Serving the Cause of Right

Palm Sunday was glorious, wasn’t it? The sun shone, the procession was a riot of colour and waving palm fronds, and only the reading of the Passion narrative reminded us that in a few days the hosannas will be replaced by shouts of ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ The Monday of Holy Week dawns bleaker and colder. We read Isaiah 42. 1–7 and realise, with a start, that while we genuinely wish to be the Lord’s true servants and model ourselves on him, almost everyone believes they are ‘serving the cause of right’. The High Priest did; the Sanhedrin did; even Pilate thought he was doing his duty by Rome and the province he was governing. Our problem is not always seeing what is actually right but instead allowing ourselves to be guided by principles that smack of self-interest or may do harm to others by perpetrating injustice or untruth.

A few days ago Arnaud Beltrame, a lieutenant colonel in the Gendarmerie, showed us what it means to serve the cause of right. He gave himself up in place of a hostage and paid with his life. Few are called upon to make such decisions with so little opportunity to think through the consequences. There was surely more at work there than training or discipline. To give one’s life for another can only be possible when there have been lots of acts of self-surrender and service beforehand. Perhaps today we could think about the ways in which we must learn to serve and the renunciations we have to make. As St Augustine says of martyrdom, the way cannot be hard when it has been trodden by so many before us, but we must each of us walk it in our own way and in our own time. Holy Week give us a unique opportunity to learn how to serve the cause of right. May we not funk it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Epiphany 2015

Epiphany is, to my way of thinking, the great feast of Christmas. With the revelation to the gentiles, the Incarnation of Christ becomes explicitly what it always was implicitly, the dawning of salvation on mankind. In previous posts, I have dwelt on the richness of the liturgy for the day, which weaves together the coming of the Magi, the baptism of Christ in the Jordan and the miracle of Cana — all of them manifestations of Christ’s divinity and his mission.

Today, it is Cana that first captures my imagination. That lovely miracle, performed out of sheer compassion for a young couple’s embarassment on their wedding-day — and, let’s be honest, the result of a little nagging from his mother — is a metaphor for the effect of grace on our lives. Jesus turns the water of life into wine; and, as with all his gifts, there is abundance and goodness, for he gives without stint. That doesn’t mean that every difficulty is magicked away. The young couple still needed to work at their marriage; the servants still had to beaver away at serving. Sweat and tears are part of our lot as human beings; but with the coming of Christ, they no longer separate us from God. He shares them with us.

The three gifts the Magi lay before Jesus are gifts we must find within ourselves. The gold of generosity may require some deep mining on our part. It is comparatively easy to give material things, but to give of ourselves, that is so much harder. The frankincense of prayer doesn’t come easily, either. A gorgeous liturgy may make us feel we are praying, but unless our minds and hearts are engaged, it may be more about us than it is about God. Conversely, those bleak and apparently barren moments when nothing very much seems to happen and we feel nothing but weariness and disgust may be very powerful prayer indeed. Then there is the myrrh of service which can be hard and bitter, a death to self in every respect. But where Christ leads, we must follow. There is no other way but his.

Finally, there is the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. That mysterious anointing by the Holy Spirit, that charge to the bystanders — for a moment we glimpse the inner life of the Holy Trinity and are lost in wonder and adoration. This great feast of the Epiphany marks our entry into the People of God. With the death of Jesus on the Cross, his Resurrection and Ascension, we will become something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church. But for us who are gentiles, it all begins today.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Gifted or Great?

Many people mistake giftedness for greatness. The gifts of some are more spectacular than those of others, but they do not make the possessors great. To be gifted is to bear a responsibility; to be great is to have discharged that responsibility well and faithfully. Benedict’s cellarer (business manager) is entrusted with multitudinous responsibilities. ‘He is to have care of everything’ says the Rule (RB 31.3), spelling out the many duties that fall to his lot:

He should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. (RB 31. 9-11)

He is given a great deal of power, but his greatness will consist in one thing only: the faithful discharge of his office. That is why the qualities Benedict seeks are so profoundly revealing:

a wise person, of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1-2)

In tomorrow’s section of the Rule, we shall find Benedict saying that ‘above all, he should possess humility.’ (RB 31.13)

Clearly, what we have here is a portrait of the ideal steward, one who is obedient to his abbot, doing all things ‘in accordance with the abbot’s instructions’ (RB 31.12), but bringing to his task every gift of heart, mind and soul with which he has been endowed in order to serve God and the community. Benedict knows he will be gifted, but in chapter 31 he asks the person who serves as cellarer to become great, to rise above every natural inclination that may lead him away from his duty or cause him to misuse the power entrusted to him.

