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.


The Danger of Cynicism

Cynicism is often thought to be cool. Standing aside and apart from the common herd suggests to the cynical intellectual or moral superiority. It is a sign of being special: a looking down on others from the heights of better knowledge or understanding. Forgive me for saying so, but I think that is rot. Cynicism is actually both depressingly common and commonly depressing. Why so? Because, among other things, it destroys wonder.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding thrilling those first images of Ultima Thule or the far side of the moon. Part of me registers the huge cost involved and the political and economic motivation that co-exists alongside the more purely scientific desire to explore the unknown, but wonder is my predominant emotion, my immediate response. Cynicism doesn’t come into it.

I think that is heartening for all sorts of reasons, not least because I believe that wonder is an important part of prayer. If prayer is no more than a list of requests (sometimes, let’s be honest, demands) or a series of apologies for sins real or imagined, the focus tends to remain firmly on ourselves, and we can easily become cynical because, not surprisingly, God does not see as we see, so our ideas about how our prayer should be answered are often disappointed. Allow a little wonder in and everything is transformed. We are not addressing a God ‘out there’ but a God near to us, who loves us, wishes to be known by us, and whose ideas are infinitely more amazing than our own.

So, whatever else you do today, do please allow yourself a few moments of wonder — at the beauty of the sky, the kindness of strangers, even the miracle of being alive one more day.


Health, Happiness and the NHS

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon, since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation and the 70th birthday of the National Health Service. I owe an enormous debt to both and make no apologies for an intensely personal post.

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I was doing some research in Ourense, Galicia, where the canon-archivist was very keen to show the enigmatic Inglesa his pride and joy: a statue of Our Lady of Consolation that had been much beloved of English seamen. I had so far acculturated to Spanish ways that I actually dropped to my knees and prayed — for England, of course, but even more, with all the egocentricity of youth, for myself and future path in life. I did not know that it would lead me to an English Benedictine monastery under the patronage of that self-same Lady of Consolation, nor that one of my kinswomen had been a member of the community back in the eighteenth century. But it did, and I think that the emphasis on compassion, on strengthening, the choice of dedication gave the community has been a marker in many monastic lives. Here at Howton Grove, where we are under the patronage of the Blessed Trinity, we continue the tradition, I hope, albeit in a different form from that of the seventeenth century when Cambrai was established.

It seems to me very suitable that the NHS should have begun on the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, though I doubt whether its first architect would have been so appreciative of the link! During the last seventy years the NHS has undergone many transformations and will doubtless undergo many more, but one thing it has done superbly well, especially for the poor. It has taken away the worry of ‘how will I afford treatment?’ I myself have two rare diseases, one of them a rare and aggressive form of cancer that has been kept at bay far longer than I have any right to expect by a treatment programme entirely funded by the NHS. The community couldn’t afford the treatment I’ve had; we couldn’t even afford the insurance premiums for the treatment I’ve had. So, yes, I am just one more person who owes her life to the NHS, but there is a little more to it than that.

I began by referencing Our Lady of Consolation for a reason. I haven’t much time for those who moan and groan about the NHS being underfunded or who are scathing about its poor outcomes in some areas because I happen to believe that we are each of us chiefly responsible for our own health. It is up to us to adopt as healthy a life-style as we can and I don’t expect the NHS to make good any defects in my own ‘self-care’, as it were. The NHS is flawed, as any large organisation will be flawed; but that isn’t the point. The existence of the NHS has freed us from an anxiety about ourselves that can be quite crippling. The question we must therefore ask is, what do we do with that freedom? Are we givers of comfort and encouragement or merely consumers thereof? There are times when my own illness makes me look inward and feel very sorry for myself, but I hope there are more times when it forces me to look outwards at the sufferings of others. When I can do nothing else, when I am too sick to write or respond to requests, I can try to pray — and somehow, in ways I can’t explain, I think that does achieve something. Despite all the sadness, anger and division in the world, despite all the moral, physical, mental and spiritual sickness that exists, there is a way of spreading health and happiness. It is called prayer, and it costs . . . everything.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A World on the Brink?

