Beauty and Brutality: The Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday 2017

For those of us who live our lives according to the liturgical calendar, there can be both felicitous co-incidences and awkward disjunctions. The latter are more thought-provoking because they call in question many of our unexamined assumptions. Take today’s feast. I have often waxed eloquent about its beauty, as shy and lovely as the Autumn Crocus called ‘Naked Lady’ from its association with this feast. At other times, notably in this post for 2015,  I have been at pains to reflect on Mary as the archetypal mulier fortis, not at all the idealised milksop of much conventional piety. But I have not often drawn attention to the fact that we are sometimes confronted with a huge gap between what we are celebrating in choir and what everyone around us is experiencing. This morning that is especially marked. We sing of beauty but those devastated by the floods in South-East Asia or Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean know only the brutality of the disasters that have engulfed them. If we look further afield, we see more and more human suffering in the endless bloody conflicts and mass movements of people that characterize this century. How difficult it can be to go on affirming the promise of Micah 5. 1–4 or the confident assertion of Romans 8.28–30! Shall we really live secure, does God actually turn everything to our good?

I think the only honest answer to these questions is akin to that which Mary gave to the angel at the Annunciation. We do not know how, but we give our assent, we trust in the goodness of God. To those who have not tried it, that response will seem pathetically inadequate. It admits that we do not have any explanation (who could know the mind of God . . .); it acknowledges that there is no easy solution, no quick fix, no soothing balm (our wound is incurable . . . ). It simply says, God is God and as such he can be trusted; we cling to that knowledge with a wisdom wiser than we know, for it is faith and faith alone that can lead us. I love St Bernard’s image of Mary as the aqueduct that brings us the Water of Life. This morning, however, I think it is the image of Mary as a new-born child, unaware of her tremendous destiny, that both comforts and challenges me. It is not power or wealth that determines the outcome but love. There’s something in that for us all to ponder.


What is Normal?

Having begun to emerge from my usual post-chemo yukkiness, I have been asking myself, what is normal? What is the normality to which most of us, consciously or otherwise, aspire? My ‘normal’ would probably be extremely boring to anyone half my age, especially as it is increasingly couched in negative terms: not to feel sick, not to feel tired, not to be struggling to breathe. But even as I tap out those words, I realise I am missing something. I cannot spend half my life thinking that ‘normality’ is something other than what I am experiencing. I could, of course, call it ‘the new normal’, but that is a bit of sophistry. The truth is, life embraces all sorts of experiences, good and bad, welcome and unwelcome. They make us what we are, and because we can only live in the present (we remember the past, we dream of the future, but we cannot live in them) they constitute the normality, the everyday reality, of our existence.

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation or Comfort. It was a very popular devotion in the Spanish Netherlands of the seventeenth century, and it is one I have always liked. To console, to comfort, to give strength to another is the work of the Holy Spirit; but I wonder whether we often advert to the fact that it is also a work performed within us by that same Spirit. Our Lady’s life on earth was, in many ways, typical of a Palestinian Jewish woman of her time. Her ‘normal’ was just as unexciting as our own. The things we might think of as high points, the Annunciation, for example, must have been disconcerting, alarming even; but the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and gave her the strength to bear them.

Today, let us give thanks for the unexciting normality of our lives, with all their ups and downs, confident that we have Mary’s prayers and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us through.


The Feast of the Visitation 2017

One never tires of this lovely feast of the Visitation! I seem to have written about it endlessly, as the blog archive will attest. Is there anything new to say? No, but perhaps we can ask a new question —  new to me, at any rate. What dreams did Mary and Elizabeth hold for their unborn children? Were they the happy dreams of ordinary mothers in provincial Palestine, of a healthy, God-fearing son who would be faithful to the Covenant, to marriage and to the bringing up of children of their own one day? Or were they tinged with the immensity of God, with a questioning, wondering hope and fear, a not knowing? Mary, greeted by an angel and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, was to give birth to the Messiah, but even as she gave her consent did she ask herself who was this child she was to carry and what would he turn out to be? As she made the long journey to Elizabeth, did more questions arise in her heart to which she found no answers? And what of Elizabeth, conceiving in her old age, her husband struck dumb but with a strange tale to tell of an angel prohesying a singular destiny for their son, did she wonder what was to become of her child? Did both Mary and Elizabeth know, as mothers often seem to know, that neither would live an ordinary life, that their happy dreams would never be realised in the way they hoped?

When Mary and Elizabeth met, all those questions resolved themselves. Elizabeth greeted Mary as the mother of her Lord, and Mary responded with the Magnificat, that beautiful expression of trust in God. Elizabeth knew; Mary knew; and everything was changed in an instant. Even apparently bad things — suffering, loss, death — were transformed and became part of God’s saving action. Is that the secret of the Magnificat, glorifying God not just for his mirabilia but also for what he has not done, proclaiming his goodness and holiness no matter how much suffering has to be endured, no matter how many hopes are dashed? Every night at Vespers the Church sings the Magnificat into the gathering darkness, with the same faith and trust as Mary. We, too, say our unconditional yes to God’s purposes. We too glorify him, come what may. We too trust in his goodness for ever and ever. And because we trust, we are empowered to act. This beautiful feast is a reminder of our duty to serve, to be welcoming and hospitable to all in need, but we do so not with our own strength but with the power of him who exalts the lowly.

Five years ago, on this feastday, we took possesion of this house* with many hopes and dreams for the future. Inevitably, my illness has made some of them difficult to achieve. For example, we have not been able to be as hospitable as we would have liked. On the other hand, not being able to do some things in the traditional way has made us try to do things in a new way. Today we give thanks for all that has been, especially for all who have helped us and who help us still. May God bless each and every one of you.

* Honesty compells me to admit that the Bank owns quite a large part of it!


The Annunciation 2017

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

Celebrating the Solemnity of the Annunciation on the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and only a few days after Khalid Masood’s murderous Westminster attack is very poignant. We are asked to think about life when death seems to permeate the air, about motherhood when many are grieving for their sons and daughters as war, famine and disease take their toll. Is there some horrible divine irony in this, or something from which we can take comfort (i.e. strength)?

In the West, it is true, Mary is usually portrayed in terms of motherhood: expectant mother, new mother, grieving mother. It is almost as though she had no existence outside or beyond her role as a mother, yet she did. She was also a daughter, perhaps a sister, certainly a friend, a wife, and above all an ordinary Jewish woman with the hopes and dreams of an ordinary Jewish woman of her time. The invitation to become the mother of the Messiah turned many of those hopes and dreams on their head, yet Mary accepted in a moment of unequalled faith — and in so doing changed the world in a way no treaty or act of terrorism ever could.

The bright hope of the Treaty of Rome for a Europe free from war and division is fading now; the Westminster attack is yet another instance of people choosing to destroy because they hate rather than love; but Mary remains a symbol of hope and encouragement. She is a life-giver rather than a life-taker. She speaks to us of love and sacrifice, fidelity and generosity, and aren’t those things holier and more attractive than their opposites? Her Son offers us a peace surpassing human understanding, the prospect of eternal life, and a joy no one can take from us. Mary’s fiat has made these things possible for us. Let us thank her for that, and ask her prayers for a world that aches for mercy and compassion.

Illustration by D. Werburg Welch, copyright © Stanbrook Abbey. Used by permission.


O Clavis David and Our Need of Freedom 2016

Yesterday was a dark day. To the now customary tally of deaths in Syria, Yemen and sub-saharan Africa we had to make additions nearer home. The murder of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, sent shivers down the spine. Might it have the same dreadful consequences as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914? Then came news of people mown down in a Berlin Christmas market — possibly a terrorist attack, possibly an accident, but a hideous irruption of death into a scene of merry-making here in Europe. The darkness within, the interior prison we create for ourselves, can lead to dark deeds, we know, but we have a habit of positing them outside. They are something other people do, not us. We can do the same with salvation. Other people need a Saviour, not us — or at least, only in a general way. Today’s O antiphon knocks that sort of nonsense on the head. It is, so to say, close up and personal, less about ‘us’ than it is about ‘me’:

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.

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. We soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is. 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, not our uncontrolled appetites, for the fact that we are fat; we cannot do anything about it, can we? We inherited our moody disposition; too bad that you must suffer the consequences. The prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.

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 daghter 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. Darkness is scattered by the coming of light; sin will be conquered on Calvary. We have hope and know that we shall be set free — and that is the point: we shall be set free, we cannot free ourselves.

If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5


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.


Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. 2016

One of the problems with Marian feasts is that they are often misunderstood; another is that they tend to attract a lot of bad art. I cannot do anything about the bad art, but a few years ago I wrote a rather dry post summarising what the Catholic Church actually teaches about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and if your ideas about it are a bit hazy, you may find the post useful:

It is a pity that Mary has inspired so much bad art and, dare I say it, lazy theology. Once we have grasped that everything the Church believes and teaches about Mary is meant to help us focus on her Son, all makes sense. The Syrian Fathers, in particular, are lyrical in her praise, but they, too, want us to look beyond her to God himself when they call her the ‘all-inviolate spotless robe of him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate.’ Now, as it happens, earlier this year Michael Peppard published a fascinating article in The New York Times, in which he argued that a wall painting from the baptistry of Deir ez-Zor, Syria, now in the Yale University Art Gallery, might possibly be the oldest extant depiction of Our Lady. I cannot reproduce the illustration for copyright reasons, but you can read the whole article here.

We are so accustomed to images of Mary with floating drapery set against Renascence skies that we tend to forget the earthliness of earlier depictions — Mary reading as the angel arrives to ask her consent to be the Mother of God; even earlier, Mary drawing water from the well as Peppard suggests is the case at Deir ez-Zor and in many icons from the Orthodox tradition. It is when we forget what I call the earthliness of Mary that we forget or misprize her true greatness. The miracle of grace we see in her shows us what our frail and often grubby humanity can become. Today’s feast is not remote or arcane. It is an encouragement and a joy, and the fact that it occurs during Advent is a reminder that God wills that all should be saved through the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. Let us give thanks for that.


Lepanto, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (formerly, Our Lady of Victory), and Living with Islam Today

The title of this post proclaims that I am both an insider, for I write as a Catholic and erstwhile historian, and an outsider, for I also write as a Benedictine trained in an English tradition which regards the rosary as a purely private devotion and I am clearly not a Muslim. However, it is the nearest I can get to ‘thinking aloud’ about the significance of this day and the focus it puts on something many of us find perplexing and, at times, troubling: how Christians in the UK live with Islam.

Some Obligatory Historical Background
If you want an overview of the Battle of Lepanto and its importance from a European perspective, I suggest you read this Wikepedia post. It’s not too long, and it does note the link between between the rosary and the victory over the Ottoman Empire. Pius V instituted ‘Our Lady of Victory’ as an annual feast to commemorate the victory, which he attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Dedications to Our Lady of Victory had preceded this papal declaration. For example, Simon de Montfort  built the first shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for the Catholic victory over the Albigensians at the Battle of Muret on 12 September 1213.  However, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the feast from ‘Our Lady of Victory’ to ‘The Holy Rosary‘. Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the General Roman Calendar in 1716, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. Pope St Pius X changed the date to 7 October in 1913, as part of his effort de-clutter the Sunday liturgy of devotional feasts and commemorations. In 1960 Pope St John XXIII changed the title to ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’.

A Contemporary Dilemma
You can see from the above that today’s feast confronts us with something our politicians are often nervous about: the Christian origins of Europe. Anyone who, like me, has been a student of Spanish history, will readily acknowledge the interplay of Judaism and Islam with the Christian history of Europe, including not only the contributions made by Jews and Muslims but also the terrible sufferings unjustly inflicted on those who did not conform to the religious norms of the day. The problem, as I see it, is that today we are both hesitant about identifying with our Christian heritage and woefully ignorant about the difference between mainstream Islam and the Wahabist perversion of it that has perpetrated so much terror and violence — chiefly, let it be said, against other Muslims.

When Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, delivering an academic lecture in Regensburg, quoted (without any approval or identification with the sentiments of the author) a few sentences expressing a negative view of Islam, he released a maelstrom. Many commentators dismissed the pope as out of touch, prejudiced, etc, etc. They did not bother to read what he actually said, nor did they understand or care about the context in which he spoke. He simply failed to conform to their ideas of what was acceptable. Others seized on his words to ‘justify’ their hate-filled torrents of abuse (in both directions). It was ugly; it was unnecessary; but it was also revealing.

It would be foolish to deny that Christians in the UK do have a problem with Islam. Most of us have Muslim friends whom we love and respect and know to be as far away from from being terrorists (the usual accusation) as it is possible to be. We also know that the media aren’t very interested in stories about mutual co-operation and help. They bear a great responsibility for the negativity towards Islam in this country. But it wouldn’t be honest, either, to dismiss the concerns of people who are troubled by the way in which some elements of Islamic practice seem to be undermining historical freedoms and customs. Many are concerned, for example, about the operation of Sharia courts, instances of the separation of men and women at university lectures, or the use of Halal meat in general catering. It isn’t just an unease with difference (think how exotic Catholicism seemed to the average Englishman of a hundred years ago!), but a sense that something important we can’t quite identify and can’t in any way control is being changed.

I see today’s feast as an invitation to reflect and pray about my own attitides — from my wimpish silence at times about what I truly believe to my casual complicity with views I’ve been too lazy to think or do anything about. That may not sound very much, but in the past it has made me read the Koran and Muslim commentaries on the Koran. It has also made me challenge, at least interiorly, much of the media’s speculation about the motives of others and their narratives of Islam in the UK. I think it matters because to believe something untrue about another is a great injustice; it is an even greater injustice to act out of that untruth. It is also, for a Christian, wrong to deny our Christian heritage or play down or dismiss its importance for today. The key to reconciling these sometimes contradictory aspirations is surely the search for truth and the desire to live in peace and harmony with all. May Our Lady, revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions, aid us with her prayers.


The Feast of the Visitation 2016

Today’s feast of the Visitation, the only Marian feast to occur in May, ‘Mary’s month’, is one we can all enjoy. It is taken directly from scripture, so no quarrels about its origin; it celebrates life rather than death, so no forced attempts to wrest joy from heartbreak; and its chief protagonists are not important people, living gilded lives, but ordinary folk, rather like ourselves, who understand the importance of family and friends and do their best to live lives of uncomplicated goodness. So far so good. But for those of us who live what is called a liturgical spirituality, there is a hidden danger. We can become so distracted by our worship that we forget the message of the feast.

It is not enough to surround our statues with flowers and candles; to sing our light Magnificats into the darkness of a fallen world; to process, heap praises upon the Mother of God, allow a sentimental sigh or two to escape our lips. We are not merely to marvel but to do. Even those of us who are cloistered must act. We are to help, give comfort, welcome — and we are, quite literally, to go out of our way to do so, if necessary. When we celebrate the feast of the Visitation today, we are not simply recalling a more-or-less-historical event, we are affirming our willingness to serve. For most of us there will be no weary trek over the Judean hills, no need to struggle with all the discomforts of early pregnancy, but there will be asked of each of us something that will not be easy, something that will cost. May Our Lady and St Elizabeth help us with their prayers.

I have often blogged about this feast. Here are  links to two earlier posts:

The Feast of the Visitation 2011

The Kindness of Kin and the Friendship of Women


Annunciation 2016 and a Tale of Two Marys

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

This morning at Mass, while dreamily thinking of Mary’s unequalled faith and the wonderful things that youth can achieve, I was brought up short by a phrase in the Preface. In Latin the words are beautifully turned, stating that the Vigin heard with faith that Christ inter homines et propter homines nasciturum. The English translation, however, wobbles between bathos and theological inadequacy:
‘Christ was to be born among men and for men’s sake.’

Now, I know that the learned among you will tell me that in this context ‘men’ means women and children, as well as adult members of the male sex; the more learned will point out that the Latin uses the word homo rather than vir and lose themselves in arguments about how the word should be rendered in English, which lacks anything like the German mensch; while the most learned of all will quote reassuring texts from early Christian writers, such as Athanasius’ ‘what Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed’ (which is, in this context, perhaps not quite as reassuring as one might hope). The trouble is, I am not really convinced that in this particular instance we have the best possible translation to bring out the wonder of what God has wrought for us.

For an English reader that ‘born among men’ may conjure up unfortunate visions of Dr Slop, the male midwife, or perhaps St Joseph having to take on the role of midwife to Mary because Bethlehem suddenly had no women in it. Until modern times birth was an occasion almost entirely reserved for women, which is probably why the phrase startled me. It is meant to be poetic, but the English translation isn’t. Then there is that ‘for men’s sake’. I suppose I’ve had too many run-ins with male clergy not to feel that that is exactly what some (by no means all!) secretly believe. Of course the phrase is meant to convey that Christ was born on earth for our sakes, but as it stands, it doesn’t quite say that. Which is why, this morning, I wish to offer two thoughts, neither original, but which I think are worth mulling over prayerfully.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, was the first person on earth to believe the mystery of the Incarnation; the first to welcome Christ in his humanity; the first to be completely filled with the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. For nine months, wherever she walked, Christ went, too; and only with her. She was, so to say, the Church in its infancy, for only with the death and resurrection of Christ could the Church truly come into being. Mary Magdalene was the first to believe the Resurrection; the first to see the Risen Christ; the first to be entrusted with the proclamation, ‘He is risen’. She was the first member of the Church born from the side of Christ on Calvary.

Two Marys, two very different roles, but both telling us something important about what it means to believe in Christ, true God and true man, our Saviour and Redeemer. As the collect for today daringly says, we pray that we may merit to become sharers even in his divine nature, ipsius etiam divinae naturae mereamur esse consortes. To which one can but say a reverent and grateful, ‘Amen’.

Note on the illustration: a painting by D. Werburg Welch, copyright the Trustees of the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation. All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited. Used by permission. If you look at the post here, you will see the illustration used in one of my early ebooks, plus a link to a podcast on the theme.