Lent is upon us yet again. Some years ago, at Prinknash, it was the custom for Father Abbot to choose one particular book for each monk to read during Lent. An improving book of course. However I propose another scheme where someone else (me) recommends additional books which are entertaining as well as improving, for us all to while away the Lenten hours.
I have selected six of my favourite books. I remember the first time I read each of them and the great impact each had on me at the time. I reread them all on occasion and would like you to enjoy them. They are:
1 ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling.
This is a story of the Great Game; the British Raj facing the perceived Russian threat to Victorian India. It is exquisitely written with two entwined themes involving a Tibetan Lama (a retired Abbot) on a pilgrimage with his chela the Indo-Irish boy Kim. The first theme is a ripping yarn but the second is more important. It is the story of the search for the ultimate meaning of life. A personal journey of hope, inspired by faith and made possible by charity, which we all undertake to find God.
2 ‘The Story of San Michele’ by Axel Munthe.
This is a series of delightful snapshots of life events of a very successful and charming Swedish Doctor practicing in late Victorian Paris who built a beautiful house, ‘San Michele’ on Capri. He married an Englishwoman and the book is written in faultless English. It is very amusing but one main theme is dealing with the ever present realities – in his profession – of death. As he said ‘Was it not my mission to help those to die well who I could not help to live?’ In his consultant hospital work he was always supported by the devotion and professionalism of the ‘gentle all sacrificing sisters of St Vincent de Paul’.
3 ‘Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers.
This has been made into an excellent film with Jenny Agutter as the love interest. This is again set at the turn of the 20th century. It is the story of two men who engage in really well written and exciting story of espionage The two are beautifully characterised. Here there are again two intertwined themes. The first is that of the uncovering of a dastardly plot of the German Kaiser. The second is the riveting description of sailing in those dangerous coastal waters off the North Sea coast of Germany just before the First World War dodging the enemy, whose military motto: ‘Gott Mit Uns’ – God is with Us!, is still very thought provoking.
4 ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
The film version with Gregory Peck playing the hero Atticus Finch is unforgettable but the book rewards a reread. The main theme is the brave lawyer’s defence, 60 years ago, of a wrongly accused black man in the Deep South of the USA who was eventually murdered by a white policeman. The strength of the story is in the detailed characterisation of all the participants. Nothing has changed in the USA since then and the book fleshes out the current headline stories of the continuing tradition of police killings of black people and the current Black Lives Matter movement.
5 ‘Montaillou’ by Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie.
This is the well-researched true story of a village in the French Pyrenees in the 13th century. The characters of the book are the very human Cathar villagers and local Lords of Foix faced by the Inquisition. The story is both charming and horrifying. We know the story from the detailed proceedings of the Dominican Inquisitor who took his records to Rome when he became Pope Benedict XII. Although their theology was not orthodox, the Cathars had valid points about Church venality and were good men and women whose persecution was tragic.
6 ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco.
Again this has been made into a film starring Sean Connery as the English Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville and his side-kick the Benedictine Brother Adso caught up in the troubles of the papal and imperial politics of the 14th Century. The theme is a series of murders but the main attraction of the book is the authentic detail in the description of life in a great medieval Benedictine Abbey and the problems caused for the Church by the emergence of the Mendicant Friars. The fate of this great Abbey is the significant climax of the semiotician Eco’s story.
Of course these are all well-known books and for anyone who has read them all and does not want to reread them, I can revisit my library.
Oblate of Prinknash
Our Lady and St Benedict
There is no mention of our Lady in the Rule of Benedict. Her name does not come up once and devotion to her does not feature. But then, nor is their any mention in RB of daily Mass, still less Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Is this omission significant?
2 February is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, so perhaps as this month opens with this celebration, we can perhaps consider it here. It is one of the most ancient of the Church’s celebrations, emphasising that our Lord’s family was conforming to the Jewish law that required all first born boys to be presented to God in the Temple forty days after birth. (25 December plus 40 days is 2 February of course.) We are reminded by this of Benedict’s emphasis on the value of obedience and humility. RB 7:55 is the eighth step of humility and stresses the wisdom of tradition—which of course Benedict beautifully exemplified by copying chapter 7 word for word from monastic tradition!1
For Benedict, Jesus is to be our exemplar and we need look no further. That task is beyond us, if we are honest, so that RB proclaims itself merely a handbook for beginners only (RB 73:8)! Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms in the Temple and proclaims, “With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation; it’s now out in the open for everyone to see: a God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations, and of glory for your people Israel”.2 “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”3
His mother had of course, if we are to believe Luke, made the Song of Hannah4 her own and proclaimed, “God took one look at me, and look what happened—I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten.”5
Forgetting the somewhat primitive and almost blasphemous idea that a woman needs purification after birth, let us focus on this recognition of the Divine in the human baby. Hannah’s baby became a great prophet of Israel; Mary’s child was God himself taking on human flesh.
It is this focus on the doctrine of the Incarnation found in the feast we celebrate at Candlemas, the ‘light to lighten the gentiles’ that we need to hold fast to. By our baptism we are called, like Mary, to emulate the divinity of her Son, to ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ and our attachment to Benedict’s Rule is but one of the ways we oblates have chosen to try to do this.
“We make a grave mistake in our spiritual lives,” says Basil Hume OSB, “if Mary has no part. It is at our peril if we fail to understand her rôle in the life of her Son and in our own lives. Immaculately conceived, she is able to love as can no other creature: she has loved the God whom—tradition tells us—she served from early childhood, the Son whom she bore, and ourselves who, by this same Son, were commended to her at the most solemn moment of his life.”6
Oblate of Douai
1 Chapter 7 is generally acknowledged as not St Benedict’s work but taken from the Rule of the Master.
2 Luke 2:30-32 Eugene H Peterson The Message, Catholic/Ecumenical Edition (Chicago, ACTA, 2013)
3 John 1:14 [Peterson]
4 1 Samuel 2:1-10
5 Luke 1:48-49 [Peterson]
6 Basil Hume, Searching for God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977) p 198
January, season of resolutions quickly abandoned!
January, season of resolutions quickly abandoned! I have more or less ceased even to think of making resolutions at the turn of the year, knowing from experience how depressed it makes me when on January 3rd everything has fallen apart again. Before the year turns, however, it is good to look back with gratitude at all the relationships, situations and events which in fact were blessings last year, however much went pear-shaped, however much sadness or change or disappointment I experienced. It will surely be the same surprising mixture again for us all this year; that is Life. So onward and upward with a grateful heart and trust in the mercy of God!
We launch yet again into the so familiar beginning of the Rule. Maybe it is too familiar. The word ‘listen’ may barely register. It sounds so simple, yet if I pause for a moment and think about it, when am I ever really listening? How often, when I profess to be listening to others, am I actually thinking about something else, or anxious for the other to listen to my story? How often am I trying to do several things at once – read the paper, listen to Radio 4, eat my breakfast, make a list of the day’s tasks, check my e mails … how often have I actually no idea what is being said on the radio? Has it become mere noise in the background? Have other people, too, become mere noise in the background of my life, my concerns? Then there is the noise in my head even when otherwise there is silence round me. Have I even started to try switching that off? How would I start?!
Out for a walk earlier this year I was suddenly aware of an unfamiliar birdsong. I could have walked on, head full of the usual racket, but I was caught by the song and stopped and looked and waited with unusual patience, till I spotted the blackcap on a branch quite near to me, singing its heart out. Only if you consciously slow down can you really listen. Cultivating the ability to listen, both to others and to God, can be an uphill struggle. I certainly find it so. If I do not listen, however, then I cannot form a deeper relationship with anyone, let alone with God. Benedict knows that this is the essential starting point. We probably know it as well. So why is the call to listen not reaching my heart? This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him. (Mark 9) What is stopping me? What do I fear might happen if I do listen? Why do I not want to hear what God might want to say to me? This is the God who loves me!
Here are a few things God might be saying to me:
Peace be with you …Do not be afraid.
What do you want me to do for you?
Come to me, all you who are overburdened, and I will give you rest.
I have come that you may have life.
You did not choose me; I chose you.
Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.
I stand at the door and knock.
So maybe it would be good to pray for the grace to become a listener this year. I have nothing to lose after all, have I? I could start by creating a listening zone, however tiny, in my day. My shelves are groaning with books on how to go about prayer, I am not short of advice! But I could keep it simple and just sit with the Gospel and read it slowly, imagining myself perhaps in the events, hearing Jesus speak to me directly. Then I could ask myself at the end of each day: where did God speak to me today? Where was I listening? Where did I find it hard to listen? Jesus himself must surely have spent the best part of 30 years listening to his Father before launching himself into his mission. I may feel I have not got quite so much time left to get my act together, but what I certainly do have is today.
This world is in urgent need of those who listen to God, those who seek peace, those who do good, those who hear the call and take it seriously. Each day of this coming year will offer fresh chances to be that person I am called to be, a light to others around me in what often seems an increasingly dark world. January, a graced time in which to become a listener to the God who loves me. Who knows what difference that will make to my life this year, and to those whose lives touch mine?
Oblate of Stanbrook Abbey
Travel in the Rule of Benedict
The December readings from the Rule of St Benedict include some of my favourite chapters. Re-reading chapters 50 to 73 recently, I was struck by a theme running through these chapters which I had not noticed before – the constant movement of people from one place to another. Perhaps I was affected by the regular news items on the waves of people moving across Europe in a desperate search for peace, stability and a reasonable standard of living. Whatever the reason, I felt some surprise at identifying this theme – most of us associate the Benedictine way of life with seclusion and stability. Despite this, the Rule has regulations covering monks leaving the monastery on long or short journeys; priests and monks arriving for varying lengths of time as pilgrims passing through or as potential permanent residents; lay pilgrims passing through; other lay people, rich and poor, on journeys of various kinds and poor people simply looking for a meal and a bed.
St Benedict is well aware that too much contact with the outside world can have a negative effect on the monastic community. In chapter 67, he says: ‘Let no one presume to tell another whatever he may have seen or heard outside of the monastery, because this causes very great harm.’ So why does he feel the need to cover all the above possibilities? One reason is the duty of hospitality towards guests. Chapter 53 begins with the instruction ‘Let all guests who arrive be treated like Christ.’ Later in the same chapter this is repeated with specific mention of the poor: ‘In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.’
It is reasonably easy to imagine a 6th century monastery as the equivalent of a modern traveller’s hostel, with the monks providing basic food and accommodation to those who came to them. However the various instructions on the movement of the monks themselves suggests that, as with modern monastic communities, they had to conduct some business in the outside world. Chapter 50 instructs those who are working at a great distance from the monastery or are on a journey to perform the Work of God at the due times as best they can. Chapter 51 says that, if the monk is away but expects to be back on the same day, he must not eat until he is back. Chapter 55 is about the clothing suitable for the monk and has a wonderful paragraph – ‘Those who are sent on a journey shall receive drawers from the wardrobe, which they shall wash and restore on their return. And let their cowl and tunics be somewhat better than what they usually wear. These they shall receive from the wardrobe when they set out on a journey, and restore when they return.’ Then there is Chapter 67, already quoted, whose main message is that the monk should ask the prayers of the brethren and the abbot before setting out on a journey and on his return.
Clearly, St Benedict regarded travel as a necessary evil and, in his usual practical way, provided for both the spiritual and material needs of the monk who had to survive outside the monastery walls. As oblates, we are in a similar position to these monks. So what message do these passages have for us? Different people will identify different messages according to their own need at the time. I only suggest a few here to start you thinking: we must always make time for prayer and not be ashamed or embarrassed to do this publicly; there is more to mealtimes than simply preventing hunger – they are times of community, of sharing, of friendship (so what about the lonely, the homeless?); we are not necessarily expected to be the poorest of the poor, but should not cling to our material possessions; gossip is the work of the devil.
Oblate of Pluscarden
Let them prefer absolutely nothing to Christ.
Rule of St Benedict Ch. 72 v11
You must do what the word tells you, and not just listen and deceive yourselves. But the person who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom and makes that their habit – not listening and then forgetting, but actively putting it into practice – will be happy in all that they do. James 1: 22-25
During a chance watching of BBC Breakfast TV recently I heard a new word; nomophobia. At the time I could only hazard a guess as to its meaning. I know ‘phobia’ has to do with an irrational fear of or aversion to something and given the word was used in the context of a discussion about mobile phones it didn’t call for a great stretch of my imagination to work out ‘nomob’, probably, referred to no mobile. Later, and with the help of an online dictionary – no surprise not Oxford Dictionary – I came up with this meaning: Nomophobia, a noun, defined as extreme fear of being without your phone; it’s a combination of the words no, mobile and phobia. Example: The anxiety some people feel when they cannot get a signal from their phone, run out of battery or forget to take their phone. Recognise any of these feelings? Some people also reported finding themselves putting their hand into their bag, or pocket, for their phone to ring it to find out where they had left their phone! Whilst I don’t, at least I hope I don’t, suffer from nomophobia, I know I don’t like being phone-less. Cue to introduce more silence into my life!
A study sampled 2,1623 people and found about 58% of men and 47% of women suffer from this phobia, and an additional 9% feel stressed when their mobile is turned off. One survey carried out in U.S. came up with various statistics like this one: ‘One in five people admitted they would rather go without shoes for a week than take a break from their phone. (A good way to lose your sole, and your soul!).
So why, you might very well ask, all this talk about mobile phones during my November reflection? Why not share thoughts on the Solemnities of All Saints or All Souls look at some of the other feast days? I Agree. Far more appropriate. Yet, in prayer, the Spirit led me along this path. The key, I think, is what rules our lives. In her book ‘Reaching for God: The Benedictine Oblate Way of Life’ Roberta Warner OSB puts it this way: “When we live in a “throw-away” culture such as ours; when the new “toy” we bought is suggested to be obsolete just weeks after our purchase; when the new fad for healing and the new self-help books disappoint; when we look for something that has proved itself to be stable enough to depend on for the long haul, we can trust Benedictine Spirituality. Saint Benedict knew human nature. He lived in a time of great upheaval, unrest, spiritual dissolution. He found the answer to a meaningful life through Scripture, prayer, and specific life values and practices.”
In his book ‘Strangers to the City’ Michael Casey OCSO reminds us how Benedict advises his monks “to make themselves strangers to the actions of the age. ….This is done first by living somewhat apart, morally rather than physically. The purpose of this “separation from the world” is to facilitate a distinctive lifestyle, based on distinctive premises and priorities”.
At the end of this month, Sunday 27th to be exact, we have the First Sunday of Advent 2016. A time of waiting, pondering and preparing for the birth of the Christ Child. A time to search our hearts to see where, if at all, we have allowed the values held dear in society to get in the way of our call ‘to prefer absolutely nothing to Christ’. Interestingly, Terence G. Kardong OSB in his ‘Translation and Commentary Benedict’s Rule’ points out that this is a verbatim quote of Cyprian and that the rest of his statement is worth noting, “for He has preferred nothing to us.” Good point to close on.
You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found
You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.
by Malcolm Guite
Benedictine Oblates of WCCM
Devotion to Our Lady
Devotion to Our Lady is a great part of Benedictine life and many churches and monasteries are dedicated to her and entrusted to her protection.
The Church has beautiful ways of gathering together and drawing close to Mary, both in prayer and song, especially at the end of the day when we entrust ourselves to her protection at the close of the day. The first time I attended Compline was at Douai Abbey where we were gently gathered in by the guest master, around the candlelit Lady Chapel whilst the last hymns of the day were sung to Mary. This is an enduring memory for me, of being gently shepherded into this mutually cherishing relationship between Church and Mother, all quietly gathered beneath her mantle, a touching and beautiful end to the day.
We also gather together to pray the rosary which is a uniting and meditative prayer by which people all around the world seek to draw near to Mary and to each other. We can pray the rosary as individuals or in community; for our own intentions or as intercession for others as a prayer of mercy. I have seen people gain great comfort at difficult times from praying the rosary or simply holding the rosary in their hands and drawing close to Mary in the silence of their hearts.
The Stabat Mater best describes this yearning to draw close to Mary, to stand with her and feel with her heart: “O thou Mother! Fount of love, Touch my spirit from above, Make my heart with thine accord. Make me feel as thou hast felt, Make my soul to glow and melt, With the love of Christ my Lord.” Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “when we pray the rosary Mary offers us her heart and her gaze in order to contemplate the life of her Son, Jesus Christ” and when interviewed on his way to Lourdes in 2008 he said “I am going to find there the love of our Mother which is the true cure for all illnesses, all sorrows. I go to be in solidarity with all those who are suffering; I go in a sign of love for our Mother. This seems to me a very important sign for our epoch”
There has been a consistent message from the Popes over the last fifty years that the Church needs to grow in mercy. Pope John XXIII said that “the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity” and St Benedict’s rule recognises and highlights this need for mercy for everyone.. “….. never lose hope in God’s mercy…” Monasteries have long been places of sanctuary and protection and in this busy and troubled world people still value places of peace, welcome, hospitality, and prayer, to refresh and restore mind, heart, body and soul.
Certain monastery chapels and shrines to Our Lady have been particular sites of pilgrimage for this Jubilee Year of Mercy and have welcomed many visitors through the specially designated Mercy doors. As the Jubilee Year draws to a close it is a good opportunity for us to reflect on mercy within the Benedictine rule and how that shows in our lives and how that extends out to others and ask ourselves how we can all keep mercy flowing in the heart of our communities and in the heart of the Church as an enduring force for good in the world.
Benedict XVI said: ”Like every mother, and better than every mother, Mary is the teacher of love”. We are still drawing close to Mary today and putting ourselves within her protection, under her mantle, and praying under her gaze, in order to grow in unity and to love with her merciful heart, especially at times of difficulty, illness and sorrow.
Perhaps, by following her example, we can also become doors of mercy and places of shelter for others in our own small ways. The Benedictine Rule says “….as we progress in this way of life and in faith we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”
Prayer helps to guide our journey “Look to the star, call upon Mary, with her for guide you will not go astray, under her protection you have nothing to fear”
We have just had a summer of one horrifying news item after another. The surface cause of many of these incidents is religious intolerance, despite all main religious leaders having condemned the use of violence to impose one set of beliefs over another. History shows that this is not a new phenomenon, but then the only lesson that we seem capable of learning from history, as generations of history teachers have intoned, is that we never learn the lessons of history. I found myself wondering what we could learn from the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule was written with one enclosed community in mind and there are only a few hints that St Benedict expected it to be applied to other communities. It is short, simple and undramatic, even humdrum, with its detailed instructions on the minutiae of monastic life. There is no hint of aspirations to world domination. Yet, this simple document has achieved the sort of influence that the terrorist groups can only dream of. There are monks and nuns in almost every corner of the world who shape their daily activities around the requirements of the Rule. In addition there is an invisible army of lay oblates who do the same, although perhaps to a lesser degree.
So what is it that the Rule offers that is so appealing? The answer will vary from person to person but I suggest that for many people it will be found in the first few paragraphs of the Rule. In the first sentence we are told that we have a master. For some terrorists, this is an important ingredient of their allegiance to their group – they need to feel part of a group that has a well-defined hierarchy with a strong leader. All monasteries have a well-defined hierarchy with a recognised, if not strong in the political sense, leader. This same sentence contains two words that mark the crucial difference between a failed terrorist leader and a successful religious leader – the words ‘loving’ and ‘advice’. The failed terrorist leader acts out of hate and preaches totalitarianism. The successful religious leader, following the Rule, exercises his authority out of love for his followers, not for his own gain, to enforce a specific ideology or even out of love for his God. Yes, he is the leader of a religious community because of his love for God but that in itself is not the motivation for his control over the other members of the community. He is not dragging anyone kicking and screaming in a certain direction out of conviction that that is the right direction. He is advising the community on the most advantageous way for them to grow in their love of God and he is doing this because he loves them as individuals and wants what is best for them. If they choose to ignore his advice, they are free to do so. If their disobedience disrupts the others, they may be asked to leave the community, but the choice is theirs. They can even leave and come back twice before being permanently excluded from the community (see ch. 28 and 29). Just as loving parents try to influence their children to lead a good life, so the religious leader tries to create the conditions needed for his followers to grow in love of God and each other. This is clearly a more appealing lifestyle choice than that offered by the terrorist leaders.
Just in case you were wondering – the ‘few hints’ that the Rule contains suggesting a wider application than one monastery can be found in chapters 1, 55, 66 and 73.
P.S. my apologies to any female religious superiors reading this for the non-inclusive language used! It would just have been too clumsy to keep repeating he/she.
Oblate of Pluscarden
The Transfiguration has two youthful memories for me.
In 1970, when a guest at Palazzola, the summer retreat of the Venerable English College, I participated in their annual celebration of the Transfiguration, on the summit of Mount Tusculum. It was an apt, yet startling, place for such a liturgy. It provoked a sense of wonder. I was taken aback.
Over four and a half decades later images of the occasion spring readily to mind, still with wonder.
Celebrations in the open air often feel somehow more focused than in buildings. Why this should be remains mysterious. Perhaps on top of a mountain there is a greater intimation of infinity, and of one’s own smallness.
Yet perhaps, too, there is an enhanced sense of the wonder of God’s focus: particularly in this smallness our being held in the palm of God’s hand is borne in upon us more strikingly. Certainly, these feelings, more or less realised, were part of my response when wandering prayerfully, peacefully, round the summit after Holy Communion. Nor were they seriously hampered by the circling police helicopter, evidently alerted by someone disturbed by mountainous eucharists.
It is a pleasing conceit to imagine that on a clear day Monte Cassino is visible from Tusculum where on his mountain St Benedict took part in elevated liturgy.
The second memory is more explicitly Benedictine. It stems from a year later and is of my first visit to Bec, in Normandy, once the conventus of St Anselm. Quite by chance my arrival was just before Mass on 6 August 1971. The celebration was striking for its prayerfulness served and supported by word and music which drew but did not delay one’s getting oneself to the point. A different sense of wonder.
Both events were transfiguring in ways easier to recognise than to verbalise. There’s the rub: if unarticulated is one’s own experience registered?
It’s perhaps of some comfort that, irrespective of his sense of wonder, St Peter at the Transfiguration, not for the first or last time, did not quite articulate the point! He wanted to build tabernacles, no doubt an apt response for one in his time and place.
I wonder whether those responsible for the Church’s calendar have a sense of humour: the feast of the day before the Transfiguration is the Dedication of one of Rome’s great basilica’s, St Mary Major. Some tabernacle! But it as if by the next day, whatever the value, even magnificence, of buildings, we are invited to see that they are a means to an end, ultimately to move on from.
No doubt after due reflection, as well as experience of crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, all three synoptic evangelists stress one point which has resonances for oblates, “Listen……” — God’s word in their accounts of the event. St Benedict’s words early in the Rule echo this instruction, “My son, listen to the words of the Master.”
When we work towards conversio morum, our own transfiguration, perhaps we should grasp that a sense of wonder at the possibility God has created should be part of our response in faith. In the words of Dom Ralph Wright, monk of St Louis,
“How come I never thought of that before?”
Oblate of Ampleforth
Whether you voted LEAVE or REMAIN in the European Referendum, it may be useful, as oblates, to reflect on that word “Vote”, which derives from the Latin word “votum”, related to the verb “Voveo”, “I vow, devote”. That puts a somewhat different slant on it. When monks take their vows, when oblates make their oblation, they are devoting themselves to God and, through Christ, to one another, in the belief that this self-giving, modelled on Christ, is precisely what makes the world turn around, what makes the difference between a world that is centred on me and a world that is centred on love. How many of us, while voting the other day, thought of ourselves as making a vow, or devoting ourselves, giving ourselves? Yet this is at the roots of the democratic system.
Our Holy Father Saint Benedict says that we are to promise obedience, conversion of life, and stability. We are to be listeners, that is; we are to realise that our behaviour and our way of life needs to be different from that of others with no faith, not because we want to be showy, but because we want to be free, and we would like them to share in the same freedom. In a world where the satisfaction of every instict, every whim, is instantly attainable (at least for the rich) Saint Benedict teaches us that this is in fact a form of slavery, which we must campaign against by the way we live.
And we are to be stable: not merely a sense of keeping the balance and “not rocking the boat”, but sticking at it, through thick and thin, through those inevitable moments of crisis, of darkness, when God seems to be absent and life no longer makes sense. So many people out there suffer from this, but have no access to the mystical tradition that we, thank God, do have–a tradition that tells us that we are never closer to God than when we can’t see him, that dying we live. It is the paschal mystery of the death of Christ, lived out in our lives.
As we approach the feast of Saint Benedict, Patron of Europe, we could well pray for the Europe we are leaving behind, that it may find both renewed faith and peace, and pray for our country, in which we oblates are to be a ferment for reconciliation, mercy, justice. By putting God first, by preferring nothing to the love of Christ, we shall become, be it only in a very humble way, a beacon of light and a compass pointing out the way.
Fr Mark Hargreaves OSB
Oblate Master, Prinknash
Corpus Christi – the feast of early summer
In most years one of the loveliest feasts, the Feast of Corpus Christi, falls in June. This year it missed doing so by three days. Nevertheless for me it is the feast of early summer. When we celebrate the Lord’s gift of Himself to us in bread and wine on Holy Thursday our joy is overshadowed by the sadness of the Last Supper, the watching in Gethsemane, the knowledge that tomorrow is Good Friday. Now, however, we can relax and rejoice in the light of the Risen Christ, who still gives Himself to me, to each one of us, in the Eucharist. How amazing is that!
How am I going to respond to such love?
I am going to go to Chapter 53 of St Benedict’s Rule and reflect on what hospitality might mean in my life. Hospitality is a key element of the Benedictine life, as indeed it should be of every Christian life. To receive others, all others, without distinction, with loving care and courtesy, with words of peace, with prayer and humility, is to be a core aspect of our lives. The gift I have to offer to the other on my path is a hospitality of the heart that goes far beyond the obvious kind of practical hospitality. It lies not so much in my ability to make cake and offer cups of tea, as in an attitude of openness and availability and welcome to all.
It is easy to extend hospitality of the heart to friends, it is considerably less easy to offer it to the irritating driver behind me, the girl on the supermarket checkout, the colleague who is not pulling her weight, the person who has taken a dislike to me, the person who is different from me.
It can also be easy to practise a generalised hospitality of the heart towards those I do not know at all – those whose traumatised lives I see on the evening news or read about in the papers, for instance.
What I am asked to practise, however, is self-sacrificing love, self-emptying service. I do not need to wait for the Big Chance to come along. There are a million unremarkable opportunities along each day’s path, chances to exercise patience, kindness, generosity, love in tiny, unremarkable ways. I am never going to go out to Africa and heal the sick, solve poverty and hunger, educate the millions who still don’t have the opportunity to go to school. I have not been called to that kind of service, those are not my gifts. There may be nothing I can offer in my small-scale life but my attention, my concern, my time, my willingness to listen. Most of the people who need my hospitable heart are not in the Third World, not even in Syria or washed up on the Mediterranean shore, but in my workplace, in my social life, in the daily Mass community, the Parish, my choir. For most of us this kind of small-scale hospitality will actually make demands on us every hour of the day. Where I am is where I am called to be, to love, to serve.
The gift I have to offer is the gift I have received. I can only offer hospitality, hospitality of the heart, if I am at home. Where is my heart at home? The Lord says: Make your home in me, as I make mine in you (John 15:4). I have only to do that and what I receive will be beyond imagining. Alone, I do not have the strength to love others, but I can receive that strength daily in the Eucharist. As the Lord gives Himself to me, so I am asked to give myself to the other. I am called, by my Baptism and my Oblation, daily to live out in the humdrum circumstances of my little life the love that I have received in the Eucharist; I am called as a Benedictine to live that love in humility, in service, in obedience to the needs of each moment and each person on my path. I am called to be the person God needs me to be, every minute of every day, knowing how much He loves me, and, awesomely, how much He trusts me to get on with the task of loving. If I reflect on all that I have received, how can I not be overflowing with a hospitality of the heart which impels me to share my joy, my certainty that God loves me and values me, with every single person on my path today?
Oblate of Stanbrook
The twofold challenge for oblates
Benedictine Oblates generally have a twofold challenge of holding down a job, or at least maintaining some sort of establishment “in the world” and of trying to combine that with their religious duties. If they have family and children and a spouse, the challenges are compounded.
But possibly, the very expression of the challenge in that way is part of the difficulty–two things, rather than one thing. Two or more things in a kind of tug of war with one another, two things, at times, perhaps even opposed to one another.
Saint Benedict tells us, at the end of Chapter Seven on Humility, that “when all these degrees [i.e. the twelve steps of humility] have been climbed, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God that casts out fear, whereby he will begin to observe, without fear and as though naturally, through habit, all those things which previously he did not observe without fear”. Benedict, then, is telling us to expect a kind of integration of discipline and love, so that the two things, mentioned above, become one–a sort of marriage.
Another possible tension is the search for solitude amid the business of life and family. It is not that we want always to be on our own (at least, not most of us) but that time for just being is precious and rare. How we need it. And time for social interaction is also precious.
Perhaps Benedict’s first degree of humility can help us here. Keeping the fear of God before our eyes is something that we, perhaps, at first, instinctively shy away from: we were told too much about the “fear” of God at school: God the headmaster, parading around with a cane–insisting that we love him above all things, but being sure to remind us that we will be damned to hell if we don’t obey him and keep his commandments, which boiled down to Mass on Sunday above all! (Sound familiar to you?) When we, hopefully, in adult life, get rid of this God, and replace him with a God who, yes, makes demands still, but does so in the context of an overwhelming love, we begin to see that the fear of God, the not wanting to offend him or hurt him because he has become my best mate, is the heart of all our observance as oblates. Fear is not a bad thing. Reverential love and a desire to avoid offending God and neighbour is basically what we are always being asked to cultivate.
And then there is the fourth degree.
That is when things are not right, when we “meet with injustice”; when perhaps the person or persons that we valued most betray us, or let us down in some major way; or even when “things just don’t add up anymore” neither as regards our faith, our job, our friends, our family, or even our monastery! This has a taste of St John of the Cross’s “dark night” about it (though I would wager that not every dark night really is one–mostly it is just the frustrated petulance of the child not getting the sweets that it wants; or the pain of being purified from previous sin). But it sure as hell is painful (sure as hell being, of course, in this case, an appropriate reference–for that is what it feels like).
Faced with that, we can do two things: RUN or STAY and SOAK. You have nowhere to go.
The grass isn’t greener on the other side, in the other monastery, in the other relationship, or whatever. Pray for the grace to stay.
At moments like these, we begin to really learn humility. Not a putting down of myself because I am no good (you can’t be–God made you!) but a beginning to see how very full of pride I am; how I always want my own way and am prepared to manipulate people and things to get it. The new being that emerges from this purification will be an oblate more worthy of the name, who is able to combine all things into one single focus–the love of God and of neighbour; and the things that we do, and the things that we are, become one.
Oblate Director, Prinknash
This year Easter falls on the last Sunday of March, so most of the month is part of the season of Lent. The Mass readings for Lent begin with Jesus’ journey into the desert and his stay there for forty days and end with his journey along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary.
People’s journeys are very much in the news these days as refugees flood across borders and seas in search of safety and a better life. While the numbers involved may be greater now than in the past, there is nothing new about this situation. Peoples have always ebbed and flowed across the continents, escaping war or famine or simply searching for something better than their current situation. The Israelites moved back and forth between the chosen land and Egypt as droughts and famines came and went. They were forcibly moved to Babylon and eventually came back to their homeland. The Holy Family themselves fled to Egypt in fear of their lives and returned when the political situation had changed.
Here in Britain, and perhaps more obviously in the Celtic fringes, there are few families who do not have ancestors who have emigrated to Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand or more exotic places. Some will have been forced off the land by changing agricultural practices and some would simply have been seeking a better life.
Another form of journey was the pilgrimage. It’s history goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. For the early monks of even the more far-flung monasteries of Iona or Lindisfarne, going on a pilgrimage to Rome or the Holy Land was often a longed-for event and was more common than some modern church historians acknowledge.
All this restless travel seems far removed from the stability of the Benedictine monastery. St Benedict has stern words for those monks who travel about, spending a few nights here and moving on to a few nights there. They ‘indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony … Of the miserable conduct of all such men it is better to be silent than to speak.’ (chapter 1) He recognised that there were occasions when a monk had to travel but regarded such journeys as a threat to the soul as much as to the body. The monk was to ask for prayers before he left and be prayed for while he was away. On his return,
‘at the end of each canonical Hour of the Work of God on the day they return, let them lie prostrate on the floor of the oratory and beg the prayers of all on account of any faults that may have surprised them on the road, through the seeing or hearing of something evil, or through idle talk. And let no one presume to tell another whatsoever he may have seen or heard outside of the monastery, because this causes very great harm.’ (chapter 67)
While the monks themselves were discouraged from travelling, they were expected to provide hospitality to other travellers. Indeed one of the main functions of the monastery, after the Work of God, in the form of prayer, was to provide food and shelter to the traveller: ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me. … In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.” (chapter 53)
Benedictine oblates tend to think of Lent as a spiritual journey. The rule advises us to ‘restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence’. Perhaps this Lent in particular, we should also bear in mind that the Rule expects us to look after those making a physical journey, for whatever reason.
Oblate of Pluscarden
Listening to God
“When Mary went to present Jesus to God in the temple, it was an occasion she was looking forward to with joy. She was presenting her beloved son, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world to His Father. She was delighted that Simeon recognised who Jesus was but was devastated when Simeon said that a sword would pierce her heart. Mary, filled with the grace of God, holding her precious son close to her heart, trusting in God’s goodness and faithfulness knew that God would uphold her when the time comes.
All of us will experience some sort of suffering eventually. Some of us have already suffered enormously, have experienced pain physically or mentally and know what it was like to have a sword piercing one’s heart. Every day you hear tragic news of people losing their loved ones in tragic accidents, of people loosing their homes, dying from incurable diseases, being tortured and killed for their faith, being abused or abandoned.
My mother told me when I was seven that she was leaving my father and that I had to choose whether I would go with her or stay with my father. I had to leave the only home I knew, my father and the grandmother I loved, to be with my mother. When my mother decided to marry someone who did not like children, I had to live with another family. My father married again and had a family of his own. Although I was well looked after and was given a good education, I missed my parents. I was suffering. My mother suffered because her husband was unfaithful. My father suffered because of his weakness.
I was brought up as a Christian and was taught to pray. It helped. God is always there by our sides, patiently waiting for us to let Him comfort and assure us that our reward is in the next life if we believe and trust in Him. Who knows better than Jesus and Mary about suffering. Jesus had to endure all forms of suffering one could imagine. He did it for our sins, for the love of us, to save us from destruction, from eternal sufferings so that we may enjoy the glory of heaven when the battle of life is over. All we have to do is to listen to him, repent and follow him and He will give us the strength to overcome our trials in this life. As St Paul said, our trials and sufferings in this world are nothing as compared with the glory we will enjoy one day in Heaven. Our Lord said, ‘Do not fear. I am with you’. He also said, ‘In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have overcome the world.’
Jesus said He is the Way, the Truth and the Life and He called us to follow Him. His Way is not an easy way, it is about sacrifice, about dying to oneself, about forgiving and loving those who hurt you, blessing those who mock you, always doing what is best for the other person, giving and not expecting anything back. His ways are not the ways of the world but His way is the way to a peaceful and joyful life here on earth and in Heaven. After years of feeling self pity, sadness, bitterness and disappointment, and having tried all sorts of self-help therapies, yoga, meditations, I decided to listen to God.
My life began to change once I decided to listen to God and let Him lead me. He led me to places that I never thought of ever going. He led me to the Catholic Church, His Church, His Presence. He led me to Tyburn Convent where His Sacred Heart in the Holy Eucharist is continuously adored. He introduced me to the rule of St Benedict to assist me in my daily living. On April the 18th, 2015 I became a novice oblate. I have never felt such joy. The joy of knowing God’s love and what He has done for me, the least I can do is to offer my entire self to Him and trust in Him as Mary did.”
Sr. Joanna (June Herridge)
Oblate of Tyburn
The 8th December was the beginning of a special Year of Mercy. The secular year started on 1st January, which the Church sets aside as a world day of prayer for peace. Peace and mercy go together and both are in very short supply at the moment as the major powers in the world struggle to contain both traditionally fought wars and more modern terrorist activities.
The Rule of St Benedict also starts with words of battle and weapons. The second paragraph reads – “To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.” Here the battles spoken of are perfectly compatible with a world where peace and mercy reign. They are fought within each of us and the more ground we win, the closer to God we become. The closer to God we are, the easier it is for us to make peace with those around us and show mercy to those who have wronged us. But there is no doubt that we have to battle to continue moving in the right direction. The forces of evil are always on the lookout for weak points in our defences and can push us back into the quagmire of our sins before we realise what is happening.
For St Benedict, obedience is the one weapon needed to wage this war and therefore is the most important quality for a monk to develop. The first paragraph of the Rule reads – “Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.”
This first paragraph is so rich in meaning that we could examine almost every word and tease out layers of teaching. However let us concentrate on the idea of obedience. The Rule devotes all of chapter 5 to this topic and comes back to it in chapter 7, which has the heading “On Humility”. Chapter 5 begins with the sentence “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay” and the third paragraph of Chapter 7 begins with “The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it.” Has St Benedict become confused? Of course, the answer is “No”! He knew perfectly well what he was saying. Modern readers struggle because they tend not to be so steeped in the scriptures as these early monks were. St Benedict’s understanding of obedience is strictly scriptural. He is thinking of the obedience that Jesus showed to his father and the authority that this gave him when teaching the disciples or passing authority on to them. Through humility, Jesus was so attuned to His father’s will, it was as though there was only one thought process involved – the command and the response blend together into one action.
So the monk should be striving to grow so close to God that he instinctively knows and implements God’s will for him. He should be listening to God’s commands with his heart and responding almost without realising it. This attitude demands, not just obedience, but humility – the complete subjugation of ones own will to that of God. The monk should be so focussed on listening for God’s instructions and putting them into effect that there is no time for dwelling on his own personal ambitions. Of course, this is not easy and St Benedict suggests that one way of staying focussed is to be constantly aware of the cost of failure – the “fear of God” is not a negative fear that we might have of someone who bullies us but the positive fear of being found wanting by someone that we love.
Try substituting “I” for “the monk” in the above paragraph. The result will be ungrammatical but instructive!
Oblate of Pluscarden Abbey
Welcoming the Christ who comes to us at Christmas time
Over the next few weeks Christian people the world over will be preparing to welcome the Christ who comes to us at Christmas time, at all times and at the end of time.
St Benedict in Chapter 53 of his Rule writes about “The Reception of Guests”:
“Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself, because he promised that on the last day he will say ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’” (more…)
Becoming an Oblate
It took me a long time to take my first step as an Oblate – which is where I am today. I first came across the Rule when I pulled the book by chance from my scholarly, clergyman father’s bookshelf when I was 17, 70 years ago. I read the Prologue and was captivated by it. ‘Listen carefully my Son’ No one had asked me to listen in that gentle way and I knew that I had found something really important. Son/daughter no difference in this context. I then dipped into the Rule, thought how interesting, I would like to discuss it with my father, replaced the book and promptly forgot about it. I certainly had never heard of Benedictine monks. (more…)
St BENEDICT and widely scattered OBLATES
It was a cold and damp night: the wind was keen but dawn was approaching. These women had a task to do: the remaining office for the dear friend who had so intimately shared their life and their home. His death had almost broken them: so hideous it had he been. He had brought their brother back to life. Could he have not saved himself? No use mulling it over. Habit: the dead must be honoured. He was securely entombed in Joseph of Arimathea’s recently excavated grave. They, with their spices, must tend the body, but who would roll away the large stone that blocked and secured the entrance? This worry nagged at them on their way. More…
The Rule as a working text
“This Rule has been written in order that, by practising it in monasteries, we may show that we have attained some degree of virtue and the rudiments of monastic observance.” (RB 73.1)
Recently, I have been attempting to explain to myself why the Rule of St Benedict, a short fifteen-hundred-year-old text, should have so much appeal. Ways of understanding have changed, between the time of writing and the present day, but it seems to me that Benedict put his finger on the pulse of what has not changed, i.e. what it is to be human, and from this awareness he produced a working text, outlining a system of human behaviour and its management, that is basic and timeless in its application. As a working text its function is to aid those who follow it to become the Christ-like subjects that God would have them be. This involves a holistic undertaking which requires the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the grace to gain sanctification by practice. More…
St Aidan and the saints of Lindisfarne
August evokes memories of sunshine, family holidays and timeless long summer evenings and holds the beautiful feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. The preface of the liturgy for the Assumption says “for today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people”
In August a re-enactment of a Viking encampment is held within the ruins of the Benedictine priory on Holy Island in Northumberland. The original priory established by St Aidan stood at the site of the current parish church and was destroyed by the Viking invasion in 793.The later priory was re-established in 1093 until the suppression of the monasteries in 1536. This encampment has impressive attention to detail, in the costumes worn, the activities, the armour, woodwork and crafts on display, all different facets of this particular society which shows the influence of the Vikings through conquest and trade and visiting these ruins also gives an insight into the structure and life of the monastery. More…
The Foundation of Minster Abbey
The Foundation of Minster Abbey – The early Abbesses
Ermenburga, a great-granddaughter of King Ethelbert of Kent, came to Thanet in the middle of the 7th century from Mercia, a kingdom near Wales where her husband was ruler. Two of her younger brothers had been murdered as a result of a political dispute at the court of their cousin Egbert, King of Kent. Instead of claiming the customary blood money or ‘wergild’ for the murder of her brothers, Ermenburga asked the repentant King for land on which she could build a house of prayer. The King readily agreed. More…
Pilgrimage to Pluscarden
As I write this reflection at the end of May sitting on the terrace at Prinknash Abbey overlooking the Vale of Gloucester with the cattle strolling contentedly through the lush, rolling fields just a few metres from the abbey and the rich variety of trees, shrubs and bushes in full bud or flower, with the usual Southwest wind blowing its gentle breeze, having returned after a few days of a chilly Northeasterly one, the sun warm beneath a hazy sky, nature it seems has almost completed its rebirth. More…
The Rule of Benedict
It is the custom in Benedictine monasteries to read a section of the Rule of St Benedict at a meal time each day. The Rule is so divided that the whole Rule is read through three times every year. The section for the first day of May is the last section of the Rule and it is also read on August 31st and December 31st. While much of the Rule is concerned with the daily routine of the monastery, this section contains general advice on where the monk, and therefore the oblate, can look for guidance on growing in holiness. More…
Easter, Faith and Daily Prayer
St Paul declared: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Our faith is anchored in the Good News of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the Father’s response to the cross. His defiant answer to a world that hoped violence could keep Jesus in its hold.
If death had spoken the final word about Jesus, it would have only been a matter of time before everything about Jesus had been reduced to a curiosity, a forgettable footnote in the crowded history of lost causes. But God had the last word. More…
Liturgy and the Oblate
This is not a learned paper, the reader will know as much if not more about the Liturgy, than I do. However my advantage is AGE and long usage of the Liturgy.
It will be a paper of reflections which I hope we can all share.
Liturgy…literally Public Work. More…
St Benedict and Lent
As Oblates we make promises to conform our lives to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict as lived in our monasteries of profession. We become oblates because we are attracted to the essence of Benedictine life, that is ‘to prefer nothing whatever to Christ‘ (ch 72) and because we know we need help to keep our eye on the ball, on our focus. Our threefold promise, echoing the monks’ vows, is one of continual conversion, of metanoia, of turning back to the Lord every day of our lives from where we’ve wandered, gone astray. Yet we so often don’t do what we know we want, what we should, even though we believe ourselves to be serious about this; in this we’re in company with St Paul (Romans 7:15); we fail, we experience setbacks; we forget! More…
In Benedict’s Footsteps Retreat Italy Oct 2015
Having organised two very blessed and moving pilgrimages in 2013 & 2014 for groups of Lay Community of Saint Benedict members, parishioners and oblates interested in an exploration of the Benedictine origins, several people have requested a similar experience in 2015. More…
The Sacred Liturgy
The Sacred Liturgy is the means by which the Church carries out the priestly office of Jesus Christ and by which it sanctifies not only the Sacred liturgy itself but by the use of outward and visible signs it symbolises the sanctification of us as members of the Church and therefore of the mystical body of Christ. It is the means by which the Church offers complete worship to God in the name of the Church uniting all its members through actions and worship approved by ecclesiastical authority. It is what makes us, wherever we live in the world, members of the one Church and therefore of the body of Christ. The Eucharist unites us in the sacrifice of Christ and the Divine Office “sanctifies the day and all human activity”. More…
Thoughts for Advent
“We await the blessed hope and coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”1
This line, from the prayer that follows the Our Father during Mass, expresses the meaning of the Season of Advent. It is a season of hope at the coming of the Saviour. This anticipation arises not simply because we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ – it is a hope in the coming of Christ at that moment when, at the end of time, all things will be made new in him. More…
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Celebrated every year on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary commemorates the death of Mary and her bodily assumption into Heaven, before her body could begin to decay-a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection at the end of time. Because it signifies the Blessed Virgin’s passing into eternal life, it is the most important of all Marian feasts and a Holy day of Obligation. More…
The Church’s liturgical year moves into its first period of Ordinary Time after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. On that feast, we hear of the role played by John the Baptist and the following few Sundays continue with incidents from his life. He is described as the greatest of the prophets, yet it is surprising how little we know of his life and teachings. When we think of the Old Testament prophets, we tend to think of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or perhaps Amos or Hosea, all of whom have complete books named after them. Isaiah is an impressive 66 chapters long, Jeremiah 52 and Ezekiel 42. More…