The Oratory of the Heart

Light in the Darkness

The last few days have not been easy for anyone. Here in the UK we have had storm damage and power-cuts, seen the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID variant, and been battered by seemingly endless revelations of sleaze, corruption and unimaginable brutality, as in the case of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Add to that the personal tragedies and disappointments that do not usually make the headlines and the world begins to seem an unfriendly place. Advent has already reached the point of being cold, dark and wearing. The silence and mystery that so enthused us at the beginning has become for many more of a torment than an inspiration. We are crushed by the demands made upon us, irritated by the misunderstandings and criticisms that come our way, longing for light, warmth and peace. Then we read today’s section of the Rule, RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, and are shaken out of our negativity.

The Oratory of the Monastery

Most Benedictines care very deeply about their church or chapel and are meticulous in both their preparations for and performance of the liturgy. A crease in the altar linens, an obviously unpractised antiphon, a hurried reading — none of these will ever go unnoticed, by nuns, at any rate. Only the best is good enough for the Lord, and we are in the oratory several times a day, so that seeking to do and be the best we can is a constant in our lives. But there is more to it than that. If you read Benedict’s text carefully, you will see that the essential feature of the oratory is the reverence with which we make use of the space and time given us in which to pray. Reverence does not depend on the beauty of our surroundings, an emotional response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, nor even the amount of time available to us. Reverence comes from the heart, and it is the oratory of the heart that truly matters, for it is there that the Holy Spirit dwells and turns our every prayerful impulse into prayer according to the mind of God.

The Oratory of the Heart and its Transformative Power

All of us need encouragement much more than we need rebukes or criticisms. A heart open to God’s word and filled with his love and compassion cannot be negative or harshly judgemental. May I suggest that today, instead of considering all that is wrong in ourselves or in others, we allow God’s grace to work away quietly within us, making an oratory of our heart where he can delight to be. It is not only we who may be transformed.

. . . the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons. . .

They will hallow the Holy One of Jacob,
stand in awe of the God of Israel.

(from today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 29.17-24)
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A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

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Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see http://bbc.in/WqYd5Q). I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mocking the Faith of Others

When does making a joke about religion overstep the mark and become mocking the faith of others? Does it matter if it does? I was wondering about this as I checked my Twitter account this morning and noticed a few tweets about one of the more sensational saints of Latin America. Now, I have no devotion to the saint in question, have never lived in the country where his cult is popular, and have no desire to stir up a rumpus, but I did ask myself how I would feel if he were one of my ‘friends in heaven’, in the way that Our Lady or St Bernard are. I realised I might be a little upset. ‘Love me, love my dog’ has its parallel; respect me, respect what I respect, even if it seems to you a little absurd.

What do we mean by ‘respect’ in such a context? Are we to be afraid of saying anything for fear of giving offence? Perhaps this analogy may help. I may not be a Communist myself, but if you have little busts of Lenin all over your mantlepiece, I will take the hint and confine any remarks to discussion of his theories rather than make a joke you may find tasteless. I may not be a republican, but if you are French and ardent in your love of country, I would not choose today to make derogatory remarks about the fall of the Bastille and all that it entailed subsequently. In both cases, I would be doing no more than showing good manners. Would that mean I was truly respecting you? I’m not sure, but I find it interesting that St Benedict has a lot to say in his Rule about the dangers of scurillitas, a kind of mocking laughter that often degenerated into indecency. I don’t think he was concerned about his monks making an off-colour joke so much as losing that sense of respect and reverence for the person that is fundamental to his concept of honouring everyone.

Ultimately, mocking the faith of others is an act of derision rather than an argument. It may be effective in silencing someone but it can never really advance understanding. So, a thought for the week-end. When we are tempted to mock others, are we misusing one of God’s gifts (for laughter and fun); are we building up or tearing down? The answer can sometimes be chastening, especially for those of us who have a way with words.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Question of Language

I don’t think it appropriate for a Catholic to comment on the debate about bishops within the Church of England, but @ellenloudon and @fibrefairy reminded me on Twitter this morning of something that irritates me profoundly: the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective. A woman is always a person, never a mere adjective. Use as an adjective is as demeaning in my book as calling a mature adult woman a ‘girl’. I’m not very keen on the use of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as nouns, either, unless we are talking about animals. Used as adjectives, no problem; though I often wonder why we need to make the distinction in the first place. Is it really so strange for a woman to be a lawyer or surgeon, for example?

Rocco Palmo has an interesting report of an interview with Lucetta Scaraffia, head of the new ‘women’s section’ of L’Osservatore Romano, in which she argues that, had the Church been more open to women in positions of authority in the Church, we might not have had so many of the scandals that have burst upon us in recent years. I have to say I agree with her in many ways. Perhaps the language used about women is an area we might all reflect on, because for a woman to be able to exercise authority — in whatever sphere, not just the Church — there is need for respect; and our use of language is indicative of the respect we have, or don’t have. This isn’t a question of political correctness, which tends very often to be anything but correct, but of simple justice, reverence and, dare I say it, accuracy.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

OMG

OMG: three little letters representing Creator and creature, infinity and love; or the fool’s laughter, signifying nothing?

There is a world of difference between ‘Oh, my God!’ used as a virtually meaningless  exclamation of surprise and ‘O my God’ used as the language of prayer. They are as different as chalk and cheese, as far apart as the East is from the West. If one were to say how offensive the misuse of God’s name is to the ears of believers, one might be regarded as rather strange, ‘excessively’ religious, a bit of a pompous ass (donkey to our American friends). The acronym makes it no better. To triviliase the Infinite is surely the mark of the very shallow.

So what of ‘O my God’? We use those three little words to call upon the Almighty with joy, thanksgiving and contrition. They are our comfort in sorrow, our help in times of need; the only words necessary to adoration. They are
‘church-bells beyond the starres heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices: something understood.’

Can we reclaim them? Does it matter? Look at the front page of today’s BBC website or any newspaper and ask yourself how and why we came to this. If that doesn’t bring you to your knees, I don’t know what will.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Corpus Christi 2011

No moans, please, about celebrating this great feast on a Sunday instead of the more familiar Thursday (I don’t like it either), but a moment’s pause to consider what it is we are celebrating. The ‘automatic’ answer isn’t wrong, but it may be inadequate. IF we really believe that the Holy Eucharist is what we say it is, our only possible approach is in awed silence, on our knees before a Mystery so profound. Love and reverence go together, as St Paul was wont to remind us. Let today therefore be a day of great joy, great love, great and holy fear, for truly, God is with us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Darning a Habit

I have just spent the morning darning and patching my habit. Sewing is not something I enjoy or do well, but walking around in black bin bags (the alternative) is scarcely dignified. Thrift isn’t among the virtues as such, but if one truly reveres the world and everything in it, one cannot be prodigal with resources — not even old fabric. There is value even in a few old threads, or so I told myself as I struggled to repair the thoughtlessness of the past, now showing itself as rents and holes. Darned and patched, I will henceforth try to uphold the dignity of the monastic habit . . . and trust the dignity of the monastic habit will uphold me.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Why Are Catholics So Nasty?

Whenever I want to think through a coding problem for a web site, I “waste” time by looking at a number of religious blogs. The distraction helps, and I often end up finding something useful or stimulating while the coding problem resolves itself once I have stopped thinking about it. Maybe it’s just the blogs I follow, but I have to say that the ones I enjoy most are not often Catholic. Indeed, the Catholic blogosphere is sometimes a very nasty place to be. Why should that be so?

I think it may have to do with the current fashion for damning Vatican II and all its works and exalting the minutiae of liturgical observance. Now, I am not uninterested in liturgy, said she with a dangerous gleam in her eye, but I believe reverence is more important than anything. Say the black and do the red, but don’t accuse those whose practice differs from your own of lack of orthodoxy or worse. Don’t cherry-pick the Councils, either, if you want to have a truly Catholic understanding of the Church. Those more papal than the pope worry me. The energy devoted to hating others seems inconsistent with what we profess to believe. Of course, it could just be that I am out of step with the times. I don’t mind that if I am in step with Christ and his Church, or at least not too far off-course, though I can’t judge.

In the novitiate we were urged to be always one with the mind of the Church. That means reading and reflecting and taking the trouble to find out for oneself, rather than just assuming. It also means being kind. I think we sometimes forget that. When Christians cease to love one another, they cease to be Christians except in name. The history of Christianity is marred by rows and we live today with the resulting divisions. As we prepare to go to Mass, I can’t help wondering how I shall answer the question, “What did you do to bring unity to my Church? Did you love as I have loved you?” I hope that I won’t have to say, I abused your gifts, I wrote nastily about others, I hated and divided; but shall I?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail