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Of Podcasting and Patience

We have been very remiss for people who have a special interest in the problems of visual impairment. It has taken us until now to prepare our first podcast, and we cheerfully admit that it is a bit wibbly wobbly. Our web site is almost entirely visual, for which we apologize. We do intend to tackle the question of accessibility as soon as we are able, but it all has to be done gradually. Perhaps if and when we are able to buy sufficiently good digital recording equipment, we will be able to make more extensive use of the possibilities. For now we intend to offer you a weekly prayer or short reflection in audio format. We hope you will pray with us.

SS Peter and Paul, App

First Vespers of SS Peter and Paul. It's amazing how this feast turns one's thoughts to Rome and memories of the city: long hot afternoons spent in the coolness of Sta Sabina or among the narrow alleys in Trastevere; the busy hush of St Peter's; moist greenery in the Protestant Cemetery; rubbish blowing sadly through the Circus Maximus; dust in the cart ruts of the Forum. Always, the sense of being somehow at the heart of the Church, a feeling that "Roma, caput mundi" is as true today as it was two thousand years ago, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And sometimes, on a wintry evening, one can imagine the city as it was and hear the wolves howling in the darkened streets as they were heard a thousand years ago. What a shock to emerge from the daydream and plunge into the Roman rush-hour!

RB 20: On Reverence in Prayer

This brief chapter is a concentrated treatise on prayer. The Latin text is full of alliteration and other devices which make it easy to remember. Notice that there is nothing about "technique", merely a reminder that humility and respect are necessary preconditions for prayer, which is linked with "purity of heart" and "pure devotion". The pure heart, of course, is one which focuses all its energy, all its love, upon God. How strange, then, that "puritas cordis" should be the translation of the Greek "apatheia", the original, pagan meaning of which was "detachment". In the Desert Fathers as in Evagrius of Pontus, we find the word "apatheia" occurring again and again, and let's be honest, there are times when the athletic asceticism of the desert strikes a chill note. But the detachment of Christian Tradition is something of a paradox. We are "detached" because we are supremely attached to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, our prayer is an expression of this, and St Benedict warns that it needs few words, indeed none at all.

There is much that we should pray about today – those suffering from the effects of the floods, the sufferings of the peoples of Africa and the Middle East, those who have asked our prayers for particular needs – but let us remember that the most important prayer is the prayer of simple love and adoration. The Father knows what we need before we ask.

Audio Books

We are (slowly) getting ready to produce audio books in DAISY format, as recommended by the RNIB, but the required equipment list is getting longer by the minute. Often it is the basic things that stump one. What now would be the best equipment for readers to record onto, given that cassette recorders have gone the way of all things analogue? Do we opt for personal digital recorders? Which would be best for voice recording? Can we input the recordings directly into the Mac for monitoring of sound levels? Is there someone out there who can advise us, or is it time for wet towels round the head? So many questions, but how important it is to remember visually impaired people need access to books just as the sighted do.

Wet Mondays

The rain has been sweeping across the Downs for forty-eight hours, and there are sad little groups of pigeons seeking shelter in the garden. Normally, I have no sympathy for pigeons, but it is difficult to remain hard-hearted in the face of so much damp misery. Is this Climate Change or merely one of those changes in climate that have occurred regularly throughout history? And why do we talk about saving "our" planet as though we owned it? I like St Benedict's concept of stewardship and his reverence for all that is. When he tells the cellarer (bursar) to look after everything as though it were a sacred altar vessel, he got it exactly right. We do need to treat everything with care, but we don't need to get complicated about it, and we certainly don't need to claim ownership. We are at best tenants with a repairing lease.

St John the Baptist

St John the Baptist is the most monastic because the most joyful of saints, "that one-joy man" as Daniélou called him. The opening verses of a hymn written by one of the community seek to capture that joyfulness:

As John the Baptist leaped for joy
Within his mother's womb,
So Joy himself at Eastertide
Dánced from the empty tomb.

The burning and the shining lamp
Which all rejoiced to see
Was but a pointer to the Son,
Glád in his shade to be…

We had quite a big group here yesterday and were struck by the honesty and generosity with which the members seek to face up to the "messiness" of life – wounds from the past, uncertainties about the future, difficulties of so many kinds. Trust in God is the key. Perhaps that is why we felt a spirit of joy fill the house. St John the Baptist must have been praying for us.

Holy English Nuns

Feast of St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns, so why do I find myself thinking about the unholy nuns of England? Probably because it is easier to identify with sinners than saints. The humanity of some of the Anglo-Saxon saints is impressive. Rudolf of Fulda tells a lovely story in the Vita Leobae about novices jumping up and down on a harsh superior's grave at Wimborne. Shock! Horror! Most un-nunlike! Personally, I have no difficulty understanding why a novice might want to stamp on her novice mistress's grave, and it is reassuring to know St Leoba did not, either. She really was holy, a woman of intelligence and character, an inspiration to all of us today.

SS John Fisher & Thomas More, MM

St Amand's Chapel, Hendred House

This morning we had Mass in St Amand's Chapel, Hendred House. It is always a privilege to worship where Catholics have worshipped for centuries – the communion of saints is a lived reality, after all – and especially in a house where descendants of St Thomas More still live. But today's feast is more than just a celebration of two great and holy men; it is an invitation to reflect on the demands of Christian living in a society which, by and large, has adopted secularised values. How easy it would have been for Fisher and More to submit to Henry VIII's demands as so many other good and sincere men had done. All sorts of reasons might have urged them to do so, including that most seductive argument, that it was for the common good. But as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, we have a duty to oppose tyranny. With the benefit of hindsight, tyranny is obvious. It is rarely so clear-cut to those caught up in events. Indeed, the person who stands up to the tyrant is often derided by his/her peers, silenced, ostracised (does not Aquinas say that one of the fruits of tyranny is to destroy friendship?), most painful of all perhaps, laughed at. There are many forms of tyranny in the world today, and Church institutions in their human aspect are not exempt. It takes wisom and humility to recognize tyranny, so we must pray for those gifts. We must also pray for courage. Whether it wear a crown or a cowl, tyranny must be opposed: we are God's servant first.

Oscott College

To Oscott yesterday for a meeting of the Midland Catholic History Society. Everyone most kind and hospitable. Excellent papers on the work of Selly Park and the Mercy Sisters in the archdiocese of Birmingham, and a feast of Pugin. The sanctuary is a delight: all gleam and glitter, and some nice medieval panels above the high altar. More delights in the Domestic Chapel, where four newly-restored Flemish altar panels of about 1520 have been hung against a plain white wall. It was good to see the Catholic Church in this country caring for its heritage. We detoured on the way back to visit Brailes. What a gem! The barn chapel (1726) is as plain as a meeting house, but with panelling and altar rails still intact, and pleasing windows. The chapel is reached by an exterior staircase so one has a real sense of what it was like to go to Mass in Penal times.

A Morning Walk

Up early and walked out onto the Downs. Saw a heron, grey as the morning light, and a fox slinking alongside a field of rape; swallows and house martins over the village, and out on the Downs the skylarks singing; lots of hares, with their silky ears and lolloping gait. No one else about. Perfect.

Luke 7:36–8:3

There is so much to like about today's Gospel. The unnamed woman who made her way into the house of Simon the Pharisee and, heedless of the stares and mutterings, expressed both her love and her sorrow so recklessly is at once an inspiration and a rebuke to us who are less generous, less courageous. All sin, no matter how "tiny", is a terrible rejection of God, something we need to repent of; but it is a still greater sin not to believe in God's readiness to forgive. To accept forgiveness is to acknowledge that we are indeed sinners, but forgiven sinners. Sometimes it is easier just to hug one's unloveliness to oneself. It is so much safer. The woman in the Gospel was supremely forgetful of herself, of her own "safety". That is why Jesus was able to see so clearly into her heart: she had not put up any barriers, nor was she going to hold anything back, not even her sin.

Elderflower Champagne

Our annual Garden party is little more than a month hence, but the hedgerows have been full of good things for some weeks past and we have a satisfying amount of Elderflower Champagne bubbling away in the monastery kitchen, ready to slake the thirst of our guests. The smallest quantity we would ever think of making is 5 gallons, so, if you would like a taste of monastic Olde England, here is our recipe (with apologies to those who can only work in metric measures):
  • 50 heads of elderflowers
  • 6lb sugar
  • 11 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
  • 11 large lemons
  • 40 pints of cold water
Pick the elderflower when fully out and shake to remove any insects. Put into a large tub with all the other ingredients (we usually scrape the zest from the lemons into the water before slicing the fruit fairly thinly) and leave for 72 hours. Strain through muslin into a pressure barrel and leave for at least four weeks, occasionally releasing some of the pressure. At the end of that period you will have a delicious, not too alcoholic, fizzy drink. If you don't have a barrel, strong plastic lemonade bottles are just as good; but if you are forgetful, do store them somewhere where an explosion won't matter. My first attempt at brewing beer in the monastery was slightly veil-raising as I unintentionally doubled the amount of priming sugar and only discovered my mistake when the barrel started whistling at me. You have been warned!

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart is one of those feasts Benedictines sometimes get a little embarrassed by. There is so much syrupy devotionalism associated with childhood memories of the day that some people feel they have "grown out of it", as one might grow out of a passion for jelly babies or sherbert fountains. Nothing could be more wrong. Grown-up religion is exactly what this feast is about. If you go to Netley Abbey in Hampshire, you will see at the base of one of the ruined piers of the old Cistercian monastery the familiar symbol of Christ's wounded heart. It is a reminder that the whole superstructure of monasticism, or indeed any form of church organisation, is raised on something simple and strong: God's love for us - a love that led him to suffering and death. St Benedict certainly understood this. The constant exhortations in his Rule to "prefer nothing to the love of Christ" or to act "out of love of God" and so on, are put there precisely because he knew his followers would try to rob the cross of its power to shock and settle for a religion that was all niceness and good taste. The brutal fact is that the crucifixion wasn't nice nor in good taste. As monks and nuns we are called to follow a crucified Lord, and just as his heart reached out in compassion and love to all at the very moment of his greatest suffering, so must ours. Surely only someone who has really grown up can attempt that.