A few days ago, my wife, who (unlike her husband) is often prone to outbursts of excitement, came rushing in saying, ‘Richard, there’s a message on the answerphone from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral! They’ve been using Life with St Benedict in their online Night Prayer and he wants to talk to you about it.’
It’s always lovely to learn that something one has done is being helpful to others. And if you’re interested, the interchange I then had with Dean Andrew Nunn has resulted in an online event to which you would be most welcome.
It reminded me of others who have done things about which they know nothing of the longer-term impact. In my last year at school, the Upper Sixth as it was called then, Miss Edwards became one of those influencers. The geography teacher who never actually taught me was a mainstay in that final year following my mum’s death in the preceding summer holidays. She would regularly give me time and space to talk. She was the one who asked for exam boards to take into account what had happened (I still got ungraded but her thought meant far more than that). She once asked me, ‘What do you want to become in the future?’ For reasons unbeknown to myself, although it probably reflected my loss of identity at that time, I replied: ‘I’d like to be well-known – not famous, just well-known.’ Hey ho, such are the workings of a 17 year-old’s mind.
Fast forward to two years ago and I moved from being ‘well-known’ – at least in the field of work I was in – to being ‘unknown’. It was a strange transition, but supported by a guiding principle.
One of the Bible verses that has been influential on my attempts to live out the faith in which I believe is: ‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)
Knowing that God knows what we do is sufficient. We are seen by God’s eyes. And God’s rewards (given not sought) are many. It’s why you wouldn’t have found my name on the website at work. It’s why the title of this blog (and my Twitter feed) is not my name (I struggle with the ‘About’ page, by the way… oh, there you are, I’ve just hyperlinked it so you know who I am…). It’s why I am influenced by St Benedict and in particular his teaching about humility.
We do of course live in a world which depends on people being known by name (after all, who on earth is Richard Frost – it’s no wonder he has so few followers). Knowing the name of a particular author, speaker or dare I use the word ‘celebrity’, can be helpful: we might be helped by what they do. Knowing a name is useful: hospital staff have it written on their PPE so colleagues know who they are. Our name is crucial to our own sense of identity – so often challenged as we travel through life and not least in this time of pandemic when many of us have lost something of what we do and who we are.
But it is God who knows what we do. That is sufficient.
2020 was a year like no other – and 2021 may not be that different!
Lest you think that to be a ‘Unhappy New Year’ greeting, please read on…
In the coming few days as we mark the Epiphany, many will reflect on how the travellers from the East came looking for the Christ-child and found him. As this year begins we too may be considering what we might be looking for in the year that is to come. And while it would be easy to focus on what we lost last year – what we did not find, if you like – it was a year where actually we found lots of new things. In particular perhaps, new ways of being Church.
We have learnt to be Church in new ways. To come to God to pray, to worship and to learn in different ways. We have come to God sanitising our hands, sitting at a distance and wearing our face coverings. We are still the church. We have come to God through online services. We are still the church. The church: not the building but the people. The body of Christ – and Christ has no body now but yours.
So as we look to 2021, it may not be that different.
It’s realistic to think that we will be living under some form of guidance and restrictions for many months. We will still be the church. Online services will continue. We will meet in our buildings as and when we can. We will see and talk to each other during the week. We will continue to pray. Continue to worship. Continue to learn. Continue to be blessed by God.
In these very unsettling, uncomfortable and uncertain times, some things do not change. As the New Year begins perhaps it is those things we need to remember to keep looking for – and finding.
‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’ Teresa of Avila
Well, you don’t need me to tell you what strange times we are living in. And how much life has changed since the last full blog post on Ash Wednesday. Little did we know what we would be giving up for Lent.
Along with ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’, terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary as if they have always been present. We’re told to ‘stay at home’. Many are being ‘shielded’. Others are called ‘key workers’ – and doing far, far more than ‘just their job’.
There is death. And plenty of it. Death on a scale not seen in this country (and many others) since the Second World War. Death has not lost its sting. Families are unable to be with their loved one. People dying, sometimes alone, sometimes with the strangers who cared for them. Mourned in public by few or none.
And yet, within it all. Within all the tragedy, the grief and the fear. There is, remarkably, hope.
- A reduction in air pollution (civilisation being given one more chance to address the causes of climate change perhaps…).
- In some places (but not in all), people are slowing down (a helping hand to deal with increasingly poor mental wellbeing maybe…).
- A resurgence of communities caring for one another (an antidote to modern society’s self-isolating behaviour…)
- A renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways (blessed are the meek…)
- The Church, the community of believers, rediscovering and discovering other ways of being one in Christ. As Luke Coppen put it, ‘Christianity began amid defeat and despair… this won’t be the end, rather a new beginning.’ (The Spectator 11.4.20)
And yet, within it all. Life for most people has been turned upside down. Many are finding aspects of the current times difficult. Gone are all the normal activities and usual freedoms. Many are struggling with unprecedented change. Many find it frightening. Many are anxious and worried.
All those are normal feelings and having them doesn’t mean your faith is lacking – nor does it mean that God is absent (even if it may feel that way at times).
In some respects, life is beginning again…
Finding stability in times of such change is key to living in these current times and beyond. Many are writing about the relevance of St Benedict’s teaching to our modern day lives and experiences – so much so, there’s been at least four books published in the last year. Laurentia Johns OSB writes about the ‘blessings of beginnings’ and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written about how ‘Benedictine stability is the context in which we learn to sit still with whatever company arrives, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us.’
In helpful contrast, award-winning, American journalist Judith Valente reflects on the Rule of St Benedict in How to Live: a book which is ‘about living—not just surviving… a book about how to live a balanced, meaningful, and conscious life rooted in the ancient and time-tested wisdom of the Rule.’
The Rule of St Benedict provides a rhythm for prayer and reflection through its four-monthly pattern of daily readings. That pattern is also about to begin again – on 2 May – and you may like to use my book of everyday reflections, Life with St Benedict as a way of building such a rhythm of stability: one that relates this ancient Bible-based wisdom to the ordinary and not so ordinary aspects of life. (There are some films to help you find stability in these times of change and uncertainty also).
There is nothing good about this pandemic but there is good that is coming out of it. And it’s to be hoped that when this is all over, we don’t completely revert to how things used to be as we learn how to begin life again.
At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.
Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.
‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’
Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…
- we said
- we tried or wanted to say
- we said without actually saying it
- we didn’t mean to say.
And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…
- understand, not understand or not want to understand
- hear only what they think is being said
- interpret it to mean something else
- have decided their response before we’ve said it…
Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).
Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.
And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…
I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.
Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.
And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.
Language and communication are complex things.
Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…
But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’
‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’
The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.
In the paid work I used to do, I was often heard to proclaim, “It’s not about me”. No… it was about the work we were doing and, in essence, the hundreds of people who were making it happen. And it was usually other people who, very kindly, were mentioning my name and it all resulted in that never to be forgotten trip to Buckingham Palace. But at times it all sat rather uncomfortably.
So, as today sees the publication of Life with St Benedict, there is the honour of being chosen to have one’s jottings in print (and I am so grateful to all at The Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) for making it possible, as well as those who have already supported and ordered it) but with books, of course, it’s often about the author too.
While there was the privilege of ‘self-concealment’ in my paid work, with a book it’s much more difficult. The name’s on the front cover… and on the back… and in five other places! No hiding this time… There will also be book signings (who, me?) and other publicity. Of course, yes, I do enjoy and thrive with the attention. But there will also be reviews – where any compliments will be as nothing in the shadow of one single criticism, I’m sure…
But in the end, it’s not about me. No… it’s about how God may use those jottings to help others grow their faith and deepen their relationship with Christ.
Life with St Benedict offers daily reflections on the Saint’s 6th Century Rule for monastic living and how we can apply that ancient guidance to our 21st Century life and work. There is a well-established scheme of daily readings to enable the entire Rule to be considered over a four-month period – and thus doing so three times in every year and Life with St Benedict follows that pattern. (There’s a short film on YouTube which says more about the book – he writes in a non-self-publicising way…)
In his own quirky and excellent book, Humility Rules (worth buying for the pictures let alone the words) the American Benedictine monk, Augustine Wetta writes ‘If you are really good at something, it is no act of humility to belittle your talents. When you do that, you just wind up insulting God, who gave you those talents in the first place.’
Unbeknown to my publishers who set September 20th for release, there is a very appropriate part of the Rule that occurs in today’s reading. It’s one that I underlined when I first read the Rule some 12-15 years ago and it’s stayed with me ever since:
‘If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself.’
We are allowed to feel good about ourselves. Knowing and naming those things reflects God’s gaze upon us. Such reflection balances out the more difficult aspects of our life and who we are. This is the balance of taking full responsibility for all we do or say which is wrong and giving God the glory for all the good within ourselves.
Oh, how I hated role-play!
Waiting for the moment when the enthusiastic, upbeat, uber-confident, staff trainer or presenter would make us act out what they’d been teaching us to do. ‘Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me,’ my inner voice repeated over and over again.
Thankfully on many occasions, it was the confident extroverts who had their moment to show everyone else how it should be done. ‘Phew, not me,’ says the relieved inner voice. ‘Until next time…’ I whisper back. I’ve had enough trouble playing myself at times, let alone trying to be someone else… They’re bound to be better in any case.
A previous post reflected on how, as human beings, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Usually applied negatively, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much or we perceive someone is more successful than we are.
In a recent interview with Radio Times, the broadcaster Paddy O’Connell put it like this: ‘You don’t measure success in Volvos. Success is being the sort of person people want to bump into.’
So, what makes us that sort of person?
We all have our public persona and our private persona. Most people see the public, outer person we present. Many like the public version of themselves – for some it’s a role they can play with confidence. For others, the outside is a uncomfortable place to inhabit. Whereas, much fewer people (if any) meet our private, inner being. There also, in that location, some are happy with who they are, while others are deeply unhappy.
In her excellent new book, fellow BRF author, Cally Hammond reflects on what we can learn from the public and private personas of one the prominent figures of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. She writes one of the most perceptive comments I’ve read for a long time:
‘It is a mistake… to compare the outside of other people’s lives with the inside of our own life.’
We all do it. We compare our inner, private self with someone else’s outer, public self. But, if we think about it, how crazy is that? We’re being the person we are and they’re playing a role… no wonder we don’t feel happy or successful…
Whether it’s at work, socially or more personally, many relationships are built through those public, outside portrayals. However, the deepest, most special relationships are often the ones in which the role-play mask is put aside and the inner person is revealed. And it is in such relationships, the ones built on love, trust, acceptance and communication, that often we discover there are no comparisons that need to be made.
For deep down inside, many people are very similar to ourselves.
Think of those times when you thought you were the only one going through a particular experience. What a relief and reassurance it was when you discovered other people felt the same.
One of the other prominent early church figures, St Benedict quotes words of Paul ‘By God’s grace I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). It is one of the great joys of God’s love that we are enabled to draw closer and closer to the point of being able to say, ‘I am who I am’. Of accepting the person we are. Of accepting that God’s love is for the person we are.
Maybe that’s the sort of person we’d like people to bump into.
When Manchester City beat Watford in the recent FA Cup Final, I probably wasn’t the only one to notice the reaction of Pep Guardiola, the City manager, as the fifth and then sixth goals went in. His head was in his hands. Was it embarrassment… or was he humbled by what his team had done for him?
And then, amidst the champagne, streamers and fireworks, as the victorious players held the trophy aloft and then ‘dancing’ in the way only professional footballers can, he simply stood back, watching. A time to let his team have the glory and the honour. ‘Hey, look at them, not me,’ he seemed to say. A sign of leading from within. A sign of humble leadership.
While we might long to see more humility in our political leaders, let’s consider another example of this exceptional gift.
A recent study of seven successful CEOs found they all identified a common theme: vulnerability. ‘Vulnerable leadership is humble leadership,’ wrote Catherine Llewelyn-Evans. ‘Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (for example, when Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet [John 13])… It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt.’
Or as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.” Humility is… the acceptance of individual limitations.’
Humility is grateful for those contributions and expresses that gratitude. It also embeds the ability not just to say ‘I got that wrong’ but also to climb that sometimes elusive next step of ‘You were right.’
In the well-established daily pattern of readings from the Rule of St Benedict (reflections on which are in the book Life with St Benedict) on the day this post is published, 26 May, there begins a series of readings on Chapter 7 – a chapter which is all about humility.
In this longest chapter of the Rule, and using the imagery of a ladder, St Benedict helps us take steps towards what he calls ‘the highest summit of humility’.
Using paraphrases of what he wrote, let’s climb the ladder together, shall we…
- Revere God at all times
- Align our lives with God’s will not our own.
- Listen to our leaders.
- Do what God wants and listen to God when life is tough.
- Admit when we get it wrong and receive the forgiveness that comes from doing so.
- When we feel badly treated, insignificant, and no better than anyone or anything else, know we are always with God. And God is always with us.
- Humbling ourselves and being humbled by circumstances helps us know we are precious to God.
- Remember that the words and actions of others influence how we act and behave.
- Be careful about what we say to others and how we listen to them.
- Laugh – being respectful to others when we do so.
- ‘Speak gently, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably’.
- Be humble in our actions and not just in how we think and feel.
Joan Chittister writes that this chapter on humility ‘does not say, “Be perfect.” It says, “Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God.”’
Humility in leadership – or any other aspect of life, for that matter – is an approach, a gift, which enables us to shout, ‘Hey, look at you!’ not ‘Hey, look at me’.
Lent begins. Thoughts turn to chocolate, booze or bacon sandwiches.
Rather like making a New Year Resolution, giving up something for Lent is one of those long-standing traditions which is often short-lived.
We might view giving up something as winning ourselves a few points on the self-righteousness scale. A personal sacrifice. A way to feel good about ourselves. If you read the previous post, you may have thought about giving up some aspect of technology – but that would be too much of a challenge perhaps.
For some, Lent is a time of fasting and focussing on what we’ve got wrong. It contains a very serious and dedicated purpose. So is giving up chocolate, booze or whatever really going to make a difference to the person we are?
Giving up something for the 40 days of Lent is a traditional way of making a token alignment with the suffering experienced by Jesus when he spent 40 days in the desert. (Forty is one of those Biblical numbers that means a long time: like when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years or the 40 days and nights of rain which floated Noah’s ark.)
Aged about 30, Jesus was beginning the main period of his ministry on earth. Having been baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus then went in to the wilderness and was tempted by the Devil to give up his status as the Son of God. (Matthew 4:1-11).
It was a significant period in Jesus’ life. A life of remarkable teachings, healings, miracles and ministry. A life which was to last for just three more years before his betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection – all of which we mark at the end of Lent at Easter.
Lent is the Anglo-Saxon word for Spring and connects with the word ‘lengthen’. The daytime is getting longer. Growth is taking place.
In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis not on ‘giving up’ but on ‘taking up’ something that will deepen our faith in God and trust in Jesus, the one who went through that wilderness experience. To do something which reflects that Springtime meaning of ‘Lent’ – something that will help us to grow.
There are many ways we can do this…
- There are plenty of reflections and books written especially for Lent – some offer a reading for each of the 40 days, others one for every Sunday in the season.
- Your local church may be running a Lent course – a time to build up our faith with others.
- Develop a specific pattern of prayer – setting aside a time and place.
- Keep a journal: recording your experience of seeing God at work in your life and those around you.
- Going on a retreat or Quiet Day: making time just for you and God – a time for giving God some intentional attention.
In his Rule for monastic living, St Benedict wrote ‘The life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent… and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’
So let’s ‘give it up’ for Lent. A time of change and growth. A period of listening more to God and increased stability. Of looking forward to the future with joy and spiritual longing.
New for 2020, Out of the Wilderness – a series of films to watch for Lent, Holy Week & Easter