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.

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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.

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We Are What We Pray

I have been thinking about yesterday’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 20, On Reverence in Prayer, and wondering anew at its beauty and perceptiveness. In one sense, Benedict says very little about prayer. He is almost English in his reticence. In another, almost every line of the Rule speaks of his attitude to prayer. It is quite clear that, for him, we are what we pray. Whether praying alone in our monastic cell or with the brethren in choir, whether we are talking with a guest or tapping out a blog post on the computer, whether we are working in the garden or performing some household task, whether we are filing a tax return or driving a car, we are the person prayer has made; and the prayer we make is the person we are. We cannot separate the praying self from the self we are at every other moment. That is a thought that gives me pause. Whenever I am testy or unkind or selfish, that is the prayer I am making to God, just as much as when I am patient, kind or generous. How glad I am, therefore, that the Lord looks at us all with eyes of compassion and love!

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Something for Vocations Sunday 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016
The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

I wonder how many people today will hear a homily that speaks of the wonder and joy of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated (old-time, religious) life? How many will hear one that speaks of the importance of marriage or family life, of the beautiful but often difficult vocation of those called to be single, or indeed anything beyond a dutiful bidding prayer that somehow mixes up sheep, shepherds and labourers in vineyards? I ask because I am convinced of the supreme value of knowing, loving and serving God and would like everyone to find joy in the things of the Spirit and in the fulfilment of their unique call from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a good day for reflecting on our own own vocation and, in addition to praying for others, thinking and praying about how we ourselves have responded to God’s call in the past, and how we should respond in the future. Have we helped or hindered others in following Christ? Is there something more that the Lord asks of us? Are we ready to listen, or do we want to turn a deaf ear?

I myself am a Benedictine, and a very happy Benedictine at that, yet part of me wishes I had been graced with the vocation  of a Carthusian or hermit so I could live ‘alone with the Alone’. I say that without any rose-tinted misconceptions about the demands of the eremitical life. I only just scrape by as a coenobite and would never manage as a hermit. But God is, and I pray always will be, the most important person in my life — which is why I am a nun, why I am enthusiastic about monastic life in general and the life of this community in particular, and why I want to share its blessings with as many people as possible.

Sometimes a visual image can help, so the photo at the beginning of this post shows the altar-end of our oratory while the one below shows the choir-end. Our oratory is a plain and workman-like space, as monastic life itself is plain and workman-like. There is careful attention to detail, but nothing fussy or superfluous. It is the most important part of the monastery, and I think it is eloquent of how we understand Benedictine life and try to live it. If it is a terible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, it is also, as the saints assure us, the most delightful. May God draw many to experience his love and mercy, to savour the sweetness of the Lord and be his true disciples.

The choir-end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory
The choir end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

I give below links to a few previous posts on vocation which, together with the information on our main website, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk (www.benedictinenuns.net for small-screen devices) and our Facebook page, may prove helpful. I hope so.

Some Posts about Vocation

Praying for Vocations

Vocation and Reality

Further Thoughts on Vocation

A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Vocations Sunday

A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

 

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Water into Wine: the Miracle of Cana and Intercessory Prayer

We are barely into Ordinary Time yet already we have the miracle of Cana to lift our hearts and minds. Water becomes wine at Jesus’ word, and in such abundance that everyone is amazed. It would be easy to say life is like that, a constant changing of the ordinary into the extraordinary, sorrow into joy. At one level, that would be true; but how many of us would claim that was really our own experience? I suspect most of us would admit to finding life rather more like the curate’s egg: good in parts, sometimes rather inexplicably scrambled, generally unpredictable and occasionally very nasty. Perhaps we have listened to too many sermons trying to instil a sense of our living in the best of all possible worlds to free ourselves entirely from the idea that we ought to relate to the gospel story in a certain way. For me, the real miracle of Cana is its ordinariness, and what it teaches us about intercessory prayer.

