The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

by Digitalnun on April 19, 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v

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Good Friday 2014

by Digitalnun on April 18, 2014

The imagery of the Crucifixion has become so familiar it no longer shocks. We look at our crucifixes and see the twisted body, hanging bloodied and bowed, pierced through with nails, crowned with thorns, and barely register the suffering. The historically-minded will tell you that the crown of thorns was added only in the thirteenth century, that the poignant twist of the body is not found before the ninth-century cross of Lothair, but these are mere details. It takes a Julian of Norwich, with her account of the drying of Christ’s flesh on Calvary, or his drops of blood the size of herring-scales, to make us connect our theology and our feelings.

It was not always so. Anyone who reads ‘The Dream of the Rood’ or some of the lovely Harley lyrics on the Crucifixion will know the depth of personal tenderness the Passion and Death of Christ evoked among our Anglo-Saxon forebears. I myself have always loved the prayers in the Book of the Nunnaminster — some of the earliest, if not the earliest, written for and possibly by women in the Benedictine community at Winchester in the late ninth/early tenth century. Here is the one on the Crown of Thorns, always a painful subject for a Benedictine, for our peace is found only within its saving circle — a reminder that Jesus is, as the Song of Songs proclaims, ‘a lily among thorns,’ our saviour from despair, our own true love who forgives our most grievous sins:

Merciful God, my only help, you did not refuse to wear on your wise and lovely head a crown of cruel thorns. I thank you and ask that whatever sins I myself have committed through misuse of my own wicked and senseless head you will forgive, for I am pierced by the sharpness of all my wrongdoing, as if by thorns, unless protected by your help, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Priesthood and Eucharist | Maundy Thursday 2014

by Digitalnun on April 17, 2014

The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 - 1040; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.); 83.MI.90.38

The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 – 1040;

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s liturgy is so full, it weighs heavy on heart and mind. There is the Chrism Mass, with its powerful reminder of the great gift of priesthood and then, this evening, the beginning of the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper when we ponder the amazing gift of the Eucharist and Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us. We have barely registered these before we are plunged into watching with Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, conscious of sin and betrayal. There will be no let up, no lessening of tension, until the Easter Vigil. We are one with Christ on his long, last journey from this world to the next.

In previous years I have attempted to single out some aspect of the day’s events for reflection and prayer. Today, however, I suggest we think about the Preface used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It contains in a nutshell the theology of this day:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For he is the true and eternal Priest,
who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice
and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim,
commanding us to make this offering as his memorial.
As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us,
we are made strong,
and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us,
we are washed clean.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .

Note on the illustration
Unknown, illuminator
The Last Supper, about 1030 – 1040, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38,/small>

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Betrayal | Spy Wednesday 2014

by Digitalnun on April 16, 2014

Judas Receiving the Thirty Pieces of Silver; by Simon Bening, Flemish, about 1483 – 1561; Bruges; painted c. 1525–1530;

Judas Receiving the Thirty Pieces of Silver; by Simon Bening, Flemish, about 1483 – 1561; Bruges; painted c. 1525–1530

Spy Wednesday is sometimes treated with an almost frivolous disregard of the betrayal it signifies. We don’t like remembering that Judas played an essential part in our redemption, that sin and betrayal are at the heart of the Christian story every bit as much as grace and forgiveness. We should think again, for we all have something of Judas in us. We all share in his shabbiness — or rather, we all share in his capacity for getting things wrong.

One of the striking things about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is that I think he thought he was doing the right thing. He was hoping for a Messiah who would free Israel from Rome and usher in a Jewish kingdom of righteousness and peace. He wanted to force the issue and make Jesus take a stand. We know he was wrong, but good people are often seduced by apparently good things. Judas failed to take account of the fact that Jesus wasn’t interested in political power, and therein lies his tragedy. Catherine of Siena worried about Judas’s fate but was reassured by the Lord that there was the prospect of mercy even for him. Perhaps today we might pray for all who have betrayed or been betrayed, for ourselves and for others. We might pray also for Judas, and for mercy on his soul.

