Retreat

This summer I spent a few days in Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, the only medieval monastery in the UK which is still being used for its original purpose.

I simply didn’t know what to expect, beyond the fact that the womens’ guesthouse was in an isolated spot some distance from the main abbey and that I would have to bring my own food.

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Arrival

A taxi from Elgin was the only way to get there without a private car although I later realised that there is a pilgrim walking path which I would try to take next time. The taxi left the town and was soon travelling through wood and farmland along winding single-track road.

The driver, perhaps a little worried about leaving me outside the abbey when there was no-one in sight, set me down by the front entrance and rang the bell. A sleepy-looking monk appeared, muttered something about ‘meridian’ (which I later learnt was afternoon nap), and gave me a key to the women’s guesthouse.

The guesthouse was at the end of a track beside a large field. Each of the rooms bore the name of a saint. I chose St Clare, because she had been a friend of St Francis of Assisi, dumped my bags on the floor and burst into tears with relief that I had got here and could finally rest.

The last year has been difficult. When faced with challenges, I have learnt that I simply can’t operate without prayer. However, sometimes I don’t pray or don’t make it a priority. The week before going to Pluscarden had been particularly busy trying to finish things before I left, some of which could have waited. By the time I reached the Abbey, my nerves were so jangled that I couldn’t have gone on another day.

My first prayer was that my own state of un-peace would not disturb this peaceful place.

Awe

Bells rang out to announce each office. On first seeing the medieval church with its grey, stone walls, gothic arches and stained glass windows, I simply felt awe. The daily Bible readings during Mass are read out in English. Apart from that, everything else is in Latin although there are leaflets for each Office with the Psalms both in Latin and in English.

The Psalms are sung in Gregorian chant which after a while seemed to get inside me and go through my mind like the rhythm of prayer, even when I wasn’t in the church.

More than the building itself, I was impressed by the monks’ faith. Apart from producing their own food and some products, such as honey, to sell, they don’t have any way to earn money. And yet they open up their home to guests without charging any fee although donations are gratefully accepted. That takes faith.

The monastery was founded in 1230 and a community lived there for over 300 years until Scotland separated from the Catholic church in 1560 when it fell into private hands. By the twentieth century, it was a roofless ruin. However, the current owner, the Marquis of Bute, offered it to the Benedictine Community in Prinknash, England.

In 1948, five monks went north to live in the ruined abbey. Somehow, while spending five hours a day praying the Divine Office, these monks oversaw the restoration of the Abbey. As one monk said to me, ‘If they hadn’t prayed eight times a day, very little would have got done.’

Overwhelmed

In Pluscarden, everything revolves around prayer. On the website, the Prior says, ‘We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do.’

To say I was completely overwhelmed by the formality and beauty of the prayers and the solemnity of the Latin Mass would be an understatement.

Just as they had in Rome, my Protestant criticisms rose again. Was I really part of a church which spoke Latin, and made liberal use of the incense burner and holy water shaker? Why did the church expect its monks to pray seven times a day and rise once in the night for prayer? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? And while I was at it, I might as well have a go at the rules governing Catholic laypeople, the Sundays and the Holy Days of Obligation. My Protestant voice told me to pick and choose, take the bits I was comfortable with and leave the rest, whilst my agnostic voice told me to step back, view it from a distance without getting too involved or committed.

I didn’t expect to be assailed by doubts in a monastery, but that’s sometimes what happens when you take time to be still and another layer of doubt and mistrust is uncovered.

Refuge

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I overcame my doubts (with some help!)

During the Latin Mass, I listened for the bell and the words of the consecration as the priest lifted up the bread and wine, and I felt more peaceful. Christ was here. God is transcendent, but also immanent.

Compline was my favourite office, the last of the day, when we sat in the candlelit church for a few moments silence before an act of contrition and a Psalm. It ended with an anthem to the Virgin Mary. As a former Protestant, I struggle with devotion to Mary. How much is too much? How can focussing on Mary bring me closer to her son. However, sitting in a medieval chapel in the evening listening to the monks sing Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) sent goosebumps up my spine and left me with a sense of peace.

During my time in Pluscarden, I often thought of ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, a convert and Cistercian monk. He describes saying the Rosary with the other monks as they returned from the fields and says, ‘Who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!’

I felt gratitude that there was such a place as Pluscarden. Surely some of these prayers must overflow, not just to guests, but to the wider world. It was also a place where I began to learn about recognising grace in the small things in life.

Take away

What will I take away? Calmed nerves and an increased feeling of peace, but that won’t last unless I continue in prayer. The monks’ witness is strong. I’ve seen what can happen if you make prayer a priority: medieval ruins can be rebuilt and become a refuge for Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or none at all.

I’ll also bring back an appreciation of the Divine Office, the challenge and delight of praying the Psalms and the words of the Prior when he paraphrased St John of the Cross and said that our mission as Christians is to ‘have faith where there is no faith, hope where there is no hope and love where there is no love.’

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On flowers and small things

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Today I am thinking about a young woman who compared herself to a flower, not a grand, showy one like a rose or a lily, but a simple violet which grows close to the ground. I am talking, of course, about St Therese, otherwise known as the Little Flower, whose saint’s day was celebrated yesterday.

She was born into a middle-class French family, entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of fifteen and died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. Until her death and the publication of her memoirs, hers was a hidden life. She didn’t die a martyr or travel to distant countries proclaiming the Gospel. Her heroism lay in carrying out small acts with great love, such as helping a grumbling, old sister to walk to the refectory, patiently putting up with the strange noise another sister made at prayer or seeking out the company of the people she found least attractive and most difficult.

She compared herself to a weak little bird which was determined, despite its smallness, to head towards the light of the divine. She also described herself as a small  paintbrush which Jesus used to paint the details into his pictures.

Acknowledging weakness

Rather than pretending a strength she didn’t possess, or giving up and saying that she was too small and frail to be used by God, she acknowledged her weakness. Realising the impossibility of reaching God by her own strength, she held out her arms and asked Jesus to pick her up. For that she must be small and humble. In this way, she allowed God to turn her weakness into a strength.

When she was asked to give instruction to the novices, she wrote that she flung herself into God’s arms and told Him that she felt that this work was beyond her strength. However, if He wanted to use her, then she asked Him to fill her hands, to that she could reach out and feed his children without for one moment ceasing to cling to Him.

Recently I have often been thinking of this image of St Therese clinging to God. There are phases in our lives when God allows us to coast along on what appears to be our own strength, and other phases when God allows us to see that we are really nothing without Him. I’m at a stage in my live when what I am expected to do seems to be beyond my strength. I am trying to return to work after having children, and struggling to learn a new job. Some days, I just don’t know how I’m going to keep on doing this. All I can do is acknowledge my weakness and my utter dependence on God.

Doing small things with love

Thomas Merton’s friend Bob Lax said that the aim of every Catholic should not just to be a good Catholic, but to become a saint. St Therese shows that it is possible for anyone, however, small and limited their life, to become a saint by doing small things with love.

When I was younger, I had a career, I travelled the world, I went to conferences and meetings. Now my life is quite different. It is enclosed by a bracelet of small things which simply have to be done: washing the dishes, shopping for food, walking the dog, washing the dog because she’s rolled in something unsavoury (again), cleaning the floor because someone has left a mess on it (again).

It is hard not to get fed up and grumble and sigh. However, rather than becoming annoyed and impatient, St Therese saw these small sacrifices as an opportunity to detach herself from self-love and turn towards God.

I can’t do any big, heroic acts, but the life of the Little Flower gives me hope that God will give me the strength to do small things with love.

Honour

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Three temptations

Bishop Robert Barron in his book ‘Catholicism’ says that humans face three great temptations: sensual pleasures (including money), power and pride. He goes on to show how Jesus was tempted in each of these ways and overcame them, after his forty days in the desert.

I have recently been reading ‘Selfish Society’ by the parent-infant psychotherapist Sarah Gerhardt who identifies three very similar traps. She shows how babies who fail to develop a nurturing bond with a parent or parent figure in the early years of their lives will often try to compensate later on by pursuing material wealth, power or recognition.

She uses research on attachment in babies and the latest advances in neuroscience to show that small babies need a close, nurturing relationship in order to develop empathy and a genuine concern for others. Unfortunately, many parents struggle to develop good relationships with their babies due to the hurt that they themselves received as children as well as pressures from wider society. Sarah Gerhardt gives an interesting analysis of how society has developed to put pressure on parenting and family relationships.

I am getting a lot more from reading ‘Selfish Society’ than from the parenting handbooks which cajoled me into becoming a better, more efficient parent, and left me feeling inadequate when their advice didn’t ‘work’. It has helped me understand why I have struggled at times to build loving relationships with my children.

No longer the golden girl

Out of the three temptations, my weak point is seeking honour and recognition. I don’t like power (although I can sometimes be a control freak) and am indifferent to money as long as I have enough to pay the bills (which is perhaps not as indifferent as I should be). However, a substantial part of me wants to be admired and praised and throws a stooshie (creates havoc) when I amn’t.

Before having children caught up with me, I was very career-focussed. I strove for excellence in my work and received praise and recognition. Sometimes I received awards without even being aware that there was some kind of competition. I worked hard, and although I remained a smallish fish, I was proud of myself for swimming upstream like a salmon and with great effort flinging myself over the rocks into the big pond.

I took it all for granted, until I became a mother. Despite working as hard as I could, the honours and praise began to dry up. Eventually I exchanged an exciting career to become the family cook, bottle-washer and bum-wiper. I was no longer the golden girl, and on top of that I was getting wrinkles! My recent attempts to return to work, have meant retraining and starting again at the bottom.

You’d think that these experiences might have made me indifferent to honour, but, no, it’s still alive and kicking, like an ageing popstar who is past it, but still poses in a tight, shiny outfit that shows off rolls of fat.

One voice among many

Writing a blog is another temptation to seek honour. A part of me wants to collect likes and followers and readers, and thinks that I have failed when I don’t. Another part of me, knowing what the first part is like, has wondered whether it is wise to venture onto the internet at all. All the thoughts I had about becoming a Catholic threatened to boil over if I didn’t do something about them. I wrote the first draft of this post early one morning when I woke up with thoughts turning round in my head. Sometimes I have no peace until I write them down.

Instead of seeing the internet as an online space where I jostle with other people for a little bit of attention, and possibly praise, I’ve begun to turn this on its head. The internet is a way for many people to express themselves, including those who might otherwise have no way to share their thoughts and feelings. The apparent randomness of internet search engines and WordPress readers allows one voice to momentarily be heard and then sink back into the crowd.

When I thought about blogging in this way, I felt relief. I don’t want to stand out, at least, the deeper, wiser part of me doesn’t. All I really want is to express what I am thinking, and if that makes a connection with someone else, well and good, and if it doesn’t, that’s also fine.

I’ll end with a quote from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ in which he describes his first impression of the Trappist monastery which eventually became his home. Oh, and by the way, please don’t like this post (even if you do)!

The logic of the Cistercian life was, then, the complete opposite to the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward, so that the most excellent is the one who stands out, the one who is eminent above the rest, who attracts attention.

But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis Gloria ejus filiae regis ab intus.

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!

Rushing around

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I’m trying to recover over Christmas from a very busy and rushed period of my life. A while ago, I read with total absorption ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the story of Thomas Merton’s conversion and entry into the Gethsemane community of Trappist monks. There were some things I could relate to in the events reading up to Thomas Merton’s conversion. He had come from a background in which there was very little religion. Although my upbringing was saturated in religion, I had turned away from it and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the church. In his case and mine, the call to grace came sudden and unexpected, although many little things led up to it.

However, I felt that I couldn’t relate to what happened after Thomas Merton was received into the church. In fact, I became quite jealous of the freedom, support and opportunities he had to explore Catholicism. When he became Catholic, he was a graduate student with a fairly flexible timetable. This allowed him to start each day with Mass and Communion. He wrote:

After the spiritual mangle I have gone through, it will never be possible for me to do without the sacraments daily, and without much prayer and penance and meditation and mortification.

Writing about the period of his life, a year or so after his conversion, he  said

I was being fed not only with the rational milk of every possible spiritual consolation, but it seemed that there was no benefit, no comfort, no innocent happiness, even of the material order, that could be denied me.

He visited Cuba, taught English in a Catholic University and then followed the call to become a monk in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane. It wasn’t easy, and he experienced struggles discerning his vocation, but the contrasts with my own situation were huge. I became a Catholic at a time when I had many family responsibilities. On top of that, I started retraining to do a demanding job. Where is God in the harassed life of a busy mother? Thomas Merton became a monk to dedicate his life to prayer and contemplation. He had plenty of peace to discover his new faith, didn’t he?

By the time, I read the end of his autobiography, I realised that perhaps things weren’t quite so simple. Thomas Merton entered the monastery expecting peace and consolation and time to read and write and pray. However, he found out that it was a difficult life and a tough rule. The monks had a busy life, working in the fields producing their own food.

A few months after he entered the monastery, Thomas Merton became ill with the flu. He had been so busy up until then, that he actually welcomed the illness, writing:

My secret joy at entering the infirmary came from the thought: “Now at last I will have some solitude and I will have plenty of time to pray.” I should have added: “And to do everything that I want to do, without having to run all over the place answering bells.” I was fully convinced that I was going to indulge all the selfish appetites that I did not yet know how to recognise as selfish because they appeared so spiritual in their new disguise.

Thomas Merton’s life as a monk was busy and full of duties. He gave up his ambitions to be a writer, but was told by his superior, fortunately for many people, such as me, not to stop writing as it was part of his vocation. In the epilogue to ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, he addresses God directly:

You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: “Solitude, solitude.” And you have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, “Leave all those things and follow me,” and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?

Before I went to make my solemn vows, last spring, on the Feast of St. Joseph, … It seemed to me that You were almost asking me to give up all aspirations for solitude and for a contemplative life. You were asking me for obedience to superiors who will, I am morally certain, either make me write or teach philosophy or take charge of a dozen material responsibilities around the monastery, and I may even end up as a retreat master preaching four sermons a day to the seculars who come to the house. And even if I have no special job at all, I will always be on the run from two in the morning to seven at night.

.But before I could even begin to pray, I had to drop that kind of thinking.

By the time I made my vows, I decided that I was no longer sure what … the contemplative vocation was …. In fact I could not be sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.

That morning when I was lying on my face on the floor in the middle of the church, with Father Abbot praying over me, I began to laugh, with my mouth in the dust, because without knowing how or why, I had actually done the right thing, and even an astounding thing. But what was astounding was not my work, but the work You worked in me.

Thomas Merton knew what it was to be busy and rushed and asked to do a multitude of things when he was gasping for some peace and quiet. The only thing he knew for certain was that this was God’s will for his life. Somehow, in the midst of that, God was there, and that was enough.

Loneliness

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Recently I have been struggling with feelings of loneliness. They have been coming and going ever since I started to think about becoming Catholic in a small, Protestant town. Our parish isn’t big enough to run RCIA classes, and so I didn’t get a chance to meet other converts or people who were thinking of becoming Catholic. I turned to the internet for help. The feeling that a new part of my life was opening up and that I didn’t have many people to share it with, drove me to read articles and blogs about people’s experience of becoming Catholic. It also, eventually, was part of the reason I decided to start this blog, in the hope that someone else would find it useful, and also because I felt that if I didn’t write about what happened, I would explode.

Before I was received into the church, I worried about the reaction of the family. I braced myself for opposition, but it didn’t come. They were glad that I was going to church again, even if the church I had chosen was way down their list of desirable ones. Things have moved on. Twenty years ago, the Catholic church wouldn’t even have been on their list of Christian churches, and now it sits somewhere above the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventist church.

My relatives more or less politely ignored the news that I was becoming Catholic, hoping perhaps that having got back on the ladder of Christian churches, I will now work my way back up to the refformed Protestant ones at the top. In a way, this was almost the best possible outcome. I faced no strife and no stress. However, I hadn’t realised how painful it would be to go through a huge, life-transforming experience in which my family showed no interest. They thought that I had chosen something inferior, whilst I felt that I was hovering on the edge of a mystery of breathtaking magnificence.

With the pain of definitively choosing a different path as far as religion went, came unexpected feelings of loneliness. When I left the church and drifted into agnosticism, enjoying quiet feelings of superiority over my religious family, I didn’t feel any loneliness. Perhaps that was because I had plenty of like-minded friends to keep me company, but more likely it was because I didn’t really care that much about what my family thought or felt. Becoming Catholic has softened the boundaries between me and them. The irony is that through taking a step which I knew would cause them pain and which would have been unthinkable when I was younger, I have become more considerate. I care more about them, and it hurts that they can’t share in this part of my life.

One night last week, I didn’t sleep well, because I was troubled by the thought that my family may never able to understand the choices I have made as far as faith is concerned. I was also remembering the people who helped me on my spiritual journey over the years, many of them nudging me, although neither they nor I was aware of it at the time, towards Catholicism. I was grateful to have had these people in my life in the past, but I was also feeling very lonely and lost.

The Tablet arrived the next day. After browsing a few other articles, I turned to the Living Spirit section and the following quote by Thomas Merton hit me like a punch between the eyebrows:

As to your own desolation and loneliness: what can anyone say? It is the desolation of all of us in the presence of death and nothingness, but Christ in us bears it for us: without our being consoled. To accept non-consolation is to mysteriously help others who have more than they can bear.

My narrow vision opened up, and I caught a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all beings, something I know instinctively from my experience of carrying a child in my body and watching my own emotions mirrored in it’s face and moods in the months after the birth. When my children go through difficult times at school, I still feel as if I am going through it with them.

Thomas Merton’s words unscrolled a new picture in which God isn’t giving me the easy comfort I crave, not because he hasn’t heard me or doesn’t care or is angry, but because there is somebody out there somewhere whose loneliness is too hard to bear, and if I take on a little of it then there will be less to go around. In this new vision, I was lonely, but I was not alone.

On the same day, I came across the following quote about Mother Teresa and how she felt her own suffering was linked to sharing the suffering of others. The link to the page is here.

Contrary to reports in the press, Mother Teresa did not suffer a “crisis” of faith. In fact, her struggle was not with faith at all, but with the “loss of feeling” of faith, with the loss of a felt sense of the divine. As she stepped out of the convent and into the slums of Calcutta, what had been her usual consolation in prayer abruptly ended.

Though she would not understand it until later, she was being asked to share the same inner darkness, the same trial of belief suffered by the poor and destitute — and to do so for their sake, and for the love of her Lord.

For a few days I was able to concentrate on feeling grateful for what I had, instead of longing for some instant fix that would take away these painful feelings or distract me from them. However, my rational mind soon began to argue. It wants to shut down the vision of interconnectedness, telling me that it’s all nonsense. However, at the moment when I read the words, I knew instinctively that they were true.