Tag Archives: monastery

30 August: Holy Leisure

The American writer Henry Thoreau claimed that we should not judge our wealth by the things we possess but by the amount of free time that we have.

By Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish chaplaincy. Welcome back, Eddie!

By Thoreau’s reckoning I’ve been pretty wealthy during the pandemic due in part to working from home. My working day used to involve three or four hours of commuting and so I’ve had that time for other things. After the first lockdown had eased I was cycling with a guy in my club called Steve who, pre-Covid, I would see from time to time on the train back from London. He said that previously at a quarter to five he would be clearing his desk and getting ready to head to St Pancras to catch the train. “Now,” he explained to me with evident delight, “I walk down the garden path to the shed to get my bike out and I’m off.” It was a bit the same for me last summer: down to the shed at the bottom of the garden, bike out and away. I needed something a bit different this year and the Korean study has filled up a lot of my free time nicely, although I’ve still relished the extra time for a variety of sporting and other pursuits.

St Augustine described the monastic life as otium sanctum, which can be translated as holy leisure. The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton touches on the theme of otium sanctum in his book ‘Spiritual Direction and Meditation’. Business is not the supreme virtue,’ he writes, ‘and sanctity is not measured by the amount of work we accomplish.’ That’s not to say that no work or business is conducted in a monastery. On the contrary, monasteries through the ages have been hives of activity, and you’re also as likely to find workaholics there as anywhere, Merton himself having been one of them! Yet, there’s a structure and a balance to the monastic day that gives time to work, time to pray, time to eat, time to read or study, time to rest, and time just to gaze upon the flowers in the fields. It’s the active in harmony with the contemplative, and a little sign that all of our time, ultimately, is a gift.

Having free time doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing but being perhaps less driven and more conscious and intentional about what we’re doing in any given moment. I like that the word leisure comes from the Latin licere, meaning ‘to be permitted’ or ‘to be free’. I also like one of the definitions of that Latin word ‘otium’: ‘leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, resting, contemplation and academic endeavors.’ The key, perhaps, is taking time to enjoy and savour each moment in the day, and to take pleasure in the world and in those around us; to sit on a bench, to smell a rose, to listen to the birds singing. It could even be experienced in the midst of  writing a report or a funding application, or when doing a 100 mile cycle ride! All is given, all is gift.

The key for Thick Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese monk and poet, is mindfulness. He counsels that when eating a tangerine, be aware that you are eating a tangerine! When drinking a cup of tea, be aware that you’re drinking a cup of tea! Just as in a Japanese tea ceremony, each step of the process is important and given the right amount of time and awareness: boiling the kettle, preparing the vessels, warming the pot, pouring the water, waiting for the tea to brew; and then sipping, smelling, savouring. Perhaps even giving a little thought and a blessing to those who grew the tea and picked and dried the leaves.

I’ll shortly have the great gift of two week’s of holiday in which Yim Soon and I will walk the West Highland Way in Scotland followed by Ben Nevis and then a few days on the Isle of Skye. I will consider myself the wealthiest person alive to have such otium sanctum and to be able to spend it in such a place and in such company.

Happy holidays (i.e. holy days) to everyone!

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17 January: Introduction to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity starts tomorrow. I have no idea what shared service might be possible, but we’ve been learning how to stay together in new ways for months now. If we cannot gather in each other’s buildings, we can pray together at Pope John Paul II’s ‘Altar of the World’.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2021 has been prepared by the Monastic Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland. The theme, “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit”, is based on John 15:1-17 and expresses Grandchamp Community’s vocation to prayer, reconciliation and unity in the Church and the human family.
The Grandchamp Community has its origins in Europe in the 1930s, when a group of women of the Reformed tradition sought to rediscover the importance of silence and listening to the Word of God. Today the community has fifty sisters, all women from different generations, Church traditions, countries and continents. In their diversity the sisters are a living parable of communion. They remain faithful to a life of prayer, life in community and the welcoming of guests.
In producing the material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for 2021, the sisters are inviting churches across the world to enter into their tradition of prayer and silence that is rooted in the ancient traditions of the Church catholic.

Jesus said to the disciples, “abide in my love” (John 15:9). He abides in the love of the Father (Jn 15:10) and desires nothing other than to share this love with us. The Father is the centre of our lives, who centres our lives. He prunes us and makes us whole, and whole human beings give glory to the Father.
Abiding in Christ is an inner attitude that takes root in us over time. It demands space to grow. It can be overtaken by the struggle for the necessities of life and it is threatened by the distractions, noise, activity and
the challenges of life.
We who know the full value of a spiritual life, have an immense responsibility and must realise it, unite and help each other create forces of calmness, refuges of peace, vital centres where the silence of people calls on the creative word of God. It is a question of life and death.

Agnellus Mirror will reflect some of the meditations and prayers suggested for each day of the week of prayer; let us pray today for the gift to be silent with others, allowing them room to speak or just be quiet with us.

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17 July: The tyranny of caprice, by Dr Johnson

Dr Johnson’s first sentence reminds us that the Catholic church was still regarded with suspicion in England in the 1740s, even if there was a growing degree of toleration. But he seizes a part of the monastic vocation in this paragraph, as well as presenting us with the mystery of death and dying. Right now, I would quit this life with reluctance, but I hope that I will be able to say my Nunc dimittis when the time comes. Meanwhile, free me from the tyranny of caprice, my own and other people’s!

“I do not wonder that, where the monastick life is permitted, every order finds votaries, and every monastery inhabitants. Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance. They are glad to supply by external authority their own want of constancy and resolution, and court the government of others, when long experience has convinced them of their own inability to govern themselves. If I were to visit Italy, my curiosity would be more attracted by convents than by palaces: though I am afraid that I should find expectation in both places equally disappointed, and life in both places supported with impatience and quitted with reluctance. That it must be so soon quitted, is a powerful remedy against impatience; but what shall free us from reluctance? Those who have endeavoured to teach us to die well, have taught few to die willingly: yet I cannot but hope that a good life might end at last in a contented death. ‘

From “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.

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25 May: Keeping on keeping on.

Eddie walks in the same bluebell woods as the family Turnstone

Eddie Gilmore of the Irish chaplaincy in London describes how he was coping with the discipline of working from home and not going up to the office. Read the whole article here.

My life in lockdown has become a bit monastic, and there’s a lot I like about that. There’s quite a nice, simple balance of work, prayer, meals, reading, recreation (much of that in the form of walking or cycling). I’m a bit more tuned in than usual to the subtle but magical changes in the natural world: the colours and the smells, the times of the day when the birds sing more loudly, the wonderful sight in the sky a few nights ago of a crescent moon underneath a brightly shining Venus.

Thank you Eddie for allowing us to use your writings! There will be a barbecue to end all this enforced confinement, but even now, let your heart be unconfined!

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10 March. Desert XIII: Wilderness.

City dweller Robert MacFarlane wondered if there were any wild places left in the British Isles, and he set out to find them. Often enough early Christian monks and hermits had been there before him; to islands and other inaccessible spots.

But what did he mean by wildness? Early in the book he discusses the idea:

Wildness … is an expression of independence from human direction, and wild land can be said to be self-willed land.  Land that proceeds according to its own laws and principles, land whose habits — the growth of its trees, the free descent of its streams through its rocks — are of its own devising and own execution. Land that … acts or moves freely without restraint; is unconfined, unrestricted.’*

Town and city dwellers live in human directed lands, concrete, brick and glass, but also most of the British countryside is farmed, drained, controlled. Can we find wilderness, to use the old Biblical world, without travelling to distant places?

We have to look for it nearer to home, in pockets and cracks. There are the weeds that devise and execute their own growth and spread, like traveller’s joy rooted on railway land. Or there are remnants of countryside, like the plum tree that Abel likes to hide behind; it is surely a sucker from a rootstock left behind when the orchard was grubbed up for housing in the 1960s, since its fruit is insignificant and unpalatable. There are overgrown cemeteries, like that in Mile End, full of life that is quite unexpected in London’s East End.

The wild tries to return, perhaps we should salute it and follow its example to revisit the corner of our heart that moves freely, without restraint: that is open to love, growth and renewal.

*Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places, London, Granta, 2007, p30.

 

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8 March, Desert XI: Fear 4.

mercy.ruin

Thomas Merton is living through the hotter part of the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis would blow up a year later; he had cause to be afraid. In the days before this diary entry,* bombers had been flying low over the Monastery of Gethsemane, his home. Thinking about US and world politics aroused:

… my own fear, my own desperate desire to survive, even if only as a voice uttering an angry protest, while the waters of death close over the whole continent.

Why am I so willing to believe that the country will be destroyed? It is certainly possible, and in some sense it may even be likely. But this is a case where, in spite of evidence, one must continue to hope. One must not give in to defeatism and despair, just as one must hope for life in a mortal illness which has been declared incurable.

This is the point. This weakness and petulancy, rooted in egoism. 

Defeatism and despair are rooted in egoism, and they are not necessarily good survival tactics. Let us ask the Lord for a taste of the perfect love that casts out fear and despair

Thomas Merton, Turning towards the World, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p162.

Image from CD.

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October 23. Month of Mission: Thoughts from my cell.

Another example of Mission is the Irish Chaplaincy. Here Eddie shares some thoughts on the prison ministry side of that work. Enough to read his article to know how important it is.

I awoke in my cell having had an interesting dream in which I was in a kind of social club with my guitar (the one mentioned in the last blog) playing ‘Country roads’ with lots of people singing along.

                 

It’s one of the songs I’d sung at a prison event a couple of days before, after one of the guys said he liked American country songs and sang a couple himself. He had a really good voice and wasn’t at all shy. None of the others, though, seemed too interested in singing and were happy to sit and chat with one another and with those of us from the Irish Chaplaincy, away from their cells for a blessed couple of hours.

I should explain that the cell I was in was at a monastery where I go regularly to spend 24 hours in silence, and I was particularly curious on that occasion why the monastic tradition gives the same name to the room of the monk as that used in prisons for the place of confinement. It was an interesting link to our Traveller event at Wormwood Scrubs, so too the dream.

Our event at Scrubs was surprisingly relaxed, especially considering that it was one of the hottest days of the year, when the tiny, airless cells must be like infernos. We were in the multi-faith room, with doors wide open (exceptionally) and fans whirring, and the space was laid out café style, with tables and easy chairs. There was a lot of pleasant conversation, a little bit of singing (not too much, and that was fine). And then there was the food: a feast of bacon and cabbage and potatoes, with lots left over for the guys to take back to their mates who hadn’t been able to attend (or to eat again themselves in their cells!). And after the meal there was chocolate and other treats that Breda and Ellena had brought. Several of the prisons staff came along, for they also enjoy and value our events, and it’s probably a bit of light relief for them too from the major challenges in running a prison today. Sarah the governor was there, with several of her senior staff, plus Zahid the head of Chaplaincy and Fr. Chima the RC chaplain. They’re all good people doing a good job, and I was a little sad to read in the news the following day that Wormwood Scrubs is on a list of 16 prisons judged by the MOJ to be of ‘serious concern’ (the Irish Chaplaincy has a presence in a few of those on the list). Years of under-investment and over-crowding have taken their toll; and when availability to drugs is thrown into the mix and prisoners locked in their cells for large parts of the day then there are some very dangerous and volatile situations created.

Following the food there was a group photo outside with everybody in great spirits, and then there was time to help people with a questionnaire about our ‘Travelling Forward Resettlement Project’. I was struck that in answer to the question about previous education most of the guys ticked ‘1’ (the lowest score), whilst for the questions about interest in training and in being helped to get a post-release job most ticked ‘5’ (the highest). And the majority of the guys needed somebody to write down the answers for them.

I don’t know what these men have done to end up in prison, and I don’t need to know. I simply enjoy the time with them; to share a meal together and a bit of craic. And they’re so appreciative of these events. For Travellers (people who are used to moving around and being out of doors) being confined to a small cell for prolonged periods must be a particular hardship.

As time was called on the gathering (the two hours having flown by) there were multiple handshakes and ‘thank you’ was said repeatedly. And then it was back to the cell. In my monastic cell, from which I could hear the gentle sound of rain through the open window and look out at the woods surrounding the monastery (and from which I could leave whenever I wished), I thought of those guys.

Eddie Gilmore

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May 31: R is for Rugeley

joseph etheldreda

Rugeley is a former mining town in Staffordshire, which used to have two coal-fired power stations; the second one closed in June 2017. One step towards cleaner air for the country and the planet.

Rugeley is also where Janet and I married, on this day, more than a few years ago in the Church of Saints Joseph and Etheldreda. One step forward together, and we’re still finding our way.

Unlike Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, but not the father of her child; and unlike Etheldreda (or Audrey) who was a Saxon Princess, Queen and Abbess, we got married in order to be and remain fully married and to accept the blessings of children.

Etheldreda was twice married for political reasons, but in each case she lived as a nun despite her married status – with her kingly husband’s consent each time. Except that her second husband eventually changed his mind.

Etheldreda did not change hers and ran first to Saint Ebba, whose monastery was just north of Berwick, across what is now the Scottish border, and thence to Ely, surrounded by marshes which hindered pursuit enough for her husband to  turn back to Northumberland.

Ely Abbey – for women and men, like Hilda’s Whitby – flourished under her leadership.

Let’s pray for the gift to hear what God is saying in our own hearts and the grace to follow his word.

And let’s pray that today’s church leaders will recognise the leadership gifts that many women have been given; and that innovative communities may flourish.

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January 29, Aberdaron VII: the beginning

aberdaron church leaflet3

We continue reading the guide to Saint Hywyn’s Church. It is sobering to sit in Canterbury and read that this church dates from the first half of the sixth century. Pope Gregory only sent Augustine to Kent in 597!

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15 May: Saint Carthage (c555-637)

st Carthage

Saint Carthage, whose day it is today, is also known as Mochuda. He was a humble swineherd from what is now County Kerry and after joining a monastery he was ordained a priest. His life is marked by a series of phases where he established churches and places of worship and pilgrimage only to be turned out after making successes of his endeavours. His demise each time was due to the jealousy of others. But he picked himself up, moved on and succeeded again someplace else and in doing so left a trail of churches and holy places. How often does God use the negativity of others to bring into fruition His plans for us.

As a Tertiary Franciscan I have been enamoured of the stories of the early Franciscan friars whose lives are detailed in the book called, Il Fioretti, or the Little Flowers of St. Francis. Often they were despised and accused of many things but Francis taught them that from such condemnation is perfect joy. Our natural instincts when we are criticised or gossiped about is to react and feel negativity in return. Yet by changing our reactive attitude and transforming it into a force for good we can transcend and so continue with greater energy our journey in Christ. After all, Jesus was the most perfect Son of God and did he escape jealousy and envy? Not a bit. In fact His essential truth and reality in Almighty God polarised, very quickly, all those he came into contact with.

So along with Mochuda and with Christ, let us take heart and be encouraged by any darkness of spirit from others and rejoice, for it is by these things we are marked as servants of God. And we may, just by our attitude, allow others who fear to become a little more positive themselves.

CW.

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