The solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, is the oldest Marian feast in the Western calendar. The fact that it now coincides with the Octave Day of Christmas and New Year’s Day is suggestive. You will find I have written about it quite often in this blog. This morning, however, the community merely wishes to ask a blessing on the year ahead and on all our readers, supporters and benefactors. May the new life brought to us at Christmas be yours in abundance.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.
With today’s antiphon we move from the general to the particular, from the plural to the singular. We can hide the truth no longer. It is we as individuals who plead for salvation, we who are sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, locked up in prisons we have created for ourselves or to which we have been condemned by others. Then there are the prisons in which we incarcerate other people with our harsh judgements and refusal to forgive. They too contain souls Christ came to save, but that thought can make us uneasy. Salvation for us, yes; but for them? All at once we begin to see that we have been guilty (ever so slightly and quite unintentionally) of usurping the place of God, deciding who is or is not worthy of salvation. It can be a shock to realise that God may see things differently, may be much more generous and merciful than we would like him to be in respect of those others; and because we desire mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, we are forced to think anew.
Sometimes world events have the effect of concentrating our minds. As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into a new phase and leads governments throughout the world to impose ever more severe restrictions, the reality of the darkness we face strikes home. At its best, that awareness can lead to greater neighbourliness and a desire to ease the burden for others, but it can also lead to greater selfishness, so that the darkness becomes blacker still, the prison a dungeon. This morning, I think we face a stark choice. Will we allow the Key of David to free us or not?
The image of the key is a compelling one. To be locked up, even for a short time, with no means of escape other than that provided by the keyholder is an unnerving experience. (I was once forgotten by the archivist at Santiago de Compostela and spent several hours locked up in the muniment room while he went off for a leisurely lunch and siesta. To be locked up for life, how dreadful that must be!) In such circumstances, we soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is, how dependent we are on others. But we have a way of turning this round and pleading our lack of freedom as an excuse for all the shortcomings we see in our lives. We blame our genes or circumstances over which we have no control for everything we regard as wrong or unsatisfactory. In effect, we construct the prisons we rail against out of fear or disappointment rather than anything more substantive. Only grace enables us to see that the prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.
Darkness cannot be permitted to have the last word. It is no accident that on the day we sing O Clavis David we also read the gospel of the Annunciation and hear again how a young Jewish girl, a daughter of David’s royal line, consented to be the Mother of God and in so doing set us free from all that had bound us hitherto. Jesus is the Key but Mary’s flesh provides the lock and wards, so to say, that enable the key to work. Her faith, her generosity affect us all. St Bernard pictures the whole world on its knees before Mary, begging her to give the word that would give us the Word. It was a moment of unequalled faith. Had she refused, had she chosen to stay with the familiar, safe and predictable, our lives would have been very different. Her courage is a reminder that we co-operate with grace; we are never forced. We are led from prison, we are given freedom. How we use it is up to us.
As scripture to ponder, I suggest in addition to today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 22.22; Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.
Christmas trees have never really interested me. As a child, I remember our house being decorated with boughs of greenery, holly for the most part, with a small, artificial tree in an obscure corner, remarkable only for its exquisite glass ornaments. At Stanbrook I groaned when, as refectorian, it fell to me to decorate the huge tree in the refectory and even here, where the tree is much smaller, I have always maintained that once I have put the lights up my task is done. A few days ago, however, thanks to a Facebook friend, I had to re-think my ideas.
The connection between a Christmas tree and the Burning Bush is not immediately obvious, but once one begins considering the idea, it becomes more and more entrancing. The fresh greenery, illuminated with points of light, the gracious bending under the weight of a stylized fruitfulness, there is more here to meditate on than meets the eye. It can indeed be an image of the Burning Bush and hence of Mary and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Coptic Orthodox Christians do not celebrate Advent in quite the same way we in the West do, but they do have a series of special hymns sung at Vigils that includes one referring to the Burning Bush and the likeness between it and the Virgin Mary. It is a theme we find frequently in the Fathers. Liturgically, in the West the connection is made explicit in the third Vesper antiphon for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on 1 January, but otherwise less is made of it than in the Coptic tradition.
One of the Coptic hymns soars to great heights in an attempt to show how Mary carried within her the humanity and divinity of Christ:
The burning bush seen by Moses
the prophet in the wilderness
the fire inside it was aflame
but never consumed or injured it.
