Bells, Our Lady of Sorrows and Hope

Yesterday I was listening to the Mass bell at Belmont and suddenly I was a world away in time and place, in the ringing chamber at Stanbrook. A peal of eight bells for a Solemnity, six for a Second Order feast, five for Sundays and Third Order celebrations; twenty doubles and three straights for ferias; twenty straights for the second toll, irrespective of liturgical rank. I always loved ringing Steadman touches, but whoever was on bell duty had great latitude in her choice. Bells are precious things, anointed with chrism and named, for they summon Christians to the Work of God. Deep down I know I cherish the hope that one day Howton Grove Priory will have grown enough to have its own peal of bells, to ring out its joy and sorrow, possibly its moments of alarm (bells rung in reverse order), but always sounding to the glory of God, always summoning us to prayer.

Today’s feast shows us Mary acting rather like a bell, summoning us closer to her Son. Yesterday we decked the processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s victory; today, a single candle burns in memory of her lonely fidelity. It is a reminder that God did not promise us a life of unalloyed happiness in this world. To be mother of the Messiah was, surely, every Jewish woman’s dream; but for Mary, that dream meant suffering and death as well as joy, resurrection and gladness. Every human life is a mixture. We tend to rage and rail at the messy bits, the  painful bits, but every morning we begin again. Hope is a strange virtue in some ways but a very necessary one. It doesn’t lessen the sense of failure or rebellion we may feel, but it does help sustain our faith and prayer. So, think of bells again. One of George Herbert’s loveliest descriptions of prayer is ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’. Bells summon us to pray; they also summon God to listen.

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Our Lady’s Birthday: the holy and the homely

The Church celebrates just three nativities: that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. All three births are interconnected; each one has a special role in the history of salvation. The birth of Christ takes centre stage while those of his mother and cousin appear from the wings in a supporting role. The focus is always on Christ, as the liturgies for the respective feastdays make clear.

St Bernard has a lovely phrase to describe Mary and her role in salvation: he calls her the aqueduct that brings us the Water of Life. The humility and glory of God’s mother are both revealed in that phrase, and the astonishing trust God places in us as human beings . . .

In England this feast day often sees the first autumn crocus, once popularly known as ‘naked lady’ in honour of Our Lady. If you find one in your garden, why not say a prayer? Just as Mary unites in herself the holy and the homely, so that delicate purple flower reminds us of the presence of God here and now in the everyday circumstances of our lives.

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Our Lady of Consolation

In our monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, (originally, Our Lady of Comfort). It was a devotion popular in the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,  when it was adopted by the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai. English sailors took the devotion to Galicia in Spain where you can still find the occasional statue dedicated to Our Lady under this title. In recent centuries Our Lady has acquired other, more popular titles, but I find this one rich in scriptural allusion and content.

Consolation is a beautiful word, so is comfort in its former sense of giving strength. Consolamini, consolamini, Comfort, comfort ye my people . . . Every Christian must be, in some measure, a giver of strength and consolation to others, but it is not something we can do through our own efforts. Mary, the Mother of God, was a mulier fortis, a strong woman, a valiant woman, one who allowed grace to flower in her, an excellent teacher of what it means to be a giver of comfort to others. I like the way in which Mary is always and everywhere leading us to her Son. As she said to the servants at the wedding feast of Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’ With that advice she solved the problem of the wine running out, taking nothing to herself but giving the glory to God, to whom alone it belongs.

 

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May is Mary’s Month

Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a mark of both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, so much so that those innocent of Church history sometimes express surprise that St Benedict never mentions Mary in the Rule, unless we are to understand that she is included among ‘the saints’ to whom he refers in general terms. Indeed, judging by today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 73, he is keener for the monk to take Scripture and the Fathers as models than Mary or any other saint or martyr.

It would be wrong, however, to deduce from this that Benedictines are indifferent to Mary or have no devotion to her. On the contrary, it is because Mary is so close to us, Our Lady as we call her in England, that we do not make much of a razzmatazz about her. We ask her prayers, and are confident that she prays for us as she prays for the whole Church, with a tender sympathy and interest. May is a month peculiarly dedicated to her honour: one in which we rejoice in her as Mother of God who leads us closer to her beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

Some years ago we produced a little booklet of poems as a kind of monastic jeu d’esprit, a May Day gift for Mary. We hope you will enjoy it.

If you like Ladyflower, have a look of some of our other digital books on our main web site, http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/books.html

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The Annunciation 2012

When I wrote about this feast last year (see here), I mentioned that it reminds us youth can do great things for God. More than that, I think this lovely feast tells us that our dreams and ambitions are all too little for God. He called Mary to be theotokos, God-bearer, in the fullest sense. Just think for a moment what that must have meant to her, a young Jewish girl with the ordinary expectations of her place and time. What an upset of all her plans and expectations!

God calls each one of us to be something special. Often we are so conscious of our ordinariness, and rightly so (heaven spare us the person who thinks (s)he’s special!), that we overlook or undervalue the unique grace he has given us. For those of us who live in monasteries, our only talent may be that of living the monastic life, but it is for us the essential talent, the one that endows us with grace to respond to our vocation, to be what God desires us to be. As we give thanks for Mary’s acceptance of what God asked of her, let us pray for ourselves, that we may be equally generous and fearless in accepting what is asked of us.

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Mothering Sunday 2012

There are times when it can be very hard indeed to see the Church as our mother. The abuse scandals, the apparent harshness of some of her judgements, the inadequacy or incompetence of some her members, all conspire to make it difficult. But the lyricism of today’s liturgy reflects a profound truth. As Christians, born again of water and the Holy Spirit, the Church is truly our mother, nourishing us, nurturing us, setting us on the way to salvation. Teilhard de Chardin once remarked of the Church that it was like a mist surrounding the light, both revealing and concealing. There is only one way to reach the light itself, and that is by going through the mist.

Julian of Norwich wrote beautifully of the motherhood of God:

In our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. . . . The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. This is how our mother, Christ, works in mercy in all his beloved children who are submissive and obedient to him . . .

Christ our Lord is so ‘oned’ to the Church that his motherhood is now hers, just as his mother Mary is now ours also. That is a heartening thought, and hopefully an encouragement to all mothers* for whom this is not just Mothering Sunday but Mother’s Day as well.

*Our Facebook page contains our prayer intention for today which embraces all mothers, living and dead, and those who grieve because the gift of motherhood is not theirs.

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Praying for the Sick

The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes prompts a few thoughts about praying for the sick. What do we think we are doing?

First of all, we are obviously obeying biblical injunctions to pray for the sick that they may recover; but what are we doing when recovery is unlikely: for example, when the person for whom we are praying is very old and tired and wants to go home to God? I think prayer for the sick in such situations is praying on behalf of the sick person. Even a bad cold can make it difficult for us to do the things we normally do, and prayer is no exception. It can be a thousand times worse when we have a serious illness that exhausts us or makes us so ‘down’ that our spiritual lives go blank. It is then that knowing others are praying for us, that the communion of saints is holding us up before God, may yield a grain of comfort and encouragement. Finally, when we pray for the sick, we pray for ourselves. There is none of us who is not in need of healing, but most of us don’t know our own sickness or refuse to acknowledge it.

Today, when we pray for the sick and those who care for them, let us not forget to pray for ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation in Christ.

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Facing Both Ways

1 January, Octave Day of Christmas and Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the oldest Marian feast in the calendar), the day when we make (and break) our New Year resolutions, is, as its name proclaims, the doorway of the year, facing both ways like the old pagan god Janus* from which it takes its name. It wasn’t always the beginning of the year, of course: that used to be Lady Day, 25 March, feast of the Annunciation. But calendar reforms and changes in public perception (‘in the year of Our Lord’ and ‘in the year of grace’ being seen as rather quaint, if not unacceptably exclusive) mean that we now end one year and begin another with barely a nod in the direction of religion.

That facing both ways, however, is valid whether we are religious or not. We look back on the old year and assess its triumphs and failures and look forward to the new, assessing its potential. We are not altogether there, not altogether here. The religious might say we are at the interface of time and eternity.

Today’s feast is so rich in allusion, so deep in theology that we can forget that it too faces both ways: back into time, forward into eternity (which is outside time). The Word which was from the beginning took flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. That is what we celebrate throughout the Christmas season. We start our secular year with a reminder that God’s love for us is infinite, Incarnate Love, which wills that all should be saved. Just as the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day foreshadows the shedding of his blood on the cross, so the symbolism of the eighth day expresses perfection, salvation.

We face both ways, into the abyss of our nothingness and the abyss of God’s love, but with this assurance: ‘The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ That must give us confidence as we begin 2012.

A happy and blessed New Year to you all.

* I originally wrote Januarius: my old Latin mistress would have boxed my ears for such a mistake and many thanks to John for pointing out the error.

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The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

Murillo immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Let’s start with what the Immaculate Conception is, rather than what it is not. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain (labes) of original sin.’ In other words, unlike the rest of us, and entirely because of the merits of Jesus Christ (i.e. not her own), she was endowed with sanctifying grace from the first moment of conception. (Sanctifying grace is conferred on us after birth, through the Sacrament of Baptism.) In the narrowest sense, the doctrine refers to original sin only and makes no claim to Mary’s having remained sinless. Of course, Catholics do believe that she was personally sinless, and the Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who teaches otherwise.

Although belief in the Immaculate Conception can be found early and was probably being celebrated liturgically in Syria by the fifth century, later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. As Ineffabilis Deus makes clear, Mary was redeemed as all are, by our Saviour Jesus Christ, yet in her case the manner of doing so was exceptional.

In the Middle Ages the doctrine was much discussed. Theologians of the stature of St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas expressed reservations about the formulae used and it was not until Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, instituted a committee of enquiry (1851 to 1853) that the solemn definition given in 1854 took final shape.

Where does all this leave us today? People sometimes remark on the apparent absence of devotion to Mary in Benedictine monasteries. By that they really mean the absence of devotions (plural). Hopkins likened Our Lady to the air we breathe, and among monks and nuns I think that just about sums it up. We are privileged to live in a world of sign and symbol, where Mary and the saints are very close to us and highly honoured for their own closeness to God. Let Hopkins have the last word:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

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