Fridays in Lent

Perhaps because I am writing this half asleep, after a week of short nights and long days and a particularly full one yesterday (BBC TV were filming a short feature for Breakfast TV on 23 March, we had guests for supper, there was a loaded inbox, deadlines to meet, you know the kind of thing: a leisurely day in the monastery), I am wondering what my Friday penance ought to be. The custom of marking Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent, as days when we perform some special act of penance is a very salutary one, in both senses of the word; but practically speaking, when one already has a Lenten programme spelled out in one’s Lent Bill (Benedictines) or in one’s resolutions for Lent (everyone else), Fridays are a problem. What does one give up or take on that is not already covered?

Some people read through at least part of the Passion in the early afternoon, on their knees. That means stopping what they are doing, which is not easy, especially when trying to meet a deadline, and switching to another mode, one which acknowledges that God is more important than anything we think important. Reading the Passion narrative in this way does have a penitential aspect but, more significantly, it reminds us why penance on Fridays is encouraged.

I don’t recommend that you should kneel down in your office or on your factory floor on Friday afternoon and get out your New Testament unless you want to be the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but if you too find the whole question of Friday penance rather perplexing, maybe you could find something just as simple that would be a help to you. It is not what we do but the love which accompanies it that matters. I’m not sure what I shall do today, but I’m pretty sure you will never know. The other aspect of Friday penance is keeping it a secret between God and ourselves.

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Shrove Tuesday

Shrove Tuesday is for many so identified with pancakes that it is known as Pancake Day pure and simple. Personally, I don’t mind that. The level of dissipation in the monastery is rather like Wordsworth’s, miserably low, but we shall have a festive meal (with pancakes) before we turn our thoughts to the main business of the day: confession. I often think that confession is the cindarella sacrament, frequently ignored or undervalued, but essential at so many levels. It needs prayerful preparation and a determination to be honest with oneself, which isn’t easy.

Another task for today is consideration of the Lent Bill. This monastic practice could be more widely known. We each of us consider how as individuals, not as a community, we can offer God “something above the usual measure of our service” in the matter of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (we already have a community take on these). However, no one decides for herself: all is subject to the judgement of another, either the superior, or in her case, that of another nun, the point being that there can be great pride and seeking of vainglory even in the most “religious” practice. We are also given the task of reading through one book of the Bible with special attention during Lent. Again, the choice is made for us by another. This is in addition to our normal lectio divina. I am praying devoutly that the choice for me won’t be Leviticus again. I find it fascinating, but there is only so much Leviticus one can take at one time.

There won’t be a blog post tomorrow; so, prospere procede. May you have a blessed Lent.

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Ten Tips for Bloggers

A meditative start to Monday this. I am well aware that there is much still to learn but here are a few tips for aspiring bloggers — and before you write and tell me, I know I don’t always observe them myself:

1. A provocative title will attract viewers but not necessarily readers. There is a difference.

2. Do not be surprised when people read what they think you have written, rather than what you have actually written.

3. Short and simple is better than long and complex. You should be doing the work, not your reader.

4. Don’t use copyright images/audio to illustrate your post unless you have the right to.

5. Be polite, especially towards those who hold different opinions. Sarcasm is not wit; nor is the imputation of base motives to others acceptable unless you like the idea of being sued.

6. Encourage debate: make it easy for people to comment, and engage with those who do.

7. People take the trouble to read your blog because they want to read what you’ve written; too many links to other blogs, unless relevant to the discussion, can be irritating. Use the Blogroll instead.

8. Try to make sure your blog is easy on the eye: that orange on black scheme is not a good idea unless you want to give your readers migraine.

9. Allow yourself a sixty-seconds pause before pressing the publish button. Both you and your readers will appreciate it. Believe me.

10. Remember that humour can be tricky and doesn’t always travel well. We are often divided by a common language.

Finally, not a tip, more a suggestion, but if you are a believer, pray before you begin to write. The Holy Spirit is interested in what you write, even if no one else is.

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Women’s World Day of Prayer 2011

Map of Ivory CoastLast night I could not sleep. Trying to pray failed to cure my insomnia, so I fell back on listening to the World Service. A report from Ivory Coast shocked me. A woman described how a group of about 5,000 unarmed women had gathered to march in support of Alassane Ouattara. As they began to do so, tanks appeared and at least six women were gunned down by the security forces (the woman speaking claimed eight were shot, including one pregnant woman whose womb was ripped open and another whose head was blown off in front of her). This morning, that report is not even mentioned on the front page of the BBC news web site. To me, that is eloquent both of the quiet heroism of many women and their “unimportance”.

It is ironic yet strangely fitting that the news should reach us today, which is Women’s World Day of Prayer. Had those Ivorean women been hurling sticks and stones, I suppose the story might have been more newsworthy, but they were defenceless, in a part of Africa no one except God thinks about very much or very often. Today huge numbers of women throughout the world will be gathering together to pray, and the prayer of all will be one with the prayer of the powerless and “unimportant” in every age. I believe such prayer is powerful with God. Perhaps the death of those women in Ivory Coast may help bring about the political change which no amount of diplomatic dealing or violence has yet been able to do. I certainly hope so.

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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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Ideals versus Interests

Half the world has its eyes on Cairo at the moment, and there is every chance that this blog post will be overtaken by events. One aspect of the reporting which has fascinated me is the way in which it has shown the uneasy tension between the west’s ideals and interests. On the one hand, democracy is canonized; on the other, the west’s diplomatic and commercial interests seem paramount.

I’m not sure any western leader would really like to see a democratic Saudi Arabia (Osama bin Laden for President, anyone?) but it’s difficult to press purely selfish concerns in the light of what is happening in Egypt. Personally, I was much heartened by President Obama’s latest speech, in which he came down firmly on the side of his ideals. But he knows, as we all know, that if President Mubarak doesn’t go, he’s got to continue to work with him for many months. That is realpolitik, twenty-first century style.

To pray for our leaders, to pray for our governments, is no idle prayer.

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Calm of Mind

The parish Mass this morning began with “Shine, Jesus, shine” which, as some of you know, is the community’s least favorite hymn. Yesterday’s bookcase-building plans had to be laid aside, and there followed a sleepless night for Digitalnun, so possibly not all was interior sweetness and light. In such situations there’s nothing for it but to let one’s distractions roam over what one has to be grateful for.

So, in no particular order, this is what I gave thanks for earlier today: the grey light over the church; the faith of those who gathered there; the jackdaw strutting over the lawn; the bulbs piercing their way through the dark earth; the smell of coffee; Duncan’s comical nose; the beauty of a new book; someone near me absolutely pitch-perfect (even in “Shine”!); the quietness of the monastery; the fact that I can see, hear and walk; the gift of community.

Isn’t it absurd to waste time and energy disliking a hymn when the beauty and holiness of God is everywhere? Praise him.

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The Big C

The news that the chances of developing breast cancer have gone up for women may have caused some concern this morning. As it happens, nuns are statistically more at risk than most other groups of women, although, by and large, we don’t don’t share the lifestyle choices that increase the risk (e.g. heavy drinking). I mention this because I wouldn’t want anyone reading what follows to think, “Oh, it’s all right for them. They don’t stand much chance of suffering from it.”

There are other illnesses that are just as life-threatening, but there is something about cancer that scares us mightily. Even if we have not experienced it personally, we all know people who have and are aware of the indignities and humiliations that cancer can inflict. In such situations, the conventional offerings of religion can sound hollow and false. As with any grief (and we do grieve when our bodies or the bodies of those we love are assailed with cancer), there is a part that religion cannot reach, the numb part at the centre of it all. That is why prayer for the sick is so important. We do not pray for them to get better, though that is certainly legitimate, we pray the prayer the sick cannot make for themselves. That is what praying for the sick means. Maybe this Friday we could pray especially for all those diagnosed with breast cancer and not sure how to cope, for their families and friends. It will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.

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Out of Egypt

Henri Pirenne used to say that Africa began at the Pyrenees. I always thought he should have said that the Middle East began at the Pyrenees. Now, with the ethnic complexity of Europe as a whole, I think we can claim that the Middle East is all around and what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere has profound implications for us all — and I am not talking about oil prices!

I was looking at some statistics gathered by the BBC and was struck by how young the population of Egypt is. The median age is only 24 (in Yemen it is 17.89). You can check for yourself here. The combination of youth and violence is a heady one, so one must wonder not only how long President Mubarak can hang on, but also what we can expect in his stead from a fragmented and inexperienced opposition. Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen are experiencing their own political upheavals so that the stability of the whole region is in question.What the west fears more than anything is a power vacuum which might allow regimes dominated by Islamist extremists and some kind of ‘over-reaction’ from Israel.

