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.

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Looking Both Ways: 2019

Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.
Agiosoritissa Icon, Mother of God, Anonymous, 7th century. Fair Use.

Today is the first day of January, a month which, like the old pagan god Janus, looks two ways, back into the past and forwards into the future. It marks the beginning of the secular year, one more in that vast chain of being that binds us to all who have gone before and all who will come after. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, herself the hinge between the Old and New Covenants; and finally, it is the Octave Day of Christmas, a day that symbolizes both completion and a new beginning. So many glittering paradoxes, so many ideas to try to understand! Perhaps we could think about just one.

The Incarnation marks the intersection of time and eternity, the point at which the Creator enters his creation in a unique way, but it is dependent upon the consent and co-operation of a single human being, Mary. That fact alone should give us pause. It is a rewriting of the Magnificat, as the humility of God meets the greatness of Mary’s response and we are saved. Today is a day for gratitude, for rejoicing, and for renewed hope. We cannot change the past; the future is unknown; but we are given the present in which to ‘do now what may profit us for all eternity’, as St Benedict says.

May 2019 be filled with the blessings of peace, joy and unity for all.

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Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception 2018

There are times when we need to be still and simply rejoice in the wonder and beauty of God. Today is one of those times. As it is Saturday, and Christmas is little more than a fortnight away, I suspect many will greet that remark with hollow laughter, but it is still true. We can cudgel our brains to understand the theology of this feast — Mary’s sinlessness, which did not exempt her from the need to be redeemed, Augustine’s theology of original sin and all the logical and frankly illogical consequences of that — but ultimately we are left on our knees, marvelling at God’s grace and its perfect fulfilment in that young Jewish girl whom we dare to call Mother of God. May she pray for us all, but especially today for the overburdened and the tired.

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Pro Orantibus: World Day of Cloistered Life

Since 1953, when Pius XII first instituted this day under the title Pro Orantibus, Catholics have been encouraged to give thanks to God for ‘those who pray’ and give spiritual and material support to monks, nuns and hermits who live what is called the cloistered life, i.e. whose main work is prayer rather than other forms of service such as teaching or nursing. For Benedictines, however, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady has additional resonances. For example, in the English Benedictine Congregation it is celebrated as the Dies Memorabilis, the day when the pre-Reformation Congregation’s privileges were conferred on its post-Reformation successor. For me, personally, its is the anniversary of my Clothing, of my formal entrance into monastic life.

Having said that, I wonder what impact, if any, this day makes on the average church-goer? Some have registered the enormous shake-up for cloistered nuns that Cor Orans represents. Others will be at pains to show their love and support for the communities with which they have a personal connection. But for the vast majority, I suspect, the day will pass by without any special awareness or acknowledgement. Perhaps that is in itself a clue to the origins of the malaise that many have identified in the Church. Put very simply, and I hope non-polemically, if we do not pray, everything goes wrong. It is tempting to lay the blame for abuse and all the other wrongs we identify in the Church on this group or that, on individual or organisational failures and infidelity to the Church’s teaching, etc, etc. I am by no means suggesting that we spiritualize away responsibility, but I think there is something fundamental we ALL need to remember. We are called to holiness. No matter how wonderful our good works, no matter how virtuous our conduct, we can do nothing without God’s grace. It is being close to him that makes us holy, and we cannot be close if we do not pray.

So, today is not just a reminder to be thankful for the cloistered life. It is a day to be aware of the importance of prayer in the life of every one of us; and if we have become a little careless or perfunctory in our prayer, to resolve to do better — to become like Mary ‘full of grace’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Visitation of the B.V.M. 2018

Mary & Elizabeth
Detail of fresco from Saint-Martin, Nohant-Vicq, France, c. 1135–40

I’m not blogging today as I shall be mostly at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, D.V., but if you are looking for something on today’s feast, you may find these two ‘oldies’ of use:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/05/31/the-kindness-of-kin-and-the-friendship-of-women/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2016/05/31/the-feast-of-the-visitation-2016/

May Our Lady intercede for us all. Amen.

Note on the Illustration

The Visitation: Elizabeth Greets Mary, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=42422 [retrieved May 30, 2018].

The Annunciation is very often accompanied by a second image of Christ’s conception: the Visitation. This can be depicted with Mary and Elizabeth embracing or with the two women speaking to each other, and Grabar has shown that the Visitation was the Christian equivalent of the parental embrace which was a standard image of conception in the pre-Christian royal biographical cycles. The Annunciation and Visitation were, then, originally ‘two parallel images of the same theme of conception, the second being added — in conformity with common iconographic tradition — to show the first witness to Christ’s conception.’ (Clayton, 144)Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A New Feast: Mary, Mother of the Church

Today, for the first time, the Church celebrates the obligatory memoria of Mary, Mother of the Church. The reason given for instituting this new feast is stated in the  decree of 11 February, 2018:

Having attentively considered how greatly the promotion of this devotion might encourage the growth of the maternal sense of the Church in the pastors, religious and faithful, as well as a growth of genuine Marian piety, Pope Francis has decreed that the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be inscribed in the Roman Calendar on the Monday after Pentecost and be now celebrated every year.

The title is not a new one. Indeed, when in 1964 Pope Paul VI formally declared Mary ‘Mother of the Church’ at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council, he had a range of patristic usages to draw on, including, importantly, St Ambrose. But today’s feast does introduce a new element into the liturgy and therefore into the Church’s understanding of herself.

As yet, we have no definitively approved propers for use on this day (always the best clue as to how a feast is to be understood) so perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on what the decree says of it. The pope wishes to encourage ‘the growth of the maternal sense of the Church’. Some of us are old enough to remember when everyone spoke of the Church as ‘she’. The phrase ‘Mother Church’ tended to be used almost exclusively by those who wished to ‘correct’ another: it was rather a top-down kind of phrase, which may be why it has tended to fall into disuse. That leaves us pondering what is meant by ‘the maternal sense of the Church’ and how it fits the lives and experience of ordinary people. For some, alas, it will lead to hoots of derision: their experience of the Church is of an unnatural mother at best. For others, there will be the slightly uncomfortable feeling that all this talk is of idealised maternity and reflects a very masculine and priestly preoccupation with perfect womanhood. For the majority, however, I would hope that it offers a way of understanding the Church less as a source of endless regulations and restrictions and more as a source of warmth, nourishment and encouragement.

Our Lady’s presence with the other disciples at Pentecost, her strength in standing by the Cross, the long years of coping with all that family life in first-century Palestine demanded of her, these are not trifles and they grant us an insight into the nature of the Church that is indeed precious. We talk a little too glibly about authority in the service of others to realise that sometimes people have no choices, no ability to decide either for themselves or others. ‘Authority’ is not the only model for the Church and her structures. When Mary said her uncompromising fiat at the Annunciation, she was accepting God into her life in a way no other person has ever done; and that, surely, is the perfect model for the Church — to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ completely, utterly; to be filled with the Spirit; to spend oneself in the service of God and others. That is very far from the saccharine tradition of some Marian devotion and very far from some interpretations of what the Church is. May all of us learn from Mary what it means to be members of the Church!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Wind and Flame: Pentecost 2018

Pentecost
Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey, Used by permission.

Of all the images of the Holy Spirit, the one I like best is that of wind, breath, pneuma, ruach. We see its effects, we feel it, but we do not see the wind itself. With every breath we take, we draw it into ourselves; with every word we speak, we exhale it again. For those of us in the Western tradition, that connection between Word and Spirit is already a given, but how rarely do we take in its full implications! And fire, how often do we think about that? From the cosy crackling of logs in winter to the amazing spurts of flame and blazing lava-flows we see in Hawaii, fire and flame are still part of our world, still a challenge to our ideas of safety and control.

D. Werburg Welch’s chapter-house painting of the descent of the Holy Spirit has always fascinated me. Mary, the Mother of God, is wrapped in a flame-coloured garment and sits, as the hesychast sits, among the other disciples and is filled again with the indwelling Spirit. The rushing wind cannot be depicted, but we know it is there; and we know it will transform these anxious, frightened people. It will catapult Peter and the others out into the streets to proclaim the mirabilia Dei. It will transform the world. This morning may that same Spirit transform us, too.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Beginnings and Endings: the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)

The Prsentation by Nicholas Mynheer
The Presentation by Nicholas Mynheer. Oil and gold leaf on handmade paper. Image copyright.

Today’s feast is one that looks two ways: back to Christmastide and forward to the Passion. I think that must be why it was chosen as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, because monks, nuns, friars, Religious Brothers and Sisters and so on are all marked with the grace and glory of the Incarnation in baptism but must, by virtue of their vows, follow also the often dark path that leads to Christ’s Passion and Death. We share in the privilege and the pain, but the focus must always be on Christ. That is why the Presentation of the Lord is such an important celebration, and the candles we hold in our hands are a reminder of both what we are and what we hope to become.

Today’s feast is always one of great gladness and rejoicing because it marks the point at which Jesus is taken up into the Temple and begins his mission. I think we could also say it is a great feast of the Church qua Church. For we do not think only of the joy of Mary and Joseph as their infant son is offered to the Lord. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Compline we sing into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirm our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, drearest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.

Yesterday, we received a beautiful gift from a friend and oblate of the community. The circumstances surrounding the gift, and the giver himself, make it very special. Nicholas Mynheer’s depiction of the Presentation is quite small, 20 cm by 20 cm, but it glows with great intensity (the illustration does not do it justice). It lights up the room in which it hanges. This morning as I was praying before it, it struck me that this wonderful feast of light and joy is itself a great gift to the Church. It allows us a little glimpse of eternity, a warm and supremely accessible vision of what the Church is and the importance of every individual within her, young or old. Today, please pray for the donor of the painting, for the maker of it and for the whole Church, especially those who think themselves ‘small and of no account’. It is what we are in the Lord’s eyes that counts, and to him we are worth much.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

New Year 2018

The Virgin Mary (statue)

Today is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the Octave Day of Christmas and the first day of the secular New Year. One year passes into another; the Incarnation marks the passage of the Creator into his creation, the intersection of eternity and time; and Mary stands as a hinge between the Old and New Covenants, making possible the fulfilment of the one and ushering in the promise of the other in the person of her Son, Jesus Christ. We look back, and we look forward, like the old pagan god Janus, after whom this month is named.

Inevitably, as we reflect on both past and future, there is often a strange disquiet, an underlying guilt about wasted opportunities in the past and a vague anxiety about what is to come in the future There is, however, no point in trying to live in the past or the future: all we have is now, which is why the present moment is so important. It is now that our salvation is being worked out; now that we meet God. Today is therefore a day of great hope, no matter how we feel or don’t feel. Its possibilities are, quite literally, infinite. The prayer of the community for our readers is one with that of the liturgy:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail