Glimpses of God

The Earth seen from Apollo 17

The supreme norm of religious life, as of Christian life, is charity, yet how often that is forgotten in the rush to argue, debate and make one’s own opinion triumph over others’. Thankfully, most of the religious I know are too busy trying to love God and their neighbour to want to waste time scoring points or deluding themselves that God sees everything and everyone as they do. Benedictines, in particular, are well aware that it is not only what we say or do but how we say or do it that matters. Again and again, the Rule reminds us of the importance of reverence for other people, of weighing our words, of listening carefully before we speak. I attribute that to Benedict’s concern for the holiness of the community. He didn’t play the numbers game. He didn’t specify a complicated or expensive habit (the clothes of the monastery should fit the wearer, he says, but he leaves the abbot a lot of discretion about what can be had locally). Although he wanted his monks to have everything they needed in the enclosure, that was because he didn’t want them wandering about to the detriment of their souls. It is holiness, closeness to God, that matters to Benedict, as it matters to his followers today.

Most of the time our search for God is carried out in a kind of ‘unknowing’, following the monastic routine with no great highs or lows. We trust the Rule, our superior and our brethren to help us on our way. Just occasionally, we may be allowed a glimpse of God in prayer that transforms everything. Whenever I see any of those beautiful photographs of earth seen from space, I think of Benedict’s vision of the whole world. According to St Gregory, Benedict was allowed to see creation as God sees it. To see as God sees, what could be more wonderful, more humbling, than that? Even the thought of it leaves me at a loss for words — and perhaps that is the point.

Audio version

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Our Own Worst Enemy?

It may be a hackneyed phrase but, like most of most of its kind, it contains a lot of truth. We are often our own worst enemy, and when Jesus tells us in today’s gospel to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5.43–48), I don’t think we necessarily have to exteriorise the enemy. Most of us are conscious of an inner struggle. We talk about the old Adam (or Eve) asserting itself or ruefully admit to having behaved less charitably than we should have.

When we do exteriorise our enemy, we tend to make unflattering comparisons between them and us or even demonise the other. Anyone can fall under the curse of our anger and become an enemy: those who don’t share our beliefs, those who are richer, more obviously beautiful or talented, even those who are younger or healthier. We can always find a ‘reason’ for regarding others with hostility, and it is SO much easier when we can convince ourselves that they are persecuting us in some way.

It won’t wash, I’m afraid. There will always be some who seem to hate us without cause but I think we should worry much more about the hating we do ourselves. After all, we can’t do much about other people, but we can do something about ourselves. We can resolve to try to be kind, generous, truthful, forgiving. We may fail a thousand times a day (I know I do) but we can try — and that is all God asks of us. The enemy within can be prayed for just as much as the enemy without. The only difference is that we have to be humble enough to acknowledge the existence of the former. Pride, alas, often veils our sight and provides us with excuses for our own bad conduct. St Benedict spoke of the ‘evil zeal of bitterness’ that separates from God and leads to hell (RB 72.1). That is not where any of us should wish to end up, is it?

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Cleansing Fire

Pentecost
Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of
D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey. Used by permission

My favourite image of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is fire, cleansing fire. At a time when COVID-19 and a lack of leadership in many countries have contributed to a sense of being adrift in a stew of corruption and fear, the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping in like a storm-wind, scattering the darkness with flashes of fire and lightning, cleansing the world of sin and negativity and putting fresh heart into us all is immensely attractive. But it must be the Spirit’s doing, not that of some self-appointed messiah who thinks they have the right to order the world according to their own notions. That raises important questions about discernment and co-operation with grace — in other words, how we work out what God is asking, and how we follow his lead.

I think D. Werburg’s painting provides a clue. Whom do you see, and what are they doing? We see some of the apostles, certainly, but also Our Lady and Mary Magdalene, a reminder that the Church is not confined to a single group but embraces all humankind. The figures are shown at prayer and the Spirit has come upon them, but notice how the symbol of the Spirit, little golden flickers of flame, is painted against their haloes. To me, that suggests that the Spirit works through the ordinary and everyday as much as through the dramatic and unusual. Indeed, the action of the Holy Spirit may be almost imperceptible at first, but think how it changed the early Church! There is more. D. Werburg was a great admirer of the Desert Fathers. When she painted Our Lady robed in a flame-coloured garment, I wonder whether she had in mind the story told of Abba Joseph

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

We, too, can become fire, but our fire must be ablaze with God not self. Only if it is can we hope that others will take fire also and the renewal of the world be accomplished.

No audio today: breathing not very good.

