Doing the Coenobitic Crawl

It would be nice to report that I had awoken this morning thinking, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I am ready to ‘run with an inexpressible sweetness of love along the way of God’s commandments.’ (RB Prol. 49) The truth, alas, is less uplifting. I spent yesterday nursing a sick headache while filling in endless government forms, tossed and turned all night, and am now contemplating the day ahead with muted enthusiasm. Situation excellent! If I can’t run, it is time to do the coenobitic crawl.

Most of us have a tendency to have unreal expectations of ourselves. That little bit of D.I.Y. will only take an hour we think, and five hours later, there is still work to be done and we are discouraged and weary. Or we set ourselves a programme of reading and prayer that is completely unsustainable. As a junior nun, I decided I ought to read the whole of Aquinas. I did, eventually, but it took me years rather than months and there were a few syllogisms I think I read with glazed eyes and scant attention.

In a few days we shall begin Advent, our hopes high, our aims generous. Many of us will try to take on too much and end up exhausted and disappointed. But it is we who will be disappointed, not God, who loves a generous giver and would prefer us to be prudent as well as filled with holy ambition. How blessed we are to have this feast to remind us that growth doesn’t come all at once! Our Lady was dedicated to God’s service from the first moment of her conception but she had to learn, as we all do, what that meant. She had to crawl before she could walk, both literally and spiritually. What I dub the coenobitic crawl is merely the monastic version of something common to Christians in every age. There are days when we seem to sprint along; others, when we seem, if anything, to be going backwards. It doesn’t matter. God sees and loves us as we are. His encouragement will sustain us even when we can’t find any in ourselves. So will the prayers of Mary, if we ask her.

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Pro Orantibus: World Day of Cloistered Life

Since 1953, when Pius XII first instituted this day under the title Pro Orantibus, Catholics have been encouraged to give thanks to God for ‘those who pray’ and give spiritual and material support to monks, nuns and hermits who live what is called the cloistered life, i.e. whose main work is prayer rather than other forms of service such as teaching or nursing. For Benedictines, however, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady has additional resonances. For example, in the English Benedictine Congregation it is celebrated as the Dies Memorabilis, the day when the pre-Reformation Congregation’s privileges were conferred on its post-Reformation successor. For me, personally, its is the anniversary of my Clothing, of my formal entrance into monastic life.

Having said that, I wonder what impact, if any, this day makes on the average church-goer? Some have registered the enormous shake-up for cloistered nuns that Cor Orans represents. Others will be at pains to show their love and support for the communities with which they have a personal connection. But for the vast majority, I suspect, the day will pass by without any special awareness or acknowledgement. Perhaps that is in itself a clue to the origins of the malaise that many have identified in the Church. Put very simply, and I hope non-polemically, if we do not pray, everything goes wrong. It is tempting to lay the blame for abuse and all the other wrongs we identify in the Church on this group or that, on individual or organisational failures and infidelity to the Church’s teaching, etc, etc. I am by no means suggesting that we spiritualize away responsibility, but I think there is something fundamental we ALL need to remember. We are called to holiness. No matter how wonderful our good works, no matter how virtuous our conduct, we can do nothing without God’s grace. It is being close to him that makes us holy, and we cannot be close if we do not pray.

So, today is not just a reminder to be thankful for the cloistered life. It is a day to be aware of the importance of prayer in the life of every one of us; and if we have become a little careless or perfunctory in our prayer, to resolve to do better — to become like Mary ‘full of grace’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail