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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Christian Unity Octave

I am late posting on the subject of Christian Unity, not because I don’t care about it but because I find myself more and more perplexed about what we mean by it. Possibly you are, too. I understand, I think, the importance of corporate unity (beware, reader, when Digitalnun writes in agnostic mode) and am myself a Catholic by conviction rather than mere accident of birth or upbringing, but — and it is a huge but — I find many of the activities in which we engage during this Octave of Prayer bewildering because they seem to avoid the elephant in the room: the unity we already have, and the unity we don’t.

I have no difficulty praying with other Christians, whatever their theological take on such questions as Priesthood or Eucharist. Equally, I have no difficulty discussing what keeps us apart institutionally because I believe that the more we understand one another, the closer will be our real unity. And there, of course, is the rub. We are already united through our common baptism but we seem to spend a lot of this week either pretending we have already attained corporate unity (“the differences between us don’t matter”) or talking about a unity we don’t, in our heart of hearts, actually want (“the nearer to Rome, the further from Home”).

Maybe one of the best things we could do during this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is to spend a few minutes considering both these aspects, the negative and the positive. How far does understanding of our own Church and the Churches to which others belong draw us together or keep us apart? In the gospels, Jesus seems much more concerned with right action than right belief, which left the early Church with all kinds of problems to sort out, from eating meat sacrificed to idols to unions between believers and non-believers. Much as we would like to return to that first gospel simplicity, we can’t. We have two thousand years of Christian experience to integrate into our own faith and practice; and if one believes, as I do, that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in every age, we cannot and must not dismiss that experience because it is God-given.

So, we pray for unity. To hear what the Holy Spirit is saying requires some very delicate tuning of mind and heart. To do what the Spirit urges requires courage and generosity. May we be found wanting in neither.

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St Aelred of Rievaulx

St Aelred of Rievaulx
St Aelred of Rievaulx

In common with other English Benedictines, we keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow is sacred to St Benet Biscop). Aelred’s reputation has undergone many changes in the last fifty years, and I’m not sure that the current version is any nearer the truth of the man.

I suspect Aelred was both immensely attractive and absolutely maddening at the same time. He drew many to monastic life, yet after his death the fractures in community quickly began to show. He could write like an angel, yet those who read Aelred today without knowing or caring for the monastic discipline underpinning his writing see only part of the picture. He was more than just a “charismatic leader” with a beguiling pen and a gift for friendship.

The preface for the feast, which draws on Aelred’s own writings, is worth pondering and praying. Above all, those who have any kind of leadership or managerial role should seek out his Oratio Pastoralis (Pastoral Prayer) and pray it often.

Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.

Tenderly you drew Saint Aelred 
to the school of your service
where, having tasted of the sweetness of your love,
he became the gentle father of many sons,
a merciful shepherd to the weak,
and a model of spiritual friendship.

Inflamed by the love of Christ,
he embraced the Cross
as the pattern of monastic conversion,
and so attained the repose of those who love you,
the true and eternal Sabbath of the blessed.

And so, on his feast day, we join with him to adore you,
and with all the company of Angels and Saints,
sing the ageless hymn of your praise: sanctus, sanctus, sanctus . . .

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Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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Spiritual Direction

From time to time one of us is asked if we will act as a “spiritual director” to someone. Our reaction always surprises those who know nothing of our community history or the part played in it by Fr Augustine Baker. There is generally a slight hesitation, followed by a quiet smile and even quieter affirmation, “The Holy Spirit is the best spiritual director.” This sometimes leads our interlocutors to wonder if we are Catholic at all, or at any rate not quite right in the head. (I sometimes wonder about the latter, too, but that is by the bye.)

It is what we don’t say that is important. There are many more spiritual directors in the world than there is true spiritual direction. To be able to guide others in the ways of God is a rare gift, a charism, and it is not given to all. The nuns of Cambrai (from whom we are descended) had a hard battle to avoid being pressured into a way of prayer and spirituality entirely alien to them under the name of “spiritual direction”. It was largely thanks to the fortitude of D. Catherine Gascoigne and her community, who were subject to some pretty stiff ecclesiastical penalties, that Fr Baker’s eminently sane teaching survived to shape the lives of the nuns who followed after. Fr Baker is now recognized as a master of the spiritual life and his insistence on “liberty of spirit” continues to inform those communities which took his teaching to heart.

But to say that spiritual direction is a rare gift and that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” For us, “liberty of spirit” presupposes life in community under the Rule and a superior, where there are daily checks on behaviour; it involves constant prayer and study and, above all, regular reception of the sacraments. Very often the sacraments are left out of the equation but for growth in holiness they are essential, especially the one many people ignore: confession.

Confession is not the same as spiritual direction. As a sacrament, we can be quite sure that the Lord is at work in it, no matter how “inadequate” we or the confessor happen to be. There is no similar guarantee with spiritual direction. That is not to say that spiritual directors are frauds and charlatans, far from it, but it is why we will not undertake that role. Those who have the gift can contribute a great deal to those who seek instruction and guidance; those who haven’t can do a great deal of harm. We do not give spiritual direction, but we do pray, as best we can, for all who seek our help.

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Waiting in Hope

There is a sentence in the first preface of Advent that never fails to make me shiver. In our current translation it reads:

Now we watch for the day,
hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours
when Christ the Lord will come again in his glory.

Surrounded by the commercialism of the “Winterval” being celebrated in our shopping malls or the flurry of Nativity plays and special Services that already dominate our church noticeboards, it is only too easy to forget. We are not awaiting the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas, as though it were something that has not yet happened (although we shall recall that event through our liturgical remembrance of it); we are awaiting those two comings of Christ of which St Bernard wrote: his coming now to our souls by grace and his coming in glory at the end of time.

Christ coming now to our souls by grace is all right, rather nice in fact; but that bit about coming again in his glory is more problematic. We are jerked into an awareness of the danger of presumption. As the preface says, we are “hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours”. We cannot take it for granted, yet in practice most of us do.

How many of us are thinking about the final coming of Christ this Advent? If we do think about it, how many of us are eagerly awaiting it? I suspect that many of us think of the Final Coming as an event far distant in the future, which might not even happen. Perhaps it would be worth thinking about what we really mean when we pray the preface at Mass. It might possibly transform our Advent.

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