Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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The Importance of the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Yesterday we began re-reading the chapters of the Rule that deal with the liturgical prayer of the community. Over the next two weeks we shall go through the various Offices (Hours) of the day, the psalms to be said, the number and kind of lessons to be read, the postures we should adopt and so on. I’m told that some communities have abandoned reading these chapters on the grounds that their daily Office no longer conforms to the pattern of the Rule. Our own Office does not conform in every respect — for example, we have an English Office of Lauds which follows a different arrangement of psalmody (as provided for in the Rule) — but we certainly pay close attention to Benedict’s liturgical code because it is normative. By that I mean that it gives us the principles on which our community prayer should be based, and enough detail to ensure that we do not devise some whacky scheme of our own that takes us away from the objective nature of the liturgy. Do these matter? I think they do.

One of the dangers of liturgical ‘creativity’ is that often it isn’t actually creative but really quite deadly. It can substitute a highly subjective and time-limited view of reality for an older, more challenging one. What we often forget is that we have to work at the liturgy. For instance, we have to pray the psalter as Christ prays it, and usually that means letting go of our own ideas. Here we pray all 150 psalms every week, as stipulated by St Benedict, without any worries about whether the cursing psalms should cross a Christian’s lips or not. If they crossed Our Lord’s, they can certainly cross ours. Nor are we bothered by notions of quantity being the enemy of quality. The psalter is complete in itself, carefully arranged, ideally suited to the rhythms of liturgical time, the day and the week. When we lose touch with that, we lose touch with much else that is relevant.

One of the joys of being a Benedictine is that we are remarkably free of the devotionalism that has marked the growth of the Church in later ages.* That means we have no let-out. We cannot substitute the personal for the communal. We have to make the liturgy the focus of our personal prayer as well as of our prayer as a community; and because at one level that is all very simple, psalms and scripture for the most part, we have to become thoroughly saturated with what would today be called a biblical spirituality, familiar not just with the texts but with the way in which they have been interpreted and understood by the Fathers. Even the chants we use to sing the words of the liturgy are biblical in origin, having their roots in the synagogue music of the time of Christ.

So, if you are reading through the Rule day by day, as we do in the monastery, be encouraged. These supposedly dry chapters on liturgy have much to teach us. They end in chapter 20, with one of the most perfect statements of what prayer is and how we should prepare for it. It presupposes all that has gone before, because one of the things we all have to learn, sooner or later, is that there are no short-cuts in prayer unless God chooses. And that is the rub. The liturgy is a gift, and it is given by God.

*Please don’t misunderstand me: I would be the last person to undervalue the significance of Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, for example, although they play no part in our community prayer because they did not exist in Benedict’s time or for centuries after. They are left to the individual’s personal attraction on the Bakerite principle, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all.’

Addendum
A couple of people have asked about our arrangement of the psalms in the Divine Office. The diagram below gives the psalm scheme for Ordinary Sundays of the Year and Ferias, with the exception that the Sunday Lauds canticle is recited after psalm 116. The sections are Vigils, Lauds, Midday Office (which incorporates the lesser Hours), Vespers and Compline. We follow the Septuagint numbering of the psalms.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail