Two Hairy Brothers: 5

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory
,
Herefordshire

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
Beyond

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,

Duncan

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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

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/27/through-lent-with-st-benedict-1/

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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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