Notre Dame de Paris in Flames

The Tuesday of Holy Week dawns grim and grey. One of the most celebrated buildings of western Christendom has been gutted by fire. Anyone with a feeling for history, for beauty, for cultural significance must feel sadness at the loss of so much that has formed a backdrop to our lives. The cathedral has always been there. The role it has played in the life of the people of France and of Europe as a whole is incalculable. Inevitably, the media are busy capturing sound-bites from eye-witnesses and politicians, and it is good to see and hear acknowledgement of the courage of the firefighters and those who did their best to ensure that more was not lost; but we in England, at least, have heard nothing from those who are most deeply affected — the canons and parishioners who worship day by day at its altars, for whom the cathedral is a spiritual home rather than a glorious monument. Is it stretching things too far to say that something analogous can happen with Holy Week?

It is easy to make Holy Week a time of sharp contrasts, to spill a Caravaggio-like spotlight on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and the anguished dialogue between Peter and his Lord that follows, for example, in today’s gospel (John 13.21–33, 36–38). Easy, but perhaps not quite right. Holy Week concentrates our attention on the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection; but we remember those events liturgically every day at Mass. What we bring to Holy Week is really the result of our fidelity and reflection at other times. Holy Week intensifies our experience, so to say, but it is not a substitute for the rest of the liturgical year.

The poignant images of Notre Dame de Paris in flames will not quickly be forgotten, even as the work of rebuilding begins. In the same way, we do not forget the betrayals and brutality of Holy Week during the rest of the year but use them as a spur to greater devotion to the central mysteries of our Faith and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Establishing True Justice on Earth

This is the crazy week that returns true sanity to a world gone mad, when God gives his Son to redeem a slave and we dare to sing of the ‘happy fault’ of Adam’s sin. It is the time when true justice is re-established on earth. As we read Isaiah 42. 1–7 (today’s first Mass reading) we are reminded that we are not passive observers of the events of Holy Week: we are participants. The re-establishment of true justice is primarily the work of Christ’s redeeming passion, death and resurrection, of course, but we must also do our part. We too are called to serve the cause of right, to open the eyes of the blind, set prisoners free and lighten the darkness of those bound in dungeons of their own or others’ making. The question for us therefore is, what constitutes true justice and how do we contribute to its achievement?

The answers we give will tend to vary but an important element in all of them will be the restoration of right order to a world that often seems mixed up and out of tune with itself. Some of us will naturally incline to a more active approach to solving or at least alleviating obvious wrongs, belonging to advocacy groups or campaigning on behalf of individuals or a perceived good, such as famine relief or pro-life issues. Others, especially those for whom such active involvement is impossible, may take heart from today’s gospel, John 12.1–11. There we find an act much more powerful than may at first appear. The pouring out of that jar of nard over the feet of Jesus was pure extravagance — a mark of reckless love, of infinite tenderness we remember today, long after the charities distributed by the apostles have been forgotten. I think there is something there for each of us to learn about true justice and the restoration of right order. Love, and love alone, is the key.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Palm Sunday 2019

Christ's entry into Jerusalem: 1304-06
Fresco
Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem: 1304-06 by Giotto
Fresco in the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua

Throughout Holy Week we must decide where we stand: with Christ, or against him. On Palm Sunday the choice is critical. Are we ready to follow Jesus in his triumphal procession, knowing that the hosannas we sing today will soon turn into cries of ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ or do we want to play safe, keep all our options open or use any of the weasel words we employ to mask our cowardice and indecision? Even those of us among the crowd of onlookers must make our choice: are we for him, or against him?

There is a third choice, though it is not an obvious one. We can be the donkey that carries the Lord into Jersusalem, the Christ-bearer. We became Christ-bearers when we were baptized but we often ignore or undervalue what that means. To carry Christ, to take him where he wills to go, is no mean task, no mean feat. It is the glory of the disciple to do exactly that. This morning perhaps we could all reflect on what it means to be the Lord’s donkey, not just today but every day of our lives.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

As Holy Week Draws Near

Tonight, when we sing First Vespers of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins but my guess is that most Christians will already be thinking about Holy Week and many will be actively preparing their churches and choirs for all that is to come. It is a very human tendency to want to live either in the past or in the future and avoid the present altogether, but the truth is, the present is all we ever have. So, today, on the eve of Palm Sunday, I think we are invited to take stock of where we are now. Whatever our plans for Holy Week and Easter, the Lord has a way of subtly re-writing them. We may be faced with something unwelcome or simply unexpected, but in the midst of it all we must find peace. Today’s first Mass reading, from Ezekiel 37, sets the tone: the Lord will make an eternal covenant of peace with us; he will be our God; but we must do our part, too. We must allow ourselves to be cleansed of our sin and defilement.

We tend to think in terms of our seeking forgiveness, of our making amends, of our being determined to ‘avoid the occasions of sin’ as the old prayer has it. How rarely do we appreciate that being freed from sin is something we must consent to, that in every case God takes the initiative? As I wrote a few days ago, putting the emphasis on our own activity leads to unproductive feelings of guilt and failure. What we must cling to more than ever is the grace of God. We must believe that he wills our salvation, he wills our freedom; and he wills it now. Therefore, we must not let our gaze be so fixed on tomorrow that we fail to see what today offers. During Holy Week we shall mark hour by hour the journey of our Saviour to the Cross and Resurrection but today we are with him in Ephraim, a town bordering on the desert (cf John 11. 45-56). We are hidden with him, and we trust that God is powerfully at work. We do not see; we walk by faith — and that is the best preparation any of us can make as Holy Week draws near.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Drifting from the Shore

For the past few months life at the monastery has been distinctly challenging. About Cor Orans and its implications I’ll write at a more suitable time. It is enough to say that it continues to cause a great deal of heartache and eats into our time and resources in a way many find baffling. We’ve also had a lot of administration to deal with that has taken us well beyond our comfort zone being both unfamiliar and time-critical; and there has been the problem of my health. I have just returned from a fortnight in hospital, delighted to find that I am still alive and humbled by the generosity and kindness with which I have been treated (to say nothing of the skill and devotion of the team at the Churchill Hospital). It has made me reflect on what our Lenten journey is about. When life is pared down to the essentials and cannot be presumed upon to continue, one is forced to face what at other times one may try to hide from — and the utter transcendence of God is one of those things. But big words and big concepts can themselves be a form of evasion, so let’s think more directly about Lent.

We can take Lent too seriously. By which I mean that we think what we do is what matters: our prayers, our fasts, our almsgiving. It is all about me. But, of course, it isn’t. It is when our plans are upset and we find ourselves drifting from the shore into unexpected currents that we begin to learn what it is really about. Forget that pledge to say 150 psalms standing in the sea as the Celtic monks did — a smile at someone who is being tiresome may actually be harder but I guarantee it will bring its own reward. If the Lent book lies unread and fasting fell down at the first chocolate muffin hurdle, don’t waste time feeling guilty. Try an act of kindness or generosity that you weren’t expecting but which has come your way. In other words, don’t take Lent seriously in the sense that it has to fit your programme but take it very seriously indeed in the sense that it has to fit God’s programme.

This is the time of year when we are asked to pray especially for those preparing for baptism or reception into Full Communion at Easter; for those who are to be married, ordained or make religious profession during the Easter season; those who will be confirmed at Pentecost, and so on — all joyful things. It is also a time to pray for the dying, for those who are grieving while everyone else is singing Alleluia, for all the sadness that humanity endures. The only way we can do that is to allow our prayer to become one with that of the praying Christ. During these last few days before entering on Holy Week, therefore, may I suggest that we look closely at how Jesus spent this peak period of his life on earth? There was solemnity, yes, but also light-heartedness with friends. Our Lenten journey must follow the same pattern. So, do not waste time over failures, as they may appear to us, but concentrate on the ‘now’ of Lent. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord. What is asked of us is that we listen and respond today — not as we might have yesterday or as we might do in the future, but today.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail