Doing a Nun-ly Thing

On Friday, 5 June, feast of St Boniface, apostle of the Germans and Frisians, and incidentally a very sensible monk, blessed with the friendship of many Anglo-Saxon nuns, nearly all of whom ended up as saints, we begin our annual retreat.

All most people are likely to notice is that we are not online, and those who haven’t yet discovered scheduled tweets or Facebook posts probably won’t even notice that. However, because we are not online, we shall seem to many to be inactive, silent, invisible. Some may see this as an opportunity for rest and recuperation (which it is) but we shall also be engaging in the spiritual struggle St Paul writes about. It isn’t fashionable to refer to such things. It isn’t fashionable to admit that sin and malice have warped our understanding of God, or that we need times when we plunge deeper into the mystery of grace; but we shall indeed be praying, or at any rate, trying to pray, with an intensity we can’t sustain at other times. That is, by its very nature, an interior work no one else can know much about. Our silence, our lack of presence, may seem like nun-ly negativity, but they aren’t.

I must not give the impression that we shall emerge from our eight days of retreat with a new and saintly persona. I know I won’t, alas. Exposure to prayer and scripture tends to reveal a lot about ourselves before it shows us anything of God. It can be uncomfortable, disconcerting, thoroughly unpleasant, as our remaining illusions about ourselves are shattered one by one. The moments of light relief, the holiday aspects we also enjoy during the retreat, can never distract for very long from that rather searing experience. Is it any wonder we approach the annual retreat with mixed feelings?

I take heart, however, from one very obvious fact. God is not a destroyer. It may be a long while after the retreat has ended before we see any positive good coming from it, but we can be confident that, however much we may shrink from the self we are forced to confront during the retreat itself, God doesn’t. His love never changes. Doing a nun-ly thing like making a retreat is a powerful reminder of that.

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St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns

Were today not Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of St Etheldreda (Audrey) and All Holy English Nuns. You can read about Etheldreda and several others in Bede if you don’t know anything of them. This morning, however, I am thinking not so much of those for whom we have vitae, letters and other memorials but the anonymous ones we commemorate under that catch-all title, ‘All Holy English Nuns’. There is something immensely attractive to a Benedictine in knowing that she stands in an unbroken tradition stretching back long before the Conquest to a time when Anglo-Saxon nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as their counterparts today. They are an inspiration to us here at Howton Grove Priory. Their zeal for holiness, their learning, their generosity in service are qualities we seek to emulate. The fact that their names are lost to us is unimportant. We can still ask their prayers and follow their example. One area where that example is very telling is that of friendship. You have only to read the letters to and from St Boniface to realise how very good Anglo-Saxon nuns were at friendship.

Striving to be friends of God should surely help us to be friends with one another — and if you have any doubts on that score, just re-read John 15.

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