Please pray for the repose of the soul of R. D. Catherine Driana Wybourne, nun of Howton Grove Priory, Hereford, formerly of Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, who died on 24th February 2022, fortified by the Rites of Holy Church.
The solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, is the oldest Marian feast in the Western calendar. The fact that it now coincides with the Octave Day of Christmas and New Year’s Day is suggestive. You will find I have written about it quite often in this blog. This morning, however, the community merely wishes to ask a blessing on the year ahead and on all our readers, supporters and benefactors. May the new life brought to us at Christmas be yours in abundance.
Today the whole Church rejoices at the nearness of her salvation. Put like that, the prospect can seem worthy but a little dull — not something to get excited about. Salvation is an important theological concept, but most of us do not go around leaping for joy at what is promised us. Maybe not, but God does. Today’s first Mass reading, Zephaniah 3.14–18, has God exulting for joy over us, dancing his delight in us. That means all of us, even those we privately have a few doubts about as being rather unpleasant or, in our view, ‘not what they ought to be’. It can be difficult to accept that God loves us all, but accept it we must. We need to remember that we cannot earn God’s love; we can never ‘deserve’ it; and we can never see another quite as God sees them. God’s love comes to us as a free gift, ‘an unmerited gift of grace’. Whatever our personal difficulties, whatever the sorrows that beset us, God’s love is a constant in our lives. So, let’s be joyful; and if we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance in our heart which God desires to make his own.
One of the debates that regularly surfaces at this time of year is when we should begin celebrating Christmas. The Advent purists argue for Christmas Eve; those with a more relaxed attitude simply go with the flow and start celebrating on 1 December; and people like ourselves do a kind of dance between the two. Our liturgy and our private modus vivendi is Advent through and through, but our public face is more accepting of the fact that most people find such distinctions baffling. Of course, we have the advantage of going on celebrating throughout the Octave and the Christmas season, but here and now we are trying to maintain the spirit of joyful expectancy that characterises Advent. How do we do so in a world that doesn’t really like waiting for anything and is always keen to brush anything negative or difficult out of sight?
I think we start with silence. Usually we begin Advent with three days of total silence. That didn’t happen this year because we had a prolonged power-cut to contend with, but the quality of silence we try to maintain is important. It is easy to fill our silence with noise — an endless inner chatter, our explosive reactions to events, too much self-indulgence in social media. It is when we begin thinking about these that we realise how addicted we have become and how difficult it is to assert any kind of discipline over ourselves. Yet, if we are to have anything worth saying, we do need to exercise some restraint. One area I think about particularly is my use of humour. Bad jokes abound at this time of year. Most are just not very funny, but some are wounding and offensive so we need to take care. That doesn’t mean calling others out for not meeting our standards: it means calling ourselves out for having got the tone wrong or not thought sufficiently about the consequences. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but not at someone else’s expense.
I think we also need to think seriously about how we share our good fortune with others. It is easy to make a donation to a charitable organization or pledge a small amount of our time to lending a hand at a soup kitchen or facility for the homeless. Here at the monastery we try both to give of our abundance, as it were, and make time for the people who write to us. There never seems to be enough time to answer every letter, card or email but we do try, and that is what matters. Once upon a time we did not write at all during Advent (being ultra-purist). Now we content ourselves with trying to limit telephone calls and the less helpful kinds of interaction.
My third suggestion comes from thinking about today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 40.1–11. Forget, for a moment, your favourite musical setting of those words, and concentrate on the meaning. God in Christ has forgiven us utterly. Forgiveness is never easy, especially if we think we are the one doing the forgiving. We are not so noble, nor so strong. But if we are to unite our Advent with our Christmas, our longing with its fulfilment, we have to take on board the need to forgive and to accept forgiveness. In other words, we have to let Christ be born anew in us every day of our lives. Then indeed we can agree ’tis the season to be jolly, can’t we?
The Second Sunday of Advent sees us back in the desert with John the Baptist. The call to action is clear and direct: Prepare a way for the Lord! In practice, that means levelling the mountains and molehills of pride and self-sufficiency we each have within ourselves, filling in the potholes of hopelessness and despair, straightening whatever we have allowed to become crooked or devious. It sounds easy in theory but most of us find it quite hard. We are attached to our engaging little foibles, enjoy our little grumbles, smile upon our little white lies and other little naughtinesses. That is the problem. What we perceive to be mountainous in others is in us merely an endearing little molehill: little, so very little.
It won’t wash. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we have to be honest about and with ourselves. The closer we get to God, the larger and more horrible those ‘little’ sins and imperfections appear. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation, however — another blow to our pride. We must allow God to come and sweep away all that is false within us, remake us, change us. Then truly we shall see the salvation of God, and it will be glorious.
A Reality Check on Being Welcoming
I must admit that every time we re-read RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, I linger over its opening phrase: all guests are to be received tamquam Christus, as though Christ. This identification of the guest with Christ forms a kind of refrain throughout the chapter and has inspired many a writer to wax lyrical about Benedictine hospitality. It has also sometimes led to unreal expectations on the part of the guest, depending on how he or she sees Christ, and on the part of the one doing the welcoming. We all believe we would drop everything to welcome Christ, but in practice, this side of the Second Coming, meals still have to be cooked, rooms cleaned and all the unseen work of the monastery continued, no matter how much we want to lavish attention on the guest — or how much the guest wants our attention.
St Benedict’s Teaching on Hospitality
The Rule’s rituals of welcome — prayer, the kiss of peace, sharing food, washing the weary traveller’s hands and feet, reading scripture — and the exhortations to humility and kindness combine to produce an impression of austere but dignified welcome, very suited to sixth-century Italy but perhaps not quite so well suited to twenty-first century Europe or North America. We tend to want to be more ‘spontaneous’, more tactile even, and meeting the spiritual needs of the guest is rarely the first thought that crosses our mind. Taking hospitality online, as we have during the past twenty years or so, introduces new complexities. How much time should we give; how should we respond to the difficult, argumentative or downright rude? In short, how do we find new ways of being genuinely welcoming while at the same time preserving the very thing that makes our hospitality worthwhile in the first place, namely, our existence as a monastic community, dedicated to searching for God and helping others to search for him, too. Now there is COVID, and the situation has become more complex still.
The Effect of COVID
We are meant to be social beings but COVID has made us wary of one another. There has been a lot of isolation and loneliness to cope with; and for those who are most at risk if they catch COVID, there has been the added burden of trying to reconcile a warm welcome with a prudence easily misunderstood or ridiculed. Even the wearing of a mask to protect others can be derided. With Advent and the prospect of more mingling over the festive season, is there anything we can derive from St Benedict’s teaching on hospitality that might be useful to all, not just monks and nuns?
I think one of the most important things to take away from chapter 53 is the setting of boundaries. Just as the abbot must ensure that his community is not unduly troubled by guests, so the guest must moderate his or her expectations in the light of what is possible. The emphasis on the spiritual side of hospitality may not be fashionable but it is a reminder that everything we do has a spiritual aspect. So, our domestic festive gatherings may not be as uncomplicated as in past years but they can still be warm and generous because they are filled with love of God and of his children. It is not unreasonable, if clinically extremely vulnerable, to ask guests to take a lateral flow test before coming to one’s house. It is not unreasonable to reduce the number of people invited or re-think the kind of food and drink offered, so that there is less risk of contamination (e.g. via dips). These are small things but together they make a greater whole. Welcoming others in time of COVID may take a different form from the one with which we are familiar, but it can still be one of the most beautiful experiences in life, both for the welcomer and for the welcomed.
Light in the Darkness
The last few days have not been easy for anyone. Here in the UK we have had storm damage and power-cuts, seen the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID variant, and been battered by seemingly endless revelations of sleaze, corruption and unimaginable brutality, as in the case of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Add to that the personal tragedies and disappointments that do not usually make the headlines and the world begins to seem an unfriendly place. Advent has already reached the point of being cold, dark and wearing. The silence and mystery that so enthused us at the beginning has become for many more of a torment than an inspiration. We are crushed by the demands made upon us, irritated by the misunderstandings and criticisms that come our way, longing for light, warmth and peace. Then we read today’s section of the Rule, RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, and are shaken out of our negativity.
The Oratory of the Monastery
Most Benedictines care very deeply about their church or chapel and are meticulous in both their preparations for and performance of the liturgy. A crease in the altar linens, an obviously unpractised antiphon, a hurried reading — none of these will ever go unnoticed, by nuns, at any rate. Only the best is good enough for the Lord, and we are in the oratory several times a day, so that seeking to do and be the best we can is a constant in our lives. But there is more to it than that. If you read Benedict’s text carefully, you will see that the essential feature of the oratory is the reverence with which we make use of the space and time given us in which to pray. Reverence does not depend on the beauty of our surroundings, an emotional response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, nor even the amount of time available to us. Reverence comes from the heart, and it is the oratory of the heart that truly matters, for it is there that the Holy Spirit dwells and turns our every prayerful impulse into prayer according to the mind of God.
The Oratory of the Heart and its Transformative Power
All of us need encouragement much more than we need rebukes or criticisms. A heart open to God’s word and filled with his love and compassion cannot be negative or harshly judgemental. May I suggest that today, instead of considering all that is wrong in ourselves or in others, we allow God’s grace to work away quietly within us, making an oratory of our heart where he can delight to be. It is not only we who may be transformed.
. . . the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons. . .
They will hallow the Holy One of Jacob,(from today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 29.17-24)
stand in awe of the God of Israel.
Who does not love Advent? The beauty of the liturgy, the haunting quality of the ancient chants we sing, the darkness, the silence, the mystery, they all combine to produce a sense of anticipation. Something very great and wonderful is about to happen. And then Christmas comes, and the mystery is revealed, and it is ‘only’ the birth of a child in awkward circumstances against a backdrop of political skullduggery and religious squabbling. The feast is barely here before most people seem to be taking down their Christmas decorations and thinking about holidays in the sun. I exaggerate, of course. Some of us do not begin to celebrate Christmas until the afternoon of Christmas Eve and will spend the octave looking at the mystery of the Incarnation and all that follows from it. Epiphany will burst upon us with its tria miracula, and only with the Baptism of the Lord will we formally say farewell to the Christmas season, with a last ‘look back’ at Candlemas. In the meantime, what do we do about Advent? How do we link this holy season with what comes after? How do we genuinely make it a time of preparation?
Advent sometimes gets passed over too lightly. Instead of seeing it as a way of deepening our understanding of the reality of what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, it has often become drenched in sentimentality and superficiality — a kind of ‘Christmas already’ but without Christ. It is too early for mince pies and Christmas carols, but we tend to ignore the riches the Church sets before us and wonder why Christmas, when it does come, is almost an anti-climax. We are bored with the Christmas story before we have even heard it properly. We may need to remind ourselves that Advent is a time for reading and reflecting on the scriptures that provide the context for what happens on Christmas day, for asking ourselves what the coming of the Messiah means to us personally as well as to the world. It is a time for registering that disappointment and failure are part of the Christian story, that ordinariness is shot through with grace.
So, in these last few days before Advent begins, may I suggest spending a little time thinking about how to make the most of the season? It will be a busy time, with many demands made on us. We cannot avoid the commercialism that besets us on every side, but we can turn it to good by ensuring that our own focus is on what truly matters. To read each day the Mass lessons; to ‘waste’ a little time in silence and recollection if we can; to scale down our expectations; these are all tried and trusted means of ensuring Advent does its work in us. For that is the point. It is not what others do but what we do that makes Advent fruitful, that prepares us for the coming of our Saviour.
Medieval Monasticism and Food
Go to any medieval monastic site and you are likely to find a display board which talks about monastic kitchens and food in a way meant to amuse as well as inform. There may be mention of the extraordinary quantities of food consumed (thank you, Barbara Harvey) or the use of pittances (extra portions of luxuries such as wine, fruit or nuts served on feast days such as Christmas or Easter). Sometimes there is a mildly disapproving reference to the meat-eating that went on in the frater or refectory for the sick. Undoubtedly, most monks and many nuns ate better, or at any rate more copiously, than their peasant counterparts. We forget the other side of the picture: the frequent fasts, the cold and damp, the fact that even in the cloister, there could be imbalances because what was available locally might not always be the best choice nutritionally. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of the monotony of their diet: the endless beans cooked at Cluny or the sameness of the fish consumed at Ely in the earlier years. Then there are the delightful surprises: Boniface sending a barrel of beer to Fulda for a ‘merry day among the brethren’ or an unexpected gift of cherries or spiced wine to mark a friendship or in thanksgiving for a favour received. What is more rarely averted to on these display boards are the chapters of the Rule of St Benedict we have just been reading about the measure of food, its preparation and service, the measure of drink, the times of meals, and the allowances to be made for the sick, the elderly and children. These are the context for monastic food, for the fasting and feasting that alternate in our lives.
Food and Drink in the Rule of St Benedict
What I think is striking is that Benedict devotes so much attention to food and drink in the first place. There is a very clear link between what we eat, how we eat, when we eat, and the liturgical life of the community. The kitchen servers, for example, begin their week of service with a triple blessing. To be excluded from the common table is a painful sanction, a form of excommunication. The cellarer, who is responsible for ensuring that the community is adequately fed, is reminded of the religious significance of his task: he must look upon everything entrusted to him as though sacred altar vessels, and the people he serves as having unique dignity and importance, never to be neglected or treated harshly. Meals are to be simple but such that everyone can share them, accompanied by reading so that their eucharistic character is maintained. It is in the abbot’s power to increase the allowance of food or drink if he judges it appropriate, and the sick, the elderly and children are explicitly exempted from the more rigorous aspects of the Rule’s teaching. All this amounts to a considered policy which recognizes the importance of food and drink and a humane approach to the community’s everyday life. There is discipline, care to avoid excess, but no intention of inflicting misery. We are to enjoy food and drink as we enjoy all God’s gifts.
The Situation Today
I once stayed in a monastery — admittedly not Benedictine — where the idea seemed to be that eating should be as unpleasant as possible. I felt as awkward as I had when attending a meal conspicuous for its excess. Both extremes make food the centre of attention and that is rather sad. Yet it is interesting how often what monks and nuns eat is the subject of discussion and sometimes censure, and perhaps it is our own fault. We don’t usually write about eating baked beans on toast but we do note the festive celebrations and the appearance of various delicacies on our tables. I have done so myself, quite recently, too; but it is not the whole story. Most monastic communities have taken to heart the need to provide a sound diet, as free from chemical additives and processing as possible, with only occasional luxuries. In a world where many go hungry, to do otherwise would be an insult to God. But we need to recognize that having the ability to make such choices in itself places us in a privileged position. I am glad, therefore, that every meal, no matter how inconsequential (and believe me, supper on fast days is decidedly ‘short commons’!) is preceded and followed by grace: a prayer of blessing beforehand and thanksgiving afterwards. That, and support for our local food bank, are a reminder that everything we have and are comes from God and is to be shared with others. That is the source of our joy, our merry-making, our true delight.