The First Sunday of Advent 2020

Advent sky

Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.

Community Newsletter:
Complete with typo! https://mailchi.mp/d3ee45ba46b0/holy-trinity-monasterys-advent-newsletter-2020

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Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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Muddled Thinking and Muddled Morals

In the last forty-eight hours we have been treated to some very diverse interpretations of what constitutes the common good. In the Netherlands, for example, it is now legal for doctors to sedate patients with dementia before administering euthanasia (so they do not resist). At the same time, Angela Merkel, long the guardian of the European conscience, has urged that COVID-19 vaccines should be available to poor countries as well as rich ones — on grounds of fairness (and possibly, self-interest). Matt Hancock has helpfully informed us that ‘Christmas is a special time of year’ while not, apparently, going as far as one scientific adviser who thinks Christmas should be ‘postponed’ for six months because the new programme of restraints the government has devised for us does not go far enough to protect public health. Religious illiteracy is clearly even more widespread than we thought. Public sector pay is to be held at current levels but the increases for M.P.s are, at the time of writing, still to go ahead. As to what is happening in Hong Kong or the U.S.A., I dare not comment for fear that I should have to go into hiding from all sides. Meanwhile the barque of Peter sails serenely on, according to its own timetable (the liturgical calendar) and its own preoccupations, which are rarely those of politicians or secular society.

In his homily for the solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis admonished us not to give up on great dreams. It is easy to be dismissive of the pope. The subjects on which he chooses to speak or write, the language he uses, and the sometimes interminable length of the addresses themselves, can be difficult for English-speakers. But the great dreams to which he alludes are not to be summarily dismissed. We can get bogged down in the minutiae of daily life and mistake the seemingly urgent for the genuinely important, limiting both ourselves and others unnecessarily. The headlines dominating our news or engaging our social media streams are sometimes petty and leave us making bad or selfish choices. Our thinking can become muddled, and when that happens, so, frequently, does our conduct.

Advent is still a few days away but it provides an excellent opportunity to simplify, reassess what truly matters and act accordingly. That is why I always think these days between Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent are a precious time of preparation. We may be choosing an Advent book to provide a fresh perspective on what we are celebrating or drawing up a routine which will ensure we read the Mass readings every day and make time for prayer. Here in the monastery we like to begin with three days of almost perfect silence. Apart from the Divine Office and necessary conversation with the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, so to say, we try to keep quiet and allow the silence to lead us. That isn’t possible for everyone, nor would it be advisable in all cases. We have to use common sense as well as spiritual sense in our decision-making. Whatever we decide to do, I have a hunch that if we use this time imaginatively and ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall discover that the common good and our own personal good are more closely aligned than we may have thought. But it may take some hard thinking and hard praying to work that out.

Audio version

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COVID-19, Restrictions on Public Worship and the Challenge to the Church

I’ll probably lose a few friends and several readers with this post, but I think we need to stop grumbling about how much we are suffering because of COVID-19 restrictions, especially the restrictions on public communal worship. At one level, we can argue that observing lockdown restrictions is merely a way in which we can put the common good before our own. That is what I call the functional approach. At another, I think we have to consider where the Church’s true good lies and what is being asked of us both as individuals and as an institution. Increasingly, I have come to believe that lockdown represents a opportunity to recover a faith and holiness the Church currently lacks; but let’s take the COVID situation first.

The impact of COVID-19 on worship
Those who have or have had COVID, those who have lost people dear to them or their homes and livelihoods, those battling the pandemic right now, they have something to complain about; but do the rest of us? We can see that for those most at risk, the virus is scary; for those who are lonely or depressed or anxious, it is a daily struggle; but for the majority of us, it is more of an inconvenience than anything else. We have to take more care about hygiene, think before we go anywhere, keep our distance from family and friends for fear of spreading a disease we may not even know we have, abandon, at least for a while, much that is familiar or pleasurable, but our essential freedom to worship God has not altered. In saying that, I am aware that opinion is divided about the risk to public health that meeting together in church constitutes. I’m also aware of the statement issued by Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop McMahon in response to the government’s proposals. However, if we concentrate too much on the negative, we may miss an opportunity — a moment of grace, if you like, that could potentially transform our lives and the lives of those with whom we come into contact.

