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The Pentecost Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, probably written by Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury in the thirteenth century, is known as the Golden Sequence. Not only is the music hauntingly beautiful, the imagery provides a rich vein for reflection. Call me an unreconstructed traditionalist if you will, but I think it works better in Latin than in English. You can listen to it sung by the monks and nuns of Bec-Herluin here.

My first abbess recommended that we should pray the sequence every day and it's easy to see why. The Holy Spirit is often effectively the "forgotten Person" of the Blessed Trinity but the sequence reminds us that the action of the Spirit forms the warp and woof of our existence. The Holy Spirit comes upon us as he came upon Mary and the apostles and indeed the Lord Jesus himself, to anoint us for our mission — which is nothing less than to complete the work of Christ on earth. Truly, the vocation of the Church is a great and glorious one and we need to pray if we are to accomplish it. (Apologies for the poor recording quality of this week's podcast: too much atmospheric noise.)

Pentecost Eve

This evening we begin celebrating Pentecost, the "birthday" of the Church. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to say, with a characteristic twinkle in her eye, that the bishops had got things wrong when they did away with the Pentecost octave. For her, Pentecost was the greatest feast of the Christian year and the number of times we managed to sing the Veni sancte Spiritus at choir practice beforehand left one in no doubt that she thought we had been short-changed liturgically. We may have lost the octave, and the movement of Ascension Day from Thursday to Sunday may have obscured the old custom of a novena of preparation, but we can still make suitable preparations for the feast. Just as on Christmas Eve, today we await something very great, something the world has never known before. Unpredictable as wind, searing as flame, brilliant as light, the Spirit hovers over us. This is a day to pray, Veni Creator Spiritus, Come Creator Spirit.
Play Veni Creator Spiritius Play Veni Creator Spiritus

Ps 50 (51)

The first psalm of Vigils, the penitential psalm par excellence, contains much that is worth pondering as the day unfolds. Different lines bubble up at different moments. The fact that God "loves truth in the heart" is wonderfully reassuring, while the psalmist's cry to know again "the joy of [God's] help" resonates deeply with the longing we most of us experience. It is, however, the prayer for a pure heart that speaks to me this morning. A pure heart is one which allows the light to shine through, which lets the love of God be its life-blood.

Morning on the Downs

Up onto the Downs before Vigils and rewarded by a feast of birds and birdsong: larks and lapwings, a corn bunting, yellowhammers, buzzards and red kites, but no short-eared owls today, and the cookoo has long fled the woods. Lots of painted ladies (butterfly variety) on the edge of the rape field and several hares by the gallops, which resulted in much sniffing and quartering by the monastery hound. I was looking at some of the grasses and ferns and wishing I knew more botany when I spotted a red-tailed bumblebee, B. lapidarius, common enough in the south but the first I have seen hereabouts. One couldn't help asking, however, what the chances are of encountering the same species in such abundance twenty years hence. The decline of previously common birds and wildflowers in a single generation is a sobering thought. New species will arise, of course, but nostalgia is a very adult emotion best enjoyed in advance. A touch of self-indulgent melancholy on a late spring morning adds a certain piquancy to the day, does it not?


The drains have been sorted and the cellar is no longer afloat — thank heavens it was "only" bath water circulating around the lower levels of the monastery! Some interesting moulds have begun to appear, but mould tends to be a feature of older buildings anyway. However, on the principle that the book of life is a good place to start one's meditations, this morning I have been thinking(?) about the use of the word "mould" to indicate the process of purposeful shaping or forming rather than simply encrusting with alien growth. One might say that one's thinking has been moulded by an influential person or book, taken on a particular cast or quality as a result of a contact that may appear fortuitous. Or one might say that one's life has been moulded by years of living as, say, a Benedictine nun or dwelling in a particular time or place. In scripture God is the potter who moulds our human clay into an infinite variety of different forms. We are always a work-in-progress, a comforting thought because it suggests that there is something more to look forward to, another surprise awaiting us. In these last days of Easter it is the biggest surprise of all: the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God's Little Joke

Our cellar is flooding so we are having to remove the contents to higher levels. This blog will be without entries for a few days while we exchange wimples for water-wings. Joking aside, emptying the cellar is unpleasant but must take priority over other things for "health and safety" reasons. Not quite what the doctor ordered!

Disagreeing Agreeably

Some unexpected visitors put paid to yesterday's podcast, so there will be a lull now until we resume in a fortnight's time. The report of President Obama's speech at Notre Dame reminded me how important it is to disagree agreeably. I sometimes think it is a lost art. My grandmother's generation would have taken a sombre view of behaviour that is now commonplace. I can hear her saying to an obnoxious grandchild (me), "No matter how passionately one feels, there is no excuse for bad manners". Civilised debate is meant to be precisely that: civilised. It means listening even when we don't like what we hear. It means trying to follow another's argument, even when we find the argument confused or confusing. I disagree with Obama's views on abortion but I think he made a good case for disagreeing agreeably; and when we can do that, there is hope for change.

Sicut Pater

We have heard today's gospel, John 15: 9-17, twice in the last few days. It's one I never tire of meditating on because it encapsulates much of what monastic life is about. Every vocation begins with the fact of the Father's love, with his surprising choice of this person and that. It is his love which sustains, nourishes, challenges and consoles throughout life— a lovely, luminous thought. But life is not all growing in the sunshine of God's love without a care in the world. We are to bear fruit; and fruit is usually harvested when summer is ended. It is when the shadow of the Cross falls across our lives that we (or more usually others) see what has really been going on. If we have become a friend of God, then we'll have taken on some measure of likeness to his Son and the Father will be able to see and love in us what he sees and loves in his Son. And if we haven't? John's gospel pulls no punches about the uselessness of branches that have been cut from the Vine. No wonder that today's Postcommunion prayer asks for strength. (Podcast will be posted later today and that will be the last for the next fortnight as Digitalnun will be on "garden leave".)


One of our Newcastle-upon-Tyne readers chose a selective quotation from yesterday's post to poke gentle fun at what he/she regards as the "innocence" of nuns. (Note for the unwary, nuns are a bit more savvy than you may realise!) For me it raised some interesting questions about stereotypes, not just nun stereotypes but stereotypes in general. The Three Faiths Forum in Oxford has had to get to grips with some of the stereotypical assumptions that Christians, Jews and Moslems make about one another. Christians are required to be merciful and forgiving, because that is seen as an essential note or characteristic of Christianity (so much for Newman's "one, holy", etc.) I wonder if that is why reports from Israel/Palestine suggest that the recent papal visit was, in Jewish and Moslem terms, a non-event. Since Christians are supposed to be meek, acknowledge guilt, show themselves peace-loving and so on, there wasn't much scope for papal "creativity". Perhaps what matters is that Benedict XVI made the journey and did his best to make amends for previous gaffes while trying to cheer the few remaining Palestinian Christians. Maybe that is all any of us can ever do: make the journey and try our best.

Integrity in Public Life

It is sickening to see that among the M.P.s who have been claiming over-generous expenses for things most people have to fund out of their own pockets there are some who set great store by being church-goers. The idea of Parliament being corrupt is a novel one for the British people. It will be interesting to see where it leads. In the meantime, we can all reflect on the fact that selective integrity is not integrity at all.

St Matthias

I have been trying to find a card given to me many years ago which shows Christ surrounded by the Apostles — all thirteen of them. The medieval artist was presumably making a point, but he was a little muddle-headed. The election of Matthias "to fill the place of Judas" was an important act of the Early Church, but there was never any doubt that it was election to membership of the Twelve. His feast has tended to wander around the calendar, from 24 February to 14 May (I believe the Orthodox celebrate it on 9 August), and he has acquired a motley collection of causes placed under his patronage, including alcoholism and tailors, but there is something tremendously attractive about Matthias. He was one of those humble followers of Jesus who had been there all along but about whom we hear nothing until he was chosen to join the apostles after the Ascension. Most of us can probably find a parallel there: we too are called to an obscure following. St Matthias is a good patron to have.

Shopping in the Rain

Did the monastery shopping in the rain this morning. Everyone seemed to be hurrying along, looking a bit cold and glum. As we waited our turn at the market, I noticed the perfect beauty of the raindrops beading the canopy, as precious in their own way as blue diamonds and considerably less expensive. So often we are in a hurry and don't really notice anything. We are always betwixt and between, our eyes fixed on a distant horizon. De Caussade wrote tellingly of "the sacrament of the present moment". It is a sacrament offered to all, a momentary revelation of God in the here and now, wherever here and now happens to be.

Ask Sister!

