This morning we were thrilled to learn that one of our oblates is to receive a City of Sanctuary award for her work with refugees. I don’t (yet) have permission to name her, and as she is very modest and self-deprecating I shall not presume, but she is a wonderful example of how ‘ordinary’ people — ordinary in their own estimation, that is — can do extraordinary things. We tend to think of the extraordinary in terms of Guinness-Book-of-Records-style achievements The kind of work being celebrated by the City of Sanctuary organization is less spectacular but requires no less patience and perseverance than performing daredevil feats. To be truly concerned for one’s neighbour, to battle officialdom and bureaucracy on behalf of another, to be a friend to the stranger and alien, and to do so without losing heart or giving up, these are great qualities. More than that, they are inspiring qualities. This morning we rejoice in the knowledge that one of our oblates has taught us all something invaluable and in doing so has made the world a better place. Thank you, and thank God.
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.
On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.
Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.
Yesterday, the feast of All Benedictine Saints, was our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. A few of us gathered for Mass at Belmont then returned to the monastery at Howton Grove for a day of prayer and reflection during the course of which we had the joy of affiliating Margaret to our community. She lives in Canada so we did so online, with participation from oblates in the U.S.A. and elsewhere in the U.K. There were a few glitches caused by our not all having the latest version of the necessary software, but on the whole it worked well, enabling us to see, hear and interact with one another in real time.
During the subsequent oblate chapter meeting, we discussed the way in which oblates and home community interact. One of the problems we have, as a very small community, is meeting the demands on our time. We do our best, but we just aren’t able to do everything we’d like, and people are sometimes very disappointed. We therefore discussed what we can give our oblates, and were surprised and pleased to hear that they also wanted to discuss what they, as oblates, can give to the community. It was encouraging to hear our oblates say that, just as much of our hospitality is conducted online, so much of our oblate interaction needs to be online, too. There was ready acceptance that the amount of input we provide by means of this blog, Facebook, podcasts and so on made it unnecessary, indeed impossible, for us to think in terms of regular oblate newsletters and the like. However, we shall be initiating a regular series of online meetings (using group video-call software such as Skype) during which we hope that some of the input will be contributed by the oblates themselves (after all, who wants to hear Digitalnun and Quietnun doing all the talking?). Roughly half our oblates live in Canada, the U.S.A., France and Italy, so negotiating suitable times will be a challenge (but, of course the software exists to help with that, too). I shall be emailing all the oblates who weren’t present with details.
All in all, it was a most enjoyable day, much of it spent in front of the logburner in the calefactory — a novel experience for our oblates, who are used to the rather colder and damper conditions at Hendred. We ended with the Oblate Dinner. Some things cannot be transferred to virtual space, and roast lamb, I’m happy to say, is one of them.
At this time of year we all think about hospitality. For many of us, that leads to concentration on the food and drink we provide rather than the quality of attention we give others. A letter from one of our Associates has reminded us what welcoming others is all about, so, with her permission, I am going to quote part of it today.
When I became an Associate, you urged me to consider hospitality, Benedictine hospitality. This came as something of a challenge to an introvert living on a track between fields, outside a very small, workaday village. Responding to the challenge, I dragged a wooden bench, ‘Benedict’s Bench’, out onto a small patch of land beside the field of cattle opposite my house . . . .
I sat on the bench, often with a cup of tea, whenever it was time for me to water the cattle . . .Watering cattle is one of those wonderful tasks that requires one to be present but only actually doing something, i.e. changing the hoselines, for a few minutes in the hour. It makes for good prayer time.
The first thing that happened was that I came to know and love the cows. The second that people started to drop by, to stop on their walks, to collect their post at watering time, to simply sit with their own cup of tea and enjoy the peace.
The bench changed much. Gradually I came to know [the local] people far, far better. A teenager with girlfriend problems turned up for an evening or two, another with exam results and a career choice looming. Mothers sat down and let their children play while we just sat together. Our cattle farmer arrived each morning, and when it wasn’t harvest, stayed on drinking tea.
Benedict’s Bench has had an extraordinary effect on me and this tiny community. We are organising a Christmas Dog Show in the village. (N.B. Bro Duncan – outdoor, with classes and agility runs for everyone) and despite the sensible advice to take in garden furniture over winter, the bench will stay. It has opened hearts.
The writer goes on to describe cattle-home, when this year the bench was joined by several tables and chairs, a side of beef, ham sandwiches, cake, sloe gin and all the accoutrements of a country feast. It is a heart-warming story but it begins with one small step, a gesture of faith and trust. P. has taught us something important about how to welcome others, not merely into our space but into our lives.