Marriage and monasticism

I was greatly privileged last night to be able to listen to a talk given by Fr Cassian and Fr Gregory from the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, in Italy, which is the birthplace of St Benedict.


St Benedict (d. 542)

The address was on the subject of stability, comparing and contrasting the monastic life with married life, which is a wonderful title, since these two ways are the principal ways by which we might live the Christian life more perfectly, so it seems fitting to compare and contrast them.

Stability, of course, is something that we Norbertines share with the Benedictines, although, unlike monks, we do not make a vow of stability in the same way as do monks (they make specific vows of stability, conversion of manners, and obedience, although the principle is the same). Our vows of poverty, consecrated celibacy and obedience are always made, however, in the context of stability: we make our vows not only to God, but to our superior, and our brethren, before the people of God, in our particular houses. Monastic stability does not necessarily mean, however, stability in a particular building, although that is an important part of it, of course. We must be able to love our buildings, and be comfortable in them, and, when the time comes, expand them. Given that monasteries are supposed to be little beacons of heaven (more visible from the outside, perhaps!), it seems fitting to apply the analogy of the psalmist to a monastic building, who, referring to Jerusalem (a type of heaven in the old testament), says: “thy servants think upon her stones” (Ps 102:14).

The monks of Norcia re-founded this ancient monastery 16 years ago – they are now 20 in number, 11 in solemn vows – and are steadily growing, and now need to expand their buildings. In Chelmsford, we are a younger community – our independence was gained 10 years ago, and we have been in Chelmsford for only 6 years – and, given that God has seen fit to bestow vocations upon us, it will be our responsibility also to expand our capacity. Stability refers to a commitment to a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time. The love and affection we have for each other has brethren is similar to familial love: if we are parents, we do not choose our children; as children, we do not choose our parents, or our brothers and sisters. In religious life, this is also the case: we do not choose our brethren. They are already there when we join, and, after we join, more will follow. God gives them to us – and God gives us to others – as a means of sanctification.


St Augustine (d. 430)

So, clearly, stability is common ground for both monastics and married persons. Fr Cassian referred in particular to the three marital goods annunciated by St Augustine:

  1. proles: an openness to new life. This can refer not only to marital procreation – although this is the specific meaning implied by Augustine – given that not all married couples will be able to have children for one reason or another. There is a difference between accepting God’s gift for what it is, and rejecting God’s gift. In marriage, he may or may not bestow the gift of children upon a couple. In religious life, he may or may not bestow the gift of more vocations upon a monastery. In both cases, if the respective parties live their life contrary to God’s will for them, if they are closed off to vitality, growth and new life, then the marriage will shrivel; the monastery will fail. I think also that this requires a certain degree of holy naïveté: we must be willing to accept what we are given as the gift that it is. Christ, after all, commanded us to be childlike.
  2. fides: fidelity. Married couples make a commitment of exclusivity to one another, symbolised, of course, by the wedding-ring (many religious women wear “profession rings” as a wife would wear a wedding ring; male wedding rings are an innovation). In marriage, a couple dedicates themselves to each other, to the exclusion of others. In religious life, we do not commit ourselves in the same way to a particular person (the vow of celibacy is all about this), but to a particular group of people, and, therefore, Almighty God Himself becomes the most important Person. In religious life, love for one another is sustained by the common love for and relationship with Almighty God. In fact, both the religious and marital life have Almighty God as the foundation. Marriage is the symbol of the relationship between Almighty God and His people: He is always faithful to the covenant; we, His people, are not. The prophet Hosea was ordered by Almighty God to marry a prostitute, to show God’s fidelity, and, moreover, our capriciousness. This relationship was consummated by the shedding of Christ’s Blood on the Cross, as the priest says at every Mass: “This is the chalice of My Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant…”
  3. sacramentum: by which Augustine does not mean that marriage is one of the seven sacraments, but he is referring to the bond “till death do us part”. Marriage is the only original dispensation that was not washed away by the flood, but it is something these days that has, in general, in the west, lost its sense of permanence. Due to our fallen human nature, of course, sometimes our relationships with others do break down. Indeed, Almighty God knows all about that: He falls victim every day to our continual acts of infidelity against Him. So many, particularly younger, couples do not discuss important things with one another, like having children, until they are actually married, and they are so afraid of conflict – or, more likely, the have little understanding of human nature, and virtually no self-awareness – that at the first argument, some newly-weds even decide to separate. We know, however, that we do not come down off the cross; we do not run away at the first sign of difficultly (sometimes we do, because we are afraid; but that does not mean that we cannot try to return to Calvary and pick up where we left off). In marriage, and the religious life, we learn about the Christian virtues, and how to apply them in real situations, particularly the ability to forgive one another – not least, ourselves. In short, we learn how to become Christ-like.

In whichever way we live the Christian life, each one of us is called to strive to live it ever more perfectly. We have seen, hopefully, how these two ways of life, marriage and religious life, are great gifts of Almighty God, in that they are the most well-founded means for our sanctification, and for those around us. Things of God are attractive, whether they be long-lasting marriages or flourishing religious communities. In these dark ages in which we live, may those who choose these paths truly be a shining beacon of Christ, a lamp-stand on a hill-top, and so sanctify the world.

The Year of Consecrated Life will begin on the first Sunday of Advent this year.

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Let your yes be yes, and your no be no

Today in England is the feast-day of St Edward, king and confessor. His was one of the few shrines in England that was not destroyed at the reformation – presumably the tyrant King Henry thought it imprudent to destroy the tombs of his predecessors, lest someone in the future destroy his. In our Order, however, the feast day of Blessed Peter Adrian Toulorge take precedence. We have written about Blessed Peter Adrian many times on our website, but it is always an edification to re-visit the lives of the saints, as, while they are fixed firmly in heaven, we, in our earthly exile, do well to draw continued inspiration from their lives as our seasons change.

A rather wonderful life has been published on our website previously.

In brief, Peter Adrian was a secular priest in Normandy at the end of the eighteenth-century, ordained in 1782. He was sent by the bishop to a parish run by a Norbertine priest (in those days, as is the case today, many parishes in that part of Normandy are run by Norbertine priests, as, indeed, were many English parishes before the Reformation). So impressed was he by the Norbertine way of life, realising that this life established by St Norbert in 12th century was of great benefit to priests, he sought admittance to the Order, and was professed in the Abbey of Blanchelande (on the Cotentin peninsula, north of Coutances) in 1788.

Two years later, however, the revolutionary government, enviously of the clergy and religious orders, decided to close all the monasteries, and sell their property. The priests were sent to live alone in neighbouring parishes; the lay brothers were interred in a quasi-religious house, that was effectively a prison. The state forced all clergy to swear allegiance to the revolutionary constitution, condemned by the Pope, as it effectively brought the French church into schism, and those who refused were exiled. Peter Adrian left for Jersey, just a short boat-journey away. But he soon returned, mindful of the faithful who needed the sacraments, and operated as an underground priest until he was arrested in 1793. Peter Adrian denied to the revolutionary court that he had been to Jersey (i.e. that he was a priest who had returned from exile), yet, full of remorse for lying, he spontaneously confessed, on Our Lady’s birthday, that he had in fact returned from exile. The judge in Coutances, not wishing to persecute his fellow countrymen, attempted to convince him to retract his confession, and so avoid the guillotine, but the priest refused, preferring, as it were, his own death rather than proclaiming an un-truth. And so he was condemned to death.