Those who do not themselves believe may find the idea of Christians falling to their knees and praying for a peaceful outcome to these situations rather funny. What could be more pointless than asking God to solve a problem we ourselves cannot? That is to misunderstand what we are doing, and even more what we are asking God to do. Prayer for peace in the Middle East means taking something of the confusion and conflict into ourselves and lovingly, trustingly, holding it before the Lord. We cannot change what is happening in Egypt but perhaps we ourselves can change so that the risk of confrontation is reduced. We can become channels of God’s peace.

Long ago, one of the sages of Israel wrote, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ and it was to Egypt that Mary and Joseph fled with the Child Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod. No Christian can be indifferent to what happens there. We owe Egypt a huge debt of gratitude if nothing else.

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Intercessory Prayer

A reader emailed to ask how to pray for others, meaning principally, I suspect, how to intercede for them. What follows is sketchy and imperfect but I hope that others will add their own insights.

First of all, I think we have to distinguish between mediation and intercession. There is only one mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that he is always praying in and for us, which means that our prayer is always united to his. That is what makes our prayer powerful with God: however inept or inadequate it may seem to us, it is the prayer of Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest. As such, it is perfect.

When we ask others to pray for us — Our Lady, the saints, our fellow Christians — we are asking their intercession, asking them to pray for us and on our behalf; and we use a different kind of language from that which we use when we are addressing God. The nearest analogy I can find is friendship. When something matters to us, we take our friends into our confidence and share with them our hopes and fears. What more natural than to ask our friends to join their prayers with ours? In doing so, we have the example of the apostles and early Church to encourage us: St Paul, for instance, asks the prayers of the believers in Rome (Romans 15.30) and himself prays for the needs of the Philippians (Philippians 1. 3-4). That is no more than we should expect from our reading of the Old Testament. Who can forget the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom or Moses interceding for the Israelites in battle? When things really matter, we are moved to pray about them, to ask God’s help.

Whenever we pray, we pray as dear children of God, whose every concern is of interest to him. That does not mean that God necessarily agrees with our ideas about how things should be, any more than a human parent might. Sometimes people imagine that if they pray “hard” enough, if they have faith “enough”, they can somehow force God’s hand, and if they fail, it is because they lack faith or perseverance. I’m not sure I believe in such a strange God. I think it is much more likely that they are praying with false expectations. It is not as though God has made his mind up and we can nag him into changing it. He is not so fickle. We ask that we ourselves may change in accordance with his will. Take our sick person again. When we pray for him we don’t tell God what to do, although we do have the courage to ask for what we desire. We may be longing for the sick person to recover, but God may see things differently. As a result, our prayer may not be answered as we hope: the sick person may not recover, but the prayer is not wasted. God is never outdone in generosity. Some other gift will follow, something we or the sick person need more, peace and acceptance perhaps, a gift made possible because we have opened up the channel, so to say.

One of the wonderful things about God is that he does not compel. He invites, he urges, but he leaves us free either to accept or reject his invitation. Interceding for others opens up a way for God to act that would otherwise be closed. Take our sick person once more. Say he has no faith and cannot or will not pray himself. If we pray, we allow God to come into a situation from which he is otherwise excluded. That is part of our dignity as Christians, part of the gift of prayer poured into hearts at baptism.

Some people think that to intercede for others means endlessly repeating some formula of prayer. To do so would be beyond the strength of most of us. Here at the monastery we receive many requests for prayer each day through our email prayerline or some other means. We print them out and place them in the oratory. Each member of the community will read them through and then go to her prayer with the intention of holding them before God. No words are needed, indeed they get in the way. What matters is the intention: the “simple, naked intent unto God” of which Fr Baker speaks. At times prayer may be prolonged by the inspiration of grace; at other times it may  be cut short or distracted. Again, I don’t think God is counting the minutes but I do think he is counting the seriousness and earnestness of our prayer.

To pray for others is not easy but I believe it is extremely valuable. There are no barriers of time or space or understanding in prayer. We may never know in this life what prayer has achieved because we see “as in a glass, darkly”, but one day all will be light.

Oremus pro invicem. Let us pray for one another.

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