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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!

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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.


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).

Corpus Christi 2010

We take the Eucharist for granted. Shock! Horror! How could anyone take so sublime a Gift for granted? Isn’t that verging on the blasphemous? Well, no. We are meant to take the Eucharist for granted, as children take for granted the fact that their parents will provide for them. That doesn’t mean we should be in the least bit sloppy or casual, or assume we have “rights” in the matter. The Eucharist is a gift of God, which he gives to whom he chooses, how he chooses and when he chooses. It never ceases to amaze that God should give the Eucharist even to me. I take comfort from the fact that the gifts of God are irrevocable, which is why we can take the Eucharist for granted: it is given to the Church till the end of time and is, as Newman said, “a higher gift than grace”.

A higher gift than grace: that is worth thinking about. Truly we should approach the Eucharist with awe as well as gratitude. It pains me that so many people fail to answer “amen” when they receive the Sacred Host or Precious Blood. It pains me when people talk about “the bread and wine”, as though they were no more than that. It pains, but it does not surprise; and I rather suspect it does not surprise God, either. Bread and wine are so ordinary; eating and drinking are such ordinary activities. It is easy to forget that they are both transformed and transformative because of what the Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper. Today, as at every Mass, we shall be invited to approach the altar of God and “taste and see that the Lord is good”. As always, we take the invitation and the Gift for granted. That is what it means to be a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit and a tabernacle of the Lord.


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.