An early morning walk near the sheepfields, to the accompaniment of birdsong and sunshine. Have you ever noticed the glitter of light that comes from a sheep's fleece as it catches the sun's rays? Or the way greenfinches seem to need to chatter about everything they do? The woodland snowdrops and daffodils are a delight to the eye. It is good to think that the whole of creation praises God in its own way.
My best thanks to the RCIA Group at Woodford Green who generously invited me to give them a Day of Recollection on Saturday. As always, one receives much more than one gives and I am still pondering some of the questions asked and the insights shared. One of the joys of the day was being with people who have come to Catholicism via many different routes and who have such a sense of the great treasure offered them that they are prepared to make huge sacrifices. It was truly humbling. The (delayed) Prayer Podcast takes up one of the big questions that the group raised.
A feast of the unity of the Church and a reminder that the first of the four conditions for an infallible papal utterance is that he should be speaking ex cathedra, from the chair, i.e. in his official capacity as pope. The Anglo-Saxons had a special devotion to St Peter and his successors: one thinks of all those Anglo-Saxon kings making pilgrimages to the tombs of the apostles, or Benet Biscop bringing back treasures from Rome, including John the Cantor, to beautify English church worship. Certainly, in Rome one does get a sense of unbroken tradition, of Romanitas and catholicity, and here and there, in the quiet of Sta Sabina perhaps, or one of the other less-visited basilicas, an intimation of a reality which surpasses all the "smoke and the noise and grandeur of Rome" itself.
More suicides are committed in February than in any other month, apparently. In Britain the number of young people committing suicide is beginning to trouble the media as well as families and friends. If one has not oneself experienced despair, it is impossible to understand the depths of misery and loneliness that could prompt the taking of one's own life. We often underestimate the significance of covert appeals for help. If anyone were to say he/she was feeling suicidal, we would all assure them that things must eventually get better; but the sad fact is, most suicides do not announce their intention beforehand, nor do they believe in the possibility of things improving. Cain doubtingly asked God if he was his brother's keeper. Probably most of us feel that in some sense we are responsible for others. To use a fashionable phrase, we all have a duty of care. Maybe the man who acts like the life and soul of the party is in desperate need of someone reaching out to him; maybe the woman with the carefree laugh is weighed down with terrors we know nothing of; maybe the child who looks so "normal" we scarcely notice needs someone to look again. Looking again is something God does all the time.
Yesterday was busy, busy, busy, even for life in the monastery. Some things, however, had to be done, like putting a new hard disk inside an elderly computer (a Mac, so no problems there) and a few overdue changes to the web site (no time for all of them, of course). Whenever we tackle some of these "pending jobs", it seems a host of others follow in their train. We rarely use the dishwasher except when we have groups in, and naturally, because we have several groups in over the next few weeks, the dishwasher has decided to die. I was trying to repair the door of a kitchen cabinet the other week when a second fell off. Should we put away the toolbox, I wonder. Fixing things is apparently not for us.
The Lenten Sunday Mass readings form an excellent baptismal catechesis. Last Sunday we were with Jesus in the wilderness, struggling with temptations of body and mind; this Sunday we shall be on the mountain of Transfiguration, glimpsing something of the glory that one day will be ours. It is a strange and startling transition but one we must take seriously. This week's podcast comes both in audio form as usual or in video (rather homespun video, alas). The audio quality is not up to scratch but we hope it soon will be.
A sad sight yesterday as we walked along the Ridgeway: a wounded buzzard, flying limpingly from bush to bush. We could not quite see what was wrong, but the bird was apparently in distress and we were powerless to help. A reminder, if we needed one, of the fragility of every living being.
There is no doubt about it, more people will be celebrating St Valentine today than St Cyril and St Methodius. Sales of red roses, chocolates and champagne will soar while the religiously inclined will be left feeling like bubble-busters as they keep their Lenten fast and ponder the saintly brothers' work for Church Slavonic and the liturgy — so dull by comparison. For the Church's calendar to be so out of step with contemporary culture is a modern phenomenon. Many of the earliest liturgical commemorations were of pagan festivals Christianized, just as many Christian holy places were built on the site of pagan ones. Gregory the Great's advice to Augustine of Canterbury was typical: do not destroy the shrines of the Angles but make them Christian. Can we make Valentine's Day a little more Christian without making it dull? Donne springs to mind.
The words which introduce and conclude the giving of this prayer in today's gospel constitute in themselves a little treatise on the nature of prayer, just as the Lord's Prayer itself is a pattern for all Christian prayer. We are reminded that we do not neeed words: our Father knows our needs even before we can put them into words; what he looks for in us is a heart ready to give and receive forgiveness. We worry that God will not hear us, which is why we multiply our babblings. Instead, we need to worry whether we will hear him, whether we will be ready to be a channel of his love and forgiveness, the miracle of being a forgiven sinner.
The Wantage branch of the Catholic Women's League met here on Saturday for a Day of Recollection. What a treasure the Church has in women such as these: lively, intelligent, compassionate. Sadly, the CWL does seem to have something of an image problem today, which is a pity because a lot of women are missing out on something really good — and so are those parishes where the work of the League is equated with the production of endless cups of tea. The Wantage branch are certainly not walk-overs and draw their membership from a wide range of ages and occupations. After Mass, talks and discussion ranged from Newman and his ideas of doctrinal development to Summorum Pontificum and the ways in which liturgy engages hearts and minds — or fails to. But what always strikes us is the generosity and kindness the members show both to one another and to us. We may have been the hosts in theory, but we learn every time the CWL comes what it is to be treated "tamquam Christus", as though we were Christ.
The readings for this Sunday are so rich, but I am, as always, enthralled by Genesis and the Rabbinic Targums. Just one thought, therefore, which illustrates the compassion of God: there is a tradition that when Adam and Eve sinned, it was the Lord God himself who sewed together fig leaves to cover their nakedness. Among the sayings of the Desert Fathers there is one that echoes that notion: if your brother sins, throw your cloak over it. (Our podcast will be posted later today.)
Our normally quiet village seems to go into overdrive on Saturdays. There is much toing and froing in the direction of supermarkets, extra-curricular activities for the children and some serious gardening and DIY, not to mention all the household cleaning and laundry going on behind closed doors. Inevitably so, when people are busy earning a living all the rest of the week. How much of this activity, however, is a preparation for Sunday, for sabbath rest and enjoyment? It is quite possible now for Saturday and Sunday to be two more or less identical days with more or less identical activity filling each, with a token hour in church at some point for the religiously inclined. It isn't only God who deserves something better but we ourselves. Saturday can make Sunday special — if we let it.
Today's section of the Rule could be entitled "The Proper Uses of Speech and Communication". How often do we use words — spoken or written — to score points off each other, to mock, ridicule or otherwise belittle? How often do we raise our voices — literally or figuratively — or blunder on, regardless of the other's feelings? How often do we simply make a noise, "the sound and the fury signifying nothing"? That is especially true, perhaps, of words used in emails or blogs (yes, just like this one!) or internet chat rooms. A good Lenten discipline might be to consider whether we have anything worth saying, then think twice before saying it. In other words, turn the volume down but the content up.
There seems to be a deep-seated longing in every human heart for the possibility of making a fresh start, a new beginning which cancels out the muddles and mistakes of the past. Lent is just such a possibility, offered anew every year. Perhaps that is why Benedict saw it in such joyful terms. We enter upon this season of fasting and abstinence, prayer, penitence and alsmgiving with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward with eager longing to the great feast of Easter. Let us make the most of our opportunity.
A day for penitence and pancakes, although finding a priest to hear one's confession will be a little harder than finding pancakes! There is a charming village custom here: the children assemble outside the manor house at midday and sing an ancient ditty for which they are rewarded with buns. I suppose it is the last remnant of the idea of a feast preceding the Lenten fast. Meanwhile, we can digest the unsurprising news that there has been a steep decline in the numbers of monks and nuns, Sisters and Brothers. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we have not made religion dreary and uninteresting, entirely lacking in challenge. I don't think that is true of the monastery here, but not everyone can cope with the kind of challenge a new foundation presents. Finally, by request, a photo of Duncan the monastery dog, cheerfully untroubled by sober thoughts.
"Psalterium meum, gaudium meum (My psalter is my joy)". These words of St Augustine embossed on the cover of a psalter have always seemed to me to sum up a major element of monastic life which has to be experienced to be understood. Much of the Divine Office consists in praying, day in, day out, the psalms of David. At Hendred we say the whole book of psalms in the course of the week, as Benedict prescribed, although we order them a little differently from the schema laid down in the Rule. There is something important about this weekly rhythmn. I was delighted recently to learn from a priest friend who has become a hermit that he too has found it helpful to adapt a weekly pattern. Soon we shall be in Lent; we shall stop saying "alleluia"; and the psalter will take on a more sombre note. It is indeed prayer for all seasons.
The sixth step of humility is a difficult one for most people. The idea of thinking about oneself as "a bad and worthless worker" flies in the face of contemporary ideas about having a positive self-image. I don't think Benedict would have approved of our denying any talent God has given us: denial is a covert form of pride and ultimately destructive. Benedict wants us to be simple and straightforward, recognizing that every gift and grace comes from God. In these verses he is asking us to learn the art of contentment. We cannot grow spiritually if we are always wanting a grace that is not meant for us or if we are always seeking "perfect conditions" — for ourselves or in others. Perfect conditions are those that are, however much we might prefer them otherwise. After a stressful couple of days, I'm pleased to say Duncan seems to be more relaxed and his usual happy self. If he too can practise St Benedict's sixth step, we may make a monastic dog of him yet.
This is the fortieth day since Christmas and the last of the Christmas cycle of feasts. Today's podcast says something about its significance. Meanwhile, celebrations in the monastery will have a Christmassy flavour (literally, as we eat the last of the Christmas puddings or mince pies on this day). We shall also be marking the arrival of Duncan, to begin a month's "postulancy" or trial of his vocation to be a monastic dog. He is a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, five years old, and at present a little overwhelmed by everything. We are erecting one or two "basset barriers" in key places. If anyone knows where we could get a couple of second-hand child-proof gates for the stairs, please let us know.
I wonder how many people read through today's section of RB and think it is simply religious rhetoric, not to be taken too literally. Read it again, and any idea that Benedictine monastic life is "not too demanding" or characterized by "moderation" is hit on the head. What is asked here is tremendous — and there are still a further eight steps of humility to climb!