Nun Jokes and April Fools

When did you last hear of a genuinely funny April Fool? One that was both clever and convincing but which didn’t leave anyone feeling diminished or taken advantage of? One that sticks in my mind was a pseudo-technical review in a respected printing journal some years ago. It concerned a scanning device built from a homely microwave by Chinese engineers. It was brilliant in every way: cutting-edge technology (scanners cost thousands of pounds back then), detailed fake analyses of performance and cost and so on and so forth. The name, alas, gave it away: Lirap One.

Most people enjoy jokes and a sense of humour usually comes fairly high up on the list of desirable qualities in a husband or wife. It is certainly a sine-qua-non of surviving community life, but, pace Freud, it is difficult to define or explain how it works. It doesn’t always travel well. The jokes I tell in Spanish, for example, work quite differently from the jokes I tell in English; and I’m not sure I would even attempt a joke in French. The British and Americans are divided by more than a common language: what is funny to one is not always funny to the other as we frequently learn to our cost.

Humour can be cruel, as every child knows, but I’m not sure we are any better than our forebears at ensuring that we don’t give offence when we make jokes, for all our attempts to outlaw certain subjects. When confronted with a particularly tiresome ‘nun joke’ for example, I sometimes ask the teller to substitute the words ‘black’ or ‘gay’ and see if it is still tellable. The results can be quite revealing.

One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that Jesus had a good sense of humour. The gentle teasing of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the parables he told, his dialogues with Peter and the other apostles, all  are eloquent of someone who knew how to laugh and make others laugh. Mind you, given the disciples he had (and still has) it was a very necessary quality. Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone.

 

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Online Retreats

Yesterday we received the first feedback from our Online Retreats. Eleven* people took the trouble to sit down and write a thoughtful, and in some cases quite detailed, response to the whole experience as well as the particular questions raised by doing a retreat on lectio divina. Even in my tired and curmudgeonly state, I was immensely encouraged — by the obvious sincerity, the desire for God, the generous appreciation of what we are trying to do and the evident determination to carry the retreat on into daily life. We were particularly struck by one person’s comment that we had brought the monastery to them: that is exactly what we had hoped to do, to enable people to share in its inner life of prayer and worship.

What we were not prepared for was the fact that many found the title of one set of retreats, Five Minute Focus, bewildering. In our defence I can only say that we did not mean the ‘five minutes’ to be taken literally, although I suppose one could read through some of the retreat material in five minutes. We wanted to convey the idea of focusing on God, of regularly returning to him through the day in short ‘bursts’ or periods of attention. In the context of lectio divina or prayer that makes perfect sense. Perhaps we should have spelled that out. At least everyone who responded acknowledged that they had received ‘value for money’!

Both the dedicated Retreatline (email) and LiveChat have enabled users to ask questions and share reflections in confidence, so it looks as though the Five Minute Focus format is working well. We shall be tweaking things a little in the light of the responses we have received and may make adjustments to the Shared and Companion Retreats before launching them later this year. The one utterly devastating criticism (made by only one person, and in such a gentle, kind way one couldn’t take offence) was that we didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. As I have often been taken to task for having too much humour, I am nonplussed. I blame the dog. Wouldn’t you?

* Eleven people may not sound a huge sample, but the service has only been running a little over a week.

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Dumb Animals

I have spent much of the night sitting up with a sick dog. (Before you besiege the monastery, let me assure you the vet is on the case and the appropriate remedy will be applied.) Unlike sitting up with a sick person, sitting up with a sick animal means responding to signs rather than words. Of course, we anthropomorphize and misread many of the signs our domestic wolf is really sending us. The shaggy head, the liquid brown eyes, seem redolent of deepest misery, but who is to say? I have not reached morning with any great insights to share with the world. There have been no midnight revelations about the condition humaine, no sudden illuminations. The reality is, and remains: one sick dog, one tired nun. Sometimes life is like that.

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Nuns on the Run

I would have preferred the statelier ‘Gad-abouts and Gyrovagues’, but given that language is about communication, using monastic jargon, even humorously, has its drawbacks.

Yesterday we went to Douai to join the community for Mass and a festive meal which was very pleasant and a world away from our usual humbler liturgy. Today we have a few deadlines to meet, then tomorrow we are off again, in the metaphorical sense. BBC 1 Breakfast TV may give you a glimpse of part of the monastery not usually open to visitors while Digitalnun makes her way to the Great Wen to take part in Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ programme. We’ll never know what the TV shows or doesn’t except by hearsay, but Quietnun may well listen in to the radio in order to add prayer support. That’s what she says, anyway.

All this begs the question: why do many people regard an occasional egress from the cloister in order to take part in serious discussion or engage with others on subjects of common interest as somehow not quite right for nuns? One of the long-range effects of the 817 Council of Aachen and subsequent canonical additions by Carlo Borrromeo (to mention only the most important) has been to make the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns diverge on this point. Given that there is no ‘Second Order’ among Benedictines (Benedictines antedate the whole concept of a Religious Order) one wonders whether this is something that we shall need to address in coming years. As William remarks in one of the ‘Just William’ books, ‘Girls aren’t so mere as they were in your day, Dad.’

 

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Of God and Geeks

Many people use this blog as their first point of reference for our other sites so here is a little round-up of domestic news. iBenedictines itself has been optimized for use on mobile devices using wp-touch. As far as I can see, that has worked well. There is no such instant solution for a conventional web site, so we have built a new version of our monastery web site just for small screen mobile devices. It has its own domain, http://www.benedictinenuns.net, and you can, in fact, view it using a desktop or laptop. It doesn’t have all the content of the main site, but since we have recently added more material, it should keep you usefully occupied as you travel the Northern line (or is it the District, I forget). Finally, just in time for Lent, our online retreat service should be going live on http://www.catholicretreats.org.uk and http://www.benedictinesonline.org.uk. The actual launch date will be announced once our beta-testers have finished telling us everything they don’t like about the way we have set things up.

This is, of course, pretty low-grade geekiness by today’s standards, but it does have one redeeming feature, in our eyes, at least. It is all done out of love for God and in the hope of allowing his love to reach people who would never be seen inside a church, as well as those who who are already committed to him. It is an expression of Benedictine hospitality, twenty-first century style. If you look at the Future section of our web site, you’ll see that we don’t believe in substituting virtual for real encounters, but we’ve made a start on trying to find a way to offer an experience of monastic peace to those in search of it. Please pray that, if it be pleasing to God, our venture of faith may be blessed.

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Pondering the Prayerline

One of the most popular parts of our web site is the Prayerline. Every day we download numerous requests, and from time to time certain patterns emerge. At the moment, the bulk of requests from the U.S.A., for example, concern financial worries: finding a job, avoiding foreclosure on the house, affording medical care. We find it easy to identify with these needs. Just like everyone else, we have the monthly challenge of finding rent and council tax, affording utility and household bills, keeping a car on the road (we live in a village) and generally making ends meet from a variable income (we run a small design company.) Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about affording essential medical care because the NHS continues to provide a cradle to the grave service of which we are rightly proud.

British prayer requests tend to be family-centred. There are pleas for people in hospital or facing a life-threatening illness, broken relationships, estrangements. Requests from South America or Asia are often concerned with getting on in the world: prayer for exam success or admission to a particular course. From Africa come requests for the gift of children and freedom from evil spirits. From many parts of the world come requests from those who experience persecution because of their Faith.

Whatever the request, we hold it before the Lord, confident that God will hear our prayer. Nothing is too small for his notice, nothing too big for him to deal with. He may not answer as we or the petitioner might hope, but that is his business, not ours. Our business is simply to ask.

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An Invitation to Share our Future

Great Oaks from Little Saplings Grow

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter is a good day for new beginnings. It reminds us that small acorns can grow into mighty oaks which provide shade for all who seek it.

When we first came to Hendred, we felt less than acorns, mere dry husks; but little by little, the sapling has grown. Now it needs to put down permanent roots and grow stronger still.

Please read what we say about the future of the monastery on our web site. You can check out our vision, our hope for the future and the innovative way in which we are trying to solve the age-old problem of how.

Above all, if you pray, please pray that this venture of faith may succeed and bring a blessing to many.

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Cracking the Code

How about a little light-heartedness to start the week-end? We all love being let into a secret, so today I’ll give you a little bit of nunspeak and what it really means. Please note: you are advised not to try these at home. They only really work in monasteries and among people strangely attired

“in your abundant leisure” = I know you haven’t a moment to spare and it’s probably hopeless asking, but . . .

“in case I die in the night” = I want you to know that I put something in the oratory/library/attic (delete as appropriate).

“I was in the prayer of gentle drift” = I feel asleep during  prayer time.

“by virtue of holy obedience” = I’m pleading with you.

“Dear Sisters” = there’s been a disaster somewhere (probably in the kitchen).

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The Invisible Nun

I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.

Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.

The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.

Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.

Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.

The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.

I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?

Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.

The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.

We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.

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