Goodbye Colophon, Hello iBenedictines

This will be the last entry in Colophon. For a long time we have been concerned about the unwieldiness of our web site, much of which is attributable to the blog, which has grown like Topsey and caused no end of problems. At some stage the RSS feed became corrupted (easily done), and while it works in Webkit browsers like Safari, it is useless elsewhere. We've also been wanting to introduce new material and drop some which seemed to us rather tired, as well as developing a site which looks good on mobile devices.

It is difficult to devote time to one's own site when clients are clamouring for attention to theirs; so the makeover has taken much longer than we had hoped. From tomorrow, however, there will be a new blog on the block: iBenedictines, which you will find at www.ibenedictines.org. (British users may find themselves adding a .uk to the domain name, but don't worry, that will get you there as well.)

Colophon
won't die because we've come to feel an affection for this unruly child of our monastic brainpans. It has been incorporated as an archive into the revamped web site which, D. V., we shall be launching at the week-end. It will take a while to check that all the interior links to images and audio files are working as they should, but the permalinks and structure will be unchanged, so anything you've bookmarked should still be "findable". That's the theory, anyway.

iBenedictines will also be available on this site as well as at its standalone address.

We are going to wait a fortnight or so before launching the mobile version of the web site because we are sure to find little hiccups along the way. If it works as it should, we'll be able to detect how you are accessing the web site and automatically direct you to the desktop or mobile version without your having to do anything.

This is not the recommended way to relaunch a web site but the sealing wax and string approach does have its advantages, though you might find it difficult to convince Digitalnun of that at the moment. If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing as one can, not as one can't. And if that sounds remarkably like Dom John Chapman's advice on prayer, the coincidence is entirely intentional.

The Silence of Snow

The mantle of snow lying over much of Britain this morning will not be welcomed by all but it is the perfect gift for the beginning of Advent. Snow is mysterious, beautiful, silent. It both conceals and reveals. It draws us away from the ordinariness of life to its extraordinariness, and it does so softly, silently, almost stealthily, just like Advent.

At Vespers this evening we shall sing the first of those haunting Advent chants, full of Israel's longing for the coming of the Messiah. Then we shall enter into the special silence of this season: the silence of waiting while the mystery gradually unfolds, like a winter rose on Jesse's ancient stem.

Pity the Pope

Colophon has watched with fascination the way in which the media and blogosphere have picked over a few sentences in the latest papal interview (which is, apparently, of book-length. Gone are the days when a few lapidary sentences could express the deepest truths of Christianity). It has been reminiscent of doing "gobbets", little chunks of medieval Latin containing highly controversial words and phrases, hotly argued over at the time they were written and still capable of raising the temperature of interested students.The trouble with gobbets is that they lack context, and unless one is prepared to do the proper amount of background reading, one can go seriously astray. The pope is a learned man who thinks in footnotes, so to say. Perhaps we should wait for the full text before deciding what he means. In the meantime, pity the pope. It seems everyone is prepared to argue with him, about him, over him; but listen to him, that depends.

Advent is Coming

We have been trying to work out how we can hold our usual Advent series of talks without clashing with anything else going on locally. This year, for the first time, we have concluded that we can't. That is really good news, because it means that there are so many talks and other "initiatives" that everyone has plenty of scope for deepening faith during Advent. We have therefore decided that we shall do our talks as podcasts, so anyone can listen at any time rather than having to shiver with us in the monastery. Digitalnun has been told to get the podcasts on to iTunes so she is busy working out how to do that.

This week's podcast is longer than usual because we decided to record Saturday's talk to the CWL on the five "S"s of the spiritual life: solitude, silence, simplicity, service and serenity. It is a live recording so lacks the polish that we would like to give it, but you can listen here.

Finally, we hope to finish archiving our existing blog, Colophon, by the end of this week (it will still be available as it contains nearly 800 entries). Any suggestions for names for its successor? It may not appear at the end of the web site, so Colophon may not be so appropriate. Over to you!

The Ordinariate Again

Digitalnun has not had a good week. Perhaps it's because she is still a bit groggy, or perhaps it's because her voice is too hoarse to manage a querelous tone, but she is slightly moithered by the latest pronouncements about the Ordinariate. Archbishop Rowan has reacted with his customary courtesy and good nature, seeing in the Ordinariate a hope of a revaluing of Anglican patrimony, but the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have had to tackle the nuts and bolts of setting up the Ordinariate and have come up with some surprising (to Digitalnun) statements.

£250,000 to fund the Ordinariate was the first surprise: that seems very little indeed, scarcely enough to do more than pay for a small office and its telephone bills. Perhaps the bishops are not expecting many to take the Ordinariate route. That would seem to be the case. Then the timetable for ordination seems amazingly short: former Anglican bishops to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood by Easter, other Anglican clergy around Pentecost. The idea presumably being that ordination will precede further study and formation. So much for long and mature discernment! I can't help wondering whether it will allow Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church through the medium of the Ordinariate enough time to discover what the Church is like from the inside, and what they would be taking on by ordination. Finally, Archbishop Vincent has made it perfectly plain that the Catholic Church in this country is not expecting any buildings to accompany migrating clergy and parishioners. I never thought there would be, but it is good to have it properly acknowledged.

All in all, enough to make Digitalnun wrap a wet towel round her head while she gets down to the business of prayer because, joking apart, these are serious matters affecting the life and happiness of many. When the Bishops' Conference issues statements one doesn't quite understand, it is always wise to go straight to the top. God, after all, is in charge -- no matter how much we, his servants, think we are.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is much hyped. I have to confess that I have sometimes thought that a monastery with its own vines and olives would be paradise on earth; but even peaches and oranges straight from the tree can pall, and shaking the scorpions out of one's sandals every morning can become tiresome. The truth is paradise is always somewhere other, somehow unattainable. But we can dream as we cook our pasta of golden drifts of sunshine and the clicking of cicadas, can we not?

There is, of course, another and much darker side to the "Mediterranean diet" which has nothing to do with food or drink. Europe must be one of the most fought-over areas on earth. At the end of the twentieth century we were reminded how easily our veneer of civilisation is stripped away. Now our economic difficulties look as though they may break the fragile unity we have attained within the E.U. While we pray for the urgent needs of the world, for the people of Haiti and Afghanistan, wherever a natural or man-made disaster has jeopardised life and happiness, we need to pray perseveringly for something much closer to home: the preservation of peace and harmony within Europe itself. Our recent Remembrance Day services should have reminded us that the shadow of war is never very far away because we remain selfish and sinful. It takes more than a diet of fish and fruit to change that. It takes conversion of heart.

All Saints O.S.B. 2010

November is THE month for saints and sinners. In addition to the great feast of All Saints with which we begin on 1 November, there are a host of lesser celebrations of a more local or specialized nature. Today we recall all who have found in the Rule of St Benedict a path to holiness. They are a great encouragement to those of us still firmly among the sinners and slowcoaches stumbling along the way of God's commandments.

Here at Hendred this is also Oblate Day when we invite our oblates and associates throughout the world to renew their oblate promises. A few will be with us as welcome David to begin his oblate novitiate. As he can't be with us in person, we shall be admitting him via cyberlink; but we have warned him that doesn't mean he'll be let off the 'few choice words" from the prioress!

It has been a challenging week for all people of faith. The spread of cholera in Haiti, the murder of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere, the turbulence experienced by some of our Anglican friends, none of these can be dismissed with an easy "God is in his heaven and all's well with the world". As always, our response must always be one of prayer and action. Prayer, because without prayer we are in danger of getting things wrong, of assuming that we know what needs to be done and how, of presuming upon God; action, because a failure to translate good intentions into deeds is a sin of omission of the cruellest kind. Nothing new in any of that, but as Dr Johnson was wont to remark, we need to be reminded more often than we need to be told.

Veilaudio Update

Digitalnun has been borrowing other people's fingers and toes to do the arithmetic but we can now reveal the grand total raised by the Southwark Cathedral Concert and associated donations: £9,630.63. It is a magnificent total which will enable us to continue to run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired for another year. Such a relief! Such a joy! Such a grace! Thank you to everyone who helped.

Our first audio books on CD are now in production: Newman's "Apologia" and last year's Trinity lectures on historical subjects. It looks as though we shall have to avoid mp3 downloads for the time being because of the copyright complications. In the meantime, we'd like to record the fact that no British publisher has ever refused a request to let us turn a book into audio for the blind and visually impaired, and none has asked a fee. (May be tempting fate, saying that.) It's one of those quiet, anonymous ways in which people are generous and supportive of others. Good to remember that in these straitened times.

Bonfires

Since Guy Fawkes' Day coincides with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, we can expect some spectacular bonfires and fireworks tonight. Here in rural Oxfordshire I imagine the Diwali contribution will be minimal, but we expect a noisy evening. Fortunately, Duncan is not troubled by explosions and will probably snore his way through the bangs and blasts outside. I haven't seen any guys around, so whatever is burnt on the village bonfire is unlikely to be troubling to a Catholic conscience; not so, perhaps, in Lewes, where I understand an effigy of the pope is still burnt each year.

Why do bonfires capture the imagination so? Is it simply because they remind us, in a very controlled way, of the uncontrollable forces at work both in nature and ourselves? If so, Bonfire Night is as good a night as any for a little self-scrutiny (but don't let that spoil your enjoyment of the sausages and sparklers!)

Religious Hatred

Islamist insurgents in Iraq known as the Islamic State of Iraq (a front for al-Qaeda) have announced that "All Christian centres, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [holy warriors] wherever they can reach them," and declared, "We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood." This is religious hatred, and it is a threat not only to Christians but also to Muslims because it reinforces the idea that no Muslim is to be trusted, that all alike are bent on the destruction of Christians.

I am not sure what one does when faced with hatred of this kind. I hope the Muslim community in this country will not merely condemn the ISI but work to eliminate the underlying attitudes which allow extremist organizations to flourish. It will be argued that Islam sees Christians as infidels, and that it is a holy duty to exterminate them (i.e. us), although an appreciation of tolerance means that no one would ever think of doing so. Unfortunately, western military action in Iraq and Afghanistan is identified with Christianity and there seems no end to the trouble and distress it has caused.

Sow the wind and you will reap the whirlwind. We are beginning to learn that lesson, are we not? Let us pray for all.

Blundering

We've all been guilty of it: saying or doing the 'wrong' thing when we badly wanted to say or do the 'right' thing -- the sickness we didn't take seriously, the grief we couldn't quite take the measure of, the relationship we misunderstood. Often we end up so full of self-recrimination that we overlook the obvious: our intentions were good. Yes, we blundered, but we did try; and sometimes the willingness to risk failure is more important than anything else.

Our culture is success-orientated. We even judge the 'success' or otherwise of our family or community lives by standards that have nothing whatever to do with family or community. One of the consequences of setting aside time for prayer on a regular basis is that we are continually being recalled to reality. We have to face ourselves as we are. We are not great successes, but we are not junk, either. Our mistakes are many, but we blunder on, trusting in the mercy of God to put right what we have got wrong. Most of us will probably blunder our way into heaven, and what's wrong with that?.

Prayer for the Dead

Colophon has said quite a lot on this subject in the past, but it is one of the least understood aspects of Catholic teaching. The feast of All Souls ushers in a month-long period when we pray with particular intensity for all who have died but have not yet attained the bliss of heaven. What do we mean by that?

Let's start with the living. I know perfectly well that, despite all my efforts (and the efforts of my brethren), I am a sinner through and through. Like St Paul, I often find myself doing the exact opposite of what I want and intend to do. When I come to die, I know that there will be sin on my conscience: sins I have not acknowledged perhaps, sins I have tried to pretend don't really matter. In that situation I shall be personally helpless, but I shall not be without help. I know, with absolute certainty, that my brethren will pray for me perseveringly, that my sins may be forgiven and I may be prepared for the Vision of God.

This state of purification, when the living pray for the forgiveness of the dead, is known as purgatory. It is often downplayed today by those who would like to believe that we pass immediately from our sinful life on earth to absolute bliss. Attend any funeral, and you will hear, even in Catholic churches, very little that conforms to what the words of the requiem actually say. I think that is hard on the dead: it is the living seeking comfort for themselves rather than thinking about the needs of those who have died.

Today we have a sustained Office of the Dead. We pray with hope and trust, not in a gloomy or despondent way, for all the faithful departed: the Catholics murdered in Baghdad on Sunday; the old man who died alone and wasn't discovered until several weeks after death; members of our families and friends; those killed in car accidents; those killed in Afghanistan; all whom death has surprised or taken to herself. We pray that they may be freed from their sins and welcomed into paradise.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Terror

Al-Qaeda bombs in air freight, Baghdad Christians besieged by Islamist gunmen, dissidents' bombs under railway bridges in Northern Ireland, terror is all around, it seems. Statisticians may tell us that the chances of our being involved in any kind of terrorist attack are minimal, but there is a feeling that the world is a dangerous place to be. Fear of what might happen is much more unnerving than facing an actual threat, but we are all inconvenienced by security measures which are usually more irritating than intimidating, so we cannot pretend we do not know what is happening.

So, what are we to make of it all? It may seem a bit feeble, the worst kind of milksop Christianity, but I do believe that good ultimately triumphs, that life ultimately wins over death. As an Englishwoman and a Catholic, I can only say, "Pray for a good death -- and get a grip!"

Feast of Encouragement

The Solemnity of All Saints, like its counterpart, All Souls, is a wonderful feast of encouragement. It reminds us that the communion of saints is a reality both now and hereafter. I think we do not always appreciate that fact, so focused are we on all that is wrong with the world and indeed ourselves.

One of the things the recent flood (O.K. six) of applications to join the community has taught us is that people are searching for communion and community with an urgency we have not seen for a while. Perhaps today we could each spend a few minutes thinking about how we build up community in our own situation and circumstances. Paradoxically, in a monastery, where we are bound together by the deepest of all bonds, our union in Christ, our celebration of the sacraments and our sharing of the gospel, we know we really have to work at maintaining unity. It is a gift, but one for which we have to prepare the way; and there is no other way except the way of renunciation, the way marked out for us by Jesus Christ himself.

(Podcast on All Saints 2010 now posted.)

Concert Afterglow

Our Fundraiser Concert on 28 October was a great success. The nave of the cathedral was filled to hear the Exmoor Singers of London under their conductor James Jarvis give a memorable concert of spiritual classics, old and new.

We're not sure how much money was raised in total as pledges and so on have still to be calculated, but we covered our costs and made a significant contribution to Veilaudio's most pressing equipment needs. Sadly, we are still awaiting video clips of the evening, but here is an atmospheric view of the Exmoor Singers, glimpsed over the heads of the listeners, and an amateur recording of Allegri's Miserere, recorded live (and not from the best position). Please respect the choir's copyright and do not download but simply enjoy here on our web site. You can learn more about the Exmoor Singers themselves here.

Southwark Concert 2010

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Our best thanks to Oblate Alexander, who worked tirelessly to bring the concert about; to all our Friends who worked in the background as ticket managers, wine pourers, washers up and so on and so forth; to Canon Cronin and his cathedral staff, who generously made the cathedral available to us; to Archbishop Peter Smith who was very gracious and encouraging; to Lord Nicholas Windsor, patron of the Veilaudio Appeal, who would have been with us but was prevented from flying in by French air traffic problems; and to all who gave up an evening to come and listen.

Tonight's the Night

A Fundraiser Concert at St George's R.C. Cathedral, Southwark


Southwark cathedral Flyer
Thursday, 28 October 2010, at 7.30 p.m.
Tickets £15 at the door, to include a glass of wine

This is in aid of our work for the blind and visually impaired, Veilaudio, which makes and distributes audio books of a predominantly religious/spiritual nature. It's a free-to-users service and we want to keep it that way.If you can't be with us in person, please pray for the concert's success. It's being organized by a Friend of the Monastery. You can learn more about the Friends here. Perhaps you might be encouraged to sign up as a Friend yourself?

Digitalnun is still full of snuffles so will have to go for the "sympathy vote" rather than convincing everyone of the nuns' dynamism and vision (sigh).

Memory and the Church

Yesterday I turned a stair and was suddenly back in the world of childhood, amid the comfortable certainties of my grandmother's house and time. It was nothing but a trick of light and the accident of a whitewashed wall, but the effect was startling. It underlined for me the relative nature of time and the importance of memory. When we forget, we lose part of ourselves: the forlornness of those who suffer from amnesia and those who love them is largely compounded of this sense of lost identity.

In our celebration of the liturgy we often refer to liturgical anamnesis, the sacred remembrance of events in God's dealings with us, his people. So often the events seem distant in time or have been almost argued out of existence by scripture scholars and historians, but they are what give us our spiritual identity, our sense of belonging. Our liturgical remembrance is always biblical in origin and closely linked to our understanding of Tradition. Jean-Marie Tillyard expressed this very succinctly when he wrote:

Memory in the biblical sense of the term is not simply storage of the sediment of the past. It is also the humus from which life never stops borrowing. As the memory of the Church, Tradition represents the permanence of a Word which is always alive, always enriched, and yet radically the same, where the Church never ceases to nourish its faith.

(Church of Churches: the Ecclesiology of Communion, 1992)

It is worth thinking about the memory of the Church in these terms.

Cardinal Manning Society

I am kidnapping the monastery blog for a personal enthusiasm: Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. This year has seen a fresh appreciation of Blessed John Henry Newman, but Manning continues to suffer obloquy and distrust, largely because he was so ill-served by his first biographer, Edmund Purcell. He also suffers by comparison with Newman whom many see (wrongly) as the embodiment of liberal intellectualism. There is also the incontrovertible fact that Newman wrote like an angel whereas Manning wrote . . . ponderously. If you look at portraits of the two, Manning also comes off worse, especially after he lost most of his teeth. So is my enthusiasm nothing more than a typically English championship of the underdog? Not at all.

Manning was not an easy man, and I certainly don't agree with all his opinions, but I am deeply impressed by the person he was and what he achieved. When he died in 1892, his funeral was the biggest ever seen in London: the poor crowded the streets. They did not forget all he had done for the dockers and other London poor. His theology has been under a shadow for many years, but now that most of his work is in the public realm, including a host of private letters to Gladstone and Wilberforce, we are better able to judge what he did. A new Cardinal Manning Society with web site has been set up to make Manning better known. Why not take a look? Newman is not diminished because we see Manning in a more just light. Cardinal Manning Society and Web Site

Four Days To Go

Four days to go until our Charity Concert at St George's R.C. Cathedral, Southwark, on 28 October. Tickets are obtainable at the door or from the Box Office: tickets@stgeorges.org.uk and 020 7202 2161
The event is being organized by a Friend of Holy Trinity Monastery who is probably becoming white-haired as he discovers yet another layer of complexity involved in concert management. Please come if you can: the object is to raise funds for Veilaudio, our free audio book production and lending service for the visually impaired.

Meanwhile, back at the monastery, the nuns are emerging from the 'llergy, a little shaky but unharmed. Normal blogging will resume as soon as one of them can think straight. (Given that this blog is by definition quirky, that will be a miracle. Ed)

A Financial Lent

Today's spending cuts will doubtless be greeted with groans and moans but, like it or not, the fact is that as a nation we have been living above our income. There is only one remedy for that, and no one denies that it will be painful. For some, the financial pressure will prove too hard to bear and they will seek means of escape, some even ending their own lives. That is tragic, and we pray with all our heart that God will support those out of their minds with worry and distress.

We can look upon the spending cuts as wholly negative, an attack on society as we know it; or we can see them as a kind of "financial Lent", an opportunity to reassess our values, check bad habits that have got out of hand, cultivate good habits in their stead, and generally reconsider our direction in life. For those who have more, this is a time to be more than usually generous, whether the gift be time, money, or talent; for those who have less, this is a time to learn to ask for help and to accept graciously.

If this seems Utopian, consider this: St Thomas Aquinas identifies the state with Christian society, societas christiana. It would surely not be a bad thing if economic stringency were to make us less selfish, more obviously Christian, would it?


Old and New Monasticism

From time to time we receive invitations to speak to groups belonging to the "New Monasticism". That can be difficult because we are never quite sure what (as distinct from whom) we are being asked to address. While I certainly have no quarrel with the ideals or activities of most such groups, I am becoming a bit uncomfortable with the adoption of monastic terminology to describe something that to me is fundamentally not monastic. I wonder whether I am alone in that. Let me try to explain.

In "After Virtue", Alasdair MacIntyre argued that the world needed to recover a sense of moral order "through another and doubtless very different St Benedict". In 1998 Jonathan Wilson published "Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World" and proposed a fourfold interpretation and development of MacIntyre's argument: the "New Monasticism" he envisaged would strive to heal the fragmentation of the world by bringing all under the headship of Christ; it would involve the whole people of God, making no distinction between sacred and secular; it would be community-based; and it would be underpinned by deep theological reflection and commitment. (I hope my summary is fair and accurate; if not, please correct.)

To an old monastic like me, there is actually nothing startlingly new in that. You cannot spend a day in a Benedictine monastery, for example, without realising the sacredness of the ordinary, the theological underpinning of the monastic way of life, the role of community and so on. The New Monasticism's commendable engagement with the poor and focus on hospitality are prominent in the Rule of St Benedict. In our Benedictine associates, oblates and confraters, we also have a wider community of people committed to a monastic quality of living in their daily lives. Here at Hendred, for example, our associates and oblates are drawn from many different sectors of society: male and female, married and unmarried, belonging to various denominations of the Christian Church. As far as I am concerned, anyone who shares our monastic values and promotes them is to be encouraged.

So where's the rub? It's in the very word "monasticism". I know perfectly well that the term "monk" (from the Greek "monachos") has been used, often anachronistically, to describe many different forms of religious life. However, I would ague that monasticism can never forget its core meaning. The monastic movement is in origin a fourth century, Christian phenomenom with connotations of solitariness such as we find in the lives of hermits (the root word for monasticism, "monos", means "alone"). When monks began to live together in community as coenobites, the essential note of solitariness was retained: the monk is single for the Lord.

At the risk of offending my friends in the New Monasticism, I would therefore want to say that to be a monk or nun means a lifelong commitment to remaining single. More than that, it means a lifelong, exclusive attachment to the Lord which has all the particularity of marriage. Nothing and no one can usurp the place of that. Our vows of stability, conversatio morum and obedience are all ordered towards fostering and maintaining that bond. Theologically, it can be expressed in terms of covenant; which is why any infringement of chastity, any straying of the affections, is so grave a betrayal of what we have professed.

Perhaps the time has come to reassert the uniqueness of the old monasticism, to reclaim both the language and the vocation. In our sex-obsessed culture, the solitariness of the monk or nun is indeed a contradiction. To renounce even the goodness and holiness of family life for the sake of the Kingdom is to say with one's whole being that God matters. And that, I think, is the point. We talk about monastic life as being a process of searching for God, of seeking to live in the closest possible union with Him. That demands nothing less than everything.

Australian Saint

Mary MacKilllop, the Australian religious founder who is to be canonized today, is an interesting woman. The media have made great play of the fact that in 1871 she came under ecclesiastical censure (her Sisters had reported an abusive priest, although Mother MacKillop herself seems not to have been directly involved) but have given rather less attention to her work for the education of the poor, her persecution from within the Church itself and the last difficult years when, confined to a wheelchair, she nevertheless succeeded in overseeing a major expansion of her congregation.

As far as I can see, no-one has commented on the breach between Mother MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods concerning the rule they had devised together for the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. When Mother MacKillop went to Rome in 1873 to obtain Vatican approval of her religious congregation, some modifications of the rule were made to which Fr Woods objected. Rather than accept that the Sisters were quite capable of deciding for themselves how best to live religious poverty, Fr Woods argued that they were compromising. Looked at from outside, it may seem a mere trifle; but I wouldn't mind guessing that it caused Mother MacKillop and her Sisters much pain. To be misunderstood and criticized by one's enemies is unpleasant; to be misunderstood and criticized by one's friends can be devastating. "Heroic virtue" isn't always to be measured in terms of scale.

A Little Bit of Heaven

October is never an easy month in the monastery. The last few weeks have seen some round-the-clock work on proofs for the Catholic Directory of England and Wales, a race to prepare our accounts for audit, a succession of visitors and one or two domestic hiccups, such as losing electrical power for a few hours when most needed. Despite having checked our Talkshoe set-up just before going live, Thursday's web conference had to be abandoned because the system broke down. We had already decided it would be our last using Talkshoe but we are sorry that those who joined in, and those who intended to join in, should have cleared their diaries for nothing. We shall resume once we are confident that the new system works better than the old.

So, gloom and doom all round, right? Wrong. It has actually been a blessed time. Our accountant lives in the New Forest area, so taking our records down to him is never without interest. While giving Duncan a forest walk, we saw a roe deer stag and some hinds close up (happily the wind was to us) and cattle heavy with their winter coats and murderous-looking horns. A little later and we were looking out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight, where the sea was a shimmer of silver and the sky a brilliant blue. Our visitors have all been delightful; we managed to fix the electricity problem ourselves, using our trusty DIY manual; we have been harvesting tomatoes, courgettes, butternut squash and runner beans in abundance; and we managed to dispose of some of our superfluities at the local dump (always satisfying, that).

We are currently feeling tired, there is still much to do, but we have been reminded, yet again, that it is not what we do but how we do it that counts. We can rail against fortune, groan about the burden of busyness placed on our shoulders, or simply get on with things, trusting that the Lord's purposes are wiser than our own. For myself, those few hours in the New Forest more than compensated for all the stress and strain of previous weeks. They were a little bit of heaven here and now.

Symmetry 10.10.10.

I love the symmetry of today's date, don't you? We are all much more deeply affected by form than we realise. Quietnun has said elsewhere that it was reflecting on the Periodic table that brought her to a sense of God. For me, it was the breath-taking beauty of a medieval Cistercian church.

We take joy is so many things, the form of which is in itself a wonder and delight. Here, in no particular order, are some of those which spring to mind this Sunday morning and cause me to give thanks: the symmetry of today's date, as I said before; the mathematical harmonies of a Bach prelude; the beauty of a well-set page; the elegant design of the monastery's Mac (yes, Apple, we'll cheerfully accept a fee for puffing your products); the perfect balance of Duncan's head; the fine stonework over the way; the magnificent oak we see from the kitchen window; the poem I read yesterday evening; the armoured back of the little wood louse scuttling over the floor.

Form matters, but it is still a mystery we only half-understand even as we feel its effect. I'm sure there's an important analogy there, but I leave you to work it out for yourself.

(No podcast this week as we have an online Virtual Chapter on Thursday at 7.30 pm GMT. Do join us if you can.)

Bl. John Henry Newman

Bl. John Henry Newman
Today we celebrate for the first time the Memoria of Blessed John Henry Newman. Most people will know that the date chosen for his feast day was not the day of his death but the date of his conversion to Catholicism. To understand the reason for that choice, I think one has to be familiar with both Newman's writings and the state of the Catholic Church in England at the time of his conversion. Newman was quite clear about his inability to continue as an Anglican once he had recognized in Catholicism the one true church of Christ. Intellectually, he was forced to abandon the "branch theory" of catholicism. Emotionally, it was much harder.

Mid nineteenth-century English Catholicism was largely the preserve of recusant families and immigrants: not a natural or comfortable home for a middle-class Anglican academic. That Newman was prepared to risk everything with which he was familiar, suffer the loss of reputation and security, is a mark of how necessary he thought it was to become a Catholic. For him, his reception into the Church was the most important event of his life, the date on which he truly entered into life. Death merely expanded the horizons of that life.

I think we do a great disservice to ecumenism if we fudge the nature of Newman's conversion and what it implied. We can, and should, honour all disciples of Christ (who are often much better Christians than we are, with much to teach us) but we must be true to what we believe. It is when we are truthful and loving that our hope of unity comes closer to realisation. The scandal of Newman's conversion and the Church's celebration of it may be a stumbling-block for some, but isn't the scandal of the Cross even more of a stumbling-block for us all?

St Bruno's Feastday

I wonder how many who were enthralled by "Into Great Silence" will be thinking today of St Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian Order? There is something immensely attractive about someone who was both brilliant and self-effacing, so much so indeed, that his behind-the-scenes role in the papacy of Urban II is usually noted as a distraction from monastic life rather than as something significant in itself. He seems never to have attended any of the important Church councils, but his advice was much sought.

He has never been formally canonized yet the memory of his devotion to prayer, his ascetical life-style and his love of our Lady have survived to our own day. Bruno is not the kind of saint one can propose as a role model for any but hermits and monastics, but some may recall Basil Hume's words, that there should be in the heart of every Benedictine a regret that they were not called to the Charterhouse. Here at Hendred we are reminded of that daily, for there is in the village a chapel built by the Carthusians of Sheen. It survives, whereas most of the Benedictine buildings, built by the priory of Noyon or the abbey of Abingdon, have long since disappeared or been incorporated into farmhouses or other secular buildings.The Benedictines are still here, of course, but now it is nuns rather than monks who maintain the round of prayer and work.

May St Bruno pray for all Carthusians and those who follow the eremitical way of life.

October 2010

We are organizing another online Virtual Chapter for 7.30 p.m. on Thursday, 14 October. This may be the last time we use the Talkshoe interface because a generous donation from Buckfast Abbey should enable us to use a more reliable system (free to you though not to us). The topic we shall be discussing is silence. We shall begin with a very brief sketch of the role of silence and restraint of speech in monastic life then throw the meeting open to all for shared insights, questions and quibbles. Join us if you can.

Our Veilaudio work continues apace with the preparation of our first audio books on CD for the visually impaired. If you could spread the word about our fundraiser concert (details below), and better still, come yourself, that would be wonderful.

Finally, a word about today's section of RB. It is easy to pretend to be humble; it is also easy to believe oneself to be worthless. True humility, however, is as happy to acknowledge its own giftedness as it is another's. What it does not do is insult its heavenly Creator by suggesting He makes junk nor does it fall into the trap of the self-made man who worships at the shrine of his creator. Perhaps that is why true humility is hard to find. We cannot bear too much reality.

A Fundraiser Concert at St George's R.C. Cathedral, Southwark


Southwark cathedral Flyer
Thursday, 28 October 2010, at 7.30 p.m.
Tickets £15, to include a glass of wine
Box office: tickets@stgeorges.org.uk and 020 7202 2161
Organized by a Friend of Holy Trinity Monastery

Contentment and St Francis

I like the fact that Benedict's sixth degree of humility (on contentment, R.B. 7. 49-50, which you can listen to here), is read every year on the feast of St Francis. Francis is the archetypal happy man, happy because he knew how to be content, whatever happened. His contentment derived from his sense of the goodness and nearness of God. That did not make him complacent but enabled him to see what many of us fail to see: that even negative experiences, such as having the door slammed in one's face after a long and difficult journey, as happened to Francis himself, can be a cause for joy. It is not the event itself but how we perceive it that matters.

Sign Values

The New Monastery Door Sign

The new monastery door sign

I was thinking about angels, it being the feast of SS Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and the unwillingness of our generation to admit their power or influence. It is not that angels don't exist, we just don't recognize them nor do we want to. Angels are messengers of God and as such not always welcome. How much easier to deny their existence, close our ears and eyes and live within our own little world, safe from the mystery that is God? It won't wash, of course, God will keep bursting in upon us in unexpected ways. In a sense, you could describe the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI as an "angelic visitation". He came and spoke to us of God; some opened their hearts to his message, others turned away; but it was the message, not the messenger, that ultimately matters.

The papacy is a sign pointing beyond itself to God and there are many similar signs in the world. One which is frequently argued over is the religious habit. Recently, The Anchoress wrote a thoughtful and deliberately provocative column on the subject which you can find here. The resulting debate is interesting on several counts. Not surprisingly, the majority of those who responded came down on the side of nuns and sisters wearing habits. Equally unsurprisingly, the majority of those wanting nuns and sisters to wear habits appear not to be nuns or sisters themselves but lay men and women. One or two linked not wearing the habit with a lack of faith or prayer, an opinion I would regard as defamatory except that it was probably made without really thinking. Many of the comments effectively proved my own point: that people who are not themselves nuns or sisters feel perfectly entitled to lay down the law about what nuns and sisters should wear, how they should behave and so on and so forth.

Leaving aside the historical/canonical inaccuracies and misunderstandings which are inevitable in such discussions, I was left wondering why it is acceptable to prescribe what religious women should wear while saying little or nothing about religious men. And why should lay people, especially men, presume to tell religious women what to wear? You have only to recall recent discussions about the dress code for Muslim women to see that it is a trifle contradictory. It is no good arguing that one is merely insisting that religious women follow the directives of Rome. Oddly enough, most of us are well-informed about what is required and take care to obey, even when some directives read a little quaintly (you should see what Sponsa Verbi had to say about fax machines at a time when most of us were already using email).

The community here wears a traditional habit and is happy to do so. We are well aware of the sign-value of the monastic habit and can give a good account of it; but it is not the habit which makes us nuns. I cannot help wondering whether there is a little false romanticism in lay enthusiasm for religious dress, a sneaking suspicion that the desire to make sure we act in certain ways, meet standards set for us by those who are not living our way of life (e.g. never angry, never tired, though the Lord Jesus was both), and regarding us as somehow not quite adult, is actually bound up with something few would acknowledge: a desire for vicarious holiness. The truth is, we are not children, nor are we angels in the popular sense. We are something much more glorious: redeemed sinners, signs of the KIngdom, even, sometimes and without our knowing, messengers of God.

Thames and Tiber

Colophon has been thinking recently about statements issued by a number of leading Anglicans on the subject of "what to do next". Many are perplexed and pained by the situation in which they and their co-religionists find themselves. Anyone with an ounce of human sympathy should be praying for the whole Anglican Communion because there is no division that goes deeper than a religious division, nothing that causes more pain than the dissolution of the certainties by which we live, whatever label attaches to our churchmanship.

We cannot simply brush differences aside with a well-meaning agreement to differ or accept mutually contradictory positions as though religious truth were a mere matter of opinion. Ultimately, each of us will stand before God to give an account of our life. We trust in God's mercy, yet at the same time, we know we shall have to answer for the decisions we made, for the paths we followed or did not follow. Terms like Low Church, High Church, Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic may be helpful in this life, but unless I am very much mistaken, they will avail us nothing in the next. We shall be judged by how we responded to grace, by what we did.

That is why the difficulties experienced by many Anglicans at this time matter to Catholics. We may think that the papal response, the offer of an Ordinariate and the preservation of some elements of Anglican patrimony, is enough. Leaving aside the fact that the Ordinariate is widely misunderstood, even by Catholics, (Anglicanorum Coetibus is essentially a document telling Catholics how to welcome and provide for those coming to full communion from the Anglican tradition), there is the obvious fact that most Anglicans, both here and abroad, are not going down the Ordinariate route. Most Anglicans are perfectly happy to remain Anglicans, and do so from conviction. Some elements of the Catholic press and blogosphere have overlooked this and indulged in some very unpleasant triumphalist nonsense. That is not helpful nor is it very Christian. I am myself convinced of the truth of what the Catholic Church teaches but it is precisely because of that conviction that I respect and find I can learn much from the religious traditions of others.

We must pray that the difficulties of Anglicans are resolved as quickly and charitably as possible. The calling into being of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda strikes me as being a little odd when one considers what Wilfrid argued so passionately for and Hilda was forced so reluctantly to accept (basically, the ascendency of Rome). To an outsider, it looks like a further multiplication of positions within the C. of E., one which may lead to more, not fewer, divisions. I hope I am proved wrong.

We must remember that our God is a God not of confusion but of peace. Only those who know first-hand the agony of uncertainty and division will really understand how painful the present time is. May God enlighten and strengthen all who seek his will in sincerity of heart and grant them his peace.

Nuns Go Visiting

Yesterday we spent a few hours with the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, Oxford. These lovely Anglican nuns will be well-known to many because of their publications and the scholarly work of Sr Benedicta Ward. However, we visited in order to discuss matters of common interest and visit their press rather than anything very high fallutin'. We received a warm welcome, and even Duncan found a friend in the community who took him for a long walk in the grounds while "they" discussed monastic use of the internet and similar weighty matters. It was good to be able to pray and eat together as well as talk. Take a look at the community web site here and their soon-to-be-relaunched press web site here. Digitalnun committed a few sins of envy of the space and light available in their publications room but was able to be genuinely sympathetic about the absence of storage space. It is a universal problem: there is never enough room for everything.

We are planning our next online virtual chapter, so if you would like to suggest a theme, please do so. (We upgraded our Broadband service recently and discovered new problems with our VOIP connection, hence the delay. The problems are not quite sorted out but we remain optimistic we shall be able to hold a chapter very soon.)

A Fundraiser Concert at St George's R.C. Cathedral, Southwark


Southwark cathedral Flyer
Thursday, 28 October 2010, at 7.30 p.m.
Tickets £15, to include a glass of wine
Box office: tickets@stgeorges.org.uk and 020 7202 2161
Organized by a Friend of Holy Trinity Monastery

New Beginnings

Autumn began with wind and rain but this morning the earth is bright and crisp with cold. It is a time for new beginnings. Already the autumn planting is well advanced and young people are preparing to go to college or university. It is a time for spiritual new beginnings, too.

Perhaps one of the most important things to grasp is that to make a new beginning spiritually does not mean taking additional things on but rather letting things go. It is as easy to clutter our spiritual life as it is our living space or timetable. Autumn is for slowing down, reflecting on what truly helps us seek God and just "wasting time with the Lord." There are lots of helps available, from the three-minute retreat to the BBC's "Thought for the Day", but there is a danger in multiplicity. Silence and stillness are the best helps of all.

Maybe today we could just go outside for a few minutes, ignore whatever needs to be done in the garden and simply look at the autumn light, smell the autumn scents, listen to the sounds of autumn on the breeze and give thanks. Ultimately, all prayer is eucharist – thanksgiving. That is the best beginning of all.

Grace and Grumbles

There's a sentence in today's section of the Rule (which you can listen to here) which always seems harsh: "if a disciple obeys with bad grace and grumbles, not only out loud but even in his heart, then, even if he does comply with what is asked, his action will not find acceptance with God." (RB 5.17, 18) That is a stern reminder that it is not only what we do but how we do it that counts. For those of us who take comfort from the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is rather bleak to be told it is not enough to obey. We must obey cheerfully.

Perhaps what Benedict is driving at is the importance of uniting our will with God's. It is not that Benedict is censorious of less than perfect obedience as such, rather he sees the possibilities of our vocation as children of God. Amazingly, we can become like him, but the choice is ours to make.

Not Single Spies

"When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions."
So Claudius in Hamlet, and so the universality of human experience. We have not had time to do much online during the past few days, but our prayerline has been buzzing with requests, most of them of deeply sad: requests from people with terminal illnesses, agonizing over broken relationships or facing the loss of everything they hold dear.

Prayer is often seen as a last resort. "When everything else has failed, try prayer: it cannot do any harm." That is merely another way of saying prayer cannot do any good. Prayer does change things, or rather, it changes us, although the situation we are praying about may not change. We cannot, for example, "undo" the earthquake in Haiti; but our response can change. We can move from comparative indifference to the sufferings of others to active involvement in trying to relieve them; we can forgive someone who has hurt us even though he or she is still as hostile as ever; we can become more accepting of difficulty or diminishment in our lives, or inspired to further struggle or generosity. The mere act of acknowledging that we are not in charge of everything can help us to inner peace and greater sensitivity to those around us.

It matters what we pray. "Thy will be done" is a prayer without pre-conditions, a prayer that unites us with the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus himself. That is why it is so effective. It is world-changing in its scope and reach, if we pray it in union with him. Unfortunately, we are usually happier with something much less: we do not want to become saints, just a bit kinder and, while you're about it, no financial/health worries, please, Lord. The real changes we need to make in our lives, the pockets of resentment and unforgiveness we need to let go or the selfishness we need to eradicate are of little interest. We'd rather not be confronted by the self we meet in prayer: it is too illusion-shattering.

The sceptic sees no value in prayer. I myself do not know if people who pray are any nicer than those who don't. I only know that I would be much nastier if I didn't.

Pope Speaks Plainly

We're impressed by the way in which Pope Benedict XVI is addressing many important concerns, not only in words but in his whole manner of being. Some high points so far: the speech in Westminster Hall, the prayer at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, the photos of the meetings between him and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi. Perhaps the intellectual distinction of both Archbishop Rowan and Sir Jonathan has helped the pope feel more at ease in Britain than might otherwise have been the case. We are fortunate in having spiritual leaders who are learned: they demonstrate the truth of one of the pope's key points, the intimate relation between reason and faith. That has tended to be downplayed in recent years, but while holiness is not dependent upon learning, every gift of mind and heart should be at the service of God and it is good to have the example of those whose gifts are so remarkable.

We continue to pray that great good will come from this visit and we'll return to regular blogging after the week-end (must get the oratory finished).

Plain Speaking about the Pope

We have just completed a Vigil of Prayer, asking God's blessing on all the people of Britain and the safety of Pope Benedict XVI. Like many British Catholics, we are wondering what will unfold during this visit. Much will happen behind closed doors, but we can expect some very clear indications of Benedict XVI's thinking from the homily he gives when Newman is beatified. Unfortunately, if the Regensburg address is anything to go by, the media will pick up on a sentence or two wrenched out of context and try to create a storm. Benedict isn't a pope who speaks in sound bites but in nuanced and often intellectually demanding sentences. He pays his hearers the compliment of assuming that they too are educated and well-read. That doesn't make him popular, but it does make him worth studying. One hopes that the British sense of fair-play will triumph over the determination of some to be as rude and hostile as possible (the sick ice-cream ads of a certain company come to mind, as does the silliness of well-known professors and self-proclaimed activists).

It may be worth restating that:

  • Benedict XVI's visit is a State visit; he didn't ask to come, he was invited by Gordon Brown. It would be shameful if he weren't accorded the respect we normally show to visitors, and tax-payers are not funding the whole cost of the visit.
  • The media often gets things wrong; the misunderstanding of the recent updating of canon law (regarding clerics guilty of abuse and the ordination of women) is a case in point.
  • The abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not and never can be acceptable; there have been terrible failures, but the Church is not to be defined by these failures (it is outrageous to accuse the whole Church of being paedophiles, for example); it is difficult to be sure how many instances of abuse there have been or whether Catholic priests are more prone to abuse than, say, married men - the statistics we have seen suggest the reverse - but the clumsy and defensive responses of some bishops have not helped.
  • Marriage of the clergy is not in itself a remedy for abuse, and presenting it as such is insulting to women; Colophon is planning a post on the meaning of celibacy later this month, with a few figures for those who assume that the Church in this country could afford a change in the present discipline.
  • Pope Benedict XVI has done a great deal to cleanse the Church of the "filth" he himself has identified within its ranks; the Church in England and Wales has very robust procedures in place for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, and a clear procedure for dealing with offences.
  • Not everyone rolled out by the media for a "Catholic perspective" on things is well-informed or even aware, sometimes, of what the Church actually teaches; Colophon offers a special caution against taking the opinions of former politicians as anything other than opinions.

Our hope and prayer is that the pope's visit will be peaceful, that he will live up to one of his ancient titles of pontifex maximus (bridge-builder) because what the run-up to his visit has shown is how deeply divided and intolerant British society has become. Maybe this negativity can be turned to good by a shy and scholarly man who is in his eighties, not in the best of health, yet answerable to God for the lives of over a billion Catholics world-wide. Realisation of what an immense responsibility rests on his shoulders should alert us all, Catholic or not, to the fact that he speaks sincerely, as one who believes. That entitles him to respect, even if one disagrees with what he says.

Disagreement is not always based on careful reasoning, of course. Sometimes it proceeds from sheer ignorance. So, if you are a bit hazy about what the Catholic Church is, what she teaches, what she believes with every fibre of her being, may we suggest you read the Gospels and follow up with the man of the moment, John Henry Newman. See what he says about the holiness of the Church, its horror of sin, even venial sin, and you will understand something that goes beyond the clamour of public opinion to the heart of God himself. Cor ad cor loquitur, indeed, but first must come an openness, a willingness to listen.

Rag-Bag Thoughts

Yesterday our Processional Cross was adorned with bay leaves as a sign of Christ's victory, today, on the feast of our Lady of Sorrows, a single candle burns at its foot to remind us of Mary faithfully keeping watch. One wonders what her thoughts were as she gazed on her dying Son, how great the sense of loss must have been. The sacrifice of Mary bears thinking about, as well as her unequalled faith and trust. Probably there isn't one of us who doesn't know that something we have achieved has been through another's sacrifice: parents who made it possible for us to have a good education, a husband or wife whose own career interests have been placed on hold so that we can pursue ours, a community member who has sacrificed great personal gifts for the sake of building up the community. This is a good day to think about these things, give thanks for them and pray for the gift of generosity ourselves.

Triumph of the Cross 2010

The Triumph of the Cross
The Feast of the Triumph of the Cross is of ancient origin, going back to the commemoration of the Finding of the True Cross at Jersualem and the dedication of two churches built by the Emperor Constantine in the year 335. It originally lasted eight days and was very important, equalling in solemnity the celebrations of Epiphany and Easter. In time the celebration passed to Constantinople, thence to Rome and the rest of the world. According to Egeria, who wrote a lively account of her travels in the Holy Land in the fourth century, the feast was especially attractive to monks, and still today it marks a turning-point in the monastic calendar, when the timetable changes and the winter fast begins.

So much for the feast's history, but what of its significance today? The fact that we are celebrating it on the eve of the pope's visit to Britain reminded me of some words of Newman (Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 7, sermon 8) which identify the cross with the yoke we are called to take upon ourselves:

Let us set it down then, as a first principle in religion, that all of us must come to Christ, in some sense or other, through things naturally unpleasant to us; it may be even through bodily suffering, such as the Apostles endured, or it may be nothing more than the subduing of our natural infirmities and the sacrifice of our natural wishes; it may be pain greater or pain less, on a public stage or a private one; but, till the words "yoke" and "cross" can stand for something pleasant, the bearing of our yoke and cross is something not pleasant; and though rest is promised as our reward, yet the way to rest must lie through discomfort and distress of heart.

We have a natural tendency to want to overlook the difficult aspects of our faith, but we cannot dodge the demands of Christ indefinitely if we want to be among his disciples. The ferocity of the attacks on Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church in this country have revealed an underbelly of hatred in our society that is deeply disturbing. You have only to skim through any blog mentioning the papal visit to encounter vilification and wild accusations of a kind that would not be acceptable if directed to any other person or object. That suggests to me that something good is going to come out of Benedict XVI's visit, that the Cross he is being asked to bear is indeed borne in union with the Lord Jesus. The devil doesn't bother to attack his own.

(For the historically curious: the photo shows an early example of the use of the cross image in Armenia. For details of the exciting archaeological work going on, see here)

Sabbath

The word "sabbath" has at its root the idea of "ceasing" or "resting". God rested from his work of creation on the sabbath, and ever since Jews and Christians have set apart one day a week for resting from their ordinary occupations and refreshing themselves with prayer and worship. Sunday is, quite literally, a day of recreation. Alas, for most of us, it is a day filled with "more" rather than "less", but that is no reason why it should not be a day of rejoicing and refreshment. We can make Sunday special in so many different ways but most important of all is to allow God to make it special for us. Without some time in spent in prayer, "wasting time" in prayer, the whole day is wasted. This week's podcast is a short reflection on Dom John Chapman's teaching on the subject.

Temptation

Recently a friend in the U.S. tempted us: she offered us the choice of an iPad or a donation towards whatever the community needs. Now I wouldn't describe the community here as geekish, but if Apple ever requires a salesforce with a nice variation on the black teeshirt, I think the Benedictines of Hendred in their uber-cool habits would be near the top of the list. We have used Apple products for years, love the elegance of their design and appreciate the fact that they do what we want them to do. They are also beyond our budget, so we only buy when we absolutely have to and then with much calculating of pennies and ha-pence. There was therefore a strong pull towards saying "yes". Digitalnun was having difficulty keeping up with computer-related tasks and Quietnun was tearing her wimple over the shortcomings of her Windows computer, so we could "justify" the acquisition. And we had watched the video on the Apple web site. Fatal!

Why, in the end, did we say "no" and ask for the donation instead? First, because we prayed. Before making a decision we asked our friend for time to think about our response. During that time we spent about an hour discussing the pros and cons (mainly the pros, let's be honest), then spent the next couple of days not thinking about the question, just commending it to the Lord. When we met again to make a decision, it was clear that we had reached a common mind. Yes, we'd love to have an iPad, but for us it would be a luxury. We can do what we need to do, as distinct from what we'd like to do, with what we have. Secondly, we are conscious of the needs of others: how can we amass superfluities when others lack necessities? Only yesterday someone came to our door asking for a meal and some money to get through a lean time. The meal was offered, of course (we do not give money). No matter how bad a press the Catholic Church is getting at the moment, people know that there will always be a welcome and help at our doors. That means we need the wherewithal to offer help; and the generosity of our friend in the States plays its part in making that possible.

Today the world will be remembering the events of 9/11 and we shall be praying for those who died, those who lost loved ones, all who have been touched by the tragedy. We shall also be praying for a maverick pastor in Florida who has been reckless, to say the least. It would be another tragedy if his meanness of spirit were to be remembered instead of the generosity of the American people, if his foolishness were to lead to more deaths. Pray that he too may avoid temptation.

Birthday of the B.V.M. 2010

If you want an image for this feast, may I suggest that you go here and look at the chapter-house painting by D. Werburg Welch in the ebook Magnificat? The composition of the painting is entirely classical, but there is a grace and youthfulness about the treatment that is very winning.

The birthday of Mary ought to be something on which all Christians can agree: we do not need scripture to assure us that the mother of our Saviour was born. Her birthday is therefore something we can celebrate in the simple, uncomplicated way in which we celebrate the birthdays of family members. I think that is the secret. For both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, there is the sense that Mary is a family member. Church teaching is very clear that adoration (latria) is given only to God, but to Mary we show a special reverence (hyperdulia) which sets her above the rest of us (blessed art thou among women), as a mother is always reverenced by her children; but it is a reverence which has a great deal of freedom in it.

St Bernard's sermon for this feast expresses the theology of Mary's place in the Church in a way that even the thickest of us can understand. He calls her the aquaduct which channels the Fountain of Life to us. That is exactly right. Mary's glory is to be the Mother of God, but her gaze and ours are directed towards our Saviour.

Grace and Gratitude

Today is the sixth anniversary of our foundation, a day for thanking God for all the blessings we have received and prayer for the future. It is also a day for repentance: for opportunities missed, for failures and shortcomings. Repentance is not inconsistent with rejoicing, with proclaiming all that God has done and glorifying his holy name. So, today we invite everyone to join with us in praying that we may respond fully and generously to God's grace, and not us alone but all who may join our community in the future or whose lives are in some way touched by our own. We pray for our Oblates, Associates and Friends, our cyber-visitors, users of our Prayerline, you who are reading these words, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, that God may be glorified in all.

St Gregory the Great

My attention wandered during Vigils this morning. I began by thinking about Gregory the Great as the Great Communicator. His letters are clear, concise treatments of the matter in hand, often marked by a commonsense approach which was anything but common at the time (Gregory on the role of women, marriage and what we would now call family life should be read by all who think the Catholic Church's teaching antediluvian in attitude). His liturgical reforms are legendary, and he was, of course, the first pope to come from a monastic background. Everyone knows he sent Augustine to these shores after seeing Anglo-Saxon slaves for sale in the slave-market (non Angli sed angeli).

That is where my distraction began. We know that Gregory was probably blue-eyed with fair hair himself (actually, he was pretty bald on top, but the hair at the sides was long and carefully curled, after the Roman fashion of the day). Both his parents were tall, so there is a distinct possibility that Gregory was, too. I wonder whether he saw in those young Anglo-Saxons a vision of himself in boyhood and thought what might have become of him had he not been a Christian? Our most important acts are sometimes prompted by thoughts and feelings that barely make a ripple on the surface of our conscious mind. Could it have been so with Gregory? I don't know, but I spent a pleasant couple of minutes wondering and I daresay I shall spend the rest of the day scrutinising some of my own motivations.

There's the rub. Distractions in themselves are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that counts.

(Note for the historically curious: Gregory had portraits of his parents frecoed on to the walls of his monastery of St Andrew's on the Caelian Hill and the monks had a portrait done of Gregory himself: these were seen about three hundred years later by John the Deacon, who described all three. Gordianus, Gregory's father, had "light eyes" and his mother, Silvia, had blue eyes. Gordianus's hair-colour was described as "light tawny". Clearly, neither was olive-skinned with dark eyes, as we might have expected.)

A Religion of Joy

Why do so many people think of Christianity as joyless? They see only the prohibitions, I suppose, and regard them as a curtailment of freedom rather than as a means to true freedom. Then again, some people have to feel miserable in order to feel good; which is sad, especially when they inflict their views on those around them. Others worry and fret that anything they enjoy must somehow be sinful, or, even worse, be sinful for others.(How often has someone, wine-glass in hand, opined that they are shocked by the idea of nuns drinking wine; to which the only honest answer is, "Christ was a wine-bibber, and though I'm only drinking water at the moment, it is for the sake of your scruples, not mine.")

God doesn't want us to be gloomy. He made us for the enjoyment of this world and the next. We tend to forget that he delights in our happiness and that we honour him and his creation by being joyful. Do not make the mistake of thinking that joy is inconsistent with suffering or difficulty. Negative experiences force us to take our eyes off ourselves, which can be the first step in allowing joy into our lives. As Hebrews 12.2 reminds us, Jesus endured the Cross, despising its shame "for the joy that was set before him". We do not know what today will bring but whether it be good or ill, we have reason to be joyful.

Bad Boy Makes Good

Forgive the title for this post, but St Augustine's story is of a remarkable change of heart and all the consequences which flow from that. The young Augustine was brilliant but brittle: he was clever, but he was also ambitious and selfish. Even his conversion to Christianity was not without its problematic side. History, however, has forgiven him his abandonment of his mistress and their son, forgiven but not forgotten, for the effect of these events in his private life and what we once thought of as the decay of the Roman Empire (revisionist historians now stress continuity rather than change) on the development of Augustine's theology is incalculable.

From Augustine come the concepts of original sin and the just war; the first fully-articulated realisation of the need of grace for true freedom; the idea of the Church as a spiritual City of God; the monastic rules and the example of monastic living in north Africa, and much more. In the Confessions, he gave us a new literary genre: the spiritual autobiography which goes beyond what we commonly expect of such a work to give us a theory of time which still commands respect today. Above all, Augustine engaged intellectually with the questions behind the "plain sense of scripture". His view of human nature was far less pessimistic than is often suggested; and in the expositions of the psalms or the sermons, for example, which were jotted down by a listener as he spoke, we hear the warmth and humanity of Augustine the pastor.

Augustine was a great man, all the greater for not seeking greatness, one of Africa's best gifts to the Church. May he pray for us all.

A Feisty Woman

St Monica gets rather a raw deal. Everyone is so mesmerised by her son, Augustine, that she only seems to exist in reference to him. She is commemorated as a widow, yet the story of her marriage to the pagan Patricius, a difficult and demanding man, rather than her widowhood, is surely the story of her sanctification. In her younger years, she struggled with a drink problem; in her later years, she struggled with philosophy and theology in order to be able to engage with her brilliant but wayward son. It would be interesting to know how far their discussion of Ambrose's sermons drew Augustine away from Manicheism.

Augustine wrote poignantly about their last meeting at Ostia and rightly attributed the grace of his own conversion, as well as that of his father, to his mother's prayers and influence. The Church, by and large, has remembered only her prayers, but Monica is a good example of a tough-minded woman with a generous heart, remarkably clear-eyed about her family's shortcomings but firm in faith and patient under all the blows that life dealt her. She is the patron saint of married women, mothers and alcoholics. Her heaven is obviously a busy one.

Living Carefully

It is depressing when medical people tell one to "be careful". I was hoping I could start living "normally" again, conscious of the backlog of work that has built up over the past few weeks, the bills that will soon be falling due, all the plans on hold while waiting for some little clots to disperse. Unfortunately, they haven't, so this curious kind of pottering existence must continue. It seems the antithesis of everything monastic, never to be still for more than a few minutes at a time, always having to think how to do whatever needs to be done and accepting that some things are currently not possible. Frustration!

The truth is that in my heart of hearts I rather despise the idea of "being careful". It is such a namby-pamby notion, not at all to my taste. St Benedict has an answer for that, of course. In chapter 33 he reminds us that as monks and nuns we do not have even our bodies and wills at our own disposal (RB 33.4). They are given to God and the community unreservedly. That is so contrary to modern ideas of self-sufficiency and self-fulfilment that it comes as something of a shock. Do I not have any rights in the matter? Well, no, you don't. Everything you do, even the lifestyle you adopt, has consequences for which you, and you alone, are responsible. You are, as it were, a steward of yourself and it is up to you to prove yourself a good steward.

That means, alas, that I'll have to do as I'm told and bear the anger and annoyance of those whose own plans will be affected by the scuppering of my own. My guilt feelings will probably head towards the stratosphere but I'm sure I'll learn something valuable. The skies won't fall in because I'm not there to hold them up; and possibly, just possibly, I'll learn that God's ideas are better than my own. Hope so.


Conspiracy and Cover-Up

The Claudy bombings were a disgraceful episode in a disgraceful history of murder and terror but one doubts whether we are really any nearer the truth concerning the involvement of individuals. Was Fr James Chesney involved in the bombing or not? All decent-minded people must be disgusted at the thought that he might have been; they must also be disgusted at the thought that he is being talked and written about as guilty when we don't actually know. The fact that he's dead adds to the unease: he cannot defend himself.

When we move from the particular (Fr Chesney) to the general (Catholic Church), the situation becomes more complicated, because the Church exists here and now; but while the Church of the day is often held to account for the faults and failures of the Church of the past, the historian in me questions whether that is always valid. For example, I, personally, feel no need to "apologize" for the excesses of various Inquisitions, much as I abominate what was done. In fact, it's quite likely that my ancestors were both persecuting and persecuted; the same is probably true for most people. But historical apologies of that kind have become fashionable, indeed are often demanded. Any moment now I expect to read a demand for an apology "from the Church" for the evils Fr Chesney is suspected of having committed. I'm not sure how that works.

It is always easier to make accusations of conspiracy and cover-up than to substantiate or rebut them. The trouble is, accusations about conduct in the past tend to colour people's views of the present: ask anyone with the surname of Borgia or Crippen. So, the discussion about the Claudy bombings has implications for the present, even if we can never reach certainty one way or the other about Fr Chesney's involvement.

The difficulty of establishing facts and of judging them (not the same thing, although often equated) is compounded by the difficulty of making an imaginative leap into the world of the past, of entering into how people thought and felt about things in days gone by. People laugh now when I recall that my father told me, in all seriousness, never to go out with a man who wore a made-up bow-tie. It was code, of course, but a code we all understood. No one understands the code today: we think it just plain silly. Was it silly at the time? It didn't seem so.

Similarly, can we enter into how politicians and clergy thought and felt about the IRA and the "structures of society" forty years ago? It's difficult, even for those of us who lived through those times. It might be more helpful to concentrate on what is very much a question of our time: the need, real or imagined, to apportion blame, to make someone pay for wrongs done. The enormities of the Pol Pot regime and the Lockerbie bomber spring to mind, and the debate about how justice should be served. No one is arguing that wrong-doing should go unpunished, it's more a question of deciding what is appropriate punishment, what other factors should be taken into account beyond the establishment of guilt.

It may sound lame, but maybe we should just concentrate on trying to keep society safe now, leaving the evils of the past to God. "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord." It is better left to his hands than ours.

Niceness

Yesterday's announcement that the British people are leading the way in giving aid to Pakistan cheered me up no end. We hear so much about what is wrong with us, what is bad in society in general, that the thought of people quietly getting on with helping others, despite tightened belts at home, is really nice.

Niceness is undervalued today. It's partly the fault of its being a forbidden word ("the use of 'nice' in English composition is indicative of poverty of thought and imagination" according to my English mistress, aeons ago). Au contraire, niceness is to be applauded. It's niceness, rather than virtue, that allows us to bear with all sorts of disagreeable things and people and others to bear with us. Niceness isn't particularly brave and never draws attention to itself, but it is kind and thoughtful, in a quiet, unemphatic way. It is a quality without elbows, so to say, because it doesn't push itself forward or others out of the way. It has time for children, old people and dogs; for those "little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love".

Niceness will never be the equal of faith, hope or charity; but I'm glad there are so many nice people in the world, aren't you?

Duncan Speaks

Duncan speaks
The nuns are busy, preparing for a Day of Recollection organized by the Friends of Holy Trinity Monastery, so they are allowing me to speak to you for the first, and probably last, time.

I am Duncan (short for Dunk'n Disorderly), the monastery dog. It's not too bad, being the only man about the place. I'm very quiet and well-mannered and I quite like joining them at prayer-times, only their singing sometimes gets on my nerves and I hide behind the lectern while they get on with things. They don't allow me in for Mass, which must be very special and wonderful, but I have plans to sneak in one day and surprise them.

I get taken for walks on the Downs, which are lovely; and I get two meals a day and a reasonable number of tummy tickles. I like that they get up early because it means I get an extra three hours in bed with nothing to disturb me. I think my basket is softer than theirs, but I haven't tried any of theirs out yet.

On the whole, I think monastic life is perfect for a dog. I am very happy, and when I want to show it I race around with my ears flapping like Snoopy's. I suppose my ears are a bit like their veils, which also flap when they run. They are very keen on God, which, as I often tell them, is dog spelled backwards. They have a lot to learn but I am doing my best to teach them.

'Bye for now, Duncan xxx.

Clean Vessels

Today's first reading at Mass, from the prophet Isaiah, contains a phrase that bears much thinking about. What does it mean to be a "clean vessel"? For a long time I used to think in terms of Jewish ritual purity, then in terms of moral uprightness, freedom from sin. Clearly, all those ideas are legitimate and worth pondering, but doing the washing-up this morning made me think again, and the thought is so obvious that I hesitate to put it before you.

A clean vessel is one that has been washed, of course, but also one that is empty, waiting to receive that which it is meant to contain. You don't call a full cup "clean" (although one trusts it was clean when you filled it) you only call an empty cup "clean". Isn't that how we all go to prayer, empty, waiting to be filled?

It's an aspect of the openness we talk about in this week's prayer podcast: being open to others, open to the Holy Spirit. It requires effort on our part but it's an effort worth making: to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

Catholic Heritage

Before Vespers, Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester

The feast of St Pius X is a good day on which to think about Catholic heritage. The news that the Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, site has finally been sold has been greeted here with a mixture of joy and sadness: joy that the buildings will no longer stand empty, slowly deteriorating; sadness that a great and beautiful part of our Catholic heritage is now passing into secular hands.

We know as well as any that buildings are not the only, nor even the principal, constituent of any heritage; but it is silly to pretend that they don't matter. They do, supremely. They provide the setting for most of our activities and can have a huge influence on how we act. They express what we believe and what we value. That's one of the reasons why Benedictines throughout the ages have struggled to build something beautiful for God. It is no accident that their most beautiful building, the one on which most care and attention is lavished, is the community's place of prayer, the church.

Here at Hendred our oratory is very simple but we have done our best to make it a fit place for prayer. Whenever we have managed to save a little, we have added something: a vestment, a new set of psalters, some especially fine incense. The altar linen (made by D. Teresa) is always immaculate: the first and best flowers from the garden are always placed before the altar. Why? Because of what happens in the oratory and the One who dwells there. Prayer is the fundamental constituent of our Catholic heritage, that for which our art and architecture were designed.

Pius X understood this very well. His desire to renew the Church through renewal of the liturgy encompassed all the arts, including music. As Benedictines, we love singing the chant which takes us back to the first ages of the Church and brings us close to the synagogue music of Jesus' day. It is heartening that many are rediscovering this part of our heritage; heartening, too, that many are thinking seriously about liturgy; but there are other things which are not so encouraging.

We are losing familiarity with some aspects of our heritage and thereby cutting ourselves off from some of the history which has helped shape and form us. Of course the Church must grow and change; inevitably there will be loss as well as gain; but the rate at which we are losing our buildings in this country must give us pause. Are we slowly but surely losing something we shall live to regret?

(The photo shows Statio before Vespers at Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, January 2001: a few minutes of recollection before entering choir to sing the praises of God.)

St Bernard my Hero

It was reading St Bernard as "background" for my Ph.D. research that made me realise monastic life was for me. Yes, he has his difficult side: preaching crusades, hostility towards Abelard and some nasty little remarks when he was angry (Bernard could do anger in a big way so there's hope for the most choleric of us). He also has his syrupy side: the sermons on the Song of Songs contain many beautiful passages but can be cloying read in sequence. He could write like an angel and was apparently irresistible when speaking in person, but many villains in history have had similar gifts. Fortunately, Bernard was never anti-semitic and was a defender of Jews at a time when that was not very common. He was, in short, an interesting man, shot full of flaws which grace redeemed, rather as carbon remains carbon still even when it takes the form of diamond.

So, why the hero worship? Simply this: there isn't a line in Bernard that doesn't speak of ardent faith, zeal for souls and desire for God. Who wouldn't want to emulate that?

A Way with Words

First the good news: the English language has been enriched by another 2,000 words according to the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. For sad types like Digtalnun, this is quite enthralling, especially as she thinks nuns invented the concept behind one of the newcomers, "staycation". Scrabble this Christmas should be a little tougher, and that is all to the good.

Now for the not-so-good news. Catholic Care, a Leeds-based adoption charity, applied to the Charity Commission for exemption from the new anti-discrimination laws so that it could continue to place children for adoption in accordance with Catholic teaching. (Other Catholic adoption agencies have either closed or severed their links with the Church so it was something of a "test case"). Not surprisingly, the Charity Commission threw the request out. For some of us that is troubling in itself because we genuinely believe that the best environment for children to grow up in is a family with a mother and father. That doesn't mean we're homophobic: it just means that we think this gives children the best start in life. Equally troubling is the way in which the BBC is reporting the news, http://bbc.in/bnx0Lb.

Note the first paragraph in bold print:

"A Roman Catholic adoption charity's appeal to be allowed to discriminate against gay people wanting it to place children with them has been rejected."

I don't know, but I think it most unlikely that Catholic Care asked to be allowed to discriminate against gay people. The second paragraph is probably nearer the truth:

"Catholic Care wants exemption from new anti-discrimination laws so it can comply with Church teaching ruling out homosexual couples as adoptive parents."

So why not say that? Could the BBC be biased? Is there someone with an agenda against Catholicism? Words really do matter, and opinion-makers like the BBC have a special responsibility to choose their words with care.

Floods in Pakistan

It's an odd world. Like most Christians, we have been praying for the people of Pakistan and sending what we can to help the relief effort. We know there's a risk that our contributions will end up in the pockets of corrupt officials, but that's a risk we are prepared to take. To stand by and do nothing is unthinkable. By and large, the media is uninterested in this side of Christianity and would much rather concentrate on its own myths. So, we are being treated to endless vapid and often hostile comment on the papal visit, Catholic "hypocrisy" and so on and so forth. We are, apparently, the blackest villains ever to walk this earth and the only way to deal with us is either to hurl insults or laugh at us. Don't take us seriously, whatever you do.

We are not immune here in the monastery. During the past seven days we have been asked to allow TV cameras in to do a "feature" linking up with Sister Act (politely refused); a woman's magazine has also asked to do a "feature", this time on "a nun who has previously been married or had a career" (we all had careers before entering, what is newsworthy about that? Another polite refusal); and one of those obscure TV companies which seem to operate out of a PO box somewhere in north London has offered us "the opportunity" of taking part in one of its game shows (guess our answer?)

Trivialising religion is a bit like trivialising the devil: a very dangerous mistake. It may not have crossed some people's minds, but take away the Christian impetus to charity and service and you will be left with a much bleaker, less humane society. We have it on the authority of the Master that our neighbour is anyone in need; and that means anyone, not just people we would like to help or those we feel some bond with. Thus, when we pray for the people of Pakistan we pray with the intensity and urgency we pray for what is most dear to us; when we contribute to the relief effort, we do so with the open-handedness we contribute to any other cause we value . . . We do, don't we?

D. Gertrude More

On this day in 1633, at the early age of twenty-eight, died D. Gertrude More, great-great granddaughter of Sir Thomas More and one of the nine founding members of the community at Cambrai. Her story is an interesting one because she is exactly the kind of person who ought to become a nun but who is often dissuaded from doing so by people outside the cloister because she is "too lively". She was indeed lively and high-spirited, but the liveliness and high-spiritedness were accompanied by a truthfulness and seriousness of purpose that were a measure of her intellectual and spiritual stature.

Her novitiate was not without its ups and downs. She was forever flaunting authority. Any mischief tended to have young Sr Gertrude at its centre, and she definitely took against the solemn Fr Augustine Baker who came as Vicarius to help the young community grow in prayer. In fact, she was strongly tempted to abandon monastic life altogether but Fr Augustine showed her how to pray; a conversion followed and the rest, as they say, is history. Her holiness of life made an impression on those who knew her and today she is revered as one of the community's uncanonised saints. Fr Augustine wrote a life of her in two volumes, with copious quotations from her own writing, including her far too fluent doggerel. If you are interested, you can read it online here: http://bit.ly/aklx3h.

D. Gertrude More is an inspiration to every Benedictine nun. Her devotion to contemplative prayer, her valour in maintaining the validity of the community's approach despite much opposition from some of the monks, her support of her abbess and her immense charity make her very attractive. May she pray for us all.

The Birmingham Oratory

Recently the blogosphere has been awash with comment on events at the Birmingham Oratory, most notably the removal of Fr Philip Cleevely, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Br Lewis Berry for an indefinite period of prayer and reflection at various monasteries in Britain and France. Colophon does not wish to comment on the specifics of the case but will certainly be praying for all concerned, especially the three exiles, of whom one, Fr Dermot, is remembered with great respect from Cambridge days.

What we do want to comment on, however, is the way in which the Church often deals with "internal disputes" within its religious communities and priestly congregations. It is no secret that we ourselves know something of the pressures which can be brought to bear, especially on those who wish to be loyal and obedient but who do not form a majority/find themselves conscientiously holding views at odds with those of the superior or other members of the community. Sanctions only work if they are applied to people who acknowledge the authority of those applying them and desire to continue as priests, monks, nuns or whatever, despite the injustices or difficulties to which they may be subject. The alternative is what might be called the Milingo approach: shake the dust of the Church from one's feet and do one's own thing (the eccentric and excommunicate former archbishop is now the Ecumenical Catholic Apostolic Church of Peace's patriarch of South Africa).

Internal investigations, by definition, rarely make sense to outsiders but what we know of the Birmingham case makes uncomfortable reading. The sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not the only form of abuse: there can be an abuse of authority in other areas which is countenanced because it is (mistakenly) linked to religious obedience, with the result that people who have done nothing wrong can be made to pay a high price for their integrity. Everyone has a right to their good name, and it would be sad indeed if the Church were to allow any suspicion to attach to those who have committed no sin and broken no law. It is troubling that the three members of the Oratory are left with a cloud hanging over them. One hopes that, like Newman's, it will soon be lifted for ever (though perhaps not by the gift of a cardinal's hat!)

Again, we stress that we have no inside knowledge regarding events in Birmingham and trust that we are not sniffing sulphur where there is none. The fact remains that what has happened and even more the way in which it has happened are disturbing. This is surely a case where Church authority needs to be a little more transparent if it is not to appear harsh and authoritarian. Fifteen hundred years ago Benedict foresaw the need for "neighbouring abbots and Christians" to keep an eye on the local monastery and act promptly if need be (RB 64.6). That means trying to put things right when they go wrong, of course; but it also means standing up for truth and justice in the face of any official desire for "tidy solutions" or "quick fixes". In the language of today, it means that every Christian has a duty of care towards every other member of the Church.

Update -- 7 September, 2010: Please see this statement from Fr Philip Cleevely http://bit.ly/9uCxaN.

Assumption B.V.M. 2010

I have discovered the limitations of blogging from an iPod Touch: there's no easy way (that I can see) of uploading an audio file and linking to an audio player - some hard coding is required. That is a pity because I can think of no better way of expressing the hope and joy contained in the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady than by sharing with you the Alleluia for today's Mass. It is one of the loveliest pieces of chant in the Gradual, soaring upwards like the gothic buildings in which it was first sung.

Medieval representations of Our Lady, whether in art, music or poetry, always seem to me to capture her essential strength and simplicity. She was indeed the "mulier fortis", standing by the Cross of Jesus until the end; the virgin full of grace in whom the Lord made his dwelling and whom, after death, he took into heaven to be with him for ever. Where Mary is now, we hope to follow: what an encouraging thought that is.

In Mary, the Mother of God, we have a powerful intercessor in heaven. May she pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Novices

Once again we begin reading Benedict's chapter on the admission of newcomers to the monastery (RB 58), and once again we are made to reflect on the mystery of vocation. Those of us who have professed vows as monks and nuns would be the first to admit that we are novices all our lives, ever learning something new about God and ourselves. We would be the first to acknowledge, too, that the calling to monastic life is one vocation among many: all are called to holiness, to the closest possible union with God, but the way in which each person is called will differ.

Why, then, does my heart sink when someone asks, "How many novices do you have? How many enquirers?" Partly because I don't think of vocations as having much to do with numbers but rather with the gift of self, which cannot be quantified. If I look back over the last five years, I can see that we have spent a lot of time and energy answering vocation enquiries, having people to stay and patiently trying to help them find their way in life. It is a joy to us that we have been able to help one person find her vocation in Carmel, another in marriage; many more have discovered that what they thought was a call to the cloister was actually a call to intensify their life of prayer, and I hope we have been able to help a little with that. One person was so relieved when I told her that I didn't think she had a vocation to monastic life, she practically danced, saying that a great burden had lifted from her shoulders!

God's yoke is light and easy, never burdensome; but assuming it will test one to the core. So, dear reader, if you are toying with the idea of a monastic vocation and rather fancy life in a romantic habit in a wonderful setting, with beautiful liturgy as background and perhaps a little light gardening by way of manual labour, think again.

Here at Hendred we offer not romance but reality: hard work, austere living, financial insecurity, absolute dependence on God. We can promise that you will be tested in ways you never dreamed possible. You will learn things about yourself you would rather not and will struggle to admit. You will discover that your brethren are not saints but sinners, their failings precisely those that make most demands on you. You will discover that the holocaust of self made in the vows is something that has to be renewed daily.

Is it worth it? If you come here to find God, you will indeed do so. If you come seeking anything else, you may perhaps find it, for a while at least, but there comes a point in every monastic life when the soul is stripped bare, so to say, and must seek God and nothing else. Sacrifice isn't popular today, if it ever was, and it is only human to try to escape it. We can all point to monks and nuns who seem to live, on the surface at least, comfortable and even worldly lives with very little of the sacrificial about them.

We don't do "comfortable and worldly" here at Hendred, and please God, we never shall. On the other hand, we do do "joyful". I happen to believe that a monastic vocation is the most amazing gift. Yes, it comes at a price, but what can one give in exchange for life?

St Lawrence 2010

Long ago and far away: that might be how one thinks of St Lawrence whose martyrdom has assumed mythic status, but there is one aspect of his story which is worth remembering when all thought of his gridiron has dissolved into smiles. Lawrence is a role model for all deacons and church administrators. He saw clearly that the wealth of the Church lies in her children, especially the poor.

Just now we are aware more than ever of the needy in our midst. The suffering of the people in Pakistan, Haiti, so many countries throughout the world, is deeply distressing; but to be honest, one does not need to go far from one's own door to find need. A walk through the streets of Oxford, apparently so rich and civilized, will show you something of the shadow side of our society. The poor are always with us: the materially poor, the emotionally poor and the spiritually poor. It is impossible to try to meet all these needs all the time, but we can do what we can and turn the result over to God. From the States comes a sad but heartening story that illustrates my point.

You may have read about the Benedictine Sisters in Virginia who were killed by a drunken driver as they made their way home to the mother-house for their annual retreat. The community's response has been Christian in every sense: prayer, honesty and forgiveness. The young man who caused the accident is an illegal immigrant who has had at least one similar accident in the past. Some sections of the US press have been baying for his blood. Not so the Sisters. They don't always get a good press from some of the more conservative elements in the Church in the USA (they don't wear habits, for example) but their way of dealing with tragedy has shown that they believe what they teach. Like St Lawrence they have seen Christ in the poor and needy, and the fact that he is not one of those whom it is easy to feel compassion towards is telling. If we are truly to love, it must be with Christ's love, not our own. Otherwise, we make distinctions, set limits, make demands. The Sisters haven't: they have simply asked Christ to come into the heart of the darkness and illumine it as he will. (You can read more of the Sisters' story here, http://bit.ly/apN1cV

St Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein)

The August feasts are a remarkable group, including as they do men of such stature as John Vianney, Dominic, Bernard and John the Baptist, but the women seem to me even more remarkable (may St Bernard forgive me). Any month which includes the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the greatest of all Marian feasts, and today's feast of St Teresa Benedicta must be special.

Edith Stein's story is well known and deeply moving. Her pilgrimage of faith from Judaism through agnosticism to Catholicism and life as a Carmelite nun is one she herself recorded. Her death at Auschwitz is necessarily more sketchily drawn but compelling in the details we have. What has always struck me, however, is that she is a perfect example of a "mind taken captive by Christ". We have become so accustomed to people of brilliant intellect sneering at faith and misusing their gifts to wound others that to find someone whose mind was beautiful with the beauty of Christ is inspiring. The fact that the someone in question was a woman is more encouraging still, because all too often, even today, women in the Church are regarded as good for the flowers and coffee rotas but not much else. Nuns, alas, hardly figure, unless they conform to the dread stereotype of what a nun should be (and before I am taken to task for this, let me assure you that I know whereof I speak!) so it is good to find one who breaks the mould, so to say, and comes across as a real person. In St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross we have a saint whose personal flaws and shortcomings were gradually transformed by grace until she herself became an alter Christus. May she pray for us all.

For those who enjoy listening to talks, there are two more on our Talks page: an introduction to the medieval English mystic, Walter Hilton, and a recording of his Parable of the Pilgrim to Jerusalem, probably the best-loved part of his Scale of Perfection. The Digitalnun Daily likewise continues this week although I prophesy that it may fizzle out like Google Wave with the end of the Silly Season.

Saturday Fun

I'm not sure how long this is going to last, especially as we don't seem to be able to call it the "Digitalnun Daily", but it may amuse you. It's an interesting take on the blog-and-share idea. Enjoy.

Transfiguration 2010

This most Benedictine of feasts, the Transfiguration of the Lord, is surely one of the most beautiful in the calendar. It is also one of the most mysterious, using that word in the commonly accepted sense. There is something very strange about the experience Peter, James and John had on the mountain with Jesus, and it is clear from Peter's bumbling and inadequate response that he was baffled and bewildered by it. There are moments in all our lives when we seem to lose touch with reality; when the familiar and certain give way to the new and sometimes incomprehensible. Our usual reaction is to try to make sense of things as we always have. Perhaps this feast is a reminder that God has a way of breaking in upon our comfortable certainties. His vision is so much larger and more wonderful than ours. Who would not wish to be transfigured by it?

Digital Missionaries

My eye was caught by a brief article in an American journal suggesting that Christians, and more especially Catholics, see the internet as mission territory. Quite apart from the fact that that's the premiss most of us have been working on for years, I was fascinated by some of the concerns the author raised (no names, no pack drill). Like many, he has understood that the internet has changed the way people read. We have become used to gathering information in small chunks, flitting from page to page, link to link, at speed. Debate has become as ill-mannered and sometimes ill-informed as ever it was in the eighteenth century because so much of the comment we find on the web is anonymous. With all this I can agree. When people come to the monastery, one of the first things we have to teach is how to slow down, especially when reading. The art of lectio divina, prayerful reading, requires time: you cannot rush the Holy Spirit. Good manners, concern for the other, are at base, Christian values and have to be deliberately cultivated. As Chesterton remarked, "The grace of God is in courtesy".

So far so good. Where I take issue with the author, however, is with his view that the internet is hostile to prayer. On the contrary, Sir, I think the internet is a great way of fostering prayer. Yes, we can just "waste time", we can be superficial and self-indulgent (the figures for porn-watching are staggering) but we can also be alert to people and events in a way that would not otherwise be possible. It all depends how we integrate our engagement with the internet into our life of prayer. Here we have the custom of praying before we switch on the computer, praying before we respond to anything that drops into our inbox or before engaging in comment or debate (which, to be fair, we do not often do as there are others better qualified than we are), praying when we close down; none of this interferes with or displaces our "times of prayer", because that's where our hearts are, where our treasure is to be found.

It is precisely because of that hidden life of prayer that we engage with the internet at all. I am sure that it is similar for others. In the past missionaries traversed huge tracts of unexplored and often hostile territory to bring the gospel to those who had not heard it. Today we must accept the challenge of the internet and become digital missionaries. I see no contradiction between that and being, for instance, a contemplative nun. Thérèse of Lisieux never stepped outside her Carmel but the Church regards her as one of the greatest missionaries of all time. There's clearly hope for us all. I know it's a bad pun, but perhaps today General Booth would be urging us not to let the devil have all the best iTunes.

Welcoming Christ

Just as we welcome Christ in the sacred space that is the liturgy, so also we welcome him in the sacred person of the guest. If you have twenty minutes to spare, Digitalnun has posted a talk on Benedictine hospitality which explores some of the relationships between RB 52 and RB 53. (Please scroll to the end for Community Talks.)

A Holy Place

It is no accident that Benedict's brief guide to how a monk should act outside the monastery is followed by a consideration of the monks' place of prayer. RB 52 is one of the most poetic chapters in the Rule, rich in alliteration and strongly rhythmical in construction (good sixth century Latin, not bad classical Latin). Its apparent simplicity belies its profundity. What might be the points Benedict wishes to make?

First, there is the absolute centrality of prayer to monastic life. The oratory is the heart of everything: the place where we come to know God and ourselves. It is therefore to be treated with the utmost reverence. "Nothing else should be done or kept there" (RB 52.1). It should be quiet, still, with no voluntary distractions, somewhere we can pray as a community and as individuals. Our reverence for God must naturally flow over into reverence for others; so anyone who wishes to pray by himself should not be hindered by anything we say or do in this holy place.

But Benedict has something more to say about the nature of prayer itself. There is a kind of recapitulation of what he says in RB 20. The monk praying by himself is to pray easily, "just go in and pray", quietly, "with tears and devotion of heart", and if he won't, he is not to be allowed to remain because he will disturb others. The new element Benedict introduces in this chapter is the assumption that the public, community prayer of the liturgy will lead to private, contemplative prayer afterwards. For many that will seem a little strange. Think of any grand liturgy you have attended, with magnificent ceremonial, orchestral trumpetings from the organ and so on and so forth. Did it end with your falling to your knees, rapt in God? Possibly not; and to be fair, being rapt in God is not the only measure of "good" liturgy. What we are talking about here, however, is monastic liturgy with its particular emphases. The monk's whole life is to be lived in the closest possible union with the Lord Jesus and everything in the monastery is ordered to that end.

Is Benedict's teaching about the oratory therefore for monks and nuns only? I think not. We are all called to holiness. Monks and nuns are monks and nuns because we are a bit weaker than others and need a few more "sensible helps", but even the strong can sometimes learn from the weak.The luxury of a church or chapel in which to pray isn't given to everyone; even a "prayer corner" can be hard to find; but we each of us have the inner sanctuary of the heart to which we must withdraw, as to an inner room, and there seek God, quietly, humbly, sincerely. We can take Benedict's warnings about unacceptable behaviour as reminders that we should keep any personal exuberance in check if it offends others. My pious practice may be anathema to you, just as your British reserve may be crushing to my Latin soul. We have to learn to get along together and not be too prescriptive about how others should be.

Benedict assumes that there will be regularity in our prayer and arranges the "hours" of the liturgy so that they follow one another through the day, providing many opportunities for private prayer, too. For many, that is difficult. Time is at such a premium, but it is generally helfpful to have some formal structure, a way of entering into prayer. Currently, I have difficulty in saying the monastic office (which requires innumerable books) because I have to walk while praying. So, I am using iBreviaryPro, a free application for use on an iPod touch or iPhone and soon for android, too. It is ideal for those who are time-poor or lack the books for the Roman Office. If you do not know it, check it out.

To our secret inner chamber perhaps we should now add a secret way of praying, aided and abetted by a slip of silicon and the wonder of wi-fi.

Mendacious Meals

Today's short section of the Rule (RB 51) is often passed over with a smile, especially by those who do not belong to a monastic community, yet it contains some important teaching about the nature of community and frankness in our dealings with one another. If you are unfamiliar with the text, you can listen to it in the Prayer Box on our Vocation page.

Why should Benedict say that a monk away from the monastery for the day should not accept an invitation to a meal unless authorized to do so? I can think of three reasons.

First, there is the fact that eating together, table fellowship, is a sign of belonging. A monk who has often to go out on business can become a little detached from his community, can even begin to forget that he is a monk, living a life that is quite secular in its values and preoccupations. That is the complete opposite of the constant mindfulness of God Benedict insists upon and sees the monastery as providing the best conditions for fostering. We all know that little infidelities can mount up and eventually separate us one from another; so the punishment Benedict provides, excommunication, is essentially formal recognition of a process which began with something apparently trivial, our choosing to eat apart from the brethren.

Secondly, a monk sent out of the monastery on business is literally entrusted with the performance of some task or other for the community. It is part of monastic obedience to perform that task exactly as asked. That doesn't mean one can't show initiative, far from it; but it does mean that one doesn't "milk the opportunity" for one's own benefit. The community comes first, and one is expected to discharge one's trust faithfully. If that means some degree of trouble or inconvenience for oneself, tough: see it as an opportunity to bless God and not grumble.

Thirdly, there is the sad fact that monks can be less than honest with their superiors, saying one thing and meaning another or just being "economical with the truth". Benedict will have none of it. He knows that for a community to thrive honesty and straightforwardness are essential. Otherwise, there can be no trust; and how can a community survive when the members have no confidence in one another? The abbot must know what his monks are up to, and if there is a possibility that someone's conduct is undermining the community in any way, he has a duty to act.

Can we take this further and apply Benedict's teaching to life outside the monastery? I think we can. We all have multiple forms of "belonging", some of which require a definite form of commitment on our part. We can become careless and forget that we need to maintain our commitment, sometimes through renouncing good things or pleasant opportunities. At a deeper level, we need to remain honest with ourselves, which can be painful. Truthfulness isn't an easy quality to live with, either in oneself or in community, but we have seen the terrible consequences of the erosion of public confidence in people and institutions and know that we must try to be honest or risk the destruction of all we hold dear.

That unacknowledged meal with friends may look innocent enough, but for the monk at least there is, somewhere in the background, the thought that the record of human sin begins with eating a forbidden fruit and then lying about it.

Limping Along

Prayers today for all our Jesuit friends, and indeed for the many people who have been very helpful to us as a community during the past couple of weeks. Digitalnun is limited to ten-minute bursts on the computer at present so she has been asked to go away and play with the Handyzoom as there are several talks she has not found time to record yet. We'll post details in the blog as and when she uploads them to our Talks page. Duncan meanwhile has been asked to assume the role of Cerberus (a task for which he is completely unsuitable) but there was some talk of an ipod being used while the Mac is out of bounds, so Colophon may continue much as usual. Perhaps you could "offer it up" or something.

Meanwhile, we take heart from this story from Canada that having the courage to speak about Jesus can stop a robber in his tracks. O si sic omnes: http://bit.ly/bgz0lt

Bare Ruined Choirs

Stanbrook Choir before Compline

Yesterday we had to go to Malvern and as we drove past Stanbrook and saw the ivy growing over the enclosure wall, Digitalnun went very quiet for a few moments, thinking sombre thoughts of dissolution and decay and recalling a purple passage or two from Dom David Knowles. Places become precious by association, doubly so when they are also beautiful and have an inspiring history. The thought of that lovely abbey church gathering dust in the silence and stillness of a summer afternoon was painful. Yes, of course, the community goes on, so does the prayer and the praise, but there is that indescribable thing called "atmosphere" which cannot be recreated without a similar striving.

The photo of the choir was snapped by Digitalnun one evening just before Compline. It could have been taken at any time in the past century and a half and to us who knew it gives a vivid sense of what it was like to step into choir before an Office. What it cannot convey is the wonderful acoustic, the result of sound being bounced from the sounding boards above the choir stalls on to the tiles beneath, nor the smell, a mixture of beeswax and incense and, in summer, myriad scents drifting in from the gardens. Still less can it convey to outsiders the real life of the church, the unceasing round of prayer, public and private, from dawn till dusk, day in, day out, which is the mark of Benedictine community. The church at Stanbrook was the crowning-point of Fr Laurence Shepherd's dream of a resurgent Benedictine monasticism for women and he wore himself out in his efforts to raise the money and see the building completed. I rather hope that we have a similar vision here at Hendred and are similarly earnest in our efforts to realise what a Benedictine monastery may and should be in the twenty-first century. If so, the pain of that passing moment may be an inspiration for the future.

The Mary Strand Trust

Good news for Veilaudio: the Mary Strand Trust has made a generous award to enable us to replace some of our worn-out equipment. This is particularly important because the age profile of blindness and visual impairment is changing slightly. Age-related macular degeneration is still the main cause of blindness in Britain. Most users of Veilaudio are elderly and often rather isolated. It is clear many appreciate the contact with people the audio service provides (some of our lay volunteers are now "Sister" and "Father/Brother" to our library users). However, there are larger numbers of young blind adults who wish to obtain appropriate religious/spiritual reading matter but that isn't easy, unless you don't mind having a text "read" to you by the mechanical voice inside your computer. We are lucky to have a number of excellent volunteer readers, with good voices and an intelligent grasp of what they are reading, and devote some care and thought to the choice of texts. At the moment, Digitalnun is wondering how anyone (no one is owning up to having done so) could have asked one of our most learned readers to record "The Shack" but the results are excellent and no doubt the book will please those who have been longing to hear it. As soon as she is able to climb up to the high places where Veilaudio resides, it will become our book of the month, available on CD only. Please join us in thanking God for the Mary Strand Trust and pray for the trustees and administrators.

Speaking Plainly

It is a dull, grey morning and we are reading Job at Vigils. Dull and grey outside it may be, but my goodness, there are fireworks in choir! What a magnificent work the Book of Job is. Reading scripture aloud is infinitely more effective than scanning the page silently. No wonder the Church exhorts us always to LISTEN to the readings of the liturgy rather than follow them in books or missalettes. Job is a dramatic text, of course, but even the drearier bits of Leviticus read aloud have an impact that would otherwise be wanting; and if the reader is sensitive enough to drop all idea of being an actor and simply allows the words to speak through her, that impact can be very great indeed. The trouble is, many readers want to improve on the Word of God by inserting themselves into the text; so we have grandiloquent flourishes and hyped up emotion and the result is . . . painful.

I have a notion that the solution to this conundrum is to be found somewhere or somehow in the life of the Lord Jesus. From that first cry at Bethlehem, when the Word of God first found perfect utterance though a human voice, to that last "It is finished", there has been no more reverent expression of God's meaning and purpose. I suppose we all have an interior notion of how Jesus spoke, and we edit out the passages that don't conform to our own ideas. It would be a good Friday exercise to go through one of the gospels and look at the different tones in Jesus' voice: the adolescent certainty with which he answered Mary in the temple; the sharp refutation of Satan in the desert; the commanding invitation to the disciples; the patient explanations; the teasing quality of his exchanges with those he met on the road; his anger with the money-changers in the temple or the hub-bub around Jairus's daughter. One might especially note the way in which he spoke to women since that very often escapes male preachers.

We are ourselves a word spoken by God. Our life's business is to learn how to proclaim the Word of God, and from whom can we learn it if not from Him?

(Domestic note: many thanks for the kind enquiries after Hopalong [a.k.a. Digitalnun]. The antibiotics have begun to check the infection which, as late as Wednesday, was still spreading, but recovery looks like taking longer than we had hoped. The patient is not her usual cheery self and says she will slaughter me if I describe her as being "comfortable". On the other hand, she is grateful not to be in hospital and is managing to do a little work at the computer. Duncan and I are growing in patience by the hour. Infirmarian.)

St Mary Magdalene

I wanted to say something about St Mary Magdalene as the apostle of the Resurrection but my mind is full of the image of Mary as penitent which I have to go and look at every time I am in Valladolid (it was part of the Sacred Made Real Exhibition, see http://bit.ly/bkFvOb). Mary was often treated harshly by writers of previous generations, being seen as a sinner who reformed, but never quite sufficiently. She was a woman with a past. Perhaps it was precisely because she was a forgiven sinner and knew herself to be such that she was entrusted with the news that Christ was risen. Only those who really listen have anything to proclaim.

Meanwhile, in order to help Facebook sign up its 500,000th user, we have begun creating a Facebook page for integration with our new web site (coming like Christmas, did you say?). It is not very ept at the moment, but you ought to be able to see it by using this nice little badge:
Benedictine Nuns, Holy Trinity Monastery

Challenges

Digitalnun is currently having difficulty sitting at the computer. This would be amusing were it not that her ailment is making her less sweet-tempered than usual (= downright crotchety. Ed.) This presents a challenge to all who come to the house. How does one deal with a "moaning minnie" or a "grumpy old gaffer" (not that we are suggesting that Digitalnun fits either category, perish the thought!)? It is not quite the same as confronting prejudice. A fit of the glums, a touch of black dog, or just being inexplicably down in the dumps are experiences we all go through from time to time. We know that they will pass and that there isn't very much we can do to help the afflicted one. We just have to dodge the hissy fits. I think the dog has got it right. He ignores the irritability, throws an occasional eyes-like-melting-caramels look in the direction of the sufferer and keeps well clear when the groans and grimaces become noticeable. There are some things that time and time alone will put right. Maybe that's why patience is described as the fourth Benedictine vow.

Prejudice

During the past week the Catholic Church has scored a number of own goals. Those of us who have to know canon law will understand why an updated list of grave faults might include both sex abuse cases and the ordination of women. Those who don't won't, but this fact seems to have escaped the Vatican. Sometimes one wonders whether the ineptitude is deliberate. Be that as it may, the media response was predictable, although some of the comments (e.g. the now notorious Tweet by Caitlin Moran) have revealed a vein of anti-Catholic prejudice that would be unacceptable if it were directed elsewhere. Substitute Muslim, black, Jew or gay for Catholic and there would be outrage, rightly so.

The experience should make us think how we handle prejudice, both in ourselves and in others. We pray (or at least I hope we do) to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Provided we don't allow our own interior clamour to drown out his voice, we ought to be confident that God will free us from our prejudices, even if it is the work of a lifetime. Every time we become aware of prejudice in ourselves, we ought to stop and think what we are doing. We don't have to be nasty, do we? How we deal with the prejudice of others is more problematic. We may believe that the only way to meet prejudice is with the gentleness and openness St Paul saw as characteristic of the wisdom given from above, but it is amazing how a red mist can come before the eyes when certain things are said or done! The fact that something is difficult does not make it impossible, however. Refusing to pass the poison on may not seem very heroic, may indeed require a huge struggle against the desire to hit back, but I suspect it is the only way to avoid becoming a shrivelled and shrunken scrap of humanity. The worst thing about prejudice is that it reveals the prejudiced person in all too truthful a light.

Painless Giving

Before I became a nun one of my great delights was to go "steeple-chasing", the churchy rather than horsey variety. From the grandest of cathedrals to the plainest of meeting houses, I was fascinated both by the buildings themselves and what they revealed about the people who used them. It began with a childish enthusiasm for Gothic which grew with the years to embrace almost everything. I began to see that architectural "mistakes" might have a beauty that had nothing to do with their material construction. I even discovered a fondness for the ugly little Catholic churches squashed into mean back streets which were commoner then than now, the gothic all wrong but the intentions all right: churches built by the urban poor and kept going by innumerable small sacrifices and struggles. To begin with, I was a bit fastidious about the bingo and sweepstake notices pinned at the back, but over time I began to see that one will do almost anything for whom and what one loves. The Catholic obsession with money is not an obsession with money per se: it is an obsession with what money can do for a good cause.

Which brings me to my point. People sometimes ask what they can do to help the monastery, usually prefacing their remarks with the words, "I don't have a lot of money but . . ." Don't worry if you haven't any money. If you use the internet at all you can help us greatly by making use of two services which will cost you nothing but which will bring us a small referral fee.

If you use our easysearch portal do your internet searching, we get something like a penny each time you make a search. Doesn't sound much? In the course of a week, 41 regular users generate anything between 30p and £1.50 for our charitable funds. If we had 400, it would pay for one new audio book for the blind a week. If you do any online shopping, please consider going to your favourite retailers, or finding others, via our easyfundraising portal. About 2000 retailers are now taking part in this scheme. When you use the portal, the referral fee which would normally go to Google or some other search engine is split half and half between easysfundraising and ourselves. You don't pay any more, indeed there are often special discounts and offers for users, but we raise some useful cash - almost £500 to date, which bought a new digital recorder for our work for the visually impaired and paid Veilaudio's telephone bill for the last quarter. Finally, if you don't want to support the monastery but would like to sign up another charity, please consider using our referral link and help two good causes at the same time.

As they say in all good churches, spread the word (and help us spread the Word).

Catholic Bloggers

The Catholic blogosphere is sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. Colophon is all for strong views and engaging style, but not at the expense of common decency and humanity. I used to think that extreme opinions and the "ya, boo, sucks" style of argument were the preserve of more or less unhinged individuals adding their two pennies' worth to the comments section. Indeed, it was because the comments on some blogs were so awful that we delayed implementing a commenting system here. But the problem is not confined to the comments. A number of blogs are, frankly, a disgrace: ill-informed (but often claiming infallibility in matters of faith and practice), ill-mannered (gloating over the distress of others) and sometimes deeply personal in their attacks. Others are less crude but still leave one with an unpleasant sense that the writers are not people one would wish to spend much time in purgatory with. This has been especially noticeable during the past few weeks when the troubles affecting our Anglican friends have been picked over in some detail.

So what makes a Catholic blog? Not, I would suggest, a plethora of repository art splashed all over the page, nor a load of paypal and other buttons inviting one to support the blogger by a donation; not loud proclamations of fidelity to the Magisterium or "the Traditional Church"; nor extravagant claims to being "progressive" or "forward-thinking". (Note for the confused: the Catholic Church is Traditional and she is One, and it is generally wiser to follow rather than go ahead of the Holy Spirit; but that's just my opinion, of course.)

I think the marks of a Catholic blog are simple: a sound grasp of Catholic teaching (those who seek to inform others should first inform themselves), a certain modesty or restraint about the rightness of one's own views, courtesy in argument (St Francis de Sales had an enviable reputation for being gracious towards his opponents: he would have made a wonderful blogger) and a scrupulous avoidance of anything that might detract from the reputation of others. This last is frequently overlooked, but it is an important caution. In a world where communication is instant, we can sin grievously by a hasty statement or comment that injures another. (Take a look at Twitter or Facebook if you disbelieve me.) Finally, I would suggest that those of us who are Catholic bloggers should remember what St Benedict says about praying before we begin any good work. Praying before we hit the keyboard won't necessarily improve our blogging, but it may improve us.

Kitchen Service

Benedict's chapter on kitchen service (RB 35, begun today) is often overlooked, especially by those who rarely, if ever, have to do any serious cooking, but it is effectively a treatise on the nature of community. Everyone is involved, unless there is some matter so important that an individual needs to be excused for a time. Those who are less strong are to be given help so that they too may serve. The flip side of this is that those who serve are in turn served; and one of the most beautiful aspects of monastic meals is the way in which all, from the youngest to the oldest, receive as well as give. As St Benedict remarks, such service "secures a richer reward and greater love".

The ritualisation of meals in a monastery is not stiff and formal. At its best it provides a domestic liturgy in which we thank God for the gifts given us and use eating and drinking to prepare for and recall the celebration of the Eucharist. The detail matters. We do not usually nowadays wash one another's feet, but the threefold blessings, the care taken to ensure that everything used at table is spotless, the silence, the reading, above all the fact that the meal is shared are a sign that what we are and do as a community is reinforced by our companionship, our breaking bread together.

It is just as well that Benedict had such a high ideal of kitchen service. Many a youthful monastic vocation has ended in the scullery where the "life of prayer" takes on a very muscular dimension. As a reality check, it is second to none. If we would see Christ in the liturgy, in the swirls of incense and the beauty of the chant, we must also see him in the kitchen amidst the baking trays and the brillo pads. Now, just remind me of that when I come to cook dinner today, please.

Twilight

Summer seems to be slipping away already. It was dark when I got up this morning, but the darkness soon gave way to that thin grey light which heralds dawn. I suppose it is symbolic of life itself. Some of our lives are lived in sunshine, some in shadow; but there is a lot of twilight existence, where nothing very much happens, or what does is not particularly happy or attractive, and we don't see very clearly the way ahead. It may sound sickeningly pious, but I couldn't help remembering that it was at this twilight hour, "very early, before the sun had yet risen" that the Church, in the person of Mary Magdalene, experienced the Resurrection.

A Feast that is Not

Benedictines keep the Transitus on 21 March as the "big" feast of St Benedict; that of 11 July is much more low-key, so low-key this year that it isn't happening at all (Sunday takes precedence). It is therefore something of a dies non, which seems to fit the mood of the moment: a day for reflection and prayer following yesterday's decision in York. We trust our Anglican friends will know that we hold ALL of them in prayer, whatever their position.

So, how does one "celebrate" a non-feast? The liturgy of Sunday is fairly grand in itself, although we shall miss Solemn Vespers. Our Customary obliges us to more prayer and reading than on ordinary days (not a hardship) and less work (define). I suspect that the major change will be in the refectory. Dinner will be a trifle more festive. We have drawn off some of our homemade orange wine (star-bright, and nice and dry, for those who wonder) and we shall allow ourselves a little extra conversation, in accordance with monastic practice (our way of life is largely silent). It does not amount to very much, but life is made up of little things. It isn't only the devil that is in the detail. Sometimes you find the rejoicing there, too.

I forgot to post our podcast earlier but it is there now. The most recent 19 can be found on Talkshoe, earlier ones on the archive page. Soon they will all be in one place.

Cooling Off

Duncan in a hole

I've dug this nice little hole in your garden and I'm not coming out till it's cooler!

(Note: Duncan thinks we need some dog-talk occasionally as well as all this God-talk. Ed.).


Pray for our Friends

The July session of the General Synod of the Church of England begins today, and every Catholic ought to be praying for the participants. One of the questions to be debated concerns women bishops and if past discussion is anything to go by, there is a possibility of further division and pain whatever Synod decides. To a sympathetic outsider, it looks as though there can be no winners but only losers. The media are not helping with their talk of "easy conversion to Roman Catholicism" for those who reject the idea of women bishops.

Colophon is not to going to be drawn on this question, but there is one point that is worth making. Becoming a Catholic is not just one option among many for people of faith. One becomes a Catholic - converts - as one becomes an Anglican or a Methodist or anything else, because one is convinced, because one can do no other. Conversion is never easy. It is not a question of adopting certain practices or changing "ecclesiastical club". It requires whole-hearted assent, acceptance of risk, readiness to set out into the unknown. It can never proceed from a negative. It is therefore wrong to suggest that it is a "solution" to the difficulty some find themselves in; nor should we forget that others hold different opinions equally sincerely; their consciences must be respected, and the consequences for them must also be weighed. Whatever is decided, the Church of England is about to change quite dramatically; and that will affect all the Christian churches in this country.

Let us pray for the Synod, for wisdom and charity in the discussions and for an outcome that is pleasing to God.

Reverence

Where liturgy is concerned, it can be hard to be both a woman and a student of history. As we all know, there is a growing debate in England about the reception of holy Communion: should we receive on the tongue or in the hand? (For legislation and instructions see Memoriale Domini [AAS 61 (1969), pp. 541-547] and Immensae caritatis [AAS 65 (1973) 264-271]. Approval for Communion in the hand was given for England and Wales in 1976). I have been following this debate for some time, with a growing sense of unease. Ignorance and exaggeration (on both sides) does not make for clarity. Indeed, it often leads to an irreverence which was surely never intended but which is in danger of obscuring the sacredness of that which we are discussing.

It was the practice of the early Church to receive Communion in the hand (there was quite a complicated ritual of sacring the eyes with the Host which no one, as far as I know, has ever wanted to revive). In the course of time, it became the practice in the west to receive the Host on the tongue and to reserve the Precious Blood to the clergy. Reception under both kinds, usually with reception of the Host in the hand, has been the experience of most English Catholics since the 1970s. The wider use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass has led to renewed discussion about how the laity should receive Communion. Instead of considering whether some criticisms of present practice are valid, there has been a tendency to adopt extreme positions. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that holy Communion is the Sacrament of unity and should be approached with the utmost reverence. How that reverence is to be expressed externally is more difficult to decide.

I myself am perfectly happy to receive Communion in any way the Church allows. As a community, it is our practice to follow the custom of those with whom we are worshipping (provided it is licit, of course) So, at the parish Mass we receive standing and in the hand. The only difference is that we make a profound bow before receiving. It is a valid criticism that many who receive standing and in the hand omit the genuflection or bow the bishops envisaged we would make before approaching the altar. When we are with a community that is using the Extraordinary Form, we kneel and receive on the tongue. I trust that our exterior disposition matches the interior disposition of our hearts and minds.

So, what is the problem? Apart from the rudeness this debate seems to induce in some who are otherwise polite and well-intentioned, there is the fact that the manner of receiving Communion is often used as a peg on which to hang other and more doubtful arguments. It is troubling to find people discussing the Mass as though it were the preserve of men only, questioning whether women should be allowed to receive Communion with heads uncovered or read or perform any other service during the liturgy. It also troubling to find people talking about the Mass as though the role of the priest were merely incidental and the laity could decide all.

Rome and our own Bishops' Conference will decide how we are to receive holy Communion but we shall have to work out for ourselves how to answer the other questions the debate has raised. As a Benedictine, I take heart from a principle the Rule enunciates again and again. Reverence is something we owe to everyone and everything. You cannot break that sentence in half. You cannot revere God if you are dismissive of people or casual about material things; you cannot truly revere people or things if you do not revere their Creator.

In Context

Looking at today's section of the Rule (RB 30, which you can listen to here), I could not help thinking that Benedict nowadays would be accused of abuse. Readers of Colophon know that we are deeply grieved by what we have learned in recent years about abuse perpetrated by Catholics and that we have no truck with cover-ups or attempts to pretend that it is anything other than evil. However, anyone with an ounce of historical awareness must surely realise that our understanding of childhood and what constitutes abuse has changed over time. The sexual abuse of children never has been and never could be acceptable; but "corporal punishment" takes us into a grey area. In Benedict's day, a box on the ears or a slap or a wallop was obviously perfectly acceptable, as it was in society generally until comparatively recently. It would not be so today; but in our anxiety to rid the Church of the evil of abuse, I have sometimes wondered whether we are in danger of treating everything as equally important; which means, of course, that everything is equally unimportant. Personally, I hate the idea of hitting anyone, but I am also made uncomfortable by the way in which some elderly priests and religious are being attacked for having sometimes slapped their pupils at a time when society did not condemn such practices. It reminds me that prayer for right judgement is never out of fashion.

Vocation Shortage?

From 2 to 4 July Oscott College was the venue for inVocation: an opportunity for young adults to meet priests and religious from many different traditions and think, pray and reflect about where God may be leading them. The event was well publicized and featured some high-profile key speakers and workshop leaders. We kept an eye on the dedicated web site and Facebook page (apparently no tweeting except on an informal basis) while we kept all the participants in prayer. Now the real work begins, when those who attended do their best to respond to the promptings of the Spirit.

So far so good. Yesterday evening we provided the schola for the Mass at Milton and for the FIRST TIME IN NEARLY TWO YEARS we heard a priest speak in his Sunday homily about the importance of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Now don't get me wrong: those who know our community will know that we have a keen sense of the importance of every vocation in the Church, lay, clerical and religious, and that we don't associate the word "vocation" with any particular way of following Christ. There are as many vocations as there are Christians. No, the problem is this: if we really believe that Mass and the Sacraments matter; if we really believe that preaching the Gospel matters; if we really believe that prayer matters, why are we not doing more to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life? Why are our priests so reluctant to talk about vocation? So often all we get is a grumble about how hard it is to be a priest. Of course it is hard to be a priest. It is also hard to be a husband or father, a wife or mother, a single person, a sister, a monk, a nun; it is hard to be widowed, separated, divorced. It is also a great grace, because to be whatever we are called to be is the only way in which we can truly respond to God.

It worries me that we are so namby-pamby about vocation. I don't believe that God has ceased to call people, nor do I believe that people are any less brave or generous than in the past. I suspect that the problem is the much more fundamental one of lack of faith. Perhaps that is what we should be looking at rather than lamenting the shortage of vocations. As they say in exam questions, Discuss.

Adoration

Wordsworth's

" . . . the holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration . . ."

has nothing to do with nuns or adoration but is about the beauty of evening. I have occasionally wondered where Wordsworth got his ideas about nuns from: was it as a young man, full of hope for the French Revolution and delighting in a kind of nature pantheism, or as the dutiful Church-of-England-sonnets man he later became? Either way, he got one thing absolutely right: the centrality of adoration to the life of any Christian.

When life is overfull or a bit bumpy, I have only one remedy. I go and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. It helps, of course, if there is no one else around because when one feels one can't pray but can only kneel, (with all the prayer being in the kneeling), anything and everything can be a distraction. So one just kneels before God and turns everything over to him. This is the prayer of Total Incompetence, the prayer of the Everlasting Beginner. It is also the prayer of Adoration because at its heart is the recognition that God is God, supremely good, supremely beautiful, supremely loving. As Walter Hilton said, "I am naught; I have naught; I covet naught but Thee". It is a prayer for all times and seasons, when we ask nothing but allow God to do all. That can be hard for some of us, but letting go is essential because the more there is of us, the less there is likely to be of God. If you have never tried this kind of prayer before, today would be a very good day to begin.

Another Kind of Dame

The death of Dame Beryl Bainbridge has been greeted with sadness by all who enjoyed her books and larger-than-life personality. There will be a flurry of obituaries and "literary assessments" of someone who was dubbed "the Booker bridesmaid" (she was nominated five times) before she is allowed to take her place in the literary pantheon. Many writers produce autobiographies and we all know how sceptically one has to read certain sections, but Dame Beryl did something different. About four years ago she made a film with her grandson called "Beryl's Last Year" to record what she thought she was like. Few of us would be brave enough or imaginative enough to risk such a venture. I think it demonstrates that she was indeed another kind of dame. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

(Note for the perplexed: Benedictine nuns are called "Dame", a relic of the medieval "Domina" or more commonly, "Domna": it is just a form of address [like the monk's "Dom"]; Dame Beryl had received a D.B.E. from the Queen. In her case "Dame" is the equivalent to the knight's "Sir" and is a title of honour.

Fridays

Sometimes I wonder whether we should have become nuns. Friday is traditionally POETS day (push off early, tomorrow's Saturday) and in many an office the week-end atmosphere is helped along by "dress down" concessions. On these I make no comment, except to say that jeans and a tee shirt, no matter how expensive, don't suit our solicitor though I am happy to see them on friends in the media world. No, my problem is that Friday sees us gearing up for (even more) action. The week-ends tend to be full of visitors (whom we are delighted to see, of course) and a host of related activities, including, naturally enough, grander than usual liturgy on Sundays. It means that when Monday morning dawns and the "working week" begins, we can be a bit limp. There isn't an obvious solution, but I'm inclined to think that the mortification of obedience has been joined by the asceticism of work and there must be something positive in it. Isn't that a heartening thought? When you are worried about "not doing enough spiritually", you can point to your work and say, "That's my asceticism". Just don't let your life be all work and no pray.

Spiritual Direction

The solemnity of SS Peter and Paul is as good a day as any to address a subject that often comes up in correspondence with the monastery: spiritual direction. Peter and Paul represent two different but complementary strands in the Christian tradition, summed up by a former member of the community as, "I'd go to Peter if I had a whopper of a sin to confess; but to Paul if I wanted a spiritual spiff".

Those thinking seriously about consecrated life are usually advised to "get a spiritual director". If they succeed, and it is by no means easy to find someone with the requisite gifts, the results are not always happy. There can be unreal expectations on both sides. Some directors incline to what we might call the Pauline approach: rather cerebral and sometimes rather prescriptive. Others are more like Peter: kind but a bit chaotic when a little clarity would be helpful. "Directees" are sometimes confused about what they they are hoping to achieve and lean too much on their directors. The temptation to become a kind of spiritual Peter Pan is not unknown.

In the seventeenth century Fr Augustine Baker, a Benedictine monk, thought long and hard about this question. He knew that every Christian aspires to "a perfection of union in spirit with God by perfect love", but that the means to attaining this will differ according to personality and circumstance. Those called to seek God primarily in the contemplative way must dispose themselves "to receive the influxes and inspirations of God, whose guidance chiefly they endeavour to follow in all things." At the beginning they will need a guide, but the guide must set them on the right way so that in future they do not need to have recourse to any but the Holy Spirit. Put as baldly as that, one can see why Baker was regarded with great suspicion by many of his enemies. But fortunately, he wrote voluminously, and in his many treatises we have a sustained teaching on contemplative prayer which is one of the glories of the Church in England and Wales.

What Baker looked for in a spiritual guide was humility and "a good natural judgement". His task is to teach "how they may themselves find out the way proper to them, by observing themselves what doeth good and what causeth harm to their spirits; in a word he is only God's usher, and must lead souls in God's way and not his own." He was by no means narrowly clerical, freely acknowledging that some of the best guides are "lay persons and women". Those directed are to "deal freely, plainly and candidly [with their director]. . . concealing nothing necessary to be known."

The human director must give way, however: "God alone is our only master and director; and creatures, when He is pleased to use them, are only His instruments." Then the real work is to begin. God's guidance is to be sought in reading, which Fr Baker esteemed "for worth and spiritual profit, to be next unto prayer". The reading list he drew up for the nuns of Cambrai, from whom ultimately our own community derives, and which I myself followed as a novice, is a tough and demanding one. You can find it in "Sancta Sophia", but read it with Baker's warning not to trouble your head about things which are above your understanding. What we seek is union with God, not merely knowledge about God. Particularly worthy of note is Fr Baker's appreciation of the English mystical tradition. He advised the Cambrai nuns to reread "The Cloud of Unknowing" and "The Epistle of Privy Counsel" every two years, and accompany such reading with a solid diet of scripture and patristics.

Unsurprisingly, the third and "principle way by which God teachers internal livers" is "interior illuminations and inspirations of God's Holy Spirit, who is to be acknowledged the only supreme Master." Attentiveness to His voice is what matters, and we are enjoined to silence that inner voice which so often distracts and misleads us. The monastery is not only a school of the Lord's service, it is "a workhouse wherein the art of the Divine Spirit is taught and practised."

The monastery as workhouse: that idea is already present in RB, and it scotches the notion that contemplative life is an "easy option". Prayer has to be worked at, even if it is a gift. It is a gift God desires all to share. In Fr Baker's words, "May the blessed spirit of Prayer rest upon us all. Amen. Amen."

Quiet and Humble

Our retreat is over. We have renewed our vows and now take up where we left off. The natural rhythms of monastic life are "quiet and humble", without much outward incident (which is not to say that they are not busy/interesting, just not headline-worthy). It will take a while to catch up on correspondence, mow the lawn, do the shopping and repair everything which has managed to break or come adrift during the past week. (Funny how a house needs perpetual maintenance, isn't it?)

Many thanks to all who have responded to our questions about the web site, and thanks in advance to those who will do so. Some suggestions, regretfully, have had to be filed in the "if only" box. A small community, committed to prayer and service and needing to earn a living, cannot do everything it would like to do. Learning to live with one's limitations is part of growing up, but most of us never quite grow up; so no doubt we shall continue to take on a little more than is entirely prudent. St Benedict talks today in RB about the work of deans and the way in which they share the superior's burdens. What a pity he never got round to thinking about communities too few in number to have deans. Rather as in the modern nuclear family, there's an absence of "buffer zone". That ought to make us more sensitive to the needs and experiences of others, though one sometimes wonders. At least we can truthfully say, "institutional we ain't." And how often have you heard that said by any church organization?

Loud and Proud

We are just about to start our annual retreat, so there will be no blogging or tweeting until next Sunday unless the Spirit moves us. Three things, however, seem to have come together in an unexpected way and are (hopefully) worth commenting on before we go into silence.

Everyone in Britain and America at least will know that today is Father's Day (or should it be Fathers' Day?). There will be lots of households where "Dad" will be remembered in that affectionate, half-embarrassed way we are all so good at: the jokey card that tries to say "I love you" without actually using those words, and the weird and whacky presents Pa will be forced to wear/use with something approaching good humour. So, Digitalnun has posted a new podcast with a few thoughts on the spiritual dimension of fatherhood. Let us pray for all fathers, and for the blessing of our Heavenly Father upon them.

Yesterday some friends came to visit. Both are retired army officers with a strong commitment to Help for Heroes. At some point we began talking about the forthcoming Armed Forces Day (Saturday, 26 June) and appropriate ways of marking our appreciation of Service Personnel, whatever our opinions about the war in Afghanistan, etc. Conversation then took a (to us) surprising turn, when quite naturally and thoughtfully, one of them began to talk about the spiritual dimension of healing post traumatic stress disorder and the crucial role, as he saw it, of monasteries in providing exactly the right mix of relaxed welcome and structure to enable people to process some of their distress.

To be honest, I had never made the connection. When I was younger, I did register that monasteries seemed to have quite a lot of former servicemen and women in them but I had attributed that to a more general phenomenon following the Second World War. I am now wondering whether there is a specific contribution that monasteries can make to helping men and women scarred by their experiences of war. The silence and beauty of monastic life can be balm to the wounded while the monastic tradition of spiritual fatherhood (which is not confined to the male sex) has within it a tremendous power. Those who are gifted with it (and by no means every monk or nun is) are able to listen with great love and sympathy to the most terrible recitals; and because they are men and women of deep and persevering prayer, are able to open channels of healing medical science is often reluctant to recognize.

We are asked to be loud and proud in our support of the Armed Forces. Let's not forget that we need to pray, too. Fatherhood, whatever form it takes, is for life. The duty of care never ends.

Online Community

As some of you know, Digitalnun has been beavering away in the small hours trying to get the relaunch of our web site ready for sometime this side of eternity. One of the questions we want to address concerns online community. While we believe that monastic communities need to expand into cyberspace and have planned a number of developments which we hope will help in that regard, it is a valid criticism that a lot of what one finds on the net today is spiritually a bit lacking in substance. We are not in the business of purveying “monasticism lite” so there is an obvious challenge for us. We have thought about conducting an online survey, but the way in which the questions are phrased tends to colour the replies; so we have settled for the straightforward approach.

If you have time and inclination, we would be very interested to know
  • what you hope to obtain from interaction with our community (or indeed, any monastic community)
  • what you would like to see added to/subtracted from our online presence.
Those questions should be general enough to set you thinking!

Support our Catholic Press
We are great admirers of traditional media and the efforts of Catholic publishers to encourage active involvement in the life of the Church and civil society. When did you last buy a Catholic newspaper or magazine? Why not try "The Universe" this week-end? We have reason to believe you may see a familiar hand or paw at work. (Please stop this shameless commercialism. Ed.)

Too Many Things

From time to time I look at all the things in my room and wish I could escape to a monastery: a nice, minimalist monastery, with plain wooden floors, clean white walls and not much else. Then I remember that I am IN a monastery, and the thick clutter of things which so irritates me is there because it is necessary. It is what enables me to do my work. However much I long for the Cistercian emptiness of the imagination, I am stuck with the Benedictine messiness of actual life. The stacks of paper, the machines, the boxes and files in which I regularly lose important items and which crowd round my bed like a pack of wolves menacing an intruder, are not going to go away. They are part of what constitutes monastic life in the twenty-first century.

Isn’t it strange how we always seem to want what we cannot have? My desire to have less is only a variation on the desire to have more. At the root of both is a self-centred dissatisfaction with life as it is, which is probably much more reprehensible than I am prepared to admit. The one thing I can say in my favour is, wanting to get rid of things rather than acquire them does make for some interesting trips to the local dump.

A Nasty Way to Die

No, I’m not talking about “Psycho”, which I deliberately failed to see before becoming a nun (far too lively an imagination to watch horror movies!), but the martyrdom of Blessed William Greenwood. Who he? Regular readers of Colophon will have guessed that he was probably a London Carthusian, so boundless is my admiration for them. William was a lay-brother of the London Charterhouse who was taken to Newgate Prison and starved to death with six companions in June 1537. His last days were spent in great squalour, chained to a post, with his hands tied behind him. The heroic Margaret Clement did her best to provide the monks with food and clean them, but the gaoler was afraid of the king’s wrath and eventually prevented her entering the prison.

Yesterday I posted about Kyrgyzstan and the horrors there. Today I might have posted about the Saville enquiry, or the latest deaths in Afghanistan, but I am thinking about that Carthusian lay-brother of five hundred years ago. Why? It is because William’s death reminds us what human beings can do to one another. There are many at the present time who are undergoing unjust imprisonment, torture and death. We have not really “progressed” very far since the 1500s. But that is not all there is to say. William’s courage is also to be found today in those who are prepared to risk everything for what they believe to be true.

Why not spend a minute or two today thinking about Blessed William and what he had to endure, then pray for all who are subject to such inhumane treatment now? It may be for religious or political ideals or something else altogether, it doesn’t matter. We do not have to agree with the opinions of those who suffer but we do need to connect our prayer with the grubby reality of life. Death may be glorious and joyfully accepted, but blood and dirt remain blood and dirt, while pain is never lessened by being endured for another. You have only to look at a crucifix to realise that.

Kyrgyzstan

Suddenly the whole world knows where Kyrgyzstan is but how few have any idea what is really happening and why. The reports we are receiving in the west are deeply troubling. Whatever kind of euphemism we use, it looks as though we are witnessing an attempt at genocide. If that seems exaggerated, consider these words of a spokesman for the UN Human Rights Commissioner, “We're also getting reports that [the killing of Uzbeks, including children is] not accidental, that it's been orchestrated, targeted, planned... [we] can't prove that at this point but that seems to be the indication - which is, you know, particularly reprehensible, given what a tinderbox this region is.” Uzbekistan cannot cope with the refugees and at the time of writing was considering closing its borders.

The distress this must be causing is unimaginable. It highlights both the need for an organization like the United Nations, and the weakness of such a body in the face of human malice. For make no mistake about it, what we are dealing with is precisely that: malice, evil willed against other human beings. As Christians our duty is plain. We must do all that we can to ensure that practical help is given to those in need, that political pressure is put upon the government of Kyrgyzstan to act responsibly towards all its citizens; but above all, we must pray. Prayer is not a last line of defence against evil, it is the first line of attack on evil.

The Best Things in Life

I spent ten minutes this morning watching a green woodpecker close to my window. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to one before and simply gave myself up to looking. There were a dozen other things I should have been doing, but I cannot feel guilty about it. Indeed, I would feel guilty if I had not stopped. It was one of those unexpected gifts which delight because they are perfect, complete in themselves. I daresay I will remember that woodpecker for the rest of my life. A reminder, not that the best things in life are free but that the best things in life are given.

World Cup

The number of anti-Catholic and anti-religious emails in our inbox (which usually peaks on a Saturday morning) has plummeted. I think it must have something to do with football. Perhaps there is a point to the World Cup after all.

Birds, BP and the Sacred Heart

Nesting birds at a local monastery

On a recent visit to a nearby monastery, we were thrilled to spot this bird’s nest above the entrance door. Seeing wild creatures close up is always heart-warming. One forgets that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and registers only the beauty and the vulnerability. In a similar manner, photos of the devastating effects of the oil-slicks in the Gulf of Mexico are changing the way in which we look at the problems they pose. The BP oil-rig disaster is being transformed from a personal tragedy (eleven dead and hundreds, if not thousands, losing their livelihoods) and ecological catastrophe into something potentially even more damaging.

The Obama administration’s attacks on BP (which, by the way, has not been “British Petroleum” since about the mid 1990s) are in danger of losing sight of the larger picture. One can understand the frustration, the political need to be seen to be doing something, but is the invective achieving anything positive? Driving down the BP share price, putting BP bonds into what is, to all effects and purposes, the junk category, and whipping up anti-British sentiment does no one any favours. Thirty-nine percent of BP is owned by U.S. investors, which has implications for US pension funds; and there is the inconvenient fact that putting British lives at risk in Afghanistan in what is widely perceived here as an American conflict is highly unpopular. Is there not a danger that a rift may be opened up which will have even more dire consequences than all that oil spilling into the sea?

So, where does the Sacred Heart, whose Solemnity we keep today, come into all this? With reverence, I would say at the very centre. Wherever there is human need and suffering, you will find God, although not perhaps the God you think you will find, the beautiful and transcendent Person untouched by the messiness of human existence. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is, as Isaiah said long ago, disfigured by our sin. We need to look beyond the obvious. That wounded Heart, which spilled its life-blood for us, is both a challenge and an encouragement. It challenges us to accept pain and suffering and sacrifice for the sake of others; it also encourages us to look forward to the hope of redemption. Somehow, all of us, both as individuals and as nation states, have got to learn how to lay aside our prejudices, our short-term triumphs over one another. What is happening now in the Gulf of Mexico may prove to have important consequences for us all. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus inspire and guide us. To see with his Heart is, after all, the surest way of seeing clearly.

Nuns on the Net

Twice a year Digitalnun googles the word “nun”. The results are sometimes amusing, sometimes illuminating, quite often dispiriting. I am not referring to the porn-related entries which, tellingly, seem to make up the bulk of the results but to those stray references to nuns and perceived attitudes which are so revealing. If you are reading this, you probably don’t share the majority view that nuns are intrinsically boring, unintelligent and censorious (at least, I hope you don’t!). What interests me is how these negative views of nuns could have come about. I was taught by religious sisters who were formidably bright, well-informed and fun to be with. When, rather to my surprise, I became a nun myself, I found that the community I had joined was full of people who were not only formidably bright, well-informed and fun to be with but quite obviously and demonstrably holy, i.e. people who radiated God in a way that was immensely attractive. (Some weren’t and didn’t, but that only proves that nuns are ordinary people and some of us have to struggle all our lives. The biggest claim we can make is, just think how much worse we’d be if we weren’t nuns. Sad, rather, but true.)

Unlike many, I don’t think that nuns are an endangered species, nor do I think our lives a waste or an irrelevance; but I do wonder why there is so much negativity, even among those who should know better. Even well-disposed clergy have a habit of referring to us as “the dear sisters” or “the good nuns”, phrases which set our teeth on edge because, frankly, they sound patronising. As to the people they think “might have a vocation”, words fail me. Even dedicated resources on the net are not without their problems.

For example, from time to time, I dip into a forum intended to help those considering a religious vocation. It tends to leave me tearing my wimple. I can cope with the romanticism, the dogmatism and even the rudeness of some posts (the forum is not UK-based, so one must allow for cultural differences and assume that no offence is intended) but what troubles me, and other monks/nuns with whom I have discussed the matter, is the prevalence of a number of self-appointed guru figures who seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence. When some who have never themselves been nuns/religious lay down the law about vocation or censure communities whose dress or ministry they disapprove of, there is a distinct whiff of sulphur, rather akin to that of sites which proudly assert their Catholicism but which, on closer examination, are found to be seriously adrift. There are honourable exceptions, of course. Digitalnun has been compiling a list of “trusted links” which she will eventually be posting on this web site in the hope of helping those trying to find their place in the Church. If you wish to suggest any for possible inclusion, please email the monastery. We will not link to any site we have not personally assessed, so please do not clog the comments section with URLs. Remember that digital blue pencil!

Age of Austerity

Duncan with his secretary

Could austerity become fashionable again? Yesterday’s speech by David Cameron made me think of wartime Britain. The austerity measures imposed by war resulted in a population which was actually healthier than ever before and, I think, more generous than before: witness the Welfare State and the opportunities offered by free education from primary to tertiary level. It is the generation to which I belong, the Baby Boomers, which has squandered that inheritance. We are now fatter, greedier and more reckless in our exploitation of the earth’s resources. Our selfishness means that young people today have a much less optimistic future than we once had.

However, I don’t think the budgetary cuts for which we are being prepared are necessarily all bad news. “Going without” is not in itself virtuous, can indeed be harmful, but if we are honest, we know that while we may not have everything we would like, most of us have all we need and more. The age of austerity upon which we are entering will certainly shake us out of our complacency. When we can no longer assume a right to this or that (holidays overseas, a designer label, or what you will), we shall be forced to reconsider where our priorities lie. Britain has a fine record for charitable giving, but when we can no longer give from our abundance but must share from more modest resources, we shall learn the true meaning of generosity. Is it too much to hope that we might become nicer people, more willing to help others, more kindly?

There will be some for whom the cuts will do more than trim the fat from their existence. There will be people who will suffer, whose incomes will not stretch to provide for all their needs and those of their families. I think we can be confident that the Churches will be in the forefront of trying to help. For some, that will mean a major shift in focus from the world “out there” to nearer home. With luck, or perhaps I should say grace, we might spend less time and energy on our internal squabbles and dissensions and more on learning how to be genuinely compassionate. If so, austerity will not only improve our physical health, it should do wonders for our spiritual health, too.

(Photo shows Duncan helping to compose a Colophon entry).

Restorations?

Chapel in Umbria

While we await a visit from BT which we hope will restore our connectivity with the outside world, we thought we would share this photograph with you (assuming our Broadband connection lasts long enough to upload it). It shows the chapel of the house where we stayed while D. Lucy enjoyed her delayed Silver Jubilee pilgrimage to Assisi. Here we prayed Lauds and Vespers, perched on the warm stone of the side walls, looking out over the green heart of Italy, with Hoopoes and Golden Orioles adding their song to ours. It was a magical few days for which we are profoundly grateful.

Connections

God has played one of his little jokes on us. It all began with our Mac behaving strangely. Digitalnun retired to her room to do some trouble-shooting, emerging only for the briefest of intervals (choir, food, greenhouse, dog, not necessarily in that order). Having decided to erase the hard disk and reinstall everything, she discovered that the telephone line was behaving strangely too, so spent the next few hours trying to trouble-shoot that. Reinstalling everything on the computer and double-checking for the latest updates revealed ever-increasing problems with our Broadband connection. Fortunately, the arrival of sunshine and warmth stopped tempers fraying, but we admit we have been tearing our wimples over the communication difficulties. So much for our thoughtful post on Pentecost and our latest podcast, which we haven’t been able to get online.

Blogging is likely to be sporadic while we try to get these problems solved. Email is currently unreliable; the telephone is almost incomprehensible; the waste of time is frightening. Can we learn anything from all this? We live in a world where communication has never been easier, but we rely too much on instant access. When it fails, our world fragments and we have to work harder at maintaining connections. We need the Holy Spirit.

Brave New World?

The announcement that Craig Venter has succeeded in making "artificial life", a one-celled organism with manmade DNA, will be grabbing many headlines today. There will be arguments about the possible benefits versus possible dangers. Comparatively few of us will actually be able to think clearly about the moral and ethical issues involved. If we have enough science we may not have enough philosophy or theology; if we have enough philosophy and theology, we may not have enough science. I suspect that the Churches will address the moral issue with varying degrees of clarity and comprehension, but I wonder who will address the ethical issue.

The biochemist in community has wisely suspended judgement, pointing out that from a Christian perspective "life" means more than a packet of DNA. She, at least, is not wildly excited by Dr Venter's work, expecting that media hype will not help anyone to a cool appreciation of what is going on. Again, she is alert to the moral dimensions of the case but seems not to have thought about the ethical ones. For me, the ethical considerations are the most urgent. Do we trust our institutions enough to allow them to develop this kind of research and not put it to uses which no decent human being could countenance?

We have not managed to rid the world of hunger, poverty or disease, for all our technological achievements over the past three thousand years. Still less have we managed to rid ourselves of violence and war. In fact, we seem to have found ever nastier and more horrific ways of killing. I wonder whether making that blue blob of synthetic DNA may turn out to be as important as the splitting of the atom. If so, pray God we never misuse it in the same deadly way.

Bangkok

No one can be indifferent to what has been happening in Bangkok. Often the reaction of well-meaning people will be, "I feel so helpless. What can I do?" The sad fact is that there is usually very little we can "do". Sometimes we can give our time or our money and be personally engaged in trying to improve matters. More often that kind of engagement is impossible. That is why prayer is so important. It has no frontiers, no limitations, and being an expression of love, cannot harm anyone as well-meaning attempts to be helpful all too often seem to do. We must pray for the people of Bangkok, but not in a desultory, "Lord, be merciful to them" kind of way. Prayer that is wrung from the heart can never be weak or ineffectual. Our prayer must be persevering, full of faith and trust. We are awaiting a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Let us ask the Spirit to give fire to our prayer.

A Sausage a Day

My eye was caught by an article on the BBC web page today. Apparently, even a small amount of processed meat, a single sausage, can significantly raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you are hoping for some diatribe about the habit of sin gradually encrusting our spiritual arteries, etc, etc, read no further. Sin is boring, except to the perpetrator, and Colophon doesn't like being bored.

What struck me about the BBC's report was (a) food has become a substitute for religion, which is why there are so many articles and programmes about it, and (b) we long for what we eat to make us immortal while at the same time stuffing ourselves with too much of everything, which rather defeats the object. This is a terrible parody of the Eucharist. What truly nourishes, what truly gives life is "a morsel of bread and a sip of wine" become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Ascension Sunday 2010

This morning at Mass I was struck by a phrase in the reading from Acts 1, "they were continually in the temple, praising God . . ." It reminded me of Bede, who had a great devotion to the Ascension and sang the Magnificat antiphon of the feast just before he died. His greatest work was De templo Salomonis, nominally an exposition of the texts concerning the building of Solomon's temple but in reality a sustained meditation on the life of the Church in which both literal and allegorical interpretations of scripture combine.

De templo is not an easy read. There's a wealth of detail about architecture and, as you would expect, a great deal of number symbolism. Most modern readers find this far-stretched or tiresome, but Bede was anything but a simpleton. His purpose was to "crack the code" so to say, and reveal the mystery hidden within. For him, as a monk, monastic life was a paradigm of the life of the Church as a whole. That is where "being continually in the temple, praising God" comes in. It sums up one aspect of monastic life: our being continually in the presence of God, mindful of him and responding with prayer and praise.

Many people wonder what St Paul meant when he exhorted believers to pray constantly. Some try to multiply vocal prayers throughout the day and hope that by so doing they will indeed be praying constantly. Woodbine Willy is a wonderful example of how such a practice can make a huge impact on others. Most people simply find the idea exhausting. "My work is my prayer," they say; and very often it is the only prayer they make. Some join monasteries and hope that life will be one long liturgy until at last they enter upon the heavenly liturgy. Show them the scullery or hand them a duster, and they look a little puzzled. This is not prayer, surely?

Prayer and work are intimately connected. Work is not prayer in and of itself, although it can be subsumed into prayer. Equally, prayer can be very hard work, as those who have tried to pray year after year, day in day out, will attest. For a Christian, there can be no substitute for those times when we do nothing except concentrate on God. To these private times of prayer we must add corporate acts of prayer. A parish Mass or a monastic Office are alike in this: they are the common worship of the community, and as members of the Body of Christ, we need to take part in them.

What the writer of Acts understood and we sometimes forget is that the body of the living Christ is the new temple in which we live and move and have our being. Everything we do should therefore have something of the nature of prayer about it, not in the sense of repeating a multiplicity of vocal prayers or attending endless liturgies, but in the sense that mind and heart are focused upon God. There will be times when the focus is sharper, times when it is less distinct. That is as it should be. We cannot live always on the heights. It was when the Lord was physically removed from them that the disciples began to see him more clearly with the eyes of faith. Their response was to be "continually in the temple, praising God". However dark or troubled our own perception of God, that can be our response too by virtue of our baptism. God never asks what he does not first give.

Thirteenth Apostle?

I have always had a soft spot for St Matthias. He was with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry but not in the inner circle of the Twelve. The first we hear of him is when the Apostles are faced with a crisis. What are they to do about making up the number of the Twelve, now that Judas has abandoned his place in it? That is when we learn about the other disciples who have been baptizing and preaching, faithfully and obscurely, in Jesus' name. It is an important moment in the life of the Church, when the Apostles take on responsibility for the ongoing mission and choose someone to have a special role in it.

Matthias is not the thirteenth Apostle, however. He is enrolled as one of the Twelve. The Church has never quite come to terms with the betrayal from within. Judas has been vilified, and sometimes I think the vilifcation says more about our fears than it does about Judas himself. We project onto him what we do not like about ourselves. If we search our hearts, we all know we have had Judas moments in our lives: times when we have behaved shabbily or affected others adversely. I like to think that the integrity of Matthias somehow compensates for the shortcomings of Judas; that his fidelity somehow makes up for the betrayal. Perhaps we could ask his prayers for our own infidelities, our own falling short of the vocation to which we have been called.

Today, when we are asked to pray and make reparation for the hurt and harm done by those who have abused others, we can also take encouragement from Matthias. We may be people of no importance; what we do may be very small and imperfect in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us; but it is God who judges human hearts and makes our actions fruitful. May he find in us what is pleasing to him as he found it in the heart of St Matthias.

Ascension Day Not

Liturgically we enter a strange few days. Everything so far has been leading up to the celebration of Ascension today, but the Catholic Church in England and Wales, as in many countries, now celebrates it on Sunday. Those of us who "live by the liturgy" are therefore at something of a loss: not only do we have to supply for Thursday to Sunday a liturgy which continues to look forward to Ascension, we also have to extract from the liturgy afterwards, breaking the traditional sequence of nine days' preparation for Pentecost. Personally, I am not convinced that moving Ascension to Sunday helps either priest or people, though I'm sure the change was well-intentioned.

St Benedict was not keen on grumbling, however, so we need to find something positive for today. The best I can manage is the thought that the Ascension is an example of the paradox at the heart of the Church's life: simultaneous presence and absence, glory attained and yet to come. Perhaps having a few more days of waiting will sharpen our appreciation on Sunday. I hope so.


Rural Rides

To Manchester and back yesterday, which meant a round trip of approximately 400 motorway miles. Not my favourite kind of travel but made enjoyable on the way up by seeing a heron at the Stafford Service Station (which must rank as one of the best in Britain in terms of landscaping), and enthralling on the way back by the breaking news about the comings and goings in Downing Street. Today the world, or such part of it as is interested in what happens in a small offshore island in the northern hemisphere, is a-flutter with opinions, for, against, and merely rude. Colophon is making a stand: we'll pray but we won't comment. Prayer for wisdom is, after all, what politicians need most. In fact, you might say it is what most of us need most of the time.

Country Matters

Saw a couple of lambs being born this morning and thought what an ancient sight that is in this part of the world. There have been sheep grazing here since before Domesday Book. If you go a little further, some patches of nettles indicate the likely site of human habitation in years past. Go further still, and you are into a little stand of woodland where we surprised half a dozen deer. The bluebells reminded me of Hopkins' crushing the flowers with his teeth, to savour the fresh taste of them. I suppose only a poet would think of doing that. On the way back we had a good view of the village, its tranquillity a contrast to the political and economic turbulence ahead of us. We pray for wisdom and justice and a degree of altruism from all the political parties. Just now, though, it feels a bit like Holy Saturday, time taken out of time when all we can do is wait. How we wait won't affect the outcome but it may make a big difference to our ability to cope with whatever follows.

For the podcast, please see here.

Days of Joy

Long ago and far away, Digitalnun used to comment on the prayers of the week. She gave up doing so when others, better qualified and with possibly more time, started to do so. But old habits die hard and this morning a rapt look came over her face as she sang the collect for the day. So here are a few random thoughts occasioned by that beautiful phrase in the collect for the sixth Sunday of Easter, hos laetitiae dies, quos in honorem Domini resurgentis exsequimur. In the current ICEL translation this comes out rather feebly and abstractly as "help us to celebrate our joy in the Resurrection of the Lord". What the Latin actually refers to are "these days of joy which we have been accomplishing in honour of the rising Lord." What a difference that makes!

First of all, by this stage of Easter we may need to be reminded about these "days of joy". They are continuing, even if we are beginning to feel that the Triduum is now quite distant. Then, there is the striking thought that what we do is in honour of "the rising Lord" (present participle). The Dominus resurgens is not an abstraction, nor is what we celebrate something over and done with but rather something, indeed someone, eternally present (the rising Lord). And we do more than "celebrate". That exsequimur is very strong: it means to follow to the end, to accomplish something. What we are praying about, therefore, is our following through to the very end these days of joy in honour of our rising Lord. There is a programme in the prayer, and it is not for wimps.

There is much more to say about the prayer than this but it is an ancient part of the practice of lectio divina to seize on a single phrase that can be slowly chewed over in the course of the day. For Digitalnun the thought that the Risen Christ is also Dominus resurgens will be more than enough.

Today also we come to the end of our novena to St Joseph. We are very grateful to all who have added their prayers to ours.

Holy Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus and loving spouse of his mother Mary, we believe that your prayers are powerful with God. We ask you to help us with your intercession, that what we ask in faith may be found pleasing in his sight and may be granted to us from the abundance of his mercy. We thank you for the many blessings we have received through your intercession. Pray for us now that we may become what we most desire to be, perfect disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ: who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.



A podcast on some favourite May saints has been uploaded to the podcast page.

A Touch of Whimsy

Waking up to yet another cold dark morning when one might reasonably have expected the weather to be a trifle warmer and the sun to be at least visible, one cannot help but feel a little low. The monastery is always a good ten degrees cooler inside than out, summer and winter; but we had visitors yesterday so put the heating on, hang the expense, and I admit, I confess, I was almost cheerful for an hour or two. If we lived where the sun shines every day, and olives and peaches grow, I daresay I could be happy . . . for a while.

Light and warmth are so important to a sense of well-being, we forget that until the nineteenth century they were not readily available. Go into any house built before then, even the grandest, and you may be surprised how little natural light there is in the rooms; look at the fireplaces, look at the bedrooms, and think how miserable it would be going to bed by the light of a tallow candle, with no fire in the fireplace (our great-grandparents thought that having any heating in the bedroom, except in extremis, was a mark of moral degeneration). It was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that central heating became more usual in Britain, but when oil and gas were alike cheap, we embraced it with enthusiasm. Now we are learning to disentangle ourselves. Here we have disentangled ourselves more than most. Visitors to Hendred are warned that shirtsleeves will not suffice: a jumper (or two), a fleece, a scarf, a thermal jacket, and you may be comfortable, during the summer months at any rate.

Why this Saturday morning rant? No reason, really, except that when one is cold and melancholy it is a great relief to inflict one's misery on others. So, be warned, if someone you meet today is rather testy, it is not a sign of their imperfect conversion, not a mark of habitual sin or even an inveterately grumpy nature. It is the fault of the weather.


The British Constitution

As I write (at 5.30 a.m.) one thing is clear: we shall be holding another General Election sooner rather than later. The results which have come in demonstrate something of the fragmentation of British politics. We have been here before, most recently in the 1970s, but the working out of the Constitutional position will be interesting, given that the Prime Minister will have the right to try to continue, even if his party cannot command a majority. (Oh, Bagehot, wouldst thou were living at this hour!) Rather more worrying to Colophon is the news that some people were unable to vote yesterday. We have always prided ourselves on the way in which our Victorian systems continue to function but clearly this too will have to be rethought. We must pray that all will keep in mind the need to serve the common good. Perhaps we might add, and keep their nerve as we watch the effects on the money markets.

Yesterday's Virtual Chapter was subject to a few technical glitches (both Digitalnun and Cybernun had difficulty logging into the system, while other participants were confined to texting rather than talking for the earlier part: possibly the internet was under strain) but you can listen to the results here. Suggestions for the next Chapter are welcome.

Civic Virtue

Walking though the village earlier to cast my vote, I could not help reflecting on our political processes. As a woman, I am conscious of how much we owe those brave suffragists (I won't call them suffragettes) who secured for us the right to vote. It is painful to think how long it took for enfranchisement to come; more painful still to see many people today dismissing both the right and the responsibility to vote. There's the rub, of course: a right carries with it a responsibility. Democracy may not be the best form of government, but it is probably the best form of government we are likely to have this side of heaven; and it can only work if we all engage in its processes.

Many readers of Colophon will have read the Bishops' statement on Choosing the Common Good and tried to apply its principles when they come to vote. More will have spent time thinking about the policy statements of the various parties, the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates, and decided for this person or that on the basis of what they think would be "best", where "best" is not clearly defined but is somehow to be equated with "doing what is right". Others (probably not readers of Colophon) will simply tick the name of the candidate whose party they favour without having any clear idea of what they stand for.

Does any of this matter? Today I think it matters very much indeed. We all know perfectly well that we face a very uncomfortable few years at least. The civil unrest in Greece is a tragic warning of what could happen if we do not face up to the demands of our situation. The concept of the common good is a valuable one, and you do not need to be a philosopher to recognize its implications. They go further than the concerns of our own nation state. At their core is a concern for justice, for right order, which is truly universal. One vote may seem small and insignificant but the strength of our political system rests on an intelligent and responsible use of the vote we have. Civic virtue may not sound very exciting but without it we could all too soon descend into chaos.

Digital Housekeeping

In the intervals of praying, working and reading (not to mention eating and sleeping), we have been doing a little digital housekeeping. The migration of our blog to the Wordpress engine proceeds at a stately 50 entries a day but will eventually reach a close. When completed, we hope it will resolve the problem of the RSS feed not formatting correctly. We shall probably choose that moment to reveal what is lurking under the "development" tab of the web site . . .

In the meantime, there is a Virtual Chapter tomorrow evening. The theme was suggested by a reader who is trying to work out how to reconcile the interior nature of Christian belief with a missionary faith. That is a question which concerns us all, so we hope there will be some thoughtful insight. For British participants the General Election is concentrating minds on how we engage in and with civil society. Here in the monastery there is the worrying prospect of Digitalnun dusting off her Thomas Aquinas and sitting before the microphone with several weighty tomes open before her. At least that should make her talk less!

We are still open to suggestions for a name for our email newsletter: you can subscribe to the newsletter itself using the sign-up box on the right. The suggestions already received are very imaginative, so there is a high standard to meet.


The Carthusian Martyrs

St John Houghton
"Lo! Dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?" So, St Thomas More of the Carthusian Martyrs, glimpsed from the window of his cell in the Tower. Ever since I read Maurice Chauncy's moving account of the martyrdom of his brethren, I have had a devotion to these men who prepared for a death they knew to be inevitable by three days of intense prayer and reconciliation among themselves. St John Houghton was the first to die, on 4 May 1535. He was a Cambridge man (+), had served his community both as procurator and prior (++), and was painted by Zurburan (+++). Chauncy describs the very real agonies of conscience and indecision he went through, tying to decide what he ought to do in the face of the Henrician demands. He refused to swear that Henry's marriage with Katherine was illicit but, after a month's imprisonment, took the oath of succession under the condition quatenus licitum esset (insofar as allowable) on 29 May 1534. According to Chauncy, he had the idea that he might be able to spare his brethren. It was to no avail. In April 1535 he was again imprisoned with three others but refused to take the oath of supremacy. The jury was reluctant to convict, but St John was hanged at Tyburn, then disembowelled while still conscious. In all, eighteen Carthusians went to their deaths, quietly and courageously, in marked contrast, it must be said, with many of their Benedictine contemporaries, who settled for a pension and more or less honourable retirement.

Do such martyrs have anything to teach us today when, rightly, we are all keen to put the polemics of a past age behind us? I think they do. We can honour brave men and women of faith in every generation and learn from their steadfastness. I may give offence to some of my Anglican friends (none is intended) when I say nothing becomes Cranmer so well as his death: he knew nothing could save him by that stage, but he went to the stake with a recantation in his pocket because he was not sure whether that was right. On 6 May we shall be going to the polls. How we use our vote matters. Probably none of the candidates will be "ideal" from our point of view. We shall have to compromise, but the compromise we make must be thoughtfully and carefully worked out. Much is at stake, if not quite as literally as in the case of many of our martyrs.

Fifth Week of Easter

The fifth week of Easter is precious for many reasons. The chapters of the Last Discourse we read this week are among those best loved by many: the Vine and the branches are one for evermore, and it is good to be able to reflect on the symbolism of the vine, knowing that the agony of the Cross is over. Today, on the feast of SS Philip and James, we sing one of the most beautiful chants in the Gradual, Tanto tempore. Its byzantine intricacies are difficult to sing well but sound glorious when they are. What a pity the weather seems out of tune with so much joy and gladness!

We have been asked for suggestions about how to prepare for the next Virtual Chapter on Thursday evening. The most important text to study is probably Matthew 6, reading which prompted one of our readers to suggest the theme. For those of us in the UK, at least half our attention will be on the General Election; so we might consider what the political parties have had to say about the place (or lack thereof) of faith in society (e.g. Faith schools, the contribution of the Third Sector). We might also look at some of the questions raised by Lord Carey and others about the hostility, real or imagined, towards Christianity in Britain today. (Overseas participants may have some valuable insights to offer from their own experience, but I have to write from a British perspective.) There is also a huge amount of Catholic social teaching one could usefully go through, see here. If anyone else would like to make suggestions, please do.

The Podcast should be recorded later today. However, we have noticed that we often have unexpected callers on Bank Holiday Mondays, so please treat this as a statement of intention, not a firm promise (or threat).

The eagle-eyed will notice that we have added ReCaptcha security coding to our email Prayerline to keep spam levels down. To make it work we have to ask for a valid email address rather than allowing requests to be made entirely anonymously, but we can assure users that everything you write remains completely confidential as before.

Novena

As a community we are not much given to devotions. Humble, persevering prayer in the Bakerite tradition and the luminous beauty of the liturgy are enough. Having said that, there is one devotion (in fact, our ONLY devotion) which has a special place in our hearts: the annual novena to St Joseph. A novena is nine days of prayer during which we ask the intercession of some saint for a special need. We ask with faith and in entire submission to the will of God. In the past we have asked the prayers of St Joseph for peace in the Middle East, for healing for those suffering from AIDS or other illnesses, for reconciliation among families, and so on and so forth. This year we are asking his intercession for an urgent need of our own. If you would like to pray with us, the following short prayer may be useful:

Holy Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus and loving spouse of his mother Mary, we believe that your prayers are powerful with God. We ask you to help us with your intercession, that what we ask in faith may be found pleasing in his sight and may be granted to us from the abundance of his mercy. We thank you for the many blessings we have received through your intercession. Pray for us now that we may become what we most desire to be, perfect disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ: who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Newborn

Lamb just born
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.

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The Right Thing to Do

Digitalnun will not be listening to tonight's debate between the three main party leaders but she does not mind betting that the phrase "the right thing to do" will be on the lips of one or more of them. Often we do not know what the right thing to do is. We may have to choose between a number of options, none of which is unequivocally the right one. It can be difficult to live with the consequences of a wrong choice. Sometimes it can be even harder to live with the consequences of a right choice which affects others adversely. St Catherine of Siena, whose feast we kept today, was a woman of great integrity, willing to speak her mind to the Pope and anyone else who seemed to be failing to do what they ought. She was a woman of great holiness: immensely charitable and prayerful but not exactly easy to live with. The little circle gathered round her must sometimes have found her sanctity trying. On the other hand, she knew how to encourage others, and that is a great gift. When we do not know what the right thing to do is we can remember one of her favourite sayings: "God does not ask a perfect work but infinite desire."

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.

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A Penitent Sinner

Duncan listens to Gordon Brown
Duncan hears Gordon Brown call himself "a penitent sinner".

Holy Water

Filling the holy water stoupe for the oratory this morning, I was struck by the incongruity of the vessel (ugly green bottle) and the label (HOLY WATER, beautifully typeset in one of Jan van Krimpen's exquisite typefaces). Water cleanses, refreshes, sustains life. We cannot live long without it. From the dingiest, dirtiest puddle to the clearest, cleanest river or ocean, water is holy, having been made so by the Lord Jesus when he stepped into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. All that one understands and loves, but it is the incongruities and contradictions that capture the imagination: the fragility of the water droplet, the ferocity of the tsunami, the beauty and the banality of it all. Water is surely one of the most amazing gifts of God.

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.

Meanderings

The morning began well but, as often happens on a Monday, had started to deteriorate by 7.00 a.m. Mass had to become a Service of Word and Communion as the monk who was coming to celebrate found that his car would only work in reverse (that must be deeply symbolic, surely?). There were dozens of emails, all needing an answer; and the dog was off his food. Colophon has therefore retired to take stock of the week-end just past.

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.

Giving the Internet Soul

Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI addressed the "Digital Witness" Conference (on modern means of mass communication) and had some cheering encouragement for bloggers: give the internet soul! See http://www.radiovaticana.org/EN1/Articolo.asp?c=374892.

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.

Valuing our Heritage

At Mass on Wednesday Canon Peter introduced into the penitential rite something I had never heard a priest say before. He encouraged us to repent of "the times we have not valued our heritage". In a week when we celebrate the feasts of St Anselm (Wednesday) and St George (today) that struck a chord.

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!




Early Rising

For some, the idea of getting up before the sun has risen above the horizon is a daunting notion. They are not necessarily "owls", just not natural early-risers. Monastic life, however, demands that one should be up and about while the rest of the world is still snuggled into its duvet. Is there any virtue in this, or is it merely a relic of another age, as inconsequential as the colour of one's socks?

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".

Quiet Day

The Friends of the monastery are holding a Quiet Day here today, beginning with Mass at 10.00 a.m. Many people feel a need for "quiet time" and reflection in their lives, but it can be difficult to achieve. We are all "time-poor", with many conflicting demands on us. Monasteries offer time and space for such reflection, but not everyone is free to visit because of other commitments. That is one reason why we have devised an online retreat programme (postponed following D. Teresa's death): to give people an opportunity to spend some time with God in a structured way, without having to organize time away from home. Please pray for those who will be here today, that it may be a time of refreshment and growth for them all.

Peter's Problem

I was mooching round the garden early this morning, trying to concentrate my thoughts on holy things (as distinct from my current distractions), when I realised that today's gospel is John 21. There is a great deal in verses 1 to 19 worth commenting on but I leave that to the learned. I am much more interested in Peter's problem.

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.

Frost and Frore

Groundfrost has shrivelled our first lettuces while the threat of volcanic ash falling from the sky means that Digitalnun is walking around with an inhaler in her pocket "just in case". Pity those who are REALLY affected, unable to get home or keep urgent appointments for surgery and the like. Pity, too, people in Jiegu who must experience not only the horrors of the earthquake but the biting cold of their homeland. Interesting, isn't it, that the largely Tibetan population have turned to the monks and their traditions for help rather than to the Chinese state? When we feel small and vulnerable, it is the old and familiar which gives comfort; and who has not been edified by the way in which the Tibetan monks have set themselves to help, digging among the ruins and organizing basic relief services?

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.

Digital Doodles

Yesterday did not go quite according to plan. A friend asked help in cleaning up his web site which had been hacked and was being used to download malware. This is one of those situations we all dread. Finding malicious code and security vulnerabilities can take an age, but we had to help. Unfortunately, the problem is not yet resolved and is not being helped by the fact that the site in question was set up in the Netherlands. Whatever you may have thought about American English being the language of cyberspace, it is not true!

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.

Grave of D. Teresa RodriguesD. Teresa's Cross

Grave Cross

Yesterday our good friends Martin and Chris Wenham visited and brought with them the cross Martin has made to stand at the head of D. Teresa's grave until the memorial stone is put in place next year. In the fitful sunshine of an April afternoon we all went into the churchyard and dug the cross in: it is beautiful, made of English oak, and carved in Martin's distinctive style. (Our camera has broken, so no photos unless or until we can repair or replace it.) It is good to have something so lovely to mark the grave.

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.

Low Sunday 2010

Low Sunday or the Octave Day of Easter is particularly poignant this year. The gospel of the day is John 20:19-31. The shewing of Christ's wounds brings Thomas to belief in the Resurrection, acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord. It seems far from this to the wounds that disfigure the Body of Christ today. What can possibly be redemptive about the revelations of recent weeks? Catholics stand accused of vile sins against children and young people and the lame response of many Church officials has done nothing to lessen the sense of betrayal and confusion. Is Colophon going to raise its voice in protest, too?

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.

Veilaudio, the CNR and Life

It's not every day we appear in the Catholic National Register (see http://ow.ly/171ECS), but it's worth mentioning because Matthew Warner has clearly understood not only what we are doing but why: using technology to share our vocation with the world. Thank you, Matthew, I think you have given us a new strapline for our web site!

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.


Web Conference Plans

You may remember that a while ago we were asked if we would devote one of our web conferences to exploring a question prompted by Ash Wednesday's gospel, Matthew 6: how do we reconcile the demands of a missionary Faith with the interiority of Christianity. We are happy to do that, but we need to set a time and date that would be convenient for those who would like to participate. So, please would you email us, suggesting a date and time that would suit YOU (please indicate your time zone so we can do the necessary calculations).

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.

The Easter Octave

Our house diary tells the story plainly enough: the Easter Octave is crammed with appointments, visits and business of various kinds. Of course we are always glad to welcome people, especially when they wish to join us in prayer, but often we have little choice in matters; as to the more "commercial" side of things, neither the monastery nor its charitable works can be sustained by pious wishes alone so we cannot just "shut up shop" for a week. But the Easter Octave is too precious to waste on things that can be done at other times. Every year we try to make sure that it retains its religious character, and every year we wonder whether we have tried hard enough.

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.

Trials and Tribulations

We had a lovely day on Easter Monday, with Mass and lunch at Douai Abbey, and a chance to look round the new library building. Digitalnun's eyes had that kind of green glow which in another would be envy, but in her was, of course, the most generous and selfless admiration (believe that if you will. Ed.). Easter Tuesday brought us Fr Boniface and a beautifully simple Mass in our oratory, with friends from the village and slightly further afield, followed by a trip over the Downs to the dentist (never a hardship), and several hours work at the computer dealing with all the things that came in from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday.

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?

Aleluia, alleluia, alleluia

Resurrection of Christ

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).

Regina Caeli Ringtone

Paschal Triduum 2010

At midday today we shall celebrate a passover meal by way of preparation for tonight's Mass. From then on our liturgy will revert to a very ancient and simple form, devoid of the usual embellishments. The great themes we shall be considering need only the plainest of settings.

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.

Day of Preparation

The Triduum, the solemn three days on which we remember the Lord's betrayal, death and resurrection, begins tomorrow evening with the Mass of the Lord's Supper, so today is a day of preparation. How those words are overlaid with resonances from the gospel accounts of the crucifixion! Already we are part of the gospel story.

For us, the public face of preparation is largely a matter of cleaning, cooking and "running through" different elements of the liturgy. But what about the private face? Whatever sort of Lent we may have had, whether we have been fervent or lackadaisical, today presents a great opportunity to focus on what really matters: to give some time to prayer, to fast, to give alms, to get into the rhythm, so to say, of Holy Week.

Each day of the Triduum forms part of one great whole: it is a single Liturgy that unfolds in three parts. We begin the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday with Paul's words about glorying in the cross of Christ; Mass ends without the usual blessing and dismissal, because we are expected to be present at the next phase, the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday afternoon. The Good Friday Liturgy looks forward to the resurrection and again leads naturally to the Great Vigil on Easter night. Only then will there be a blessing and dismissal, because with the Easter Vigil we reach the summit of the Christian year.

Betrayal, Death and Resurrection: that is what we see when we look at Jesus as he passes through his Triduum. When we look at ourselves, we wonder what he can see in us to merit what he has given: his very self in the Eucharist and in the Priesthood, Redemption and Eternal Life. As we shall sing on Easter night, " to ransom a slave, you gave away your Son." Our day of preparation might include a few minutes spent thinking about that.

Holy Week 2010

Holy Week is not a time for many words. Last year we said little but used a few favourite images, accompanied by a line or two of poetry. Anything more would have been superfluous. At its deepest and purest prayer is without words, without images, "a simple, naked intent unto God." That is the prayer of Holy Week, the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. It is the prayer we try to make our own as this week passes.


Palm Sunday 2010

Today we begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Year, with the blessing of palms which we will carry in triumphant procession to the church. The joyful note sounded by the Gospel of the Entrance into Jerusalem will change to a darker one as we listen to the Passion narrative. This sudden transition from light to darkness is something we will encounter again and again as Holy Week unfolds. We know that at the end is Resurrection and perfect joy and peace; but as the week goes on we cannot avoid going deeper and deeper into the mystery and misery of sin and death. To live Holy Week well is to go with Christ step by step through all the events of his last days on earth, to experience within ourselves the tormenting knowledge of misunderstanding and rejection and yet forgive.

This year the Church is asked to go through Holy Week carrying the burden of a self-knowledge many find deeply distressing. The revelations about abuse and cover-ups may have been hyped by the media but no one with any integrity is going to use that as an excuse for not confronting this darkness within the Church. For contemplatives there is an added dimension to the suffering: we are called to make reparation in ways that few understand. It is a part of our vocation that is not often alluded to, probably because it has to be lived before it can be explained. This week we are called to live with an intensity unknown at other times of the year.

Over Holy Week hangs a great sadness but a great confidence, too. Christ our Lord has taken upon himself every sin and forgiven them all. We cannot change the past but it can be redeemed. We can "go and sin no more". Let us pray for the whole Church, that we may become what we are meant to be: a people purified and fit for the Kingdom of God.

A Lesson Learned

I should have realised how unwise yesterday's blog post was. Just before lunch we went into the garage and discovered that a minor disaster had struck. The boxes of books we had stored there for want of space elsewhere were wet, from the ground up. Consternation! Then an unexpected visitor called so naturally we offered her lunch (not an onerous task, she was very welcome, but we were distracted and I fear it showed). Finally, we were able to get into the garage to start moving boxes and assess the damage. It was a sad sight: Digitalnun was wearing the kind of expression she reserves for sick dogs and ailing plants, while Handynun was "tsk" "tsk"ing about having yet another area to clear up (we have a leaking radiator inside the house which has been bothersome all week). A little investigation revealed the cause of the trouble, but drying out dozens and dozens of damp books is not going to be easy. Gloom settled upon the community, especially as there are other urgent tasks to be done. I think there may even have been one or two baby grumbles rumbling up from the depths.

Then we noticed a book with Haiti in the title and were ashamed. Yes, our loss is real, but it in no way compares with the loss the people of Haiti have experienced or the difficulties they face every day. We treasure our books, but we shouldn't invest so much of our hearts in them. The gospel is clear about that kind of thing. We dream of having more space, of being able to do things that are at present impossible; and I am confident that one day we shall; but for now we must relearn the lesson. In small things as in big, God is in charge. Sometimes you just have to begin all over again.




A Printer's Rant

Let others rave and rant about what they will, Digitalnun has a bugbear of her own: printing. One of the downsides of the proliferation of computers and applications is that most people seem to think there is "nothing to it". A quick bash in Word, or a dip into Publisher, and there you are: a document that can easily be turned into print and look wonderful into the bargain. Alas, dear reader, no. If you are Enlightened and use a Mac, the chances are that you can produce something that will look quite good and which, with a bit of professional tweaking, can be made to look even better; but if you are serious about printing, you will have to start thinking about the principles of design and the technicalities of the printing process.

So, before you send me your book and tell me to print it "just as it is", please consider this. When we set out to design a book we begin with pencil and paper, protractor and set square, and map out the page size, text block and margins. We think about the typeface (note the singular: a mark of bad design is an abundance of typefaces spattered across the page), the illustrations, the kind of paper to be used and the colour of the ink (black inks differ from one another and change appearance depending what they are printed on). Above all, we think about the content and how it will be used.

We look at the illustrations and the screening, correcting tints in photographs, cropping and enhancing. We check for things like transparency; change to vector art where appropriate; make sure that everything will output as it should. This takes time, and the equipment used is expensive. Quite often, trying to put right what others did wrong takes longer than starting afresh, but it is difficult to convince people of this, so we do not always try; although Digitalnun is usually patient about explaining why things that look marvellous on screen can look disappointing on the printed page. It can be very hard work.

Why do we bother? Printing is one of the invisible arts: you will know when it is well done because nothing will jar, nothing will scream at you, "look at me! me! me!" There is an integrity about the well-printed page that sits well with monastic life. For fifteen hundred years Benedictine monks and nuns have worked with words: writing them, printing them, digitizing them. The internet is opening up even more opportunities for allowing words to speak eloquently to us. It is worth taking trouble about them.

Annunciation 2010

Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord is one of the most attractive feasts in the Church calendar. There is always something fresh to ponder in Luke's account (1.26-38), while the abundance of music, poetry and art devoted to this subject is amazing. We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that we are remembering an event in history which was to have consequences for us all. Our salvation, and that of the whole world, hung upon the readiness of an obscure young girl (perhaps as young as twelve or thirteen) to do what God asked of her. All the Fathers agree that Mary's consent was necessary for the Redemption to take place. That does not mean that God would not have redeemed us had Mary not given her consent but that God foresaw her acceptance from all eternity (cfr St Thomas, Summa III.30). It was indeed a moment of unequalled faith: of Mary in God, and of God in Mary.

Recently I learned that there is a delightful legend said to come from Nazareth. The Angel Gabriel found Mary sitting by a fountain. Not surprisingly, his appearance startled her and she fled from him in fear. He followed her into the house to deliver his message, which is why the Annunciation is often depicted as taking place inside. In fact, the iconography of the Annunciation is a fascinating study in itself. Early Christian depictions usually show Gabriel as an angel of the Old Testament, severe and terrifying, before whom Mary kneels tremblingly. From about the twelfth century onwards, a new lyricism transforms the scene. The stiff hieratic forms yield to something much more youthful and human. Now Gabriel kneels before Mary. To be the Mother of God is to be exalted above the angels. Paradoxically, it is Mary's humility and obedience that lifts her so high.

A podcast about the Annunciation has been posted here.

Muddled Thoughts

Digitlnun has been having a trying time recently, in both senses of the word; but she bounded out of bed this morning, full of enthusiasm for Lent, "looking forward to the holy feast of Easter with joy and spiritual longing" and then fell a-cropper when she looked at her inbox. Alongside the heart-rending appeals for prayer, the business emails, the rants about the Catholic Church and its members (no, I am not a pervert; and yes, I do believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is true), the tacky bits of spam and the ads for huge German printing presses (Heidelberg, I love your machines but we don't have room or money for any), there was a thought-provoking message about Archbishop Oscar Romero.

This is the anniversary of the day on which Romero was gunned down at the altar. He knew that he was likely to die and had already forgiven those who would do the deed. Most people think of him as a brave man who changed from being a pillar of the establishment to one who openly questioned whether the inequalities of the society in which he lived were justified and who worked tirelessly for social justice. My questioner asked why the Catholic Church had been "so ambivalent" (his words) about Romero for so long. I think it is a valid question.

Martyrdom, as the Church understands it, is to give one's life for Christ and for the truth of his teaching. Some have tried a little chop-logic on Romero, arguing that he died for something other than that. None of us knows what was in his heart and mind at the moment of death, any more than we know what was in the heart or mind of the man who shot him; but it seems reasonable to suppose that a priest saying Mass was focused on what he was doing, that as the gun rang out God was all in all.

I do not know if Oscar Romero was a martyr or not; but I do know that this morning his courage and generosity have made me feel a little shabby, a little cowardly. I do not live in daily expectation of being murdered, but I grunt and groan about the petty inconveniences of life as though they were important. I am not sure that anyone would find enough evidence to convict me of "working tirelessly for social justice". There is a danger in concentrating on one's own shortcomings, however. I do not expect to become a martyr, but who knows what God may ask, what grace he may give. I must be ready even here, in dear old England. After all, I have vowed my life to him.

St Benedict 2010

St Benedict
The Solemnity of St Benedict and half the community is reduced to the merest whisper as the after-effects of a cold. Clearly, we shall have to take "melius est silere quam loqui" literally for a few days. Although the effects on choir are dire (Mass will have to be said not sung) and the festive atmosphere is rather constrained (our ailing nun has no appetite along with no voice), nothing will diminish the joy of welcoming another Associate to the monastery. However, as our Associate-to-be lives in the U.S.A., we shall be affiliating her over the internet by means of a private web conference. Using the internet in this way may be a "first' for an English monastery. It makes sense, and I suspect St Benedict would approve.

Meanwhile, over at the Vatican, there is at last an official Vatican News Twitter feed. Six in fact: for the English language version look for news-va-en. There is also a new web site for "Vatican Resources" at http://www.resources.va/. Both the Twitter accounts and the Resources site are currently dominated by the abuse scandals, which is telling. Here in the UK people have been quick to comment on the Pope's letter, often negatively, but the whole subject seems to be generating more heat than light. The anti-Catholic feeling finding expression in the media is nothing new, but if it were directed at any other group in society might be found unacceptable. There is a danger that some will react to the negativity rather than tackle the underlying issues. May St Benedict help us with his prayers to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.




On Saying Thank-You

While tidying my desk late last night (or early this morning, if you prefer), I came across a thank-you letter I wrote weeks ago but failed to send. My blush would have melted the North Pole! It is not enough to be grateful, one must show it in some way. Quite often in community it falls to me to express thanks on behalf of all, and I freely admit I find it difficult to keep up with everything and everyone. I am sure this sometimes leads to wounded feelings or the sense of not being valued. The urgent and the important do not always coincide, as we all know, and I often fail to choose what is important.

Thinking about one's own shortcomings is not good for the temper, so it was a relief to catch sight of one of the books in my room: a book of Jewish blessings in which there is a blessing for every conceivable occasion. See the sun or the moon? Bless God. See a new animal or taste a new food? Bless God. Go to bed or rise up? Bless God. In the Rule of St Benedict, every important action in community is accompanied by a blessing: before we read, before we serve in the kitchen, when we receive a guest. It is harder to bless God when painful things happen, but who has not struggled in the face of death to say, "Blessed be the Lord who has given and who has taken away"?

The abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have caused much anguish. Readers of this blog will know exactly where we stand so will understand when I say that even for this we must bless God. Bless him not for the pain or the destruction of trust, but in the midst of the pain and destruction. Bless him for coming upon us as purifying fire. Bless him above all for being God and loving us despite our failure and our shame. It is when we are least lovable that we need his love most.


St Joseph

St Joseph has not had an easy time. The Early Church largely ignored him save for drawing parallels with the Joseph of the Old Testament. In the Middle Ages he was often treated as a figure of fun while in the nineteenth century he was frequently portrayed with mawkish sentimentality. Of course there have been honourable exceptions to all these generalisations. Bossuet, for example, wrote well of him, with a firm, clear idea of his importance in the Christian story. Today we tend to see in Joseph the good husband and father, the man who quietly got on with whatever was asked of him and who fades from view just when we should like to know more.

Humilty and persevering fidelity to the task in hand are not spectacular qualities but they are very necessary to the good order of both family and society. I am not alone in thinking that fatherhood does not seem to be properly valued today, and I find it troubling. We may be learning to our cost that single-parent families are hard on both parents and children, but there seems to be an inbuilt presumption that mothering is more important than fathering. I wonder. Good fathering is important to both boys and girls, we all agree, but perhaps even struggling, incompetent and not very assured fathering is better than no fathering at all.

So, take heart if you are a father and don't feel that you are making a very good fist of it. Your child needs you, just as you are. Would Jesus of Nazareth have been the person he was without both Joseph and Mary to help him towards adulthood? Did they never make mistakes, get things wrong? Of course not! They were human, too. Let us pray today for all fathers: good, bad, indifferent and absent. Especially the absent.

Word, words, words

No, Digitalnun has not been re-reading "Hamlet" recently, but yesterday's blog post and some of the comments gave deep offence to a reader. I have apologized and tried to explain what I think was a misunderstanding but it has also made me think about words and the ways in which we use them. The opening sentence of the Prologue to St John always sends shivers down my spine: in the beginning was the Word. That is the same word God spoke at the beginning of creation, through which everything came to be. God's word is always creative, always life-giving. Our own words, by comparison, are often death-dealing: "words divide and rend", as Swinburne wrote so pathetically. St Benedict was wary of words: our use of them should always be restrained. The good word, which is above the best of gifts, should always be offered when we lack the wherewithal to meet a need, but in general it is better to keep silence than to speak.

The reason for this restraint in speech is simple: we need to listen. The very first word of the Rule is "obsculta", listen carefully. We need silence to hear God, we need silence to hear others, we even need silence to "hear" ourselves. (How often have you heard a harrassed parent say, "Shh, I can't hear myself think!") One facet of modern life many find irritating is the sheer volume of meaningless noise with which we fill the world (think being put on hold on the telephone). I do not know what we do about it, but I have made a token protest. The ringtone on my mobile is a very meaningful piece of plainsong. If we have to have noise, let it be prayerful.

Glorious St Patrick

Perhaps it's the lack of any Irish in the community, or the fact that today's commemoration is Collect only, but it is difficult to get excited about St Patrick this morning. He seems "long ago and far away". That is not the case with all saints. Indeed, there are many who lived long before Patrick who seem much closer. Think of Peter, for example. One feels he could step into the room at any moment, poor wobbly Peter, with his frequent misunderstandings and warm heart, who followed the Lord even to the point of crucifixion. Or how about Polycarp, or Felicity and Perpetua? It is not a fair comparison, of course, because we have the New Testament to tell us about Peter and some dramatic accounts of their martyrdoms for the others.

What history fails to record, legend often supplies. There are some good stories about St Patrick, but even so, this morning they fail to stir. We are at that point of Lent where we seem to have been trekking across the interior desert for ages and the way ahead stretches long and lonely before us. Excellent! Lent is doing its work. It is making us more sensitive to God and hopefully to others also. It is making us confront the fact of sin and forgiveness and the bleakness of our inner landscape. It is not enough, however, to lament our fallen state. We are meant to do something about it.

St Patrick was moved by the plight of his captors to spend the rest of his life trying to win them for God. He could do that only because he had experienced the power of God's forgiveness in his own life and was therefore able to forgive those who had injured him. Forgiveness spurred him to action. We too have been forgiven, but do we pass that forgiveness on? Or are we "hearers of the word only?"

A New Name

New logo for Veilaudio/St cecilia's Guild

We can let you into a little secret. St Cecilia's Guild is about to be renamed and will soon become Veilaudio. We hope the new name will not only describe better what our audio service to the blind and visually impaired actually is but also help identify it more immediately with the monastery. We already have Veilnet (for web design and hosting), Veilpress (for typography and printing and Veilshop (for retail sales). If you are wondering about the use of "veil", it is a play on "vale" (as in Vale of White Horse, where we live) and a nod in the direction of our being nuns. We have a simple logo (see above) to go with the new name and will be launching it properly when our rejigged web site goes "live".

No podcast this week because we have lent our HandyZoom to a friend. After using the Zoom any other audio seems inferior, and since we don't consciously do inferior here, you are spared our ramblings for a few more days.

Laetare Sunday 2010

The fourth Sunday in Lent is Laetare Sunday, so-called from the first word of the entrance antiphon, "Rejoice!" And rejoice we do: rose-coloured vestments, flowers on the altar, musical instruments, all tokens of our gladness at being children of God. Contrary to popular opinion, Sundays in Lent are not fast days (the Church does not fast when she commemorates the Resurrection), so the relaxations allowed today are mainly liturgical. The historically-minded will recall that it was on this Sunday that the popes used to bless the Golden Rose sent to Catholic sovereigns. Nearer home, Laetare was also called Mothering Sunday, a day when people made a special effort to attend the cathedral or mother-church of the diocese. (The modern Mother's Day is really an American import which for most people has taken over from Mothering Sunday.)

By a nice irony, today's gospel (Luke 15) is all about men: a prodigal son, a scratchy elder brother, and a generous father. Of course, at the heart of the gospel is the teaching about God's tender love for his wayward sons and daughters which transcends all questions of sex. John Paul I described this love of God as "motherly" and one can see why. In fact, for me, the missing character in the gospel is the mother. Has she been written out of the story, as women have so often been written out of the story of the Church?

In asking that question, I am not seeking to make a cheap point. The abuse scandals which have hurt so many are not about celibacy, not about the clergy alone: they concern the Church as a whole, you and me as much as bishops and priests. They are about an abuse of power, collusion and cover-up: the Church failing to nurture and protect, seeking things other than the Kingdom. Attempts to apportion blame get us nowhere. What we need above all else, I would suggest, is to regain a sense of the Church as Mother, of our mission of service, of profound humility before God and one another. A humble, servant Church will still be a Church of sinners; but God has no problem with sinners, even if we do. It is hypocrisy that corrupts and destroys.

This is a very good day on which to pray for our Mother the Church and for ourselves.

Mums and Kitchens

Quite often I find the day's section of the Rule or the psalms of a particular Office coincide very neatly with what is happening in community or the world at large. Today, half Britain will be scurrying off to buy Mum a bunch of flowers or box of chocolates to celebrate Mothering Sunday; and I daresay tomorrow morning, many a harassed mother will patiently await a loving offering of cremated toast and half-cold coffee to mark her "special day". Meanwhile, this week-end, we boring Benedictines will be reading RB 35, On the KItchen Servers of the Week, and meditating on the Church as Mother. Given that women still seem to do the bulk of household tasks, including laundry and cooking, there must be something there to ponder.

Two elements of Benedict's treatment of the subject stand out: all are to share equally in the burden of cooking unless some other business of overriding importance to the community has to be attended to, and help is to be given whenever needed. The spiritual motive and benefit are never far from the surface. Serving in the kitchen "secures a richer recompense and greater love"; so all are to "serve one another in love". The trouble is, kitchens can be hot and steamy places, and I am not referring to the pots and pans. There is nothing like having to produce a meal for others when one is tired or the store cupboard is low to make one irritable. Feeling guilty because temper has flared only makes matters worse. (If you do not recognize this scenario and cheerfully move around your designer kitchen, glass in hand, producing fantastic meals from fresh organic produce, sourced locally, for an admiring circle of family and friends, the likelihood is that you have no need to cook for others but do so for sheer delight. Lucky you. Or maybe, not so lucky: meals are sacramentals, and to provide them for others is a wonderful form of service.)

Perhaps this is a week-end when Mums could be freed from feeling guilty for all the times they are manifestly not "the angel in the house". It is difficult to love an angel. Human beings, with all their shortcomings, are much more lovable. Be human.




Catching Up

Yesterday we drove D. Teresa's sister back to Malvern after a very pleasant week during which she helped us enormously by sorting through D. Teresa's personal and family papers and much else besides. Unfortunately, there is still a daunting amount to do. Once we have finished in the house, we must begin on St Cecilia's. At the moment, we are JUST managing to keep the service going, but we have visions of some blind user being terribly disappointed to discover that the audio book on Mother Teresa he has been awaiting has somehow transmuted into volume III of Hans von Balthasar's Theology of Glory!

However, we do have some good news. Thanks to generous gifts, the future of this web site looks assured for another year, at least as far as hosting and ancillary matters are concerned. (Inspiration depends on the Holy Spirit.) Myles' s Jazz Evening together with the Raffle organized by Mary and Damien raised £446 for our work for the blind, which was a brilliant result for a small village in the bleak midwinter.

Today we have a lot of catching up to do. There are about 80 letters of condolence to which we must reply and some work and admin deadlines to meet so there are likely to be a few tense moments. It is just as well that Digitalnun has given up worry for Lent. "Cast all your burdens upon him, for he has care of you" as we sing at Compline. That is a sentence to treasure throughout the day.

An Ordinary Day

Thursday during the third week of Lent: an ordinary day, if the community diary is to be believed. Earlier I watched the dawn stealing across the sky and now the clouds are tinged with pink and there is birdsong hinting at our long-delayed spring. Duncan is snoring contentedly somewhere in the room (no early riser he!), no doubt quite happy that he can safely leave Crufts to his children and grandchildren. The liturgy provides much to ponder, while today's section of the Rule is a reminder that equality is not the same as justice and even in a monastery the superior will have to weigh individual needs - and take the consequences if she gets it wrong.

As the day unfolds there will be work to do, people to see, unexpected delights and probably moments of difficulty or disappointment also. The holiness of the ordinary is something we do not always appreciate as we ought. It is, however, on ordinary days such as these that our salvation is worked out. Whether we are full of energy and hope, or tired and a little grumpy, the present moment is the only one in which we can meet God. We may forget that most of the time: the important thing is not to forget it all the time. The ordinary is really not so ordinary after all.

Welcome

Later today we expect a visit from our bishop. He is always very approachable and our welcome tends to be correspondingly low-key and Lenten in its simplicity: he is easy with us and we with him, which is a great blessing. I did hear a vacuum cleaner being hauled into the library yesterday, but clearly Great Works were not being undertaken.

It made me think about how we welcome others. So often we concentrate on the adjuncts of hospitality: food, drink, setting. The really important element of welcome, giving time and listening to the other, is something we are less good at. Why? It is surely easier than killing fatted calves or organizing great celebrations. The analogy with prayer is obvious. God asks of us a listening heart rather than great sacrifices, but we often seem keen to give him sacrifice (often trivial) rather than obedience. It doesn't work the other way, of course. God gives us everything and listens to us, too. Perhaps we should think more about how God has welcomed us into his life than how we try to welcome him into ours. Look at the crucifix and see how his arms are spread wide to receive us, eternally.

Techie Trials

Digitalnun is off to the JR this morning and has decided that a good way of passing time is to meditate on how to revalidate the RSS feed for this blog. It works fine in Safari, as Safari users will know; but at some point during the past two years, something broke. Perhaps a blogging nun used "an illegal character" (or two, or three or four); or during a reloading of the site some files got moved around and suffered corruption (sounds like the digital equivalent of relic-hunting, doesn't it?). It matters, because people who haven't time to visit this site but who like to keep an eye on the blog often use a RSS reader to keep them up to date with changes. Any suggestions for revalidating the feed are therefore welcome.

Meanwhile, anyone who has an administrative or managerial role may find it helpful to listen to the Rule today and tomorrow. Chapter 31, on the Cellarer or Bursar of the monastery, is a succinct treatise on the spiritual aspects of management. Goods and tools are to be accorded the same care and respect that we give sacred altar vessels. People can be more awkward to deal with, but even the most demanding must be treated with courtesy and respect. When there is nothing else to give, there is always the good word which is above the best gift. A good word. Surely we can all speak one today?

Genetics and the Story

Having a biochemist in community makes life very interesting. Anything to do with genetics, for example, is discussed avidly. Digitalnun noticed a small item on the BBC web site about the Lemba whose DNA appears to confirm that they have Jewish ancestry, including in their priestly tribe the gene found only among cohanin (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8550614.stm). Not another "Lost Tribe" story, but an instance of the survival of religious belief and practice under very unfavourable circumstances. One could find parallels in Spain and Portugal where some families have retained elements of Judaism since the time of the Expulsion, or in Japan, where the story of the Nagasaki Christians is well-known.

What is it that enables some people to maintain their religious identity for centuries while others fall away or reject it quite early in life? The theologian may argue the case for grace, the sociologist for cultural influences and endogamy, and so on and so forth. I suspect there is no one answer. Religious communities reinforce a sense of identity by their use of common texts (e.g. for us as Benedictines the Rule and Customary), common rituals (our ways of dress/worship) and common history (the retelling of the story of how we came to be). During Lent we are particularly conscious of the latter: the telling of the story. On Easter Night we shall listen by the light of the paschal candle to the whole of salvation history, culminating in the gospel of the Resurrection. The fact that the Son of God became man for our sakes, shared our flesh and blood and identified with us in both his birth and his death, is breath-taking. In Jesus there is not a single selfish gene, only the purest, most generous love. That is a story worth telling again and again.

Pure Praise

The women of Cameroon have chosen Psalm 150 as part of their theme for Women's World Day of Prayer today. It is a psalm of pure praise, calling on everything in creation to praise the Lord. Very often our praise of God is qualified in some way: we ask something, or we remind God of a little flaw in what he has created or ordained (we are always helpful, especially when we address the Almighty). Our "yes!" somehow mutates into "yes, but". It is the price we pay for growing up and growing away from the simplicity of children.

True praise is beautifully simple and leads to ecstasy in the literal sense. We stand outside ourselves, our gaze wholly focused on the other, our very body language reflecting the joy and delight we experience. Children and dogs are good teachers of how to praise. When we were reunited with Duncan the other day his whole body was one ecstatic wiggle of delight (PBGVs are well-named "the happy breed"). In England our worship of God tends to the stately rather than the ecstatic, but perhaps we should allow our praise a freer flow. David danced before the Ark, indifferent to the disapproval of his wife or any other onlooker. I doubt whether we'll be wiggling in choir today, but I hope our singing of the psalms will be full of a similar transcendent joy. Let everything that lives and that breathes, praise the Lord!

Excommunication

Today's chapter of RB, How the Abbot must have Special Care for the Excommunicated (RB27), is one that deserves close attention. We are dealing here with an imperfect situation, with people who have offended against the community in some way and incurred the penalty of excommunication. Excommunication takes many forms, and in the Rule we see a graded system at work according to the seriousness of the fault. Benedict, however, is anxious that excommunication, separation from the community, should never become absolute. Indeed, the abbot is commanded to have a special care for the excommunicated, to send experienced and wise brethren to comfort the offenders and encourage them to reform. Love is to be reaffirmed and everyone is to pray.

This is a real challenge to anyone who has ever had to "take disciplinary action" because it is easy to assume that all blame lies with the offender. It may do, but that doesn't mean we can wash our hands of responsibility for his/her conduct. It is also a challenge to the Churches as we struggle with our interior dissensions and disputes. How do we maintain that "bond of unity which the Spirit gives" when some of our members seem to be adopting positions diametrically opposed to the historic faith and belief of our Church? How do we reconcile all this "comfort-giving" stuff with the need to be clear and firm in our belief and practice?

Benedict is wise enough not to answer that question. Instead, he demands of the abbot an almost super-human degree of effort to win back the straying brother, reminding him that he has undertaken the care of weak souls not tyranny over strong ones, warning him not to give up just because the task is difficult. Ultimately, he uses the example of the Good Shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and going in search of the one that is lost. He adds a poignant detail, however. He assumes the lost sheep was found and that the Shepherd "had such great compassion on its weakness that he deigned to place it on his own sacred shoulders and so brought it back to the flock."

It is rare to find such a clear statement of the obligation to be compassionate, to take on one's own shoulders the burden of another. We can dodge it; we can fudge it; but we can't finally escape it, because it is part of what it means to be Christian and a member of society. I hope that thought makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me.

Amen

Several disagreeable things happened yesterday, so that by the time we prayed Compline I was in anything but a pious mood. I was brought up short, however, by that little word "Amen". We say it so often: at the end of every collect and the "Glory be" following every psalm, after the Lord's prayer, after the versicles, at the conclusion of every Office. It is a litany in a little. How many times a day do we say "Amen", affirming our belief and our acceptance? It is a wonderful prayer for Lent: a way of blessing instead of cursing. When things go right: Amen. When things go wrong: Amen. When another bill plops through the letterbox: Amen. When a friend sends the letter or email we have been longing for: Amen. When we see the snowdrops in the grass or the red kite in the sky: Amen. When we are troubled, or anxious or angry: Amen. Best of all, "Amen" unites us with the prayer of Jesus himself, and what could be more powerful than that?

Home sweet home

Colophon did not take itself off to Rome during its week of cybersilence, but it did enjoy four days of contemplative calm at the Royal English College, Valladolid. It is likely that some photos will follow once Digitalnun has finished unpacking and begun to catch up with all the correspondence which has accumulated in the meantime. The reason for this unexpected trip to Spain was twofold: the unveiling of a stunning altarpiece by Juan de Roelas, newly restored and returned to the College (you may have seen the photograph in the Times), and the launch of the second ACSA volume, "The Fruits of Exile", designed and typeset by Veilpress in English, Latin, Greek and Spanish. It was, of course, a great penance to enjoy the very liberal hospitality of the College, the beauty of Old Castile, and the treasures of Valladolid and Tordesillas, about which more anon.

It is, however, good to be back in the routine of monastic life and the simplicity of Lent. Lent seems so long when we begin but passes so quickly, we need to make the most of it. We have decided that this year we shall drop our usual programme of Lenten talks, etc as we have a great deal to catch up on and it is silly to overstretch ourselves. We shall, however, honour all our existing commitments to the CWL and local parishes.

Today marks the thirtieth day since the death of D. Teresa, the completion of the "month's mind". Now we must begin in earnest the sad work of sorting through her effects and dealing with all the legal business which is more complicated than usual so will require more time. One of her sisters will be staying with us for a few days, so please keep her in your prayers. Our audio service to the blind continues but please bear with us while we try to disentangle various elements. D. Teresa was the audio librarian and the only one of us really "au fait" with the system.

A Time for (Temporary) Silence

The Feast of St Peter's Chair has always been held in great affection by the English. In Anglo-Saxon times, visiting Rome and praying at the tombs of the Apostles was something both kings and clerics delighted in doing. It may seem curiously quaint to some, but praying for our pastors is very necessary; and much more useful than criticizing them!

Talking of prayer, Colophon is not off to Rome, but the monastery bloggers and podcasters feel the need to take more in if they are to give out anything worth reading or hearing. So, no more blogging, podcasting or tweeting until the 1 March; and to make sure she is not tempted back into cyberspace before the feast of St David, Digitalnun is not even going to update the Prayer Box. Instead, you can listen to the daily section of the Rule below; and if you find yourself wondering how to feed your Hendred podcast addiction (oh, the arrogance! Ed), there is still a longish one on Lent on the podcast page, plus 80 others. That should mortify you sufficiently, should it not?

February 23

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February 24

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February 25

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February 26

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February 27

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February 28

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A Missionary Faith

Yesterday we received an interesting suggestion for our next Virtual Chapter: how to reconcile Ash Wednesday's gospel, Matthew 6, with the demands of a missionary Faith. Digitalnun's distractions have been working overtime on the subject so, in an effort to provoke you into joining in the Chapter which we'll hold when we are slightly more back to "normal", here are a few of her half-baked reflections.

On the very day when the gospel told us to let no one know we were fasting, Catholics were walking around with great ashy smudges on their foreheads to proclaim their penitent condition. They may not have been having trumpets sounded when they gave alms, but they were definitely seen by others in church as they attended Mass or other devotions. What are we to make of this? And how do we reconcile the interiority of Christianity with the duty to proclaim the gospel?

First, I think the discrepancy between what the gospel says and what we actually do is worth noting. Ash Wednesday highlights a perennial problem for Christians: we are rather picky about how we interpret the scriptures. By Maundy Thursday we shall be following the gospel literally, washing feet and celebrating a festive meal, but on Ash Wednesday what we do is diametrically opposed to what the gospel says. Or is it?

I myself think that the gospel is pointing to the way in which we can use religion for irreligious ends, to draw attention to ourselves, to portray ourselves as rather better than we are, and certainly better than the next man or woman. Sadly, we can end up believing our own myth: because I go to church on Sundays, tithe my income and fast regularly, I really am a good person. Well, you may be, but you may also be a conceited fool with a heart of stone, blind to your own shortcomings. (A nun's anger, said Newman, is like rapsberry vinegar: sweet acid; I plead guilty).

But what about the duty to proclaim the gospel? It seems very un-English. While Catholics are quite happy to walk around with ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, they tend to become tongue-tied when asked to explain what they believe. One does not often see them nowadays standing on street corners and proclaiming the Word of God. It may be something of a cop-out to suggest that there is more than one way of proclaiming Jesus Christ. As a contemplative nun, for example, I am sure that the most important thing I can do to spread the gospel is to live monastic life as well as I can, devoting myself to prayer and service in the monastery. I am encouraged in this by the thought that probably the greatest missionary of the nineteenth century was a French Carmelite nun called Thérèse.

But there are times when one must go beyond simply "performing the duties of one's state in life". None of us knows when those times may come, but we can be absolutely sure that we will be given grace when we need it. God never asks what he is unwilling to grant. The problem for us is being ready to listen.



Shrove Tuesday 2010

Shrove Tuesday is the day on which traditionally we prepare for Lent by receiving the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. For many the idea of confessing one's sins ("being shriven" in old parlance) is hard to understand; for many more it is hard to practise. It may be useful, therefore, to recapitulate what the Sacrament is and why it matters.

Only God can forgive sin. The priest acts in God's name, in accordance with the power and charge given him in the Sacrament of Order; and forgiveness is by no means automatic. The penitent must confess, make satisfaction, perform the penance imposed on him and have a firm purpose of amendment for the future. It is not enough just to rattle off a "laundry list", whip through an Act of Contrition, reel off an "Our Father" or two and assume all is well in this world and the next. Sin matters because it binds us and God wants his children to be free, but we have to do our part in responding to the invitation God makes in this Sacrament.

The first stumbling-block for some is the act of confession. To examine one's conscience in the light of the gospel can be painful in itself. Try reading 1 Corinthinans 13, putting your own name where St Paul puts the word "love" and you will soon see where you are wanting! Trying to articulate this murky side of oneself is certainly humbling, but it is also remarkably liberating. Sin's power over us is the power of darkness and concealment which confession breaks by allowing light and healing in. In a sense, the Sacrament is already work when we realise that we are sinners and have fallen short of God's glory.

Being sorry for one's sins is sometimes another difficulty. Here it is important to remember that it is not what one feels but what one intends that matters. If one is resolved to try one's hardest not to commit a particular sin again, there is no need to try to manufacture a feeling one doesn't honestly feel.

Making satisfaction for one's sins is often overlooked but is absolutely essential. If, for example, one has harmed someone by speaking ill of them, one must do all one can to put matters right. That may require a public humility which makes one squirm. Tough. Sin is serious; so is grace. Or there may be sin that no one but oneself knows about, but that too must be put right if one can. Confessing one's sins to a priest not only reveals them for what they are, it also makes one aware how clever we can be in finding excuses for them or minimizing their importance: having to do something about them strips this false comfort from us.

The penance imposed by the priest refers to the temporal punishment due to sin. By confessing we acknowledge we have injured the whole Body of Christ and we are required to make amends, hence the penance. It must be performed diligently and as soon as possible. Finally, there is that firm purpose of amendment for the future and our gratitude to God for what he has done for us.

Conversion, confession, celebration: this is the threefold pattern of the Sacrament of Penance which prepares us for Lent. It is not all doom and gloom. But before we clear our larders of eggs and fats for the Lenten fast, before we set our first pancake sizzling in the pan, let us remember what Lent is about. It is our great Festival of Freedom as Christians, and a necessary part of our preparation is the acknowledgement of our entanglement in sin.

This week's podcast (to be posted tomorrow) will be longer than usual and will be part of the prioress's Chapter talk for Ash Wednesday.


Ars Amandi

St Valentine's Day does not feature in the monastic calendar. Usually on 14 February we are celebrating the dull but worthy SS Cyril and Methodius (may our Slav brethren forgive me) and meditating on the beauties of Old Church Slavonic rather than the loveliness of the beloved. There is not a red ribbon or rosebud in sight. The feast is too minor to merit a glass of wine or piece of chocolate: everything is suitably drab and dreary. While the commercial world goes into a spin in the name of lurv, we remain relentlessly focused on the spiritual, rejoicing in the preaching of the gospel to our eastern neighbours over a thousand years ago. No wonder many think the Church hopelessly out of touch with the world in which "ordinary people" live and work, unbearably serious and a bit of a kill-joy.

By a happy accident, St Valentine's Day coincides with Sunday this year, so we had the Beatitudes at Mass. I daresay many a preacher compared the two ways of loving, Christian and commercial, contrasting the self-giving of the one with the exploitation of the other. I wonder how many dared to argue that Christian love, as expressed in the Beatitudes, is the most romantic of all loves, because it catches us up into the mystery of Christ's love for his Church, looks to the Other rather than to self and is eternal rather than ephemeral. There are no ribbons and rosebuds to express such love as this, no poetry adequate to proclaim it. Only a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, can contain the Love "which moves the sun and lesser stars". This is the love-feast of the Christian, the source of all his joy; and we celebrate it, not on just one day of the year, but on every day save Good Friday and Holy Saturday. For us ars amandi, ars vivendi: the art of loving is the art of living.

The Wasteland Blooms

Came back from a short trip into Wantage to find our steps covered with a profusion of flowers, orange, white and that delicate shade of green which is almost silver; now the whole house is filled with their scent. It reminds me of the story of the anointing of Jesus' feet. When the jar of nard was broken, says the evangelist, the whole house was filled with the scent. I think monastic life should be like that. There should be a "sweet savour" from the life we lead in Christ which spreads outwards, just as scent spreads outwards from its source. And just as nard was the costliest of scents, stored in alabaster vials, so monastic life should be lavish in its gift of self, however inadequate its human vessels.

To be a vessel of the Spirit is the vocation of every Christian, of course, but monks and nuns are called to empty themselves out even more completely, if possible, that God may be all in all. Only so can the inner wasteland bloom.

Between Sunshine and Snowshowers

Yesterday we had true "Scholastica weather" and buried D. Teresa amidst sunshine and snowshowers. It was an exhausting day, but we are grateful to all those who came (lots) and all those who helped (lots). I think we managed to combine the monastic and the parochial elements, at least we tried to. It was good to have so many monks and nuns, oblates and friends with us: the church was full, with people having travelled from as far away as Canada in order to be present. A tribute to the huge impact D. Teresa had on those with whom she came into contact, and the high regard in which she was held, not only by us but by many others also. Now we return to the more mundane business of getting on with things, including the dreary "sorting out" that follows any death and the legal matters which can be so time-consuming.

Life has not stopped in the meantime, of course, and we have done our best to keep the business going (needs must pay the bills!) and answer as courteously as we could those who wanted time and attention. Lent is perilously close, but we have decided to scale down our Lent programme for this year as we shall lack one of our principal speakers. There will be a weekly Holy Hour and possibly a couple of talks. Details will be announced later.


St Scholastica 2010

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict, a day when strong monks become soppy and strong nuns smile knowingly into their wimples. Scholastica was, above all, a woman of prayer who inspired not only affection but respect in her brother. She knew her own mind and when it came to reconciling the apparently contradictory demands of love and law, seems to have had some insight into the mind of God also. At any rate, she taught St Benedict a lesson he never forgot, for his Rule always sets mercy above judgement, but not in the careless, wishy-washy way of those who are afraid to look Truth in the eye.

This is also the day on which we shall lay D. Teresa's body in the earth, far from her native Trinidad, but in a pleasant English churchyard where the swallows swoop in summer and bats and owls fly about at dusk. The readings at Mass will be Isaiah 25. 6-9; Romans 8.14-23 and John 14. 1-6. I suspect D. Teresa is rather looking forward to the promised Banquet.

Reception of the Body

Yesterday we clothed D. Teresa in her habit and cowl and laid her in her coffin. Tonight we shall bring her body into church in preparation for the Requiem Mass and Funeral. This "bringing the body to church" has great significance. The church is the place where we are baptized into the life of Christ, where we hear God's word and receive his sacraments; where we worship him in faith and love. It is, in the most literal sense, our "home from home"; for "our true home is in heaven".

So, tonight we shall greet the coffin at the church door and process into church with psalms and prayer. The paschal candle will be lit as a symbol of our hope in the Resurrection. The coffin will be sprinkled with holy water as a reminder of baptism then placed before the altar; the Bible and a Cross will be placed on the coffin as a reminder that we live by the word of God and are made perfect through conformity to Christ's sufferings. FInally, we shall pray, both out loud in words and silently with prayer which needs no outward expression. The Everlasting Arms hold D. Teresa safely in their embrace.

The Importance of Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is, first and foremost, the slow, prayerful reading of sacred scripture. Anyone who has read the Rule of St Benedict will recognize its central importance in the life of a monk. One could say that it is the characteristic activity of monastic life since nearly everything we do in choir is, in fact, another form of lectio divina, undertaken by the community as a community rather than as individuals. I, for one, would not confine lectio divina to scripture, anymore than I would claim always to read scripture as lectio divina. Sometimes I read because I have to, or to gain information, and my hurry tends to make me skip some sections and skim others (oh, the advantages of education!), so that I end up with what I want to gain from the text, not necessarily what the author wanted to impart. This is the Fast Food approach to reading, and its consequences can be equally dire.

Lectio divina demands a more leisurely approach, where quality rather than quantity is sought. An important part of the process is the quest for God, allowing the text to speak of God and lead one to prayer. Thus, intention is important; but it is surprising how often one may sit down to something with no conscious intention of doing anything particularly "religious" then find that one has been granted an insight or brought up against a question that forces one to one's knees. My novice mistress looked decidedly sceptical when I confessed that reading Homer turned into prayer and utterly nonplussed when one of my fellows volunteered playing tennis!

What is essential is that lectio divina should be practised regularly, even if for only a few minutes each day. Unfortunately, when very busy, lectio divina tends to get postponed, reduced to a bare minimum or even dropped altogether. During the past week we have had to reduce the time we devote to reading, and we certainly feel the want of it. But perhaps because it wasn't laziness that caused the reduction, I believe there have been compensations. We live in a world where everything and everyone can speak to us of God.

In Praise of Water

Digitalnun has often had occasion to remark that cold water is one of the oldest tastes known to humankind. During the last week she has been reminded how good it is. Whilst prostrate with pain (slight exaggeration: gastro-entiritis is unpleasant and leaves one limp, but it is pretty low in the pain stakes. Ed), she could drink nothing. Then came the craving for water, gallons of the stuff, fresh from the tap, sipped and slurped and really tasted, for the first time in years probably.

Water is one of our commonest sacramentals, beautiful in itself and even more beautiful as a channel of divine grace. It is our "natural element" as Christians. It surrounds us in the womb, it cleanses and refreshes us throughout life. Here in England we usually have enough water to meet all our needs and often all our wants (not quite the same thing). We are never very far from a source of cheap, pure water. Most of us are not very far, either, from a river or sea where we can simply enjoy the gift of water reflecting light back into the air. Perhaps in our weak and wobbly moments, when we feel like water ourselves, we can remember that. Water, just by being water, can make everything luminous; and if you don't believe me, just go into the Fens and look up at the sky.

St Paul Miki and Companions

The feast of St Paul Miki and Companions is a good one for reflecting on loss and gain from a Christian perspective. In case you don't know their story, these are the twenty-six Japanese men and boys (Jesuit priests and brothers, secular Franciscans, cooks and carpenters) who were martyred In Nagasaki by crucifixion in the sixteenth century. As he hung on the cross, Paul Miki, a Jesuit brother and probably the best-known, said, "I am a true Japanese. The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ . . . I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain." The persecution of that time looked like the end of everything. It is estimated that a further 40,000 Christians were put to death between their martyrdom in 1597 and the lifting of the ban on Christianity in 1873. The methods of suppression sound familiar: being required to trample on sacred images, not being allowed the scriptures, banning meetings, offering financial inducements to informers and betrayers. Yet when Christian missionaries returned to Japan in the late nineteenth century, they found thousands of Christian living around Nagasaki who had preserved their faith in secret through centuries of fear and oppression.

Why should that surprise anyone? What happened on Calvary must have looked like the end of everything for the first followers of Jesus; but it wasn't. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the fons et origo of our life as Christians, quite the opposite of what they must have seemed at the time. The crucifixion of those Nagasaki martyrs must have looked like the end of Christianity in Japan; but it wasn't. It was the beginning of something that even today places the whole Church in their debt.

Just as a community is not really a community unless it numbers the old and sick among its members, those who, in economic terms, are net consumers rather than contributors (the language is as ugly as the attitude), so too a community is not fully a community until some of its members have died and the communion of saints has become a personal reality on both the vertical and the horizontal level. The Nagasaki Christians experienced that when those brave men and boys died on the hill outside their city. It is something our community here in Hendred has begun to experience with the death of our dear D. Teresa. We have suffered the blow; we now confidently await the blessings to follow.


Norovirus

Many thanks for all the kind messages of sympathy and offers of help. Unfortunately, we brought the Norovirus home from hospital with us so it will take a while to respond. We think the funeral will be on Wednesday, the feast of St Scholastica.

D. Teresa Rodrigues, R.I.P.

Obit Notice: D. Teresa Rodrigues

Peace and Justice

Peace is often elusive at both the personal and the communal level yet it is something we all desire and strive to attain. For a Benedictine, peace is to be found in the daily living out of the Rule in community, in the celebration of the liturgy, prayer, work and study. For each one of us peace will have a different accent, be found in slightly different ways. It may be a line from the psalms that sets our hearts at rest; it may be a theological truth expressed with brilliance and clarity which transforms everything; it may be something as simple and everyday as a shared smile or a PBGV gently indicating that it is time for a walk that stills the inner turbulence. The important thing is not to pretend that the inner turbulence does not exist. Everyone knows moments of doubt and confusion, anxiety and stress. They are part of being human, and it seems to be part of being human that troubles multiply when we feel least able to cope with them. Colophon hasn't any clever suggestions to make, but there is one thought we can perhaps hold onto during the coming week, whatever it brings.

Peace is not the mere absence of war, nor does it exist in a moral vacuum. It is intimately connected with justice; and justice in this context means more a sense of "right order" than what we commonly think of as justice. The right ordering of our lives and of society will never be easy, will always require some effort. Here in the monastery we have a frequent reminder of that. Whenever we go into choir, we make the sign of the cross with holy water. It reminds us of our baptism and serves as a ritual purification before we enter the holy of holies. Sometimes it is more than that: a dose of cold reality to pacify an inner rage or cool a hot temper, even, at times, a welcome draught to water a dry and shrivelled heart. It brings us up short, makes us think what we are doing, challenges us to set right whatever is wrong in our lives. It is an invitation to enter into the peace of the Lord. "Peace and justice have embraced" sings the Psalmist; and where else can they do so but in us?

Hospital Visits

We have spent the last few days commuting between the monastery and the John Radcliffe Hospital (where D. Teresa is "making progress", D.G.). This has brought us into contact with many people we don't know and who don't know us. It has been instructive. Inevitably in Oxford, some people seem to think we might be Muslims because of our long habits and veils: they tend to keep a cautious distance, avoid eye contact and seem to be wishing either we or they might disappear. Very telling. Others go into "panic mode", probably afraid of "holier than thou" sermonizing on our part. They also keep their distance. A few (often, but not always, Irish) ask for prayer or a blessing or call out a greeting that is an invitation to spend a few moments at their bedside. The great majority are straightforwardly pleasant, tolerant of our oddities and happy to exchange a few words and a smile. The stories they tell can sometimes be distressing, a powerful reminder that suffering isn't something that can be measured or rationalised: it can only be endured. And many people endure their suffering with a grace and good humour that is both humbling and inspiring. I think we have learned something during the past week, thanks to all with whom we have come into contact, something we would not have learned had we stayed quietly in our monastery. Exactly what that "something" is, I am not yet sure; but if you are feeling marginally out of sorts, preoccupied with various cares, may I suggest that a visit to your local hospital may give you a valuable new perspective? It is not those who are visited but those who do the visiting who benefit.

St Thomas Aquinas

Once upon a time, when Digitalnun was even more of a bookworm than today, she decided to read Proust's "Recherche" and Aquinas' "Summa theologica" all through; and having both a modest degree of self-awareness and a respect for the rules of the library, she announced her intention to the monastery librarian. Both agreed she was more likely to stay the course with Proust. Both were wrong. Proust was abandoned long before the madeleine was reached but Aquinas was diligently read to the last sentence. It took two and a half years. He was read early in the morning by the light of a weak bulb; he was read late at night to the accompaniment of gentle snufflings from sleepers in rooms nearby; he was read while hands were numb and nose-tips blue with cold in winter; he was read while heads drooped drowsily in midsummer and the dragonflies danced by the monastery pond. I cannot claim that it made Digitalnun into a scholastic theologian but it did give her a respect both for the task Thomas set himself (a bit like Milton's "to justify the ways of God to men", though expressed with characteristic humility) and for his achievement (he himself would have been the first to acknowledge its incompleteness and imperfection).

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.

Jazzing up Monday

Winter Jazz Party
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.

Benedict XVI and Blogging

By now everyone who is interested will have read Benedict XVI's encouragement to priests to start blogging. Some of us may think this a little late in coming, but we welcome any recognition that there are many ways in which the Gospel can be proclaimed. We are great believers in using the internet to reach out to people who would not otherwise encounter Christianity. We hope many priests will start blogging. There is, of course, one tiny problem. Unlike the homily, which in the Catholic Church is reserved to priests and deacons and allows of no "come-back" from the congregation, blogging is, by its very nature, open to discussion and disagreement. If one has nothing to say, or if what one says is disputed by others, there WILL be come-back; and one wonders whether that will be difficult for some priests.

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.


Where did the Week go?

The past week has been . . . taxing. After our wimple-raising drive to Ringwood and the devastating news from garages across Oxfordshire (do they have a system for sharing bad news, one wonders, if so it may explain why there are so many pigeons flying about), our nice old Skoda is bound for "fresh woods and pastures new". Meanwhile, we have emptied our bank account and single-handedly rescued the British second-hand car trade by buying a "new to us" Ford. All this was accomplished on Thursday, just before our Virtual Chapter, which may explain why Digitalnun could barely string a sentence together and Bloggie was confusing everyone, including Digitalnun, by using Cybernun's computer. We even managed to rewrite scripture in our confusion. If you listen to the recording, you'll be astonished to learn that Saul anointed David king over Israel, although, to be fair, there was a hesitation which suggested that the speaker was wracking her brains for the right name. Poor dear.

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?

A Busy Day

Drove through the snow yesterday to see our accountant but had no time to eat our lunchtime picnic in the New Forest as we usually do. Instead we got back as quickly as possible and made a rapid tour of second-hand car dealers near home as we have to replace our car. That is something we have done only once before and causes brain-fatigue in community as we try to ensure we are well-informed about "what to look out for" in particular models. The monastic habit usually has one of two effects: either the salesman (usually it is a man) seems to think we'll buy any old rubbish (not a hope, sir) or becomes unusually tongue-tied and addresses us as "Er, ladies, Er". I suspect the test-drive reintroduces some of them to the practice of prayer as SpeedyNun flings the car round corners and along the bumpier stretches of the A417. We haven't made our final choice yet, but we are getting closer . . .

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.

In the World Not Of

Two thoughtful correspondents have articulated the same concern this week: how to be in the world, not of the world. It's an age-old concern, and from time to time, some of those outside the cloister express the same concern about those of us inside: are we in danger of having our spiritual energies dissipated by contact with the world/technology/complete as appropriate. I am pretty sure the same question will be raised during our Virtual Chapter on Thursday evening and it deserves to be taken seriously.

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.

Wedding Feast at Cana

I have sometimes wondered what the wine at Cana was like. The palate of faith assumes that it outdid the finest Falernian, whatever that tasted like. Was it drunk, as the wines of Galicia were drunk in my youth, from a wide and spreading cup, shaped rather like the drinking bowls one sees on Attic vases? Was it poured from a great height to aerate it a little before it foamed in the bowl, as the apple wines and ciders of Asturias are poured? Presumably, it was mixed with water, because in the Classical world it was a sign of brutish behaviour to drink one's wine unmixed like the Persians. Was it red or white, or that strange tawny colour which is neither one nor the other? Did it smell of the vineyards of Engedi, so beloved of the Song of Songs, or had it a fragrance impossible to define, flavoured with herbs we would never use today? Was it, like most wines before the twentieth century, low in alcohol? In short, a wine like none that we have ever known, any more than the wedding guests at Cana long ago?

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.

Preparations

Preparations are well under way for our Virtual Chapter on Thursday evening. Please continue to send in your questions/suggestions on the subject of vocation as it is helpful to have been able to do some thinking in advance. Among those we have already received:
  • 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?
(We have, of course, kept some under our wimples.) Oblate Alex is currently in Sri Lanka but will do his best to join in from there, so provided you do not have to get up in the middle of the night because of the difference in time zones, we hope that those with questions to ask/points to make will join us.

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?

Authority and Obedience

It seems fitting that we read the end of RB 2, On the Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be, on the same day that we keep the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, St Benedict's exemplary disciples. Authority and obedience are intimately related but it can be "interesting" to see how they work out. For example, one may derive much quiet amusement from the kind of Catholic who invokes the Pope whenever the matter in hand is one on which he wishes to slap others down but who accuses the same Pope of heresy or worse whenever the papal line does not accord with his own. This can be tiresome when the papal champion turns out to have a very sketchy knowledge of what the Pope actually said/did/wrote, as is often the case; or when the "obedience" is so selective as to verge on the ridiculous (no examples, lest I forsake charity).

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.

Horror in Haiti

Yesterday two questions dominated our inbox: why does God allow suffering, and what do you think you are doing by praying for the people of Haiti? One is reluctant to comment on the tragedy that is Haiti except on one's knees, but the questions are being asked by many. So, here is a stumbling, inadequate response. Experts in theodicy will find much to criticize, but it is not written for them but for those who, like us, are shocked by what they have heard and deeply saddened.

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.

Haiti and Hilary

Late with the blog this morning as we have dedicated an extra half-hour to prayer for the people of Haiti. There is nothing useful we can say on the subject, except to urge everyone to pray and contribute to the relief funds being set up to help. Our prayerline is always open, and we are glad that many find it a way of expressing their deepest hopes and fears. Just now it is full of petitions for families in Haiti.

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:

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."

(Hilary, De Trinitate)

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.

St Aelred of Rievaulx

The feast of the English St Bernard today, and I was thinking of quoting a few lines from his Oratio Pastoralis (Pastoral Prayer). To my surprise, no English translation seems to be available on the internet, but you can read the Latin text here, which is better than reading a translation anyway. Aelred is an interesting saint. The son of a married priest, brought up at the Scottish court, he was an early enthusiast for the Cistercian Reform. As novice master and later abbot at Rievaulx, he demonstrated exactly what Benedict meant by "aptus sit ad lucrandas animas", having a talent for winning souls. Community numbers greatly increased under him, but the growth was short-lived and couldn't be sustained once he had died. It is for his writing, however, that he is chiefly remembered today.

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.

Ordinary Time

Back to Ordinary Time today, and a brief and breathy podcast, just to test whether we still can. (I almost added, banal: we do seem to go on and on about trying to live our spirituality in the here and now, but to be fair, there's nowhere else to live it until we become "as the angels in heaven".) HandyNun has been busy putting up polythene double-glazing round the windows on the east side of the house and has found some old heavy curtains to act as an extra windshield, so our thoughts have not been entirely other-worldly.

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?

A Point of View

Baptism of Christ by Ghiberti, Baptistry, Florence
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.

Courage and Cowardice

Two recent stories have set Colophon thinking about the difference between courage and cowardice.

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.

Numb Brains

Our brains are numb with cold so today we offer just three photos and no thoughts: the monastery under snow, the ice-house, sorry green-house, currently out of bounds to HandyNun as the door is frozen shut, and the view from our breakfast terrace across to Hendred House and its ancient chapel.
The Monastery under snow, 7 January 2010
The Monastery Green-house, 7 January 2010
Hendred House, 7 January 2010

Plans Awry

Today's section of the Rule is about sharing by patience in the sufferings of Christ. Often described as the fourth Benedictine vow (the others are obedience, stability and conversatio morum, usually translated as "conversion of life" or "to live monastic life as it should be lived"), patience is one of those seemingly unheroic virtues absolutely necessary for anyone trying to live as a human being, let alone as a Christian. The Latin roots of the word, patientia (=endurance) and pati (=to suffer), should alert us to the fact that patience is more than a weary, passive acceptance of an imperfect situation. Patience requires courage and steadfastness: it isn't for wimps, and it isn't for losers.

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.

Snow

Sheep at Hill Farm, January 2010
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 under snow 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.

Clergy Unions

From time to time Colophon peeps over the fence to see what others are up to and generally finds much to ponder. The idea of Anglican clergy joining a Trade Union is not new, but the current spate of openness about the reasons for doing so probably is. Bullying is something all Churches condemn but are sometimes guilty of, at both the individual and the institutional level. Bishops bullying parish clergy; parishioners bullying clergy; choir directors bullying clergy and parishioners: the list of possibilities is endless. While we smile, there is a serious issue which needs to be addressed, though one doubts whether Unionisation is the answer.

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?"

Light

Did you notice how beautiful the light was yesterday? The tree branches were rimmed with silver; even the gloomiest patches of laurel were transformed. I was thinking about that this morning when I got up and realised we faced three hours of darkness before daybreak. Peter of Celles used to love the long dark winter nights because they gave him more time for prayer. In the twenty-first century we are more inclined to switch on electric lights and deny the darkness. We need to get on, do what we want to do; the natural rhythms of night and day are barriers to be overcome.

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 2010

Carving of the Three Kings, Autun

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?

Larkin Was Wrong

Larkin was wrong. St Basil the Great (c. 329-379), whose Memoria we keep today, is a prime example of someone who made good because of, rather than in spite of, Mum and Dad and everyone else in the family circle. He was indisputably brilliant (nature? nurture? a bit of both?), one of the most distinguished Doctors of the Church. His early career was not without traces of a self-satisfied vanity which even great gifts cannot make attractive. But family tradition made a speciality of holiness, and poor Basil suffered a thorough-going conversion, largely through the influence of his sister, St Macrina the Younger. She had useful foundations on which to build: their grandmother had been St Macrina the Elder, their father St Basil the Elder, their mother, Emmelia, was the daughter of a martyr and instilled in all ten of her children what used to be called "habits of piety". If that sounds dreary, remember that we are talking about people who were highly educated, with myriad interests and minds like quicksilver. I doubt that conversation at the dinner table was entirely on heavenly things.

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.

A New Year

With two thirds of the community currently hors de combat, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God and Octave Day of Christmas is being celebrated in rather low-key fashion: no choral liturgy (if you except the cacophony of coughs, sneezes and wheezes that resounds throughout the house); no fine festive fare (unless you consider a bowl of thin soup a gourmet delight); and no toasting of the feast and of the year with a glass of decent wine. But we did greet the midnight chimes, as always, with a Vigil of Prayer, held hermit-style in separate rooms, and the dissipation of Digitalnun, at least, extended to a cup of a well-known blackcurrant cordial afterwards (and, alas, enough antibiotics to make her rattle!).

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.)

Holy Innocents

The Flight into Egypt by Nicholas Mynheer
The Flight into Egypt by Nicholas Mynheer
Copyright © Nicholas Mynheer. Reproduction prohibited.
Used here by kind permission of the artist

Today's gospel is Matthew's account of the flight into Egypt. When I first typed those words I wrote "light into Egypt" which not only seemed peculiarly appropriate but also called to mind the above painting by Nicholas Mynheer. No, I am not going to "explain" the symbolism but just let you meditate on all the imagery suggests. You can find more of Nicholas's work at his new web site, http://www.mynheer-art.co.uk/

Christmas 2009

Giotto Nativity (detail)
VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST

We wish all our oblates, associates, friends and cybervisitors
a very happy Christmas.
May the Prince of Peace fill your hearts and homes
with joy and gladness.
We shall keep you in our prayers.
Mass will be offered for your intentions
on Monday, 28 December.


THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH

JOY TO ALL THE WORLD

Christmas Eve 2009

Two years ago Colophon observed:

One of the most beautiful parts of the Christmas Eve liturgy is the singing of the Martyrology which situates the birth of Christ in time and place. When we reach the words "All the earth being at peace . . ." the music becomes more and more intense, until finally the Incarnation is announced on a falling cadence. When God has uttered his Word, there is no need for further speech.


No need for further speech, true, but we continue to babble because we are afraid of that mysterious silence out of which the all-powerful word of God speaks. Somehow we need to recover a little interior silence to allow what we celebrate to remain at the heart of all we do and say. It won't mean our being any less genial, nor, alas, less busy, but it might make Christmas less stressful because we shall be more relaxed about the inevitable gap between expectation and reality, especially the expectation we have of ourselves.

If that seems paradoxical (relaxed? at Christmas?) just remember, Jesus was content with very little: a shelter, his mother's milk, somewhere to lay his head. We do not have to be perfect to pease him, nor do we have to be perfect to please others. Those we love are lovable with all their shortcomings; so are we. Married, single, widowed, divorced or separated; alone or with others; as a member of a religious community or as a hermit; we need to slow down (yes, slow down!) and lose ourselves, just for a moment or two, in wonder at the nearness of our God. "Tonight is born for you the Saviour of the World." Let us be glad and give thanks.

O Emmanuel

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

Today's Mass readings are Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66. The responsorial psalm is taken from psalm 24, and, instead of the antiphon of the day, O Emmanuel, we have a version yesterday's (O Rex Gentium). Once again Colophon will be perverse and consider the Mass readings in the light of O Emmanuel, the last of the Great "O"s.

According to Malachi, the advent of the Lord was to be preceded by the coming of his messenger, the prophet Elijah. The identification of Elijah with John the Baptist was made by the Lord Jesus himself ("I tell you solemnly, Elijah has come…") but it is easy to see in Luke's account of the Baptist's ministry parallels with that of Elijah, especially in that fiery zeal for God which must have been so uncomfortable for his listeners. But it is the end of today's gospel passage which draws our attention. "'What will this child turn out to be?" [the people] wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was upon him."' Here, just before the birth of Christ, we are asked to consider the birth of his forerunner, the man who would prepare the way for him. John's birth was strange and there is a sense that something stranger still is about to take place. Who could have foreseen that the Son of God was about to be born? We know that John will be driven out into the desert by his love for God; that he will live on the margins of society, dress in weird garments and live on an austere diet; that he will be fearless in proclaiming the truth, challenge the kings of this world and pay the price exacted for such courage; that he will point his own disciples towards Christ and rejoice that he himself must diminish. And all because "the hand of the Lord was upon him."

Tonight's antiphon prepares us for the coming of Christ by heaping upon him titles which explain who he is and what he has come to do. As King and Law-giver he fulfils the promise of the Old Testament; he is the one for whom, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the whole of humanity (= the gentiles) has been longing; he is the Saviour of all. It is as Emmanuel, God-with-us, that we invoke him and ask him again to come and save us.

O Rex Gentium

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

Today's Mass readings could be described as a celebration of the Magnificat, a sustained exposition of Mary's song of praise. We begin with 1 Samuel 1. 24-28, the story of Hannah's dedication of the infant Samuel to the service of the Lord; as responsorial psalm we sing her song of triumph, 1 Samuel 2. 1, 4-8, on which so much of the Magnificat is based; the alternative gospel acclamation echoes the O antiphon of the day, O Rex Gentium, while the gospel is the Magnificat itself, Luke 1. 46-56.

What are we to make of all this joy and gladness? Why do we exult? Surely it is because we have been given a rare privilege. For gentile Christians being adopted into the "family of God", sharing in the promises made to his Chosen People, and coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord is something beyond our wildest dreams. When we look at our Saviour, we can say with Hannah, "This is the child I prayed for, and the Lord has given me what I asked"; and with Mary, "The Almighty has done great things for me; holy is his name." At our baptism we received the gift God offered us, made our profession of faith (or had it made for us by our godparents) and so were welcomed into the community of believers, the Church. We were baptised into Christ's death that we might rise with him to newness of life. This is the new creation we sing about with such wonder and gratitude. Of course, we "know all that"; but these last days of Advent are a good time for reminding ourselves of truths that sometimes slip from view. Just as the snow is making us look at the world about us with fresh eyes, so the liturgy can help us focus anew on the miracle of salvation.

Tonight's O antiphon provides an exquisite setting for the Magnificat. It expresses our deep longing for redemption and recalls the act by which the Lord Jesus opened the way of salvation to all. Jew and gentile have been made one through his sacrifice on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he formed from the dust of earth.

O Oriens

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page. Please note that the concluding prayer (veni …) is in the plural form, not singular as it was yesterday. Now read on.)

Today at Mass we read either the Song of Songs 2. 8-14 or, as we do in community, Zephaniah 3. 14-18, and the account of the Visitation we had yesterday, Luke 1. 39-45, with verses from psalm 32 as responsorial psalm. The gospel acclamation ignores the O antiphon for the day and instead provides shortened forms of those for 20 and 23 December. We shall not do likewise because to address Christ as the Morning Star (O Oriens) on this, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, is symbolic of our hope both for this world and the next.

The exuberant joy of the passage from Zephaniah finds a lively echo in the gospel. Neither Elizabeth nor John can contain their gladness at the nearness of their Lord, and although we do not read the next few verses of Luke today, we know that they contain Mary's own hymn of rejoicing, the Magnificat. There is a world of difference between such Spirit-filled outpourings and the forced jollity of some of the "worship songs" inflicted on innocent congregations. But the presence of such delight in God begs the question. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Too frequently, I suspect, we are a little piano, unwilling to risk all that admitting God into our lives "with no holds barred" may involve. We prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary's part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, "Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death."

O Clavis David

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

This is the day on which, throughout the Benedictine world, a sermon or talk known as the Missus Est is traditionally given to the community, in keeping with the gospel for 20 December, Luke 1. 26-38. It is not difficult to link the Annunciation with the antiphon O Clavis David, but the readings of the Fourth Sunday of Advent take precedence over the ferial ones; so instead of the Annunciation, we are invited to reflect on the Visitation, Luke 1. 39-45, together with Micah 5. 1-4, Hebrews 10. 5-10, and verses from psalm 80.

Unusually, all three Mass readings focus attention on the body of the one we are awaiting. There is the mysterious prophecy in Micah of "the time when she is to give birth gives birth"; in Hebrews there are references to the "body you prepared for me" and "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all"; and the gospel has Elizabeth's lyrical outburst, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" while the unborn John the Baptist senses the nearness of his God and dances for joy in his mother's womb.

This concentration on the sheer physicality of birth and the "bodyliness" of the Lord Jesus should make us think. We do not worship a God who is somehow "out there", remote, uninterested, uninvolved. On the contrary, we worship a God who, in Christ Jesus, has experienced what it is to be human, who has promised to be with us always, to the end of time. As Christopher Smart said so well, he is "a native/Of the world he made." He is also, as Isaiah prophesied, the Key of David, the Sceptre of the house of Israel, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been committed; but unlike many politicians who strut about the world's stage, sometimes leaving things a little better but often much worse, not culpably or intentionally but because their interests are limited to their own time or their own country (think Copenhagen), Jesus' ambition, so to say, is cosmic. There is nothing and no-one beyond the scope of his love and mercy. He wants to free us from the prisons we have made for ourselves, the grubby little sins and shabby half-truths that prevent our becoming what he desires us to be. Tragically, we often prefer a half-life in chains to living fully the glorious freedom of the children of God. If we could only believe how much he loves us, we could pray with perfect confidence "come and free from prison one who sits in darkness and the shadow of death."

O Radix Jesse

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

Today at Mass we read Judges 13. 2-7; 24-25 and Luke 1. 5-25, with verses of psalm 70 and a shortened version of O Radix Jesse before the gospel. Once again we reflect how God brings life and hope where previously there was only death and despair. The theme of the barren woman miraculously made fertile is found throughout the Old Testament and lies at the heart of the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. The birth of Samson and of John the Baptist belong to this genre and have some striking parallels. The appearance of the angel of the Lord, the giving of the promise (only half-believed by Zechariah), and the setting apart for God's service of the child who will be born (indicated in both cases by the requirement to live as a nazirite, abstaining from wine and strong drink) can blind us to differences which are perhaps even more telling than the similarities.

The Lord blessed Samson, his Spirit moved him, but Samson's ultimate failure was as tragic as his vocation was heroic. There was no such failure with John. He did indeed inherit the spirit and power of Elijah, was filled even from his mother's womb with the Holy Spirit and proved great in the sight of the Lord. ("I tell you solemnly that among those born of women, there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist.") Yet we know that, great as John was, his role was to point to someone greater still. Mary would not doubt the angel's message but embrace God's will with joyful alacrity (genoito moi kata to rhema suo has much more eagerness in it than our rather feeble "Let it be done to me according to your word" can convey), and God would work in her a wonder the world had never seen before and never would again. Jesus would be born of a virgin, not a barren woman; and he would prove to be the true Deliverer of Israel, before whom kings would fall silent and in search of whom the gentiles would come.

How does this tie up with O Radix Jesse? The symbolism of the antiphon is clear enough, but Paul helps to articulate the theology underpinning it, especially in Romans 15. 8-13. He says Christ became a servant of the Jewish people to maintain God's faithfulness by making good God's promises to the patriarchs and by giving the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy. He quotes Isaiah also, for Christ is that scion of Jesse who will rule over the gentiles and in whom they will place their hope. What is this promise to Israel, this mercy shown to the gentiles, this hope we all share? Surely it is freedom from sin and death and the enjoyment of eternal life made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary? The Messiah for whom Israel has prayed and longed is become the Saviour of the World. All the jangling discordances of humanity are quieted; the divine harmony is restored; but here on earth we have yet to experience the fullness of redemption. So we pray, "Come and free us; delay no longer!"

O Adonai

(For information on this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

For today's Mass readings we have Jeremiah 23. 5-8 and Matthew 1.18-24, with verses from psalm 71 and an abridged version of O Adonai as the link between them. The passage from Jeremiah is fascinating. Here is a portrait of true kingship; honest, wise, full of integrity, instilling confidence and enabling Israel to live in perfect freedom. This vision of messianic kingship is realised in Christ Jesus, who is indeed the "virtuous Branch of David", the fulfilment of the psalmist's dream. He is also to be identified with the all-Holy One who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, who gave the Law on Sinai and saved the Israelites with outstretched arm, just as the outstretched arms of the Lord Jesus on the cross brought salvation to all the world.

The gospel reading contains lots of difficulties for scripture scholars but we can derive much to think about without becoming too narrowly academic. Here we have a second Joseph, a man of dreams and integrity like the first, but one who, as a descendant of David, can confer on the Son who is to be born of Mary, all the privileges and expectations of his royal ancestry. There is something very likeable about Joseph. He is perplexed by Mary's pregnancy, tries to find a human solution to the "problem", but is utterly accepting of the angel's reassurance and command. No wonder he has become a model of Christian obedience. What draws our attention here, however, is the name disclosed to Joseph: Mary's Son is to be named Jesus, Joshua, because he is the one who is to save his people not from material slavery but from slavery to sin. We have entered into a new order of creation: God's ideas are so much bigger than our own. Well may we pray that he will come and save us with his outstretched arm.

O Sapientia

In these last days of Advent we sing the "O" antiphons at Vespers with great solemnity: candles, incense, church bells, a special book from which to sing . . . all intended to focus mind and heart on the significance of the words. Colophon commented on the antiphons in 2007 and on our liturgy page you will find texts, music, and recordings (fear not, sung by others!) with some suggestions for scripture to ponder.

So it is with a cheerful conscience that we turn to the Mass readings for inspiration. Today we have Genesis 49. 2, 8-10 and Matthew 1. 1-17, together with Ps 71 and a curiously abridged version of O Sapientia as the Gospel Acclamation. The opening prayer of the Mass, with its breath-taking "may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity", will still be ringing in our ears when we hear the gospel. Some people find the Old Testament genealogies tiresome. Even the genealogy of Christ is sometimes read as though it were meaningless. But today we shall be reminded forcefully that God became man in Jesus Christ, that he came of an ordinary human family, and like all of us, had a few skeletons in his family cupboard. Look at some of the names in Matthew's list and you will see what I mean: alongside the great and good are the decently obscure and a few instances of what we might most kindly call folly.

We begin, of course, with Abraham, our father in faith, and go on through the patriarchs, some a little dodgy it is true, but made respectable by their antiquity; but what about Rahab? A prostitute is not the kind of ancestor most people glory in, unless she happens to be the paramour of kings. And Ruth, why, she wasn't even Jewish. David may have been the great hero of Judaism, the kind of king Israel hoped to find in the Messiah, but his son Solomon was born of adultery with Bathsheba. Only when we come to "Joseph the husband of Mary; of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ" does this long list of begetting reach its end. With Christ we come to the perfect fulfilment of creation, of everything the Divine Wisdom brought into being; and it is Christ whom we shall invoke tonight under the title of Wisdom and ask to come and teach us the way of prudence.

Zoom, Zoom

As readers of this blog (all three of 'em?) will know, we want to update the equipment we use for making audio books for the blind and have been trying to find the most suitable then raise money to buy it. Our friend Joe has been helping Technonun research digital audio recorders and at (long) last they have agreed: the Zoom H4N is their recorder of choice to replace our outmoded and increasingly rackety cassette recorders. It is the only affordable digital recorder with a big enough screen and buttons for our "mature" volunteers to use comfortably, something that may be of interest to anyone with a similar problem.

Digitalnun is pleased about this choice as she already uses the H4N's baby brother, the HandyZoom, to record podcasts for our web site and is enthusiastic about the audio quality which can be obtained. She may not be quite so enthusiastic when she realises that to replace all the recording equipment used by our volunteer readers (i.e. the people who record the texts for us) is going to cost around £6,000, but never mind, Christmas is coming and one can always hope. Replacing the recorders will enable us to introduce phase 1 of our changeover to mp3 files and CDs and memory sticks. Introducing DAISY CDs for more complex books will take a while longer, not least because the kind of equipment needed is more expensive and the process involved more complicated, but at least we can expect to make a start in 2010.

Meanwhile Technonun is continuing to research OpenSource library software for the audio library. Perhaps someone reading this could make a suggestion about which would be most suitable? We have under 1,000 audio titles at present, but we need to keep track of who has what as well as maintaining a proper catalogue, preferably online as well as in St Cecilia's itself. We have two volunteers who are willing to do the keying-in for us and we don't want their enthusiasm to evaporate while we dither. We'd prefer a little more "zoom, zoom" all round, in fact.

Tuesday

I'm not sure where Monday went: in a flurry of telephone calls, chauffering community members to various appointments and an inbox groaning with emails and letters, I suppose. All the ordinary things, praying, working, reading, cooking, tend to recede into the background on such days (though it did register with me that I was making apple pies at 9.00 p.m., practically midnight in monastic terms, because of the number of visitors expected at the week-end!).

The trouble with Advent is the difficulty of matching expectations with reality. We want to give more time to God, to prepare thoughtfully for the coming feasts of Christmas and Epiphany, and we know that silence and solitude are important aspects of that. But we can't opt out of the busyness of life which seems so much more intense at this season of the year, and we certainly can't refuse to answer the doorbell unless we have hearts of stone (which perhaps we do: awful thought). The alternative is to embrace the busyness, to see it as part of the preparation. In other words, to stop railing against the demands on our time and energy and accept them as the way in which we are enabled to celebrate properly, a necessary part of our sanctification.

I am a long way from having achieved that myself. I am quite sure I shall continue to go to bed each night mentally comparing my "to do" list with my "have done" list and fretting about the discrepancy. I am equally sure, alas, I shall continue to be grumpy whenever someone asks me if I could "please just" do something or other. I'll continue to wake up most mornings looking like a lemur. BUT, I also trust that somewhere, somehow, in the midst of all this apparent failure, grace will be at work, that even what I see as failure can be transformed; is, in some small way, part of God's plan for my life and the lives of those with whom I come into contact, so that when I come to celebrate Christmas, it will be as a humbler, possibly less selfish, person than would otherwise have been the case. I hope so; I really hope so.

Conditor alme siderum

The kindest thing anyone has ever said about our musical ability is that we are "brave" to sing the whole of the Divine Office. It is with some trepidation, therefore, that one dares to say anything about the Advent Vesper hymn, Conditor alme siderum (O Loving Creator of the stars), but the combination of shooting stars overhead and Gaudete Sunday is irresistible. For anyone who lives in a monastery, the melody of the hymn is so evocative that one might almost say it is Advent.

Opinions differ as to the hymn's authorship. Some ascribe it to St Ambrose himself, others more cautiously credit it to "Anon. seventh century". Either way, in just five classical Ambrosian quatrains plus a doxology, the writer gives us an overview of salvation history, all the more powerful for being expressed with great simplicity and economy: Christ himself is the creator of the stars of night, the light of all believers, who came to save a fallen world under sentence of death; as Bridegroom of the Bride, he came at evening time from the spotless womb of the Virgin; now all creation acknowledges him as Lord and awaits his Second Coming and the Day of Judgement. These are the great themes of Advent and the melody of the accompanying chant, haunting in its simplicity, is one of the most beautiful in the repertoire.

For those who would like to ponder the hymn as lectio divina, the text, translation and music are given below (click on the icon to download the PDF). Finding a non-copyright recording has been more difficult. We tend to sing the hymn as taught by our mentors, with a light, almost dancing movement (hence shooting stars . . .). There is a slightly ponderous recording from Belo Horizonte here. Best of all, however, would be for you to learn to sing the hymn yourself. If plainchant is new to you a good place to start is the excellent Musica Sacra site.
Download Conditor Alme Siderum text and music
Conditor download

There is a recording of our latest Virtual Chapter on the podcast page. We now know that the echo chamber effect is caused when someone uses an inbuilt computer microphone rather than a headset, so technically this last recording is a great improvement on 28 November's. The next Chapter will be in the New Year.

This week's prayer podcast is on the podcast page. Gaudete!

Surprise, surprise!

After the novice has made his vows Benedict refers to him for the first time as novicius frater, the new brother. Until then he has been completely anonymous: is qui (he) or noviter veniens (someone newly coming to the monastery). I always find this sudden tenderness on the part of Benedict strangely moving. The patriarch of western monasticism dissolves into something much more human. People often surprise us, especially when they prove to be nicer or kinder than we had expected or reveal qualities which, for good or ill, we are reluctant to allow them.

One of the questions we face during Advent is what kind of God shall we be welcoming at Christmas? The Jesus born at Bethlehem wasn't the kind of Messiah many in Israel had been hoping for, and my guess is that he won't be the kind many of us are hoping for today. The daily Mass readings for Advent express our longing for redemption but also make us aware that the Saviour we are awaiting is going to be very different from anything the world has ever known, and we prefer the familiar. Perhaps the cribs being prepared in many of our churches can teach us something we need to learn again and again. If we have a tendency to think of God as always enthroned on the cherubim, to think of him in nappies forces us to admit the enormity of his humility and graciousness. Our (limited) ideas have to go if the (infinite) reality of God is to make any impression. It won't be a comfortable experience, but falling into the hands of the living God never has been, has it?

Reminder: Virtual Chapter today at 11.00 a.m. GMT

Chapter 58

RB 58 is about the procedure for admitting newcomers to the monastery, the tests to be applied, the qualities to be looked for and so on. Whenever we read it in community we are reminded of the tension between the "charismatic" and "institutional" aspects of discerning a vocation. Vocation isn't something one has, it's something one is, something one lives. An ability to cope with the imperfections of others is an absolute prerequisite, but it is remarkable how difficult that often is in practice. It can be helpful to remember that all Benedict really asks of the novice is to eat, sleep and meditate: living in community and studying the Rule will do the rest (I exaggerate slightly). What is asked of the novice master is that he should have a talent for winning souls and watch over the novices to see whether they are genuinely seeking God and are zealous for the Work of God, obedience and things that humble them. That is rather more difficult, demanding skills very few novice masters would claim to have. The experience of the last sixteen hundred years would tend to suggest, however, that Benedict's recommendations work, that Chapter 58 is a valuable tool for the discernment of vocation.

Benedict assumes, of course, that there will be a steady stream of people knocking at the door of the monastery and asking for admission. In Europe that has not been the case for several years. Some communities have died out, others have dwindled in numbers. The "explanations" offered by those who have never lived monastic life often seem shallow. The plain fact is that those of us who do live a monastic life are not very good at communicating what is so wonderful about it. The reasons for that are many and various, but one must ask whether we sometimes lack conviction and are therefore not convincing. For myself, I can only say that I find monastic life my natural element, a pearl of great price, something I want to share with others; but I am happy to leave the outcome to God.

Perhaps we should have devoted tomorrow's Virtual Chapter to the subject of vocation but we've received quite a lot of questions about prayer and how the internet helps or does not help spread interest in and information about religion, religious life and kindred topics; so, if you are free to join us at 11.00 a.m. tomorrow, let us know what you think. Hopefully, Digitalnun will not be locked out of the system this time so the Chapter will go ahead at the intended hour!

A Bright Spot in the Gloom

Shhh! Approach Colophon with caution today. Digitalnun is sunk in gloom at the cynicism and cowardice, as she sees it, of the Chancellor's pre-Budget report which does not seem to have grasped the gravity of the country's financial state and decidedly tetchy about the swingeing increase in charity bank account charges from RBS. It is rumoured that Duncan the dog has been working so hard at his eyes-like-melting-chocolate-drops-look-of-sympathy technique that he is prostrate with exhaustion. However, there is a bright spot in the gloom. Digitalnun is a great admirer of Mouse and his blog and is delighted to be able to point you in the direction of his new Twurch of England web site. Why doesn't the Catholic Church in England have something as imaginative? There's no tax on brains — yet.

Conviviality

Christians have a reputation among non-Christians for being uncongenial companions, loudly disapproving everyone else's harmless little indulgences while hypocritically covering up some heinous sins of their own. (The vocabulary is as predictable as the attitudes: Christians are always "hypocritical", their sins "heinous", whatever Church they belong to; Catholic is now commonly preceded by "child-abusing"; and when was "cloistered" popularly used in anything but a pejorative sense?). Colophon wonders where and when this dourness crept in. Christians OUGHT to be the most convivial of people. Our most important liturgical act is, after all, derived from a sacred festive meal. Our hope for the future is (scripturally) expressed in terms of banqueting, of "food rich and juicy and fine strained wines".

Today's brief chapter of the Rule reminds us that the monastery ought to be a place of conviviality, of shared life, where guests are welcomed to our table as they are to our liturgy and other aspects of monastic life. We have three separate groups meeting here from 2.30 p.m. onwards and the community will be working flat out to be welcoming, to give each visitor time as well as the endless tea/coffee/biscuits which seem to fuel church gatherings. Inevitably, the question will arise: is what we are doing a bit irrelevant? Budget cuts, climate change, family concerns are all much closer to people's hearts than anything we may be discussing in our meetings. So why do we bother?

I think the clue lies in the word conviviality: feasting, shared life, is never very attractive to the outsider, the onlooker. One has to be involved, to take part. The challenge for us as a community is the same as for the Church as a whole. We need to draw people into the life we share in Christ, and we can only do that if we are living that life as deeply and generously as possible through prayer and sacrifice as well as service. Advent is a good time to ask ourselves whether we are so busy giving out that in reality we have nothing of value to share. The answer may shock us into reassessing how we live. It won't make the budget cuts any less painful; it wont solve the problems of global warming; but it might, just might, make us nicer to know: real Christians, in fact.

Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

As promised on Saturday, we are today putting online a little ebook Digitalnun made many years ago (see Digital books page). It was inspired by the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch, a nun of Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, who was widely regarded as one of the foremost religious artists of her day. We are very grateful to the Abbess and Community of Stanbrook for allowing us to make the ebook available and would ask everyone to be scrupulous in respecting Stanbrook's copyright and other restrictions.

Magnificat was begun on the feast of the Immaculate Conception 1999. The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. must be one of the most misunderstood feasts in the calendar. Even Catholics tend to stray into unconscious heresy when asked to explain what it means. What the Catholic Church actually teaches is that "the Blessed Virgin Mary in the first instance of her conception was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race." (Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854) In other words, Mary, although conceived and born like the rest of us, was not cleansed from original sin by baptism as we are but was preserved from such sin because of the merits of her Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Maximus of Turin uses a lovely phrase, he talks of "original grace" at work in her in contrast to original sin at work in us (see Nom. viii de Natali Domini). Mary was not exempt from the temporal penalties of sin such as pain and death, nor was her sinlessness something she herself achieved. It was entirely the gift and grace of God, a fruit of the redemption wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ. Only he can save us from sin. Thinking of the Climate Change Conference currently taking place in Copenhagen, I am tempted to add, only he can save us from ourselves.

Advent II

St John the Baptist

The Second Sunday of Advent takes us out into the desert with John the Baptist and that lonely Voice urging us to prepare for the coming of the Word. There is something immensely attractive about John which this painting by El Greco conveys better than any words. We see the saint in a rocky landscape with a diffuse light about him. Everything except John's face seems to resolve into triangles, even the sheep near his feet. A distant city at the foot of the mountain is shrouded in gloom, but there is a beautiful light playing on the cross John holds in his hand, and on his face, the only truly rounded shape in the whole painting, there is a radiance and sweetness which is utterly compelling. El Greco has captured both the gentleness and the loneliness of Christ's Forerunner, the contradiction of the prophet in every age.

Today also happens to be the anniversary of the wreck of the Deutschland, which inspired Hopkins' greatest poem. I suspect John's prayer was very like that of the dying Franciscan, '"O Christ, Christ come quickly" since he was, as Daniélou perceptively remarked, "a one-joy man". For those of us whose hearts are not quite so focused, there are these lines, especially the last, to offer encouragement:

I kiss my hand
              To the stars, lovely-asunder
          Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
             Glow, glory in thunder;
               Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
            Since, tho' he is under the world's splendour & wonder,
                His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
            For I greet him the days I meet him, & bless when I understand.

Saturday Shopping

Today is apparently the busiest day on the High Street, and how glad we are that we do not have to join the fray. We tend to shop online, making use of our Easyfundraising page which splits the retailer's referral fee with us. Painless giving is something we heartily endorse, so we are happy to record that during the past two years 37 supporters have helped raise £372.07 for our charitable works just by channelling their online shopping purchases via the Easyfundraising site. As there are over 2,000 retailers participating in the scheme, it is worth investigating for your church, school or charitable organization, but can we be shameless and suggest that if you do not wish to support us, you might nevertheless use our referral link to find another cause to help?

For those already exhausted with pre-Christmas shopping there is an alternative on Saturday, 12 December, when we shall be hosting another Virtual Chapter. Talkshoe has explained that they were rebooting their servers when we scheduled the last one (if only we had known!). Let's hope for better things next week. We have received a number of questions about prayer so will make that a major theme, but you are welcome to suggest other topics. It is helpful but not essential to submit questions/suggestions in advance.

Finally, Digitalnun recently came across an ebook she made ten years ago. It's entirely possible it may appear on our Digital Books page on 8 December. Can anyone guess what it is?

Craftmanship

Glastonbury Chair for the Oratory
Here is a photo of our latest acquisition, the craftsmanship of which so delighted Handynun. It may seem very ordinary to you, but having started with nothing and quietly worked to make an oratory fit for singing the praises of God, we hope you will not begrudge our pleasure in adding to its "treasures". Those who inherit great riches from the past know the joy of association with the first age of their history; those of us actually in the first age have a rather lonelier and sometimes daunting path to tread!

Yesterday Benedict spoke to us about the oratory. Today and tomorrow he speaks to us about guests. The two subjects are closely linked, especially for Benedictines, because the God whom we seek in prayer is to be encountered, reverenced and served in those who come to our door (which in our day includes the digital door). It can be difficult to get the balance right, and many a monastic community has lamented the demands of hospitality and sought to limit or distance its guests. The truth is, of course, that once one sees hospitality as an expression of love of God and love of neighbour, talk of "balance" begins to seem inappropriate. Purity of heart, that ability to recognize what God is asking and respond to the sacrament of the present moment with alacrity and generosity, becomes much more central. Here at Hendred we do our best to be welcoming but we are aware of our failures. "The life so short, the craft so long to learn" can apply to monastic living, too.

RB 52: On the Monastery Oratory

Having just completed our online grocery order for Christmas, it is a relief to turn to today's chapter of the Rule. There's nothing wrong with commercialism as such, one doesn't mind being exhorted to buy this or that for a perfect Christmas, but then, we know Christmas is going to be perfect "whatever". Thinking about the place of the oratory in our lives is, however, a valuable corrective to Christmas stress; and it reminded us to donate to CAFOD and some other favourite charities.

We all need a sacred space but comparatively few have the luxury of an area devoted only to prayer and worship. We have to cultivate instead an inner space, a holy ground of mind and heart, with time we reserve for God alone. The Lord Jesus understood that. When he told his disciples to go into their inner room and pray, he must have meant withdrawing into the inner chambers of the heart since there were few private rooms in first-century Palestine.

I think we can apply what Benedict says about the monastery oratory to this inner space, this sacred time. We need to value the time we devote to prayer, ring-fence it round with a little selfishness even to ensure that it becomes as regular a part of our life as breathing. Reverence and silence on our part are fundamental attitudes but we tend to learn them gradually and have constantly to relearn what we thought we already knew. During Advent we have the example of John the Baptist waiting in the wilderness for the appearing of the Saviour. Perhaps his family thought of him as being lost to them during that time, possibly wasting his life. These days before Christmas can be "wilderness days" for all of us, but they do not have to be lost days. Prayer is never a waste of time.

Just to show that we are not above a little commercialism in a good cause ourselves, here's a reminder about John and Penny's Christmas Book Sale this afternoon. Enjoy!

Moonlight Publishing Christmas Sale

Preparing the Liturgy

There is a copy of the Portsmouth diocesan Ordo or Liturgical Calendar on our Liturgy page together with some notes on Advent and recordings of the O antiphons which may be useful to those who have to prepare liturgies/school assemblies during the next few weeks. This afternoon at 2.30 p.m. and again at 7.30 p.m. we shall be hosting a "guided discussion" of the Sunday Mass readings, something we'll do every week until Christmas. Usually we get a nicely ecumenical group taking part and everyone seems to benefit, from learned scripture scholars to simple pew fodder like Digitalnun.

Redecorating the oratory has had to be postponed because of work pressures, but we are delighted to record the purchase of a Glastonbury chair for use by the presiding priest at Mass. Handynun put it together on Saturday with much muttering about its being properly made, no glue anywhere, nice patina under the grubbiness, and so on and so forth. Even after a preliminary cleaning and waxing it looked very good; and the monks who said Mass for us on Monday and Tuesday both declared it "very pleasing" so we are distinctly gruntled. Our friend Neville has made a new oak base for the processional cross which is a great improvement on the metal one, so we have begun Advent feeling that the oratory looks much more dignified than before. Next we must think about replacing our red lectern fall (which is looking a little sad) but this is a good time of year to be looking for red fabric. Reindeer and Fr Christmas patterns not required.

Advent 2009

Angel playing a lute

We begin Advent with three days of as near-perfect silence as we can manage, to allow time for reflection on the mystery of the Word who became man for our sakes. Choir continues, of course, and the angels are allowed to sing (think Hilton, angel-song . . .) but otherwise we try to keep speaking and writing to a minimum. So, no blogging and no tweeting until Wednesday unless there is some overwhelming reason for doing so.

Our podcast for the first Sunday of Advent will be found on the podcast page.

Finally, our apologies to all who had difficulty getting into the Virtual Chapter on 28 November: Digitalnun was locked out of the system for half an hour and when she was finally allowed in, there were some "audio issues". Beelzebub having his own back perhaps? We are grateful for all the positive feedback and will arrange another Chapter in a fortnight's time, on Saturday 12 December, when we'll explore the subject of prayer. There is a partial recording of the 28 November discussion on the podcast page.

The Virtual World

This afternoon at 2.00 p.m. we shall again be hosting a Virtual Chapter or web conference during which participants will be able to discuss monastic/oblate life (some suggestions for discussion were listed in yesterday's post). Some people are very enthusiastic about this kind of online engagement, others are more sceptical, a few are uncomfortable about the idea of something so open and "uncontrollable". The community here takes the view that if we as Benedictines don't make use of the opportunities offered, we can be quite sure Beelzebub will, and a few little hiccups along the way are immaterial.

There are, however, important questions about the relationship between the real and virtual worlds we all need to consider. Readers of Colophon know we have a strict policy regarding the blog. It only gets updated when we have time. So, too, with other aspects of the web site. Indeed, the only part of the site unfailingly attended to is the prayerline, which is given the same priority as requests for prayer received in any other way. For us, these self-imposed restraints are a way of ensuring that the virtual never becomes a substitute for or an escape from the real. Not to have an online presence, however, seems tantamount to not existing. The Catholic Church is slowly waking up to that fact and has been consulting the likes of Google and Facebook (but not Twitter!) about how to improve its e-cred.

Digitalnun would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the recent (12-15 November) Vatican conference on the internet. Some of the published statistics are revealing, showing a rather half-hearted embrace of what is possible. Lots of cardinals and bishops are happy to blog and Youtube apparently, but an amazing 70% of church-based web sites have no interactive features. Monsignor Jean-Michel Di Falco, bishop of Gap, made an eloquent plea for a cadre of Web 2.0 savvy priests to re-evangelize the (real) world, using a flurry of high-flown metaphors which read well in French but are slightly bathetic in English. "Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, lay people - with the Internet we enter a marketplace, a free and spontaneous space where everything is said about everything, where everyone can debate everything," he concluded. Is it my imagination, Monseigneur, or did you forget about nuns?

Shame

The publication of the Commission of Investigation's Report into the Catholic Diocese of Dublin has shocked those who have read it and shamed all who must acknowledge a personal or institutional failure to deal with the abuse it records. I have never understood why some Churchmen (not only Catholic Churchmen) seem to make light of such a serious matter, nor have I ever been comfortable with the way in which, for example, priests "under a cloud" have sometimes been sent to houses of nuns to withdraw them from the public gaze. Quite apart from the contempt that shows, surely everyone realizes that paedophiles are highly manipulative and cannot be "policed" by cloistered religious or anyone else? Moving the problem on is not to deal with it.

The worrying thing about the publication of this report is that we may not learn the lessons. In our revulsion at what has happened we may simply condemn the whole Church as being corrupt from top to bottom, holding those presently serving responsible for what occurred in the past. That is dangerous, typical of the lack of historical perspective now common in our public debate. As members of the Church we can acknowledge the sinfulness of what has been done, express our sorrow and shame, our determination not to allow similar things to happen in the future (present Safeguarding procedures in this diocese, for example, are excellent though no procedure will ever be sufficient protection against someone determined to do wrong). We can also seek to make reparation in some way, but we cannot undo what has happened, cannot, I think, apologize in any meaningful sense for what we ourselves had no part in. Sin remains sin although redeemed. Many, however, will expect an apology; will demand that we all be held responsible; will assume that what happened in Dublin happened elsewhere. No doubt there will be a rush of legal cases seeking financial compensation. Given the tacky concern of some to preserve their financial assets at all costs, that may seem fitting, but am I alone in recalling that when similar cases occurred in the diocese of Boston it was the poor who suffered most from the closure of Church schools and hospitals (oh, and the sisters, whose convents were sold to pay the debts incurred by the diocese)? If one good deed can have untold consequences, so, sadly, can an evil one; and it is always the most vulnerable who suffer.

Web Conference
Preparations are under way for our second public Virtual Chapter at 2.00 p.m. GMT tomorrow. There is still time to submit a question/topic for discussion (or you can make your point live during the Chapter). Several of the questions sent in concern the living of a Benedictine spirituality in the world, so tomorrow we shall explore some of the following:
  • how can a lay person "live" the Rule of St Benedict?
  • how can a lay person live a life of prayer?
  • does being an oblate help?
  • why are Benedictine communities all so different?
and, in lighter vein (?),
  • why did you become a nun?
If we get round to that last question, let's hope there are several nuns taking part, not just those from Hendred!

Thanksgiving 2009

The Bow in the Clouds: East Hendred 8.30 a.m.
The Bow in the Clouds: East Hendred 8.30 a.m. 26 November 2009

Thanksgiving Day is a good idea. Here is Digitalnun's personal grateful list for 26 November 2009: for family and friends, especially the awkward ones, and life in community; Duncan's comical nose, snuggled into his blanket; the soft gleam of the sanctuary lamp and the quiet of the oratory; books spilling into every corner; night-scented stock still blooming against the wall; the shock of cold water; grey light on the horizon; the busy patter of squirrels in the roofspace; the De Profundis chanted trustingly at Vigils; fresh bread baking in the kitchen; a manageable inbox; the promise of another day. For all, Deo Gratias.

Update: Coming back from walking the dog at 8.30 a.m. we saw this double rainbow in the sky over Hendred House (you can just make out the second bow at the east end of the house). The bow in the clouds is a sign of God's first covenant, a covenant made with the whole of creation. Something more for which to give thanks.

Confused Standards?

Colophon is confused. The Government requires that public bodies such as Charities should adhere to the strictest standards of accounting and disclosure but seems incapable of understanding that similar standards are expected nearer home. The incompetent handling of the parliamentary expenses revelations is a case in point; the news that last October the Bank of England effectively covered up enormous loans to two of Britain's failing banks is another. One wonders whether the concept of public accountability and integrity is becoming as alien as it seems. Happily, there are many good and decent people, quietly devoting time and talent to the service of others, which gives one hope; but no amount of legislation will compensate for lack of example. The latest Government proposal, to tackle violence against women and girls, is good in principle (though one must ask how the school curriculum is going to be able to accommodate all the "extras" being pushed into it) but it may be undermined by instances of violent behaviour in official places gleefully revealed by investigative journalists.

What is the role of the Church in this? No doubt there will be supportive statements from our leaders, condemning this and applauding that. Diocesan departments will beaver away producing strategies to ensure that all involved in active ministry conform to "best practice", but there is a danger that most of this will wash over our heads. Values are not instilled by legislation. Law has a directive as well as compulsive force, true, but it is up to us as Christians to show by our whole manner of living what we hold dear, what we believe to be the right way of relating to God, people and the world around us. That applies to those of us who live in monasteries as much as to those who live in the world. To be honest and truthful will always be costly; to be prepared to stand up to bullies will always mean running the risk of a bloody nose or worse; but ultimately, trying to live by the standards of the Lord Jesus means we can sleep easy o' nights, because we shall be at peace with him and with ourselves. No confusion there.

Tantrums in Choir

Not quite what the headline promises, but a way of drawing attention to Benedict's little chapter on faults committed in the oratory. He is writing not only about carelessness in choir (which can indeed lead to tantrums!) but about pride in general and the difficulty many of us have in admitting we have made a mistake. It is easier to flounce out of the room, maintain a hard silence or utter what is intended as a withering remark than simply, humbly and gently admit that we might just conceivably, on this one single occasion, of course, have been (perhaps) a teensy-weensy-bit wrong.

St Clement of Rome

The memoria of St Clement which we celebrate today takes us back to the earliest days of the Church. Clement's Letter to the Corinthians is remarkable for its simplicity and directness, and for the fact that it is written in the name of Rome, urging the quarrelsome and rebellious Corinthians to mend their ways (obviously little had changed since the days of St Paul). The appeal for unity and peace is eloquent but there is also a hint that failure to respond adequately will not go unnoticed. Do we see here the germ of papal authority in action? Lightfoot thought so. There is also an interesting formula used of the Trinity, which looks back to Old Testament usage: "As the Lord lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives and the Holy Spirit lives". All these would be mere curiosities, fascinating to the scholar but of little interest to the average reader, were it not that the Letter to the Corinthians takes us back to the heroic age of the Church, to the martyrs of Nero and Domitian, some of whom are named in the text. It is rare that we come so close to them: we feel the menace under the surface of Roman life.

One has a similar feeling standing in the basilica of San Clemente. Above ground all is beauty: the mosaics are luminous, there is light and air and the incessant chatter of tour guides and their charges. Down below, in the gloom of the Mithraic shrine we touch a darker world altogether. From time to time we need to be reminded of that world because something of its darkness infects us all at times. I had not noticed until today that we read RB 44 on St Clement's feast. The ritualisation of making amends Benedict gives us in that chapter is powerful. So often we think a cursory "apology" will make up for a wound we have dealt another. Unfortunately, just because we have decided it is time to forgive doesn't necessarily mean the other thinks so, too. Benedict, like Clement, knew that it takes time to heal such injuries, but healed they must be because a wound left to fester will do untold damage to the Body of Christ. Peace may begin with a smile, but it is only a beginning.

Solemnity of Christ the King

Christ Pantocrator from Monreale, Italy
On this last Sunday of the Church's year, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. One suspects few now read Quas primas, Pius XI's 1925 encyclical establishing the feast and his reasons for doing so. The concept of the kingdom or reign of God and of the kingship of Christ was by no means novel, it is after all entirely scriptural in origin; but what was perhaps new was Pius XI's impassioned insistence that the evils under which the world was labouring were attributable to the fact that people had abandoned Jesus Christ and his holy law and that there could be no lasting peace unless individuals and nation states returned to what he called "the Empire of our Lord". For many today the language of kingship and empire is unacceptable, indeed outmoded. Does that mean that the theology underlying this feast is also outmoded? If we look at the preface for the day, we find a very clear exposition of the major themes:

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.

You anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son,
with the oil of gladness,
as the eternal priest and universal king.
As priest he offered his life on the altar of the cross
and redeemed the human race by this one perfect sacrifice of peace.
As king he claims dominion over all creation,
that he may present to you, his almighty Father,
an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven
we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise . . .

The kingship that we celebrate in this feast is a sacrificial kingship based on truth, holiness and grace, which makes possible for us a life of justice, love and peace. Can such a kingship ever be "outmoded"?

Reminder: all podcasts are now located on the podcast page.

Dies Memorabilis 2009

Dies Memorabilis, when we recall the transfer of all the rights and privileges of the pre-Reformation English Benedictine Congregation to its post-Reformation successor, the Church in general celebrates the Presentation of Our Lady and, excuse for a slightly better dinner than usual, Digitalnun keeps her Clothing anniversary. Here in Hendred we have no Mass, nor any realistic prospect of going to one elsewhere, although the Abbot of Downside will be celebrating Mass for the Newman Society in Oxford this evening and there are more R.C. priests in Oxford than anywhere else in Europe except Malta and the Vatican, or so we're told. Still, there's no use lamenting. There are many parts of the world where Mass is rarely possible, and we are very grateful to our monk friends who do their best to ensure that we can celebrate the Holy Mysteries as often as possible in our oratory.

Our relaunched veilshop has already sold a chasuble, which is very pleasing, and we have received a number of questions/suggestions for the next Virtual Chapter on 28 November. Some we shall probably hold over as it makes sense to group ideas according to general themes, but we'll see. In the meantime, SOMEONE is preparing a podcast for the Solemnity of Christ the King. As for me, at some point I think I shall allow myself half an hour with Catullus. Life in a monastery is not all duty. As Newman once remarked, it is the most poetic of pursuits, though I'm not sure what he would have made of my choice of recreational reading.

Moonlight and Mammon

Our friends at Moonlight Publishing have come up with a wonderful idea to help our audio book service for the blind and visually impaired. On Thursday, 3 December, from 3.00 p.m. until 7.30 p.m. they will be hosting a Christmas Children's Book Sale and Tea Party at the King's Manor, East Hendred, and sharing the proceeds with St Cecilia's Guild. If you don't already know their imaginative range of children's books for ages 1 to 12, Colophon advises you to go and have a look at their web site, www.moonlightpublishing.co.uk. You are sure to find something tempting for that special Little Person in your life, even if you can't make the journey to East Hendred.

More prosaically in the service of Mammon (no mulled wine or mince pies on offer, unlike at Moonlight Publishing), Veilshop has just been relaunched. We have only put a few items up for sale at the moment and are limiting shipping to the U.K. until we get round to that web site makeover which seems to be receding ever further into the future. If you encounter any problems with the shopping cart, please let us know. Even the most exhaustive testing sometimes seems to miss some snag or other.

Lest you think our thoughts are wholly this-worldly, on Wednesdays during Advent we shall be holding Advent Liturgy preparation sessions at 2.30 p.m. and again at 7.30 p.m. in the monastery library. We'll be looking at the Sunday Mass readings and prayers as a way of preparing for Christmas. As always, these sessions are open to anyone who wishes to come along and refreshments will be served. Please pass the word on to anyone you think would like to know about them. Advent is such an important season and passes so quickly that it's good to take a little time, if we can, to explore what the liturgy offers us.

Finally, advance notice that Vespers on Sunday 22 November will be said privately (i.e. not open to the public) as the prioress is off to Choral Evensong at St Peter's College, Oxford, where she has been invited to preach. References to dogs walking on hind legs will not be appreciated!

Vocation Questions

A sociologist of religion would find much to ponder in the questions that come to us via our "Ask Sister" vocation feature. Some are extremely thoughtful and show that the questioner is serious in her desire to know and understand. Trying to answer such questions isn't easy: we try to make sure we cover all the points as honestly and completely as we can. Other questions are more light-hearted or even deliberately provoking (this seems to be especially true of those sent in by men!): we answer those in kind. There are complicated canonical questions we refer on to those who can give an authoritative answer; quite basic questions about Christianity; intrusive questions about community members; and so on and so forth. Some people are looking for God; others are looking for a security that, frankly, monastic life cannot offer; others are looking for themselves, but don't yet know that. To all we try to respond, however inadequately.

Many ask why vocations seem to be few in England yet flourishing elsewhere, something we find difficult to answer since both call and response are gifts of God. (We who are monks and nuns might nevertheless ask ourselves some hard questions about our communities and whether we inspire others or simply live off a reputation from the past that is no longer valid). It can be quite informative to spend a little time looking at some of the web sites younger people turn to when they are thinking about vocation. Inevitably, there is interest in the more "accidental" features of monastic life: the form of the habit, photos/videos of profession ceremonies, descriptions of monastic practices (the odder the better) and views of buildings (the older the better, it seems: wonder if our gothick cellars qualify?). None of this is in the least bit unexpected or troubling. What is deeply troubling is the burden of debt so many young people seem to be under and which holds them back. Some communities are rich enough to be able to help but I suspect that most in this country aren't. Perhaps these are question for the wider Church in England: how much do we value religious life; what can we do to help those whom God calls? Is religious life now on the endangered list, and would it matter if it disappeared?

It would be interesting to know what you think.

In Praise of Caxton

Caxton's Dictes: colophon

On this day in 1477 William Caxton issued the first book in English actually printed in England, or so we believe. It was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers) translated from the French by Anthony Rivers, second Earl Rivers, a learned man and brother-in-law of Edward IV, beheaded in 1483 by the future Richard III. The colophon (detail illustrated above) is fascinating. It shows type trying to look like handwriting but with some ugly word spacing and contrasting weights of letter-forms. Having said that, the page is remarkably evenly inked, while the use of punctuation (a Cistercian innovation of some centuries earlier) makes the text easy to read. No wonder many in Westminster were deeply worried about this new technology. It was to have a great future. You wouldn't be reading this if it hadn't.

One of the developments of Web 2.0 we particularly welcome here at Hendred is the renewed interest in typography, specifically typography for onscreen use. Our current site is typographically merely "functional" but there are many examples of really beautiful work on the web which is quietly raising standards. Sadly, many people are happy to stick to Arial (probably the worst typeface ever designed in our unprejudiced view) or Times (an excellent typeface, but over-used) or "don't see what all the fuss is about". It is the latter which sends Digitalnun into despondency. If you want to know why, read Beatrice Warde's little gem on the importance of typography, The Crystal Goblet. It will open your eyes.

St Gertrude of Helfta

Colophon probably said all it wants to say about St Gertrude in 2007 (under her universal feast day, 16 November); but St Edmund of Abingdon pushed her out of the calendar yesterday, so we are keeping her feast on the anniversary of her death, which seems appropriate given that popular piety associates her with a prayer for souls in purgatory rather than anything else. Personally, I find the idea of a Benedictine nun "suffering a conversion" rather enchanting, and while I take a very British attitude to the revelations and raptures, which, to be fair, embarrassed Gertrude herself so much that she begged God to allow no outward manifestation of the graces he bestowed, her love of learning and graceful Latin style warm the cockles of my heart. Her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is well-known. Less well-known is her influence on St Teresa of Avila, Yepez and other great Carmelites or the fact that she is Patron Saint of the West Indies. She died at the age of forty-five or six, still marvelling that God had allowed so sinful a creature as herself to live on earth.

That last sentence shows how different some saints are from ourselves. We are very conscious of our rights, of our dignity. We react with outrage if those rights are infringed (it may help if a tabloid comes along to record our outrage, but not all are so "lucky"). Nothing wrong with that, of course, until we look at our Lord Jesus Christ and mark the dignity of the Man of Sorrows. Then we can begin to feel uncomfortable, feel that we are strutting about like the proverbial cock on a dunghill. It is difficult to combine modesty about ourselves with a proper sense of our own worth as children of God, created in his image and likeness. St Gertrude was shaped and formed by the Rule of St Benedict, and I think her sense of herself as simultaneously the worst of sinners yet redeemed by grace is attributable to her having absorbed the Rule's teaching on humility. Only the truly humble can keep the two in tension. Like Luther, she knew herself to be simul pecctor et iustus, or as Hopkins put it
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
    Is immortal diamond.

Coal and diamond are both forms of carbon. I wonder which you and I are, don't you?

Washday Blues

Monday is washday in the monastery and it is raining. I suppose we ought to be downcast, but we aren't. It reminds me of the effect that laundry blue used to have on our grandmothers' washing. It seemed to make the whites glow more whitely and was especially noticeable on a grey day. Perhaps that is why one notices the cheerful faces of the community: the contrast with the weather is so marked.

Where does the cheerfulness come from? I'd like to think it stems from a sense of purpose, from a lively faith, a warm charity and a genuine hope. I suspect it may also have something to do with the prospect of a nice, quiet monastic Mass for St Edmund of Abingdon (co-patron of our diocese) and a decent dinner afterwards! We are not angels yet. Of course, we also have some unexpected blessings to smile about. Yesterday, coming out of Mass, a parishioner gave me an envelope. Inside was a very generous donation towards our work for the blind and visually impaired. That means a lot to us because keeping St Cecilia's going as a free service is high on our list of priorities but we have faced completely empty coffers before now. People tend to assume that all religious communities are well-off. If we were, I think we'd be a different kind of community, but I hope we come some way towards realising Benedict's ideal of the monk as one who "lives by the work of his hands as our fathers and the apostles did". That is not to downplay the importance of the help we receive from friends and benefactors, far from it, but it can be comforting to others to know that the community faces similar challenges to everyone else.

So, washday blues are not part of the agenda for today, or any day for that matter.

Special Gifts

Lucerna Pedibus Meis by Martin Wenham

Sunday is always special in a monastery, the gift of a day which has its own unique character. Although in one sense we are busier than ever, with a more elaborate liturgy and a commitment to more prayer and reading than on ferias, there is a silence and spaciousness about Sunday which is a valuable corrective to the rush and racket of the rest of the week. Visitors often drop in, and somehow there is always time to share a cup of tea or coffee with them, even if the cook is going quietly demented in the kitchen and the dog is indicating that he wants some "me time" out on the Downs.

Yesterday I spent a few moments looking at a special gift we received earlier this year. When we began planning our guest room, we asked our good friend Martin Wenham if we could commission him to do a painting. (if you take to heart what Benedict says about treating guests as though Christ, you will understand that only the best is good enough. Add to that the prioress's inconvenient and potentially expensive preference for original works of art over Catholic kitsch, and you'll see we couldn't put just anything on the wall.) Typically, Martin produced a painting which he simply gave to the community. The reproduction above does not do it justice. It shimmers and shines as the light changes and is a beautiful reminder of the friendships God brings into our lives to enrich and sustain them.

Today we shall receive another special gift. "Someone else" is doing the cooking, and she-who-cooks-Sunday-lunch every week in the interval between Mass and Midday Office is sending up unseasonal "alleluias" as she contemplates all that she will do, or rather not do, with the time this generous act of a friend will give her.

Gifts don't have to be complicated to be special. They don't have to be huge or expensive, though they always cost the giver something. One of the gifts I remember best may strike you as a mere nothing, although the memory of it has stayed with me for years. I was working late in a University Library on a sweltering hot summer's day and the Librarian looked exhausted. As I returned a book and thanked her, she gave a brilliant smile. A smile like that can only come from the pure in heart, from those who see God and reverence Him in others. "Smile Sunday" anyone?

This week's prayer podcast will be found in its new position on the Podcast page. There is also another talk on the Talks page, by Dr Annette Goulden OCDS on St Thérèse of Lisieux.


Virtual Chapter Update

Very many thanks to all who took part in yesterday's Virtual Chapter and to those tried to but were defeated by the TalkShoe™ installation process. Digitalnun has prepared an informal guide with screenshots which you can download from the sidebar: just click on the PDF icon. We suggest that you try out the software by listening in to another talkshow on the TalkShoe site. We've found that it works quite well: the wind here was gusting terribly throughout yesterday's recording but there wasn't too much degradation of audio quality. On a good day the quality is excellent.

If anyone wishes to hear how our first experiment went, you can listen again by clicking on the widget in the sidebar here or the one on the podcast page.

The echo effect you can hear at times was caused by one of our participants having set his output volumes a little high, but that is easily remedied. There was more use of the chat option than is likely to be the case in future (we were trying to help people get online), hence some of the silences. All we need now is some feedback and questions/ideas/suggestions for any future events. Thank you to those who have already given encouragement. We were very apprehensive!

Now Saturday can be a "normal" day. One wonders what it will hold. Scroll down to comment . . .

All Benedictine Saints 2009

St Benedict, Father of Westrern MonasticismDorothy Day, Servant of God and Benedictine Oblate

Salve festa dies! Rather a lot of people to celebrate today, from St Benedict himself, Father of Western Monasticism, to Dorothy Day, Benedictine Oblate and Servant of God. (Before anyone asks, the stages of canonisation, or official proclamation as a saint in the Catholic Church, go Servant of God–Venerable–Blessed–Saint).

One of the things I like about Dorothy Day is the fact that she was so honest: about her life ("Don't call me a saint – I don't want to be dismissed that easily"), her temper ("I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life"), and God ("If I have accomplished anything in my life, it is because I wasn't embarrassed to talk about God"). She was certainly never held back by embarrassment in any sphere, and thank God for that. She was prickly and prophetic, utterly centred on Christ.

Honesty is very closely linked to the humility St Benedict saw as the foundation of monastic living. It isn't easy to be honest. Most of us make all sorts of accommodations and compromises to shield ourselves from the truth, even though we know, deep down, that letting the Light into our lives is the only way to freedom and peace. St Benedict urges us everyday to open our eyes to the light that comes from God. Isn't it encouraging that we have so many men and women as different as Benedict and Dorothy to show us the way?

News and Views

Yesterday afternoon we learned that D. Maria Boulding of Stanbrook had died after a long and painful illness. She will be known to many for her books and articles, but we think of her primarily as the person we knew in community, including the years she lived as a hermit on the Welsh/Herefordshire borders: prayerful, delighting in nature and her dog, Bryn, blessed with a keen intelligence and a singularly beautiful speaking voice. Please pray for her and the community which has now suffered two deaths in a comparatively short time. Later today we shall be singing a Dirge for her, that magnificent collection of psalms and prayers which affirms our belief in the triumph of Life over Death even as we ask for mercy and forgiveness.

The Virtual Chapter
What is a Chapter? some have asked. Chapter is the name given to a meeting of the monastic community. Usually, as tomorrow, there is some form of input such as a reading from the Rule of St Benedict followed by a short talk from the superior, then a discussion, which may or may not be linked to the input. The kind of things discussed vary enormously: business matters, the admission of candidates to community, liturgy, discipline, anything that affects the material and spiritual well-being of the community. Some of our own chapters have been about the way in which we should use the internet and the limits to our involvement. Tomorrow, it's largely up to you, the participants, what we discuss.

To take part you will need:
  • Headphones for listening (or turn the volume of your speakers up)
  • A microphone for talking (if you have a Mac you can use the built-in one)
To connect:
We recommend that you use VOIP to connect so that you do not incur call charges. The simplest, surest way of doing this is to download the TalkShoe Live™ software and use the integrated ShoePhone application to connect (the blue button below the purple one). However, it is not absolutely necessary.

Blind leading the blind:

To begin with, you'll find that you are "muted", i.e. you won't immediately be able to talk. That will give us time to welcome you, and you time to explore the TalkShoe™interface if you are unfamiliar with teleconferencing. After the introductory talk, you'll be invited to speak. We'll guide you through the process if you need any help (that's the blind leading the blind bit). Then it's over to you. Digitalnun will try to ensure we don't all speak at once but please be patient as she is a novice at this kind of thing and will probably get muddled, poor old thing (Mouse, you have much to answer for).

If you miss the Chapter:
If you miss the Chapter, you'll be able to listen afterwards as it will be recorded. Just click on the widget again and you will be able to hear the recording.

A shared Cloister:
We have it in mind to hold a number of themed sessions on vocation, liturgy, prayer and so on but we'd really like feedback so that we can work on what might be genuinely useful. We also want to keep things simple and low cost. If you find tomorrow's session worthwhile, please spread the word. Spreading the Word being, of course, what it's really all about.

Meandering Thoughts

A day beloved of all monastics (horrible word!), the feast of St Martin of Tours, pioneer of monastic living in the west, but also the ninety-first anniversary of Armistice Day, the first on which there will be no survivors of the First World War to remind us of the horror and waste of that conflict. St Benedict gives us a chapter of the Rule (34) in which he spells out how the ban on private ownership is to be worked out in the monastery: we are to have what we need, not what we want or think we need. Perhaps it's my quirky apology for a brain, or the fact that I live with such generous and inspiring people as the community here, that makes me find a connecting thread in that tension between need and desire, the sacrificing of self for the good of others.

Martin was an ascetic. In fact, even his contemporaries sometimes wondered whether his tendency to have visions was the result of overlong fasts; but he was a man of deep and genuine compassion, always ready to emerge from his solitude to plead the cause of his people or come to their aid. He understood very well that his monastic retirement was not for himself alone. His ability to live on very little taught him to be aware of the need in others.

At 11 o'clock this morning we shall be remembering the causes of the First World War, and how the seeds of the Second were sown in the punitive settlement that ended it. The desire to make Germany pay meant that, ultimately, everyone paid. Perhaps there is a message here for all who exercise power. Conflicts begin because we want something we don't have but think we have a right to, and they go on because we forget that winning is not the whole story. A wilderness is not peace. Sometimes sacrificing "victory" is the best way to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

And what of Benedict, the man of peace? The Benedictine motto is the word peace (pax) surrounded by a crown of thorns. It reminds us that peace is a struggle, that it requires a daily renunciation of all that is not peace, of the disordered desires that so often make us unhappy. Above all, I think it reminds us that for a Christian peace can only be attained through union with the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, who "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, assuming the condition of a slave". And all for love of us.

Anglicanorum Coetibus

No time to do more yesterday than post a link to the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. If you haven't read it yet, you will find it in English here. (Link opens in new window). My first thought was, this is the fulfilment of the old prayer we used to say at Benediction and which as a child I prayed with great fervour since all my favourite family members were Anglican:

O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England, thy dowry, and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee. By thee it was that Jesus, our Saviour and our hope, was given unto the world; and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more. Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the cross, O Sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold, they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith, fruitful in good works, we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee in our heavenly home. Amen.


My second thought was, this is a generous document and I hope it will be received as such.

The preamble is important because it sets out very clearly that the papal offer is made in response to a perceived pastoral need; the pope's concern is, as always, for the unity of the Church. This is his solemn duty. Throughout the document there is an awareness that the Catholic Church does not act apart from the Orthodox in certain matters, a point worth making because some developments in other churches have been made in isolation, thus calling in question their understanding of the nature and practice of authority. There is clarity also about the Catechism of the Catholic Church being the authoritative statement of the Church's faith, while the Ordinariates are placed under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This will reassure those who have been worried by some of the wilder speculations we have read recently. Reassuring, too, will be the statement that former Catholic priests who left to exercise ministry as Anglicans will not be eligible for reinstatement as Catholic priests in the new Ordinariates.

The arrangements for priestly formation, for liturgical continuity, for religious communities and so on are generous and repay careful study. There will be much picking over the details, especially as regards the admission of married men and the permission now given for priests to have secular jobs in order to support their families, rather as Anglican non-stipendiaries currently do and as Catholic "Worker Priests" used to do. Unspoken here is the recognition that should large numbers of Anglican clergy choose to become Catholics, there isn't enough money to support them and their families in a decent manner.

As one might expect, the relations between the Ordinariates and the Bishops' Conferences are given several paragraphs. There are some real surprises here. The principle that bishops should be unmarried is maintained but married former Anglican bishops are, apparently, to be allowed to attend meetings of the relevant Bishops' Conference (where they will be accorded the status of retired bishops) and, if they so petition, allowed to use episcopal insignia (pectoral cross, ring, etc.) As a lapsed medievalist, I can see plenty of scope here for ecclesiological wrangling. Indeed, one of the questions I keep coming back to is, what is a bishop, what is his function in the Church? I hope I won't give offence if I say that the concept of the "flying bishop" has always been troubling to me (for theological rather than pastoral reasons, which I understand), while the use of episcopal insignia by one who is not regarded as a bishop I find confusing. Perhaps the concept of the "mitred prelate" is a valid analogy.

Anyway, I am sure that there is already masses of comment much better informed than Colophon's. We must continue to pray because no matter how good everyone's intentions are, no matter how hopeful everyone is that we will all obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the human cost will be huge. I notice that the Apostolic Constitution was signed on the feast of St Carlo Borromeo and issued on the feast of the Lateran Basilica, anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall came down. Significant?

Virtual Chapter

Two little changes to start the working week. First, we've noticed a number of people using translation services to read this blog. To make things a little easier, we are now experimenting with a Google™Translate widget which will provide a rough and ready translation in several languages. Try it and see! The results can be more exciting than the original post.

Virtual Chapter
Secondly, at 4.00 p.m. GMT on Friday, 13 November, God willing, we shall be hosting our first Virtual Chapter using TalkShoe™, a teleconferencing service based in the U.S.A. There will be a short talk from the prioress on the feast of the day (All Benedictine Saints), followed by an opportunity for discussion. As this is our first attempt at a Virtual Chapter, please bear with us as we struggle to master the technology and hit the right buttons. Digitalnun will be quite ruthless about muting anyone who tries to hog the conversation or causes annoyance to others, but if all goes as we hope we'll certainly introduce more online sessions.

How to take part
There are two main ways of taking part over the internet using VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) so that you do not incur the expense of a telephone call to Pittsburgh.

(1) If you wish only to listen/use the live text facility (which allows you to type your comments in real time), you can click on the TalkShoe badge in the sidebar of this blog to connect over the internet or you can paste this link into your browser http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/69374. (2) If you wish not only to listen/text but also to talk, you should (preferably) first download the TalkShoe Live software (which is free) and follow the instructions for installing it on your computer (Mac or Windows) then make use of the integrated ShoePhone application to join in.

If you don't want to use VOIP, you can, of course, use an ordinary landline or mobile to connect, but please check call charges before you do so as we wouldn't want anyone to incur an unexpected telephone bill. You would need to telephone the U.S.A. (724) 444-7444 and add the call series ID which is 69374.

TalkShoe™ Software
You can read more about TalkShoe and download TalkShoe Live software here. A guide to taking part will be posted the day before the Virtual Chapter in case anyone is still confused.

Prayer Podcast
There is no podcast this week but when the series resumes, the link will be found on the Podcast page, not Colophon. We need a more logical grouping of media files. At present our site reflects the fact that, like Topsy, it "just growed", and as we add more content navigation becomes more complex. Not a good idea!

Remembrance Sunday 2009

Poppies in FlandersThe sound of half-muffled bells from Worcester Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday is always evocative and brings back memories of snatches heard across the water meadows. It is one of the few days in the year when all fifteen bells are rung and those who know about such things get terribly excited about musical tenths. For us, it is simply part of the sound of Remembrance Sunday, along with blood-red poppies and the moving sight of former servicemen and women laying wreaths in memory of the fallen. This year hearts will be heavy with the knowledge that loss of life continues. The Great War to end all Wars ushered in another, and many have followed since.

Have you ever asked yourself what is going on during the Two Minutes' Silence? Many will be thinking about family members or comrades they have lost, or the pity and horror of war in general; others will be praying for all who have died in war and for those who grieve or suffer as a result; others again will be asking God to guide us into the ways of peace. But what will God be praying? If the question startles, consider. When we pray, we tend to concentrate on our part in the prayer and forget God's. We cry out to him readily enough in moments of sorrow and distress but how rarely do we hear God crying out to us? We are not good at listening, still less good at acting on what we hear because we know that what God says may challenge us in ways we would rather not be challenged.

Today is not only Remembrance Sunday, it is also the anniversary of Enniskillin. Those of us who remember that horror were deeply impressed by Gordon Wilson's willingness to forgive the brutal murder of his daughter. Wasn't that an example of someone listening to God's prayer and responding with a generosity most of us could never match? Perhaps this morning during the Two Minutes' Silence we could humbly await God's word rather than filling the silence with our own clamour. He knows and understands our need, and only he can turn our hearts to better things. If our prayer is powerful with God, shouldn't his prayer be even more powerful with us?.

Day of Recollection

We have the local branch of the C.W.L. coming here today for a Day of Recollection. We are always very edified by their kindness and zeal. More often than not, we find teams of them using some of their precious free time to help out with the washing-up or perform other apparently small but valuable acts of service during the day. It is a reminder to us as a community of the importance of detail in monastic life. As Cassian remarked, "If you just remove a little dust from the oratory for the love of God, you will not be without your reward."

Now, there's a very interesting phrase in that sentence quoted above: if you "just". How often do we hear "if you just" or "could/couldn't you just" and know that we are in for something the speaker either does not realise, or is not willing to admit, will be anything but "just"? In the practical sphere it may be something like, "Well, couldn't you just fit these 3 pages of closely written A3 sheets into an A5 flyer for me?" Answer, "Yes, if we may delete at least 95% of what you have written" which usually leads to a wobbly. Or, discussing the manifest deficiencies of another, "I don't see why he doesn't just . . . .", when it must be perfectly obvious why he doesn't "just" whatever.

It all becomes more serious when it is God who is "just" asking something of us. One sees it in monastic life. People give up all the big things — marriage, family, career — then stumble over something as small and inconsiderable as being required to eat one kind of food when they prefer another. Of course, it is not God who is asking this directly of the monk or nun; but living a common life is part of our response to God's invitation to become a monk or nun. It is quite easy to opt out of the common life, to make little accommodations that gradually whittle away the substance of what we have vowed. If we "just" do this or that it may not amount to much in our own eyes, but when it comes to evaluating something we need to look with God's eyes, not our own. Most of us are not called to do great and glorious things for the love of God, we are "just" called to get on with the business of everyday, and do whatever it is we have to do with love and fidelity. The ladies of the C.W.L. are a wonderful example of "just" being good Catholics. A reminder, if we need one, that life and death, heaven and hell, can all turn on that little word, "just".

(N.B. We don't know why comments are disappearing from this blog: the problem seems to be with JS-Kit as others have reported the same. We'll investigate.)

Bonfire Night

We are rather hoping that the local pub will be having a firework display this evening. The monastery is such a tall building that it is quite easy to walk along the upper corridor and accidentally on purpose linger by one of the windows to watch the fun. There is something very reassuring about 5 November, when all good Catholics cheerfully ignore the burning of papal guys down in Lewes and indulge in nostalgia for bygone days.

Of course, we are in the heart of Thames Valley Recusant country here. From our terrace one can look across to the medieval chapel of the Eyston family which has never been out of Catholic hands since it was built in 1256. Mapledurham, Milton, Stonor, all are within a short distance, while Campion and Challoner are names to conjure with for their local associations as well as their place in history. I mention this because one of the more amusing aspects of recent comments on the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution (thank heavens for some light relief amid the turmoil) is the belief that Catholics in this country have no history, or at any rate, none worth talking about. On the contrary, we have an interesting history, shadowy in parts it is true, but fascinating to those who can identify with it. Digitalnun was regaling us with the darker side of her family's activities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apparently, they stuck to their guns (those who know Digitalnun will understand that it's in the genes) and had some slightly dodgy characters like John the Monk (an ex-monk of Canterbury, pensioned off after the Dissolution) among their number, but then made the fatal mistake of meddling with politics. You can guess the rest.

Colophon does not advocate the view that the Church should steer clear of politics. On the contrary, the Church must necessarily be engaged wherever people are. It will always be difficult to decide how that engagement should be worked out and mistakes are bound to occur, but today we can salute all those who, at various times and in various ways, have tried to make the world a better place through their political service. Guy Fawkes' solution isn't one that appeals to us nowadays, especially since we have become all too familiar with the use of terror and murder as political weapons, so perhaps we might spare a grateful thought for those whose quiet integrity gives the lie to the belief that politicians are universally corrupt. Remember what ten just men might achieve and pray for all our politicians.


Supernun

Digitalnun is having a crisis. Not a big crisis, you understand. No terrible internal debate about questions of faith or morals, no sudden onset of doubt about the value of monastic life; not even a niggle about The Purpose of the Universe. No, Digitalnun is wondering whether she should let others into her Dark Secret. She is not Supernun. There, it's out! And the moon is still silvery in the sky, the dog is still chasing rabbits in his sleep, and the world has not fallen into a Black Hole.

By the time we have reached a certain age, most of us suffer from various delusions, one of the most deadly (literally) being that we must always say "yes". This affects Christians of all kinds, and is especially prevalent among the clergy and members of religious communities. It is easy to see why. We so want to be always ready to do the will of God and devote much time and effort to trying to discern what He is asking. We know He often speaks through those with whom we come into contact so we are always on the alert. Those of us who have "signed up" to an obviously full-time commitment often allow a very human element of guilt to creep in when faced with demands that tax our strength. Are we doing enough? Dare we say "no"? The problem is that we cannot always handle the reactions of others if we do say "no". We can be imprisoned by fear, and that is quite the opposite of the freedom love confers. A cowardly "yes" is morally no different from a cowardly "no": it just sounds better. And we all like to be liked.

So, Digitalnun, who is not Supernun, has a proposal to make. Let's make today a day on which we all take stock, not of the demands we make on others nor of the demands others make on us, but of the demands we make on ourselves. How far are they consistent with what we are called to be? Are they really a covert source of pride? Little tin fig leaves we create for ourselves which ultimately are rather ridiculous.

All Souls

All Saints would be incomplete without All Souls: the Church is one and transcends time, space and the limitations of mortality. I am looking forward to Mass this morning. We ran over the chants just before Vespers last night and the juxtaposition proved very helpful. For Catholics November is a month which confronts us with the fact of death at every turn. After All Souls we have four weeks popularly dedicated to praying for the souls in purgatory; our monastic calendar has commemorations for deceased friends and benefactors as well as deceased members of the monastic order. It is all so counter-cultural. Only a few days ago we read of the possibility of centenarians having the bodies of fifty-year olds. Why should anyone want that (unless, of course, we are all feverishly working until 100+ to pay off the enormous debt we have all incurred, courtesy of current economic policy)? Many people are afraid of death, or at least of dying. It is common to entrust the last offices to undertakers, then construct funeral services which try to avoid all mention of death, sometimes lapsing into an embarrassed "celebration" of something, certainly someone, that never was. Perhaps that is why unacknowledged grief, the sheer impossibility of grieving in our society, wreaks so much havoc. A stiff upper lip needs a wobbly lower one if we are to remain human. Happily, in the monastery we are much more matter-of-fact about death and the business of dying. We prepare our dead for burial ourselves, and the Requiem Mass and funeral rites speak of hope and penitence, joy and sorrrow in equal measure. If we live by the mercy of God, do we not also die by His mercy, too? That is, I trust, a comfortable thought for the morning of All Souls.

All Saints

Last Judgement by Fra Angelico

One picture is worth a thousand words, although, of course, it takes words to say that. So, here is a a favourite Fra Angelico and a podcast about the Solemnities of All Saints and All Souls.

Of Saints, Spooks and Serendipity

November is a festive month. The long dark nights are illumined by little sparkles of joy and thanksgiving. We begin with the great feasts of All Saints and All Souls, a wonderful celebration of the whole Church, both here on earth (the Church militant), nearly there (the Church being prepared in purgatory for the joy of heaven) and already enjoying that for which we long (the Church triumphant in heaven); on 13 November we shall celebrate All Benedictine Saints and there are a number of lesser celebrations in between which will provide opportunities to pray for dead members of our families and communities. If you've lived in southern Europe, you'll understand the wistfulness affecting some of the community. Southern Europe understands the link between the living and the dead: lights and flowers will adorn the graves of the beloved dead, while prayers and partying will go together. It will be warm and human, and the divine will be welcomed in an uncomplicated and direct way. Our cold northern obsession with spooks seems quite literally soulless by comparison. Fortunately, First Vespers of All Saints will be a splendid beginning to two days of liturgical exuberance.

So where does the serendipity come in? Think communication, think Church, saints in heaven, saints on earth . . . the song of the saints . . . Are you with us yet? Here's a clue. Regular readers know we intend to make changes to this site. This will be the last week-end that the weekly podcast will be linked to the blog page (we're hoping our oldest nun will do the podcast this week but she doesn't know she's being asked yet, so please don't let her know). The podcast is moving because we have a great new feature we are hoping to introduce in November: the virtual Chapter. This will give anyone who wishes an opportunity to listen via VOIP (i.e. via their computers, no call charges) to a live talk from one of the community followed by a live discussion over the ether: an opportunity to visit the monastery without actually making the journey. Initial tests have been encouraging so we have tentatively scheduled the first Chapter for the afternoon of 13 November (All Benedictine Saints). We are allowing fifteen minutes for the first session and will see how it goes. All you need to take part is a computer with internet connection, speakers or headphones (i.e. some way of listening), and if you want to take part in the discussion, an inbuilt microphone or one you can hook up to your computer. Full details will be posted; if no-one joins us, it won't matter because as everyone knows, contemplative nuns can talk the hind legs off the proverbial donkey given half a chance.

In the meantime, may you all have a blessed time celebrating what God has done in and for His people. Pray for the lonely, the bereaved and those who may find some aspects of this week-end a little frightening. "Cliffs of fall. . . hold them cheap who ne'er hung there". (A lazy misquote, but you get the drift.)

The Penal Code in RB

Today we begin reading Benedict's chapters on how to deal with those who offend in some way against the community and/or the monastic way of life (not always the same thing). The list of faults begins with insubordination, then makes its way through disobedience, pride, grumbling, despising the Rule and contempt for the orders of senior members of the community. We could turn the list on its head and say that the very qualities Benedict seems suspicious of are qualities our society rather admires: independence of mind and action, a sense of self-worth, a critical attitude, freedom from convention ("pettyfogging little rules") and a healthy disregard for the Old Guard and its outmoded opinions. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Read RB 23 again. What Benedict is actually addressing is the tendency in each one of us to forget that we are not the centre of creation, to make ourselves separate and special at the expense of others. Whether we like it or no, we have to live with other people and that means accommodating ourselves to the needs of the group (family, community, organization or what you will). The faults Benedict lists spiral outwards from the interior to the exterior, from attitudes to concrete actions. He sees this as a kind of spiritual malaise which throws us off-balance. His approach to bringing us back to our senses is graduated: a private warning, followed by a public rebuke if that doesn't work; then excommunication from meals or prayer in common or, if we are really thick, some form of corporal punishment (in the sixth century, usually a fast or strokes of the rod: nowadays this is NOT practised!). Perhaps the message for us today is to think about our membership of the various bodies to which we belong, how we build them up, how we weaken them and what we should do about both.

Cloister Updates

St Therese of Lisieux

Excellent talk on St Thérèse by Annette Goulden last night. We'll be putting it up on our Talks page once we've been through the recording. As a Child Psychiatrist, Annette made a good case for Thérèse's having survived what was, by any standards, an extraordinary childhood to become a woman of rare confidence and courage, far removed from the sickly-sweet "Little Flower" of popular myth. Another group expected today and more people at the week-end, so the kitchen is piled with dishes waiting to be cooked or frozen as appropriate. Next week-end we have a group wanting a day on Hildegarde of Bingen so we have elected the prioress to give a talk on her. The news was greeted with a dangerously "blotting-paper" look, so we wonder what we have let ourselves in for. The new choir psalters are proving a success: much better layout and printing than heretofore, although the paper is not all it might be. The garden is still full of colour, which is a joy, and last Sunday's short talks after Mass on the work of St Cecilia's have resulted in some generous offers of help. More about that at a later date. So, life continues as usual, with various activities going on in different parts of the monastery, all held together and given coherence by the regular round of prayer and worship largely unseen (or not adverted to) by those outside the cloister. Thérèse wanted to be love at the heart of the Church. Perhaps for a Benedictine it is a case of wanting to be love and praise at the heart of the Church.

A Death A Minute

I was preparing to say something about RB19 and mindfulness of God when I came across the above statistic. It refers not to death from war or starvation but to death in childbirth, and the shocking truth is that "maternal mortality rates" (brutal phrase) are amazingly high in the U.S.A., the richest country in the world. Why should that be? We tend to assume that poverty, malnutrition and lack of basic hygiene are the biggest contributors to death, but that scarcely applies to First World countries. No doubt we shall be hearing more about causes and possible solutions as the week unfolds (the BBC promises to give attention to the subject) but it made me rethink today's posting on the Rule.

To talk about the discipline of psalmody might seem like evidence of an arcane and distant spirituality, a sign that the Church, or at least the monastic part of the Church, is far removed from the realities of life. Perversely perhaps, I think the opposite is true. One does not enter a monastery to flee the world's problems but to embrace them at the deepest possible level and bring them to God in prayer. For a Benedictine, the psalmody of the Divine Office prayed hour by hour, day by day, week in, week out, is the context in which this prayer is articulated by the Holy Spirit and taken up into the great High Priestly prayer of Jesus Christ. The psalter reflects so many moods and concerns, including our moments of doubt and rebellion, bewilderment and pain. Yesterday evening, when news of the Baghdad bombs had reached us, the psalms of Compline with their infinite trust in the goodness of God were the prayer we most wanted to utter. Evil cannot ultimately triumph. Death is not the end of the story. The eternal God is our dwelling-place and underneath are the everlasting arms.

No podcast this week as Digitalnun has nothing to say and the rest of the community is "unavailable for comment".

Fear of Rome

The view from St Peter's, Rome
The last few days have been thought-provoking for those who believe in both freedom of speech and what our grandmothers would have called "civilized behaviour". At the risk of sounding hopelessly fuddy-duddy, I must admit I don't believe that everything one thinks or feels should be expressed, especially if hurtful to others; nor should the way in which it is expressed intentionally give offence. I presume everyone with any heart or brains deplores the antics of the BNP, but the rumpus over Nick Griffin's appearance on "Question Time" (which, being TV-free, we did not see) seems equally deplorable to me. Similarly, many of the comments on the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution and the questions now facing many Anglicans have been, to say the least, ill-judged and wounding. We have returned to the polemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but without the magnificent language in which insults were then traded. It makes one wonder what we Christians really do believe if we treat one another so badly. Perhaps I should take Colophon's advice and devote myself entirely to prayer and reflection, but there is one point on which it may be possible to say something constructive. My remarks concern the situation in England where Anglicans greatly outnumber Catholics and the Church of England is the Established Church.

A major strand running through both Anglican and Catholic reactions in this country has been fear of Rome and what she is "really" doing. We have had talk of "poaching" and "undermining", righteous anger, unholy glee, and everything in between. One has sympathy with those who feel the announcement was made in an awkward way, but would the timing and manner of such an announcement ever have been "right"? The simple view, that the pope has taken at face value the requests made to him and responded by saying, "Very well, we will welcome you Anglicans into Full Communion, if you wish, and allow you to retain many elements of your spiritual tradition" is too simple for most. Some Anglicans who have dreamed of this for years are, now the offer has been made, asking themselves whether it is what they wish after all (I base this assertion on responses from a few of my own Anglican friends). Some Catholics are quietly uneasy about how an influx of former Anglicans would change the complexion of the Catholic Church in England. Others are wondering whether all those considering the pope's offer are aware that plurality in liturgical and disciplinary matters does not extend to doctrine. The novelty of the canonical structures the pope has proposed has taken everyone by surprise, yet I would argue that it is the most hopeful and reassuring element in the whole mix.

The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a top-down organization, rigidly hierarchical. I have to say, from my own experience, that it is not. Every Catholic has the right of recourse to Rome. It isn't a question of going through endless bureaucratic channels: it is direct and immediate. A few years ago, when faced with a difficult question of conscience, I went to Rome to ask advice. The Prefect and officials of the Congregation I consulted were immensely helpful and thanks to their innovative approach, the outcome was positive. The whole process showed me a very human side of the Church, of people anxious to help others, prepared to create new structures to meet new situations, a welcome sidelight on the pastoral concern that underlies canon law. Benedict XVI's pontificate has demonstrated a similar willingness to respond to pastoral needs with new canonical solutions. Some have not been an unalloyed success, witness the continuing difficulties with the SSPX, but they make one hope that the working out of the pope's proposal will be more acceptable to all than may now appear. At least, I think we can expect a degree of humanity and kindness that, sadly, has not always characterized the doings of the Catholic Church, or any other for that matter.

None of this takes away from the fact that situation at the moment is troubled and troubling. Prayer and reflection are indeed needed. Happily, this is the Lord's Day, and of one thing we can be sure: Christians everywhere, of whatever tradition, will be seeking God's guidance in all their undertakings.

A Plodding Perseverance

Here we are, half way through RB 18, On the Order in Which the Psalms are to be Said (not the most electrifying chapter), on the eve of the Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (not the most exciting celebration), with only the prospect of the clocks going back tonight to cheer the incipient gloom. Welcome to the joys of a plodding perseverance! Joy may be a bit of an overstatement, reminiscent of those relentlessly enthusiastic ambassadors for Christ who make one feel weak and wobbly in faith the moment thy ask, "Are you saved?" (Truthful answer, I don't know, I rely on the merits of my Saviour, but I haven't finally persevered yet.)

Perseverance is something Benedictines like to think they are good at doing. Indeed, every time a novice is formally questioned about her willingness to continue in the monastery, the ceremony is known as "The Novice's Perseverance". She has to ask permission to persevere, and it is only granted after she has received a little talk about the dura et aspera, the hard and difficult ways through which we go to God, usually made more memorable by a few observations about how the novice might pull her monastic socks up.

Plodding and perseverance seem to go together. We misprize them at our peril. Think for a moment how much of life would grind to a halt if we couldn't take for granted the fact that water will flow from our taps, electricity at the flick of a switch. We rely on others getting on with their jobs, day after day, and only become aware of how much we rely on them when something goes wrong (as with the postal strikes now). And let's not forget our families, friends and communities, the people to whom we behave the worst and who ultimately treat us the best (even when they are being maddening), simply because they acknowledge their connection with us. Every Benedictine I know prays daily for the grace of perseverance. It may not be something we think about very often, but it is not to be taken for granted.

Blogging Nuns

Yesterday we had quite a lot of questions via our Ask Sister! feature on the Vocation page. Most will receive a personal and specific answer, but the question "why do nuns blog" may interest those who have wandered into Colophon from another part of the net. We'll let Digitalnun give the answers — for now.

Q. Why do nuns blog? Is it because they live a largely silent life, so blogging allows some self-expression that might otherwise be unavailable?
Digitalnun: Possibly, especially if one isn't a superior and therefore able to regale the community with one's views on a regular basis! Blogging is also very suited to short reflections. Colophon readers know that our blog doesn't happen if the community is busy with something else. It's important as a means of sharing our life, but it isn't a priority. We blog in the hope of interesting/being helpful to others but the views expressed can be highly individual, even quirky; so although it's a community blog, it doesn't really fit any particular category.
Q. Do you think people have stereotypes of nuns and how does the blog deal with that?
Digitalnun: Undoubtedly. Sometimes they make us all laugh, sometimes they irritate profoundly; Colophon reflects both reactions. People may assume that because we're nuns we're (a) brain-dead ; (b) incompetent; (c) kill-joys. One thing which genuinely does annoy is the way some people criticize if we don't live up to their expectations of what a nun should be/do. For example, someone thought it a "sin against poverty" that a nun should wear a gold ring (after profession we wear a plain gold band on the right hand as a sign of our consecration) while being quite happy about monks having holidays (which nuns usually don't). Most of us received our rings as gifts from our families or bought them ourselves before we gave away our worldly possessions, but does it really matter? I think the blog allows us occasionally to challenge some of the sillier stereotypes, but it isn't why we write.
Q. Where do your own blog posts originate?
Digitalnun: From distractions in prayer or reading; from what I hope are little jolts of the Holy Spirit; from the sheer perversity of what passes as my brain; my dyspepsia; oh, and the fact that I live in company with others who are much holier and nicer than I am and who constantly amaze me with their goodness and wisdom.
Q. Why don't you link to other blogs and web sites as others do?
Digitalnun: We don't actually do much surfing of the internet (no time!) so any links would probably just duplicate those easily available elsewhere. I think we also assume that people come here to read what we've said rather than get a news round-up, so we try to keep things simple. That said, we are thinking about adding a links section to our revamped web site but whether we'd have time to keep the links current, I'm not sure. Out of date links are a pain.
Q The comment box is now working properly. How did that happen?
Digitalnun: Ouch! You'll see I've done something about the blog archive on the left-hand side.
Q. Will you say anything about future plans?
Digitalnun: Not much at this stage because we're never sure whether we'll be able to stick to our hoped-for schedule. However, we have finally decided to end support for Internet Explorer 6 users. We want to strip out a lot of redundant code from the web site so that it loads more quickly and we can introduce features and material we've been working on for a while. I think there will be some interesting developments in the months ahead.

Christmas is Coming

About a month ago we began filling in next year's diary with bookings for 2010, preparing Advent talks and days of recollection and generally preparing for Christmas. It's good to see that the Churches are running a worthwhile advertising campaign this year (excellent summary by Mouse here), and that the BBC has drawn attention to the widely varying charitable contributions made by sellers of so-called Charity Christmas cards (summary below). Digitalnun gave up printing Christmas cards years ago since it is impossible to produce them at the same price as those who buy in millions. Perhaps that explains why we tend to get sackloads of drunken reindeer/cartoon nuns skating on thin ice. We know Digitalnun has designed a series of eCards which she thought of making available from our web site but when asked about it yesterday she gave a little grunt and muttered something about probably no one being interested and she gets jittery about scripts being hijacked by spammers, etc, etc. If she has a sleepless night, they'll probably appear. In the meantime, we were surprised to see that the comment box loaded in the correct place yesterday without any tweaking of the code. Perhaps that explains why Digitalnun is a bit grumpy. She can't claim any credit. Pity the nun who, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie!

Charity Christmas Cards and the Proportion of the Purchase Price going to Charity
W H Smith: 20% - 100%
Asda: All at 50%
Waterstones: 20% - 50%
John Lewis: 10% - 25%
Clintons: All at 21%
Paperchase: 16% - 18%
Debenhams: All at 17%
Waitrose: All at 15%
Morrisons: All at 13%
Post Office: 10% - 13%
House of Fraser and Next: 6% - 13%
M & S, Tesco, Rymans, Sainsbury's, Selfridges: All at 10%
(Source: "Which?" magazine, via BBC)

Apostolic Constitution

It was tempting to update Colophon yesterday when news broke of the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution which will allow Anglicans entering into Full Communion to retain aspects of their Anglican tradition. It has been useful, however, to have a little time in which to pray and reflect and digest some of the statements issued by various persons and groups. If you have not yet read the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Joint Statement issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury (Anglican) and Westminster (Catholic) you can do so here.

First, let's be clear what an Apostolic Constitution is. It is the most solemn, public form of papal decree and the canonical structures it introduces have binding force. As one canon lawyer remarked, "Rome can do anything", and in this case, Rome has. We ourselves know how creative Rome can be in response to a situation it believes requires special treatment, and what a shock such creativity can be to those who weren't expecting it or who feel in some way threatened by it. That is exactly what happened yesterday as a quick trip through the blogosphere will demonstrate.

Secondly, the Apostolic Constitution will be concerned with Anglicans and Catholics worldwide, not just those in the U.K. The Catholic Church always takes a global perspective. Some of the responses in this country have inevitably taken a rather narrower view. It is sometimes said, with some truth, that the Vatican doesn't really understand Anglicanism or the hesitation some English Catholics feel about the prospect of former Anglicans joining their ranks. Paul VI certainly had a better understanding than most and it is no accident that under him the Catholic-Anglican dialogue advanced further than at any period before. But where are we now?

No doubt, over the coming months, many Anglicans will consider their position. Some will want to enter into Full Communion; others will prefer to stay with the Church in which they are. There will be joy and grief and much secret agonizing. The human cost will be huge. Others will argue that they already are in Communion in all that matters, and there will be a continuance of the sad situation whereby Catholics upholding the doctrine and discipline of the Eucharist will be subject to some quite unpleasant attacks (we know, for we have been there). There will be hope and disappointment, difficulties in adjusting, bafflement and blessing.

What of the Catholic side? There will surely be a mixture of reactions, ranging from a raucous triumphalism through indifference to downright hostility. A few have commented on the position of Catholic priests who have embraced celibacy as part of their vocation but would much rather be married. How will they feel? (And let's say at this point, that despite the appalling stories of abuse that have come to light, most priests, like most other people, are good and decent men.) In England we have a lot of Catholics whose families built schools and churches out of their poverty rather than their abundance, who are accustomed to being laughed at for their lack of education or sophistication but who, together with the Recusant families, have kept the Faith alive through several centuries. Their reactions are also likely to be mixed. Then what of the bishops? It is no secret that the welcome accorded to Polish Catholics in recent years has sometimes led to awkward situations, the bishops broadly favouring integration into existing local structures and Poles generally preferring to retain a distinct identity under the Polish Catholic Mission. The prospect of "Anglican Ordinariates" may lead to something of the same. It certainly raises some important questions about our understanding of what a bishop is and the way in which a diocese operates.

As we said earlier, this is a time for prayer, reflection and studying the experience of other places and peoples (Amritsar, India, comes to mind). In this country we shall be praying for Archbishop Rowan (especially + Rowan!) and Archbishop Vincent who will need not only wisdom but charity and courage in large measure. Let us pray also for all who are afraid that they are about to lose something very precious, who are not sure where they stand or what to think, who are troubled and anxious. Let us pray that we follow the promptings of the Lord rather than the dictates of our own wayward and often selfish hearts.

Beauty in Worship

St Benedict reminds us today of the sevenfold pattern of unceasing prayer which characterises the monastic day (RB 16). It is both a privilege and challenge to maintain that round of prayer and provide a fitting setting for Mass and the Divine Office. We have been doing our best here at Hendred, gradually acquiring the furnishings and vestments necessary for liturgical worship. Our taste may be Conran, our budget Ikea, but friends and oblates have been generous with gifts and our cellarer (bursar) understands the importance of the jar of nard. Happily, one of the community is a fine needlewoman and our altar linens are second to none (alas no, we are not able to accept commissions for making altar cloths, etc as we can no longer source the kind of fabric we would wish to use). We're quite good at simple woodwork and have learned to be dab hands with paintbrushes. So, although our oratory is very plain, it is a good place in which to pray. We may dream of one day having a church of our own, but prayer is something that happens here and now, wherever and however we happen to be. If we waited for perfect circumstances, we would never begin at all.

Protective Courtesies

To Malvern yesterday, to collect Convalescent Nun. It is good to have the community reunited, but having to fit in a number of engagements in and around the journey made supper a late meal and the interval between going to bed and getting up this morning seems all too short. What a good thing no one can speak until after Lauds! We all need "protective courtesies" at times. They can be simple things, like "manners" — learning how to eat with others so one does not annoy one's neighbour, for example — or complex rituals, like those associated with death and mourning, that allow people a little space in which to grieve. Monastic life still contains many courtesies that society as a whole does not value or has neglected. It can be quite thought-provoking to go through the Rule and see how Benedict treats many potential difficulties/flash-points in community: relations between old(er) and young(er), strong(er) and weak(er) brethren; those in authority, those subject to authority; the timing of requests and the right way of meeting or refusing them; the interaction of members of the home community with visitors and guests, and so on and so forth. There are guidelines for comforting the brother or sister who is feeling down in the dumps, for dealing with the loss or damage of common property, for making restitution and preserving peace (nothing new about restorative justice except the name). Perhaps we'll all need to draw on these today. The image that comes to mind is of a little tin-hat with "Pax" emblazoned on it. Now I wonder why that also conjures up the vision of a tortoise withdrawing into its shell . . .

Sunday Vigils

I love the time before Vigils, especially on Sundays. The house is quiet and still, and at this time of year it is dark as well. Excellent conditions for prayer — or distraction. Afterwards, I love the way the grey light steals into the oratory and the flickering of the lamp beside the tabernacle is gradually muted in brilliance by the growing day. There is a cascade of marigolds and nasturtiums by the altar, dimly illuminating the shadows. One of the gifts of Sunday is to have time to appreciate the wonder of the ordinary: bread broken and shared, the Body of Christ, "the heart in pilgrimage". Thank you, Lord.

Gifts and Call

I was dozing quietly over my lectio divina or "prayerful reading" earlier this morning when a phrase from Romans leaped out of the page with a freshness and urgency I had not experienced before. "The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." It set me thinking about failure (yes, I know I'm perverse). We're all flawed and fallible beings, and each of us has a personal history of failure. Most of us are obscure enough to escape the searchlight of history and can keep our shortcomings to ourselves. That doesn't make them any easier to live with, and I daresay most of us have discovered we are pelagians at heart, believing we can overcome our faults by our own efforts. When we find that we can't, we either dismiss our weaknesses as endearing little foibles (i.e we lie to ourselves), brazen things out ("O evil, be thou my good"), or abandon hope. I suspect that despair is the most dangerous. It is no accident that St Benedict ends his list of "Tools of Good Works" with "Never despair of God's mercy." That has been my lifeline on more than one occasion, because it ties in with what St Paul is saying in Romans. God never gives up. He never despairs (and heaven knows, we give Him enough reason to do so). There is something humbling about a God who is prepared to wait for His children to turn to Him. Irresistibly attractive, in fact.

Advance notice: in November we shall be making the first of a series of changes to our web site. The weekly prayer podcast (didn't happen last Sunday because of "the bug") will be moving from Colophon to another page as we have a new feature we want to introduce. Just to tease your interest, think "live", think "interactive" . . . And thank you for all the feedback you send. Although we do test everything, we can't always know how things will look on your screen/operating system so we rely on you to let us know.

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Kindly Fruits of the Earth

Part of this year's harvest

No doubt someone will ask why Colophon is quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, but "the kindly fruits of the earth" is an apt and beautiful phrase to describe the plentiful harvest we have enjoyed from our own garden and those of our friends. At the moment, the thought of food is still a little unwelcome to the community, but with that selfless determination characteristic of Benedictines, we thought we should enter into the spirit of World Food Day (a pity it didn't coincide with CAFOD Family Fast Day on 2 October) and spend a moment or two reflecting on how we share resources with others. We are usually quite good at sharing what we have in the way of facilities, food and drink, time and so on, but whether we always do so in a kindly manner is more debatable. It is possible to "perform an act of charity" in such a way that there is nothing "charitable" about it, especially when we're tired or harrassed or just plain out of sorts. Zeal is sometimes double-edged, and feelings of guilt, like feelings of shame, do not often lead to conversion of heart but rather trap us in negativity.

One area where we acknowledge that we ought to do more concerns those whose plight is largely ignored by the media. We have already commented on the persecution of Christians in various parts of the world. Just yesterday we received an appeal from Faith Without Fear concerning the 50,000 Christians forced from their homes in Orissa, India, last year. There are still 4,000 displaced and persecuted. We continue to hold them in prayer, but can we ask you to go to the Faith Without Fear web site and sign the petition? It is a small thing to do, but as we have been reminded many times during the progress of St Thérèse's relics, life is made up of small but significant acts. Perhaps our photo is worth a second look, too, as we think about the Orissa Christians. Some have predicted that in years to come shortages of food and water will lead to increasing strife among peoples. If we have not begun to learn to live peacefully with one another before then, how shall we celebrate the "kindly fruits of the earth" we are meant to share? Scroll down to comment.

M.P.s Expenses (Again)

Retrospective legislation in any shape or form is always abhorrent, and to that extent one can sympathize with M.P.s who feel that the Legg enquiry's conclusions are unfair and make all Parliamentarians look shady and dishonest. The trouble is that some M.P.s (and members of the House of Lords, too) have behaved dishonourably while others have acted on the basis that "if it's allowed by the rules, then it's it's all right" and made expenses claims which have a definite whiff of sulphuretted hydrogen about them. The fact that certain acts are legal does not make them right and it is surely time we all acknowledged as much. Personally, I'd have more sympathy for our M.P.s were I not troubled by the poverty afflicting so many of our fellow citizens: the young who have no jobs, nor any prospect of getting one; the elderly who must often make impossible choices between eating and heating; people who must struggle with anxiety and debt on a daily basis — the list is long. All credit, then, to those M.P.s whose expenses claims have been modest in the extreme or who have not claimed at all. Some people still believe in the ideal of public service. At least now we know who they are and can honour them for the example they give.

Feeble Twitters

"Looking as white as a wimple" has taken on a new meaning as the community struggles to recover from a malady which struck with great swiftness at the week-end (after mushroom pasta, so we're not infectious, just a little wan). Feeble twitters are all we can manage. This fact seems to have impressed Digitalnun who chose yesterday to sign us up for a Twitter account and says she'll be adding a Twitter stream to the web site "in due course". Meanwhile, the monastery is putting its telephone off the hook and adopting an eremitical lifestyle for the duration. Enjoy the silence while it lasts . . .

Mark's Gospel and the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII
There is a phrase in today's gospel (Mk 10. 17-30) which lies at the heart of every vocation: "Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him." It can be hard to bear another's gaze, especially "the beams of love". When we are not very happy about something we've done or feel uncertain about the reception we'll meet, we can be reluctant to meet someone's eyes. After eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve fled the Lord God in the Garden of Eden and we've been doing the same ever since. It's only when the Lord Jesus looks at us, long and steadily, that things are put right, that we recognize shame for what it is, a barrier we erect, and can open ourselves to grace. In the Old Testament God is sometimes likened to the refiner sitting by the fire, watching closely the process of purification. It can be painful as the dross is burned off, but the result is beautiful. I often wonder about that young man in the gospel. He went away sad, but did he experience a change of heart, remember the look the Lord gave him, and let go of his wealth in order to find his true treasure in Jesus? We don't know.

And the connection with the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's favourite ship, which went down in 1545 with the loss of 400 lives? Today is the anniversary of its being raised from the Solent in 1982. An examination of the teeth of some of the sailors whose bodies were recovered with the vessel revealed that many of them were Spanish, probably press-ganged into service after the wreck of their own ships in Cornwall six months earlier. One theory why the Mary Rose went down is that the crew had an imperfect command of English and did not understand what they were being asked to do to avoid being run down by the French. It takes time to learn a new language. As with the crew of the Mary Rose so with us, if we are not to make shipwreck of our lives, we need to tune into another language, the language of the Gospel. There is, however, an important difference. We have the assurance that the Lord has first looked at us and loved us — as we are, not as we might be. We are safe in his hands. (Podcast tomorrow, all being well.)

The Fun of Being Fickle

Well, well, well. President Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize (because he is not President Bush?); Archbishop Williams gives a thoughtful exposition of Christian concerns about the war in Iraq and is rounded on (because he is not warlike enough?); Silvio Berlusconi announces that he is the most persecuted man in history and the world laughs because the notion is so preposterous. The media are having fun. They barrack Barack for "not having done anything yet to merit his prize" and pontificate about the archbishop's "lack of patriotism". True, Obama was only ten days into his presidency when nominations for the Nobel Prize closed, so the award can only have been made on the basis of hope/promise rather than achievement. True, Rowan Williams has a difficult role vis-à-vis the Establishment, but most of those kicking up a fuss will not have troubled to read the text of his sermon — or seen much of life in Iraq or Afghanistan. Only about Berlusconi can we all agree. When we have stopped shaking our heads/smiling over yesterday's headlines, we are left wondering what our own attitudes are, not just to big questions like war and peace and international order but also to "smaller" ones like our expectations of public figures and the lives they lead. Instant communications mean that we can know more, more quickly, than at any time in history; but we rarely have time to digest and reflect adequately (Colophon is guilty here, too). Opinions — even our own — can change overnight. It is fun being fickle, but not always wise or fair.

Psalms of the Passion

We pray the whole psalter every week, which means that on Fridays we sing the great sequence of Passion psalms, including some of those the Roman Office currently thinks unseemly on the lips of Christians. Nuns take a robust view of these things on the grounds that Christ is the true singer of the psalms and we want our prayer to be one with his. So, today we shall be cheerfully uttering such lines as "Break the teeth in their mouths!" while St Benedict will be exhorting us to "speak gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising your voice" (see RB 7. 60–61). The irony will not be lost on the community. We can and must control what we say and the way in which we say it because, as Colophon has remarked several times in recent weeks, words affect others, often more deeply than we realise; but the thoughts and emotions of the heart are more troublesome, less subject to reason and control. That is precisely why we need to bring EVERYTHING to prayer, not just the bits of ourselves we think "acceptable" or "good". When I pray the vengeful lines of the psalms, I'm uncomfortably aware of all the unforgiveness in my own heart, the half-acknowledged desire to pay back hurt for hurt. It isn't very nice, anymore than the psalmist's thirst for revenge; but there is only one way of allowing the grace of Christ into areas of sin and darkness, and that is by praying. Here is a suggestion: pray Psalm 21 with Christ on the Cross, then follow it up with Psalms 108 and 34 (numbering as in liturgical psalters). If that doesn't bring you to your knees or your senses, try praying them every Friday. Conversion is the work of a lifetime.

St Cecilia's Guild: Catalogue Posted

We've done a little more web "housekeeping" today. As some of you will be aware, we had to change the email address for St Cecilia's Guild because we were getting so much spam. You can find the new address on our Contacts page. One unintended consequence of the change is that we have been slow to put up the promised catalogue of audio books for the blind and visually impaired as so many links, both online and printed, had to be amended. However, an almost-up-to-date catalogue of the more religious titles is now available as either a PDF or Word download from St Cecilia's page. If you are visually impaired, please remember that you can set the download to read aloud to you, although we have to admit the results are not entirely satisfactory. We have it in mind to put up a catalogue in audio form alongside the electronic files.

Lepanto, Our Lady, and Life

Given that the Man Booker prize has gone to a historical novel (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall) and today is the anniversary of the Holy League's most decisive defeat of Ottoman war galleys (Battle of Lepanto, 1571), in thanksgiving for which the Memoria of Our Lady of the Rosary was instituted, we thought we might allow today's jottings to follow a vaguely historical and liturgical course. We were shocked out of our comfort zone, however, by a chance find on the internet. As many will be aware, flooding in southern India has caused huge problems and, like many others, we have been keen to contribute what we can to help, especially to some of the poorer Christian communities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I was doing an internet search for a small Christian organization we know about in Tamil Nadu (where the population is predominantly Hindu) and stumbled across a Forum, hosted in Britain and featuring mainly posts from people in Britain, about Tamil Nadu. It was deeply upsetting. In the crudest possible terms Tamil Nadu Christians were attacked, their Faith vilified, and the prospect of their murder contemplated with relish. We can dismiss this kind of thing as being beneath contempt, one of the downsides of the internet being that people often express themselves with too little thought or restraint. But it set me thinking about free speech and the limits of religious tolerance.

I know that our Hindu friends would be the first to distance themselves from the sentiments expressed on the Tamil Nadu Forum. They, like me, believe that respect for others is a fundamental principle and value the tradition of free speech we enjoy in the U.K. Above all, we share the belief that life is sacred, that it comes to us as a gift and is not to be insulted or mistreated, still less bludgeoned to death.

The language of invective is, of course, a constant in history: some of the insults bandied about in eighteenth century England, for example, would make ears burn today; and many a threat may be uttered in the heat of an argument that the speaker has no intention of carrying out. But I am still left wondering how it is that words which from a Christian would be actionable are somehow tolerable when expressed by someone who is not a Christian. Don't get me wrong, I am not asking for "special treatment" for Christians here or elsewhere, nor am I suggesting that the freedoms enjoyed by any religion should be curtailed. It would be dishonest not to admit that inequalities can be very striking — Christians in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy the freedoms that Muslims enjoy in Rome, for instance — but we have a duty to try to create a just and equitable society wherever we happen to live. Part of that duty must surely involve indicating the acceptable limits of the freedoms we take for granted. Words do matter: they can be a source of life or death.

Making God Laugh

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." How very true. What with power-cuts (2), telephone calls (innumerable), visitors and minor domestic emergencies, the last few days have not gone according to plan but there have been many good things, including time spent with old friends, a lovely quiet monastic Mass yesterday morning and a completely unexpected but utterly thrilling "owl concert" last night. Just how many were hooting at the moon, I couldn't decide, but it sounded like every owl in Oxfordshire. I wonder whether medieval saints like St Bruno, whose feast we keep today, took such things for granted or were delighted by them as we are. Chesterton once remarked that medieval writes didn't write much about green hills but sat on the green hills to write. We, by contrast, are losing many of the green hills, though we write about them often enough. Is that a manifestation of collective nostalgia or genuine ecological concern? It can be difficult to decide. Monasteries tend to be good about some aspects of conservation but eccentric, to say the least, about others e.g. I have known communities where driving miles to "recycle" a small quantity of paper (which ended up as landfill anyway) was almost an article of faith. As with our personal plans, so with our plans for the environment, we need to remember we are not in charge. That does not relieve us of responsibility, far from it, but it does give us another perspective; just as St Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians, should make us think for a few minutes at least about the place of solitude and prayer in our lives. Our spiritual environment is just as vulnerable as our physical environment. (We have decided to postpone the podcast till the week-end as the diary is slightly overloaded this week.)

Contentment

It is not often that the Sunday Mass readings and the daily portion of RB suggest a single theme as they do today. "Contentment" is not a word to inspire flights of oratory or deeds of derring-do. There is something undeniably domestic and vaguely middle-aged and middle-class about it. Perhaps we are inclined to dismiss contentment in this way because we have become lazy thinkers or have been seduced by the language of ambition, which urges us always to want more whether we are capable of more or not. If we look at the roots of the word "contentment", we get a better idea of what it means: not mere containment of desire (which could be rather a struggle), but the satisfaction of desire, happiness in fullest measure —tellingly, however, a happiness and satisfaction found in what is rather than in what might be. Of course we need our dreams and ambition or we'd still be running around in animal skins and grunting, but the art of being content is a skill very necessary to civilization as well as human happiness. It is tougher than it looks because it makes bigger demands than we might think. It is certainly not to be equated with complacency. We are reminded by today's gospel (Mk 10: 2-16) that marriage is more than serial monogamy, and by today's section of the Rule (RB 7.49-50) that the monk must learn to be content "with the meanest and worst of everything" if he is not to dissipate his spiritual energy. Both marriage and monasticism require whole-hearted and persevering commitment if they are to work, but it is surely no accident that a happy marriage and a happy monastery tend to shed a little welcoming glow around them. Contentment as welcome is slightly more interesting than contentment as containment. At least, I find it so. Our podcast will go up sometime later today (we had another power cut yesterday).

100 Million Bubbles

Champagne is, as everyone knows, a Benedictine invention. Each bottle contains 100 million bubbles, or as Dom Pérignon might have put it, 100 million stars. I find this useless fact quite entrancing as I sit with eyes like poached eggs, surrounded by piles of proofs (the Catholic Directory for England and Wales, if you must know, 964 close-set pages at the last count), ruler in one hand, red pen in the other, while "a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk". The digital revolution has not yet eliminated the need for old skills like proof-reading, but I have to admit that people of my generation are not nearly as speedy or accurate as those who went before. Indeed, one of the best proof-readers I ever knew, with a mastery of grammar, syntax and punctuation second to none, was a former compositor who left school at fourteen. He had a passion for books, printing, learning; and that transformed his life. Once we start talking about "transforming passions" of course, we are on common ground. Most of us have an interest of some kind that gives meaning and beauty to our lives, puts the fizz into our existence, so to say. For Benedictines, it is the search for God that, even at the worst of times, should make us sparkle. I must remember that as I sigh over my proofs.

The Fourth Degree Again

The natural disasters in Sumatra and Samoa are very much on everyone's mind, but today's section of RB (7. 35–43) is such a key text for Benedictines that a brief comment seems permissible. It has been attacked by some as encouraging passivity and even quietism among the monastic "rank and file". At times the Fourth Degree of Humilty has indeed been invoked in ways contrary to its intention, but that is the nature of things: "the devil can cite scripture to his purpose" and frequently does! What these verses do make clear, however, is the dynamic of humility. True humility is about as far away from passivity and Uriah Heep as it is possible to get. To put it another way, to be humble you need a strong will and a good sense of self. Paradoxical? Yes, of course. Benedict is here spelling out the realities of life. Humility has to be lived in imperfect circumstances. We all know how easy it is to be "holy" when there is very little to trouble or vex us and someone else does all the cooking and cleaning and we have nothing to do but consider the beauty of our souls. It is more difficult when we are tired and overworked, worried about our health or finances, grieving for someone dear to us or just plain down in the dumps; when someone is constantly niggling us; when we are subject to injustice or hate campaigns or must live under the shadow of false accusations. It is in precisely these situations that we are called to heroic virtue, to joyful endurance, "to bear and to bless". That is not passive. That is not namby-pamby Christianity. It is, like a popular soft drink, the Real Thing — and it's not for wimps.

How to Silence Nuns

They have found a way to silence nuns at last. We have no electricity from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. so Digitalnun has been beavering away in the night hours to get today's quota of work finished and Mass will be a candlelit affair. Is this power outage a Vatican plot to rid the world of cybernuns or shall we be back tomorrow? Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

St Michael the Archangel

My favourite image of St Michael is copyright, so on the grounds that a mighty spirit cannot be reduced to pixels on a page, this post will leave nearly everything to your imagination.
Today's feast used to be extremely popular in the Midddle Ages. The Masses and prayers recorded in various sacramentaries testify to a rich liturgical observance, paralleled by a lively cluster of customs and traditions, from the Michaelmas goose (yummy) to Michaelmas fairs (fun) and Michaelmas rent-paying (depends whether paying or receivng, I suppose).

The old Catholic Encyclopedia neatly summarises the role of St Michael as
  • To fight against Satan.
  • To rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death.
  • To be the champion of God's people, the Jews in the Old Law, the Christians in the New Testament; therefore he was the patron of the Church, and of the orders of knights during the Middle Ages.
  • To call away from earth and bring men's souls to judgment ("signifer S. Michael repraesentet eas in lucam sanctam", Offert. Miss Defunct. "Constituit eum principem super animas suscipiendas", Antiph. off. Cf. The Shepherd of Hermas, Book III, Similitude 8, Chapter 3).

Note that the first of these is to fight against Satan. One of the worrying trends many of us have come up against is the increase in occult activity which can have devastating consequences for those involved. Some are drawn in the first instance by sheer curiosity and have no inkling that they are playing with fire. At the risk of being labelled impossibly old-fashioned and credulous by those who prefer to laugh at the idea of evil, here is the prayer of Pope Leo XIII which John Paul II asked everyone "not to forget and to recite . . . to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit if this world" (Sunday, 24 April 1994).

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host —
by the Divine Power of God —
cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Amen.
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Desire

"My every desire is before you", says the psalmist (Ps 37 [38]. 10); so also St Benedict in today's portion of the Rule, (RB 7. 19-23). It's a good way of examining one's conscience: where has my desire been? Yes, I know I said I was doing such and such, or my avowed motive was so and so, but in reality? What was I really seeking? Overdo the inspection of desire and motive and one ends up with what we used to call scruples — which is just as bad, in its way, as never questioning at all. I suppose the answer, as always, is balance; but that is trickier than it sounds if one thinks about it too long, just as one would never succeed in skating across ice if one concentrated too hard on the action of one's skates. So, perhaps on Monday morning we should just get on with things and trust in God. It's all most of us can manage, anyway!

Saturday Mornings

Saturdays are precious. In the monastery we don't usually do anything different from what we do on other week-days, but we sense the general air of relaxation that fills the village and, if we have no groups in, try to find time for a longer walk in the early morning. The Downs are empty, save for the occasional rider. The sky stretches overhead and the only sounds are natural ones, birds and small animals for the most part, with the hum and whip of the wind a constant backdrop. It's an excellent time and place for thinking and the past week has provided much to mull over. Dare we hope that President Obama's acknowledgement that nuclear warfare belongs to the past is going to resonate with the rest of the world's leaders? Or must we fear that the revelations about Iran's nuclear programme are going to cast a long shadow over the future? We are not far from Harwell, the name of which is virtually synonymous with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (although it is now also associated with a range of hi-tech research projects including those of the European Space Agency and Diamond Light Source). Looking down from the Ridgeway at the Harwell campus, one experiences a curious mix of hope and fear: hope that so much effort and ingenuity will result in great benefits, and a nagging fear that it could all go so horribly wrong. We know the men who first split the atom had reservations about the consequences. It is difficult to forget them this morning. The larks and the lapwings that so delight the Saturday morning visitor to the Downs are in decline, and it seems to be because of our careless stewardship of the earth. Folly is not only a great sin, it is dangerously easy to fall into.

The Proper Use of Speech and Silence

We read RB 6, On Restraint in Speech, today (you can listen to it via the Prayer Box on our Vocation page). I see we last commented on it on 24 September 2007 which is either a mark of our own restraint, or more likely, an indication of our difficulty in mastering this most necessary art. Perhaps this morning we could look at the subject from a slightly different angle which ties in with this week's podcast. If you read the Bible straight through from end to end looking at how God speaks, you get a a most wonderful sense of how creative his word is; so that by the time you reach the Prologue to John's Gospel, the presentation of Christ as the Word of God seems utterly "right". (In Hebrew dabar means both word and deed, which helps my argument; when God speaks, he also does.) Christ the Word is the ultimate expression of God's nature, his very being. That is why, for a Christian, words matter. Speech is a divine gift; so too is silence. Words come out of silence and return to silence, showing what is within the one who speaks. This is the background to what Benedict says here and elsewhere in the Rule. Notice in chapter 6 Benedict is not talking about either speech or silence as such, but the proper use of both, for which he uses the word taciturnitas, which means restraint in speech, rather than what we commonly understand by taciturnity. Throughout the Rule he indicates that there are privileged times of silence (night, for example), occasions when silence is to be preferred to speech because of the danger of dissipating recollection (when late for choir, when meeting a guest, when one has been outside the monastery and is tempted to traveller's tales, and so on), but also times when a good word is to be spoken (to encourage a wobbly brother, when one cannot meet a request, to greet someone coming to the monastery, etc.). In short, Benedict expects us to use speech and silence as the gifts they are, not thoughtlessly, not rashly. The trouble is, words tend to tumble out of our mouths before we think! Wasn't it Horace who said that "words once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again"? I wonder how much whistling I'll be doing today.

Obedience

We begin RB 5 On Obedience today and I'm grateful for Cyberoblate's comment on this week's podcast, because the root of the Latin word for obedience comes from the verb obaudire, to listen hard: another of those fundamental Christian dispositions. We can hope that there'll be some close listening done today when President Obama tries to get Israel and Palestine talking to each other; more listening at the UN when global warming is discussed; some listening on all sides as "the Jungle" is razed. Such big issues may make our local preoccupations look petty, but it is a mistake to think that small matters don't matter. In community we are busy about many things, like Martha, but none of them is without value or purpose. During the past couple of years a lot of effort has gone into providing guest accommodation, making the gardens more attractive and smartening up the public areas of the monastery as time and money became available. This is part of our welcome to others. Currently, we are trying to improve the oratory, which is the heart of the house, part of our welcome to God if you like. We're very grateful for some beautiful gifts promised or received recently, including a chasuble and a small monstrance, both of them from Oblates of the community. We are hoping to redecorate the oratory itself just before Christmas (Handynun is not very good at high ceilings so tends to find lots of urgent jobs at floor level when ceilings are on the menu, one wonders why) and are gradually trying to make the furnishings more dignified. If you happen to know of an unwanted faldstool or presidential chair available at a sensible price (i.e. being sold for liturgical use rather than "themed decor"), please get in touch. We don't want that lovely new chasuble to be wrecked on the chair the priest is currently using!

Birdsong

Suddenly the garden is full of birdsong. It has come unexpectedly, with the sunshine, and is breathtaking in its intensity, as though the birds had forgotten how to sing and are now flinging their rapture heavenwards in a new-found ecstasy of delight. What a contrast with the way we all fell apart during the Kyrie at Mass this morning! Why is it that it is always when the most musical monks come over from Douai to say Mass for us that we waver and quaver? Must have something to do with the humility yesterday's blog was about. This week's podcast makes no great claims for originality but it may spark a thought or two in you. (The hiss is temporary, we hope.)

Back to Earth (+ or - Bump)

Well, yesterday was very nice. We had friends here for the day and several people emailed or telephoned to congratulate us on the web award (Church Mouse, we forgive you for describing us as "three elderly nuns": two of us are comfortably under 60 which is the earliest we'd allow for "elderly", but perhaps sensitivity on the subject proves you're right. Sigh.) Today it is back to normal. "Normal" is worth valuing. It is daily bread, daily routine, "the little, nameless, unremembered acts/ of kindness and of love" that make up everyday life in family and community. One of the great strengths of Benedictine "normal" is the liturgy: the slow unfolding through the day of the psalms and scriptures that focus us on the mystery of God. It is a work of constant recall, of ebb and flow. Today's gospel (MK 9.30-37) reminds us that humility is, or should be, the "normal" disposition of the Christian: an openness to the truth about God, ourselves and others that frees us from many of the false values that create stress and strain. It doesn't mean that life will be any easier. In fact, it is likely to mean that we'll have to put up with misunderstandings, scorn, derision, all kinds of things that can hurt dreadfully; but we'll be grounded in God, which is the safest of all places to be. Whenever we accept his "little children" into our lives – the apparently unimportant, demanding, difficult, or messy circumstances of our existence – then we have the opportunity of welcoming Him too. That's not bad for "normal", is it? (We'll podcast this evening, all being well, and you can comment, as always, by scrolling down and waiting a brief eternity for the comment box to load.)

People's Choice Award 2009

Why should we have quoted "Not to hug good things to oneself" as the clue to this morning's announcement? Take a second look at that photo in the Marginalia box on the first page. Yes, incredible though it seems to us (and probably to you, too), our monastery web site has been awarded The Original Christian Web and New Media Awards People's Choice Award for 2009. We are still trying to digest the fact that our home-grown site should have won the popular vote. It just goes to show that it doesn't matter if you don't have much money or expertise, the important thing is to try. (Digitalnun can be very trying. Ed.)

Premier Christian Media pioneered the concept of recognising and rewarding Christian bloggers and web site designers in the UK in 2007. Since then, the awards have continued to grow, reflecting the increasing range of Christian achievements in technology. You can read more about the various award categories and winners at http://www.christianblogawards.com/. You'll be as impressed as we were by the other entrants, whose sites really deserve a good look. We weren't at the award ceremony in St Stephen's Walbrook last night but were asked to make a short video of our acceptance speech. It had to be made on Tuesday morning, when the sun refused to shine. Happily, Oblate Mary was with us for a Quiet Day, bore cheerfully with the sound of nuns clambering up and down stairs looking for enough light to shoot a frame or two, and smilingly agreed to be filmed herself. You can view the rather shaky result below. Our best thanks to Premier and all who voted for us. Now we really must get on with that site make-over, get the blog comments working as they should and allow Internet Explorer users equal access to all features! The comment box will load after the video: please be patient as it will take a while.

Elementary, my dear Watson

Began the morning musing haphazardly on bankers' bonuses, missile shields, guests expected this week-end and the to-do list (which seems to get longer and longer!), so decided to get a perspective by reading today's portion of the Rule before doing anything else. I'm glad I did. Read or listen to RB 4. 1-21 and you have a "back to basics" programme without the unfortunate associations of the Majorite one. I've always been encouraged by the fact that Benedict regards the possibility of murder in the monastery a real one. I don't know how often I've come close to being finished off myself, but I have surely been tempted once or twice to terminate the existence of the brethren, in thought at least. Theft? Thomas Merton regarded wasting time as a sin against poverty, so I plead guilty to that, too. It all begins to get quite uncomfortable when one moves on to honouring everyone (v. 8) and not doing to others what one wouldn't want done to oneself (v. 9), because unless one is a saint, which most of us are far from being most of the time, these trip one up at every turn.

The next section is positively deadly, it's all so demanding. Renounce oneself to follow Christ (v. 10)? That is the work of a lifetime, which may explain why monks and nuns seem to live so long (though the late Fr John Macauley attributed it to three meals a day and someone to look after you when you go ga-ga). Not to hug good things to oneself (v.12)? Ouch, easy to say, not always easy to do. Delight in fasting (v. 13)? Well, we'll see how that goes down today as the winter fast begins. Corporal works of mercy abound: there are many ways of relieving the poor and comforting others, though I hope I won't be called upon to bury the dead (v. 17). But perhaps I may be called upon to help someone lay to rest a quarrel from the past or free themselves from some bad memory, that would certainly be burying the dead. Finally, Benedict goes to the heart of the matter: prefer nothing to the love of Christ (v. 21). Yes, that is elementary, but in the sense of being a basic building-block of human life. It puts the distractions with which I began the day into some sort of order. I shall still be thinking about those things, but hopefully rather than with an interior grumble or two.

Today we end with a little tease. Tomorrow's blog may contain an announcement that will surprise you . . . Think RB 4.12. Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

St Thérèse Relics

Yesterday our diocese welcomed the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux with a series of special liturgies and an all-night Vigil at Portsmouth Cathedral. Today the relics will begin their progress around the country where similar events will be held. Veilpress has been busy with the printing requirements for these celebrations, not only in our own diocese but elsewhere, especially among Carmelite communities. It has made me think yet again about St Thérèse herself. I have to admit that although I admire her and recognize that Thérèse was a true saint, with a steely interior inside all the sentimental twaddle with which others tried to surround her, she does not speak to me as eloquently or powerfully as some others do. I suppose it all comes down to a matter of taste. Some like their religion a bit abstract, others prefer something warmer and more "human"; some like a Latin slant, others prefer a more Northern cast; some are drawn to ritual, others to a Quaker plainness and sobriety. Many English Benedictines (by which I mean English people who happen to be Benedictine) are reserved about religious experience and sometimes manifest discomfort in the presence of relics (having lived in Spain, I have no such problems myself), but there are others for whom the visit of the relics of St Thérèse will be a spiritual highpoint. I am reminded that in "Religio Medici", the wise Sir Thomas Browne remarked that, while a true Protestant, he loved to use the service of his hat and knee in the practice of his religion. Most of us need external forms more than we care to admit. There will be a lot of prayer and a lot of sacrifice accompanying the progress of the relics. I have no doubt that so much prayer will effect transformations as yet undreamed of. So, I too have no difficulty in saying, St Thérèse, pray for us! Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

Our Lady of Sorrows

A single candle stands beside the processional cross today, a reminder of Mary's steadfastness beside her Son. It can lead to quite a lot of heart-searching, for most of us are aware that we are much less dependable than she, despite all our good intentions. Perhaps it is those very good intentions that sometimes make us so unreliable. As St Paul remarks, we want to do what is right but perversely end up doing the very thing we don't want to do. The experience can be crushing so we end up deciding not to try at all. That is doing the devil's work for him! Let's look again at that solitary candle. The flame flickers: it wouldn't take much to extinguish it; but it goes on burning and it illumines a surprisingly large area around itself, especially when the shadows lengthen. It won't do to press the analogy too far, but we can take it as an encouragement. Trying to live with integrity, being faithful to prayer and to the Gospel, doing what we can to be of service to those around us and fulfilling the duties of every day may not sound very heroic, but it does require heroism of a kind. Mary stood beside her dying Son because she had watched over him every moment of his life. That daily fidelity enabled her to go on being faithful when fear might have constrained her to act otherwise. We are called to the same kind of constancy, innnumerable little acts of heroism that might, just might, one day make us holy. Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

Exaltation of the Cross

Cimabue's Crucifix
Today we celebrate the Exaltation or Triumph of the Cross. We can become over-familiar with the image of the Cross, especially when it is trivilialised as a clothing accessory; but it still has power to shock. Why else would Socialist Governments in Spain and South America be so keen to remove crosses and crucifixes from schools and public buildings? Here in the monastery our processional cross will be adorned with bay leaves as a sign of victory. Flowers and candles will surround its base and it will provide a strong visual focus for our worship in choir, a beautiful yet brutal reminder of all that God has done for us. This is a day for rereading "The Dream of the Rood" or John Donne's "Good Friday, riding westwards"; a day for making a little silence in the midst of Monday's clamour. Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

Ride and Stride

This might be called Heritage Saturday. No only is the National Trust opening up many of its properties and sites free to visitors today but all over the country people will be walking, riding and cycling from church to church in order to raise money for the Historic Churches Fund. In this corner of England we have not only several very fine medieval parish churches but also a unique collection of Recusant chapels at East Hendred, Mapledurham, Milton and Stonor. Here there are currently three churches/chapels to visit, and next year we'll probably add the monastery oratory to the list so that we can offer weary travellers a wayfarer's dole — not bread and beer as at St Cross, Winchester, but a glass of elderflower wine and a homemade biscuit. Surrounded by so much that we have inherited from the past, we can be tempted to take it all for granted. It can be sobering, therefore, when we encounter ignorance and indifference even among people we might reasonably expect to be "culturally literate." Visitors to our churches are sometimes puzzled by what they see because the bible is no longer a familiar book; others seem to have lost any sense of the sacred. On Wednesday two of us were guests of the Midland Catholic History Society on a visit to "Catholic Winchester". We had a wonderful time, with Mass at Winchester College, visits to the cathedral and St Peter's, and a walk between sites, including the temporary home of the Benedictine nuns who later settled at East Bergholt and Haslemere (sadly they are no more). What distressed us was learning of the amount of vandalism that had taken place in the cathedral as recently as the Sunday before, when carvings were stolen from the Lady Chapel. Such a theft diminishes our heritage; it is also sacrilege. Let us hope that as visitors explore the beauty of our historic churches today, they will also be touched by a sense of the numinous. A church is a holy place, a dwelling of the Most High. May it also be, as George Herbert said of prayer, "something understood".

Anniversaries

Today many people will be recalling the attack on the WTC and the terrible loss of life that followed both then and in all the years since. There will be great sadness, probably some anger and bitterness, hopefully also forgiveness and a determination not to let death and violence be the distinguishing mark of this century. It is easy for Christians to sound detached from the pain and bafflement of others. We follow a Master who forgave even as he hung upon the Cross, and whenever we fail to live up to our calling (which is often, as we know only too well), we are condemned as hypocrites or worse. The anniversary of 9/11 is another opportunity to reflect on the way in which we respond to the political realities of our time. Take the case of Iran. Few in the west are comfortable with the idea of Iran having a nuclear technology capable of producing a bomb, but for the nuclear empowered nations of the west to tell Iran it should halt its current programme leads us onto questionable ground. At the moment we seem to be preoccupied with the economy and the situation in Afghanistan. Iraq has slipped from view; and as for the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan, for example, we barely register their existence. At the risk of sounding preachy, it would be a good idea to spend a few minutes today asking the Holy Spirit for the gift of wisdom and right judgement. The beautiful prayer of consecration in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity ascribed to Pope Leo expressly asks "through the gift of your Spirit, Lord, give her . . . right judgement, kindness with true wisdom." Kindness is not the least important element of that mix.

Birthday of the B.V.M.

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, "Naked Lady", is a reference to Mary.

Digitalnun apologizes for her hasty condemnation of JS-Kit's commenting apparatus. A little research last night indicated that the main reason the blog page is not appearing correctly on all screens is because the dreaded Windows Internet Explorer is causing some of the code to scramble (sigh). The page actually appears better in some earlier versions of IE than the current one, so this is another problem that will have to be worked on. In the meantime, we recommend the use of Firefox which is a very fast, stable, cross-platform browser. By way of compensation, we are reintroducing the commenting option, but you'll have to scroll down the page to do so. The good news is that in October the site is to have a makeover, with some new content to look forward to and possibly a whole new look . . .

A Kitchen Makeover

The prioress usually contrives to mark our foundation day in some way and this year was no exception. When we went into the oratory on Sunday morning we saw that the old "book rests" we have been using for the past five years had been replaced by some waxed pine "reading desks" with space for folders and books underneath. They are very simple and workmanlike, and they come with the promise of being replaced by stalls when we are in the happy position of being able to do so. For now they are a big improvement on what went before.

The major change, of course, is in the kitchen. We usually try to redecorate most of it on a regular basis to keep the mould at bay, but for various reasons haven't been able to do so for the last couple of years. A number of fixtures and fittings were also beginning to look the worse for wear, so on Bank Holiday Monday we girded our loins and the makeover began. Had we videoed the process, we might have marketed it as a comedy!

Mould! Before the Makeover

Any Victorian house without a damp course is likely to have fungal problems, but the collapse of the doors on the kitchen units did not enhance the general appearance of the room. (And no, we had not been swinging from them.) We called in Chris Castle to help us with the eradication of the mould and putting a damp sealant on the walls. Initially, everything looked worse than ever. The dingy green bits looked quite striking against the dingy "white" bits!

Work in progress: mouldier still!

Another mouldy corner

Handynun wisely decided to leave cupboards and seals to the expert (Chris) and busied herself with more accessible problems; but one thing leads to another . . . and in places six coats of paint. However, the effort was worth it. The kitchen is lighter and brighter, and as the photos below show, it should be easier for us to maintain a more monastic atmosphere.
Transformed!

We are especially pleased that the gap round the window has at last been sealed and hope it will make the kitchen warmer in winter. Our grateful thanks to those whose generosity made it possible for us to undertake this, and to Chris who remained resolutely cheerful throughout ("mould can't hurt you" was his mantra).

The window area redone

There are a few finishing-off jobs to do, but essentially the kitchen is DONE (for now). It is no accident that this week's podcast also takes an "active" approach to Christian living. (The commenting option will be restored as soon as possible. If you have difficulty reading this post, please let us know.)

Foundation Anniversary 2009

Sunday, 6 September marks the fifth anniversary of the canonical erection of our community, in other words our foundation day. We have so much to thank God for, not least our survival in the face of quite daunting odds. It helps, of course, that although a new community, we have a long monastic tradition and experience to draw on so have been able to avoid some pitfalls (while blithely stepping into others, no doubt!). The financial precariousness of our origins have proved a blessing. We have a sense of building the monastery little by little. The involvement of friends and oblates in this process has been a powerful reminder of God's Providence and a joy in itself. There have been times when things have been "difficult" or our critics have tried to undermine us, but on each occasion the community has received help, often from unexpected quarters, and emerged a little stronger, a little more confident in God's purpose. We hope that during the next five years some at least of those who have been drawn to our community will take the step of actually entering; but we know that we must wait upon God's time, which cannot be rushed. As we have often said, we cannot offer the kind of security some look for in religious life (though what greater security can there be than God himself?) and must learn to be patient, which is often spoken of as the fourth Benedictine vow. Please pray for us and for our larger community of associates, oblates and friends, all of whom have a special place in our hearts. We'll update you on Monday with news of our celebrations, a podcast and a few photos. Today we have two Masses, a full day of Divine Office and a rather grander dinner than usual to enjoy! Oh, and following Barbara's comment (see entry below and Digitalnun's reply) we are temporarily withdrawing the commenting option as the problems are all apparently linked to the commenting engine we are using. Read entire post ...

An Anglican Evening

Yesterday attended the Institution and Induction of the Revd Elizabeth Birch as Rector of East Hendred and the other parishes which make up Wantage Downs Benefice. It was, as one would expect, gracefully and generously organized and we were made to feel very welcome. As a lapsed medievalist, I was fascinated to see enacted many of the rituals which the Catholic Church of our day has dispensed with and could not help reflecting how much poorer we are as a result. Both priest and people could be given a much richer sense of what they are about, the rights and responsibilities of being the Church here in this particular part of the world. Instead we simply wake up one Sunday to find a new face at the altar and a brief introduction beginning "I am Fr X, your new ParishPriest/Priest in Charge/Administrator of this Parish" (delete as appropriate). While silently noting the ancient custom of placing the Rector's hand on the church door, the handing over of keys and ringing the church bell, etc, what most impressed me was the solemn reminder that a priest must be, first and foremost, a person of prayer, one who studies the scriptures and celebrates the sacraments. Perhaps too many of us in the Catholic Church encounter our priests only as celebrants of the sacraments or, worse still, administrators who sign our certificates and look after things we never think about. We conveniently forget that we must support our priests in their quest for holiness, encouraging (allowing?) them to take time for prayer and study. During this Year of the Priest we might consider what we can do to translate good intentions into action. In the meantime, let us be grateful that God calls so many to his service. Indeed, looking at the number of clergy, religious and lay people assembled in the parish church last night, I couldn't help thinking that East Hendred should be a village of saints. I rather think, however, we are a community of sinners . . . who keep on trying. Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

St Gregory, War and the U.S.A.

St Gregory the Great
Today we remember St Gregory the Great, Apostle of England, and one of the most creative popes ever to occupy the chair of St Peter. There are plenty of sites where you can read a resumé of his activities, listen to some of the chant that bears his name or read some of the magnificent prayers with which he graced the liturgy. If you are a Benedictine, you will, of course, treasure his regard for St Benedict.

The Catholic Culture Library contains all Gregory's writings in English translation. King Alfred the Great wanted all the English clergy to read "The Pastoral Care". Get a taste of Gregory here: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/fathers/ (link opens in new window).

This morning, however, I was thinking about two other anniversaries and pondering a connection with St Gregory that probably only exists in my mind. Today marks the anniversary of Britain's entry into the Second World War in 1939. The role of the papacy during that war continues to be debated. During the Lombard invasions of Italy, Gregory not only tried diplomacy to avert the worst horrors but emptied the papal treasury to help persecuted Jews, making him "the Father of the City [Rome], the joy of the world". Also on this day, but rather earlier, England accepted the independence of the United States of America. Gregory was very pragmatic man, and although the history of his dealings with the East is not "straightforward", he did much to ensure that Italy accepted the political realities of the day. In fact, the more I think about it, there was something very English about St Gregory. Perhaps that is why the English admire him so much. (The illustration is a tenth century ivory now in Vienna, showing St Gregory writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — perched as a dove on his shoulder — with three monk scribes toiling underneath.) Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

Early Morning

Up betimes this morning (which seems appropriate, given the reading from RB Prol. 8–20 today) and therefore able to have an hour before the Blessed Sacrament before anyone else began to stir. Such quiet times are very precious. The oratory is dark and shadowy, illumined only by the glow of the sanctuary lamp which throws little spills of light on the great cross and tabernacle. The fragrance of the last of the sweet peas hangs incense-like in the air. Muted sounds drift in from outside: the occasional bark of deer or fox, an owl perhaps, and as dawn begins to lighten the sky, the heron flies overhead "on creaking wing". One of the concomitants, so to say, of the cloistered life is that it gives one an intense sense of place: one tends to notice every little change or development, from the gradual uncurling of a leaf to the slow spreading of lichen and moss. I imagine that is how many of our forefathers experienced life in their villages and hamlets. For some that was enough for a happy and fulfilling life; others it propelled into going further afield, always seeking, seeking. Both stay-at-homes and adventurers are necessary for the health of society. That is true whether the society under consideration is Church or State. The paradox is, of course, that the contemplative, bound to his/her little place on this earth with a stability others sometimes wonder at, must make the longest and most adventurous journey of all: the journey into the depths of God. Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads as Digitalnun has not yet addressed the Echo problem. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

Slightly Mad?

Although St Bank does not feature in the monastic Ordo, the prospect of a Monday without visitors led to some whirlwind activity by the community over the week-end. Yes, at long last, we are doing our best to eliminate the latest crop of mould in the kitchen and preparing to redecorate. Hence our cyber-silence and the absence of a podcast this week. "Before" and "after" photos will be posted with a health warning for those of squeamish disposition. More seriously, 1 September is a day of sad anniversaries. We think of the beginning of the Second World War and the millions of people who died so tragically or whose lives were wrecked as a result. We think of the schoolchildren who died at Beslan. As we go about our daily round, perhaps with a little grumble or two about the cheerless Bank holiday weather, let us remember how much we have to be grateful for, and pray for those who struggle with difficulties we have never experienced. Prayer, like peace, achieves victories beyond the compass of war and action. Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.

Beheading of John the Baptist

Orthodox Christians keep the Martyrdom of St John the Baptist as a strict fast — no meat, wine, oil, fish or dairy — as a reminder that our lives should be different from those of Herod whose luxury and self-indulgence led him into sin. Some will not use plates today (because the Baptist's head was presented to Salome on a platter), and it is quite common to serve food that does not need a knife to cut it (because John's head was cut off with a sword). I daresay some people will smile as they read this; others will perhaps stop to think. When we live in a world that really understands sign and symbol such usages are more than just pious practices. They become a means of entering more fully into the celebration of the liturgy and so of the Mystery celebrated. In the west we have tended to concentrate on words, and as our respect for words has diminished (along with our grasp of meaning, grammar, syntax etc.) so our understanding of the liturgy has become impoverished, too. We are all eager to know exactly what form revisions to the Missal will take (leaked versions have been circulating for some time but until we see the definitive version, it is idle to speculate what will/will not be authorized for use in England) and are hopeful that we shall have something rather better than we have had in recent years. That is not to knock the current Ordo Missae which has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Hope, it is worth recalling, is one of the three theological virtues, although sometimes in practice rather a cinderella virtue. It is also, with humility, pre-eminently the virtue of today's great saint. Scroll down to comment.

An African Bishop

St Augustine of Hippo
A lot of blogs will contain comments on St Augustine today, so there is really no need for us to add to their number; but there is a question that has nagged at me since my student days. Did Augustine's development of the doctrine of original sin precede or proceed from his adoption of infant baptism? I suspect it could be argued either way. (And no, it is not my intention to initiate a debate on the question which would require a rather more scholarly apparatus than Colophon can provide.)

To move from the sublime-ish to the more mundane. The community has recently bought some new chasubles for use in the oratory. (This is instead of the new freezer we had been promising ourselves for the past year: good to see that even nuns believe in the jar of nard, isn't it?) Those who know our vestments will agree that Fr Bruno set a very high standard of design and finish in the chasubles he made for us but unfortunately they do not include all the colours needed for the liturgical year. Most of the commercial offerings we looked at were either hideous or expensive or both, and we felt we could not afford to commission anyone in Britain to make a vestment to order. Then we received a timely gift from a Friend and discovered a vestment maker in India who has produced three chasubles for us, including a gold one for solemnities. They are in the semi-Roman style currently favoured by Pope Benedict XVI, which means they hang beautifully, and have matching burses and chalice veils. They are not as stylish as Fr Bruno's, but they are dignified and serviceable. Next on the wish-list will be a black chasuble for 2 November and a small monstrance for Adoration. Is there no end to this amassing of ecclesiastical treasure?! Most communities, of course, start with the basic liturgical necessities already provided. We are building ours up little by little, and one of the lovely things about doing so is that nearly every item has a name and personal association attached to it. Something for our successors to cherish. Scroll down to comment as Digitalnun is prohibited from tampering until she has solved the problem with the white space.

One in Six

We learned yesterday that one in six British households does not have an adult in work. That is a sobering statistic. We can say, weakly, that it is "better" than the situation in Spain or other parts of the European Community, but to do so is to hide from the reality behind the figures. Britain is a rich country but there are still too many people living in poverty. Low morale and poor self-esteem are not theoretical constructs but the daily experience of many and should be a source of shame to those of us who enjoy rather different circumstances. If we look to the Church for leadership, we can assert that Catholic social teaching, as developed over the past century, gives some very clear and unequivocal guidance, although the application of its principles remains as difficult as ever. If we look across the Atlantic and consider the position of the American bishops vis-à-vis Obama's healthcare proposals, we can see just how difficult. Some have condemned the bishops for apparently being prepared to derail the proposals on the issue of abortion; others have rejoiced that the bishops have been prepared to uphold traditional teaching on the matter. Those of us who are not directly involved have a double duty. First, to pray for guidance and right judgement for those who have to make decisions that ultimately affect us all; secondly, to inform ourselves adequately. No Benedictine, no Christian, can omit the latter simply because he/she is diligent in prayer. It is part of being human, of our dignity and responsibility as children of God. (Domestic news: D. Teresa returns from hospital today. The surgery has been pronounced a success D.G. so no further bulletins will be issued.) Scroll down to comment.

Doing the Impossible: RB 68

A very thought-provoking chapter of RB to grapple with today. Who doesn't feel that he or she is being asked to do the impossible from time to time? There's a great deal of common sense in this chapter, along with a clearly enunciated spiritual ideal. Yes, accept a duty or obligation with gentleness and without argumentativeness; but if one can see that one is unequal to the task, acknowledge the fact, again with gentleness, and at an appropriate time. Often it is choosing the right moment that proves so difficult, or one feels awkward and therefore speaks awkwardly, too. It is a case of mutual give and take, of respect and realism on all sides. We can't avoid being stretched, but we can avoid making life unbearable for everyone. (Today's experiment is with a new form of blog archive tool which should reduce the length of the column on the left. We'll see. All three Trinity 2009 Lectures are now available as part of the "listen again" feature on our Talks page.) Scroll down to comment.

Digital Update

Perhaps we should have entitled this "The Vanishing Comments". Digitalnun is eating vast quantities of humble pie at the moment as she has encountered a problem she has conspicuously failed to solve. In an effort to reduce the unsightly space between the blog post and the box where you can respond/argue/contradict or what you will, she has been tweaking various bits of code. One unintended consequence is that all previous comments have now been consigned to cyber oblivion (until she recovers them, as she'd better!). We have extracted a promise from her that she will confine her experimenting to a test site and not touch this one until she is reasonably sure that her latest "solution" will actually work. As she is notoriously optimistic about the workarounds suggested by fellow cyber slaves, extracting this promise has involved threatening to set Duncan on her to tear her limb from limb/unplugging the computer/making her work on a Windows machine. The latter has brought her to her senses, at least for now. Please bear with us while we bear with her. Scroll down to comment.

Ring of Fire

In recent years we have become accustomed to hearing of terrible fires raging throughout different parts of the world but there is something especially poignant about the fires now threatening Athens. Last night we heard that Marathon was ringed with fire. While we pray above all for those whose lives are in danger, and for the ecological disaster that is unfolding, there is also is also a regret, a sadness, that sites of such antiquity and importance should succumb to flames. There is a magic in the very names. There is magic in the name of St Bartholomew (Nathanael), too, whose feast we keep today. He was hailed by the Lord Jesus as "an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile." What a wonderful thing to be, innocent of all guile! That's certainly worth pondering as we munch our gingerbread, one of the foods traditionally associated with St Bartholomew. Late-breaking news. Digitalnun is one of the participants in A Small Business, on Radio 4 at 4.02p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday 25 August. Scroll down to comment.

Summer's Lease

The garden is beginning to look a trifle ragged; the lambs are almost as big as their mothers; and there are golden glints among the leaves. Clearly, summer is about to turn into autumn, and over the next few weeks we shall notice chills and mists we haven't experienced for months. So, today has been a day for enjoying the sunshine and delighting in all the sounds and scents of summer. The podcast comes a little late in the day but was recorded as dawn showed pink in the sky, so be gentle with it and its sleepy-headed maker! Scroll down to comment.

Difficult Decisions

The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was bound to create a furore so it is no surprise to see how quickly the British Government and others have moved to distance themselves from the decision. The full facts will probably never be known, but the cynical will speculate whether there was some covert agreement on the part of the U.S.A. since the prospect of sharing in Libya's natural resources is so tempting to the energy-hungry countries of the west. What interests me is the way in which the arguments for and against Megrahi's release have typified differing moral stances. Christians, for example, believe in the virtues of forgiveness and compassion, which have to do with what we claim or aspire to be rather than what the person to whom we show forgiveness and compassion is or does — an important point when one considers the enormity of the charges against Megrahi. Like many people, I have some doubts about the soundness of his conviction and if it is true that he has only a few weeks to live, the decision to release him strikes me as an eloquent contradiction of everything that the Lockerbie bombing represents. But I could not help noticing that on the same day that we read of Megrahi's ecstatic welcome back to Libya we learned that seventy-three African refugees had died of starvation and thirst after being adrift for over three weeks on the open sea. They had been passed by a number of vessels, none of which had offered any help. For me, the knowledge of those deaths is harder to bear than the thought of Megrahi's release. If someone is hungry or thirsty, even if he is my sworn enemy, my duty is plain. Sadly, there is more than one way of being a murderer. Scroll down to comment.

Cloister Courtesies (RB 63 contd)

The ideal stated in the first half of RB 63 is today articulated as a series of ritual courtesies. Some people have no time for ritual or courtesy, seeing them as being empty of meaning, mere formalities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the way in which Benedict introduces a mutuality into relations between senior and junior monks. The junior monks (usually younger, but not always,) are to revere those who are senior to them while the senior monks are exhorted to love those junior to them. You could put it another way. Those who have power (possessions, talents, what you will) are to treat the powerless (those who have no possessions, fewer talents) with love and concern; those who have no power are to treat those appointed to serve them (which is what authority in a monastery is about) with loving respect. Notice, too, the way in which Benedict is sensitive to how we use language to assert equality or exalt status. No one in the monastery is to use just the bare name, we give each other titles of honour such as "Brother" or "Reverend Father". Yes, it is possible to hiss the word "Sister" in a most unpleasant fashion, but on the whole the fact that everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, uses the same form of address means that even the most insecure and vulnerable shouldn't be wounded by being treated with condescension while even the grandest of grandes dames should have a check on her self-importance (self-important, moi? Never!)

At the core of this section is Benedict's consideration of the abbot. He is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery and is therefore accorded a title and a reverence given to no other; but he is reminded, in no uncertain terms, that this reverence is not for himself but for his Lord and he must act accordingly. After mention of Christ Benedict passes on to the details of blessings given and received, of giving up one's seat to another (a rather unfashionable courtesy these days) and returns to one of his favourite scriptural texts, Romans 12.10. We must outdo one another in showing honour. The courtesies of the cloister are not remote from everyday life because they are concerned with how we express our recognition of other people's dignity and worth. I wonder how many people will think of giving up their seats on the Tube this morning. It's not wimpish, it's rather beautifully Benedictine. Scroll down to comment (comment box may take a moment or two to load).

RB 63 Community Rank

Or as one of the community prefers to translate, Community Order. This chapter of RB repays careful study. The portion we read today must have seemed extremely radical in the sixth century: deciding community rank according to the simplest means, the order in which we came though the door, overturns any covert expectations of preferential treatment because of personal or family distinctions. Even age is no guarantee of precedence, although Benedict elsewhere indicates that the old and the young are to receive especially tender treatment. We all find humility attractive in others; required of ourselves it can be trickier. But Benedict is no egalitarian. He gives two reasons for amending the way in which community order is established: the goodness of our lives or the abbot's decision (which, as he says, must never be an arbitrary act of authority: the abbot will have to account for his judgements). What we have in this chapter is a finely nuanced attempt to remove some of the major causes of friction that can arise in any body of people. It is not those who are leaders or managers or heads of departments that we have trouble with (which is not to say we are necessarily unquestioning, but their right to lead, manage and head is generally acknowledged), it is those who are on the same level as ourselves, so to say, who are more challenging. All those little jostlings for precedence, for ensuring our opinion triumphs, are a waste of time and energy and lead to a weakening of the body as a whole. RB 63 is a good reality check on the health of our relationships at home and at work. As we shall see, mutual respect is at the heart of Benedict's teaching. Respect! Scroll down to comment.

Wimple Wrinkles

We have had several enquiries about monastic life this week. One of the themes common to many is "my friends think I'd make a good nun". I often wonder what that means. Many people seem to think of nuns as being essentially "other". Probe a little and you'll find that the expectations they have range from slightly naive to seriously disordered (nuns should be saintly at all times, smile sweetly, put up with the most outrageous treatment, listen patiently to bores, live on nothing, never get tired, irritable or ill, unless they can contrive to die young of consumption, float around in beautiful habits which never require any time spent on them nor hinder them in the performance of any duty, maintain a spotlessly clean and ordered house, library and garden, and above all, be always available whenever called upon by personal visit, letter, telephone or email etc, etc, etc). Here at Hendred we fail on every count, except occasionally and accidentally. Nuns are real people, as flawed as the next person, but possessed of minds, hearts and opinions which can be as dotty or deranged as anyone else's, (even yours). I think it's fair to say, however, that most know they are imperfect beings and are doing their best to live lives of genuine humility and compassion. One cannot come to choir several times a day, day in day out, without being forced to face some inconvenient truths about oneself and others. One cannot live alongside people one would never otherwise share a house with without being forced to learn a give and take that will stretch one beyond what one might think possible. The unity of a community comes from charity and shared ideals, not from similarity or personal liking. It certainly doesn't come from behaving according to some stereotype that doesn't exist outside the popular imagination. Monastic life isn't a soft option, but it is an immensely worthwhile way of spending one's life. And the emphasis in that sentence is on "spend": it is indeed a reality "costing not less than everything".

St Maximilian Kolbe

St Maximilian Kolbe is a controversial figure. No one disputes his valour or his heroic charity: his readiness to offer his own life for that of Franciszek Gajowniczek makes the rest of us realise how very cowardly and ungenerous we often are. But there are two problems. Not everyone is comfortable with the fact that Pope John Paul II canonised him as a martyr (i.e. one who was killed out of hatred for the Faith, which is difficult to argue in the context of Auschwitz) whereas Pope Paul VI beatified him under the title of confessor (one who defended the Faith in time of persecution, which Maximilian surely did); and there is some unease about the anti-semitic tone of some of the articles published by the Militia Immaculata which he established. The Church needs controversial figures, models of holiness not perfect in every degree, people we can argue about as well as revere; so perhaps we should welcome the fact that St Maximilian is a complex character. One of Maximilian's attractive qualities is that he chose the best and latest technology for his printing ventures. Today he would surely be at the forefront of using the internet for godly purposes. If you walk past Westminster Abbey today, look up at his statue above the West Door and ask a blessing on all who try to use the internet and associated technologies for good.

Fox and Hound

Fox in garden
Another fox in the garden this morning. This one seems to find rats a tasty morsel, but we don’t mind, being fairly indifferent to both rats and pigeons. Fortunately, we haven’t any guests staying with us at the moment, so no outraged squeals of disapproval to contend with!

Today’s chapter of RB (53: On the Offering of the Children of the Nobility and the Poor) tends to elicit lots of comments from guests, usually of the questioning rather than indignant variety. The point of the chapter is surely what it says about oblates (who today are always adults). The offering of self is expressed in written form and usually takes place within the liturgical action of the Mass, being closely associated with the offering of the bread and wine which will become the Eucharist. The oblate’s chart, like the nun’s chart of profession, is placed under the corporal: a reminder that the promises we make are made to God and are identified with the sacrificial offering of his Son. Oblation is a serious step in anyone’s life, and we are lucky here at Hendred to have a body of really admirable oblates and associates drawn from various ecclesial traditions. Happily, they all seem to like the resident hound, who is totally unmoved by the presence of foxes in the monastery garden.
Duncan at rest

The blog commenting system is still causing headaches. If you experience any difficulties, please get in touch. We are currently using JS-Kit's Echo, only released on 6 August, so teething problems are not surprising.

The Glorious Twelfth

No doubt today will be celebrated on many a Scottish grouse moor with the popping of guns (and corks? I’ve never been on a grouse moor on 12 August: it sounds like a deadly combination). Here in the monastery it will be that most blissful of occasions, a green feria: in other words, an “ordinary day”. No special liturgical complexities, no culinary complications, hopefully not too many surprise guests (forgive the misanthropic confession, but even nuns have to see to such mundane tasks as laundry, gardening, housework, repairs and book-keeping as well as earning their living, and it isn’t always easy to give the warm-hearted welcome Benedict expects when one is conscious of needing to get a job into the post or fix something that is broken before the rain begins). Perhaps we take the holiness of the ordinary for granted and have to be surprised into fresh awareness every now and then. It is cloudy and overcast this morning but if I look out of my window at the sweet peas in the bed immediately below, I can count fourteen different colours of bloom. Magical. (We continue to experiment with the commenting system and hope to get the Facebook link working today. For those who wish to view the BBC link referred to yesterday, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00m5x70/What_to_Eat_Now_Series_2_Episode_6/ (link opens in new window).

Holy Poverty

Benedictines don't go in for poverty as such. The Rule exhorts us to frugality and austerity of life, which is not inconsistent with institutional splendour (think solemn liturgy, fine libraries, works of art); so not for us the glorious freedom of St Clare, whose memoria we keep today. There is something very appealing about her espousal of poverty in its strictest form. Easier to achieve in Italy than in England, perhaps, although many Poor Clares have lived out her ideals in our greyer climate and brought some southern warmth and sunshine to Church life. Our thanks to all who emailed after last night’s TV programme. We haven’t seen it yet although the producer is sending us a DVD to look at on the computer (if we get round to it). It is slightly mystifying to us why food programmes are so avidly watched. Far better, surely, to go into the kitchen and make something oneself or hoe a row of onions in the garden. Could it be that Benedictines not only lack Franciscan poverty but also something of their joie de vivre? And before anyone answers in the affirmative, please remember that a sense of humour is as important in monastic life as it is in marriage. We are to become saints ourselves, not make saints of others.

Another White Rabbit Moment

Yesterday we remembered Fr Baker, a great teacher of prayer, and a formative influence on the community of English nuns at Cambrai from which we trace our descent; St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein, the Carmelite martyr whose philosophical studies led her to embrace Catholicism without rejecting her Jewish past; and, in rather more homely fashion, celebrated a community birthday with a nod towards today’s feast of St Lawrence by holding a barbecue. Duncan was quite interested in the sausages but the liturgy seems to have left him unmoved — he slept through it all quite peacefully. The struggle with the blog commenting engine continues. We have enlisted the support of others to understand why there is such a long gap between the blog post and the comments widget. In the meantime, we can only ask our readers (if there are any left) to be patient with us. This week’s podcast seems to be suffering from faintness and hisses in sympathy with the blog (turn up the volume on your set if you really want to listen). HOWEVER, we have replaced the photo of the house on the main Life and Work page with a more recent one showing the garden in bloom. And, oh yes, you can watch us looking gormless in this evening’s episode of “What to Eat Now”, BBC 2 at 8.30 p.m. We won’t see it as we are “TV free”!

Red in Tooth and Claw

Saw a fox on the lawn early yesterday morning. She stalked one of the pigeons, then proceeded to devour her kill, finally making off as the grey light became brighter. Foxes are messy killers, but I was glad to see that she actually ate what she had killed (I admit to having little sympathy for the pigeon which had devoured our sugar peas and much else in the garden). Living where we do, one cannot become sentimental about nature, but I must confess it was a strange start to the day. “Murder in the Monastery” sounds like the title of a bad crime novel, doesn’t it?

Transfiguration 2009

Near the front entrance of the monastery we have a rose which has bloomed throughout the summer, allowing us to fill vase after vase with creamy peach rosebuds that open slowly and gloriously. According to Armenian tradition, the feast of the Transfiguration goes back to the early fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh (Roseflame). He kept the old name for the Christian feast because "Christ opened his glory like a rose on Thabor." I like to think of that whenever I look at our rose. I also like to think of the monks of Cluny who popularised the feast in the Middle Ages. Best of all, I like to think of the mystery of light which so informs the Transfiguration story and the collect for the Second Sunday of Lent which seeems to express both the event and the necessary response with an economy of words I can only marvel at. Did the transfiguration occur at night? What did Peter, James and John really see to leave them so awed and dazed? Would it be presuming too much to guess that they experienced in a unique way what is occasionally given in prayer for a moment or two (though how does one measure time in prayer?) and that it took a lifetime of reflection to make sense of it? That it could only be made sense of in the light of Easter, so that we too can only "make sense" of the mystery through the life of grace begun at baptism and sustained through prayer and reception of the sacraments?

Of course, for us now, there is another and darker aspect to today. Who can forget that 6 August is also the anniversary of Hiroshima? Light connects the two, though there is a world of difference between the divine illumination of the one and the diabolical glare of the other. The statistics of nuclear stockpiles make sobering reading. More sobering still is the knowledge that human beings have not learned the lessons of the last sixty-four years, that homo sapiens is only a whisker away from descending into homo vastans. We need a transfiguration of minds and hearts, something for which to pray today.

(Note for commenters: haven't quite got the comment engine working as it should but we will sometime in the next twenty-four hours, we hope.)

Oh happy day!

Much anticipated rejoicing at Hendred today. There is a new altar cloth on the altar and all is set for Mass and commissioning of the tabernacle later in the day. One of our oblates has sent the most amazing lilies to grace the sanctuary. Greenfingernun has pointed out that the "Lovely Lady" lilies she planted outside the parish rooms are also in full bloom, so that what with the lilies, the sweat peas and incense, we shall be in a state of sensory overload despite the "Constable skies" overhead. Digitalnun is looking more cheerful about the web site commenting system; and we are all looking forward to Pauline Matarasso's talk on Wulfric of Haslebury tomorrow evening. Pauline is a most distinguished scholar, poet and translator with a delightful sense of humour and deep appreciation of spiritual things. She is an oblate of our community so we shall be welcoming her as "one of our own". Don't forget to put the talk in your diary: 7.30 p.m. on Thursday at the King's Manor (opposite the Eyston Arms), East Hendred. Admission free, with a glass of wine or juice to follow.

War and the Curé d'Ars

Today is the anniversary of Britain's entry into the First World War, the Great War for Civilisation, which was to end all wars. How hollow that hope seems now, nearly a century later; how hollow it looked in 1939. One can trace the movement from hope to disillusion in the poetry of the time. Somewhere in the house we have a recording of Sassoon reading his war poetry in the parlour at Stanbrook: an amatuer recording, with hissy tapes and the coughs and snuffles of the listeners, but fascinating because Sassoon reads much less emphatically than many contemporary readers of his work do. He knew war from the inside; we don't. There is something of the same quality in the psalms. Israel is always battling against someone or something, at either the individual or the communal level. "Break the teeth in their mouths!" we cheerfully sing on Fridays; but it is a bit limp, because it's a long time since breakfast and lunch is just around the corner. Sung in Afghanistan it would be different, but we aren't in Afghanistan, we're in rural England. One of the lesser known aspects of the story of St John Vianney is his constant battling with the powers of darkness. He knew from the inside what the struggle against evil entails; many of us don't, but that doesn’t mean the struggle is any the less real or terrible. So, a prayer today for all who fight for what is right and good and true. The First World War involved millions; the Curé d'Ars battled alone, as most of us must. The psalms remind us that it isn't numbers that assures the victory but obedience to the will of God.

Sunday in the Monastery

Sweet Pea
The monastery is looking beautiful this morning. Clearing the shrubberies and replacing them with flowers has brought so much more light and life into the garden. When time allows, we must post more photos on the gallery pages but Digitalnun is determined to get the new blog working as soon as possible, so doubtless photos will be on the "to do" list for a bit longer. Today's Mass readings focus on the Eucharist, and as listeners to this week's podcast will realise, that is a theme very close to our hearts as we prepare for the commissioning of our tabernacle on Wednesday. Spare a thought, however, for those for whom the beauty of this morning is a painful contrast to their feelings of pain and loss. Over the week-end we were told about several deaths. We hold each one in prayer but it is hard for those who must cope in a society which no longer accepts that death is a part of life.

New Blog Engine

Today was the day we had hoped to introduce our new blog engine but sadly Digitalnun has had too many interruptions to complete the changeover. It probably will not be possible to complete the work now until sometime next week.

Rights and Duties

Yesterday the Law Lords decided that the Director of Public Prosecutions should clarify the law on assisted suicide. Inevitably, many hailed the decision as "compassionate" and "a step forward". Surely, no one could be indifferent to the suffering and anguish of those who long for death as a release from something they find intolerable, nor can one be unmoved by the suffering of those who must watch one they love struggle with terminal illness. But we need to be clear about what is at issue. At the moment, assisting another's suicide is illegal. The DPP is being asked to clarify the circumstances in which, for example, a relative who helps someone to commit suicide would not be prosecuted. Advocates of "mercy killing" are right to say this is not the same as permitting euthanasia, that it is a limited measure with limited scope. However, one can see where it is likely to lead, particularly once the language of rights is invoked, as it so often is in the emotive "right to die" argument. So, two points to make. (1) We do not have a right to die, we have no moral claim on death. On the contrary, death has a claim on us. (2) If we do have rights in this matter, then we also have duties. Do we therefore have a duty to die once we are considered a burden to ourselves or others? Who makes the judgement and on what grounds? Catholic teaching on these subjects is remarkably clear and consistent. Living up to its demands is tough but personally I don't want to abdicate responsibility. It's part of being human. And I want to go on being human until I die, which I trust will be at the moment of God's choosing, not mine, nor anyone else's.

Slavery Revisited

One of the great unwritten works of our time is "From Wulstan to Wilberforce: the abolition of the slave trade". St Wulstan (or Wulfstan, if you prefer) was the last Anglo-Saxon bishop of Worcester, the only one to retain his see after the Norman Conquest. He is remembered, among other things, for his valiant opposition to the slave trade. Nearly a thousand years later another Englishman, William Wilberforce, whose anniversary is today, was still battling for the same end. All credit to Wilberforce and his supporters for challenging entrenched attitudes and financial interests. The "churchmanship" of Wulstan and Wilberforce was very different, just as the societies in which they lived were very different, but I can't help feeling they are both united in heaven praying for an end to slavery on earth. For the tragic fact is that a slave trade still exists, and human beings created in the image and likeness of God are still being enslaved. The razzmatazz that surrounded 2007 should not blind us to the fact that much remains to be done.

SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus

We keep today as a feast of friendship but we are also reading what St Benedict has to say on the subject of work and lectio divina or prayerful reading (RB 48). I suppose one could identify Martha with the holiness of work, Mary with the holiness of contemplation; but what of Lazarus? According to medieval legend, Lazarus was a sad man to the end of his days because he had glimpsed heaven and been brought back to life on earth. Fanciful it may be, but perhaps we can identify Lazarus with the "divine restlessness" in ourselves, the part of us that is not satisfied with anything less than God. Or again, we can see in the family of Bethany an image of the Blessed Trinity: Julian of Norwich captured the essence of this in her meditation on the nature of the Godhead. Either way, today is a day for celebrating the warmth of human love and friendship and being awed by the friendship God desires to maintain with us.

Almost there . . .

Neville and Fr Anthony prepare to fit the tabernacle
Fr Anthony de Vere and Neville Mason came yesterday to position the tabernacle in our oratory. Neville can be seen kneeling with the beautiful oak plinth he made to match the mensa of our altar (which he also made). Fr Anthony seems to be having trouble with the tabernacle lock, but within minutes the two are hard at work. Very tidy workmen they proved, with Neville detailing Fr Anthony to hold a dustpan while he drills the wall.
Neville drills the wall while Fr A. holds the dustpan
Then there is the sanctuary lamp, the gift of Fr Alex Lane, to be fitted. It obviously takes more people to fit a lamp than a light bulb!
Fitting the sanctuary lamp
Fr Anthony will commission the tabernacle next week. He has enriched our community with many liturgical gifts and left behind a lovely, simple lunette for use here at Hendred. Now, all we await is the Presence.

The tabernacle in positionThe sanctuary lamp in position

Grandparents

So much for the leisurely Sunday afternoon we had promised ourselves! It merely proves the truth of the old quip, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. The podcast will have to be done sometime tomorrow after I get back from Oxford — hopefully before Fr Anthony and Neville arrive to fix the tabernacle in position and a guest arrives for a few days. The connection between all that and grandparents may not strike you as obvious, but there is indeed a connection, and it has to do with kindness and the way in which we rely on others. Had today not been Sunday, we would have been celebrating a Memoria of SS Joachim and Anne, the maternal grandparents of the Lord Jesus. Grandparents, as any sane person (i.e. anyone under the age of seven, after which the rot sets in) will tell you, are immensely important people. They are kind, helpful and lavish with the gift of time. When one is young and needs to show off, grandparents can be relied upon to be indulgent. They can be quite good at ignoring parental rules and regulations and often seem to have endless reserves of patience (perhaps because they can wave the grandchiild goodbye at the end of the day, but that's another matter). Parents are too often worried about this and that, especially the future which never comes; but they too know how valuable grandparents are, especially when they need help with childcare as they juggle their busy lives and conflicting commitments. I was thinking about this as I watched a grandparent deal with a fretful child. The stress levels of the parents were visbly mounting and a tug of war looked likely, but the moment Grandma took the child on her lap, all was sweetness and smiles. The bond between the young and the old is very precious. Unless, sadly, they have learned otherwise, the young rely on the old with simple trust and a cheerful expectation of kindness and help; and thankfully, they are not usually disappointed. We may not be grandparents, we may ourselves be very young, but it is worth asking where we fit in this scheme of things. Do we trust, are we trustworthy?

Excommunication: RB 44

Today's chapter of the Rule takes up where chapters 23 to 30 left off and addresses the difficult question of how to restore peace when there has been some rupture or disturbance. It is interesting that Benedict's first suggestion is to ritualize, literally act out in silence, one's sorrow for having offended. Words are not always the best way of making amends. They can easily sound hollow, and the effort sometimes required to speak them can make them sound false or even aggressive to wounded ears. Comparatively few have the gift of being sincere and appearing sincere at the same time, although when one meets such qualities, they are utterly disarming. Perhaps this would be a good day to take stock of any unresolved quarrels/misunderstandings and reflect whether there is some gesture we could make which would lessen the tension and restore harmony. One who seeks to make peace must be prepared for rebuff and failure, however. Grace does not move every heart at the same pace or in the same way. I daresay that even in Benedict's monastery there were some who took a rather mean delight in seeing Brother So-and-So lying with his face on the ground, making satisfaction. Tant pis pour lui.

Black Sheep, White Sheep

Very much looking forward to James France's lecture on the Cistercians tonight. James lives nearby and is active in the Friends of HTM so opportunities to discuss aspects of Cistercian history are happily frequent. His ground-breaking work on the iconography of St Bernard will be known to some (and was the subject of a memorable "historians' tea" here at Hendred) but tonight's talk will be more general in nature. Benedictines sometimes get a little nervous about Cistercian claims (no wonder, when the Benedictine in the "Dialogue Between a Cluniac and a Cistercian" is so utterly trounced!) but I like to remind people that we stem from the same stock, that many a Black Monk (or nun) has a secret hankering after the more rigorously coenobitic life of the White Monk, and that we have much to learn from one another. For years my myopic gaze looked at the rose window at Stanbrook and saw what I thought was a black sheep and a white by the figure of Our Lady holding the Child Jesus — immensely satisfying to one whose first historical researches were in Cistercian history. Alas, new spectacles revealed that the black and white sheep were a miniaturized ox and donkey. I hope that is not going to prove prophetic of James' theme tonight!

St Mary Magdalene

Today's feast is a little Easter, full of the joy of the Risen Christ. It's impossible to think of St Mary Magdalene without remembering her running through the darkness in search of her dead Lord and finally seeing him, through a mist of tears, Risen and Glorious, never to die anymore, in a quiet garden. I like to think of that scene suffused with early morning light, the Sun just risen . . . . One thinks also of Julian of Norwich seeing Jesus "in a stained and dirty kirtle", again in a garden. Perhaps the English love of gardens has something to do with this sense that they are a privileged place of meeting. The monastic garden is above all somewhere for prayer and reflection. We all seem to have a favourite corner and a favourite time when we like to be alone in the garden. We don't shoo others away, but we make it quite clear that we need SPACE, please. My times are early morning and evening when no-one else seems to be around. Come to think of it, those are times specially associated with the Resurrection: Mary Magdalene would understand.

Tweaked!

Digitalnun is pleased to report that Broadband access has now been restored and the new router is a vast improvement on the old (well, so far . . . ) The network within the house has also been tweaked, with a few further refinements necessary (a booster station will be required: has anyone got an Apple Airport Express they would like to sell on? If so, please get in touch.) We hope to get the latest podcast up later today and have set a date of 1 August for implementation of the new blog engine. We'll have a trial period for enabling comments and just see how it goes. As we have often said, there are more useful things to be doing than monitoring unsuitable content! There are a number of changes and additions we want to make to the site but we will give advance warning about feeds and urls, in case we miss some redirects (even Homer nodded). In the meantime, the eco-awareness of today's chapter of RB is something we could all ponder. For Benedictines, the emphasis on asceticism is paramount, but it is also a nice reminder that using daylight rather than artificial light is a fundamental "green" option.

Thought for Food (RB 39)

The sixth century monastic diet as advocated by Benedict in today's chapter of RB would not have led to heart disease. In fact, by modern nutritional standards, its emphasis on frugality, regularity, fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, together with the absence of red meat except in case of sickness, would probably recommend it to health professionals. I wonder whether "The Benedict Diet" could become an attractive alternative to all the whacky schemes for so-called "healthy eating" that seem to obsess people in the West? Benedict wanted as much as possible to be sourced locally, from food to clothing (zero food miles, low carbon footprint, he ticks all the right boxes, doesn't he?); there's a long wisdom traditon behind RB; and just enough "mystery" to lend it a certain "otherworldly" charm. Where it might fall down is in its contemporary manifestation. So many monks and nuns are of a "comfortable" shape rather than fashionably slim. No use arguing that that's because most of us don't adhere in every detail to Benedict's principles or do as much manual labour as in the sixth century. Then, too, Benedict's diet would require too much self-discipline to appeal to a celebrity, so I suspect it's a non-starter. We did our shopping yesterday and I couldn't help noticing that some of the food items we bought come a long way from where we live (pasta from Italy, oil from Spain, for example) though I don't think there were any extravagances (conscience not quite clear about some of the items bought for our guests, but that's another matter) and I think Benedict would have approved most of our choices. Digitalnun returned in grumpy mood to find the Broadband "down" yet again, so finally got round to changing the router (the one supplied by BT has caused many headches) and is now muttering about tweaking the wireless network. Internet access is therefore patchy and intermittent while she tweaks and we suspect there is a huge build-up of email on our server. It's rather like cholesterol building up in the arteries . . . .

On the Old and the Very Young (RB 37)

I like the way in which Benedict adds this short, compassionate chapter immediately after his thoughtful treatment of how the sick are to be looked after in the monastery. He expects us to be sympathetic to the weakness of others (which tells us he must have been a kind man himself) but he is aware that authority must protect the vulnerable or there is a risk that we may become harsh or neglectful. Interestingly, he singles out food and the timing of meals as an area of concern. It is easy for a monastery to become a little inflexible: the need for a certain routine can lead to rigidity about what are, in the end, comparative trifles. Happily, I don't think that is likely to happen here. It is a struggle to make ends meet, be faithful to prayer and reading and keep all our charitable works going; so we have learned that we must be ready to adapt and accommodate. The horarium (timetable) of the house provides a structure for the day, but it is precisely that: a structure on which to build, not a cage to constrain or clamp down. Perhaps this would be a good day to take stock of elements in one's life that are meant to support but sometimes weigh heavily. How much do we take on (or impose on others?) that isn't really necessary? The "vulnerable" is, after all, a category that includes all of us at some time or another.

BBC Oxford Feature

The even tenour of life at the monastery was interrupted yesterday by BBC Oxford, which sent Claire Price to do a small TV feature on us (to be screened on Friday evening, if it survives the editor's cuts). Inevitably, the camera broke down and Claire had to dash away to another appointment sooner than she expected but one has to admire the sheer professionalism of BBC staff. Lugging heavy equipment, falling off a rickety chair in search of a new angle, digesting huge amounts of information in short order and doing apparently "off the cuff" interviews with grace and good humour are all part of a day's work. I'm sure there's the making of a chapter talk in that. Talking of talks, you can now listen to the inaugural lecture in our Trinity Lectures 2009 series, given by Henrietta Leyser on Christina of Markyate, the twelfth century nun. It's on our new talks page and lasts about 50 minutes. Please bear in mind that it's a live recording to which we did just a little editing, so you can still hear the laughter which greeted some of Henrietta's quips. It is very generous of her to allow us to share her talk in this way so please respect her copyright and get in touch with us if you wish to link to or otherwise make use of her material. As Benedict says, "Do not do to another what you would not want done to yourself." Otherwise Digitalnun will do wicked things with her ht.access file!

Swine 'Flu and the Kiss of Peace

The latest news about the spread of Swine 'flu makes grim reading for anyone with a respiratory problem. Apparently, the current virus tends to hit the airways harder, making the development of pneumonia more likely for those at risk. While it remains true that for most people symptoms will be mild and recovery unproblematic, one does wonder why our bishops have still not done anything about suggesting that we stop exchanging handshakes in church, given that hand to hand transmission is so prevalent. My own attempts to replace the handshake with a gracious monastic bow and warm smile have been met with baffled incomprehension and the suspicion that we nuns are being horribly stand-offish. No, people, we're just trying to be prudent as two of us are a bit more at risk of complications than most and it's obvious the poor old NHS is going to be struggling. Oxfordshire is already on red alert and we're still only in July. Perhaps this is something we could all think about. We may be fine about catching 'flu, knowing that the chances of a speedy recovery for ourselves are good; but what about our neighbour? The Kiss of Peace as Kiss of Death? What a horrible thought!

Kitchen Service

An idle thought. How many abbots nowadays take their turn at kitchen duty? Benedict, as usual, has a point. Every form of service in community is important, and we can be quick to cry off some by pleading the excuse of "more important business", which may mean only something we find more congenial. A medieval kitchen wasn't a very pleasant place to be in summer, nor was kitchen work an easy option, so it is challenging to find Benedict claiming that it increases charity. The question is, in the cook, or towards the cook? If my experience is anything to go by, one sometimes needs a little tin hat to fend off the brethren's not-so-affirmative remarks and one is left feeling that the milk of human charity has turned to yoghurt in one's veins. Perhaps it is all a question of degree. Working in the kitchen provides many opportunities for service, provided one cultivates the right attitude. Love shows in the cooking.

Final Oblation

Oblate Alexander displays his chart

On the Feast of St Benedict Alexander made his final oblation. He is shown here displaying his chart which, just like the monastic profession of vows, is written out by the oblate in his/her own hand, signed on the altar and then laid there while Mass is celebrated. It is a powerful reminder that that we are the living stones of the Church, the true oblata which must be united with the offering of Christ himself. The medal that he is wearing is the medal of St Benedict. Those we give our oblates come from Monte Cassino, where we took care to have them blessed by an English abbot (local patriotism demanded as much). In case you are wondering, Saturday's oblation took place in Alexander's own chapel rather than the monastery oratory: he jetted back from Italy the night before so it was a case of catching him before he took flight again. Fortunately, not all our oblates have to travel quite so much! Today's podcast takes up the theme of what the oblate is and does. There are many ways of being Benedictine. Common to all is the humble, persevering search for God, following the teaching of St Benedict.

St Benedict's Day

Happy feast of St Benedict! We don't keep today as a solemnity (that is the "proper" feast of St Benedict, the Transitus on 21 March) but what Benedictine worth her salt would overlook any occasion for rejoicing in our holy father's name? A it happens, we have a stream of visitors booked in this week-end, and today we shall be admitting another oblate; so opportunities for celebrating will not be wanting. In between whiles Digitalnun hopes to finish editing the recording of Henrietta Leyser's superb talk on Christina of Markyate, the first of our Trinity Lectures for this year. Henrietta has graciously given permission for it to be streamed from our web site, so look out for a new TALKS page in the near future. That is where you will also find the community's talks on medieval English mystics and anything else we think worth making available in that format. I can't end this post, however, without drawing your attention to today's chapter of the Rule, 33. Benedict was very severe on private ownership. He saw it as corrupting of community life and insisted that all things should be held in common. Those of us who dwell in monasteries know how easy it is to become attached to this or that, to treat the common property of the monastery as our own; but there is another form of private ownership that we tend to ignore or not take seriously although it can be a great disturber of the peace. We become very attached to our particular way of doing things, of asserting (non-existent) rights over the way in which the community acts or does things. It can even be in trivial matters like how the vegetables are cooked for dinner! Dare I say, it isn't only monks and nuns who fall victim to this? This is a good day to examine how far we demand that others adhere to our standards or adapt themselves to our likes and dislikes. Benedict's ideal of monastic life was to prefer nothing whatever to Christ, to outdo one another in paying respect, to choose always what is better for the other. That's not a bad standard for family life, too.

What To Eat Now

Valentine Warner at the Monastery
"What To Eat Now" came to Hendred on Tuesday in the shape of Valentine Warner and his team who filmed part of the current series here in the monastery, beginning with Mass in the oratory which, as readers of Colophon will appreciate, is where all our thinking about food and the rituals of eating actually begins. Filming began at 8.00 a.m. and went on for the next twelve hours as we dodged heavy rainstorms to view the garden, then back into the kitchen for cooking sequences, repeated twice over to ensure suitably luscious close-ups of the food. We were assured that kitchens always look better under TV lights (running off our electricity as Scroogenun observed), which is just as well as the kitchen is "atmospheric" in the extreme since we have still not found time to eliminate the mould and redecorate. We do not have TV ourselves, so we won't be watching the finished programme (probably it'll be part of episode 5 or 6 of the current series) but no doubt someone will tell us what happens. We're not going to reveal what Valentine cooked, but tonight's guest speaker, Henrietta Leyser, will be enjoying something he prepared. So, tonight we'll have a feast of history and food! (The inaugural Trinity Lecture, on Christina of Markyate, takes place tonight at 7.30 p.m. in the King's Manor, East Hendred: entrance via the red gates opposite the Eyston Arms. Admission free.)

Printing and Prayer

A page from a Lectern edition of RB
A long time ago I used to give days of recollection entitled "Printing and Prayer". I'd take people through the fascinating history of the Stanbrook Abbey Press, with many an example of fine printing for people to see and hold. Then I'd start to articulate the way in which all the beauty they had enjoyed was a by-product, so to say, of prayer: printing wasn't the purpose of the monastery, although for Benedictines especially, working with words and books has always been a good way of expressing our monastic values. If you think about it, the disciplines involved in printing are quite similar to those needed for a life of prayer. Qualities of honesty and perseverance are necessary for learning any craft; and as with the printer's art, so with the one who prays, simplicity costs. There has to be a stripping away, a glad loss of ego and self-concern. Obedience to the Word is fundamental. Just as the printer thinks as much about the white space on the page as about the words and images that will constitute its contents, so one needs to give some thought to the setting or conditions for prayer. Yes, one can pray anywhere, but it does help to set aside a regular time or choose a particular place, preferably as uncluttered as possible. The colour of a typeface, the differences in black inks, the look, feel and behaviour of different papers, all are taken into account by the printer who knows her stuff. Happily, prayer is a little less complicated and seeks no particular result, so one must not push the analogy too far. The illustration above is telling in its way. It's a page from the Rule of St Benedict that I use every day. It's an imperfect copy of a lectern edition printed at Stanbrook in 1930 on handmade paper (made up of discarded sheets we used as lining paper). The capitals on this sheet are incorrectly placed and some of the word spacing would cause a sharp intake of breath if it were allowed to go forth into the world unadjusted. It reminds me that only God is perfect, that prayer is a gift, given in His way and at a time of His choosing. (Second edition of this post, the first was corrupted on upload.)

End of the Retreat

Our retreat ends today. Our apologies for all the unanswered letters and emails but we do try to limit ourselves to prayer requests and urgent business, otherwise we'd never get a free minute. The concert on Tuesday was excellent. I think Jubilate! sang even better than last year, and there was a very convivial atmosphere in the gardens afterwards. Thanks to some spectacularly generous sponsorship the evening raised £2614, all of which will be devoted to our work for the blind (boring but necessary items like electricity bills, telephone bills, insurance and accountancy fees in the first instance; next, replacing stocks of blank cassettes and labels + a much-needed computer for office work; then we can start thinking about planning for the future. We'll be putting up an equipment list fairly soon, so you'll see how costly many of the items we need are. This is just the start of our fund-raising for St Cecilia's). Meanwhile life in the monastery has not been dull. Wasps decided to build a nest in the library during our retreat: we spotted them on the hottest day of the year, which was fun. Handynun decided to have a mammoth bake-in on the second hottest day of the year, which was also fun, especially for anyone who dared to enter the (admittedly tiny) kitchen while work was in progress; and Digitalnun was heard printing concert programmes at half past midnight on the day of the concert itself, which was . . . fun. At least she had the decency not to sing "Sleepers, awake!" Apparently, she has done something about the blog engine and assures us that from the middle of the month onwards, you will have the opportunity of commenting. The web site will probably be offline for an hour or so while she makes the switch so there will be an announcement when the changeover is to take place. Although our retreat was not quite as leisured or quiet as we might have hoped, we were immensely impressed by the retreat-giver, Fr Jeremy Driscoll OSB, and value very much the input he gave. Probably some of it will appear in this blog over the next few days. There were other joys, too. Walking along some unfamiliar woodland one evening we heard a nightingale singing. It was a heart-stopping moment. The kind of thing that makes every sense come alive with a tremendous affirmation: yes, God, YES.

The Music of Shakespeare

This year's Music for Midsummer is scheduled for Tuesday, 30 June and promises to be a wonderful evening, with weather to match. If you haven't yet got a ticket, there are still some which will be available at the door. Come and hear Jubilate! under their director Simon Whalley and some fine actors give us The Music of Shakespeare in word and song. Afterwards we shall meet in the gardens of Hendred House (adjoining the church) for wine and canapés as the shadows lengthen over the grass and the swallows wheel overhead. Very English, very enjoyable and an excellent way of helping our work for the blind and visually impaired, about which we shall say something during the evening. The community retreat continues until 5 July but an exception will be made for the concert: the nuns will be allowed to speak! (podcast resumes next week.)

Michael Jackson, R.I.P.

Already (5.00 a.m.) our prayerline is humming with requests to pray for the repose of the soul of Michael Jackson. Perhaps people will be more generous in death than they sometimes were in life to someone who was clearly both hugely talented and deeply troubled. No doubt the media will have a brief "Wacko Jacko" feeding frenzy which will tend to eclipse the real grief of his family and friends. Let us hope that his family will be given the space they need to come to terms with the shock of his death, and that those who had something against him will be able to forgive and let go. We all face death: surely none of us would want to enter that good night with unresolved quarrels or conflicts, or some kind of "unfinished business" hanging over us. Catholics customarily pray for the grace of a happy death, one in which we are at peace with God and others. We also believe that we can help with our prayers those who have already died; so let us pray today for Michael Jackson and all to whom death has come suddenly. Requiescant in pace. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Three Feasts

At this time of year we celebrate three feasts that are great favourites with the community. Yesterday we had SS Thomas More and John Fisher, today we have St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns, while tomorrow we have the Birthday of St John the Baptist. More and Fisher were great Englishmen with whom we have a number of connections that make them not-so-distant figures. At Hendred House over the way you can see More's drinking cup and Fisher's cane, with which he walked to the block, while we look to a nearer connection through D. Gertrude More, disciple of Fr Baker and a worthy great-great-grandaughter of the martyr. As English nuns,we have no difficulty in identifying with our predecessors when, for example, we read about changing into night shoes in the Regularis Concordia and quietly note our own custom today, though none of us is wearing a hairshirt under a purple tunic, nor is the prioress's veil edged with gold as some of those found at Shaftesbury were. John the Baptist is the most monastic of saints, the most joyful, the most attractive because the closest to Christ. No doubt I'll write more about him tomorrow. Meanwhile, on the principle that one should taste and see that the Lord is good, I'll mention that we tend to associate these feasts with different foods. For More and Fisher fried eggs (More loved them, apparently); for English nuns a bowl of cherries, the first of the season; and for St John the Baptist, the first new potatoes of the year and honey at supper. No locusts, and no strong drink, but plenty of good cheer all the same.

Solstice

Stonehenge

Early this morning, soon after the sun had risen, we were chanting that line from Psalm 71, "May his name be blessed for ever/ And endure like the sun." When I was younger, I used often to pass Stonehenge. Indeed, I am old enough to remember being able to go right up to the standing stones and touch them though sadly I never saw the midsummer sun rise over the plain (I did once manage the winter solstice, but that's not quite the same). Stonehenge, Avebury, and other ancient sites give one an impressive sense of the sun — one needs little imagination to understand the role it plays in many religions. But the sun in the psalms as an image of Israel's God-King has a peculiar brightness and warmth about it. The Shepherd of Israel shines from his cherubim throne and beams a blessing on all creation. Today is the day of the sun and of the Lord: let us rejoice and be glad in it.

A Small Anniversary

Yesterday was the second liturgical anniversary of this blog which began on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, 15 June 2007. It's interesting to see how things have developed. As we have neither time nor interest in "moderating" comments, we decided early on to leave the blog as just an open diary of our lives. We soon realised that many people really value interaction and feel a bit "short-changed" by our policy, despite an impressive number of email responses, to which we do try to reply faithfully. Digitalnun keeps promising to change the blog engine in order to improve the format, but in a small community such as ours the urgent is always driving out the important so we look like having to wait a bit longer. A Facebook site is under construction; the Benedictine Forum was launched in March to provide a more open environment for discussion, but support from other communities has been a little slow in materialising. Perhaps the day of the forum or bulletin board is already over. The latest chuntering from on high (where said Digitalnun's lair is) is all about using Moodle to provide an interactive web course on the Rule of St Benedict. There is a distinctly enthusiastic humming under the wimple. Possibly another community with greater resources will pip us to the post, but that doesn't matter. It would be best as a collaborative effort but sometimes one just has to do a little pioneering in order to inspire others to act. We value silence and seclusion as great helps in the life of prayer and are therefore highly selective about the activities in which we engage; but in order to share with others what we can of monastic life and values while preserving the peace of the cloister, there is really only one way to go. If the U.K. is to become "Digital Britain", we'll try to do our bit to make sure it includes "Digital Benedictinism".

Year of the Priest

Tomorrow the Pope will initiate the Year of the Priest (just as we are coming to the end of the Year of St Paul). The focus will be clearly on the presbyterate. At first reading, Cardinal Hummes' letter to the bishops announcing the decision seems to be almost wholly concerned with discipline: reaffirmation of the value of clerical celibacy and the bishops' power to discipline the clergy under them. A significant addition is the requirement to regularize the position of those who have left active ministry without obtaining dispensations — bishops now have the ability to begin the laicisation process for any of their priests who have been five years or more away from their ministry. John Paul II made it quite difficult for priests to obtain laicisation so one most hope that this latest development is a pastoral response to situations that are often deeply distressing to those concerned. One cannot help wondering, however, whether the real challenge is being overlooked. So many priests seem to have low morale, to be uncertain about their purpose, to feel lonely and unvalued. It is difficult to be a priest but sometimes one has to ask where the initial love and enthusiasm went. The priesthood cannot be separated from a life of prayer. No amount of action, however good, can substitute for that. Let us pray that the Year of the Priest will offer all our priests a deepening of their life of prayer, joy in their service of God and the Church and a renewed sense that what they are and do is truly pleasing to Our Lord. And incidentally to all of us, too. Tell your priest how much you value him!

Green Shoots?

Like everyone else we ponder the news and have our own opinions about what may or may not happen, as ill-informed as the next person's, so take today's post as the rambling of a nincompoop if you will. North Korea's attitude to nuclear weapons; the political turmoil in Iran; the sickness and suffering of millions of people caught up in their own private griefs and tragedies, they are all part of the concern of our prayer and so of our reflection. I have been thinking a lot lately about the implications of the economic changes affecting us all. Green shoots there may be for those who concentrate wholly on such things as manufacturing figures, but the situation is decidely sticky and will be for some years. But, once a historian always a historian, so I find myself wondering more and more about the political and societal instability that is likely to follow our present economic woes. I wonder how we'll meet the challenge. Quite specifically, I wonder what role the Church in the west will play in the shaping of things. The Catholic Church has a wonderful record in terms of articulating the necessity of virtue considered as social justice but we've never been in quite this situation before. For a start, we've never had such instant communications among such vast numbers of people. Reverence for authority is not what it was, probably because much authority has shown itself less and less worthy of reverence. Green shoots . . . exploration . . . tentative beginnings. There is hope, but it will not be easy. If we Christians fail to pray our part, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. (And yes, I did write "pray".)

A Sleepless Night

In community the traditional remedy for a sleepless night is to say something like, "Oh goody! I'll make some extra prayer." Usually, as soon as one does that, one nods off (not very edifying but true). Last night I prayed and read but sleep still would not come. So I listened to the sounds of the night, and how beautiful they are: the strange, alto bark of the dog fox as he made his nightly passage across Hill Farm; the soft snuffle of the hedgehogs crossing the lawn; the occasional alarm of a bird wakened from sleep; and other, less identifiable sounds, which might have been deer beyond the fence, or even a badger though I haven't noticed signs of any setts around here. The nights are so short at this time of year, and there is a long gloaming and dawn in which to enjoy the flight of bats and beetles and the abundant buglife of this little corner of Oxfordshire. As Psalm 150 reminds us, "Let everything that lives and that breathes/ Give praise to the Lord. Alleluia!"

Corpus Christi 2009

It seems so odd to be celebrating this feast on a Sunday, with a parish Mass and no procession — and no Benediction at Vespers. Ah well, there are other graces to acknowledge, as this week\s podcast makes clear. The Preface of the Day is a jewel of theological exposition, and for those who will be celebrating in the Extraordinary Form, the use of the Preface of the Nativity is a powerful reminder that the Bread of Life born at Bethlehem (literally the House of Bread) is our sustenance still. It is important to link the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Time to dust off some of those Advent and Christmas sermons of the Fathers, perhaps, and rethink them in the light of today's feast.

Deer

Startled three deer this morning which set me thinking about the use of the deer image in Christian Tradition. I thought first of the deer carved or painted on early Christian monuments, frozen for ever in an attitude of grace; deer stooping to drink on embroidered vestments thick with gold thread and precious jewels; sentimentalised deer on pious little prayer cards printed in slightly wonky colour, with bad typography and uncertain margins; but I was soon thinking about the references to deer in the scriptures. Thirteen in the Old Testament had occurred to me before the end of the walk. I began with the psalms and Isaiah but when I got back I checked them and arranged them in order. It is interesting to see how the bible begins with the deer as food before going on to a consideration of the deer as symbol of one protected and upheld by the love of God. There is a parallel there with the Rule of St Benedict. His practical arrangements school us in holiness just as much as any other aspect of monastic life. That is why we can say that the whole life of the monk or nun or oblate or associate must be an opus dei, a work of God.

1. Deuteronomy 12:15
However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer.
Deuteronomy 12:14-16 (in Context) Deuteronomy 12 (Whole Chapter)

2. Deuteronomy 12:22
Just as the gazelle or the deer is eaten, so you may eat of it. The unclean and the clean alike may eat of it.
Deuteronomy 12:21-23 (in Context) Deuteronomy 12 (Whole Chapter)

3. Deuteronomy 14:5
the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep.
Deuteronomy 14:4-6 (in Context) Deuteronomy 14 (Whole Chapter)

4. Deuteronomy 15:22
You shall eat it within your towns. The unclean and the clean alike may eat it, as though it were a gazelle or a deer.
Deuteronomy 15:21-23 (in Context) Deuteronomy 15 (Whole Chapter)

5. 2 Samuel 22:34
He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.
2 Samuel 22:33-35 (in Context) 2 Samuel 22 (Whole Chapter)

6. 1 Kings 4:23
ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl.
1 Kings 4:22-24 (in Context) 1 Kings 4 (Whole Chapter)

7. Psalm 18:33 (liturgical psalter 17:34 you made my feet swift as the deer)
He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.
Psalm 18:32-34 (in Context) Psalm 18 (Whole Chapter)

8. Psalm 29:9 (liturgical psalter 28:9, though some translations refer to trees not deer!)
The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, "Glory!"
Psalm 29:8-10 (in Context) Psalm 29 (Whole Chapter)

9. Psalm 42:1(liturgical psalter 41:2 lots of musical settings, some of them awful)
[ BOOK TWO ] [ Why Are You Cast Down, O My Soul? ] To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah. As a deer pants for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.
Psalm 42:1-3 (in Context) Psalm 42 (Whole Chapter)

10. Proverbs 5:19
. . . a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.
Proverbs 5:18-20 (in Context) Proverbs 5 (Whole Chapter)

11. Isaiah 35:6
then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
Isaiah 35:5-7 (in Context) Isaiah 35 (Whole Chapter)

12. Lamentations 1:6
From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
Lamentations 1:5-7 (in Context) Lamentations 1 (Whole Chapter)

13. Habakkuk 3:19
GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on the high places.
Habakkuk 3:18-19

Acid in a Young Girl's Face

I was looking for something else when I saw it. The photo startled me: a young girl, horribly disfigured, lying on a wretched bed in a shabby room. Acid had been flung in her face because she dared to go to school, a serious offence in parts of Afghanistan. By and large, we haven't heard much about what life is like under the Taliban for women. We hear about opium production and war lords, military offensives and diplomatic initiatives and look at the photos of men and boys without seriously registering the absence of women and girls. An occasional glimpse of a burka on the margins may remind us, but the suffering of many Afghani women generally passes us by. I don't know what we do about it, but excluding women from literacy and education and reinforcing that exclusion with violence and cruelty strikes me as a sin crying to heaven for vengeance. I can be irritated by misogyny or condescension in our own society (Church not excepted!) but one learns to turn things with a laugh or a "blotting-paper" look, while one quietly gets on with things. Most of the time, it works. But there are other times when something more is called for. You can't laugh away acid in a young girl's face.

Techie Note

Recently we've had a number of questions about accessing parts of this site. In most cases, the browser used proved to be Internet Explorer 6. As this is now "out of date" and not able to cope with some current technology, IE6 users should see a message on a suitably hideous pink background alerting them to the fact that they should ideally update their browser to a later version or switch to another such as Firefox (which we like very much) which should solve the problem. On the other hand, people may be quite happy not being able to see parts of this site. Silly me.

Abuse and Conversion

The recent publication of the Ryan report has refocussed attention on abuse within the Catholic Church. The lamentable response of many religious orders is cause for shame and concern, but once the subject slips from the headlines, will anything change? The media tend to concentrate on sexual abuse but there are other areas where the misuse of power and authority has caused suffering and injustice. Over time some of these may come to light and we'll all react with shock and horror and ask ourselves, how could we have let that happen? There is a parallel here with the abuse of the MPs' expenses system (not that I mean to imply that money is as important as people) and the political fall-out from what is widely perceived as corruption at the heart of Westminster. A misplaced sense of entitlement, of being immune from criticism provided one stays within the letter of the law (and Church institutions, like Parliament, can be said to have both legislative and executive functions) and, sadly, a failure to realise the truth of the gospel injunction, that to whom more is given, from them more will be required, allow abuse to flourish. I'm sorry for those who have been (and perhaps are being) hurt. I'm sorry that good and faithful priests and religious will be condemned along with those who acted (and maybe are acting) wrongly. I'm sorry for those who have been (and possibly are now) guilty of abuse and abuses. Above all, I'm sorry that, as one Catholic priest put it, the Church in Ireland (and elsewhere) has been too Catholic to be Christian. I'm even sorry that the British political system is such a shambles. But, and it is an important but, we cannot let "sorry" be the end of the story. Consciousness of sin and wrong-doing CAN be a spur to conversion. Heaven knows, we need a lot of that; and today is a very good day to begin — with ourselves and our own lives.

Trinity Sunday 2009

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity and our patronal feast. This feast has an interesting history inasmuch as it is quite a late development, having been made a feast of the universal Church by John XXII (1316–1334) although we have an Office of the feast composed by Stephen of Liège at the beginning of the tenth century, as well as prayers and a preface of the Holy Trinity in the Gregorian Sacramentary. Some readers will remember that every Sunday of the year to which no special feast was assigned was always celebrated with a Mass of the Holy Trinity, and one would have to be remarkably thick not to have noticed that all the formularies of public prayer in the Church tend to be Trinitarian in character, just as the Rule of St Benedict is permeated with Trinitarian references. Yet despite all this many Christians remain, practically speaking, tritheists. It is difficult to get one's head round the docrtrine of the Trinity. Many a priest will be metaphorically shaking in his socks as he ascends the pulpit to preach on the subject (as is the nun I have asked to do this week's podcast: we'll see if it materialises or not!). Part of the difficulty may lie in the "dryness" of some theological expositions. I've probably said before that Augustine's De Trinitate was suddenly illumined for me by reading some modern physics which similarly stretches our understanding of words and the processes they signify. God as energy is exciting. God as loving, creative energy is more exciting still.

St Boniface

Feast of the great apostle of Germany, and nice to think that he was an Englishman (from Crediton originally) who worked in our diocese at Nursling before he received the call to go to Germany. Boniface was apparently a monk before he became a Benedictine, but his championship of the Rule never faltered. He was a friend of Leoba of Tauberbischofsheim, also from our diocese (Wimborne), whom he persuaded, along with twenty-eight companions, to join him in the Anglo-Saxon Mission. The wonderful thing is that we have so many materials to tell the story of the Mission, including the fascinating letter collection which gives us a glimpse of much that official histories tend to deem unworthy of inclusion. A day to pray for Germany, but also a day to pray for fruitful collaborations among Benedictines.

Lessons from the Garden

Busy planting out beans and tomatoes before Lauds and thinking of Dr Feckenham, last abbot of Westminster, a-setting of trees in his orchard when Queen Elizabeth's messengers came to take him away. I wonder where Feckenham found his peace in all the trials and troubles that beset him. Richard Cox, bishop of Ely, described him as "a gentle person but in the popish religion too, too obstinate". I can't help wondering whether his gentleness had something to do with his love of gardening. One can't be brutal with young plants, and they don't last long if one is forever taking them out of their pots to see how they are doing. Patience, that fourth vow of Benedictines, is essential to the gardener, and too, the readiness to begin again from the beginning when something doesn't work out. The acceptance of failure is a mark of personal maturity although none of us finds it easy to let go of our ambitions or dreams. When hopes are dashed or plans go bottom up, it is easy to sink into despair and give up. Benedict was well aware of the tendency, which is why his fourth degree of humility has a great deal to say on the subject of perseverance. Interestingly, he links perseverance with forgiveness. Usually we think of forgiveness as something we give to another or, more rarely, as something we receive from another. Perhaps we have to learn to forgive ourselves. Only then can we pick ourselves up and start again.

Wilting Wimples

Today is the feast of St Charles Lwanga and Companions, Ugandan martyrs who suffered cruel deaths at the hands of a tyrant. Their story is inspiring, and I feel slightly ashamed that it is the burning to death of some of them that captures my imagination — for trivial domestic reasons. Our plumbers departed yesterday, promising to return a month hence. In the meantime, we have to run our heating system at full-power (something we never do, even in the depths of winter) for a couple of hours each day to complete the flushing out of the system. We've set the heating to come on at four in the morning before the heat of the day becomes overpowering but I must admi it is trying. Even our Trinidadian member is feeling the heat and wilting quietly underneath her wimple.

Of Valves and Vacuums

Memo to self: must drop this adolescent habit of employing "apt alliteration's artful aid" in blog titles. Yesterday's post prompted one kind reader to send a valuable link to Migne and other goodies online, http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu (link opens in new window) which could be a source of temptation in the future. There is no substitute for reading texts in the original language although it can be hard teaching oneself to do so. Thomas Merton claimed one could learn Italian or any other language in a quarter of an hour daily. That might work with Hebrew, which is an easy language; but I'm not so sure about Latin and Greek. Our water-saga continues. We returned from the JR to find the plumbers deep in nests of copper piping, muttering darkly about silted up valves. Handynun had a fit when she saw the state of the newly-finished guest room, wall-panelling down, smoke detectors disassembled and confusion everywhere. One must have faith that all can be put right eventually. During this last week, when we have officially been having a few days' "gardening leave" (dies non), household hiccups have multiplied (nature abhors a vaccuum, does she not?): carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, all have been dealing with various problems, with great courtesy and good humour. I hope it has something to do with the running buffet of tea/coffee/cake being supplied. I suspect, however, it is the British workman at his summery best.

From Patristics to Pipes

Monday morning and back to Ordinary Time again, with the usual crop of deadlines to meet and duties to perform without the glorious liturgy of Eastertide to sustain one. It will take a day or two to adjust, but there are good things in store. Today is the memoria of St Justin Martyr, a second century Christian apologist. I was looking for one of his books in our library and when I couldn't find it (alas, no Migne) began an internet search. The problem with searching on the internet is that it tends to turn up the good, the bad and the utterly irresponsible with cheerful indifference. I was impressed, however, by the quantity of patristic texts and commentaries available, even though only in translation. If you want to read Justin, here is a useful starting-points, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/justin.html and for a rather fuller listing of texts and ancillary studies http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/justin.php (both links open in new windows). As a good Platonist, Justin might have wondered at our next task: sorting out the hot-water system but the truth is, you can lay aside a book when you will, but you ignore a leak at your peril. Monastic life is about pipes as well as patristics.

Pentecost

The Pentecost Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, probably written by Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury in the thirteenth century, is known as the Golden Sequence. Not only is the music hauntingly beautiful, the imagery provides a rich vein for reflection. Call me an unreconstructed traditionalist if you will, but I think it works better in Latin than in English. You can listen to it sung by the monks and nuns of Bec-Herluin here.

My first abbess recommended that we should pray the sequence every day and it's easy to see why. The Holy Spirit is often effectively the "forgotten Person" of the Blessed Trinity but the sequence reminds us that the action of the Spirit forms the warp and woof of our existence. The Holy Spirit comes upon us as he came upon Mary and the apostles and indeed the Lord Jesus himself, to anoint us for our mission — which is nothing less than to complete the work of Christ on earth. Truly, the vocation of the Church is a great and glorious one and we need to pray if we are to accomplish it. (Apologies for the poor recording quality of this week's podcast: too much atmospheric noise.)

Pentecost Eve

This evening we begin celebrating Pentecost, the "birthday" of the Church. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to say, with a characteristic twinkle in her eye, that the bishops had got things wrong when they did away with the Pentecost octave. For her, Pentecost was the greatest feast of the Christian year and the number of times we managed to sing the Veni sancte Spiritus at choir practice beforehand left one in no doubt that she thought we had been short-changed liturgically. We may have lost the octave, and the movement of Ascension Day from Thursday to Sunday may have obscured the old custom of a novena of preparation, but we can still make suitable preparations for the feast. Just as on Christmas Eve, today we await something very great, something the world has never known before. Unpredictable as wind, searing as flame, brilliant as light, the Spirit hovers over us. This is a day to pray, Veni Creator Spiritus, Come Creator Spirit.
Play Veni Creator Spiritius Play Veni Creator Spiritus

Ps 50 (51)

The first psalm of Vigils, the penitential psalm par excellence, contains much that is worth pondering as the day unfolds. Different lines bubble up at different moments. The fact that God "loves truth in the heart" is wonderfully reassuring, while the psalmist's cry to know again "the joy of [God's] help" resonates deeply with the longing we most of us experience. It is, however, the prayer for a pure heart that speaks to me this morning. A pure heart is one which allows the light to shine through, which lets the love of God be its life-blood.

Morning on the Downs

Up onto the Downs before Vigils and rewarded by a feast of birds and birdsong: larks and lapwings, a corn bunting, yellowhammers, buzzards and red kites, but no short-eared owls today, and the cookoo has long fled the woods. Lots of painted ladies (butterfly variety) on the edge of the rape field and several hares by the gallops, which resulted in much sniffing and quartering by the monastery hound. I was looking at some of the grasses and ferns and wishing I knew more botany when I spotted a red-tailed bumblebee, B. lapidarius, common enough in the south but the first I have seen hereabouts. One couldn't help asking, however, what the chances are of encountering the same species in such abundance twenty years hence. The decline of previously common birds and wildflowers in a single generation is a sobering thought. New species will arise, of course, but nostalgia is a very adult emotion best enjoyed in advance. A touch of self-indulgent melancholy on a late spring morning adds a certain piquancy to the day, does it not?

Mould

The drains have been sorted and the cellar is no longer afloat — thank heavens it was "only" bath water circulating around the lower levels of the monastery! Some interesting moulds have begun to appear, but mould tends to be a feature of older buildings anyway. However, on the principle that the book of life is a good place to start one's meditations, this morning I have been thinking(?) about the use of the word "mould" to indicate the process of purposeful shaping or forming rather than simply encrusting with alien growth. One might say that one's thinking has been moulded by an influential person or book, taken on a particular cast or quality as a result of a contact that may appear fortuitous. Or one might say that one's life has been moulded by years of living as, say, a Benedictine nun or dwelling in a particular time or place. In scripture God is the potter who moulds our human clay into an infinite variety of different forms. We are always a work-in-progress, a comforting thought because it suggests that there is something more to look forward to, another surprise awaiting us. In these last days of Easter it is the biggest surprise of all: the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God's Little Joke

Our cellar is flooding so we are having to remove the contents to higher levels. This blog will be without entries for a few days while we exchange wimples for water-wings. Joking aside, emptying the cellar is unpleasant but must take priority over other things for "health and safety" reasons. Not quite what the doctor ordered!

Disagreeing Agreeably

Some unexpected visitors put paid to yesterday's podcast, so there will be a lull now until we resume in a fortnight's time. The report of President Obama's speech at Notre Dame reminded me how important it is to disagree agreeably. I sometimes think it is a lost art. My grandmother's generation would have taken a sombre view of behaviour that is now commonplace. I can hear her saying to an obnoxious grandchild (me), "No matter how passionately one feels, there is no excuse for bad manners". Civilised debate is meant to be precisely that: civilised. It means listening even when we don't like what we hear. It means trying to follow another's argument, even when we find the argument confused or confusing. I disagree with Obama's views on abortion but I think he made a good case for disagreeing agreeably; and when we can do that, there is hope for change.

Sicut Pater

We have heard today's gospel, John 15: 9-17, twice in the last few days. It's one I never tire of meditating on because it encapsulates much of what monastic life is about. Every vocation begins with the fact of the Father's love, with his surprising choice of this person and that. It is his love which sustains, nourishes, challenges and consoles throughout life— a lovely, luminous thought. But life is not all growing in the sunshine of God's love without a care in the world. We are to bear fruit; and fruit is usually harvested when summer is ended. It is when the shadow of the Cross falls across our lives that we (or more usually others) see what has really been going on. If we have become a friend of God, then we'll have taken on some measure of likeness to his Son and the Father will be able to see and love in us what he sees and loves in his Son. And if we haven't? John's gospel pulls no punches about the uselessness of branches that have been cut from the Vine. No wonder that today's Postcommunion prayer asks for strength. (Podcast will be posted later today and that will be the last for the next fortnight as Digitalnun will be on "garden leave".)

Stereotypes

One of our Newcastle-upon-Tyne readers chose a selective quotation from yesterday's post to poke gentle fun at what he/she regards as the "innocence" of nuns. (Note for the unwary, nuns are a bit more savvy than you may realise!) For me it raised some interesting questions about stereotypes, not just nun stereotypes but stereotypes in general. The Three Faiths Forum in Oxford has had to get to grips with some of the stereotypical assumptions that Christians, Jews and Moslems make about one another. Christians are required to be merciful and forgiving, because that is seen as an essential note or characteristic of Christianity (so much for Newman's "one, holy", etc.) I wonder if that is why reports from Israel/Palestine suggest that the recent papal visit was, in Jewish and Moslem terms, a non-event. Since Christians are supposed to be meek, acknowledge guilt, show themselves peace-loving and so on, there wasn't much scope for papal "creativity". Perhaps what matters is that Benedict XVI made the journey and did his best to make amends for previous gaffes while trying to cheer the few remaining Palestinian Christians. Maybe that is all any of us can ever do: make the journey and try our best.

Integrity in Public Life

It is sickening to see that among the M.P.s who have been claiming over-generous expenses for things most people have to fund out of their own pockets there are some who set great store by being church-goers. The idea of Parliament being corrupt is a novel one for the British people. It will be interesting to see where it leads. In the meantime, we can all reflect on the fact that selective integrity is not integrity at all.

St Matthias

I have been trying to find a card given to me many years ago which shows Christ surrounded by the Apostles — all thirteen of them. The medieval artist was presumably making a point, but he was a little muddle-headed. The election of Matthias "to fill the place of Judas" was an important act of the Early Church, but there was never any doubt that it was election to membership of the Twelve. His feast has tended to wander around the calendar, from 24 February to 14 May (I believe the Orthodox celebrate it on 9 August), and he has acquired a motley collection of causes placed under his patronage, including alcoholism and tailors, but there is something tremendously attractive about Matthias. He was one of those humble followers of Jesus who had been there all along but about whom we hear nothing until he was chosen to join the apostles after the Ascension. Most of us can probably find a parallel there: we too are called to an obscure following. St Matthias is a good patron to have.

Shopping in the Rain

Did the monastery shopping in the rain this morning. Everyone seemed to be hurrying along, looking a bit cold and glum. As we waited our turn at the market, I noticed the perfect beauty of the raindrops beading the canopy, as precious in their own way as blue diamonds and considerably less expensive. So often we are in a hurry and don't really notice anything. We are always betwixt and between, our eyes fixed on a distant horizon. De Caussade wrote tellingly of "the sacrament of the present moment". It is a sacrament offered to all, a momentary revelation of God in the here and now, wherever here and now happens to be.

Ask Sister!

We're too small to set up a LiveChat feature, except very occasionally, but we've added a new section to our FAQ: Ask Sister! Your chance to ask the vocation questions you've been wanting to ask without having to dive into your email programme or, horrors, putting pen to paper. Anything we think might be of general interest we'll post (anonymously of course) in an extended vocation/FAQ section in due course. Perhaps we should add a health warning: replies won't always be immediate because we have other things to do, so please don't get too impatient. One question we're working on is trying to explain what is different about Benedictines. (As compared with Franciscan, Dominicans, etc.) Given that this could lead to renewed Wars of Religion, we are cogitating before committing ourselves to cyberspace.

The Abbots of Cluny

A Memoria to stir the heart of any Benedictine but especially any involved in a new foundation as we are (and by "we" I mean not only those of us actually in the monastery but also our Associates and Oblates and those who help us by their prayers and material generosity). The first business of a Benedictine is to seek God and allow grace to transform her so that she becomes truly holy. It is inspiring to think that of the first six abbots of Cluny, four were saints. Amid all the worry about finances and building plans, monks who were not quite as fervent as they should be (read "difficult" or "trouble-makers"), to say nothing of the radical nature of the new economic and organizational structure that Cluny exemplified, Odo, Maiolus, Odilo and Hugh never lost sight of the purpose of their own conversion. Everyone knows that the liturgy at Cluny became, quite literally, a laus perennis. Fewer know that even the great abbot Hugh, despite his many cares, took his turn as kitchener or cook, boiling up vast quantities of beans for the daily meal. (Wonder if I could get away with a similar kind of meal for the brethren today. I suspect not.) We are still striving to perfect our liturgical arrangements here at Hendred. Every time we manage to afford something beautiful for the altar, there is a feeling of gratitude that we have been enabled to make our worship more dignified. We have done some restoration work on the tabernacle obtained for us by Fr Anthony and once we have finished making new lining silks and veils, all will be ready for installation in the oratory. I trust our Cluniac saints would approve.

The Hendred tabernacle after restoration

Evening

The parish sang "Abide with me" as the opening hymn at Mass today, which led to several distractions in which rugby featured prominently until the Hendry window made me start thinking Godly Thoughts again. Evening is a fascinating theme to follow through in scripture. It is a privileged time of meeting with God although, as Hebrews reminds us, it can be "a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God." The voice of the Lord God in the cool of the evening filled Adam and Eve with fear, causing them to hide (Genesis 3.8); Abraham, nodding off over his sacrifice as the sun was setting, "fell into a trance and great and fearful darkness came over him" (Genesis 15.12); Jacob wrestled with a mysterious figure who, as day was breaking, revealed that he had striven with God and had prevailed, seeing him face to face (Genesis 32.24 et seq). Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus take place in the evening and add to the sense that there is a strangeness about him that fills the disciples with wonder and awe, none more so than those who walked to Emmaus with him. All this week we shall be reflecting on the Last Discourse — a unique opportunity to read these parting words of Jesus in the light of the Resurrection.

Listening to RB

Why do we put up the daily reading from RB in audio form on our Vocations page? Because actually listening to the Rule is akin to listening to scripture. There is no substitute for hearing the word of God: for allowing a human voice to mediate God's truth, challenging us to hear words a private reading might allow us to skip over. Similarly, listening to another reading the Rule to us frees us from a purely personal interpretation. We have just finished the Prologue and I have been struck by the fact that the reader for the week (in the monastery, not on the Prayer Box) has some quite different emphases from my own. There isn't just one "take" on the Rule. The many different forms in which it has been lived in different times and places is an encouragement worth pondering. God hasn't finished with any of us yet.

The Gentiles will Listen

Acts 28: 28 is a promise half-fulfilled. We can look back on two thousand years of history and claim that the Gentiles did listen, that Christianity spread across the Roman world, was adopted by the northern barbarians (i.e. us), and became the official Faith of many, so that today its adherents can be found in every part of the world. Or we can look at it another way and feel desolate and sad. Where are the great churches of the Middle East and North Africa today? Europe has rejected much of its Christian past and revealed a pagan heart and pagan ears. The Gentiles have stopped listening, we say, Christianity is a spent force. Many would like that to be true, but it isn't. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum obliges us to a daily conversion, a daily listening. It only takes one open ear, one open heart for the message to get through; and it is my firm belief that there are many open ears and hearts in the world today.

Vocationitis and the Children of God

The postbag (digital and otherwise) has brought several enquiries about vocation in recent months. Most people are at the "I'm thinking about vocation and need to clarify my ideas" stage and simply want to talk through some of the questions that arise. The community tries to make it easy for people to do exactly that, either in person or over the ether. We believe in the validity and beauty of our own vocation but are happy to acknowledge that it is not for everyone and are pleased if we can help someone find her path in life, wherever that may lead. Parents and friends can be more sceptical, imagining that all nuns are anxious to pull their little darlings into the cloister, irrespective of whether or not they have a vocation. Relax, people! The last thing any community needs is someone who doesn't have a vocation. There is nothing more destructive, both for the individual and the community. That is why so much time and effort is devoted to trying to discover whether someone is truly called.

"Vocationitis" is an affliction most NMs can spot a mile off. Most deal with it gently and patiently, knowing that it can mask a genuine vocation. What are its characteristics, and why do I call it an affliction? The big give-away is a concentration on self rather than God, and it gives its sufferer no rest. Don't get me wrong. It is normal for someone grappling with the mystery of vocation to be amazed and needing to talk about its effect in her life. There is a "divine restlessness" that takes hold of the soul. But there is a difference between that and dwelling on "me and my vocation story". Another characteristic is the endless quest for a perfect community which meets all a person's requirements for holiness/austerity/liturgical practice or what you will. Again, it is necessary to find the community to which one is called and that involves searching; but there are some who go from one community to another, year after year, and are never satisfied because there is always something that is not quite "right". The brethren are too austere/not austere enough, too traditional/not traditional enough, according to the enquirer's expectations. We try to help those with vocationitis, too, because as I never tire of repeating, each one of us is a vocation, uniquely called by God. Where we are/what we do matters less than that we are wholly given to God.

We often ask readers of Colophon to pray for those who are trying to discern a monastic vocation, which can be a lonely and baffling process. Today, however, we ask you to join us in praying for those who have vocationitis, that they may find peace and joy in their vocation as Children of God. It is a vocation we all share.

St Athanasius

D. Gertrude Brown, of happy memory, always relished saying the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday. I used to tease her that it wasn't the theology but the anathemas she enjoyed, and she was honest enough to agree. St Athanasius receives a bad press in some quarters, but I have a great admiration for him both as a theologian and as a man of singular courage who was prepared to risk all in defence of what he believed to be right. No one before "the Father of Orthodoxy" had written quite so well or so clearly of the Incarnation and its relationship to the Mystery of the Trinity, but he paid dearly for his love of Catholic truth. Himself neither a "liberal" nor a "conservative", his integrity exposed him to obloquy and exile. I like his humour and his gift for friendship (St Antony was among his friends), and even his small stature seems endearing, for like many "vertically challenged" men, he was a battler. By one of those coincidences that are not coincidences at all, I was baptized on his feastday and entered monastic life on his feastday. Perhaps that is why I too dislike "liberal" and "conservative" labels and am distressed by the way some of the self-appointed guardians of the Church conduct their public battles, often at the expense of truth and charity. Ah well. Domestic trivia. The new monastery sign has survived twenty-four hours, so Handynun looks anything but humble about her handiwork. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Damien, who really is humble, continues to transform the garden entrance with some very nifty paving work. Handynun, you're just not in the same league. (sigh)

The new monastery sign with logo Damien transforming the entrance to the garden

Ah, the Joys of Life!

Someone asked why there have been several gaps in posts recently. We have had our fair share of visitors and appointments, of course, and the grass grows an inch or two every time one looks at it (it takes at least an hour and a half to mow, as the writer knows well). The vegetable garden is being planted out and our new empty borders need filling (I have taken to referring to them as latifundia Hendredis, which gives you an idea of the challenge). Veilnet and Veilpress are both working at full capacity; St Cecilia's is busy; and we are all trying to catch up on neglected correspondence/spring cleaning/clearing the garage. Handynun is in the middle of a another project: making a new sign for the monastery, which seems to involve a lot of measuring, hammering and spraying of paint. Even the dog tiptoes past when she is in this mode. This web site is badly in need of an overhaul. The Appeal page will not render in Internet Explorer 7 (please upgrade to IE8 or, better still, install Firefox or Safari, both of which are much better browsers) and the engine for the blog needs tinkering with, but both these are on the "not urgent, do sometime" list. The most pressing need of the moment is to find something worthwhile to say for this morning's chapter talk. Somehow, I do not think that half an hour of unitive silence will quite meet the bill. A pity, rather, as unitive silence expresses everything that words and activity cannot.

Have No Fear

This stage of Eastertide always seems to me a happy one. The Paschal candle is gradually burning down but there are more and more spring flowers to adorn its base, and we have sung "alleluia" in so many different ways that the whole Liturgy has become one great song of joy. Other aspects of life are not so jolly and the community is very mindful of the anxieties and sufferings of others. Our prayerline has been besieged by more and more people begging prayers for sick family members, for the healing of broken relationships and a way out of seemingly-impossible financial situations. Now the fear of a 'flu pandemic has begun to emerge. Fear is so crippling, yet it is the daily experience of many. "Perfect love casts out fear", true, but very few of us seem to be capable of that. We want to be brave and resolute, but faced with the unknown we become alarmingly concerned about ourselves, afraid of what MIGHT happen. I suppose one can derive a kind of statistical comfort from reflecting that there can be only one of two outcomes: what we fear will come to pass, or it won't; but none of us is entirely rational all the time, thank goodness.
The post-Resurrection appearances of the Lord Jesus clearly had a disturbing element since he was quick to reassure his troubled disciples about his identity and purpose. While thinking about the latest announcement from the WHO this morning, I kept reverting to Jesus' appearance to Peter in John 21. Poor Peter, he was so scared by what might happen that he jumped into the sea to get away from his Lord. There will be some who will go to similarly extraordinary lengths to try to escape the 'flu virus. But the end of the gospel story is telling. Jesus shared breakfast with Peter, a very ordinary, human act, then won from him a three-fold affirmation of love. In return, Peter received no promise, no assurance that all would go well with him, only a job to do and a reminder that he too must submit to an experience of powerlessness. Like Peter, we have to get on with the ordinary business of life, our "breakfast on the seashore". We do not know what the future holds, but each of us has a job to do; and we know that the very hairs of our head have been numbered.

St George and England

St George Sanctuary Lamp (detail)

The Solemnity of St George is often treated with embarrassment by the English. Other nations rejoice in their patron saints, untroubled by the more fanciful elements in their vitae, but the English are too self-conscious, nowadays too serious, to make much of St George. (Yesterday's Budget will not have helped, of course.) True, the English flag will fly from hundreds of Anglican church towers (which makes a nice change from its usual place on the houses and cars of football fans) and the Society of St George will hold its customary dinner, graced by a lot of silver adorned with English roses; but it will be left to comparatively few to pray for the well-being of the English people and nation. What do we mean by praying for England and the English? We are surely not praying to become richer or more powerful or have some sort of international advantage over others. Rather, we are praying for Christian standards to inform our public and private lives, which is not inconsistent with Britain being a multi-cultural, multi-religious country. (I shall have lost our readers from overseas at this point, but essentially one can become British but has to be born English.) A truly Christian country would be a wonderful place in which to live whatever one's religious beliefs because charity, as St Paul says, is the one thing that can never hurt one's neighbour. The photo (see, we have listened!) shows a detail from a sanctuary lamp made when patriotism was less complicated and Catholicism more confident.

Snippets of News

Fr anthony blessing the guest room
Was pleased to read that the Pope spoke yesterday about using the internet as a new way to speak of God and search for truth. There would not be much point to this site, for example, if God were left out of it, but you may sometimes have to look beyond the surface of our prattlings. We have been reminded that we ought to put more photos up. So, today, on the hospitality page you will find some photos of our guest room. I haven't adjusted the levels or curves so the paintwork looks a little flat. It is one of F & B's more subtle shades, "Pale Hound" (no reference to the dog intended), and is meant to help create an atmosphere of prayerful calm. The guest room was blessed by our Honorary Chaplain, Fr Anthony de Vere, during Lent and if you wonder why he is holding a Compline booklet, it was because he wanted to use the Visita Nos as the final prayer! Handynun seems to have recovered from the flat-pack assembly, which is just as well because the oratory will need to be redecorated before we reserve the Blessed Sacrament there. Meanwhile, the garden has been given a radical make-over, so a few photos of that will follow. The Midsummer Concert is now organized (see the Appeal page) and we have almost finalised our series of Trinity Lectures for later this summer. The first three are already in place: Dr Henrietta Leyser will talk about Christina of Markyate, Dr James France about the Cistercians and Dr Pauline Matarasso about Wulfric. So, watch this space . . .

Feast of St Anselm

St Anselm is one of my heroes, not least because he entered monastic life at the same age as I did ( it is always nice to find something in common with a saint, no matter how trivial), and I remember one glorious supervision at Cambridge when I battled for the Church and Philosophy against my supervisor's equally stout defence of King and Common Sense. (I think I won, because the poor man was afterwards heard to lament that he had been "taught more than he ever wanted to know about Anselm by an awful woman from X".) It is interesting how many people dismiss the ontological argument for the existence of God without really thinking about it. I could never pass the corner where Bertrand Russell threw his tobacco tin in the air and declared the ontological argument valid without thinking of Anselm. (Russell later decided the argument wasn't valid, but that's beside the point: he took the trouble to think the argument through). Anselm's Theory of the Atonement I find more troubling; but who could be indifferent to the charm of his meditations and prayers? Anselm is a reminder, to me at least, that Benedictines are called to be saints who bring every talent to bear on the Mystery of Faith. We need learned Benedictines, we need Benedictines who engage with the questions of the day; above all, we need Benedictines who, like Anselm, are humble in pursuit of truth. Credo ut intelligam.

Easter Friday

A day of Paschal Quiet in the monastery, and much needed! We have had a lot of visitors and more are expected next week. Getting the balance right between being welcoming and not destroying the very thing people seek when they visit is always difficult. The difficulty is compounded by the boring necessity of earning a living/cleaning the house/filling in our Tax Return/keeping appointments and generally doing everything else that living in this world requires. Fortunately, the monastic sense of humour is "an ever present help in time of trouble" (cf the "biblical" definition of a lie as "an abomination unto the Lord; and an ever present help in time of trouble", which shows the devil can cite scripture well enough.) I think the Risen Christ of the gospels had a keen sense of humour, too: eating broiled fish before the disciples' eyes, preparing a barbeque breakfast on the seashore, and teasing poor Peter into a threefold admission of love to counterbalance his threefold denial. I hope there's humour in heaven. If not, some of us are destined to linger a long time outside the door.

Easter Monday

Liturgically, the Octave of Easter is a but a single day, so we go on celebrating the Resurrection as an event that we recall TODAY, which gives a wonderful immediacy to what we do at Mass and in choir. The gospels that we read this week focus attention on different aspects of the Easter story, with each contributing something precious to our understanding. It is like looking at a a piece of filigree: intricate detail, but all subsumed to a greater whole. Our Podcast addresses that most fundamental of questions: do you believe in the Resurrection? Meanwhile, the community looks a little tired and wan. Today is a day for easing the yoke a little and allowing Brother Ass time and space for re-creation.

Easter Sunday 2009


Detail of the Resurrection by Matthias Grünewald, early 16th century

Christ is risen! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, to have gained for us so great a Redeemer! (from the Exsultet or Easter Proclamation)

"So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed from his shoulders, and fell off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, 'He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by His death.'" (John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress; Christian concludes by giving three leaps for joy and goes on his way singing . . .)

Our regular Prayer Podcast will be posted later on Easter Sunday/Monday.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday statement

Good Friday

Hand of the Crucified Christ, 20th century
"See, I have graven you on the palms of my hands" (Isaiah 49.16)

Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis. Play antiphon (from the Liturgy, sung here in a live recording by monks of São Paulo)

"Come on, my frend, my brother most entere!
For the I offered my blood in sacryfice." (John Lydgate, Vox ultima Crucis)

Maundy Thursday

Head of Christ c. 1170, from the Rhineland
"Amen, amen, I say to you: one of you will betray me." (John 13. 21)

"Every one of my tears has been counted,
They are all of them written in your book" (Ps. 55[56]. 8)

"Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why do you cause me woe?
Sorrowful tear from sorrowful eye,
You break my heart in two." (Medieval English Lyric)

Holy Week Begins

A bright, warm morning to open Holy Week, the greatest week of the Christian year. We shall probably not post much, if at all, this week, but here are a few thoughts on Holy Week (with apologies for the recording quality: noises off that we couldn't quite fathom).

Humiliation

On the rocks of humiliation this morning as the chantress for the week (guess who?) managed to forget entirely how to sing the Lauds tone for the day and put everyone else off. As we have removed the keyboard from the oratory for the duration of Lent, we all had to troop into the library in order to "remind ourselves" how the tone goes. These sudden fits of "aural amnesia" do have a flip side. When one regains one's sense of the tone, one hears it with new ears. I can't help feeling that Holy Week is a bit like that. Suddenly, we seem to lose our bearings. The liturgy plunges us into all kinds of contradictory moods and loses its familiar form, most shockingly on Good Friday. It takes the Easter Vigil to restore the harmony, and when we hear the Easter Alleluia, it is with newborn ears. Now there's a thought I might be able to work up for tomorrow's podcast . . .

Joy and Sorrow

It is easy to share one's joys, sorrows remain more private. On Palm Sunday we shall be commemorating the Lord's entrance into Jerusalem, his disciples dizzy with joy at their Master's triumph. On Maundy Thursday evening they will flee, afraid for their own lives, unwilling to have any part with him. On Good Friday he will die a shameful death with only his mother and John standing by. The easy triumph, the lonely death, and what an agony of abandonment between! Something of this pattern is to be seen in all our lives. We share our moments of happiness in an uncomplicated way, but our anxieties and fears, our deepest griefs, are more hidden. Perhaps we need to remember that the Light of the Risen Christ shines even in the depths of our sadness and our failures. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that we cannot share with him, and the Sacrament of Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is an invitation to share not only our griefs but our shabby little failures, our whopping betrayals, our sins.

Thinking Aloud

Yesterday in the course of a meeting someone knowledgeable about these things suggested that we should put a page up on Facebook. Hitherto we have fought shy of social networking sites, arguing that we don't have much time and, as regular readers of this blog will know, a strict policy of attending to our web site only AFTER everything else has been done. But I think the point made was a valid one. It is easier to be interactive on a site like Facebook than it is here (because she who "maintains" the web site has not yet got round to the relaunch of the blog element. Ed) and people no longer use the internet as they did in the Dark Ages (pre Web 2.0, if you don't know). So, do we or don't we? Digitalnun has begun the process of creating a page but is dithering about whether to publish or not. Would we just be adding to the torrent of inane cyberchatter to be found on the web, or would we be making a useful contribution? If you have any thoughts, please let us know. In the meantime, the number of potential distractions in prayer now includes Facebook. This could make confession quite incomprehensible to our confessor!

The Glory of the Cross

As the glory of God is the human person fully alive, so the glory of Jesus is to be found in the mystery of the Cross. It is no accident that in the Christian dispensation death is more than the mere extinction of our earthly life. It is the entrance to true life in God, a life that is limitless . . . being fully alive, for ever and ever.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the great themes of Lent. One might say that the whole of Christian revelation is concerned with God's forgiveness of ourselves, but I wonder how often we stop to think what forgiveness means in our own lives. We have become so accustomed to such things as "the victim impact statement" which frequently contains a line stating that life has been ruined and there can be no forgiveness for the one responsible. Nation states and terrorist organizations alike cultivate an attitude of unforgiveness which "justifies" retaliation and armed conflict of various kinds. Forgiveness is hard, of course, whether given or accepted. It means taking responsibility for our actions and refusing to be a moral zombie. So often when we say we forgive what we really mean is that we put the other on probation: one false step and wham! we remember every wrong ever done, and time is no healer in such situations. As a Christian, I don't have any choice in the matter: I must allow the Lord's forgiveness to work through me. The important point is that it is the Lord's forgiveness, not my own. I believe that forgiveness is necessary for our very humanity. It is somehow "wired into" us, and when we ignore its imperatives things go badly awry. Here are two brief quotations worth pondering. Neither is Christian, but I think every Christian should be able to see the point of them.

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." Gandhi

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." Voltaire

Media Obsessions

In the last couple of months we have had a number of approaches from the media — radio, press and television — the majority of which have been concerned with food in some way. This has sparked an interesting debate in community about the role of food in the monastery and in the world beyond the cloister. We do a number of things that have worldly approval, i.e. we grow our own vegetables, compost with fervour and favour a largely vegetarian diet where the art of recycling left-overs is taken for granted. "No waste, no want" is our watchword. People are often fascinated by our wine-making and brewing, our making of jams and chutney, our breadmaking and suchlike because it suggests a world that never was, where food was always pure and wholesome and appeared as if by magic in copious quantities in enchanting Quattrocento refectories. The reality is much duller. Like everyone else, we have to prepare meals in haste and juggle conflicting demands. Where I think we do have an advantage is in our linking food to the liturgical year. Our refectory is an extension of our oratory, so the rhythm of feast and fast is echoed in the dishes that appear on the table. A little humour is also a good idea: apples when we read the story of the Fall; lentil broth when we read of Jacob outwitting his brother Esau; scones when we read the Elijah cycle, and so on. No whalemeat for Jonah, though, and not many fatted calves at any time.

Gaudium Meum

The psalter that I use in choir has a bespoke binding. On the front is a cross formed from the words "Gaudium Meum", an allusion to St Augustine's "psalterium meum, gaudium meum" (My psalter is my joy"). I love the psalms but more often, and especially during Lent, I think of the cross they form. Christ's joy is to be found in the cross, "for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame." It can be difficult to get one's head round that. In the west so much of life seems to be organized so that we can avoid pain and what we think of as humiliation and shame. Some words seem to be falling out of use today, suggesting a shift in attitudes that goes deeper and has more profound consequences than we might think. Sacrifice is still part of the Christian vocabulary. I wouldn't mind betting that it makes for a kinder, more compassionate world than self-fulfilment or all the euphemisms for selfishness currently in vogue.

Benedictine Forum 2

It has been an interesting week-end, watching developments over at the Benedictine Forum (www.benedictineforum.org.uk). The expected spammers have tried to sign up (amazing how quickly spammers discover new sites, despite the control exercised by disabling crawler access, etc) and one or two people have needed a little help with the security measures put in place (great! they may be working). However, most of our attention has been focused on things outside the web. This week we shall be recording a radio interview, giving a couple of Lent talks and hosting the Wantage CWL for their Day of Recollection on Saturday, in between the intervals of praying, working and living a contemplative monastic life. Last week we were delighted to welcome Bishop Crispian here for the afternoon. His visits are always very encouraging and this time he left us with a nice problem to solve. We are to have reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in our oratory (we are linked to the church by our "cloister in the air" so have never had the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the house before) and are now having to work out exactly how to do so in seemly fashion. It's not just a question of finding the right kind of tabernacle or hanging pyx, sanctuary lamp and so on, we shall probably have to reorder the East end of the oratory, move the processional cross and . . .

Benedictine Forum Launched

St Benedict has two feasts and among Benedictines today's celebration, the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, is the more important. Given that Benedict wanted the lives of his followers "always to have a Lenten quality", it seems very fitting that we remember him in the middle of Lent with splendid liturgy and a rather less splendid commemoration in the refectory!. We are marking the Solemnity this year with the public launch of an online forum or bulletin board intended for all disciples of St Benedict but especially those who live in the British Isles. It has been some time in the making, but we hope we have now sorted all the security issues (always a nightmare with any kind of online project) and that it will become a genuinely useful service. Everything depends on the users, of course. See for yourself by visiting www.benedictineforum.org.uk (link opens in new window). It will probably take a while for the number of users to grow but we are in no hurry. Now that the Forum is up and running, you can expect to find more regular prayer podcasts returning to this page (are we tempting nemesis there?) and possibly even the audio versions of our Lent talks. Do not think, however, that monastic life is all work and no pray, sorry, play. Yesterday was wonderfully warm and sunny so when Duncan decided it was time to go for a walk, we were happy to oblige. The Ridgeway was spectacularly beautiful: blue skies filled with skylarks, green grass shimmering beneath a brilliant sun. We walked past the lambing field, where every ewe seemed to have twins or triplets, along the gallops, and down. Red kites soared overhead, and we were thrilled to see a short-eared owl at close quarters and two pairs of yellowhammers. Difficult to believe that just a short walk in the opposite direction and we should have been gazing at Didcot power station . . .

Three Josephs

Solemnity of St Joseph. Whilst chopping onions this morning, I reflected that during the Middle Ages St Joseph was generally portrayed as a slightly comical figure. In the slapstick scenes of mystery plays, he was the elderly cuckolded husband, the butt of many a ribald remark. Scripture does not tell us that St Jospeh was old, only that he was remarkably open to the Holy Spirit, a man of honour, a descendant of David; we are surely meant to see a parallel with the Joseph of the Old Testament in his chastity, in his dreams, and in his care for the Son of God, whom he took to Egypt to preserve his life. From there it was but a short step (and another onion) to consideration of two further Josephs, or rather, Josefs, Pope Benedict XVI and Josef Fritzl. The link between the two may seem curious. Pope Benedict always wears a pectoral cross and when in procession carries not a crozier but a Cross, an image of our crucified Saviour. It is a reminder that where the Lord Jesus has gone, we must follow, even though it be to a shameful and painful death. And Fritzl? I was struck by a photograph of the Austrian courtroom where he is being tried. In front of the presiding judge is a cross, possibly a crucifix, with two lights on either side. In the midst of the most appalling darkness, even the unimaginable horrors of Fritzl's cellar, we find the Lord. It isn't a comfortable thought. It is deeply shocking and I suspect I'll spend the rest of today trying to figure out its meaning a little more clearly.

Coat of Many Colours

What a thin dividing line there is between envy and jealousy. Did Joseph's brothers simply envy his coat of many colours or were they jealous of their father's special love for him? They probably began with envy but they certainly ended with jealousy of the most destructive kind. They destroyed the hated coat and grieved their father but failed to recognize that their behaviour also wounded themselves. Sometimes we see the wrong done to God and our neighbour by our sins but fail to register that we have also injured ourselves. We are so apt to make excuses, but our little imperfections have a horrible habit of ending in sin. Maybe this Lent we could spend a moment or two thinking about the ways in which our sins destroy something good in ourselves as well as doing wrong to God and our neighbour. It might provide just the spur we need to do something about them!

Incense

As always when one hopes for a little space, life seems to have been more than usually pressurised recently, not that we are complaining, merely noting! Fortunately, we have not left the question of Easter supplies till the last moment. This year we decided to buy a paschal candle rather than design our own and remembered just in time that we should also buy more incense for Easter and so placed an order for Prinknash Abbey's Basilica blend. If it is Proustian to taste life, it is surely Benedictine to smell life. We use various kinds of incense, but Basilica is always associated with Solemnities and First Order feasts, being more expensive and having a particularly sweet and memorable fragrance. During Lent, which can seem very cold and long, it is good to reflect on the way in which Easter will burst upon all our senses. Catholicism is good at doing that, using the senses to lead one to God.

Women's World Day of Prayer

The Women's World Day of Prayer is one of those initiatives that gets very little attention from the media but is an excellent example of a positive, "grass-roots" response to the many needs of our time. D. Catherine will be giving a talk tonight to a gathering in Grove and will probably stress the international character of the day. It makes one think though: will we ever see a Men's World Day of Prayer?

Inch by Inch

In between praying, working and receiving guests, we have managed to get the guest room into habitable shape, which is a miracle in itself. The painting is done, the carpet tiles laid, and there was an audible sigh of relief from handynun as the last piece of flatpack furniture was assembled yesterday (note for the uninitiated, wardrobes are a pain). Now "all" that remains to be done are curtains, smoke detectors and some mysterious "finishing-off" items, including, apparently, a lot of waxing of furniture, especially the rocking chair that sits in the corner and is secretly coveted by all the community and at least one of our oblates. Photos are not allowed until everything really is completed but, in the meantime, if you are in the area on Sunday 15 March, there will be a mini-sale of some brand-new paint, wallpaper, curtains and bathroom fixtures and fittings which have been generously gifted to the monastery to help defray costs. Min-sale starts after Mass, in the parish meeting rooms, at about 10.45 a.m.

Sunshine

Funny how sunshine can transform even dust on a table surface into something beautiful. The transfigured wounds of the Risen Christ were wounds still, but made beautiful by the fact of the Resurrection. Lent shines light into the dark places of our minds and hearts. If we let God in, even that which we ordinarily think of as disfiguring can be transformed.

Lenten Battles

The first Sunday of Lent takes us straight to the heart of things and the mystery of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. This is powerful reminder that the traditional emphasis on prayer, fasting and almsgiving must be seen against a wider backdrop of the struggle with temptation, with doing battle against the principalities and powers. No wonder Lenten imagery abounds in military metaphors! There is a danger in all these, of course. We can become too focused on ourselves, on our own puny efforts, forgetting that we couldn't do anything if God did not give us the grace. As our Prayer Podcast tries to make clear, it is not our strength but God's which counts, and we mustn't be surprised if temptation comes upon us when we are least ready to face it.

In case you haven't seen any of the posters, our Lent Programme of Talks and Holy Hours for this year is as follows:
Wednesday, 4 March
2.30 p.m. Introduction to the English Mystical Tradition
7.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. Exposition followed by a short form of Compline (Night Prayer).

Wednesday, 11 March
2.30 p.m. Introduction to Walter Hilton
7.30 p.m. Introduction to Walter Hilton (repeated)

Wednesday, 18 March
7.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. Exposition followed by a short form of Compline (Night Prayer). Come and pray for vocations.

Wednesday, 25 March
2.30 p.m. Introduction to Julian of Norwich
7.30 p.m. Introduction to Julian of Norwich (repeated)

Wednesday 1 April
2.30 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
7.30 p.m. Preparing for Holy Week (talk and discussion)

A Lenten Leap

Noticed that we have unaccountably made this a Leap Year with our postings of the Rule, that some repairs to one of our rooms have been done upside down, and that the imposition for a booklet needs re-doing. What can one do but smile? One of our most cherished illusions is that we are in control, but of course we aren't. For all our huffing and puffing, nemesis lurks at every turn. Perhaps this Lent we'll learn the only humility that matters.

Shrove Tuesday

Traditionally the day when we confess our sins in preparation for Lent. In England also called pancake day, because we clear our larders of foods customarily forbidden during Lent (e.g. fat, eggs) and make pancakes of them. In some places there is the tradition of Carnival or Mardi Gras, with feasting and revelry before the solemn Lenten fast which follows. In monasteries there is a wide divergence in practice. We have heard that among our Bavarian brethren, carnival is enjoyed with true Germanic thoroughness and some specially good beer; among our Solesmes brethren, by contrast, there are two days of fasting and prayer in reparation for the excesses of the carnival period. Here in Hendred we adopt a very English via media. The level of disspation in community is fairly low, amounting to no more than sausages and pancakes and a relaxation of the rule of silence for the day; but it marks a contrast with Ash Wednesday and is a reminder that feast and fast are two aspects of the same thing. We are not yet disembodied spirits: the life of prayer cannot be separated from the life of virtue, the joy of the Holy Spirit must inform and transform every human joy.

St Polycarp

The community has been very busy these last few days, preparing for Lent. As we keep all correspondence to a minimum during Lent itself, dozens of letters and emails have been composed at great speed. There are also signs of Spring Cleaning being undertaken in various parts of the house, while the gardening nun has been glimpsed looking wistfully at the greenhouse and the seed trays while dutifully working at her computer. Today's feast is a reminder that we can get too caught up in activity, neccessary though it is. Polycarp was one of the "hearers of John", a saint who takes us straight back to the apostolic age of the Church. The account of his Martyrdom is gripping stuff, a thriller avant la lettre, but his Letter to the Philippians and the Letter of Ignatius to Polycarp are important sources for our understanding of early Christianity. Polycarp's faith and life can be summed up in a sentence he himself penned: "Stand fast, therefore, in this conduct and follow the example of the Lord, 'firm and unchangeable in faith, lovers of the brotherhood, loving each other, united in truth,' helping each other with the mildness of the Lord, despising no man." Something to ponder as we press on with our work.

No Altar, No Bishop

And no monk, no nun, no saint, no sin, at least not in the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. These words, among several others, have been dropped in favour of more modish additions such as "allergy" and "celebrity". Given that the dictionary is meant for children aged seven, one's first thought is simply to register mild bewilderment. Are we so familar with such words that we don't need to define them, or are they now so far removed from everyday experience that definitions are redundant? (Given how often "altar" is misspelled "alter" even by adults, one could make a case for retaining the distinction.) A lot of animals and flowers have been dropped also, which may cause heartache among naturalists who must be wondering whether children of today are ignorant of catkins and cowslips, magpies and minnows (all deleted words), although there is still apparently a need for "dinosaur". Language is constantly changing and any dictionary revision will provoke disagreement. The dropping of so many Christian words, however, suggests an impovershed understanding of the cultural matrix in which English was formed. Like it or not, the language of Bible and Prayer Book has helped make English what it is. Should we worry, though? I have a divided mind on the subject. After all, how many seven-year olds will turn to the Junior Oxford rather than the internet when they want to know the meaning of something?

A Suggestion for Lent

Yesterday someone asked my advice about lectio divina during Lent. I'm going to repeat what I said here on the grounds that there may be others who are thinking, "What can I do for Lent?" and are becoming entangled in complicated schemes for personal improvement. The first thing to do, of course, is to drop the idea of "personal improvement". That is a work of grace we can safely entrust to the Holy Spirit. Our part is simply to provide the optimum conditions in which the Spirit can work. Prayerful reading of scripture is an excellent way of opening ourselves up to God; and if we have not yet practised doing so on a regular basis, it is important not to set ourselves an impossible standard. Better a little every day than great wodges now and then — learning to pray the scriptures is exactly like learning to speak another language. Personally, I think reading through the Mass readings every day, slowly and prayerfully, with pauses for reflection, is the best way of beginning. Doing so assures us that we are praying in union with the whole Church and frees us from having to decide what we are going to read and perhaps skipping passages we find challenging. Begin with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, to prepare mind and heart for what is to be read; and end with a prayer of thanksgiving, asking that God's word may become alive and active in us. There are no special techniques to be learned, all that is necessary is a readiness to listen — and to act, if we are called upon to do so.

Dealing with Hurt

A few weeks ago I asked someone for help with something and was refused. I was surprised how hurt I felt, but rather than let a negative feeling fester, I decided to look at how others deal with hurt, beginning of course with the Lord Jesus. It proved a salutary exercise. The Jesus of the Gospels was never afraid to show how he felt about things, but he did not allow his feelings to be the whole story. He was angry enough to drive the money-lenders out of the Temple; sad enough to weep at the death of his friend, Lazarus; patient enough to tease the Samaritan woman into giving him a drink when he was thirsty; astute enough to outwit Pilate when asked some tricky questions. He could be exasperated by the obtuseness of his disciples; and we can probably imagine his feelings when his family came looking for him "convinced he was out of his mind". But there was never any trace of personal bitterness or hostility, never any desire to "hit back" at people or "get even", never any tendency to ridicule or make others look small. He was capable of forgetting himself and looking beyond to the need of the other. In recent years, the "victim statement" has become a commonplace of reporting on crime and disasters. Heaven knows, someone who has lost a family member to murder or suffered terrible injuries must have to struggle with deeply negative emotions, but sometimes the victim statements leave one feeling oppressed by a sense of negativity multiplied, evil begetting further evil. I find it interesting that statements full of hatred and loathing are soon forgotten, but is there anyone who will ever forget the heroic forgiveness of Gordon Wilson in the aftermath of Enniskillen? We are not at the mercy of our moods. We can be moral people and make the world a better place for our being part of it.

Sunday Evening

In theory, Sunday evening should be quiet and reflective, full of sabbath calm and joy, but we are expecting a number of visitors tomorrow and somehow preparations seem to have crept into Sunday itself. Hence the delayed posting of the podcast recorded earlier, and the late posting of today's passage of the Rule. Nice to know we're human, isn't it?

Superstition

Friday the thirteenth. Just as in economics, bad money drives out good, so in religion. Where true religion is lacking, superstition tends to creep in. But I wonder how many of those who will today "touch wood" to ward off calamity know that they are in fact invoking the Wood of the Cross and implicitly praying to Christ our Lord for protection. Scratch the pagan and you'll find the Christian, not ruined exactly, but certainly a bit confused.

Charles Darwin

The two hundredth anniversary of Darwin's birth will not go unnoticed here, where two members of the community at least will be quietly acknowledging a great man who has had an impact on both of them. For the St Andrews-trained biochemist, Darwin is the man who blew open the narrow constrictions of scientific enquiry and established new ways of looking at the evidence before our eyes. (This is the woman whose contemplation of the periodic table brought her to a keen sense of God's beauty and majesty and who sees a wonderful symmetry between scientific truth and divine truth.) For the Cantab, whose first introduction to Darwin came via "The Voyage of the Beagle", popular science at its most engaging, and Gwen Raverat's enchanting autobiography "A Period Piece", the admiration is less informed but still genuine. We celebrate Darwin's science, and rightly so; but we should not forget the charm of the man himself and the honesty and humility that characterised his work. Nor should we forget Alfred Russel Wallace who worked on similar lines to Darwin and whose own essay led in 1858 to the joint publication of both their theories on natural selection. Let us pray today for all scientists, for a better understanding of the contribution scientists make to the life of the Church, and for greater reverence for the life-forms of the world in which we live.

The Liturgical Code

Yesterday we began again on chapters 8 to 20 of RB which are commonly referred to as the Liturgical Code. The Rule explicitly allows for a rearrangement of the psalmody and even those communities which, like ourselves, have retained the weekly psalter do not always follow Benedict's ordering of the psalms. We have already commented on this (see entry entitled "Dry as Dust?" for 23 October 2007) but the question continues to tug. Benedict XVI has written very eloquently of the objective nature of liturgy and the importance of ordering our worship Godward rather than any other -ward. St Benedict's chapters on liturgy certainly don't make many concessions to the whims of the worshiping community! They are a reminder of God's transcendance, of the infinite distance between him and ourselves which his love alone has annihilated. Paradoxical? Of course, but the simplest truths are often the most mind-boggling — and worth pondering again and again.

St Scholastica

Feast of St Benedict's twin sister, who seems to have adopted a religious life before he did and according to St Gregory's "Dialogues" was a woman of great holiness and prayer. Although we know little about her, the woman Gregory presents to us was no namby-pamby, a good example of a "mulier fortis", and certainly well able to win the respect and admiration of her brother. Monks tend to get embarrassingly sentimental about her. I remember once looking through a collection of revised collects in English prepared by one of our male brethren. The prayer for St Scholastica was greeted with hoots of laughter and found utterly unsingable by the community, so we substituted something much more sober and fitting (and incidentally, more accurate: Scholastica was not necessarily a nun although she lived a devout life). It is interesting how often the male of the species is dogmatic about what nuns are or should be. A psychologist might find this a fruitful subject for investigation. In the meantime, I am slightly irritated, as always, by an entry in the Portsmouth Diocesan Ordo, which exhorts everyone to pray for the Benedictine Sisters (=sorores) in the diocese. There aren't any, both St Cecilia's, Ryde, and ourselves are communities of nuns (=moniales); and St Scholastica isn't our patron, St Benedict is. But who are we to challenge male misconceptions?

A Quiet Week-End

The community is glorying, a little selfishly, in having had a remarkably quiet week-end. It is always fascinating to see what people do when visitors and certain duties are alike impossible. There was much whirring of sewing machines in the room next to mine and I am now the proud possessor of a new winter habit, long promised but never quite finished for lack of time. Down below there was much quiet clattering in the kitchen area which resulted in comfort food of a high order: jam roly-poly, which never usually appears on the menu but which was justified by the weather (or so the cook said). Books were read, drawers tidied, odd jobs completed, seed collections pondered and "healthy exercise" obtained from clearing fresh paths through the snow, all in a holiday spirit. Is God trying to tell us something?

A Lonely Place

Tomorrow's gospel is taken from the first chapter of St Mark. It describes Jesus going out, long before dawn, to a lonely place where he could pray. Anyone who has ever tried to pray can resonate with that: the going out in the early morning to somewhere quiet and empty, where we can seek God or rather, let God seek us. Silence and physical solitude are luxuries for many today, so we need to keep in our hearts a "lonely place" where Christ can pray, undisturbed by the babble of conflicting thoughts and emotions we hold within or the seas of busyness and distraction that wash all around us. Once we have grasped that prayer is in essence allowing the Son to pray to the Father in us, so many of the obstacles and difficulties seem to disappear. Prayer isn't complicated, though we often make it so. It is as easy, and necessary, as breathing.

Simple pleasures

Duncan in the Snow
The snow has been falling quite heavily, and when there's a moment we'll post some photos of the village plus a short video. In the meantime heads are nodding sagely at some of the phrases in our Lauds canticles about snow, which "falls soft as roosting birds" while "the mind is amazed at its whiteness". Simple pleasures, but wonderful nonetheless.

Ordinary Time

"Ordinary Time" always seems to me a bit of a misnomer for the liturgical period we are now engaged upon. What can possibly be ordinary about salvation? We cannot always live on the peaks. The drama of Christmas came to a beautiful end at Candlemas and now we are back in our routine. Personally, I find Ordinary Time a kind of extended Holy Saturday. Nothing very much seems to be happening. We go on with the ordinary round, pondering the less magnificent passages of scripture, singing the less magnificent chants, doing the ordinary tasks of life. And all the while, just below the surface, so to say, something extraordinary is going on. Our salvation is being worked out "in fear and trembling", in ways we can only dimly discern. Ordinary time is just a heartbeat away from eternity.

Snowy silence

Compared with many, we had very little snow. Enough, alas, to prevent our having Mass on the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) as the monk who was to have said the Mass was snowed in at Douai. But the special silence that comes with snow has been enjoyed by all, save when the hammering in the soon-to-be guest room assaults the eardrums. We bought pine flat-packs which are very serviceable and not too difficult to assemble (carpenter-nun was pleased to find proper dowelling and metal drawer slides). The next task is to lay the carpet tiles . . .

Amen

Distracted at Vigils by the thought, how often we say "Amen" in the course of the day. It is such a beautiful affirmation of consent and trust and faith. It concludes every collect, every prayer; it makes an emphatic end to many psalms; it is the only word even half-way adequate to express our faith in the Holy Eucharist. Said or sung, whispered or pronounced only in the silence of our hearts, "Amen" punctuates the course of the day. It is Herbert's "heaven in ordinarie . . . something understood": a whole litany in a little.

Seeds and St Thomas

Our seed order for the garden arrived yesterday, leading to a few moments of daydreaming about how beautiful everything will look later in the year (I actually like the garden as it is now, freshly dug and full of potential rather than tatty at the edges, with a few spectacular mistakes illuminating the borders.) From seeds to St Thomas Aquinas may be something of a leap, but no one could deny that his work was seminal for the development of much that we cherish in the Church. Recently I have been revisiting his reflections on the nature of Christian society, itself a pregnant phrase, and wondering whether recession is going to make us all rethink our previous positions about how the state operates, the relationships between labour and capital, responsibility and authority, and so on. Pessimists have already begun mumbling about conditions being ripe for the emergence of dictatorships as the economic gloom darkens and we all look for a secular saviour (pity President Obama, cast in that role already). Sensationalist? Overstated? Perhaps, but good to remember that St Thomas had some quite liberal views on tyrannicide!

Modern Asceticism

Heard a couple of deer barking in the stand of woodland just over the way and thought how privileged we are to be surrounded by natural sounds at night rather than the rush and roar of traffic. People often remark how quiet the monastery is. We tend not to notice. Even when the monastery is empty of visitors, there is always someone whose letter/email/telephone call requires urgent attention. It is part of the asceticism of monastic life, but one is often left with a profound sense of failure because we cannot give each individual the amount of attention he/she needs (or demands) and sometimes give replies which are plainly not the ones sought or hoped for. Perhaps that is itself another form of asceticism: to do one's best yet disappoint. Fortunately, God is more concerned with our motivation than our success or failure.

Prodigal Sons?

Today we remember the Conversion of St Paul and the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We also recall that on this day fifty years ago, at St Paul's Outside the Walls, Pope John XXIII announced his plan for a Great Council of the Church. Interestingly, on 21 January the ban of excommunication was lifted from four bishops ordained by the late Archbishop Lefebvre. We ought to be rejoicing at the thought of four prodigal sons being welcomed back into the family from which they have been so long estranged. Another little sign of unity regained perhaps? For English Catholics, however, there is a shadow. Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the four, has gone on record not only as a Holocaust denier but also as an endorser of the virulently anti-semitic Protocols of Zion and seems not to have lessened any of his former hostility to the Holy See. While we need to distinguish between the lifting of excommunication (= ecclesiastical penalty) and the views someone holds on matters of history (= personal belief), however crazy or dangerous those views may be, uneasiness remains. Many well-meaning Catholics have the idea that the SSPX separated from the Church "merely" because its members preferred to use the Tridentine form of Mass. In fact, the divisions went much deeper and the implacable opposition of many SSPX members to the Church's ecumenical work and its renewed understanding of the Jewish Covenant remains a source of sorrow and confusion. The timing of the removal of excommunication was odd and some of the explanations that have been offered are frankly lame. Let us pray that out of this good may come, and on Holocaust Memorial Day let us renew our commitment to making genocide a thing of the past.

Change

The inauguration of the first African American as President of the U.S.A.; the near collapse of RBS; the shake-up in the world's financial institutions: there are innumerable instances of change in the world about us. Newman saw that holiness here below calls for frequent change, a constant striving after right living. Benedictines think so highly of this "godly dynamic" that we make it the subject of a special vow, conversatio morum, which commits us to ongoing conversion. Odd to think that we are in tune with the times.

Christian Unity Octave

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is always demanding. I have just been re-reading the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism (see here), mainly to remind myself of the special responsibilities of religious but also because I am unhappy at the narrow take on unity one often encounters. Unity means rather more than simply ignoring what one doesn't understand or share. I have always regretted that most serious ecumenical dialogue, as distinct from well-meaning but sometimes dire attempts at shared prayer/activity, tends to be the prerogative of the upper echelons of the Church. Partly I suppose that is a reflection of the ignorance of the "average believer" about what his/her Church actually teaches, but it is a pity. We have to remember that Christian unity isn't optional but essential. Persevering prayer is fundamental to the process of attaining that unity, but we also need to be honest about what divides as well as unites us. Paragraph 172 of the Directory sums this up very clearly: "Dialogue is at the heart of ecumenical cooperation and accompanies all forms of it. Dialogue involves both listening and replying, seeking both to understand and to be understood. It is a readiness to put questions and to be questioned. It is to be forthcoming about oneself and trustful of what others say about themselves. The parties in dialogue must be ready to clarify their ideas further, and modify their personal views and ways of living and acting, allowing themselves to be guided in this by authentic love and truth. Reciprocity and mutual commitment are essential elements in dialogue, as is also a sense that the partners are together on an equal footing. Ecumenical dialogue allows members of different Churches and ecclesial Communities to get to know one another, to identify matters of faith and practice which they share and points on which they differ. They seek to understand the roots of such differences and assess to what extent they constitute a real obstacle to a common faith. When differences are recognised as being a real barrier to communion, they try to find ways to overcome them in the light of those points of faith which they already hold in common."

Call of Samuel

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A Lovely Gift

Crawled to the computer for the first time in many days and found that we had been given a lovely gift. Someone with an eye for beauty had purchased Martin Wenham's Trinity Platter (see Veilcraft section) and expressed a preference for its remaining at the monastery and being used here. What a kind and generous thought! There is a work backlog to clear, but I have learned something important while in a "suffering state". It is that sarcoidosis and sciatica don't mix, unless one has the patience of a saint. And laughter is not a brilliant idea, either. It is good, however, to have something to "offer up" when so many are experiencing hardship of one kind or another. Let us continue to support with our prayers all those in need of help.

Sciatica stops play

The nun who usually looks after our web site is currently unable to work at the computer so there will be a few more days without any postings or podcasts. Duncan is being more sympathetic than the rest of us, but he is a very nice dog and quite happy just to sit and gaze adoringly at the afflicted one. No further bulletins will be issued, but we shall probably all grow in holiness . . .

St Cecilia's

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Householder Joys

The great feast of the Epiphany has passed without so much as a burble from any of us, but the truth is we are going through an intensely domestic period. The dining room and utility room are half repainted, but she who wields the paintrbrush has had to retire temporarily from the fray since she bent down to lift something and now finds she cannot straighten herself. The Divine Office is therefore sung in a state of semi-prostration, not exactly ex devoto. The downstairs bathroom has some iced-up pipes and there has been much scratching of heads and pulling at wimples in an effort to work out the best way of thawing them gently. Last night it registered -12° in the greenhouse, which means the lovingly-grown collection of orange and lemon trees which give our "breakfast terrace" a mediterranean air in summer has probably perished, and the terracotta pots with them. However, the snow looks beautiful in the starlight, and the ice inside the window panes looks magical, provided one wraps oneself up properly before viewing it. The dog can't wait to get outside and play and is all tail-wagging enthusiasm at the prospect. Gloom? That's something we just don't do at Hendred. Unless, of course, one happens to be a lemon (see above).

New Year 2009

January is, literally, the door into the New Year when, like the ancient god Janus, we look both ways. How fitting, then, that the Church should celebrate the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on this day. She is the hinge between the Old and New Testaments, the portal through which Christ enters the world and all is made new. Today is the Church's oldest Marian feast, one which recalls her greatest title. "Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men. In this sense the Church's Tradition has often read the most beautiful texts on wisdom in relation to Mary. Mary is acclaimed and represented in the liturgy as the 'Seat of Wisdom.'" — Catechism of the Catholic Church 721. Since 1967 today has also been designated World Day of Peace. We surely need our Lady's prayers for that.

Monkeys with Typewriters

Are bloggers just monkeys with typewriters, destroying the precious remnants of western culture with their self-indulgent ramblings? Leaving aside the question of how far the internet can be described as an integral part of contemporary culture, it is interesting that monastic bloggers seem to be increasing in number. Sadly, none of us here has time to read anyone else's outpourings so we'll have to continue "monkeying around" in 2009 in the hope that we may say something useful to someone, eventually. In the meantime, what are our community hopes for the coming year? Top of the list must come the desire that we, our oblates and associates, may all grow in holiness. Then, it would be great if we could draw more people to know and love the Lord through sharing our monastic life and through the ripple effects of some of the works we undertake. There will be at least one important announcement about these early in the coming year. As to this web site, it is due a major overhaul, but there is some time-consuming house maintenance to be done first; then there is a guest room to make in the soon-to-be-vacated parish office. It will all take time. Fortunately, God made plenty of that.

Peace on Earth

As the year nears its close, who can fail to be troubled by the violence convulsing so much of the world? René Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, makes the chilling point that "When unappeased, violence seeks and always finds a surrogate victim. The creature that excited its hostility is abruptly replaced by another, chosen only because it is vulnerable and close at hand." Vulnerable and close at hand: that fits just about every victim, from the abused child to the abused adult (male or female, young or old). It is sickeningly true of what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Gaza, Tibet, wherever violence is being used to attain a political end, and it is the weakest and most defenceless who must pay the price. Currently the west is feeling queasy about the action Israel is taking against the Palestinians, and rightly so. No one condones the lobbing of missiles into Israel, but the use of sophisticated modern weaponry is exacting a hideous revenge on the Palestinian people and will solve nothing. I wish every politician would read René Girard whose reflections on the nature of violence and the way in which to stop passing the poison on seem to me so apposite. Perhaps it is no accident that this great thinker was born on Christmas Day, when the angels sang of peace on earth to those of goodwill. Let us pray that in 2009 we may hear the angels' song amid the din of our conflicting desires.

St Thomas of Canterbury

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Christmas Eve

The Christmas Proclamation has been sung so later this afternoon we shall put up the Crib and the Christmas tree and arrange all the cards we have received. Meanwhile preparations are going on in the kitchen and in every nook and cranny of the monastery. Somewhere someone is recording a podcast, and there are rumours of a Christmas video being edited so that we can include in our celebration all those, known and unknown, who drop into our web site from time to time. And in the midst of all this busyness, the quiet heart of the monastery continues to beat with prayer and praise . . .

O Emmanuel

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O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. "O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay." It is the first phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn't quite capture the force of "desideratus". To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: "I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour" (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled. The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news but so often we think salvation is some kind of D.I.Y. process. The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

O Oriens

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O Clavis David

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O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. "O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!" Today we are invited to think about that noble flower of Jesse which is Jesus. Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born of David's house and line, a belief that is reflected in at least one of the rabbinic targums (Jonathan). The Mass readings on Sunday will remind us that David had wanted to build a temple for the Lord but, speaking though Nathan, God told him that he was not the man to do so. Instead, the Lord would build a house for him, one whose sovereignty would endure. David was the great liberator, the great warrior; but it is the Lord Jesus who frees us from sin and our bondage to sin. So we pray, come and free us, do not delay.

O Adonai

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O Sapientia

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Generosity

I sometimes think that only the poor know how to be generous. We are blessed with wonderfully kind friends, many of whom send gifts at this time of year. One which has touched the hearts of all of us came from a friend in the U.S.A. who is far from well-off. Along with some "bottles of fruit juice" were an amazing selection of baked goods she had spent time and labour producing. She had truly given of herself with a lavishness which recalls the jar of nard poured lovingly over the Lord's feet. Everyone involved in the Christmas story is touched with the same sort of generosity. There is Mary, utterly forgetful of self, making the difficult journey to visit Elizabeth; Joseph, quietly setting aside his own dreams in order to welcome the Son of Mary as his own; John the Baptist, ecstatically happy to be just a Voice that precedes the Word, a Lamp that points to the Sun; all of them reckless of their own "status" or "personal fulfilment". May they teach us how to give in a world that seems to have forgotten how to receive.

Integrity

A rich theme in our readings for Advent is integrity. One of the signs that the Messiah is among us will be the restoration of integrity to both public and private life. In the light of all the recent financial scandals, we need to ask ourselves whether we really want to be people of integrity and are prepared to make the sacrifices it involves. In theory, we all want to be upright, but when it comes to the point we are often weak and fallible and easily scared. We only half believe. Like humility, integrity is something we admire in others but are more ambivalent about in ourselves. My father was a man of integrity, which made things uncomfortable for others at times (I can hear my mother murmuring something about "classic British understatement"), but I'm grateful to have had his example. Living with integrity isn't an optional extra. It is essential to our survival as human beings.

Gaudete Sunday

The first word of the introit for today is Gaudete, Rejoice! And rejoice we shall, with rose vestments for the clergy, musical instruments and flowers, because our God is near. As we draw closer to Christmas Mary and John the Baptist focus our attention on the mysterious coming of the Word made flesh. Today the silence is broken by a voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord". Our response must be, like Mary's, Magnificat. Our fiftieth prayer podcast takes up the theme.

Conditor alme siderum

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Silence

Very dark, crisp and cold this morning. When one is silent, it is amazing how loud natural sounds appear: the rustle of sheep pulling at frosty grass; a horse chomping hay; even the sound of a buzzard alighting on a branch have a clarity one misses at other times. It is not by accident that during Advent the community embraces a more profound silence than usual, including three days of absolute silence when no one speaks or uses noisy machinery or gadgets. That kind of silence is a rare privilege but how better to prepare for the coming of the Word?

A Blinding Light

We can report that the garden is beginning to look much smarter. The shrubbery in front of the windows has been cleared and Damien has constructed a wooden screen that is so beautiful I sometimes trot into the garden just for the pleasure of gazing at it. The greenhouse is also a great addition. What we did not foresee, however, was the increase of light inside the house. We have been performing a kind of musical chairs around the dining table to avoid the noonday sun (shades are NOT worn indoors), while the nun who runs Veilnet | Veilpress reports that the light reflected off the greenhouse is blinding her. Clearly we can resist no longer. We shall have to put up blinds of some kind, and as the windows are Victorian, this will require thought and probably an "expert". Another reason to be grateful for the internet, for how else would cloistered nuns know where to look?

Comfort Food

About once every five years we make a Sussex Pond pudding, a suet pudding with, at its centre, a heart-stopping mixture of lemon, butter and brown sugar. It is comfort food of a high order, designed for days when the temperature plummets and it's as frosty inside as out. The first reading at Mass today, from the prophet Isaiah, could be described as comfort food for the soul. We are reminded of the tenderness of God, of his concern for each one of us, a theme developed in the gospel, where it is the straying sheep that the Lord seeks out. This Advent, many are in need of comfort. We may not be able to do much in material terms, but prayer knows no limits, is not constrained by any boundaries, can achieve so much more than our own efforts. Let us be generous in offering the comfort of our prayer.

The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

A much-misunderstood feast. One can summarize the doctrine thus: In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin." That does not mean, of course, that Mary did not need to be redeemed. Mary is a redeemed creature, just as we all are; but in her case, God conferred a special grace, anticipating, so to say, the saving death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we shall celebrate with joy this "holy light on earth's horizon", the first glimmering of the Rising Sun whom we shall welcome on Christmas Day. (Note: we have just added a Gregorian Chant radio button to our liturgical resources page. It is our intention [hope?] to expand the Plainsong Resources section over the next six weeks. If you have any links to suggest, please email us. We have also amended the corrupted links on our shopping and helping pages, many thanks to those who alerted us to the problem. Online donations via Paypal are limited to £100 so you don't give more than you intended!)

Second Sunday of Advent

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Pure Evil?

Am I alone in finding the characterization of Karen Matthews as "pure evil" deeply disturbing? What she did was wrong and could perhaps have resulted in the death of her daughter: no one would want to trivialize the seriousness of that. But it is possible to condemn the deed without condemning the person. I suspect that some of the hostility she has attracted comes from one of two things: she has offended against our high ideal of motherhood, and she has made us all look silly. Perhaps we need to reflect that however cruel or greedy Karen Matthews' conduct has been, however wrong or dangerous her actions, we are scarcely in a position to judge her. There is evil in the world. Let us not add to its power by the hatred with which we condemn others or we'll have failed to understand why God sent his Son into the world. (Note: in no way do I dispute the verdict or whatever sentence is imposed.)

The Credit Crunch and Charity

Everyone in Britain is expecting a further cut in interest rates today. For many, the effects of the credit crunch are being painfully felt as jobs and homes are threatened or already lost. For charities the pain may be a little more hidden. Most have less money available to meet ever-increasing needs. Some charities are going to disappear altogether or have to cut cut back on the help they give. People who rely on their savings, or whose pensions are paid from investments that seem to lose value by the hour, are going to find life particularly difficult with less help on offer than before. There is no "magic" solution to any of this. As a very small charity ourselves, we know how precarious the situation is. That is why the Advent message of hope is so important and why, no matter how bad things get, we must not close our hearts to those in need. If we do, we shall come empty-handed to the Crib at Christmas.

The Web that is Woven

I was thinking about a phrase in Isaiah 25, "the web that is woven over all the nations" which the Lord of Hosts will destroy on his holy mountain, and went on to think about the uses and abuses of the internet. Just recently I have been reminded how much misinformation can be found on the web. From time to time I look at one or two web sites that are popular with people thinking about religious life. Often I am uplifted by the enthusiasm displayed; occasionally I smile because an opinion expressed with great fervour and conviction is absurdly wide of the mark; sometimes, as yesterday, I feel very uneasy about what I find. Just appearing on the web seems to confer legitimacy, but it can be dangerously misleading (think Wikipedia for a none-religious parallel). In the monastery we have a clear "code of practice" with regard to internet usage. Advent could be a good time for reassessing one's own practice: what one looks at, what one posts, the web that one is weaving for oneself and for others.

RB 51

Another little chapter on the right way to behave outside the monastery. Why, you may ask, should Benedict be concerned about whether a monk accepts an invitation to a meal while he is out on monastery business? If the abbot knows and has approved, there is no problem. It is what the abbot does not know that troubles Benedict. We all know how easy it is to have mixed motives, to have an open purpose and a hidden one. Benedict wants transparency from his monks, not because he wants to keep tabs on them but because he wants them to become people the Light can shine through. That's not a bad ambition for any of us.

RB 50

Today's chapter of the Rule seems very apposite as there are three hospital appointments to be kept, on three separate days this week! Joking aside, there is an important truth contained in these sentences about praying while away from the monastery. How often does our "devotion" depend on the familiar and predictable? Take us away from our comfort zone, place us in new circumstances, and how easy it is to decide that habits of prayer are no longer sustainable or, worse still, no longer necessary. Benedict is gently reminding us that prayer, like breathing, is essential.

Advent

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Terrorism

Recently I was looking through some notes on a group of monasteries in medieval Galicia (Spain). A dispute between one community and the local bishop led to violence. When the abbot refused to do as the bishop wanted, a band of "heavies" was sent to an outlying grange of the monastery. They entered while the monks were at prayer and began laying about them, cutting off the feet of one monk and the noses and ears of others (a hideous death in a world without modern medical care). The bishop led the raid himself and apparently wielded his sword as cruelly as any of the others. The monks who were killed were lay brothers: they probably knew very little of the abbot's decisions, had no influence, and were unarmed. The parallels with what is happening in Mumbai are obvious. To attack and kill defenceless people is not new, but there is something immensely sad about terrorism, not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators. If current speculation proves right, and those responsible for the killing in Mumbai are some kind of extremist Islamists, it is more than sad. It is blasphemous. Let us pray for everyone caught up in this horror.

Contemplative Calm

Sometimes one wonders. We gave a Day of Recollection on Saturday; our Quadriennial Visitation began on Tuesday and ended yesterday (many thanks to Mgr Cyril Murtagh for his kindliness and expertise); last night we held the first of our Advent lectio divina sessions (there is a summary of the introductory talk on the Liturgical Year page); there is another session this afternoon, and a flurry of guests to end the week. Finding time for everyone and everything is not always easy and it only takes a burst pipe or a difference in the accounts to produce a communal groan. Life, however, is like that and one must weather the storm, whether it be a real typhoon or a mere typhoon in a teacup (as most of them often are). The secret is to have one's heart fixed on the Lord. Easy to say, not always so easy to do; but just for today? I hope so.

Living with Debt

Yesterday's terrific gamble by the Chancellor will be hotly debated today and for a long time to come, but the plain fact is, everyone living in these Islands must get used to the idea of living with debt. Most of us are probably still too stunned to take in all the facts and figures, let alone consider how it is going to affect us as individuals. I suspect that people like ourselves, who spend most of their income on food and energy, are going to start wondering yet again how long the Welfare State can continue and whether there is anything that can take its place. Little by little, Religious Orders have withdrawn from education and healthcare, for example, leaving the work they used to do to lay people. Nothing wrong with that, but when there's no money left, we cannot expect lay people to work for nothing in the way we can and do expect Religious to work. Do we face a future where the State will no longer be able to maintain its care for the poor, the sick, the elderly and the handicapped, and there are no longer any Church-based institutions to take over? Where overseas aid will be cut off entirely? Living with debt is never very comfortable; living with a huge national debt is less comfortable still. Let us pray that the Church will be equal to the challenge we now face. Whatever else happens, we have a duty to help others, especially those who cannot help themselves.

Gratitude v. Grumbling

Have you noticed how quickly "everything else" has slipped from the headlines while we in the west concentrate on our economic woes and increasingly desperate schemes to try to prevent a recession becoming a depression? One of the great boons of contemporary communication technology is that we can know about almost anything as soon as it occurs. None of us can claim to be ignorant of what is happening, for example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe or wherever. Often, however, we are genuinely ignorant of all the good that is being done nearer home, of those "little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love" which are so important for the happiness and wellbeing of society. This is going to be a busy week when we may need to make a conscious effort to mark how many good things come our way and give thanks for them. But grateful people are so much nicer to know than grumblers and carpers that it must be worth the effort. St Benedict certainly thought so.

The Kingship of Christ

The community is a little wan this morning, having spent a lot of time and effort preparing for and clearing up after yesterday's Day of Recollection. But that won't lessen our sense of privilege on this Solemnity of Christ the King. We are entering on the last week of the Church's year, and although it looks exhausting (hospital appointments, visitors and our quadriennial Visitation, to say nothing of our Advent talks!), there is a feeling of joyful expectancy. There is some interior "tidying up" to be done, but Advent beckons with its promise of a desert time during which we can prepare again to receive our Saviour. No wonder we are joyful.

Presentation of Our Lady

One of the minor feasts of Our Lady, today is special to many Benedictines because it is the day on which, by something of a legal fiction, the last monk of Marian Westminster transferred to two younger men all the rights of the pre-Reformation English Benedictine Congregation, thus enabling the English Congregation of today to claim unbroken continuity with its medieval predecessor. Although we are no longer members of the E.B.C. we too keep it as a Dies Memorabilis and share their joy. It is a reminder that numbers aren't everything, God's purposes cannot be thwarted by mere mortals any more than Mary's insignificance in human terms could thwart God's mighty plan of salvation. (And as the prioress was clothed on this day, we get a better dinner to help us remember!)

Wine Drinking

Today's chapter of the Rule is so moderate, so modest in its assumptions, so measured in its prescriptions. One can understand why those who have never tried to live according to its guidance can dismiss it as being "easy". Substitute something else for wine and it may become more challenging. Try applying Benedict's advice to your use of the internet or your ipod (or your golf clubs or your gun) and you'll see at once that the thoughtful moderation he recommends is a bit more demanding than at first appears.

Lack of Inspiration

I must have spent half an hour yesterday thinking about a subject for this week's podcast and actually recorded two, but they have been consigned to the digital rubbish bin for lack of inspiration. It isn't often that any of us admits to lacking inspiration. Lack of money to complete a project, maybe, but lack of inspiration? Scarcely ever. As regards our own inner world, how many of us are really modest about about what goes on in the space between our ears? A trip through the blogosphere reveals many a posting that might usefully have been trashed before being sent into cyberspace. Part of the problem is that we have become so accustomed to pouring out — our thoughts, opinions, prejudices — that we have forgotten that the root of the word inspiration has to do with taking in, is, in Christian terms, a work of the Holy Spirit breathing into us. This week we might try to allow the Spirit a little more room in our lives. When truly inspired we can ourselves become inspiring.

St Martin and Armistice Day

St Martin has a special place in the affections of all Benedictines because he was the first bishop in the west to live a monastic life. Everyone knows the story of the soldier-saint sharing his cloak with a beggar. It would have been so much easier simply to give the whole cloak; but to share, to make oneself look slightly ridiculous in order to spare the feelings of another, shows real delicacy and generosity of spirit. It is one of the ironies of history that today, as we commemorate St Martin, we also recall the Armistice which ninety years ago ended the fighting of World War I. Few, I think, could claim that it ended the war. Wars are ended with peace treaties, and there are few who would dispute that the seeds of World War II were sown in the humilating terms eventually imposed on Germany. Today I shall think of St Martin and his readiness to serve; I shall also think of the World War I battlefields — of Verdun, perhaps, and the terrible waste of lives produced by eight months of shelling (60,000,000shells!). If we do not learn the lessons of history, we shall surely be obliged to repeat them.

St Leo the Great

The feast of the Dedication of the Lateran yesterday was overshadowed, to all intents and purposes, by Remembrance Sunday, but the feast of St Leo the Great today turns our eyes towards Rome again. Doctrinally, liturgically and politically, his pontificate (440–461) was extremely important. Probably most of us think of him in connection with the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures in the Person of Christ, human and divine, or his arguments in defence of the primacy of Rome. Every Christmas we re-read his writings on the Incarnation which are models of clarity and theological insight (the two do not always go together). This morning, however, I was thinking about his success in turning back Attila the Hun from the very gates of Rome. A man who understood that jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, St Leo is a saint for our times. (No podcasts until the current round of coughs and splutters in community is over.)

Remembrance Sunday

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Um

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Tempting Fate

It was rash of us to talk of "normal service resuming" as there have been many hiccups in our Broadband service, but we would not want you to get the impression that the community has retired to a life of eremitical indignation. The work of trying to make the house a little warmer for everyone continues: yesterday we had some fresh insulation put down in the loft, and "Handynun" has been seen around the house with toolbox (and Duncan) in tow, fixing glazing and trying to draught-proof a few more corners. She seems to be especially proud of the double-glazing in the downstairs shower room and on the East landing, which is odd for a nun who has Aesthetic Opinions. Later this month we shall have another onslaught on the mould in the kitchen and hope to be able to redecorate both the kitchen and the dining room before Christmas. Sadly, the painting of the oratory must be left until next year as there is no way we can make time for it. There is a possibility that we may have a proper guest room in the New Year, so plans are being made and calculations being done to ensure that it is as comfortable as possible. In the garden too there are transformations. Thanks to much hard labour by our friend Damien the overgrown shrubbery next to the house is gradually being cleared so that we can replant it in more sensible (and colourful) fashion. The new compost bin (also made by Damien) is a work of art, while the levelling off of the kitchen garden has been a major achievement this year for which we are all profoundly grateful. Once the light improves, we shall have to take photos of these improvements. Needless to say, the ordinary work of the community, the unceasing round of prayer and study, continues, more or less indifferent to the smell of paint or the sound of hammering. A reminder that external change is never the whole story.

All Saints, All Souls

Our BT Broadband connection has been as much off as on over the last few days, which has been frustrating but also given us an opportunity to reflect in more leisurely fashion on these two great feasts, All Saints and All Souls. All Saints is perhaps easier to grasp: a celebration of every saint, known and unknown, and of the whole People of God. For those of us struggling to live a good and holy life, it is a great encouragement, a foretaste of joy to come. All Souls is more sober: an opportunity to pray for those dear to us who have gone before and for all who have no one else to pray for them, but also an opportunity to reflect on our own future. Purgatory is not fashionable, but it is the destiny that most of us can look forward to. "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God". If we have not attained purity of heart in this life, we may attain it in Purgatory and so be made ready for the Vision of God. In its own way, All Souls is a great comfort, just as much a feast for all of us as All Saints. Let us celebrate both feasts with joy and gladness.

Eating Alone

Today's chapter of RB is concerned with excommunication for less serious faults. To eat alone, to be deprived, quite literally, of companionship ("sharing bread with") is, in monastic terms, a reminder that one has in some way offended against the common good. This morning we learned that half of all women aged over 65 in the UK live alone, which must mean that for a high proportion, eating alone is a common, everyday occurrence. We are not talking here of an occasional solitary meal or freely choosing to eat alone at certain times (who would not opt for solitude at breakfast), but of a habitual state of affairs. Anyone who has ever lived alone knows that to cook for one can be an effort; and the idea of setting a proper table is simply too much trouble. Perhaps there is something here for all Benedictines and oblates to ponder, especially when we celebrate the Eucharist. When did we last invite an elderly or solitary person to share a meal with us? When did we last make the connection, so to say, between what we share at Mass and what we share at the dining table?

Normal Sevice Resumes

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ACSA Book launch

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Vocation

To Kintbury today to give a talk at the St Cassian Centre about vocation, with instructions to "keep it general and include marriage and the priesthood." All this in under half an hour. I was beginning to panic until I remembered that today at Lisieux Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse, will be beatified. We have very few married people among the official saints of the Church, so it will be good to be able to use that remarkable couple to illustrate some important points. It is strange how easily we forget that we are all called to holiness, whatever our state in life. The Martins faced all the difficulties most people face and, like their famous daughter, attained holiness through fidelity and generosity in the little things of life. Perhaps the little things aren't so little after all. There is only one way for any of us, male or female, married or single, priest or religious, to go to God: as a Bride of Christ. That is, quite literally, a tremendous vocation for us all. [Note for the curious. If you never normally look at anything on this site but Colophon, do take a peep at the addition to our Digital Books page.]

Small Miracles

This morning, while walking the dog, we saw two stags walking along in a companionable kind of way; a red kite looping the loop over Harwell; and a beech tree turning red as autumn advances. Small miracles, but full of wonder. With the psalmist one is moved to exclaim, "How wonderful are your works, O Lord. In wisdom you have made them all." For the more this-worldly minded, there are some free offers on our Shop page which may be worth looking at. The technological carnage we have been suffering from may be of benefit to others: a high-end monitor, a SCSI scanner and a tired laptop are up for grabs. All we ask is that you collect them.

Of Laughter and Tears

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Stanbrook Sale (Revised)

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Words, Words, Words

No, not Hamlet but the Catholic Directory for England and Wales. We reached the final stage on Friday and since then the team at Gabriel and I have been proof-reading. Last year's edition ran to 980 closely printed pages, so you can imagine how tired one's eyes become. Any mistakes are ultimately my responsibility but one relies on the accuracy and completeness of the submissions made by diocesan officials and others, and just occasionally one wonders whether that might be a bit rash. For a few brief days one probably has an unparalleled "knowledge" of every parish and diocese in the country. I say "knowledge", but names and statistics do not reveal as much as we would like them to. Sometimes I stand back and look at the Directory as a historian might: the life of the Church is glimpsed in its pages but never completely revealed. Printer's ink cannot capture grace.

Good Samaritans

Today's gospel led to some very personal reflections on the priests, levites and Samaritans in my life. Leaving aside the priests and levites, who are important enough in their own eyes without anyone's singing their praises, here are a few memories of some of my own "Samaritan moments" : the boy who came and talked about his hamster during one of the more excruciating parties of childhood; the woman who translated my limping castellano into good Catalan when a booking clerk refused to sell me a ticket for the last train home; the tired librarian in a strange city who gave a brilliant smile and made me feel less lonely; the person (man? woman?) who rescued me when I was knocked off my bicycle; the person who sent groceries when our larder was bare (we never found out who); and the multitudinous acts of kindness and consideration one meets with every day without fully registering them. Samaritans all, with not a priest or levite among them. You can probably compile your own list and give thanks as I do for all those anonymous helpers along the way who reveal something to us of God's love and compassion.

St Thérèse of Lisieux

St Thérèse is a good example of a saint who manages to inspire despite everything her devotees have done to her. Quite early on, there were attempts to cast her as a saint in the sickly sentimental mould. Carefully editing out those parts of her autobiography at odds with their own ideas of holiness, Thérèse was presented as destined for a halo from birth: brought up in a "perfect" Catholic family, cultivating a childlike simplicity and dying young, she exemplified an ideal of sanctity that seems to appeal especially, I'm sorry to say, to men. The truth about Thérèse is so much more thrilling. The Little Flower was indeed of her generation, and there are passages in her writings which strike today's reader as unbearably coy; but there is also in Thérèse a core of steel — a truthfulness and determination to make the less courageous blench. She was ruthlessly honest about her own faults, prepared to say things that today would land her in trouble (the desire to be a priest can be spiritualized away until we lose all sense of how unthinkable it would have been for her contemporaries), faced the terrors of apparent loss of faith, and through it all held fast to her understanding of holiness realized in the ordinary, everyday events of life. In truth, there is nothing little about the Little Flower except the name.

A Rag-Bag Post

We have a strict rule in community, that this web site and blog receive attention only when other duties have been attended to. No wonder, then, that there have been a few blank days and the weekly podcast is likely to appear mid-week. What have we been up to? There have been two books to see through the press; some audio books to record and send out; shopping, gardening, cooking, cleaning and minor household repairs to deal with (isn't it always the way that minor repairs, once tackled, have a habit of becoming major undertakings?); visitors to welcome; accounts to be written up; committee meetings to attend; letters and emails to reply to; and the daily round of prayer and observance to maintain. It doesn't sound like much, put like that, does it? But that is what monastic life is like most of the time: ordinary and humdrum in much of its detail. There are occasional surprises. Yesterday we received an invitation to take part in one of Gordon Ramsey's "Cookalong" T.V. programmes. For one moment I had a vision of G.R. and camera crew trying to squeeze into our not-very-big kitchen and the great man being put out of countenance by our indifference to his famously expletive-ridden language. Good T.V. perhaps, but not necessarily good monasticism. Today we remember St Jerome, a curmudgeon with a soft spot for nuns (good), a tremendous love of holy scripture (better) and, despite all the truculence and violence of his opinions, an immense love of God and neighbour (best of all). His memoria reminds me that we still have not decided when we are going to adapt the revised Latin psalter in choir, a decision we have been contemplating for at least five years. All we have to do is find time for a chapter meeting . . .

Catholic Social Teaching Revisited

At present a number of petitions are flying around cyberspace inviting people to attribute blame for the present economic turmoil to this group or that. Some church leaders have also joined in with fairly direct condemnations of Wall Street bankers in particular. Time, I think, to recall that one of the great glories of the Roman Catholic Church has been the development of Catholic social teaching since 1891 and the publication of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labour). In 1931 Pope Pius XI condemned what he called "the international imperialism of money" and stressed the need for a social and economic order animated by justice (see Quadragesimo Anno, After Forty Years, 1931). John XXIII expanded on this in Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, 1961) where he emphasized not only the State's obligation to consider the common good but urged the need for all to live as one community and reminded the Church of her duty to be a teacher and nurturing guardian of the poor and oppressed. In Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963) he affirmed the human rights of every individual and the duties that follow from our having rights: "Since men are social by nature they are meant to live with others and to work for one another's welfare". In 1967 Paul VI issued his hard-hitting Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), calling attention to the way in which the poor were becoming poorer, and stating quite unequivocally the Church's refusal to endorse capitalism (and indeed socialism): "It is unfortunate that on these new conditions of society a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation." Powerful stuff, and in Octogesima Adveniens (A Call to Action, 1971), Paul VI reminded us that we are ALL responsible: "It is too easy to throw back on others the responsibility for injustice, if at the same time one does not realize how each one shares in it personally, and how personal conversion is needed first." John Paul II came back again and again to this question of the relationship between economic activity, social justice and the rights and responsibilities of the individual. In Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), he encouraged Christians everywhere to become involved in the transformation of society and to avoid simplistic solutions: "The church's constant teaching on the right to private property and ownership of the means of production differs radically from the collectivism proclaimed by Marxism, but also from the capitalism practiced by liberalism and the political systems inspired by it". In Solicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern, 1987) John Paul II reflected on the "structures of sin" to be found in society. His comment "One may sin by greed and the desire for power, but one may also sin in these matters through fear, indecision, and cowardice!" makes especially uncomfortable reading today. I could go on, but I don't mean to lecture. My point is that denouncing any particular group is often a facile way of apportioning blame so that we ourselves don't feel the need to examine our own conduct. There is no doubt that some people have, by their actions, imperilled others. The pursuit of profit without thought for morality or truth is something the Church has never condoned. But we mustn't forget that much of the fragility of the global economy is the result of our all wanting more. The growth of unreal expectations about what we are entitled to, and the funding of those expectations by debt is something very few of us in the west can say we have had no part in. St Benedict had a highly developed sense of the common good and the renunciations necessary to sustain it. Perhaps monasticism has more to say to our present crisis than might at first appear. If the papal documents mentioned above are too complex and lengthy for the time you have available, you may find dipping into the Rule of St Benedict will challenge you constructively enough.

A Feast for the Eyes

Bhavan centre Exhibition Poster
Indian Inspirations
Opening times: 11am-7pm, daily from 27 September to 7 October. Admission: Free. Venue: M. P. Birla Millennium Art Gallery, The Bhavan Centre, Institute of Indian Art and Culture, 4a Castletown Road, West Kensington, London W14 9HE. If you are in London in a few days' time, you can enjoy a feast of colour and drama in the paintings of three talented artists at the Bhavan Centre, details above. We enjoyed putting together the web site for Anjali D'Souza, so if you'd like to look at more of her work online, go to www.anjaliart.co.uk. As you can see, there's nothing gimmicky about our web site designs. We rely on content simply and straightforwardly presented. I think there's something inherently monastic about that kind of approach. Yes, of course we can do flash animations and so on if you want, but as we notoriously said to one client (who is now a great friend): "we ask you what you want, then tell you what you really want."

Never Refuse a Kindness

"Never refuse a kindness to anyone" says the author of Proverbs, but isn't it easy to do just that without a ripple on the surface of one's thoughts or emotions? Easy not to notice that someone wants the butter-dish at breakfast; easy not to notice that someone else (who may be older or more infirm than oneself) is making for the empty seat on the Tube or train; easy not to notice that the photocopier is out of paper when one has finished one's own task. I have to admit that "refusing a kindness" is just as easy in a monastery (and no, I'm not going to reveal the many forms that can take lest I be guilty of them all myself today!). Kindness is a virtue that, like humility, is attractive in other people but can be inconvenient to oneself. Perhaps heaven is worth a little inconvenience.

Sunday Morning

Nice to have sun streaming through the East window at Mass this morning, and good to hear a sermon on the Pauline Year. The message of God's love and forgiveness is ever ancient, ever new. The trouble with us is, we can't quite believe in such a compassionate God and tend to create horrible travesties in our own image and likeness.

Technical Hitches

Several distractions during prayer this morning: the dishwasher "died" last year, which is awkward when we have groups in; my laptop seems to be consumptive, or at any rate near its last gasp; the Broadband connection is as much off as on (though I can't say the same for the bill); and we have taken to praying to St Jude every time we look at the oil level. Otherwise, everything is fine, and the end-of-summer sunshine has lured us into the garden to plant pruple sprouting and other edibles while thinking about the readings for tomorrow. D. Teresa will post her podcast tomorrow morning while D. Catherine will again take to the airwaves of BBC Radio Berkshire at about eight o'clock. We have set the "um/er" monitor going . . .

Of Virtue and Vice

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Monday Afternoon

The last few days have been busier than expected. There is a carefully written podcast for the Triumph of the Cross which looks like a mince pie on 7 January, rather tired and unseasonal, so we'll recycle it next year, D. V. There is a huge pile of letters and emails to be answered, and if the grass gets any longer before being mown, we shall have to hack at it with machetes. I am therefore abandoning the keyboard for the garden. But in case any of you are gluttons for punishment, you can listen to Sunday morning's Clare Catford interview with D. Catherine either by using the BBC's local radio "Listen again" function or by following this link http://www.box.net/shared/uoumqmx9y2. I'm not sure how much you'll learn from it, but we must stop DC saying "um" and "er" so often!

Revealing and Concealing

We were taken to task recently for our use of the internet. Our critic thought that contemplative nuns should not have anything to do with what he clearly thought of as an instrument of Satan (this despite the fact that he seems to spend a lot of time surfing religious sites on the web and is himself a religious). It may seem paradoxical, but I think our use of the internet (web site, blog and forum) is actually a help in maintaining the seclusion important to a life of prayer. Many people are interested in monastic life, and having a web site, for example, enables people from all over the world to "drop in" on us without having to turn up at the front door. There are not many sites that link to us, so the fact that we have cybervisitors from America to Japan is a testimony to the power of search engines and the persistence of enquirers. So far the response of other Benedictine monasteries to our appeal for moderators for the Benedictine Forum has been disappointing and in marked contrast to the enthusiasm shown by oblates and associates. I wonder whether this ambivalence towards the internet is at the heart of things. Perhaps the knowledge that the pope has made an appearance on Xt3.com may provide a salutary jolt. Following the example of the Roman church was something Benedict was rather keen on liturgically. Might it not hold good in other areas as well?

Hawks and Handsaws

Saw a heron making for the river with what looked like someone's ornamental carp in its beak, then some carrion crows picking over the remains of something small and furry and finally one solitary red kite, wheeling about in a desultory kind of way, hoping for a late breakfast. Makes one feel slightly less murderous about despatching slugs in the garden. The farmers are all looking very glum, with good reason. We have been spared the terrifically high winds and floods of other places, but the leaden skies and constant drip-drip of the rain are taking their toll. Personally, I love the sound of running water (provided it is not cascading through the roof or somewhere else it ought not to be) but am less enthusiastic about its effects in the vegetable plot. I am steeling my heart against shivering nuns and bedraggled-looking dogs: the heating is not going on for several weeks yet. Don't even think about it!

FAQ

Have finally posted the first instalment of our FAQ (see here) and will now put a little tin hat on top of my veil. Tonight we provide the schola at Milton, so the podcast will have to be recorded tomorrow. What was it St Bernard said about the "busy leisure" of monastic life?

Foundation Day

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St Gregory the Great and . . .

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Future Developments

Just to keep you up to date with a number of projects. First, this web site. The FAQ is almost ready to go up, although it will have to be a work-in-progress for ever as I'm sure people will continue to ask questions which are worth trying to post a public answer to. Be warned, some of the questions may make you smile (though we fervently hope none of the answers will make you weep.) The projected pages on the Rule of St Benedict and contemplative prayer are growing unwieldy so will need some pruning before they go up (yes, we do edit our outpourings occasionally). There are just too many experts in this community. Colophon has been producing technical headaches for the webmaster as the number of entries has increased, so it looks as though we shall have to migrate the blog to Wordpress sometime before Christmas. When we do, we'll look again at some features. Another web site we're working on is in beta and we hope to be able to complete the testing over the next few weeks. We are very excited about this and think you'll like what we've come up with . . . Think interactive. Think communication. I'm tempted to say also, think Christian. God's word is always creative, which is why human speech/communication should also be positive, something that builds up, not tears down. Something to remember as one send the next email.

Stained Glass

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Martyrdom of St John the Baptist

It's notable that the Church keeps the birthday of St John the Baptist as a Solemnity and his martyrdom as a humble Memoria, but it seems to fit the Baptist's life and work. He is the forerunner, and once the Lord is present, he must decrease, so that even his death (or as we would say, his entrance into Life) is, as it were, muted. (Freudian turn of phrase: wasn't John the Voice crying in the wilderness who condemned Herod's sin, which is why he had to be silenced, ever the response of totalitarian regimes to those who speak out fearlessly against lies and injustice.) Later this morning we'll have Mass in the medieval chapel of St Amand and St John the Baptist. I suspect my thoughts will stray to another, more ancient church on the Aventine for, according to the old calendar, this is also the feast of St Sabina and as readers of this blog will know, I love the basilica of Sta Sabina. I was trying to find a good photograph but find I have none, and the Dominicans, who have their Generalate there, don't seem to, either. Another surprising example of humility!

St Augustine of Hippo

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Local Radio and Nuns

One just never knows what is going to turn up next. We were telephoned by Radio Berkshire yesterday and asked if we'd do an over-the-phone interview about an Italian priest's idea of holding a nuns' beauty pageant on the web ( I kid you not, but it is the Silly Season). On the grounds that nuns don't often feature in the "God slot" of British broadcasting, we agreed, and we'll post the clip on our web site in due course, provided the BBC gives permission. The interesting question for me was, where does the idea of nuns being rather stern, disapproving people come from? Many people expect us to be very austere and are immensely disapproving of any suggestion that life in the monastery may have its lighter moments (they drink wine on Christmas day, how shocking!) or are subject to the same stresses and strains as themselves (she may have been up 36 hours nursing a sick member of the community but how dare she snap at me!). I think they're making a false equation between asceticism and joylessness. The renunciations of monastic life are real enough, but because they tend to make us freer, they make us more joyful, too. If there's no joy here at Hendred, we might as well give up.

Nostalgia

The opening psalm at Vigils on Tuesdays often passes in, not a blur exactly, but, shall we say, in less than sharp focus. How wise Benedict was to insist that Vigils should begin slowly! Yet there are a couple of lines which sometimes emerge from the mist with peculiar force, partly because they are lovely in themselves, partly because they express a very poignant emotion:
". . . your servants love her very stones,
are moved with pity even for her dust." (Ps 101.15)
The psalmist was singing of Sion, remembered in exile as a place of holiness and beauty, but the sentiments are familiar to every adult. Nostalgia for what we have lost, for the land of childhood or the scenes of youth perhaps, afflicts everyone at some time or other (even cloistered nuns). This most adult of emotions need not be negative. It can inspire heroic effort or great art, lead to the achievement of something really worthwhile, be truly creative. My own thoughts often turn to the church at Stanbrook on a summer's evening, when the western sun shimmers and shines through the choir, illuminating the tabernacle with a shaft of bright light: a reminder that the Lord alone is unchanging. For as the psalmist also says, speaking of the heavens and the earth,
"They will perish but you will remain . . .
. . . you neither change nor have an end." (Ps 101. 27, 28)

The Depths of God

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A Confession

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Custom Search Engine Added

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Joyful in His House of Prayer

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An Idle Thought

I've just finished rereading Gijs van Hensbergen's excellent biography of Antoni Gaudí. There is something almost medieval about his strange genius. I wonder if there is any architect alive today whose work is so completely suffused with Faith; and if there is any bishop employing an architect of such rare quality! (Note: No podcast today as we put up a video on Thursday and may release another sometime this coming week.)

The Assumption of Our Lady

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Questions and Answers

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A Terrible Irony

Am I alone in thinking that war in Georgia at the same time as the Olympic Games is a terrible irony? There does seem to be a contradiction between proclaiming peace at the Olympics and aiming bullets and bombs at one another. The Benedictine motto is "pax" or "peace", surrounded by a crown of thorns — a reminder that true peace is only attainable if we are prepared to suffer for it.

Statistics, Sin and Psalmody

The weather is less muggy this morning, so I thought I would devote a few minutes to analyzing our web site and seeing if I could track down some coding errors that I know exist but have not yet put right. The search terms used to find us are always fascinating. There are more spellings for "monastery" than I would have thought possible, but most people have no difficulty with "nun", except for one confused soul who put "nunk" (I sympathize, believe me.) Someone googled "new potatoes" and found us. That must have been unexpected, to say the least. Someone else navigated to us via a most unlikely link about political gossip in Washington D.C., which makes one wonder whether the Pentagon is interested in our emails (answer, probably: not much escapes surveillance these days). But it was when printing out the email requests for prayer that I was brought up short. I always find them moving, but this morning there was one that wrung my heart. At the end the writer asked the Lord "to forgive my sins of poverty". It is an evocative phrase which can be understood in many ways. Monastic "poverty" can be beautiful: an absence of clutter and the uglier artefacts of our age, but that is not what the writer meant. St Clare of Assisi, whose feast we keep today, knew poverty as a joyful freedom; but that is not how most people experience it. The "sins of poverty" can be ugly and brutal, and only those who know what it is like to be hungry or diseased or enslaved really understand. Fortunately, we have the psalms. They are the cry of the poor to the heart of God. When we pray the psalms in community, we are articulating the prayer of Christ to the Father, "who does not despise the poverty of the poor" and who has cancelled our debts by his death on the cross. It is a great and humbling vocation.

The still small voice

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St Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) and a Birthday Party

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St Dominic 08.08.08.

The symmetry of today's date seems fitting for the feast of St Dominic — such an engaging saint, with both an orderly mind and a warm personality. Benedictines and Cistercians like to gloss over his critique of the monastic mediocrity of his day and concentrate on finding links with themselves. Not difficult in the case of S. Domingo de Silos. But there is, I think, a deeper affinity between the followers of St Dominic and the followers of St Benedict. Our ways of doing theology may differ in some respects, but we agree that love of God and love of learning are two aspects of one quest. So, greetings and good wishes to all our Dominican friends and prayers for their flourishing. May they continue to be true hounds of God!

Digital Books and Electronic Printing

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6 August 2008

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New Telephone System

We have had to buy a new telephone system as the old one was experiencing too much interference. It took two nuns a whole hour to digest the operating instructions (not a good sign) and a further thirteen hours to charge the handsets. All should be perfect, and in a way it is, though not as the manufacturers intended. The new handsets look very handsome and illuminate in different ways according to the kind of call being made. The only problem is, all incoming calls are being diverted to the answerphone and we have so far failed to retrieve the messages. I fear another hour with the instruction manual may be required.

RB 53: Guests (again)

Reading this morning's section of the Rule has made me examine my conscience again. I spent all my "free" time yesterday trying to catch up with correspondence, but I seem to have made barely a dent in it, and I know some people will be thinking I/we don't care or regard their requests as trivial. No request made in good faith is trivial, but the urgent is always displacing the important and one inevitably feels a bit guilty about it. That is part of the "problem" with Benedictine hospitality. We try to be a warm and welcoming community, but there are times when tiredness or illness or the need to do something make it difficult to respond to others as we (and they) would wish. I'm sure it must be the same for all overworked mums and dads, busy carers and just about everyone else on the planet. St Benedict says that Christ is welcomed in the person of the guest. Undoubtedly. But perhaps we could get rid of some unnecessary feelings of guilt and failure if we remembered that it is Christ who does the welcoming, too.

Sunday in the Monastery

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RB 50

Today's chapter, about praying the Divine Office wherever one happens to be on a journey, made me reflect. Muslims are much less inhibited than many Christians about praying in public. I have not quite been reduced to slipping my Office book into lurid covers like the priest in "The Power and the Glory", but I admit to doing a rather embarrassed shuffle sometimes. Perhaps it is only the British fear of drawing attention to oneself. What we're really doing, of course, is drawing attention to God; so why should anyone be reluctant to do that?

Homecoming

D. Teresa came home today. Fortunately, we had finished tidying away most of the remains of the Garden Party, so the house looked fairly civilized when she arrived; but of course, that is not what really matters. "Coming home" means a feeling of ease and familiarity, of knowing one's place, of accepting and being accepted. A monastery ought to give that sense of belonging to all its members. The big challenge for monastic communities is, how far that sense of welcome, of being at home, can be shared with others without making the monastery less of a home for the monks or nuns who live there. The practice of enclosure is fundamental, but as a discipline it is often misunderstood and sometimes misused. It would be so much easier if we didn't feel the need for private space!

SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus

The name of this feast varies. Some celebrate St Martha only and give gloomy little homilies on the necessity of hard work, with a nod in the direction of the contemplative life, which is all right for monks and nuns but has nothing to do with anyone else (sic). Some celebrate St Mary as well, and give rather more upbeat homilies, recognizing with St Bernard that Mary and Martha are sisters and equally necessary to the life of the Church. They tend to exalt the contemplative life, with the result that anyone leading a normally busy existence (even in a monastery) may be left feeling vaguely inferior, as though they hadn't quite made the grade. Benedictines of course know that there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, and never overlook the opportunity of gaining friends in high places. So we celebrate Mary, Martha AND Lazarus and keep the feast as a feast of friendship, a Little Easter in the desert of Ordinary Time, with its promise of resurrection and new life. We may not have it in us to be a Martha or a Mary, but we can surely all imitate Lazarus. Jesus was his friend and saw his need. Lazarus did nothing, simply allowed the Lord to act and was transformed. A reminder, if we need one, that God's ideas are so much bigger than our own.

Reminder for a Busy Day

We all have days when we feel completely overwhelmed and grumble at God or our nearest and dearest because we can't possibly meet all the demands being made upon us. On days like that it is good to recall the words of St Catherine of Siena, "God doesn't ask a perfect work, only perfect desire." Or if we are suffering from ennui, there's always St Teresa of Avila, who was quite happy to admit there were times when she couldn't swat a fly for the love of God. Two great mystics and Doctors of the Church with a keen understanding of human weakness. Does the fact that both were women have something to do with it?

St Mary Magdalene

I don't know why so many people persist in thinking of Mary Magdalene as a notorious sinner. The gospels portray her as a woman of great character and resolve whose experience of being healed by the Lord Jesus was utterly transforming. But perhaps the popular view of Mary as a penitent is useful to us in the twenty-first century, who so rarely accept that we are sinners in need of repentance. We must acknowledge God's love and forgiveness rather than dwell on our own shocking ingratitude, but we must not pretend that sin is of no consequence. There are some lines of Phineas Fletcher (1580–1650) that I've always loved. The poet asks that his tear-filled eyes may become the way in which the Lord sees sin. There is a prayer in the paradox.
Drop, drop, slow tears
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from heaven
The news and Prince of Peace;
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

Vocation Trends

Recently we have had several vocation enquiries, some of which required considerable thought and prayer before answering. We always try to be helpful, even when it is clear that our community would not be suitable (e.g. the enquirer does not speak English). Some of the questions and responses will eventually be incorporated into our FAQ section, but I must admit to being fascinated by the "shopping lists" of requirements the community, rather than the applicant, is sometimes expected to fulfil. Such lists may be tinged with a little romanticism or nostalgia for a Catholicism that never was (nothing wrong with that, religion shouldn't be dreary, though the cynic in me wonders how well a theoretical enthusiasm for fasting and long hours in choir will stand up to the reality) or a tendency to assume that we must be terribly lax here because our current timetable subsumes all the Little Hours into one lengthy office of Midday Prayer (come and see, O doubting Thomasina). Some enquirers want to know exactly how "traditional" we are. I never know how to answer that until I know how the enquirer herself understands tradition. Benedictine monasticism, like Catholicism itself, is inherently traditional, and I like to think St Benedict would recognize us as true disciples; but there is an understanding of tradition which is fundamentally un-Catholic, preferring private judgement to the Magisterium, and very narrow in its sympathies. If there's anything narrow about us, good Lord, deliver us!

Two Cherries

I was walking the dog in the interval between Vigils and Lauds. He was thinking deep thoughts about rabbits and hares and I was thinking deep thoughts about nothing in particular when we both stopped. There on the path lay two cherries, flawless in the morning light. Some earlier walker must have dropped them, and by some strange chance the local birds had failed to discover them. Duncan was puzzled, and sat down with furrowed brow to consider the question; while he pondered, I was suddenly transported to another morning many years ago, when snow lay thick on the ground, and I walked from King's into Clare and was surprised by cherry blossom scattered on the glistening whiteness. The fleeting beauty of that memory and the radiant beauty of the present made me think. The blossom must fade, if there is to be fruit; and the fruit must fall and break open if there is to be a future tree. Only we human beings seem to resent the process of growing older, of change and decay. Duncan sniffed delicately and looked up, recalling me to the present. We left the cherries where they lay. Even a dog and a nun can give life a chance.

InterFaith Dialogue

There's an interesting InterFaith meeting going on in Madrid at the moment (the traditional home of Three Faiths debate). The sponsor is the King of Saudi Arabia, which is astonishing, given the reputation of Wahabi Islam for intolerance. Let's pray that this is one conference that actually produces a worthwhile result, though I suspect it will be a long time before freedom to practise their religion is extended to Christians in Saudi. In bleaker moments, given the hostility towards Christianity in some parts of Britain, I wonder whether the same might one day be true here.

St Swithun and the Symbolic

Life is very hectic at the moment as the round trip to visit D. Teresa takes three hours, so no time for Chapter talks or podcasts, alas. If there were, I'd like to say something about St Swithun. Instead I'll have to point people in the direction of Michael Lapidge's excellent "The Cult of St Swithun". I daresay all the local children will be reciting the old rhyme about rain on St Swithun's day and looking anxiously at the skies, but I wonder how many, confronted by the image of a bishop holding a bridge and with broken eggs at his feet, will realise that it is a representation of St Swithun or recall the miracle it purports to recall? Odd that in an age when the visual is so important, Catholicism has lost much of its ability to read the language of symbols. Perhaps that is why the monastic life we share with St Swithun is incomprehensible to so many. It is, in the fullest possible sense, "symbolic".

Sunshine and Smiles

Nice to see the sun shining for the feast of St Benedict! This is, of course, the "lesser" feast; the one that Benedictines celebrate with most solemnity is that of the Transitus on 21 March. But St Benedict's day is St Benedict's day, so there will be much rejoicing and thanksgiving. We send greetings and good wishes to all our Associates and Friends, especially those who are in hospital or recovering from a stay in hospital. We moved D. Teresa last night from the Nuffield Hospital to the Millhouse Care Home in Witney, where she will be a for a few days. She has taken her first steps and we hope she will now make a speedy recovery. Visiting hours are open and she would be pleased to see any of her friends. Meanwhile, back at the monastery, we had hoped to put up our new web site section about St Benedict and the Rule but the events of the last few weeks have delayed us. Perhaps it will be all the better for having to "mature". I wonder if St Benedict would appreciate being likened to vintage claret?

Grumbles and Gripes

What is it about wet weather in summer that brings out the worst in people (including nuns)? Found myself being carved up on the A34 yesterday and thinking uncharitable thoughts about the carver-uper (which, as everybody knows, nuns are not allowed to think). Then I thought even more uncharitable thoughts about a long series of unnecessary telephone calls (always distrust people who begin, "I was wondering if you could just . . ." and then go on with a list of demands which makes the Labours of Hercules look like a quick trip to the corner shop). I even thought uncharitable thoughts about a bundle of wet dog deciding that I was his best friend ever and needed a display of doggy affection. Hopeless. I'm just a grumpy nun.

Foundations

Someone asked a good question yesterday, "Are you founded or are you still founding?" I think what the questioner probably meant was, "Is the process of foundation (of the monastery) complete?" Canonically, of course, everything is in place, and we have done all that the civil law requires, but can any monastery ever really be called "complete"? Communities are always changing in some way as new members enter, old members die, and the rest become more determinedly middle-aged. Buildings are altered, furnishings changed, the very landscape may look different. Even the so-called unchanging elements of monastic life and liturgy take on a different cast: we do not sing the salicus now as it was sung in the earlier twentieth century, and that one small change has quite transformed some pieces of chant. And yet, if one stands in the choir at Romsey and thinks back to all those nuns who lived there generation after generation from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, one has no difficulty in recognizing the continuities between their lives and ours. Being a Benedictine is a constant process of becoming.

The Book of Job

We are reading the Book of Job at Vigils. Sometimes it sends shivers down one's spine — too much drama for six in the morning! The dialogue between God and Satan is full of humour, but menace too; the catastrophes that fall upon Job are both comic and pathetic. I suppose much of life is like that. Comedy and tragedy are so often mixed and there can be undertones in the most ordinary of conversations. Job is someone with whom we can all sympathize. He refuses to accept the glib certainties of his so-called comforters, questions the Almighty, searches his conscience for evidence of wrong-doing and asserts his own innocence; in short, behaves like most of us when confronted with suffering and pain. But baffled, angry Job refuses to blame God and eventually comes to acknowledge God's utter transcendence. He places his finger over his lips. There may be a lesson for all of us in that.

Spam Attacks

Our Prayerline page has been inundated with spam recently so we are considering introducing a CAPTCHA element which should weed out the (non-human) villains, although it will make the process of sending a message longer, and for visually-impaired people, more complex. The big problem with spam from our point of view is the amount of time it wastes. We look at all our Prayerline emails, so if we get a few hundred spammy messages, you can imagine the consequences. This last week's electronic postbag has contained many cries from the heart, and it would be sad indeed if we failed to hear them. Please join us in praying for all who have asked our prayers. Prayer, like love, is one thing that can never hurt another.

D. Teresa Rodrigues

It is becoming difficult to respond to all the enquiries about D. Teresa, so here is an update. She had surgery on Monday and is now recovering. Please continue to support her with your prayers as we shall not know for a while how successful or otherwise the operation has been. Visiting hours at the Nuffield Hospital (Ward E) are 10.30 to 12 noon and 15:00 to 20:00. I imagine she will be feeling a bit groggy today but would be pleased to see people from Wednesday onwards. If there is any alteration to this, we'll post a note here and add a message to our answerphone recording. Howzat for the positive side of technology that can sometimes sem intrusive or maddening, depending on one's mood?

God of Surprises

We hadn't intended to spend Thursday afternoon in hospital, but we did; and it has rather delayed our putting up the gallery of concert photos. But they are there now, and we hope you will enjoy them (see Gallery III). Spent a pleasant hour this morning picking blackcurrants and peas and thinking deep thoughts. . . Tomorrow D. Teresa goes into hospital (another one) for surgery on her knee which we hope will mean she can throw away her wheelchair. Please keep her in your prayers.

The Morning After

Jubilate! about to sing
We are a trifle bleary-eyed this moning, but yesterday's concert must be considered a great success. Simon Whalley and Jubilate! gave a sparkling performance of works by modern American composers (including one of the finest renditions of Barber's Agnus Dei I've heard), ending with a delightful medley of old American Songs arranged by Copland and Simon Whalley himself. Afterwards we moved into the lovely gardens of Hendred House for wine and nibbles and there was much talk and quiet laughter until the shadows lengthened. The Friends truly excelled themselves in their attention to detail. As one member of the choir said, "I knew the moment I arrived and saw car-park marshalls that this was going to be good." Our sincere thanks to all. We'll put up a gallery of photos later today or tomorrow and post the financial results on the Friends' page once we've done all the sums.

Birthday of St John the Baptist

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Lady and St John the Baptist. Tonight we shall be having a lovely "birthday party", with Jubilate! providing the music and wine and nibbles in the gardens of Hendred House. Only ten tickets remain unsold: the Friends have done a wonderful job encouraging people to come. It will not be a very peaceful day in the monastery as there is much to do, but St John won't be forgotten; and this evening, the concert-goers will be able to look across to the ancient chapel that bears his name. Fortunately, there will be more than locusts and wild honey on offer among the nibbles!

St Etheldreda and Holy English Nuns

Finished printing out the concert programme for the 24th at one o'clock this morning, which made the prospect of Vigils at six somewhat unappealing, then remembered that we had not posted the podcast. Discovered I had overwritten the file. Did a last check of emails and discovered two apparently "urgent" requests from customers of Veilpress | Veilnet (sent on Sunday evening forsooth . . .) so spent half an hour trying to sort out the problems. Probably made things worse. Lots of people will be able to resonate with that kind of shambolic "start to the week". But it made me think once more of all those Anglo-Saxon nuns to whom we owe so much. Yes, they were women of prayer and wide charity, but they were also scholars and skilled scribes, intrepid missionaries and best of all, perhaps, to those who knew them, wise and generous friends. They not only understood but practised the art of just getting on with things without grumbling and without waiting until everything was perfect. They are good patrons to have, especially on days like today.

Psalm 129 (130)

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord." I wonder how many times we have sung that psalm at Vigils on Thursdays, yet to me it always seems new-minted. Sometimes it has been sung "out of the depths" of pain or sorrow or sheer bewilderment; sometimes "out of the depths" of joy and wonder; most often, probably, "out of the depths" of what one might call a godly routine. In the Hebrew bible it is marked as a Song of Ascents, a pilgrimage song for the journey to Jerusalem. I like the reminder every Thursday that we are indeed all on our way to God, no matter how rocky or difficult the path seems, and that the journey, like the psalm, ends with a promise of redemption.

Rubbish

Took a walk by Scutchamer Knob yesterday evening and was grieved to see that ravers had left behind bags of rubbish and strewn beer cans and bottles in all directions. Such selfishness and lack of respect have immediate and unpleasant consequences. Not only is a beautiful place desecrated, children and dogs are put at risk from broken glass, flies multiply, and some of the wildlife suffers. It puts my grumbles about occasional passersby tossing rubbish into the monastery garden into perspective; but I'd still rather everyone took their rubbish home, wouldn't you?

Guilt and Shame

Some of the saddest entries in our postbag come from people who are burdened with a sense of guilt and shame. So often, they feel hopeless. How can God possibly forgive me for doing that? Or, even, I deserve to be punished for doing such and such. And one can feel the anguish and self-doubt in every line. True, we may deserve to be punished for what we have done, but it is for the Law to decide that; God is much more interested in forgiveness and reconciliation. It is we who make the difficulty, refusing to seek or even accept a forgiveness we cannot earn or in any way co-erce. Guilt and shame are not very productive emotions and can be a barrier to grace. No wonder we are encouraged to pray for humility, the ability to see things as they are.

Religious Art

Recently I have been reading Rosemary Hill's biography of Pugin, God's Architect. Architectural history has fascinated me since I was a child, but I came comparatively late to an appreciation of Victorian Gothic, possibly because I have lived or worked in Victorian Gothic buildings most of my life. What interests me about Pugin, however, is not just the fine buildings and artefacts for which he was responsible, but his enormous zest for life, his huge capacity for work — the rows, the intrigues, the delight in detail — and above all, perhaps, his conception of the architect as a man divinely appointed, a "steward of the mysteries" no less than the priest at the altar. I wonder whether our contemporary concern with design has lost something now that few would admit to the designer's being anything more than a talented individual. Pugin understood the middle ages in one point very well; the individual is unthinkable without the group and good design must be allied to good workmanship. L'art pour l'art? Not quite, but there is no room for the second-rate in religious art. (No podcast this week as a cold is sweeping through the community and hoarse vocies and sniffles do not make for pleasant listening.)

Frazzled Nuns

There is a dish, much beloved of the community, called officially Cheese Frizzle but always known as Cheese Frazzle because of the generally frazzled state of whoever elects to cook it. (The dish, by the way, is a mixture of cheese, eggs and oats, requiring very little preparation or cooking time, hence its usefulness to the frazzled. The recipe will appear in our Christmas Cook Book). It has been appearing on the table rather often of late, which makes me wonder if pressure is mounting. But everyone seems to be smiling; I haven't heard any "accidentally" slammed doors; the dog isn't being walked more frequently than usual; and most tellingly of all, no one is having a row about liturgy. It is a reminder, to me at least, that things are not always what they seem. When trying to judge the moods of others, we need to do some delicate reconnaissance before jumping to conclusions. So, are we frazzled here in Hendred – or just addicted to cheese?

Being Patient with God

Recently I was asked why God did not answer a prayer for help in a difficult situation. Why did God not work a miracle to heal someone who was suffering terribly? That is a question we must all face: apparently unanswered prayer where the prayer is for something good and, in human terms, entirely consistent with what we know of God as a loving Father. The standard answer (which also happens to be true) is that God hears all our prayers but the way in which He responds is not always the way we would choose. We are apt to forget that we pray that God's will may be done. Usually, what we want is our will to be done. There is nothing wong with that, of course, but we have to remember that the relationship between ourselves and God is not one of equals. God is supreme. We have to be patient, which is difficult, especially in our "instant gratification" society; we mustn't give up when we don't "succeed" but do as the gospels tell us and persevere in prayer. If you like paradoxes, you could call it being patient with God.

Cold Calls and the Eleventh Step of Humility

A monastery is not free of cold calling despite our having taken steps to block such calls. A particularly insistent caller yesterday (Sunday) and the difficulty we had shaking him off politely made me think about today's section of the Rule. Benedict is not talking here about the right and wrong uses of speech as such but the actual quantity of words that fall from our lips and the way in which we should ensure they are worthwhile. We all tend to babble on because we do not take words seriously enough, and that is how we allow anger or pride or mockery of others to creep in. Speech is a gift which, by and large, we take for granted. Some of us, of course, cannot take it for granted: we struggle with lisps or stammers, a stroke makes it difficult to articulate clearly enough to be understood, or the need for an oxygen mask makes every word an effort. It would be a pity if only a speech impediment or illness made us stop and think about the way we use words.

Flights of Fancy

Lark ascending


The last few days have been full of bird sightings: a barn owl at dusk, white wings glowing, as she took a mouse or vole back to her nest; a red-legged partridge sitting on a fence and obviously reluctant to move; and always there are the larks, pouring out their ecstatic song as they fly higher and higher (the photo was taken early this morning, in the interval between Vigils and Lauds). The beauty of the sky has entranced countless generations. Even in popular speech, we talk of "the heavens" and instinctively invest them with a more than natural significance. Astronomy, mathematics, chemistry — all are sciences that have led to a deeper sense of wonder. As the author of this week's podcast remarks, it was contemplating the beauty of the periodic table that first gave her intimations of God.

St Boniface

By a curious irony, one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived is largely forgotten in this country. In Germany, however, where his name is synonymous with the Anglo-Saxon Mission, his memory is still green. We have quite a lot of information about St Boniface's life and work, including an extremely interesting letter collection which allows us to see something of his friendships, especially with nuns. There are delightful touches: Boniface receiving a gift of towels (the Anglo-Saxons had an astonishing fondness for towels) or sending a community of monks a barrel of beer "for a merry day with the brethren". Benedictines owe him a special debt. The great abbey of Fulda and the popularity of the Rule of St Benedict throughout the Middle Ages owe much to his efforts. Finally, there is the moving story of his martyrdom, shielding himself from the axe blow by holding above his head the book of the Gospels, "protected in death by the book he had loved and studied in life." This diocese can claim Boniface for its own, for he taught at Nursling, where Leoba of Wimborne and later Bischofsheim may have been among his pupils. It is inspiring to think that the Christianization of so much of continental Europe stems from the missionary zeal of our monastic forebears here. May we in our day share their zeal.

The Marvel of the Ordinary

Yesterday was an "ordinary" day, rainy, a bit drab, the kind of day one does not recall. So here is a list, in no particular order, of some its transforming marvels which I might have missed but fortunately didn't: the sound of running water everywhere, with its soft chuck-chuck-chuckle; raindrops shimmering on leaves; the thick smell of earth; unfurling leaves, pale green and delicate, in the greenhouse; Duncan sitting comfortably under a warm dry tree while a very wet nun tried to coax him round the garden; Martyrs of Uganda and the thought of Africa's hot vermillion soil; the smell of baking bread; laughter in the next room; the deep silence of the oratory; psalm 118, with its wonderful dance around the Torah; an email from a friend; someone said thank you; someone said I feel better now; I learned something new.

The Fifth Degree

What St Benedict says in today's portion of the Rule has validity on the psychological as well as spiritual level. To be really honest with oneself seems to require the help of another. Although it can be diffiult to articulate sin and weakness, the very act of doing so can be liberating – as generations of Catholics have experienced in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance. Benedict is wholly positive about the practice of confession and takes for granted that disclosure and healing will take place in an atmosphere of condfidentiality and trust. Obviously, that cuts both ways. We expect those we confide in to be trustworthy; those who confide in us must find the same trustworthiness we expect of others. The power of binding and loosing is, sacramentally speaking, the privilege of the priesthood. We tend to forget that it is also a responsibility entrusted to all Christians. We, too, by our kindness and sympathy can set others free.

Trivial Pursuits

How trivial are most of the things one worries about on a day to day basis. I spent much of Friday cleaning the carpet in the downstairs corridor, trying to remove the accumulated muddy footsteps of winter visitors and negligent nuns alike, something that had been "bothering me" for some time. This morning I noticed one of the high gutters had leaked and we have a damp patch oozing along a recently repainted wall. I started thinking about how to deal with that as well as all the other things planned/required for today. I know all will be taken care of eventually (not necessarily as one would like: the damp patch will dry out but the stain will remain). In the meantime I shall probably waste time and energy worrying. No wonder we pray daily in the Mass to be delivered from anxiety.

White Rabbit Moments

In theory, life in a monastery should be calm and peaceful, full of that "busy leisure" St Bernard writes so eloquently about. Alas, it is often full of "White Rabbit moments". Nuns can be as busy as anyone else, sometimes even more so, because whatever the deadline, whatever the need of the person who telephones or knocks at the door, the Divine Office must still be celebrated and the personal commitment to prayer and study must continue, day in, day out. This obedience to the daily living out of the Rule constitutes a real asceticism. Asceticism gets a bad press in the west, where we have become accustomed to getting our own way and indulging as many of our appetites as we can with no thought about the impact on others. The result seems to be increasing misery in the midst of affluence for some, and for others, a mounting sense of frustration and impotence that often issues in violence. Toay's podcast reflects on the root causes of violence in ourselves and in society at large.

The Sacred Heart and the Cobbler's Children

This is, liturgically, the first anniversary of this blog. Mentioning that highlights one aspect of monastic life that may be difficult for outsiders to grasp. Within the monastery time is calculated, ordered and experienced liturgically. Just as we measure out the hours of the day with the Hours of the Divine Office, so the seasons of the year are measured out with feasts and fasts, each of which acquires a particular hue or cast from the music, texts or rituals associated with it, or domestic details such as rolls for breakfast or honey for supper. For me the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart is inextricably linked with the Sixth Mode and peonies before the altar (and, to be frank, some really treacly hymns). It is also one of the few days in the year when we all try to keep work to a minimum and make time for hobbies and recreational pursuits. Perhaps today I'll find time to tidy up this web site, but just as the cobbler's children have no shoes, so the last web site to receive attention will always be the monastery's own.

Gutters

Two of us have spent the early part of the morning clearing gutters. I, with my morbid horror of heights, have contrived to do rather more than my fair share of holding ladders rather than climbing aloft. No good telling myself that it is perfectly safe; no good reminding myself "not to look down" (as if I could, anyway); fear paralyzes one utterly. It is useful to have some very obvious shortcoming one can neither deny nor dodge. It keeps one grounded in reality (in my case, literally.) Whenever we are confronted by some weakness in ourselves, it is tempting to rail and rant at the affront to our inflated ideas about our own importance and self-sufficiency. Perhaps we could try thinking about these things as gifts instead. It is when we cannot do what we would that we begin to learn.

Rosa Mystica

The roses in the garden are heavy with raindrops, which reminds me that May is traditionally Mary's month. People often assume that a monastery of nuns will have lots of devotions to Mary and are very surprised that we don't really "do" devotions at all. That does not mean that we do not hold Mary and the other saints in great honour, or that we do not invoke them in prayer. On the contrary, I think monastic life makes one more and more aware of that "great company of witnesses". But the daily round of Mass and the Divine Office, the regular practice of lectio divina and contemplative prayer, mean that we have many "peak moments" when we reach out to that which is beyond all thought or feeling. Devotions, though good in themselves, are perhaps less necesssary to help us focus. In any case, the liturgy gives us two beautiful daily reminders of Mary's presence in our lives, a presence which mediates Christ but in no way supersedes Him: the Magnificat at Vespers, and the anthem to Our Lady at the end of Compline, the very last prayer of the day. Maria, Dei Mater et Mater Ecclesiae, ora pro nobis.

St Augustine of Canterbury

We keep today the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury. Sad to think that he is so often forgotten, even by English Christians. If you go to Ebbsfleet today, you would scarcely be aware that Augustine and his followers began their historic mission there. Fortunately, in Hendred we have a stately reminder in the form of the Anglican parish church. I was interested to see that the plaque commemorating St Augustine has exactly the same features as the frontispiece to Pusey's traslation of the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo. Perhaps in nineteenth century workshops there was a template designated "Augustine" which was used for any and every Augustine. We owe a lot to Augustine of Canterbury, but there are two qualities in him that I find immensely attractive. He wasn't keen to come to Britain, and had to be chivvied by Pope Gregory the Great; and he was humble. When Gregory taxed him with delighting too much in the miracles God was able to work through him, Augustine took it to heart. The result is that we have no miracle stories recorded of him as we have of other early missionaries.

Rain

A typical Bank Holiday Monday, with rain and wind. How intense all the garden smells are once the rain eases off! In the meantime, much amusement can be had from viewing the various ways in which the community ensure their veils are not reduced to sodden, shapeless rags. Even a minor shower is disastrous as the veil loses its central crease and ceases to hang properly. One wonders how nuns managed in earlier centuries, when there could be no recourse to umbrellas and waterproofs (or tumbler driers and electric irons) but only the slower, less immediate remedy of a washing line and veil press. Does anyone know of a medieval book illustration showing a nun with bedraggled headdress caught in shower of rain? Or was all perfect in days of yore when nuns were universally young, beautiful and saintly?

Corpus Christi

It seems very strange to be celebrating Corpus Christi on a Sunday. We have now had Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and Corpus Christi on four Sundays in succession and have had to do some juggling with texts and antiphons as, of course, we never thought that Ascension and Corpus Christi would be celebrated on any day but Thursday. How easily we slip into "certainties" that then get overturned by events. Ah well, another opportunity to learn humility!

Yellowhammers

Out for a walk on the Ridgeway yesterday. The larks and lapwings were in fine voice, but the big thrill was seeing and hearing a pair of Yellowhammers, now becoming a rare bird (red alert status). As usual, it is the male that flaunts the gaudier plumage. The characteristic song, "A little bit of bread and no cheese" is remarkably cheerful and a nice contrast to the plaintive cry of the lapwings.

Making God Laugh

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." How true. We have been in a whirl of activity since the last post so have decided that the next prayer podcast will go up at the week-end rather than at the tail end of this week. On a more positive note, today's section of the Rule contains some real gems about behaving well towards others and offers the final thought that we must never despair of God's mercy. How often do we reach a point where God seems far away and uninterested in us and our difficulties. Where was God when the cyclone hit Burma; where was God when the earthquake shattered China? The truth we are often reluctant to acknowledge is that God was right there, in the midst of the suffering – not Himself the cause of the suffering, not taking delight in seeing His children suffer, but one with all who suffered, sharing their pain and somehow redeeming it. I wonder whether we also make God laugh –a little sadly– when He encounters our shrunken and despairing notions of Him, the kind of god railed against by materialists and true believers alike.

SS Dunstan, Ethelwold and Oswald

Readers of this blog will have noticed that we managed to celebrate Trinity Sunday, our patronal feast, without adding an entry, thus neatly circumventing the need to say anything about a mystery so sublime that we are all reduced to babbling about shamrocks and wine bottles (although the late Peter Hebblethwaite used a cricketing analogy that is as much a mystery to me as the Holy Trinity). It wasn't cunning, it was sheer pressure of events. However, the good news is that we have worked out why our RSS feed isn't working correctly, although both Google Reader and Yahoo will stream the content to you without problem. In a number of places we have used some typographical niceties that plain text doesn't recognize. This effectively corrupts the feed. We can now either go through all 200+ entries and edit them , or leave things as they are. This blog is henceforth just a web page. And how does that tie up with SS Dunstan, Ethelwold and Oswald? Well, apart from their importance in the tenth century reformation of the church in England (even the dourer Ethelwold was quite innovative, translating the Rule of St Benedict into English and the feminine form for the Winchester nuns and encircling the Nunnaminster with an enclosure wall in the latest continental fashion), Dunstan was such a polymath (artist, musician, blacksmith, you name it, he was it) that one feels certain that he would today be blogging, podcasting and vodcasting. And I'm sure his feeds would all be flawless. (Our prayer podcast will go up tonight once we have edited out a neighbour's lawnmower . . .)

Making Connections

The Friends of Holy Trinity Monastery are holding a plant sale in the monastery grounds on Sunday. Ideally, we should be tidying the garden so that it looks a bit more kempt than it does. Unfortunately, work and weather conspire against that, so visitors will be treated to rolling English savannah and Amazonian levels of undergrowth if everything continues its present growth-rate. Surrounded by so much lushness, drought in Australia and elsewhere seems almost unreal. The same is also true of suffering. Burma and China are still in the headlines, but Zimbabwe, Darfur and the Congo have slipped down the page, while "smaller" human tragedies, like that of the Fritzl family, or individuals struggling with illness or bereavement are lost to view. As contemplatives, we don't have the option of forgetting. The world and all its joys and sorrows must be contantly brought before God in prayer. We need to connect.

A New Beginning

Today marks the beginning of our sixth year at Hendred. Lots of plans, lots of hopes, lots of dreams, all of them subject to the will of God — easy to say, but not always easy to accept if God has his own ideas about how things should go! For some people, the fact that God does not always respond to prayer in the way we expect or want leads to some very illogical conclusions: God does not love me; God does not exist; and so on. Can we turn things round and say, isn't it amazing that God does sometimes (often even) respond to prayer exactly as we hope or in ways that exceed all our expectations? Perhaps our ideas about God are a little askew. We want freedom for ourselves but are reluctant to allow it to God.

St Matthias

St Matthias could be called the forgotten apostle. During his life on earth, Jesus did not single him out for any special ministry or role: he was just another disciple, so to say, who listened and learned and was therefore able to witness to the same things as the apostles themselves. The early Church, however, understood the importance of the Twelve and the necessity of choosing someone to take the place of Judas. The election of Matthias could be described as the first truly ecclesiastical act, and a sign that the Church is, sometimes at least, perfectly attuned to the Holy Spirit. Matthias proved worthy of the trust placed in him — a man of integrity whose whole life was lived in obscurity but who, by his fidelity and perseverance, made up for the betrayal of one whom Jesus had chosen as his friend. A good patron for those who are not "first choices" or "obvious candidates" but who in the eyes of God are the right person for the job.

Ordinary Time

Back to Ordinary time today, but the weather clearly doesn't think there is anything "ordinary" about it at all. The Dawn Chorus began at 4.17 this morning, when the sky was already tinged with blue. Good that a trcikle of aid is beginning to get into Burma, but it needs to become a flood. Let us continue to pray.

Morning

Early morning on the Ridgeway
Early morning on the Ridgeway is alwa