Fond memories of Dom Sebastian Moore, OSB: A personal reflection on the spiritual life

Vincent Manning

Fr Sebastian was the author of numerous works including the widely read spiritual books Inner Loneliness, The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger, The Contagion Of Jesus: Doing Theology As If It Mattered and The Body of Christ: The Shudder of Blissful Truth (reviewed in Quest Bulletin, no. 64, Autumn 2012).

Dom Sebastian Moore OSB

Image from the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship website, http://www.sassoonfellowship.org

My association with the Benedictine monks at Downside Abbey in Somerset, goes back to the early 1980s. Through my friend Dominic Mansi OSB I came to know Sebastian Moore. Sebastian and Dominic often joined the ‘Positive Catholics’ HIV peer support community during Retreat weekends held at Bainesbury House, in the grounds of Downside, where we have been meeting since 2004. We were privileged to listen and learn from this troublesome old monk, theologian, teacher and poet, who died on February 28th 2014, in the 75th year of his monastic profession at the age of 96.

I cannot attempt an obituary of this man’s long life. I can offer some reflections from these visits, and other times that we spent together, as well as from several conversations that I recorded with him since 2011. (In quotation below, are Sebastian’s own words).

Sebastian enjoyed his visits with ‘Positive Catholics’. We shared ideas over a meal, drank wine, and ate cheese. He became firm friends with some of our members. One Positive Catholics community member shared Sebastian’s great enthusiasm for the writing and thought of Eckhart Tolle, and regularly provided Sebastian with the latest Tolle DVD or CD. Tolle’s popular book, ‘The Power of Now’ had a profound effect on Sebastian’s thought and writing. Sebastian described his own 2011 work, ‘The Body of Christ: The Shudder of Blissful Truth’ as “doing theology after Tolle”. He was perplexed that no mainstream academic theologian had picked up on the ideas of Tolle. As he said to me, “This stuff is Gold! A hermeneutic of bliss”.

It was Tolle’s own ‘conversion’ experience that first captured Sebastian’s attention. “I read it, and I was there!” Sebastian related to it deeply, because Tolle gave words to an experience that Sebastian had as a young monk. In 1944, like all the monks in formation, Sebastian spent an hour each day “in this thing called mental prayer”. (When he started to share this experience, someone remarked irreverently, ‘and it was mental’. This provoked great laughter – Sebastian had a lively sense of humour).

Sebastian continued: “It was a torture of being conscious of the presence of God….I messed up my brain, forcing, forcing, forcing . . .  and then one day in early October, something said, ‘be honest’. I said, this is nonsense, I don’t believe it, it’s rubbish, I don’t believe it. And I was caught. I still don’t know what happened. But I heard myself saying, ‘I will give you anything you want, I’m in love!’ I walked up and down trying to take it in, and I came back. I knelt down again and felt all the pretensions in my life coming through layer upon layer, and I said yes Lord, [take] that one too, the lot! You know…” Sebastian describes an encounter with the Holy Spirit, and crucially, the liberation of letting go, and allowing God to meet him as he is. From this moment of absolute honesty with himself, Sebastian makes room for God to capture his heart with love.

The capacity to speak and write honestly would not leave Sebastian. He was compelled to express himself. Some will say that Sebastian was willing to talk with anyone who would listen. This is true. He had an infectious, impatient enthusiasm for life, and for ideas, and for God, that he kept right to the end of his life here on earth. He was compelled to share his thoughts. He produced poems every day, in his last years, which could be found distributed in the Abbey Church for the benefit of visitors.

He also felt compelled to share his views with members of the Hierarchy on occasion. He disputed the official Catholic doctrine of original sin. Sebastian preferred to describe it as “anti-bliss……an inherent pessimism, sadness, a preference for the sad . . .” He particularly objected to Augustine’s notion that sexual intercourse communicates original sin: “I love Abelard (the medieval French theologian) because Abelard was a lover. Abelard saw it was bad stuff. This idea that sexual intercourse communicates something like a spiritual V.D. is horrific”. Sebastian accepted original sin as part of the human condition but not as something we are born with, rather “something that we get into”. Original sin generates those voices that encourage us to believe that everything is somehow bad, and that life is inevitably for misery rather than joy. He wrote to express his views to then Cardinal Ratzinger. He received a reply six months later, he told us, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Your courteous transmission will receive the attention it deserves”. Not everyone agreed with Sebastian. We laughed with him, in the telling of this story.

Yet Sebastian did not just speak, or write, he listened too. He would listen intently to others. In his cultured English accent he would say, “How very interesting .  . . yes . . . do say more”. One could almost see his mind processing thoughts as he listened. He had the humility to know that through the experience and ideas of others he might learn and grow. As an academic, he could quote from the works of other scholars routinely, but he also quoted his brothers in Community, and friends with whom he spent time. One such friend, was James Alison, theologian and author.

Sebastian was a gay man. He had to live a long time before coming to a full acceptance of his sexuality as a gift from God. Like many before him, and unfortunately like many young people still to come, for most of his life Sebastian lived in the grip of the internalised homophobia that is still passed on in our families and churches. Despite his intelligence, and learning, while teaching at Boston College in the 1980s, a visiting theologian asked, “What is God trying to teach through the existence of Gay and Lesbian people?” The question provoked a visceral response: “I was shocked by this, at that time, I didn’t like this.” It is not surprising that this internalised self-loathing was also projected outwards, in judgement of others. I asked him about his response to the outbreak of AIDS in America: “I must confess, a spontaneous reaction to the outbreak of AIDS, was well, serve them right . . .  it was a kind of punishment for something wrong . . . The pandemic seemed at the time to be a consequence of this ‘gay liberation’”. Sebastian looked back on his attitudes then with “. . . horror of course, horror. One’s memory of the way I was, we tend to be very kind to ourselves, if we’ve woken up we assume we were always that way, but we weren’t.” Honest as ever.

James helped Sebastian get to this point of honesty: “It is only fairly recently . . . that I have completely accepted myself as Gay. Meeting James Alison . . . was very, very important to me . . .  In the early days of knowing him I felt uncomfortable, on a journey now that I was not very sure of you know . . . I was naked, as they would say now, I was ecclesiastically a bit homophobic, I would say ‘shut up’ you know, that sort of thing . . . [But] Here was a fully fledged theological voice, saying, ‘no this is not right, this was wrong, it’s got to be changed’ . . . through sharing theology and everything, I became fully articulate, fully conscious of myself, and of my attitudes . . .”

Perhaps without the encounter with James, Sebastian could not have spent quite such time relaxing in the company of ‘Positive Catholics’.

Sebastian is well known for his writing on the subject of ‘Desire’. “That is my big thing” he would say. Famously he wrote “Desire is love trying to happen”. He spent his life writing and pondering the question of what human desire for God means, and what God’s desire for us really means. Sebastian came to the realisation that it means we can be joyful. We can let go, through faith in Jesus, who reveals God to us: Our God who holds each one of us close, and desires us to let Him love us completely, wonderfully!

In March 2012, Dominic Mansi, the late Fr. Brian McEvoy, and Alan Hawkins, all friends, were sharing their 70th birthday celebrations together over a weekend at Downside. Many guests came, and we had a great feast. During coffee Dominic and his friends from the Magic Circle performed wonders of illusion, at every table. After some speeches, another group of friends – a brass band of nearly twenty men and women, dressed flamboyantly in pink – burst into the dining room with trumpets and drums filling the place with a joyful noise. Sebastian rose to his feet, slightly unsteady, in his monastic habit, and we danced!

Vincent Manning is Chairperson of Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support (CAPS), www.cap-uk.org

 

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