Today we send greetings and good wishes to the monks and nuns of the English Benedictine Congregation for whom this is a Dies Memorabilis while we ourselves keep the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady: one of those minor feasts which Catholicism uses to teach the real meaning of devotion to Mary. She is the Mother of God, yes, but she is also a human being — one who, like us, had to learn the meaning of her vocation. The fact that the feast is tagged on to an event recorded only in the apocryphal gospels is not really the point. What we are meant to grasp is the idea of growing in faith and obedience; of consecration to God’s service; of learning to live in the love of the Lord. The feast of the Presentation of Mary may be liturgically ‘minor’, but if we take its lessons to heart, its effect in our lives will be anything but.
A few weeks ago, when I posted some thoughts about online engagement, my friend Tim Hutchings very sensibly asked whether some of my suggestions didn’t cancel themselves out, making us less ‘ourselves’ online than we are offline. I think the specific question he raised was addressed in the comments, but there is a bigger question that concerns all of us, whether we go online or not. How can we be ourselves in a world that, by and large, is always pressuring us to be something other than we are? The world of advertising wants us to be thinner, richer, more ‘stylish’ than most of us could ever dream of being (i.e to buy what it is selling). The world of Church wants us to be . . . what exactly?
I often ask myself what the homilist thinks he is doing (in the Catholic Church, the sermon is always preached by a priest or deacon, who must be male). Do the admonitions to be more prayerful, more generous, more this or that really affect us? When I’m exhorted to act in a certain way ‘because you are a nun’, does it ever change me? I have to say that, by and large, I stick with being me, trusting that God doesn’t make junk and sees something incomparably wonderful in each one of us, even me. That isn’t a pretext for not trying to be more prayerful, generous, etc (see above), I think it is to recognize a fundamental truth: we go to heaven, if we go at all, as ourselves — smudged with sin, only half-understanding, full of contradictions, the person God created and redeemed. Being oneself is ultimately the only way in which to give God glory.
I sometimes wonder why so many people (apparently) read this blog when it appears on very few blogrolls and scarcely any Catholic ones. It doesn’t provide news, although it is generous with opinion; it studiously avoids the liberal-conservative debate inside the Catholic Church as well as most politics outside; it has what one reader called an ‘austere format’ yet doesn’t pretend to any scholarship except other people’s. In short, as far as I’m concerned, why you read it is one of life’s little mysteries.
But you do read it; and that is the point. I think many people forget that blogging is, in its own small way, as much a vocation as life’s larger choices. It therefore requires similar commitments:
• to prayer, first of all (how many bloggers, even Christian bloggers, think of praying before they write and again before they publish?);
• to truth in all its ramifications (how many relationships founder because they are not essentially truthful, and isn’t there a relationship between blogger and reader that requires just as much integrity and transparency as any other kind of relationship?);
• to charity in its deepest and widest sense (love is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour).
Blogging is a vocation filled with hope, that looks beyond itself to an end not yet attained, a transformation not yet achieved. If that seems to you verging on the grandiloquent, if not seriously deluded, I’d argue that those of us who blog have a great responsibility. We place our words in the blogosphere, but we don’t know who will read them or what effect they may have. For every person who comments, there may well be several more who don’t. We have no real means of measuring the consequences of our actions. We exist in a kind of digital limbo. I think blogging is as much an act of faith as anything else, with success being measured by the good we do, not the praise we receive or the score we achieve on Klout or Wikio. And the amazing thing is, as any blogger will tell you, those of us who do blog receive much more than we give. It is the vocational paradox in a little.
Sadly, Odyssey Networks decided to change their policy about letting people they have interviewed embed the resulting video on their web site or blog. So, if you didn’t catch it in the first twenty-four hours, you will either have to buy the Call on Faith app, available from the iTunes store at 99cents (there is also an Android version) or view the lo-res version of the Call on Faith video on our main web site here.
If you do have the app, the video will be found here: http://m.4gotv.tv/cof/stf.xhtml?videoID=184965. The Call on Faith app comes highly recommended.
Yesterday an interesting question arose (one among many) concerning use of the internet by those in monastic/religious/priestly formation. Our own policy here at Hendred is clear. Essentially, during the novitiate access to the internet will be restricted. Emails to family and friends (within reason), Skype calls to parents, occasional use for study purposes, yes. Facebook, Twitter, surfing YouTube? No. There is so much that needs to be done during the novitiate if we are to understand and co-operate with the graces being offered us to grow in prayer that there really isn’t time for anything more. We need to focus, even become ‘bored’ with God if the novitiate is to do its work — at least, that’s our view and our policy for now.
Other Benedictines present at the Symposium here at Schuyler spoke of a much more liberal use of the internet allowed to those in formation, including active use of Facebook. The question raised was ‘how much does this usage lead to real engagement with others?’ To an observer it looked as though there was an over-concentration on uploading and commenting on photos. Is this good or bad? Well, I have already said that at Henred we’d be rather sceptical, but ultimately it is a case of ‘by their fruits shall ye know them’. God has a habit of making saints by some unlikely means.
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).
When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?
Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?
I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.
In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.
Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.
There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?
Tonight young people from across Britain will be gathering at Oscott for a week-end of prayer and reflection on vocation. See the Invocation web site for more information and live updates here. We were asked to support the venture with our prayer (which we give freely) and our money (which we don’t have but would give if we could) but were not invited to contribute any personnel, which makes me wonder whether the organizers consider us rather negligible because our community is small in numbers. (I hope we are not negligible in terms of value or reach, but that’s another matter.)
Playing the numbers game is something we all have a tendency to do when it comes to vocation, and it is dangerous. Who is to say that a community of thirty is in a better condition than a community of twenty? Age, health, spiritual maturity and holiness of life are all factors to be taken into account. Counting the chickens isn’t a good idea, either. We ourselves haven’t any novices (no space), but we do have eight or nine discerners (can’t be more precise, because one never knows when someone might have ‘gone quiet’ because she is having second thoughts) but each one is an individual at a different stage of the journey; and as my old Junior Mistress used to say of herself in her eighties, ‘You haven’t persevered to the end yet.’
A Benedictine vocation is always to a specific community, something I think many people do not sufficiently understand. There is indeed a strong ‘family likeness’ among Benedictine communities because we all follow the same Rule and stem from the same stock, but there is also the strong individuality that is part of the secret of Benedictine monasticism’s longevity. That makes it difficult for anyone to speak ‘for the Benedictines’ as such, so pity whoever is tasked with that job at Oscott this week-end (though I have no doubt that the Benedictines there will do splendidly: they are Benedictines, after all.)
Let us pray for the young people gathering at Oscott, that their generosity may be blessed and they may be guided along the way that is best in each case. Let us pray also for the organizers and those entrusted with the work of guidance, that they may be responsive to the Holy Spirit. May the life of the Church be enriched by many more ready to follow Christ in the priesthood and the religious life.
Yesterday I was touched to find a Facebook friend commenting on the fact that there had been no blogging from the monastery since the Visitation. The simple explanation, that I had nothing to say, might raise an eyebrow or two among those who wonder whether I ever have anything to say, but let that pass. We are great believers in sharing what we have with others, but one must first have something to share; so, inevitably, there have to be times when we stand back and concentrate on the inner life of the community, as we have during the past few days.
What do we mean by ‘inner life’? By and large, the unseen life of prayer and study on which the Benedictine monastic life is based. In medieval times, this was very much the life of the cloister, where one walked and prayed and worked. In nuns’ monasteries the cloister was reserved to the community, with guests admitted only occasionally (or not at all, if medieval bishops had had their way).
We have no cloister as such, here at Hendred, no ‘reserved space’ for the community, so we have to work a little harder at cultivating the cloister of the heart. It means, unfortunately, that sometimes we may have to tell people we cannot undertake activities, good in themselves, which we judge to be inconsistent with what we have professed or even, as in the past few days, close our doors (physical and digital) to visitors. Is that selfish? It depends. Ultimately, our whole way of life is based on the premise that God matters supremely, that seeking him in prayer is what we are called to do. That isn’t the easy or ‘romantic’ thing it is sometimes made out to be. As every novice quickly learns, it can be very demanding. Indeed, if I were asked what has been the most challenging thing I have ever attempted, I would answer, being a nun; and I suspect you can only really understand that if you are a nun yourself.
During the past week we launched another online retreat, sharing something of our cloistered life with the world. Even as we did so, I was conscious of the fact that we can share only a little. I hope what we do share is worthwhile, that our online cloister is a place where heart speaks to heart.
On 21 May 1676 died D. Catherine Gascoigne, first Abbess of Cambrai, and a ‘doughty dame’ if ever there was one. She was the daughter of Sir John Gascoigne and his wife, Anne Ingleby. At the time she was born, Catholics in England were subject to severe legal penalties. Attendance at the services of the Church of England was required by the law. Failure to do so meant being listed as a Recusant; there were fines and often confiscation of property, along with tedious restrictions such as not being allowed to own a horse. Priests saying Mass could still be imprisoned, just as earlier they had risked being executed. To be a Catholic was to be under siege. The idea of living a monastic life in England was unthinkable, so when Catherine and a group of like-minded young women felt called to be Benedictine nuns they had no choice but to journey abroad. In 1623, under the auspices of the English Benedictine Congregation, they set up house in Cambrai, Flanders.
The early history of the community is stirring, especially to someone familiar with it as part of the living tradition of her monastery of formation, but this post is about D. Catherine herself and the part she played. The Cambrai community was initially helped by three nuns from Brussels, who were charged with teaching the novices and preparing them for profession of vows. Unfortunately, although diligent and generous, the Brussels nuns were very much influenced by the Jesuits and their way of systematic meditation, whereas D. Catherine and the nascent Cambrai community fell naturally into the older way of prayer taught by Fr Augustine Baker, the Benedictine Vicarius of the community (Fr Baker had revived the medieval English form of contemplative prayer which is very different from the formal meditative method then currently in vogue). It was, as you may imagine, an explosive situation and there was great relief when the Brussels nuns returned home and D. Catherine was elected abbess in 1629.
The problems were not at end, however. The community was poor, and Fr Baker and his teaching fell under suspicion . The orthodoxy of the Cambrai community was questioned and a committee of enquiry was set up by the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation in 1633. D. Catherine was resolute and faced her opponents with quiet courage, giving an account of her prayer in such simple, moving terms that anyone reading it cannot but admit its truthfulness and power. ‘Goe on couragiously, you have choosen the best way: we beseech Allmighty God to accomplish that union which your hart desireth’ said the Fathers; but in 1655 D. Catherine was again facing ecclesiastical censure. She refused to give up Fr Baker’s treatises, arguing that they were entirely orthodox and of immense value to the community and the Church. She won, of course, but it was a close run thing.
In time, D. Catherine’s talents came to be recognized more widely. She was called upon to oversee the reform of another monastery in Flanders. When she was dying, she wrote to the then President of the English Benedictine Congregation, Fr Benedict Stapylton, asking for ‘a new and very ample confirmation’ of Fr Baker’s writings, ‘as being the greatest treasure that belongs to this poor community’, for she saw clearly that the only true wealth of a monastic community is its holiness and prayerfulness.
What has D. Catherine Gascoigne to teach us today? Personally, I have always found her inspiring, more so than her more immediately attractive companion, D. Gertrude More. Her quietness, her firmness in the face of opposition from those who should have supported her, her fidelity to prayer and monastic observance, her care for the community committed to her are admirable qualities. I am also grateful for something very few know. She would never have been able to become a nun had she not suffered from smallpox. The Bishop of London refused her a licence to go abroad, saying she was too beautiful. She prayed for her beauty to be taken from her, and it was; so the licence was duly given. Chance, too, has its part to play in our history.
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.
For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.
None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.