O Oriens

One doesn’t have to be an astronomer to be fascinated by the sky. This morning, for the first time since 1638, a full lunar eclipse will coincide with the Winter Solstice and tonight, as the shortest day of the year moves into deep darkness, we shall be singing of the Morning Star, splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice. The paradoxes fly so thick and fast it would take a Chesterton to do them anything like justice.

What is this Light that we Christians are so excited about it? Why does it matter to us? We identify the Light with our Saviour, Jesus Christ, readily enough; but it is disconcerting to discover how many of us are not quite convinced that we actually need saving. We prefer not to examine our faith too often, lest it be found weak and wanting, so we hide it even from ourselves. What we hide from sight is usually something of which we are ashamed; and shame is one of the most crippling of all emotions. It is  a kind of inner darkness, and the darkness within is the most terrible of all. That is why we pray so ardently that the coming of Christ will illumine the most hidden recesses of our being. Christ comes to us as Light and Life, if we will allow him. The question is, will we?

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O Clavis David

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.

(It is a monastic tradition to give a chapter-talk today on the theme of the Annunciation. Ours is still awaiting approval for listing by iTunes but in the meantime you can listen to it on the Podcast page of the monastery web site. Unfortunately, it requires a Flash player so will not always work on the mobile version of the web site — it depends on the device you use to access it.)

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O Radix Jesse

Tonight’s O antiphon is traditionally intoned by the gardener of the community, probably because the word radix or root suggests working with the soil. Even a window-box gardener can identify with the idea of tilling the earth and watching the amazing transformation of tiny, apparently lifeless seeds into mighty plants.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, when the world around us covered is in snow and the prospect of spring and warmth far distant, the idea of growth is not uppermost in our minds. Yet the astonishing fact is that the earth brings forth our Saviour. He is born of human stock, one like us in all things but sin. He before whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek is sprung from the line of Jesse.

In the middle ages Jesse was often portrayed, as on the screen behind the high altar of Christchurch Priory, dreaming of the child who was to be born from his stock. Dreams are important in scripture, but no dream of Jesse is recorded. Instead we have the reality, Jesus Christ, true Man and true God, Saviour of us all.

(Note: you can listen to the O antiphon being sung and read some suggestions for further reading on the Advent page of the monastery web site.)

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O Adonai

Today’s O antiphon addresses God as both Lord and Leader. It emphasizes both the transcendence of God and his nearness to us, something many of us have difficulty getting our heads round. The holiness of God instills a strange kind of fear, perhaps awe would be a better word, a sense of the absolute “otherness” of God before whom we can only tremble. Yet this transcendent God is intimately bound up in every aspect of our lives: he is truly not a God far off, but near at hand. We call upon him to free us with outstretched arm from everything that holds us back from knowing and loving him, from being the people we are meant to be. Again, you can find texts and a recording of the antiphon here on the monastery web site.

Apart from liturgy, what else has been going on in the monastery? This was the week our laser printer died mid-print, and because of the  kind of work we do a replacement was essential. One duly arrived within 24 hours but it weighs 30Kg, so you can imagine the huffing and puffing as two nuns carried it up two flights of stairs. Now, if anyone wants a brand new, unopened, heavy-duty cycle original toner cartridge for a Xerox N2125, which cost about £180, please make us an offer.

The mobile version of our web site is now in live testingand can be viewed using an iPhone, iPad or Android device. We still have some Flash elements to eliminate, but you can view the mobile site here (link opens in new window). If we’ve done our coding right, from Monday onwards our web site will detect what you are using and direct you to either the desktop or mobile version as appropriate without your having to do anything. Nifty, eh? Please note that the search box in the sidebar will not be operative until Monday.

Finally, please could I ask for an end to the emails and so on regarding the Ordinariate? I, for one, am tiring of being told what the community here should think or believe. Some (not all!) of the communications have been rude or ill-informed or both, and though we are trying to respond courteously we think we might spend our time more profitably. I hope you understand.

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O Sapientia

O Sapientia

Tonight at Vespers we shall begin the wonderful series of Magnificat antiphons known as the Great O Antiphons. You can read more about them and listen to them being sung on the Advent page of our web site, here.

We begin the series with an invocation of Wisdom, which proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, fills the whole universe and holds all things in being. We ask this divine Wisdom, so strong and yet so gentle, to come and show us the way of prudence, the way of divine truthfulness. It is a dangerous prayer to make, because it may be answered with a disturbing literalness. Once we have glimpsed the Truth, we can never be the same again. All our old falsehoods, the “little white lies” we use to protect ourselves, begin to seem unbearably shabby. We stand in need of re-creation; and that is precisely what Advent is about.

These last days of Advent are very precious. If until now you have not been able to make any time for spiritual preparation for Christmas, try to read though the O antiphons each day and the scripture texts we suggest should be read in conjunction with them. It may seem to you very little but God is gracious and immensely pleased with the small things we do for love of him.

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Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.

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The Good, the True and the Beautiful

Yesterday we had our own mini-WikiLeaks experience. I posted what I thought was a fairly measured and, I hope, charitable, comment on the news from the Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham, drawing attention to the absence, as I saw it, of any concrete provision for religious in what we know of the plans for the Ordinariate.

Within an hour of posting we were besieged. Emails, telephone calls and Twitter DMs flooded in, all offering to put us right on this detail or that, urging us to take sides, telling us “what really happened” (the accounts don’t tally), and so on and so forth. I was left wondering whether anyone had read what I actually wrote, so anxious were some of our correspondents to urge their own view.

Debate is a very good thing , and when it is conducted in the open with civility and good humour, can add greatly to understanding; but I don’t much care for attempts to apply pressure behind the scenes, nor will I tolerate attempts to blacken the reputation of others. As I said yesterday, we don’t know any of the people concerned but “they deserve our prayers and at least a suspension of judgement”. I mean that. I don’t think anyone outside the community, not in possession of the full facts, is in a position to judge either those who have gone or those who have remained. You may disagree, but we can surely agree to disagree agreeably?

If you are inclined to argue the point, please look at the title of this post again. It is there to remind others as well as myself why the community bothers to blog. The good, the true and the beautiful reflect more of God than do rivalry, contention and point-scoring. Yes, of course, we fly a few kites in our blog posts and I daresay the imp of mischievous humour will never be entirely absent, but our aim is to build up rather than knock down, to stimulate thought rather than temper. I should be very sorry if anyone were to think that the the views expressed in iBenedictines were anything other than what they are: the world seen from the cloister, sometimes a little quirkily, often imperfectly, but always, I hope, with compassion. It is not a bad ideal for a blog, is it?

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News from Walsingham

Yesterday a press release announced that Sr Wendy Renate, Sr Jane Louise and Sr Carolyne Joseph had left the (Anglican) Priory of Our Lady of Walsingham “for a period of discernment with the intention of joining the Ordinariate when established”. Except to those who know the community concerned (we don’t), the announcement probably meant little. Indeed, if you look at the comments on certain blogs, you will find the matter treated with a levity and lack of charity that gets blogging a bad name.

It is worth thinking about the story behind this announcement. Both those who have left and those who remain deserve our prayers and at least a suspension of judgement. It is not easy for anyone to abandon that which is familiar, still less that which is greatly loved and has been the subject of a vow. The first Cistercians were abused as renegades and vow-breakers because they saw fidelity to what they had professed as obliging them to move away from the monastery of their profession. Their doing so greatly enriched the Church, but it was not obvious at the time. I’m sure many of their old community felt the loss of their brethren deeply; and in a curious way, their going does seem to have had a beneficial effect on Molesmes which was shaken out its complacency into a reform of its own.

Can we hope for the same at Walsingham? I don’t know, but I admit to feeling uneasy. As far as I can see, none of the provisions announced for the Ordinariate concerns religious. If you look at the Ordinariate web site, there is a link for clergy and a mention of future details for the laity. That reflects pretty accurately the “invisibility” of religious in most people’s thinking and the fact that there are comparatively few religious in the Church of England. There is no suggestion that the three Sisters who have left are thinking of applying to join an existing Catholic community so the path ahead is far from clear.

We have discussed the Ordinariate  in community many times and it is interesting that whatever our personal background, Catholic or Anglican, we are having difficulty in seeing what the Ordinariate offers that the Church as a whole does not. So, prayers for the Sisters who have left Walsingham, prayers for the Sisters who remain; and prayers for all of us, Catholic and Anglican, who must get to grips with what the Ordinariate is meant to be.

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Gaudete Sunday Distractions

My thoughts wandered during the homily today, and I found myself wondering, yet again, what it was that gave both Jesus and his forerunner, John the Baptist, such power over people. I suspect the “correct” answer is love or compassion; but part of me can’t let go the notion that it was truth that set them apart from others and at the same time drew others to them.

Integrity, being truthful in every aspect of one’s being, is a difficult quality. We admire it but often find it impossible to live with, either in ourselves or in others. Yet without integrity, all the other qualities we find attractive can easily become much less than they should be. Love, for example, can become mere sentimentality or, even worse, a form of self-gratification (“I do like to watch myself being loving and compassionate”).

There was in both Jesus and John something uncompromising, something utterly truthful. If we can have a share in that truthfulness of theirs, we can indeed rejoice.

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The Advent Message

Romanesque Angle in Priestly Vestments
Romanesque Angel in Priestly Vestments

We are very close to mid-Advent. Tomorrow, Gaudete Sunday, the church will be a riot of rose vestments, music and incense. For some, it will be an anticipation of Christmas, for others, a mildly bewildering interruption of the “normal” sequence of events.

Advent is a mystery, rightly so since it is a preparation for the most wonderful event in human history, the birth of Christ. Mystery can only ever be hinted at, never fully explained or articulated because human language cannot express all the levels of meaning inherent in it. This beautiful romanesque sculpture from Hungary, however, seems to me to convey much of what Advent is about.

The Christmas story begins with an angel and a young Jewish girl’s acceptance of her vocation to be the Mother of God. It ends, if it can be said to end at all, with Christ the Eternal High Priest interceding for us before the Throne of Grace. In between these two we have, here and now, the sacrifice of the Mass which we pray “your angel  (i.e. Christ) may take to your altar in heaven.”

An angel wearing priestly garments and holding in his hand the sign of Christ’s triumphant death: here, surely, is the message of Advent. We are preparing for something, or rather someone, that goes far beyond our human imagining, that unites heaven and earth and gives us, even now, an eternal hope.

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