The Annunciation 2019

Today, when we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation, we are again confronted with that moment of unequalled faith and trust when Mary said her Fiat to the Lord. For each of us there is a day when we must say our own Fiat, and say it as completely and trustingly as she did. Many years ago I thought I had said my own Fiat once for all when I pronounced my vows as a Benedictine, but I realise now how wrong I was. Just as Mary had to go on affirming her original consent, so do we all until we come to the day of our death when we say our final ‘yes’ to God.

These thoughts were prompted by hearing of the death of Fr Terrence Kardong of Assumption Abbey. His translation and commentary on the Rule are well known. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that he became a great scholar of the Rule only in later life and had to put a huge effort into learning the languages he needed to achieve his purpose (we commiserated with one another on the subject of academic German). We sometimes forget that anything worthwhile will require effort and sacrifice. For Mary there was the giving up of the dream of a normal life and the acceptance of misunderstanding, pain and sorrow— all done in an instant because she had formed the habit of saying ‘yes’ to God. Yet had she not given her consent to be the Mother of God, where would we be?

As we thank God for the gift of Mary and all the graces that have come to us through her acceptance of her role in our salvation, let us also pray for Fr Terrence — giving thanks, yes, but also praying for him as a monk who would most earnestly desire to be freed from every trace of sin, for if we do not understand the connnection between the Annunciation and the forgiveness of sin in Christ we have failed to understand the reason for the Incarnation and the absolute importance of Mary’s consent.

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Lenten Silences

One of the many blessings of Lent is the profound silence that marks the community. Conversation is reduced to what is strictly necessary (not always the case at other times, I must confess) which allows us to weigh our words and try to avoid any that wound or are unprofitable in other ways. The constant backdrop of noise that many live with is something we rarely experience. But before anyone gives way to envy, let me mention something that may be found more challenging. If we are silent, we can be lonely. We may have to deal with anxiety or distress or any other negative feeling or concern without voicing it to anyone else. That is not because we cultivate a stiff monastic upper lip but because the kind of silence I am describing forces us, as it were, to take everything to God. It is meant to lead us to prayer, and it usually does.

Silence is often described as a discipline, something that teaches us. It is because it has a purpose that it is so highly valued in monastic life— and why it takes a lifetime to learn the difference between being merely taciturn and being truly silent, waiting for the Word to speak.

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The Importance of Fathers

A quick search in the sidebar of this blog reveals that I have often written about St Joseph on his feastday. In a way, that is odd. For far too long I subscribed to the view that Joseph was an almost disposable element in the Infancy narrative, and his early disappearance from the gospels and the absence of patristic commentary confirmed me in my opinion. It took Bossuet to make me realise what a great man he was, and that his greatness was precisely that of a father.

If, like me, you have happy memories of your own father, it does not require much of an imaginative leap to recognize how important Joseph was in the life of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But if you don’t, if your father has been absent or in some way inadequate, it must be much harder. So many of the qualities we admire in Jesus must have come from Joseph. In the same way, family members will often remark that we are ‘a chip off the old block’ and recognize in us traits that we had no idea once existed in another. When they are perceived as negative or in some way damaging, there is a double handicap to overcome. It is not just our own flaws but those we have inherited that we must deal with. Yet none of us is defined by our father or limited by his flaws. Fathers give us life, they help to form us, but their role changes over time. The one constant is that they go on loving us, as Joseph went on loving Jesus.

It seems to me that fatherhood is a tough call. To combine both strength and tenderness is not easy. To love one’s family, to be like Joseph a man of integrity and courage, is to give a wonderful example to others. More than that, it is to ensure the flourishing of those we are closest to, to give and sustain life. That is a great vocation. Today, let us pray for all fathers and the families they care for.

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Is God to Blame?

As news of the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, spread yesterday we noticed a huge increase in the use of our email prayerline. Many emails were simply requests for prayer for all who had been affected, but a considerable number expressed other concerns. There were those who demanded to know how God could permit such a thing; others who wanted to proclaim that they had given up on God since God had clearly given up on them; and a few who used the opportunity to ridicule our beliefs with a spattering of swear-words and wholly unoriginal gibes.

When people are hurting they need a hug, not an argument; and it is my belief that everyone who wrote in was indeed hurting. Some just didn’t know what to do with their hurt. The questions they asked deserve an answer, however, though I know the answers I’ll give will not be acceptable to everyone.

Why did God not prevent the massacre in Christchurch? That is a perfectly legitimate question but it takes us into territory many find uncomfortable. We can say all we like about God having dignified us with the gift of free will and of his permitting us to use or abuse that freedom as we choose. It doesn’t mean much to someone mourning the death of someone they love. The fact that it happens to be true is difficult to grasp, but we must try because it confirms the truly loving nature of God. He respects us; he doesn’t treat us as mere robots he can control at will. In fact, God isn’t interested in controlling us. He has given us all the guidance we need to live happy and fulfilled lives, but he respects the choices we make. If we choose evil, so be it. I call that one of the hard truths of Christianity: the realisation that God is a God of free people, not slaves. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of that truth. God gave his only Son into our hands, and that is how we treated him, by inflicting death on him.

So, what about those who feel they want to give up on God because they believe he has given up on them? Don’t we all feel like that at times? Didn’t Jesus feel the same on the Cross when he cried out with the psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. We have to be honest about our anger and despair and let God handle the pain we can’t. Because, of course, it is pain that makes us think and feel that way. If we didn’t care, if we were completely indifferent, we wouldn’t bother, would we?

In this blank, bleak universe I am describing, is there anywhere we can find help or comfort? I think there is. The Communion of Saints is not confined to those already in heaven and who we may safely assume are praying for those of us on earth. It includes the Church Militant, our ‘even Chrstians’ as Julian of Norwich loved to describe them. No matter how dark the events that take place in the world, no matter the depths of evil and depravity that deform the human heart, someone, somewhere is praying to let the light of Christ into the situation. Monks and nuns typically devote their lives to this prayer. We do not claim to be experts; we do not claim to achieve anything; but I believe that God does use our efforts in some way because ultimately it is not we who pray but the Holy Spirit who prays in us.

This morning many are feeling drained and unhappy. There are several people on life-support as a result of yesterday’s shootings; others are mourning the sudden loss of someone they love. We pray for them as we pray for all — for a chink of light to come into the darkness, for hope to take the place of despair. Our ideas of God are frequently too little. May we know how great he is, how involved he is even though he does not act as we would want him to act. In short, may we know how much he loves us.

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Murder in Christchurch, New Zealand

News of the murderous attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, began to come in as I was listening to the World Service.* Even now, the details are not clear but what we do know is sickening. The sheer brutality of the attackers with their live-streaming of their actions recalls some of the worst horrors of IS, but at least one of the attackers appears to be an Australian citizen with hard-right views on immigration. No one has a monopoly on hatred. We struggle to find words adequate to the shock and disgust we feel, but there are none that can really express our revulsion or sadness. Feelings of anger and rage bubble to the surface, but what are we to do with them?

As it happens, today’s Mass readings provide us with a kind of commentary on our own reactions. Ezekiel 18. 21–28 reminds us that God does not see or judge as we see and judge. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but desires their conversion. While we thirst for vengeance and call it ‘justice’, God yearns for the sinner’s reconciliation. Similarly, the gospel, Matthew 5.20–26, contains a hard teaching about being reconciled with our brother if he has something against us — not, please note, if we have something against him. In other words, God sets the bar of compassion and forgiveness very high. On the Cross his Son showed how very costly it would prove.

Today many of us will have difficulty reconciling our desire to follow Christ’s lead with our feelings of anger and horror. The trouble is, we have no choice. We must forgive; we must not thirst for vengeance. Part of our problem is that we tend to usurp God’s role when it comes to judging, but forget him entirely when it comes to forgiving. Forgiveness, we must remember, is never a once-for-all act. It is a repeated act, a constant dashing against Christ of every negative thought and feeling. The New Zealand authorities will have to investigate, prosecute and meet out punishment for the vile crime committed in Christchurch, but all of us have the duty to do what we can to show compassion and bring about reconciliation. Just now there are many grieving hearts we cannot comfort save though prayer, but let us make sure that we do that at least.

*A side effect of cancer is that sleep patterns are disturbed. The World Service can be a great help to the insomniac.

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Cardinal Pell’s Conviction

I have no idea whether Cardinal Pell is guilty or not. I must either believe that he did indeed do the terrible things he is accused of, or that there has been a grave failure on the part of the Australian justice system. Neither is an attractive proposition. The reports of both accusations and trial left me thinking how very strange some aspects were, but more than that I cannot say. I did not attend the trial, I cannot weigh the evidence, though I can see some of the consequences for the Church in Australia, and that gives me pause. There have been so many shocking revelations about the past, with the Christian Brothers coming in for particular censure, that one wonders how the Church has survived at all. Then one remembers the faith and goodwill of the ordinary, decent Catholic and is reminded, yet again, that it is the grace of the laos, the people of God, that draws others to Christ and keeps them there with him.

This morning the Church in Australia looks battered and bruised. As we pray for all who have been affected by Cardinal Pell’s conviction, not least the cardinal himself and those involved in his trial, let us pray especially for those ordinary, decent Catholics, that they may not lose heart. Our Lenten journey always contains twists and turns not of our making but, if we are steadfast, we shall reach Jerusalem at last and, like Hilton’s pilgrim, know the joy of being with Christ.

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How Much Do We Really Care?

The recent row about Shamima Begum and her baby has highlighted a growing difficulty in our public discourse: the tendency to allow emotion and political opportunism to cloud our thinking. We saw something similar at work in the sad case of Alfie Evans. It is as though we are unable to think through the possible consequences of an action and then make a decision, acknowledging that it is imperfect but that it is also as just and fair as we can make it, taking into account not only the principals but all who are affected by what is decided. In the case of Shamima Begum and her son, the safety of the British public as a whole had to be weighed against her desire to be allowed back into Britain. In the case of little Alfie, the wishes of the parents had to be weighed against differing medical opinions and the resources, both human and technical, of Alder Hey Hospital, with the needs of Alfie himself paramount. Those of us who have never had to make such a decision can only speculate what they must cost those who do. Unfortunately, that does not stop us arguing about what should be done, and sometimes, as I said, we do not bother with any real fact-finding or reflection before we burst into print or its online equivalent, issuing little sound-bytes of opinion that play on people’s emotions rather than serving any useful purpose. How much do we really care if that is how we tackle such morally-complex matters?

Tonight’s vote in the House of Commons will have consequences that last at least a generation, but anyone who has followed the Brexit debate in this country must have doubts about the process as well as its ultimate outcome. Is this truly democracy at work or a mutant variety of it? I myself have been disappointed by the way in which some of our politicians have conducted themselves and have often cringed at assertions/wishes being presented as facts when they are nothing of the sort. We have seen manoeuvering for personal/political advantage, half-truths and an unwillingness to face up to some unpleasant realities that has proved extremely divisive. Whatever is decided tonight is unlikely to end the squabbling or lead to more unity. So, again I ask, do we really care?

It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ we are on. We all have a responsibility to ensure, as far as we are able, that Parliament’s decisions are in the best interests of everyone — which includes the wider world beyond these shores. Some will argue that Britain has no responsibility towards mainland Europe, still less to countries further away, but is that true? We have already seen how what is done in one part of the world affects others, even down to the way in which our rubbish pollutes or our love of cheap fashion exploits. Can we really argue that whatever circle of self-interest we choose to define, be it tribe or nation, that is the limit of our responsibility? Some may, but I can’t; and I would hope anyone reading this would be of the same mind, however much we may differ in our view of other matters.

That leaves us with an almost-dilemma. What can we do about it? I would suggest that when we have thought and prayed and done everything we can by way of action, we are cast back onto prayer again because we know that God can do what we cannot. He sees the whole picture. He writes straight with crooked lines. Trusting God when we are doubtful is hard, but none of us can question either the fact that he cares or the extent to which he is willing to go for our sakes. We have only to look at a crucifix to know that. In the uncertainties of the present, I find that an encouraging as well as challenging thought, don’t you?

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In the Desert Again — and Hungry, Too

We are back in the desert again, but this time not under the velvety star-studded skies of Advent but in the blazing noon-day heat of Lent, alongside a weary Jesus who, after forty days and nights of fasting, is being tempted by Satan.

There is a line in today’s gospel (Luke 4.1–13) I find arresting : ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ I wonder how often we hurry over the fact of Jesus’ hunger in our eagerness to reflect that temptation always assails us when we are at our weakest. From there it is but a short step to stripping the gospel of much of its power. Turning stones into bread is one of those miracles that hasn’t much appeal for us because most of us in the West never experience real hunger. We are much more interested in power and wealth and may even experience a frisson of excitement at the thought that we might be deluded into believing that the devil might grant us what God will not. Yet a hungry Jesus has something important to teach us about Lent and its traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, especially, I think, fasting.

Fasting has, unfortunately, got a bad press nowadays. It has become synonymous with dieting (which it isn’t) or associated with things that have nothing to do with it (e.g. people ‘fasting’ from Social Media). Very often it has been reduced to a token foregoing of some luxury or indulgence such as wine or chocolate, or the Christian fast is compared unfavourably with the Moslem by those unfamiliar with either. There is a vague idea that fasting somehow unleashes spiritual power, but that has become mixed up with and diluted by the notion that it is primarily a penance, an expiation of sin rather than a means of drawing closer to God.

Now, please do not mistake me. I am quite sure that any offering made out of love of the Lord is immensely pleasing to him, but I would argue that we all need to think more deeply about fasting as the Church has understood and practised it for centuries. I know that some Catholic commentators have already begun to make the same point, but I hope that a word or two from a monastic perspective may be helpful, too.

Fasting is meant to make us hungry. Obvious, I know, but how often do we forget that! Hunger does not mean a passing feeling of emptiness that is easily put right or mere boredom with eating plain food. No, it means actual hunger: the gnawing pain of being utterly empty, weak. It is such a powerful thing that the Church has always been very careful about the rules she sets for it. The young, the old and the sick are not permitted to fast with the rigour allowed to healthy adults in their prime, and even they are required to be prudent (folly, you remember, is a sin).

In the monastery those who fall into the category of healthy adults fast every day during Lent (Sundays are not included). That means that what we eat and when we eat are carefully regulated, and as Lent progresses, our hunger grows. By the time Holy Saturday comes, the prospect of soft white bread and butter on Easter morning is sweet torture. But we aren’t fasting in order to prove that we are spiritual athletes or out of some masochistic desire to make our bodies suffer. We are fasting to become closer to Jesus, and our fast is not a matter we decide for ourselves but a ‘given’, something determined by the superior of the community who must always take into account individual weaknesses and the needs of the community as a whole. The monastic fast is thus never rigorous enough for some though, if my own experience is anything to go by, it isn’t the easiest of disciplines.

Fasting makes us realise our dependence on God in a way that many of us in the West have forgotten. It makes us aware of our bodies and the fact that it is the whole person that is redeemed, not just the mind or soul. Above all, it makes the link between prayer and almsgiving clear and direct. We cannot fast properly unless we pray; fasting is not doing its work in us if it does not make us want to pray more and to be more generous towards others. ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ What a tragedy it would be if, at the end of Lent, Jesus was still hungering for our love and devotion.

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A Book for Lent

One of St Benedict’s directives for Lent is that we should each be given a book that we should read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48). Debate has raged over whether a book of the bible is meant or some other volume. I myself have always inclined to the former view. Lent is a time for deepening our knowledge of Christ through reading the scriptures. Of course, we do that every day, but Lent has a special intensity and focus about it; and the fact that we do not choose for ourselves is important. Our Lent Book comes to us as a gift — sometimes a demanding or uncongenial one — and like all gifts has surprises in store for us.

In previous years, when I have suggested different books to different people, I have been heartened by the number who wrote afterwards, sometimes long afterwards, ‘I did not understand, but now I do! A Lent book does not reveal all its secrets at once. It works upon the soul slowly, agonisingly slowly at times. This year in community we are reading the Book of Psalms as our Lent Book. Given that we recite the whole of the psalter every week, including those psalms some more polite people think ‘not quite nice’ in the mouths of Christians, you may wonder why. The answer is simple. The psalter is the prayer-book of the early Church and, indeed, of Christ himself. It has psalms for every mood, including those we try to hide from ourselves or deny that we feel. Lent is about coming closer to God, and that means taking down the barriers we erect to try to keep him at a distance. So we pray the psalms and admit our desire to curse and rage and grumble just as often as we desire to give thanks and praise. The psalms show us ourselves as we are and the mercy God pours out upon us unceasingly. No wonder St Augustine exclaimed, ‘Psalterium meum, gaudium meum!’ (My psalter, my joy!)

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Limping Into Lent

Ash Wednesday is only a week away, and I realise I shall probably still be in the throes of post-chemo yukkiness while everyone else is smiling bright, purposeful smiles as they tackle their Lenten penances. Thank goodness we Benedictines don’t go in for that sort of thing. I can limp into Lent with a good conscience. St Benedict does indeed say that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, but when one analyses what he means by ‘Lenten’ it is reassuring to find that he concentrates on purity of life and the basic disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but without any competitive striving. We are not being asked to be heroic, just fully what we should be at all times but often aren’t. (cf RB 49)

In previous years, I have examined what some of the traditional disciplines of Lent might mean for each of us and I see no reason to change anything I’ve said before, though it may be useful to re-state them.

Prayer
Prayer is the fundamental Lenten discipline because Lent is all about letting God become close to us. Sometimes people decide that ‘more is better’ and set themselves a daunting routine of extra prayers to be said each day. I think myself that that is self-defeating. Either one cannot keep it up, in which case one feels a fraud and a failure, or one does somehow manage it, and is tempted to sneak a little admiring glance at oneself now and then. Much better just to be simple and try to be whole-hearted about one’s prayer as it is.

For a Benedictine, prayer is intimately connected with lectio divina, and in the past I have written about the usefulness of the Lent Book — the book of scripture each of us is given to read during Lent. Not, please note, one we have chosen for ourselves but one we have been given, the one that, however unpromising it may look to us, has something important to say. If we do not have a kindly superior or community to choose a Lent book for us, there is always the rich sequence of readings to be found in the Mass lectionary. In fact, I would always suggest starting with them, because to pray with the rest of the Church is the best way of ensuring that we do not go off on some unfruitful byway of our own.

Fasting
Fasting, like prayer, is best done with the mind of the Church. It isn’t the same as dieting, and giving up what Isaiah calls ‘the wicked word’ is much more important than some trifling sacrifice of wine or chocolate that half the world cannot afford anyway. It is, however, necessary to introduce an element of plainness into our food, and to curb the self-indulgence of other times. Whatever we save in our spending on food here at the monastery goes to a relief agency, and I think that is important. Fasting is meant to simplify our life and make us more attentive to God and other people. Feeling in one’s own body a little of the hunger that many experience daily is good at many levels, but it must not get in the way of spiritual alertness or the practice of charity. So, if fasting becomes just a covert way of improving one’s waistline or one’s bank balance, stop, think again. And if fasting turns one into an angry, hot-tempered dragon, belting fire and brimstone at all and sundry, stop, stop, STOP! Better to eat a slice of bread one didn’t intend to than chew one’s brethren to bits.

As to the other things St Benedict suggests we might fast from — unnecessary conversations that can easily turn into gossip or scurrility, for example — we must each find our own way. For some people, it might even be a case of becoming more, rather than less, conversational: greeting the concierge with a smile and a kind word, for example, rather than passing them by as though they did not exist.

Almsgiving
It is telling how often, in the West, almsgiving as a Lenten discipline is forgotten. It is not that people are not generous, but somehow the connection between giving alms — showing love — and the pilgrimage towards Easter is broken or not understood. We are all capable of giving to others, and often it is giving what we never thought of giving that proves the most costly gift of all. So, for example, being patient, with ourselves as well as others, is as valuable as a monetary gift to a Charity that appeals for help. Not being able to do some of the things we’d like to do during Lent can be an offering in itself. For instance, I doubt I shall be well enough to fast ‘properly’ on Ash Wednesday, but I can offer my sadness and regret instead. Again, we must each find our own way; and that brings me to my main point.

Preparing for Lent
For each and every one of us, Lent will be much more fruitful if we spend a little time beforehand thinking and praying about it by way of preparation. In the monastery we have the wonderful practice of the Lent Bill in which we set out what we intend to do (or not do!) during Lent and show it to another for evaluation and permission. I think that helps keep us on the right track. We do not always see ourselves clearly enough to make wise decisions. To ask the advice of another, to be humble about our choices, is to enter into the dynamic of Lent. For forty days we are asked to accompany the Lord along the way to Jerusalem and we cannot do that unless we are prepared to follow rather than lead. Some of us will run along the way; others will limp. It doesn’t matter which, provided we get there in the end.

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