Palm Sunday 2015

by Digitalnun on March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday: Jesus enters Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday, and here in Herefordshire making the imaginative leap into the world of Roman Palestine is not helped by the wind and rain; but perhaps a grey sky matches the grey mood. For this is a day of menace, a day when we must decide where we stand. The triumph of the entry into Jerusalem is short-lived. The crowd that shouts ‘hosanna’ today will be crying ‘crucify him’ on Friday. If we are honest, we know ourselves to be equally fickle. But it is the Man on the donkey who is key to everything. He does not come to condemn but to save, not to inflict punishment but to show mercy. We must take our tone from him. This is a week for healing and forgiveness; and though we know that we must be bruised and broken along with him, we can, and do, trust that ‘through his stripes we are healed’.

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Making a Good Holy Week

by Digitalnun on March 28, 2015

If Lent seems to have passed you by in a blur of good intentions you meant to get round to but never actually did; if you feel your prayer has been non-existent, your fasting a failure, your almsgiving embarrassing by its absence, do not despair. It is not too late to turn to the Lord and make a good Holy Week.

What do I mean by a good Holy Week? First and foremost, I’d say it is one in which we try to follow in the footsteps of Christ as best we can and in union with the whole Church. Some people do so by an imaginative entry into the events we recall in the major celebrations of this week, beginning with Palm Sunday. I have to admit that has never been my way. For me, it will be a slow, meditative reading of the scriptures the Church places before us that will be my point of entry, so to say — above all the reading of the Last Discourse that takes place just before Compline. Our monastic liturgy reverts to a very ancient form this week. We chant almost everything on a plaintive monotone, and our domestic liturgy, the fasting and the ceremonies we enact in the refectory, take on a peculiarly solemn cast. A secular counterpart might be very plain meals, not to deprive ourselves of good things but to impress on us that this is a special time, the Great Week of the Year; and any money saved should most certainly be given to the poor. Above all, taking part in all the great celebrations if we can — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil — is the best way we can make this a good Holy Week in union with the whole Church.

At a personal level, I think we make a good Holy Week by confessing our sins, making reparation where we can and resolving, with God’s grace, to do better in the future. If there is anyone we have wronged, we must try to put it right. One area everyone reading this might examine is their online conduct. Have we commented unkindly or used Social Media to condemn or belittle others? Have we imputed base motives to others or assumed we knew, and were in a position to judge, their motivation? That is certainly relevant when there is a General Election in the offing: we can sin against politicians just as we can sin against anyone else! But we must not let such an examination of our own conduct make us focus on ourselves. This is a week when we look only to Jesus. He is our Saviour. Let us keep our eyes on him and follow wherever he leads.

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Bro Duncan PBGV’s Thoughts on Suffering and Redemption

by Digitalnun on March 27, 2015

Bro Duncan PBGV on his pallet of pain

Bro Duncan PBGV on his pallet of pain

With Holy Week just around the corner, I have been thinking about suffering and redemption, especially in the light of my recent experience of acute pancreatitis. In case you don’t know about that, I was suddenly struck down and spent days vomiting and voiding uncontrollably — very hard for a clean boy like me — and even had to endure exile in the Vettery, where I was prodded and poked and had needles stuck into me and all kinds of horrors inflicted on me. I was a limp bundle of misery from nose to tail. But it set me thinking. I’m not sure if my thoughts are orthodox or not, but I offer them all the same.

One of the problems with religious people is that they get all misty-eyed about suffering. ‘It is redemptive,’ they say, as they put on a nice smile and edge away from the afflicted one. ‘It is just our Cross,’ they add, if one dares to demur, ‘a heaven-sent opportunity to exercise patience and show our love for God.’ I don’t know about that. I think nine times out of ten that kind of talk is just pious rot. People probably mean it, but it’s easier to mean it when one is not in agony as I was. There was nothing redemptive about my pancreatitis. It didn’t change the world. It didn’t make me a better dog, just a grumpier one. And I don’t believe God made me ill in order to test my love for him; he already knows I think he is the most wonderful being there is, much more wonderful than They are (but don’t let on I said that). No, I was sick, and I suffered; and I found it very difficult to do anything other than concentrate on my suffering. I think it’s probably the same for most humans most of the time. A few saints have probably managed to offer their sufferings up with a beatific smile, but I don’t know anyone like that. I ‘spect they wouldn’t be good with the messy bits, anyway.

Why do humans always link suffering and redemption and make the mistake of putting themselves at the centre of everything? If only they could think more like dogs! Jesus has to be centre stage; we have to be at his side. It is Jesus’ sufferings that are redemptive, and it is our job to try to keep close to him — go walkies with God, if you’ll allow me to put it like that. That doesn’t mean pretending. In fact, it means the reverse, being as honest as possible. Our little Lenten sacrifices, all the sufferings that come our way in the normal course of things, can unite us with him, but they don’t automatically do so. For a dog, that is all pretty plain. It’s humans who seem to enjoy looking at themselves being ‘good’ — and very often, being good according to their own notions rather than God’s. I give glory to God by being a dog and being the best dog I can. That means that at times I have to exercise self-restraint (not every McDonald’s in the hedgerow is good for doggy tummies, alas), and I have to be prepared to fail. What matters is my intention to follow the Master through thick and thin. He sees my heart and knows what is in it. He can turn everything to my good — and usually does, without my making any fuss about it.

Holy Week can be very demanding. We will all fail often. But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can’t go wrong. He suffered and died for us on the Cross. He has redeemed us. All we have to do is to trust him.

 

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Historical Fiction and Fictional History

by Digitalnun on March 26, 2015

You might think a lapsed medievalist like me would be enthralled by all the history currently available in Britain today, but I have to admit to very mixed feelings about it. The portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall as a much nicer man than the records suggest bothered me more than I thought it would. I know too much about More to subscribe uncritically to the idealised portrait of A Man for All Seasons, but I can’t shake off some of Geoffrey Elton’s severer comments about Cromwell, either. At what point does historical fiction cross the line into fictional history?

We are seeing something of the same with the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. I have no particular feelings about him and have recommended interested parties to read Eleanor Parker’s excellent blog post on the subject, Relics, Reburials and Richard III, but I confess to being uneasy about some of the razzmatazz surrounding events in Leicester. I suppose I like my history a little cooler, a little more serious. For me, history is ultimately about truth and understanding (which is why it is so fascinating) and I don’t really like the introduction of fake elements or fundamentally modern interpretations of what, to a historian, is perfectly intelligible within the thought-patterns of an earlier age. I wonder, for example, how many people will be praying for the repose of Richard’s soul today or have any sense of his re-interment forming part of a long Christian tradition of translatio.

When we turn to today’s Mass readings, Genesis 17.3–9 and John 8.51–9, we are brought up against the difference between truth and untruth rather abruptly. Just as Abram becomes Abraham and is initiated into an eternal covenant with God, so Jesus speaks of his identity with the Father and shocks his listeners to the core. The history of the Jewish people traces the consequences of fidelity to that Abrahamic covenant; and the history of Jesus traces the consequences of fidelity to that union between Father and Son.  Today we might think about what that means for us. By baptism we have been born into the covenant Christ sealed with his blood on the cross. We are called to live as children of truth and light. How shall we do so?

 

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St Joseph 2015

by Digitalnun on March 19, 2015

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In previous years I have written about St Joseph in very personal terms — see here, for example, here or here, or do a search in the sidebar — but I have never found an image that seemed to reflect his strength and perhaps his weariness. This terracotta image from Tuscany, now in the Walters Art Museum, was probably part of a nativity scene in which Joseph sat a little apart from the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, to emphasize that he was not the biological father. I think it captures the essence of Joseph and his role and hints at what the fulfilment of that role cost him. Let us pray today for all fathers, that they too may be ready to fulfil their demanding role.

Bro Duncan PBGV
He had a relapse yesterday so spent another night in the animal hospital. He was finally allowed home in the evening, looking a little the worse for wear but still very much himself.

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Bro Duncan PBGV and St Cyril of Jerusalem

by Digitalnun on March 18, 2015

We make a great team: Bro Duncan PBGV and DIgitalnun check their Twitterstream

We make a great team: Bro Duncan PBGV and Digitalnun check their Twitterstream.
Photo by Keith Waldegrave, © Trustees of Holy Trinity Monastery. All Rights Reserved

Unless you have foresworn Social Media for Lent, you are probably aware that the monastery dog, Bro Duncan PBGV, is at the vet’s hospital for sick animals, where he has been diagnosed with pancreatitis — a painful and sometimes life-threatening condition. He may be only a little fellow as hounds go, but he has left a big hole. Using a combination of telepathy and soulful staring, he communicates important spiritual truths simply and directly. He is a valuable member of the blogging team, although I am not sure he really understands that not every word with ‘cat’ in it refers to felines. For example, when I told him that the Mystagogic Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem (whose feast is today) are an excellent read, he looked sceptical. Even when I passed him a link to one of the many online translations (http://bit.ly/1Fz6FXb), he seemed unimpressed. There was a certain quickening of interest when I mentioned the section On Meats, but the big yawn that followed my reference to Baptism (Bro Duncan hates getting wet) told me I had lost my audience. May I hope that you will find St Cyril more interesting that Bro Duncan does? It’s a good text to read in Lent/Easter.

Note
Thank you for all the tender enquiries after Bro Duncan’s health. We’ll know more later today. Thank you, too, to those who have sent donations to help cover his vet’s bill. I’ve been asked to set up a Giving Page, but if you would like to contribute, our online donation facility at www.charitychoice.co.uk/benedictinenuns will take donations in any currency and allow UK taxpayers to Gift Aid their donations. Just mark ‘for the use of Bro Duncan’. Paypal can also be used in connection with the monastery email address.

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A Non-Existent Future

by Digitalnun on March 16, 2015

The first email I read today told me of the death of an old friend. He was 95 and had had heart failure for some time. His last letter told me he was ready for death and hoped it would not be too far off. He was a doughty unbeliever, and a frequent joke between us was that one day I’d say to him, ‘I told you so!’ I fully expect to be able to do that one day. The future does not depend on our believing in it, any more than the existence of God depends on our belief in him.

Consider, next, this tweet from Dr Kate Granger, who has an advanced sarcoma: ‘Hardly surprising I can’t sleep. . . Massive decision to make tomorrow with such uncertainty – one that will determine my non-existent future.’ It is very easy when faced with an aggressive disease that, humanly speaking, can have only one outcome to feel that words like ‘the future’ have no meaning. No matter how brave or positive one is (and Dr Granger is both), there are moments when everything seems bleak and meaningless. One goes on because one must, because the end is not yet, not because one believes one has any future to speak of.

People often think that having faith is a great comfort at such times. I wonder. Faith tends to come and go. It cannot be summoned up at will, however hard one tries. Of course, one can lie — even to oneself; but a lie will not sustain one through a really difficult patch. We have to face up to the reality of our situation and embrace it. That is why, here in the monastery, we pray every day for the gift of faith to be given to us, not merely renewed in us. That is also why we pray for the faith of our fellow Christians to be strengthened, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those persecuted by IS or by their neighbours in India or Pakistan need our prayers because, ultimately, only grace can assure them any future on this earth. As to the future that we look forward to in hope, well, please pray for my friend and Dr Granger, too.

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Praying to Oneself

by Digitalnun on March 14, 2015

Do you ever find yourself praying to yourself, like the pharisee in today’s parable (Luke 18.9–14)? Luke is very hard on the pharisee. Most pharisees were good people, and, far from being hypocrites, were devoted to the Law, charitable and upstanding members of society. Unfortunately, being ‘good’ can sometimes get in the way of being truly open to God; and that is exactly what happens with the pharisee in today’s gospel. Instead of praying to God, he addresses himself; and rather than acknowledging his sinfulness, he gives thanks for his virtues. The tax-collector, by contrast, knows he is a sinner through and through and simply asks for mercy.

Being honest about oneself does lead to a great simplification in prayer. There is nothing to say except, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. The pharisee, alas, has obviously read too many books about self-worth and that has led him onto dangerous ground, making comparisons between himself and others (to their detriment). Clearly, being honest about oneself shouldn’t mean denying the gifts God has given, but it should make us realise that they are indeed gifts, not something we have earned or have of ourself.

We can all take something away from today’s reading, but I guarantee it won’t be comfortable.

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Muddled Thinking About Violence

by Digitalnun on March 12, 2015

Apparently, more than half a million people have signed a petition asking for the BBC’s reinstatement of Jeremy Clarkson. Although neither they nor I was present at the incident that caused the uproar (presumably), the allegation that Mr Clarkson punched another person must be taken seriously and investigated. Workplace violence is not acceptable, period. So, what is going on? Are we really saying that the loss of Mr Clarkson as a presenter of a popular programme matters more than requiring him to act in a decent and civilized manner towards BBC staff?

I think we have another instance of the way in which public opinion applies different standards to different people and expects to act as judge and jury — and sometimes executioner as well. A celebrity footballer behaves abominably and there is much humming and hawing about the impact his suspension will have on team results, with pleas that he be treated leniently; a well-known politician whose politics many dislike is hustled and manhandled, but that is all right because his views are so objectionable; someone caught up in a nasty criminal case can be hounded and abused, as Christopher Jefferies was, not because he is guilty (he wasn’t) but because he is odd and the crowd wants someone to blame. We condemn the terrible violence of IS and its allies but turn a blind eye to that wreaked by the use of drones. We ignore the dreadful reality of domestic violence, comforting ourselves that the attitudes revealed by some of the speakers in ‘India’s Daughter’ are the exception and not likely to be found here (alas, they are, as those who run women’s shelters will attest).

A civilized society is only as civilized as its care of the weak and vulnerable; as its restraint of greed and violence. The words of Jeremiah in today’s first reading at Mass make me uncomfortable as I hope they make you (Jeremiah 7.23–28). They challenge us to examine our own conduct and root out of it anything unworthy of God. Surely violence of whatever kind — thought, word or deed — must be among the chief.

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Worry and Trust

by Digitalnun on March 11, 2015

What we worry about is highly revealing — and I do mean worry, not what we make the most noise about. It is possible to be vociferous about the poor, for example, and yet not really care whether others have adequate food, shelter, clothing or sense of their own dignity. We can use anything or anyone to feed our own ambition. But the things that keep us awake in the small hours are more telling. That is when we worry about our family or community, our health, finances, even our own physical safety. I wonder, however, how many of us lie awake worrying about our souls: by which I mean, how we stand with God.

One of the things I love about the Book of Deuteronomy is the way in which it presents Israel’s relationship with God as the most important thing in life, full of love and tenderness. The brief passage we read at Mass today (Deut. 4. 1, 5–9) singles out the beauty and holiness of the Law as something to be celebrated and passed on to one’s children as a most precious gift. I sometimes wonder whether Christian parents view passing their faith on to their children with the same sense of  urgency and warmth. Many do, I know; but some are more lukewarm — and a lukewarm faith can never kindle fire in another.

Of course, worry is not itself a good thing. We pray that we may be protected from anxiety and know that the cares of this life are as likely as excessive wealth or luxury to choke the life of the Spirit within us. Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t seem to prevent our worrying. Indeed, it can end up making us worry about worrying! I think that is one of the reasons St Benedict exhorts us to keep death daily before our eyes. (RB4.47) He wasn’t being morbid, or wanting to put a damper on human pleasure or delight, but trying to make us take a longer view of things. How many of us can remember what we were worrying about this time last year? When we think about death, many of our worries fall into place. We let go of those that aren’t important and give time to those that matter. Usually, that brings us back to worries about our nearest and dearest and the rueful acknowledgement that we can’t do much about them except entrust them to God.

Trust is difficult, but it can be learned. During Lent, and more especially during Holy Week, we trace the journey which led Jesus to the Cross and that final abandonment to the Father, full of love and trust. Perhaps we could spend a few moments thinking and praying about that whenever we find ourselves worrying. It won’t change our circumstances, but it might eventually change us.

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