Back to the Beginning (Again)

Already the new year is beginning to look a little frayed about the edges. The hopes expressed beforehand, that this would be the year when we became more united, more peaceful, have already been destroyed by a hail of bullets in an Istanbul nightclub and countless other acts of violence around the world. Yet we persist in our optimism. We are determined that this year things should be better. We will make a new beginning.

The trouble is, there isn’t much to back up our desire to make a new beginning. For most people in the West, the new year is devoid of religious significance.* There is no collective act of repentance, no rituals to affirm a determination to change, nothing to support our efforts to be more united, more peaceful. For a Benedictine, however, there is the Rule of St Benedict which, together with the gospel and the liturgy, acts as a constant encouragement to try.

Yesterday we began reading though the Rule again from the beginning.** We shall read it through in its entirety three times in the course of the year, and no matter how familiar the words, we shall find ourselves being confronted by much that is new and sometimes difficult. Yesterday we were urged to strip ourselves of self-will, to listen and to follow — things most of us are reluctant to do, especially in a society that exalts selfhood in all its manifestations. Today we are told to wake up, pay heed, get going. It is the spiritual equivalent of a ruthless exercise programme, and it is intended to make us more aware of God, ourselves and other people.

Is there anything a lay person can take from this? I am not a believer in making complicated rules of life for oneself or in trying to be so ‘spiritual’ one neglects to be human. To pray as best one can, to work as best one can: that is already much. There is, however, one idea all of us can try this year which may sound ridiculously simple but which, like Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, may yield unexpected benefits. It has to do with awareness, something the Rule is very keen on.

How often do we see people shut themselves away from others (and sometimes themselves) by playing with their phones or plugging in their earpohones? How about deliberately choosing to wait five minutes before immersing ourselves in our virtual worlds and letting the real world, the one we can’t control, take precedence? We may notice things we had forgotten existed; we may have an opportunity to share a smile or exchange a greeting with someone who really needs that moment of human interaction and kindness. We may even meet Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his’. That, surely, would be a new beginning worth making.

*We haven’t always begun the secular new year on 1 January (it used to be 25 March, feast of the Annunciation). 1 January is the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, but comparatively few celebrate it as such.

**If you want to listen to the Rule of St Benedict, read day by day as it is in the monastery, you can do so on the desktop version of our web site here. Flash needed as I have yet to replace the player with a HTML5 version.

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Irritable Nun Syndrome and St Athanasius

Yesterday I made a joke on Twitter. (I often make jokes and have the pleasure of seeing them descend to earth with all the delicacy of a lead balloon, but bear with me.) Irritable Nun Syndrome is a condition I have sometimes diagnosed in myself when tired or oppressed by the adolescent feeling that others just don’t understand. The lapidary sentence that distills a lifetime of thought and learning being taken a little too literally; the gracious nod in the direction of someone truly great being completely missed; the gentle irony mistaken for something much worse. You know the kind of thing. All terribly humbling, but annoying too.

I was chuntering along these lines when I realised that in St Athanasius I, and all sufferers from Irritable Nun Syndrome, have a wonderful ally. Not because we can compare ourselves in any way to such a great saint but because, as the dauntless champion of the Incarnation with a passionate concern for the integrity of Catholic belief, Athanasius was one of the most awkward men who have ever lived. He bristles, he burns, and he pays the price in exile and obloquy. At heart, I think he was something of a monk.

All monks and nuns are, to some degree, awkward people. We are free, as few other people are free, to follow the logic of our conversion to Christ. That freedom confers a great responsibility on us. There will undoubtedly be times when we wish to shirk it or shrink it to something we feel we can ‘manage’, but as St Benedict reminds us in the opening words of the Rule, we have stripped ourselves of self-will to fight for the true King, Christ our Lord, with the strong and glorious weapons of obedience. Athanasius was throughout his life a man of unwavering fidelity to the obedience he had vowed. May he pray for us all.

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