31/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Lay listening to the wind all night. The idea of the Holy Spirit as "ruach", "breath", "wind" is both comforting and disturbing. Who has ever chained the wind? How powerful it is, how likely to spring up when least expected; and in an old house like ours, how it whips and tugs at every corner! Let us pray that the Spirit of God may be with us all today.
29/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Our email "prayerline" (see our home page) often brings requests for prayer that are heart-rending. We try to respond to each one, so that whoever makes the request knows that his or her email has been read and will be prayed for by real people. So often the email begins "I'm not religious but . . ." and charts a long, sad history of defeated hopes. It is good that people know instinctively that we, at least, don't "do despair" and that the heart of the monastery, its life of prayer, is open to all, no matter how estranged they feel from organized religion or how hostile they may be to the God they feel has inflicted so much suffering on those they love. Just occasionally, we hear of prayer being answered in ways that surpass anything anyone could have foreseen. More often we hear nothing further. It doesn't matter. Our contract with the world, so to say, is to go on praying.
27/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Is there anyone who doesn't like this gospel? A wedding is always a happy occasion. Jesus is there, his back to the bar, busy with his friends and a tad grumpy when his mother alerts him to the young couple's embarrassment. Then the strange command, which the servants fulfil with a knowing wink or two at the battiness of some of the guests, and the miracle is worked: water becomes wine, and because Jesus obviously enjoyed wine (one of the charges against him and his disciples was that they liked feasting more than fasting), very good wine. A metaphor for the Kingdom, yes, but more than that. Cana is all about transformations. Jesus' grumpiness becomes generosity; need becomes abundance; embarrassment becomes gladness and rejoicing; and all because Mary noticed, and was not put off by Jesus' inititial refusal to act. There is something here for us all — and it is good to have it in mind when we read today's gospel about the calling of Jesus' first disciples, which will transform their lives and the lives of all who come after.
25/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Do we write about St Paul, Rabbie Burns, the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, St Benedict on the subject of humility, the appearance today of the last of our guest pieces in the New Statesman's online Faith Column or — something else? It would be more interesting to let you into a few "secrets". You will soon be able to access all the riches of Blackwells online bookshop through our web site, and sometime during the next week or so, we shall be welcoming a newcomer to the community (photo promised). Traffic to our web site has increased to the point where we need to move the hosting to another company or use a dedicated server. Either way, we need more bandwith to implement our and your ideas for development of the site, but as our purse is not bottomless, we shall have to do some serious thinking. It promises to be a busy week-end.
24/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Shot our first video the other day with a camcorder generously lent by a friend. The subject? Our resident deer. The herds of deer at the foot of the Downs are moving ever closer, feeding in full daylight, far from the cover offered by the woodland. One has taken to spending much of her time in the vegetable beds and thick shrubbery at the end of the garden. She was quite unfussed by the camera, except that she pawed the ground and stamped her little foot when she thought we got too close. Persuading her to go elsewhere is obviously not going to be easy. And before you ask, no, St Benedict has nothing to say on the subject!
23/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
I've never really understood why Christians have a reputation for being dour and disapproving. The contrary ought to be true. St Benedict says we ought to be cheerful, and surely anyone who believes that he or she has been redeemed has cause to rejoice. Perhaps Kierkegaard was right when he said the problem with Christians is, we don't look redeemed. The gleaming smiles of American tele-evangelists are not very convincing, of course. True joy radiates from the whole person and warms all who come into contact with it. Not a bad thought for a January day.
22/January/2008 Filed in: Chapter Talks
The obedience of an automaton or slave is completely unworthy of a Benedictine, or indeed any human being. Chapter 5 of the Rule which we begin today is extremely clear on this point. We are free people, and our obedience is given to the superior as to God because "we hold nothing dearer to us than Christ" and because "we are spurred on by love to attain everlasting life." If that were not enough, Benedict appeals to our sense of honour, the vows we have made, "the holy service we have professed". Only incidentally does he mention "fear of hell" and "the glory of eternal life", presumably because the blockheads among us (you and me) need a reward and punishment system at times to keep us up to the mark. The whole emphasis of this chapter is on our eagerness to seek and find God in the everyday reality of our lives. Superiors are not always wise, their decisions not always just. We are to remember that imperfect circumstances provide perfect conditions for becoming truly humble, truly one with Christ.
21/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Feast of St Agnes, one of the early Christian martyrs. Many probably think of Keats rather than martyrdom when they hear the name. Those of more antiquarian bent will recall that on this day the pope traditionally blesses two lambs at the basilica of St Agnes (the Latin for lamb, "agnus", bearing a resemblance to the saint's name). From the lambs' wool will be woven the liturgical garment known as the pallium which the pope presents to archbishops as a sign of their unity with him. Tonight at Vespers we shall sing the beautiful but complex antiphons of the feast which remind every nun of her profession day since much of the imagery and phrasing is the same (the gorier details of the martyrdom, of course, are unique to St Agnes — one hopes). I can't help feeling that this feast has something to say about Christian Unity, too. The pallium as a visible sign of unity is a challenge, while the liturgy of the feast is a stark reminder of the absoluteness of commitment to Christ.
19/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
We are now well into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Unity is not optional, but it is not achieved by minimizing differences or pretending that divisions do not exist. Many years ago Cardinal Hume gave a thoughtful address at Great St Mary's, Cambridge. With characteristic charm, he spoke of the great strides that ARCIC was making in the quest for unity and expressed the hope that future years would see further progress. He was then asked a question which has remained with me ever since. An undergraduate without a trace of belligerence or antagonism said simply, "Theology tends to be of interest only to theologians. How far do you think the divisions between the Churches exist because of peoples' feelings about things?" It is a question we all need to face. Today's podcast comments on one aspect of it.
18/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
We begin today St Benedict's list of tools for doing good. This began life as a guide for adult candidates for baptism, but it is salutary to find a monastic rule accepting what is rather than what ought to be: there are no illusions about what human nature is capable of. I am surely not alone in having experienced murderous thoughts about the brethren (and they about me), so here is Benedict calmly restating that murder in the monastery is not a good idea and ought to be avoided. On the whole, I agree; as one must with the other points he makes, though some are more difficult than others. The real inspiration comes with the final thought for today about preferring nothing to the love of Christ. Tonight at Compline we shall all examine our conduct in the light of that ideal, and there will be none who does not recognize that she has fallen short of it.
17/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
How many people think today's saint is the gentle Franciscan from Padua rather than the mighty man of the desert? I like everything about the hermit Anthony (except his having put his sister into some sort of religious community when he disposed of the ancestral property) and I think Newman's summing up of him one of the best: "His doctrine surely was pure and unimpeachable; and his temper is high and heavenly, without cowardice, without gloom, without formality, without self-complacency. Superstition is abject and crouching, it is full of thoughts of guilt; it distrusts God, and dreads the powers of evil. Anthony at least had nothing of this, being full of confidence, divine peace, cheerfulness, and valorousness, be he (as some men may judge) ever so much an enthusiast". The sting in the tail reminds me of Benjamin Whichcote, the Cambridge Platonist: "If Christianity be ever exterminated, it will be because of enthusiasm." I wonder.
16/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
After all the rain and wind of the last few days, sunshine comes as such a blessing; suddenly one notices how much everything has grown and how neglected the vegetable plot begins to look. Fork and spade, here we come! (We have not quite solved all our RSS problems, but at least Colophon is showing correctly in GoogleReader and Yahoo — for the moment.)
15/January/2008 Filed in: Chapter Talks
Maurus and Placid are models of perfect discipleship, while the end of RB 2 is more concerned with perfect abbacy. There is, of course, a connection between the two. Just as the young monk's obedience enables him to accomplish exrtaordinary things, so the abbot's fidelity to the office he has received enables him to order all things wisely, never overlooking the material needs of the community, but always placing its spiritual needs first. Just as the disciple's obedience proceeds from a desire to hear the Word of God (the word obedience has its roots in ob-audire, to listen hard), so the abbot's ability to command proceeds from his attentiveness to the Word of God. Notice how often at the end of chapter 2 Benedict mentions the judgement of God, the examination the Shepherd will make into the flock entrusted to the abbot's care. Whatever our role in community, it is this sense of living always in the presence of God, of being always alert to the promptings of grace, that is our best guarantee of fulfilling the task given us, "to share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve to share also in his kingdom". (RB Prol. 50)
14/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Benedict's teaching on the abbot yesterday and today emphasizes the need to adapt to many different temperaments. Verse 30 is the crux: it is because the abbot derives his name and role from God, Abba, that he is required to have such care and concern for the individual. Respect for the other is an important theme in the Rule. Here it is worked out in the relations between monastic superior and community member. Something here for corporate Britain perhaps?
13/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
The Baptism of Christ is the last of the Christmas feasts (although we shall have one last look back at Christmas on Candlemas Day). It reminds us of Our Lord's mission, the purpose for which he was born. One of the Fathers of the Church remarks that all the waters of the earth were made holy on this day — something we in the northern hemisphere often forget because we seem to have so much water at times. It is a day for remembering what a gift was conferred on us at our own baptism and giving thanks.
12/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Today the Church commemorates two remarkable abbots: St Benet Biscop and St Aelred of Rievaulx. One is remembered chiefly for beautifying English churches and the liturgy with exquisite art works, the other for creating a fervent and flourishing community from a very motley and unpromising group of men. Both were adept at winning hearts and securing the co-operation of those under them, Aelred, indeed, writing of Christian charity and friendship with a grace none has surpassed. Successful men, then, with a gift for leadership. Today's section of the Rule contains some valuable pointers for the would-be leader: favouritism must be avoided, and there must be fairness and consistency in applying discipline. Every parent knows how important that is, and no doubt Benet Biscop and Aelred were aware that to win the resepect and trust of a community similar qualities are required. No one can avoid having likes and dislikes, but we are called to exercise a certain self-discipline with regard to them. We are never to be "a cause of stumbling to a brother for whom Christ died." (Note: we have a server problem with RSS feeds at the moment but hope to get it put right and our podcast up later today.)
11/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
More points to ponder from chapter two of the Rule. No room here for double-standards, no evasion of responsibility. The standards we set for others must be the standards by which we ourselves live, and we must beware of any hypocrisy or smugness in our attitudes. I think Benedict is here demanding leadership of a high order: not only should the abbot be capable of articulating what we might call the community ethos, he is expected to embody it and lead by example. Unlike a politician, for example, an abbot can't have "a private life" which is not subject to scrutiny. He must be a person of absolute integrity. Not a comfortable thought when one looks at one's own shortcomings!
10/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
We begin today St Benedict's first attempt at systematic treatment of the abbot/monastic superior and his role in community (he had another go in chapter 64). I count myself fortunate to have known and lived under an abbess who came very close to realizing Benedict's ideal, D. Elizabeth Sumner. Two things are very striking in these opening verses, as they were in her life: the extraordinary weight of responsibility laid on the abbot to be, first, an icon of Christ for the community and secondly, answerable to God for the lives of those under his care. This is quite contrary to current ideas of management or, in the political sphere, ministerial responsibility, where there is often only a reluctant and qualified admission of responsibility even when the most appalling negliegence is revealed. These ten verses certainly give the lie to anyone who thinks the Benedictine Rule is a soft option, because, of course, Benedict effectively expects all his monks (and nuns) to be abbots for each other. Perhaps there is something here for captains of industry, ministers of the Crown and all who have responsibility for others, at home, in the workplace, or wherever.
08/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Am greatly enjoying Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Hardy, Thomas Hardy the Time-Torn Man. She seems to have understood better than many Hardy's ambivalence and tension concerning his own social status and the interplay with his ambition as a writer. Like all good biographies, it makes one want to reread the novels and poetry at a gallop. I was leafing through Under the Greenwood Tree again and wondering whether attitudes to the poor shape literature about them or literature about the poor shapes attitudes to them. The phrase "the deserving poor" is a case in point. It is never difficult to help those one considers to be deserving, it's the people one has doubts about that really test one's generosity and kindness. Just as well God doesn't "means test" his creation since none of us is worthy of his love. It is all gift.
07/January/2008 Filed in: Chapter Talks
Today we finish reading the Prologue to the Rule. We have been reminded that our way of life is given us that we may obtain purity of heart in this life and heaven in the next. Perhaps, like me, you find that distinction a little false — a bit like the old Catechism answer which assured us we were created to know, love and serve God in this life and be happy with him forever in the next. I always wanted to protest that God wants us to be happy with him in this life, too! Possibly if I had thought more about the meaning of purity of heart I would have understood things better. The first Beatitude affirms that the pure in heart shall see God. If that is true — and I believe it is — the promise is for our own time as well as hereafter. A pure heart sees as God sees. That is a humbling and inspiring thought.
05/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Epiphany is marked by light and shade, fragrant with incense and full of strange harmonies. The liturgy is so rich, and somehow much more impressive than Christmas. Perhaps it is because the focus is less on the Baby or the shepherds as actors in a drama and more on the significance of the drama itself. There are some things that only poetry can express, and the liturgy of Epiphany is deeply poetic. At Vespers we shall sing of the three miracles that mark this day: the coming of the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan and the turning of water into wine at the Marriage Feast of Cana.
04/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Not only what we say but how we say it reveals a great deal about us, sometimes rather more than we would like. Benedict wanted his followers to speak rarely, always truthfully, courteously and kindly, with the humility that comes from knowing every gift we possess is given us by God. He was particularly severe on any form of deception, warning us to "keep our tongue from evil and our lips from deceitful speech", and a few lines later to "speak truth from the heart and not practise deceit". Today's section of the Prologue cautions us against the most dangerous deception of all, when we start lying to ourselves. Pride takes many forms: at the root of all is an obsession with self. We may think ourselves better (or worse) than others; we may feel that knowing X or Y confers a grandeur on us; we may be in thrall to our own giftedness (or apparent lack thereof). As the old parody of the psalm put it, "My eyes are always on myself; my feet are always in the snare." If we want to know whether we are infected with any pride of this sort, all we need do is listen to ourselves talking.
02/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Dug the new potatoes we had planned having at Christmas — only a few each, but immensely satisfying to be eating the produce of one's own garden at this time of year. Fresh spinach for the soup and rocket for the salad, so we are doing well. We shall see what survives the forecast frosts.
01/January/2008 Filed in: Jottings
While everyone else is making (and breaking?) their New Year Resolutions, Benedictines are back at the beginning again, on the first page of the Rule of St Benedict. I am surely not alone in experiencing a little thrill of joy whenever I hear anew those beloved words "Obsculta, O fili, praecepta magistri" (Listen carefully my child to the teaching of the master). As the Prologue unfolds, we are reminded that it is our failure to listen, especially with the ear of the heart, that is quite literally at the root of disobedience and sin and hence of our brokenness and ill-at-easeness. The remedy is simple: stripping ourselves of self-will, as though it were an encumbrance, and allowing our wills to align themselves with God's. Simplistic? Too theoretical? Anyone who has tried it will realise what a struggle it involves, and how impossible it is without prayer. That's why St Benedict encourages us, right at the start of the Rule, to begin every good work with prayer. That's not a bad idea for those New Year Resolutions, either.