Nuns and Social Media

After another sleepless night, I can report a little black humour to mark my emergence from under the chemo cosh. Cor Orans, the document which establishes the norms for implementing the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, assures us, with dreadful earnestness, that nuns may now use Social Media ‘with sobriety and discretion.’ Of course I agree with the need for discretion, but having been using Social Media for about ten years — probably longer than many of the clergy and others who felt it necessary to give nuns guidance on the matter — my main reaction is a mixture of despair and irritation. Despair, because yet again the Vatican shows itself to be out of touch with the reality of women’s (i.e. not just nuns’) lives, and in seeking to control is in danger of losing whatever moral authority it still commands; irritation, because with all the world’s problems, to devote time and energy to  something that I think most nuns have already thought and prayed about sufficiently to have arrived at a sensible decision regarding its appropriate use, is embarrassing.

It hurts to say I am embarrassed by the Church to which I belong and her heavy-handed approach to facets of modern life that she should be embracing, not condemning or viewing with suspicion. It seems to be only a few years ago that we nuns laughed about being given permission to use fax machines, with due discretion and limitations, naturally, and were tempted to email our response, only the Vatican wasn’t using email at the time!

I do have a serious point to make, and it isn’t a grumble. The text of Cor Orans raises many concerns for us as a small contemplative community*, but I think it raises even bigger ones for women in the Church as a whole. I have never been entirely convinced that there are two differing forms of spirituality, one masculine and the other feminine, with the masculine needing comparatively few rules and the feminine needing very close regulation. If Pope Francis is serious about using the gifts of all the Church’s members, then I genuinely believe that he and all the other senior clergy must take seriously the fact that women are not second-class beings. We can be as intelligent, well-educated, fervent and disciplined as any man. To presume that we are somehow lacking in any of those qualities is deeply insulting. True, some women have not had the educational opportunities given to men; true, there are still parts of the world where cultural constraints mean that women are condemned to secondary roles; but, if we have heeded the gospels of Easter Week, how can we assert that this is divinely ordained?

I became a nun in response to what I believe to be my vocation. I have never wavered in my desire to live that vocation as whole-heartedly and generously as possible but I am dismayed to discover that there is doubt whether I and other nuns can really be trusted with it, online or off. And what is true of nuns in that respect is, I fear, true of all women — though, happily, women who are not nuns may apparently use Social Media without the limitation of ‘sobriety and discretion’. I’m tempted to say, ‘Go for it!’

* See, for example, the concluding paragraphs of Cor Orans, Final Dispositions.

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Being Called: the Three Parties to a Vocation

The Mass readings for today (the call of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, and the call of Andrew and Simon Peter in John 1) always make me think about the nature of vocation, especially the nature of a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life.

I hope that we are great encouragers of vocation here at Howton Grove, but people sometimes react with indignation when we remind them of an important truth. There are always three parties to a priestly or religious vocation: God, the individual, and the community (i.e. the Church). Without God’s initiative, there can be no call; without the individual, there can be no response; and without the Church’s discernment and acceptance, there can be no realisation of the call-response of an individual vocation. We may feel that we are called by God to be or do something, but we have to lay that sense of calling before the Church. That part of the process is often overlooked or regarded as unimportant, whereas in reality it is crucial and must be accompanied by much thought and prayer on all sides. It can be quite devastating to the individual if the Church’s response is not the one hoped for or expected; and it can be quite devastating to the Church if insufficient care is given to the selection and training of candidates.

Please join us today in praying for those who are discerning a vocation, those who are trying to help them and bear the responsibility of ‘testing the spirits, to see whether they are from God’, and those who have gone away sad, feeling rejected and unable to accept that the Lord may be asking something different from what they had hoped or believed he was asking.

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Vocations Sunday 2017

Writing about Vocations Sunday is a little tricky for me. I once pointed out the obvious, that everyone is a vocation inasmuch as we have all been called by God to be whatever it is we are — priest, laity, religious — and was publicly rapped over the knuckles by a Prominent Cleric (who, to be fair, hadn’t actually read the blog post in question). I have mused on what it is that encourages vocations and posed the question, why not you, why not me, why must it always be someone else who answers the call, and ended up being lectured on the need for being traditionalist according to my interlocutor’s ideas of what is traditional. I have analysed the miserable condition known as vocationitis, mulled over statistics, and written some quite thoughtful (in my view) accounts of of religious life; and I must have answered hundreds of vocation enquiries since our community was canonically erected in 2004. I hope I may have helped someone, by my prayer if not by my words, but I cannot comfort myself with the thought of success, as that word is usually understood. And there’s the rub.

When we pray for vocations, as we do today, what are we really praying for? Some people are quite clear: we need priests to provide the sacraments and essential Church services; a few religious to do some hard-core praying would be nice, especially if they dress in olde-worlde habits and inhabit olde-worlde buildings and keep up olde-worlde traditions of music and liturgy, with perhaps a few more to do the odd bit of social work in areas we prefer not to get involved in. Looked at in that way, success is really about numbers and serving our own needs. If that were all there were to it, one can see why many people would find the whole idea of Vocations Sunday uninspiring, and I have to say I would, too. Of course the Church needs people to serve as priests, and possibly as religious, too, but there is more to Vocations Sunday than simply asking the Lord to bump up our numbers.

If we really knew what we were praying for when we pray for Vocations, I think we’d feel seared by the holiness of God. What we are asking is for God to seize hold of us, shake us up, draw us to himself and change us for ever. We can’t do that while playing the numbers game. It is a work we can only do on our knees — one that involves us, each one of us, not someone else, not someone else’s son or daughter, not someone in another parish, not someone anonymous. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,’ wrote the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Perhaps we have fogotten that and become a little too cosy in our approach to him. The God of infinite love and tenderness who, in the person of Jesus Christ, likened himself to a good shepherd in search of the lost and stray, is also the God of infinte holiness and utter transcendence. This Sunday every Catholc should leave Mass with a blazing sense of the importance of vocation, a readiness to ask himself or herself,  ‘Are you calling me, Lord?’ and a determination to answer, cost what it may.

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Something for Vocations Sunday 2016

The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016
The oratory at Howton Grove Priory, Eastertide 2016

I wonder how many people today will hear a homily that speaks of the wonder and joy of a vocation to priesthood or consecrated (old-time, religious) life? How many will hear one that speaks of the importance of marriage or family life, of the beautiful but often difficult vocation of those called to be single, or indeed anything beyond a dutiful bidding prayer that somehow mixes up sheep, shepherds and labourers in vineyards? I ask because I am convinced of the supreme value of knowing, loving and serving God and would like everyone to find joy in the things of the Spirit and in the fulfilment of their unique call from God.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a good day for reflecting on our own own vocation and, in addition to praying for others, thinking and praying about how we ourselves have responded to God’s call in the past, and how we should respond in the future. Have we helped or hindered others in following Christ? Is there something more that the Lord asks of us? Are we ready to listen, or do we want to turn a deaf ear?

I myself am a Benedictine, and a very happy Benedictine at that, yet part of me wishes I had been graced with the vocation  of a Carthusian or hermit so I could live ‘alone with the Alone’. I say that without any rose-tinted misconceptions about the demands of the eremitical life. I only just scrape by as a coenobite and would never manage as a hermit. But God is, and I pray always will be, the most important person in my life — which is why I am a nun, why I am enthusiastic about monastic life in general and the life of this community in particular, and why I want to share its blessings with as many people as possible.

Sometimes a visual image can help, so the photo at the beginning of this post shows the altar-end of our oratory while the one below shows the choir-end. Our oratory is a plain and workman-like space, as monastic life itself is plain and workman-like. There is careful attention to detail, but nothing fussy or superfluous. It is the most important part of the monastery, and I think it is eloquent of how we understand Benedictine life and try to live it. If it is a terible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, it is also, as the saints assure us, the most delightful. May God draw many to experience his love and mercy, to savour the sweetness of the Lord and be his true disciples.

