Today, just before 3.00 p.m., we shall go into the oratory and either prostrate or kneel before the altar for a minute or two before celebrating the Solemn Liturgy. That silence, that abandonment of our usual posture, expresses what could never be put into words: the utter transcendence of God and our complete reliance upon him. Today, of all days, that is brought home to us by our reverting to a primitive form of liturgy made up of long readings from scripture and prayers in which we pray for all the world’s needs. For us, there will be no Communion of the Presanctified. With the death of Christ on the cross we enter a world devoid of sacraments, a time of waiting, of radical emptiness.
And then? More emptiness. There is only the soft soughing of the wind as it passes over Calvary to remind us of the epic duel between good and evil we have witnessed, the unadorned cross in the oratory and a lassitude of spirit that goes beyond the ordinary. We are numb with shock and horror, yet even at this moment, we know that this is not the end of the story. As day passes into night, a great change is being worked but we are as yet unaware of it and its consequences. For us, there is only the waiting, and the emptiness.
Last year, I was drawn to write about the mothers of Jesus and Judas and their experience of the crucifixion. It may be worth re-visiting. If so, please click the link below (opens in new tab). There is an audio version at the end.
Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.
The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.
Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.
Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.
It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.
*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.
Many call today ‘Spy Wednesday’, the day when Judas finally betrayed Jesus and went in search of those who wanted him dead. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26.14-25 ) is a familiar narrative, but I wonder whether it is not a little too simple, too inclined to portray Judas as the arch-traitor beyond redemption. We know that despite the deal made earlier with the Chief Priests, there was still time for a change of heart, for a renewal of the old love and friendship between Judas and his Lord. But it didn’t happen, not then, at any rate, and we are left pondering the dynamic of what did occur. How we interpret that says as much about us as it does about Judas.
For generations, Christians have taken delight in placing Judas firmly in hell. We have off-loaded onto him all the betrayals and broken trust that has afflicted the world throughout the ages, and we feel safe doing so because what could be more villainous than to betray our Saviour for a paltry 30 pieces of silver? It is vicarious justification for actions that would otherwise seem harsh and unforgiving. But notice the image that stands at the head of this post. It is a lost toy, a sad little bear. It wasn’t chosen arbitrarily.
To me the photo is a reminder that Jesus and Judas were friends, and Jesus never stopped loving him. What might that mean? There is an innocence, a playfulness, about friendship we often forget when we think of Jesus and the disciples. Judas, himself possibly a Zealot, may have been disappointed in Jesus’ failure to become the political leader he hoped for, but was Jesus disappointed in Judas? Did Judas’s company bring him joy right up to the end and that painful parting of ways? Was Judas a friend still, lost in some ways, but always close to his heart? In other words, is it possible that we see the relationship between Jesus and Judas in ways that fit our own narrative rather than what truly occurred between them?
We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but those words of Jesus, ‘Better for that man if he had never been born!’, suggest to me not the prospect of eternal punishment but of eternal anguish. If true, Jesus did not approve of what Judas had done but forgave him and grieved at the suffering that lay before him. That is an important point, because it leaves open the question whether Judas is condemned to hell for all eternity in the way we tend to assume. In any case, we must remember it is Judas’s despair of God’s mercy, not his betrayal, that has always been considered the greater sin. We can see why. Such despair is to doubt the very nature of God, his love, mercy and forgiveness.
That thought should make us uncomfortable. The way we see Judas says a great deal about how we ourselves see God and the trust (or lack of it) that we have in his love and forgiveness. God does not approve of sin, anyone’s sin. He does not endorse the wrong we do or pretend it doesn’t matter, but he does forgive — utterly. It is we who hold others (and sometimes ourselves) to account, we who say ‘I cannot forgive X or Y’ as though it were a virtue in us; and we habitually assume God is of the same mind. Perhaps today we might spend a few moments thinking about that. Jesus on the cross suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. How dare we be less merciful than he? How dare we make ourselves, or anyone else, to be lost? We are not discarded toys. We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes, and his desire is that we should be with him for all eternity.
Today, as we eavesdrop on the dialogue about betrayal between Jesus and Peter (cf John 13) we are confronted with a bleak truth. We all know the pain of being betrayed, but we are less likely to ackowledge the pain of betraying others. Yet that is exactly what we do, all the time! The tragedy is that we do not always recognize the ways in which we let others down, or we impersonalise them so that they remain ‘other’ and never take on an individual, human face. The UK’s reduction in its aid budget, from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP, is not just a scaling down by one of the world’s most generous givers, it is also a betrayal of those who were relying on it to fund healthcare and education projects, for example. Then there are the more obviously personal betrayals: the broken promises, the cheating on relationships, the selfish choice we make.
As we go deeper into Holy Week, it would be good to take stock. Instead of worrying about how others have hurt us, perhaps we could spend a few moments thinking how we have hurt others, asking forgiveness if we can, but at any rate resolving not to fall into old patterns of behaviour. It can be helpful to look at what drives us to betray others. It may be money, the need to appear successful, even laziness. For each of us it will be different, but discovering our own weakness may enable us to understand better the betrayals of Judas and Peter, and the loneliness Christ experienced as a result.
Yesterday we wreathed our processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his ultimate victory over sin and death. Today starts more soberly, with the alabaster jar of nard Mary poured over the feet of Jesus to prepare him for his burial.
None of the disciples demurred at yesterday’s marks of rejoicing. They cost nothing as far as they were concerned, and they may even have felt some reflected glory. It would have been better if their leader had entered the city in a more obviously dignified way, but the applause of the crowd was sweet to their ears. Jesus was, however briefly, undeniably a class act, a celebrity. Today’s more private anointing among friends at Bethany was another matter and Judas, diligent steward that he was, pointed out that a better use might have been made of the money spent: ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’
Poor Judas, he was always getting things wrong. Of course the poor matter; of course we must share with them; but there is also room for that jar of nard, and for the love of which it is a sign. Mary has understood what Judas has not. Her reckless, extravagant act is a response to the love Jesus has shown. It has no other purpose than to delight the Lord — a moment of humanity and care at a bleak and dangerous time. Holy Week will take us into some dark places, will confront us with betrayal and disbelief, torture and death, but we cannot accompany the Lord in his Passion if we do not also accompany him with our love and prayer. Just as that broken jar of nard filled the house at Bethany with its scent, so our prayer should fill the whole world with its fragrance. We too may need to be broken, poured out, pay a great price, but we know an even greater price has been paid for us. ‘To ransom a slave, you gave away a Son.’ (from the Easter Exsultet) There is no greater love than that, and it is that love which draws us today.
Once again we are faced with a moment of choice. Are we going to follow the Man on the donkey, or stand among the onlookers? Are we going to take to heart his message or merely allow ourselves to be entertained by the unusual spectacle? The confusion on the disciples’ faces and the incomprehension on those of the bystanders mirror our own mixed feelings. This is not what we expected. Only the Man and his donkey go serenely on their way, certain of their purpose.
Modern Britain is not so very different from the Roman Palestine of two thousand years ago, and this morning Roman Palestine and modern Britain are one. The liturgy is not just an act of historical recall; it is an act of participation. We are there, on those busy streets, among the crowd that has gathered to witness this strange sight. More than that, we are sharers in this drama.
Do we understand what we are seeing or how to measure its significance? We don’t always see clearly, and the last twelve months have been so difficult for everyone, it is hard to recognize what is being asked of us this morning. Yet we feel the heightening tension, experience the hint of menace, and know that we must make a decision, without being able to reckon the consequences.
We must make the journey to Jerusalem with Christ, there to suffer and to die with him, that we may rise again on Easter night. We may drag our footsteps, or we may be like Giotto’s donkey, and gladly allow ourselves to take the Lord wherever he wishes to go. In the end, it does not matter. What does matter is that we go with Christ, that we are with him every step of the way, no matter how brutal or horrifying this week becomes. For Catholics celebrating Palm Sunday in Makassar, Indonesia, the brutality and horror are real enough. Let us pray with and for them as Holy Week 2021 is already stained with blood.
Today will be a day of hustle and bustle throughout the land as we prepare to celebrate Holy Week — with slightly fewer restraints than last year, but still with a number of restrictions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued detailed guidance on what may or may not be done, and what it recommends should be done. You can read it here, and I would urge you to do so if you can (it includes the revised intercession IXb for Good Friday). It is a reminder that the liturgy is not a private possession, as it were. Whether we celebrate as one among thousands or on our own, we do so as part of the Church. Having the mind of the Church, acting in accordance with her precepts, her tradition, is not an arbitrary matter. It doesn’t mean we can’t innovate or adapt, but it does mean that we do so in accordance with the principles she gives us.
Domesticating the Liturgy
Tonight our Jewish friends will celebrate the first night of Pesach or Passover. More than any other group, I think Jews understand the domesticating of the liturgy. Martin Buber often spoke of the dinner table as an altar — something many Christians have forgotten with today’s trend towards fast food, takeaways and the Netflix supper eaten in front of a screen. I suggest we need to re-think that. For many Christians this year, home will be where Holy Week and Easter are principally celebrated, and we need to find ways of doing so with dignity and recollection. Here in the monastery we have always had a substantial domestic liturgy accompanying every day of Holy Week but especially the Paschal Triduum. We revert to an older, simpler form of prayer, much of it chanted monotone save for the achingly beautiful Christus factus est and so on. We read the Last Discourse before Compline and huge quantities of scripture and psalmody at other times. It is a demanding week, as it is for everyone, but because our domestic liturgy takes place in the monastery, in our home, it blurs the distinction between public and private, and because what we do strives to be always consistent with the Church’s tradition, it illumines the public liturgy in a way nothing else could.
As you prepare for Holy Week, may I suggest you give some thought to how you can ‘domesticate’ the liturgy without making things complicated or burdensome or adding loads of devotional elements that will merely tire you out? For example, I’ve mentioned reading the Last Discourse from the gospel of St John; or perhaps you could pray Psalm 118 (119) over the course of the week. As it ducts and weaves around the theme of the Law, it reminds us of the New Covenant made in Christ. And if you find you can’t do any of these things, if for you Holy Week is just getting through as best you can, do not berate yourself. Holy Week, like redemption itself, is his gift to us. Receive it gladly.
We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.
I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.
Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.
Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!
A transferred solemnity always feels a little odd, and the fact that the popular Universalis app fails to mention St Benedict at all has led to one or two people questioning whether we have got our dates muddled here at Howton Grove. No, we haven’t, this really is the day when we celebrate the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, which was displaced by the fifth Sunday of Lent yesterday. It is a day of solemn joy in the monastery. St Benedict was keen on Lent, but he was also keen on joy. The whole of his Rule can be said to be woven around the theme of Easter, for which Lent is preparation and joy the outcome; so today we rejoice, for what was, what is, and what is yet to come.
That said, I have been thinking about what I would call classical monasticism, living in community under a rule and superior, with both the scope and limitations that a fixed place and circumstances allow. It has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Monks and nuns who follow this older way are sometimes treated with a curious kind of disregard, as though the way we live is archaic, no longer valid. Is the only kind of monasticism worth talking about a newer kind, not necessarily bound by vows, often dispersed or specifically rejecting some aspect of the Rule (e.g. lifelong single chastity, renunciation of private ownership) in favour of a more individualistic approach? I think it is time that we who have done our best to persevere in the more classical form speak up, especially the nuns, and encourage one another.
Why do I think that important? There is the obvious reason, that without the handing on of the monastic tradition in its classical form, there is always the risk of its being lost or submerged under the partisan vision of some charismatic founder-figure who cherry-picks what he/she likes/dislikes, to the detriment of the whole. The roots of the word monasticism provide the essential clue. Monks and nuns live alone with God. Prayer and observance are our métier, day in, day out. Our buildings may not be as beautiful, our habits as romantic, as those who choose for themselves, but it is our very renunciation of choice, of self, that is crucial.
Nuns play an especially important role here because we are not clergy and are not usually asked to serve in ways some of our male brethren are. We can live the classical form of monasticism in a purer, less distracted way than many of them can. Of course, where women in the Church are concerned, there is another danger. Despite some useful provisions, Cor Orans has demonstrated the danger of assuming that contemplative is interchangeable with monastic.For Benedictines, the rules about numbers and governance reflect a completely different religious tradition from that with which we are familiar, and it has caused some communities much needless heartache and expense. Even among our friends, who belong to Orders strictly so called, there has been some raising of eyebrows at what is expected or imposed. Women are not inferior men, incapable of making decisions about how to lead their lives.
However, my chief reason for saying that I think classical monasticism needs encouragement is because, as far as I can see, it continues to promote holiness — which is what monasticism is about. It doesn’t matter if a community is old or poor, not making a very good job of livestreaming or whatever the fashion of the day may be, not attracting new recruits or whatever, if it is producing holiness in its members, if it is leading others to holiness, then I’d say it is doing all right. Instead of dismissing such communities, I think we should encourage them — and encourage those who are thinking about how best to serve God to take another look. I like to think St Benedict would agree. He saw the whole world caught up in a beam of light. Isn’t that what monks and nuns should be: light for the world?
Spring may have only just begun, and tomorrow we shall celebrate the transferred Solemnity of St Benedict (his Transitus, or birthday into heaven), but there is still a chill about today having nothing to do with temperature or mood. If we have not been serious about Lent before, we are now. Holy Week is on the horizon, and the liturgy is insistent in its call to conversion, suffering and death.
Bleak? In one way, yes. Most of us find the prospect of suffering and death easier to contemplate in the abstract than reality. The fact that both are unavoidable and bound up with our eternal salvation is scant comfort. We know we must allow the Lord to inscribe his law on our hearts and enter into a new covenant with him. We know we must learn to obey. Most important of all, we know we must begin to turn towards the cross as sentence is passed on this world. (cf today’s Mass readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Hebrews 5. 7-9;John 12. 20-33.) But no-one is denying how hard it can be, nor the reluctance some of us may feel.
Many will say, isn’t that what we have been trying to do all our lives? Indeed, but this week before Holy Week seems to me pivotal. There is an unavoidable urgency about it. Until now, we’ve been doing our best, trying to focus on the Lord rather than how well or otherwise we are doing. It’s been a joyful and refreshing simplification of our everyday lives. In the desert of our hearts, love of the Lord has ben rekindled as the prophet Hosea promised. But now it is that distant view of Calvary which takes centre stage and we know that we must either take our stand with Christ or not stand at all. The moment of choice will soon be upon us, and we must make ourselves ready. Already the cross is calling. If we find that prospect daunting, we should remember that we do not face it alone but in union with every generation, with our Saviour himself.