Jesus is at a wedding; the hosts have under-catered; Mary notices (because women do notice these things) and urges her son to help but gets a dusty answer in return (Jesus must have been enjoying the party, and what young man wants his mother to intervene at party-time). But it doesn’t end there. Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. She isn’t put off by his apparent unresponsiveness. I think that is how most of us intercede for others, or indeed ourselves. We aren’t put off by God’s apparent lack of responsiveness. We just keep trying to pray, dimly aware that somehow God is involved and will answer the prayer he has inspired us to make. I don’t suppose Mary knew in advance what Jesus would do, and I certainly don’t think she gave him a detailed programme of what she wanted him to do. She simply told him there was a need, reassured the servants, and waited. We can learn from that. We don’t need to tell God what to do when we intercede with him, but we may need to reassure others, and we certainly must be prepared to wait. When the miracle comes — and it will — it may not be the one we expected or wanted, but it will transform things. It may be a sign we do not understand or which we misinterpret or even fail to notice, but it will be there. The miracle of Cana is for all time.

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Epiphany 2015

Epiphany is, to my way of thinking, the great feast of Christmas. With the revelation to the gentiles, the Incarnation of Christ becomes explicitly what it always was implicitly, the dawning of salvation on mankind. In previous posts, I have dwelt on the richness of the liturgy for the day, which weaves together the coming of the Magi, the baptism of Christ in the Jordan and the miracle of Cana — all of them manifestations of Christ’s divinity and his mission.

Today, it is Cana that first captures my imagination. That lovely miracle, performed out of sheer compassion for a young couple’s embarassment on their wedding-day — and, let’s be honest, the result of a little nagging from his mother — is a metaphor for the effect of grace on our lives. Jesus turns the water of life into wine; and, as with all his gifts, there is abundance and goodness, for he gives without stint. That doesn’t mean that every difficulty is magicked away. The young couple still needed to work at their marriage; the servants still had to beaver away at serving. Sweat and tears are part of our lot as human beings; but with the coming of Christ, they no longer separate us from God. He shares them with us.

The three gifts the Magi lay before Jesus are gifts we must find within ourselves. The gold of generosity may require some deep mining on our part. It is comparatively easy to give material things, but to give of ourselves, that is so much harder. The frankincense of prayer doesn’t come easily, either. A gorgeous liturgy may make us feel we are praying, but unless our minds and hearts are engaged, it may be more about us than it is about God. Conversely, those bleak and apparently barren moments when nothing very much seems to happen and we feel nothing but weariness and disgust may be very powerful prayer indeed. Then there is the myrrh of service which can be hard and bitter, a death to self in every respect. But where Christ leads, we must follow. There is no other way but his.

Finally, there is the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. That mysterious anointing by the Holy Spirit, that charge to the bystanders — for a moment we glimpse the inner life of the Holy Trinity and are lost in wonder and adoration. This great feast of the Epiphany marks our entry into the People of God. With the death of Jesus on the Cross, his Resurrection and Ascension, we will become something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church. But for us who are gentiles, it all begins today.

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Living with Sarcoidosis and Sarcoma

A few days ago a friend greeted me with a cheery, ‘You’re looking well!’ I smiled and waved a vague hand in reply since I was, at the time, so breathless I couldn’t speak. The good side of sarcoidosis is that the disease tends to give one a high colour, and the industrial quantities of prednisolone one chomps one’s way through lead to what is most charitably described as a ‘comfortable shape’ or, more accurately, make one fat and flabby. These two things are a world away from what most people identify with cancer. So, when people hear I also have metastatic leiomyosarcoma, they are often embarrassed, asking what my prognosis is, with frequent well-intentioned mumbles about palliative care and the like. My stock answer, ‘Who knows, the statistics are not encouraging but I’ve done better than I expected,’ does nothing to put them at their ease. O cruel Digitalnun!

