From Coffee to ‘Copters and Back Again

Ingenuity
Ingenuity Helicopter developed by NASA engineers

In one of his many sermons, St Augustine remarks that we are often more impressed by reading about the feeding of the five thousand than we are by seeing a whole field of wheat sprung from a few grains. I think he was wrong. There is so much to wonder at and be grateful for in the world around us, precisely because it comes from nature or human ingenuity. Yesterday there was that forty-second helicopter flight on Mars to marvel at — a triumph of engineering, vision and faith. Then, for us coffee addicts, there was the welcome news that a strain of coffee thought to tolerate higher growing temperatures had been re-discovered, thus potentially saving our favourite brew from disappearing off the face of the earth. I don’t know how much coffee-drinking the NASA engineers needed to accomplish their feat, but I’m sure there must be a connection of some kind.

That is my point. The natural, human and spiritual are interconnected. We often dissociate them in an effort to analyse and understand, but when we do so, we fail to see the possibilities they contain or give thanks. That flight on Mars, that re-discovered coffee plant, what potential they hold for all of us!

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April Sunshine, April Tears

Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.

I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.

Image
The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:

https://images.app.goo.gl/6vZcRHhSUb4m3oQ26

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Living with Insecurity

Some people like to live dangerously but, after a certain age, the majority seem to want some kind of security. The trouble is, whatever we think will provide security may not do so. Health may give way; house and home may be lost along with the job that we imagined would provide a livelihood; the person most dear to us may depart or die or perhaps never come into our lives at all. If we live long enough, old age will strip us of the strength and certainties of our youth. The conventional religious answer is to place our trust in God, to rely on him alone. That is fine in theory but extremely hard to do when feeling weak or helpless.

This morning there are many anxious people struggling with COVID-19. A report I read stated that most of those in Brazil requiring intubation are having to undergo the procedure without sedatives because the country has only 6% of the medication it needs. Intubation is ghastly enough without that! There are people in Ukraine waiting to see whether Russian tanks are going to cross over the border and invade their country. In Hong Kong, Myanmar, much of Africa, there is political uncertainty and fear of repression. Add to that what we now call ‘food insecurity’ and the threat of ethnic violence, and our own troubles seem small enough.

We express our solidarity with those who suffer through our prayer and by doing whatever we can to alleviate the distress of others. It is our privilege to provide the human response to the prayer of those placing their trust in God. Let’s think about that for a moment. Then be humbled and give thanks that God should place such trust in us.

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Ears Have Walls: a problem for Tweeting Brides of Christ?

I wonder how many people will read ‘walls have ears’ rather than ‘ears have walls’? I wonder, too, how many will know the source of the quotation. It comes from graffiti seen in Paris in 1968, that year of endless radical questioning. To me it expresses very neatly a common problem. We tend to see and hear what we expect. St Benedict’s opening to his Rule, Obsculta, ‘Listen carefully,’ not only shows awareness of this tendency but also offers an immediate corrective. We are to pay attention, think, allow ourselves to be shaped and stretched by what we encounter, but how difficult most of us find that. We prefer our comfort zone — most of us, anyway.

A Religious Life Thread on Twitter

Yesterday there was a Twitter thread on religious life, more specifically the use of Bridal imagery in relation to religious women. It was not easy to follow because some who joined late responded to tweets that had been sent much earlier, while others introduced ideas/themes that, though fascinating and enriching in themselves, were secondary to the matter in hand. 

The thread began because @CarmelNunsGB noticed a poll by a non-religious asking the question ‘Are nuns and religious sisters married?’ The wording of the question suggested unfamiliarity with traditional language yet at the same time invited reflection on the meaning and purpose of such language. It evoked a wide-ranging response from the #NunsofTwitter and others.

Brides of Christ and Nuptial Imagery

Some people were happy to think of themselves as Brides of Christ; others definitely weren’t. Some insisted on limiting application of nuptial imagery to the Church as a whole (cf St Paul); others found even that difficult. We touched on religious profession (Catholic and Anglican, of both nuns and religious sisters), marriage, the rite of Consecration of Virgins, the diaconate, the use of signs and symbols (e.g. rings), eschatology, and individual experience, with some valuable insights from an Orthodox perspective. I had to bow out of the discussion early because of other duties but not before I had posited a link between the rite of Consecration of Virgins and the diaconate. 

Taking the Subject Further

It would be good to take these topics further, especially as they relate to the post-pandemic Church, but some of them, e.g. discussion of the diaconate in relation to women and the nature of religious/monastic profession, presuppose a level of scholarship we do not all possess. In an ideal situation, I think a writer would need

  • A sense of period and historical development. The fourth century is not the same as the fourteenth, and the fourteenth is different again from the twenty-first. This sense of period is rarer than one might think.
  • Familiarity with the sources — historical, theological, liturgical — and the scriptures and legal forms on which they depend. That means hard work, knowledge of languages and intelligent interpretation. 
  • Theological literacy, and awareness of how the Western Tradition has evolved. 
  • Judgement. Probably the most difficult quality of all, but the most important. Not every shred of ‘evidence’ is equally valid but it isn’t always easy to recognize that.

I’d love to explore some of the questions the thread raised, but a very little reflection showed how ill-prepared I would be for such a task. But there is another reason, just as pertinent, which I think throws light on the nature of religious community and the kind of obligations we assume when we join one. My community asked me not to do so.

Post-Vatican II Reflection on Religious Life*

If I may be allowed a very broad generalisation, the best reflection on religious life* comes from religious themselves, those who actually try to live the values they profess. Much post-Vatican II commentary on religious life emanating from the Vatican itself has reflected an anthropology and sociology I, and others, find unconvincing. For women, in particular, the results have been disappointing; but it is not just women who have been affected. The concentration on clerical control and the reluctance to see women as fully participant in the life of the Church has had negative consequences for the Church as a whole. It is actually quite difficult to discuss some subjects openly and freely without attracting the kind of attention that chokes off such discussion because of its virulence. My community does not want me to give anyone grounds for misunderstanding — in other words, contributing to the negativity often encountered, especially online.

Discussing Hot Questions

I know the community is especially nervous about my discussing the diaconate. Since St John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, Catholics have been forbidden to discuss the ordination of women to the priesthood and many have taken that to include discussion of the diaconate as well. Some will recall the high price Lavinia Byrne paid for Women at the Altar (which she wrote before the Apostolic Letter was published). I regret to say that even today some people regard it as their duty to delate others to Rome for opinions they may or may not actually hold, but which the delator thinks they do and have expressed. Although such a drastic reaction to anything I might write is unlikely (the benefits of obscurity!), I do know how much time and energy can be taken up dealing with objections and criticisms, many of which are the consequence of sheer carelessness (on my part, or that of the reader) or misunderstanding. My community has a right to my time and energy, so, in this I must comply.

A Tension in Religious Life

My decision highlights a tension inherent in religious life, and in membership of the Church more generally. We all have a commitment to our communities whether they be little or large, religious or secular. That commitment may be experienced at times as a freedom, an energiser, at others as a restraint. It would be easy to make a show of bravado along the lines of ‘publish and be damned’ but it would be just bravado, and rather selfish bravado at that. We are called to build one another up, to hasten the coming of the Kingdom. That may mean questioning, challenging, refusing to be sidelined or silenced. It may also mean patience, not saying all one wishes, listening rather than adding to the clamour.

I believe some subjects do need to be discussed quite urgently or we are likely to see a further loss of members of the Church and of the religious communities that form part of her. As I said at the beginning, ears have walls. I hope someone with the necessary learning and love of the Church will break them down. It won’t be me, but I will be praying for them.

*The term ‘consecrated life’ is used nowadays, but the term ‘religious life’ will be more familiar to many readers.

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A Sleepless Night

The elderly, the sick and the parents of new-born children tend to be more familiar with sleepless nights than most people. When in ‘holy mode’ I advocate trying to pray. Nothing is more likely to induce slumber than turning mind and heart towards the Lord at an unexpected hour. Alternatively, one can listen to the BBC World Service (I learned more about lithium last night than I ever dreamed possible), finish the last chapter of one’s current book or three, or toss and turn as one reflects on the various difficulties and anxieties facing oneself or those one loves. Once one has exhausted those possibilities there is nothing left but to listen to the sounds of the house and of the night.

We are fortunate to live in a converted barn on the edge of the Golden Valley, a beautiful part of rural Herefordshire with a long monastic history behind it. The old oak timbers of our house are constantly moving slightly: they creak and groan softly, and when the wind and rain blow, as they did last night, they utter a quiet protest. The garden makes its own response. I love listening to the snuffles and squeaks of whatever is abroad in the night-time, beginning with bats at dusk and moving through a whole range of owls and rabbits and foxes, with the occasional rough bark of a deer or perhaps the husky note of a badger out on patrol.

There is more to this than finding a way of passing time. To listen to the sounds of night as they come from house and garden is to reconnect with the world in which we live and for which, often enough, we have no time except when we make a point of going for a walk or doing some gardening. I can’t do either of those, so listening to the soundscape of where I live matters. It is another way of seeking the Lord — and being found by him. A sleepless night may leave one feeling tired and crotchety next morning, but it is never wasted. It is an opportunity to be relished.

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‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.

This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?

We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.

I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?

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Easter Wednesday 2021

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus: Provenance unknown, possibly from York

There are a number of dream-like elements in Luke”s account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). A stranger suddenly joins the disciples as they trudge wearily along. Something stops them recognizing him, just as something stopped Mary Magdalene recognizing him in yesterday’s gospel. Even Jesus’ questions and explanations of scripture leave them unable to make the connection. At table the stranger takes on the role of host, breaks bread and shares it with them. The evangelist goes on to say

And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’  They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.

The disciples are not permitted to linger in the presence of the Lord, any more than Mary was, but must proclaim the resurrection. Jesus, too, is not to linger with the disciples, though his mission is more hidden and will not be complete until he has returned to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit (cf John 16.5-16). That is clear enough, but why this mystery, what I have called the dream-like elements in the story?

I think myself it is not only extremely good story-telling, which makes a profound impact on the listener, it is also a way of making us aware of the change the resurrection has wrought. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The newness of life we celebrate takes us where we have never been before. It transforms everything, even the old and familiar. In other words, what the disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus and at table with their mysterious guest is an experience every Christian shares: an invitation to share in the life of God himself. As the priest prays whenever Mass is celebrated, ‘May we become sharers in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Amen. Alleluia.

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Easter Tuesday 2021

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Every Easter Tuesday I try to say something new about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the Risen Christ, and every year I fail. The failure is not because there is nothing new to say but because, like Mary, I find myself falling to my knees, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The meeting between Jesus and Mary is one in which we all share — the moment our souls are touched by grace and we recognize him as our Saviour.

It is no accident that Mary sees her Lord through a mist of tears. The human heart must be washed clean if it is to see clearly, and it tends not to be the big, dramatic sins that obscure our vision so much as the little faults and infidelities we allow to become habitual. Mary’s gaze has the simplicity and freshness of the garden in which Jesus stands. For us, that may be more difficult to achieve but the great privilege of monastic life is to do our theology on our knees. It keeps us grounded, and I think it enables us to see what otherwise we might miss. The wounds in Christ’s feet, now channels of grace and healing, hold our gaze as they held Mary’s, and they make sense of what could easily be baffling: we have a God who is near, not one afar off; one who has shared with us the human experience of birth and death and now shares with us the divine gift of resurrection. Mary’s privilege will one day be ours, too. But there is more.

The post-resurrection gospels are full of women whom the Lord comes to meet. They have no need to climb mountains or prepare elaborate sacrifices to find him. He surprises them as they go about their ordinary tasks. This morning Mary is lingering by the tomb when she encounters Christ. There is that momentary lack of recognition characteristic of all the post-resurrection appearances, but then everything changes. Jesus is the same, but different, but how is he different? For Fra Angelico, there is no ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ to suggest a gardener, but Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. When he recognizes her, she is able to recognize him. There is something to ponder there. We think we must go in search of God and sometimes become sad and angry when we feel we have failed to find him, not realising that the initiative always remains his. He finds us; he names us; he calls us.

One further point. Look at the garden and what is beyond the garden. The trees outside are fairly uniform but within, what a variety! Where Christ is, there is always abundance. It was to restore the fullness of life to the world that God gave his only Son. This morning Mary experiences what that means, and she is charged with telling the Church in every generation. We have been redeemed by one who knows us by name and lives for evermore.

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New Beginnings: Easter 2021

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-65, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy)

Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia! Easter is not, as many tend to think, the end of Lent but a new beginning, indeed, the true beginning of everything. With Christ’s resurrection, we too rise to newness of life — not the old one, somehow given a gloss of fresh beauty and truth, but a new life, completely and utterly transformed by his victory over sin and death. The solemn tones of the Triple Alleluia with which we greet the resurrection gospel, or the sober joy of the introit for today’s day Mass, Resurrexi, capture the wonder of what has occurred. The ‘happy fault’ of Adam has given us a Redeemer, a Saviour. All is changed, for ever.

While I was thinking about a suitable image to accompany today’s post, I naturally thought of Piero della Francesca and was delighted to find this photo. The fresco has an unusual history and was only saved from destruction during World War II by Tony Clarke, a British Artillery officer, who disobeyed orders to raze the city of Sansepulcro. This is how the fresco is to be seen nowadays, rather more awkwardly than we are accustomed to seeing it in art books or on screen. I like the fact that Piero’s work was commissioned not for a church but for a civic hall, and that one can ‘read’ a few political details into its imagery. Easter, and the mystery it proclaims, is not just for the ‘religious’ moments of our lives but for every moment.

The next eight days of the Octave are all equally Easter Day when we shall have the opportunity to look at the resurrection from many different angles. This morning, however, it is the hiddenness of the resurrection that we focus on. Mary finds the empty tomb and tells Peter and John that the Lord is not there. Silently, while the world slept, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and will never die again. Our life too is now hidden with his in God — and it is life, not death (cf Romans 6.3-11). Alleluia.

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Silence and Stillness: Holy Saturday 2021

Today is a strange day. The drama of the crucifixion is over and we are left, tired, empty, devoid of the sacraments and the conventional rhythms of church life, to ponder what we do not see: the coming of the light, Christ’s harrowing of hell, and the promise of the resurrection. It is a day when we do nothing because God does everything. An early Christian writer captured the essence of this time by speaking of its silence and stillness:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

It is hard for us to do nothing. We seem to think everything depends on us, and life would certainly come to an end were we to fold our hands and expect food, shelter and everything else to fall into our laps. The kind of nothingness I am talking about is a recognition of God’s supremacy. It requires the silence of humility, the stillness of love, but we find both difficult. We tend to fill the universe with our noisy chatter and busy plans for this and that. One of the lessons of Holy Saturday is to let all that go, to allow God to be God in our lives, to own the mystery. Only then can we embrace the resurrection.

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