Is it religious illiteracy alone that makes many people refer to this week as ‘Easter Week’? In a sense, those who do are right even though their usage is contrary to Christian tradition. We have an annual remembrance of the events leading up to the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we know that precisely because of his passion, death and resurrection, everything has changed — for ever. We are indeed an Easter people, living in the light of the resurrection, even today, when the streets leading into Jerusalem, which yesterday resounded to hosannas, are filled with dusty, trampled greenery and Jesus himself has disappeared from sight.
I think that temporary absence of Jesus from public view is an important element of Holy Week but we need to hold onto our Easter faith. On Maundy Thursday we shall see Jesus and his disciples again, and after that, he will be centre-stage, so to say. But for now, he is hidden. We do not see him or hear him. As the apostle says, ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ (2 Corinthians 5.7) These few days of apparent absence are the time when we must each make a decisive choice. It is easy to follow a conquering hero, to be one of the crowd applauding a triumphant entry, but to be a follower of someone who makes no great éclat, who is at odds with the establishment, whom we don’t even see, that is much harder. No wonder many give up at this point.
But for us, today, tired as we are, leaderless as we think we are, we must choose Jesus.
Those with good memories will have noticed that this image has been used before on iBenedictines. There is something about the donkey’s mild eye and switching ears that, for me, captures the strangeness of this moment. Jesus enters Jerusalem to the hosannas of those who will soon be shouting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ He does so on the the back of a beast of burden, yet is he who carries our sins, he who bears the heaviest load of all. He does so gladly, just as Giotto’s donkey seems to rejoice that he carries our Saviour.
Today, wherever we are, we are one with those on the road into Jerusalem. We, too, are cutting down green boughs and spreading our cloaks before Jesus, even if only metaphorically. We sing our hosannas, knowing that we also could change to hostile cries and jeers in an instant. We do that every time we fail to recognize Christ in others, every time we set ourselves up to be judge, jury and executioner over the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, anyone to whom we are antagonistic or hostile, for whatever reason. But we also know that if we allow Jesus into our hearts, we won’t do that. The choice before us is therefore stark. Will we make a way for him into our hearts or not? Will we let him trample down everything that is inconsistent with his lordship? Will we be his Jerusalem?
This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.
Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning.
On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.
But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.
But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.
Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?
I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.
Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener.
I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life. A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.
So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.
When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.
My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.
*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.
P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of St John Paul II. He was a man of very definite opinions, as others often discovered to their cost. His role in the collapse of several dictatorships is widely recognized although not yet fully documented. Within the Church, too, he could be formidable. This morning I was thinking about one of his Apostolic Letters, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which came out in 1994 and stated that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.’ The problem for many was the way in which this teaching was subsequently expanded to prohibit any discussion of the matter. As far as I know, it is the only subject that may not be discussed by Catholics, which makes it quite difficult to address something the Church is going to have to deal with increasingly in the future, and which our current experience of COVID-19 has highlighted: access to the Mass and other sacraments.
Let me be quite clear. I am not disputing the teaching of the Catholic Church nor am I arguing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. What I am doing is asking whether the present situation is challenging our understanding of the Church and the sacraments. For example, if we forget for the moment those emoting about being unable to go to Mass as though they alone were affected, or those lamenting having to celebrate ‘their’ Mass behind closed doors, we face an uncomfortable truth. The only people to have physical access to the Mass at present are men — male clergy. Of course, every Mass is offered for the whole Church, living and dead, and we can participate by spiritual communion; but the only people who can actually receive Holy Communion at present are the clergy.
I think that affects how we see the composition of the Church and the role of the sacraments within it. There is a kind of irony in the fact that under Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken against clericalism, the Church should have become extremely ‘clerical’ in her approach to the sacraments. Mass has become, in a certain sense, ‘privatised’. There is a movement, largely led by Protestant theologians, which is arguing for the validity of a digital Eucharist and online Communion. I myself do not see how such a thing could ever be countenanced according to Catholic sacramental theology, but the underlying questions are another matter. The Eucharist was given to the whole Church, not just part of it. How does the Church qua institution make that a reality?
Live-streaming Mass, making a spiritual communion, that is the experience of the greater part of the Church today. What was once confined to the invisible Church — the old, the sick, those in countries where priests are few and far between — has now become universal. Mass in a time of COVID-19 is very different from what most of us have known for most of our lives, and so with the other sacraments. I don’t, for one moment, deny the validity or even the necessity of the current arrangements, but I am glad that we are beginning to ask some very important questions about the Eucharist and other sacraments. The pro multis of the words of Eucharistic consecration are not to be lightly abandoned or understood in a restrictive sense, are they? Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us into a fuller understanding of this treasure entrusted to the Church.
One of the inevitable consequences of the world’s focus on COVID-19 has been the barrage of comment and advice, both good and bad, freely meted out online, via radio, TV and traditional print media. By this stage of Lent we generally want to be a little quieter, a little more intent on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but it seems we can’t. We had been hoping for some ‘quiet time’ but instead we seem to be steeped in even more noise and activity than usual. Then we remember. Christ’s ‘quiet time’ was spent in Gethsemane and Pilate’s palace, being questioned, mocked, abandoned by his friends. Then came the long, exhausting trek out to Calvary, where the taunting continued, and finally, death on the cross. Is our longing for quiet time just a touch self-indulgent, a protest against the turmoil in which we find ourselves?
It is difficult to answer that question honestly because we all have a way of putting a good gloss on what we want to do, but I think we can take heart from the thought that desiring quiet, desiring to be alone with the Lord, is itself a grace. Circumstances may prevent our responding as fully as we would like, but providing the desire is there, the grace is there, too. To me that is a great encouragement. This year Lent is taking us down some unexpected paths but they are not all negative, far from it. We have something new to learn, some fresh flowering to experience.
Yesterday millions of people across the globe joined with Pope Francis in praying for an end to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many were able to watch online as, on a rainy Roman evening, a tired-looking figure dressed in white stood alone in the vastness of St Peter’s Square and addressed the city and the world with a message of hope and trust. The photograph taken by Reuters struck me as the most eloquent I’ve seen so far. It may be copyright, so I’ve put a link to it rather than incorporating it into this post as I would have liked — you can view it here: https://images.app.goo.gl/32mvFoajGQkVBLvr7.
For me that image expresses both the strength and the frailty of faith. What the pope said was a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us in the midst of the storm. I believe that (most of the time) and try to live my life by it. I do so in union with others. Anyone who has ever attended a papal Urbi et Orbi will know the sense of communion with others that being in Rome gives. We stand next to someone whose language we may not speak, whose customs are very different from our own, and yet we are one with them in Christ. That is the strength of faith.
COVID-19, however, has shown us the frailty of faith, too. When the churches are closed and the sacraments unavailable, when we cannot meet one another for worship or fellowship, then we stand like the pope, alone before the Lord. For some, that is a terrifying experience. Faith falters, and we feel abandoned. The less comforting passages of the Old Testament come to mind. We think of punishment and damnation, of drowning in a sea of pain and suffering. But as the pope said, COVID-19 is not a judgement on us, not a condemnation. It is, rather, an invitation to go further, deeper. We are all in the same boat — but with the Lord!
Paradoxical though it may seem, I believe that this Lent we are all being asked to stand alone before the Lord as Moses stood, interceding for his people; as Jesus stood, interceding for the whole of humanity. We are being invited to embrace a vocation much bigger and more demanding than we expected — one that is meant for us all, not just popes and nuns and those we might think of as the ‘professional pray-ers’. That strange but luminous Urbi et Orbi of yesterday was indeed for everyone.
Almost the only topic of conversation online or off seems to be COVID-19 and its implications. Every day we hear of more restrictions being imposed, more curtailments of what we like to think of as ‘normal life’. Amid so much gloom, it is easy to forget that we are in Lent and that Lent is the springtime of the soul, preparing us for the most important event of all time: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Latterly, I think the sunshine here in England has helped lift our mood. Flowers have graced our gardens and window boxes, while the hushing of roads and streets means we can hear the birdsong often drowned out by the noise of cars and lorries. But what has been going on interiorly? Has the Lenten springtime really touched our souls?
Many clergy and communities have rushed to put their services online or to offer reflections designed to encourage their congregations in a time of stress and anxiety. Individuals have been generous in offering practical help and moral support to those in need. But what of the inner journey each of us is called to make during Lent, the journey from death to life? Today would be a good day to pause for a moment and consider where we are. How have prayer, fasting and almsgiving characterised our Lent so far? Do we need to reassess what we are doing or not doing in the light of our present circumstances? One of the great temptations of Lent, as of the Christian life in general, is what we in the monastery call Elijah Sickness. Just as Elijah was tempted to sit down under a tree and give up, so are we. We begin well, then we become distracted, bored or weary. Let’s remember that the Lord’s mercies never cease, they are new every morning (Lamentations 3.22–23). We still have some way to go till Easter, but He will be with us every step of the way. Be encouraged!
I sometimes think we should re-name today’s lovely solemnity of the Annunciation the Feast of God’s Humility. For it was when the angel Gabriel came to ask Mary’s consent to be the Mother of God that what one might call the expected order of things was upset for ever. The Creator asked the consent of his creature, without which he would not proceed. In St Bernard’s vivid homily for this day he pictures the whole of creation hanging on Mary’s word. Will she speak the word that gives the Word who sets us free? Thankfully, she does; and from that moment, Christ is among us, never to leave us again.
The earliest depictions of the Annunciation in Western art are rather like the one above. They show the angel standing before Mary, and Mary responding with a suitably severe expression that reflects the magnitude of what is being asked of her. Over time, the posture of both changes. Gabriel kneels; Mary is surprised reading or engaged in some household task. The commonplace, the ordinary, becomes the locus of God’s revelation as it is for most of us today. But that revelation changes us, as it changed Mary. Every night at Vespers, the Evening Prayer of the Church, we sing the Magnificat. We tell of the wonderful works God has done for the poor and lowly, his fidelity and our own gladness of heart. When Mary said her fiat, the Church existed nowhere but in her womb. Now, thanks to her, the Church is everywhere, but God still asks the consent of his creatures. He asks us to co-operate with him. God is still humble. Are we?
For those who are interested, there are several other posts on the Annunciation in this blog. Please use the search box in the sidebar.
People often say to me, ‘Your faith must help your cancer.’ To which, if they will listen, I generally reply, ‘No, cancer helps my faith.’ What I mean by that is that my experience of cancer has impressed on me the fact that we are not in control, and control isn’t the most important thing in life anyway.
Today the whole world is being asked to embrace an uncertainty such as we have not experienced in a long time. Those who say, ‘ Our faith will get us through,’ are undoubtedly sincere but do not always recognize that faith isn’t something any of us can summon up at will, nor is it much use as a crutch. Our belief should encourage us to hope and prompt us to show love to others, but most of us know dark times when our belief falters, our hope evaporates and love is just a word. That is human and natural and not something we should scold ourselves for — still less, anyone else.
As always, I think we need to turn to the gospels and see how Jesus coped with the temptation to despair or rebel against the Father (if you don’t think he was ever tempted, I suggest re-reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent or the accounts of the agony in the garden at Gethsemane). He truly struggled. Many people are struggling now. Here in the monastery, where we are familiar with lockdown (only we call it ‘enclosure’) and practise a form of social distancing (only we call it ‘solitude’), we know that the single most important thing we can do for anyone is to pray, and pray we do. In prayer we embrace the uncertainty of life, for prayer is God’s gift. It all depends on him, but because it all depends on him, we need to stay alert and be co-operative.
That applies to every situation, including the one in which we find ourselves now where the rapid acceleration of COVID-19 is causing great distress and anxiety. In the U.K. this morning the message is clear: stay at home. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’, just stay at home. That need not be a negative experience, but for many it will be very hard, requiring a renunciation of self few have been required to make before. I am reminded of Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers, encouraging a younger monk with the words, ‘Stay in your cell and it will teach you all things.’ Perhaps that sentence is one to ponder as we enter lockdown, and to remember it was love that prompted the monk’s withdrawal into the desert in the first place. We cannot know what the future holds, but faith, hope and love come together in an uncertainty that is, paradoxically, very sure. Let us embrace it as best we can.
Today’s solemnity of St Benedict, the Transitus or ‘entry into heaven,’ invites reflection on what it means to be a Benedictine. Every community is different, although we share a common likeness that enables us to recognize one another as shoots from the same tree. Within each community individuals are certainly very ‘individual’. We all have our own ‘take’ on the Rule by which we live, our own customs and observances, yet there is never any doubt about the values that underpin them. We have more than fifteen hundred years of experience to draw on — fifteen hundred years of community, solitude, prayer, study, work and obedience; fifteen hundred years of welcoming Christ in the stranger, in the liturgy, in every activity and moment of every day. And still we have more to learn, more to discover about how to follow Christ. May the prayers of St Benedict help us all. Amen.