Howton Grove Priory | Mobile WebsiteSharing a Vocation with the World . . .

The Silence of Snow

The mantle of snow lying over much of Britain this morning will not be welcomed by all but it is the perfect gift for the beginning of Advent. Snow is mysterious, beautiful, silent. It both conceals and reveals. It draws us away from the ordinariness of life to its extraordinariness, and it does so softly, silently, almost stealthily, just like Advent.

At Vespers this evening we shall sing the first of those haunting Advent chants, full of Israel's longing for the coming of the Messiah. Then we shall enter into the special silence of this season: the silence of waiting while the mystery gradually unfolds, like a winter rose on Jesse's ancient stem.

Pity the Pope

Colophon has watched with fascination the way in which the media and blogosphere have picked over a few sentences in the latest papal interview (which is, apparently, of book-length. Gone are the days when a few lapidary sentences could express the deepest truths of Christianity). It has been reminiscent of doing "gobbets", little chunks of medieval Latin containing highly controversial words and phrases, hotly argued over at the time they were written and still capable of raising the temperature of interested students.The trouble with gobbets is that they lack context, and unless one is prepared to do the proper amount of background reading, one can go seriously astray. The pope is a learned man who thinks in footnotes, so to say. Perhaps we should wait for the full text before deciding what he means. In the meantime, pity the pope. It seems everyone is prepared to argue with him, about him, over him; but listen to him, that depends.

Advent is Coming

We have been trying to work out how we can hold our usual Advent series of talks without clashing with anything else going on locally. This year, for the first time, we have concluded that we can't. That is really good news, because it means that there are so many talks and other "initiatives" that everyone has plenty of scope for deepening faith during Advent. We have therefore decided that we shall do our talks as podcasts, so anyone can listen at any time rather than having to shiver with us in the monastery. Digitalnun has been told to get the podcasts on to iTunes so she is busy working out how to do that.

This week's podcast is longer than usual because we decided to record Saturday's talk to the CWL on the five "S"s of the spiritual life: solitude, silence, simplicity, service and serenity. It is a live recording so lacks the polish that we would like to give it, but you can listen here.

Finally, we hope to finish archiving our existing blog, Colophon, by the end of this week (it will still be available as it contains nearly 800 entries). Any suggestions for names for its successor? It may not appear at the end of the web site, so Colophon may not be so appropriate. Over to you!

The Ordinariate Again

Digitalnun has not had a good week. Perhaps it's because she is still a bit groggy, or perhaps it's because her voice is too hoarse to manage a querelous tone, but she is slightly moithered by the latest pronouncements about the Ordinariate. Archbishop Rowan has reacted with his customary courtesy and good nature, seeing in the Ordinariate a hope of a revaluing of Anglican patrimony, but the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have had to tackle the nuts and bolts of setting up the Ordinariate and have come up with some surprising (to Digitalnun) statements.

£250,000 to fund the Ordinariate was the first surprise: that seems very little indeed, scarcely enough to do more than pay for a small office and its telephone bills. Perhaps the bishops are not expecting many to take the Ordinariate route. That would seem to be the case. Then the timetable for ordination seems amazingly short: former Anglican bishops to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood by Easter, other Anglican clergy around Pentecost. The idea presumably being that ordination will precede further study and formation. So much for long and mature discernment! I can't help wondering whether it will allow Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church through the medium of the Ordinariate enough time to discover what the Church is like from the inside, and what they would be taking on by ordination. Finally, Archbishop Vincent has made it perfectly plain that the Catholic Church in this country is not expecting any buildings to accompany migrating clergy and parishioners. I never thought there would be, but it is good to have it properly acknowledged.

All in all, enough to make Digitalnun wrap a wet towel round her head while she gets down to the business of prayer because, joking apart, these are serious matters affecting the life and happiness of many. When the Bishops' Conference issues statements one doesn't quite understand, it is always wise to go straight to the top. God, after all, is in charge -- no matter how much we, his servants, think we are.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is much hyped. I have to confess that I have sometimes thought that a monastery with its own vines and olives would be paradise on earth; but even peaches and oranges straight from the tree can pall, and shaking the scorpions out of one's sandals every morning can become tiresome. The truth is paradise is always somewhere other, somehow unattainable. But we can dream as we cook our pasta of golden drifts of sunshine and the clicking of cicadas, can we not?

There is, of course, another and much darker side to the "Mediterranean diet" which has nothing to do with food or drink. Europe must be one of the most fought-over areas on earth. At the end of the twentieth century we were reminded how easily our veneer of civilisation is stripped away. Now our economic difficulties look as though they may break the fragile unity we have attained within the E.U. While we pray for the urgent needs of the world, for the people of Haiti and Afghanistan, wherever a natural or man-made disaster has jeopardised life and happiness, we need to pray perseveringly for something much closer to home: the preservation of peace and harmony within Europe itself. Our recent Remembrance Day services should have reminded us that the shadow of war is never very far away because we remain selfish and sinful. It takes more than a diet of fish and fruit to change that. It takes conversion of heart.

All Saints O.S.B. 2010

November is THE month for saints and sinners. In addition to the great feast of All Saints with which we begin on 1 November, there are a host of lesser celebrations of a more local or specialized nature. Today we recall all who have found in the Rule of St Benedict a path to holiness. They are a great encouragement to those of us still firmly among the sinners and slowcoaches stumbling along the way of God's commandments.

Here at Hendred this is also Oblate Day when we invite our oblates and associates throughout the world to renew their oblate promises. A few will be with us as welcome David to begin his oblate novitiate. As he can't be with us in person, we shall be admitting him via cyberlink; but we have warned him that doesn't mean he'll be let off the 'few choice words" from the prioress!

It has been a challenging week for all people of faith. The spread of cholera in Haiti, the murder of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere, the turbulence experienced by some of our Anglican friends, none of these can be dismissed with an easy "God is in his heaven and all's well with the world". As always, our response must always be one of prayer and action. Prayer, because without prayer we are in danger of getting things wrong, of assuming that we know what needs to be done and how, of presuming upon God; action, because a failure to translate good intentions into deeds is a sin of omission of the cruellest kind. Nothing new in any of that, but as Dr Johnson was wont to remark, we need to be reminded more often than we need to be told.

Veilaudio Update

Digitalnun has been borrowing other people's fingers and toes to do the arithmetic but we can now reveal the grand total raised by the Southwark Cathedral Concert and associated donations: £9,630.63. It is a magnificent total which will enable us to continue to run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired for another year. Such a relief! Such a joy! Such a grace! Thank you to everyone who helped.

Our first audio books on CD are now in production: Newman's "Apologia" and last year's Trinity lectures on historical subjects. It looks as though we shall have to avoid mp3 downloads for the time being because of the copyright complications. In the meantime, we'd like to record the fact that no British publisher has ever refused a request to let us turn a book into audio for the blind and visually impaired, and none has asked a fee. (May be tempting fate, saying that.) It's one of those quiet, anonymous ways in which people are generous and supportive of others. Good to remember that in these straitened times.


Since Guy Fawkes' Day coincides with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, we can expect some spectacular bonfires and fireworks tonight. Here in rural Oxfordshire I imagine the Diwali contribution will be minimal, but we expect a noisy evening. Fortunately, Duncan is not troubled by explosions and will probably snore his way through the bangs and blasts outside. I haven't seen any guys around, so whatever is burnt on the village bonfire is unlikely to be troubling to a Catholic conscience; not so, perhaps, in Lewes, where I understand an effigy of the pope is still burnt each year.

Why do bonfires capture the imagination so? Is it simply because they remind us, in a very controlled way, of the uncontrollable forces at work both in nature and ourselves? If so, Bonfire Night is as good a night as any for a little self-scrutiny (but don't let that spoil your enjoyment of the sausages and sparklers!)

Religious Hatred

Islamist insurgents in Iraq known as the Islamic State of Iraq (a front for al-Qaeda) have announced that "All Christian centres, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [holy warriors] wherever they can reach them," and declared, "We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood." This is religious hatred, and it is a threat not only to Christians but also to Muslims because it reinforces the idea that no Muslim is to be trusted, that all alike are bent on the destruction of Christians.

I am not sure what one does when faced with hatred of this kind. I hope the Muslim community in this country will not merely condemn the ISI but work to eliminate the underlying attitudes which allow extremist organizations to flourish. It will be argued that Islam sees Christians as infidels, and that it is a holy duty to exterminate them (i.e. us), although an appreciation of tolerance means that no one would ever think of doing so. Unfortunately, western military action in Iraq and Afghanistan is identified with Christianity and there seems no end to the trouble and distress it has caused.

Sow the wind and you will reap the whirlwind. We are beginning to learn that lesson, are we not? Let us pray for all.


We've all been guilty of it: saying or doing the 'wrong' thing when we badly wanted to say or do the 'right' thing -- the sickness we didn't take seriously, the grief we couldn't quite take the measure of, the relationship we misunderstood. Often we end up so full of self-recrimination that we overlook the obvious: our intentions were good. Yes, we blundered, but we did try; and sometimes the willingness to risk failure is more important than anything else.

Our culture is success-orientated. We even judge the 'success' or otherwise of our family or community lives by standards that have nothing whatever to do with family or community. One of the consequences of setting aside time for prayer on a regular basis is that we are continually being recalled to reality. We have to face ourselves as we are. We are not great successes, but we are not junk, either. Our mistakes are many, but we blunder on, trusting in the mercy of God to put right what we have got wrong. Most of us will probably blunder our way into heaven, and what's wrong with that?.

Prayer for the Dead

Colophon has said quite a lot on this subject in the past, but it is one of the least understood aspects of Catholic teaching. The feast of All Souls ushers in a month-long period when we pray with particular intensity for all who have died but have not yet attained the bliss of heaven. What do we mean by that?

Let's start with the living. I know perfectly well that, despite all my efforts (and the efforts of my brethren), I am a sinner through and through. Like St Paul, I often find myself doing the exact opposite of what I want and intend to do. When I come to die, I know that there will be sin on my conscience: sins I have not acknowledged perhaps, sins I have tried to pretend don't really matter. In that situation I shall be personally helpless, but I shall not be without help. I know, with absolute certainty, that my brethren will pray for me perseveringly, that my sins may be forgiven and I may be prepared for the Vision of God.

This state of purification, when the living pray for the forgiveness of the dead, is known as purgatory. It is often downplayed today by those who would like to believe that we pass immediately from our sinful life on earth to absolute bliss. Attend any funeral, and you will hear, even in Catholic churches, very little that conforms to what the words of the requiem actually say. I think that is hard on the dead: it is the living seeking comfort for themselves rather than thinking about the needs of those who have died.

Today we have a sustained Office of the Dead. We pray with hope and trust, not in a gloomy or despondent way, for all the faithful departed: the Catholics murdered in Baghdad on Sunday; the old man who died alone and wasn't discovered until several weeks after death; members of our families and friends; those killed in car accidents; those killed in Afghanistan; all whom death has surprised or taken to herself. We pray that they may be freed from their sins and welcomed into paradise.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.


Al-Qaeda bombs in air freight, Baghdad Christians besieged by Islamist gunmen, dissidents' bombs under railway bridges in Northern Ireland, terror is all around, it seems. Statisticians may tell us that the chances of our being involved in any kind of terrorist attack are minimal, but there is a feeling that the world is a dangerous place to be. Fear of what might happen is much more unnerving than facing an actual threat, but we are all inconvenienced by security measures which are usually more irritating than intimidating, so we cannot pretend we do not know what is happening.

So, what are we to make of it all? It may seem a bit feeble, the worst kind of milksop Christianity, but I do believe that good ultimately triumphs, that life ultimately wins over death. As an Englishwoman and a Catholic, I can only say, "Pray for a good death -- and get a grip!"