One might be forgiven for thinking that the situation in Syria is about to explode into another world war. Whether the West takes military action or not, there are too many nations using Syria to further their own ambitions and fight their own proxy wars. The stand-off between Russia and the U.S.A. is but one element, but it is potentially deadly, and if one looks at what is happening elsewhere, the build-up of warships in the South China Sea, for example, one can feel thoroughly unsettled. So, what do we do? Do we take refuge in distractions of one kind or another, build ourselves bunkers or otherwise close our eyes to the reality of what is happening and our own part in it? Or do we indulge in a kind of gloomy fatalism, Que será, será, and leave all the worrying to others?

Our celebration of Holy Week and Easter should have reminded us that we cannot dismiss either the suffering of others or our own possible complicity in evil. We may feel powerless, but each of has a real responsibility towards the Syrian people and towards what happens in Syria. How we exercise it is the difficult point. For most of us, I suppose, the means most available to us are prayer and the forming of conscience.

When we pray for Syria, we are asking God to come into the situation and transform it as he knows best, but we are also asking him to transform us and guide our response. We are saying, in effect, that we don’t have the answers, that we know we need help, and that we trust him to act. The forming of conscience is rather trickier because many of us forget that our own opinions are not always wise or just, and though we may be very ready to share them with others, we do not always do so with discretion or judgement. The power of Social Media to shape opinion must be taken seriously, for example, but I wonder how many of us consider whether our use of it is ever sinful. We can add to the store of good or evil by our use of Social Media, almost without thinking.

This morning perhaps we could spend a few moments praying for Syria and reflecting on what we can do or not do that will be constructive of peace rather than war. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that this goes further than Syria. It goes to the heart of the existence of each and every one of us, doesn’t it?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for Lent 4

The three traditional penances of Lent are

  • prayer, which helps re-establish a right relationship with God;
  • fasting, which helps re-establish a right relationship with self, especially our bodily self;
  • almsgiving, which helps re-establish a right relationship with others.

St Benedict was keen on three-fold patterns, and we can see how this one addresses all the important activities of life.

When Benedict talks about prayer in the context of Lent, he concentrates on the idea of making good the negligences of other times (cf RB 49). We all know occasions when we have been half-hearted or done our best, like Jonah, to escape the Lord. Lent provides us with an opportunity to try to do better. For some that will mean trying to go to Mass daily or to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours in union with the rest of the Church. Even if it’s just the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening, we shall be trying to maintain a structure into which all other attempts at prayer will fit.

Setting ourselves an unrealistic target, a certain quantity of prayer to be got through every day as though we were engaged in some kind of competition, will quickly end in failure and disillusionment. So will piling on devotion after devotion. What we need to do is to quieten ourselves down, to listen; and to do so with regularity. Learning to love the Lord in silence and poverty of spirit is one of the gifts Lent offers us, and we should seize it gladly. In a later post I shall say something about the practice of lectio divina,  but for now it is enough just to highlight what our Lenten prayer is meant to do: bring us back to God.

Fasting is not dieting, although in our crazy world the two are often confused. To deny ourselves some food and drink, some pleasure of the senses, is to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God and our own dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit. The body we have been given is holy, perfect; but we do not always treat it as such, nor do we always exercise the kind of restraint that its holiness demands. Lent is a time to do just that. But our fasting isn’t meant to impose burdens on others (I will have just a little brown toast and honey, if you please, but it must be this kind of toast and that kind of honey, served on good china, etc, etc) nor is it meant to improve our bank balance. If we fast and save money or time, what we save should be given to others in almsgiving.

Even more than with prayer, fasting can be undertaken with one eye on its effect on others. It can become a source of what Benedict calls ‘vainglory’ — inordinate pride in our own achievements — whereas it is meant to remind us of our creaturely condition. Few of us in the West ever experience real hunger except by choice. That cuts us off from the lived experience of millions of people living in less fortunate conditions. It is good for us to be really hungry from time to time, but even if we can’t fast from food and drink, we can fast from some of the other little indulgences that make our existence comfortable. Think of the ways in which we waste time or are profligate in our use of resources. So, how about not speeding in the car, not spending so much time on Netflix or computer games, not leaving rubbish for others to clear up but dealing with it ourselves? Add to these fasting from anger and bad temper and all the other negativities to which we are prone, and you will see that the traditional discipline can be reinterpreted in ways which make painfully clear that (a) we are not self-sufficient and (b) we have a tendency to misuse the gifts we are given. What we mustn’t do, however, is to fall for the temptation to be vague about fasting, fasting in a general way. We need specifics, a firm commitment, something that challenges.

With almsgiving, I think we come to the most difficult of the three Lenten disciplines. It is comparatively easy to pray, or at least to observe times of prayer; it is comparatively easy to fast, or at least to omit something from our meals; but to give of ourselves, to go out to the other, to be generous, that requires much more. It means we have to be open to others, on the watch for opportunities to be of service, ready to take risks. Many use Lent as a time for planned giving to various charities, but it is the unplanned opportunities the Lord puts in our way that can be most costly. Small acts of kindness go a long way towards making people feel valued and loved. The trouble is, we have to be alert to the possibilities but how often do we lament, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t realise.’ Perhaps we should all try to make this Lent one in which we keep our eyes peeled, as it were, for the needs of others.

The Joy of the Holy Spirit
One final note: Benedict says that everything we give up or take on during Lent should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to the holy feast of Easter.’ One of the great attractions of Lent for me is that in community we live with great simplicity, and that simplicity is always suffused with joy. Jesus in the desert was not plunged in gloom, nor should we be. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving set us free from what binds us at other times, and such radical freedom must surely be a joy. Allow it to be so.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Moment of Silence

Yesterday evening the A465 emptied, the rain ceased and there was a moment of pure, luminous silence. It is not often that exterior silence meets the interior silence monastic life teaches us to cultivate, but when it does something wonderful happens. Every nerve, every sense becomes alert. The white line of the horizon over the Black Mountains quivers; the sweet warm breath of the Herefords over the way fills the air; the psalter in my hand is soft to the touch, comfortable, familiar — and all because, for a moment, the mind is freed from its need to process sound. We sometimes forget the importance of physical silence; but just as the rests in a line of music help to shape its form, or the white space on a page makes eloquent the text, so moments of silence are essential for us. Complete physical silence, however, cannot be endured for very long. The pounding of the blood in the ears begins to take over. We become uneasy, self-conscious, may even hallucinate.

That is one of the reasons why, if someone tells me they can never find a quiet time in which to pray, I always reply with a robust, ‘How lucky you are!’ Some background noise is usually good for us, a necessary distraction from an overwhelming preoccupation with self. The effort we put into trying to quieten our environment would be much better spent trying to instill some order into our wayward thoughts, into cultivating an interior silence that is not dependent on what is going on around us. A quiet heart, a quiet mind: these are not to be sneered at but welcomed. They provide a chink for the Holy Spirit to get through.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Two Hairy Brothers: 5

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory

7 July 2017

Dear Cousin Dunc,

I trust you are very cheery up there in Beyond. We don’t seem to have heard from you for a long time. Now I have a problem and need your advice.

I’ve been in a bit of hot water recently. Nothing too serious, but clearly They don’t think much of my eating Their supper (it was yummy!) or burying six bones, one after the other, in the flower-beds, or examining the contents of the waste bin by tipping it all over the floor, etc. They’ve begun referring to you as the Blessed Bro Duncan PBGV and I feel that a comparison is being made. I’m Touri the Terrible, the Ginger Fiend, Our Little Thug. Where am I going wrong? Don’t They love me anymore?

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

The Heavenly Houndland

9 July, 2017

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

Nice to hear from you, young sprog, and my apology for the delay in replying. An awful lot of PBGVs seem to have come to the Heavenly Houndland recently, and we’ve been having lots of Peeb parties. Great fun!

As to your problem, oh dear! I think we have got to get a few things straight or you may go seriously wrong. Nothing will ever change Their love for you, absolutely nothing. I’m sure They call you Touri the Terrible or Little Thug in an affectionate tone of voice. Yes, They will get exasperated if you eat Their supper or dig up all the flowers or empty out smelly waste-bins and whatever else is implied by that ‘etc’ of yours. Human Beans are like that. But They are like our Heavenly Master in this respect. They know that we are the apple of His eye, and so we are of Theirs. The problem They have is They can go all gooey and forgiving when They see our big noses and hairy whiskers, but They are much harder on Their own kind. They tend not to forgive but only put others on probation: ‘do that once more and . . . .’ It is our job to help Them see They’ve got to be kind to those who aren’t blessed with four paws and eyes like melting chocolate buttons. We have to help Them become more dog, in fact, and love everyone — even the most trying.

