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.

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support from the saints

I was very glad to read a post about parenting that draws on St John Chrysostom and St John Bosch–and recommend it in the very highest terms to all parents, actually. Not only can Christians (especially Catholics, perhaps) learn from the wisdom of the saints, but the advice is practical and makes good sense. Reward good behaviour; it’s more effective. Remember that a ‘reproachful look’ communicates censure as well as a blow–if not better. And never resort to ‘the birch’ out of anger; that’s not disciplining the child but giving way to temper.

Excellent stuff. And it helps me especially, because I have long been slightly uneasy with St Benedict’s advice: ‘If a brother has been reproved frequently for any fault…yet does not amend…let him feel the strokes of the rod’ (RB 28). What? Finding that recommendation took me by surprise, and I have wrestled with it as a parent who looks to St Benedict as a guide in prayer, Christian practice, and parenting. The qualities of the abbot and the cellarer seem desirable for parents as well. But this counsel–not so much.

The counter-argument from St John Bosco is most welcome: ‘force, indeed, punishes the guilt, but it does not heal the guilty.’ Good parenting advice from those whose ‘parenting’ was spiritual rather than biological.

Deo gratias.

trying too hard

That is, I find myself trying too hard at the wrong things, sometimes, and not hard enough at the right things. My noviciate in the blogosphere has taught me that I am most emphatically not alone. If I am unique (yes, I know, we all are), it is because I am a unique combination of shared experiences, concerns, ideas, gifts, and needs, each of which I have in common with countless others. This is a Good Thing, though it doesn’t always seem so; and the response to feeling ‘ordinary’ is not always a healthy one.

What worries me about my adventure in this sphere is that it sometimes seems to be about being noticed. So I have been thinking a lot about popularity, and the pitfalls of popularity. I was encouraged and challenged this morning by wise reflections on the Rule of Benedict from Sr Catherine (@Digitalnun): the gifts we have been given must be exercised in humility and love in order to make us, as she says, ‘great’. But even this greatness doesn’t make for popularity. Sometimes gifts are exercised wonderfully well in small places. Sr Catherine drew from Chapter 31 of Benedict’s rule: the instructions to the cellarer, which I have always found inspiring as a parent.

One of my take-away phrases, which I have on the fridge, is ‘fratres non contristet’: do not upset the brethren. (It just looks better in Latin on the fridge.) St Benedict is explaining how to respond to an unreasonable request. Not harshly, he says, but gently. If the request is outrageous, the response should not be so, lest the brother or sister be upset by the refusal. Now this, I submit, is a key element of parenting: seventeen outrageous requests before breakfast, right? At least that’s how it is around here sometimes. The gifts of the cellarer, and those of the parent, are gifts exercised in small spaces, in the house or the car; sometimes in the grocery store or at the park or the library. Parental greatness is a huge, and hugely important quality, but it doesn’t often get recognised beyond the confines of the family. Greatness of this sort doesn’t always get you noticed.

I am not a great parent. I do not always succeed in responding calmly and gently to the most outrageous requests. Sometimes I do ‘great’ things: I find everyone’s PE kit, even the missing shoe, and the ‘lost’ reading book, and all this before the dreaded leaving-for-school time. To do that cheerfully is to exercise the very simple gift of attentiveness in the way I ought to. Although my sons and husband happily repeat after me, ‘mum is awesome’, I’m not winning any medals, not acquiring more followers on twitter, or on this blog. No speaking requests are coming my way because I sent my daughter off to school with everything she needed, and did it with a smile.

It is too easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking that the measure of my success, my ‘greatness’, is somewhere in cyberspace, or on my CV, or in teaching evaluations. And truly there is something to that (especially that last thing, I think): I have gifts to exercise in teaching and writing, and I ought to do what it takes to do well at my job. But if I want somewhere to practice exercising my gifts with humility, in love, I am better off digging in the cupboard for the missing shoe: no pretensions to grandeur there! When I have tried hard enough at the small things, perhaps I will be less prone to try too hard at the ‘big’ ones.