Soppy or Steely? The Case of St Scholastica

Every year on the feast of St Scholastica, the twin sister of St Benedict, the community utters a collective groan when faced with the English collect composed by certain monks of the order and opts instead for an unauthorised, but infinitely preferable — and incidentally far more sing-able — version composed by nuns. The reason is simple. The collect composed by our male brethren is soppy in the extreme and has St Scholastica dissolving into floods of womanish tears over her brother. The collect composed by the nuns concentrates on her insight into prayer and the power she has with God. It is yet another case of nuns being perceived from a male point of view as weak little ninnies who exist only to be of service to men, whereas the nuns see themselves rather differently. Such evidence as we have suggests that St Benedict himself inclined to the nuns’ point of view. According to the account given by St Gregory the Great in Book II of the Dialogues, when Scholastica’s prayer was answered in dramatic fashion and Benedict was prevented from going home, he readily conceded that she had prevailed because she had a greater love of God and admitted, humbly and graciously, that he was abashed. Two great saints united in their search for God, each recognizing and giving thanks for the qualities of the other, showing a degree of mutual understanding and respect for the vocation of the other we often lack today.

Why do I mention this? Partly because I think many people view monks and nuns through a distorting lens. This, they say, is what a monk or nun ought to be; and very often it is totally unrealistic — a pseudo-medieval fantasy made up of strange clothes, flickering candlelight and vicarious penance. The truth is much more prosaic. Monks and nuns are ordinary people trying to live a holy life, neither more nor less intelligent or educated than their lay peers, neither more nor less successful at overcoming their faults and failings. For various reasons which need not concern us here, nuns (moniales) have come to have associated with them a body of legislation about enclosure, etc, which does not apply in the same way to monks; but there is no Second Order among Benedictines. Indeed, strictly speaking, we do not form an order at all in the way that Dominicans or Franciscans, for instance, do. We ante-date such notions, just as our vows — stability, coversatio morum and obedience — ante-date by several hundred years the formulations of contemporary canon law.

I think the truth of monastic life, once appreciated, is so attractive, so compelling, that it cannot but draw others; but it must be the truth, not an imposed idea of it or some romantic parody of it. Even in my lfetime, there have been some rather ill-informed documents about monastic life, especially as lived by women, that make it much harder for people to embrace the monastic vocation with complete integrity. All is not lost, however. We have the example of St Scholastica to help us. As a novice I was told that St Scholastica may not be the patron of Benedictine nuns (St Benedict is) but if I wanted to be a good nun, I could do far worse than follow her example of prayer and feistiness. The two go together. Without prayer, real, persevering prayer, we easily go astray; but if our prayer is genuine, it will never allow us to become complacent. I don’t see Scholastica as soppy at all. I think she is an example of the steel we need, be we monks, nuns or whatever. May she pray for us all, whether we live the cloistered life or follow the inspiration of the Rule far beyond its confines.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Benedict, the Panama Papers and Us

St Benedict
St Benedict

Today we celebrate the transferred feast of St Benedict, his Transitus or Passing — what earlier generations would have called his birthday into heaven. Quaint? Irrelevant? I don’t think so. St Benedict was a man of his times, the sixth century, and was familiar with many of the things we wearily take for granted nowadays: weak and sometimes corrupt government, terrorism (in the form of barbarian incursions), moral confusion, a kind of organized selfishness which multiplied divisions in society, and a growing distance from the literary and artistic culture of earlier times. His solution was intensely personal but was to have enormous consequences for the Church and, indeed, the whole of the West. He became a monk. Not only that, he wrote a Rule which is mercifully short but also extremely demanding. I do not think he would have been surprised by the revelations of the Panama Papers but I do think he might have been disappointed by our reaction to them.

St Benedict’s life was built on a simple principle: that Christ is all in all. The way to follow Christ is to live in community, under a rule and an abbot, and practise humility, self-restraint and patience. Gossip is sinful, at best a form of self-indulgence, to be shunned along with everything else that is not profitable to the soul. But Benedict’s is no other-worldly spirituality. The monk cannot lose himself in a cosy round of choir duties or sacristy matters. He is to work; he is to read; and he is to be hospitable. That means that the monk’s silence and retirement are constantly being invaded by a very awkward reality. Work demands effort and often involves failure; reading means getting to grips with ideas one may not find congenial; and guests? Well, guests are community writ large, the most demanding and difficult of all, for they are to be welcomed tamquam Christus, as though Christ, and they have the unfortunate habit of behaving in very un-Christlike ways at times. It is here that the monk discovers what his vows of stability, obedience and conversatio morum really mean and begins to understand why patience is his way of sharing in the passion of Christ.

In the rush to condemn anyone and everyone who ever did business with Mossak-Fonseca not only do we risk confusing what is legal with what is illegal, we also run the danger of allowing a perfectly legitimate distaste for tax avoidance by the very rich to impair our regard for justice itself. Investigations are already under way in many countries and we must prepare ourselves for some very unsavoury revelations, but I think we would do well to take to heart St Benedict’s embracing of patience in difficult and trying circumstances. We have had a shock to the system, undoubtedly; but gloating isn’t a very pleasant trait, and it doesn’t often lead to impartial judgements. Benedict was always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to his wayward brethren, only resorting to excommunication or dismissal as a last resort. I think that was one of the things that made him great. It also, not surprisingly, made him a saint.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Saints Made for Sinners

Yes, you read that right: saints made for sinners. The feast of All Benedictine Saints is a huge encouragement to those of us who are constantly sliding into sin and failure. We don’t want saints who seem to have led impossibly holy lives from their mother’s womb: the kind who never say an unkind word or do an ungenerous act, who have a natural attraction to prayer and penance and everything we have to struggle with. Nor do we want saints whose lives are incredibly dramatic, full of road-to-Damascus conversions and deeds of holy derring-do. We want saints who are ordinary; who battle with temptation much as we do; who become holy through lives of unspectacular fidelity and goodness. In short, we want saints made of the same material as we are, because we too want to become holy, and if the only model of holiness available to us were the extraordinary one sketched above, we would be spiritual no-hopers.

The fact that we aren’t spiritual no-hopers is largely attributable to all those obscure  saints whose names we’ll never know this side of eternity but who became people the Light shone through. Among them must be thousands of Benedictines — monks, nuns, sisters, oblates and confraters. They show us that we too can become holy, just by being what we are meant to be. There is nothing grand or heroic about being a Benedictine, nothing particularly inspiring. We are spiritual plodders, the ‘poor bloody infantry’ of the Church, serving together under the same banner, standing side by side in the fraterna acies of the community and gradually — oh, how gradually! — learning what it means to follow Christ the Lord. We fight the good fight with what St Benedict called the strong and glorious weapons of obedience and hope, one day, to share everlasting life with all who have loved and served God. Let us ask the prayers of the Benedictine saints we commemorate today, that we too may be granted the grace of perseverance and attain the goal for which we strive.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Benedict, Patron of Europe

Benedictines don’t do things by halves; so we have two feasts of St Benedict, the Transitus or memorial of his death, celebrated on 21 March, and the Translatio or translation of his relics, celebrated today. When Paul VI proclaimed him first patron of Europe in 1964, he especially lauded the contribution made by St Benedict and his Benedictine sons and daughters to the unity of Europe (see here). Half a century later, how does that look?

The first thing to remark is that today is also chosen as the day to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War, when approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces amid the break-up of Yugoslavia. Most of the Serbs were, nominally at least, Christians. The dark shame of that massacre is a dreadful contrast to the bright achievement of St Benedict and a warning that one has only to scratch the civilized man to discover the barbarian beneath.

We might also remark that Paul VI’s enthusiasm for European unity and what we now call the E.U. (European Union) looks more than a little naive. With Greece trembling on the brink, Britain wanting to re-negotiate terms, France and Germany acting like schoolmasters dealing with rowdy schoolboys, and a huge number of Brussels bureaucrats loved by nobody, the whole project seems much shakier than originally envisaged.

When Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, back in 1981, that

if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict. (After Virtue: emphasis mine)

his words were seized upon and manipulated to mean virtually anything the commentator wanted them to mean as people speculated what a ‘very different St Benedict’ might be like. For some, the answer was a ‘new monasticism’ which to someone formed in the ‘old monasticism’ of classical Benedictinism could seem very far removed from what St Benedict had in mind. For others, it was a drive towards a greater political union of Europe, analogous to the old Holy Roman Empire in which the Rule of St Benedict, along with the monasteries following it, had played such an important role. What we all seem to have missed, however, is the obvious: St Benedict’s concerns were other-worldly. His Rule is only incidentally about how to organize a human community. His principal concern is to lead people to God. To do that he establishes a rule of life, quite detailed in many of its provisions, but all with the aim of enabling the individual to grow in holiness and closeness to God, to become the worker cleansed of vice and sin, of which he writes so eloquently in chapter 7 of his Rule. (cf RB 7.70)

How does that measure up today? For myself, I’d say that we never had more need of the monastic quest for God; for perseverance in prayer; and for the kind of creative scholarship and activity that a dedicated life of prayer and service can produce. But I’d go further. If we speak of institutions, the one European unity that has subsisted throughout the centuries is the unity of the Catholic Church. That in itself should make us think. It may not be popular to say so, but without the Christian religious basis of Europe — a basis St Benedict did much to strengthen — we are surely in danger of reverting to barbarism. And the world has enough barbarians already.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Taking It Easy by Bro Duncan PBGV

Bro Duncan PBGV lying in the shade

It’s hot, we all know that, and tempers tend to fly. Even They have had one or two little ‘monastics’ recently. I have two solutions to propose. One is to make oneself scarce whenever trouble looms. I’m rather good at that myself (see above). The other is to follow St Benedict’s advice and always, ALWAYS, make peace before the sun goes down (cf RB 4.73). He puts that particular Tool of Good Works just before he tells us never to despair of God’s mercy. I think that’s to emphasize how hard but necessary it is if we want to experience mercy ourselves. Taking it easy doesn’t just mean lying comfortably in the shade, although I’m rather fond of that myself. It also means being easy on others, too. Even Them. 🙂

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Old Saints, New Questions: St Scholastica and the Place of Women in the Church

If you are tempted to think of St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, as one of those slightly dodgy saints about whom we know very little and, unless one is Benedictine, cares less, I urge you to think again. It is true we know very little about her, but what we do know highlights some very contemporary questions.

Let’s start with the facts, quietly noting that, as so often, they come from a male author. According to Book II of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Scholastica was the twin sister of St Benedict, born in Nursia, Umbria, of wealthy parents and dedicated to God from a young age. The word Gregory uses, sanctimonialis, does not mean ‘nun’ but something like our modern (but also ancient) ‘Consecrated Virgin’. She may have lived in her parents’ house or in a separate establishment with a group of like-minded women. Legend asserts she had a small house at the foot of Monte Cassino or at Plumbariola, about five miles away, but we have no evidence to support either. Indeed, it has been suggested that both Benedict and Scholastica are figments of Gregory’s imagination, representing types of holiness rather than real people, but let’s stay with the idea that both truly existed.

The main story Gregory tells of Scholastica is that once a year her brother and a few of his monks visited Scholastica and spent their time discussing spiritual matters. On one occasion it grew late and Benedict was anxious to return home, determined not to spend the night away from his monastery despite Scholastica’s entreaties. Since her brother would not listen to her, Scholastica laid her head on the table and prayed. When she raised it, such a fierce storm broke out that Benedict was forced to stay, ruefully acknowledging that her prayer had prevailed because she loved God more. Three days later, according to Gregory, Benedict looked out of his window and saw the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove. Both were eventually buried in the same grave (now side by side in the crypt at Monte Cassino).

The hagiographer will home in on some of the detail. For example, the vision of the soul ascending is a well-known topos that confirms the sanctity of both the one who has died and the one who sees the vision. The historian will tend to concentrate on the dynamics of the relationship between brother and sister and what they tell us about male-female roles in the Church. The modern reader may question the conclusions of both, especially as they contribute to the ‘accepted narrative’ of St Scholastica today. For example, the preface of the feast boldly asserts that Scholastica was ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ — a nice nod towards the language of the Rule but not necessarily an accurate reflection of the relationship between the two. It is possible (but not provable) that Scholastica affected Benedict as much as he affected her (twins often have an extraordinarily close bond) — and there is that surprising admission from Benedict that Scholastica had got to the heart of the matter and realised that divine love prevails over human regulations. Again and again in the Rule we find Benedict softening the teaching of the Rule of the Master by bringing us back to our motivation, the love of Christ. Is that something the Father of Western Monasticism learned from his sister? Who can say? It does not lessen his achievement. In fact, in my view, it enhances it and reminds us how brilliantly Benedict incorporated the ideas of others into his own work.

But what about my statement, that St Scholastica invites some very contemporary reflection? For a start, there is that conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture which has been discussing ‘women’s issues’ during the past week. Women themselves were not present, and the reported agenda contained elements that made me smile as well as gnash my teeth a little (e.g. since when has plastic surgery been a major concern of Catholic women, and is it something Catholic men never concern themselves with?) To discuss women in the absence of women is to suggest that we are not really members of the Church but a problem to be solved; and no one likes being thought of as a problem. We all know that priestly ordination is reserved to men, but there are times when it seems harder for a Catholic woman to be heard at the Vatican than a man of some other denomination. No wonder many think there is a misogyny in parts of the Church that needs to be confronted and challenged.

Does this perception of misogyny have any noticeable effects, other than allowing individuals to grumble and grouse? One that has struck me is the effect on vocations to the religious life. I notice that most candidates are much older than they used to be. In part, I suspect that is simply a reflection of the fact that we all take longer to grow up than we did fifty or a hundred years ago. But, if the women I’ve spoken to are to be believed (and I see no reason why they shouldn’t), part of their long-maturing process of discernment has been getting to grips with the idea that the Church regards women as of less consequence than western civil society does. They offer themselves to the monastic life despite, rather than because of, what they experience in the Church. I find that worrying. It seems consistent with anecdotal reports that women are giving up on the Church in the way that the working-classes did in the last century. Of course, we can look to the Third World and comfort ourselves with reports of growth and continuing fervour, but I think we should be concerned about what is happening nearer home, because what we experience today, the rest of the world may experience tomorrow.

Note, however, Scholastica’s way of challenging what we might call the status quo, which meant her brother determined the terms on which they met. It wasn’t noisy or aggressive but patient and subtle. She prayed, and because she had grown close to the Lord through years of prayer and service, her prayer was heard. Sometimes we are tempted to see prayer as an extra — something we do when we have decided on a course of action and want the Lord to endorse our plans. But for Scholastica it was of the essence. I certainly think we need to pray as never before about the role of women in the Church. I should be sorry if we were to end up with the clamorous polarisation of the 60s and 70s, when the struggle to achieve equality in civil society led to a male-female divide and endless dispiriting talk of power and patriarchy. The Church is not the same as civil society, and it is unhelpful, to say the least, to present the challenges we face in the same terms. That said, we cannot be complacent because ultimately what we are concerned with is the mission of the Church as a whole — to be the Body of Christ, complete, beautiful and holy. The Church needs her Scholasticas as well as her Benedicts, and they must work together. Let us ask the prayers of St Scholastica that we may learn how to do so.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for the Unknown

I begin a course of chemotherapy tomorrow so will probably be blogging only intermittently, if at all. It is fitting that I should start this new phase of my life on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, the Dies Memorabilis of the English Benedictine Congregation, and my own Clothing anniversary. However much we try to prepare for certain eventualities or to predict outcomes, we have to live with the unpredictable, with scenarios for which we are most definitely not prepared — as Our Lady did with such spectacular consequences for us all. I think that is what it means to live by grace. It is certainly what is meant by monastic profession, when we place our whole lives not only in the hands of God (the easy bit) but also in the hands of fallible human beings (the difficult bit) and learn to walk, as St Benedict says, by another’s judgement and decisions.

So, you get a little rest from my words, at least for now. The prayer, however, goes on and on.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mindfulness: Learning all our Lives

Yesterday in the Guardian Suzanne Moore published an article critical of contemporary attitudes to mindfulness (see here). I agree with much of what she said, although as a Benedictine, I might argue that mindfulness is as much a Christian as Buddhist concept (cf RB7. 10–18). As always, the problem is managing the imbalance between expectation and the effort to be expended. In the West we want instant everything. The idea of growth — often slow, sometimes painful and uncertain — is more and more alien to us. Indeed, we often talk about growth when what we really mean is success, measured in predominantly economic terms. This spills over into the moral and spiritual sphere and often leads to discouragement. We want to be people of peace, for example, but as our desire for peace grows, so does our awareness of just how angry and unpeaceful we are. We consider ourselves failures because we are not what we set out to be, not realising that to become people of peace we must first plumb the depths of our own lack of peace.

The practice of mindfulness, which for a Christian must always be the practice of mindfulness of the presence of God, is not something we learn in a few hours or even a few years. It is a lifetime’s work, and it is not to be rushed or short-circuited in any way. People are sometimes amazed when I say that I had lived as a nun for eighteen years before I was allowed to give my first talk. There had been literally years of preparation: living the daily life of the cloister, with its regular round of prayer, work and study, before I said a word about it. That preparation was (and remains) essential. Beware the expert on monasticism who pontificates after only a brief submersion in its waters!

You may think it all very well for monastics to be proponents of slow growth and so on and so forth, but for those of us who live busy and time-poor lives it is a different matter. We need results! We need to calm mind and heart quickly and get to the centre of things. My answer would be that you are already at the centre of things, you don’t need to ‘get’ anywhere. What you may need to do is take your eyes off yourself, stop trying to measure your spiritual ‘success’ and simply enjoy, yes enjoy! the time you spend with the Lord, be it little or long. Preparing for prayer, being ready to give time to it, is important, but don’t worry about techniques or methods. No technique can substitute for a heart willing to learn and open to the love God is eager to pour into it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Benedict Was Not A Liberal

St Benedict
With rather alarming frequency, someone will say to me, ‘I like St Benedict. He is so moderate.’ I like St Benedict, too, but I often wonder about the ‘moderate’ bit. Very often my enthusiast will go on to say things like, ‘He never asks too much. He is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature. He’s really quite liberal’. I agree that he is sympathetic to the weaknesses of human nature, but I reserve judgement about the ‘moderate’ nature of what he asks of his monks and nuns. As to his being the sixth-century equivalent of a North Oxford liberal (sorry, Oxford), there I disagree profoundly. Whatever else he was, St Benedict wasn’t a liberal. But he wasn’t a conservative, either, and to try to view him in those terms is fundamentally to misunderstand who he was and what he was about.

Let’s start with what I will readily concede. St Benedict was indeed a kind and, in sixth-century terms, very gentle man. He was concerned about the mealtimes of both the old and the young, not wanting them to suffer unduly from the monastic timetable. He knew the sick might be neglected if the authority of the Rule didn’t provide for them. He wanted everyone to be at peace and knew that, as superior, he might not be everyone’s first choice as confidante, so he provided for senpectae, old and wise brethren, whose special duty was to support the wavering. He advised the abbot to be very careful and restrained when he had to punish anyone, lest he break the vessel by rubbing too hard to remove the rust. He was also a modest man, ready to listen to the criticisms of a visiting monk and to accept a re-ordering of the way in which the psalms are said ‘if anyone has a better arrangement.’ But St Benedict was also completely and utterly given to the search for God in the monastery and there are other passages of the Rule that need thinking about.

Take, for example, the pattern of threes that we find throughout and the frequent references to the Gloria Patri. These are not to be ignored. Arianism was still a worry in sixth-century Italy, and Benedict was insisting on doctrinal orthodoxy in his community. It shows, too, in his choice of reading matter before Compline or in the texts that he advises for growth in monastic life. There is nothing wish-washy about this side of St Benedict. Nor is there anything very ‘liberal’ in his views on obedience or humility, if by liberal one means easy-going. It isn’t so much that the devil is in the detail as the real monk. Benedict never calls anyone who has fallen short of the ideal a monk; he either has no name — quisquis, anyone — or is simply frater, brother. Being a monk is, for St Benedict, a long and hard pursuit. The novice master is specifically warned to tell the novice about all the hardships through which we make our way to God. If that were not enough, Benedict spells out, time and time again, that half-measures won’t do. We must prefer nothing to the love of Christ, cultivate the good zeal of chapter 72 ‘with the most ardent love’ and press on to the end for which we look.

Today is the Solemnity of St Benedict, Patron of Europe. It is also known as the Translatio or Translation of the Relics (as distinct from the Transitus or Death, kept on 21 March, which is for us the ‘big’ feast of St Benedict). It is a good day for thinking about the way in which we ourselves live. Are we apt to make allowances for ourselves that perhaps we ought not to make, mistaking the infinite love and mercy of God for the kind of permissiveness I’ve been writing about? God forgives, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily approves. St Benedict has a lot to say about living virtuously that is applicable outside the monastic context. It takes less than an hour to read through the Rule. It would be a good way to celebrate his feast, and to pray for Europe.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail