A Virtual Vigil

I was reading over some of my previous posts on St John of the Cross, whose feast is today, in order to avoid repeating what I have already said when I broke off to scan the BBC web site for news of yesterday’s EU summit. Clearly, here in the UK we are plunging further and further into a political mess of our own making. As individuals, I am sure we have all prayed about it, but have we done so as a community? I know that in the monastery we haven’t really, although we have kept the subject in mind often enough.

Tonight, therefore, we shall be holding a virtual Vigil between 7.00 pm and 8.00 pm with the explicit intention of asking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help. Anyone who cares to join us can do so from anywhere, and at any time. We don’t prescribe any particular readings or formal prayers. I imagine we ourselves will just pray quietly and end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It isn’t much. It’s just a small gesture, but God has a way of taking small gestures and transforming them into something powerful. St John of the Cross was a man of very small stature and insignificant presence, we’re told, but how his love of God blazes across the centuries and what an immense amount he achieved — and all because he prayed, with an earnestness and perseverance that puts most of us — me certainly — to shame.

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Held by the Right Hand of God

For some of us the present turmoil in British politics is disconcerting. We are not fazed by blatent personal ambition or the curious kind of ‘political-speak’ many adopt when they wish to avoid committing themselves to anything, but we are wondering whether the concepts of public service and the common good mean anything any more. Amid all the insults being traded in Parliament and on the internet, it can be hard to discern the voice of mature reflection. At times, the apparent lack of political vision is extremely worrying. Whatever we think about Brexit, the present shambles helps no-one, and any attempt to look into the future is discouraging.

Today’s first Mass reading (Isaiah 41. 13–20), therefore,  could not be more timely. We may feel as helpless as a worm, one whose fate is entirely decided by others, but we’re not. God is holding us by the right hand. That doesn’t mean we can just sit back and make no effort of our own. On the contrary, it is because God is involved in every aspect of our lives that we  can find the courage to go on, however adverse the circumstances in which we  find ourselves. Hope is the great message of Advent, but it is one we have to live in practice, not just theory. That includes being hopeful about the present chaos — not in a silly, ostrich-like refusal to look facts in the face, but in genuine openness to what may come about. It means going on praying, going on searching and working, refusing to give way to the rancour and self-seeking of some or the bitterness and hostility of others. In other words, it means allowing God to lead us,

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Where Prayer Has Been Valid

Corbel at Holywell: Nabokov at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Yesterday we made a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well and prayed for all the sick and suffering people in the world, which means, in effect, for everyone. We are all in some measure sick — not quite what we should be, probably rather less than we could be — and we are all in some degree suffering — not obviously, perhaps, but ‘underneath’, where we do not care to shine too bright a light. Today’s Mass readings remind us that we find our strength in the Lord. He carries us, just as the corbel at St Winefride’s Well shows a man carrying his friend.

There is always a beautiful quietness at Holywell. The battered old stones hold so many prayers, while the gentle bubbling of the spring recalls the waters of Shiloh and all the miracles of healing recorded in scripture. To pray in such a place, to light a candle in such a place, is to assert once again the supremacy of God’s love, the triumph of good over evil and the power of grace to transform lives. That is the true miracle of healing, the end to which our journey through Advent leads us.

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Descending into Tribalism Again?

There have been many times recently when I have wondered whether we are descending into tribalism again. The rise of the hard right in mainland Europe, the violence on the streets of Paris, the ugly anti-semitic placards captured by photographers at various demonstrations and the shameful factionalism we are treated to every day from Parliament are not encouraging. Is this the world in which we wish to live, a jungle where what’s best for me and the rest of you can go to blazes is our mantra of choice? What happened to our nobler ambitions, our desire to live in peace, to ensure that no-one should be in want?

It is a mistake to think that Advent can be so spiritualized that we do not connect what we pray with what we say. If we are longing for the coming of the Messiah, for his reign of justice and peace, we have to work to create that justice and peace here and now. We cannot one minute be cursing the enemy of the moment (the E.U., Brexiteers, Remainers, Republicans, Democrats, whatever) and the next asking God to make everything wonderful and lovely. In any case, wonderful and lovely for whom? Just me and my friends? Is that really what we take from our reading of the Gospels?

The first reading at Mass today (Isaiah 40. 1–11) is especially dear to our community, but we have always interpreted the Consolamini  of the Vulgate as ‘strengthen’ rather than ‘console’. God does everything, of course, but he requires our active co-operation; and that co-operation may well mean renunciation of some good for ourselves as well as seeking good for others. We easily forget that, convinced as we usually are that our view is the right one. Perhaps a moment or two reflecting on today’s gospel (Matthew 18. 12–14) will give us pause. The lost sheep, the one that caused the Lord grief and anxiety, the one who didn’t do what the rest of the flock did, was chosen and precious in his eyes. The Lord did not allow the stray to remain apart for ever. Is there a lesson there for all of us? The new tribalism separates and ostracizes. Shouldn’t we really be trying to achieve unity, to build up rather than tear down? Isn’t that how we shall recognize that the kingdom of God is truly among us?

65. 

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Living with Uncertainty

In retrospect, the world in which I grew up was remarkably secure, yet the memory of war was very real for my parents’ generation and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was ever-present. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I remember going into the garage to announce the news to my father, who stopped what he was doing, looked very grave and said, ‘This may mean war.’ He was wrong, of course, but that was the great fear lurking behind the political polarisation of the day. We lived with uncertainty. We still do, but it is a different kind of uncertainty. The enemy we fear is often unseen or unrecognized, in our midst, even our own bodies. We fear the consequences of the way we have abused earth, sea and air; the terrorist who is implacably opposed to our way of life; the disease that perhaps even now is coursing through our body. No-one looking at the world today can afford to be complacent. There seems to be so much that is beyond our control, that menaces us.

That is one of the reasons why Advent is a helpful time of year. We are looking forward to the coming of Christ with expectant joy yet, at the same time, acknowledging both our own sinfulness and the brokenness of the world we inhabit. There is the uncertainty of the not-yetness of salvation; the uncertainty of our own response. For those of us living in Britain, there is also the uncertainty of Brexit and what will or will not happen in the next twenty-four hours. This uncertainty accompanies us as we make our pilgrimage through Advent and lends it a peculiar force and directness. We need a Saviour, a Redeemer: one who will make us secure, transform our deafness and blindness and free us from everything that holds us back from being  who and what we are meant to be. We are therefore living a paradox because, of course, Christ has already come, has already saved us. Our uncertainty is whether we will lay claim to the salvation he offers us — whether, in the words of Isaiah, we will allow everlasting joy to shine forth from us, or whether we will prefer darkness to light. The choice is ours.

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In Turbulent Times

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Few would dispute that we live in turbulent times. If we were once able to situate violence and civil unrest somewhere ‘out there’, we can do so no longer. The extraordinary scenes as British M.P.s row about Brexit, the protests of the gilets jaunes and the rise of populist movements throughout Europe, to say nothing of the daily shock of tweets from the President of the U.S.A., are surely enough to convince anyone that the world is a-changing, and not necessarily for the better. We continue to hate one another, pollute the world in which we live and generally act as though we had learned nothing from our past experience. We are not so much homo sapiens as homo vastans.

Into this world steps the Church with the words of Baruch 5, urging us to take off our robe of sorrow and distress and put on the glory of the Lord for ever. Is that sheer escapism, the response of the weak and fearful to brutality and power? I don’t think so. The Messianic dream of the people of Israel will be realised; there will indeed be everlasting  peace; but first we must be ready to do our part — and that is where we tend to fall down. 

This Advent I have been impressed, as I always am, by the huge effort made by the Churches to show practical compassion towards those in need. Something more is required, however, and that is the inner transformation of each one of us. John the Baptist, who suddenly appears out of the desert in today’s gospel reading (Luke 3. 1–6), echoes the words of Baruch. The mountains of pride and self-sufficiency must be laid low, the valleys of fear and distrust filled in. Everything that is curved or devious in us must be straightened, and the rough places — the things that hurt or endanger others — must be smoothed out. Ah, we say, of course we’ll do that, but when circumstances are more propitious; yes, then we’ll work on our souls, but in the meantime, we are too busy with the affairs of  this world. We live in turbulent times, you know.

Perhaps the times are turbulent because we have got things the wrong way round. We are too busy trying to make the world suit us better to notice the basic flaw in our plan. We ourselves haven’t changed. We think we can go on as we always have, but we can’t. Every Advent we are faced with the same dilemma, the same invitation. Are we for the Lord or are we not? Are we ready to be converted or are we not? Our decision matters because it is one that affects not just us but everyone else. To choose godliness, to become pure and blameless as St Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, is to accept the challenge of our times. Advent is not just a preparation for Christmas but for the coming of the Day of Christ, and it is the third coming, of Christ to our souls now, that is the link between the two. 

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Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception 2018

There are times when we need to be still and simply rejoice in the wonder and beauty of God. Today is one of those times. As it is Saturday, and Christmas is little more than a fortnight away, I suspect many will greet that remark with hollow laughter, but it is still true. We can cudgel our brains to understand the theology of this feast — Mary’s sinlessness, which did not exempt her from the need to be redeemed, Augustine’s theology of original sin and all the logical and frankly illogical consequences of that — but ultimately we are left on our knees, marvelling at God’s grace and its perfect fulfilment in that young Jewish girl whom we dare to call Mother of God. May she pray for us all, but especially today for the overburdened and the tired.

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Preparing for Advent 2018: Five Suggestions

This year Advent is very short. It begins on the evening of Saturday, 1 December, and lasts barely three weeks, so we must make the most of it. Here in the monastery, Advent is eagerly anticipated. We relish the simplicities of the season — the silence, the haunting chants we sing in choir, the wonderful prophecies we read, even the extra plainness of the food we eat. Sadly, we are unable to begin with our usual three days of complete silence because I am scheduled to have chemotherapy on Thursday and the side-effects affect everyone for a week or so. I will have to accept that as humbly as I can, knowing that others are being very patient and kind. It does mean, however, that we need to keep our focus if Advent is to do its work in us.

Benedict does not mention Advent in the Rule, which is not surprising as Western Christians were only just beginning to observe it as a liturgical season at the time of his birth. He does, however, have a great deal to say about the things that make for a blessed and fruitful Advent. He is keen on silence, prayer, the common life; he wants us to read the scriptures, act humbly, justly, and forgive readily. These may be easier in a monastery, where everyone is vowed to live according to the Rule, than in society at large, but I think there are some practical suggestions any Christian can make their own. May I suggest the following?

  1. Read every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass (the Eucharist). In that way, even if you can’t go to Mass yourself, you will be joining with the whole Church throughout the world in this great act of preparation for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
  2. Try to find a few minutes for prayer each day. Don’t worry if circumstances aren’t ideal. It is what God thinks of our prayer that matters, not our assessment of it, and thankfully God seems much more easily satisfied than we are. Just try.
  3. Try to cultivate a few minutes of silence each day, too. Learning to let God love us can only happen if we make some space for him in our lives. Constant chatter, especially angry chatter, isn’t helpful. Yes, there may be times when we explode, but we can try to be quieter, more patient, more open to God.
  4. Keep it simple; keep it kind. Many want to celebrate Christmas before we have even begun Advent. No one wants to be the party-pooper who sprinkles the vinegar of disapproval over everyone else’s fun. A mince pie or two is not going to lead to eternal damnation! The jolliest man I ever knew drank nothing but water and ate sparingly. It was his joie de vivre and kindly nature that made him such a delight. Most of us, alas, are not so obviously attractive, so it is better to nibble away at the festive goodies with a warm smile than refuse with a self-righteous sniff.
  5. Try not to worry about the commercialism of it all, or your inability to meet some of the demands made on you. God did not come into the world to make us sad or unhappy. He knows our weaknesses; he knows our strengths, too.  As we get older, we begin to appreciate that giving is a surer way of finding happiness than amassing things for ourselves. We may think we have nothing to give, but a kind word, a few minutes of our time, even a smile can be a precious gift to share with another.

That is more than enough, I’m sure. Do, please, share your own ideas in the comment section below. A quick search in the sidebar will provide anyone interested with a selection of earlier posts on this subject. The section on Advent in our main website also contains information about the history of the season, the O antiphons and some Advent traditions. You can read it here. Flash is needed to play the music files.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Does it Matter What the Churches Do?

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.

The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?

Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Does it Matter What One Thinks?

I have a hunch that the question posed in the title to this post will elicit different answers from men and women. Broadly speaking, men tend to assume that what they think and say matters. They pride themselves on being reasonable, objective, and well-informed. Many of them are, and I treasure the conversations I have had with such, especially those who have stretched my mind and understanding. I think it fair to say, however, that women are in a less fortunate position. No matter how intelligent or well-educated a woman may be, she will often find her opinion disparaged or disregarded for no other reason that that she is a woman. I have sometimes chuckled a little chuckle when taking part in conversations where some hapless man has kindly explained something to a female friend or colleague I know to be an expert in the subject under discussion. I notice that in most such cases the woman turns the conversation or lapses into silence rather than confronting her interlocutor. Is that weakness or wisdom? Does it matter what one thinks?

I have been thinking about this in the light of what St Benedict has to say about the uses and abuses of speech and the current Brexit debate. Some of the debate has not really been debate at all but a trading of slogans and insults that has done nothing to help any of us to a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved. Likewise, some of the personal attacks on individuals have been 0beyond the pale. Indeed, some of those on Theresa May have been so ugly that I have found myself sympathizing with her — something I never thought I could. But sympathy is not the same as agreement. In a democracy one has both the right and the duty to speak out; but there is a catch. To speak from a position of knowledge is one thing; to speak from a position of ignorance is quite another. Yesterday’s acceptance by the other EU member states of the so-called Brexit deal presents every UK citizen with a challenge that has enormous implications for the future. How we deal with it matters, but do any of us know exactly how we should?

The only constructive suggestion I can make is one most readers will be expecting: to listen carefully to what others say, to weigh their words and exercise restraint in responding, especially when negative emotions are aroused. It is very easy to echo the anger of another without being aware that one is doing so. This morning I noticed quite a lot of anger on Facebook, but I am certain many of the angriest were totally unaware that their words might stir up a corresponding anger in their readers — though more directed at them than the objects they had intended. It is a perennial problem. We feel things deeply and choose words that express our feelings, letting them tumble out of us without any checks or balances. Sometimes, however,  a pause to reflect can be beneficial. Not everything has to be voiced as loudly as possible. Benedict expects his monks to be thoughtful and when they do speak, to do so in a few, well-chosen words (RB 7. 60–61). I think there is something in that for all of us, male or female, for or against Brexit or any other burning topic of the day, don’t you?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail