Howton Grove Priory | Mobile WebsiteSharing a Vocation with the World . . .

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.


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,

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:

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

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.


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,

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.