St Jerome: Teacher of Asceticism and Love

St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.

For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.

One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?

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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.

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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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Black and White

There are two colours that old-fashioned printers like me think about more than any other: black and white. What subtle gradations of white there are, and how important the white space on the page is! How many shades of black there are, and how delicately they affect our perception of what is printed! It is my firm opinion that until one can appreciate shades of black, white and grey one ought not to be let loose on colour as commonly understood. Colour is often used to compensate for weak design because it captures the eye and lends an obvious charm. It is rather like make-up applied to the human face: well-done it can add striking effects, but it can never achieve anything as simply perfect as bone and muscle can unaided. The key to good book design is structure: the harmonious blending of white space, typography and layout, all of them in the service of meaning. On the whole, with some important qualifications, I think that holds good for the design of digital pages, too. We need to think in black and white before we can express ourselves in colour.

Is there any analogy to be drawn with prayer? I think there is. Very often we get asked about prayer: what prayer is; how to pray; why God won’t answer my prayers (usually meaning, why won’t God do what I want). Sometimes we get lectured about prayer by Those Who Know (or think they do). We get people writing to us about some of the more difficult passages in mystical authors. We seem to be regarded both as experts in prayer (which we aren’t) or complete boobies (which I suspect we aren’t, either). So, when people ask my advice,  I always want to say, start at the beginning, don’t be afraid of the fact that you will never be as ‘advanced’ as you think you should be. God places the desire to pray in our hearts. ‘All’ we have to do is to allow him to pray in us. That is harder than you might think because it means taking our gaze off ourselves. The very learned and the very complicated must become very simple; and the process of becoming simple is never easy because we cling to our complexity for dear life. We do not like being stripped of the fig-leaves we have gathered for ourselves.

Sometimes those who write about prayer suggest that it is a wonderful adventure, full of light and colour. I hope it is, eventually. My experience, however, suggests that if we wish to learn to pray, we must first learn to think in black and white, in the colours of Calvary as well as of Eden. We must read the scriptures and learn to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Just like the printer designing a page, we must give the process time and never be afraid of beginning again. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning.

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Things A Dog Has Taught Me

Bro Duncan, the monastery dog
Bro Duncan, the monastery dog

A couple of times this week Bro Duncan and I have been viewing Hendred by night because he has been in agony (sic) with his tummy. You don’t think those 3.00 a.m. walks through the village were a sign of mere eccentricity, I trust? No, they were initiated by a large wet nose nudging me awake and indicating that, whatever the clock said, it was time to go OUT.

There is nothing like accompanying a hound to make one think. There is the eager-beaver approach to going walkies irrespective of time or place. All that dancing around and scooting up and down the corridor belies the kohl-rimmed eyes pleading, ‘I’m sick. I need to get out.’ But I fall for it every time and off we go. First there is the obligatory charge down the road and some lawn-mower-like chomping at the grass, which goes on for ages because ‘I’m sick, see, I need medication.’ This quickly passes into ‘How interesting this place is at night. Let’s explore.’ And so we do. We plunge into deeper darkness and hear only the strange, snuffly sounds of night.

In this deeper darkness, Duncan leads. We spend several minutes standing at a gate  while he traces the scent on a single blade of grass, savours it, commits it to memory and moves on, regretfully, as though there were a history he cannot share with me. Medieval rooftops look magical at night, even when there is no moonlight, but the biting wind does not invite lingering. So we walk and walk and I become a little suspicious about the upset tummy.

Seeing the village by night impresses me with how remarkable ordinary things are when viewed under different circumstances or from a different angle. Dare I admit that the familiar can become spooky, yet what was ugly by day can take on a strange  beauty at night? The change of perspective may be of no more than passing interest but sometimes it can lead to a reassessment of accepted values. I’m certainly not claiming that Duncan’s nocturnal ramblings have led me to any profound insights, but I will say this. Wisdom 18 verses 14 to 16 comes alive in a way it never has when read. The leaping down from heaven of God’s all-powerful Word is an event in time as well as beyond time, to be expected now as it was two thousand years ago.

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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.

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Talking about God

Monday’s post about the language of filation and sonship brought a number of interesting emails. I should like to quote from one which expresses, better than I ever could, both the difficulty of predicating anything about God and the necessity of the struggle to do so.

These [reflections] are all bound up with my growing sense of the relative irrelevance of words. I say this as one for whom words are an overriding passion, and of course they remain the way into the Word: there are combinations of words which slit open the eternal like knives. That is just one of the paradoxes so fundamental to our religion that I am beginning to wonder if anything non-paradoxical can be true!

. . . My true refuge from linguistic problems, minor and major, is Pseudo-Denys and the unknowability of God. If one cannot even say ‘God is good’, then surely one cannot, in any literal sense, say ‘God is our Father’. From the darkness of Denys I fly to the Syrians and specifically to St  Ephrem, who describes God as ‘clothing himself in language’, now putting on metaphors for our sake, now stripping this one off again and fetching another out of the wardrobe – all because our minds are small and limited. For Ephrem the whole of Scripture is one great metaphor. I find this infinitely consoling, probably because my mind is at ease with metaphor: it creates a great space in which one can move around unimpeded; I leave systematic theology to the seriously clever.

I know the writer well enough to take that remark about systematic theology with a smile of complicity. The point is, however we talk about God, however helpful or indeed unhelpful we may find the language of scripture or theology, the language of prayer transcends all limitations. It is wonderfully subversive, because types and shadows fall away in the face of the reality of God.

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A Patron Saint for Twitter

One of the (many) things I have never managed to be organized about is the Friday #ff on Twitter. It is a brilliant idea: letting other people know whom one has found interesting/entertaining/stimulating, but for anyone wearing a cowl or clerical collar it is a bit double-edged. It is as easy to give offence by omission as by commission.

Today’s saint, Jerome, would not have thought twice about letting everyone know his opinion of anyone or anything. I suspect he would have been an active user of Twitter and Facebook for he burned with zeal and tended to scorch those he considered lacking in faith or commitment. It is one of the things I like about him (plus the fact that he got on well with nuns), but all those lonely hours spent grappling with the text of scripture surely taught him an important truth, one that Benedict XVI highlighted when he set the theme for next year’s World Communications Day. Silence, taking in, suspending judgement, allowing the text to master us rather than thinking that we should master the text, are essential if we are to allow the Word of God full scope in our lives.

I think Jerome would make a good patron saint for Twitter. He was pithy, wise, opinionated, all in one. Above all, he loved God and made God’s Word his constant joy and study. Not a bad model for twitterati to follow.

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Five Loaves, Two Fish and a Lonely Place

Yesterday’s gospel (Matthew 14. 13 to 21) describes the feeding of the five thousand as occurring in a ‘lonely place’ to which Jesus and his disciples had retired ‘in order to be by themselves’. For those for whom the week-end is as busy as, if not busier than, ordinary week-days, it is worth pausing over that reference to a ‘lonely place’ and ‘being by themselves’. It is a reminder that finding time for prayer and meditation is not a selfish act but absolutely necessary for a truly Christian life.

For most of us, the lonely places have to be interior; and although we don’t necessarily expect them to be invaded by clamouring crowds, we mustn’t be surprised if they are. Paradoxically, it is where we expect least that we often receive most. If yesterday was too busy then today, on the ‘bus or the train into work perhaps, we might try to find a little time to be by ourselves with God. How else shall we have anything of value to share with others?

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