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.

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Lost and Found

For the past few days Quietnun and I have been playing an extended game of lost and found. There are over a hundred boxes of books sitting in the calefactory, waiting to be unpacked; and among them a few boxes which should never have got there because they contain habits, cooking utensils and the like. Accordingly, our methodical (sic) unpacking arrangements are regularly upset as we go in search of whatever is needed at the moment. Usually, we find something else we had been looking for, but in the wrong place.

I suppose that is a paradigm of life for many of us. As St Augustine said (several times), we look outside for what we must find within, or we look in the wrong place or the wrong way. Quite often we receive requests for prayer which make me wonder what the asker thinks prayer is or does. For example, ‘Pray that I receive A grades in all my exams. Thanks.’ is a fairly common one at present. I have no doubt that God is interested in every aspect of our lives, but I don’t think he is going to make up for an absence of coursework or revision. Prayer is not magic: it is relationship. So, when we pray about exam results, we are, as it were, expressing to God our concern about our future, much as we might express our concern to an earthly parent. It is good to express our concerns to God, but there is something more.

Most of us are a bit lost. We may not even know our need of God or be prepared to acknowledge it fully. We are waiting to be found by him, only we are reluctant to admit it. Our prayer is very often more of a barrier to God than an invitation to him to enter our lives — we use so many words, fill our prayer-time with so many requests, that we don’t have enough space to let God speak and be heard. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing of all. Anyone who has had the experience of sitting by the bedside of a dying person, especially a much-loved dying person, will know that a time comes when the words have all been said, there is only the waiting, almost without hope. Everything is turned over to God, silently, even blankly.

I’m not suggesting that such abandonment to the will of God is the only kind of prayer, but I do think it is one that many of us need to practise more. We are half-way there if we know we are lost. We can trust God to find us, no matter how many false-starts and wrong-turns we make, however boxed-in we may feel. Maybe this is something we could try this week-end, the prayer of abandonment and trust?

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Ascension Day: Word and Silence

Today Catholics in England and Wales (and many other countries, too) celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension. It is also World Communications Day, the theme of which this year is Word and Silence. There are lots of connections between the two we might explore, but let me suggest just one.

When the Word of God was lifted up from the earth on the Cross of Calvary, He desired to draw all to himself; but he still had more words to speak after his Resurrection from the dead. Today the Word of God is lifted up into the heavens and we shall hear his voice no more. The Word has passed into the silence of union with the Father. In that silence, in that union, he is closer to us than ever — dare I say, more effective than ever, because he is no longer limited by earthly presence. Now, truly, he draws all to himself.

But what about us, left gazing up into the skies? Are we left high and dry, so to say? We have the Lord’s promise, that he will be with us always, to the end of time; but how are we to understand that if we no longer hear his voice? Perhaps our trouble is that we have not grasped this new mode of being that the Ascension marks. We have a new lesson to learn. If we would understand God’s Word, we must enter into his silence and await his coming. In the meantime, we must ask the Holy Spirit to illumine our understanding. Our prayer now is veni, illumina, confirma (come, enlighten, strengthen), for we too must communicate the Word of God to others, must take on ourselves the mission of the Church.

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Nothing to Say

I haven’t blogged for the last few days because I’ve had nothing to say. That is the luxury of blogging, as distinct from preaching or teaching. When the well of inspiration runs dry, one is under no obligation to try to find an alternative source of hydration. One can just go silent (which, as someone will probably want to point out, is an anagram of ‘listen’).

Maybe it is because I am a nun, or maybe just because I am ‘built’ that way, I think the most important thing any Christian blogger can do before sitting down at the keyboard is to pray. We are so busy filling our minds with information, we sometimes forget the need to digest it all and ask the Light of God to shine on the areas we don’t understand or, worse still, think we understand but don’t. Slow prayer, slow blogging: I am a fan of both. Much better to go quiet for a little than to find one has become entrapped in one’s own noise.

The Monastery and the Internet
(The video presentation I did for the Gott im Web Conference is still available here and will be as long as the bandwidth we bought holds out: it has been viewed by more than 250 people so far.)

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Holy Saturday: a Day out of Time

An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.

Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.

Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.

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The Silence of Holy Week

This is a week when words buckle under the strain of meaning. Already yesterday’s hosannas are forgotten. We are left with the dust and anonymous noise of the city streets, the quiet plotting taking place in private rooms. We are moving inexorably forward to the Lord’s Passion. The sense of looming menace increases hour by hour.

These first days of Holy Week are very precious. They are a time for silence and reflection. One of the ways in which we prepare in community is by reading the Last Discourse in John’s Gospel before Compline. As the words echo through the darkness of the oratory, we enter into our own darkness and know our need of a Saviour. Such knowledge does not cast down, because to know our need of God is also to know that he has bowed down to meet it, that throughout the terrible events of this Week we are held by a Love that is infinite and eternal.

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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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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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Snowfall and Silence

Snow is beautiful to look at, but what I love best about it is its silence: great drifts of silence falling from the sky and hushing everything. The world is noisy and we sigh over the necessity of having to cope with incessant clamour, sometimes amazed to discover that the worst din of all is from within. Snow changes our perception of reality, transforming common objects into strange shapes and revealing the mystery hidden within the apparently ordinary. Lying white and still, it quietens the world around us so that our inner noise is heard for what it is: ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

May you be blessed with a day of great interior silence in which to wonder at the beauty of the snow and its Creator.

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St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.

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