Deepening our life of prayer
If the bedrock of our religious practice is daily or weekly Mass, lockdown provides us with opportunities to see how the Eucharist fits into a much wider context of scripture and ‘private’ prayer. Praying the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours not only joins us with the whole Church in every age, it provides a sacred rhythm for the present. It extends the celebration of the Eucharist and hallows time. We can forget that it is possible to become very individualistic, even selfish, in our approach to worship and the sacraments, allowing our routines to provide an assurance more apparent than real. I go to Mass, so I’m alright spiritually, am I not? If I can’t go to Mass, for whatever reason, life suddenly becomes much more alarming, doesn’t it? I’m not so confident any more. My faith doesn’t stretch that far. Once we recall that it is Christ who prays in us and that the words of scripture, the psalms especially, are his prayer, a temporary restriction on meeting together and celebrating the sacraments looks less like a loss and more like an encouragement to re-think some of our old ideas. How many of us have asked ourselves whether lockdown is an invitation to deepen our knowledge and love of scripture, grow in prayer, and become closer to Christ in a new way?

Being aware of God’s presence
Most of you know I am not a fan of live-streamed worship. Many are, but I have never found it necessary or helpful. I’m also unenthusiastic about many devotions from which others derive great comfort and support. That isn’t because I don’t value them or see the good in them but because I am aware of God’s presence here, in my monastic cell, in the chapel, wherever I happen to be and whatever I happen to be doing. It is all-embracing, and I attribute that to my formation as a Benedictine and long years of trying to practise lectio divina. I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a monk or nun — heaven forbid! — but I do wonder whether key elements of the monastic tradition of reading and prayer could helpfully be rediscovered by the Church at this time.

What is normal?
Many priests and pastors are doing their imaginative best to support those who feel bereft, but some talk only of ‘when things return to normal’ and, to be honest, I question whether that will ever come about. It is not just that, however successful vaccines prove to be in controlling the spread and severity of the virus, there are many other changes that will take much longer to work through. The shift in work patterns, the economic consequences of actions taken by government, the effects of delayed healthcare interventions, the disruption to education, to say nothing of climate change and political re-alignments, they are all going to have an effect on our future lives. Add to that the loss of trust that the IICSA reports and the McCarrick report have produced, and I question whether anyone in the Church can honestly go on talking about a return to normality. What normality are we talking about? The tired, rather inward-looking normality that seems to have become characteristic of the Church in Europe and North America in recent years?

Worshiping together is only one aspect of what church-going means. Fellowship and service of others are also important. However, I’d like to stay with worship a little longer because I think it is there that we can identify a lack we need to address. Here in the West we are not accustomed to being unable to receive the sacraments. The fact that such has been the experience of the Church at many times in her history and still is her experience in many places outside Europe and North America is one of those uncomfortable truths we prefer not to acknowledge. Could it be that the Lord is allowing us to experience something of the same because we have become too complacent? Do we ever ask ourselves why spiritual riches are lavished upon us and whether we have responded to them as we ought?

A changing Church
I’ve said often enough that I think the territorial parish is no longer central or necessary to most people’s experience of church, and I think that trend will continue. But if the traditional parish goes, and with it the economic and financial basis of much church organization and activity, there will be a knock-on effect on how we understand priesthood, both of the ordained presbyterate and the priesthood of all the baptized. If the buildings are closed, we go on being the Church but we can no longer make the same assumptions about what that means or how it is expressed. Are we ready for that? Can lockdown restrictions help us?

Recovering faith and holiness
I think our most urgent need is to recover what I think we have sometimes lost: a sense of God’s transcendence. So much of our church activity, our thinking and planning, concentrates on being of service to others, perhaps to the point where it has all gone slightly out of balance. Faith and holiness are not just ‘nice extras’ for some: they are for all. Where faith is lacking, we find the most appalling sin and corruption. Where there is no striving for holiness, there is only emptiness and routine. The emptiness may look glorious, the routine may be attractive, but we have forgotten the jar of nard, the call into the desert, the being alone with the Alone.

Romantic rubbish? I daresay some will think it so. Parish priests mesmerised by new technologies but grieving the loss of the physical presence of their parishioners will be scratching their heads and asking themselves what more can they do to keep their congregations together. A return to what is familiar will be their top priority. Parish treasurers, faced with a big drop in income, will be wondering how to make up the shortfall. What can we keep, what will have to go? And those who lovingly place their talents at the service of the liturgy in a thousand different ways, from making music to mopping the floors, will be torn by the desire to go on doing exactly that. For the less obviously talented, the mythical ‘person in the pew,’ there may be fewer conflicts but still there will be hard choices to make. 

We are dealing with what, for most of us, is a new situation, for which there isn’t really any precedent. We can read about martyrs and those who kept the faith in times past; we can reflect on Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert; but that was then and now is now. There aren’t easy solutions to the challenges we face. The danger is that we may rush to decide how we should meet them before we have really formulated the questions or examined them in any detail — still less given God a chance to have his say.

Grumbling about not being able to go to church in the way we’re used to is understandable, but it would be a tragedy if our own noise blocked out the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.19). What is he doing now? Are we sure we know? To put it bluntly, should we be asking ourselves anew how we are to be the Church, how we are to cultivate faith and holiness ? Perhaps this Advent we shall begin to find out.

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Hallowe’en, All Saints and All Souls

Pax pumpkin for Hallowe'en
The Pax Pumpkin

Hallowe’en barely registers at the monastery because once we have sung First Vespers of All Saints we shall be celebrating the triumph of good over evil. No ghosts or ghouls for us, no tacky accommodations with evil under the guise of ‘fun’. With All Souls on Monday, we complete a feast of the the unity of the Church Militant (us), the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (those in heaven).

For various reasons, I won’t be blogging for a day or two, so here is a round-up of a few previous posts, including one by the late Bro Duncan PBGV, to save you the bother of searching in the side-bar. There are several more, if you are bored.

The illustration alone is entirely new. I can’t say I’m exactly proud of my first attempt at pumpkin-carving, but it is amazing both it and I survived the process. The arrival of Anglo-American neighbours who have a wonderful line of pumpkins outside their front-door prompted me to think how we might join in the children’s fun without encouraging the very things I am doubtful about. So, the Benedictine motto, pax or peace, surrounded by a crown of thorns (please use your imagination), will be shining out into the Herefordshire skies, a little gleam of light amidst much darkness. There is a meaning there that goes beyond the obvious, I trust.

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Tell My Children I Love Them

Who could fail to have been moved by those words of a dying woman, uttered after being attacked in Nice yesterday? They express all that is best and most loving about mothers, about human beings. For a Christian, looking at a Crucifix, they express God’s love for us, his errant children, and they give us hope. We are loved, and we can choose to love in return.

As news of the attacks in France came in yesterday, I admit to feeling more than usual sadness. Something has changed. Those targeted attacks on the eve of lockdown, like the murder of Samuel Paty, do more than challenge the secular values of the French State. They challenge our faith. Either we believe the gospel, or we don’t. Either we will continue to love, or we won’t. Either we allow God to forgive in and through us, or we don’t. How we manage that, I don’t know. May God give us the grace. And may he comfort those bereaved children and all who mourn.

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My Lady Covid

Collectors of papal gaffes can now add another to their collection. At the end of yesterday’s General Audience the pope apparently referred to ‘this “lady” called Covid’. Not wise, your Holiness, not wise. From Eve onwards, women have been blamed for all the evils that have afflicted mankind (please note that word, mankind). Now Covid is to be characterised as a woman? I place that attempt at humour alongside the reference to female theologians as ‘the strawberry on the cake’ or the unfortunate 10-Euro ‘Earth Mother’ coin issued earlier this month by the Vatican mint. If women can be treated so lightly, or regarded as having no role but one, it is not surprising that legitimate questions about pastoral care, liturgical language and the scope allowed to women in the Church are similarly dismissed. What worries me is that many women will decide that they have received their own personal Ite, missa est. And that, your Holiness, would be a tragedy for us all, male or female.

