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The Second Degree

It can be a very telling exercise to go through the Rule of St Benedict and note how often he refers to the will and what he has to say about it. Today's brief extract (RB 7.31-3) compares and contrasts self-will and the will of God. I think this Second Degree of Humility causes more trouble than most others! It is not that it is difficult to love God's will or prefer God's will to one's own, though heaven knows that can be a struggle at times, it is that that we are often confused about what God's will is. How do we distinguish our own will from his? We have all experienced strong drawings or attractions that we thought were God's will, only to discover that they were in fact our own will dressed up in a little borrowed piety. Benedict gives a few pointers: following the voice of authority, the pursuit of obligation or necessity. They are grey and undramatic, as life frequently is. Perhaps it would be more helpful to think back to the day when we knew we must become a nun: no trumpets sounded, we simply knew that this was what we had to do, and we embraced the unknown, sure only of God's involvement in our choice.


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.

A Good Question

Last night, at the Friends' Committee meeting, someone asked a good question: if people are to give money to the monastery appeal they'll want to know that the community will survive, so what guarantee do they have of its continuance and growth? My off-the-cuff answer, that there's no guarantee, is the starting-point for our reflection today. People often ask how viable we are and we usually respond by reference to the Gamaliel principle. We started with nothing, really nothing, yet here we are today, persevering in the life of prayer, with a number of worthwhile projects to our name and abounding in hope. Our questioner spoke out of love and concern for the community, but I wonder whether he was asking the right question — and whether I gave the right answer to the question he put. In human terms, there is no guarantee of any community's continuance. Bigger monasteries than ours, with a lot more in the way of human and financial resources, have dissolved because of internal tensions and divisions. It is not surprising therefore that someone should question the chances of a small and poor community such as ours. Even the Benedictine Confederation tends to think in terms of numbers, which means some old and famous establishments now look distinctly fragile. But — and it is a big but — none of us would want to think in purely human terms. The survival of a community is analogous to the certainty we have about being faithful to our profession. When we make our vows, we do so with confidence because we are not relying on ourselves or any human agency but on the utter reliability of God. In the same way, it is God who called our community into being, who sustains us today, and will do with us what he wills. We know he will never forsake or fail us, though he may lead us down paths we would rather not travel. That is the answer I should have given our questioner but didn't. And the question he should have asked? The only one worth asking, which none of us can answer: how holy is your community, how generously and faithfully do you respond to God's grace?


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.