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Advent 2009

Angel playing a lute

We begin Advent with three days of as near-perfect silence as we can manage, to allow time for reflection on the mystery of the Word who became man for our sakes. Choir continues, of course, and the angels are allowed to sing (think Hilton, angel-song . . .) but otherwise we try to keep speaking and writing to a minimum. So, no blogging and no tweeting until Wednesday unless there is some overwhelming reason for doing so.

Our podcast for the first Sunday of Advent will be found on the podcast page.

Finally, our apologies to all who had difficulty getting into the Virtual Chapter on 28 November: Digitalnun was locked out of the system for half an hour and when she was finally allowed in, there were some "audio issues". Beelzebub having his own back perhaps? We are grateful for all the positive feedback and will arrange another Chapter in a fortnight's time, on Saturday 12 December, when we'll explore the subject of prayer. There is a partial recording of the 28 November discussion on the podcast page.

The Virtual World

This afternoon at 2.00 p.m. we shall again be hosting a Virtual Chapter or web conference during which participants will be able to discuss monastic/oblate life (some suggestions for discussion were listed in yesterday's post). Some people are very enthusiastic about this kind of online engagement, others are more sceptical, a few are uncomfortable about the idea of something so open and "uncontrollable". The community here takes the view that if we as Benedictines don't make use of the opportunities offered, we can be quite sure Beelzebub will, and a few little hiccups along the way are immaterial.

There are, however, important questions about the relationship between the real and virtual worlds we all need to consider. Readers of Colophon know we have a strict policy regarding the blog. It only gets updated when we have time. So, too, with other aspects of the web site. Indeed, the only part of the site unfailingly attended to is the prayerline, which is given the same priority as requests for prayer received in any other way. For us, these self-imposed restraints are a way of ensuring that the virtual never becomes a substitute for or an escape from the real. Not to have an online presence, however, seems tantamount to not existing. The Catholic Church is slowly waking up to that fact and has been consulting the likes of Google and Facebook (but not Twitter!) about how to improve its e-cred.

Digitalnun would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the recent (12-15 November) Vatican conference on the internet. Some of the published statistics are revealing, showing a rather half-hearted embrace of what is possible. Lots of cardinals and bishops are happy to blog and Youtube apparently, but an amazing 70% of church-based web sites have no interactive features. Monsignor Jean-Michel Di Falco, bishop of Gap, made an eloquent plea for a cadre of Web 2.0 savvy priests to re-evangelize the (real) world, using a flurry of high-flown metaphors which read well in French but are slightly bathetic in English. "Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, lay people - with the Internet we enter a marketplace, a free and spontaneous space where everything is said about everything, where everyone can debate everything," he concluded. Is it my imagination, Monseigneur, or did you forget about nuns?


The publication of the Commission of Investigation's Report into the Catholic Diocese of Dublin has shocked those who have read it and shamed all who must acknowledge a personal or institutional failure to deal with the abuse it records. I have never understood why some Churchmen (not only Catholic Churchmen) seem to make light of such a serious matter, nor have I ever been comfortable with the way in which, for example, priests "under a cloud" have sometimes been sent to houses of nuns to withdraw them from the public gaze. Quite apart from the contempt that shows, surely everyone realizes that paedophiles are highly manipulative and cannot be "policed" by cloistered religious or anyone else? Moving the problem on is not to deal with it.

The worrying thing about the publication of this report is that we may not learn the lessons. In our revulsion at what has happened we may simply condemn the whole Church as being corrupt from top to bottom, holding those presently serving responsible for what occurred in the past. That is dangerous, typical of the lack of historical perspective now common in our public debate. As members of the Church we can acknowledge the sinfulness of what has been done, express our sorrow and shame, our determination not to allow similar things to happen in the future (present Safeguarding procedures in this diocese, for example, are excellent though no procedure will ever be sufficient protection against someone determined to do wrong). We can also seek to make reparation in some way, but we cannot undo what has happened, cannot, I think, apologize in any meaningful sense for what we ourselves had no part in. Sin remains sin although redeemed. Many, however, will expect an apology; will demand that we all be held responsible; will assume that what happened in Dublin happened elsewhere. No doubt there will be a rush of legal cases seeking financial compensation. Given the tacky concern of some to preserve their financial assets at all costs, that may seem fitting, but am I alone in recalling that when similar cases occurred in the diocese of Boston it was the poor who suffered most from the closure of Church schools and hospitals (oh, and the sisters, whose convents were sold to pay the debts incurred by the diocese)? If one good deed can have untold consequences, so, sadly, can an evil one; and it is always the most vulnerable who suffer.

Web Conference
Preparations are under way for our second public Virtual Chapter at 2.00 p.m. GMT tomorrow. There is still time to submit a question/topic for discussion (or you can make your point live during the Chapter). Several of the questions sent in concern the living of a Benedictine spirituality in the world, so tomorrow we shall explore some of the following:
  • how can a lay person "live" the Rule of St Benedict?
  • how can a lay person live a life of prayer?
  • does being an oblate help?
  • why are Benedictine communities all so different?
and, in lighter vein (?),
  • why did you become a nun?
If we get round to that last question, let's hope there are several nuns taking part, not just those from Hendred!

Thanksgiving 2009

The Bow in the Clouds: East Hendred 8.30 a.m.
The Bow in the Clouds: East Hendred 8.30 a.m. 26 November 2009

Thanksgiving Day is a good idea. Here is Digitalnun's personal grateful list for 26 November 2009: for family and friends, especially the awkward ones, and life in community; Duncan's comical nose, snuggled into his blanket; the soft gleam of the sanctuary lamp and the quiet of the oratory; books spilling into every corner; night-scented stock still blooming against the wall; the shock of cold water; grey light on the horizon; the busy patter of squirrels in the roofspace; the De Profundis chanted trustingly at Vigils; fresh bread baking in the kitchen; a manageable inbox; the promise of another day. For all, Deo Gratias.

Update: Coming back from walking the dog at 8.30 a.m. we saw this double rainbow in the sky over Hendred House (you can just make out the second bow at the east end of the house). The bow in the clouds is a sign of God's first covenant, a covenant made with the whole of creation. Something more for which to give thanks.

Confused Standards?

Colophon is confused. The Government requires that public bodies such as Charities should adhere to the strictest standards of accounting and disclosure but seems incapable of understanding that similar standards are expected nearer home. The incompetent handling of the parliamentary expenses revelations is a case in point; the news that last October the Bank of England effectively covered up enormous loans to two of Britain's failing banks is another. One wonders whether the concept of public accountability and integrity is becoming as alien as it seems. Happily, there are many good and decent people, quietly devoting time and talent to the service of others, which gives one hope; but no amount of legislation will compensate for lack of example. The latest Government proposal, to tackle violence against women and girls, is good in principle (though one must ask how the school curriculum is going to be able to accommodate all the "extras" being pushed into it) but it may be undermined by instances of violent behaviour in official places gleefully revealed by investigative journalists.

What is the role of the Church in this? No doubt there will be supportive statements from our leaders, condemning this and applauding that. Diocesan departments will beaver away producing strategies to ensure that all involved in active ministry conform to "best practice", but there is a danger that most of this will wash over our heads. Values are not instilled by legislation. Law has a directive as well as compulsive force, true, but it is up to us as Christians to show by our whole manner of living what we hold dear, what we believe to be the right way of relating to God, people and the world around us. That applies to those of us who live in monasteries as much as to those who live in the world. To be honest and truthful will always be costly; to be prepared to stand up to bullies will always mean running the risk of a bloody nose or worse; but ultimately, trying to live by the standards of the Lord Jesus means we can sleep easy o' nights, because we shall be at peace with him and with ourselves. No confusion there.

Tantrums in Choir

Not quite what the headline promises, but a way of drawing attention to Benedict's little chapter on faults committed in the oratory. He is writing not only about carelessness in choir (which can indeed lead to tantrums!) but about pride in general and the difficulty many of us have in admitting we have made a mistake. It is easier to flounce out of the room, maintain a hard silence or utter what is intended as a withering remark than simply, humbly and gently admit that we might just conceivably, on this one single occasion, of course, have been (perhaps) a teensy-weensy-bit wrong.

St Clement of Rome

The memoria of St Clement which we celebrate today takes us back to the earliest days of the Church. Clement's Letter to the Corinthians is remarkable for its simplicity and directness, and for the fact that it is written in the name of Rome, urging the quarrelsome and rebellious Corinthians to mend their ways (obviously little had changed since the days of St Paul). The appeal for unity and peace is eloquent but there is also a hint that failure to respond adequately will not go unnoticed. Do we see here the germ of papal authority in action? Lightfoot thought so. There is also an interesting formula used of the Trinity, which looks back to Old Testament usage: "As the Lord lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives and the Holy Spirit lives". All these would be mere curiosities, fascinating to the scholar but of little interest to the average reader, were it not that the Letter to the Corinthians takes us back to the heroic age of the Church, to the martyrs of Nero and Domitian, some of whom are named in the text. It is rare that we come so close to them: we feel the menace under the surface of Roman life.

One has a similar feeling standing in the basilica of San Clemente. Above ground all is beauty: the mosaics are luminous, there is light and air and the incessant chatter of tour guides and their charges. Down below, in the gloom of the Mithraic shrine we touch a darker world altogether. From time to time we need to be reminded of that world because something of its darkness infects us all at times. I had not noticed until today that we read RB 44 on St Clement's feast. The ritualisation of making amends Benedict gives us in that chapter is powerful. So often we think a cursory "apology" will make up for a wound we have dealt another. Unfortunately, just because we have decided it is time to forgive doesn't necessarily mean the other thinks so, too. Benedict, like Clement, knew that it takes time to heal such injuries, but healed they must be because a wound left to fester will do untold damage to the Body of Christ. Peace may begin with a smile, but it is only a beginning.

Solemnity of Christ the King

Christ Pantocrator from Monreale, Italy
On this last Sunday of the Church's year, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. One suspects few now read Quas primas, Pius XI's 1925 encyclical establishing the feast and his reasons for doing so. The concept of the kingdom or reign of God and of the kingship of Christ was by no means novel, it is after all entirely scriptural in origin; but what was perhaps new was Pius XI's impassioned insistence that the evils under which the world was labouring were attributable to the fact that people had abandoned Jesus Christ and his holy law and that there could be no lasting peace unless individuals and nation states returned to what he called "the Empire of our Lord". For many today the language of kingship and empire is unacceptable, indeed outmoded. Does that mean that the theology underlying this feast is also outmoded? If we look at the preface for the day, we find a very clear exposition of the major themes:

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.

You anointed Jesus Christ, your only Son,
with the oil of gladness,
as the eternal priest and universal king.
As priest he offered his life on the altar of the cross
and redeemed the human race by this one perfect sacrifice of peace.
As king he claims dominion over all creation,
that he may present to you, his almighty Father,
an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven
we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise . . .

The kingship that we celebrate in this feast is a sacrificial kingship based on truth, holiness and grace, which makes possible for us a life of justice, love and peace. Can such a kingship ever be "outmoded"?

Reminder: all podcasts are now located on the podcast page.

Dies Memorabilis 2009

Dies Memorabilis, when we recall the transfer of all the rights and privileges of the pre-Reformation English Benedictine Congregation to its post-Reformation successor, the Church in general celebrates the Presentation of Our Lady and, excuse for a slightly better dinner than usual, Digitalnun keeps her Clothing anniversary. Here in Hendred we have no Mass, nor any realistic prospect of going to one elsewhere, although the Abbot of Downside will be celebrating Mass for the Newman Society in Oxford this evening and there are more R.C. priests in Oxford than anywhere else in Europe except Malta and the Vatican, or so we're told. Still, there's no use lamenting. There are many parts of the world where Mass is rarely possible, and we are very grateful to our monk friends who do their best to ensure that we can celebrate the Holy Mysteries as often as possible in our oratory.

Our relaunched veilshop has already sold a chasuble, which is very pleasing, and we have received a number of questions/suggestions for the next Virtual Chapter on 28 November. Some we shall probably hold over as it makes sense to group ideas according to general themes, but we'll see. In the meantime, SOMEONE is preparing a podcast for the Solemnity of Christ the King. As for me, at some point I think I shall allow myself half an hour with Catullus. Life in a monastery is not all duty. As Newman once remarked, it is the most poetic of pursuits, though I'm not sure what he would have made of my choice of recreational reading.

Moonlight and Mammon

Our friends at Moonlight Publishing have come up with a wonderful idea to help our audio book service for the blind and visually impaired. On Thursday, 3 December, from 3.00 p.m. until 7.30 p.m. they will be hosting a Christmas Children's Book Sale and Tea Party at the King's Manor, East Hendred, and sharing the proceeds with St Cecilia's Guild. If you don't already know their imaginative range of children's books for ages 1 to 12, Colophon advises you to go and have a look at their web site, You are sure to find something tempting for that special Little Person in your life, even if you can't make the journey to East Hendred.

More prosaically in the service of Mammon (no mulled wine or mince pies on offer, unlike at Moonlight Publishing), Veilshop has just been relaunched. We have only put a few items up for sale at the moment and are limiting shipping to the U.K. until we get round to that web site makeover which seems to be receding ever further into the future. If you encounter any problems with the shopping cart, please let us know. Even the most exhaustive testing sometimes seems to miss some snag or other.

Lest you think our thoughts are wholly this-worldly, on Wednesdays during Advent we shall be holding Advent Liturgy preparation sessions at 2.30 p.m. and again at 7.30 p.m. in the monastery library. We'll be looking at the Sunday Mass readings and prayers as a way of preparing for Christmas. As always, these sessions are open to anyone who wishes to come along and refreshments will be served. Please pass the word on to anyone you think would like to know about them. Advent is such an important season and passes so quickly that it's good to take a little time, if we can, to explore what the liturgy offers us.

Finally, advance notice that Vespers on Sunday 22 November will be said privately (i.e. not open to the public) as the prioress is off to Choral Evensong at St Peter's College, Oxford, where she has been invited to preach. References to dogs walking on hind legs will not be appreciated!

Vocation Questions

A sociologist of religion would find much to ponder in the questions that come to us via our "Ask Sister" vocation feature. Some are extremely thoughtful and show that the questioner is serious in her desire to know and understand. Trying to answer such questions isn't easy: we try to make sure we cover all the points as honestly and completely as we can. Other questions are more light-hearted or even deliberately provoking (this seems to be especially true of those sent in by men!): we answer those in kind. There are complicated canonical questions we refer on to those who can give an authoritative answer; quite basic questions about Christianity; intrusive questions about community members; and so on and so forth. Some people are looking for God; others are looking for a security that, frankly, monastic life cannot offer; others are looking for themselves, but don't yet know that. To all we try to respond, however inadequately.

Many ask why vocations seem to be few in England yet flourishing elsewhere, something we find difficult to answer since both call and response are gifts of God. (We who are monks and nuns might nevertheless ask ourselves some hard questions about our communities and whether we inspire others or simply live off a reputation from the past that is no longer valid). It can be quite informative to spend a little time looking at some of the web sites younger people turn to when they are thinking about vocation. Inevitably, there is interest in the more "accidental" features of monastic life: the form of the habit, photos/videos of profession ceremonies, descriptions of monastic practices (the odder the better) and views of buildings (the older the better, it seems: wonder if our gothick cellars qualify?). None of this is in the least bit unexpected or troubling. What is deeply troubling is the burden of debt so many young people seem to be under and which holds them back. Some communities are rich enough to be able to help but I suspect that most in this country aren't. Perhaps these are question for the wider Church in England: how much do we value religious life; what can we do to help those whom God calls? Is religious life now on the endangered list, and would it matter if it disappeared?

It would be interesting to know what you think.

In Praise of Caxton

Caxton's Dictes: colophon

On this day in 1477 William Caxton issued the first book in English actually printed in England, or so we believe. It was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers) translated from the French by Anthony Rivers, second Earl Rivers, a learned man and brother-in-law of Edward IV, beheaded in 1483 by the future Richard III. The colophon (detail illustrated above) is fascinating. It shows type trying to look like handwriting but with some ugly word spacing and contrasting weights of letter-forms. Having said that, the page is remarkably evenly inked, while the use of punctuation (a Cistercian innovation of some centuries earlier) makes the text easy to read. No wonder many in Westminster were deeply worried about this new technology. It was to have a great future. You wouldn't be reading this if it hadn't.

One of the developments of Web 2.0 we particularly welcome here at Hendred is the renewed interest in typography, specifically typography for onscreen use. Our current site is typographically merely "functional" but there are many examples of really beautiful work on the web which is quietly raising standards. Sadly, many people are happy to stick to Arial (probably the worst typeface ever designed in our unprejudiced view) or Times (an excellent typeface, but over-used) or "don't see what all the fuss is about". It is the latter which sends Digitalnun into despondency. If you want to know why, read Beatrice Warde's little gem on the importance of typography, The Crystal Goblet. It will open your eyes.

St Gertrude of Helfta

Colophon probably said all it wants to say about St Gertrude in 2007 (under her universal feast day, 16 November); but St Edmund of Abingdon pushed her out of the calendar yesterday, so we are keeping her feast on the anniversary of her death, which seems appropriate given that popular piety associates her with a prayer for souls in purgatory rather than anything else. Personally, I find the idea of a Benedictine nun "suffering a conversion" rather enchanting, and while I take a very British attitude to the revelations and raptures, which, to be fair, embarrassed Gertrude herself so much that she begged God to allow no outward manifestation of the graces he bestowed, her love of learning and graceful Latin style warm the cockles of my heart. Her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is well-known. Less well-known is her influence on St Teresa of Avila, Yepez and other great Carmelites or the fact that she is Patron Saint of the West Indies. She died at the age of forty-five or six, still marvelling that God had allowed so sinful a creature as herself to live on earth.

That last sentence shows how different some saints are from ourselves. We are very conscious of our rights, of our dignity. We react with outrage if those rights are infringed (it may help if a tabloid comes along to record our outrage, but not all are so "lucky"). Nothing wrong with that, of course, until we look at our Lord Jesus Christ and mark the dignity of the Man of Sorrows. Then we can begin to feel uncomfortable, feel that we are strutting about like the proverbial cock on a dunghill. It is difficult to combine modesty about ourselves with a proper sense of our own worth as children of God, created in his image and likeness. St Gertrude was shaped and formed by the Rule of St Benedict, and I think her sense of herself as simultaneously the worst of sinners yet redeemed by grace is attributable to her having absorbed the Rule's teaching on humility. Only the truly humble can keep the two in tension. Like Luther, she knew herself to be simul pecctor et iustus, or as Hopkins put it
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
    Is immortal diamond.

Coal and diamond are both forms of carbon. I wonder which you and I are, don't you?

Washday Blues

Monday is washday in the monastery and it is raining. I suppose we ought to be downcast, but we aren't. It reminds me of the effect that laundry blue used to have on our grandmothers' washing. It seemed to make the whites glow more whitely and was especially noticeable on a grey day. Perhaps that is why one notices the cheerful faces of the community: the contrast with the weather is so marked.

Where does the cheerfulness come from? I'd like to think it stems from a sense of purpose, from a lively faith, a warm charity and a genuine hope. I suspect it may also have something to do with the prospect of a nice, quiet monastic Mass for St Edmund of Abingdon (co-patron of our diocese) and a decent dinner afterwards! We are not angels yet. Of course, we also have some unexpected blessings to smile about. Yesterday, coming out of Mass, a parishioner gave me an envelope. Inside was a very generous donation towards our work for the blind and visually impaired. That means a lot to us because keeping St Cecilia's going as a free service is high on our list of priorities but we have faced completely empty coffers before now. People tend to assume that all religious communities are well-off. If we were, I think we'd be a different kind of community, but I hope we come some way towards realising Benedict's ideal of the monk as one who "lives by the work of his hands as our fathers and the apostles did". That is not to downplay the importance of the help we receive from friends and benefactors, far from it, but it can be comforting to others to know that the community faces similar challenges to everyone else.

So, washday blues are not part of the agenda for today, or any day for that matter.

Special Gifts

Lucerna Pedibus Meis by Martin Wenham

Sunday is always special in a monastery, the gift of a day which has its own unique character. Although in one sense we are busier than ever, with a more elaborate liturgy and a commitment to more prayer and reading than on ferias, there is a silence and spaciousness about Sunday which is a valuable corrective to the rush and racket of the rest of the week. Visitors often drop in, and somehow there is always time to share a cup of tea or coffee with them, even if the cook is going quietly demented in the kitchen and the dog is indicating that he wants some "me time" out on the Downs.

Yesterday I spent a few moments looking at a special gift we received earlier this year. When we began planning our guest room, we asked our good friend Martin Wenham if we could commission him to do a painting. (if you take to heart what Benedict says about treating guests as though Christ, you will understand that only the best is good enough. Add to that the prioress's inconvenient and potentially expensive preference for original works of art over Catholic kitsch, and you'll see we couldn't put just anything on the wall.) Typically, Martin produced a painting which he simply gave to the community. The reproduction above does not do it justice. It shimmers and shines as the light changes and is a beautiful reminder of the friendships God brings into our lives to enrich and sustain them.

Today we shall receive another special gift. "Someone else" is doing the cooking, and she-who-cooks-Sunday-lunch every week in the interval between Mass and Midday Office is sending up unseasonal "alleluias" as she contemplates all that she will do, or rather not do, with the time this generous act of a friend will give her.

Gifts don't have to be complicated to be special. They don't have to be huge or expensive, though they always cost the giver something. One of the gifts I remember best may strike you as a mere nothing, although the memory of it has stayed with me for years. I was working late in a University Library on a sweltering hot summer's day and the Librarian looked exhausted. As I returned a book and thanked her, she gave a brilliant smile. A smile like that can only come from the pure in heart, from those who see God and reverence Him in others. "Smile Sunday" anyone?

This week's prayer podcast will be found in its new position on the Podcast page. There is also another talk on the Talks page, by Dr Annette Goulden OCDS on St Thérèse of Lisieux.

Virtual Chapter Update

Very many thanks to all who took part in yesterday's Virtual Chapter and to those tried to but were defeated by the TalkShoe™ installation process. Digitalnun has prepared an informal guide with screenshots which you can download from the sidebar: just click on the PDF icon. We suggest that you try out the software by listening in to another talkshow on the TalkShoe site. We've found that it works quite well: the wind here was gusting terribly throughout yesterday's recording but there wasn't too much degradation of audio quality. On a good day the quality is excellent.

If anyone wishes to hear how our first experiment went, you can listen again by clicking on the widget in the sidebar here or the one on the podcast page.

The echo effect you can hear at times was caused by one of our participants having set his output volumes a little high, but that is easily remedied. There was more use of the chat option than is likely to be the case in future (we were trying to help people get online), hence some of the silences. All we need now is some feedback and questions/ideas/suggestions for any future events. Thank you to those who have already given encouragement. We were very apprehensive!

Now Saturday can be a "normal" day. One wonders what it will hold. Scroll down to comment . . .

All Benedictine Saints 2009

St Benedict, Father of Westrern MonasticismDorothy Day, Servant of God and Benedictine Oblate

Salve festa dies! Rather a lot of people to celebrate today, from St Benedict himself, Father of Western Monasticism, to Dorothy Day, Benedictine Oblate and Servant of God. (Before anyone asks, the stages of canonisation, or official proclamation as a saint in the Catholic Church, go Servant of God–Venerable–Blessed–Saint).

One of the things I like about Dorothy Day is the fact that she was so honest: about her life ("Don't call me a saint – I don't want to be dismissed that easily"), her temper ("I hold more temper in one minute than you will hold in your entire life"), and God ("If I have accomplished anything in my life, it is because I wasn't embarrassed to talk about God"). She was certainly never held back by embarrassment in any sphere, and thank God for that. She was prickly and prophetic, utterly centred on Christ.

Honesty is very closely linked to the humility St Benedict saw as the foundation of monastic living. It isn't easy to be honest. Most of us make all sorts of accommodations and compromises to shield ourselves from the truth, even though we know, deep down, that letting the Light into our lives is the only way to freedom and peace. St Benedict urges us everyday to open our eyes to the light that comes from God. Isn't it encouraging that we have so many men and women as different as Benedict and Dorothy to show us the way?

News and Views

Yesterday afternoon we learned that D. Maria Boulding of Stanbrook had died after a long and painful illness. She will be known to many for her books and articles, but we think of her primarily as the person we knew in community, including the years she lived as a hermit on the Welsh/Herefordshire borders: prayerful, delighting in nature and her dog, Bryn, blessed with a keen intelligence and a singularly beautiful speaking voice. Please pray for her and the community which has now suffered two deaths in a comparatively short time. Later today we shall be singing a Dirge for her, that magnificent collection of psalms and prayers which affirms our belief in the triumph of Life over Death even as we ask for mercy and forgiveness.

The Virtual Chapter
What is a Chapter? some have asked. Chapter is the name given to a meeting of the monastic community. Usually, as tomorrow, there is some form of input such as a reading from the Rule of St Benedict followed by a short talk from the superior, then a discussion, which may or may not be linked to the input. The kind of things discussed vary enormously: business matters, the admission of candidates to community, liturgy, discipline, anything that affects the material and spiritual well-being of the community. Some of our own chapters have been about the way in which we should use the internet and the limits to our involvement. Tomorrow, it's largely up to you, the participants, what we discuss.

To take part you will need:
  • Headphones for listening (or turn the volume of your speakers up)
  • A microphone for talking (if you have a Mac you can use the built-in one)
To connect:
We recommend that you use VOIP to connect so that you do not incur call charges. The simplest, surest way of doing this is to download the TalkShoe Live™ software and use the integrated ShoePhone application to connect (the blue button below the purple one). However, it is not absolutely necessary.

Blind leading the blind:

To begin with, you'll find that you are "muted", i.e. you won't immediately be able to talk. That will give us time to welcome you, and you time to explore the TalkShoe™interface if you are unfamiliar with teleconferencing. After the introductory talk, you'll be invited to speak. We'll guide you through the process if you need any help (that's the blind leading the blind bit). Then it's over to you. Digitalnun will try to ensure we don't all speak at once but please be patient as she is a novice at this kind of thing and will probably get muddled, poor old thing (Mouse, you have much to answer for).

If you miss the Chapter:
If you miss the Chapter, you'll be able to listen afterwards as it will be recorded. Just click on the widget again and you will be able to hear the recording.

A shared Cloister:
We have it in mind to hold a number of themed sessions on vocation, liturgy, prayer and so on but we'd really like feedback so that we can work on what might be genuinely useful. We also want to keep things simple and low cost. If you find tomorrow's session worthwhile, please spread the word. Spreading the Word being, of course, what it's really all about.

Meandering Thoughts

A day beloved of all monastics (horrible word!), the feast of St Martin of Tours, pioneer of monastic living in the west, but also the ninety-first anniversary of Armistice Day, the first on which there will be no survivors of the First World War to remind us of the horror and waste of that conflict. St Benedict gives us a chapter of the Rule (34) in which he spells out how the ban on private ownership is to be worked out in the monastery: we are to have what we need, not what we want or think we need. Perhaps it's my quirky apology for a brain, or the fact that I live with such generous and inspiring people as the community here, that makes me find a connecting thread in that tension between need and desire, the sacrificing of self for the good of others.

Martin was an ascetic. In fact, even his contemporaries sometimes wondered whether his tendency to have visions was the result of overlong fasts; but he was a man of deep and genuine compassion, always ready to emerge from his solitude to plead the cause of his people or come to their aid. He understood very well that his monastic retirement was not for himself alone. His ability to live on very little taught him to be aware of the need in others.

At 11 o'clock this morning we shall be remembering the causes of the First World War, and how the seeds of the Second were sown in the punitive settlement that ended it. The desire to make Germany pay meant that, ultimately, everyone paid. Perhaps there is a message here for all who exercise power. Conflicts begin because we want something we don't have but think we have a right to, and they go on because we forget that winning is not the whole story. A wilderness is not peace. Sometimes sacrificing "victory" is the best way to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

And what of Benedict, the man of peace? The Benedictine motto is the word peace (pax) surrounded by a crown of thorns. It reminds us that peace is a struggle, that it requires a daily renunciation of all that is not peace, of the disordered desires that so often make us unhappy. Above all, I think it reminds us that for a Christian peace can only be attained through union with the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, who "did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, assuming the condition of a slave". And all for love of us.

Anglicanorum Coetibus

No time to do more yesterday than post a link to the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. If you haven't read it yet, you will find it in English here. (Link opens in new window). My first thought was, this is the fulfilment of the old prayer we used to say at Benediction and which as a child I prayed with great fervour since all my favourite family members were Anglican:

O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon England, thy dowry, and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee. By thee it was that Jesus, our Saviour and our hope, was given unto the world; and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more. Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the cross, O Sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold, they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith, fruitful in good works, we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee in our heavenly home. Amen.

My second thought was, this is a generous document and I hope it will be received as such.

The preamble is important because it sets out very clearly that the papal offer is made in response to a perceived pastoral need; the pope's concern is, as always, for the unity of the Church. This is his solemn duty. Throughout the document there is an awareness that the Catholic Church does not act apart from the Orthodox in certain matters, a point worth making because some developments in other churches have been made in isolation, thus calling in question their understanding of the nature and practice of authority. There is clarity also about the Catechism of the Catholic Church being the authoritative statement of the Church's faith, while the Ordinariates are placed under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This will reassure those who have been worried by some of the wilder speculations we have read recently. Reassuring, too, will be the statement that former Catholic priests who left to exercise ministry as Anglicans will not be eligible for reinstatement as Catholic priests in the new Ordinariates.

The arrangements for priestly formation, for liturgical continuity, for religious communities and so on are generous and repay careful study. There will be much picking over the details, especially as regards the admission of married men and the permission now given for priests to have secular jobs in order to support their families, rather as Anglican non-stipendiaries currently do and as Catholic "Worker Priests" used to do. Unspoken here is the recognition that should large numbers of Anglican clergy choose to become Catholics, there isn't enough money to support them and their families in a decent manner.

As one might expect, the relations between the Ordinariates and the Bishops' Conferences are given several paragraphs. There are some real surprises here. The principle that bishops should be unmarried is maintained but married former Anglican bishops are, apparently, to be allowed to attend meetings of the relevant Bishops' Conference (where they will be accorded the status of retired bishops) and, if they so petition, allowed to use episcopal insignia (pectoral cross, ring, etc.) As a lapsed medievalist, I can see plenty of scope here for ecclesiological wrangling. Indeed, one of the questions I keep coming back to is, what is a bishop, what is his function in the Church? I hope I won't give offence if I say that the concept of the "flying bishop" has always been troubling to me (for theological rather than pastoral reasons, which I understand), while the use of episcopal insignia by one who is not regarded as a bishop I find confusing. Perhaps the concept of the "mitred prelate" is a valid analogy.

Anyway, I am sure that there is already masses of comment much better informed than Colophon's. We must continue to pray because no matter how good everyone's intentions are, no matter how hopeful everyone is that we will all obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the human cost will be huge. I notice that the Apostolic Constitution was signed on the feast of St Carlo Borromeo and issued on the feast of the Lateran Basilica, anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall came down. Significant?

Virtual Chapter

Two little changes to start the working week. First, we've noticed a number of people using translation services to read this blog. To make things a little easier, we are now experimenting with a Google™Translate widget which will provide a rough and ready translation in several languages. Try it and see! The results can be more exciting than the original post.

Virtual Chapter
Secondly, at 4.00 p.m. GMT on Friday, 13 November, God willing, we shall be hosting our first Virtual Chapter using TalkShoe™, a teleconferencing service based in the U.S.A. There will be a short talk from the prioress on the feast of the day (All Benedictine Saints), followed by an opportunity for discussion. As this is our first attempt at a Virtual Chapter, please bear with us as we struggle to master the technology and hit the right buttons. Digitalnun will be quite ruthless about muting anyone who tries to hog the conversation or causes annoyance to others, but if all goes as we hope we'll certainly introduce more online sessions.

How to take part
There are two main ways of taking part over the internet using VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) so that you do not incur the expense of a telephone call to Pittsburgh.

(1) If you wish only to listen/use the live text facility (which allows you to type your comments in real time), you can click on the TalkShoe badge in the sidebar of this blog to connect over the internet or you can paste this link into your browser (2) If you wish not only to listen/text but also to talk, you should (preferably) first download the TalkShoe Live software (which is free) and follow the instructions for installing it on your computer (Mac or Windows) then make use of the integrated ShoePhone application to join in.

If you don't want to use VOIP, you can, of course, use an ordinary landline or mobile to connect, but please check call charges before you do so as we wouldn't want anyone to incur an unexpected telephone bill. You would need to telephone the U.S.A. (724) 444-7444 and add the call series ID which is 69374.

TalkShoe™ Software
You can read more about TalkShoe and download TalkShoe Live software here. A guide to taking part will be posted the day before the Virtual Chapter in case anyone is still confused.

Prayer Podcast
There is no podcast this week but when the series resumes, the link will be found on the Podcast page, not Colophon. We need a more logical grouping of media files. At present our site reflects the fact that, like Topsy, it "just growed", and as we add more content navigation becomes more complex. Not a good idea!

Remembrance Sunday 2009

Poppies in FlandersThe sound of half-muffled bells from Worcester Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday is always evocative and brings back memories of snatches heard across the water meadows. It is one of the few days in the year when all fifteen bells are rung and those who know about such things get terribly excited about musical tenths. For us, it is simply part of the sound of Remembrance Sunday, along with blood-red poppies and the moving sight of former servicemen and women laying wreaths in memory of the fallen. This year hearts will be heavy with the knowledge that loss of life continues. The Great War to end all Wars ushered in another, and many have followed since.

Have you ever asked yourself what is going on during the Two Minutes' Silence? Many will be thinking about family members or comrades they have lost, or the pity and horror of war in general; others will be praying for all who have died in war and for those who grieve or suffer as a result; others again will be asking God to guide us into the ways of peace. But what will God be praying? If the question startles, consider. When we pray, we tend to concentrate on our part in the prayer and forget God's. We cry out to him readily enough in moments of sorrow and distress but how rarely do we hear God crying out to us? We are not good at listening, still less good at acting on what we hear because we know that what God says may challenge us in ways we would rather not be challenged.

Today is not only Remembrance Sunday, it is also the anniversary of Enniskillin. Those of us who remember that horror were deeply impressed by Gordon Wilson's willingness to forgive the brutal murder of his daughter. Wasn't that an example of someone listening to God's prayer and responding with a generosity most of us could never match? Perhaps this morning during the Two Minutes' Silence we could humbly await God's word rather than filling the silence with our own clamour. He knows and understands our need, and only he can turn our hearts to better things. If our prayer is powerful with God, shouldn't his prayer be even more powerful with us?.

Day of Recollection

We have the local branch of the C.W.L. coming here today for a Day of Recollection. We are always very edified by their kindness and zeal. More often than not, we find teams of them using some of their precious free time to help out with the washing-up or perform other apparently small but valuable acts of service during the day. It is a reminder to us as a community of the importance of detail in monastic life. As Cassian remarked, "If you just remove a little dust from the oratory for the love of God, you will not be without your reward."

Now, there's a very interesting phrase in that sentence quoted above: if you "just". How often do we hear "if you just" or "could/couldn't you just" and know that we are in for something the speaker either does not realise, or is not willing to admit, will be anything but "just"? In the practical sphere it may be something like, "Well, couldn't you just fit these 3 pages of closely written A3 sheets into an A5 flyer for me?" Answer, "Yes, if we may delete at least 95% of what you have written" which usually leads to a wobbly. Or, discussing the manifest deficiencies of another, "I don't see why he doesn't just . . . .", when it must be perfectly obvious why he doesn't "just" whatever.

It all becomes more serious when it is God who is "just" asking something of us. One sees it in monastic life. People give up all the big things — marriage, family, career — then stumble over something as small and inconsiderable as being required to eat one kind of food when they prefer another. Of course, it is not God who is asking this directly of the monk or nun; but living a common life is part of our response to God's invitation to become a monk or nun. It is quite easy to opt out of the common life, to make little accommodations that gradually whittle away the substance of what we have vowed. If we "just" do this or that it may not amount to much in our own eyes, but when it comes to evaluating something we need to look with God's eyes, not our own. Most of us are not called to do great and glorious things for the love of God, we are "just" called to get on with the business of everyday, and do whatever it is we have to do with love and fidelity. The ladies of the C.W.L. are a wonderful example of "just" being good Catholics. A reminder, if we need one, that life and death, heaven and hell, can all turn on that little word, "just".

(N.B. We don't know why comments are disappearing from this blog: the problem seems to be with JS-Kit as others have reported the same. We'll investigate.)

Bonfire Night

We are rather hoping that the local pub will be having a firework display this evening. The monastery is such a tall building that it is quite easy to walk along the upper corridor and accidentally on purpose linger by one of the windows to watch the fun. There is something very reassuring about 5 November, when all good Catholics cheerfully ignore the burning of papal guys down in Lewes and indulge in nostalgia for bygone days.

Of course, we are in the heart of Thames Valley Recusant country here. From our terrace one can look across to the medieval chapel of the Eyston family which has never been out of Catholic hands since it was built in 1256. Mapledurham, Milton, Stonor, all are within a short distance, while Campion and Challoner are names to conjure with for their local associations as well as their place in history. I mention this because one of the more amusing aspects of recent comments on the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution (thank heavens for some light relief amid the turmoil) is the belief that Catholics in this country have no history, or at any rate, none worth talking about. On the contrary, we have an interesting history, shadowy in parts it is true, but fascinating to those who can identify with it. Digitalnun was regaling us with the darker side of her family's activities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apparently, they stuck to their guns (those who know Digitalnun will understand that it's in the genes) and had some slightly dodgy characters like John the Monk (an ex-monk of Canterbury, pensioned off after the Dissolution) among their number, but then made the fatal mistake of meddling with politics. You can guess the rest.

Colophon does not advocate the view that the Church should steer clear of politics. On the contrary, the Church must necessarily be engaged wherever people are. It will always be difficult to decide how that engagement should be worked out and mistakes are bound to occur, but today we can salute all those who, at various times and in various ways, have tried to make the world a better place through their political service. Guy Fawkes' solution isn't one that appeals to us nowadays, especially since we have become all too familiar with the use of terror and murder as political weapons, so perhaps we might spare a grateful thought for those whose quiet integrity gives the lie to the belief that politicians are universally corrupt. Remember what ten just men might achieve and pray for all our politicians.


Digitalnun is having a crisis. Not a big crisis, you understand. No terrible internal debate about questions of faith or morals, no sudden onset of doubt about the value of monastic life; not even a niggle about The Purpose of the Universe. No, Digitalnun is wondering whether she should let others into her Dark Secret. She is not Supernun. There, it's out! And the moon is still silvery in the sky, the dog is still chasing rabbits in his sleep, and the world has not fallen into a Black Hole.

By the time we have reached a certain age, most of us suffer from various delusions, one of the most deadly (literally) being that we must always say "yes". This affects Christians of all kinds, and is especially prevalent among the clergy and members of religious communities. It is easy to see why. We so want to be always ready to do the will of God and devote much time and effort to trying to discern what He is asking. We know He often speaks through those with whom we come into contact so we are always on the alert. Those of us who have "signed up" to an obviously full-time commitment often allow a very human element of guilt to creep in when faced with demands that tax our strength. Are we doing enough? Dare we say "no"? The problem is that we cannot always handle the reactions of others if we do say "no". We can be imprisoned by fear, and that is quite the opposite of the freedom love confers. A cowardly "yes" is morally no different from a cowardly "no": it just sounds better. And we all like to be liked.

So, Digitalnun, who is not Supernun, has a proposal to make. Let's make today a day on which we all take stock, not of the demands we make on others nor of the demands others make on us, but of the demands we make on ourselves. How far are they consistent with what we are called to be? Are they really a covert source of pride? Little tin fig leaves we create for ourselves which ultimately are rather ridiculous.

All Souls

All Saints would be incomplete without All Souls: the Church is one and transcends time, space and the limitations of mortality. I am looking forward to Mass this morning. We ran over the chants just before Vespers last night and the juxtaposition proved very helpful. For Catholics November is a month which confronts us with the fact of death at every turn. After All Souls we have four weeks popularly dedicated to praying for the souls in purgatory; our monastic calendar has commemorations for deceased friends and benefactors as well as deceased members of the monastic order. It is all so counter-cultural. Only a few days ago we read of the possibility of centenarians having the bodies of fifty-year olds. Why should anyone want that (unless, of course, we are all feverishly working until 100+ to pay off the enormous debt we have all incurred, courtesy of current economic policy)? Many people are afraid of death, or at least of dying. It is common to entrust the last offices to undertakers, then construct funeral services which try to avoid all mention of death, sometimes lapsing into an embarrassed "celebration" of something, certainly someone, that never was. Perhaps that is why unacknowledged grief, the sheer impossibility of grieving in our society, wreaks so much havoc. A stiff upper lip needs a wobbly lower one if we are to remain human. Happily, in the monastery we are much more matter-of-fact about death and the business of dying. We prepare our dead for burial ourselves, and the Requiem Mass and funeral rites speak of hope and penitence, joy and sorrrow in equal measure. If we live by the mercy of God, do we not also die by His mercy, too? That is, I trust, a comfortable thought for the morning of All Souls.

All Saints

Last Judgement by Fra Angelico

One picture is worth a thousand words, although, of course, it takes words to say that. So, here is a a favourite Fra Angelico and a podcast about the Solemnities of All Saints and All Souls.