Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.

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In Praise of Ambrose

St Ambrose of Milan
St Ambrose of Milan

I have to admit to being very fond of St Ambrose. Ever since I first sat down to read his Explanatio Psalmorum, a very discursive work, I’ve been enchanted. His story is familiar to most people. (The summary in Wikipedia is more accurate than most but it doesn’t convey the charm of the man.) Here was a great administrator who was also a theologian, but not as good a theologian as he was administrator — enough to endear him to those of us who know we’re better at admin than we are at thinking theologically; a man who was chosen as bishop before he was even baptized — so not a career cleric in any sense of the term, despite his vivid sense of the importance of the episcopal office and the sacredness of the prebyterate; a man who was noted for his charity and courtesy, so that even Arian opponents respected him. Yes, Ambrose does tend to get a little enthusiastic in his exaltation of virginity, but he stood up to the emperor at a time when no one else would and was strong and clear in his ethical teaching. He loved books and allegedly amazed Augustine by reading silently. His view of liturgy was wide and generous, making him fast on Saturdays when in Rome but not when in Milan. Hymn-lovers know him best for some of his musical gems, including Aeterne rerum Conditor. His feast-day is a reminder to all of us of some of the qualities we need to cultivate, not least his courage. When he was asked to cede his church to the Arians, he stood firm:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

O si sic omnes.

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The Right Thing to Do

It is almost impossible to talk about ‘the right thing to do’ without sounding like a politician. The phrase has been used and abused so often that it has become virtually meaningless. That is a pity, because there is nothing else that conveys the idea behind it so simply and beautifully.

The concept of ‘the right thing to do’ may be beautiful in its simplicity, but it can be devilish hard to work out. I have no doubt that SS John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast we keep today, were men of great holiness of life but I don’t subscribe to the cult of mindless adulation they are often surrounded by. They are held up as champions of conscience, marriage, papal authority and the like. In an important sense that is true, but historically it is also less than the truth because the questions they considered were complex, susceptible of different answers, and have only gained the precision we give them today because time has allowed us to consider them more fully. If you look at More’s correspondence, you can see him gradually working towards the answer which led him to the scaffold, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion. He ducts and weaves, not in a bad sense, but in the way that a lawyer ducts and weaves through law and precedent, searching for . . . the right thing to do. Fisher, too, though he was of a different temper from More (and slightly nicer to his enemies) came to the conclusion he did after much deliberation.

I honour them both for their courage in accepting the consequences of their deliberations, and hope I might be as brave were I to find myself in a similar situation. I am still left wondering whether we forget too easily the process by which they came to their decision, however: the prayer, the reading, the discussion, the hours of silent pondering. Sometimes people rush in with an answer before a question is fully formulated. We have seen something of that in recent discussion of marriage in this country. If we peep over the ecumenical fence, we can see our Anglican brethren tearing themselves in different directions over questions some of us find too perplexing for an answer yet.

Today is a good day to pray for all who have difficult decisions to make, who are keen to do the right thing because it is the right thing and nothing less will do. May SS John and Thomas pray for us all.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 4

Today we come to Benedict’s ‘last word’ on Lent, but it isn’t in the chapter he devotes to Lent itself (RB 49) it’s in the one before, On Daily Manual Labour (RB 48):

During the days of Lent, they should devote themselves to reading from the morning until the end of the third hour; and from then until the tenth hour they should do the work assigned to them. In these days of Lent they should each receive a book from the library, to be read straight through in its entirety. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.

Aha, you may think, she has already commented on that in an earlier post, A Book for Lent. Indeed I have, but here I want to draw your attention to some other aspects of this text.

Prayerful reading, lectio divina, is the characteristic activity of the monk. In a sense, it guarantees that we shall be in touch with God and he with us. When we pray or work we can go wrong; we can be so full of ourselves that we chase after our own ideas and end up making a mess of things. Not so when we listen to God. We may not ‘meet God’ in our work or prayer, but we can be quite sure we shall meet him in our reading because scripture is the word he has spoken definitively to the Church.

So, Lent without reading of this kind is a nonsense. Moreover, you notice where Benedict places his teaching on Lenten reading? In his chapter on work. Lectio divina doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it; and Benedict expects us to devote a sizeable chunk of time to doing so.

Why is that important? The emphasis on reading scripture is a reminder of what I call the ‘slow down and shut up’ approach to the spiritual life. Lent is a time for focusing, so we read one book, not zillions of them, and we read slowly, allowing God to speak to our hearts. We have to keep in mind that Benedict’s way of reading was different from ours. We skim, speed read, forget most of what we have just read. Benedict, by contrast, expected his monks to commit to memory much of what they read so that they had a rich inner library to which to return again and again in the course of the day. That is not a bad idea for us in the twenty-first century, when we are bombarded from dawn till dusk with all kinds of information clamouring for our attention.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent but they all rest upon the supposition that we are familiar with the Word of God. In his insistence on the importance of reading, Benedict reminds us that even if the more ‘active’ side of Lent is impossible, we can be attuned to what God wants of us through our practice of lectio divina. Our word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word obaudire, meaning to listen carefully, listen hard. He knows well enough that anyone who truly listens to God will enter into a dialogue of love and union with him that is beyond all words and all doing. He will enter into the silence of God himself.

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A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.

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Wikipedia Blackout

Whatever one thinks of the legislation being proposed in the U.S. A. — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate — and the implications for British web sites hosted on American servers (as this one is), the blackout of the English-language Wikipedia raises some interesting possibilities. Will people start reading books again and doing their own research the hard way? Will the results be more accurate? Will plagiarism be less of a problem? Shall we look back on 18 January 2012 as a golden moment when we rediscovered the beauty and power of an old technology? Despite my enthusiasm for most things digital, I’m rather hoping we may.

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In Tune or Out of Step?

On several occasions recently I have found myself wondering whether I am in a minority of one. For example, I did not think Carol Ann Duffy’s poem on Stephen Lawrence, published in the 9 January edition of The Guardian, very good. That is not to question her sincerity or the topicality of her subject. It was the treatment of her theme that I found weak and pedestrian. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t poetry, so it was a relief to find Ian Patterson saying as much in the London Review of Books. You can read his comment here. We all have our own ideas about poetry, I suppose, but when everyone else seems to be hailing something as ‘great’ or ‘moving’, one can question one’s own sanity as well as judgement.

Earlier in the week The Guardian printed an article by Mehdi Hasan entitled ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rick Santorum’. Point 8 stated, When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home, where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

Mehdi Hasan seems to have found this macabre at best and in a subsequent piece argued that those who thought he was wrong to criticize the Santorums were themselves wrong. Clearly, he has had no experience of the grief felt by the parents of stillborn children nor thought about the variety of mourning customs that exist. To me, it did not seem strange that the Santorums should wish to spend some time with their dead child, pray for him, welcome him into their family as a person. It is a very Catholic thing to do. You would not have got that impression reading some of the comments! Again, it was a relief to find this thoughtful piece on the web which not only deals with the need to mourn a stillborn child but the way in which responsible journalism needs to address such difficult subjects.

Finally, an article about the manufacture of altar-breads in the U.S.A. (which you can read here) raised interesting questions for me about the Eucharistic nature of work and the economics of cloistered communities. I shared the link on Facebook and was interested to see that many people jested where I myself was made thoughtful, probably because some of the difficulties mentioned in the article were close to home.

These three instances highlight the fact that we always bring our own perceptions (and sometimes our prejudices) to what we read. We interpret. We are, of necessity, subjective. We sometimes miss words and phrases as we skim through articles. I think, on the whole, monks and nuns tend to read very carefully. We are, after all, proponents of Slow Reading (lectio divina). That doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand any better or misinterpret less frequently, but I think it does make us more cautious about asserting that we have fully understood, less anxious, I hope, to ‘put others right.’ Maybe there is room for more  humility in how we read. That is something I hope to practise this coming year.

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In Praise of Books

Saturday morning is a good time for indulging a not-so-private enthusiasm for books and reading. I admit I love books: their shape, colour, texture, smell (I got over loving the taste at about age three). I love reading them; I love handling them; I love looking at them on their shelves or wherever they happen to be. Because I am, in some degree, a maker of books myself, I lap up typefaces and layouts, silently noting good or bad typography, choice of paper, ink and binding. I smile over unintentional contradictions, chuckle over misplaced punctuation, purr when I find a gerund or gerundive correctly used. Books are for reading I tell myself, so I don’t mind when the pages are scribbled on, turned down at important passages, loved literally to bits. I like reading on the monastery’s iPod Touch as well. At night, in bed, it’s light and comfortable to hold and there’s a great range of free books I actually want to read, such as Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, still the most readable guide to Iberia.

Tonight is World Book Night and it’s calculated that over a million books will be given away free at various venues — pubs, clubs and churches, to name but a few. We shall be safely tucked up in bed when all that happens, but tomorrow morning after Mass we shall be giving away new books on Newman and the saints, about thirty all told. You have to be there to get a book, so no email requests, please; and, of course, if you are minded to make a donation towards our Monastery project, we won’t turn it down. Happy reading!

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