalnun with something of a challenge, especially as she will be giving the closing keynote. However, debate is good and she is quite excited about listening to some of the very knowledgeable people who will be attending. Many thanks to Andrew Graystone and the Conference organizers for inviting her. An unintended bonus is that Quietnun and Duncan will have some quiet time while she is away.

The Benedictine Development Symposium

At Pentecost, the Church was endowed with the gift of tongues in order to make known the Good News. The internet and social media are simply another ‘tongue’ we must all learn to speak with some degree of fluency. This will be one of the subjects addressed at the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, 5 to 9 July, where Digitalnun has been invited to share some of the insights the community has gained during the past few years. The great generosity of Mike Browne, the Symposium members and the Priory of Christ the King in funding her visit is a mark of the seriousness with which religious organizations are now tackling what is, to many, still rather strange and new.

New York! New York!
And finally, from 10 to 17 July, a few days in New York, where Digitalnun will be meeting with a number of people who are interested in what the monastery is doing and who, hopefully, might look favourably on the community’s desire to obtain permanent accommodation. There are still a few free slots in the timetable if anyone would like Digitalnun to ‘sing for her supper’, as it were. Again, we are enormously grateful to those who have made this part of the trip possible, especially the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians who, not for the first time, have come to the rescue of Benedictines abroad by offering accommodation, and the kind friends and well-wishers who have underwritten some of the other expenses and smoothed the way for the visit.

It wouldn’t be honest to pretend that this will be all hard work and no play. A day off has been arranged, and it is quite likely that it will be spent either in the Met or at The Cloisters. Digitalnun is still a lapsed but unrepentant medievalist.

A serious question
Of course, all this invites reflection on the contribution monasticism can make to the world today. It would be a mistake to think that any activity, however good, could ever replace the quiet, persevering search for God we make in prayer, work and study. The cloistered life always has been, always will be, one that comparatively few understand and even fewer actually live. But because it is at the heart of the life of the Church and part of its missionary impulse, monasticism is a necessary part of the Christian world order and therefore must speak and pray in the language of the internet as much as any other.

How that is worked out varies from community to community. We don’t have a physical cloister here at Hendred but we think of the internet as the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart, somewhere we seek God and, on occasion, find Him.

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The Cloister of the Heart

Yesterday I was touched to find a Facebook friend commenting on the fact that there had been no blogging from the monastery since the Visitation. The simple explanation, that I had nothing to say, might raise an eyebrow or two among those who wonder whether I ever have anything to say, but let that pass. We are great believers in sharing what we have with others, but one must first have something to share; so, inevitably, there have to be times when we stand back and concentrate on the inner life of the community, as we have during the past few days.

What do we mean by ‘inner life’? By and large, the unseen life of prayer and study on which the Benedictine monastic life is based. In medieval times, this was very much the life of the cloister, where one walked and prayed and worked. In nuns’ monasteries the cloister was reserved to the community, with guests admitted only occasionally (or not at all, if medieval bishops had had their way).

We have no cloister as such, here at Hendred, no ‘reserved space’ for the community, so we have to work a little harder at cultivating the cloister of the heart. It means, unfortunately, that sometimes we may have to tell people we cannot undertake activities, good in themselves, which we judge to be inconsistent with what we have professed or even, as in the past few days, close our doors (physical and digital) to visitors. Is that selfish? It depends. Ultimately, our whole way of life is based on the premise that God matters supremely, that seeking him in prayer is what we are called to do. That isn’t the easy or ‘romantic’ thing it is sometimes made out to be. As every novice quickly learns, it can be very demanding. Indeed, if I were asked what has been the most challenging thing I have ever attempted, I would answer, being a nun; and I suspect you can only really understand that if you are a nun yourself.

During the past week we launched another online retreat, sharing something of our cloistered life with the world. Even as we did so, I was conscious of the fact that we can share only a little. I hope what we do share is worthwhile, that our online cloister is a place where heart speaks to heart.

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D. Catherine Gascoigne

D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai
D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai

On 21 May 1676 died D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai, and a ‘doughty dame’ if ever there was one. She was the daughter of Sir John Gascoigne and his wife, Anne Ingleby. At the time she was born, Catholics in England were subject to severe legal penalties. Attendance at the services of the Church of England was required by the law. Failure to do so meant being listed as a Recusant; there were fines and often confiscation of property, along with tedious restrictions such as not being allowed to own a horse. Priests saying Mass could still be imprisoned, just as earlier they had risked being executed. To be a Catholic was to be under siege. The idea of living a monastic life in England was unthinkable, so when Catherine and a group of like-minded young women felt called to be Benedictine nuns they had no choice but to journey abroad. In 1623, under the auspices of the English Benedictine Congregation, they set up house in Cambrai, Flanders.

The early history of the community is stirring, especially to someone familiar with it as part of the living tradition of her monastery of formation, but this post is about D. Catherine herself and the part she played. The Cambrai community was initially helped by three nuns from Brussels, who were charged with teaching the novices and preparing them for profession of vows. Unfortunately, although diligent and generous, the Brussels nuns were very much influenced by the Jesuits and their way of systematic meditation, whereas D. Catherine and the nascent Cambrai community fell naturally into the older way of prayer taught by Fr Augustine Baker, the Benedictine Vicarius of the community (Fr Baker had revived the medieval English form of contemplative prayer which is very different from the formal meditative method then currently in vogue). It was, as you may imagine, an explosive situation and there was great relief when the Brussels nuns returned home and D. Catherine was elected abbess in 1629.

The problems were not at end, however. The community was poor, and Fr Baker and his teaching fell under suspicion . The orthodoxy of the Cambrai community was questioned and a committee of enquiry was set up by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation in 1633. D. Catherine was resolute and faced her opponents with quiet courage, giving an account of her prayer in such simple, moving terms that anyone reading it cannot but admit its truthfulness and power. ‘Goe on couragiously, you have choosen the best way: we beseech Allmighty God to accomplish that union which your hart desireth’ said the Fathers; but in 1655 D. Catherine was again facing ecclesiastical censure. She refused to give up Fr Baker’s treatises, arguing that they were entirely orthodox and of immense value to the community and the Church. She won, of course, but it was a close run thing.

In time, D. Catherine’s talents came to be recognized more widely. She was called upon to oversee the reform of another monastery in Flanders. When she was dying, she wrote to  the then President of the English Benedictine Congregation, Fr Benedict Stapylton, asking for ‘a new and very ample confirmation’ of Fr Baker’s writings, ‘as being the greatest treasure that belongs to this poor community’, for she saw clearly that the only true wealth of a monastic community is its holiness and prayerfulness.

What has D. Catherine Gascoigne to teach us today? Personally, I have always found her inspiring, more so than her more immediately attractive companion, D. Gertrude More. Her quietness, her firmness in the face of opposition from those who should have supported her, her fidelity to prayer and monastic observance, her care for the community committed to her are admirable qualities. I am also grateful for something very few know. She would never have been able to become a nun had she not suffered from smallpox. The Bishop of London refused her a licence to go abroad, saying she was too beautiful. She prayed for her beauty to be taken from her, and it was; so the licence was duly given. Chance, too, has its part to play in our history.

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Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.

For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.

None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.

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So You Want to be a Nun, do you?

From time to time I dip into a forum frequented by people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. One of the things it has taught me is that many people reflect on religious vocation in ways more reminiscent of a career choice than vocation as I understand it. I don’t say this to criticize, merely to remark. There is much assessment of habits, devotions, penances, liturgy and a weighing up of ‘tradition’ (which does not always equate to Tradition). It seems so far from what really matters. While I think it is good to ask oneself whether one will fit in and grow in a particular community or Order, I am more hesitant about the ‘shopping list of requirements’ that some potential candidates produce. Indeed, I can look back on a huge volume of letters and emails the novice mistress and I have sent out explaining that the desire to be a nun does not necessarily imply a vocation; that more is required than just saying, ‘I’ll enter with you.’

Today we begin reading RB 58, Benedict’s extended treatment of admission of candidates to the community. More and more, I realise its wisdom. He starts off by saying that newcomers should not be granted too easy an entrance, that we should test the spirits to see whether they be from God. I wish everyone would read that before they think of applying! There can be such indignation and hurt when it is pointed out that the community has a say in the matter, that what we are seeking is God’s will rather than our own. Sometimes people think a small community will be a push-over, taking anyone on any terms. The reverse is true. No community will last if it has members who are uncommitted or unsuited to monastic life. While a certain degree of eccentricity can be tolerated in a large community, crankiness in a small one is not a good idea. I am pleased to say that we have a number of people who want to enter with us, if we can get big enough premises, but we don’t count the chickens before they are hatched. It is remarkable how many vocations disappear as the entrance date draws near and the reality begins to dawn. Those that survive are usually very good and strong.

Please pray for those discerning a religious vocation. Western society is not very supportive of those who want to make a counter-cultural choice. Families can be very hostile and the economic climate makes it difficult to fulfil some of the canonical requirements. If you are yourself thinking of becoming a nun, it is worth pondering what Benedict says the community must look for in a candidate: are you truly seeking God; are you eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for the things that will humble you? Answer those questions and I think you’ll have less difficulty with the rest. A vocation is, after all, a response to an invitation from God, who can do all things.

Note: The vocation pages on our main web site provide some information about becoming a nun; the FAQ is regularly updated.

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Monastic Habits Good and Bad

Yesterday and today we are reading chapter 55 of the Rule, on the clothing and footwear of the brethren. Not a very promising subject for reflection, you might think. Don’t monks and nuns just do what they’ve always done, and wear an odd sort of dress that is meaningful/romantic/quaint/ridiculous, depending on your point of view? Not quite.

Benedict’s little treatise on clothing has some interesting points to make. First of all, he is concerned, as elsewhere in the Rule, to avoid every appearance of luxury; so he lists what he thinks is sufficient for every monk to have and no more. He is well aware that we can amass unnecessary items, which then become possessions (see previous post). He has no time for scruffiness or sloppiness and wants monks away from home to dress rather better than they do in the monastery. He also seems to expect them to do their own laundry. In a monastery of nuns, none of this comes as a surprise. We have a summer habit and a winter habit, a pair of shoes and a pair of sandals, plus a ‘best habit’ trottted out on important occasions. We also have work-clothes, ‘the scapular for work’ mentioned in the Rule, and I think we are good about the laundry. But notice that Benedict is remarkably flexible about the actual form of the habit. ‘The monks must not complain about the colour or coarseness of any of these items [of clothing] but make do with what can be obtained in the district where they live and can be bought cheaply.’

A whole theology has grown up around the monastic habit which is indeed beautiful, and for those of us privileged to wear it, deeply significant. A habit such as ours probably also works out marginally cheaper than wearing lay clothes because it can be patched and darned so often; but Benedict is much more relaxed about it than many of our contemporaries. I am happy to wear a traditional habit but I hate the way in which some attack those who don’t, especially religious sisters. Belittling the dedication of others, making puerile jokes about them, presuming to dictate what they should wear isn’t very pleasant; worse still, it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what the habit is and the place it plays in our lives. We don’t take the habit on ourselves; we receive it at our Clothing as something that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is a sign, no more, no less, of our having taken the yoke of the Rule upon our shoulders. That commitment, that dedication, goes far deeper than what we wear.

The Saxon princess Edith, a nun of Wilton, was rebuked by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester for wearing a purple tunic above her hair-shirt (a common practice then) with the words, ‘Man looks at the outward show; the Lord looks at the heart’. In return, he received the best put-down ever given by one saint to another, ‘Quite so my Lord; and I have given mine.’

 

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