From the Perspective of Eternity

Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?

Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?

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The Year of Faith 2012 to 2013

Year of Faith 2012 to 2013 logoReaders of my Universe column (there are a few) probably think I have nothing left to say about the Year of Faith which begins today; so forgive me if you find I am repeating myself. Like all ‘years’ and ‘days’, this one is meant to focus attention on something we tend to take for granted or notice only subliminally. Unlike others, however, the Year of Faith is meant to bring about a change within ourselves not just in society round about. It is an invitation to deepen our faith and, crucially, explore what that faith means. That is why I have been encouraging people not only to pray, receive the sacraments and read the scriptures but also to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am sometimes troubled by the imperfect understanding of what the Church actually teaches, as distinct from what people think the Church teaches, and I’m sorry to say that Catholics are themselves often among the worst offenders! We are not all called to be theologians or scripture scholars, but Catholicism is a reasonable religion and deserves serious study by anyone who professes to be an adherent. We may envy the apparently simple faith of the peasant of history, but we are not peasants, nor are we living in times past. We are men and women of the twenty-first century and our faith must reflect that. So, if you haven’t yet done anything about setting yourself a reading programme for the year, try Matthew Warner’s Catechism Reading venture here (link opens in new window).

And what if you feel even that is beyond you? If you are tired of all these initiatives and feel rather useless in the face of all the recommendations to do this, that and the other? If your faith is already such as to move, not mountains, but maybe a few molehills of doubt and difficulty? Can I say simply: pray. Prayer is the most powerful way of opening ourselves to  the grace of the Holy Spirit and allowing him to flood both understanding and will with his grace. I liked what Archbishop Rowan Williams said in his address to the Synod of Bishops on the subject of the new evangelisation in Rome. If you haven’t yet read it, you can do so here (link opens in new window).

What shall we be doing in community? We have committed ourselves to extra prayer throughout the year, and if we can scrape together enough money, we shall be uploading a completely revised set of community websites (see links to existing sites  in sidebar) which will contain a number of ways to explore and, hopefully, deepen faith. Ultimately however, we need to remember that faith is a gift. It can be asked for, received, celebrated, but it can never be forced. Part of what we need to learn this year is to wait on the Lord, for he alone is God.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Something about Sunday

While many of our fellow citizens are taking the opportunity to have an extra long lie-in this Sunday, we Christian folk are busy in our churches and chapels, proclaiming the Word of God, celebrating his Sacraments and trying to be, at least for a few hours, what we long to be at all times: an icon of Christ, praying continuously to the Father, and radiating his love and compassion to all whom we meet. One of the great things about being a nun, of course, is that in the monastery it is Sunday every day, in a sense. Whatever we are doing, the focus is (or should be) always on Christ. It is when we take our gaze off him that things begin to go awry.

The words of the first reading at Mass, (Malachi 1.14 to 2.2, 8 to 10), are very sobering. They remind us that, whether we have been entrusted with the ministerial priesthood or not, as sharers in the priesthood of all believers we have a duty to live lives of transparent integrity. Perhaps this Sunday we could spend a few moments considering how we do that during the rest of the week. So often when we fail it is not for lack of goodwill but for lack of forethought.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Power of Symbols

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July had more symbolic significance than anything else for the course of the French Revolution, but even today it will be recalled in France with great republican fervour. We all have our own symbols. I ‘knew’ before I came here what a powerful symbol the American flag is for the people of the U.S.A., but seeing it proudly displayed on porches and in car lots, on all manner of buildings, both public and private, has brought home just how intense the focus on it is. I’m not sure we have anything really comparable in England, where no one gets very excited about anything except perhaps cricket and football, but the Church has an abundance of symbols, most of them simple and direct, like light, water, oil.

