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.


Hens and Their Role in My Vocation

Yesterday I mentioned that my novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper. A small Twitter-storm followed, with people eager to know how hens could have such an impact. To understand, you would have to be a Benedictine novice yourself — preferably one who doesn’t like the cold or feathers — sent to dig trenches in the snow so the wretched darlings could continue to cross the orchard in their accustomed way. But, as the wiser among you will have realised, I am not really concerned with hens (sorry, poultry-lovers), but something rather more challenging: the difference between accepting and embracing vocation.

I use the word ‘vocation’ here to mean anything asked of us by the circumstances of our life. In a monastic context, it has a more precise meaning: that which constitutes our fundamental response to God as expressed through a life lived in common under a Rule and superior. But I think anyone will understand that the demands of being a parent, for example, constitute a vocation. We also have a tendency to see certain types of employment as being a vocation — e.g. teaching, nursing, medicine — which is hard on those whose work attracts less positive accolades — e.g. bankers, lawyers and sewage farm workers. We may have greater difficulty seeing illness or exile or other negative experiences as also being part of our vocation; and that’s where the difference between accepting and embracing really tells.

It can be very hard to accept that which is contrary to everything we hoped or longed for — widowhood, for example, or the death of a child. Everything within us rebels at the loss. Over time we may come to an acceptance that is part willed, part the effect of other experiences masking, at least for a while, the rawness we feel. To move from accepting to embracing the loss, to see it as God sees it, is the work of grace; and we do not all receive grace in the same measure or at the same time. It is, however, something we aim at, or should aim at. As Julian of Norwich remarked, ‘Love was his meaning;’ and until we have grasped that, we have not really understood anything at all.

To return to my hens. The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there.

So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?