Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.

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St Michael and All Angels 2018

St Michael's victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein, Coventry Cathedral
Jacob Epstein’s representation of St Michael, Coventry Cathedral
Whenever a human being encounters an angel, the first words spoken by the angel are always ‘Fear not!’ or some such phrase. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful, and the role they play in the economy of salvation is awful, too.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. The Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

We are given several helps. Scripture and the sacraments are the first that spring to mind, but there is also our fellowship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church. Too often we forget that we do not face evil alone. We have the saints and our ‘even Christians’ to do battle with us. We also have the angels themselves. The old prayer to St Michael is sometimes smiled at by those who dismiss the idea of evil as ‘quaint’ or the product of an over-heated imagination. I would suggest such persons look at the remains of an aborted child or the body of a victim of chemical warfare or of a woman raped and brutalised and then dare to say, ‘There is no evil.’ Meanwhile, I trust the rest of us will be praying:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. 

For a Benedictine, of course, angels are everywhere and are constantly linking us with heaven. Their role is primarily one of surveillance, which can be unsettling at times, but Benedict does not dwell on the negative aspects of that. He ends his discussion of the first step of humility, which we read today, with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with an important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins — murder, adultery and so on — we tell ourselves; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Our first step in humility, then, is to become aware of God and to make the angels our friends, that they may help us keep to the strait way that leads to life and eternal happiness. May St Michael and All Angels pray for us and all who seek their protection. Amen.

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For Maundy Thursday 2018

Sometimes words flow as easily as tears; sometimes there are no words, only a painful numbness in the face of suffering and fear. I have already written many times about different aspects of Maundy Thursday and its liturgy, so today I give you instead an image to think about and pray before. It is Nicholas Mynheer’s Angel of the Agony which occupies a place of honour in our chapel. It takes us to the heart of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane, plunges us into the depths of his loneliness and near-despair, and reassures us that, when we least expect it, God’s help is at hand. (Please note: the painting is copyright; reproduction prohibited.)

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved.
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A Liturgical Puzzle

Yesterday, while having chemotherapy, I said my Office using the iPad version of Universalis. Usually, we say our own monastic Office rather than the Roman, so I was very struck by the responsory for the second reading at Vigils/the Office of Readings (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses). Here is the text, first in English as given by Universalis, then in Latin as given by the 1977 editio typica of the Liturgia Horarium iuxta Ritum Romanum. The words that interest me are highlighted in bold.

The angel Gabriel was sent to announce the word to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, and she began to fear the light. ‘Mary, do not be afraid you have won the Lord’s favour:* You are to conceive and bear a son: he shall be called Son of the Most High.’
‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David: he will rule over the house of Jacob for ever. You are to conceive and bear a son: he shall be called Son of the Most High.’

Missus est Gabriel angelus ad Mariam Virginem desponsatam Ioseph, nuntians ei verbum; et expavescit Virgo de lumine. Ne timeas, Maria, invenisti gratiam apud Dominum. Ecce concipies et paries, et vocabitur Altissimi Filius.
Dabit ei Dominus Deus sedem David, patris eius, et regnabit in domo Iacob in aeternum.

The scriptural references are to Luke 1, verses 26, 27, 30, 31 and 32. It is well known that antiphons and responsories often paraphrase the words of scripture or rely on older texts than those we normally use. My first thought, therefore, was that this ‘fearing the light’ might come from an Old Latin (i/e pre-Vulgate) version of Luke, but preliminary searches online have yielded nothing. Then it was suggested that the line might just be an addition based on the usual Old Testament reaction to the presence of an angel, fear. That is entirely plausible, for the responsory goes on to tell Mary not to fear. If that is the correct explanation, it is what we might call a psychological addition to the text. I know that some learned reader will p0int me in the direction of the true explanation and source of the words, but let’s stay with them a while and see what they offer us.

Angels are not chubby little cherubs. They are messengers of God, robed in fire and flame, truly terrifying to those of impure sight and mind. Mary’s reaction to the angel is not merely alarm, its is dread (expavescere is a strong form of pavescere, which would be the more usual form to be translated as ‘begin to fear‘). We know that there was nothing impure about her, and Luke’s narrative of the Annunciation is constructed in such a way that we are impressed by Mary’s calmness and humble acceptance of her strange and wonderful destiny. Do these words, so quickly said and equally quickly forgotten, remind us of something we all need to ponder this Advent season? From time to time, God has a way of shining light on the secret places of our hearts. Unless we are unusually receptive, our first reaction tends to be to shy away or plead some excuse or mitigating circumstance. Deep down we know it is all pretence: we must choose either to stand in the light or hide from it. Only daring to stand in the light of God’s truth will prepare us for the gifts he wants to give us. All of us can learn from that young Jewish girl he chose to be his Mother — and ours.

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St Michael and the Presence of Evil

Purgatory by Carracci

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of us prefer to dismiss unpleasant subjects from our minds. If we can find a specious reason for doing so, so much the better. Evil? An outmoded concept, surely? One which our clever theologians can wrap round with weasel words until we deny not only its existence but the very possibility of its existence. Then we look at the broken body of a child from Aleppo and are forced to admit: this is evil, not an abstraction we can dismiss as a figment of an over-heated imagination or simplistic reasoning. There is something more terrible here than blasphemy: a deliberate rejection of God, delight in destruction, a darkness of mind and soul so absolute that no chink of light can penetrate it.

The Catholic Church has never wavered in her understanding of evil; and in her advocacy of the the old prayer to St Michael, whose feastday this is, has expressed both her awareness of the presence of evil and her reliance on heavenly help to combat it:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Most of us can see the evil in Aleppo, but are we quite so alert to the evil in, say, Sam Allardyce’s defence of his own conduct, when he claims to be a victim of entrapment rather than a man prepared to break rules and denigrate others for the sake of money? Greed can be evil; fudging the rules can be evil; treating others with contempt can be evil; but we tend to make excuses for ourselves. It is a white lie we are telling, an understandable little human frailty that doesn’t matter very much. I’m not so sure. Every time we choose to be less than honest, less than straightforward, I think we are colluding in some degree with the crookedness of evil; and it changes us. Today it would be useful to spend a few moments thinking about some of the habits we may have fallen into and the way in which they blunt our sensitivity to good and evil. It can be a salutary shock to realise that, without being what others call wicked, we may have drifted into a state that is far from being what it ought to be. Let us ask the prayers of St Michael and All Angels to help us see what we must change and grant us the courage to do so.

Note on the illustration
St Michael rescuing souls from Purgatory — a reminder that God is more interested in saving us from evil than in condemning us.

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Watchfulness and Humility

St Benedict ends his discussion of the first step of humility with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with a very important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels. We usually think of St Michael as our great defender against evil, God’s champion; and so he is. But the role Benedict assigns the angels in today’s portion of the Rule is one of surveillance. They are constantly reporting on us to God, a kind of heavenly GCHQ. It is an uncomfortable image, and I think it is meant to unsettle us. Good and evil, wisdom and folly, life and death: these choices confront us every day in the detail of our lives. Only at the end will we see the whole pattern, but God sees the pattern now and he waits, tenderly, patiently, as only a loving parent can, hoping that we will amend. Our first step in humility is to become aware of God and it is only possible because he is so keenly aware of us.

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Spiritual Warfare for Christians

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

There is a spiritual warfare that requires not a drop of blood to be shed, not a single angry word to be said, not one unkind thought to be thought. To put it in contemporary terms, you could say Lent is the Christian Jihad, when we oppose everything in our own lives that is hostile to God. The qualification is important. For the next few weeks we are principally concerned with following Jesus into the desert, allowing the searing light of truth into the hidden parts of our being, making us face up to the reality of who and what we are. We know it will be uncomfortable, but we were never promised a life of comfort when we became his disciples.

