by Digitalnun on December 21, 2014
Here in the monastery the Fourth Sunday of Advent is celebrated quietly and plainly: no decorations, no carols, nothing that anticipates Christmas save that Preface II of Advent clearly looks forward to the coming feast:
. . . all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.
It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.
I’m not sure that ‘John the Baptist sang of his coming’ really makes the same point as ‘John the Baptist was his herald’, but we’ll let that pass. I am more interested in the gospel, Luke 1. 26–38, the same as we had yesterday, but how differently it reads in this context. Yesterday it was all about signs, Ahaz testing God by his refusal to ask for a sign, our looking to the future. Today it is about the fulfilment of God’s promises and our response, what Paul calls the ‘mystery kept secret for endless ages, but now so clear that it must be broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of faith’ (Romans 16. 26). At the heart of today’s liturgy is that moment of unequalled obedient faith, when Mary said ‘yes’ to what God asked, without qualification or reserve.
We can stop there, pondering Mary’s speaking the word that would enable the Word to take flesh among us, but for most of us it is more helpful to reflect on how the gospel ends. ‘And the angel left her.’ That rings true, doesn’t it? We come down from the mountain-top and find the world apparently unchanged; and what is more, we no longer have the ‘buzz’, the excitement or exhilaration that accompanied our unstinted gift of self. We find, as generations have before us, that the ‘yes’ said neat in prayer must be worked out amidst the ordinariness of everyday life. It was exactly the same for Mary. After her meeting with the angel she had to face all the difficulties of her situation seemingly alone. Even Joseph, whom we see now as her great support, hesitated to believe her.
Perhaps what we can take away from the liturgy today is the realisation that we become more, not less, human when we encounter God. Nothing changes, yet everything is transformed. We do not become supermen or superwomen, any more than Mary did; but we do become holier, in our case just a little more like God. But that little increase in likeness is all it takes to live the Good News, which is what we are called to do. Let us ask Our Lady to pray for us.
by Digitalnun on December 14, 2014
Every year for the last ten years I have blogged about Gaudete Sunday. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have been to Mass on this Sunday and shared in the Sacrament of the altar. Today, however, will be different. I shall drive Quietnun to Mass (we live some miles away from the nearest Catholic church, common enough in England, but rarer elsewhere) and while she participates in the Mass inside, I shall be sitting outside, reading the lessons and prayers*. It is, if I’m honest, slightly miserable. Which brings me to my point.
This morning many a priest will be exhorting his congregation to rejoice. The Mass readings are full of exultant joy; and the choir, if there is one, will be raising the roof with glad song. Even the church’s appearance will change today, with a swirl of rose vestments and incense breaking in on our Advent plainness. So what do we do if our own feelings are out of step with the message, if we are, so to say, feeling like outsiders?
We cannot and should not pretend to a joy we do not have, but instead of shrugging off the whole idea and going our misanthropic way alone, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by rejoicing and why we are exhorted to be joyful. The joy of a Christian has nothing to do with feelings; it has very little to do with circumstances, either, but has everything to do with hope — our hope in Christ and our hope for all eternity. The broken heart is still broken, but now it is bound up; the poor are still poor, but now we hear the Good News; whatever our past failures, now we are wrapped in the cloak of integrity. (cf Isaiah 61. 1-2, 10-11) Like John the Baptist, we look beyond ourselves to the person of Christ; and like John, we rejoice, we find our joy in Him. We may be going through a desert period in our lives; we may be very conscious of our own fragility and unworthiness; but it doesn’t matter. Christ is all in all. As I sit in the car this morning, I shall try to remember that.
* The chemotherapy I’m having means I’m vulnerable to infection.
by Digitalnun on December 12, 2014
I was snoozing quietly in my basket the other day when I overheard Them discussing an opinion voiced by Pope Francis. Apparently, he was comforting a little chap who’d just lost his best (doggy) friend. Our pets go to paradise, said the pope. Immediately, a storm broke out all over t’internet, with some arguing along with Aquinas that dogs don’t have souls so can’t go to heaven and the pope is a heretic and deserves to roast in the fires of hell, and others asserting equally roundly that the pope should define it as an article of faith that dogs do go to heaven as they often live better lives than humans do. I’m not sure where My Lot stand. They tend to get all theological and invoke words like ‘mystery’ and ‘transcendent reality’ and add lots of qualifiers and stuff.
Of course, it is all quite simple, really. Dogs were created so humans could learn the importance of values like love and fidelity, which they are not always good at. We teach little humans important things like eating everything on their plates and sleeping soundly wherever they happen to be. We teach old humans they are infinitely loveable and delightful to be with. We teach the middle-aged ones the importance of fresh air and exercise, and you’re never too creaky to have fun. I don’t know about heaven up above, but I do know that humans could make life on earth a bit more heavenly if they all tried to be more dog — live in the moment, and be grateful for everything. That’s not a bad message for Advent, is it? Be More Dog.
by Digitalnun on December 10, 2014
It’s easy to become lyrical about silence, isn’t it? All the great religions of the world seem to hold silence in veneration. In Christianity we have the immense paradox of the creative word God speaks into the silence of non-being which is the Logos, the Word of God Incarnate. In the Benedictine monastic tradition, silence is the natural counterpart to the liturgy we celebrate in choir. We are immersed in silence, bathed in it all day long; but I don’t think you will find a single monk or nun who wouldn’t admit that, far from being the enviably peaceful state many imagine, it can be a searing experience. It confronts us with our inner poverty, challenges us to conversion of heart, casts a searching light on all that we would prefer to keep hidden.
The U.S. Senate report on the use of torture by the C.I.A. shows us another kind of silence, the collusive silence of fear and shame which has nothing redemptive in it. It is the silence of Adam and Eve after they had eaten the fatal fruit. This morning I think we all feel our humanity has been diminished — not because we are personally responsible, but because whatever one human being does to another affects us all. This shameful silence, too, has to be taken into our prayer, has somehow to be transformed, so that it is no longer destructive.
During these days of Advent we try to be a little more silent than usual because we are preparing to receive the Word of God as Saviour and Redeemer. We need to listen. Sometimes all we’ll hear is the sound of silence, like the beating of a bird’s wing against the air or the pumping of blood around our heart. We need the Holy Spirit to come and overshadow us with his mighty power, just as he overshadowed Mary. If we ask, he will; but we must be prepared for the unexpected. God’s ideas are always so much bigger than our own.
by Digitalnun on December 9, 2014
As a community, we are blessed with a small but very insightful group of oblates who often say or do things that leave me amazed at both their perceptiveness and their charity. Yesterday I was mulling over a few thoughts about the race towards Christmas and the failure to allow Advent to be Advent. Many people already have their tree up and their house decorated, and some, at least, will have eaten a handful of Christmas dinners before the ‘real’ one on 25 December. To me, living in a monastery, where the liturgy is full of poignant longing for a joy not yet attained, and the house is as bare as can be, with not so much as a Christmas card yet allowed (we do all our decorating on the afternoon of Christmas Eve), it seems a strange waste of opportunity. Advent: the very word means ‘coming’. We are waiting in hope, and if we would celebrate Christmas in all its richness, it is helpful to spend these few short weeks of Advent preparing, not acting as though we were already at Christmas itself. So I was thinking when one of our oblates broke in on my thoughts.
The oblate in question has cancer (please pray for her) and had been nonplussed by some people who were reluctant to wish her a happy Christmas on the grounds that she couldn’t really be happy because she is so ill. Now, I happen to know that the oblate in question is a woman with a delicious sense of humour and a lively interest in all that goes on around her. She has coped with more than one serious illness gallantly and good-humouredly. But that reluctance to wish her a happy Christmas, that awkwardness in the face of illness, what was that about? Why shouldn’t she be wished a happy Christmas, even if, especially if, which God forbid, it should happen to be her last? Wouldn’t we want to surround her with love and good wishes? I certainly would.
Our Christmas happiness stems from the fact that we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ; it does not depend on what we happen to be thinking or feeling on Christmas Day, or any of the days that follow. If it did, some of us might admit that we were not the happiest of people as we struggle with mass catering or try to cope with World War III breaking out among the assembled family and guests!
I think myself the reluctance to wish our oblate a happy Christmas has a double aspect. Part of it stems from a very British awkwardness in the face of illness and death. We are afraid of putting a foot wrong, which generally means we end up making a hash of things. But I think part of it also stems from a fundamentally skewed conception of the feast now gaining ground. Just as many start celebrating Christmas days (even months!) before the actual date, and often take down their decorations before the festivities have run their course (to Epiphany or Twelfth Night), so I think a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that Christmas is about Christ — about God made man, anointed to suffering and death to free us from sin and open the way of salvation.
We celebrate Christmas because God has heard our cry and come to redeem us. We rejoice that he comes among us as a baby, the mighty Word of God crying and gurgling like the rest of us, and that he comes as Saviour of all. Whether rich or poor, young or old, in good health or bad, we share the joy of his coming because we all need his salvation. We are happy because our Christmas joy does not depend on us but on him. That is the crux of the matter.
So, please wish our oblate a happy Christmas if you meet her; and, if you can, let these days of Advent be days when you experience to the full Israel’s longing for the Messiah. Let there be a little darkness, a little spareness, so that when we come to the great festival of light and warmth that is Christmas, we can do so with hearts ready to receive the gift. Sometimes we have to appreciate the vastness of our need if we are to appreciate how amply it has been met. Let us make the most of this waiting time, remembering that it is not about us but about Him; yet the wonder is, we are His happiness even more than He is ours.
by Digitalnun on December 5, 2014
Most of us suffer from it most of the time, and those who claim that they don’t are probably deceiving themselves. Spiritual blindness is a fact of life. It makes me think of Coleridge’s ‘owlet atheism . . . hooting at the glorious sun in heaven’ and crying out, ‘where is it?’ We fail to see what is right in front of our noses: the beauty and holiness of God. We capture glimpses of it, or think we do, when we encounter a beautiful building or painting, or are moved by beautiful words or music. But capturing glimpses of it in failure, in ugliness or whatever is contrary to our wishes or ideas, that is more difficult.
Today’s Mass readings, from Isaiah 29 and Matthew 9. 27–31 are about being cured of blindness. What we may fail to take on board is that being cured of blindness doesn’t change the world, only our perception of it. We may recoil from what we think of as being somehow ‘contrary to God’ (by which we usually mean our ideas of God) but that is to perpetuate a kind of blindness, a refusal to see things as they truly are. It is especially dangerous when it concerns the way in which we see other people, because we can choose to see a distorted and distorting version of them. There is a part of the eye called the fovea where we see clearly, without any distortion. That is how God sees us and how, this Advent, we are invited to see him and all that he has created.
by Digitalnun on December 4, 2014
When Pope Francis declared this was to be a Year of Consecrated Life, we greeted his announcement with muted enthusiasm. We are very enthusiastic about monastic life here at Howton Grove and happy to share our vocation with others, but we are not so keen on some of the ways in which consecrated life in general is promoted or some of the attitudes that surround it. I have been trying for years to work out why and think I may have had a lightbulb moment, at least as regards women religious. I hope it won’t read like a grumble, because it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to articulate something I think matters, and if my viewpoint is a trifle heretical, I hope I’m being heretical in a good cause.
I have the feeling it’s become increasingly common in Europe, though possibly less so in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world, to regard women who live under religious vows with something akin to contempt. It as though the moment we put on the habit (or not), we ceased to be people with minds or feelings and became complete ninnies, neither demanding nor deserving the ordinary courtesies of life. As communities age or struggle to maintain their former apostolates, they are relegated to the margins of the Church as so much dead weight. I’m sorry to say the Catholic clergy can be among the worst offenders in this respect; and I think that may be at the heart of my unease about the Year of Consecrated Life.
It is no good asking for prayers for vocations or spending money on promotional videos and the like if we don’t really believe it is worthwhile. If we think religious men and women — above all, women, since they cannot be priests — are essentially wasting their time; that there is nothing they can do or be that someone else can’t do or be better; that the accidentals of religious life matter more than the substance; that religious are wrong about the choices they have made or are deficient in their understanding of what the gospel asks; then, of course, I can’t see anyone being attracted to any form of consecrated life in the first place, still less persevering until death, and it is fundamentally wrong to pretend that religious life is a valid way of following Christ. But as someone who has experienced the joy of monastic life, and who has known people of genuine holiness who have become so precisely through the faithful living out of their vocation, I don’t want the nay-sayers to have it all their own way. It is because I believe in the value of consecrated life that I would like to see it flourish in the Church.
For consecrated life to flourish, several conditions need to be met, and religious themselves need to meet the challenge of changing times. Every week, I deal with a handful of vocation enquiries and I can see that, while there is still great generosity of spirit, the way in which people think about vocation has become increasingly secularised. For example, there is a kind of tick-list the community, rather than the candidate, is expected to meet. There is a presumption that discernment involves only the individual, not the accepting community. It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘unmonastic’ (as indeed it is), but I think that is unfair. A vocation isn’t an abstraction; it is enfleshed in an individual; and none of us, whatever our vocation in life, starts out knowing everything or being everything we are called to be. We need to expand our ideas about how people are drawn to religious life, and how we can best help them find their way. I must emphasize that this isn’t a numbers game. Just as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foresaw a much smaller Church in years to come, I myself think the religious communities of the future will be smaller, too. I don’t think they will disappear, however, because, in the end, religious life is all about responding to God, and God does not cease to call people to himself.
My hope for this Year of Consecrated Life is that we’ll do more than just pray for vocations or run discernment days and the like. I hope we’ll think deeply about the nature of vocation and the place of consecrated life in the Church. I hope those of us who are religious will examine our own attitudes and accept that, ‘because we’ve always done x or y’ may no longer be a valid reason for continuing to do so — any more than changing for the sake of changing is valid. I hope those who aren’t religious will also examine their attitudes, for and against. If you lament the decline in numbers, ask yourself whether you would become a religious, or how you would feel if your son or daughter wanted to become a religious. If you think religious are a waste of space, go and meet some and see whether they justify that negativity. And if you are a Catholic priest, perhaps you could ban the phrase ‘the good sisters’ from your lips and just see religious as the people they are, fellow-toilers in the Vineyard.
Note: Throughout this post I’ve used ‘religious’ as short-hand for ‘members of a religious order or congregation’. I’ve written principally about women because I am one myself and because male religious are often priests as well, which gives them a different standing in the Church. I’d also like to emphasize that I’m lucky enough to count priests and monks among my friends. My remarks do not refer to them but to the kind of senior cleric who, at a lunch I attended, was overheard saying to the person taking him in, ‘Seat me anywhere, so long as it’s not next to one of the nuns’. For our sins, we were seated together.
by Digitalnun on December 2, 2014
From our monastery we look out towards the Black Mountains and the Brecons. They are a constant reminder that in scripture mountains are a privileged meeting-place between God and humankind. Today Isaiah 11 speaks of the holy mountain on which no hurt or harm will be done. It is a messianic vision, we say, pausing only to pull out our concordances and commentaries to extract every little nuance of meaning we can from the text. It is a prophecy of the end times, not really meant for here and now.
How wrong can we be! The holy mountain on which no hurt or harm is done should be the ground we tread every day of our lives. God wants to be known and loved now, not just hereafter. If we feel there is some block to this knowing, something that hinders us, we need to look at it and be prepared to change. We can be people of integrity, as Isaiah says. We can be ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ — if we wish. That is the crux of the matter. What do we really want? During this Year of Consecrated Life many people will be challenged to answer that question in a way they never thought possible, but it isn’t a question just for religious or clergy but every one of us. We are all called to know the promise of the gospel (Luke 10.21-24), all called to know the Lord.