Benedict, Beowulf and the Voice in the Wilderness

The famous opening ‘Hwaet’ of Beowulf and the ‘Obsculta’ of the Rule of St Benedict have much in common, if Dr George Walkden is to be believed (see Both were drawing attention to what they had to say, but not in an aggressive ‘Oi, you’ fashion, but rather in a dignified, measured manner, equally suited to poetry and religion. I think Isaiah is doing something of the same in the lyrical passage we read today (Isaiah 40.1-11).

When we are most deeply moved, we don’t use exclamation marks (known to printers as ‘shrieks’, with good reason). We are quieter, more thoughtful, often overwhelmed by the import of what we are thinking or feeling. The voice crying in the wilderness is simultaneously the voice of God and the voice of his disciple, the prophet. It is John the Baptist preparing us for the coming of the Word; and when the Word has been spoken, there is no need of further speech.

This would be a good day to read quietly through those lines of Isaiah and allow them to sink into us. In silence we await the Word.


A Joyful Integrity

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. To one who believes, silence is never merely an absence of sound, never, in any sense, an absence of meaning. Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of His presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when He comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion.

St Francis Xavier, whose feast it is today, was, by all accounts, a man of singularly joyful integrity who won people to Christ by what he was, as much as by what he said. Let us make our own the collect for the day:

Lord God, you won so many peoples to yourself
by the preaching of St Francis Xavier.
Give us the same zeal he had for the faith
and let your Church rejoice
to see the virtue and number of her children increase
throughout the world.


St Andrew’s Day 2013

Today is the end of the liturgical year, the end of the month we set aside for praying in a special way for the dead. It is a bluff, gruff kind of day, cold and a little bleak. It is also the feast of St Andrew, and in Scotland a sad day as people come to terms with the helicopter accident which has injured many in Glasgow. We can see it as a hinge between two times, one that looks back and one that looks forward, a kind of hiatus between death and life. It has an almost ‘Holy Saturday’ quality about it; and just as we spend Holy Week in silence and recollection so now, as Ordinary Time passes into Advent, we shall have three days of profound silence here at the monastery. It won’t be an empty silence, nor will it be particularly penitential (I hope), though it will have its longeurs. It will be a time when we try to listen more intently to the voice of the Lord calling us to follow. Each of us must, in our own way, step out into the deep, sure of only one thing (and sometimes perhaps, not even of that): the Lord who calls desires to give us life in all its fullness. We are fee to accept or reject his invitation. What we cannot do is put off our answer to an uncertain future. We must decide now.

While the community is in retreat, blog posts, tweets and Facebook statuses will all be automated (i.e. scheduled in advance) and we won’t be responding to any emails or comments. We shall hold all of you in prayer. Please pray for us, too.


Preparing for Advent

This Sunday will mark the beginning of Advent, that all-too-short period of preparation for Christmas, when most of us try to juggle spiritual preparations with more mundane matters concerning family, food and ‘the festive break’. Some are already planning reading programmes and multitudinous good works, none of which is to be mocked or disparaged. But could I suggest that Advent itself needs to be prepared for, and that the best way of preparing for Advent is, contrary to what you might think, not-doing?

It is good during these last few days before Advent begins to be silent rather than trying to decide what we are going to read or do by way of Advent preparations. If you can, try to find some time during the day when you are not doing anything in particular, not reading, not praying as such, just being quiet and attentive; and let the silence within you grow and grow until you can hear it, embrace it, make it part of your life. It is in that silencing of mind and heart that we allow God an opportunity to make his Advent within us. It is a paradox, but if we would welcome the Word into our lives, we must first learn what it means to be wordless.


The Turn of the (Monastic) Year

Tonight after Vespers we enter the monastic ‘Little Lent’, a period that lasts until Lent itself begins. Throughout this period, Fridays are set aside as days when we fast and maintain a more complete silence than usual. They are desert days in the midst of autumn fuitfulness; days out of time during the winter cold. The simplification of life that these Fridays bring is always welcome, although I must admit that when it is very cold one does seem to spend more time thinking about the next meal than is quite proper! Everyone needs some desert time in their lives, but it is a mistake to think that it means going somewhere special or making a huge change in one’s routine. Some can do that, but many cannot. Our change of gear is barely perceptible to outsiders. What matters is the renewed focus on things of the Spirit; the intentional simplification of food and drink in order to be more attentive to him; the interior and exterior quietness — always ready to be interrupted for another’s need but carefully guarded from self-indulgent chat and gossip. These are not heroic things but they mark the monastic turn of the year as surely as the blackberries in our hedgerows or the fields of golden stubble all around. Paradoxically, they are part of the fruitfulness of asceticism, for without asceticism there can be no love.


The Caesura

Those who love Gregorian Chant are probably thinking, ‘We all know what the caesura is. We merely disagree how long it should be!’ If you think I am going to propound any new theories about its duration, you will be disappointed. I’m more concerned with its meaning.

The caesura — the pause in the musical line which occurs midway through a verse of psalmody — is an important element of plainchant. It gives shape to the music but also, more significantly, provides a brief silence in the midst of the singing to allow the words to sink in. This embrace of silence in the very midst of choir is a reminder that we are meditating on the Word as we sing it. Even at our ‘noisiest’ there is a silent dimension to monastic life. It is this silence that makes monastic life seem at odds with the world around us, where a constant stream of sound is the accompaniment to everything from jogging in the park to driving the car. Silence is one of the great asceticisms of monastic life and one that many an outsider finds unnerving, but it is also a source of profound joy and peace, a blessing to all who experience it.

The monk carries within him a vast silence, but it is not an empty silence, nor an uncomfortable silence. It is the silence of the attentive heart, waiting for God to speak, aware that the Word may be spoken in the brief pause between two halves of a psalm verse.


Daring to Do Nothing

It’s odd how guilty we feel when we do nothing, as though there were something sinful or shameful about it. It’s the same with silence. We are often unnerved by it and do whatever we can to fill the apparent void. So, we live in a world restless with activity, deafened by our own noise and the chatter of those around us. As for solitude, forget it! Loneliness is to be feared as the ultimate indicator of failure, and being alone is to be equated with loneliness, isn’t it? I don’t think so, but I suspect I am in a minority.

One of the hardest things to learn in the monastery is that silence and not-doing and spending time in solitude are the way in which we experience the word and activity of God in our souls. As soon as one speaks of the soul, of course, some people become uncomfortable. The truth is, everything we see or hear trembles on the verge of eternity — only we devote huge efforts to ensuring that we never actually peep over the edge. ‘It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews. Terrible, indeed, and there are few who dare to let go and allow God to be all in all.

Today, if you have the opportunity of a little more silence than usual, the chance of doing nothing in particular for a minute, of being alone for a while, allow yourself a precious moment or two of prayer. Invite God to fill your emptiness. Paradoxically, you may discover that daring to do nothing is the most worthwhile activity of all. Try it.

 Good news for Howton Grove Priory
We are delighted to announce that we have a Certificate of Sponsorship from UKBA for our postulant-to-be from New York. All being well, she will join the community this summer — just a year later than we had originally hoped!


Preparing for Advent

During this last week of the Church’s year, we prepare for Advent. Advent is itself a time of preparation, so you may be wondering why we are preparing to prepare, so to say. Partly, it is a response to the unpredictability of life. How often have plans to read/do something been thwarted by minor domestic crises or the arrival of unexpected visitors! Partly it is to allow the significance of the season to register properly, which takes time and planning.

This week we shall be trying to  tidy up several ‘loose ends’. We don’t do much in the way of Christmas shopping, but what we do will be mainly done this week. We shall try to catch up with the most urgent correspondence. I myself have an ever-diminishing hope of redecorating the kitchen for Christmas and I know that Quietnun has a few private schemes of her own. Then, on the first Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon three days of as near-total silence as we can manage. The telephone will be switched to answerphone; Twitter, Facebook and this blog will have scheduled posts (written this week); email will be checked and answered on an ‘as need’ basis. The monastery will be silent, except for the times of the Divine Office. The silence will not be empty, for it is in such silence that the Word comes to those willing to listen; and Advent is above all a time for listening, of preparing a welcome for the Word of God.


Christian New Media Conference 2012 (#CNMAC12)

Others have already written about the Conference, so I’ll share a single thought.

There is sometimes great earnestness about what we do online, and there were plenty of examples of imaginative and helpful approaches to sharing the Good News at the Conference (which is one reason you should try to attend next year’s, if you can). But as I travelled back from London, going deeper and deeper into the darkness of the countryside, I reflected on my own reason for being online and that of the community to which I belong. It is quite simply that we want to invite people into the little world that is the monastery; to share what we have with others; to enable them to ‘be at home with us’, then return refreshed to their own world. It isn’t so much a case of telling a story, even God’s story, as of allowing others to tell their story and responding with love and respect.

Many people are searching but are unsure what they are searching for. They do not yet know they are searching for a Person. They need to get their own stories out, so to say, before they can accept another and greater story into their lives. If we who believe are really to listen, we need to pray; and that’s one of the reasons silence is so important. If we are all busy telling our own stories, no one CAN listen; and the searching becomes confused and sometimes fruitless.

That isn’t a model that would suit everyone, but maybe it is one that we should all give some thought to before we go online.


Point Counterpoint

Very few people know any Carthusian monks or nuns at first hand. I know only one, but being a nun myself and a lapsed medievalist, I feel a connectedness, a degree of understanding of his strange and beautiful vocation that can make me sad, at times, that I was not called to such a perfect expression of love for God.

The Carthusian vocation is strange and beautiful — strange in its rarity and intensity, for very few can live the eremitical life fruitfully and generously, as it must be lived; beautiful in its focus upon God alone amidst the beauty and silence of the Alpine snows that were its first home. St Bruno’s gift to the Church was a very great one, but also a much misunderstood one. Today, when the Catholic Church is dismissed by many as a load of paedophiles and perverts, I like to recall the witness of the Carthusians and their solitary prayer. However many failures there are in the Church — and wherever there are human beings, you will get failures — however much sin and shame blackens her face — and how black it has seemed of late! — the Carthusians remind us of the Church’s essential integrity and holiness as the Bride of Christ. They are the wise virgins, keeping their lamps alight throughout the hours of darkness until the Bridegroom comes.