Friday, December 28, 2012

Worth Reading and Pondering for the New Year

The article at the following link is well worth reading. Thanks to Frazer Crocker for sending it along.

The author, Paul Kingsnorth, recommends five courses of action—or non-action :

       And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time? And I arrive at five tentative answers:
       One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
       Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong. There is still much remaining of the earth’s wild diversity, but it may not remain for much longer. The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?
       Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.
       Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.
       Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on. The ongoing collapse of social and economic infrastructures, and of the web of life itself, will kill off much of what we value. In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?
     It will be apparent by now that in these last five paragraphs I have been talking to myself. These are the things that make sense to me right now when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How to Survive Christmas: Rule #5736

Do not go to midnight Mass on Christmas! Especially if you are halfway glad about the feast for once! Do not go to midnight Mass, that is, unless you know if there is going to be a sermon—the last (well, maybe not the very last) place a sermon is appropriate is midnight Mass, the shepherds' Mass—who is going to preach it, who the choir is going to be (especially if the music standard is ordinarily high), what they are going to sing, and who the organist will be.

Against my own gut instinct and the advice of a wise friend, I went. I suppose I went because last year I was in a village that really knows how to keep Christmas Eve and do joyful and formal liturgy that enhances the silence; and I went, I suppose, with that in mind. I'd also heard Kings. Twice. I should have stayed home and listened to Radio 3. It was a HUGE mistake to have gone—I won't say where I went. Suffice it to say that it was a 'downtown' church; and since its regular congregation is from the villages, it was a bit of a surprise to see so many people there, though they were mostly tourists, and the place was not full by any means. The liturgy (which hardly deserved the name) was so bad that if I had not been sitting in the stall nearest the altar I would have left. I wish I had, but I couldn't bear to add to the disruption.

I should have been warned at the beginning. All the lights were on. The congregation was yakking. Then when the organ began, it was some appalling, loud, blatting, dissonant variations on a modern carol, played at full blast on the nazard alone, which, in that piece, was absolutely horrible, like someone running a metal file back and forth through your brain. The first hymn was to be sung solo by the choir, always a bad sign. And when they started making their noise, I cringed back into my stall as we were assaulted by a shrieking tremolo soprano, another with a vibrato so wide you could drive an HGV through it; a strangled tenor....and to make matters worse, it was as if this was the very first time they and the organist had been turned loose in a large building: everything was sung with braggadocio; they were clearly so pleased with their own tuneless voices, bawling double forte, the sopranos, especially, pushing their high notes, all of them, the way a streetwalker might advertise her décolletage, and the organ was DEAFENING. The service music they punished us with was bombastic, inappropriate at any time, but devastating at midnight Mass. I can't begin to describe how dreadful it was—as were the florid—excessive to the point of Victorian nausea—carol arrangements they inflicted on us during communion. The last straw was that the already middle-voice congregational carols were pitched at least a step lower than written, leaving us in the tessitura called no-man-or-woman's-land. So there wasn't any real singing but rather an sort of monotonic drone.

There was not one single moment of silence during the entire two-hour travesty.

Then, if course, for the readings they used the hamfisted and sterile NRSV Anglicised version—this night, above all nights, is about behold of which there was not a single occurrence in that translation, whereas the original languages are littered with hinneh and idou—and the event that had me nearly wailing in agony, ready to commit seppuku on the pricket, was that the clergyperson who got up to preach was the one who on sight alone makes me lose the will to live. The sad little inanities slid off the scroll one by one, dribbled cliché following  drools of platitudes, delivered in the most patronising, unctuous, slightly accusative tone of voice.

The whole thing was absolutely ghastly, relieved only by the twinkle in the rolling eye of the clergyperson (an old, old friend) who gave me the chalice, as if he knew what agonies I was suffering, to which I managed to respond with a very crooked smile; followed by an exchange of silent Christmas greetings across the nave with a verger, ditto.

Good religion is simple; it requires two elements only: mystery, which entails silence towards which the liturgy should point, and beauty in all its forms: architecture, music, language, movement—not some fixed idea of an aesthetic, for the greatest beauty often shines through the least expected people and events. Midnight Mass last night managed to eliminate every single one of these elements. Evidently I was not the only person to feel this way: the man beside me was restive throughout, and the congregation wasted no time at all in heading for the doors long before the clergy were in place at the west end.

It was a mercy to walk the mile home through nearly-deserted streets and, as I turned down my road, to glimpse the moon with bright Jupiter close by in a patch of clear sky, a rare sight given all the deluges we have had, with more forecast to come.

My mood was not helped by the fact that the deeper my research penetrates, the more it exposes the unrelenting destructiveness of those who formed the institution in the earliest days, people who demonstrably knew better, willing to twist the truth to serve institutional power, while ruthlessly sacrificing the lives of believers, and anathematizing any opposition. As they still do.

An idle Christmas thought that has been sloshing around the back of my mind (or what's left of it) in an inchoate way has been that each of us is all of the people in the narrative: we are the shepherds, we are Mary;  we are sometimes the Roman soldiers as well as the Angel of the Annunciation—but, dear heaven, after this midnight Mass just past, we are also the Innocents, seeking light in the darkness, believing the promises, hoping against hope for light that will support and guide us, but instead being slaughtered by the corrupt and corrupting Herodian system that cannot, and, more important and culpable, will not behold.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Night

Silence is context and end, beholding the means. In the final analysis, this is all we need to know.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Blessèd Christmas to All

Hymn on the Morning of 
Christ's Nativity

John Milton (1608-1674)

It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born Child
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to Him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.

Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,
Confounded that her Maker's eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

But He, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyed Peace;
She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.

Nor war, or battle's sound
Was heard the world around:
The idle spear and shield were high uphung,
The hooked chariot stood
Unstained with hostile blood,
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
And kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sov'reign Lord was by.

But peaceful was the night,
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began:
The winds with wonder whist
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whisp'ring new joys to the mild ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

The stars with deep amaze
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence,
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warned them thence;
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord Himself bespake, and bid them go.

And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need;
He saw a greater sun appear
Than his bright throne, or burning axletree could bear.

The shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they then
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below;
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.

When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
As never was by mortal finger strook,
Divinely-warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.

Nature that heard such sound,
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia's seat, the airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all heav'n and earth in happier union.

At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shamefaced night arrayed;
The helmed Cherubim,
And sworded Seraphim,
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heaven's new-born Heir.

Such music (as 'tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the welt'ring waves their oozy channel keep.

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the base of heav'n's deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to th' angelic symphony.

For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heav'n, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.

But wisest Fate says No,
This must not yet be so,
The Babe yet lies in smiling infancy
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both Himself and us to glorify;
Yet first, to those ychained in sleep
The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep;

With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang,
While the red fire and smouldering clouds outbrake:
The aged Earth aghast,
With terror of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the centre shake;
When at the world's last session,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread His throne.

And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
The old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway;
And wroth to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.

The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.

The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with popular pale,
The parting genius is with sighing sent;
With flow'r-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In urns and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar Pow'r forgoes his wonted seat.

Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered God of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav'n's queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine;
The Lybic Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.

And sullen Moloch fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue;
In vain with cymbals' ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis haste.

Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud:
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
Nought but profoundest hell can be his shroud;
In vain with timbrelled anthems dark
The sable stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.

He feels from Juda's land
The dreaded Infant's hand,
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Nor Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in His swaddling bands control the damned crew.

So when the sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to th' infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave;
And the yellow-skirted Fayes
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.

But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest,
Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
Heav'n's youngest-teemed star

Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


by John Donne

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
            The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
    I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
    Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
            Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
    Were I a man, that I were one
    I needs must know ; I should prefer,
            If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
    At this time to the Goat is run
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I.
E. K. Chambers, ed.
London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 45-46.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

VII Why Religious Life Died

We were not, however, entirely without guidance, for in the community lived Sister K, who was one of the founding sisters—or at least was the first to come to the community after it formed and broke away from its parent, and she came in her middle age. By the time our cohort entered, she was already elderly, but she was to live for many more years. She was tall, slender, with a natural and unself-conscious dignity, even elegance—but for all of this she managed to fade into the background. The other sisters were alternately in awe of her, jealous of her, exasperated with her, forgetful of her, but if anyone in the community knew what monastic life was about, it was Sister K.
She came from Southern aristocracy, and a plantation where, as one sister put it, if she wanted a full grown tree moved two feet to the right, it would be done by the next morning. But there was nothing in evidence of this background except for the grace with which she carried herself, and her unfailing quiet courtesy no matter how rude someone else was. She had not had much formal education—girls in her day were 'finished'—but she had an acute and wide-ranging mind and had educated herself to a very high degree.
She missed nothing that happened in the community, but kept most of it to herself, working in the background to keep the peace, if not directly, then by example for those who could see. She had the important job of cellarer, not the accounts end of that job, but the kitchen end. She trained all the novices who came in the art of bread-making and other skills vital to feeding the community, and for those who cared to pay attention, she had much to teach simply by the way she lived. She should have been novice-mistress, but the prima donna who was the superior and held that job as well was too full of envy, and too power-mad to have the sense to appoint her. The rule of the community allowed for senior members to withdraw into more silence and solitude, and she followed this option as fully as she could.
For some reason she took a particular shine to me which, far from spoiling me, made me shape up and fly right. It was rather, as Louisa May Alcott put it, like falling into the web of a very strict spider. But she was not a bit like Aunt March: far from devouring me, she brought me life. She could read me like a book, and when things were going badly, occasions which were far too frequent, due, in part, to my hyper-acute pickup mechanism, she would appear in near proximity, seemingly by accident, occupied with some task, silent, or, muttering under her breath a few words of encouragement about detachment and peace. She somehow, against all the negative pressures I was subject to, made me realize that I had dignity and worth, that there was no doubt in anyone's mind about my contemplative vocation, no matter what exterior signals I was receiving. In fact, I realise now that she made me understand that this was precisely the problem, as no matter how much I tried to hide and be 'normal', it aroused jealousy and fear in others. She gave me the courage to drink always from that wellspring; that whatever happened, I should believe in that source and no other.
By the time I became senior novice by default, she had been transferred to another house, but I leaned on what she had taught me, and her deeply insightful wisdom. At the same time she was transferred, there came the news that the founding spirit behind the community was going to come to our house and take up the post of novice-mistress. The prima-donna thankfully by this time had thrown up her hands over ever being able to do anything with us, and in any event, was preoccupied with her affairs outside the community, something we didn't know about overtly but sensed as a dark deceit, an undercurrent that was unsettling to say the least. There are no secrets in community.
This was news that filled us all with dread, not only because of the stories we had heard about the formidable nature of this woman, but, even more, that she was the follower of a particularly behaviorist school of psychology, which was the last thing our flock of highly intuitive novices needed.

Monday, December 10, 2012

VI Why Religious Life Died

The basis on which the community had been founded was somewhat murky as well. There was a 'secret' which one was told only after profession. Some of us challenged this and it finally came out—and proved to be just what one might expect: some priest  had made a pass at one of the founding sisters. It was just an excuse, of course, for the headstrong and domineering personality behind the split from another community to make her move, a beginning which was poorly concealed under a mythology of  joint foundation with several other sisters.
All was not well under the bucolic exterior presented to incomers, and it didn't take long to pick up the tensions in the community. There was one sister who was clearly psychotic, and several others who were equally clearly in desperate need of therapy. No-one seemed to know what to do for them. The community lived on a shoestring, and while it had supporters, money was always a problem. There was an extremely wealthy New York socialite who took great interest in the community, but as always, such interest had a price. When I arrived, the decision to capitulate had not yet been made.
Into this mix came three of us, one by one, all with high-powered educations, all trained in theology, all of us able to sing and familiar with chant, all of us with as thorough a knowledge of religious life as could be obtained without having lived it, and the ardour to pursue the life through thick and thin. To put it mildly, the community didn't know what hit them, and it was probably a mercy that no one knew what to do with us, much less give us 'formation'. Living the life taught us, and taught us well. Just to put the icing on the cake, three more diverse personalities could not be imagined, but simply because we were thrown into each others' company—the novices were kept as separate from the professed as possible within reason in a small community—we were forced to develop firm bonds.
The breakthrough came one Sunday when we three were shooed down to the old guesthouse to let off steam. Under those three innocent-looking white coifs dwelt three mischievous—and one Machiavellian—minds. After glowering at one another in silence for a few moments, one of us picked  up a guitar and grinning wickedly at the other two began to sing to the tune 'I wish I were single again' the words, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you'—at which we all began to roar with laughter, shrieking, slapping our sides, pounding the furniture, nearly rolling on the ground with release of tension. From that point on we pooled our common frustration and spent a lot of time inventing scurrilous but entirely harmless comic songs with which we would occasionally entertain the professed on big feast days. Sample: to the old English melody to 'Once I had a Sweetheart' (it was the Joan Baez era), we caroled, 'Once I  had a sweetheart but now I've got nuns....'
Every once in a while someone undertook to give us a class. Since most of the instructors' theology was completely out of date, these were polite but wholly ineffectual sessions. The façade finally crumbled when one prickly, elderly Anglo-Catholic priest decided to take us in hand and tried to give us a class on the sacrament of confession, trotting out all the old shibboleths which had been smashed by Vatican II if not the march of historiography. We were fed up with slogans that had no referents, theological or practical; we wanted to know the reasons for everything—and in fact our reasons were often better than the 'traditional' (read post-Tridentine) ones for certain observances.
Our would-be mentor mentor made the mistake of asking us if we believed what he had presented. We three looked at each other. 'No,' we said in unison. To which he snapped, 'Then what do you believe?' and the best-trained of us, the Machiavellian who had studied with Austin Farrer at Oxford, began to speak, with us chiming in to amplify particular points. Of course it was unheard of for novices to have an opinion, much less rock-solid theology, and the old cleric stormed out of the room. The three of us were left embarrassed; we were quite open to rational discussion, but unwilling to compromise our hard-won rationales. We were certainly not willing to believe something just because some ill-advised cleric told us to. We went on with the life without further attempts by others to control our minds; given the situation with the rest of the community, benign neglect was probably the best of all possible worlds. And we did learn: from the life, the silence, the chant, the enclosure, the situation, and from one another.
We were not the only novices for long. Aspirants began to stream in, some of them more in need of closer ties than others, but most with what appeared to be genuine callings and plenty of good will and openness. But the professed community was increasingly caught up in its own problems about which we novices knew nothing. The superior/novice-mistress was more and more remote, but we could sense that something was seriously wrong. The community missed a huge opportunity with these young women; their vocations were wasted. It wasn't anyone's fault; it was an impossible situation, the times as much as the community's seemingly insoluble problems. But it would have taken only a little imagination and wisdom for the community to have acknowledged the aptitudes and vision that these new sisters were bringing with them instead of being threatened by them, and to have moved forward to the next phase of the community's unfolding. Sadly, this was not to be.
Several of the newbies crashed and burned. One left and committed suicide, something we were never told while in the community, a sorrow which I discovered later only by chance. Then the first of the Terrible Three, Sister A., left. She was simply too highly strung and too badly damaged ever to be able to trust anyone. Her defense was a wildly comic streak which carried with it the perpetual danger of making us dissolve in laughter on the most solemn occasions, even in choir. She had been the superior/novice-mistress's pet, and had both deflected this woman's more destructive tantrums, while keeping us all from taking ourselves too seriously. Sister A. was sorely missed, and her departure, by default, left me as senior of the twelve novices and postulants. By tradition, the senior novice took on some responsibility for the well-being of the others. If we had been flying blind before, we were certainly doing so now.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Verification Word

Gentle Readers,

I am so sorry to have to do this but I have been getting so many spam comments that the situation has become untenable. So I have had to activate a verification word to keep the robots out. My apologies for this inconvenience.


Thursday, December 06, 2012

V Why Religious Life Died

There is an old saying that you learn to be a monk simply by living the life. There are two problems with this adage in the present day: the first is that there are very few places where what is meant by monastic life exist: that is, a context of beauty, silence, Office with chant, liturgy, enclosure used to keep distraction out, not as a prison for form's sake, letting each person get on with his or her own mystery as he or she learns to live in community and solitude simultaneously. The second problem is that the would-be monk must be truly drawn to the life, having thought it through to the best of his or her ability, committed to seeking God alone, and already an acute and empathetic listener and observer. There is little in today's culture that fosters such people.
The community I first entered both did and did not fulfill these requirements, and the way it did fulfill them was more or less by default rather than intention, though of course it was a few years before the cracks yawned wide. The external elements were all there: silence, office, beauty, mostly sensible habit (though not sensibly worn, that is to say, one was never allowed to wear anything else even when it was dangerous to do so). The biggest difficulty was the amount of unstarched linen that enclosed one's head—unbearable in hot weather; I can't imagine what people did in those days when most communities had headdresses that were starched to board-like rigidity. With permission, most of us shaved our heads. Not being given permission was a warning sign that you might be on the way out.
I settled happily into the life, though it was not without its traumas. One of those, as with many novices, was not only dealing with my own past history but also with parents who were determined, whatever it took, to get me out of there. Another was that I attracted the enmity of the novice-mistress who also happened to be the superior of that house. What I did not know at the time was that she was having an affair with a priest outside the community; she eventually left altogether to live with another woman. But her departure was far in the future. The community was very middle class and not inclined, as I was to discover, towards accepting anyone who had been culturally deprived, no matter how strong her vocation.
The community numbered about twenty in the house, and forty in total, mostly ordinary women with ordinary educations and little knowledge of theology, much less theology of the religious life. There were one or two great exceptions to this rule: one was at the house I was in; the other was not to arrive for a couple of years. For most of these women, religious life was something they wanted to do; they had take on a lifestyle that agreed with them. They were content to be guided by occasional visits from the male community nearby to which they were loosely attached. The men weren't particularly happy about this, though those monks assigned to us tried hard to be sympathetic, and were usually benign. It was refreshing to have a male viewpoint. However, this tie with the men's community was broken after Vatican II, along with a good deal else. By the time the ructions were over, there were only two or three left of the original sisters, and the community, like so many others, had become more or less a revolving door. It has now dwindled to a single house, with those remaining unable to figure out what went wrong.

[To Be Continued]

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Happy Advent

The first Sunday in Advent is tomorrow, and as we plunge into the madness of Yule festivities, it seems a good idea to remind our selves of the hidden realities of the season. These few paragraphs are from the essay 'Barking at Angels' in Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, London: BRF, 2011; and Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2013.

Barking at Angels

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

A few years ago the Bodleian Library published a Christmas card that showed  the Annunciation to the Shepherds—or rather, to one shepherd, who is standing on a hillside shielding his eyes from the glory of the herald angel. Beside him, his cheeky dog is doing what good sheepdogs do: barking at the strange intruder. It is not hard to imagine the poor shepherd, in dread and awe of this staggering vision, trying to get the dog to shut up long enough to hear what the angelic messenger is saying.
I often wonder if all the fretful, frenetic activity in our lives isn't a human way of barking at angels, of driving away the signs that are everywhere around us; signs that are calling us to stop, to wake up, to receive a new and larger perspective, to pay attention to what is most important in life, to behold the face of God in every ordinary moment. These signs press on us most insistently at the turning of the year, when earthly light drains from our lives and we are left wondering in the dark.
The church from ancient times recognised the spiritual value of this winter span of darkness and created in its liturgy what we might think of as a three-months-long Night Office, beginning with the Feast of All Saints on the first of November and ending with Candlemas on February second. This season is a vast parabola of prophecy and vision, a liturgical arcing of eternity through the world's midnight.
The readings—especially those from Isaiah and Revelation—do their best to subvert our perceptions of time and space in order to plunge us into the great stillness at the heart of things, the stillness necessary to make space for what is 'ever ancient and ever new' to break through the clamour of our minds, to open our hearts to the Beloved, to annunciation, and to fruition. Eternity is our dwelling place even in time if only we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the heart to welcome. 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,' cry the seraphs, their voices shaking the foundations even as their ineffable wings fold us into the stillness of God (Isaiah 6:3).
Only in this stillness can we know that eyes are being open and ears unstopped; that the lame are leaping like deer and those once silenced singing for joy; that water is springing in the parched wilderness of our pain. Only as we are plunged into the depths of this obscure stillness can we know the wonderful and terrible openings of the seals and the book; the rain of the Just One; the heavens rent by angels ascending and descending; the opening of graves and gifts, of hell and the side of Christ.