not the usual Sunday night Compline

Usually, we say compline together each evening. And most evenings we follow basic form set out for the office, the way the nuns sing it at Minster Abbey. We have our own prayer that stands in for the hymn, one the children learned at school and like to say.

I thought as our 9-year old is about to make his first confession, that we might talk a little bit more about the examination of conscience that normally occurs just at the beginning of Compline. So last night I did.  We followed our brief conversation with the confiteor, which we don’t often say. Afterward, my 9-year-old observed that the language includes asking ‘brothers and sisters’ to pray for us. This sparked a further conversation about the relationship between members of the body of Christ: although in the context of our family, I am the mother and they the children, in the family of God, we are all brothers and sisters.

Suddenly they were all attentive. Not only that, I said (taking advantage of this miraculously teachable moment): you have a very special place within the body of Christ, as children. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing with each other about who was the greatest, he put a child in the midst of them, and told them that unless they became like little children, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Amazement. We talked a little bit about what it was about children that was so important to Jesus. Not their crazy antics (mine are especially prone), but some key qualities. The one we spoke about was a capacity for awe and wonder. My 9-year-old interjected something about a really huge snake. Exactly! Awe and wonder. Of course there are other things, but the teachable moment is just that, at least with my children: a moment.

After that we veered off course slightly, according to the rubrics. We each said a ‘God bless’ or a ‘thank you, God’ and said a Hail Mary, at the 4-year-old’s request. Then we had the nunc dimittis and final prayer. As I prepared to play the Alma redemptoris mater (we like the Marian antiphon for the season), I realized there was a problem. Just as I was about to be frustrated, one suggested (again the 9-year-old) that we simply stand around the prayer table and look at the candles. So we did. It was the most beautiful silence I have ever experienced. It was not only quiet, but peace.

Deo gratias.

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I’ve got your back

At least that’s what I thought she said. I hadn’t really expected anyone to speak to me just then, as I was leaving the chapel after Mass. So I only just picked up on the fact that someone was talking to me towards the end of the sentence. I apologized to Sr Johanna, who repeated, ‘It’s nice to have you back.’

It was nice to be back at the Abbey, particularly as I was able to be there for vigils, lauds and Mass on the feast of St Benedict. Lucky me! I giggled a bit to myself later, thinking how incongruous it would have been for Sr Johanna to say ‘I’ve got your back.’ But it wouldn’t have been untrue. At least that’s what I think about monastic life. Wherever I happen to be, whether or not I am able to join in, I know that the nuns are praying, seven times a day, for all of us.

I’m grateful for my regular visits; the time I spend in the abbey is a precious gift. I am also grateful, for the abbey–maybe more grateful–when I am not there. When I am not there, especially immediately after a visit, I find myself noticing when it’s time for lauds, or none, or compline. I am always happy if I manage to say compline with the children at 7:50–that’s when compline happens at the abbey.

Still, sometimes life gets busy, and I forget that the office is being sung. Even then–perhaps especially then–those praying have ‘got my back.’

Deo gratias.

the Lady Chapel

At the far right of the image above, a corner of a postcard is just visible, showing a bit of stone floor. Not just any stone floor, though: the floor of the Lady Chapel at Minster Abbey. I’d never heard of ‘thin places’ before the first time I went to Minster, but it is thin all over, and the Lady Chapel particularly so.

I always knew I would appreciate Benedictine spirituality. Before I had ever visited a monastery, I thought one day I would want to be an oblate. (Still hasn’t happened yet.) Nothing I imagined even came close to the reality of being there. The train journey from my home in the north of England takes about 5 hours and involves at least 2 changes, one of which happens in London (between Kings Cross and St Pancras). So when I arrived in Minster the first time, I felt like I was a long way from home (especially because the journey took a couple of extra finding-my-way hours).

And so I was: a long way from anything I had ever experienced before. The daily office–the rhythm of Benedictine prayer–was new to me. Nuns were new to me. Yet somehow the place felt like home almost immediately. Because I was on an individual retreat, I had no schedule other than the appointed times for prayer, and no ‘input’ apart from the daily office and Mass. In my little room, there was a Bible and a small copy of the Rule of Benedict.

Little did I know that reading Benedict’s Rule would change my life as much as anything ever has. That weekend, I was a woman adrift, looking for a spiritual beacon. That little book–hardly more than a pamphlet–convinced me that the spiritual life was for me. Not that I really doubted; it’s just that I had wondered since college whether I would ever recover the sense of purpose that I had as a member of an evangelical (and I mean that in the telling-people-about-Jesus sense, not the Christian brand-name sense) community. Being a mother of (then) three children and holding down a job as a lecturer didn’t leave much time for the intensive Bible study or hour-long quiet times I’d had all those years ago. But that was when it all seemed so vibrant and essential.

Benedict’s Rule is for monastic communities, true. But it is about how daily life is spiritual, and how to live it in a way that makes each seemingly insignificant task an act of Christian discipleship. That weekend, I learned a Latin phrase: ‘fratres non contristet.’ It comes from the instructions to the cellarer. If a brother comes to you with an unreasonable request, Benedict counsels, refuse him gently, so as not to upset (contristet) the brethren (fratres). Being a mother involves refusing countless unreasonable demands on a daily basis, at least in my house. The challenge was, and is, to make every response–yes, no, or maybe–an act of love.

That is what Benedict taught me that weekend: fratres non contristet. Every time I go into the Lady Chapel at Minster, I recommit myself to the goal of gentleness in daily life. Even with those words in large letters on my refrigerator, I forget. I forget that discipleship happens in the little things, as we do them with love. I forget that Jesus taught us more on the cross than in all the words he said. I love that saying floating around the internet at the moment: ‘if you have to chose between being right and being kind, be kind.’ Indeed. That is, to me, what gentleness is all about. But it is a lot harder than it seems! So back to the monastery I go, to find myself again in the Lady Chapel, to be in peace and grace and regulated quiet long enough to accept the fact that I have to begin again.

fratres non contristet.

Monday of the third week in Lent

I didn’t think I could do it, today. It has been one of those days–a spiritual and psychological sluggishness has dogged me all day. But the story of Elisha and Naaman inspired me, and reminded me why I am doing this. Hint: it’s not fame or money… See the post at thinking coram Deo