Organized Selfishness?

One of the most damning things that can be said about any organisation or institution is that it has become self-serving. Benedictine communities, in particular, are always at risk of descending into organized selfishness. It is not that we give way to really big sins (though some, alas, have), but we can become tolerant of those we consider small — and many communities have the resources, in terms of buildings and opportunities, to acquiesce in them. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad, but we may become mediocre. The Office, as Dom David Knowles once remarked, can be kept up with every appearance of care and attention long after the heart has gone out of a community, but the signs of selfishness multiply. Our comfort becomes important. Little indulgences in the matter of food or drink or holidays are not questioned or are brushed aside as trivial. Once, when I was attending a monastic bursars’ meeting, the men discussed the level of holiday money each monk should be given. Against the names of the nuns’ communities were the initials n/a, not applicable. When I said it should stand for ‘not available’, I was laughed at; but my point was serious. Women are just as likely as men to become tired or need a break from regular duties at times, but to assume that every monk needs at least one holiday a year and nuns never is plainly stupid. The Rule exhorts us to consider need and acknowledges that needs differ.

I don’t think, however, that Benedictines should take all the blame for appearing at times insensitive to others. Many communities, especially of women, are financially hard-pressed. There’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice going on behind the scenes. But outsiders can be very demanding or unrealistic in their demands. Whenever someone decides to tell us what to wear, for example, I tend to adopt my ‘blotting-paper expression.’ We do, in fact, wear a traditional habit, happily and contentedly, but it is far from being of the essence. Benedict’s only concern about monastic clothing is that it should be suitable for the climate, available in the locality and fit the wearer (RB 55). Those most anxious to fulfil their own fantasies about monastic life are usually the last to consider the cost, difficulty or even the safety of maintaining a particular form of habit. It is the same with the activities in which we engage in order to keep our communities going and to serve the wider community. One of my Facebook followers regularly reminds me of the disapproval of some people of our online engagement. I don’t rise to the bait because I can see that many of those who have been loudest in their criticism are now rushing to take advantage of live-streaming, social media and the opportunities offered by the latest technologies. I rejoice in that because it is a way of reaching out to those who would never knock on the monastery door.

I think we can sometimes forget that we do not become monks and nuns for ourselves alone. We have a role in both Church and society that we must fulfil, faithfully, generously, unselfishly. We pray unremittingly, yes; but we know our prayer won’t always be as whole-hearted as it should. We are hospitable, of course; but there are limits to our hospitality and what we can manage, and we should not feel guilty when others say to us ‘you should’ which is actually shorthand for ‘it is my opinion that’. Our community lives won’t always be sweetness and light, but we can try to be kind and honest and accepting. Above all, we can do our best to be open to grace, to the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit (RB 7. 6-70). We can show that we love the young, reverence the old, care for the earth and everything in it as though it were a sacred altar vessel, bow down before Christ in the stranger and in one another, do what is better for the other and, hopefully, ‘at length, under God’s protection, attain the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue’ (RB 73.9).

I write of Benedictines, but it is my hope there is something here for everyone.

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Water into Wine: the Miracle of Cana and Intercessory Prayer

We are barely into Ordinary Time yet already we have the miracle of Cana to lift our hearts and minds. Water becomes wine at Jesus’ word, and in such abundance that everyone is amazed. It would be easy to say life is like that, a constant changing of the ordinary into the extraordinary, sorrow into joy. At one level, that would be true; but how many of us would claim that was really our own experience? I suspect most of us would admit to finding life rather more like the curate’s egg: good in parts, sometimes rather inexplicably scrambled, generally unpredictable and occasionally very nasty. Perhaps we have listened to too many sermons trying to instil a sense of our living in the best of all possible worlds to free ourselves entirely from the idea that we ought to relate to the gospel story in a certain way. For me, the real miracle of Cana is its ordinariness, and what it teaches us about intercessory prayer.

Jesus is at a wedding; the hosts have under-catered; Mary notices (because women do notice these things) and urges her son to help but gets a dusty answer in return (Jesus must have been enjoying the party, and what young man wants his mother to intervene at party-time). But it doesn’t end there. Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. She isn’t put off by his apparent unresponsiveness. I think that is how most of us intercede for others, or indeed ourselves. We aren’t put off by God’s apparent lack of responsiveness. We just keep trying to pray, dimly aware that somehow God is involved and will answer the prayer he has inspired us to make. I don’t suppose Mary knew in advance what Jesus would do, and I certainly don’t think she gave him a detailed programme of what she wanted him to do. She simply told him there was a need, reassured the servants, and waited. We can learn from that. We don’t need to tell God what to do when we intercede with him, but we may need to reassure others, and we certainly must be prepared to wait. When the miracle comes — and it will — it may not be the one we expected or wanted, but it will transform things. It may be a sign we do not understand or which we misinterpret or even fail to notice, but it will be there. The miracle of Cana is for all time.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

That Friday Afternoon Feeling

Around four o’clock on Friday afternoons, my Twitterstream becomes less busy. I assume people are leaving work early, or at any rate, changing gear and shifting focus towards whatever they do at week-ends. Just before five o’clock the inbox here at the monastery starts to fill up with last-minute requests from clients and others. I have learned to be quite brutal about these. Those that are genuinely urgent — something isn’t working or a question has to be answered — are dealt with methodically, and I hope graciously. Those that could have been sent at any time, or which begin ‘could you just . . .’ (grrr) are consigned to the ‘to be looked at on Monday pile’. During the week-end itself, when we tend to be busy with guests and often have a longer and more elaborate liturgy (Sunday), the inbox will fill up with questions of a different kind, asking for advice about vocation, for example, or some aspect of Catholic teaching. By Sunday evening we are usually tired and drained.

Does that colour our feelings about Friday afternoons, which usher in all this busyness? I don’t think so. It may seem rather pious, but at three o’clock each of us paused briefly and remembered the Crucifixion. We didn’t say any particular psalms or prayers, didn’t do anything dramatic, we just remembered. Remembering is, in itself, a liturgical act but, more than that, it is a way of gaining perspective, of allowing a ray or two of grace to pierce our hearts. We may not always advert to the fact, but, by and large, that Friday afternoon feeling is shot through with wonder and gratitude, no matter what the week-end holds. All it takes is just a few seconds spent remembering.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

SS Philip and James

The feast of SS Philip and James is graced with a beautiful piece of of plainchant, Tanto tempore. I do not mean to slight the apostles when I say that great art isn’t always inspired by great people or great events. Philip and James appear at various points in the New Testament but never, I think, in a way that makes one think of them as heroes or larger-than-life characters. They are good men, not great ones — a wonderful encouragement to those of us who know ourselves to be rather run-of-the-mill people, trying to live good Christian lives but frequently failing. Yet at some time in the past an unknown musician took the words of Jesus, ‘Have I been with you so long, Philip’ and turned them into a musical masterpiece we sing each year on this feast. It is a reminder that God can take the most humdrum of materials — us — and transform them beyond our wildest imaginings.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail