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St Andrew

Feast of St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, Romania and Russia. The Andrew of the Gospels is an attractive character, with an easy-going generosity. He brings others to Jesus, sees the need for loaves and fishes to feed the crowds around Him and is prepared to stay in the background while Peter, James and John occupy centre-stage with Him. One can imagine Andrew being the kind of friend whose company one would enjoy without any complications, and on whom one could rely for commonsense and kindness. Not spectacular qualities, perhaps, but very engaging and worth trying to emulate.


St Benedict's chapter on manual labour, which we begin reading today, is a remarkably straightforward expression of the value of work. Not for Benedict the false "mysticism" that informs some writing about work (usually from those so fascinated by the subject that they can sit and look at it for hours). Instead, we have an honest recognition that work needs to be done and is an essential ingredient of the spiritual life. That is not always easy to accept. How many a fledgling monastic vocation has foundered on being shown a broom or a hoe! In the monastery, we do not choose our work: it is given to us; and sometimes, seemingly impossible things are asked of us (see chapter 68). What matters is that, whatever our task, we accept it as the perfect means of forming in us dispositions pleasing to God. Our whole life is to be a search for him. No point in wanting to be rapt in choir if God is waiting for us among the soapsuds in the scullery.


Reading today's chapter of the Rule, I was reminded how important bells are in Christian culture. We have a small brass ship's bell here in the monastery, which we ring to announce the times of Office and meals. Over the way, St Mary's has a little tenor bell that is sometimes rung for the Angelus, while at St Augustine's they have a proper peal (note the Green Monster appearing in the prose) which is allegedly one of the heaviest in the country to ring (my information on this point comes from an avid bell-ringer who visits us occasionally.) All the old bells hanging in belfy and tower were once anointed with chrism, the most special of all the oils used by the Church, to set them apart for their work of service. A bell is more than just a lump of metal: it is an invitation, a summons, a sacramental.

The End of the Year

The end of the Church year is upon us, and today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It is a very modern feast, and addresses a peculiarly modern problem. It was instituted by Pius XI in 1925 to combat secularism and the totalitarian ideologies that resulted in Nazism on the one hand and Stalinism on the other, with all the gradations of horror in between. It would be a mistake to believe that all is now for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Lucifer is an angel of light still, though the light he sheds is the antithesis of that shining from the Light of the World. Today's podcast reminds us that we must still do battle with evil, but Christ has triumphed and the promise he makes is one of paradise.

A Wren

Looked out of the kitchen window and saw a wren going about her lawful occasions, bright as a penny — or should I say, farthing? What enchanting birds they are, always so dapper and droll. As we lament (rightly) the loss of so many species, can we not also wonder whether future generations will be gladdened by the sight of birds and beasts as yet unevolved?

Catholic National Library

To London yesterday, to see Cardinal Murphy O'Connor and the Trustees of the Catholic National Library before the official launch of the Appeal to ensure that the future of the library and St Cecilia's can be assured. Fascinated by a number of statues, fountains and gates erected since our last visit and about which it would probably be wiser (though less interesting) to say nothing. Ruskin may have been wrong in his view that no great art has yet arisen save among a nation of soldiers, but it is difficult to see some of our latest public monuments as great art. Does that make one a philistine or an old fogey or merely brutally frank?

What's in a name?

We are sometimes asked what various monastic words mean, especially those we use on this web site. The next section to go up will give a little information about St Benedict, his Rule and kindred subjects, but we can clarify some of the basic jargon here (with apologies for some of the simplifications adopted). Nuns (Latin = moniales) live in monasteries and do not physically undertake work outside their monasteries, such as teaching or nursing. They are usually called "contemplative" or "enclosed", because the main focus of their lives is prayer and work within the environs of the monastery, which is known as the enclosure. In the U.S. such nuns are usually called "cloistered", and the enclosure is called "cloister". This is probably much easier to understand as the word "enclosed" tends to suggest everyone is imprisoned or, as one young enquirer suggested, caged like dangerous animals! There are various types of enclosure. Here at Hendred we have monastic enclosure, which means we are able to welcome guests and visitors into our library and other ground-floor areas. The rest of the house is private and can be entered only by the bishop of the diocese, the Head of State and what canon law calls a "qualified layperson" — the doctor, the plumber and suchlike. Note for the curious: we are still waiting for a visit from H.M. the Queen.

The Expectations of Others

We are currently reading St Benedict's guidelines for eating and drinking (you can listen to today's chapter in the Prayer Box on our Vocation page). As always, I am struck by two things: the flexibility of the Rule as regards detail — eat and drink what is available, but in moderation and with an eye to frugality — and the concern that a general rule should never be allowed to make life difficult for those who are elderly or infirm. This kind of sanity is often lacking in "religious people", whose fervour sometimes outruns their commonsense. It can be even more lacking in those who have no religion themselves but are quite sure how those who claim to be Christian should behave. How often have you heard someone say, "As a Christian, you should/shouldn't . . ."? (It tends to be worse for nuns as the list of things we apparently should and shouldn't do in order to live up to the standards others expect of us is amazing, but that's another post.) In the meantime, please pray for the Sisters of Bethany in Boston diocese. Their convent was owned by the diocese, which is now bankrupt, and they have been given until 31 December to find a new home. A case of the sins of the Fathers being visited on the Sisters. Sad all round.

The Importance of Listening

Benedictines tend to have a special love of music. They are not necessarily good performers, but they should be good listeners since the very first word of the Rule is "Listen!" On 22 November we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. It will have extra-special resonances here in the monastery because we keep it as a day of special prayer for the work of St Cecilia's Guild, and for all visually impaired people. Today's podcast reminds us that the work of the Guild was begun by one very generous lady and is sustained today by the generosity of many.

St Gertrude the Great

St Gertrude the GreatSt Gertrude the Great is one of those Benedictine saints who are too little known in the British Isles. Born in 1256, she entered Helfta as a child oblate at the age of five — like St Bede the Venerable — and also like St Bede, was placed under the care of another saint, in her case, St Mechtilde. Her early life was devoted to study but at the age of twenty-five she experienced the first of that series of revelations or visions which, in the words of her biographer, turned her "from being a grammarian to being a theologian". It is worth pondering that phrase. Whatever we think of the more extraordinary manifestations of grace in her life (and British Benedictines, by and large, are slightly uncomfortable in the presence of the extraordinary), we too need to become theologians in the truest and best sense: we are all of us called not merely to think about God, to read and write about God, but, as the psalmist says, "to taste and see that the Lord is good". Tasting and seeing. All of us. Now there's an extraordinary thought.
(Note on the illustration: this statue of St Gertrude the Great comes from the choir at Arouca, Portugal. It is wooden, painted to look like stone, and was done in the eighteenth century by a sculptor from Braga. The last time I saw it, Portugal was in the throes of a revolution.)

A New Look

The second stage of our web site make-over has now been implemented. We hope you like the, er, crafted look. It begs the question: how far should monasteries accommodate themselves to contemporary demands for constant variety. When St Maximilian Kolbe began his attempt to revivify the spiritual life of his contemporaries, he had no qualms about insisting that his printing house should use the very latest and best equipment. He was simply taking forward ideas inherent in the adoption of printing as the technology of communication. The internet has become one of the most important communication technologies of today, but we need to be discriminating about how we use it.

Feast of All Benedictine Saints

It is fashionable to laud "diversity". One has only to look at some of the saints who have been formed by the Rule of St Benedict to see a spiritual diversity at work which knocks the secular equivalent hollow (but I speak as a partial observer). And if one widens the scope of the definition "saint" to embrace those who have not been formally canonized but whose lives are an inspiration to others, the diversity is more striking still. We can place a cloistered nun like St Gertrude or St Mechtilde beside the oblate Dorothy Day; a cloistered monk like St Aelred or St Bernard (Cistercians, of course) beside a wanderer like St Benedict Joseph Labre. There's even a chance God might make saints of you and me.

Remembrance Sunday

A day to remember; a day to pray; but will we ever learn the lesson? War begins in human hearts, very like our own.

Mid-November Feasts

Mid-November is rich in feasts. On Friday we had the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica; today we have St Leo; tomorrow, were it not Sunday, we'd have St Martin; and on Tuesday, we'll celebrate All Benedictine Saints. Each feast has its own special take on sanctity. The liturgy for the dedication of a church, for example, speaks of the holiness of the living stones that make up God's temple; St Leo wrote splendidly about the Incarnation and the holiness of Christ's humanity; St Martin was the first to live the "white martyrdom" of the monk-bishop in the west; and the sheer number and variety of those who have been led to holiness through the teaching of St Benedict is a great encouragement to those of us who are hobbling along in their footsteps. Newman saw holiness as one of the essential notes of the Catholic Church, but as today's podcast reminds us, he was not the first to make the connection.

Charitable Searching & Shopping

We have been heartened by the number of people who have adopted Easyclick as their search engine of preference in order to help charity. Now there is another, which uses Yahoo as its search engine and to us seems even better. Take a look at Easysearch If you use it for some at least of your searches, you can benefit us at no cost to yourself. Please also keep in mind the Easyfundraising portal for your Christmas shopping. If you go to your favourite online store via that link, you will not pay anything more, but we get a proportion of the "referral fee", typically between 1% and 15% of the purchase price. If you like the idea of helping charity in this way but do not wish to support us, please follow this link to sign up at Easyfundraising and choose another good cause. We ourselves are unable to give very much in the way of monetary alms to other charities, but we are glad to have found this way of helping some.

A Buried Past

The south aisle of St Augustine's church is currently being replastered. Stripping way the old plaster revealed a blocked up window west of the entrance to the Eyston chapel. In this photo you can see traces of the original wall painting, which is probably fifteenth century. On Friday it will be covered up again, so here is a precious glimpse of something not seen for centuries, and not likely to be seen again for a few centuries more. Only a small detail, and nothing to get an art historian excited, but nice to have all the same. Was the painter a village craftsman whose body lies in the graveyard outide, or was he a travelling craftsman from further afield. Who knows? The anonymous nature of so much of our heritage is something that appeals to me.

Torch Trust

To Torch House, Market Harborough yesterday, to see the work of the Torch Trust and, in particular, pick their brains about the introduction of DAISY CDs at St Cecilia's. Fascinating day, during which we learned a lot (not difficult, when one knows very little to start with) and were most graciously received by our hosts who made us very welcome and took infinite pains over our questions. Just before we left, they interviewed us for Premier Christian Radio. To discover more about the Torch Trust, go to

Gunpowder Plot Politics

I wonder whether they will be burning an effigy of the pope in Lewes tonight? This blog deliberately tries to avoid any comment on "political" events because there are many with better information and keener insight; but 5 November is a good day for recalling a time when Catholics in England were treated with suspicion and hostility. It makes one think about people who, today, suffer the same fate for their religious or political beliefs. Christians in the Near East do not have a comfortable existence; lovers of democracy in Burma and Pakistan, to name just two countries, do not have a comfortable existence. And whatever one's gripes or grumbles about Monday morning, there are people in the Congo, Darfur, Mexico, so many places, for whom today will bring pain and suffering of an intensity and bleakness most of us will never experience. Let us pray for them all and do what we can to help. The thought that our work today might just ease the plight of some unknown brother or sister elsewhere in the world should transform the day. Almsgiving is always better than gunpowder.


We are reading that part of the Rule commonly known as the penal code — chapters which deal with offences against monastic life and discipline. The penalty of excommunication from table and oratory is harsh indeed, for it implies separation from the community at every important level. Today's chapter, on the care the superior should have for the errant, is a valuable corrective. Here we see the warmth and humanity of Benedict's concern for those who fail to live up to the high standards he sets elsewhere. The language he uses is one of painstaking, compassion for weakness, solidarity, confidentiality, prayer. A good opportunity to examine our own attitude to those who fail to live up to the high standards we set for them?

All Souls

Prayer for the dead is an ancient Christian custom. In the monastery we have many opportunities of remembering those who have died but do not yet enjoy the bliss of heaven. At the end of almost all Offices and after every meal there is a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed. Many people find the idea of Purgatory difficult and prefer to think of death as opening immediately on to paradise. Personally, I find the idea of waiting, of being purified, encouraging rather than the reverse. I'd want my grubby soul to be reclothed in its baptismal purity before I appear before my Maker; and I am humbled to think that the living have this one last work of charity to perform for those who have gone before: to aid them with their prayers.

All Saints

This beautiful feast of All Saints is a wonderful reminder of what we are now, and what we shall be in the future. Today we honour not only those saints whose names we know, but also those countless other saints whose holiness is more hidden. The communion of saints is something we enjoy now, and we know that it works on the horizontal as well as the vertical plane. So, today, let us ask the prayers not only of the great ones of the Church, but also the prayers of those who have revealed to us something of God's glory and compassion. Let us ask the prayers of our friends in heaven and on earth, for each of them is first and foremost a friend of God.