Of course, I have to admit that eating Their supper is not a very good idea. I never did that, though I did share some goodies — mainly cheese and bikkies, as I recall. But I never stole them. You need to learn the art of staring reproachfully at Them, so that They give in and share with you. Human Beans do something similar when They pray. They stare at God (They call it ‘contemplation’) and He responds — not always in the way They’d like, of course, but He doesn’t ignore Them. I don’t really understand how They get away with it, not being as handsome or hairy as we are. It is all a great mystery, and I am content to leave it like that. I just know it works. Encourage Them in that.

Well, young sprog, I’ve got another party to go to. You’ll love it up here. Nothing but eating and merry-making all day long. Sheer Peeby bliss! And there’s a special spot for Fauves — and Human Beans — too.

Your affectionate old cousin,


Preparing for Lent 2017

I always think of Lent with joy. It is a time when we live with great simplicity, returning to our ‘primitive observance’. Everything superfluous is stripped away and we are able to renew our early zeal. In previous years I have written about St Benedict’s view of the subject and various aspects of the traditional Lenten disciplines (see links at the end of this post).  This year, I thought I’d try a slightly different approach, but a word of caution first. If you are happy with Lent as you have always thought of it, and intending to do much the same things as you always have, don’t, for one minute, think that your offerings will not be pleasing to God. Whatever you do for love of him, whether your sacrifices be great or small, is truly acceptable. It is your love that God desires, nothing more, nothing less. This post is for those who feel the well has gone a little dry and would welcome a few thoughts from a fellow-pilgrim.

My starting-point is the question: what is Lent for? The only ansewer I find convincing is that Lent is for drawing closer to God, opening ourselves up to the grace he intends for us. Some honest reflection is needed as soon as we say that because we all know there are aspects of our lives that can prove obstacles to grace. They are not necessarily all bad things, either. Misplaced zeal can have consequences almost as deadly as deliberate sin; so can a tendency to exaggerate our wickedness. What we do see as faults may be no such thing, but most of us have an innate sense of some of our attitudes or behaviours not being quite what they should. With the help of our confessor or a wise friend, we may be able to penetrate more deeply into the origins of what is wrong. Then we must pray that we may be open to the grace of conversion, of metanoia; but we should not be surprised if, at some stage, we have to abandon a few of our old ideas and illusions about ourselves. A particular difficulty can arise with how we understand the way in which Lent is meant to operate in the life of the individual. We understand that what the Church does during Lent is a ‘given’, and that there is an important community dimension to Lent, but our own part can be confusing because it leaves much to our own judgement and decision.

Lent is frequently portrayed as a time of spiritual contest, or, in St Paul’s evocative phrase, as a war with the principalities and powers of this present age. While that is true, for those of us who are limping rather than running along the way of salvation, the idea of battling the devil has a touch of theatricality about it, or, at best, Desert-Father unattainability. We’d love to be spiritual athletes, praying unceasingly, fasting rigorously, brimming over with charity and compassion, but the truth is we have to squeeze our Lenten programme into an already full day and there’s only so much we can do. We’re B-team players, if you like; and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our asceticism has less to do with spectacular renunciations than just getting on with things as best we can — what the old monastic authors used to call mortification of the will or obedience, i.e. doing what we ought to do or have to do as well as we can, rather than what we choose/want to do. Even the idea of Lent as a time of penance can be awkward. We all know that penance, especially penances (pl), can lead us astray, with the best of intentions, of course. We start counting the number of psalms or rosaries we have said or the cups of coffee we haven’t drunk and get cross with ourselves if we fail to meet the target we have set. We confuse dieting with fasting or abandon our actual duty for something that makes us feel ‘spiritual’ but is, in reality, a form of self-indulgence, a little golden calf we have made for our own private worship.

We have to begin again, at the beginning. Jesus went out into the desert to be alone with God. That is what Lent is about for each of us, and we need to take Jesus’ desert experience as a guide for our own. We shall certainly be tempted, and if we do not meet the devil at some point, I fear we may be deluding ourselves. The first temptation to address is our lack of a real sense of sin. There is a reason for the Church’s recommending that we go to confession on Shrove Tuesday: to repent of sin we first need to acknowledge that we have sinned. Many of us find that surpisingly difficult. Either we suffer from scruples, seeing sin where there is none, or we airbrush away our real guilt and try to pin it on another as Adam did.  We can even think our sins endearingly insignificant! If we could but see sin for what it truly is, we would not think like that. No, we all need to begin Lent by confessing our sins and making a firm purpose of amendment. That clears the decks, so to say, for the hard work that follows.

The first and most important thing any of us can do is to read and pray. There is no substitute for scripture, but rather than setting oneself an impossible schedule, why not aim at something do-able? For example, reading every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass will take us through much salvation history and keep us one with the rest of the Church in our pondering and praying. Try to take away a word or sentence you can return to throughout the day, so that your reading becomes part of you. As to prayer, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. As a Benedictine, I’m not a fan of multiplying prayers and devotions, but committing to spending a certain amount of time each day with the Lord can be a very helpful discipline (and remember, the word ‘discipline’ means teaching, we are meant to learn something from what we do during Lent). Opportunities to turn back to the Lord as the day progresses are numerous. Going from one room to another, a (silent?) grace before and after eating, even a prayer for the irritation of the moment can be a way of recollecting the presence of God in our lives. What matters is regularity rather than quantity: better ten minutes every day with occasional reminders than a whole hour now and then with oblivion in between.

It is with the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving that I think we usually have most difficulty. I am assuming all of us will be eating very plainly during Lent, observing the customary fasts and days of abstinence, and giving any money we save to the poor. But to fast from the wicked word, as Isaiah says, is a much greater thing than to deny oneself some small luxury. I have suggested elsewhere that refusing to be complicit in the denigration, detraction, rudeness and negativity that mark so much of our public discourse, online and off, would be a very good way of standing firm in Christ. It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. After all, who likes to admit they may not be right about everything or accept correction from another? The wicked word is so easy and so seductive. It will always win us friends, although perhaps not the kind of friends we should really care to have. We could go further and try to find something or someone to applaud or celebrate whenever people are making false accusations or tearing others down. Our words matter. They hold the key to life and death but we use so many and so often that we rarely take that to heart. Perhaps this Lent we could try. ‘A good word is above the best gift,’ said St Benedict, quoting Sirach 18.17, when speaking of the cellarer or administrator of the monastery and meaning that we must be careful to speak not merely truthfully but also charitably, even generously.

With almsgiving, I think we come to the heart of what Pope Francis has been trying to teach the Church about translating faith into practice. To give alms is to be compassionate, to move ourselves from centre stage to stand with another, to become powerless in a world that values and exalts power. Again, Isaiah provides the image I need. To unfurl the clenched fist is a very good way, indeed the only way, of giving alms. A closed fist cannot give or receive; it is a sign of aggression, of wanting things for oneself alone. We all have to work out what we clench our fists over and resolve to change. It means becoming vulnerable, sharing, not even having the power of giving. Sometimes, it is material things we need to share; at others it is time, ourselves, in fact. One of the saddest things I have ever heard was a child saying, ‘I am invisible to my parents. I have everything I need and more, but what I’d really like is to sit down with them and talk.’ How many people feel like that child, invisible, worthless even? Unfurling the fist is open to misinterpretation, of course. It is much safer to take up our familiar defensive positions, yet that is precisely what Lent is meant to make us do, open us up to a new way of being, of becoming true disciples of Christ.

So, prayer, fasting and almsgiving as Lenten disciplines, but not necessarily as we have always thought or practised them. I am sure you will have your own thoughts and suggestions to make, so please share them with others in the comments section. Before Ash Wednesday I shall give details of the book of scripture the community and its oblates will be reading during Lent. This year I’m unable to give out individual recommendation as in the past, but, as always, you will be accompanied throughout Lent with the prayers of the community. Please pray for us, too.

Through Lent with St Benedict



Monastic Jargon

Recently I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of hearing myself discussed by members of the medical profession in the jargon of their trade. Unhappily for them, knowing a little Greek and Latin meant that I wasn’t quite as excluded from the conversation as they assumed. Monastic jargon operates on a different principle from medical jargon. Instead of using a vocabulary many find strange or bewildering, it uses common words, but in uncommon ways. Some of the words are shorthand for a whole set of ideals or values that are often subtly different from what people expect. Thus, humility, in a monastic context, is about truthfulness rather than an assumed attitude of servility; obedience is about listening and seeking understanding rather than mechanically performing a task. Nowhere is this clearer, perhaps, than in the language St Benedict uses about prayer.

Prayer is not complicated. It cannot be because it is the very air the monk or nun breathes and accompanies every moment of the day. The minute prescriptions Benedict gives for the perfromance of the liturgy in chapters 8 to 19 are rounded off by a twentieth chapter on prayer remarkable for its simplicity and poetry. St Benedict assumes we can pray; that we want to pray; and directs us to ‘just go in and pray’. We don’t need a book to teach us. All we need is to get down to it. The words St Benedict uses about prayer are correspondingly simple and direct, and he uses verbs more often than nouns, orare rather than oratio.

A similarly robust approach characterises St Benedict’s attitudes to relationships within the community. Chapter 63, On Community Order, gives not only a practical solution to the problem of rank but a warm and humane exposition of the ideal of fraternal relations. For a Benedictine, the words ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ thus carry with them a whole host of references that transform them into an expression of the love that should be at the heart of community life. The special place of the abbot is signified by the vocabulary Benedict uses of him; so again, we have a jargon expressive of an ideal rather than one meant to exclude others from understanding.

There is one further difference we ought to note. Medical jargon, like the jargon of many other trades and professions, is precise: it is meant to mean only one thing, and once one has mastered it, one can be fairly confident of conveying what one intends. Monastic jargon, by contrast, is ever-expanding. As one’s experience grows, so does one’s understanding and appreciation of the richness of the concept a word conveys. One grows in understanding of obedience, humility, fraternal love. One grows, too, in understanding of monastic discipline and its purpose, so that words like ‘excommunication’ take on an ever deeper import. Above all, one learns that speech of any kind is freighted with meaning and significance, so that restraint in speech is the mark of one who desires to be a true disciple of the Lord. In the end, monastic jargon is something of a paradox: a necessary tool, but only in the context of the silence in which most of monastic life is lived.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Learning To Say No

I suspect most of us, certainly most clergy and religious, would say that they do their best to say ‘yes’ to God in any and every situation. Sometimes this leads to acts of great heroism. Unfortunately, it can also lead to exhaustion and burn-out. Learning to say ‘no’, or rather, when to say ‘no’ is more difficult because it presupposes discernment, only possible through prayer and reflection, and a genuine desire to do God’s will rather than one’s own. The trouble is, I think, that we tend to confuse God’s will with our own will and are often very happy to lose ourselves in some sort of ‘good’ activity rather than face the shocking hollowness within. Conversely, if someone is tired or strained, we exhort them to rest without necessarily thinking through whether it is possible for them to rest: the sacraments must still be celebrated, food prepared and eaten, and so on and so forth. We come back to the idea of discernment and taking responsibility for our decisions.

Discernment is not especially difficult, but it does presuppose our having a choice to make and the necessary intellectual and moral acumen to make it. Sometimes there is no choice. Civilians caught up in the horror that is Syria or subject to Boko Haram raids in Nigeria have no choice in the matter: they must endure as well as they can. We who do have choices can be curiously reluctant to take responsibility for them. We are unlikely to receive a voice from heaven telling us to do this rather than that (just as well, I’d run straight to the doctor if I were to receive any such message), and even in the most austere of monasteries, obedience is rarely reduced to the absurdity of ‘do this because I say so’. No, we make up our own minds and are expected to use all the gifts God has given us to choose wisely and well. It is easy just to follow what everyone else seems to be saying or doing, even in the Church; but that isn’t always right, and that is where discernment becomes more complicated. Learning to say ‘no’ can be a very lonely business — and it isn’t always the loneliness of the prophet we’d like it to be but simply the loneliness of the oddball, the one who doesn’t fit in, who sees differently.

Many people are confident that their vision of the Church is the correct one, indeed the only one tenable. Others are sure that they must do this or that if they are to be truly Christian (it is even worse when they assume that of others, too). To cut through all this we need, as I said, to pray perseveringly, ask ourselves what is really required, and be prepared to accept the consequences. I have recently adopted a much tougher stance with the enquiries we receive at the monastery. I haven’t the energy I used to have, so I do the best I can with what I can rather than struggling to reply to every one. Occasionally, I feel guilty, because I know that I am probably missing something important, but I have to remember I am not the only person involved. Learning to say ‘no’ is not merely good for our physical and mental health; it is also good for our spiritual health. It reminds us that God is in charge, not us; that it is what he wills, rather than what we think he should will, that ultimately matters.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail