The First Sunday of Advent 2020

Advent sky

Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.

Community Newsletter:
Complete with typo! https://mailchi.mp/d3ee45ba46b0/holy-trinity-monasterys-advent-newsletter-2020

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Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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St Catherine of Alexandria and the Language of Sainthood

St Catherine of Alexandria

St Catherine of Alexandria is no longer as fashionable a saint as she was in the Middle Ages, when she gave her name to colleges in Oxford and Cambridge and appeared in rood screens and stained glass windows of dazzling beauty. I think that rather gives the lie to the notion that the Middle Ages were a benighted backwater in our history, full of the worst kind of patriarchy. Catherine was admired for standing up to the emperor Maxentius and his abuse of power, even though it led to her torture and execution. She was seen for what she was — a brave woman, supremely confident in her faith — and revered for that. The artist who painted the scene above certainly managed to capture both Catherine’s confidence and the emperor’s discomfort. He may have thought he had won by having her executed, but she was the true victor in the contest.

Sometimes the language we use reveals more than we think it does. For example, when we speak of emigrants, exiles and ex-pats, we may be referring to the same people, but our language suggests a different stance towards them. Emigrant is a fairly neutral term for those who have chosen to leave their homeland, usually in search of a better life. When they arrive in their hoped-for new country, they are transformed into immigrants, which is not always so neutral; but if they are lucky enough to have sufficient wealth at their disposal, they are, of course, ex-pats. If they left their homeland as result of force majeure or under circumstances we think tragic, they are exiles. This simple illustration may help to explain something I find odd about the way Catherine of Alexandria is perceived today.

The language of hagiography has several themes, and in the case of women saints, the rigid categorisation into virgins, widows and martyrs (which has left the married in what used to be known, deplorably, as nec, nec). In the case of Catherine of Alexandria, I think I detect something of a shift in the language used about her which indicates why she is less popular now than she once was. We have become nervous about the historicity of her legend, so the fact of her martyrdom is glossed over. She has been downgraded, so to say, from a woman who spoke her mind and paid the price for it, a martyr saint, to one of those countless virgins who sing the praises of God but don’t, apparently, do much else. Her life on earth may still be described as exile from heaven but it has lost much of its original vigour.

It would be good to recover the sense of Catherine of Alexandria as a martyr, someone who stood up to the abuse of power, a worthy role model for men and women everywhere. What do you think?

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Muddled Thinking and Muddled Morals

In the last forty-eight hours we have been treated to some very diverse interpretations of what constitutes the common good. In the Netherlands, for example, it is now legal for doctors to sedate patients with dementia before administering euthanasia (so they do not resist). At the same time, Angela Merkel, long the guardian of the European conscience, has urged that COVID-19 vaccines should be available to poor countries as well as rich ones — on grounds of fairness (and possibly, self-interest). Matt Hancock has helpfully informed us that ‘Christmas is a special time of year’ while not, apparently, going as far as one scientific adviser who thinks Christmas should be ‘postponed’ for six months because the new programme of restraints the government has devised for us does not go far enough to protect public health. Religious illiteracy is clearly even more widespread than we thought. Public sector pay is to be held at current levels but the increases for M.P.s are, at the time of writing, still to go ahead. As to what is happening in Hong Kong or the U.S.A., I dare not comment for fear that I should have to go into hiding from all sides. Meanwhile the barque of Peter sails serenely on, according to its own timetable (the liturgical calendar) and its own preoccupations, which are rarely those of politicians or secular society.

In his homily for the solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis admonished us not to give up on great dreams. It is easy to be dismissive of the pope. The subjects on which he chooses to speak or write, the language he uses, and the sometimes interminable length of the addresses themselves, can be difficult for English-speakers. But the great dreams to which he alludes are not to be summarily dismissed. We can get bogged down in the minutiae of daily life and mistake the seemingly urgent for the genuinely important, limiting both ourselves and others unnecessarily. The headlines dominating our news or engaging our social media streams are sometimes petty and leave us making bad or selfish choices. Our thinking can become muddled, and when that happens, so, frequently, does our conduct.

Advent is still a few days away but it provides an excellent opportunity to simplify, reassess what truly matters and act accordingly. That is why I always think these days between Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent are a precious time of preparation. We may be choosing an Advent book to provide a fresh perspective on what we are celebrating or drawing up a routine which will ensure we read the Mass readings every day and make time for prayer. Here in the monastery we like to begin with three days of almost perfect silence. Apart from the Divine Office and necessary conversation with the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, so to say, we try to keep quiet and allow the silence to lead us. That isn’t possible for everyone, nor would it be advisable in all cases. We have to use common sense as well as spiritual sense in our decision-making. Whatever we decide to do, I have a hunch that if we use this time imaginatively and ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall discover that the common good and our own personal good are more closely aligned than we may have thought. But it may take some hard thinking and hard praying to work that out.

Audio version

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Doing the Coenobitic Crawl

It would be nice to report that I had awoken this morning thinking, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I am ready to ‘run with an inexpressible sweetness of love along the way of God’s commandments.’ (RB Prol. 49) The truth, alas, is less uplifting. I spent yesterday nursing a sick headache while filling in endless government forms, tossed and turned all night, and am now contemplating the day ahead with muted enthusiasm. Situation excellent! If I can’t run, it is time to do the coenobitic crawl.

Most of us have a tendency to have unreal expectations of ourselves. That little bit of D.I.Y. will only take an hour we think, and five hours later, there is still work to be done and we are discouraged and weary. Or we set ourselves a programme of reading and prayer that is completely unsustainable. As a junior nun, I decided I ought to read the whole of Aquinas. I did, eventually, but it took me years rather than months and there were a few syllogisms I think I read with glazed eyes and scant attention.

In a few days we shall begin Advent, our hopes high, our aims generous. Many of us will try to take on too much and end up exhausted and disappointed. But it is we who will be disappointed, not God, who loves a generous giver and would prefer us to be prudent as well as filled with holy ambition. How blessed we are to have this feast to remind us that growth doesn’t come all at once! Our Lady was dedicated to God’s service from the first moment of her conception but she had to learn, as we all do, what that meant. She had to crawl before she could walk, both literally and spiritually. What I dub the coenobitic crawl is merely the monastic version of something common to Christians in every age. There are days when we seem to sprint along; others, when we seem, if anything, to be going backwards. It doesn’t matter. God sees and loves us as we are. His encouragement will sustain us even when we can’t find any in ourselves. So will the prayers of Mary, if we ask her.

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House of Prayer or Robbers’ Den? The Case for Spiritual Distancing.

Today’s gospel, Luke 19. 45–48, neatly encapsulates many people’s attitude to the Church, though I suspect those most hostile to her would not necessarily pick up the scriptural references but simply condemn her as ‘rich and corrupt’. Try applying the gospel text to ourselves as believers, and the words begin to sizzle uncomfortably. Is my heart a place where the Lord can pray unceasingly, or is it full of contradictory desires and selfish wants that not only block prayer but make me hypocritical — always a charge against Christians, but sometimes justified.

In a monastery you might think we have it all under control, but alas, that is not so. We have to learn, day by day, how to make the heart open to the Lord. Liturgy, the practice of lectio divina and, above all, living in community are great helps but none of them can take the place of the daily, personal conversion of heart expected of us. We vow it, so it must be possible; but it is a never-ending work in progress. One important aspect of conversion is the readiness to listen to people and opinions we don’t immediately find attractive; and by listening I mean more than waiting just long enough to hear the words but only in order to reject them. I mean really trying to understand what is meant and weighing it carefully to see whether it applies to us or not.

We are exhorted to be always on the alert for the voice of God, but it can be difficult to sift out other voices that do not come from him. I think that is why Benedict is so keen on humility, mercy and restraint of speech. He knows we are apt to assume we’re right about everything and be harsh on those who disagree with us. I know I am! But if we are truly to turn to the Lord and make our hearts a house of prayer, we need to practise what I’m tempted to call ‘spiritual distancing’. Older writers called it ‘detachment,’ and it means more than being indifferent to wealth or ease or avoiding sin. It means a wholly different ‘take’ on life which places God at the centre. Part of that involves cultivating freedom from our own opinions and preferences, and that can be more difficult than overcoming other, more material, forms of self-indulgence.

May I make a suggestion? Today, when tempted to react negatively, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you need to think about before you reply. It won’t necessarily stop you screaming at the radio or sending off that angry tweet, but it may open an unexpected pathway to grace in your life — and that can never be a bad thing, can it?

Audio version

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COVID-19, Restrictions on Public Worship and the Challenge to the Church

I’ll probably lose a few friends and several readers with this post, but I think we need to stop grumbling about how much we are suffering because of COVID-19 restrictions, especially the restrictions on public communal worship. At one level, we can argue that observing lockdown restrictions is merely a way in which we can put the common good before our own. That is what I call the functional approach. At another, I think we have to consider where the Church’s true good lies and what is being asked of us both as individuals and as an institution. Increasingly, I have come to believe that lockdown represents a opportunity to recover a faith and holiness the Church currently lacks; but let’s take the COVID situation first.

The impact of COVID-19 on worship
Those who have or have had COVID, those who have lost people dear to them or their homes and livelihoods, those battling the pandemic right now, they have something to complain about; but do the rest of us? We can see that for those most at risk, the virus is scary; for those who are lonely or depressed or anxious, it is a daily struggle; but for the majority of us, it is more of an inconvenience than anything else. We have to take more care about hygiene, think before we go anywhere, keep our distance from family and friends for fear of spreading a disease we may not even know we have, abandon, at least for a while, much that is familiar or pleasurable, but our essential freedom to worship God has not altered. In saying that, I am aware that opinion is divided about the risk to public health that meeting together in church constitutes. I’m also aware of the statement issued by Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop McMahon in response to the government’s proposals. However, if we concentrate too much on the negative, we may miss an opportunity — a moment of grace, if you like, that could potentially transform our lives and the lives of those with whom we come into contact.

Deepening our life of prayer
If the bedrock of our religious practice is daily or weekly Mass, lockdown provides us with opportunities to see how the Eucharist fits into a much wider context of scripture and ‘private’ prayer. Praying the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours not only joins us with the whole Church in every age, it provides a sacred rhythm for the present. It extends the celebration of the Eucharist and hallows time. We can forget that it is possible to become very individualistic, even selfish, in our approach to worship and the sacraments, allowing our routines to provide an assurance more apparent than real. I go to Mass, so I’m alright spiritually, am I not? If I can’t go to Mass, for whatever reason, life suddenly becomes much more alarming, doesn’t it? I’m not so confident any more. My faith doesn’t stretch that far. Once we recall that it is Christ who prays in us and that the words of scripture, the psalms especially, are his prayer, a temporary restriction on meeting together and celebrating the sacraments looks less like a loss and more like an encouragement to re-think some of our old ideas. How many of us have asked ourselves whether lockdown is an invitation to deepen our knowledge and love of scripture, grow in prayer, and become closer to Christ in a new way?

Being aware of God’s presence
Most of you know I am not a fan of live-streamed worship. Many are, but I have never found it necessary or helpful. I’m also unenthusiastic about many devotions from which others derive great comfort and support. That isn’t because I don’t value them or see the good in them but because I am aware of God’s presence here, in my monastic cell, in the chapel, wherever I happen to be and whatever I happen to be doing. It is all-embracing, and I attribute that to my formation as a Benedictine and long years of trying to practise lectio divina. I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a monk or nun — heaven forbid! — but I do wonder whether key elements of the monastic tradition of reading and prayer could helpfully be rediscovered by the Church at this time.

What is normal?
Many priests and pastors are doing their imaginative best to support those who feel bereft, but some talk only of ‘when things return to normal’ and, to be honest, I question whether that will ever come about. It is not just that, however successful vaccines prove to be in controlling the spread and severity of the virus, there are many other changes that will take much longer to work through. The shift in work patterns, the economic consequences of actions taken by government, the effects of delayed healthcare interventions, the disruption to education, to say nothing of climate change and political re-alignments, they are all going to have an effect on our future lives. Add to that the loss of trust that the IICSA reports and the McCarrick report have produced, and I question whether anyone in the Church can honestly go on talking about a return to normality. What normality are we talking about? The tired, rather inward-looking normality that seems to have become characteristic of the Church in Europe and North America in recent years?

Worshiping together is only one aspect of what church-going means. Fellowship and service of others are also important. However, I’d like to stay with worship a little longer because I think it is there that we can identify a lack we need to address. Here in the West we are not accustomed to being unable to receive the sacraments. The fact that such has been the experience of the Church at many times in her history and still is her experience in many places outside Europe and North America is one of those uncomfortable truths we prefer not to acknowledge. Could it be that the Lord is allowing us to experience something of the same because we have become too complacent? Do we ever ask ourselves why spiritual riches are lavished upon us and whether we have responded to them as we ought?

A changing Church
I’ve said often enough that I think the territorial parish is no longer central or necessary to most people’s experience of church, and I think that trend will continue. But if the traditional parish goes, and with it the economic and financial basis of much church organization and activity, there will be a knock-on effect on how we understand priesthood, both of the ordained presbyterate and the priesthood of all the baptized. If the buildings are closed, we go on being the Church but we can no longer make the same assumptions about what that means or how it is expressed. Are we ready for that? Can lockdown restrictions help us?

Recovering faith and holiness
I think our most urgent need is to recover what I think we have sometimes lost: a sense of God’s transcendence. So much of our church activity, our thinking and planning, concentrates on being of service to others, perhaps to the point where it has all gone slightly out of balance. Faith and holiness are not just ‘nice extras’ for some: they are for all. Where faith is lacking, we find the most appalling sin and corruption. Where there is no striving for holiness, there is only emptiness and routine. The emptiness may look glorious, the routine may be attractive, but we have forgotten the jar of nard, the call into the desert, the being alone with the Alone.

Romantic rubbish? I daresay some will think it so. Parish priests mesmerised by new technologies but grieving the loss of the physical presence of their parishioners will be scratching their heads and asking themselves what more can they do to keep their congregations together. A return to what is familiar will be their top priority. Parish treasurers, faced with a big drop in income, will be wondering how to make up the shortfall. What can we keep, what will have to go? And those who lovingly place their talents at the service of the liturgy in a thousand different ways, from making music to mopping the floors, will be torn by the desire to go on doing exactly that. For the less obviously talented, the mythical ‘person in the pew,’ there may be fewer conflicts but still there will be hard choices to make. 

We are dealing with what, for most of us, is a new situation, for which there isn’t really any precedent. We can read about martyrs and those who kept the faith in times past; we can reflect on Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert; but that was then and now is now. There aren’t easy solutions to the challenges we face. The danger is that we may rush to decide how we should meet them before we have really formulated the questions or examined them in any detail — still less given God a chance to have his say.

Grumbling about not being able to go to church in the way we’re used to is understandable, but it would be a tragedy if our own noise blocked out the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.19). What is he doing now? Are we sure we know? To put it bluntly, should we be asking ourselves anew how we are to be the Church, how we are to cultivate faith and holiness ? Perhaps this Advent we shall begin to find out.

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Trivial Reflections

Yesterday I spent a few minutes studying the features of a man who lived and died more than 4,000 years ago — one of the amazing reconstructions made possible by developments in forensic anatomy. As I did so, I wondered whether he had ever seen his own face with the clarity with which I was able to. I know next to nothing about the history of mirrors but have a vague idea that, in these islands, polished stone and discs of bronze were used quite early on. They were better than staring into a pool or bowl of water, but I don’t know whether such mirrors were the preserve of the rich or more generally available. The image reflected back by any of these methods would probably have been dim, perhaps distorted by the wind in the case of water, or flaws in the surface or angle of the light falling on it in the case of stone or bronze.

My 4,000 year old man did not see daily, and in close-up, the changes to his face as we can see the changes to our own. Did that affect his sense of self, I wonder? Did not knowing what he looked like in detail affect the way he viewed the world and his own place in it? My blind and visually impaired friends vary in what they say about not being able to see themselves as I am able to see myself, so I am left pondering. We take a modicum of self-knowledge for granted, at least at the physical level. Delving below the surface to our thoughts and feelings is infinitely more complex. As we grow older, we may grow in insight; but not always. Like St Paul, we can find ourselves wanting to do the right thing but failing again and again.

We do not know what our 4,000 year old compatriot thought or felt. We have only his skeleton, a few grave goods, and his reconstructed head. He lived a hard life and died in his late teens or early twenties, perhaps from malnutrition. We do not know whom or what he worshipped, whether he had children, how he was perceived by his contemporaries. But we do know the most important thing of all. He was a man. He was human like us. And on a day when the popular press was howling with rage about Peter Sutcliffe and his unspeakable crimes, it was good to remember that. I prayed for my unknown man, as I prayed for Peter Sutcliffe, his victims, and all who bear the scars of his monstrous behaviour. Judgement I’ll leave to God.

Audio version
https://anchor.fm/digitalnun/episodes/Trivial-reflections-emfekl

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Remembrance Sunday 2020

The Mother of Jesus embracing the Mother of Judas. By Nicholas Mynheer. In a private collection and used by permission.
The Mother of Jesus embracing the Mother of Judas. By Nicholas Mynheer. In a private collection and used by permission.

Not the expected drift of blood-red poppies or the silhouette of a lonely cross with a World War I helmet dangling from it but a much more challenging image to illustrate this Remembrance Sunday post. We remember those who fought and died best when we strive to achieve what they fought for: a kinder, more peaceful, more forgiving world. The embrace of these two mothers grieving the loss of their children is a stark reminder that we do not have to hate; we do not have to be divided. Reconciliation is always possible, if we are willing to allow it. Let us pray that it may be so, whatever kind of war or conflict may confront us.

Note: I also wrote about this image during Holy Week this year.

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