The same with the Theotokos
Mary carried the fire of Divinity
nine months in her holy body
without blemishing her virginity.
Hymn of the Burning Bush, Coptic Orthodox Church Kiahk Psalmody
I am beginning to think that, when we put up our Christmas tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we should accompany the act with a prayer, a blessing. The tree, the lights, the baubles are not as insignificant as I once thought them. They are a sacramental which, in their own way, can lead us deeper into the mystery at the heart of our celebration: that God loved the world so much that he sent his own Son, in the likeness of human flesh — flesh taken from Mary, whose consent to be the Mother of God made possible our salvation.
It would be nice to report that I had awoken this morning thinking, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I am ready to ‘run with an inexpressible sweetness of love along the way of God’s commandments.’ (RB Prol. 49) The truth, alas, is less uplifting. I spent yesterday nursing a sick headache while filling in endless government forms, tossed and turned all night, and am now contemplating the day ahead with muted enthusiasm. Situation excellent! If I can’t run, it is time to do the coenobitic crawl.
Most of us have a tendency to have unreal expectations of ourselves. That little bit of D.I.Y. will only take an hour we think, and five hours later, there is still work to be done and we are discouraged and weary. Or we set ourselves a programme of reading and prayer that is completely unsustainable. As a junior nun, I decided I ought to read the whole of Aquinas. I did, eventually, but it took me years rather than months and there were a few syllogisms I think I read with glazed eyes and scant attention.
In a few days we shall begin Advent, our hopes high, our aims generous. Many of us will try to take on too much and end up exhausted and disappointed. But it is we who will be disappointed, not God, who loves a generous giver and would prefer us to be prudent as well as filled with holy ambition. How blessed we are to have this feast to remind us that growth doesn’t come all at once! Our Lady was dedicated to God’s service from the first moment of her conception but she had to learn, as we all do, what that meant. She had to crawl before she could walk, both literally and spiritually. What I dub the coenobitic crawl is merely the monastic version of something common to Christians in every age. There are days when we seem to sprint along; others, when we seem, if anything, to be going backwards. It doesn’t matter. God sees and loves us as we are. His encouragement will sustain us even when we can’t find any in ourselves. So will the prayers of Mary, if we ask her.
The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows comes the day after that of the Exaltation of the Cross. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it concentrates on the Crucifixion and Mary’s sharing in the suffering of her Son. The gospel reading is John 19. 25–27, in which the Beloved Disciple is entrusted to Mary, and Mary to him. For generations the liturgy of the day has provided comfort to those who mourn and reassurance to those who feel helpless in the face of suffering and death. We have in Mary a loving mother who understands, who has experienced what we experience.
I do not dispute any of that. Indeed, I have sometimes tried to express what Our Lady means to me and ended up thinking how clumsy and inadequate my words were and taken refuge in the poetry or visual images of others. This morning, however, I was prompted to think about the limitations imposed by seeing Mary only as a sorrowful mother and how that affects our understanding of the Church and women in general.
Many of the heroes of Christianity — the saints — are seen though a single lens. We focus on Peter as the blundering ‘first pope’ and forget he was also a husband and almost certainly a father, too, that he had a life that was not all liturgy and councils. No doubt Mrs Peter had quite a lot to say to him about what he should be doing at home, no matter how important his role in the nascent Church. I rather like the idea that unbeknown to us, descendants of St Peter probably still walk this earth. I also like the idea that the lyrical Mary of the Magnificat is one and the same as the grieving Mary of the Stabat Mater. That is to say, the joy and sorrow of her life are entwined. She is one and the same person. It is her glory to be the Mother of God, but she is also the strong-minded Jewish woman who took the lead when Jesus went missing in the temple and did not scruple to call him to account at the wedding-feast in Cana.
One of the problems the Church has to face is that she still tends to see women solely as mothers. I bridle when told that Mary is the model for female contemplatives and that contemplatives should express the maternal dimension of the Church (cf Cor Orans). Quite apart from the fact that this ignores the long tradition of female monastics (which is how we would define ourselves), there is only one model for any Christian of any sex and that is Christ. Mary is an inspiration, but not our model. Moreover, I do sometimes wonder what conception of maternity some of those who most delight in exalting it actually have, not excluding Pope Francis who says many nice things about mothers my own mother and I daresay many other mothers would have pooh-poohed with alacrity. At the risk of inviting shrieks of outrage from many who find great depth and comfort in the notion of spiritual motherhood, may I say that I think it is a difficult concept that causes as many problems as it solves. Apart from anything else, it locks women into a one-dimensional role as nurturers and carers. We should all be nurturers and carers, whether male or female, but there are other roles to be performed, as St Paul reminds us in today’s first Mass reading (1 Corinthians 12.12-14, 27-31), and surely women have a contribution to make there as well.
So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us needing to reflect more deeply on the role of Mary in the Church and possibly working hard to free ourselves from an unreal and sentimental piety that blinds us to her true stature as Mother of God, the mulier fortis, the woman of grace blessed above all others, at whose feet I gladly lay my love and prayers for a broken and unhappy world.
This post is not going to be what some may have assumed from its title. I am using ‘awful’ in the way many now use ‘awesome’, meaning awe-inspiring. Earnestness, too, is a word we need to take a fresh look at. For too long it has been associated with the kind of seriousness we rightly call deadly, yet it is nothing of the sort. Earnestness springs from inner conviction and is shot through with sincerity. For me, what I have called the awful earnestness of women is something both sexes can admire and seek to emulate because it is a quality we see in Our Lady: resilience, purposefulness and determination in the service of God.
Why do I think women exhibit this quality so clearly? Partly, I think, because the opportunities open to women are still fewer than those open to men in much of the world. Therefore, intensity often has to take the place of breadth. For women in the West, personally unfamiliar with the constraints experienced by women living in other parts of the world, the idea of being held back by anything more than prejudice may seem preposterous. But for those whose educational and other opportunities are more limited, life is more like Jane Austen’s little bit of ivory, something to be worked over with delicacy and attention to detail. In the spiritual sphere, if I may call it that, the same is true. The scope allowed to women in the Catholic Church is still restricted if we think in terms of activity and decision-making, but if we think in terms of prayer and holiness, not at all, and surely that is what matters, whether we be male or female. Our business, our mission, is to become holy and by so doing lead others to holiness.
Resilience, purposefulness and determination are all necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be, but they are not dour qualities. We do not become holy by gritting our teeth. Again, I think we may take our tone from Mary. Every evening at Vespers we sing the Magnificat, that lyrical outpouring of trust and praise from the whole Church. It is the perfect, joyful expression of the awful earnestness of women — and men, too.
My favourite image of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is fire, cleansing fire. At a time when COVID-19 and a lack of leadership in many countries have contributed to a sense of being adrift in a stew of corruption and fear, the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping in like a storm-wind, scattering the darkness with flashes of fire and lightning, cleansing the world of sin and negativity and putting fresh heart into us all is immensely attractive. But it must be the Spirit’s doing, not that of some self-appointed messiah who thinks they have the right to order the world according to their own notions. That raises important questions about discernment and co-operation with grace — in other words, how we work out what God is asking, and how we follow his lead.
I think D. Werburg’s painting provides a clue. Whom do you see, and what are they doing? We see some of the apostles, certainly, but also Our Lady and Mary Magdalene, a reminder that the Church is not confined to a single group but embraces all humankind. The figures are shown at prayer and the Spirit has come upon them, but notice how the symbol of the Spirit, little golden flickers of flame, is painted against their haloes. To me, that suggests that the Spirit works through the ordinary and everyday as much as through the dramatic and unusual. Indeed, the action of the Holy Spirit may be almost imperceptible at first, but think how it changed the early Church! There is more. D. Werburg was a great admirer of the Desert Fathers. When she painted Our Lady robed in a flame-coloured garment, I wonder whether she had in mind the story told of Abba Joseph
Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?
We, too, can become fire, but our fire must be ablaze with God not self. Only if it is can we hope that others will take fire also and the renewal of the world be accomplished.
No audio today: breathing not very good.
This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.
Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning.
On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.
But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.
But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.
Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?
I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.
Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener.
I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life. A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.
So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.
When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.
My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.
*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.
P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!
I sometimes think we should re-name today’s lovely solemnity of the Annunciation the Feast of God’s Humility. For it was when the angel Gabriel came to ask Mary’s consent to be the Mother of God that what one might call the expected order of things was upset for ever. The Creator asked the consent of his creature, without which he would not proceed. In St Bernard’s vivid homily for this day he pictures the whole of creation hanging on Mary’s word. Will she speak the word that gives the Word who sets us free? Thankfully, she does; and from that moment, Christ is among us, never to leave us again.
The earliest depictions of the Annunciation in Western art are rather like the one above. They show the angel standing before Mary, and Mary responding with a suitably severe expression that reflects the magnitude of what is being asked of her. Over time, the posture of both changes. Gabriel kneels; Mary is surprised reading or engaged in some household task. The commonplace, the ordinary, becomes the locus of God’s revelation as it is for most of us today. But that revelation changes us, as it changed Mary. Every night at Vespers, the Evening Prayer of the Church, we sing the Magnificat. We tell of the wonderful works God has done for the poor and lowly, his fidelity and our own gladness of heart. When Mary said her fiat, the Church existed nowhere but in her womb. Now, thanks to her, the Church is everywhere, but God still asks the consent of his creatures. He asks us to co-operate with him. God is still humble. Are we?
For those who are interested, there are several other posts on the Annunciation in this blog. Please use the search box in the sidebar.
Yesterday was the World Day of Prayer, originally known as the Women’s World Day of Prayer because of its beginnings in 1887 with Mary Ellen Fairchild James’s call for a day of prayer by women for the home missions. It soon grew beyond its U.S. and Free Church base and now embraces more than 170 countries and Christians of all traditions (and sexes) with its emphasis on ecumenism and reconciliation. At its heart, however, remains prayer inspired by, and led by, women. On Sunday secular society celebrates International Women’s Day. It, too, began in the U.S.A. when the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York in 1909. In 1910, at the International Socialist Woman’s Conference, Clara Zetkin, a German, proposed that 8 March be honoured as a day in memory of working women, their aspirations and rights.
Over the years both events have attracted derision from some, support from others, but only those most deeply committed will know what it has cost to stand up to the mainstream and proclaim that women and girls are not mere adjuncts to society but intrinsic parts of it. For a Benedictine, the two days have a resonance with the monastic emphasis on work and prayer. To pray and work for justice and peace is not an additional extra but an essential element in what it means to be Christian. One does not have to look very far to see how unwelcome that can be. It upsets the cosy order of things. Whether the wrong to be addressed is a patronising attitude towards women in the Church, the failure to allow girls equal access to education in some countries or disregard for the inhuman working conditions imposed upon women in others, it takes courage to identify and challenge the situation.
I mentioned three types of valour, though, didn’t I? Today is also the memoria of SS Perpetua and Felicitas whose passion (account of their martyrdom) is one of the most thrilling documents to have come down to us from the early days of the Church. You can read it online here. Perpetua was just twenty-two, well-educated, with a young child; Felicitas was her servant, several months’ pregnant. Together they faced hideous cruelty but refused to give up their faith. The text that has come down to us is complex, with many layers of reference and meaning, but I think it demonstrates that women’s roles cannot be confined to those dictated by others. To put it another way, the Holy Spirit guides women as well as men, and women are loved by God as much as men are.
I hope readers will think about that last sentence a little because one of the things I realised recently in corresponding with a Catholic priest was that he had a difficulty. On the one hand, he truly loves Our Lady and sees in her a holiness that is unique; on the other, he is extremely uncomfortable with women generally, seeing them as intellectually and morally inferior. I wondered about that, but I think it may be because, deep down, he thinks that only men count, and if only men count, it is because God loves them more than He does women. I may be wrong, but that thought has enabled me not to bristle at some of the things Fr X has said which otherwise might have set my wimple into a spin.
Where I think Fr X and I would agree is that Our Lady is the bravest of all the women I have mentioned in this post. To accept the role of Mother of God, to be theotokos, goes beyond our human comprehension and takes us into the realm of the Spirit. None of us knows how much the faithful fulfilment of her role cost her, but I suspect most parents will have an inkling. That is why yesterday, today and tomorrow we ask her intercession, not just for the Church, not just for women and girls, but for the whole world, for everyone in need — but it may take a fourth kind of valour to do that, the kind given by humility and the knowledge that we, like her, are the anawim, the poor of God.