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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St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns 2012

The feast of St Etheldreda and all holy English nuns tends not to mean much to most people. It is smiled at or quietly passed over, but a thousand years ago, when nuns were not quite so ‘mere’ as they have become, it would have got a different reaction. Anglo-Saxon nuns were formidable: many were learned, witty, extremely influential, as well as holy. No one who had dealings with them had any doubt that they were very able. When St Ethelwold of Winchester was a little patronising toward St Edith of Wilton, he was rebuked in no uncertain terms. Nuns nowadays would probably be expected to hold their tongues — or else!

I am sometimes troubled by the unthinking condescension of priests and others who assume, wrongly, that because a woman becomes a nun she somehow gives up, along with her material possessions, every gift of mind and heart with which she was previously endowed. It troubles me because it is unjust, I suppose, but also because it impoverishes the Church by trying to force people into a mould they were not designed for. I know nuns who were research chemists, barristers, university lecturers, doctors, bankers — and that’s just among the cloistered. Of course there is room for the nun as figure of fun, but the joke can be taken too far or can come uncomfortably close to being really nasty. There was an unfortunate incidence of what I mean on a well-known American blog earlier this week (no names, no pack-drill, because I don’t want to publicize it or the comments it evoked).

From time to time we are assured that the Church values the cloistered life and are exhorted to pray for vocations. However, we also have to foster vocations. If we merely pay lip-service to the idea that a monastic vocation is a worthwhile way of serving God and others, then I think we are kidding ourselves when we pray for vocations. We don’t really want them at all. The acid test is: would you be pleased if your daughter were to become  a nun? If your instinctive reaction is, ‘No!’, think again. Could God be asking you to accept the unthinkable, to foster a monastic vocation within your own family?

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Palm Sunday 2012

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

Today we begin our following with rejoicing, but a rejoicing which already has a hint of menace. On Good Friday we shall see where that menace will take us. For now, we  focus on Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem where we know he will be rejected. Nevertheless, we stand with him every inch of the way. It is a choice we make every day of our lives, not just during Holy Week.

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The Annunciation 2012

When I wrote about this feast last year (see here), I mentioned that it reminds us youth can do great things for God. More than that, I think this lovely feast tells us that our dreams and ambitions are all too little for God. He called Mary to be theotokos, God-bearer, in the fullest sense. Just think for a moment what that must have meant to her, a young Jewish girl with the ordinary expectations of her place and time. What an upset of all her plans and expectations!

God calls each one of us to be something special. Often we are so conscious of our ordinariness, and rightly so (heaven spare us the person who thinks (s)he’s special!), that we overlook or undervalue the unique grace he has given us. For those of us who live in monasteries, our only talent may be that of living the monastic life, but it is for us the essential talent, the one that endows us with grace to respond to our vocation, to be what God desires us to be. As we give thanks for Mary’s acceptance of what God asked of her, let us pray for ourselves, that we may be equally generous and fearless in accepting what is asked of us.

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Is Dr Oddie Unfair?

A number of articles have appeared recently commenting on the sale by the monks of Ramsgate (now Chilworth) of several of their treasures. Yesterday William Oddie addressed the same story in the online edition of the Catholic Herald here. I do not wish to comment on the internal affairs of another community, although my views on conservation are well-known and regular readers of this blog will know something of the struggle we ourselves are having to obtain even the most basic permanent accommodation. That is not the point I wish to take up. Dr Oddie enlarges his argument to embrace some more general censures of contemporary religious and these, I think, need challenging.

He refers to the monks’ sale then says

How typical of today’s religious is this, in my view, astonishing example of secularity? How is one to know? In the nature of things, lay Catholics know little of what goes on behind the closed doors of a religious community. And yet, there are visible signs that must mean something. In the same edition of the paper, we see (p11) a photograph of Archbishop Vincent Nichols with a group of Sisters representing female religious communities of the Diocese of Westminster. Of 14 sisters, only five (possibly six) are wearing habits: the rest just look like ordinary lay women with handbags (what could be more unambiguously secular than a handbag?) and one is actually wearing trousers and a polo neck sweater.

Ah, so the real subject of his article is not the sale of pretiosa by Ramsgate but the dress of female religious? You notice Dr Oddie has nothing to say about male religious, who frequently wear lay clothes. What is particularly ‘secular’ about ‘handbags’ or ‘trousers and a polo neck sweater’, I wonder?  Could prejudice be masquerading as an argument? Please don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Dr Oddie’s columns but I think he has allowed one of his King Charles’s heads to get in the way here. Although he mentions that the Holy See recognizes that ‘for valid reasons of their apostolate’, religious may dress otherwise than in a habit, he continues in negative vein and concludes:

It is a question of the unambiguous witness which consecration to the religious life should present to the world. I ask simply, are we necessarily always getting that witness from our religious today? Perhaps there are occasions when they should ask that of themselves.

Perhaps Dr Oddie and those who agree with him should ask themselves what witness they give religious. It is easy to criticize others for not being what we should like them to be, but I wonder whether Dr Oddie actually knows anything of the lives of the people he writes of so slightingly. Even allowing for journalistic exaggeration, I was left feeling that the article overlooked the generosity and fidelity with which most religious live their vocation. I know none of the religious sisters to whom Dr Oddie takes such exception, but I would dare to say that their fidelity to prayer and observance, the austerity of their lifestyle, and the renunciation of self that each of them represents counts for something in the eyes of God. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters?

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Candlemas and Consecrated Life

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord, otherwise known as Candlemas, is also the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. I wonder how many people in the British Isles ever come across what we used to call religious, and if they do, do they know it? If you bumped into me in the street you would certainly register the funny clothes (Benedictine habit), and I hope my conduct would not be unbecoming, but would you really know I am a nun?

That is not an idle question. When Jesus was presented in the temple he was ‘ransomed back from God’ by his human family. When a religious vows him- or herself to God, it works the other way on. When we look at the life of Jesus, every word, every act, speaks of his desire to save, heal, make whole. That is what those who are not themselves religious should see in us. Pray it may be so, for those of us privileged to live under vows know what a sorry job we make of things. Still, as my old Junior Mistress was wont to say, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ God doesn’t make junk, no matter how much we mess things up.

A Little Light Relief

Vocation videos are not my cup of tea, but this one has the redeeming grace of being funny and insightful. Benedictine, of course!

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Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

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Baptism of the Lord 2012

I’ve written about this feast, its history and theology, many times, most recently here. Perhaps today a single thought will suffice. The Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of his public ministry. It represents something new in his life, and in the life of the world, yet it was, at the time, an obscure act in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. The baptism of an unknown Galilean by an eccentric preacher out in the Judean wilderness was hardly likely to cause any ripples in Rome.

Life is full of new beginnings. Some of them seem significant, at least to ourselves; others are unremarkable; yet if we are open to the grace of God, even our most obscure actions become capable of uniting us with Christ and his mission. As many of the Fathers loved to recall, when Christ went down into the waters of the Jordan, he took us with him. We must also rise with him to become beloved children in whom the Father is well-pleased.

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Families: holy and unholy, perfect and imperfect

Readers of iBenedictines’ predecessor, Colophon, will know that neither I nor the community to which I belong really ‘like’ the feast of the Holy Family. It’s a fairly recent addition to the calendar and often sentimentalised. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were hardly an average family, so not much use to us as role models, unless we are prepared to live with a constant feeling of failure because we can’t begin to emulate their perfection.

The fact that we don’t like a feast or find it difficult is, paradoxically, all the more reason for thinking about what it has to teach us. Maybe if we could drop the ‘role model’ idea for a minute we might see more clearly, because it is not the perfection of the Holy Family we need to aim at but its imperfection.

Jesus grew in stature and understanding, just as Mary and Joseph grew in understanding and obedience. The key words, I think, are ‘growth’ and ‘understanding’. Mary gave her consent to the angel without realising all that would be asked of her in the future. She grew as her vocation grew, constantly renewing her initial acceptance of her role as Mother of God. Joseph obeyed the angel, only to find that one obedience demanded another. Jesus himself seems not to have understood all at once what his Sonship would entail. He had to choose obedience to the Father step by step, had ultimately to accept death on the cross. For all three, it was a process, a perfecting of their lives.

In the messiness and imperfection of our own lives, that is a tremendous encouragement. None of us lives in a perfect family; many of us don’t live in families at all; but each of us can learn and grow through our experience of ordinary, everyday life. The Holy Family of Nazareth prepared the way for the Holy Family gathered around the cross on Calvary. We too have to make a similar journey, perhaps with many false turnings on the way but always with the same end in view. As we draw closer to Christ, we hope that we shall be made holy, not as members of his family but as members of something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church.

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Of Music and Musicians

The feast of St Cecilia is a good day on which to think about music and musicians. Let me say straight away that I am very average choir fodder. Indeed, when being taught to sing plainchant, I so exasperated my teacher that she exclaimed, ‘It’s just a matter of intelligence!’ Whereupon, to my eternal discredit, I did an off-the-cuff translation of one of the trickier hymns in the Hymnale. Pride 1; humility nil.

Inability to sing or play should not be confused with the ability to enjoy. There are very few who do not enjoy music, although we certainly don’t all enjoy the same music. I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving.

Fundraising Update
We’ll be issuing a statement later today after we have met with our advisers. We’ll tweet when it’s up.

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