Dyspeptic Dames

From time to time, and especially when I am feeling cold, discouraged, or just plain curmudgeonly, I allow myself a little grumble. Only a little grumble, you understand, and usually whispered into the ear of Bro Duncan. Grumbling changes nothing: it merely makes us and those close to us more wretched. (Bro Duncan, being a dog, allows nothing to interfere with his happiness unless one mentions baths or cuts off the supply of dog biscuits, so he is a safe audience for dyspeptic monologues.) Why do we all love to grumble? I used to think it had something to do with idealism and the quest for perfection; now I think it more likely that we simply love the sound of our own voices and believe it is somehow ‘unhealthy’ to restrain our negative thoughts and feelings. Benedict, as so often, seems to have been right: most grumbling is not justifiable and is corrosive of community. Advent isn’t usually seen as a time for giving up things, but I certainly intend to try harder to give up grumbling. Being nice to be near isn’t just a question of which soap one uses.

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Light and Darkness

In community we are trying a little experiment for Advent. Instead of singing Vespers (Evening Prayer) at five or six every evening, we are timing it to coincide with the waning of the light. Benedict does, indeed, say that Vespers should be so timed that it can be completed without the use of lamplight, but in the modern world most communities have adopted the practical, if rather prosaic, custom of a fixed hour. At least, that way, most of the community will turn up!

What have we to report of our experiment so far? First, we have been captivated by the sheer beauty of the darkness stealing across the lawn outside; the grey November sky flushed with touches of palest pink; the clouds softly luminous; beads of rain slipping down the windows like liquid crystals. Then there is the power of the words we sing and the haunting beauty of the accompanying chants. All this week we proclaim that ‘on that day there will be a great light’ (et die illa, erit lux magna). The contrast between the gathering darkness and the great burst of light that signifies the Incarnation, between the bleakness of early winter and the messianic promise of mountains running with sweetness (et stillabunt montes dulcedinem) is truly dramatic; but it is with the Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, ‘Loving Creator of the stars,’ that time and eternity meld and merge. The promise to Abraham realised in the flesh of Jesus is written across the sky in the little points of light we call stars.

The liturgy is a great teacher of prayer and theology but it is not divorced from the world around us. Singing Advent Vespers as light changes to darkness is a wonderful reminder of the dynamic of salvation, of the mystery of the Incarnation and of our own infinite need of God.

Advent Season
The Liturgy section of our main website has information about Advent, recordings of the ‘O’ antiphons and so on.

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Reverence in Prayer: RB 20

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 20, is one I should like to quote in full. Alternatively, you can listen to it being read, as in community, on our main website here.

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (Trans. Wybourne)

Even in translation, I think you can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original. It is good sixth-century Latin in which not a word is wasted. Note that there is nothing rarified about the underlying concepts. Benedict starts by considering something with which we are all familiar. When we want to ask a favour of someone who is more powerful than we are, we do so with humility and respect. Prayer, too, begins with our neediness, our recognition that in the sight of God we have nothing that he has not given us. So often we approach prayer as though it were a meeting of two Superpowers, God and self, where we address God with a list of ideas we think he might usefully implement. (I exaggerate, but not much.) Benedict will have none of that. We come before God with nothing, awaiting his favour.

Next, Benedict warns against garrulousness. We don’t need to repeat ourselves over and over again. Indeed, no words are necessary. As we saw earlier this week, words often get in the way, bend under the weight of meaning, splinter and divide. Our prayer must come from the heart, and a repentant heart at that: a heart pierced by the sense of sin, laid open by God himself. It follows that prayer will be short and pure. This paradox often causes a lot of difficulty. Go back to that first sentence again. When we want to ask a favour of someone, we may spend ages preparing but the actual asking is likely to be the work of a few seconds. So too with prayer. Much of the time that we give to it is a kind of preparation. We consider the beauty and holiness of God, we are grateful, we may be moved to praise, but prayer itself is the work of a moment.

Benedict is very aware of the pitfalls in prayer, the ways in which we can deceive ourselves. He is insistent that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. In community especially, he knows that prayer can be manipulated for irreligious ends; so even here, at this most intimate moment of our religious lives, he establishes an order, a way of acting that overrides personal preference. The superior decides when prayer in common is to end and all must obey.

It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the liturgical code, in the course of which Benedict has set out the parameters for community prayer. The prayer of the individual is always part of the prayer of the community, the one feeds into the other. There is no opposition between contemplative prayer and liturgical prayer since both flow from the same source. The only bar to prayer is one that Benedict notes again and again: lack of humility, a failure to accept our creaturely condition. That is not to say that we won’t find prayer difficult, even distasteful at times, but there is a serenity and confidence about his writing on prayer, as there is in the lives of those who are prayerful, that the rest of us may find encouraging. Ultimately, God is even keener on prayer than we are. He will not withold himself from us.

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St Francis as viewed by a Benedictine

If you go to Subiaco, where St Benedict lived as a hermit before deciding that coenobitic monasticism was a safer option for the rest of us, you will see one of the earliest paintings of St Francis in the chapel of St Gregory. The saint is shown without stigmata or halo, suggesting that it was executed during his lifetime. Interestingly, one eye is larger than the other, reminiscent of the icon of Christ at St Catharine’s Monastery, Sinai. Another fresco shows Cardinal Ugolino, later Pope Gregory IX, consecrating the chapel. A friar stands behind him. In my view, it is St Francis again, so perhaps he was present at the consecration. (Sadly, I can’t show you any photos as those we have are the Subiaco community’s copyright.)

These two images seem to me to tipify the Benedictine view of St Francis. He is recognized as being a kindred spirit although the way of life he drew up for his friars is very different from that of monks. He is also recognized as a holy man while yet alive. I think that says something important about both forms of religious life, something we may lose sight of as we bustle about doing our various good works today.

Benedictines sometimes forget the years Benedict spent in his cave, alone with God. Franciscans sometimes forget the saint of the stigmata, who was anything but sentimental. Both were men of huge compassion, open to the new, their lives rooted in prayer. Benedict probably was not a priest, Francis was a deacon; neither was in the least ‘clerical’ in the bad sense. Both had a tremendous sense of the holiness of God and his endless creativity. That portrait of St Francis in the heart of a Benedictine holy place is an encouragement to all of us to open our eyes and see what God is doing now.

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Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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St Benedict, Patron of Europe

One of my private heresies is that Benedict was an Englishman. The minor fact of his having been born in Italy at a time when the English did not exist is cheerfully brushed away. How could someone with such reserve, such dry humour, such administrative genius have been anything but English? Of course, even I have to admit that no one nation has a monopoly on these characteristics. I suppose it would be better to say he was a fin-de-siècle Roman, without any fin-de-siècle nastiness.

Europe is very much in Benedict’s debt. His sons and daughters have, over many centuries, prayed and worked and studied their way to holiness; and in the course of doing so, have changed the face of the continent. We think of them today as missionaries and scholars, teachers and people of prayer. Europe is in urgent need of re-evangelisation, and although many wonderful Orders and Congregation have arisen in the Church, there is still a need for Benedictines, perhaps today more than ever. What we bring to the Church is hard to define, but easily recognized when encountered.

After thirty years in monastic life, I think I am just beginning to understand what it is all about: what it means to be a contemplative and a missionary, to be a cloistered nun and someone who reaches out to others with the Word of Life. We have espoused the internet and associated technologies in the same way that our predecessors embraced the quill pen and the printing press, and for much the same reasons; but we know that without the persevering life of prayer, which is largely unseen and unnoticed, everything we do on the net would be pointless. If Europe ever becomes a Christian society, it will be because prayer allowed God full scope to work his miracle of conversion.

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New York! New York! or A Nun Travels the World

Well, not quite; but with Bishop Crispian’s blessing, Digitalnun is about to take part in a couple of conferences which will see her out of the cloister and plunged into a world far removed from the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

Church and Media Conference 2011
First, there is the Church and Media Conference 2011 at the Hayes Conference Centre, 13 and 14 June, which promises ‘a unique opportunity for media professionals and faith leaders to engage in lively and informed debate.’ Being neither a professional nor a leader, and with no particular claim to being either lively or informed, this presents Digitalnun with something of a challenge, especially as she will be giving the closing keynote. However, debate is good and she is quite excited about listening to some of the very knowledgeable people who will be attending. Many thanks to Andrew Graystone and the Conference organizers for inviting her. An unintended bonus is that Quietnun and Duncan will have some quiet time while she is away.

The Benedictine Development Symposium

At Pentecost, the Church was endowed with the gift of tongues in order to make known the Good News. The internet and social media are simply another ‘tongue’ we must all learn to speak with some degree of fluency. This will be one of the subjects addressed at the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, 5 to 9 July, where Digitalnun has been invited to share some of the insights the community has gained during the past few years. The great generosity of Mike Browne, the Symposium members and the Priory of Christ the King in funding her visit is a mark of the seriousness with which religious organizations are now tackling what is, to many, still rather strange and new.

New York! New York!
And finally, from 10 to 17 July, a few days in New York, where Digitalnun will be meeting with a number of people who are interested in what the monastery is doing and who, hopefully, might look favourably on the community’s desire to obtain permanent accommodation. There are still a few free slots in the timetable if anyone would like Digitalnun to ‘sing for her supper’, as it were. Again, we are enormously grateful to those who have made this part of the trip possible, especially the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians who, not for the first time, have come to the rescue of Benedictines abroad by offering accommodation, and the kind friends and well-wishers who have underwritten some of the other expenses and smoothed the way for the visit.

It wouldn’t be honest to pretend that this will be all hard work and no play. A day off has been arranged, and it is quite likely that it will be spent either in the Met or at The Cloisters. Digitalnun is still a lapsed but unrepentant medievalist.

A serious question
Of course, all this invites reflection on the contribution monasticism can make to the world today. It would be a mistake to think that any activity, however good, could ever replace the quiet, persevering search for God we make in prayer, work and study. The cloistered life always has been, always will be, one that comparatively few understand and even fewer actually live. But because it is at the heart of the life of the Church and part of its missionary impulse, monasticism is a necessary part of the Christian world order and therefore must speak and pray in the language of the internet as much as any other.

How that is worked out varies from community to community. We don’t have a physical cloister here at Hendred but we think of the internet as the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart, somewhere we seek God and, on occasion, find Him.

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Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?

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Changing an Online Identity

Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira
Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira

We all do it. From time to time we change our online identities. We give our web sites makeovers; we change our profile pictures on Facebook; we find a new template for our blog; we redesign our avatars for Twitter or whatever. Having for years used an image of myself listening to an iPod (which the community did not then own), I think it is time to highlight another characteristically Benedictine activity, seeing.

The first word of our Rule is Obsculta, listen, but the idea of seeing, watching, opening our eyes to the light that comes from God, is also important. Both looking and listening are images of what we do in prayer. As it happens, the photo James took shows me reading the Divine Office, a form of lectio divina, carried out, not in choir on this occasion, but in a quiet interval at the RSA, close to the noise and bustle of the Strand. The fact is, all times and seasons are good for prayer; and it is just possible that the person sitting opposite you on the train, eyes glued to a small screen, or jogging along the pavement with earphones firmly attached, is actually somewhere else, in ‘the land of spices’, one with ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’, finding their deepest and truest identity in God.

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Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.

For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.

None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.

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