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Carrying the Cross

by Digitalnun on April 15, 2014

Christ Carrying the Cross

Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

 

During Holy Week there are are so many words, so many actions freighted with meaning. Paradoxically, we can feel drained by the sheer richness of the liturgy. Spending a few minutes just looking at an image or listening to some music can help us enter depths of meaning and significance from which we tend to shy away as unbearable. This painting by Marco d’Oggiono shows us a youthful Christ, with strong, workman-like hands, bearing the sin of the world — your sin and mine. That’s worth pondering, isn’t it?

 

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Palm Sunday 2014

by Digitalnun on April 13, 2014

On a previous Palm Sunday I wrote:

Today, wherever our Palm Sunday celebration takes place, we are in Roman Palestine two thousand years ago. One question we might ask ourselves is, where do we stand? Are we with the crowd following Jesus and singing hosannas; with the bystanders, looking on from a safe distance; or with those indoors, dismissing what is taking place as just another riotous assembly it is better to keep clear of? Our answer can tell us a great deal about ourselves and the way in which we see the unfolding of Holy Week.

Holy Week is quite brutal in the way in which it demands choice from us. If, during the rest of the year, we are rather unremarkable Christians, regular in our church-going and dutiful in giving to good causes, but keen to avoid drawing attention to ourselves and definitely not the stuff of which martyrs are made, this week reminds us that in following Christ we have made the most radical choice imaginable, one we must live to the end. We cannot simply bumble along the way; we must deliberately choose to follow wherever Christ leads.

I think today I would want to nuance that a little. This is the first time I’ve been unable to take part in the Palm Sunday Mass and Procession; so this year I am not among the followers singing hosannas but among the bystanders who look on from afar. Does that mean I am any less involved? Surely not.

There are many ways of following; many ways of being close to the Lord. One of the hardest is to feel we have no choice, are unable to follow in the way we would wish. It is important to remember, however, that the essence of discipleship is to follow as the Lord chooses. We must all accompany Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem, to Calvary and beyond. How we get there, when we get there, doesn’t matter. We can trust him to show us the way. ‘I would be at Jerusalem,’ says the Pilgrim in Hilton’s Scale of Perfection. That is all that matters.

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Monastic Back to Basics and Holy Week

by Digitalnun on April 12, 2014

Re-reading RB 58, On the Procedure for Admitting Brethren, as we are at the moment, is an excellent preparation for Holy Week. The text reminds us why we came to the monastery in the first place and examines our conscience on how we have used (and sadly misused) the opportunities given us. It is not a negative process, or at least, I don’t find it so. Instead, it is an encouragement to focus again on the great simplicities of monastic life, to recover something of our initial fervour. I like to think of it as a back to basics programme enlightened by self-knowledge and practical experience.

Holy Week is also an encouragement to refocus on what really matters. The liturgy of the next few days reverts to a more ancient form, the drama and intensity of which shocks us out of our usual complacency. People sometimes ask how to make the most of Holy Week and think they must do more — more reading, more praying, more fasting, etc. My own advice would be to forget about doing extra: just give yourself as fully as possible to the liturgy and allow it to do its work in you. Yes, of course, prepare by reading through the prayers and readings of the day and, if you can, by spending a few moments in prayer before the great celebrations of Holy Week begin; but there shouldn’t be any strain or sense of compulsion. Holy Week will stretch you, make you plunge depths of thought and feeling you did not know existed, leaving you numb or raw by turns. You can trust the Holy Spirit to do his work in you. Like the novice setting out on the monastic way, all you have to do is eat, sleep and give yourself up to this work of transformation.

May God bless you all.

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On Being a Bucolic Benedictine

by Digitalnun on April 11, 2014

A smattering of Greek and an Anglo-Saxon weakness for apt alliteration determined the title for today’s post. I have spent much of the last few days in delicious idleness, watching the calves over the way. They are Herefords, all legs and eyes and bumbling charm. Seen through the drifts of plum blossom, they are enchanting. If I were more religious (!), I’d probably quote the psalms and their references to stall-fed cattle, bulls of Bashan and the like; but we are in rural England in springtime, and the dust and heat of ancient Israel seem very far away. All that will change in an instant on Palm Sunday, when we become one with those following Jesus into Jerusalem and trace, step by step, the events of that momentous week. Today, however, it is life, new life, that surrounds us here at the monastery and reminds us of the everlasting creativity of God.

One of the biggest temptations we face is to believe that everything has been done: that from here on, everything goes downhill, gets worse, ends in dissolution and decay. It is a fundamentally pessimistic view of life, one that cramps both mind and spirit. Many physicists of the nineteenth century believed, by and large, that their subject had been exhausted. There were just a few loose ends to tie up. No physicist today would say that. We are on the brink of discovering so much more. Every day seems to reveal more and more wonders, opens up vistas we had never dreamed of, invites us to go further, deeper.

The calves over the way may strike the casual observer as a symbol of all that is unchanging in the countryside, but anyone with an eye for cattle or even the most cursory knowledge of the breed will tell you that the size of the Hereford has changed enormously over the past century. At one time they were bred very small, so that being shipped out to South America they fitted the cargo pens to which they were consigned. Today’s Hereford stands taller, stockier, a much more substantial beast than his 1950s counterpart. I wonder what they will look like a century hence. Of one thing, I’m sure: they will have changed; and as my vow of conversatio morum daily reminds me, I too must change. Being a bucolic Benedictine is not an opting-out but an opting-in to living by grace and being transformed by it.

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Pain is Our Friend

by Digitalnun on April 9, 2014

Most of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid pain, with good reason. Suffering is not necessarily redemptive, nor is experiencing discomfort or loss in itself admirable. Acceptance of pain is another matter, and as Holy Week approaches it may be useful to consider where we are on our Lenten journey. Pain is our friend, because it reveals to us truths we might otherwise reject or never even come to know. It opens us up to that which is above and beyond our power to control; and Lent is very much about ceding control over our lives to God in ways that we don’t dare at other times of year.

If our prayer isn’t making us feel the pain of God’s absence — and even more, the agony of his presence — are we still too focused on ourselves, on what we do/say in prayer, rather than stretching out to embrace the mystery of God’s silence? If our fasting isn’t making us feel hunger, are we playing at sacrifice — giving up little things in order to avoid the greater surrender of self which can seem so daunting? If our almsgiving doesn’t hurt, is it because we are limiting our giving to what we think we can comfortably manage, rather than letting God determine what the measure of our giving should be?

The trouble about asking these questions is that it can induce guilt or scrupulosity, but that is not my intention. I think Holy Week is so intense, so full of Christ’s pain, that it can be overwhelming. We can be numbed at second-hand, as it were, and perhaps miss the point. It is not Christ’s death that redeems us; it is his obedient acceptance of that death. In these few days before Palm Sunday, it would be good to reflect on the difference. I still say that pain is our friend, but only because Christ has made it so by first embracing it himself as a necessary part of his loving obedience to the Father.

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News of Digitalnun and Bro Duncan PBGV from Quietnun

by Digitalnun on April 3, 2014

Bro Duncan PBGV expects to have his stitches out on Friday and is very relieved that They are not allowing any photographs of him in undignified poses in tee shirts and silk scarves, which he is having to wear at present along with the hated Comfy Cone bonnet. He is not going to take any selfies until his bald patches are fully re-furred.

Digitalnun is home but very, very tired (that is monastic code for tired AND cantankerous). Thanks to the skill of the surgeons, she is able to walk with the help of two sticks but she needs to be very careful until the wound heals. Three areas of disease were removed but it will be a couple of weeks before we get the histology report and know whether the lymph nodes are affected. It will be even longer before we know for certain whether the suspected secondaries in the lung are cancer or ‘just’ sarcoidosis. We pray very much they will prove to be the latter. Fortunately, she is usually very cheerful and positive.

Once the wound has healed, Digitalnun will undergo radiotherapy which will also prove tiring for her. So, as her Gaoler, I mean carer, I am banning her from the Mac for the time being. She will not be on Twitter or Facebook until she feels well enough to cope. Both she and I (and our hairy brother) are very grateful for your prayers, messages and cards, and all the practical help we have received and will continue to receive. I know that she prays for you all unremittingly, and I join my prayers with hers. You will understand why we can’t reply to emails and messages at the moment. We are, first and foremost, nuns and need to concentrate on that.

Quietnun

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