Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. 2019

Murillo: The Immaculate Conception
Murillo: The Immaculate Conception

The solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one I seem to have written about in most years. In 2011, for example, I tried to explain as simply as possible what the feast is and what it is not, and the theology that lies behind it. You can read that post here. I make no apologies for its being rather dry (though it does end with some lovely lines from Hopkins). Since then I have mused on different aspects of the feast, on Marian devotion in general and its unfortunate tendency to inspire bad art, and my own irritation with the syrup that obscures the real strength of Mary as the pre-eminent mulier fortis.

This morning, however, with storm clouds intensifying the darkness of our Herefordshire skies, I think of Mary as an image of the silence that lies at the heart of our Advent observance. She heard; she obeyed; and she pondered. Luke’s account of the Annunciation (Lk 1. 26–38) does not say that she did not question, in fact, rather the reverse. She asked the biggest question of all, ‘How can this be?’ Our Advent silence isn’t the silence of zombies, of those who think that to become holy is to become less human. Mary reminds us that every quality of mind and heart is necessary. Silence, too, is necessary because it is only in silence that we can overcome the superficial clamour of our lives. It is in silence that the Word takes shape and form and is born upon earth and in time.

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Advent Fire and the Ballot-Box

fire

The second Sunday of Advent’s Mass readings are anything but cosy. We are confronted with fire — the fire of the prophet Isaiah with his yearning for integrity and justice, and the fire of John the Baptist with his passionate call for repentance and conversion of heart (cf Isaiah 11. 1–10; Matthew 3. 1–12). As the U.K. General Election draws near, it is impossible not to reflect whether/how that fire informs our own decision about voting.

There are those who have told me in no uncertain terms that I should avoid all mention of politics in my blog. If, by that, they mean that I should never voice an opinion with which they disagree, they will be sorely disappointed. I regularly disagree with myself! If, however, they mean that some subjects are not suitable material for reflection, I can only urge them to read the scriptures more thoroughly and consider whether our conduct is meant to be influenced by what we read. For the truth is, the texts put before us today are an unmistakable call to action. They demand a response, just as the person of Jesus Christ demands a response. Are we going to seek justice and integrity or not? Are we going to try to produce good fruit or are we not? When we vote, will we vote in what we think are our own interests or will we heed the warnings of John the Baptist and of the prophet?

This Sunday may be the last day many of us have leisure to think through and pray about the choice we must make on Thursday. For some there is the temptation to opt out of voting, on the grounds that no candidate or party seems to measure up to the situation facing us. While that is understandable it has the effect of placing a heavier burden on those who do vote. What no one can deny is that the outcome of Thursday’s vote is going to have long-lasting consequences.

Fire destroys, but it also cleanses. Perhaps this Sunday we each need to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away whatever is selfish or self-serving in ourselves that we may play our part in bringing about the age of peace and goodwill we shall sing about at Christmas. The ballot-box, too, can be a vehicle of grace — if we consent to make it so.

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A Forgiving God?

On the memoria of St Ambrose the ‘godly internet’ will be awash with a single quotation: ‘No one heals himself by wounding another.’ Very few, however, will read what St Ambrose has to say in his treatise, Concerning Repentance, from which it is taken. You, dear reader, can, and in English, too, if you follow this link: St Ambrose on Repentance. If you do, you will find something that may make you think about two things that are very important this Advent.

First, Ambrose wasn’t judgemental in the way that we habitually use that word. He knew what he believed and was anxious to win the Novatians back to Catholic unity, so he advocated gentleness and patience rather than blistering attacks on the integrity of others. He could only do that because he believed in the forgiveness of God. I sometimes wonder whether we do. Do we really believe that others can repent, and that God’s mercy will embrace their desire to be reconciled? Some of the ‘debates’ taking place in the Church and the fierce and unforgiving language in which they are expressed might make an outsider question that. We are often more demanding than God, more certain that everyone should believe as we do — in short, more exacting, less forgiving.

Second, forgiveness is personal. During Advent it is important that we should, if possible, make our confession and be reconciled with God and one another. The sacrament of confession isn’t an endorsement of sin, as some maintain. We genuinely do have to repent, to seek forgiveness, be prepared to make amends and avoid sin for the future. Sometimes we will be asked by our confessor to go to someone we have injured and say ‘sorry’ if we haven’t already done so. That can be very hard, especially if the person we’re apologizing to is in no mood to forgive. We have to believe in the reality of grace before we can allow God to forgive in us, or accept forgiveness ourselves.

So, today’s Advent challenge is very simple. Am I willing to forgive and be forgiven? Do I believe in a God who forgives or do I not? Will I make my confession, or will I refuse the coming of God into my life?

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A Spoonful of Sugar

Today is St Nicholas’s day, when, with a good conscience, we can rot our teeth with toffee and gingerbread, punch our opponents on the nose, and, provided we have all the necessary safeguarding measures in place, enjoy the company of children, exchange gifts, pray for seafarers and do good by stealth. If you haven’t a clue what I mean, or don’t ‘do’ irony, these posts may help:

St Nicholas and Santa Claus
Death in the North Sea

We tend to be serious about Advent, but not always in the right way, as some of the responses to yesterday’s post made clear to me. Yes, it is a time for concentrating on the coming of the Messiah, but it is also a time for recognizing that we are already living in the Messianic age. The plainness most of us adopt throughout this short season of preparation for Christmas isn’t meant to be gloomy or misanthropic, ‘penitential’ in the popular sense of the word. On the contrary, our penance should be life-enhancing. There should, ideally, be something of the rubicund Father Christmas/Santa Claus about it — a generosity of spirit and intention, even if we can’t manage material generosity. Not all of us can do that, nor should anyone be made to feel guilty about it; but we must beware of complacency. ‘I can’t’ is sometimes a pretext for ‘I won’t’.

In earlier posts about St Nicholas, I have stressed the importance of prayer. It is one thing we, as nuns, are committed to giving to the Church and to the world, and never has it been more necessary. Recently, I looked at the statistics for the number of abortions performed in England and Wales, the number of children living in poverty in the UK as a whole, the numbers officially ‘in care’ and those estimated to be surviving on hand-outs from food banks, despite the fact that their parents may be doing two or three jobs to try to keep themselves above the breadline. It was a shocking contrast to all the ads for consumer goods that marked Black Friday and continue to besiege us that we may have the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This morning the prayer of the community is for conversion of heart for us all: for St Nicholas to be honoured by more generous giving to children in need, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. If a rich country like the U.K. can tolerate such shameful inequality, such cruel indifference to children, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Our giving may be no more than a spoonful of sugar, but even one spoonful has the potential to make a huge difference. Try it.

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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Indifference and Advent

Yesterday Sarcoma UK published its report on the current state of this cancer in the UK. You can read it for yourself here: https://sarcoma.org.uk/news-events/loneliest-cancer. It is not sensationalist, nor does it whinge about lack of interest or funding, but it does explain why the charity has chosen to call sarcoma ‘The Loneliest Cancer’. I have a personal interest because I myself have metastatic leiomyosarcoma and know, from the inside as it were, what it feels like and how it affects one. This is not, however, a post about sarcoma as such, nor is it yet another contribution to the ‘my cancer and me’ genre. It is about indifference, and I am using the Sarcoma UK report as an illustration because I think it touches on a bigger question: what we do during Advent.

My Facebook followers have responded to my post about the charity’s report with their usual generosity and kindness, so have many of those who follow me on Twitter; but when, yesterday evening, I looked at the number of people who had noticed Sarcoma UK’s original twitter announcement or its subsequent repeats, I realised what an uphill struggle it will be to engage people’s interest. Can you imagine any other cancer charity’s ‘likes’ and retweets’ being for the most part in single figures/low twenties regarding such an important announcement ? True, we have an election coming on, and Black Friday deals always seem to appeal to the acquisitive in us, and there are a thousand and one other things clamouring for attention, but even those who proclaim a burning interest in health matters and the future of the NHS seem disinclined to press the ‘retweet’ button. Perhaps it will gain momentum as days pass. It certainly won’t be for any want of effort on the part of Sarcoma UK, nor for any lack of professionalism.

What does this apparent indifference say about the way in which we react to situations that do not make an impact on us personally? I’m confident that anyone affected by sarcoma, even at one remove by way of a family member or friend, will have some interest in the subject. I am equally sure that no one, confronted by a sick person in the flesh, would want to do anything other than be as considerate as possible. But some causes make no appeal to the imagination, do they, and perhaps this is one of them, or maybe it is just a case of sheer ignorance. Many years ago, when my sister organized special events for the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital Appeal, she remarked that sick children were probably the easiest of all causes for which to raise money. Others were much harder to win support for and had fewer ‘feel good’ factors, especially if they ran contrary to society’s current obsessions or were beyond the ken of most folk. 

During Advent, most of us will be thinking about almsgiving and giving time or money to good causes. We all have our favourites, but perhaps this year we could do a little more exploring. Instead of automatically supporting X or Y, we might think who really needs help urgently. There are literally hundreds of charities run on a shoe-string that support causes we may never have heard of, or that supply a need we did not know existed. It would be good if we could each find one that we judge worthy of support and do what we can to show we are not indifferent, and never can be, because of love for our Saviour. That would make our Advent special, and perhaps transform the lives of others. It would assuredly transform our own.

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Deciding How To Vote

In just over a fortnight, the people of the U.K. will be heading to the polls to cast their vote in a General Election. I suspect I speak for many when I say that we have had more than enough of promises, gimmicks, half-truths and evasions from party leaders and candidates. How we respond to them matters. There will always be those who vote according to long-cherished party loyalties; others who take a single issue and make it the substance of their evaluation of what is on offer; as well as those who dutifully wade through the party manifestos and try to work out which candidate best represents what they would like to see at Westminster. In the end, we all have to make a decision and accept responsibility for what we decide, bearing in mind that our decision will affect others, not just ourselves.

The social teaching of the Catholic Church is a help in setting the principles by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of the policies being considered, but applying them is rarely easy. I was thinking about this when I recalled the words of St Benedict about the election of an abbot, the consequences of a choice based on self-interest and the role of outsiders in scrutinizing and correcting whatever is amiss (cf RB 64. 3–6). It can be difficult to free ourselves from self-interest. A promise to improve healthcare is immensely attractive to the sick. A promise to improve eduction or do away with fees is very attractive to those in a certain age group. And when all this can apparently be done without raising tax or N.I contributions, it is more attractive still. The trouble is, we all know that it doesn’t work like that. Most of us are going to have to think long and hard, pray and make the most informed decision we can, knowing it won’t be perfect. We are fortunate that the election will take place during Advent, when the Church calls us to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s coming — when we are asked to be more just, more peaceful, more concerned about the welfare of others because we are preparing to welcome our Saviour afresh.

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A God of Love

One of the saddest things I have read recently came from someone describing himself as an ex-Catholic who said that, in his experience, the Church was made up of perverts and abusers who took delight in condemning the sins of others. He particularly disliked the use of the crucifix, calling it morbid; while his own experience of abuse had left him with a profound distrust of the clergy and everything they say. Is it any wonder that his image of God — for he still believes, in an odd kind of way — is of an angry and hostile God who cares nothing for his creation? What would today’s solemnity of Christ the King mean to him?

I cannot answer that question, for obvious reasons, but I think it is one we must all address. What does today’s feast mean to us? Conventionally, the solemnity of Christ the King, with its clear, eschatological significance, is about the restoration of all things under Christ, King of the Universe. It is about lordship and service, divine love and sacrifice; but as soon as we use those terms, we are using religious language remote from the everyday experience of most people. Yet loving and being loved are not, usually, remote from our experience, thank God, nor is the idea of making sacrifices (pl) for others — ask any parent. It is the way in which we use those words in a religious context that confuses or injects a note of misunderstanding or unreality. Indeed, the very notion of kingship, biblical though it is, is alien to many whose ideas about it are drawn principally from history or from what they see of today’s European monarchies.

As always, I think the preface for today’s celebration gives us not only the theology of this feast in a nutshell but also some themes we can dwell on with profit. From the beginning, it strikes a note of rejoicing, referring to Christ our Saviour being anointed with the oil of gladness. We know that he went joyfully to the cross and surrendered his life for us, freely and gladly. It is the final vision, however, the promise of the kingdom, that holds out most hope:

an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

I do not know what my new-found friend would make of that. I suspect that beneath all the pain and suffering he has undergone, he still clings with part of his being to the hope that such a vision may be realised. It is a vision God is humble enough to ask our co-operation in achieving. As the old saints never tired of repeating, ‘Without him, we cannot; without us, he will not.’ The God of love invites; he does not force.

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The Obedience of St Cecilia

I was surprised to read this on Twitter today:

‘She (St Cecilia, whose feastday this is) was one of those strong souls for whom it costs nothing to obey the voice of God.’ Père Adolphe Roulland, MEP

Quite apart from the mere detail of its having cost Cecilia her life, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has found obedience to God entirely easy or undemanding. We have to make an effort to listen, and for most of us, most of the time, that means renunciation of some other good so that we can pay attention to the Lord. Frequently, it means choosing something we find hard or difficult. Even St Benedict reserves to the twelfth step of humility the less stressful obedience born of long experience and practice — and Cecilia was about twelve when she was martyred (cf RB 7. 67–70). Those of us who are not the stuff of which martyrs are made have an additional difficulty. We are not very good at assuring ourselves that the promises made us can be relied upon. I know that I am a coward. Faced with the choice between dying for Christ and living on with some sort of accommodation to whatever was asked of me, I have a horrible feeling I would opt to live on.

Happily, it doesn’t all depend on us. Leave grace out of the equation and the Church would have no martyrs, no heroes or heroines of faith. Whatever challenges today presents us with, it is worth remembering that grace is all around. We may not be called to martyrdom in the sense of dying for Christ, but we are all called to witness to him. Grace will be given as and when we need it. We have only to ask.

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Head Faith; Heart Faith; No Faith; Advent

One of the things that perplexes me is the relationship between what we might call ‘head faith’ — the articulation of belief variously referred to as doctrine or dogma  — and ‘heart faith’ — the principles by which we actually live, usually fewer in number and often very difficult to put into words. 

I am on record as saying that I think there is nothing more exciting than orthodox Catholicism, and I mean it. No theologian myself, I can claim to have read quite a lot of other people’s theology and have found it inspiring because of the light it throws on the mysteries of faith. Read Augustine’s De Trinitate with a little modern physics in mind and suddenly the Church’s teaching about the Blessed Trinity explodes into life. Even the most ‘difficult’ subjects prompt further efforts to understand, and one ends up on one’s knees, lost in adoration and wonder. But I would be the first to admit that this is ‘head faith’: exciting, stretching one’s mind, but not necessarily at the forefront of our practice of loving and serving the Lord. To take the example of the Blessed Trinity again, what I believe about the Trinity makes me read and pray but does not always translate into virtuous action. It does not make me kinder or more patient, nor do I think I will lie on my death-bed, if I am granted a death-bed, questioning whether my belief in the Trinity was accurate in all respects. I am much more likely to be worrying about my ‘heart faith’ — what I made of the opportunities given to me; how I lived my vocation as a Christian and, more specifically, as a Benedictine; how I treated other people created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, how I translated all that theological eloquence into discipleship.

Let me say at once that there is no opposition between ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’: both are necessary. Like Martha and Mary they represent different aspects of a single truth. I would never agree, for example, that it doesn’t really matter what we believe provided we have some generalised goodwill, nor that we can pick and choose among the doctrines of the Church and still call ourselves Catholic. That is one reason why I maintain that what we believe about the Church is more important than many recognize. I would always argue that unless we can say that we believe what the Church teaches is true, we are far from a Catholic understanding of ecclesiology. But that isn’t what determines most of my everyday conduct. That comes from much simpler streams, and possibly yours does also. 

I think trying to be loving and merciful is a better indicator of how far we are willing to co-operate with grace than, say, making barbed comments about what we see as deficiencies in the faith of others. So, for example, slandering or libelling the pope, Cardinal Burke, or whomever we disagree with or simply dislike, is a rather risky undertaking. It sets us up in judgement on those who may, in fact, be more pleasing to God than we are ourselves. It can easily lead to the bitter zeal against which St Benedict warns in RB 72. The trouble is, once we are infected with it, we lose the ability to see clearly and tend to plunge deeper and deeper into anger and bitterness. Again, I stress that trying to be loving and merciful doesn’t mean that we adopt an ‘anything goes’ approach to Christian living, but I do believe that more people are drawn to Christianity by example than are argued into it. If we have got into the habit of condemning the sins or shortcomings of of others, isn’t it time we took a look in the mirror? We may not like what we see; is it any wonder that others don’t, either? And how does God see us? 

Matters can get worse. When we abandon ‘head faith’ and ‘heart faith’ and regard ourselves as the arbiters of all things we fall into ‘no faith’. I am not talking here of agnostics or atheists but of those who would still say they are Christians but whose lives and attitudes proclaim that they are so in name only. It is much commoner than might be supposed, but we tend to be blind to it in ourselves and only notice it in others. 

‘No faith’ begins with a falling off from prayer but the danger isn’t always obvious: we are too busy doing good works, championing good causes, fussing about details of the liturgy or church furnishings (all good things in themselves) to waste time with God; and, if we don’t waste time with God, we’ll never really get to know him. The next stage is to give up reading. We know scripture pretty well, don’t we, and as to those dull tomes of theology, they are too dry to be of use to anyone, aren’t they? And when we have given up prayer and reading, when we no longer think deeply about what we believe, the Christian community becomes a kind of optional extra. Why bother to go to Mass and endure an uninspiring liturgy in a cold and draughty church that is inhabited by people even more cantankerous than we are? We go on for a while, but there are better things to do with our time. Gradually, ‘no faith’ becomes our default mode, and we become just one more statistic, one more person in whom the light of Christ is almost extinguished.

Why am I saying this now? Soon we shall begin Advent, a time of renewed preparation for the coming of the Lord. In the West it coincides with a season of lavish spending and self-indulgence, making it difficult to concentrate on what Advent is really about. For those who desire to follow Christ, however, Advent provides an opportunity to look at our lives afresh and see what we need to change to welcome him more fully into our lives. It isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is a penitential season, but many people prefer to give up chocolate or make some small sacrifice of something or other rather than address the really big things, the things that are obstacles to grace. May I suggest it would be useful to start thinking about Advent now, before the parties and the present-buying begin in earnest? The sketches I have given of ‘head faith’, ‘heart faith’ and ‘no faith’ may not speak to you, but I hope they may suggest a new line to take, a way of thinking about Advent that hadn’t occurred to you before. With the prophet Isaiah, we must prepare a way for the Lord in the desert of our hearts and not be surprised if we find a few stones and other obstacles en route.

One further thought. Every night at Compline we review the events of the day that is past. I have always found the words of the psalmist, ‘My every desire is before thee,’ a good way of taking stock. What have I wanted; what do I want? How does it measure up to what I believe, in my head and in my heart, and how has it influenced or determined what I have done?

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