Synodality in pictures

I made a photo thread on Twitter to illustrate one sentence from the Vademecum for the forthcoming Synod.

In this sense, it is clear that the purpose of this Synod is not to produce
more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the
Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate
trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn
from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and
restore strength to our hands for our common mission.

This process will hopefully be the start of something that is life changing.

Synodality and Vulnerability

I have followed the work of Brene Brown for at least 10 years. A social worker by profession, she has spent the last 20 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. To date, her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has had 16 million views on YouTube. On her website she describes herself like this: Reasearcher. Storyteller. Texan.

Her research story is an interesting one:

‘As a doctoral student, the power of statistics and the clean lines of quantitative research appealed to me, but I fell in love with the richness and depth of qualitative research. Storytelling is my DNA, and I couldn’t resist the idea of research as storycatching. Stories are data with a soul and no methodology honors that more than grounded theory. The mandate of grounded theory is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories.’

She shares in her TED Talk her experience of gathering stories:

‘… when you ask someone about love, they tell you about heartbreak; when you ask people about belonging, they tell you the most excruciating examples of being excluded; and when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.’

I can certainly relate to this experience when asked to share on certain topics in a retreat situation or spiritual direction.

There is one idea in Brene’s work that stands out sharply for me: ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.’ Her TED talk was so popular that she got many invitations to speak at large companies. Some of the initial phone calls followed a pattern. The company would say they loved her talk and would love to hear her speak to their company. And then they would add, ‘But don’t mention vulnerability, because we don’t so that stuff here.’ Often these companies had hit a block with innovation and creativity, but hadn’t made the connection with vulnerability.

As we begin our synodal process in preparation for a Synod in 2023, I wonder if it might be worth taking some time to look at vulnerability? I have started to read the Vademecum and this section took my attention straight away:

In this sense, it is clear that the purpose of this Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.’

What strikes me is that it is all framed in relational concepts and this gives me great hope. However, if we take any one of the clauses, there is vulnerability writ through the whole process. The Synod will ask us to look at three key concepts in being church: communion, participation and mission. There is a very credible anthropology and theology underpinning all of this. However, I am fairly certain that once we start to discuss communion, what will emerge are stories of how people have felt outside of communion. Likewise, with participation and mission. I think we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that this will happen.

The synodal process is a good deal more radical than we might realise at the moment. It’s a fundamental shift from a top down, hierarchical model, to a bottom up, grass roots model. Already in the conversations that I have had there is concern as to how we might include those who find themselves outside the formal structures. On this issue alone there is considerable vulnerability involved on both sides. It strikes me that the vulnerability of the laity is a given in this process. But I wonder if the cardinals, priests and bishops have any sense of the importance of their own vulnerability in this whole process? The majority of our Church structures and much of our language tend to guard against anything that might appear vulnerable. If we truly want to walk together (Gk, syn) on the same path (Gk, hodos) then perhaps we need to acknowledge the need for vulnerability in the whole Church?

Engaging in a communal process is not going to be easy. So often our desire for connection and communion flounders when we hit sizeable barriers. Perhaps two quotations from the Rule of St Benedict can help us here. The first comes from the Prologue of the Rule of St Benedict:

Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But 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. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.

I quote this for several reasons. St Benedict has laid out his vision of monastic life in the Prologue and ends with a bit of a rallying cry. The monastic path is a serious undertaking, so too is the synodal path. I think St Benedict speaks here for anyone who has ever said ‘yes’ to a large undertaking and then got cold feet. His answer when we are daunted is not to sit on the edge of the path and get our breath back, but rather to run! I hope it’s not too grand a hope to see in the synodal path a chance for our hearts to overflow ‘with the inexpressible delight of love.’

My second quote comes from Ch 64, On the Election of an Abbot:

he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.

I hear in this short phrase the wisdom of a man who had guided his community through the good times and the bad. I hope that something of St Benedict’s words may be experienced by all of us in the synodal process. We will surely feel weak at times. Hopefully we will feel strong too. We are on the threshold of a process that has the power to transform. Let’s hope we all have the grace to be vulnerable and to allow the work of the Spirit.

Becoming the Body of Christ

Part Two of Sr Michael RSM’s guest post on her experience before and after Vatican II. You can read Part One here:

In 1954, I entered a pre-Vatican 2  religious community though at the time neither I nor anyone else knew that it was pre-Vatican2! That was the only way we knew. I was ready and willing to give my all- very zealous, very pious. I embraced all the religious exercises (even added to them); I accepted without question all the traditions and customs of the community ( and did not then think that many of them were ridiculous, demeaning and infantile); I absorbed the spirit of the congregation  – Mercy – and longed for opportunities to put it into practice.

But first came postulancy (a trial period), and then novitiate, (a time of testing, training and purification) – all a steep learning curve. We were a novitiate of 22 Irish and English late teenagers – probably too much of a handful for our Novice Mistress. I was a bit older and more mature than most, so never suffered the rigours of discipline and sometimes harsh treatment meted out to some poor souls. We laughed and cried together. Many left, most stayed. The prevailing attitude was ‘grin and bear it’ until we were professed and then things would be different! Many were studying for ‘O’ levels , some for ‘A’ levels and because I had all my exams, I was put to helping others and being portress until it was time for University. I was told to apply for History (though my desire was for English) because our Grammar School would soon need a History teacher. I didn’t mind too much because I loved History too but when I left for University, I did not know who the Prime Minister was -we did not have newspapers, radio or TV in those days – or that we were in the midst of the Suez Crisis which I was asked about at my interview!

I can’t say I enjoyed my University years because we (two of us) were bound by the rule of silence and unable to mix with other students. We never joined any social or extra-mural activities, simply attended lectures and tutorials and then returned to the convent where we were staying. Gradually, the strain told: I found myself ‘enduring’ life, frustrated and joyless.  Spiritually, I was starved. The annual 8-day Retreats left me anxious and unfulfilled. There was no opportunity for spiritual development and I found less and less satisfaction in the usual devotions and rigid life-style which once was so meaningful. I knew I was ‘stuck’ and yet I made final vows, assuring myself that this is what God wanted of me and I was prepared to live a life of obedience which would eventually be blessed.  So I thought!  I must say I was more than tinged with Pelagianism – thinking everything depended on me, so I was prepared to show God I could take it and possibly become a saint!  What arrogance! What stupidity!  

My first release was when I began to teach in a Grammar School. This was 1960. I found I had a natural aptitude for teaching and keeping the interest of older pupils with whom I had a natural affinity. This fulfilled me and led to many friendships which have lasted and have brought much joy. Of course it was hard work but very rewarding,  especially getting involved in the cultural, artistic and dramatic life of the school plus all the projects I initiated and threw myself into under the aegis of Justice and Peace, Cafod, YCS and Youth Impact activities. These early years also saw a beginning of my interest in pastoral work in a neighbouring parish which I loved, especially involvement in adult formation.

Meanwhile religious life became increasingly stultifying. The two parts of my life were clearly in conflict and for the first time, I began to experience real doubts about persevering in religious life when it had become empty, arid, a real endurance test. I was still faithful to all the religious exercises and spent more and more time in prayer but felt ‘caged’ and un-free.

It was at this point that Vatican 2 burst upon the church and religious life like a tornado and thus came about my second release and real saviour. I can’t express the excitement when I heard that the Bishops had thrown out the agenda and prepared texts!  There were no computers then but daily and weekly reports somehow got through – it was like awakening a sleeping giant!  Gradually, we saw the dismemberment of the pre-Vat 2 church: most immediate were the Liturgical reforms which impacted every Catholic. To ‘see’ the priest face to face, to dialogue in what were called initially Dialogue Masses until we got used to the English and learned the words of the responses, to pull people out of their comfort zones of Rosary and familiar prayer books – this was hard work for both priests and people. This was bad enough but to see the removal of statues, altar rails, pulpits and the re-ordering of sanctuaries and churches grieved so many and caused not a little anger.  Many hankered after the old ways of attendance with nothing required except presence. Now we had to participate actively in plain churches –almost Protestant. What on earth was the church coming to?

Gradually, as other documents emerged – Lumen Gentium with its view that the hierarchy was at the service of the people, us the people of God; Dei Verbum on the central role of Scripture, the Bible as such, having been a closed book to Catholics; the Decree on Ecumenism stressing the unity of the church and above all, Gaudium et Spes on the whole new vision and thrust of the church in 20th Century – we realised that this was not just a tinkering with externals but a revolution, making the church fit for purpose and relevant to the needs of the faithful in 20th Century. It was heady stuff. I was teaching Sixth Form RE at the time and every week shared the excitement with eager teenagers. Then imagine my surprise when the then Headmistress told me to teach ‘A’ level Biblical Studies of which at the time, I knew no more than Old Testament stories and the Life of Christ studied for ‘O’ level. It was the best thing that ever happened to me and opened up a new world of scholarship and spirituality that quenched my thirsting spirit and gave me a life-long love of scripture which it has been my delight to impart to generations of Sixth Formers and parish groups. So many riches that the faithful had been deprived of for so many years!.

As the years went on and the church settled into the ‘new ways’, new riches unfolded. While still immersed in education, I involved myself more and more in parish work through programmes like Alpha, RCIA, Liturgy groups, catechist training etc until I was asked to work in the diocese full-time, so left a headship to be the Co-ordinator of Evangelisation in the diocese – a most enriching and ground-breaking experience.

Meanwhile, how did Vatican 2 impact religious life? For a few years there was little change except slight adaptation of the 19th Century habit and more freedom for family visits and even a holiday at home but gradually, ‘liberal’ ideas made further inroads and the sacred, time-worn hierarchical structure and customs were quietly dismantled. Rigid rules of silence disappeared; we no longer had to process to chapel and refectory in strict order of seniority while chanting Latin psalms or sit in the same place at meals and recreation till death. During this time I spent a year’s study in London and was exposed to the wonderful contribution made by Hubert Richards and Peter de Rosa in the sadly short-lived Corpus Christi Institute. It was such a liberating year for me that I found it difficult to return to the strictures of community life.  However, one great unexpected development was a move towards voluntary missionary activity in the 70’s and I was in the first group of volunteers to go to Africa for four years. Eventually, more spiritual freedom came with freedom to choose one’s confessor and spiritual director, freedom to go elsewhere to make a retreat, to buy reading material etc. More lenient and understanding superiors eased the road for me and needless to say, I was further released and found purpose and satisfaction in all the new developments. The Charismatic Movement came and went, affecting some very deeply. We had freedom to pursue our own interests (within reason and always with permission) but the heavy weight of oppression had lifted and as time went on and things eventually settled, I was in a different and more life-giving spiritual place. On the way, many sisters had left but I was never tempted once I had found my forte in teaching and achieved some sort of spiritual equilibrium, punctuated of course by many challenges but also blessings.

Do I hanker after the old ways? Definitely not – neither in the church nor in religious life. As I look at the church today and while regretting  the many abuses of authority and freedom especially in sexual matters, I stand solidly with Pope Francis, God’s gift to the church, and move forward with him in hope  through the synodal process and journey (envisaged by Vatican 2 but sadly repressed)  towards renewal and maturity. I fully share his vision of a church at the service of the world. For those who wish to return to a non-existent Golden Age of mystery and majesty, pomp and incense, clericalism and privilege, I would wish for a more realistic appraisal and realisation that the church does not exist for itself but to serve the people of God near and far, worthy and unworthy, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian.

And my hope for religious life?  Numbers have dwindled dramatically, apostolates have been overtaken by the state, missionary work (old style) is no longer fashionable.  It would be easy to think we have passed our ‘sell-by dates’. But the core of consecration and commitment remains, however expressed, and prayer especially sacramental and scriptural is the fuel that gives energy to new forms of service as we move into unchartered waters towards a future known only to God.

Becoming the Body of Christ

As part of my exploration of the issues underlying Traditionis Custodes, I am delighted to share with you a guest post from Sr Michael RSM, one of the Sisters who taught me at St Anthony’s School, Sunderland. Sr Michael writes about her experience of growing up in Durham and Sunderland in the 1950s.

A Personal View

For many, living in the pre-Vatican church was a golden time, or was it?  Growing up at that time, I remember so much with nostalgia and gratitude: the packed churches for Sunday Masses; the social life built around the church, with social evenings, dances, concerts, exchange visits with neighbouring parishes – the source of many a marriage; Benediction with its incense, hymns and walk afterwards ‘en famille’ round the village back home to a fry-up supper and the Palm Court orchestra on radio; above all, the processions – May, Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi – with banners and statues carried aloft and white dresses and red sashes and singing and even ‘poor Protestants’ standing outside watching longingly, poor things!  as we, the chosen ones processed round the church garden.  We had it all – our own beautiful churches, beautiful church grounds, our own parish hall, our own graveyard and above all, our own priests whom we all knew and loved and were there for us in good times and in bad. There was a structure a hierarchy, a certainty, an assurance. Who wouldn’t want to be a Catholic? This was the way to live, this was the sure way to heaven. 

True, most of the services including Mass were in Latin which we rattled off without understanding,  but many had Missals with the English translation alongside, so where was the problem?  True, the priest had his back to us and many said the Rosary or even lit candles during Mass but it had always been thus – we attended and prayed but did not participate. True, one could say that the packed churches were due to habit and fear in equal measure (with one eye on the Mass Register in schools on Monday morning to check attendance), but during and after the war the Church was a refuge and much needed consolation in times of worry and anxiety. True, the Parish priest was a control figure, even a tyrant, but so was the doctor, the local policeman, the teachers, the old men in the village who would “tell our parents what we were up to when they saw them.” That was the social structure of the time and we ‘paid, prayed and obeyed’ without question. True, the Church wielded harsh and severe authority in moral matters (long queues for  weekly Confession) and could excommunicate for what today would be minor infringements eg mixed marriages were anathema but by and large, families agreed with Church laws – I remember many a family break-up because of a recalcitrant member who had ‘gone astray’ God help them!  True, unbaptised babies and suicides were not given a Christian burial (I remember visiting the forbidden edge of the cemetery with their anonymous graves) but “that was the way things were and it was not ours to question why.” True, we paid door pence, altar money, collection money, Holy Souls box, SVP basket, every Sunday but the Church depended on our generosity so who were we to complain?

In other words, to be a pre-Vatican2 Catholic, was to live in a safe, isolated world with its own laws, traditions, practices, and outlook. We had to be careful not to be contaminated by the world – one of the enemies of the soul, along with the devil and the flesh. Even adults held on the the faith of their fathers as expressed and learned in the Catechism (brayed into them at school as they said – sometimes gratefully, sometimes grudgingly) and this would keep us safe!

In my family and parish, much of this was second and third generation Irish piosity which was still very strong. Prayer books of the time – The Garden of the Soul and The Kingdom of Heaven which many clung on to instead of the new-fangled Missals -attest to this personal  piety and devotion.

Who of my generation, does not remember the Nine First Fridays, the Five Saturdays in honour of Our Lady, the Seven Tuesdays for St Anthony and all the indulgences attached thereto. Not to mention the 30 Days’ Prayer, the Litanies, the Novenas, the Holy Hours? And let’s be honest- I loved it!

In mitigation too, one must say that English and Irish history with its years of persecution had a huge effect on the Catholic mentality and the kind of church we had become. We were a defensive church and had to fight for recognition against prejudice and discrimination (still much in evidence in my childhood). Passing the ‘Proddies’ on our way to school led to regular battles and name-calling. My father had established a business against all the odds – green grocery, a dairy, milk business, a small-holding growing and selling what we now call ‘organic.’ vegetables. We had a sense that he had ‘made it’ and that we were accepted and respected.

What does all this say about our theology and ecclesiology? Only in retrospect do I see the church as stuck, narrow, out- of- date, in dire need of reform. We lived in a ghetto, top-heavy and closed. Converts had to join us, we didn’t reach out to them. But this was the church I loved, in which I chose to enter religious life. Who would or could have thought then of Vatican2? Who would have thought that 50-60 years later people who never experienced this church would hanker after the trappings?

What made us perfect little Catholics?

I came from a very Catholic family, grandparents on both sides coming from Ireland. My father had 6 brothers my mother 4 and all my aunts, uncles and cousins were catholic. So my first influence was from family and then re-inforced by school. Growing up, all my friends and acquaintances were catholic.

I loved my primary school – St Bede’s. We had morning prayers and a hymn together and the the Religious lesson. I drank in everything from ‘black babies’ (half a crown a time ) to learning the Catechism. It was no effort for me. I used to come home and play schools with my dolls and younger brother, teaching them all about why God made me, the Supreme Spirit (the soup-green spirit), sanctifying grace etc enough to make St Thomas Aquinas proud! My brother’s Sign of the Cross was ‘In the name of the Father and of his Son and of his holy goats and hens.’ I was a star at Religious Inspection time and even knew all the explanations!

I vividly remember First Communion and Confirmation (at 6 and 7yrs respectively.) but must admit was more interested in my white dress .  At processions I never carries the statue (too small) or crowned Our Lady, the height of my ambition but I sang my heart out and showed off to all and sundry as we processed around Church and grounds. We had prayer books galore, my favourite being Little Brother Jesus and the books by Fr Daniel Lord.  I devoured the lives of the Saints and imitated each by turn, my favourites of course being St Therese and St Bernadette, the names of my dolls too.

Was this an idyllic religious upbringing? In many ways, yes. In Secondary School it was more of the same for the first few years. I never questioned method or content, practices or traditions – not until I entered religious life and then not for the first few years, in the 50’s. I was at the stage of grinning and bearing it, or, as my mother had taught me, offering it up, until Vat 2 came (out of the blue as I thought then) and rescued me.

And there begins a new chapter in my life.

Becoming the Body of Christ

“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekman OSB


Emerging Adult Faith

I’ve come to realise that I make very strong attachments to people and places. Moving to London to study held a great deal of trepidation for me. My Father assured me that it would be one of the most exciting things I could do. Studying at Heythrop college was, of course, no ordinary place to study. The intake was very mixed with school leavers, mature students, post graduates and Jesuits doing their very lengthy formation studies. My year group bonded together very quickly and I think this was in no small part due to the fact that we all felt at sea with the content of the degree. There were also several Religious, male and female, at various stages in their ministry. I will be forever grateful for all that they brought to my time at Heythrop. There was such a lot of laughter and genuine community.

My first essay was a bit of a crunch time and I really wanted to go home. Trying my best to ignore the rising panic, I took refuge in the college chapel. I don’t remember it as a particularly beautiful place. It was in the basement, with wooden floors that creaked and the minimum of natural light. I sat there hoping for some confirmation that I should go home. None came. What came instead was a sense that I was on the threshold of something potentially life-changing.

There was Mass each day at College at either 12.30 or 1.00. This fitted with the various lecture schedules. Here I at least I felt at home. In the Heythrop environment it was the most natural thing in the world to go to daily Mass. It’s only with hindsight that I see how personally liberating this was for me. There was something very grounding for me about breaking the day by celebrating the Eucharist. No one would think I was odd. When feasts were celebrated the music would be provided by the students. I loved these celebrations. This hymn, more than any other reminds me of those days

Yahweh is the God of my salvation:
I trust in him and have no fear.
I sing of the joy which his love gives to me,
and I draw deeply from the springs of his great kindness. 

Open our eyes to the wonder of this moment,
the beginning of another day.  

Be with us, Lord, as we break through with each other
to find the truth and beauty of each friend.

When evening comes and our day of toil is over
give us rest, O Lord, in the joy of many friends.

Take us beyond the vision of this day
to the deep and wide ways of your infinite love and life.

Weston Priory

Looking at the words now I can easily imagine this text being slated by certain quarters of Twitter. Probably words like ‘saccharine’ and ‘banal’ would be used and there would be questions as to the theological content. Its focus on connection, friends and the depths of God’s love and kindness are easily parodied. In 1984 these were very much the words I needed to sing. These words and many others like them, began the journey for me from what was largely a personal piety to a sense of community and the power of shared witness.

My experience at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Gower St was key to my growing awareness of community and what I would later come to recognise as Eucharistic theology. Sunday evening was the big gathering time. I can’t remember how I filled my Sunday mornings, but I remember the anticipation of Mass in the evening. The Chaplaincy drew a huge crowd of people from all areas of the university. There were always Royal College of Music students on hand to lead music and some of us formed a slightly informal choir. I had a sense that there was room for everyone at these gathering. As soon as Mass was finished a couple of us would act as sacristans, clearing the altar to make way for the disco equipment. The sense of community and connection that we found as a Eucharistic community continued on the dance floor. Often past students turned up on a Sunday evening and they’d get such a welcome from the chaplains. There was genuine interest in how their lives were going.

The White Fathers and the Mill Hill Missionaries sometimes sent their deacons to the chaplaincy for some pastoral experience and they brought a huge enthusiasm to any group they joined. In the summer term they’d host BBQs in North London and we’d sing and dance together. These gatherings for me were the very best of what it meant to belong to the Church. Occasionally we’d talk theology and any very cerebral notions of what we might mean by Eucharist or Church were laid alongside the pastoral needs which these men were preparing to meet in their mission postings.

From time to time the chaplaincy would host an African Mass. There is something about the ‘call and response’ form of African songs and hymns which touches my heart and soul most deeply. Add to this a drum rythym and perhaps dance and I experience a very powerful sense of the sacred. I had never experienced anything like this growing up in the North East.

The chaplaincy team was large and diverse: a lay woman, a Dominican Sister, a Sister of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, two diocesan clergy and a Jesuit. They were able to offer a variety of activities and support, but mostly they were a presence. Fairly early on in my first term at college the chaplains offered us the opportunity to follow the 19th Annotation Retreat. At first I couldn’t even grasp what the words meant. I’d never heard this type of technical language. A small group of us showed interest in making this retreat and we met together. I found it all thoroughly confusing. I imagine the chaplains will have started by explaining the The First Principle and Foundation.

People are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their soul; the other things on the face of the earth are created for people to help them in attaining the end for which they are created. Consequently, people are to make use of them in so far as they help them in the attainment of their end, and they must rid themselves of them in so far as they prove a hindrance to them. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds true for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius

The formality and technicality of the language almost put me off from the very beginning. Up until then my personal prayer had involved sitting quietly in churches and not doing anything in particular. I wasn’t sure that I would cope with this structured format. Once we were assigned spiritual directors things shifted a little for me. I was assigned Sr Trinitate Dullmann, a German Dominican who had lived in Zimbabwe. This was a very smart move on God’s part.

Week by week I became accustomed to the format of the retreat and despite the fairly alien language, I began to find that a way of prayer was opening up for me. What surprised me was just how much hard work was involved. Gone were the slightly day dreamy experiences I had had sitting in the back of churches and instead I was faced with the deep challenge of engaging with the Biblical texts and the text of the Spiritual Exercises. Thankfully we weren’t given the straight text from the Spiritual Exercises. I remember being given the prayer material on sheets of coloured paper, with line drawings and pieces of poetry. A vital part of the 19 Annotation is meeting weekly with your director. I wasn’t quite ready for the rigour that this involved. And I wasn’t ready at all for the fact that my first instinct was to analyse any text that I was given. Without realising it I was bringing the tools that I was learning in Biblical Studies to my prayer. Gently and subtly my director nudged me along. Little by little I learnt to make space for God to work. One thing that was a tremendous help to me was having two different Bibles: NRSV for exegesis and the Jerusalem Bible for prayer.

I can look back now and see how God was leading me. I can look back now and see that my faith was maturing. It didn’t feel particularly re-assuring at the time and I did wonder just where the retreat was leading me. One of my abiding memories is of hearing my director say: ‘Birgitte, don’t analyse.’ She was right, of course. This was a matter of the head and heart coming together.

Becoming the Body of Christ

“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekman OSB


New Horizons

At A Level my theological and spiritual horizons were widened thanks to the excellent teaching of Sr Michael and all of the Sisters of Mercy working in St Anthony’s, Sunderland. My heart and mind were like a sponge and I soaked up everything on offer. Studying Scripture at A Level became a gateway to so many important things in my life. I realized that I had a thirst to know more and to experience more. I was accepted at Heythrop, the Jesuit college, to study for a Bachelor of Divinity. In truth, I had very little idea where the real hard work would lie. Moving to London was huge in itself. I remember in December of the first term walking back from college to my hall of residence and stopping to look at the lights on Regents St, my bag heavy with books and notes that I barely understood. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Pretty much everyone on my course was feeling a little at sea.

College ran a one to one tutorial system and nothing prepared me for the mild terror of presenting my weekly offering to a tutor who had written their doctorate on the same subject. I’ll never forget my first tutorial. The subject was Joshua and the Conquest. I sat down and my tutor said; ‘You’ve made two big assumptions in your work: that Joshua actually existed and that the Conquest took place.’ My tutor was quite correct and what followed was a very instructive tutorial on how we assess archaeological evidence etc. If you are reading this and thinking, ‘That’s terrible, typical Jesuit approach.’ then bear with me. I came to love the tools of Biblical scholarship and it is to those tools that I most often return when I want to explore an issue. The world of Biblical genre and how stories convey meaning is the very stuff which underpins my monastic life today.

This tutorial experience was to be repeated many times over. There was a great dismantling taking place for me on several levels. It’s not uncommon in the things which I read online for people to distrust any method which deconstructs. I don’t share their distrust. Deconstruction can be necessary in order to understand the core values of an area of theology. One of the most important things which I learnt in theology was the need to see all of the disciplines as related. What you say in Christology must hold true in Liturgy, Ecclesiology etc etc.

When I signed up for a module in Ecclesiology I had very little idea what was coming. I knew about Vat II and even had the Abbott edition of the documents on my shelf.  My first lecture was entitled ‘The Church as the Prism of Humanity.’ My first notes read: ‘The biggest mistake made by Christians is to isolate themselves- thinking in exclusive terms.’ ( I have kept all of my college notes.)  I think I was a bit too young at the time to really take on board all that was said. There were so many concepts that needed unpacking. I had never thought seriously about any of them. What stayed with me was the interplay between Jesus preaching the Kingdom and the emergence of the Church. How you understand this shapes your understanding of Church and what it signifies. This then shapes your understanding of the life of the Church and how it functions. There was much talk of transcendence and immanence. There was talk too of what it means to say that the Church is ‘holy’. I had taken so much for granted and never really questioned anything. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I think I had an underdeveloped understanding of the importance of immanence.

When I look back over these years I realise that the tutors who had the most impact upon me were those who appeared to have integrated head and heart.  My ecclesiology tutor, Fr Joe Laishley sj, was one such man. His lecturing style was clear and rather gentle. I always had the sense that he had personally grappled with every issue he laid before us. He believed passionately in Vatican II and taught us the value of becoming very familiar with the texts of the documents and making our personal connections. I never really did this as a student.

One of the gifts of the set up at Heythrop was being able to celebrate the Eucharist as a student community with one of our tutor’s presiding. Fr Joe was a very unassuming presider. He lived out the model of priesthood which he taught. And for this I will always be grateful. You can read his article What is a Priest? here:

One of the biggest shocks to my system was attending lectures on Christology. It involved so many disciplines and I had competence in none of them. I struggled to read the Greek script of the very erudite Anthony Meredith sj and the complexity of the philosophical models underpinning the Christological controversies felt beyond me. It took me a while to find my Christological feet. Then came the lectures on models of Atonement and this is where I was most challenged. Up until that time the biggest influences on my understanding of Atonement came in the form of hymnody, art and the Stations of the Cross.

It’s probably this hymn more than any that shaped my understanding. At its simplest my understanding was this: Christ suffered untold agony because of my sins.

By the blood that flowed from thee
In thy grievous agony;
By the traitor’s guileful kiss,
Filling up thy bitterness;

Jesus, Saviour, hear our cry;
Thou wert suff’ring once as we:
Now enthroned in majesty
Countless angels sing to thee.

By the cords that, round thee cast,
Bound thee to the pillar fast;
By the scourge so meekly borne;
By the purple robe of scorn;

By the thorns that crowned thy head;
By the scepter of a reed;
By thy foes on bending knee,
Mocking at thy royalty;

By the people’s cruel jeers;
By the holy women’s tears;
By thy footsteps, faint and slow,
Weighed beneath thy Cross of woe;

By thy weeping Mother’s woe;
By the sword that pierced her through,
When in Anguish standing by,
On the Cross she saw thee die.

When we studied St Anslem’s theory of Satisfaction it all seemed very plausible to me. (Christ makes satisfaction to God for the sins of humanity.) This time my tutor was Anthony Baxter. I wrote an essay agreeing with St Anselm and thought I had done a pretty good job. In the tutorial I was called to defend the implied image of God. I had to admit defeat.

I am not a natural philosopher and found Philosophy of Religion lectures rather a tall order. Peter Vardy was incredibly dynamic and set a very high standard in essays, seminars and tutorials. My essays would come back to me with nearly a full page of ‘notes’. I needed to muster every bit of brain power I had for my tutorials and always ate a bar of chocolate before I went in. My most vivid memory was of an essay title ‘Does it make sense to talk of answered prayer?’ If I am honest, I was angry that this was set as a title and even angrier when I realized that the implied as was ‘No’. Nearly 37 years on I see the wisdom in asking the question.

At times it felt as if every piece of solid ground was crumbling beneath me. The one thing that felt certain was New Testament Greek. I loved it. Our tutor had a very dry wit and to a room that was perhaps 60% women the suggestion was made that we ‘put the list of irregular verbs on our shaving mirrors.’

Alongside my journey of theological discovery runs my faith journey. I’ll share this in my next post.

Becoming the Body of Christ

Part Two

Identity and Belonging

I don’t think you could really say that I had any great teenage rebellion. I tried to do the ‘normal’ things of clubbing mid-week, largely because it was half the price of the weekend rates. More than once I put a sachet of hair dye back on the shelf at Boots fearing that my auburn hair might combine with the dye to make something truly awful. My stating of who I was came in a slightly different form: I started going to daily Mass. I don’t remember paying particular attention to the words. I just liked being there. There were a handful of daily Mass goers and we formed a kind of unspoken community. We never spoke to each other. I’m pretty intuitive by temperament and often the atmosphere is all I need.

I began to notice that the daily Mass goers had huge leather bound books that weren’t Bibles. Those books were Breviaries. I didn’t feel quite in this league and so my prayer before Mass largely took the form of ‘wasting time’ with God. These daily Mass goers were also part of the growing charismatic prayer group. I was curious. One evening after Mass someone invited me along to the prayer group. There was a queue to get into the hall.

What I found here was truly a fusion of a whole new way of praying with many of the traditional elements of Catholicism. The prayer meeting used the full Rosary as its framework, with prophecies and singing between the decades. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything similar. There was a power in that room that I had never experienced before. Somehow it didn’t matter that I was the only 17 yr old there.

I was more or less oblivious to the dynamics of the core group and how weight was assigned to the prophecies that we heard. There were rumours of cures and many stories of people slain in the Spirit. I sat rather lightly to these phenomena preferring instead the readings from Scripture and the medleys of hymns that swelled the hall. The 12 string guitar was very much in favour and the sound of four guitarists plucking a melody seemed to transport me to a place of deep peace. The group had produced its own hymn book, with many hymns written by prayer group leader Fr Ciaran McDonnell. a former member of a rock band. Here was the fruit of his prayer and engagement with Scripture set to vibrant music. I treasured that hymn book.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing in the parish of the Holy Rosary: the charismatic phenomenon aroused suspicion and was easily stereotyped. There was a general feeling that long charismatic homilies weren’t a great idea. It was a fair point really as a lengthy teaching in a prayer group setting is wholly different to the homily at a Eucharist, even if both take Scripture as their beginning and end.

But there was another issue which was to bring a deeper unrest in the parish: the Medjugorje Apparitions. 1981 saw the beginning of these apparitions to Ivan, Ivanka, Jakov, Marija, Mirjana and Vicka. Members of the prayer group were captivated by the stories and part of each prayer meeting involved some sharing of the message. I was very familiar with Lourdes and Fatima and assumed that Medjugorje would be something similar. It wasn’t straight forward at all.  The messages to my ears painted a very black and white worldview and a strong message of the power of Satan. I was uneasy in a way that I couldn’t explain. And yet I wanted so much to belong to the prayer group.

I don’t think I really had the capacity to name the issues and to face them head on. In the end I didn’t have to because in 1984 I headed to London to study theology and my world was about to be turned upside down.

I share my experience because I think it shows that the categories ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ don’t really fit my experience of Catholicism in the North East in the 70s and 80s. I knew only my small corner where devotional life and charismatic renewal could blend in some ways but not in others. I wouldn’t have been able compare and contrast liturgy styles in the parishes of Sunderland, much less make a judgement on whether they were traditional or progressive. I’d only ever been to Mass in 3 of the 11 parishes in Sunderland. So defined was the parish model that it wouldn’t cross my mind to go another church.

Becoming the Body of Christ

Part One

“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekman OSB

I’ve spent the weekend riding the shockwaves of reactions to Traditionis Custodes. As you would expect, it’s a very mixed bag of responses with some very regrettable postings on both sides. As a Benedictine nun of 28 years I am always looking for the middle way. I don’t think I’ve found it yet. My thoughts haven’t come together into something that is a discernible whole, but I feel it is important to write something nonetheless.

Do read the full text here:

Early this morning the above quote from Godfrey Diekman came into my mind and just wouldn’t leave. It’s a rather provocative statement that just about encapsulates my understanding of Eucharist. I say ‘just about’ because I don’t think words can ever really fully express this mystery. I knew that I wanted to begin my post with these words and effectively nail my colours to the theological mast. I wanted to post a picture too as visuals always draw me into a piece of writing. I hit a problem. If you type ‘Eucharist’ into a picture website you’ll get pictures of a priest holding up a host, pictures of a loaf and grapes, pictures of a monstrance etc etc. Similarly if you type in ‘Church’ you’ll get buildings. I needed an image open to a broader interpretation. So then I had to think a little laterally and typed in ‘Worship’. Children sharing a hymn sheet at church seemed a good compromise.

My thoughts have been going in so many directions these past days and they are not very orderly. I have decided to group my thoughts under headings. I have also realised that it is almost impossible to read Traditionis Custodes in an objective way and come to neat and tidy conclusions. A strand of the subjective is almost inevitable and perhaps necessary as we try to find a way through.

The Parish Church
My thoughts begin with my own childhood in the North East, in my parish church of the Holy Rosary, in Sunderland. The church itself is on a slight hill and from it you can see the neighbouring parish of the Immaculate Heart. The names themselves give more than a hint of the ecclesiological climate at the time of their building. There was an unspoken rule that you went to Mass at your own parish and only in exceptional circumstances did you go to ‘the other parish’. Each church had a ‘Children’s Mass’, though I think it might be more accurate to say it was a Mass, to which large groups of children came. The Sisters of Mercy from Sunderland would come out to the parishes to be a presence at these ‘Children’s Masses’. In my time, it was Sr John and Sr Berchmans, who also taught at my primary school, St Cuthbert’s. The children would sit in the front benches and lead the singing. A sister would pace the aisle encouraging us to ‘sing up’. I absolutely loved this. We’d raise the roof with ‘By the Blood that Flowed from Thee’ and ‘God of Mercy and Compassion’. You might get a smile from the pacing sister which indicated nice singing and good behaviour: this meant the world to me. I felt that I belonged. But there was a niggle. My best friend wasn’t allowed to sit with me and the other children, she sat five benches back. When I asked about it she told me that they ‘went to Mass as a family’. I was confused. Were there two models operative? Had I chosen the right one?

From time to time we’d turn up at the ‘other parish’. This was another world entirely. Fr Andrew Hannon hadn’t embraced the liturgical reforms of Vat II. He wore a biretta and had a presiding voice which I found a little intimidating. He was reported to have said; ‘No one will ever touch my sacred vessels’. So there was certainly no Offertory Procession! But there was one part of the liturgy where things were far more interactive than my own parish: the sermon. As part of the sermon Fr Hannon would throw out Catechism questions to the children and await our answers. I had no idea just how nerve wracking this must have been for the sisters. They didn’t need to worry, some of us knew those answers backwards. (It would be great to have video footage of this. Did the adults swell with pride when they saw how the Faith was being passed on? Was this the essence of the Catholic Primary School?) Despite my almost flawless repetition of the Catechism answers, there was for me an undercurrent of something related to fear as the sermon approached. This of course was quickly forgotten as we raised the roof with ‘Faith of our Fathers’, ‘Full in the Panting Heart of Rome’ and ‘O Come to the Throne of Grace’. It was very common for the benches to start to empty before we’d sung the last two verses of the hymn. People headed to the Lady Chapel to light candles. My favourite dinner lady would be the first to leave her seat. There was something comforting about seeing the lady who would bandage my knee during the week so intent on her devotions.

I think at a young age I was learning that community mattered. I was also learning that our identity as Catholic could be expressed in different ways. In the 70s this seemed to work reasonably well. I don’t remember people choosing to go to another parish if they had difficulties with the priest or style of liturgy.

Liturgical Changes

I have no memory of Mass in Latin. My first encounter with Latin came at Benediction and the singing of ‘O Salutaris’. There were no service sheets, so I copied the sounds, swept along with the mystery and beauty of it all. I was open to anything.

My first memory of a significant liturgical change came when parishes started to offer communion in the hand. I remember a feeling of being slightly quizzed by the sisters at school as to what I had decided to do. I think I had a sense that there were two ways to receive and either one was okay. I was 8 yrs old by that time and fully understood reverence. I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing anything disrespectful. My paternal grandma sometimes came to Church with us. She wore a mantilla and always received Communion on the tongue. I didn’t question this. I don’t remember there being any sense that one way was more reverent than the other. By the time I reached secondary school receiving in the hand was the unquestioned norm.

In the 70s my parents were involved in something called ‘Family Circle’. They met with other Catholic couples in the evening, discussed ‘topics’ and appeared to feast on the very best biscuits money could buy. I had equal interest in the subject of their discussions and the quality of the biscuits. It all happened after my bedtime. I never found out what they discussed. From time to time a family would host a ‘house Mass’ and the children were allowed to stay up for this. This was a huge event for me. My father’s rosewood desk became the altar and a Danish silver sugar and cream set became the cruet set. The living room was full, with children sitting on the floor and a reverence fell upon us all. The priest’s voice that filled the church on a Sunday now filled my living room. I’d hold that memory for weeks. And afterwards the children had free rein on the biscuits.

I don’t think I have ever had an experience of Eucharist that compares with that. Christ present in flesh and blood, in my sitting room, filled my 9 yr old heart. This built my Eucharistic memory. Without Vat II none of this would have been possible.

Real where is matters: Dolly Parton and St Benedict

To look at me, you probably wouldn’t guess that I am a huge Dolly Parton fan. You could be forgiven for imagining that Gregorian Chant might be more my thing. I grew up in a household where Radio’s Two Country Time show on a Sunday night was a much a marker of Sunday as going to Mass. If I am honest, as a teenager I groaned each time a Country track came on the radio. But then in early adulthood I discovered a fondness for those lyrics that tug at your heart strings and those re-assuring harmonies. To my surprise I had absorbed many more of the lyrics during childhood than I realised.

Dolly’s appearance has always drawn a lot of comment and this is usually one of the first things people will mention when they let you know that they don’t like her. We all the know the stories of her upbringing in the Smokey Mountains and her hand me down clothes. Quite understandably as a little girl she longed for sparkle. She looks to have had every type of cosmetic surgery that you can imagine. But what’s really interesting is that she knows she looks fake. In the podcast interview below Dolly comments: ‘I know everything about me is fake, but I like to think I am real where it matters.’

I like to think that St Benedict would have recognised Dolly’s desire to be real where it matters. The monastic way of life strips us away physically and spiritually and the goal is to be our true selves, our real selves. At its best, monastic life makes you attentive to what lies beneath the surface. So a facelift and lots of rhinestones wouldn’t be a barrier to seeing the real person.

As the interview above unfolds I hear more and more resonances with St Benedict’s way of thinking. Dolly speaks of her experiences in life and comments:

I hurt a lot and when I hurt, I hurt all over because I cannot harden my heart to protect myself. I always say that I strengthen the muscles around my heart, but I can’t harden it.

If we put this in theological language Dolly is in fact talking about the Body of Christ. Being aware enough of the other to feel it inside ourselves is one of the things that makes us human. Connection is why we are here. In Ch 72 of his Rule St Benedict’s makes explicit what this level of connection might look like. The chapter is worth quoting in full:

On the good zeal that monks should have.

‘Just as there is an evil and bitter zeal that separates one from God and leads to hell, so too there is a good zeal that separates one from evil and leads to God and eternal life. Thus monks should practice this zeal with the warmest love: ‘Let them strive to be the first to honour one another.’ They should bear each other’s weakness of body and character with the utmost patience. They must compete with one another in obedience. No one should pursue what he considers advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others. They must show selfless love to the brothers. Let then fear God out of love. They should love their abbot with sincere and humble charity. Let then prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, and may he lead us all together to everlasting life.’

Here we have the whole spectrum of St Benedict’s understanding of love. This is training for the heart so that it doesn’t harden.

Dolly’s songwriting has been prolific, and as far as I know, she is still writing. She has taken her life’s experiences and worked them out in music. She has written songs about topics that were taboo and intentionally pushed the boundaries. Throughout it all she mindful of her humble beginnings in the Smokey Mountains. She’s very clear on what she learned and how she learned it. And this is shown rather poignantly in her hit, Coat of Many Colours. It maybe an idealised picture that she paints of her mother telling the Bible story of Joseph as she stiches a coat made from rags, but it’s clear that Dolly grew up with the Bible. Towards the end of the interview above Brene asks Dolly a round of quick fire questions. She asks her to name the items on her nightstand. Along with her tape recorder and book of meditations, her nightstand holds her Bible.

As I have become more interested in Dolly’s story, there’s one thing that stands out for me and moves me deeply. Dolly has been responsible for putting more than 150 million books in the hands of young children through her Imagination Library scheme. If you sign your child up to the scheme they will receive a book every month, from birth until the time they begin school. Dolly knows the power of story. Through her generosity she’s helping to unlock the potential of each child.

I need no further proof that Dolly is real where it matters. This is concrete love. St Benedict would recognise this.

A continuous Lent?

Unsplash: Annika Gordon

‘The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since, few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to make its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.’

Rule of St Benedict
Ch 49, On Lent

If you are new to the Rule of St Benedict and have just come across the quote above, you could be forgiven for thinking that monastic life is really for the spiritually elite and ordinary people need not apply. Nothing could be further from the truth. Monasteries are full of ordinary, fallible people trying to do the very best they can, with the people God has called into community. The Rule is a guide and support to help us to realise our full potential. And, as any teacher knows, if you set the bar quite high, some people will surprise themselves and discover strengths they never knew they had.

St Benedict is urging his community to do some monastic ‘sock pulling up’. Even though the horarium (monastic timetable) gives the monastic day a very clear structure, it’s quite easy to get a bit careless here and there. This might show itself in cutting corners in work and prayer, in a less than generous attitude to others and a general lack of focus. Someone looking in on the monastery may not notice these things at all, but the monastic knows when she has become careless. Lent gives us a chance to take stock and to re-focus.

So, if you feel rather weary at the prospect of giving something up, why not look at your daily routine and see if there are small changes that you could make to help you re-focus? These don’t have to huge things, but the cumulative effect can be quite surprising. Things done gently can often bear longer lasting fruits than our more Herculean efforts. I hear St Benedict’s image of ‘washing away’ our negligences as gentle, but firm. He’s not suggesting we set to with a scrubbing brush and some powerful detergent. Rather, I hear the image as water being poured over something and the dirt being dislodged by the force of the water.

For St Benedict the goal of all we do in Lent is ‘to look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’

So let’s make Lent a time of longing, re-focusing and gently preparing ourselves for the joy of Easter.