St Benedict tells his readers that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, and there are many places in the Rule where he refers to fighting for the true King, Christ our Lord, the fraterna acies or battleline of the community and the spiritual combat of the desert in which solitaries engage. But he never presents this spiritual warfare as something dour or grim. On the contrary, it is immensely joyful — because it brings us closer to Christ. His chapter on Lent, RB 49, is one of the most lyrical in the Rule and reminds us that we are looking forward to Easter ‘with joy and spiritual longing’, that everything we do, even the restrictions we place on ourselves, the things we ‘give up’ for Lent, is done ‘freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. In this, I think he is echoing the joy Jesus found in the desert, when he spent those precious forty days exploring the depth of his relationship with the Father. Yes, he was tested; yes, the temptation was real and urgent; but he was driven out into the desert by the Spirit — the Greek verb used is very strong, almost catapulted — and he was accompanied by angels, messengers of God. In other words, he was alone with the Alone.

For us, as disciples, our moments of being alone with the Alone can be very few and far between. In Lent we try to make more time for prayer, reduce the number of distractions (fasting) and seek to serve God in others (almsgiving). We know that we can sometimes be very self-regarding in all three, whereas what we intend is to forget ourselves. That really is the secret both of spiritual warfare such as I have described, and the joy that accompanies it. We need to stand aside, as it were, and let Christ be all in all — and that is so hard for us difficult, argumentative beings, who like to be in control all the time and find it virtually impossible to let go! The illustration at the top of this blog post may help change our perspective a little. It shows Christ carrying the Cross: the logical conclusion, if you like, of his forty days in the desert. The battle with Satan that began there reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ wins the victory for all time.

Christ has shed his blood for us, once and for all; so no more need be shed. He has borne every insult and angry word that has ever been uttered; so no more need be said. He has experienced all the contradictions of being human and transformed them so that now we can live the life of grace. Yes, Christ has triumphed and we live now with a vast opportunity before us. This Sunday is a good day for asking ourselves what we truly desire: God or something less, joy or endless sorrow?

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014

Here in the monastery the Fourth Sunday of Advent is celebrated quietly and plainly: no decorations, no carols, nothing that anticipates Christmas save that Preface II of Advent clearly looks forward to the coming feast:

. . . all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

I’m not sure that ‘John the Baptist sang of his coming’ really makes the same point as ‘John the Baptist was his herald’, but we’ll let that pass. I am more interested in the gospel, Luke 1. 26–38, the same as we had yesterday, but how differently it reads in this context. Yesterday it was all about signs, Ahaz testing God by his refusal to ask for a sign, our looking to the future. Today it is about the fulfilment of God’s promises and our response, what Paul calls the ‘mystery kept secret for endless ages, but now so clear that it must be broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of faith’ (Romans 16. 26). At the heart of today’s liturgy is that moment of unequalled obedient faith, when Mary said ‘yes’ to what God asked, without qualification or reserve.

We can stop there, pondering Mary’s speaking the word that would enable the Word to take flesh among us, but for most of us it is more helpful to reflect on how the gospel ends. ‘And the angel left her.’ That rings true, doesn’t it? We come down from the mountain-top and find the world apparently unchanged; and what is more, we no longer have the ‘buzz’, the excitement or exhilaration that accompanied our unstinted gift of self. We find, as generations have before us, that the ‘yes’ said neat in prayer must be worked out amidst the ordinariness of everyday life. It was exactly the same for Mary. After her meeting with the angel she had to face all the difficulties of her situation seemingly alone. Even Joseph, whom we see now as her great support, hesitated to believe her.

Perhaps what we can take away from the liturgy today is the realisation that we become more, not less, human when we encounter God. Nothing changes, yet everything is transformed. We do not become supermen or superwomen, any more than Mary did; but we do become holier, in our case just a little more like God. But that little increase in likeness is all it takes to live the Good News, which is what we are called to do. Let us ask Our Lady to pray for us.

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Are Guardian Angels Redundant?

Last year’s post on this subject prompted some interesting comments, but also embarrassed some readers. How can intelligent, educated people believe in ‘guardian angels’ — or in angels at all, come to that?

To take the latter point first. I have no difficulty believing in angels, though I suspect my belief about who and what they are is a little less simple (both senses) than many suppose. Spiritual beings whose dwelling is, metaphorically speaking, fire and flame, who see the face of God and proclaim his holiness, are not to be trifled with. They inspire awe and a godly fear. They are, as the bible says, messengers of God; and when God speaks, his message is apt to cause consternation because our own ideas are too little, too shallow. Mary, alone of all our race, heard the message of an angel and embraced what was asked in all its fullness. The rest of us hedge our responses round with qualifications, doubts and sometimes retractions.

That such mighty spirits should take an interest in each of us as individuals is breath-taking; but the thought that they are appointed to their task by God himself is more breath-taking still. St Benedict’s writes of angels in his Rule with the familiarity of one who prays and thinks much, who lives in a world where sign and symbol have not lost their efficacy and the spiritual and the physical are seamlessly interwoven. I think we are often embarrassed by such notions because we feel the need to protect ourselves against an avowedly spiritual vision. We have substituted something we call science for God and are unhappy at the idea that there is anything we cannot explain or rationalise even though we are, every minute, confronted by the inexplicable (and if you don’t believe me, just think about the unpredictability of your partner’s/friend’s mood at times).

It is an old Catholic custom to pray to our Guardian Angel every morning and ask him/her to be at our side; to watch and wait, to rule and guide. Childish? I think myself it would be petulant to refuse to ask the help of such a powerful being who is on God’s side rather than the world’s or the devil’s. Guardian angels will never be redundant until the human capacity for sin and foolishness is at an end.

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Kieran Conry, St Michael and ‘Acceptable Evil’

The resignation of Bishop Kieran Conry and its impact on the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton is being picked over by the media. There are those who delight in the idea of sexual shananigans involving a bishop — a Catholic bishop at that! — and are whooping with glee at the prospect of salacious ‘revelations’ in the press and online. There are others who are taking the opportunity to have a pot-shot at everything they regard as liberal and wrong in the Church, with dark mutterings about who knew what and when. Others again are calling for a change in the Church’s celibacy rules and expressing support for Bishop Kieran as he faces not only private humiliation but public shame over his actions. Some, probably the majority, simply feel sad, sensing both the personal tragedy and the tragedy for the diocese.  Inevitably, there is a feeling of betrayal. When clergy in particular are found to have deceived others, people naturally ask whether anyone actually believes what they profess to believe. Is it all moonshine as far as they are concerned? What few within the Church seem to have grasped, however, is that for many people in Britain today, it is all a typhoon in a teacup. For them, the  Church’s teaching is out of step with modern sexual mores. Kieran Conry did no more and no less than lots of other men in this country. End of story (almost).

I think we need to be clear about three things. First, by his own admission, Bishop Kieran seems to have been guilty of fornication, if not adultery; and this breaking of his promise of celibacy and the Church’s rules about sexual behaviour was something that went on for years. Whatever society thinks about it, the Church’s understanding of such behaviour is that it is wrong, sinful. There is no such thing as ‘acceptable evil’. Second, his actions have hurt others as well as himself — the women involved, their families, the priests and people of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton and the wider Church. There will be a price to pay, and it will be far from painless. Third, and just as important, God’s grace is open to us all. We are not called to judge the state of Bishop Keieran’s soul and certainly ought not to revile him. Who among us has a conscience so spotless we can condemn another? We must forgive whatever there is to forgive, pray for his conversion (and remember, confession of wrong is a first step in that direction) and continue to try to live godly lives ourselves as well as we can. That is where St Michael the Archangel, whose feast we keep today, comes in. He is the great protector saint whose aid we invoke against evil in all its most seductive forms.

Those who think of angels as charming little putti, running riot over Baroque altarpieces and ceilings, have clearly never stopped to consider the terrifying aspect of angels in the Bible. They are mighty spirits, messengers of God, with Michael the chief of them. The old Catholic prayer asking his intercession is not ‘quaint’ or ‘outmoded’ any more than evil itself is quaint or outmoded. Evil is deceptive and leads even the best of us astray. The sad story of Bishop Kieran is a reminder to us all that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ I think there are good reasons for making the prayer our own and praying it whenever we face situations that place us in moral, physical, or spiritual danger — remembering always that pride, the idea that we can cope without help, is one of the biggest sins of all.

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

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