I made the mistake of re-reading last year’s post for this day and realised that it says most of what I want to say this year too, so I’ll spare you the repetition. There’s just one thing to add. A twitterstorm yesterday afternoon has heightened my awareness of the need for real holiness among the people of God. I don’t mean the kind of self-conscious ‘sanctity’ that seems chiefly to consist in adopting all the currently fashionable attitudes of liberal left or conservative right, I mean the kind of holiness that costs: the holiness of prayer, sacrifice and service; the kind of holiness that shakes us out of our complacency and changes us for ever; the holiness that reflects the holiness of God himself. It is that kind of holiness we celebrate today, not only among the saints in heaven but also among the saints on earth.
Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.
One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.
Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.
The devil isn’t fashionable any more. Behaving diabolically seems as popular as ever, but the devil? He’s just a figment of fevered religious imaginations. You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t subscribe to that view. I would much prefer to believe that the devil doesn’t really exist, that evil is an abstraction, only of use to those who write tabloid headlines; but I can’t. Evil exists: it is intelligent, personal and dangerous. When St Paul wrote about our having to do battle with the elemental spirits of the universe, he was using the language of his day to express a conflict that will go on until the end of time.
There are two points to grasp. First, the devil may be a fallen angel, but he is still an angel of light. If we were to see evil for what it truly is, none of us would be seduced by it. But we don’t see evil for what it is most of the time. We see something attractive, that has the appearance of good, and we fall for it. Secondly, the battle against evil has been won and the devil is vanquished. Our problem is how to reconcile these two apparently contradictory notions without giving way to either fear or presumption. To Catholics I would say that prayer and the sacraments are the ordinary means of ensuring that we remain spiritually alert, but we have to be perpetually on guard, aware of the deceits that can affect us.
Whenever we have important decisions to make, about our own lives or the lives of those who are dear to us; about the politicians who will serve in government or the way in which public funds will be spent; about the use (or abuse) of the earth’s resources; we need to keep in mind that we cannot simply assume we are doing the right thing. Christianity is full of paradoxes, and one of the most sobering reminders comes from St Paul who, when he wanted to do the right thing, often found himself doing the very opposite. Sobering, yes, but also encouraging: God made a saint of Paul. He can surely make saints of us, if we let him.
We reach the end of the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule today (RB Prol. 45 to 50: you can listen to the daily portion of RB read in English on our main web site, here). The words are so familiar they sometimes lose their edge, yet this dominici scola servitii is constantly presenting us with new challenges because its favourite teaching methods are suffering and patience. No one ‘likes’ suffering; no one ‘likes’ being patient; but if we are to lay ourselves open to the mystery of God, there is no alternative.
Suffering can make us bitter and self-absorbed. Benedict, however, is much more sanguine about human nature. He expects that instead of our closing in on ourselves, we shall open out, become big-hearted (quite literally — dilatato corde) and ‘run on the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love beyond all telling’ (inennarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei). However familiar the words may become, the lesson must always be learned anew, for our hope is not for this world only. We have our hearts set on Christ and his Kingdom.
Today’s commemoration of the Cappadocians, St Basil the Great and his friend, St Gregory Nanzianzen, plunges us into a wonderfully saintly family history. Basil’s grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was a saint. His father, Basil the Elder, was a saint; his mother, Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and mother of eleven children, herself suffered for her faith although she seems never to have been considered a saint by the Western Church although the Orthodox Church venerates her as such. Two of Basil’s siblings are reckoned as saints, Macrina the Younger and Gregory of Nyssa. A third, Peter of Sebaste, is sometimes called a saint, sometimes not; a fourth, Dios, is credited with founding one of the most famous monasteries of Constantinople (though there is some dispute about the identity with Dios of Antioch). All in all, a very holy family and a very influential one, which championed the faith of Nicea against the Arians.
Interestingly, and unusually for the time, perhaps, the influence of women is well attested and celebrated. Basil is the great legislator of Eastern monasticism as Benedict is of Western: both were profoundly influenced by their sisters. Basil seems to have modelled his monastic community on his elder sister’s, just as Benedict is credited with having been taught the true nature of prayer and monastic discipline by his sister Scholastica. Perhaps when we write the biographies of great men we should pay more attention to their sisters, especially if they happen to be churchmen.
Our monastic calendar is out of step with much of the rest of the world, for we keep the feast of St Gertrude today rather than on 16 November. I tremble at the thought of writing about her as a friend, for you know where that got me when I wrote about St Martin, but for those who like their sanctity a little on the dry side, she was a great mystic, with a warm devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ, especially in his Passion and in the Eucharist, and had a tender love of Our Lady. That she is a patron of the West Indies and of cats is by the bye. (I’m not sure why cats should need a patron saint: can anyone tell me?)
That dessicated Gertrude does not greatly interest me. The child of five who entered the local monastery at Helfta, received an excellent education, became a nun and ended as a saint interests me enormously. She was an amazing woman, just as her abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborn, with whom she is often confused, was an amazing woman. Unlike Bede, whose life she uncannily echoes in some respects, Gertrude’s intellectual interests were mainly literary and philosophical to begin with. Only after a profound conversion experience did she turn her talents to the study of scripture and theology. She is proof positive that the cloister can produce people of great stature.
As is the way with many nuns’ writings, most of Gertrude’s have been lost. We have only the Herald of God’s Loving Kindness, written in conjunction with other members of the community (formerly known as the Life and Revelations of St Gertrude), and the Spiritual Exercises. They are not to everyone’s taste, but through them runs a deep love of the Lord, a quiet steadfastness of purpose and a very Benedictine sense of the importance of the liturgy. She reminds us that whatever gifts we may have been given are meant for the building up of the whole Church, that nothing is wasted which is placed at God’s service.
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).
When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?
Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?
I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.
In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.
Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.
There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?
There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.
The images used for the Holy Spirit are so evocative: wind, fire, water, all things we cannot predict the course of, and whose power we cannot tame. Even the dove image reminds us that the Spirit sees in ways we do not and cannot. On this great feast of Pentecost let us rejoice that God is everlastingly creative, always ‘doing a new thing’. May we, too, be recreated, made new, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
When Paul VI moved the feast of the Visitation to 31 May, he ensured that May, ‘Mary’s month’, would finally have a feast of Our Lady, and what a beautiful feast it is!
There is something very moving about Mary’s making the difficult journey to visit her kinswoman when she was herself pregnant. Equally moving is Elizabeth’s amazed and humble greeting, ‘Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?’ We tend to think of the Visitation as the feast of the Magnificat, that glorious canticle of praise that fell from Mary’s lips, but perhaps for us it is Elizabeth’s question that matters. Why should the saints, chief of whom is Mary, bother themselves with us?
The Visitation is yet another reminder of the strength of the communion of saints, of the bonds of prayer and mutual concern that bind us together. The communion of saints is a reality here and now as well as hereafter. When times are hard, there is a tendency to put ourselves first, arguing that we cannot afford to be generous to others. Some British charities are experiencing the truth of this as donations decline and the work they do for for the poor or disadvantaged has to end. Today we have the example of Mary and Elizabeth to encourage us: we can and must help others and in so doing we may help more than we know. We must be saints for others.