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Thinking Aloud

Yesterday in the course of a meeting someone knowledgeable about these things suggested that we should put a page up on Facebook. Hitherto we have fought shy of social networking sites, arguing that we don't have much time and, as regular readers of this blog will know, a strict policy of attending to our web site only AFTER everything else has been done. But I think the point made was a valid one. It is easier to be interactive on a site like Facebook than it is here (because she who "maintains" the web site has not yet got round to the relaunch of the blog element. Ed) and people no longer use the internet as they did in the Dark Ages (pre Web 2.0, if you don't know). So, do we or don't we? Digitalnun has begun the process of creating a page but is dithering about whether to publish or not. Would we just be adding to the torrent of inane cyberchatter to be found on the web, or would we be making a useful contribution? If you have any thoughts, please let us know. In the meantime, the number of potential distractions in prayer now includes Facebook. This could make confession quite incomprehensible to our confessor!

The Glory of the Cross

As the glory of God is the human person fully alive, so the glory of Jesus is to be found in the mystery of the Cross. It is no accident that in the Christian dispensation death is more than the mere extinction of our earthly life. It is the entrance to true life in God, a life that is limitless . . . being fully alive, for ever and ever.


Forgiveness is one of the great themes of Lent. One might say that the whole of Christian revelation is concerned with God's forgiveness of ourselves, but I wonder how often we stop to think what forgiveness means in our own lives. We have become so accustomed to such things as "the victim impact statement" which frequently contains a line stating that life has been ruined and there can be no forgiveness for the one responsible. Nation states and terrorist organizations alike cultivate an attitude of unforgiveness which "justifies" retaliation and armed conflict of various kinds. Forgiveness is hard, of course, whether given or accepted. It means taking responsibility for our actions and refusing to be a moral zombie. So often when we say we forgive what we really mean is that we put the other on probation: one false step and wham! we remember every wrong ever done, and time is no healer in such situations. As a Christian, I don't have any choice in the matter: I must allow the Lord's forgiveness to work through me. The important point is that it is the Lord's forgiveness, not my own. I believe that forgiveness is necessary for our very humanity. It is somehow "wired into" us, and when we ignore its imperatives things go badly awry. Here are two brief quotations worth pondering. Neither is Christian, but I think every Christian should be able to see the point of them.

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." Gandhi

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." Voltaire

Media Obsessions

In the last couple of months we have had a number of approaches from the media — radio, press and television — the majority of which have been concerned with food in some way. This has sparked an interesting debate in community about the role of food in the monastery and in the world beyond the cloister. We do a number of things that have worldly approval, i.e. we grow our own vegetables, compost with fervour and favour a largely vegetarian diet where the art of recycling left-overs is taken for granted. "No waste, no want" is our watchword. People are often fascinated by our wine-making and brewing, our making of jams and chutney, our breadmaking and suchlike because it suggests a world that never was, where food was always pure and wholesome and appeared as if by magic in copious quantities in enchanting Quattrocento refectories. The reality is much duller. Like everyone else, we have to prepare meals in haste and juggle conflicting demands. Where I think we do have an advantage is in our linking food to the liturgical year. Our refectory is an extension of our oratory, so the rhythm of feast and fast is echoed in the dishes that appear on the table. A little humour is also a good idea: apples when we read the story of the Fall; lentil broth when we read of Jacob outwitting his brother Esau; scones when we read the Elijah cycle, and so on. No whalemeat for Jonah, though, and not many fatted calves at any time.

Feast of Youth

Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli
One of the striking things about the Annunciation, to me at least, is that it is so much a feast of youth. Mary herself was very young, yet not so young that she could not freely and joyfully accept the tremendous trust placed in her by God. Had she witheld her consent, failed through fear or self-concern to speak the word which would allow the Word of God to take flesh in her, would not the world have grown old and cold, a sadder and a sterner place? Instead, we have this wonderful sense of springtime come again, the sin of Adam and Eve forgotten in the hope that the promised birth of a Saviour confers. Through the ages poets and painters have tried to express the beauty of the Annunciation scene. This painting by Botticelli is more austere than most, yet at its centre is a theological statement of luminous simplicity. Mary and Gabriel do not touch: their gestures mark the moment of Jesus' conception, a conception achieved without human intermediary. Mary is no longer an ordinary Jewish girl, living obscurely in Nazareth. She is the Mother of God, and Gabriel kneels before the mystery.

Gaudium Meum

The psalter that I use in choir has a bespoke binding. On the front is a cross formed from the words "Gaudium Meum", an allusion to St Augustine's "psalterium meum, gaudium meum" (My psalter is my joy"). I love the psalms but more often, and especially during Lent, I think of the cross they form. Christ's joy is to be found in the cross, "for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame." It can be difficult to get one's head round that. In the west so much of life seems to be organized so that we can avoid pain and what we think of as humiliation and shame. Some words seem to be falling out of use today, suggesting a shift in attitudes that goes deeper and has more profound consequences than we might think. Sacrifice is still part of the Christian vocabulary. I wouldn't mind betting that it makes for a kinder, more compassionate world than self-fulfilment or all the euphemisms for selfishness currently in vogue.

Benedictine Forum 2

It has been an interesting week-end, watching developments over at the Benedictine Forum ( The expected spammers have tried to sign up (amazing how quickly spammers discover new sites, despite the control exercised by disabling crawler access, etc) and one or two people have needed a little help with the security measures put in place (great! they may be working). However, most of our attention has been focused on things outside the web. This week we shall be recording a radio interview, giving a couple of Lent talks and hosting the Wantage CWL for their Day of Recollection on Saturday, in between the intervals of praying, working and living a contemplative monastic life. Last week we were delighted to welcome Bishop Crispian here for the afternoon. His visits are always very encouraging and this time he left us with a nice problem to solve. We are to have reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in our oratory (we are linked to the church by our "cloister in the air" so have never had the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the house before) and are now having to work out exactly how to do so in seemly fashion. It's not just a question of finding the right kind of tabernacle or hanging pyx, sanctuary lamp and so on, we shall probably have to reorder the East end of the oratory, move the processional cross and . . .

Benedictine Forum Launched

St Benedict has two feasts and among Benedictines today's celebration, the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, is the more important. Given that Benedict wanted the lives of his followers "always to have a Lenten quality", it seems very fitting that we remember him in the middle of Lent with splendid liturgy and a rather less splendid commemoration in the refectory!. We are marking the Solemnity this year with the public launch of an online forum or bulletin board intended for all disciples of St Benedict but especially those who live in the British Isles. It has been some time in the making, but we hope we have now sorted all the security issues (always a nightmare with any kind of online project) and that it will become a genuinely useful service. Everything depends on the users, of course. See for yourself by visiting (link opens in new window). It will probably take a while for the number of users to grow but we are in no hurry. Now that the Forum is up and running, you can expect to find more regular prayer podcasts returning to this page (are we tempting nemesis there?) and possibly even the audio versions of our Lent talks. Do not think, however, that monastic life is all work and no pray, sorry, play. Yesterday was wonderfully warm and sunny so when Duncan decided it was time to go for a walk, we were happy to oblige. The Ridgeway was spectacularly beautiful: blue skies filled with skylarks, green grass shimmering beneath a brilliant sun. We walked past the lambing field, where every ewe seemed to have twins or triplets, along the gallops, and down. Red kites soared overhead, and we were thrilled to see a short-eared owl at close quarters and two pairs of yellowhammers. Difficult to believe that just a short walk in the opposite direction and we should have been gazing at Didcot power station . . .

Three Josephs

Solemnity of St Joseph. Whilst chopping onions this morning, I reflected that during the Middle Ages St Joseph was generally portrayed as a slightly comical figure. In the slapstick scenes of mystery plays, he was the elderly cuckolded husband, the butt of many a ribald remark. Scripture does not tell us that St Jospeh was old, only that he was remarkably open to the Holy Spirit, a man of honour, a descendant of David; we are surely meant to see a parallel with the Joseph of the Old Testament in his chastity, in his dreams, and in his care for the Son of God, whom he took to Egypt to preserve his life. From there it was but a short step (and another onion) to consideration of two further Josephs, or rather, Josefs, Pope Benedict XVI and Josef Fritzl. The link between the two may seem curious. Pope Benedict always wears a pectoral cross and when in procession carries not a crozier but a Cross, an image of our crucified Saviour. It is a reminder that where the Lord Jesus has gone, we must follow, even though it be to a shameful and painful death. And Fritzl? I was struck by a photograph of the Austrian courtroom where he is being tried. In front of the presiding judge is a cross, possibly a crucifix, with two lights on either side. In the midst of the most appalling darkness, even the unimaginable horrors of Fritzl's cellar, we find the Lord. It isn't a comfortable thought. It is deeply shocking and I suspect I'll spend the rest of today trying to figure out its meaning a little more clearly.

Coat of Many Colours

What a thin dividing line there is between envy and jealousy. Did Joseph's brothers simply envy his coat of many colours or were they jealous of their father's special love for him? They probably began with envy but they certainly ended with jealousy of the most destructive kind. They destroyed the hated coat and grieved their father but failed to recognize that their behaviour also wounded themselves. Sometimes we see the wrong done to God and our neighbour by our sins but fail to register that we have also injured ourselves. We are so apt to make excuses, but our little imperfections have a horrible habit of ending in sin. Maybe this Lent we could spend a moment or two thinking about the ways in which our sins destroy something good in ourselves as well as doing wrong to God and our neighbour. It might provide just the spur we need to do something about them!


As always when one hopes for a little space, life seems to have been more than usually pressurised recently, not that we are complaining, merely noting! Fortunately, we have not left the question of Easter supplies till the last moment. This year we decided to buy a paschal candle rather than design our own and remembered just in time that we should also buy more incense for Easter and so placed an order for Prinknash Abbey's Basilica blend. If it is Proustian to taste life, it is surely Benedictine to smell life. We use various kinds of incense, but Basilica is always associated with Solemnities and First Order feasts, being more expensive and having a particularly sweet and memorable fragrance. During Lent, which can seem very cold and long, it is good to reflect on the way in which Easter will burst upon all our senses. Catholicism is good at doing that, using the senses to lead one to God.

Women's World Day of Prayer

The Women's World Day of Prayer is one of those initiatives that gets very little attention from the media but is an excellent example of a positive, "grass-roots" response to the many needs of our time. D. Catherine will be giving a talk tonight to a gathering in Grove and will probably stress the international character of the day. It makes one think though: will we ever see a Men's World Day of Prayer?

Inch by Inch

In between praying, working and receiving guests, we have managed to get the guest room into habitable shape, which is a miracle in itself. The painting is done, the carpet tiles laid, and there was an audible sigh of relief from handynun as the last piece of flatpack furniture was assembled yesterday (note for the uninitiated, wardrobes are a pain). Now "all" that remains to be done are curtains, smoke detectors and some mysterious "finishing-off" items, including, apparently, a lot of waxing of furniture, especially the rocking chair that sits in the corner and is secretly coveted by all the community and at least one of our oblates. Photos are not allowed until everything really is completed but, in the meantime, if you are in the area on Sunday 15 March, there will be a mini-sale of some brand-new paint, wallpaper, curtains and bathroom fixtures and fittings which have been generously gifted to the monastery to help defray costs. Min-sale starts after Mass, in the parish meeting rooms, at about 10.45 a.m.


Funny how sunshine can transform even dust on a table surface into something beautiful. The transfigured wounds of the Risen Christ were wounds still, but made beautiful by the fact of the Resurrection. Lent shines light into the dark places of our minds and hearts. If we let God in, even that which we ordinarily think of as disfiguring can be transformed.

Lenten Battles

The first Sunday of Lent takes us straight to the heart of things and the mystery of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. This is powerful reminder that the traditional emphasis on prayer, fasting and almsgiving must be seen against a wider backdrop of the struggle with temptation, with doing battle against the principalities and powers. No wonder Lenten imagery abounds in military metaphors! There is a danger in all these, of course. We can become too focused on ourselves, on our own puny efforts, forgetting that we couldn't do anything if God did not give us the grace. As our Prayer Podcast tries to make clear, it is not our strength but God's which counts, and we mustn't be surprised if temptation comes upon us when we are least ready to face it.

In case you haven't seen any of the posters, our Lent Programme of Talks and Holy Hours for this year is as follows:
Wednesday, 4 March
2.30 p.m. Introduction to the English Mystical Tradition
7.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. Exposition followed by a short form of Compline (Night Prayer).

Wednesday, 11 March
2.30 p.m. Introduction to Walter Hilton
7.30 p.m. Introduction to Walter Hilton (repeated)

Wednesday, 18 March
7.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. Exposition followed by a short form of Compline (Night Prayer). Come and pray for vocations.

Wednesday, 25 March
2.30 p.m. Introduction to Julian of Norwich
7.30 p.m. Introduction to Julian of Norwich (repeated)

Wednesday 1 April
2.30 p.m. to 3.30 p.m. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
7.30 p.m. Preparing for Holy Week (talk and discussion)