He slept well that night, and, in the morning, he recited the Office with his fellow-prisoners, but stopped at the hymn for compline, saying that he would rather sing this hymn in heaven, instead. In accordance with the constitution, his head was removed from his body by the blade of Madame Guillotine, and his martyr’s blood watered the town square of Coutances. His farewell-letter to his brother:

Rejoice, for tomorrow you will have another friend in Heaven watching over you – I hope – if God preserves me, as he has until now. Rejoice that God has deemed me fit to suffer not only prison, but even death for Our Lord Jesus Christ; it is the greatest grace He could possibly give me; I will pray that He might give you a similar crown. We should not attach ourselves to perishable things. Turn therefore your gaze towards Heaven; live life as an honest man, and most importantly, as a good Christian; raise your children in the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith, outside of which there is no salvation. Always consider it the greatest honour to have had a brother in the family who has been called to suffer for God. Far from being sorrowful about my fate, rejoice instead and say with me: “Blessed be God!” I wish you a holy life, and paradise at the end of your days, not only to you but also to my sister, to my nephew and neice, and to all my family. I remain always, in perfect friendship, your brother, TOULORGE.

Pray to Blessed Peter Adrian, especially for those who suffer persecution in the world today, that he might look favourably upon those who must make life-threatening decisions, for those many Christians in the world who, because they bear the name of Christ upon their hearts, are likely to suffer for it, and even die a death like His. Pray too for vocations to our Order, especially to our community in Chelmsford. May Blessed Peter Adrian be an example to those who desire to offer themselves as priests of Jesus Christ. Do not be afraid of following your heart, and doing what is right! Let your yes be yes!

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Cor ad cor loquitur

Today is the feast-day of Blessed John Henry Newman.

Blessed John Henry Newman

There is no Norbertine connexion, of course, but it is fitting to mark the occasion this year, since the frater junior has just started his studies, now that his noviciate is completed, in Oxford. While he is studying at the Blackfriars Studium, he will be living at the Oratorians, the same congregation, of course, of today’s beatus.

Three of our brethren were present at the beatification of the goodly cardinal in 2010 during Pope Benedict’s state visit to the UK (Brother Stephen, and the two juniors, who had not joined the Order by then). Last night, I joined some of the Oratory’s parishioners on their annual “Newman Progress” from the Oratory to Littlemore, where Newman was received into the Catholic Church. On the way, were many stations where we marked various different points in the life of the Cardinal. We ended our progress with benediction and veneration of the relic in Littlemore. Newman’s feast day was chosen as this day, because this is the anniversary of his reception into the Church: the route we followed was almost the same (and on the same Wednesday night, though, this year, it was a dry night!) as the route taken by Blessed Dominic Barberi from Oxford to Littlemore, in order to perform the necessary rites.

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“In the family, bridges are meant to be built, not broken” – some prayers for the synod on marriage and family life

The heavenly and earthly Trinities, by Murillo

The heavenly and earthly Trinities, by Murillo

Starting this weekend, a synod of selected bishops in Rome will meet over a couple of weeks to debate with the prince of their college, Pope Francis, to discuss marriage and family life.

Although we, as Catholics, are confident that the Holy Spirit will always guard Mother Church from error, we should never cease to pray to Almighty God, that He will guide our bishops, our apostles, along the path that He wants to lead us. In these days, in particular, when the western world has surrendered itself to the internet, luxury and aimless change for its own sake, we would do well to ask Almighty God to help us see beyond short-term remedies, which serve only to do much more harm than good, and instead to discover fresh expressions of our timeless and changeless Catholic Faith.

So, as the bishops meet in Rome this month, please remember to pray for them. Turn especially to St Joseph, who is both patron of the Universal Church, and head of the Holy Family; ask St Joseph to intercede for the Pope and the bishops, and for the media, and for those both within and without the Church, who will be listening vary carefully to what the synod talks about. Most of all, pray for those families which have broken down, and for those living in painful circumstances as a result.

Some suggested prayers are below, but please also pray your own prayers, especially when you go to Mass. In the month of October, remember this intention in your rosary:

Most powerful Patriarch St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, which has always invoked thee in anxiety and trouble, from the exalted seat of thy glory cast a loving glance upon the whole Catholic world. Let thy fatherly heart be touched at the sight of the Mystical Spouse and the Vicar of Christ overwhelmed with sorrow and persecuted by powerful enemies. Oh, by the bitter anguish thou didst experience upon earth, dry the tears of the venerable Pontiff, defend him, comfort him, intercede for him with the Giver of peace and charity, that, all adversity being removed and all error dissipated, the entire Church may serve God in perfect liberty. Amen.

O glorious St. Joseph, thou who hast power to render possible even things which are considered impossible, come to our aid in our present trouble and distress. Take this important and difficult affair under thy particular protection, that it may end happily. O dear St. Joseph, all our confidence is in thee. let it not be said that we would invoke thee in vain; and since thou art so powerful with Jesus and Mary. Show that thy goodness equals thy power. Amen. St. Joseph, friend of the Sacred Heart, pray for us.

Heart of Jesus, I adore Thee,
Heart of Mary, I implore thee,
Heart of Joseph, meek and just,
In these three Hearts I place my trust.

When St John Paul visited the UK in 1982, part of his journey included the celebration of the sacraments in various different places. In York, that ancient and venerable capital of the north, he spoke most eloquently about the sacrament of marriage. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has put a recording of part of his sermon in their website that you can listen to by clicking here. If you would like to read the whole sermon, click here.

Perhaps even you might like to read his Apostolic Exhortation, Familaris Consortioon marriage and family life.

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Celebrating 10 years as an independent Canonry of the Order

Our Holy Father Norbert, patriarch of the Premonstratensians.

Our Holy Father Norbert, patriarch of the Premonstratensians.

















* * * * * * *

To God, the Greatest and Highest, the Almighty Fount of every grace and blessing,
the confreres of the Premonstratensian Canonry of Chelmsford devoutly offer thanks,
a decade having now passed since their canonical foundation,
and, with their Holy Fathers Augustine and Norbert
and the Most Holy Virgin Mother of God interceding,
they humbly beseech the Lord
that they might always work here on earth for the salvation of souls
and for the conversion of their country to the Catholic Faith,
so as to attain happily to the celestial bliss of heaven,
where, clad in robes of white, they might follow Christ the Lamb who was slain
with all the Saints, and with one voice sing to Him a divine hymn of praise,
for ever, for ages unending.

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They call me the bacon priest

Today we were happy to welcome Aid to the Church in Need to our parishes to tell us about the work of that venerable charity, and encourage the parishioners to include ACN in their almsgiving.

As we have written before on our website, ACN has Norbertine origins, for it was founded by the Norbertine priest, Werenfried van Straaten, who was a Canon of Tongerloo (latterly, of Orange). You can read about his life here.


Father Werenfried sprinkling the crowd, which had come to hear him preach from his mobile chapel

ACN was founded originally by Father Werenfried to provide relief for 15 million displaced Germans, during the ethnic cleansing (as we would say today) of Germany after the Second World War. Amongst these millions, were a great number of Catholics: Father Werenfried sought not only the material relief of these people, persecuted by tyranny, ravished by war, now forced from their ancient homelands, but also to ensure that the flame of Christ would remain burning in their hearts, a flame which the dark forces of communism sought to extinguish. Also, it would be a vehicle for reconciliation between the recently liberated Dutch-speakers and the Germans.

I was touched to hear, in fact, on a recent visit to the Abbey of St Cecilia on the Isle of Wight, that the nuns remembered Father Werenfried visiting them, during a fund-raising campaign, and how, when his car broke down on his way back to the ferry, he pushed it all  the way back to the boat, his collection bags in the boot. Father Werefried died in 2003.

Today, ACN, whose headquarters are still in Germany, sponsors 5,000 projects in 130 countries.

The charity has four goals: to defend the persecuted Church (no appropriate request should go unanswered); to strengthen the oppressed Church (when hindered by poverty, ACN helps the Church to proclaim her Faith); to refresh the Church in donor countries (the veneration of modern martyrs leads Catholics to a participate more actively in the Catholic faith); to win new benefactors.

ACN is faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and, in places where it operates, does so in conjunction with the local bishop. They encourage local projects and local initiatives, and do not try to impose themselves on existing means of solidarity; they minimise their costs as much as possible, especially by streamlining their central office, to ensure that no penny given is wasted.

As we were reminded today, in two out of three countries in the world, Christians are persecuted. Two thirds of all countries. And that persecution is increasingly violent: over 100,000 Christians have been displaced from Iraq and Syria by the evil terror gangsters Islamic State; in the ancient city of Mosul (Nineveh), where Holy Mass has been celebrated every week since that city was first evangelist one-and-a-half thousand years ago, there are now no Christian families. In Nigeria, Islamic terror groups, such as Boko Haram, murder Christians with horrifying regularity, especially during Sunday Mass, and on the Church’s greatest feast-days; it seems as if the joy of every Christmas Day in recent years has been soured by the news that another Catholic Church has been attacked during Mass on that day. In South Sudan, and in many Islamic countries, Christians can be sentenced to death, if they have converted to Christ. Catholics are harangued, even in Europe, such as in Belarus and Ukraine. There are quotas on priestly ordinations in Vietnam; the Pope is prevented from appointing providing shepherds for Chinese Catholics. As this evil shadow of darkness descends upon the world in these times, we must surely ask ourselves, where will be next? America? Italy? Chelmsford?

Pope Francis asked his audience lately: do you pray every day for the persecuted Church? We can ask that question of ourselves, right now, at our desks.

Make a resolution to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters every day. And hope that, when it is our turn, there is someone left to pray for us.

* * *

Pray for the work, also, of Aid to the Church in Need. You can visit their website to read about their projects, and make a donation. They also have a good on-line shop, which supports their work.

You can subscribe to their newsletter here.

Please buy your Christmas cards this year from Aid to the Church in Need.

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Dryburgh Abbey

Recently the Prior and two confreres visited Dryburgh Abbey in Scotland; Dryburgh was home to Adam of Dryburgh (c. 1140 – c. 1212) one of the most prolific British Premonstratensian writers, who became abbot of Dryburgh in 1184. The grounds of Dryburgh Abbey, now owned by Historic Scotland, are some of the most extensive of any British Premonstratensian Abbey. For any readers who would like more information on Adam of Dryburgh we highly recommend The Mellifluous Bee: The Marian Theology of Adam of Dryburgh, by Fr Benedict D O’Cinnsealaigh, and for more photographs of Dryburgh Abbey please visit our flickr page.

We were privileged to visit on a sunny Scottish day and whilst there Fr Prior was able to say Mass in the chapter room of the abbey, which remains intact.  Mass was offered for all the deceased confreres of Dryburgh Abbey, and it is wonderful to think that some of the Premonstratensian chant sung at our Mass might have been familiar to our brothers more than 500 years prior. It was particularly touching that a member of staff was able to join us for the Mass and commented that he didn’t think he would ever see the Catholic Mass return to Dryburgh.


Whilst looking around Dryburgh Abbey after Mass we also found the graves of two more recent notable Scots: Field Marshall Earl Haig, and Sir Walter Scott. Earl Haig’s family had links with the abbey, and according to the plaque they also had connections to Hugh de Moreville who founded the abbey in 1150. A clip of Earl Haig’s burial can be found here. The great writer Sir Walter Scott loved the romantic ruins of Dryburgh Abbey and so asked the Earl of Buchan, then owner, for the privilege of having his family tomb there. This was kindly granted by the Earl, and so Sir Walter, his wife and son are entombed in a portion of what was the Abbey Church. More information about Sir Walter Scott and Dryburgh can be found here.

Fr Prior had also been asked to marry two friends of the community in St Salvator’s Chapel, St Andrews. It was a truly beautiful service and Fr Prior was also rather amused that he should be asked to preach in what had been John Knox’s pulpit, and so having seen so much of the effect of the Scottish Reformation on what had been a proudly Catholic country Fr Prior preached on the Christian doctrine of marriage to the couple and those gathered for the service.


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