The choir-end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory
The choir end of the oratory at Howton Grove Priory

I give below links to a few previous posts on vocation which, together with the information on our main website, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk (www.benedictinenuns.net for small-screen devices) and our Facebook page, may prove helpful. I hope so.

Some Posts about Vocation

Praying for Vocations

Vocation and Reality

Further Thoughts on Vocation

A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Vocations Sunday

A Gap in the Market for Meaning: Vocations Sunday 2015

 

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Hens and Their Role in My Vocation

Yesterday I mentioned that my novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper. A small Twitter-storm followed, with people eager to know how hens could have such an impact. To understand, you would have to be a Benedictine novice yourself — preferably one who doesn’t like the cold or feathers — sent to dig trenches in the snow so the wretched darlings could continue to cross the orchard in their accustomed way. But, as the wiser among you will have realised, I am not really concerned with hens (sorry, poultry-lovers), but something rather more challenging: the difference between accepting and embracing vocation.

I use the word ‘vocation’ here to mean anything asked of us by the circumstances of our life. In a monastic context, it has a more precise meaning: that which constitutes our fundamental response to God as expressed through a life lived in common under a Rule and superior. But I think anyone will understand that the demands of being a parent, for example, constitute a vocation. We also have a tendency to see certain types of employment as being a vocation — e.g. teaching, nursing, medicine — which is hard on those whose work attracts less positive accolades — e.g. bankers, lawyers and sewage farm workers. We may have greater difficulty seeing illness or exile or other negative experiences as also being part of our vocation; and that’s where the difference between accepting and embracing really tells.

It can be very hard to accept that which is contrary to everything we hoped or longed for — widowhood, for example, or the death of a child. Everything within us rebels at the loss. Over time we may come to an acceptance that is part willed, part the effect of other experiences masking, at least for a while, the rawness we feel. To move from accepting to embracing the loss, to see it as God sees it, is the work of grace; and we do not all receive grace in the same measure or at the same time. It is, however, something we aim at, or should aim at. As Julian of Norwich remarked, ‘Love was his meaning;’ and until we have grasped that, we have not really understood anything at all.

To return to my hens. The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there.

So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

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The Baptism of the Lord

Christ baptized by Juan Carreño de Miranda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baptism of the Lord is the last of the Christmas feasts.* In some ways, it is a strange end, but Christmas itself is strange in its refusal to allow us to linger at the crib. In a few short days we go from the birth in Bethlehem, via the coming of the Magi, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the martyrdom of St Stephen and a nod in the direction of the hidden life at Nazareth, to this: the beginning of the public ministry with the baptism by John in the Jordan and that voice from heaven proclaiming, ‘This is my beloved. Listen to him!’

It is a reminder that life is not to be measured in length of years or in achievements, as we usually consider them, but in fidelity to vocation. The Baptism of Jesus marks the point where he definitively accepted the public phase of his mission, but there was no denial or denigration of what had gone before. The ‘hidden years’ are just as important for our salvation as the last three.

Each one of us is a vocation, called and chosen by the Lord to live in this particular place, at this particular time. Everything we do is, potentially at least, a means of attaining the holiness to which we are called. That knowledge is both a great freedom and a great responsibility As we celebrate the baptism of the Lord, let us ask his help in rededicating ourselves to his service — in the way that he chooses rather than the way we would choose for ourselves.

*The final ‘look-back’ at the Presentation is devotional rather than liturgical but provides an excuse, if excuse were needed, for Christmas pudding and other festive delicacies.

Note on the illustration A favourite of mine. Juan Carreño de Miranda (Spanish, 1614 – 1685) Christ Baptized, about 1682, Charcoal, red and white chalk, with stumping 35.2 x 20 cm (13 7/8 x 7 7/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Used by permission under the Open Content Programme, with thanks

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Always Discerning, Never Deciding

Yesterday I read a thoughtful article by Br Gabriel T. Mosher O.P. on the subject of the shortage of vocations and the kind of everlasting discernment process many engage in rather than coming to an actual decision (you can read it here). Inevitably, some commentators concentrated on what I took to be a secondary argument about the objective superiority of religious life (Br Gabriel’s a Dominican, so you’d expect that, wouldn’t you?) and, being unfamiliar with the precise terms the author used, took umbrage. So, I want to make it clear that what I am addressing is Br Gabriel’s main thesis: the way in which discerning a religious vocation becomes almost a way of life, with no final resolution.

I spend hours every week answering vocation questions. Some are perhaps rather trivial, but I try to take every one seriously because we all move at different speeds and what may seem minor to one may be quite major to another. As a community, we also ‘accompany’ people in their search for God. Some of those who are in regular contact have been discerning their vocation for years. I sometimes have the uneasy feeling that discerning has become — quite unintentionally — a way of avoiding commitment. If I am discerning, I do not have to face the ultimate test of placing myself and my sense of vocation in a concrete situation where others will judge whether I am called to this way of life or not. Moreover, if I am discerning, I can look for a community or rule of life that meets all my requirements/desiderata: I can take the risk out of commitment. The problem then is that no community on earth is ever likely to come up to my standards — they all seem to be full of cranks and crotchety old codgers I’d rather not have to deal with, and no situation is ever really risk-free. Finally, there is the fact that discerning can lead one into the trap of looking too much at oneself and forgetting the Lord. It is nice to talk about one’s soul with someone who is, or should be, sympathetic. I liked Br Gabriel’s snappy take on this, ‘Many will come and see . . . few will stay and pray.’

What can those of us who dwell in monasteries do to help people who find themselves endlessly discerning? Here at Howton Grove we are undertaking a major revision of our web sites and are keen to try one or two ideas which we hope will help those thinking about religious life. For example, we already insist on video conferencing before anyone makes the journey to Hereford to stay with the community for a period of discernment. If you are a young person, thinking about religious life, we’d be interested to know what you have found helpful, what has helped you towards a decision rather than just discerning. There is a kind of ‘vocational voyeurism’ that is unhelpful, both to the individual and the community. Our starting-point, however, is that people are full of goodwill and sincerity. We take discerners seriously because we take God seriously and we want to be of service. You can help us.

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Good News for Vocations Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day set aside for praying more particularly for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. This year the National Office for Vocation has released some encouraging statistics for England and Wales. If we look at the figures for 2010, 2011 and 2012 we find the following:

entrants to congregations of Religious Sisters are up: 10, 17 and 23 respectively (there are no figures currently available for monasteries of cloistered nuns);

entrants to orders of priests are up: 19, 19 and 30 respectively;

entrants to orders of brothers, by contrast, show no admissions for the past three years.

Turning to seminary admissions and ordinations, we find the following:

diocesan seminary entrants: 36, 49, 37 respectively, which is better than in some former years;

ordinations to the diocesan priesthood are up: 19, 20 and 31 respectively, with 41 projected for the current year. These figures do not include former Anglican clergy nor priests ordained for religious orders.

To what, under God, can we attribute these increases? My own answer doesn’t pretend to be be based on anything other than ‘anecdotal evidence’. In times of national or international stress, as after the Second World War or during the current economic recession, people tend to reflect more deeply on life and its purpose. The automatic choices of the past are no longer so automatic. If one has only one life and wants to use it well, how can one best do so? There is also the fact that the National Office of Vocation, like individual orders and congregations, has done its best to create a culture of vocation, making it easier for people to find out about the many ways of serving Christ in the Church. The Propadeutic Year at the English College, Valladolid, an introductory couse of training and discernment for prospective seminarians, has been voted a great success by those who have undertaken it.

We should not underestimate the part played by the internet in enabling videos, online conferences and up to date information of various kinds to be available cheaply and widely. Not only is vocation information more easily available, it reaches a wider audience. No longer are vocations drawn just from local society, they come now from different countries. Nearly all the vocation enquiries we receive come from people who have found us via the internet. Indeed, we have a postulant entering in June (please God) who  is a U.S. citizen. Her first contact with us was via the internet, and we have used video conferencing as part of our ongoing discernment process.

Encouraging as the National Office of Vocation figures are, they are still lower than those we have seen in the comparatively recent past and by no means adequate to ensure the continuance of the levels of service to which we have become accustomed. That begs the question: what are families doing to promote and  foster vocations? How would you react if your son or daughter were to announce that he or she wished to become a priest or join a religious order? More than that, are you doing anything to help your sons and daughters see the priesthood or religious life as a worthwhile choice? These are not idle questions. Priestly and religious vocations come from ordinary families just like yours. The truth is, just as the lives of each us have an effect on others, so a religious or priestly vocation is the vocation not merely of the individual but of the family to which he or she belongs. Ultimately, it is the person which is the vocation, and the gift of self is also the gift of one’s family.

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Further Thoughts on Vocation

Today we read the second half of RB 58. When describing the ritual of profession, Benedict makes a telling change. The newcomer to monastic life who has hitherto been nameless, just quis veniens, suddenly belongs. He becomes novitius frater, the new brother. All at once he becomes an integral part of the community, joined for ever to the fraterna acies, the fraternal battle-rank. This membership, however, comes at the end of a long and testing process. Today, it takes at least five and a half years for a woman to reach solemn profession, and even then, most would agree it is only another kind of beginning.

Why insist upon this? I think it is worth noting, in a world which expects instant results, that the things of the Spirit cannot be rushed. What we call a vocation is an ongoing call from the Lord as individual as the person to whom it is addressed. It is we ourselves who are called, we ourselves who respond; so that we can say that we are ourselves the vocation. Membership of the community represents a commitment on both sides, not to be lightly undertaken. Some people come to the monastery in search of community. Very often they leave disappointed because they do not find what they seek. Other people do not seem as cherishing as they ought to be! Only a few discover that the person who seeks community must first be prepared to create community, and monastic community can only be created when the members are united in the search for God. In other words, God has to be at the centre of everything. Anything less will not do.

If you read through the second half of RB 58, you will be struck (I hope) by the radical nature of the renunciations the monk or nun must make and the fact that Benedict constantly reminds us that what we call profession of vows takes place in the presence of God and his saints. Our vow chart is placed on the altar. We are dressed in the clothing of the monastery. Whatever we formerly owned or might expect to inherit in the future is gone from us. Even our bodies and wills are no longer at our own disposal. We have become a new creation and it is as a new creation, utterly possessionless, that we are admitted to the monastic community where we will live ‘according to the judgement and decision of another’.

I think it may be this stripping away of everything familiar which many find difficult. We rely on such silly things to give us status: our background, our education, our ability to say we are this or that in such and such an organization. The truth is we are unique, but it is the uniqueness conferred by God that we have to discover and value. Monasteries are good places for doing exactly that.

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Our Need of Freedom

Today we ask the Key of David to come and free us from darkness and the shadow of death. Shortly before we sing that antiphon, I shall have given the traditional monastic talk called the Missus Est on the words ‘an angel was sent from God’. The two things come together beautifully, because I think Mary was the most supremely free person who has ever lived. It was given to her either to accept or reject motherhood of God. St Bernard pictures the whole world kneeling before her at the angel’s coming, waiting for the answer she will give: ‘Give the word, Mary, which will give us the Word.’ It was indeed a moment of unequalled faith when Mary embraced the divine Word in her heart and spoke the human word that would set us free: ‘Let it be done to me as you have said.’ The Greek uses the optative, which makes our rather passive English phrase look weak and inadequate. Mary willed her conception, was eager to do God’s bidding, co-operated gladly.

In these last few days of Advent, when the birth of Christ seems very close, let’s spend a few moments thinking about what we owe that young Jewish girl. She let go all her dreams in obedience to the word of God, accepted a vocation that would ask more of her than she could ever have imagined. So it may be with us. Our oblate Pauline quotes these lines of the poet Czeslaw Milosz

Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible,
and only late do we discover how obedient we were.

They are worth pondering in the light of our own vocation. We may think we have lived all our lives circumscribed by the bonds of duty only to realise that, in fact, we have been, like Mary, supremely free, blessed beyond measure.

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