Epiphany 2011

The Three Magi
The Three Magi

Readers of Colophon may remember that we used this image of the Magi for our post about Epiphany last year. The Autun sculptor has captured beautifully both the mystery and the humanity of these three seekers after truth. I particularly love the tender way the angel is wakening one by touching his little finger as the other two lie fast asleep. One can imagine him whispering, “Get up, this is the way!”

Often we resolve problems or come to a deeper appreciation of things by not explicitly attending to them. Sleeping on the problem, going for a walk, playing something on the piano or weeding a flower-bed: all are tried and trusted methods of allowing our minds to break free of the constraints we put upon them when we are trying to work something out.

For the Christian there is another and more effective way of breaking free of these constraints, and that is prayer. Not prayer as instant solution or easy way out, but prayer as quiet, persevering seeking after God. The Magi loved truth and undertook an enormous journey in pursuit of it. They found what they sought where they must least have expected to find it: in a small child born in an obscure part of a Roman province. We often seek truth in odd places and can be disconcerted to discover that it lies much nearer home. May Epiphany reveal to you the wonder of him who is Light from Light, our journey’s goal, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(If you wish to reread the Colophon entry for Epiphany 2010, the best way of doing so is to go via our web site and click on the archive for January 2010. At the moment the JS-Kit comments script is making things work very slowly, so we need to decide whether to  drop the comments, which we are reluctant to do, or find another way of archiving them. We’ll take our own advice and sleep on it.)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Brave Beginning

Our Lady of Perpetual Succour
Our Lady of Perpetual Succour

January: the door of the year, the month that looks both ways, a hinge between two worlds; in the most literal sense, a critical time. How will 2011 be for any of us? The one certain thing is that we shall all change in the course of it.

For the godly-minded, today is also the oldest Marian feast in the calendar, that of Mary the Mother of God, and the Church’s World Day of Prayer for Peace. A connection between the two may be found in the fact that today is also the Octave Day of Christmas, the day when Christ was circumcised and, as St Paul says, “in his own flesh made the two one”. Catholic tradition has long seen in the blood shed at the circumcision a type of the blood shed on the Cross to redeem us. Mary gave us the Prince of Peace to be our Saviour, stood beside his Cross as he was dying and became mother of the Church (i.e. us) when the Beloved Disciple took her to his home. It seems fitting that the first day of the new year should be placed under her protection.

And for the rest? No doubt there will be rejoicing and merriment, and some valiant attempts at self-improvement in the form of New Year Resolutions. January is indeed a critical time and as we get older we know better than to prophesy or announce our plans. Let us just begin bravely. The outcome we can safely leave to God.

May you have a very happy New Year!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Cheerful End

I know that if I say we are at the end not just of a year but of the first decade of the twenty-first century someone will correct me. For bloggers, correction is both a blessing and a bane. It is a blessing when it puts right an error, advances an argument, or throws light on something previously obscure (Digitalnun would add, when it makes us smile as well). It’s a bane when it it is simply the outpouring of rudeness or venom which does nothing constructive. I can’t help feeling we’ve seen an awful lot of negative correction during the past ten years, not just in the blogosphere but also in the world at large.

Here in Britain I think many people have been dismayed to find how much corruption simmers beneath the surface of our public life and in the shock of that discovery have exaggerated the effects. Some MPs fiddled their expenses so now we are cynical about all politicians; some bankers behaved greedily and irresponsibly so now bank-bashing is a legitimate blood sport. Religion is not exempt.  Some clergy abused children and young people so now all Catholics are the spawn of Satan; some Islamist extremists murdered so now all Muslims are terrorists. Even the weather attracts our ire. We’ve had two harsh winters in succession and it’s highlighted the inadequacy of some of our preparations, so we castigate our local authorities for not doing more. Now ‘flu is spreading and our misery knows no bounds. At the year’s end, with budget cuts and job cuts and VAT rises to look forward to, we are not at our most cheery.

Cheeriness, however, is not a virtue; cheerfulness is, though I fear you will not find it listed in any textbook of moral theology, more’s the pity. Cheeriness is merely the state of being happy and optimistic and is limited to self; cheerfulness is causing happiness and optimism in others and knows no bounds. If iBenedictines has a wish for its readers at the end of 2010 it is simply this: be cheerful. There’s more true religion in that than you might think, but correct me if I’m wrong.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Good Zeal

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 72 which you can listen to here, has the title “On the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have”. The title isn’t Benedict’s but I think he would have approved. It is modest and unassuming and, occurring as it does almost at the end of the Rule, suggests an acceptance of human frailty which is encouraging. Benedict has spelled out in great detail how the monk is to order his life and devoted several pages to the demands of living in community. Yet here he is soberly talking about the good zeal monks ought to have and must cultivate with the most ardent love as though it cannot be taken for granted, even in the monastery.

Zeal can be dangerous. We can go seriously wrong for what we believe are the best of motives. We have probably all met people so consumed by what they see as evil that they have become unpleasantly like what they detest. We may even have been guilty  of being too rigorous ourselves in situations which called for forgiveness and understanding. Zeal gone wrong leads to fanaticism and that, as we all know, can be poisonous.

Benedict’s antidote is to put energy and enthusiasm into that which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. As you might expect, he singles out for mention qualities he has already written about: patience in bearing with one another’s weaknesses “whether of body or character” (including X’s annoying little habits), eagerness to show respect and obedience to other members of the community (including that odious Y), seeking what is better for another rather than oneself and, above all, loving God, one’s superior and the brethren. He sums it all up by saying that we must put nothing whatever before Christ who, we pray, will bring us all together to everlasting life.

It is a beautiful and moving statement of the inner dynamic of monastic life but there are days when it sounds just a bit . . . effortful. That’s the problem with zeal. It has a bright, tooth-paste tang about it which most of us prefer in small doses. At this time of year, when the Christmas decorations are beginning to look a little tired and 2011 is almost upon us, we can use RB 72 as a reality check on how we actually live our lives.

So, before you write your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself one question. Do you put as much energy into your service of God and others as you do into making things comfortable for yourself? I blush to think of my own answer. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but comfort achieved at the expense of others is more questionable. I think even I could become zealous about that. At least, I hope so.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Becket and Conscience

St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket

The feast of St Thomas Becket always takes me back to Cambridge days and the difficulty of making up my mind about Becket. I always wanted to see him as the doughty champion of the Church, clear-eyed in his acceptance of the consequences of clashing with the king. But I was enough of a historian to worry that many of his contemporaries were less convinced. Gilbert Foliot, for example, did not see Becket as a hero; and Foliot was a man of great integrity. I finally decided that I could accept Becket’s holiness without necessarily thinking him right in all his judgements (it is significant that no one, not even his worst enemies, ever accused Becket of unchastity which, at that time, would have scuppered any claim to sanctity, but the cause for which he died was quickly superseded by a compromise).

My student dilemma is one we are regularly faced with in the secular sphere. Recent events in Russia leave one “wondering” about the justice system there. What is happening in the Ivory Coast has a definite whiff of sulphur about it; and as for what we know of Afghanistan, who could say, hand on heart, that the western forces have made the situation there any better, despite the huge sacrifice of people and resources on every side?

All of us have to make decisions based on imperfect and often contradictory evidence. We must do the best we can. Sometimes doing the best we can may lead to martyrdom of one kind or another. More often it means being misunderstood or misprized, usually by those whose opinion we most value. Let us not undervalue the courage and persistence that requires. The daily death to self, the trying to do the right thing, makes the whole of life a martyrdom, a witness for Christ.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Christmas Feasts

The Christmas feasts come thick and fast this week: St John the Evangelist; Holy Innocents; St Thomas of Canterbury; Mary the Mother of God; and before we have had time to draw breath, Epiphany, which is for many the greatest feast of Christmastide, when gentiles are admitted alongside Jews to experience the salvation of God.

All these feasts are a reminder that we are not to linger beside the crib. The martyrdom of Stephen (not celebrated this year because of Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family) showed us clearly that following Christ will be costly. What then of John, whose feast we keep today?

There is so much mystery about John. Is he the Beloved Disciple; did he actually write all the works attributed to him; was he spared a martyr’s death; did he live and die at Ephesus? Above all, what kind of man was he, how did he understand God, why does he seem so different from all the other early writers of the Church?

Forests have been felled and seas of ink consumed in an effort to answer these questions, but I think we can, without argument, claim him as the Church’s first mystic. Mysticism gets a bad press these days, mainly because of the vapid, New Age travesty of the same: the reality is much less cosy, much closer to John’s own terrifying vision on Patmos, a glimpse of God as he is, as terrible as he is beautiful.

John’s profound meditation on the meaning of Christ’s words and actions, his insistence on the primacy of love and forgiveness in building up the Christian community, is a lesson for us all. It is only when we welcome the Word into our lives and allow ourselves to be changed by him that we begin to understand what is asked of us and what it means to be a child of God. What happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has opened for us the way to salvation, but the journey cannot be completed without passing through Death and Resurrection.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Et Incarnatum Est

Eric Gil: "And" THE WORD was made flesh, Et Incarnatum Est. What an immensity is contained within that  phrase! We kneel before the Mystery when we proclaim it in the Creed. We sing it over and over again, this Love of God made visible in a tiny human frame; this Strength of God Almighty in the fragility of a new-born child. Can the God whom we adore be a God far off? Surely not. He is forever Emmanuel, God-with-us. So, as St Basil says, let us dance with the angels and sing.

A HAPPY AND BLESSED CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is a busy day for everyone and it’s easy to become irritable or snappy, especially when unexpected visitors turn up just when we want to see to the turkey, make up a bed for someone or otherwise get on with our Christmas Plan. St Benedict has something to say about this in the section of RB that we read today (chapter 66).

Speaking of the gatekeeper of the monastery, he says that when anyone arrives we should thank God then greet the visitor in a warm-hearted way, with all the graciousness that the fear of God inspires. Learning to thank God for interruptions to our plans and not just their fulfilment isn’t easy. It’s even harder to thank God when our hopes and plans are completely dashed; but there’s something about blessing and not cursing that transforms a negative situation into something quite different. Gratitude enlarges the heart, and when we make space for others, something wonderful happens.

Mary and Joseph had to accept the disappointment of their hopes and plans for an ordinary family life. Today we think of them in Bethlehem, reduced to sheltering in a stable because no one would take them in. But in utter self-forgetfulness, they prepare for the birth of Christ; and when he is born, they welcome a succession of strangers, from smelly shepherds to daunting Magi. Here, surely, is an example of what it means to welcome God into one’s life, not as we would but as he would. May Mary and Joseph help us to welcome God into our lives today.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

O Emmanuel

The last of the great O antiphons is so rich in allusion and imagery that we could spend hours unpacking its meaning. We begin with a string of titles: Emmanuel (God-with-us), King, Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and Saviour. Each one enlarges our understanding of what we mean by “God” but it is significant that we consider God not as he is in himself but as he is in relation to us. There is an honesty about that which is refreshing. How can we know anything about God except what he chooses to reveal to us?

The prayer we make in the antiphon is the deceptively simple one, “come and save us”, but for the first time we ask it of the Lord our God, Domine Deus noster. Everything else is now stripped away. We stand before God in our nothingness and call upon him to save us. Our prayer is urgent and simple as prayer always is when it comes from the heart: God is God, we need his help. It may have taken us all Advent to get to this point. What matters is that we have finally arrived here, acknowledging our need of God.

Tonight we end our Advent journey. With Christmas Eve we begin to focus on the Nativity and there is a dramatic change in the liturgy. Tomorrow morning, when all is cold and dark and silent, we shall sing the Martyrology, the ancient proclamation of the coming Birth of Christ. It situates in time and place the birth of him whom tonight we call Emmanuel, “Jesus Christ, God and Man.”

Even if we have had very little time for spiritual preparation until now, it is worth trying to find a few minutes today to reflect on Israel’s longing for a Messiah and how wonderfully God fulfilled that longing in Christ. More than that, let us reflect on how God has acted in our own lives. The Fathers used to say of the Blessed Virgin Mary that she conceived God in her heart before she conceived him in her flesh. So too with us: Christmas begins inside before we can celebrate outside.

(Texts, recordings and suggested scripture readings may be found on the Advent page of our web site.)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

O Rex Gentium

We live in a world where kings rarely figure, except as costly buffoons or relics of some barbaric past. Even in Britain, where we have a Queen who has served with dignity and steadfastness for many years, kingship is not a subject to conjure with. Yet today we address the Saviour we are awaiting as King of the Nations. We invite him into our lives as absolute sole Lord, one for whom we long. Again we are faced with a paradox: we desire this apparent annihilation of our freedom which leads to true freedom.

If that were not enough, we pray for the coming of the Corner-stone who will unite both Jew and gentile and redeem this creature of clay. Stone and clay are so different. You would think that clay, being malleable, would do a better job of uniting disparate elements than stone; but the corner-stone is a brilliant piece of architectural engineering which gives strength and stability to a structure which brick (baked clay) cannot achieve. (Sometimes it pays to think  the obvious.)

Where does that leave us, with Christmas just around the corner and ourselves perhaps a little weary with all the preparations? I think it leaves us contemplating our own fragility, certainly, but also the miracle of grace which is our salvation. It reminds us, too, that no matter how much the Christmas story is sentimentalised or trivialised, the birth of Christ is an event that has changed the world for ever. God has become man and we can never be the same again:

I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail