by Digitalnun on December 18, 2013
Today’s O antiphon is
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm!
Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush makes one tremble. God’s holiness flaming out from an insignificant shrub is a thought to strike awe; but the thought of not seeing it, of mistaking his presence, is more terrible still. I suspect many of us would admit that there have been times in our lives when God was there but we didn’t register his presence. We were too caught up in other things. We ignored the hand he stretched out to us.
If we do nothing else this Advent, let us open our hearts to embrace the salvation offered us, seizing the moment and not putting off to a tomorrow that never comes the conversion of heart the Lord desires.
by Digitalnun on December 17, 2013
Today’s O antiphon is
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
I have translated this, rather ploddingly, as
O Wisdom, who come forth from the mouth of the Most High, filling the universe from end to end and holding all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth.
Why ‘truth’, not the more literal ‘prudence’? Partly, I think, because I’m a slightly crazed word-fiend. Prudence is connected with foreseeing, taking care for the future; and once Christ has come, the future is already here — our hope is fulfilled. Partly, I confess, because ‘prudence’ had rather a bad reputation under Gordon Brown. It is now associated with failed economic policies and a rather dour, mid-Victorian kind of dutifulness that has little to do with God. On the other hand, I recall that in my first class in moral theology the instructor became almost lyrical in her description of prudence, ‘the mother of all the virtues’ as St Benedict would say. Yet I still hesitate to use the word here because I think the English ‘prudence’ does not convey the force of the Latin ‘prudentia’.
If we look at some of the scriptural passages behind this antiphon, e.g. Isaiah 11.2–3 and Isaiah 28.29, I hope my choice of ‘truth’ becomes more understandable. The Saviour for whom we long is Truth himself, the one in whom we hope, who will free us from all the shabby lies and half-truths that have divided mankind from the beginning. He is the pure and unsullied Wisdom that comes from above. He will teach us to be what those who follow the Lamb must be, ‘in whose mouths no lie is found’. He holds all things in unity; and in that unity there can be no shadow of falsity or untruth.
Eccentric? Perverse? Possibly. But we pray the antiphons here in Latin, which means we can avoid disputes over translation. If you would like to hear the antiphon being sung, go here (scroll to the bottom of the page, Flash required). For reflections on this antiphon in previous years, I suggest you use the search box in the sidebar. There are also entries in our discontinued blog, Colophon.
by Digitalnun on December 16, 2013
Tomorrow everything changes. We begin the last few days of Advent with a new Preface and the magnificent series of ‘O’ antiphons at Vespers which chart the final steps of our journey. (If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here.)
I think there can be no better meditation for today, no better preparation for the remaining days before Christmas, than praying the Second Preface of Advent. It is ‘theology in a nutshell’; so, if you can, take the time to let the phrases sink in and do their work in you:
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 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.
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 . . .
by Digitalnun on December 14, 2013
Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.
I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.
During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.
by Digitalnun on December 13, 2013
No one reading today’s first lesson from Isaiah (Is. 48.17–19) can fail to be moved by the note of regret. Missed opportunities, the sins of omission rather than commission, how they lie heavy about us! But Isaiah is not talking about the regret we feel, rather he is expressing God’s sorrow at the way in which we have messed up. Yes, for once this is all about God, not us. The gospel (Matt 11.16–19) takes this one step further when Jesus voices his frustration at the fickleness of our response. We want the reverse of what we have. We fail to recognize the opportunities offered us, and ultimately, it is our loss.
I think these two passages mark an important stage in our Advent journey. They are the point at which we have to stop playing around, grow up and prepare for change. The call to live with integrity becomes ever more urgent the closer we draw to the Light. Today is the feast of St Lucy, whose name comes from the same root as the word for light. Under the old Julian calendar, her feast marked the shortest day of the year, when everything was at its darkest. There is a psychological truth in that. Very often our decision to follow Christ has to be made in less than ideal conditions, in darkness rather than light, and what spurs us on can seem, at first sight, negative. Our regret at misspent opportunities may provide the initial impetus, but it will not last unless something more positive takes its place. We have to hand everything over to God and allow his love to provide what we need to sustain us.
The movement from fear to love, from self-interest to God-interest, is the work of a lifetime, but we must begin. We do not want to hear on Judgement Day the Holy One lamenting our failure to co-operate with grace. Regret, like nostalgia, is a very adult emotion. Today we can see that it is also potentially a very powerful one. May St Lucy help us with her prayers to live up to our vocation:
Let the prayer of the virgin martyr Lucy support us, Lord,
so that with each passing year we may celebrate her entry into life,
and finally see you face to face in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
by Digitalnun on December 12, 2013
I may as well admit that this morning I feel knee-high to a worm. I am indeed one of the puny mites Isaiah is speaking of, yet the thought of being transformed by grace into a threshing-sled is not an attractive prospect. Far too effortful! (Isaiah 41.13–20) But there is something in this scripture passage that I, and perhaps you also, need to take to heart. It is that the Holy One of Israel is holding us by the right hand, and with him all things are possible. It is easy to forget that God is with us every moment of our lives. He is not a God afar off, but one near at hand: a God who loves us, sustains us, and ultimately redeems us from sin and death. We are preparing for his birth in time, the moment when, as St Leo says, the Creator became part of his creation. That is more than just a glittering paradox. It is an assurance both of God’s essential goodness — he is not, like the pagan gods of old, a fickle and sometimes malevolent being — and of our ability to relate to him. Sometimes that seems so hard. We know him by his absence more than by his presence, and we wish it were otherwise.
We can take scant comfort from today’s enigmatic gospel (Matt 11.11–15). Who are these people taking the kingdom of heaven by storm and being greater than John the Baptist? Surely not wimps like me. I was thinking about that, and the description elsewhere of John as a lamp, a lamp that prepares the way for the true Light coming into the world, when illumination struck. The glow-worm is, zoologically speaking, an insect, but we think and talk about it as a worm: a small, humble creature, wingless and rather unremarkable in daylight, though the female glows in the dark. If I cannot be a threshing-sled but must remain a worm, may the Lord make me a glow-worm, so that I too can say, ‘The hand of the Lord has done this . . . the Holy One of Israel has created it.’
by Digitalnun on December 11, 2013
From time to time we are all affected by ‘Elijah sickness’ — the temptation to lie down and give up. We become tired, scratchy, fed up. It is no good trying to hector ourselves, still less hector others, into going on. We have instead to resort to a little trickery, stepping to one side rather than meeting a difficulty head on, even retreating in order to advance. Better still, we can rely on another to give us the necessary oomph. I love the imagery of eagles’ wings used in today’s reading from Isaiah (Is. 40.25–31) and elsewhere in scripture to convey the idea of being supported, lifted up, by God when we are wont to droop. It is especially powerful at this time of year when even the most equable can feel torn in many different directions.
I don’t think, however, that we should ignore the fact that the image is not an entirely comfortable one. The eagle is not a tame bird. To be close to one is unsettling (at least, for me it has been). The power, the unpredictability, the amazing beauty and sheen of the bird are a little frightening — in a good sense. We can also see eagles’ wings as a metaphor of God’s otherness. Throughout Advent we are called to explore this otherness and resist the temptation to domesticate God. Babies in cribs are easy to coo over, but the desert imagery of Isaiah and the other prophets confronts us with something stranger and more terrible: a God who is beyond human understanding, whose love is searing. We have a bad tendency to project onto him our own ideas, as though God should conform to our version of perfection, conservative, liberal or whatever it may be. In our foolishness, we ignore the question Isaiah poses.
Today’s gospel (Matt 11.28–30) invites us to yoke ourselves with Jesus, to walk with him, work with him and, ultimately, die with him. It is not something we can do by our own efforts. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are but mortal — but with what a destiny!
At your bidding, Lord,
we are preparing the way for Christ, your Son.
May we not grow faint on the journey
as we wait for his healing presence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
This Advent I am deliberately using the daily Mass readings as the basis for my blog posts. If you would like to know more about Advent itself, see our main website here.
by Digitalnun on December 10, 2013
The famous opening ‘Hwaet’ of Beowulf and the ‘Obsculta’ of the Rule of St Benedict have much in common, if Dr George Walkden is to be believed (see http://ind.pn/18jQ2AE). Both were drawing attention to what they had to say, but not in an aggressive ‘Oi, you’ fashion, but rather in a dignified, measured manner, equally suited to poetry and religion. I think Isaiah is doing something of the same in the lyrical passage we read today (Isaiah 40.1-11).
When we are most deeply moved, we don’t use exclamation marks (known to printers as ‘shrieks’, with good reason). We are quieter, more thoughtful, often overwhelmed by the import of what we are thinking or feeling. The voice crying in the wilderness is simultaneously the voice of God and the voice of his disciple, the prophet. It is John the Baptist preparing us for the coming of the Word; and when the Word has been spoken, there is no need of further speech.
This would be a good day to read quietly through those lines of Isaiah and allow them to sink into us. In silence we await the Word.
by Digitalnun on December 8, 2013
The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?
by Digitalnun on December 7, 2013
There is nothing worse than the self-made man or woman who worships his or her creator. (Think about it.) Not far behind come those who mistake self-righteousness for the real thing: the righteousness given by God. The self-righteous (and we can all be self-righteous at times) are cruelly self-deceived — deaf, blind and inclined to be hard on others. They make magnificent assumptions about themselves and others. The fact that I was born into this particular family, went to that school or am a member of such and such a Church means that I am sure of success in this life and salvation in the next. I am, so to say, untouchable; and if I deign to notice you, it will be merely to compare and contrast my superior status with your inferiority. And to all that, Isaiah says the equivalent of ‘poppycock’.
The truth is, we none of us have anything that was not given, and given on trust. But for the gifts and graces we have received to bear fruit, we need a teacher. We have to learn how to be honest, kind, generous to those less fortunate. We do not necessarily know by instinct the right thing to do in any and every situation. We have to apply principles, tests, work things out for ourselves, make mistakes, start afresh, fail; and often we learn more from ‘the bread of suffering and the water of distress’ (Isaiah 30.20) than we do from being at ease and enjoying a life of plenty.
The teacher of whom Isaiah speaks we recognize in Jesus. We think of him as a great healer, a miracle-worker, compassion personified. We sometimes forget that he could be severe and challenging, too. One of my own private heresies is that on the day of judgement we shall look into the eyes of Christ and see mirrored there what he sees in us. Let us pray that, before that moment comes, we shall have learned to become like him. Then will our moonlight shine seven times brighter than the sun. (Isaiah 30.26)
Today is the feast of St Ambrose. You can read more about him here or do a search in the sidebar for previous posts about him.