Sarcoidosis and sarcoma are both rare diseases that wreck havoc with one’s immune system and various other parts of one’s body. The first was probably triggered by my working with some rather doubtful chemicals and not helped by living in a damp and mouldy environment for some years; but it isn’t usually deadly, and one learns to adapt to having no puff. Sarcoma, by contrast, is a nasty, sneaky beast. Neither I nor my oncologists know what caused it. There had been eighteen months of intense pain and increasingly bad temper before I was correctly diagnosed. There followed two surgeries, several weeks of radiotherapy, six months of chemotherapy, more radiotherapy and now, for a few blissful weeks, nothing in particular while I’ve been dealing with a flare-up of the sarcoidoisis and an infection. There are times I almost forget I’m ill. In fact, I don’t really think of myself as ‘ill’ at all.

You notice I called this blog post ‘Living with Sarcoidosis and Sarcoma’; and that’s exactly the point I want to emphasize. Neither sarcoidosis nor sarcoma interests me very much: I live with them, as I live with having blue eyes and brown hair. They are just part of me. There are millions of people with truly horrible diseases and chronic illnesses whose experience is much worse than mine. I have the advantage of having two that don’t isolate me from others or make me, at present anyway, physically repulsive to deal with. I am receiving excellent treatment from the Churchill Hospital in Oxford and from our local Macmillan nurses. The monastery doesn’t have to fund the drugs I take or the PET scans and other investigations which chart the progression of the disease. My illness doesn’t define me, and when I die, I won’t have ‘lost my battle with cancer’ or anything else. I haven’t the energy I used to have and my mobility isn’t what it was, but what is the point of the comparison? I am older than I was yesterday, and I’ll be older still tomorrow. Isn’t it part of aging gradually to become less able than one was?

There is also an advantage to having a sarcoma diagnosis that few may be prepared to acknowledge: one knows one is going to die. Death is no longer something vaguely ‘out there’; it is a seed one carries within, and one can feel it growing and stretching inside. I am trying to prepare for my own death, and because I am always behind with everything, I’m grateful that it hasn’t happened as quickly as I expected. My friends know what is important to me and are graciously giving me time and space rather than crowding round with their desire to say goodbye or whatever. I appreciate that, just as I appreciate my community’s determination to make life go on as normal and all the people, many of them personally unknown to me, who have been praying for me and those involved in my care. It gives one a great sense of what the communion of saints is, here and now; and for me that is a huge plus. It is something I might never have known had I not become ill.

A good death is like a good life. It doesn’t just happen. It has to be made; and because it has to be made while we are still alive, it helps us to see dying as part of life, a part of living. One of the great graces of monastic profession is that it situates the whole of our lives in the context of the Paschal Mystery. We are taken up into Christ’s death and hope to share in his resurrection. Everything has meaning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t follow that we can explain everything, nor do we necessarily understand. ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ That is very much how I understand living with a deadly disease, whether it be cancer or something else. It is harder on those who do not themselves have the disease; who can only watch, wait and suffer. They are the true heroes, the ones who genuinely do battle, and for them the end is always tinged with an element of defeat because they do not always see the enormity of their triumph in helping another to die well.

If you have read this far, I hope you will pray for all those who are in such a position, accompanying someone who is dying; also those who know they are dying but are afraid, or whose lives are suffused with a sense of loss and anxiety for the future of their families. They need our prayers. As for me, I’m blessed; I know it, and I’m profoundly grateful.

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St Teresa of Avila 2015

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

The five hundredth anniversary year of St Teresa of Avila’s birth has seen some remarkable celebrations but today, on her feastday, I think we honour her best by reflecting on one single aspect of her life: her prayer. It was the leitmotif of her whole existence. We tend to think of her enormous energy in founding convent after convent, her endless letters, her often awkward dealings with ecclesiastical authority, but at the centre of it all, day after day, was that humble, persevering seeking after God. Today, when we must be busy about so many things, let’s make sure we take some time just to be with God. His Divine Majesty awaits us. Let us not disappoint him.

