The Last Day of the Year

It may be perverse of me, but I think the last day of the year is just as important as the first. It is a time for giving thanks for blessings received, asking forgiveness for wrongs committed, forgiving those who have wronged us, and asking grace for the future. Already, even before January, the month that looks both ways, begins, we are aware of needing to make decisions about both past and future. We cannot reject the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. We cannot determine the future, but we can allow it to be permeated with the love and mercy of God.

In the monastery on the last day of the calendar year, we read chapter 73 of the Rule of St Benedict and are reminded that the Rule itself is only a beginning of holiness, a first step towards the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue described by St Benedict. For me, it will be the 96th time I have heard that chapter read in community. I can look back and see how often I have failed to live up to its demands. I can look forward in hope to trying to live it better in 2014; but most of all, I can decide, here and now, to try to live today as it should be lived because ‘today’ is all we ever really know. So, for me, no New Year resolutions as such, only a renewed sense of purpose about what I am called to be and do. I think (hope?) that is probably enough. It is certainly the best I can do.

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From Nerses to Hilda and Back Again?

I love the way the liturgical calendar confronts us with contradictions. Today is the feast of two great saints, Nerses of Armenia and Hilda of Whitby. Nerses was a man of inflexible principle, sent into exile and eventually poisoned (or so it is alleged) for ‘speaking truth to power’. Hilda, by contrast, was a listener, a compromiser, who helped bring peace to the English Church by accepting the Roman date of Easter and all that it implied. The Church needs both her principles and her compromises; but above all she needs the wisdom to know when to stick to the one or yield to the other, that God may be glorified in all things.

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Goodness and Wisdom

Goodness and wisdom probably don’t head the list of qualities being looked for when an organization is appointing a new managing director or CEO, but they are the first  that Benedict requires of an abbot (RB 64.2). The abbot’s personal qualities, however, are not the starting-point for his second chapter on the appointment of a superior (he has already treated the subject once in chapter 2): he begins with the way in which an abbot should be appointed, either by the whole community acting unanimously in the fear of God, or by some smaller part of it endowed with better judgement (RB 64.1).

I find that encouraging. Benedict’s view of human nature is positive. The abbot is chosen from the community, and he trusts the community to have the very qualities he seeks in the abbot. Leadership, in Benedict’s view, is not merely at the service of the community, it is a kind of distillation of all that is good and true in the community itself.

It was helpful to be reminded of that in the light of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Clearly there is concern about some members and some attitudes and actions inconsistent with Catholic belief and practice, but it is by no means the wholescale condemnation some have suggested.

Personally, I dislike the whoops of glee that sound in some quarters whenever there is a suggestion that priests or religious are being given a rap over the knuckles. In my experience, most priests and religious believe what they profess and are truly doing their best to serve the Lord and his Church. As a nun myself, I can’t help wondering whether there are some U.S. religious whose morale will have been delivered a severe blow. What affects one affects all, and not always positively. Perhaps today we could pray for those U.S. nuns and sisters whose lives are an inspiration and encouragement to others, who are genuinely good and wise, as well as those who have lost sight of the obligations of their vocation. We all need grace, and never more so than when we seem to be under a cloud of another’s making.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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St Teresa of Avila

St Teresa of Avila did everything wrong. By the standards of her day, she was not what a nun should be. To begin with, there was the question of her origins, which appeared to include some converso blood; then there was the fact that she entered the monastery mainly because she thought it the safest course rather than because she had a compelling sense of vocation; once there she had a far from untroubled course learning how to pray; and when she set about her reform of Carmel, she not only travelled the length and breadth of Spain in a way that would have been impossible a few years later, she encountered and faced down an enormous amount of opposition.

In spite of all, she is one of the most engaging of saints, whose teaching on prayer continues to be an inspiration to many. Her writing is intensely personal, practical and wise. She is one of the first two women to be declared a Doctor of the Church and, a reflection of her own trials in the matter, the patron saint of headache sufferers. I rather think St Teresa would have smiled over the latter, especially as she had some frank things to say about nuns who excused themselves from choir, pleading the excuse of a headache. Although I myself have never felt the slightest attraction to Carmelite life, I can’t help thinking St Teresa of Avila did everything right: she is an encouragement to everyone who seeks to know the Lord better.

Christian New Media Conference
I’m participating in the Christian New Media Conference at City University, London, today. If you don’t already have a ticket, why not come along and get one at the door? Registration begins at 9.30 a.m. You can also follow on Twitter, using the hashtag #cnmac11.

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Summer Colds

Summer colds are annoying, both to the one with the cold and those without. They tend to spread a pall of gloom over everything. No prizes for guessing that the snuffle season is upon us here at Hendred. We shall do the wise thing: announce a short blogcation, turn off Twitter, flip the switch on Facebook, ignore Google+ and retire to a life of indignant meditation until we regain our usual sunny disposition. (Some hope. Ed.)

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The Cloister of the Heart

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.

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So You Want to be a Nun, do you?

From time to time I dip into a forum frequented by people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. One of the things it has taught me is that many people reflect on religious vocation in ways more reminiscent of a career choice than vocation as I understand it. I don’t say this to criticize, merely to remark. There is much assessment of habits, devotions, penances, liturgy and a weighing up of ‘tradition’ (which does not always equate to Tradition). It seems so far from what really matters. While I think it is good to ask oneself whether one will fit in and grow in a particular community or Order, I am more hesitant about the ‘shopping list of requirements’ that some potential candidates produce. Indeed, I can look back on a huge volume of letters and emails the novice mistress and I have sent out explaining that the desire to be a nun does not necessarily imply a vocation; that more is required than just saying, ‘I’ll enter with you.’

Today we begin reading RB 58, Benedict’s extended treatment of admission of candidates to the community. More and more, I realise its wisdom. He starts off by saying that newcomers should not be granted too easy an entrance, that we should test the spirits to see whether they be from God. I wish everyone would read that before they think of applying! There can be such indignation and hurt when it is pointed out that the community has a say in the matter, that what we are seeking is God’s will rather than our own. Sometimes people think a small community will be a push-over, taking anyone on any terms. The reverse is true. No community will last if it has members who are uncommitted or unsuited to monastic life. While a certain degree of eccentricity can be tolerated in a large community, crankiness in a small one is not a good idea. I am pleased to say that we have a number of people who want to enter with us, if we can get big enough premises, but we don’t count the chickens before they are hatched. It is remarkable how many vocations disappear as the entrance date draws near and the reality begins to dawn. Those that survive are usually very good and strong.

Please pray for those discerning a religious vocation. Western society is not very supportive of those who want to make a counter-cultural choice. Families can be very hostile and the economic climate makes it difficult to fulfil some of the canonical requirements. If you are yourself thinking of becoming a nun, it is worth pondering what Benedict says the community must look for in a candidate: are you truly seeking God; are you eager for the Work of God, for obedience, and for the things that will humble you? Answer those questions and I think you’ll have less difficulty with the rest. A vocation is, after all, a response to an invitation from God, who can do all things.

Note: The vocation pages on our main web site provide some information about becoming a nun; the FAQ is regularly updated.

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The Place of Prayer

RB 52 is all about the monastery’s place of prayer, the oratory. Its simplicity and directness are a useful reminder that some of the things we fuss about — aesthetics, liturgy, vestments, whatever — are secondary to our own inner disposition. Prayer happens because we want to pray, because part of us at least responds to God’s invitation to pray; sometimes we forget that he is always asking us to pray, to enter into union with him, but that is not how Benedict sees things. God is always there; it is we who are so often absent.

As regards the building and its furnishings, all Benedict has to say is, ‘The oratory should be what it is called and nothing else be done or kept there.’ That cuts to the heart of the matter: we pray where we are, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can create helpful conditions by keeping our place of prayer, whether the inner space of mind and heart or the outer space of the place where we pray, uncluttered; but that’s about it. The only other thing he asks of us is that we should be considerate of others and not hinder their prayer by our own noisy devotions.

It is all rather understated, isn’t it? But that is the monastic way of prayer: quiet, simple, persevering. So easy but oh, so difficult, too!

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Online Retreats

Yesterday we received the first feedback from our Online Retreats. Eleven* people took the trouble to sit down and write a thoughtful, and in some cases quite detailed, response to the whole experience as well as the particular questions raised by doing a retreat on lectio divina. Even in my tired and curmudgeonly state, I was immensely encouraged — by the obvious sincerity, the desire for God, the generous appreciation of what we are trying to do and the evident determination to carry the retreat on into daily life. We were particularly struck by one person’s comment that we had brought the monastery to them: that is exactly what we had hoped to do, to enable people to share in its inner life of prayer and worship.

What we were not prepared for was the fact that many found the title of one set of retreats, Five Minute Focus, bewildering. In our defence I can only say that we did not mean the ‘five minutes’ to be taken literally, although I suppose one could read through some of the retreat material in five minutes. We wanted to convey the idea of focusing on God, of regularly returning to him through the day in short ‘bursts’ or periods of attention. In the context of lectio divina or prayer that makes perfect sense. Perhaps we should have spelled that out. At least everyone who responded acknowledged that they had received ‘value for money’!

Both the dedicated Retreatline (email) and LiveChat have enabled users to ask questions and share reflections in confidence, so it looks as though the Five Minute Focus format is working well. We shall be tweaking things a little in the light of the responses we have received and may make adjustments to the Shared and Companion Retreats before launching them later this year. The one utterly devastating criticism (made by only one person, and in such a gentle, kind way one couldn’t take offence) was that we didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. As I have often been taken to task for having too much humour, I am nonplussed. I blame the dog. Wouldn’t you?

* Eleven people may not sound a huge sample, but the service has only been running a little over a week.

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