Maria Bambina

Micah 5:1-4
Matthew 1:1-16,18-23

My monastery of Turvey Abbey is affiliated to the Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto. We keep today’s feast as a Solemnity. I remember older sisters referring to this feast as Maria Bambina. It was not until I had the chance of a trip to Rome in September 2002 that I was to learn more of how the feast is celebrated there. I was attending a conference for Benedictines and September 8th was a free day. Some American sisters had been exploring the churches of Rome and came back with tales of cradles made from flowers, in which lay baby Mary. I drew back a little then from this Italian piety.

Twenty years later and I may have experienced a little shift within me. I am beginning to see the place which affective piety holds in the life of faith. I don’t think it really bears close analysis. There is something there which stirs the heart and speaks of the power of God’s promise.

In the liturgy of the Word today we are invited to reflect on the power of God’s promise. Prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah, Micah says that it is the smallest clan that God will use as his instrument of salvation. From the small and little known town of Bethlehem a ruler will be born. From this small town near Jerusalem we move to the equally insignificant town of Nazareth. Matthew doesn’t name the town, instead we have a text which situates Jesus in terms of lineage. Matthew’s carefully worked out schema neatly moves through salvation history, arriving at the all important verse:

and Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary;
of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.

Though it is neat on the page, this story of salvation is anything but neat in reality. Sr Maria Boulding speaks of this in her book, The Coming of God:

‘The story of Israel’s hope is a story not of smooth progress but of successive breakthroughs. God’s promise had been made to the people through Abraham, Moses, David, or one of the prophets.

Each time someone, or some people, had been asked to make a leap of faith and love in response to the one who promised, to break through a barrier, to be reborn to a new possibility. The result was a fuller life, a new level and sphere of existence, but at the cost of everything on this side of the barrier. It always meant a letting go, a dying to something that had been familiar, controllable, perhaps even perfect of its kind.’

Mary takes her places here as one whose life was fully at the disposal of God’s plan. She too had to die to something familiar in order to give birth to and be reborn into a new possibility. When we celebrate Maria Bambina we celebrate the potential that we have each held from the moment of our birth. We celebrate the potential that we each have to put our lives at God’s disposal.

Where is God calling you to a new possibility in your own life?

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 16:21-27

If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

There’s a scene in the Nun’s Story which is etched in my memory. Sr Luke, a young sister in First Vows, is asked by her Reverend Mother to intentionally fail her medical exams in order to show humility. She can’t do it and suffers the consequences when she is sent to work in a mental hospital rather than the Congo. Sadly this model of Religious Life was fairly prevalent. Those who study religious life refer to it as the Control Model. The structures were such that they could be used to break a person’s will. But is this what our Gospel text is asking today?

In all honesty I don’t think this is what Jesus or Matthew are intending to say. Matthew writes for a community who have already experienced persecution. When Matthew records Jesus’ words the hearers are invited to see their own sufferings as part of the dynamic of death and resurrection which Jesus experienced. Ultimately it is about where they place their focus. To ‘lose your life’ is not to obliterate your person, but rather to find in Christ’s death and resurrection the true meaning of your life. Largely we don’t need to go looking for penances or ways to make our crosses heavy. As our lives unfold there will be many circumstances which bring us suffering. The invitation to us all is to hold fast and to set our hearts on the tiniest glimmers of resurrection.

St Benedict makes no explicit mention of the cross in his Rule. However, the Rule is thoroughly Christocentric and in its pages you’ll find invitation after invitation to live out that self-emptying love (kenosis) which lead Jesus to the cross.

How can you choose self-emptying love this week?

Preferring Nothing to Christ (12)

Therefore we intend to establish a school of the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. Prologue

All aspects of monastery life are focused on seeking and serving God. I often speak of monastic life as an ‘intentional life’. Monastic life is an intentional training in love. Very little is left to chance. Three areas of the life are of particular importance.


The primary focus of a monastic’s day is the praying of the Liturgy of Hours. This strong emphasis on communal prayer is the hallmark Benedictine life.  St Benedict urges monastics to pray in such a way that the bonds of community are made stronger:

‘let us stand to sing the Psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.’ Ch. 19, The Discipline of Psalmody

The monastic liturgy is so arranged that everyone has their part to play. Some community members will have very specific roles in the liturgy and others will play their part by coming prepared and ready to sing. The contribution of each individual is valued. Monastic liturgy is never a musical performance, it is always an act of humble communal service.


St Benedict arranges the monastery timetable so that at least 5 hours are spent doing manual work. Many imagine monastic life as fairly sedate with not much activity: in fact, each day is timetabled and full. St Benedict wanted his monks to ‘live by the work of their hands’ and so have a sense of shared responsibility for the life of the monastery. The Rule gives very wise advice on how a monastic is to understand their work and warns the monastic against becoming proud:

‘If there are artisans in the monastery, they are to practice their craft with all humility, but only with the abbot’s permission. If one of them becomes puffed up with his skillfulness in his craft, and feels that he is conferring something on the monastery.
Ch. 57, The Artisans of the Monastery

There is a strong ethos in Benedictine communities of valuing each type of work. We try to do all of our work as best as we can, whether that is emptying the bins or writing a talk. We would also show respect for the work of another.


Throughout the Rule there is one central truth: Christ is really present in each member of the community. The love, respect and honour which we show to each other, we show to Christ. This love underpins all that happens in the monastery. Living with the same group of people day in day out isn’t always easy. St Benedict knows that irritations can build up and he has several safeguards against this:

‘Assuredly, the celebration of Lauds and Vespers must never pass without the superior reciting the entire Lord’s Prayer at the end for all to hear, because the thorns of contention are likely to spring up. This warned by the pledge they make to one another in the very words of this prayer: Forgive us as we forgive (Matt 6:12), they may cleanse themselves of this vice.’
Ch. 13, The Celebration of Lauds on Ordinary Days

St Benedict puts great store by the virtues of patience and forbearance. Daily life in the monastery presents many opportunities to work towards these virtues. I have used used Ch 72 several times in these reflections. It is the touchstone of mutual love and respect. St Benedict’s words are simple and hugely challenging:

This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.

Reflect on your own experience of prayer, work and relationships.
Is there anything in St Benedict’s teaching that can help you?

Preferring Nothing to Christ (11)

‘Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.’ (Ch. 72, On Good Zeal)

St Benedict began his life of faith in the small town of Norcia, just outside of Rome. As a young boy he was sent to Rome to study: he found himself unhappy there and so left for Affile, a small town roughly thirty miles east of Rome. It was here that he felt a strong call to solitude. He went to Subiaco and made his home in a small cave. It wasn’t long before word spread that there was a ‘holy man’ living at Subiaco. One day an entire community of monks from a neighbouring monastery came to see him and begged him to become their Abbot.

What had begun as Benedict’s solitary search for God, soon became a communal way of life. This search for God was now lived out with a group of brothers. The whole structure of the monastery is built on a life that is held in common. Benedict’s Rule is a guide for the communal search for God and much of it is his teaching on prayer, work and relationships. These are solid, practical guidelines that are designed to ‘safeguard love’.

‘The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.’ (Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)

St Benedict knows that the path can be difficult and so he has in mind two sources of strength for the community: his written Rule and the teaching of the Abbess. The Rule gives explicit and implicit guidelines for living together. It is the Abbess’ job to steer a steady course between following the Rule and adapting to the particular circumstances of the monastery.

Reflect on your own experiences of living and working as part of a group or family.
What have you learnt about yourself? What is your experience of following rules or a code of conduct? Have you ever been in a leadership position where you have had to adapt some rules? Have you had the experience of being able to safeguard love?

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 16:13-20

The whole of Scripture charts the call of God and humanity’s response. We see this in the major events that shaped the faith of the people of Israel. God’s plan inches forward, with many twists and turns along the way. At every turn God waits for a response. Everything is played out through relationship.

In today’s Gospel text the story of our salvation reaches another milestone. It’s from a place of real relationship that Jesus asks Peter one of the most poignant questions in the Gospels:
‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said, ‘the Son of the living God.’ 

In one sentence we see the depth of Peter’s relationship with Jesus. Jesus acknowledges this relationship with words that affirm:

‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. 

Biblical scholars refer to this text as the Primacy of Peter and much theological discourse is built around these verses. In my own mind I have reframed this text as the Primacy of Relationship. Peter stands for each one of us. We can each stand where Peter stands and hear these challenging and affirming words.

God builds the Kingdom, of which the Church is a part, with the fabric of our lives. Nothing is wasted. Each courageous act, each faltering yes, God will take and use.

How can you live the values of the Kingdom this week?

Preferring Nothing to Christ (10)

The seventy three chapters of the Rule of St Benedict are a framework for living in community. Every aspect of monastery life is covered, sometimes in detail that is a little surprising. Some parts of the text are very demanding and others are tender and considerate. This strictness is seen by St Benedict as means of ‘safeguarding love’. I hadn’t given this much thought until I entered the monastery. Over the years I have learnt that faithfulness in the small things prepares you for the big things. All of the attitudes, values and ways of organising life within the monastery walls are there to provide a framework that will support you. This is especially important when things aren’t going so well. Having a clear idea of the next right thing you need to do ensures that love is safeguarded.

St Benedict devotes several chapters of his Rule to the situations where love is at risk.

Therefore, he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overcome with sorrow.
(Ch 27, Rule of St Benedict)

St Benedict makes use of ‘elder wisdom’ for the brother who is struggling. He is careful to protect the privacy of the brother. These two things stand out for me. Everyone of us will have known a time when we have needed some mentoring. Often its by chance that the right person is there to help you find a way through your difficulties.

Who have been the senpectae in your own life?
Have you ever found yourself in a mentoring role? What did you learn about yourself?

Photo by Sorin Gheorghita on Unsplash

St Bartholomew

John 1:45-51

That we know almost nothing about St Bartholomew (Nathanael) is perhaps a little liberating. There is space for our imaginations to read between the lines in the very short text from John. There are four things that I glean from this text: Nathanael is not afraid to make his point, he responds to an invitation, Jesus knows him, Jesus makes him an extraordinary promise.

I have a lot of sympathy with Nathanael needing to question Phillip’s certainty on having found the Messiah from Nazareth. Often when I question it is because something has unsettled me.

The moment of response to an invitation often marks the beginning of a new stage on our faith journeys. When I look back over my life I can pinpoint the times where I was invited to events, sometimes at quite short notice, that began to change my life. Nathanael has opened himself to God’s grace and change is inevitable.

That Jesus knows him and can say of him; ‘There is an Israelite who deserves the name, incapable of deceit.’ stops me in my tracks. And I find myself wondering what Jesus would say of me.

The promise that Jesus makes to Nathanael, ‘I tell you most solemnly, you will see heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.’ is a vision of glory. Nathanael will witness Christ’s passion and resurrection before he fully understands what this means. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Our discipleship can take so many forms. Let’s pray that today the Psalmist’s words can be said of us:

“Your friends, O Lord, make known the glorious splendour of your reign.”

Preferring Nothing to Christ (9)


It has often been said that the one of the reasons why the Rule of St Benedict has continued to inspire people is because of the simple humanity that we find in its pages. St Benedict lays out a way of life that he wants to be within the reach of anyone who deeply desires to follow the monastic path. He speaks of a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ where nothing is ‘too harsh or burdensome’.

Of course, this does not mean that the monastic path is easy or can be undertaken in a half-hearted manner. Our model for all that we do is the person of Christ. Everything that we undertake, whether it be large or small, easy or difficult, has Christ as its focus. The monastic path is counter cultural: it is only LOVE that makes sense of it all.

In a chapter which is considered to be the spiritual heart of the Rule, St Benedict articulates ideas which could also be considered to be his manifesto on love:

‘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. This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 10:12) , supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers, to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.’

Ch 72, On Good Zeal

We are to image Christ by putting others first, by considering their good and not our own. The community becomes for us a place where we can learn and practice this art of following Christ. We take up the challenge to live rooted in Christ, with a listening ear, a discerning heart, able to hear and respond to the call of the Spirit.

As the monastic path unfolds we will need to grow in ‘fervent love’, ‘pure love’, ‘loving fear’ and ‘unfeigned and humble love’. Each of these asks something a little different.

Where can you see these different forms of love in your own life?
How have you been able to grow in love?
Where do you most need to grow in love?

Preferring Nothing to Christ (8)


Much of the Rule of St Benedict is concerned with the practicalities of living in community. St Benedict values good order and urges that things be so arranged that ‘the strong have something to yearn for and the weak have nothing to run from’ (Ch 64). Christ is implicitly honoured in every aspect of monastery life. But two areas of daily life are singled out as special opportunities for honouring Christ: care of the sick and the welcoming of guests.

Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may be truly served as Christ, for he said: I was sick and you visited me (Matt 25:36) and what you did for one of these least brothers you did for me (Matt 25:40).
(Rule of St Benedict, Ch 31)

Commenting on this chapter of the Rule Sr Aquinata Bockmann says:

Benedict emphatically refers to Christ. He is present in the sick whether the sick person shows himself worthy or not, whether he is virtuous or not. In order to serve Christ one is not required to examine whether the person really represents Christ by his virtue. By the fact that he is the ‘least’ and so is in need of help, Christ is present.

It is not just the physically sick who require particular attention. Benedict also makes provision for the wayward:

The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matt 9:12)
(Rule of St Benedict, Ch 27)

The actions of the compassionate and merciful Christ are implicit in all of St Benedict’s directives. The compassion and mercy that is to be fostered in the enclosure of the monastery is not an end in itself. Each member of the monastic community is tasked with making this concrete when guests arrive:

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matt 25:35)
(Rule of St Benedict, Ch 53)

In the ordinary running of a monastery certain sisters will carry the work of being a ‘Guest sister’. They will be the guest’s first contact. There is, however, an implicit understanding that everyone in the monastery contributes to this work. Christ is implicitly welcomed in all that we do in the monastery.

Look back over your week. How have you welcomed Christ?

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 56:1,6-7
Matthew 15:21-28

Over the years in monastic life I have gradually gathered a set of personals tools to help me engage with Scripture. Some of these tools involve close analysis of the text and some are more obviously creative. I have learnt the value of stepping back from a passage and seeing it in the context of the whole Gospel. If you read through the Gospels systematically and focus on the texts where woman speak you’ll find you have a fairly small list. This has encouraged me to pay very close attention to what is said and how it is said.

As is often the case, the woman in today’s passage is unnamed. What is significant for Matthew is that she is a gentile, a Canaanite woman. Hearers of Matthew’s Gospel will already have had their ears tuned to the part that Gentile women played in the story of salvation. Matthew’s genealogy contains four women who were either Gentile or became associated with the Gentile world: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. That Matthew names these women and by implication their complex stories heartens me.

When I come to look closely at today’s text I hear the Canaanite woman’s dialogue with Jesus as part of the tradition of the bold and brave women who have already shaped our story of salvation. Their faith and tenacity mattered. That the woman argues with Jesus and appears to win speaks to me of an adult faith where there is room to question and argue. The Penny Catechism of my childhood had everything laid out in such a watertight way. It was only in adulthood that I dared to ask ‘But what if…?’

The Canaanite woman comes to plead for her sick daughter. She is deterred neither by Jesus’ silence nor by his stating of his mission: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ Jesus sees her. He sees her faith. Her plea is granted. She now takes her place among the women whose lives and faith have shaped salvation.

Can you picture yourself like the woman pleading with Jesus?
For whom would you plead?