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Grumbles and Graces

It is often easier to find something to grumble about than be glad about, but St Benedict wasn’t keen on murmuring, although he did allow that there were occasions when monks might jutifiably complain. Unfortunately for us, they are few and far between; but they do exist, and with time, the grumbles can themselves become graces. Here, however, is a short-cut. In case you got out of the wrong side of bed this morning, I list a few of my own causes-to-be-grateful which may stimulate you into thinking about the blessings you yourself enjoy and for which you should give thanks:

I’m alive. Yes, I know I should be looking forward to the next life, but I haven’t quite finished with this one yet. I don’t share the happy Protestant certainty of heaven. As a Catholic, I rely utterly on the mercy of God. My consciousness of sin and failure suggests a prolonged period in Purgatory, at the very least. In the meantime, there are a few sock drawers still to be tidied . . .

I’m blessed with family, friends, community and the ever-wonderful Bro Duncan PBGV. The English don’t do feelings, so I reserve my emoting (thank you, American cousins) for the dog. He’s rather nice to have around.

I can read. What a world books open to us, and how many there are who cannot read or who do not have access to books! I am grateful, too, to know a little about book design and typography so I can enjoy beauties others sometimes miss. Of course, I also have a little grumble now and then, justifiable or not, about some of the dreadful things perpetrated by those who do not know but think they do. It adds zest to life.

We have a garden. This morning the bean flowers were beaded with raindrops when the sun shone briefly upon them, transforming them into diamond-studded cascades of red and white. I can lose myself for hours in the garden, thinking deep thoughts, or sometimes no thoughts at all. ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’ becomes a hopeful phrase when uttered in a garden. Eden is not lost for ever nor does Gethsemane last for ever; all will be made new in paradise.

We have an oratory. I save the best till last. Ours is small, plain but filled with Presence. It is where we take the most painful and most joyful moments of our lives; where we plead for others, and for ourselves; where we grumble, give thanks and are graced beyond measure. You may not have a physical oratory, but you have an oratory of the heart. Open it to God and I warrant his graces will flood your being.

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The Two Koreas, St Pius X and the Way to Peace

There is a terrible irony in the fact that this morning the war of words between the two Koreas has escalated. It is no longer just a matter of rhetoric or small arms fire: there has been an artillery exchange and North Korea has been placed on a war footing. It is said that St Pius X died of a broken heart at the outbreak of World War I, and there is surely something in that memory we could all usefully think about.

We tend to think of Piux X in connection with the liturgy or the reform of canon law. Some will reflect on his efforts to improve clergy training and discipline while those of us who love Gregorian chant honour him for having fostered its revival. Scripture scholars probably think more of his foundation of an institute for scriptural studies or his inauguration of a revision of the Latin text of the Bible (the Vulgate). Others again will dwell on his separation of Church and State and his vehement opposition to political organizations laying claim to religious sanction. But I wonder how many will remember those homilies he preached Sunday by Sunday in the courtyards of the Vatican on his favourite theme: the restoration of all things in Christ and the ushering in of peace on earth.

Peace is more than the absence of war, but it has to begin with a cessation of hostilities. While the world looks on aghast at the atrocities of IS or worries about what might happen in the Korean Peninsula, there is a challenge all of us, without exception, need to accept. For there to be peace in the world, there must first be peace in ourselves. Unless we are prepared to lay aside old grievances, face up to old injustices, admit misunderstandings and the mistrust born of them, how can we realistically expect any change in others? It may sound idealistic, even naive; but perhaps if a few more people had been prepared to be reckoned simpletons, the tragic slaughter of World War I could have been avoided. We may be tempted to smile at the antics of Kim Jong-un as others once smiled at the reaction to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It would be more to the point to ask the prayers of St Pius X instead.

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