One of those "ah" moments: a new-born lamb photographed while taking Duncan for a walk this morning. (In case you are wondering, we have put off getting our SLR repaired and have invested in a cheap point-and-shoot to "tide us over": digital equipment is fine until something goes wrong, then one has to decide whether to repair or replace. The latter often works out less expensive, which says something about our disposable society although I am not sure what.)
All week the Shepherd and his flock have dominated our reading of scripture. The shepherd motif is not unique to the Bible, of course. Homer often referred to the Greek chiefs as shepherds of their people; Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, also called himself "shepherd". The shepherd of the Middle East was and is a tough character who must actively manage his flock and face up to all kinds of dangers to ensure its safety and increase. Portrayals of the Good Shepherd tend to gloss over these realities and give us a rather saccharine image. However, we know very well that we behave like sheep more often than we care to admit. We are wilful, have a tendency to wander and become utterly helpless when knocked off balance. This morning's photo did remind me of one thing, however: the sheep too must experience risk and hardships. We tend to forget that childbirth remains a risky process, even here in the west. How much more so where basic hygiene and medical care is at a premium. Let us remember all expectant mothers in our prayers today.
In case you missed yesterday afternoon's blog post, we are setting up an email newsletter. If you would like to receive it, please register below.
On a more mundane note, we do not know whether a regular email newsletter is the right thing to do or not, but not everyone has time to check the web site. In any case, some things are better dealt with by email rather than online; so, we are about to launch an email newsletter which will give you all the news that's fit to sprint through the ether. If you would like to receive it, please sign-up. Suggestions for a newsletter name are welcome (provided they are polite, of course). We shall not share your email address with anyone.
Duncan hears Gordon Brown call himself "a penitent sinner".
We human beings are rather like our humble holy water bottle: not very impressive on the outside, perhaps, but beautiful within (at least, I hope so). We can press the analogy too far, but on this lovely spring morning when the whole of creation seems to be sending up alleluias, we do well to pause for a moment and just say "thank you". Thank you to God for all his gifts, and thank you to our neighbour for all that he or she brings to our life. A few drops of gratitude thrown into the desert of ungratefulness could have a remarkable effect.
The foolishness at the FCO seems to have attracted an absurd amount of attention. The internal memo was puerile, certainly; offensive, too, in its muddling of really important things Catholics believe to be wrong (like abortion) with things Catholics have long been actively involved in promoting (like AIDS clinics). It showed the perpetrator to be remarkably ignorant as well as silly. Perhaps the entrance exams for the FCO are easier than they were when Colophon was young (dim memories surface of sheltering under a tree while others constructed a raft in the midst of a downpour: another diplomatic career foundering on the rock of commonsense). Or perhaps diplomacy is no longer considered an art worth practising: boorishness rules, OK? What Colophon found really worrying was the thought that something similar might be written about a future visit by a Muslim head of state/religious leader. The possible consequences are too dreadful to contemplate.
Good Shepherd Sunday passed without a word being spoken about vocation, which shows just how far-reaching the abuse scandal is proving to be. Colophon has made its views known on several occasions so cannot be accused of treating matters superficially when it continues to assert that priestly and religious vocations are a gift from God to his Church, not to be despised or disparaged but earnestly sought and generously fostered. We need people who are willing to give their whole lives to God. So, even if our priests feel that they cannot speak about vocation, we can and must pray for all who are trying to discern God's will. They need encouragement and support. From whom will it come if not from us?
Finally, the letter from the Bishops of England and Wales acknowledging the wrongs that have been done, expressing the sorrow and shame we all feel and calling for special prayer on Fridays during May is to be warmly welcomed. It is exactly the kind of straightforward and honest response we had all been hoping for.
The pope is spot on, surely, when he asks us to concentrate on the ways in which we Christians use language and other forms of communication "in the online society". Give the internet soul, YES! Digitalnun agrees heartily, but her eyes began to glaze as she read further: "The dangers of homologation and control, of intellectual and moral relativism are also increasing, as already recognizable in the decline of critical spirit, in truth reduced to a game of opinions, in the many forms of degradation and humiliation of the intimacy of the person." Yes again to the sentiments; but "?" to the expression.
Holy Father, very few English-speakers use words like "homologation" and those who do tend not to be very good at communicating. We are delighted that Rome is taking a positive view of the internet and the possibilities it opens up, but on this Good Shepherd Sunday, when we shall all be thinking and praying about vocation and our mission as Christians, could we put in a plea for more idiomatic and straightforward translations into a language spoken by millions of Catholics throughout the world? Otherwise, Roma locuta est, causa obscura est.
With filial love and respect, a blogging nun.
Catholics are notoriously bad at valuing their heritage. I don't just mean all the senseless destruction of Victorian Gothic which followed in the wake of Vatican II nor the equally senseless destruction of good contemporary design in favour of soulless pastiche which is sometimes a problem today (Digitalnun can be quite as severe about the Fusty and Musty school of church art as she is about the Brutal and Ugly: a pox on both their houses!) Heritage means more than that. It is art and architecture, language and music, of course, but also, and importantly, traditions of place and prayer, a whole way of being. Yes, Mass can be celebrated in a cowshed or a cathedral with great beauty and fervour; the Divine Office can be sung in a fine basilica or in the open air with devotion and skill. We know that. We give time and resources to our buildings, our liturgies, our vestments and so on and so forth, but sometimes we forget or undervalue our history. That's where the traditions of place and prayer come in.
This morning we attended Mass in the private chapel of the Eyston family at Hendred House. It has been in Catholic hands since 1256 and one certainly gets a feeling of generations of Berkshire Catholics praying there through the centuries. There are other places where one has a sense of fading glory, of abandonment, loss and ruin. One thinks of some of the splendid Victorian Gothic churches of the north. Monastic communities in this country have not always given a lead. A Jewish visitor to a Benedictine monastery once remarked that he had a sense of the Shekinah fading over the nearby city (where a community of monks had lived in the middle ages) but still being bright over the village where the nuns were then living. Today he might feel it fading there, too, for the nuns have gone and with them a Catholic presence which stretched back beyond Penal Times. Ichabod.
Heritage is not to be equated with mere conservation, a preservation of the status quo. Like Tradition, it must be alive and active. That is why traditions of place and prayer are worth cherishing, because they help us to a sense of the numinous, of God present, here and now. We look back and we look forward; but we can only know God in the present.
Our next web conference is scheduled to take place on Thursday, 6 May at 7.30 p.m. London time (13.30 EST 14.30 EDT and 18.30 UTC). We shall be looking at how to reconcile the interiority of Christianity with mission. Plenty of time afterwards to catch up on the Election results!
One could advance the eco-friendly argument, that making maximum use of natural daylight must be a good thing. The cellarer (bursar) would agree, adding that money not frittered away on artificial light could be better spent elsewhere, "elsewhere" never being defined, for fear she be held to ransom over a rash statement. One could also say that there is a practical advantage in getting up early to read and pray before the telephone starts ringing or people start coming to the door. Having been hauled out of bed by insistent late-night telephone callers three times already this week, I am not as enthusiastic about this as I usually am, although I know it to be true: reading and prayer are best carried out when there is less likelihood of interruption.
But is there a deeper, more spiritual significance to the practice of early rising? I think there is. All monastic traditions have looked upon night and early morning as privileged times of prayer. The Resurrection took place in that mysterious period between darkness and light. To pray at such times is to assert the triumph of good over evil, of Life over death. At a time when the world is unconscious or uncaring, we raise our hands like Moses in intercession for others. Like Moses, too, we know ourselves to be weak and feeble, sustained not by our own power but by Another's. Getting up early never comes easily to some, even after a lifetime's practice; but there is always the hope that, like Mary, we may meet our Saviour "very early, before the sun has yet risen".
When the disciple Jesus loved said that the man on the seashore was the Lord, Peter panicked, grabbed his cloak and jumped into the water. (I do not think the conventionally pious explanation, that Peter jumped off the boat in order to get to Jesus more quickly, is anywhere near the truth. Except when becalmed, one does not leap from a boat to reach shore quickly, one stays on it; and if you were Peter, after that terrible betrayal at the trial, I think you'd be alarmed at the thought of meeting him again.) Peter wants to escape Jesus, just as Adam fled at the sound of the Lord's voice in the Garden of Eden. Like Adam, Peter is conscious of his nakedness and hopes his cloak will cover not only his body but also his confusion and shame. He has yet to learn that he cannot escape nor does trying to cover up anything succeed. He is forced to confront his deepest fear: Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, here and now on the seashore.
We shall never know what Peter saw in Jesus' eyes when he reached the shore. Forgiveness? Acceptance? Pain? Characteristically, he bustles about, bringing part of the catch to the barbecue; but there is no escape. The questions come, one after the other, but always with the same theme, "do you love me?" Peter answers truthfully, with a mounting sense of despair that he will ever be able to put things right and assure Jesus of his love. That is precisely his problem, and often it is ours too. WE want to put things right but have to learn, over and over again, that our betrayals and sins are "put right" by the Lord. Yes, we have to consent to his action, but it is he who takes the initiative, he alone who can redeem.
Peter experienced the Lord's forgiveness but it came with the command, "feed my sheep." For us too forgiveness is accompanied by a mission to pass on that forgiveness to others. How we do so may be a puzzle to us, but it should not be a problem. That particular problem was solved two thousand years ago beside the sea of Galilee.
A brief podcast on vocation will be found on the podcast page.
Many years ago, at the request of the Dalai Lama, two Tibetan monks stayed at our monastery for a year. Philosophically East never quite managed to meet West, but the language of compassion proved universal. It is heart-warming to see it being spoken now in the devasted streets of Jiegu.
After some hours spent cracking code, the afternoon was cheered by the arrival of a small party from the SLG, Oxford, who had come to talk about design software and updating their Press. Some readers will already be familiar with their list of spiritual works. If you are not, I recommend that you have a look at their web site. As always, we who spend most of our lives in silence had not the slightest difficulty in talking nineteen to the dozen about subjects of common interest.
No sooner had the SLG departed than we were plunged into another minor domestic complication. The on-going (nearly three months' long) saga of our changing banks has reached a new and dispiriting low. We now appear to be paying Standing Orders and Direct Debits from both old and new accounts, i.e. twice over, but the kind people who support us with donations directly to our bank account seem not to have been informed of the switch (despite our new bank's promise to tell everyone on our list). There is nothing for it but to try to sort out the muddle ourselves, which will mean a lot of letter-writing. In the circumstances, this blog is likely to fall silent for a day or two.
Digitalnun is now sitting grumpily at the computer. She has often waxed lyrical about acceptance and Christian resignation, but being asked to practise what one preaches will surely test her spirit. We shall see how she fares. In the meantime, a friend has taken photographs of the cross made by Martin Wenham as a temporary marker for D. Teresa's grave. As mentioned before, she is buried under the great west window.
First, I think we need to tackle the obvious. Benedict alone among early writers allows parents to make binding decisions about their children's future. More commonly, the parent's choice has later to be ratified by the child or it is rendered null and void (cfr Basil of Caeserea, Augustine). The wrapping of the child's hand in the altar cloth not only emphasizes the consecration, it also emphasizes the fact that the child is reduced to a chattel, a mere thing. Sadly, Benedict paved the way for later legislation that must, in many instances, have proved heartbreaking. Gregory II (726) forbade any child offered to a monastery in this way ever to leave it. For every happy little Bede there may have been an unhappy little Beowulf.
Child oblation is no longer permitted, thank God, but we can exert influence on other people; so perhaps a little conscience-searching about how we limit the choices of others may be in order. We can bully others both actively and passively, and we use comforting little phrases like "it's for your own good" to hide from ourselves the enormity of what we are doing. That is worth thinking about, especially if we have a pet project or an idea we are keen to implement, whether at home or at work.
Secondly, but importantly, there is some severe teaching about private ownership and the potential for discord that "having expectations" can create. Benedict touches on this theme at several points in the Rule, and experience confirms his wisdom. To look outside the community for the supply of this or that creates inequalities. Those who do not have rich relations or friends are put at a disadvantage, and that is not what Benedict wants. "We are all one in Christ and serve alike under the standard of the same Lord." It is dangerously easy to try to compensate for a "deprived" childhood or a temporary unhappiness by amassing material things. What Benedict is asking of us is to look beyond the material. In the monastery that means to accept the demands of a common life which may entail going without what we think we need as well as what we would like. How hard that can be at times!
Finally, I would like to draw attention to one small point I think deeply significant. Benedict mentions only the children of the nobility and of the poor. That covers everyone in the sixth century, does it not? No, not quite. Slaves could not become monks; they had to be set free first. The same is true of us. Only a truly free person can become a Benedictine. Freedom is more than just the absence of constraint. The roots of the English word go back to an Indo-European term connected with love and friendship, so that St Paul's statement that "for freedom Christ has set us free" has many levels of meaning. Accordingly, a question for today might be, how free am I? How Benedictine am I?
Digitalnun's perplexity about the number of business emails received from fellow-Christians on Sundays seems to have struck a chordin others. Perhaps we need to think more about how and when we do things. Benedict has some perceptive remarks about choosing "the appropriate moment" for making a request or approaching a superior, so expect to read a post on this subject soon.
This week's podcast will be posted on Tuesday as we have a lot of catching up to do today.
Not exactly. Notice that I said "Catholics stand accused", not "priests and religious stand accused". We all like to distance ourselves from failure, how much more so from that which is evil. We may be quietly saying inside "There but for the grace of God go I", but our public stance is likely to be horror and outrage at the perpetrators. The trouble is, as St Paul reminds us, the Body of Christ is one and indivisible. We have all fallen short of the glory of God and are all somehow bound up with one another.
Since 2001 the Catholic Church in England and Wales has had some very rigorous procedures in place to try to prevent the abuse of children or vulnerable adults. The case of David Pearce shows how faulty or negligent implementation can make them as good as useless. Do we therefore say, "Scrap the procedures. They are not working", or do we acknowledge that there will always be failures because human nature is not yet perfect? Acceptance of failure is not the same as condoning it. As a Church we must redouble our efforts to protect the vulnerable and to create a culture in which children and young people are truly valued and respected.
The wounds on the body of the Risen Christ are still there, but they have become glorious channels of life and healing. I am not suggesting for one moment that the dreadful things done to children and young people can ever be anything but appalling, but isn't there a possibility that out of this experience something good may come? It is Colophon's hope, as I am sure it must be the hope of many, that a humbler, more open Church may arise from the ashes of our previous over-confidence.
There will probably always be men and women drawn to priesthood and the religious life who do not have the requisite maturity or balance to undertake its obligations. Sadly, I have known some of them. But there are also saints; and I have known some of them, too. Many good Catholics are suffering today for the sins of others. Let us not forget them as we try to make sense of what is happening in and to the Church. Today's gospel is full of hope: sin and death are not the end of the story but the beginning. On us too let us ask the Lord to breathe his Holy Spirit.
Matthew's words have set Digitalnun thinking about some of the ways in which our community differs from others. For example, our Associates, Oblates and Friends are an integral part of our "monastic enterprise", not just a nice extra. During recent weeks this has been very evident in the relaunching of Veilaudio (formerly St Cecilia's Guild).
When D. Teresa died she took to the grave with her a great deal of information about the audio book service. We all tend to store things in our heads or jot down coded messages incomprehensible to others on the backs of envelopes or in a digital Shovebox. D. Teresa was no exception; so, for the last few weeks, two of our Friends have been patiently and painstakingly working their way through the Upper Room which houses most of the audio library. They have pieced together a list of members' names and addresses, sorted through hundreds of cassettes, fathomed the mysteries of the archaic cataloguing system and begun transferring records to something safer and more easily upgradeable. Every user of the service should now have received a letter explaining what we are doing. Meanwhile, another Friend has completed exhaustive tests on the digital recording equipment we are hoping to buy for those who record books for us, and a visually impaired Friend has been experimenting with some of the new audio formats we shall be introducing. In the process, redundant equipment has been identified and disposed of and clutter eliminated. On the down side, we realise just how much we miss D. Teresa's unique "take" on things, her unsurpassed ability to befriend elderly and isolated people, and her genius for choosing books to record.
Our next task will be to decide which titles we shall be recording this year. Hitherto we have managed to produce roughly one new audio book every fortnight, and we'd like to keep that up although there will inevitably be a hiatus until we have everything working properly. At the same time, we shall have to do some serious fund-raising if we are to keep Veilaudio a free service. Watch this space, as they say.
Finally, many thanks to those who have responded to our request for suggested times/dates for our next web conference. If you haven't yet done so, there is still time. The subject will be reconciling the interiority of Christianity with the demands of a missionary Faith (cfr Matthew 6 and what we do on Ash Wednesday). If you live in the U.S. dialling directly into Talkshoe may be easier than using the VOIP option we Europeans resort to.
Digitalnun has been exploring some alternative web conference software, but we'll stick with Talkshoe for the time being. Please remember that if you wish to join in the discussion, it is better to use a headset with earphones and microphone rather than relying on the inbuilt microphone in your computer.
It does not really matter where we look for the origins of the octave, e.g. the dedication of Solomon's temple on the eighth day, Early Christian baptismal practice, or the dedication of Constantine's churches in Tyre and Jerusalem in the fourth century. What matters is what the octave has become in Christian thought and practice. It is a privileged time for teasing out, as it were, all the richness of the great event we are celebrating. The Triduum is so full of drama, the liturgy so demanding, that one really needs eight days in which to reflect on the Resurrection. It is good that during these days we hear the different resurrection narratives in their proper context and are able to sing the psalms with a sense of completion, of victory won.
Perhaps the very busyness of the Easter Octave is an opportunity to ask ourselves what it means to be a Benedictine today, to live with the tension, so to say, of being contemplative in a world that is anything but. I am reminded yet again of the "eye of the storm" idea. It is, paradoxically, at the heart of the tempest that the deepest peace and stillness is to be sought and found. Maybe that is what is being asked of all of us, whatever our state in life, this Octave.
It always amuses us that as soon as some great Christian festival approaches, we receive a lot of work from people who are preparing to celebrate the feast/just setting off on holiday and would like to have everything finished when they return. Quite when we are supposed to do all this work, given that we are celebrating the feast too, is never made clear. This year we seem to have more than usual to get through and some of it has involved confronting the darker side of the web (we have been asked to help people whose sites have been hacked, not nice, not nice at all). In between times, i.e. when we should have been sleeping or eating, we have been begun sorting through D. Teresa's things, welcomed visitors and tried to keep up with Veilaiudio (thank heavens for our Friends, who are doing most of the work there) AND dealt with the ongoing saga of changing banks. If you too are thinking of changing banks, consider this and be warned.
In January we decided that the service we had been receiving from our old bank did not justify the charges we were being asked to pay so we began the process of moving everything to another. Little did we expect that more than two months later the process would still be far from complete, that extracting information from our old bank would be like drawing blood from stones and that we would face 1 April not knowing which bank would be paying which standing order. Digitalnun's desk is always covered with paper but it has never been quite so difficult to work out which pile concerns which problem. On the plus side, our almost daily conversations with a succession of courteous and helpful Head Office staff at the new bank have done much to restore our faith in human nature. We have received an abundance of "the good word" if nothing else. I know we should be grateful. If the sun shines today, we shall even feel grateful; but it would be such a relief to have the business concluded. Funny how things like this can can assume such gigantic proportions, isn't it?
Christ is risen, alleluia! Those words have rung out from countless churches and chapels throughout the centuries as they ring out today. He is risen indeed, alleluia! For eight days we shall celebrate Easter day, then for six weeks more we shall celebrate the Easter season. All the sin and shabbiness which disfigures our lives is redeemed, transformed by the love poured out upon us. The Resurrection is too big to be grasped, we can only kneel in wonder at God's amazing, reckless generosity. Today, when we are all tired after the drama of the Triduum, the splendour of the liturgy, the sheer effort involved in making Easter a day of celebration, we do well to rest if we can. To rest in God is to allow him full scope to act, and isn't that what we most desire?
For those who expressed an interest in a plainsong ringtone, here is a little Easter present for you. Right click the image to download the linked file and save to your desktop, then transfer to your mobile via bluetooth or USB cable (the sound quality is not brilliant, but that keeps the file size small).
I like the fact that at midday on Good Friday and Holy Saturday we sing the whole of psalm 118 (119) straight through. It is a great dance around the Law, but on both days it takes on a different character. Sung on Good Friday, words which at other times are so beautiful are like the hammering of nails; on Holy Saturday they have the bleakness of death. The same is true for other elements in the liturgy, too. Throughout these days it is our custom to read the Last Discourse from St John's Gospel as evening falls. With the waning of the light, the words take on a solemnity they sometimes seem to lack when read at other hours. The oratory will be stark and bare: waiting, waiting.
This year we shall not be blogging during the Triduum: we all need a little time to reflect. So, no distractions, no seeking ways of escape: we must go into the tomb if we wish to rise with Christ on Easter morning. May you be greatly blessed this Easter.