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True Lent (With a Little Help from Herrick)

The Friday after Ash Wednesday generally sees the first little wobble in our Lenten discipline. The fast begins to bite; our ambitious plans for holy self-improvement are less attractive than they looked a week ago; and the nay-sayers who think we are motivated by a mixture of fear and sanctimonious priggishness are starting to get under our skin. Then the Church’s Mass readings deliver the coup de grace. Isaiah 58. 1–9 and Matthew 9. 14–15 are both about fasting, and leave us absolutely no wriggle-room. Giving up wine or chocolate or some other luxury isn’t the point at all. Our first duty is to fast from sin. There should also be restraint in our use of food and drink, because we need to feel in our flesh the commitment to conversion that we make through prayer. As always, however, the third element in our Lenten discipline, almsgiving, needs to be part of our fast. Giving up food and drink and giving generously to others are intimately connected.

So, what if you have decided to give up something other than food and drink, social media, say? That may be a very good thing for you to do if you find that you are becoming addicted, but it may also have an impact on others you do not intend. For example, yesterday I saw that one of my Facebook friends who, for various reasons to do with health, etc, relies on social media for many of her social interactions was sad that several online friends were going offline for the duration of Lent. For the person concerned, that means six weeks without the interaction and support online friendship can bring. It isn’t straightforward, is it? Perhaps that is why so many of us opt for the obvious.

Perhaps we could let Robert Herrick examine our conscience on the matter and maybe even re-consider some of the choices we have made.

IS this a fast, to keep
                The larder lean?
                            And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
                Of flesh, yet still
                            To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
                Or ragg’d to go,
                            Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole
                Thy sheaf of wheat,
                            And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
                From old debate
                            And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
                To starve thy sin,
                            Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

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Floods of Tears and of Rain

New South Wales is awash with rain, so is much of the U.K. following Storm Ciara. Online news sites are treating us to the obligatory photos of water inundating houses, people paddling about on upturned waste bins or emerging from cars roof-deep in flood-water. Lighthouses are shown being swamped by massive waves while brave members of the R.N.L.I. battle to save surfers silly enough to go into the sea in such conditions. For those directly affected, it is miserable and will go on being miserable for a long time to come, but we shall soon be focusing on something else. Our appetite for the sensational is intense but short-lived. In any case, we prefer the secondary detail, the appealing stories of rescued pets and madcap attempts to resist the irresistible, to considering more difficult questions about climate change, weather and planning for the future. It is rather the same with St Scholastica, twin sister of St Benedict, whose feast we keep today. Many will speak of her tears but few will speak of the love for both God and her brother that summoned a storm when Benedict was being an idiot, or the strength of mind and heart that made her a saint in advance of him.

I’ve often written about St Scholastica and give below a few links to previous posts. If you follow them up, you will see that I have no time for the weak and emotional Scholastica portrayed by those whose ideas of sanctity (and of women) are far from reality. I daresay many would argue that the Scholastica narrative is made to conform to long-held ideas about the place of women in the Church and our tendency to behave in ways male authors find disturbing. I’ve done so myself at times. I think part of the problem is caused by the concentration on secondary matters. Take those tears, for example. They are a mere detail, but some people latch onto them and draw conclusions that, the more I think about them, are absurd.

Saints do not become saints by being wimps. St Scholastica was a strong woman. She could not have lived the life she did had she been given to fits and starts of excited emotion. Just as St Gregory says of Benedict that he cannot have written other than as he lived, so I think Scholastica cannot have lived other than as she was written about, as a truly devout and prayerful woman who had grown in knowledge and love of God her whole life long. How much she influenced St Benedict, we cannot know; but we do know that twins often have a special bond, and there was clearly mutual love and understanding between them. Benedict was wise enough to recognize that his sister had mastered something he himself had not yet learned but which was more important than the dutiful pursuit of monastic observance. He saw her being welcomed into heaven before him because she had learned that love of God comes first, before everything else. That is a lesson we too must learn. It does not matter whether we learn it early or late, provided we do. Not long after St Scholastica’s death, St Benedict also died — finally a master in the school of the Lord’s service. I like to think he had Scholastica, in part, to thank for that.

A few links

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.

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Limping Into Lent

Ash Wednesday is only a week away, and I realise I shall probably still be in the throes of post-chemo yukkiness while everyone else is smiling bright, purposeful smiles as they tackle their Lenten penances. Thank goodness we Benedictines don’t go in for that sort of thing. I can limp into Lent with a good conscience. St Benedict does indeed say that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, but when one analyses what he means by ‘Lenten’ it is reassuring to find that he concentrates on purity of life and the basic disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but without any competitive striving. We are not being asked to be heroic, just fully what we should be at all times but often aren’t. (cf RB 49)

In previous years, I have examined what some of the traditional disciplines of Lent might mean for each of us and I see no reason to change anything I’ve said before, though it may be useful to re-state them.

Prayer
Prayer is the fundamental Lenten discipline because Lent is all about letting God become close to us. Sometimes people decide that ‘more is better’ and set themselves a daunting routine of extra prayers to be said each day. I think myself that that is self-defeating. Either one cannot keep it up, in which case one feels a fraud and a failure, or one does somehow manage it, and is tempted to sneak a little admiring glance at oneself now and then. Much better just to be simple and try to be whole-hearted about one’s prayer as it is.

For a Benedictine, prayer is intimately connected with lectio divina, and in the past I have written about the usefulness of the Lent Book — the book of scripture each of us is given to read during Lent. Not, please note, one we have chosen for ourselves but one we have been given, the one that, however unpromising it may look to us, has something important to say. If we do not have a kindly superior or community to choose a Lent book for us, there is always the rich sequence of readings to be found in the Mass lectionary. In fact, I would always suggest starting with them, because to pray with the rest of the Church is the best way of ensuring that we do not go off on some unfruitful byway of our own.

Fasting
Fasting, like prayer, is best done with the mind of the Church. It isn’t the same as dieting, and giving up what Isaiah calls ‘the wicked word’ is much more important than some trifling sacrifice of wine or chocolate that half the world cannot afford anyway. It is, however, necessary to introduce an element of plainness into our food, and to curb the self-indulgence of other times. Whatever we save in our spending on food here at the monastery goes to a relief agency, and I think that is important. Fasting is meant to simplify our life and make us more attentive to God and other people. Feeling in one’s own body a little of the hunger that many experience daily is good at many levels, but it must not get in the way of spiritual alertness or the practice of charity. So, if fasting becomes just a covert way of improving one’s waistline or one’s bank balance, stop, think again. And if fasting turns one into an angry, hot-tempered dragon, belting fire and brimstone at all and sundry, stop, stop, STOP! Better to eat a slice of bread one didn’t intend to than chew one’s brethren to bits.

As to the other things St Benedict suggests we might fast from — unnecessary conversations that can easily turn into gossip or scurrility, for example — we must each find our own way. For some people, it might even be a case of becoming more, rather than less, conversational: greeting the concierge with a smile and a kind word, for example, rather than passing them by as though they did not exist.

Almsgiving
It is telling how often, in the West, almsgiving as a Lenten discipline is forgotten. It is not that people are not generous, but somehow the connection between giving alms — showing love — and the pilgrimage towards Easter is broken or not understood. We are all capable of giving to others, and often it is giving what we never thought of giving that proves the most costly gift of all. So, for example, being patient, with ourselves as well as others, is as valuable as a monetary gift to a Charity that appeals for help. Not being able to do some of the things we’d like to do during Lent can be an offering in itself. For instance, I doubt I shall be well enough to fast ‘properly’ on Ash Wednesday, but I can offer my sadness and regret instead. Again, we must each find our own way; and that brings me to my main point.

Preparing for Lent
For each and every one of us, Lent will be much more fruitful if we spend a little time beforehand thinking and praying about it by way of preparation. In the monastery we have the wonderful practice of the Lent Bill in which we set out what we intend to do (or not do!) during Lent and show it to another for evaluation and permission. I think that helps keep us on the right track. We do not always see ourselves clearly enough to make wise decisions. To ask the advice of another, to be humble about our choices, is to enter into the dynamic of Lent. For forty days we are asked to accompany the Lord along the way to Jerusalem and we cannot do that unless we are prepared to follow rather than lead. Some of us will run along the way; others will limp. It doesn’t matter which, provided we get there in the end.

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From the Perspective of Eternity

Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?

Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?

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Feeling Helpless

Most of us would admit to feeling helpless at times. Illness, the sudden loss of a job, even a leak we can’t fix can leave us experiencing an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. No matter how hard we try, we find it difficult to put a truly brave face on things. Outside we may look as though we are coping; inside we are more of a mess. For many in the UK and throughout the EU, the Brexit crisis is stoking up fears about the future, while those who see their jobs disappearing with the collapse of the High Street and traditional manufacturing industries have more immediate worries. We have learned, painfully, how quickly a situation can go from ‘just managing’ to ‘not managing at all’. So, how does prayer fit into this?

One of the things we learn very quickly when we try to pray seriously is that prayer has many modes. There is joy and sorrow, hope and fear; times when prayer seems easy and natural, times when it seems impossibly hard and barren. The important point is to persevere, to accept the prayer God gives now, not the prayer he gave yesterday or may give tomorrow. That is to allow our helplessness to be transformed by grace. Unfortunately, we don’t see what is happening, though others may; and it is important to remember that feelings are not a very good guide to what is happening. We may well go on feeling helpless, powerless, even if we aren’t. It keeps us humble, if nothing else.

The humility we learn in prayer is the bedrock of Benedictine life. That needs thinking about. Humility seems so attractive in other people but in ourselves is often perceived as akin to weakness. Odd, isn’t it, that something that feels as wobbly and uncertain as helplessness should actually provide us with safe standing? Another paradox to get our minds around.

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