We're too small to set up a LiveChat feature, except very occasionally, but we've added a new section to our FAQ: Ask Sister! Your chance to ask the vocation questions you've been wanting to ask without having to dive into your email programme or, horrors, putting pen to paper. Anything we think might be of general interest we'll post (anonymously of course) in an extended vocation/FAQ section in due course. Perhaps we should add a health warning: replies won't always be immediate because we have other things to do, so please don't get too impatient. One question we're working on is trying to explain what is different about Benedictines. (As compared with Franciscan, Dominicans, etc.) Given that this could lead to renewed Wars of Religion, we are cogitating before committing ourselves to cyberspace.

The Abbots of Cluny

A Memoria to stir the heart of any Benedictine but especially any involved in a new foundation as we are (and by "we" I mean not only those of us actually in the monastery but also our Associates and Oblates and those who help us by their prayers and material generosity). The first business of a Benedictine is to seek God and allow grace to transform her so that she becomes truly holy. It is inspiring to think that of the first six abbots of Cluny, four were saints. Amid all the worry about finances and building plans, monks who were not quite as fervent as they should be (read "difficult" or "trouble-makers"), to say nothing of the radical nature of the new economic and organizational structure that Cluny exemplified, Odo, Maiolus, Odilo and Hugh never lost sight of the purpose of their own conversion. Everyone knows that the liturgy at Cluny became, quite literally, a laus perennis. Fewer know that even the great abbot Hugh, despite his many cares, took his turn as kitchener or cook, boiling up vast quantities of beans for the daily meal. (Wonder if I could get away with a similar kind of meal for the brethren today. I suspect not.) We are still striving to perfect our liturgical arrangements here at Hendred. Every time we manage to afford something beautiful for the altar, there is a feeling of gratitude that we have been enabled to make our worship more dignified. We have done some restoration work on the tabernacle obtained for us by Fr Anthony and once we have finished making new lining silks and veils, all will be ready for installation in the oratory. I trust our Cluniac saints would approve.

The Hendred tabernacle after restoration


The parish sang "Abide with me" as the opening hymn at Mass today, which led to several distractions in which rugby featured prominently until the Hendry window made me start thinking Godly Thoughts again. Evening is a fascinating theme to follow through in scripture. It is a privileged time of meeting with God although, as Hebrews reminds us, it can be "a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God." The voice of the Lord God in the cool of the evening filled Adam and Eve with fear, causing them to hide (Genesis 3.8); Abraham, nodding off over his sacrifice as the sun was setting, "fell into a trance and great and fearful darkness came over him" (Genesis 15.12); Jacob wrestled with a mysterious figure who, as day was breaking, revealed that he had striven with God and had prevailed, seeing him face to face (Genesis 32.24 et seq). Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus take place in the evening and add to the sense that there is a strangeness about him that fills the disciples with wonder and awe, none more so than those who walked to Emmaus with him. All this week we shall be reflecting on the Last Discourse — a unique opportunity to read these parting words of Jesus in the light of the Resurrection.

Listening to RB

Why do we put up the daily reading from RB in audio form on our Vocations page? Because actually listening to the Rule is akin to listening to scripture. There is no substitute for hearing the word of God: for allowing a human voice to mediate God's truth, challenging us to hear words a private reading might allow us to skip over. Similarly, listening to another reading the Rule to us frees us from a purely personal interpretation. We have just finished the Prologue and I have been struck by the fact that the reader for the week (in the monastery, not on the Prayer Box) has some quite different emphases from my own. There isn't just one "take" on the Rule. The many different forms in which it has been lived in different times and places is an encouragement worth pondering. God hasn't finished with any of us yet.

The Gentiles will Listen

Acts 28: 28 is a promise half-fulfilled. We can look back on two thousand years of history and claim that the Gentiles did listen, that Christianity spread across the Roman world, was adopted by the northern barbarians (i.e. us), and became the official Faith of many, so that today its adherents can be found in every part of the world. Or we can look at it another way and feel desolate and sad. Where are the great churches of the Middle East and North Africa today? Europe has rejected much of its Christian past and revealed a pagan heart and pagan ears. The Gentiles have stopped listening, we say, Christianity is a spent force. Many would like that to be true, but it isn't. The Benedictine vow of conversatio morum obliges us to a daily conversion, a daily listening. It only takes one open ear, one open heart for the message to get through; and it is my firm belief that there are many open ears and hearts in the world today.

Vocationitis and the Children of God

The postbag (digital and otherwise) has brought several enquiries about vocation in recent months. Most people are at the "I'm thinking about vocation and need to clarify my ideas" stage and simply want to talk through some of the questions that arise. The community tries to make it easy for people to do exactly that, either in person or over the ether. We believe in the validity and beauty of our own vocation but are happy to acknowledge that it is not for everyone and are pleased if we can help someone find her path in life, wherever that may lead. Parents and friends can be more sceptical, imagining that all nuns are anxious to pull their little darlings into the cloister, irrespective of whether or not they have a vocation. Relax, people! The last thing any community needs is someone who doesn't have a vocation. There is nothing more destructive, both for the individual and the community. That is why so much time and effort is devoted to trying to discover whether someone is truly called.

"Vocationitis" is an affliction most NMs can spot a mile off. Most deal with it gently and patiently, knowing that it can mask a genuine vocation. What are its characteristics, and why do I call it an affliction? The big give-away is a concentration on self rather than God, and it gives its sufferer no rest. Don't get me wrong. It is normal for someone grappling with the mystery of vocation to be amazed and needing to talk about its effect in her life. There is a "divine restlessness" that takes hold of the soul. But there is a difference between that and dwelling on "me and my vocation story". Another characteristic is the endless quest for a perfect community which meets all a person's requirements for holiness/austerity/liturgical practice or what you will. Again, it is necessary to find the community to which one is called and that involves searching; but there are some who go from one community to another, year after year, and are never satisfied because there is always something that is not quite "right". The brethren are too austere/not austere enough, too traditional/not traditional enough, according to the enquirer's expectations. We try to help those with vocationitis, too, because as I never tire of repeating, each one of us is a vocation, uniquely called by God. Where we are/what we do matters less than that we are wholly given to God.

We often ask readers of Colophon to pray for those who are trying to discern a monastic vocation, which can be a lonely and baffling process. Today, however, we ask you to join us in praying for those who have vocationitis, that they may find peace and joy in their vocation as Children of God. It is a vocation we all share.

St Athanasius

D. Gertrude Brown, of happy memory, always relished saying the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday. I used to tease her that it wasn't the theology but the anathemas she enjoyed, and she was honest enough to agree. St Athanasius receives a bad press in some quarters, but I have a great admiration for him both as a theologian and as a man of singular courage who was prepared to risk all in defence of what he believed to be right. No one before "the Father of Orthodoxy" had written quite so well or so clearly of the Incarnation and its relationship to the Mystery of the Trinity, but he paid dearly for his love of Catholic truth. Himself neither a "liberal" nor a "conservative", his integrity exposed him to obloquy and exile. I like his humour and his gift for friendship (St Antony was among his friends), and even his small stature seems endearing, for like many "vertically challenged" men, he was a battler. By one of those coincidences that are not coincidences at all, I was baptized on his feastday and entered monastic life on his feastday. Perhaps that is why I too dislike "liberal" and "conservative" labels and am distressed by the way some of the self-appointed guardians of the Church conduct their public battles, often at the expense of truth and charity. Ah well. Domestic trivia. The new monastery sign has survived twenty-four hours, so Handynun looks anything but humble about her handiwork. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Damien, who really is humble, continues to transform the garden entrance with some very nifty paving work. Handynun, you're just not in the same league. (sigh)

The new monastery sign with logo Damien transforming the entrance to the garden

Ah, the Joys of Life!

Someone asked why there have been several gaps in posts recently. We have had our fair share of visitors and appointments, of course, and the grass grows an inch or two every time one looks at it (it takes at least an hour and a half to mow, as the writer knows well). The vegetable garden is being planted out and our new empty borders need filling (I have taken to referring to them as latifundia Hendredis, which gives you an idea of the challenge). Veilnet and Veilpress are both working at full capacity; St Cecilia's is busy; and we are all trying to catch up on neglected correspondence/spring cleaning/clearing the garage. Handynun is in the middle of a another project: making a new sign for the monastery, which seems to involve a lot of measuring, hammering and spraying of paint. Even the dog tiptoes past when she is in this mode. This web site is badly in need of an overhaul. The Appeal page will not render in Internet Explorer 7 (please upgrade to IE8 or, better still, install Firefox or Safari, both of which are much better browsers) and the engine for the blog needs tinkering with, but both these are on the "not urgent, do sometime" list. The most pressing need of the moment is to find something worthwhile to say for this morning's chapter talk. Somehow, I do not think that half an hour of unitive silence will quite meet the bill. A pity, rather, as unitive silence expresses everything that words and activity cannot.