I think we can see an analogy here with many different forms of service outside the monastery. It is always tempting to be a little self-seeking, to enjoy one’s progress up the ladder, so to say. Those who have taken the Rule to heart and wish to apply Benedict’s principles to their daily lives are confronted in this chapter with the Gospel ethic, and it may not make comfortable reading. We have been called and chosen to give glory to God by our lives; we have had gifts lavished upon us. How we use those gifts, how we live our lives, is what will make us great — or not.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Saints Day 2013

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Nuns and Sisters

Would you object to a little light-heartedness on this wet and windy Friday in Lent? Admittedly, my purpose is serious, but one does not always need a sledge-hammer to make a point.

One of the oddities of the world today is that people talk about nuns when they mean religious sisters and about sisters when they mean nuns. We are indeed all sisters, but not all of us are nuns. Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter (well, not to me, anyway); but there are occasions when precision of meaning matters very much — when dealing with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at the Vatican, for example, or applying the relevant canon law to such things as vows, enclosure (cloister) and the like.

One of the main differences between nuns and sisters is that we nuns are useless. We are ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’, so we don’t teach, nurse, do social work or anything else that the world values. We may write, speak or do things online or within the enclosure (cloister) of the monastery, such as receiving guests or, as in our case, running an audio book creation and postal loan service for the blind, but our lives are largely hidden from public view. We may run small businesses to support ourselves and fund our charitable outreach, but again, they must be such as can be carried on from within the enclosure. Nuns usually wear habits of varying degrees of antiquity (both senses), sigh over their mountains of unanswered correspondence (no time, no time) and suck their teeth whenever they hear the phrase ‘the good sisters’ or are asked ‘what do you do all day?’.

Religious sisters, by contrast, are very useful indeed. They are out in the thick of things and can be found virtually anywhere, working with the poor and marginalised, the druggies and the drop-outs, teaching at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, specialising in law, physics or what you will. They don’t always wear habits and are often unfairly criticized for not doing so. In this country they tend not to have a very political profile, but elsewhere they challenge existing power structures, bring compassion to death row prisoners and act as a salutary thorn in the side of the establishment. We in the cloister admire them very much: they do what we couldn’t, and we pray for them daily. They in their turn are very supportive of us.

The Church needs both nuns and sisters. It is not that the nuns pray and the sisters act. They represent two vital aspects of the Church, and of course they overlap, are complementary, form part of the ‘seamless robe’ that is Catholicism. St Bernard talked of Mary and Martha as sisters, of the same stock, with different characters, but both equally members of the same family, both necessary. During this past week we have heard Pope Francis give a very clear call to service. That service can only be sustained if it is rooted in prayer and sacrifice, and I am confident that the Church’s nuns and sisters will respond whole-heartedly. Please pray for us all.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Shrove Tuesday Like No Other

Yesterday, speaking quietly in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Within minutes the world was awash with speculation. First, was it true? Then, what was the real reason for his resignation? And finally, what were the implications for the Church? It was the best-kept secret of the digital age, but once it was out it spread like wildfire. Everyone became an instant expert on the papacy and began broadcasting their little nuggets of knowledge to all and sundry.

Anyone who saw the video of the pope making his announcement must surely have concluded that what the pope said was actually true: at 85 he is feeling the burden of his years and believes he can best serve the Church by making way for another. The voice was a little indistinct, the Latin phrases a trifle slurred, as though reading his prepared statement was an effort. It was, however, a typically clear and charitable statement, marked with the personal humility which has been so much a feature of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He is, first and foremost, a scholar pope, with all the strengths and some of the weaknesses that implies.

Inevitably, some looked back to the occasion in 2009 when Benedict XVI laid his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V and wondered whether it was more than a pious gesture, a hint of what was to come; others, myself among them, noted that the resignation statement had been signed on 10 February, feast of St Scholastica (St Benedict’s twin sister, a model of prayer), released on 11 February, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Day of the Sick, and timed so that a new pope could be in place by Holy Week, the Great Week of the Church’s liturgical year. A scholar pope, alert to the significance of history and liturgy, is quite capable of holding all these things in mind, but I believe the statement Benedict XVI issued is probably the simplest and least crafted of all his writings. It is the statement of a man who must answer to God not only for his own soul but also for the soul of every other member of the Church. Sometimes, people say exactly what they mean, especially when their true audience is God.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, so I shall resist the temptation to dredge up my own selection of facts and fancies and concentrate instead on how I see the link between yesterday’s announcement and the holy season we are about to celebrate.

We were powerfully reminded yesterday that the Church is a universal institution. How small and sometimes silly looked the ‘national’ reactions of some individuals, the vapid theorising about who the next pope ‘should’ be and the agenda the commentator would like to see being pursued! Lent is a reminder that salvation is not just about us. Our Lenten observance is not an arrangement between the two superpowers (God and us), it is something of truly cosmic significance: it involves others and unites past, present and future. We may think that what we are doing concerns our own personal salvation and nothing more, but that is an impossibility. We journey to God together, as a people, as a Church; so our personal penances, our attempts to make up for the negligences of other times, our turning away from sin, are all part of this greater movement towards God. That is one reason why our living Lent as well as we can is so important. What we do affects others.

We were also reminded yesterday of the importance of prayer, charity and gratitude in the life of every Christian. The penances we have chosen for ourselves this Lent may be dangerous. They may make us smug and self-satisfied if we are able to persevere with them, or conversely, they may make us cantankerous or depressed if we can’t. The penances God chooses to send us, however, won’t be dangerous at all. They will open us up to the mystery of his being in a way that nothing of our own devising ever could. They will evoke prayer and charity, if we accept them in the right way; they will stretch us, confound us, make us grow. The question is, are we ready for them, prepared to welcome them with gratitude? If we spend the forty days of Lent listening for the voice of the Lord in everything, prepared to embrace his will in everything, however contrary, we shall make a good Lent — but it won’t be a bit like what we had intended. It will be so much bigger.

One further point from yesterday that applies to Lent. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of his desire to continue serving the Church though a life of prayer. Every Christian life should be a life of prayer, but we are apt to make it very complicated. During Lent we Benedictines return to a primitive mode of monastic existence. One of the things we do is read through a book of the Bible in a very simple way. The books are assigned by the superior (i.e. not chosen by ourselves) and read straight through as lectio divina (i.e. slowly and prayerfully, without recourse to a 1,001 interpretative articles or commentaries). For the academically inclined, that can be quite hard. It isn’t a case of laying aside our critical faculties in favour of becoming holy asparagus, more a case of attuning our ear to a different kind of speech, of slowing down, becoming less busy.

So, instead of reading a whole host of good books about prayer, try spending a few more minutes in silence before the Lord. Instead of devouring a library on the subject of scripture, read scripture itself, but do so in a more reflective manner, chewing over the words until you find one that stays with you through the day. Make this Lent one in which you come to know the Lord; and remember, you can only do so in his way, and at a moment of his choosing.

Note
In community, I assign books of the bible to our oblates and associates at the beginning of Lent. If you would like me to assign one to you, please email or use the contact form at the head of this site.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Reader for the Week in the Age of the TV Dinner

Chapter 38 of the Rule of St Benedict, which we read today, is almost entirely concerned with reading at meals. For that reason, therefore, it is usually ignored by everyone who does not live in community, save for occasional reference to its concluding lines, which show that Benedict had both a sensitive ear and a keen eye for any kind of self-exaltation: ‘The brethren are not to read or sing according or rank but according to the edification they give their hearers.’ I wonder whether we can reclaim any of Benedict’s wisdom about the reader for the week in the age of the TV dinner?

First, there is his starting-point: reading is always to accompany the brethren’s meals and is to be regarded as a form of service, preceded by prayer and blessing. The reader must carry out his task conscientiously; the brethren must also play their part, listening attentively and not disturbing the silence by any untoward remark or unruliness, though the superior may say a few words of explanation or commentary. In short, the reading which accompanies the meal is a holy act, just as much as the actual eating and drinking. It is meant to nourish the spirit of the community as much as the food and drink nourishes their bodies.

I am not sure that watching TV or looking at one’s laptop is really an equivalent. It may be that the meal itself is a mere incidental: if one is just ‘fueling up’, a distraction may be welcome. It may be that one is multi-tasking, combining a recreational activity with eating, in which case neither has one’s full attention. It may be that the TV or the laptop assuages a feeling of loneliness or isolation: a sad comment on the fragmentation of family and society in the urban west. Does any of this matter? Am I just showing my age in my concern for the meal as sacramental, a less eloquent echo of Martin Buber’s exhortation to see the dining table as an altar?

What I think Benedict has noted is that eating/drinking and reading/listening are analogous acts, each given ritual form and significance — not just occasionally but every day of our lives. It is an important way in which to learn the holiness of the ordinary. The next few chapters of the Rule will show Benedict considering the measure of food and drink and the timing of meals, matters about which everyone is likely to have his own opinion and preference. In community, however, there must be agreement. Benedict is alerting us to more than we might think. Reading at meals may seem a small thing, but it is the detail of monastic life which illumines the whole.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Admin as a way to Heaven

I am much later blogging today for the simple reason that I have been up to my eyes in admin. Most people find admin a necessary evil: something that has to be done, but not the kind of task to make one leap out of bed, full of eager-beaver enthusiasm. It can be dull and difficult, something one begrudges as encroaching on what ‘really’ matters.

Benedict didn’t see it like that. He devotes a very thoughtful chapter (RB 31) to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. He starts out by defining the qualities such a person ought to have, and they make impressive reading: the cellarer should be wise, of mature character, abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, nor offensive nor lazy nor wasteful, someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community (RB 31. 1, 2). It gets worse (for the cellarer). He is to be meticulous in his care for everyone and everything, especially those who are in some sense powerless: the sick, the young, guests and the poor (RB31.3,9).

The cellarer’s brief is all-encompassing: ‘take care of everything’, but do nothing without the abbot’s authorization, and always in accordance with his instructions (RB 31.3). So far, so corporate, but what about these

He should not upset the brethren. Should any brother chance to make an unreasonable request, he is not to upset him by snubbing him. Instead he should refuse the unreasonable request in the proper way, with humility (RB 31.6,7).

All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels (RB31.10)

Clearly, Benedict’s cellarer is no mere bean counter, working at a thankless task. He is an administrator, with a charism given him by the Lord for the building up of the church, whether domestic, local or international. I think I rather like the idea of admin as a way to heaven. We’ll look at the second half of the chapter tomorrow, God willing.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Triumph of the Cross 2011

I have written so much about this feast in the past that I am in danger of boring myself, so this morning just a slightly quirky thought to share with you. For Benedictines, this feast, like the Cross it commemorates, is a hinge, a turning-point in the year, for it marks the beginning of the winter fast and our preparation for Easter. It is a case of liturgy and observance making explicit a theological truth we might not otherwise understand. The Cross stands throughout the ages and the world turns on its axis. It is the pivot of human history.

We are constantly reminded of the cosmic significance of what happened on Calvary by the crosses and crucifixes in our churches and chapels. Is there any difference between the two, apart from the obvious one of having, or not having, a figure of Christ? Our processional cross here in the monastery has a corpus, a representation of Christ crucified. Should the community ever have an abbess, she will wear a pectoral cross without any figure on it. Why the difference?

Our processional cross reminds us that Christ is our leader. Where he goes, we follow. It wouldn’t really matter whether we used a plain cross or a crucifix; the symbolism is the same. The plain abbatial cross, on the other hand, represents an older tradition in the Church. It implies a close identification between the wearer and the sacrifice of Calvary. As we sing on Good Friday, Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit: Venite adoremus. ‘Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world: come, let us adore.’ We reverence the wood of the Cross, the actual physical instrument of the Lord’s death; and our future abbess, mindful that she ‘holds the place of Christ’ in the monastery as St Benedict enjoins, must identify herself with the sacrificial act of our Saviour. She must become, so to say, one with the Crucified, prepared to lay down her life for the community she serves. She must be the hinge of the community, as the Cross is the hinge of the world.

The Triumph of the Cross is a great and beautiful feast. It is also one which challenges us to the core of our being. Christian service cannot be other than sacrificial, prepared to give everything, even life itself.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail