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Of Saints, Spooks and Serendipity

November is a festive month. The long dark nights are illumined by little sparkles of joy and thanksgiving. We begin with the great feasts of All Saints and All Souls, a wonderful celebration of the whole Church, both here on earth (the Church militant), nearly there (the Church being prepared in purgatory for the joy of heaven) and already enjoying that for which we long (the Church triumphant in heaven); on 13 November we shall celebrate All Benedictine Saints and there are a number of lesser celebrations in between which will provide opportunities to pray for dead members of our families and communities. If you've lived in southern Europe, you'll understand the wistfulness affecting some of the community. Southern Europe understands the link between the living and the dead: lights and flowers will adorn the graves of the beloved dead, while prayers and partying will go together. It will be warm and human, and the divine will be welcomed in an uncomplicated and direct way. Our cold northern obsession with spooks seems quite literally soulless by comparison. Fortunately, First Vespers of All Saints will be a splendid beginning to two days of liturgical exuberance.

So where does the serendipity come in? Think communication, think Church, saints in heaven, saints on earth . . . the song of the saints . . . Are you with us yet? Here's a clue. Regular readers know we intend to make changes to this site. This will be the last week-end that the weekly podcast will be linked to the blog page (we're hoping our oldest nun will do the podcast this week but she doesn't know she's being asked yet, so please don't let her know). The podcast is moving because we have a great new feature we are hoping to introduce in November: the virtual Chapter. This will give anyone who wishes an opportunity to listen via VOIP (i.e. via their computers, no call charges) to a live talk from one of the community followed by a live discussion over the ether: an opportunity to visit the monastery without actually making the journey. Initial tests have been encouraging so we have tentatively scheduled the first Chapter for the afternoon of 13 November (All Benedictine Saints). We are allowing fifteen minutes for the first session and will see how it goes. All you need to take part is a computer with internet connection, speakers or headphones (i.e. some way of listening), and if you want to take part in the discussion, an inbuilt microphone or one you can hook up to your computer. Full details will be posted; if no-one joins us, it won't matter because as everyone knows, contemplative nuns can talk the hind legs off the proverbial donkey given half a chance.

In the meantime, may you all have a blessed time celebrating what God has done in and for His people. Pray for the lonely, the bereaved and those who may find some aspects of this week-end a little frightening. "Cliffs of fall. . . hold them cheap who ne'er hung there". (A lazy misquote, but you get the drift.)

The Penal Code in RB

Today we begin reading Benedict's chapters on how to deal with those who offend in some way against the community and/or the monastic way of life (not always the same thing). The list of faults begins with insubordination, then makes its way through disobedience, pride, grumbling, despising the Rule and contempt for the orders of senior members of the community. We could turn the list on its head and say that the very qualities Benedict seems suspicious of are qualities our society rather admires: independence of mind and action, a sense of self-worth, a critical attitude, freedom from convention ("pettyfogging little rules") and a healthy disregard for the Old Guard and its outmoded opinions. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Read RB 23 again. What Benedict is actually addressing is the tendency in each one of us to forget that we are not the centre of creation, to make ourselves separate and special at the expense of others. Whether we like it or no, we have to live with other people and that means accommodating ourselves to the needs of the group (family, community, organization or what you will). The faults Benedict lists spiral outwards from the interior to the exterior, from attitudes to concrete actions. He sees this as a kind of spiritual malaise which throws us off-balance. His approach to bringing us back to our senses is graduated: a private warning, followed by a public rebuke if that doesn't work; then excommunication from meals or prayer in common or, if we are really thick, some form of corporal punishment (in the sixth century, usually a fast or strokes of the rod: nowadays this is NOT practised!). Perhaps the message for us today is to think about our membership of the various bodies to which we belong, how we build them up, how we weaken them and what we should do about both.

Cloister Updates

St Therese of Lisieux

Excellent talk on St Thérèse by Annette Goulden last night. We'll be putting it up on our Talks page once we've been through the recording. As a Child Psychiatrist, Annette made a good case for Thérèse's having survived what was, by any standards, an extraordinary childhood to become a woman of rare confidence and courage, far removed from the sickly-sweet "Little Flower" of popular myth. Another group expected today and more people at the week-end, so the kitchen is piled with dishes waiting to be cooked or frozen as appropriate. Next week-end we have a group wanting a day on Hildegarde of Bingen so we have elected the prioress to give a talk on her. The news was greeted with a dangerously "blotting-paper" look, so we wonder what we have let ourselves in for. The new choir psalters are proving a success: much better layout and printing than heretofore, although the paper is not all it might be. The garden is still full of colour, which is a joy, and last Sunday's short talks after Mass on the work of St Cecilia's have resulted in some generous offers of help. More about that at a later date. So, life continues as usual, with various activities going on in different parts of the monastery, all held together and given coherence by the regular round of prayer and worship largely unseen (or not adverted to) by those outside the cloister. Thérèse wanted to be love at the heart of the Church. Perhaps for a Benedictine it is a case of wanting to be love and praise at the heart of the Church.


RB 20 On Reverence in Prayer follows naturally from RB 19 On the Discipline of Singing the Psalms. Our practice of learning the Rule by heart means that these few sentences have been prayed and pondered throughout our monastic lives. They have become quite literally a core teaching (from the Latin word for "heart"), something to which we return again and again. They remind us first of the tremendous majesty of God, the God whom we came into the monastery to seek and serve. God is indeed our loving Father, but there should always be awe and reverence in His presence. When we come into the oratory we show by our whole demeanour that we are in the presence of the Most Holy. The oratory is the most important room in the house, the place where we perform our most important work, receive the Sacraments, take our profoundest need, our deepest joys and sorrows. The heart of each us must also be an oratory where Christ prays unceasingly to the Father.

Benedict reminds us that the dispositions for prayer come from within: profound humility . . . pure devotion . . . purity of heart . . . tears of compunction. Read those lines in Latin and the alliteration alone will make them memorable. They are the attitudes of one who has learned that she is nothing and is no longer bothered by consciousness of her own nothingness: her gaze is fixed on Another. There is a part of the eye where there is no distortion, where we see perfectly. It is called the fovea. Prayer is like cultivating the fovea of the heart, focusing on God alone.

If that seems a bit high falutin' for us as Benedictines, remember that parody of the psalm, "My eyes are always on myself. My feet are always in the snare". We learn principally by our mistakes. As St Bernard liked to point out, humility is usually learned only after we have plunged into the depths of pride. Prayer is a gift that is poured into our hearts at a time of God's choosing and in God's way, often when we have privately decided that this prayer business is not all it is cracked up to be and we'd be better off doing something useful. When we are "disgusted" with prayer, that's when we must stick at it.

There is, as we all know, another temptation, though it tends to come at the earlier stages of getting to know God, the temptation of revelling in moments of joy and consolation, delighting in the gift rather than the One who gives. Benedict will have none of it. Our prayer is "always to be short and pure unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God's grace" and in community "very short". We have little difficulty in making our prayer short, but do we have what it takes to make it pure? That is the challenge of today's chapter. Yet again Benedict has reminded us that however long we may have lived in the monastery, we are beginners all our lives. Prayer is new every day.

A Death A Minute

I was preparing to say something about RB19 and mindfulness of God when I came across the above statistic. It refers not to death from war or starvation but to death in childbirth, and the shocking truth is that "maternal mortality rates" (brutal phrase) are amazingly high in the U.S.A., the richest country in the world. Why should that be? We tend to assume that poverty, malnutrition and lack of basic hygiene are the biggest contributors to death, but that scarcely applies to First World countries. No doubt we shall be hearing more about causes and possible solutions as the week unfolds (the BBC promises to give attention to the subject) but it made me rethink today's posting on the Rule.

To talk about the discipline of psalmody might seem like evidence of an arcane and distant spirituality, a sign that the Church, or at least the monastic part of the Church, is far removed from the realities of life. Perversely perhaps, I think the opposite is true. One does not enter a monastery to flee the world's problems but to embrace them at the deepest possible level and bring them to God in prayer. For a Benedictine, the psalmody of the Divine Office prayed hour by hour, day by day, week in, week out, is the context in which this prayer is articulated by the Holy Spirit and taken up into the great High Priestly prayer of Jesus Christ. The psalter reflects so many moods and concerns, including our moments of doubt and rebellion, bewilderment and pain. Yesterday evening, when news of the Baghdad bombs had reached us, the psalms of Compline with their infinite trust in the goodness of God were the prayer we most wanted to utter. Evil cannot ultimately triumph. Death is not the end of the story. The eternal God is our dwelling-place and underneath are the everlasting arms.

No podcast this week as Digitalnun has nothing to say and the rest of the community is "unavailable for comment".

Fear of Rome

The view from St Peter's, Rome
The last few days have been thought-provoking for those who believe in both freedom of speech and what our grandmothers would have called "civilized behaviour". At the risk of sounding hopelessly fuddy-duddy, I must admit I don't believe that everything one thinks or feels should be expressed, especially if hurtful to others; nor should the way in which it is expressed intentionally give offence. I presume everyone with any heart or brains deplores the antics of the BNP, but the rumpus over Nick Griffin's appearance on "Question Time" (which, being TV-free, we did not see) seems equally deplorable to me. Similarly, many of the comments on the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution and the questions now facing many Anglicans have been, to say the least, ill-judged and wounding. We have returned to the polemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but without the magnificent language in which insults were then traded. It makes one wonder what we Christians really do believe if we treat one another so badly. Perhaps I should take Colophon's advice and devote myself entirely to prayer and reflection, but there is one point on which it may be possible to say something constructive. My remarks concern the situation in England where Anglicans greatly outnumber Catholics and the Church of England is the Established Church.

A major strand running through both Anglican and Catholic reactions in this country has been fear of Rome and what she is "really" doing. We have had talk of "poaching" and "undermining", righteous anger, unholy glee, and everything in between. One has sympathy with those who feel the announcement was made in an awkward way, but would the timing and manner of such an announcement ever have been "right"? The simple view, that the pope has taken at face value the requests made to him and responded by saying, "Very well, we will welcome you Anglicans into Full Communion, if you wish, and allow you to retain many elements of your spiritual tradition" is too simple for most. Some Anglicans who have dreamed of this for years are, now the offer has been made, asking themselves whether it is what they wish after all (I base this assertion on responses from a few of my own Anglican friends). Some Catholics are quietly uneasy about how an influx of former Anglicans would change the complexion of the Catholic Church in England. Others are wondering whether all those considering the pope's offer are aware that plurality in liturgical and disciplinary matters does not extend to doctrine. The novelty of the canonical structures the pope has proposed has taken everyone by surprise, yet I would argue that it is the most hopeful and reassuring element in the whole mix.

The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a top-down organization, rigidly hierarchical. I have to say, from my own experience, that it is not. Every Catholic has the right of recourse to Rome. It isn't a question of going through endless bureaucratic channels: it is direct and immediate. A few years ago, when faced with a difficult question of conscience, I went to Rome to ask advice. The Prefect and officials of the Congregation I consulted were immensely helpful and thanks to their innovative approach, the outcome was positive. The whole process showed me a very human side of the Church, of people anxious to help others, prepared to create new structures to meet new situations, a welcome sidelight on the pastoral concern that underlies canon law. Benedict XVI's pontificate has demonstrated a similar willingness to respond to pastoral needs with new canonical solutions. Some have not been an unalloyed success, witness the continuing difficulties with the SSPX, but they make one hope that the working out of the pope's proposal will be more acceptable to all than may now appear. At least, I think we can expect a degree of humanity and kindness that, sadly, has not always characterized the doings of the Catholic Church, or any other for that matter.

None of this takes away from the fact that situation at the moment is troubled and troubling. Prayer and reflection are indeed needed. Happily, this is the Lord's Day, and of one thing we can be sure: Christians everywhere, of whatever tradition, will be seeking God's guidance in all their undertakings.

A Plodding Perseverance

Here we are, half way through RB 18, On the Order in Which the Psalms are to be Said (not the most electrifying chapter), on the eve of the Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (not the most exciting celebration), with only the prospect of the clocks going back tonight to cheer the incipient gloom. Welcome to the joys of a plodding perseverance! Joy may be a bit of an overstatement, reminiscent of those relentlessly enthusiastic ambassadors for Christ who make one feel weak and wobbly in faith the moment thy ask, "Are you saved?" (Truthful answer, I don't know, I rely on the merits of my Saviour, but I haven't finally persevered yet.)

Perseverance is something Benedictines like to think they are good at doing. Indeed, every time a novice is formally questioned about her willingness to continue in the monastery, the ceremony is known as "The Novice's Perseverance". She has to ask permission to persevere, and it is only granted after she has received a little talk about the dura et aspera, the hard and difficult ways through which we go to God, usually made more memorable by a few observations about how the novice might pull her monastic socks up.

Plodding and perseverance seem to go together. We misprize them at our peril. Think for a moment how much of life would grind to a halt if we couldn't take for granted the fact that water will flow from our taps, electricity at the flick of a switch. We rely on others getting on with their jobs, day after day, and only become aware of how much we rely on them when something goes wrong (as with the postal strikes now). And let's not forget our families, friends and communities, the people to whom we behave the worst and who ultimately treat us the best (even when they are being maddening), simply because they acknowledge their connection with us. Every Benedictine I know prays daily for the grace of perseverance. It may not be something we think about very often, but it is not to be taken for granted.

Blogging Nuns

Yesterday we had quite a lot of questions via our Ask Sister! feature on the Vocation page. Most will receive a personal and specific answer, but the question "why do nuns blog" may interest those who have wandered into Colophon from another part of the net. We'll let Digitalnun give the answers — for now.

Q. Why do nuns blog? Is it because they live a largely silent life, so blogging allows some self-expression that might otherwise be unavailable?
Digitalnun: Possibly, especially if one isn't a superior and therefore able to regale the community with one's views on a regular basis! Blogging is also very suited to short reflections. Colophon readers know that our blog doesn't happen if the community is busy with something else. It's important as a means of sharing our life, but it isn't a priority. We blog in the hope of interesting/being helpful to others but the views expressed can be highly individual, even quirky; so although it's a community blog, it doesn't really fit any particular category.
Q. Do you think people have stereotypes of nuns and how does the blog deal with that?
Digitalnun: Undoubtedly. Sometimes they make us all laugh, sometimes they irritate profoundly; Colophon reflects both reactions. People may assume that because we're nuns we're (a) brain-dead ; (b) incompetent; (c) kill-joys. One thing which genuinely does annoy is the way some people criticize if we don't live up to their expectations of what a nun should be/do. For example, someone thought it a "sin against poverty" that a nun should wear a gold ring (after profession we wear a plain gold band on the right hand as a sign of our consecration) while being quite happy about monks having holidays (which nuns usually don't). Most of us received our rings as gifts from our families or bought them ourselves before we gave away our worldly possessions, but does it really matter? I think the blog allows us occasionally to challenge some of the sillier stereotypes, but it isn't why we write.
Q. Where do your own blog posts originate?
Digitalnun: From distractions in prayer or reading; from what I hope are little jolts of the Holy Spirit; from the sheer perversity of what passes as my brain; my dyspepsia; oh, and the fact that I live in company with others who are much holier and nicer than I am and who constantly amaze me with their goodness and wisdom.
Q. Why don't you link to other blogs and web sites as others do?
Digitalnun: We don't actually do much surfing of the internet (no time!) so any links would probably just duplicate those easily available elsewhere. I think we also assume that people come here to read what we've said rather than get a news round-up, so we try to keep things simple. That said, we are thinking about adding a links section to our revamped web site but whether we'd have time to keep the links current, I'm not sure. Out of date links are a pain.
Q The comment box is now working properly. How did that happen?
Digitalnun: Ouch! You'll see I've done something about the blog archive on the left-hand side.
Q. Will you say anything about future plans?
Digitalnun: Not much at this stage because we're never sure whether we'll be able to stick to our hoped-for schedule. However, we have finally decided to end support for Internet Explorer 6 users. We want to strip out a lot of redundant code from the web site so that it loads more quickly and we can introduce features and material we've been working on for a while. I think there will be some interesting developments in the months ahead.

Christmas is Coming

About a month ago we began filling in next year's diary with bookings for 2010, preparing Advent talks and days of recollection and generally preparing for Christmas. It's good to see that the Churches are running a worthwhile advertising campaign this year (excellent summary by Mouse here), and that the BBC has drawn attention to the widely varying charitable contributions made by sellers of so-called Charity Christmas cards (summary below). Digitalnun gave up printing Christmas cards years ago since it is impossible to produce them at the same price as those who buy in millions. Perhaps that explains why we tend to get sackloads of drunken reindeer/cartoon nuns skating on thin ice. We know Digitalnun has designed a series of eCards which she thought of making available from our web site but when asked about it yesterday she gave a little grunt and muttered something about probably no one being interested and she gets jittery about scripts being hijacked by spammers, etc, etc. If she has a sleepless night, they'll probably appear. In the meantime, we were surprised to see that the comment box loaded in the correct place yesterday without any tweaking of the code. Perhaps that explains why Digitalnun is a bit grumpy. She can't claim any credit. Pity the nun who, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie!

Charity Christmas Cards and the Proportion of the Purchase Price going to Charity
W H Smith: 20% - 100%
Asda: All at 50%
Waterstones: 20% - 50%
John Lewis: 10% - 25%
Clintons: All at 21%
Paperchase: 16% - 18%
Debenhams: All at 17%
Waitrose: All at 15%
Morrisons: All at 13%
Post Office: 10% - 13%
House of Fraser and Next: 6% - 13%
M & S, Tesco, Rymans, Sainsbury's, Selfridges: All at 10%
(Source: "Which?" magazine, via BBC)

Apostolic Constitution

It was tempting to update Colophon yesterday when news broke of the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution which will allow Anglicans entering into Full Communion to retain aspects of their Anglican tradition. It has been useful, however, to have a little time in which to pray and reflect and digest some of the statements issued by various persons and groups. If you have not yet read the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Joint Statement issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury (Anglican) and Westminster (Catholic) you can do so here.

First, let's be clear what an Apostolic Constitution is. It is the most solemn, public form of papal decree and the canonical structures it introduces have binding force. As one canon lawyer remarked, "Rome can do anything", and in this case, Rome has. We ourselves know how creative Rome can be in response to a situation it believes requires special treatment, and what a shock such creativity can be to those who weren't expecting it or who feel in some way threatened by it. That is exactly what happened yesterday as a quick trip through the blogosphere will demonstrate.

Secondly, the Apostolic Constitution will be concerned with Anglicans and Catholics worldwide, not just those in the U.K. The Catholic Church always takes a global perspective. Some of the responses in this country have inevitably taken a rather narrower view. It is sometimes said, with some truth, that the Vatican doesn't really understand Anglicanism or the hesitation some English Catholics feel about the prospect of former Anglicans joining their ranks. Paul VI certainly had a better understanding than most and it is no accident that under him the Catholic-Anglican dialogue advanced further than at any period before. But where are we now?

No doubt, over the coming months, many Anglicans will consider their position. Some will want to enter into Full Communion; others will prefer to stay with the Church in which they are. There will be joy and grief and much secret agonizing. The human cost will be huge. Others will argue that they already are in Communion in all that matters, and there will be a continuance of the sad situation whereby Catholics upholding the doctrine and discipline of the Eucharist will be subject to some quite unpleasant attacks (we know, for we have been there). There will be hope and disappointment, difficulties in adjusting, bafflement and blessing.

What of the Catholic side? There will surely be a mixture of reactions, ranging from a raucous triumphalism through indifference to downright hostility. A few have commented on the position of Catholic priests who have embraced celibacy as part of their vocation but would much rather be married. How will they feel? (And let's say at this point, that despite the appalling stories of abuse that have come to light, most priests, like most other people, are good and decent men.) In England we have a lot of Catholics whose families built schools and churches out of their poverty rather than their abundance, who are accustomed to being laughed at for their lack of education or sophistication but who, together with the Recusant families, have kept the Faith alive through several centuries. Their reactions are also likely to be mixed. Then what of the bishops? It is no secret that the welcome accorded to Polish Catholics in recent years has sometimes led to awkward situations, the bishops broadly favouring integration into existing local structures and Poles generally preferring to retain a distinct identity under the Polish Catholic Mission. The prospect of "Anglican Ordinariates" may lead to something of the same. It certainly raises some important questions about our understanding of what a bishop is and the way in which a diocese operates.

As we said earlier, this is a time for prayer, reflection and studying the experience of other places and peoples (Amritsar, India, comes to mind). In this country we shall be praying for Archbishop Rowan (especially + Rowan!) and Archbishop Vincent who will need not only wisdom but charity and courage in large measure. Let us pray also for all who are afraid that they are about to lose something very precious, who are not sure where they stand or what to think, who are troubled and anxious. Let us pray that we follow the promptings of the Lord rather than the dictates of our own wayward and often selfish hearts.

Beauty in Worship

St Benedict reminds us today of the sevenfold pattern of unceasing prayer which characterises the monastic day (RB 16). It is both a privilege and challenge to maintain that round of prayer and provide a fitting setting for Mass and the Divine Office. We have been doing our best here at Hendred, gradually acquiring the furnishings and vestments necessary for liturgical worship. Our taste may be Conran, our budget Ikea, but friends and oblates have been generous with gifts and our cellarer (bursar) understands the importance of the jar of nard. Happily, one of the community is a fine needlewoman and our altar linens are second to none (alas no, we are not able to accept commissions for making altar cloths, etc as we can no longer source the kind of fabric we would wish to use). We're quite good at simple woodwork and have learned to be dab hands with paintbrushes. So, although our oratory is very plain, it is a good place in which to pray. We may dream of one day having a church of our own, but prayer is something that happens here and now, wherever and however we happen to be. If we waited for perfect circumstances, we would never begin at all.

Protective Courtesies

To Malvern yesterday, to collect Convalescent Nun. It is good to have the community reunited, but having to fit in a number of engagements in and around the journey made supper a late meal and the interval between going to bed and getting up this morning seems all too short. What a good thing no one can speak until after Lauds! We all need "protective courtesies" at times. They can be simple things, like "manners" — learning how to eat with others so one does not annoy one's neighbour, for example — or complex rituals, like those associated with death and mourning, that allow people a little space in which to grieve. Monastic life still contains many courtesies that society as a whole does not value or has neglected. It can be quite thought-provoking to go through the Rule and see how Benedict treats many potential difficulties/flash-points in community: relations between old(er) and young(er), strong(er) and weak(er) brethren; those in authority, those subject to authority; the timing of requests and the right way of meeting or refusing them; the interaction of members of the home community with visitors and guests, and so on and so forth. There are guidelines for comforting the brother or sister who is feeling down in the dumps, for dealing with the loss or damage of common property, for making restitution and preserving peace (nothing new about restorative justice except the name). Perhaps we'll all need to draw on these today. The image that comes to mind is of a little tin-hat with "Pax" emblazoned on it. Now I wonder why that also conjures up the vision of a tortoise withdrawing into its shell . . .

Sunday Vigils

I love the time before Vigils, especially on Sundays. The house is quiet and still, and at this time of year it is dark as well. Excellent conditions for prayer — or distraction. Afterwards, I love the way the grey light steals into the oratory and the flickering of the lamp beside the tabernacle is gradually muted in brilliance by the growing day. There is a cascade of marigolds and nasturtiums by the altar, dimly illuminating the shadows. One of the gifts of Sunday is to have time to appreciate the wonder of the ordinary: bread broken and shared, the Body of Christ, "the heart in pilgrimage". Thank you, Lord.

Gifts and Call

I was dozing quietly over my lectio divina or "prayerful reading" earlier this morning when a phrase from Romans leaped out of the page with a freshness and urgency I had not experienced before. "The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." It set me thinking about failure (yes, I know I'm perverse). We're all flawed and fallible beings, and each of us has a personal history of failure. Most of us are obscure enough to escape the searchlight of history and can keep our shortcomings to ourselves. That doesn't make them any easier to live with, and I daresay most of us have discovered we are pelagians at heart, believing we can overcome our faults by our own efforts. When we find that we can't, we either dismiss our weaknesses as endearing little foibles (i.e we lie to ourselves), brazen things out ("O evil, be thou my good"), or abandon hope. I suspect that despair is the most dangerous. It is no accident that St Benedict ends his list of "Tools of Good Works" with "Never despair of God's mercy." That has been my lifeline on more than one occasion, because it ties in with what St Paul is saying in Romans. God never gives up. He never despairs (and heaven knows, we give Him enough reason to do so). There is something humbling about a God who is prepared to wait for His children to turn to Him. Irresistibly attractive, in fact.

Advance notice: in November we shall be making the first of a series of changes to our web site. The weekly prayer podcast (didn't happen last Sunday because of "the bug") will be moving from Colophon to another page as we have a new feature we want to introduce. Just to tease your interest, think "live", think "interactive" . . . And thank you for all the feedback you send. Although we do test everything, we can't always know how things will look on your screen/operating system so we rely on you to let us know.

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Kindly Fruits of the Earth

Part of this year's harvest

No doubt someone will ask why Colophon is quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, but "the kindly fruits of the earth" is an apt and beautiful phrase to describe the plentiful harvest we have enjoyed from our own garden and those of our friends. At the moment, the thought of food is still a little unwelcome to the community, but with that selfless determination characteristic of Benedictines, we thought we should enter into the spirit of World Food Day (a pity it didn't coincide with CAFOD Family Fast Day on 2 October) and spend a moment or two reflecting on how we share resources with others. We are usually quite good at sharing what we have in the way of facilities, food and drink, time and so on, but whether we always do so in a kindly manner is more debatable. It is possible to "perform an act of charity" in such a way that there is nothing "charitable" about it, especially when we're tired or harrassed or just plain out of sorts. Zeal is sometimes double-edged, and feelings of guilt, like feelings of shame, do not often lead to conversion of heart but rather trap us in negativity.

One area where we acknowledge that we ought to do more concerns those whose plight is largely ignored by the media. We have already commented on the persecution of Christians in various parts of the world. Just yesterday we received an appeal from Faith Without Fear concerning the 50,000 Christians forced from their homes in Orissa, India, last year. There are still 4,000 displaced and persecuted. We continue to hold them in prayer, but can we ask you to go to the Faith Without Fear web site and sign the petition? It is a small thing to do, but as we have been reminded many times during the progress of St Thérèse's relics, life is made up of small but significant acts. Perhaps our photo is worth a second look, too, as we think about the Orissa Christians. Some have predicted that in years to come shortages of food and water will lead to increasing strife among peoples. If we have not begun to learn to live peacefully with one another before then, how shall we celebrate the "kindly fruits of the earth" we are meant to share? Scroll down to comment.

M.P.s Expenses (Again)

Retrospective legislation in any shape or form is always abhorrent, and to that extent one can sympathize with M.P.s who feel that the Legg enquiry's conclusions are unfair and make all Parliamentarians look shady and dishonest. The trouble is that some M.P.s (and members of the House of Lords, too) have behaved dishonourably while others have acted on the basis that "if it's allowed by the rules, then it's it's all right" and made expenses claims which have a definite whiff of sulphuretted hydrogen about them. The fact that certain acts are legal does not make them right and it is surely time we all acknowledged as much. Personally, I'd have more sympathy for our M.P.s were I not troubled by the poverty afflicting so many of our fellow citizens: the young who have no jobs, nor any prospect of getting one; the elderly who must often make impossible choices between eating and heating; people who must struggle with anxiety and debt on a daily basis — the list is long. All credit, then, to those M.P.s whose expenses claims have been modest in the extreme or who have not claimed at all. Some people still believe in the ideal of public service. At least now we know who they are and can honour them for the example they give.

Feeble Twitters

"Looking as white as a wimple" has taken on a new meaning as the community struggles to recover from a malady which struck with great swiftness at the week-end (after mushroom pasta, so we're not infectious, just a little wan). Feeble twitters are all we can manage. This fact seems to have impressed Digitalnun who chose yesterday to sign us up for a Twitter account and says she'll be adding a Twitter stream to the web site "in due course". Meanwhile, the monastery is putting its telephone off the hook and adopting an eremitical lifestyle for the duration. Enjoy the silence while it lasts . . .

Mark's Gospel and the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII
There is a phrase in today's gospel (Mk 10. 17-30) which lies at the heart of every vocation: "Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him." It can be hard to bear another's gaze, especially "the beams of love". When we are not very happy about something we've done or feel uncertain about the reception we'll meet, we can be reluctant to meet someone's eyes. After eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve fled the Lord God in the Garden of Eden and we've been doing the same ever since. It's only when the Lord Jesus looks at us, long and steadily, that things are put right, that we recognize shame for what it is, a barrier we erect, and can open ourselves to grace. In the Old Testament God is sometimes likened to the refiner sitting by the fire, watching closely the process of purification. It can be painful as the dross is burned off, but the result is beautiful. I often wonder about that young man in the gospel. He went away sad, but did he experience a change of heart, remember the look the Lord gave him, and let go of his wealth in order to find his true treasure in Jesus? We don't know.

And the connection with the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's favourite ship, which went down in 1545 with the loss of 400 lives? Today is the anniversary of its being raised from the Solent in 1982. An examination of the teeth of some of the sailors whose bodies were recovered with the vessel revealed that many of them were Spanish, probably press-ganged into service after the wreck of their own ships in Cornwall six months earlier. One theory why the Mary Rose went down is that the crew had an imperfect command of English and did not understand what they were being asked to do to avoid being run down by the French. It takes time to learn a new language. As with the crew of the Mary Rose so with us, if we are not to make shipwreck of our lives, we need to tune into another language, the language of the Gospel. There is, however, an important difference. We have the assurance that the Lord has first looked at us and loved us — as we are, not as we might be. We are safe in his hands. (Podcast tomorrow, all being well.)

The Fun of Being Fickle

Well, well, well. President Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize (because he is not President Bush?); Archbishop Williams gives a thoughtful exposition of Christian concerns about the war in Iraq and is rounded on (because he is not warlike enough?); Silvio Berlusconi announces that he is the most persecuted man in history and the world laughs because the notion is so preposterous. The media are having fun. They barrack Barack for "not having done anything yet to merit his prize" and pontificate about the archbishop's "lack of patriotism". True, Obama was only ten days into his presidency when nominations for the Nobel Prize closed, so the award can only have been made on the basis of hope/promise rather than achievement. True, Rowan Williams has a difficult role vis-à-vis the Establishment, but most of those kicking up a fuss will not have troubled to read the text of his sermon — or seen much of life in Iraq or Afghanistan. Only about Berlusconi can we all agree. When we have stopped shaking our heads/smiling over yesterday's headlines, we are left wondering what our own attitudes are, not just to big questions like war and peace and international order but also to "smaller" ones like our expectations of public figures and the lives they lead. Instant communications mean that we can know more, more quickly, than at any time in history; but we rarely have time to digest and reflect adequately (Colophon is guilty here, too). Opinions — even our own — can change overnight. It is fun being fickle, but not always wise or fair.

Psalms of the Passion

We pray the whole psalter every week, which means that on Fridays we sing the great sequence of Passion psalms, including some of those the Roman Office currently thinks unseemly on the lips of Christians. Nuns take a robust view of these things on the grounds that Christ is the true singer of the psalms and we want our prayer to be one with his. So, today we shall be cheerfully uttering such lines as "Break the teeth in their mouths!" while St Benedict will be exhorting us to "speak gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising your voice" (see RB 7. 60–61). The irony will not be lost on the community. We can and must control what we say and the way in which we say it because, as Colophon has remarked several times in recent weeks, words affect others, often more deeply than we realise; but the thoughts and emotions of the heart are more troublesome, less subject to reason and control. That is precisely why we need to bring EVERYTHING to prayer, not just the bits of ourselves we think "acceptable" or "good". When I pray the vengeful lines of the psalms, I'm uncomfortably aware of all the unforgiveness in my own heart, the half-acknowledged desire to pay back hurt for hurt. It isn't very nice, anymore than the psalmist's thirst for revenge; but there is only one way of allowing the grace of Christ into areas of sin and darkness, and that is by praying. Here is a suggestion: pray Psalm 21 with Christ on the Cross, then follow it up with Psalms 108 and 34 (numbering as in liturgical psalters). If that doesn't bring you to your knees or your senses, try praying them every Friday. Conversion is the work of a lifetime.

St Cecilia's Guild: Catalogue Posted

We've done a little more web "housekeeping" today. As some of you will be aware, we had to change the email address for St Cecilia's Guild because we were getting so much spam. You can find the new address on our Contacts page. One unintended consequence of the change is that we have been slow to put up the promised catalogue of audio books for the blind and visually impaired as so many links, both online and printed, had to be amended. However, an almost-up-to-date catalogue of the more religious titles is now available as either a PDF or Word download from St Cecilia's page. If you are visually impaired, please remember that you can set the download to read aloud to you, although we have to admit the results are not entirely satisfactory. We have it in mind to put up a catalogue in audio form alongside the electronic files.

Lepanto, Our Lady, and Life

Given that the Man Booker prize has gone to a historical novel (Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall) and today is the anniversary of the Holy League's most decisive defeat of Ottoman war galleys (Battle of Lepanto, 1571), in thanksgiving for which the Memoria of Our Lady of the Rosary was instituted, we thought we might allow today's jottings to follow a vaguely historical and liturgical course. We were shocked out of our comfort zone, however, by a chance find on the internet. As many will be aware, flooding in southern India has caused huge problems and, like many others, we have been keen to contribute what we can to help, especially to some of the poorer Christian communities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I was doing an internet search for a small Christian organization we know about in Tamil Nadu (where the population is predominantly Hindu) and stumbled across a Forum, hosted in Britain and featuring mainly posts from people in Britain, about Tamil Nadu. It was deeply upsetting. In the crudest possible terms Tamil Nadu Christians were attacked, their Faith vilified, and the prospect of their murder contemplated with relish. We can dismiss this kind of thing as being beneath contempt, one of the downsides of the internet being that people often express themselves with too little thought or restraint. But it set me thinking about free speech and the limits of religious tolerance.

I know that our Hindu friends would be the first to distance themselves from the sentiments expressed on the Tamil Nadu Forum. They, like me, believe that respect for others is a fundamental principle and value the tradition of free speech we enjoy in the U.K. Above all, we share the belief that life is sacred, that it comes to us as a gift and is not to be insulted or mistreated, still less bludgeoned to death.

The language of invective is, of course, a constant in history: some of the insults bandied about in eighteenth century England, for example, would make ears burn today; and many a threat may be uttered in the heat of an argument that the speaker has no intention of carrying out. But I am still left wondering how it is that words which from a Christian would be actionable are somehow tolerable when expressed by someone who is not a Christian. Don't get me wrong, I am not asking for "special treatment" for Christians here or elsewhere, nor am I suggesting that the freedoms enjoyed by any religion should be curtailed. It would be dishonest not to admit that inequalities can be very striking — Christians in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy the freedoms that Muslims enjoy in Rome, for instance — but we have a duty to try to create a just and equitable society wherever we happen to live. Part of that duty must surely involve indicating the acceptable limits of the freedoms we take for granted. Words do matter: they can be a source of life or death.

Making God Laugh

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." How very true. What with power-cuts (2), telephone calls (innumerable), visitors and minor domestic emergencies, the last few days have not gone according to plan but there have been many good things, including time spent with old friends, a lovely quiet monastic Mass yesterday morning and a completely unexpected but utterly thrilling "owl concert" last night. Just how many were hooting at the moon, I couldn't decide, but it sounded like every owl in Oxfordshire. I wonder whether medieval saints like St Bruno, whose feast we keep today, took such things for granted or were delighted by them as we are. Chesterton once remarked that medieval writes didn't write much about green hills but sat on the green hills to write. We, by contrast, are losing many of the green hills, though we write about them often enough. Is that a manifestation of collective nostalgia or genuine ecological concern? It can be difficult to decide. Monasteries tend to be good about some aspects of conservation but eccentric, to say the least, about others e.g. I have known communities where driving miles to "recycle" a small quantity of paper (which ended up as landfill anyway) was almost an article of faith. As with our personal plans, so with our plans for the environment, we need to remember we are not in charge. That does not relieve us of responsibility, far from it, but it does give us another perspective; just as St Bruno, the founder of the Carthusians, should make us think for a few minutes at least about the place of solitude and prayer in our lives. Our spiritual environment is just as vulnerable as our physical environment. (We have decided to postpone the podcast till the week-end as the diary is slightly overloaded this week.)


It is not often that the Sunday Mass readings and the daily portion of RB suggest a single theme as they do today. "Contentment" is not a word to inspire flights of oratory or deeds of derring-do. There is something undeniably domestic and vaguely middle-aged and middle-class about it. Perhaps we are inclined to dismiss contentment in this way because we have become lazy thinkers or have been seduced by the language of ambition, which urges us always to want more whether we are capable of more or not. If we look at the roots of the word "contentment", we get a better idea of what it means: not mere containment of desire (which could be rather a struggle), but the satisfaction of desire, happiness in fullest measure —tellingly, however, a happiness and satisfaction found in what is rather than in what might be. Of course we need our dreams and ambition or we'd still be running around in animal skins and grunting, but the art of being content is a skill very necessary to civilization as well as human happiness. It is tougher than it looks because it makes bigger demands than we might think. It is certainly not to be equated with complacency. We are reminded by today's gospel (Mk 10: 2-16) that marriage is more than serial monogamy, and by today's section of the Rule (RB 7.49-50) that the monk must learn to be content "with the meanest and worst of everything" if he is not to dissipate his spiritual energy. Both marriage and monasticism require whole-hearted and persevering commitment if they are to work, but it is surely no accident that a happy marriage and a happy monastery tend to shed a little welcoming glow around them. Contentment as welcome is slightly more interesting than contentment as containment. At least, I find it so. Our podcast will go up sometime later today (we had another power cut yesterday).

100 Million Bubbles

Champagne is, as everyone knows, a Benedictine invention. Each bottle contains 100 million bubbles, or as Dom Pérignon might have put it, 100 million stars. I find this useless fact quite entrancing as I sit with eyes like poached eggs, surrounded by piles of proofs (the Catholic Directory for England and Wales, if you must know, 964 close-set pages at the last count), ruler in one hand, red pen in the other, while "a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk". The digital revolution has not yet eliminated the need for old skills like proof-reading, but I have to admit that people of my generation are not nearly as speedy or accurate as those who went before. Indeed, one of the best proof-readers I ever knew, with a mastery of grammar, syntax and punctuation second to none, was a former compositor who left school at fourteen. He had a passion for books, printing, learning; and that transformed his life. Once we start talking about "transforming passions" of course, we are on common ground. Most of us have an interest of some kind that gives meaning and beauty to our lives, puts the fizz into our existence, so to say. For Benedictines, it is the search for God that, even at the worst of times, should make us sparkle. I must remember that as I sigh over my proofs.

The Fourth Degree Again

The natural disasters in Sumatra and Samoa are very much on everyone's mind, but today's section of RB (7. 35–43) is such a key text for Benedictines that a brief comment seems permissible. It has been attacked by some as encouraging passivity and even quietism among the monastic "rank and file". At times the Fourth Degree of Humilty has indeed been invoked in ways contrary to its intention, but that is the nature of things: "the devil can cite scripture to his purpose" and frequently does! What these verses do make clear, however, is the dynamic of humility. True humility is about as far away from passivity and Uriah Heep as it is possible to get. To put it another way, to be humble you need a strong will and a good sense of self. Paradoxical? Yes, of course. Benedict is here spelling out the realities of life. Humility has to be lived in imperfect circumstances. We all know how easy it is to be "holy" when there is very little to trouble or vex us and someone else does all the cooking and cleaning and we have nothing to do but consider the beauty of our souls. It is more difficult when we are tired and overworked, worried about our health or finances, grieving for someone dear to us or just plain down in the dumps; when someone is constantly niggling us; when we are subject to injustice or hate campaigns or must live under the shadow of false accusations. It is in precisely these situations that we are called to heroic virtue, to joyful endurance, "to bear and to bless". That is not passive. That is not namby-pamby Christianity. It is, like a popular soft drink, the Real Thing — and it's not for wimps.

How to Silence Nuns

They have found a way to silence nuns at last. We have no electricity from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. so Digitalnun has been beavering away in the night hours to get today's quota of work finished and Mass will be a candlelit affair. Is this power outage a Vatican plot to rid the world of cybernuns or shall we be back tomorrow? Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.