The Assumption of the B.V.M.

In previous years I have written about the Catholic Church’s teaching on this subject. Rather than go over that again I thought I would spend a minute or two this morning reflecting on the position that Mary holds in the life of ordinary Catholics. For a fuller treatment, take a look at one of my earliest eBooks, Magnificat (link opens in new window).

Our essential belief about Mary is that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. Everything else flows from that. Her preservation from the stain of original sin, her assumption, body and soul, into heaven after death, her invocation as greatest of the saints: all these derive from her role as Mother of God. The Church describes the reverence we show Mary as hyperdulia, not to be confused with latria, the adoration given to God alone, or dulia, the reverence we show, or should show, one another as human beings.

What this teaching doesn’t really convey is the warmth of Catholic devotion to Mary. She is both God’s Mother and ours: someone whose prayers we ask with confidence because she knows exactly what it is like to cope with the multitudinous demands of ordinary life. She is one of us, yet shows us what it means to be truly blessed. Hence all that tacky ‘art’, those sentimental hymns, the slightly over-the-top expressions of love and devotion. They are our imperfect human way of rejoicing in the gift she has given us: Jesus Christ our Saviour. Perhaps because we are women ourselves, or perhaps because we belong to such an ancient tradition in the Church, Benedictine nuns tend not to talk much about Mary. We have no special devotions, no flamboyant gestures. We don’t need them because Mary is very close. She is, in truth, Our Lady.

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Being Special

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 60 On Priests who May Wish to Live in the Monastery, is not just for priests and monastics. It is for all who are special or think they are or are considered such by others. In short, it is really for all of us, because in a few short sentences Benedict gets to the nub of a problem that is always cropping up in society: how far does talent, wealth or any other advantage set us apart from others. His answer is, not at all. Those who have received more should give an example of humility, and that is valid whether we live in a monastery or not.

Commentators are still picking over the recent riots and advancing various theories about why they happened. Careful readers will have noticed that I made some very similar remarks about rioters and looters as I have made in the past about bankers and politicians. The sad fact is that the greed and criminality we have witnessed on our streets is really no different from the greed and criminality we have witnessed in the boardrooms of our banks or in the expenses claims of some of our politicians. If, now, there are calls for severe punishment for those who ran amok earlier this week, shouldn’t there be renewed calls for something of the same for those who have set such a bad example in the past? No one is so special that he or she is exempt from moral responsibility.

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Rag-Bag Thoughts by Ragged Nun

It has been an ‘interesting’ week, hasn’t it? Week-ends don’t happen in monasteries. In fact, we are gearing up to receive a parish group here on Saturday, and Sunday is always full; so there won’t be much time to pause and look back on the past few days. One of the distinguishing characteristics of monastic life is that we try to ‘digest’ the day’s events on the day itself rather than postpone them to some future time which may never come. Hence Benedict’s insistence that, before the day’s end, we should make peace with anyone we have had a dispute with. We reflect on the day, giving thanks for graces received, asking for enlightenment, pardon or strength. It is a time for honesty. If we are feeling ragged and running on empty, we need to acknowledge the fact because God cannot fill a closed heart or mind.

Perhaps Friday, which is the end of the working week for many people, would be a good day on which to think about the week past and bring it into one’s prayer. More than that, let’s not go home for the week-end without saying ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or even, ‘that’s O.K., it’s been difficult, hasn’t it?’ Forgiveness can transform a situation as anyone who heard Tariq Jahan this week would agree.

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Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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Edith Stein, Mob Violence and the Absence of a Moral Compass

Today is the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein. It is also a day when Britain is again in shock. The idea of mob violence, torching and looting in some of our major cities is hard to get one’s head round. Life in Britain is meant to be predictable and ‘safe’. The police are armed only in exceptional circumstances. We respect people; we respect property; we form orderly queues; we don’t think the death penalty has any part to play in civilized society. But our civilized society isn’t proving very civilized at present.

For an older generation, there are echoes of the 1930s. The Nazis rose to power because they had a ‘solution’ to the apparent disintegration of German society after the First World War. Violence, as we all know, was part of that ‘solution’. It meant the death of St Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rose, and millions of others besides. No doubt, following the riots in London and elsewhere, there will be calls for ‘crackdowns’, appeals to ‘bring back flogging’ and other variations on the theme. Extremist parties will win votes because people are afraid, while others will speak of the rioters as ‘deprived’ and ‘frustrated’. Very few will have the courage to address the real problem, that of growing up without a moral compass, without a set of values that recognizes the need to observe the laws and customs by which society operates.

What we are seeing in our streets is not a protest movement, nor is it the result of poverty (to say so is to insult the poor). It is sheer criminality: violence and greed running unchecked. It is indefensible. Today our prayers are for all who have suffered as a result of the riots, which includes the rioters themselves. They are prayers for peace and the restoration of order; but let us not forget to ask the prayers of St Teresa Benedicta to preserve us from  the destruction of the tolerance and mutual concern which underlie a civilized society. She understands better than most where the violence could lead.

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Love of Truth

The Dominican motto, ‘Veritas’, has always attracted me. If I weren’t a Benedictine, I would want to be a Dominican and I suspect many others would, too. St Dominic, whose feast we keep today, was influenced by the Benedictines, and I think the whole Church has been influenced by St Dominic and his sons and daughters. With the benefit of hindsight, we may not always agree with the way in which truth was sought or what was done to preserve its conclusions, but with the ideal itself we cannot quibble. Truth matters.

Love of truth in all its forms must surely lead to love of Truth himself. That is why there is no human endeavour that is not capable of leading us to God. It is also why integrity matters so much. We cannot be truthful in speech and untruthful in deed. Careless or substandard work is as much a distortion of truth as telling a lie.

Sometimes we become downcast when we realise that we can do very little for God or other people. Love can seem a bit of an abstraction, particularly if we are confined to the circle of self because of age, poverty or serious illness. But whatever our circumstances, we can live truthfully. We can reflect the truth and beauty of God just by being. That is not little. That is true greatness.

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Rioting in Tottenham

It was a shock to awake to scenes of violence in London. Somehow, the sight of Tottenham out of control delivered a wound to the psyche. We are not accustomed to seeing such naked anger and wanton destruction here in England. We are aware, in the usual cerebral way of those who dwell in the Shires, that the police are not universally trusted or, sadly, trustworthy; that drug crime is intimately connected with gang violence; that racial tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface of our national life; but seeing the night sky lit up with flames and young men throwing petrol bombs and looting shops brings home the reality of the riot in Tottenham.

Over the next few days, the causes of that riot will be picked over. Those caught up in the violence will give their account of what happened; those who were injured or who lost property will begin to count the cost as the official investigations get under way. There will be accusations and counter-accusations. A great deal of money will be spent; a great deal of tidying up will be done. But what is likely to be the net result? Would it be cynical to say, insurance premiums will go up, property prices will go down and confrontation will become more common?

Tottenham is home to many churches and Christian organizations. I expect that the priests and pastors will be doing their bit to try to bring calm to a volatile situation. We too must do our bit and pray for peace on the streets of London. More than that, we must be peace-makers wherever we are, for we cannot pray for others to become what we ourselves have no desire to be. We too must renounce every form of violence.

 

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The Transfiguration

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch, © Stanbrook Abbey

The Transfiguration is one of the most luminous of feasts. Whatever happened at Tabor, whether at night as many suppose, or during the day, something of Jesus’ glory as God was revealed to Peter, James and John. No wonder the Cluniacs made this feast peculiarly their own: it breathes a very Benedictine sense of the divine glory being in everyone and everything.

That is very far from pantheism or a lovely warm fuzzy glow about the essential niceness of everything. It is instead a call to action, to a way of being. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of being human as well as Jesus’ glory as Son of God. When we really take that on board, we cannot go on acting as we once did, using (and possibly abusing) others for our own ends. We cannot be rude or impatient or scornful. Or rather, we can, but if we are any of those things, it is a sign that we have not yet allowed the grace of God full scope in our lives.

Earlier this week I was involved in a series of emails with people who claimed to be Christian but were the reverse of courteous. The correspondence demonstrated something I have often remarked upon: unless we treat our online communications as seriously as our offline communications and observe the same standards of truthfulness and courtesy, those of us who claim to be Christian are doing a tremendous disservice to our Faith. The internet/email/social media are as much a sacred space as any other. Here, too, we must allow the glory of God to shine through, for the Transfiguration is here and now as well as in eternity.

A note on the illustration
The illustration comes from a reprinting of the card D. Werburg Welch designed for the Abbé Couturier’s movement for Christian Unity before World War II. It was originally issued in several languages with a prayer he had composed. When I was printer at Stanbrook, it was reissued both on handmade paper and in a commercial edition.

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Financial Meltdown

Fears about the U.S. economy and European debt are fuelling fears of another financial meltdown. The major banks are in a less healthy position than they were a couple of years ago, and once the August holiday season is over, we can probably expect more equity sell-offs. Even gold prices have fallen, which is contrary to the trend we have seen in recent months. What does this mean for the Churches? I don’t know, but less income and increased need in society for the kind of services the Churches offer the poor and  struggling are a piquant mix.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not just for Lent. They are a way of preparing for difficult tasks at any time of year. Perhaps we all need to think about our response to the challenge of the times we live in and prepare ourselves for what may be to come. The certainties of yesteryear are gone forever. We must learn to live by the mercy of God.

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