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God has played one of his little jokes on us. It all began with our Mac behaving strangely. Digitalnun retired to her room to do some trouble-shooting, emerging only for the briefest of intervals (choir, food, greenhouse, dog, not necessarily in that order). Having decided to erase the hard disk and reinstall everything, she discovered that the telephone line was behaving strangely too, so spent the next few hours trying to trouble-shoot that. Reinstalling everything on the computer and double-checking for the latest updates revealed ever-increasing problems with our Broadband connection. Fortunately, the arrival of sunshine and warmth stopped tempers fraying, but we admit we have been tearing our wimples over the communication difficulties. So much for our thoughtful post on Pentecost and our latest podcast, which we haven’t been able to get online.

Blogging is likely to be sporadic while we try to get these problems solved. Email is currently unreliable; the telephone is almost incomprehensible; the waste of time is frightening. Can we learn anything from all this? We live in a world where communication has never been easier, but we rely too much on instant access. When it fails, our world fragments and we have to work harder at maintaining connections. We need the Holy Spirit.

Brave New World?

The announcement that Craig Venter has succeeded in making "artificial life", a one-celled organism with manmade DNA, will be grabbing many headlines today. There will be arguments about the possible benefits versus possible dangers. Comparatively few of us will actually be able to think clearly about the moral and ethical issues involved. If we have enough science we may not have enough philosophy or theology; if we have enough philosophy and theology, we may not have enough science. I suspect that the Churches will address the moral issue with varying degrees of clarity and comprehension, but I wonder who will address the ethical issue.

The biochemist in community has wisely suspended judgement, pointing out that from a Christian perspective "life" means more than a packet of DNA. She, at least, is not wildly excited by Dr Venter's work, expecting that media hype will not help anyone to a cool appreciation of what is going on. Again, she is alert to the moral dimensions of the case but seems not to have thought about the ethical ones. For me, the ethical considerations are the most urgent. Do we trust our institutions enough to allow them to develop this kind of research and not put it to uses which no decent human being could countenance?

We have not managed to rid the world of hunger, poverty or disease, for all our technological achievements over the past three thousand years. Still less have we managed to rid ourselves of violence and war. In fact, we seem to have found ever nastier and more horrific ways of killing. I wonder whether making that blue blob of synthetic DNA may turn out to be as important as the splitting of the atom. If so, pray God we never misuse it in the same deadly way.


No one can be indifferent to what has been happening in Bangkok. Often the reaction of well-meaning people will be, "I feel so helpless. What can I do?" The sad fact is that there is usually very little we can "do". Sometimes we can give our time or our money and be personally engaged in trying to improve matters. More often that kind of engagement is impossible. That is why prayer is so important. It has no frontiers, no limitations, and being an expression of love, cannot harm anyone as well-meaning attempts to be helpful all too often seem to do. We must pray for the people of Bangkok, but not in a desultory, "Lord, be merciful to them" kind of way. Prayer that is wrung from the heart can never be weak or ineffectual. Our prayer must be persevering, full of faith and trust. We are awaiting a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Let us ask the Spirit to give fire to our prayer.

A Sausage a Day

My eye was caught by an article on the BBC web page today. Apparently, even a small amount of processed meat, a single sausage, can significantly raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you are hoping for some diatribe about the habit of sin gradually encrusting our spiritual arteries, etc, etc, read no further. Sin is boring, except to the perpetrator, and Colophon doesn't like being bored.

What struck me about the BBC's report was (a) food has become a substitute for religion, which is why there are so many articles and programmes about it, and (b) we long for what we eat to make us immortal while at the same time stuffing ourselves with too much of everything, which rather defeats the object. This is a terrible parody of the Eucharist. What truly nourishes, what truly gives life is "a morsel of bread and a sip of wine" become the Body and Blood of Christ.

Ascension Sunday 2010

This morning at Mass I was struck by a phrase in the reading from Acts 1, "they were continually in the temple, praising God . . ." It reminded me of Bede, who had a great devotion to the Ascension and sang the Magnificat antiphon of the feast just before he died. His greatest work was De templo Salomonis, nominally an exposition of the texts concerning the building of Solomon's temple but in reality a sustained meditation on the life of the Church in which both literal and allegorical interpretations of scripture combine.

De templo is not an easy read. There's a wealth of detail about architecture and, as you would expect, a great deal of number symbolism. Most modern readers find this far-stretched or tiresome, but Bede was anything but a simpleton. His purpose was to "crack the code" so to say, and reveal the mystery hidden within. For him, as a monk, monastic life was a paradigm of the life of the Church as a whole. That is where "being continually in the temple, praising God" comes in. It sums up one aspect of monastic life: our being continually in the presence of God, mindful of him and responding with prayer and praise.

Many people wonder what St Paul meant when he exhorted believers to pray constantly. Some try to multiply vocal prayers throughout the day and hope that by so doing they will indeed be praying constantly. Woodbine Willy is a wonderful example of how such a practice can make a huge impact on others. Most people simply find the idea exhausting. "My work is my prayer," they say; and very often it is the only prayer they make. Some join monasteries and hope that life will be one long liturgy until at last they enter upon the heavenly liturgy. Show them the scullery or hand them a duster, and they look a little puzzled. This is not prayer, surely?

Prayer and work are intimately connected. Work is not prayer in and of itself, although it can be subsumed into prayer. Equally, prayer can be very hard work, as those who have tried to pray year after year, day in day out, will attest. For a Christian, there can be no substitute for those times when we do nothing except concentrate on God. To these private times of prayer we must add corporate acts of prayer. A parish Mass or a monastic Office are alike in this: they are the common worship of the community, and as members of the Body of Christ, we need to take part in them.

What the writer of Acts understood and we sometimes forget is that the body of the living Christ is the new temple in which we live and move and have our being. Everything we do should therefore have something of the nature of prayer about it, not in the sense of repeating a multiplicity of vocal prayers or attending endless liturgies, but in the sense that mind and heart are focused upon God. There will be times when the focus is sharper, times when it is less distinct. That is as it should be. We cannot live always on the heights. It was when the Lord was physically removed from them that the disciples began to see him more clearly with the eyes of faith. Their response was to be "continually in the temple, praising God". However dark or troubled our own perception of God, that can be our response too by virtue of our baptism. God never asks what he does not first give.

Thirteenth Apostle?

I have always had a soft spot for St Matthias. He was with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry but not in the inner circle of the Twelve. The first we hear of him is when the Apostles are faced with a crisis. What are they to do about making up the number of the Twelve, now that Judas has abandoned his place in it? That is when we learn about the other disciples who have been baptizing and preaching, faithfully and obscurely, in Jesus' name. It is an important moment in the life of the Church, when the Apostles take on responsibility for the ongoing mission and choose someone to have a special role in it.

Matthias is not the thirteenth Apostle, however. He is enrolled as one of the Twelve. The Church has never quite come to terms with the betrayal from within. Judas has been vilified, and sometimes I think the vilifcation says more about our fears than it does about Judas himself. We project onto him what we do not like about ourselves. If we search our hearts, we all know we have had Judas moments in our lives: times when we have behaved shabbily or affected others adversely. I like to think that the integrity of Matthias somehow compensates for the shortcomings of Judas; that his fidelity somehow makes up for the betrayal. Perhaps we could ask his prayers for our own infidelities, our own falling short of the vocation to which we have been called.

Today, when we are asked to pray and make reparation for the hurt and harm done by those who have abused others, we can also take encouragement from Matthias. We may be people of no importance; what we do may be very small and imperfect in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us; but it is God who judges human hearts and makes our actions fruitful. May he find in us what is pleasing to him as he found it in the heart of St Matthias.

Ascension Day Not

Liturgically we enter a strange few days. Everything so far has been leading up to the celebration of Ascension today, but the Catholic Church in England and Wales, as in many countries, now celebrates it on Sunday. Those of us who "live by the liturgy" are therefore at something of a loss: not only do we have to supply for Thursday to Sunday a liturgy which continues to look forward to Ascension, we also have to extract from the liturgy afterwards, breaking the traditional sequence of nine days' preparation for Pentecost. Personally, I am not convinced that moving Ascension to Sunday helps either priest or people, though I'm sure the change was well-intentioned.

St Benedict was not keen on grumbling, however, so we need to find something positive for today. The best I can manage is the thought that the Ascension is an example of the paradox at the heart of the Church's life: simultaneous presence and absence, glory attained and yet to come. Perhaps having a few more days of waiting will sharpen our appreciation on Sunday. I hope so.

Rural Rides

To Manchester and back yesterday, which meant a round trip of approximately 400 motorway miles. Not my favourite kind of travel but made enjoyable on the way up by seeing a heron at the Stafford Service Station (which must rank as one of the best in Britain in terms of landscaping), and enthralling on the way back by the breaking news about the comings and goings in Downing Street. Today the world, or such part of it as is interested in what happens in a small offshore island in the northern hemisphere, is a-flutter with opinions, for, against, and merely rude. Colophon is making a stand: we'll pray but we won't comment. Prayer for wisdom is, after all, what politicians need most. In fact, you might say it is what most of us need most of the time.

Country Matters

Saw a couple of lambs being born this morning and thought what an ancient sight that is in this part of the world. There have been sheep grazing here since before Domesday Book. If you go a little further, some patches of nettles indicate the likely site of human habitation in years past. Go further still, and you are into a little stand of woodland where we surprised half a dozen deer. The bluebells reminded me of Hopkins' crushing the flowers with his teeth, to savour the fresh taste of them. I suppose only a poet would think of doing that. On the way back we had a good view of the village, its tranquillity a contrast to the political and economic turbulence ahead of us. We pray for wisdom and justice and a degree of altruism from all the political parties. Just now, though, it feels a bit like Holy Saturday, time taken out of time when all we can do is wait. How we wait won't affect the outcome but it may make a big difference to our ability to cope with whatever follows.

For the podcast, please see here.

Days of Joy

Long ago and far away, Digitalnun used to comment on the prayers of the week. She gave up doing so when others, better qualified and with possibly more time, started to do so. But old habits die hard and this morning a rapt look came over her face as she sang the collect for the day. So here are a few random thoughts occasioned by that beautiful phrase in the collect for the sixth Sunday of Easter, hos laetitiae dies, quos in honorem Domini resurgentis exsequimur. In the current ICEL translation this comes out rather feebly and abstractly as "help us to celebrate our joy in the Resurrection of the Lord". What the Latin actually refers to are "these days of joy which we have been accomplishing in honour of the rising Lord." What a difference that makes!

First of all, by this stage of Easter we may need to be reminded about these "days of joy". They are continuing, even if we are beginning to feel that the Triduum is now quite distant. Then, there is the striking thought that what we do is in honour of "the rising Lord" (present participle). The Dominus resurgens is not an abstraction, nor is what we celebrate something over and done with but rather something, indeed someone, eternally present (the rising Lord). And we do more than "celebrate". That exsequimur is very strong: it means to follow to the end, to accomplish something. What we are praying about, therefore, is our following through to the very end these days of joy in honour of our rising Lord. There is a programme in the prayer, and it is not for wimps.

There is much more to say about the prayer than this but it is an ancient part of the practice of lectio divina to seize on a single phrase that can be slowly chewed over in the course of the day. For Digitalnun the thought that the Risen Christ is also Dominus resurgens will be more than enough.

Today also we come to the end of our novena to St Joseph. We are very grateful to all who have added their prayers to ours.

Holy Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus and loving spouse of his mother Mary, we believe that your prayers are powerful with God. We ask you to help us with your intercession, that what we ask in faith may be found pleasing in his sight and may be granted to us from the abundance of his mercy. We thank you for the many blessings we have received through your intercession. Pray for us now that we may become what we most desire to be, perfect disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ: who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

A podcast on some favourite May saints has been uploaded to the podcast page.

A Touch of Whimsy

Waking up to yet another cold dark morning when one might reasonably have expected the weather to be a trifle warmer and the sun to be at least visible, one cannot help but feel a little low. The monastery is always a good ten degrees cooler inside than out, summer and winter; but we had visitors yesterday so put the heating on, hang the expense, and I admit, I confess, I was almost cheerful for an hour or two. If we lived where the sun shines every day, and olives and peaches grow, I daresay I could be happy . . . for a while.

Light and warmth are so important to a sense of well-being, we forget that until the nineteenth century they were not readily available. Go into any house built before then, even the grandest, and you may be surprised how little natural light there is in the rooms; look at the fireplaces, look at the bedrooms, and think how miserable it would be going to bed by the light of a tallow candle, with no fire in the fireplace (our great-grandparents thought that having any heating in the bedroom, except in extremis, was a mark of moral degeneration). It was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that central heating became more usual in Britain, but when oil and gas were alike cheap, we embraced it with enthusiasm. Now we are learning to disentangle ourselves. Here we have disentangled ourselves more than most. Visitors to Hendred are warned that shirtsleeves will not suffice: a jumper (or two), a fleece, a scarf, a thermal jacket, and you may be comfortable, during the summer months at any rate.

Why this Saturday morning rant? No reason, really, except that when one is cold and melancholy it is a great relief to inflict one's misery on others. So, be warned, if someone you meet today is rather testy, it is not a sign of their imperfect conversion, not a mark of habitual sin or even an inveterately grumpy nature. It is the fault of the weather.

The British Constitution

As I write (at 5.30 a.m.) one thing is clear: we shall be holding another General Election sooner rather than later. The results which have come in demonstrate something of the fragmentation of British politics. We have been here before, most recently in the 1970s, but the working out of the Constitutional position will be interesting, given that the Prime Minister will have the right to try to continue, even if his party cannot command a majority. (Oh, Bagehot, wouldst thou were living at this hour!) Rather more worrying to Colophon is the news that some people were unable to vote yesterday. We have always prided ourselves on the way in which our Victorian systems continue to function but clearly this too will have to be rethought. We must pray that all will keep in mind the need to serve the common good. Perhaps we might add, and keep their nerve as we watch the effects on the money markets.

Yesterday's Virtual Chapter was subject to a few technical glitches (both Digitalnun and Cybernun had difficulty logging into the system, while other participants were confined to texting rather than talking for the earlier part: possibly the internet was under strain) but you can listen to the results here. Suggestions for the next Chapter are welcome.

Civic Virtue

Walking though the village earlier to cast my vote, I could not help reflecting on our political processes. As a woman, I am conscious of how much we owe those brave suffragists (I won't call them suffragettes) who secured for us the right to vote. It is painful to think how long it took for enfranchisement to come; more painful still to see many people today dismissing both the right and the responsibility to vote. There's the rub, of course: a right carries with it a responsibility. Democracy may not be the best form of government, but it is probably the best form of government we are likely to have this side of heaven; and it can only work if we all engage in its processes.

Many readers of Colophon will have read the Bishops' statement on Choosing the Common Good and tried to apply its principles when they come to vote. More will have spent time thinking about the policy statements of the various parties, the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates, and decided for this person or that on the basis of what they think would be "best", where "best" is not clearly defined but is somehow to be equated with "doing what is right". Others (probably not readers of Colophon) will simply tick the name of the candidate whose party they favour without having any clear idea of what they stand for.

Does any of this matter? Today I think it matters very much indeed. We all know perfectly well that we face a very uncomfortable few years at least. The civil unrest in Greece is a tragic warning of what could happen if we do not face up to the demands of our situation. The concept of the common good is a valuable one, and you do not need to be a philosopher to recognize its implications. They go further than the concerns of our own nation state. At their core is a concern for justice, for right order, which is truly universal. One vote may seem small and insignificant but the strength of our political system rests on an intelligent and responsible use of the vote we have. Civic virtue may not sound very exciting but without it we could all too soon descend into chaos.

Digital Housekeeping

In the intervals of praying, working and reading (not to mention eating and sleeping), we have been doing a little digital housekeeping. The migration of our blog to the Wordpress engine proceeds at a stately 50 entries a day but will eventually reach a close. When completed, we hope it will resolve the problem of the RSS feed not formatting correctly. We shall probably choose that moment to reveal what is lurking under the "development" tab of the web site . . .

In the meantime, there is a Virtual Chapter tomorrow evening. The theme was suggested by a reader who is trying to work out how to reconcile the interior nature of Christian belief with a missionary faith. That is a question which concerns us all, so we hope there will be some thoughtful insight. For British participants the General Election is concentrating minds on how we engage in and with civil society. Here in the monastery there is the worrying prospect of Digitalnun dusting off her Thomas Aquinas and sitting before the microphone with several weighty tomes open before her. At least that should make her talk less!

We are still open to suggestions for a name for our email newsletter: you can subscribe to the newsletter itself using the sign-up box on the right. The suggestions already received are very imaginative, so there is a high standard to meet.

The Carthusian Martyrs

St John Houghton
"Lo! Dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?" So, St Thomas More of the Carthusian Martyrs, glimpsed from the window of his cell in the Tower. Ever since I read Maurice Chauncy's moving account of the martyrdom of his brethren, I have had a devotion to these men who prepared for a death they knew to be inevitable by three days of intense prayer and reconciliation among themselves. St John Houghton was the first to die, on 4 May 1535. He was a Cambridge man (+), had served his community both as procurator and prior (++), and was painted by Zurburan (+++). Chauncy describs the very real agonies of conscience and indecision he went through, tying to decide what he ought to do in the face of the Henrician demands. He refused to swear that Henry's marriage with Katherine was illicit but, after a month's imprisonment, took the oath of succession under the condition quatenus licitum esset (insofar as allowable) on 29 May 1534. According to Chauncy, he had the idea that he might be able to spare his brethren. It was to no avail. In April 1535 he was again imprisoned with three others but refused to take the oath of supremacy. The jury was reluctant to convict, but St John was hanged at Tyburn, then disembowelled while still conscious. In all, eighteen Carthusians went to their deaths, quietly and courageously, in marked contrast, it must be said, with many of their Benedictine contemporaries, who settled for a pension and more or less honourable retirement.

Do such martyrs have anything to teach us today when, rightly, we are all keen to put the polemics of a past age behind us? I think they do. We can honour brave men and women of faith in every generation and learn from their steadfastness. I may give offence to some of my Anglican friends (none is intended) when I say nothing becomes Cranmer so well as his death: he knew nothing could save him by that stage, but he went to the stake with a recantation in his pocket because he was not sure whether that was right. On 6 May we shall be going to the polls. How we use our vote matters. Probably none of the candidates will be "ideal" from our point of view. We shall have to compromise, but the compromise we make must be thoughtfully and carefully worked out. Much is at stake, if not quite as literally as in the case of many of our martyrs.

Fifth Week of Easter

The fifth week of Easter is precious for many reasons. The chapters of the Last Discourse we read this week are among those best loved by many: the Vine and the branches are one for evermore, and it is good to be able to reflect on the symbolism of the vine, knowing that the agony of the Cross is over. Today, on the feast of SS Philip and James, we sing one of the most beautiful chants in the Gradual, Tanto tempore. Its byzantine intricacies are difficult to sing well but sound glorious when they are. What a pity the weather seems out of tune with so much joy and gladness!

We have been asked for suggestions about how to prepare for the next Virtual Chapter on Thursday evening. The most important text to study is probably Matthew 6, reading which prompted one of our readers to suggest the theme. For those of us in the UK, at least half our attention will be on the General Election; so we might consider what the political parties have had to say about the place (or lack thereof) of faith in society (e.g. Faith schools, the contribution of the Third Sector). We might also look at some of the questions raised by Lord Carey and others about the hostility, real or imagined, towards Christianity in Britain today. (Overseas participants may have some valuable insights to offer from their own experience, but I have to write from a British perspective.) There is also a huge amount of Catholic social teaching one could usefully go through, see here. If anyone else would like to make suggestions, please do.

The Podcast should be recorded later today. However, we have noticed that we often have unexpected callers on Bank Holiday Mondays, so please treat this as a statement of intention, not a firm promise (or threat).

The eagle-eyed will notice that we have added ReCaptcha security coding to our email Prayerline to keep spam levels down. To make it work we have to ask for a valid email address rather than allowing requests to be made entirely anonymously, but we can assure users that everything you write remains completely confidential as before.


As a community we are not much given to devotions. Humble, persevering prayer in the Bakerite tradition and the luminous beauty of the liturgy are enough. Having said that, there is one devotion (in fact, our ONLY devotion) which has a special place in our hearts: the annual novena to St Joseph. A novena is nine days of prayer during which we ask the intercession of some saint for a special need. We ask with faith and in entire submission to the will of God. In the past we have asked the prayers of St Joseph for peace in the Middle East, for healing for those suffering from AIDS or other illnesses, for reconciliation among families, and so on and so forth. This year we are asking his intercession for an urgent need of our own. If you would like to pray with us, the following short prayer may be useful:

Holy Joseph, faithful follower of Jesus and loving spouse of his mother Mary, we believe that your prayers are powerful with God. We ask you to help us with your intercession, that what we ask in faith may be found pleasing in his sight and may be granted to us from the abundance of his mercy. We thank you for the many blessings we have received through your intercession. Pray for us now that we may become what we most desire to be, perfect disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ: who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.