From time to time one hears someone saying that the Church needs to ‘update’ her use of symbols; that oil, for example, no longer has the significance it once had for people living in the Near East or around the Mediterranean. It’s true that oil is no longer used in quite the same way or for the same purposes, but that does not empty the symbol of its power. The life of the Church is expressed through sign and symbol: it is a language we all learn gradually as we come to see the impossibility of expressing through ordinary human words the extraordinary divine action in our lives. Symbols are powerful things and shouldn’t be underestimated.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Catholic Women Don’t Preach

They blog instead. Or, I daresay, they lecture their spouses occasionally, if they are married, or their communities, if they happen to be nuns (we call it “giving a conference”). Dr Johnson, as everyone knows and some regularly misquote, thought that a woman’s preaching was very like a dog’s standing on its hind legs, remarkable but not necessarily done well. Having listened to the preaching of several Anglican and Methodist friends, I have to dissent from the Great Cham’s opinion on the surest of all grounds, that of experience. Some of the most brilliant preaching I have ever heard has come from women. Why is the Catholic Church so iffy about allowing women into the pulpit?

Partly, we know, it is because of what the Catholic Church believes about the Mass (which is where most preaching occurs) and the sacrament of Orders. It is quite wrong to see this as an equality issue although it is sometimes presented as such, by those who wish to uphold the status quo as well as those who wish to attack it. I don’t think “equality” really comes into it, but what we believe about the Mass and Orders may affect perceptions in other areas. For all kinds of reasons, women in the Catholic Church are still seen primarily as wives and mothers, even if they are neither or have many other roles in addition. We don’t usually define men in terms of their being husbands and fathers (although American Catholic men seem touchingly ready to define themselves that way). The argument from complementarity works well on paper but is less convincing in action. I have a sneaking feeling that some of those most passionate in its advocacy are secret admirers of the article on “woman” in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. (I read it, entranced, at the age of eleven and have wondered ever since whether it would be possible to meet such a being.)

Blogging is a low-cost way of addressing an audience and many Catholic women, including me, have taken to it with delight. It doesn’t need an imprimatur (remember them?) or a sacrament or anything in particular to validate what is said. I do believe that anyone claiming to be a Catholic blogger should take the trouble to find out what the Church actually teaches before launching into the ether, and I hope I’m scrupulous in that regard, though that is for others to judge. The trouble is, I am still haunted by Dr Johnson’s little joke. Am I preaching when I jot down my posts, musing aloud in public (which is what I like to think) or performing some kind of verbal acrobatics? Doughty dame or dancing dog, who knows?
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Spiritual Direction

From time to time one of us is asked if we will act as a “spiritual director” to someone. Our reaction always surprises those who know nothing of our community history or the part played in it by Fr Augustine Baker. There is generally a slight hesitation, followed by a quiet smile and even quieter affirmation, “The Holy Spirit is the best spiritual director.” This sometimes leads our interlocutors to wonder if we are Catholic at all, or at any rate not quite right in the head. (I sometimes wonder about the latter, too, but that is by the bye.)

It is what we don’t say that is important. There are many more spiritual directors in the world than there is true spiritual direction. To be able to guide others in the ways of God is a rare gift, a charism, and it is not given to all. The nuns of Cambrai (from whom we are descended) had a hard battle to avoid being pressured into a way of prayer and spirituality entirely alien to them under the name of “spiritual direction”. It was largely thanks to the fortitude of D. Catherine Gascoigne and her community, who were subject to some pretty stiff ecclesiastical penalties, that Fr Baker’s eminently sane teaching survived to shape the lives of the nuns who followed after. Fr Baker is now recognized as a master of the spiritual life and his insistence on “liberty of spirit” continues to inform those communities which took his teaching to heart.

But to say that spiritual direction is a rare gift and that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” For us, “liberty of spirit” presupposes life in community under the Rule and a superior, where there are daily checks on behaviour; it involves constant prayer and study and, above all, regular reception of the sacraments. Very often the sacraments are left out of the equation but for growth in holiness they are essential, especially the one many people ignore: confession.

Confession is not the same as spiritual direction. As a sacrament, we can be quite sure that the Lord is at work in it, no matter how “inadequate” we or the confessor happen to be. There is no similar guarantee with spiritual direction. That is not to say that spiritual directors are frauds and charlatans, far from it, but it is why we will not undertake that role. Those who have the gift can contribute a great deal to those who seek instruction and guidance; those who haven’t can do a great deal of harm. We do not give spiritual direction, but we do pray, as best we can, for all who seek our help.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail