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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Ten Tips for Bloggers

A meditative start to Monday this. I am well aware that there is much still to learn but here are a few tips for aspiring bloggers — and before you write and tell me, I know I don’t always observe them myself:

1. A provocative title will attract viewers but not necessarily readers. There is a difference.

2. Do not be surprised when people read what they think you have written, rather than what you have actually written.

3. Short and simple is better than long and complex. You should be doing the work, not your reader.

4. Don’t use copyright images/audio to illustrate your post unless you have the right to.

5. Be polite, especially towards those who hold different opinions. Sarcasm is not wit; nor is the imputation of base motives to others acceptable unless you like the idea of being sued.

6. Encourage debate: make it easy for people to comment, and engage with those who do.

7. People take the trouble to read your blog because they want to read what you’ve written; too many links to other blogs, unless relevant to the discussion, can be irritating. Use the Blogroll instead.

8. Try to make sure your blog is easy on the eye: that orange on black scheme is not a good idea unless you want to give your readers migraine.

9. Allow yourself a sixty-seconds pause before pressing the publish button. Both you and your readers will appreciate it. Believe me.

10. Remember that humour can be tricky and doesn’t always travel well. We are often divided by a common language.

Finally, not a tip, more a suggestion, but if you are a believer, pray before you begin to write. The Holy Spirit is interested in what you write, even if no one else is.

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Managing Expectations

I imagine we all have our own take on this. There are the expectations we have of others, the expectations others have of us, and the expectations we have of ourselves. The expectations God has of anyone rarely seem to figure, probably because he is much less demanding than we are.

I have become fairly inured to the expectations others have of me as a nun. I know I should be eternally young, beautiful, patient and kind, needing nothing, giving everything; but as I can’t manage any of that, I am quite happy to disappoint. The expectations I have of others are more troubling. I know I have sometimes burdened them with my expectations, wanting them to be perfect in a way that I am not perfect myself or, worse still, to be perfect in the way that I have decided for them. Finally, there are the expectations I have of myself, which are largely delusional, even down to the time it will take me to do something (one always underestimates).

And God? God is different. “What I want is love, not sacrifice.” What God wants is us, just as we are: poor, weak, wobbly and absolutely infuriating, always misunderstanding, backsliding and generally unsatisfactory. God is never disappointed in us, never put out by our failures, because no matter how often we get it wrong he still sees in us something we so often fail to register: “Christ lovely in limbs not his”. Praise him.

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Why Greed is Wrong

No doubt you are expecting some loyal articulation of what the Catholic Catechism has to say about the right relationship between production and consumption or perhaps a whimsical disquisition on bankers’ bonuses or council pay packets. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I think the worst aspect of greed is not its injustice (some having more than others, and wanting more than their ‘fair share’), nor the violence to which it often gives rise (think Congolese diamonds) or even the suffering inflicted by an empty belly, lack of housing and the absence of medical care or access to education, though heaven knows, these are wrongs that cry aloud for vengeance. No, the problem with fat cats is that they are fat: the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness.

I daresay most of my readers are recoiling in horror at such levity of mind and wondering what the heck I mean. I am not saying that greed is not unjust, of course it is. It is all of the things I have enumerated above. But it is also a distortion of something very precious, the image of God each one of us bears within ourselves. That is why I say that the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness. To allow ourselves to corrupt that image is, when you think about it, the most terrible form of destruction, because it is fundamentally self-destruction. For most of us greed is confined to occasional bouts of excess or selfishness but it can become habitual and so blind us to what we are really doing. Price is not a measure of value, but sometimes what we value isn’t worth the price.

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Fat and Holy

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico
St Thomas by Fra Angelico

One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).

Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.

In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.

In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.

So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.

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Lectio Divina

Today we complete the first of this year’s three readings of the prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. Every day we have tweeted a single sentence or phrase of the day’s portion of the Rule. Doing so may have been of no help to anyone but ourselves, but it has concentrated our minds wonderfully. To distill into a single sentence what is already a remarkably concise text requires a prayerful mulling over of something already known by heart. It is, if you like, an online exercise in lectio divina.

The two key phrases in the above paragraph are “known by heart” and “prayerful mulling over”. There is no mystery about the practice of lectio divina although many have tried to make it sound difficult or esoteric. Nothing is needed except a text and an attentive heart – and perhaps the willingness to spend time on something that has no purpose beyond itself. Many people who have “tried” lectio divina and given up do so at the point where the process really begins, in the boredom and “flatness” of a text that apparently yields nothing. To pray in this way you must give up all ideas of mastering the text and instead allow the  text to master you.

The very first word of the prologue is obsculta – listen, listen carefully! – and we are invited to “bend low the ear of your heart” to hear what the Master wishes to say. That is the invitation of lectio divina, renewed daily. What we carry away from our lectio divina may not be what we expected, may not even occur to us until much later in the day (Benedict assumes that we will give time to lectio divina early in the day), but it will be something that changes us because this way of praying is intimately connected with conversion of heart, metanoia. Little by little, God chips away at the encrustations surrounding us so that we may be genuinely free.

Personally, I always begin the day with scripture, the unadulterated word of God, so to say. It may be only a line or two, the quantity is irrelevant. What matters is to open ourselves to “the voice of God that cries out to us every day”. (RB Prol. 9) We must believe that God speaks, not always as easy as it sounds, and be brave enough to listen. Sometimes, it can seem like being ready to go back to school again, learning again things we thought we already knew and are horrified to discover we have forgotten or imperfectly understood. Interestingly, Benedict describes the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service”. (RB Prol. 45) It is no accident that the practice of lectio divina is the characteristic activity of monks and nuns in that school.

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Spiritual Direction

From time to time one of us is asked if we will act as a “spiritual director” to someone. Our reaction always surprises those who know nothing of our community history or the part played in it by Fr Augustine Baker. There is generally a slight hesitation, followed by a quiet smile and even quieter affirmation, “The Holy Spirit is the best spiritual director.” This sometimes leads our interlocutors to wonder if we are Catholic at all, or at any rate not quite right in the head. (I sometimes wonder about the latter, too, but that is by the bye.)

It is what we don’t say that is important. There are many more spiritual directors in the world than there is true spiritual direction. To be able to guide others in the ways of God is a rare gift, a charism, and it is not given to all. The nuns of Cambrai (from whom we are descended) had a hard battle to avoid being pressured into a way of prayer and spirituality entirely alien to them under the name of “spiritual direction”. It was largely thanks to the fortitude of D. Catherine Gascoigne and her community, who were subject to some pretty stiff ecclesiastical penalties, that Fr Baker’s eminently sane teaching survived to shape the lives of the nuns who followed after. Fr Baker is now recognized as a master of the spiritual life and his insistence on “liberty of spirit” continues to inform those communities which took his teaching to heart.

But to say that spiritual direction is a rare gift and that the Holy Spirit is the best teacher is not the same as saying, “Do what you like.” For us, “liberty of spirit” presupposes life in community under the Rule and a superior, where there are daily checks on behaviour; it involves constant prayer and study and, above all, regular reception of the sacraments. Very often the sacraments are left out of the equation but for growth in holiness they are essential, especially the one many people ignore: confession.

Confession is not the same as spiritual direction. As a sacrament, we can be quite sure that the Lord is at work in it, no matter how “inadequate” we or the confessor happen to be. There is no similar guarantee with spiritual direction. That is not to say that spiritual directors are frauds and charlatans, far from it, but it is why we will not undertake that role. Those who have the gift can contribute a great deal to those who seek instruction and guidance; those who haven’t can do a great deal of harm. We do not give spiritual direction, but we do pray, as best we can, for all who seek our help.

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Epiphany 2011

The Three Magi
The Three Magi

Readers of Colophon may remember that we used this image of the Magi for our post about Epiphany last year. The Autun sculptor has captured beautifully both the mystery and the humanity of these three seekers after truth. I particularly love the tender way the angel is wakening one by touching his little finger as the other two lie fast asleep. One can imagine him whispering, “Get up, this is the way!”

Often we resolve problems or come to a deeper appreciation of things by not explicitly attending to them. Sleeping on the problem, going for a walk, playing something on the piano or weeding a flower-bed: all are tried and trusted methods of allowing our minds to break free of the constraints we put upon them when we are trying to work something out.

For the Christian there is another and more effective way of breaking free of these constraints, and that is prayer. Not prayer as instant solution or easy way out, but prayer as quiet, persevering seeking after God. The Magi loved truth and undertook an enormous journey in pursuit of it. They found what they sought where they must least have expected to find it: in a small child born in an obscure part of a Roman province. We often seek truth in odd places and can be disconcerted to discover that it lies much nearer home. May Epiphany reveal to you the wonder of him who is Light from Light, our journey’s goal, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(If you wish to reread the Colophon entry for Epiphany 2010, the best way of doing so is to go via our web site and click on the archive for January 2010. At the moment the JS-Kit comments script is making things work very slowly, so we need to decide whether to  drop the comments, which we are reluctant to do, or find another way of archiving them. We’ll take our own advice and sleep on it.)

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Good Zeal

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 72 which you can listen to here, has the title “On the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have”. The title isn’t Benedict’s but I think he would have approved. It is modest and unassuming and, occurring as it does almost at the end of the Rule, suggests an acceptance of human frailty which is encouraging. Benedict has spelled out in great detail how the monk is to order his life and devoted several pages to the demands of living in community. Yet here he is soberly talking about the good zeal monks ought to have and must cultivate with the most ardent love as though it cannot be taken for granted, even in the monastery.

Zeal can be dangerous. We can go seriously wrong for what we believe are the best of motives. We have probably all met people so consumed by what they see as evil that they have become unpleasantly like what they detest. We may even have been guilty  of being too rigorous ourselves in situations which called for forgiveness and understanding. Zeal gone wrong leads to fanaticism and that, as we all know, can be poisonous.

Benedict’s antidote is to put energy and enthusiasm into that which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. As you might expect, he singles out for mention qualities he has already written about: patience in bearing with one another’s weaknesses “whether of body or character” (including X’s annoying little habits), eagerness to show respect and obedience to other members of the community (including that odious Y), seeking what is better for another rather than oneself and, above all, loving God, one’s superior and the brethren. He sums it all up by saying that we must put nothing whatever before Christ who, we pray, will bring us all together to everlasting life.

It is a beautiful and moving statement of the inner dynamic of monastic life but there are days when it sounds just a bit . . . effortful. That’s the problem with zeal. It has a bright, tooth-paste tang about it which most of us prefer in small doses. At this time of year, when the Christmas decorations are beginning to look a little tired and 2011 is almost upon us, we can use RB 72 as a reality check on how we actually live our lives.

So, before you write your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself one question. Do you put as much energy into your service of God and others as you do into making things comfortable for yourself? I blush to think of my own answer. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but comfort achieved at the expense of others is more questionable. I think even I could become zealous about that. At least, I hope so.

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O Sapientia

O Sapientia

Tonight at Vespers we shall begin the wonderful series of Magnificat antiphons known as the Great O Antiphons. You can read more about them and listen to them being sung on the Advent page of our web site, here.

We begin the series with an invocation of Wisdom, which proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, fills the whole universe and holds all things in being. We ask this divine Wisdom, so strong and yet so gentle, to come and show us the way of prudence, the way of divine truthfulness. It is a dangerous prayer to make, because it may be answered with a disturbing literalness. Once we have glimpsed the Truth, we can never be the same again. All our old falsehoods, the “little white lies” we use to protect ourselves, begin to seem unbearably shabby. We stand in need of re-creation; and that is precisely what Advent is about.

These last days of Advent are very precious. If until now you have not been able to make any time for spiritual preparation for Christmas, try to read though the O antiphons each day and the scripture texts we suggest should be read in conjunction with them. It may seem to you very little but God is gracious and immensely pleased with the small things we do for love of him.

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