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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.

Ash Wednesday

Today an ash cross will be marked on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our liturgy will be stark and simple: the beautiful alleluias of other times will be silenced, there will be no musical instrument to sustain the chant, even the flowers will be removed from the oratory. The Lenten fast always comes as a shock to the system. To feel hunger is unusual in our culture, but by tonight we shall begin to recognize that we have eaten less than usual and tempers may be starting to fray. It is at that point that Lent really begins for us, the moment we are forced to recognize that we cannot do things by our own strength. All those laudable schemes to give up this or that or take on something extra to unite ourselves to the Passion of Christ will begin to look, not silly perhaps but certainly a little ambitious. What matters is not what we decide to do for Lent but what we allow the Lord to do with us. St Benedict's teaching is so wise and straightforward. He urges us to lead lives of surpassing purity and make up at this sacred season the negligences of other times but to do so with humility and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Our Lent should be joyful, for it should see Christ being formed anew in us.

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?


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 . . .