I was thinking about Aquinas while reading the pathetic arguments of A. C. Grayling that God cannot exist if he allows tragedies like Haiti. St Thomas would have argued Grayling's case rather better than Grayling himself, I suspect, then demolished it elegantly. "Elegance" is not an obvious word to use in connection with Aquinas but I think it is just. His arguments are always tautly constructed and expressed with an economy of language I find pleasing (but then, I probably have a medieval mind). He would have made a marvellous blogger and a first-class tweeter. He was a man of deep prayer, engaging humilty and endearing humanity (he was rather plump). Above all, he was wise enough to know when to keep silent. In 1273 he laid aside his pen, having been granted an experience in prayer that made him realise that all he had written hitherto was "so much straw" compared with what he now perceived. May St Thomas aid with his prayers those who people the blogosphere and grant wisdom and understanding to us all.
Others can blog about St Paul, we'll just provide a little winter cheer in the form of an advertisement for a Jazz evening on Saturday, 27 February, in Snell's Hall, East Hendred. Doors and bar open at 7.30 p.m. Admission £4. In aid of our work for the blind and visually impaired. We promise there won't be a nun in sight, so do please come and enjoy! Tickets from John Clement, Myles Madden or the monastery.
Blogging could also be a great help in improving the standard of preaching and I personally hope that our seminaries are encouraging their students to get to grips with all forms of media. At the same time, I hope no one in the Vatican will decide that nuns ought not to blog. "Vita Consecrata" grudgingly allowed us, under certain conditions, to use fax machines at a time when the rest of the world had long abandoned faxes for emails; so we'll continue to hope we may go on inflicting our thoughts and prejudices on the world at large. You can listen to our take on Unity in this week's podcast, which is the nearest any of us will get to preaching in the Catholic Church (Digitalnun is sometimes invited to preach in churches of other denominations, perhaps because the sermon can always become an address and is therefore freed from clerical associations). Preaching, however, is always secondary to prayer for us. The past week has brought much to pray about. Please continue to support the people of Haiti with your prayers, pray and work for Christian unity, and ask for wisdom and charity in discussion of the Equality Bill.
Such things we can laugh about, but within minutes of ending the Chapter we learned that the brother of one of the community had been taken ill. We don't yet know how seriously, but it was a great shock to his sisters, one of whom found him on the floor where he had lain for some time; so please pray for them all. It brought home, in a small way, what the people of Haiti are suffering on a much larger scale without the services we take for granted.
In between whiles, there has been much activity: an edition de luxe for the English College, Valladolid, has been sent to the printers, all 800 pages of it, painstakingly typeset in Greek, Latin, English and Spanish, with some amazing illustrations tweaked in Photoshop to overcome the effects of centuries of wear and tear; two clients' web sites have been brought almost to the point of completion; the new recording technology for our audio book service to the blind and housebound has been exhaustively tested; and we have done our best to maintain the regular round of prayer and praise, welcome to visitors and the 1001 household tasks that make up the everyday life of any monastic community.
However busy we are, we do not forget God. How much less could he ever forget us?
Car-buying distractions notwithstanding, we are hoping that everything is now set for the Virtual Chapter on Vocation at 7.30 p.m. tonight. You can join us by clicking on the widget in the sidebar or by following the instructions on the Podcast page. The Chapter recording will be available for listening to afterwards.
I think one must begin by stating the obvious. If one is a Christian, one is dedicated to Christ and does one's best to live one's vocation as well as possible. To do so, one must make use of the various helps we are given: prayer, scripture and the sacraments above all; but also faithful and persevering performance of one's duty (to husband/wife/family/community/whatever) and generous service of others. Inevitably, there is a falling short. Who has not got to the end of the day and felt ashamed of all the missed opportunities, the wrong turnings taken, the petty selfishness that is all the more galling because it is petty? The important thing is that we TRY. We try because we "hold nothing dearer than Christ". We may never say so explicitly (frightfully un-British!), we may even be uncomfortable about admitting as much to ourselves, but it is a fact of our existence.
It is precisely because we are rooted in Christ and because we attempt to keep our commitment deep through prayer and the sacraments, for example, that I think we can be confident that we can pass through the world unscathed, in not of. St Paul was clear that our freedom as children of God is more than just a figure of speech. The trouble is that we don't always live up to that freedom, don't always trust the Holy Spirit. Freedom isn't something we can take for granted, it has to be worked at. So too with Christian freedom: we have to put some effort into ensuring that our conscience is properly informed, be ready to accept correction, live with humility. Only then can we experience the kind of freedom St Paul wrote about and recognize that how the world perceives us may be unimportant, even seriously flawed. What matters is how God sees us. The world in which we live is the one God designed for us; the situations in which we find ourselves are the ones in which we are to live our Faith and become holy; today is for each one of us the day of salvation.
(Note: this week's podcast will not go up until this evening. Blame those urgent tasks referred to above.)
So many questions, so many distractions. One should never be afraid of allowing one's distractions a moment or two of freedom now and then. They have a way of making the stories of the gospel come alive with a freshness and vigour they might not have if we always insist on viewing them through our "scriptural spectacles" . Mooching around the water-jars, metaphorically speaking, I cannot help but hear the quiet insistence of Mary's "Do whatever he tells you." That is a command directed at you and me today, not just the servants of two thousand years ago.
- how can I know God is calling me?
- how and when should I tell my parents what I want to do?
- is it useful to have some work experience before I enter the seminary/religious community?
- how important is it to share the same Faith in marriage?
- what is the difference between nuns and sisters?
- is it a vocation to be single?
For some reason Twitterfeed is now indexing the Google code we use for the "translate" widget, so we are experimenting with a different position on the blog page, in the sidebar. With luck, there will be a few more behind-the-scenes tweaking of various parts of the site over the week-end. If we manage to break anything in our enthusiasm, please let us know.
Finally, the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is almost upon us. For many people the whole concept of unity seems to have lost its urgency. Either there is a sense that "none of the differences matters" or "it's not achievable, so why bother?" Dare one say that unity isn't optional and that the Octave of Prayer matters very much indeed?
I was thinking about this recently because of the number of emails and letters which have come our way about the new translation of the Missal. Most are, frankly, ill-informed, whether "for" or "against" and show the writer to have little grasp of history or theology. (Sometimes they suggest "little Latin and less Greek" and a tin ear into the bargain, not that I am prejudiced, you understand, merely a woman of definite opinions.) The liturgy should NEVER become a source of disunity, should never become something we squabble over. It is too important for that. If you have time to read only one book about liturgy, let it be The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger and remember that “There is no ‘pre-’ or ‘post-’ Conciliar Church. There is but one, unique Church that walks the path toward the Lord…” That surely is what authority and obedience in the Church is all about.
Whenever we are faced with a natural disaster, or the suffering of those we perceive to be innocent of having brought suffering on themselves, our belief in a good and loving God is tested. We know that God does not want to inflict pain. He is not a sadist; he derives no pleasure from death and destruction. Why, then, does he allow them to happen? Why has he allowed the people of Haiti, who are so poor and have suffered so much, to suffer even more? The honest answer finds no favour with those who do not want God to exist or who want the kind of God we would all despise.
God is creator of the universe and respects the laws of nature, gravity and so on, which inform that universe. He is not a puppeteer, an interventionist. The earthquake that tore Haiti apart was predictable, although we do not know enough to have been able to predict when it might occur. The island lies between two great fault lines and the tectonic plates are in constant movement: it was, indeed, a natural, seismic disaster. The fact that God did not intervene to prevent the catastrophe does not mean that God is indifferent. Far from it. We know that the very hairs of our head are numbered. The language we use to speak of God is inadequate, analogical; he is involved in the suffering of his children. He too "grieves", in a sense, "feels pain". We have only to look at the cross to see that God has identified so completely with us that in Jesus he has made himself vulnerable and experienced in his own flesh suffering and death.
That helps to explain why we pray. We do not pray for any particular result. We do not tell God what to do. We simply allow God to be God, knowing that he can use our readiness to align our will with his. It is part of the covenant between God and ourselves. "How" it works is beyond our understanding; but that it does work is certain. Our response to the earthquake in Haiti was therefore to pray, to give a little more than is comfortable to one of the relief funds, and to go on praying rather than follow in minute detail news bulletins and the like.
May God bless the people of Haiti and have mercy on the souls of all who have died. Amen.
Here the snow has been falling all night and is falling still: everywhere looks so beautiful that it has proved a great distraction. We were half-way through Vigils before I remembered that today is the Memoria of St Hilary of Poitiers (died c. 368). The "Hammer of the Arians" is such a contrast to St Aelred, whom we commemorated yesterday: a pugnacious, slightly irritable man, who could write like an angel when he wasn't skirmishing with rival authorities, the Emperor in particular. A convert from paganism, he was married with a daughter, Apra, when he was chosen as bishop of Poitiers. His zeal for orthodoxy was intensified by his experience of Arianism, which he distrusted and feared because it imperilled the eternal salvation of souls committed to his care. His comment on the Arians is revealing, "They didn't know who they were." Hilary knew perfectly well who he was, a child of God, a God who was a Trinity of Persons:
(Hilary, De Trinitate)
For one to attempt to speak of God in terms more precise than he himself has used: to undertake such a thing is to embark upon the boundless, to dare the incomprehensible. He fixed the names of His nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever is sought over and above this is beyond the meaning of words, beyond the limits of perception, beyond the embrace of understanding."
Not knowing who one is seems as much a problem today as it ever was. Perhaps that is something that will come up in our next web conference on 21 January: vocation is about what one is, not just what one does; and it applies to everyone, married or single, monastic, clerical or lay.
Fashions in monastic spirituality come and go, and it is Aelred's De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship) which is probably most read nowadays, possibly because the homoerotic elements (real or perceived) noticed by Foucault and others have sparked a vigorous debate. I suspect we are not sufficiently allowing for the differences between the twelfth century and our own. I find it easier to identify with the slightly world-weary Aelred, conscious of sin and loss, wanting to do better and echoing St Augustine as he says:
See, dear Lord, how I have wandered the world and (have seen) those things which are in the world….In these I sought rest for my unhappy soul, but everywhere (I found) labour and lament, sorrow and affliction of spirit. You cried out, Lord; you cried out and called. You terrified me and shattered my deafness. You struck, you flogged, you conquered my hardheartedness. You sweetened, you flavoured, you banished my bitterness. I heard you calling, but, alas, how late.
Yes, that is the voice of the monk (or nun) in every age and time.
Note: our next Virtual Chapter will be on the theme of Vocation: 7.30 p.m. GMT, Thursday, 21 January.
Harriet Harman's Equality bill is exciting debate in religious circles but as we have not yet studied its details, we shall defer comment for the moment. In the meantime, we are indebted to Heresy Corner for providing biographies of the thirteen "inter-faith" advisers appointed by John Denham to act as the present Government's "sounding-board" in all matters connected with faith. The emphasis is definitely "inter-faith" (not a single Catholic among them). There are some excellent people among the appointees but, like many others, we are still doubtful what, if anything, will be achieved. They are hardly likely to be called in to advise on the Equality bill, are they?
With the Baptism of the Lord we come to the official end of Christmastide, and we end as we began, with a Mystery that challenges all our preconceived ideas about how things ought to be. God made man should not have been born in a stable, should he? No more should Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, have been baptized by John. John himself was reluctant, but Jesus countermanded him, saying , "Let it be so for now. We must do all that righteousness demands." (Matthew 3.15) With that answer we are given a glimpse into the relationship between Father and Son and are reminded, yet again, that God does not see as we see.
St Ephrem (who died c. 373) wrote a magnificent hymn about the Baptism of the Lord. (It is hymn XIV if you want to read it for yourself.) Ephrem begins with the hiddenness of the Messiah: "The Bride was espoused but knew not who was the Bridegroom on whom she gazed: the guests were assembled, the desert was filled, and our Lord was hidden among them." Then follows a lengthy dialogue between Jesus and John in which all John's objections are overruled, one by one, "'Small is the river whereto Thou art come, that Thou shouldst lodge therein and it should cleanse Thee. The heavens suffice not for Thy mightiness; how much less shall Baptism contain Thee!' 'The womb is smaller than Jordan; yet was I willing to lodge in the Virgin: and as I was born from woman, so too am I to be baptized in Jordan.'"
Gradually, the themes unfold: the espousal of the Church to her heavenly Bridegroom, the forgiveness of sin through baptism, the gift of priesthood, and finally, the revelation of the Trinity:"The heavenly ranks were silent as they stood, and the Bridegroom went down into Jordan; the Holy One was baptized and straightway went up, and His Light shone forth on the world. The doors of the highest were opened above, and the voice of the Father was heard," This is my Beloved in Whom I am well pleased." All ye peoples, come and worship Him. They that saw were amazed as they stood, at the Spirit Who came down and bore witness to Him. Praise to Thy Epiphany that gladdens all, Thou in Whose revelation the worlds are lightened!"
Ghiberti's sculpture of the Baptism of the Lord is outside the baptistry in Florence. One has to look up to see it: the angle is awkward, the pigeons are a nuisance, it is not how we are accustomed to seeing depictions of the Baptism. But for me, it expresses the divine paradox we have returned to again and again during the Christmas season, "Father, through the lowliness of your Son, you raised up a fallen world." That is more than a point of view. It is Salvation Incarnate.
Constable Peadar Heffron was grievously injured yesterday when a bomb exploded under his car on the Milltown Road, Belfast. The attack was both cowardly and vicious in the fullest sense of the word. The perpetrators (thought to be dissident republicans) exposed themselves to minimal risk, but the lives of their victim and their victim's young wife will be changed for ever by what they did. (At the time of writing, Mr Heffron's survival is by no means certain.) What Colophon chokes on is the fact that this act was carried out by people who, presumably, had at least a nominally Christian education, who grew up in a society in which both civil and religious law assert that the unjust taking of life is wrong. So, we have a cowardly act by cowardly people and the whole world is diminished by it.
Contrast that story with one from Portsmouth. Angela Mahon was being driven to hospital to give birth when the car she was in became stuck in the snow. As her contractions worsened, she knew she had no choice but to walk. Dressed only in her nightclothes, she walked the rest of the way, arriving at the hospital covered in snow and saying, "Help, I'm in labour." This story has a happy ending, with the birth of twin boys a few hours later; but the comments Angela made to "The Portsmouth News" are revealing: "I was so scared . . . I was really panicking. I think I was in shock. I just wanted to get there for the twins." I don't know whether Angela Mahon has any religious beliefs, but what she did was genuinely courageous and self-sacrificing. Real courage takes risks, and knows the risks it takes. It puts others first. Above all, it is life-giving whereas cowardice is death-dealing.
What can the Churches do to encourage a culture of life rather than a culture of death? The public pronouncements of our religious leaders are often thoughtful but can sometimes seem inept, out of touch or even crass, perhaps because the language used is, by and large, no longer a language the world understands or values. Having said that, I am reminded of Chesterton's remark that it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting but that it has never been tried. Perhaps those of us who claim to be Christian need to try harder, to show by our actions that we really believe what we say we believe. It isn't easy to be brave, to stand up to hostility or derision or risk our own comfort or ease, but on the whole I think it preferable to causing others to weep because we have been cowards.
Why do we find patience so difficult? Is it because we want instant solutions, instant results (even in prayer); so when we don't get what we want, we behave like spoiled children and go off in a huff, with a metaphorical flick of our hair and a metaphorical stamp of our feet? Or is it because we just don't see how patience can lead us to a deeper union with Christ? We haven't time, we say, we are too busy. Now, one of the funny things about time is how elastic it is. A five-minute wait can seem like eternity, while a whole day spent with someone we love can go by in a flash.
For many of us in Britain the snow and ice are giving opportunities we hadn't expected to change gear, to reconsider. We can't get on and do some of the things that last week looked important, even urgent. Here in the monastery we have had to reschedule meetings and journeys that have been in the diary for months. Other things have come to take their place, like clearing paths and dealing with burst pipes in church: not nearly so "important" as what we've had to cancel, but not things we can put off.
The key point about patience is not what we are asked to do but how we accept what is asked of us at any given moment. God, as we know, has an inconvenient habit of seeing differently from us. We can choose to co-operate, or we can refuse. Ultimately, patience is about preferring God's will to our own. Our plans may have gone awry, but His may not.
Sheep may safely graze, but only because the farmer has been out dropping feed. The scene by Hill Farm at eight o'clock this morning.
St Mary's Church glimpsed through the hedge a little later. The silence was almost complete, suggesting that the A34 rush-hour didn't happen this morning. Snow is a very effective muffler of sound, so Digitalnun began thinking of all her favourite quotations about snow, ending with "Soft as roosting birds falls the snow". That one is from scripture. If you have nothing else to do today because you can't get to work, why not spend half an hour looking at references to snow in the bible? You might be surprised how many there are.
Update: we have just heard of the death of Mgr Graham Leonard. Please pray for the repose of the soul of this great priest and pastor, for the consolation of his widow, Priscilla, and for his many friends who mourn his passing even as they rejoice that his sufferings are at an end. Requiescat in pace.
Religious authority is difficult to get right. For the believer, obedience is a good thing, but it means taking a huge risk. We may believe that God's authority is mediated through human beings; but human beings, as we know, tend to get things wrong. When someone charged with authority identifies his/her own will with that of God, the consequences can be terrible. (When someone not charged with authority identifies his/her will with that of God, the results can be equally dire but they are not invested with the religious significance of episcopal/clerical utterance.) Benedict was well aware of this tendency, of course; but the checks and guards he provides for the monastery only really work when everyone agrees that they should and is genuinely seeking the good of all in a comparatively small society. The exercise of authority in the wider Church can be more complicated. Injustices do occur and are not always righted. Part of the trouble, I suspect, is the high value we place on "autonomy". Autonomy is a fine thing when everything is going well, but when it isn't, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"
New Year resolutions are probably already looking a little limp, but perhaps we could spend a moment or two today asking how far we have allowed ourselves to become strangers to the natural rhythms of night and day, the season, even our own bodies (hands up those who went to bed last night muttering that they had spent too long in front of the television?). The connection with prayer may not be immediately obvious, but one of the first requirements of the contemplative is to look and take notice, to allow God the opportunity to speak. And when God speaks, things happen.
Epiphany is one of my favourite feasts, steeped in beauty and mystery, with many levels of meaning. The Magnificat antiphon reminds us of the miraculous ways in which Christ manifested his glory. "We honour the day adorned with three miracles. Today a star led the Magi to the crib; today water was made into wine for the wedding-feast; today Christ willed to be baptized in the Jordan." Thus, Christ showed his glory to the gentiles, prepared the Church as his Bride and made holy all the waters of the earth, taking away our sin. There in a nutshell is what Incarnation and Redemption is all about. Theology expressed as poetry, music and ritual is probably the only way some of us can begin to grasp such sublime Truth.
Life is not all theology, however. One of the things that keeps me Catholic is the fact that it is such a cheerful religion: it doesn't fudge death and judgement, heaven and hell; doesn't promise (contrary to what many believe) an easy forgiveness for sin; but it does allow us to be human and to take seriously what it means for God to become human also. As an Englishwoman, I especially like the way in which it lets us use humour as a means of approaching God and the things of God.
The photograph above from Autun shows a medieval sculptor's idea of the Magi on their way to the crib: all three cosily tucked up in bed, two of them with eyes fast shut, the third being gently awoken by an angel touching his little finger and pointing out the star they must follow. Medieval ideas of the majesty of kingship crumble before this tender portrait. It too tells us something about Epiphany. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords is as humble and approachable as a baby in a manger; and who would not smile at such a welcome and welcoming thought?
Macrina the Younger was not satisfied with turning Basil's life around: she had a profound effect on the life of another brother, Gregory of Nyssa, also a saint. (It is from Gregory that we learn of Basil's early worldliness. Given Gregory's love and admiration for his sister Macrina, we may wonder whether there was a little fraternal exaggeration of Basil's shortcomings.)
Basil was also lucky in his friends. St Gregory Nazianzus (also known as Gregory Nazianzus the Younger: names in this period are disappointingly repetitive) was devoted to him and wrote a rather fulsome life which contains much interesting detail. A later, painful estrangement only served to highlight the closeness of the earlier years of their friendship. He was not always so lucky in relations with his superiors who sometimes felt overshadowed by his gifts, and there were periods of exile and estrangement which must have cost him dear. Basil's letters provide fascinating insights into his many undertakings, his disputes, his concerns and his enthusiasms. It is, of course, as a promoter of coenobitic monasticism that he is particularly honoured by Benedictines, with the Long and the Short Rules both being important sources.
It is, however, as a child positively influenced by his upbringing that we might think of Basil this morning. His life is an encouragement to parents unsure of the effect they are having on their offspring. It is even more of an encouragement to elder sisters (especially bossy ones). I wonder if that holds for monastic communities, too.
How different all this was from what we had planned. It is good to begin a New Year with the realisation that we are not in charge, that "there's a divinity that shapes our ends/ rough-hew them how we will." For some that is a stumbling-block, something to be feared and rebelled against; for others, it is a freedom, a liberation from the tyranny of believing that we must do everything ourselves. Perhaps 2010 will be the year when we all finally learn that human pride and folly are destructive and undergo a change of heart, what Christians call "conversion". We none of us know what this year will hold; but the community here will be constant in prayer, please God; and prayer, as we know, can achieve great things.
May God grant you your heart's desire this year, and more important, His heart's desire for each one of you.
(Podcasts will resume when one of the community can manage a few words without splutters.)