P.S. I’m staying. Hope that isn’t too annoying of me.

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St Bruno and Solitude

I will never forget the first time I met the Carthusian who was to be my confessor for many years. He asked simply, ‘Do you have peace?’ That question goes to the heart of any vocation. Everything else is transitory, but peace, abiding in God whatever the exterior circumstances of our life, whatever inner turmoil we may be experiencing, is permanent. It isn’t (usually) achieved once for all but is, like so much else, a process, something we grow into over time so that it becomes a constant in our lives, an habitual state of being.

The experience of solitude and silence seem to me an essential part of this process. They strip us of many elements of the ‘false self’ we use to hide from God, making us realise our dependence on him and on others. Our need for approbation, to draw attention to ourselves, to assert ourselves, all come down to this: an obscure sense that we are somehow not quite ‘enough’, not good enough, not attractive enough, not anything enough. That, of course, is to put the spotlight on self when the secret of true holiness is to put the spotlight on God and forget self. It isn’t easy to do, and most of us are reluctant to surrender what we think of as good or necessary in order to become something, or rather, someone, more closely fashioned on Christ.

St Bruno had no such hesitations. He seems to have spent much of his life avoiding a bishopric. He was a famous teacher, well-connected socially, someone who might have commanded the highest rewards of a clerical career. But he didn’t. He was drawn to the solitary life, and when he and two companions placed themselves under the direction of Hugh of Grenoble, the Carthusians were born. They have remained ever since one of the glories of the Church whose hidden lives have shown that what we tend to think of as success is, well, probably not such a success after all. St Bruno’s life as a Carthusian is often difficult to trace precisely because he avoided the limelight and concentrated on God alone. He was still the same man, still in demand for counsel, but now he met those demands in a different way. He became more, not less, loving because he lived a silent and largely solitary life. None of his gifts was wasted but they were all transformed.

A long time ago, I tried to express what St Bruno and the Carthusians meant to me and how I think we can emulate their prayerfulness, even if we cannot live as they live. Carthusian life is not romantic: it is tough, hard, wearing, which is why so few can live it, but we can all learn from it:

St Bruno makes me think of silence and solitude and snow. Cardinal Hume once remarked that every Benedictine should feel a certain sadness, a certain regret, that the great vocation of the Carthusian is not for him/her. But, of course, every vocation contains within it the need for silence and moral solitude, even if physical solitude is not a possibility. When Jesus told his disciples to go to their inner room and shut the door and pray to their Father in secret, he can hardly have meant to be taken literally since most people in first century Palestine had no private room to retreat to. We must make a Charterhouse of the heart, and allow our prayer to embrace every need.

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How To Read An Encyclical

Benedictines are notorious for thinking that slow and prayerful reading of a text is second nature to them. I am no exception. Yesterday lots of people had rushed onto social media to give their opinion of Fratelli Tutti before I had digested the first few paragraphs, and I see that this morning there are already some instant analyses and tit-for-tat arguments doing the round of cyberspace. At the risk of being presumptuous, may I share with you a way of reading an encyclical you may find helpful, and a blessing or prayer you may like to use before doing so?

First of all, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before beginning to read. I know it sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten. Without asking God to be in charge of our reading, how can we expect to understand what the writer intends — or be free enough to test the truth of what is written if we are too full of our own ideas and prejudices?

Secondly, we need to give the process of reading time. For example, the English translation of Fratelli Tutti strikes me as being awkward and I am having to look at other versions to try to work out whether it is the author or the translator that has puzzled me. Not everyone will be able to do that, but all of us can pause in our reading to reflect and follow up the references provided.

Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves how the encyclical addresses us personally — not X or Y or anyone else, but ourselves. What does it ask of us, and how shall we respond? We aren’t meant to go away thinking, ‘Well, that was interesting/beautiful/predictable/annoying/whatever.’ We are meant to take from the text something that will make us grow spiritually, and that won’t necessarily be a wholly positive experience. We can be challenged, upset, irritated, even angered. God can use those very human emotions to get through to us, if we let him.

Fourthly, I think we should end with thanksgiving. That is easy if we have found the text helpful and inspiring, not so easy if we haven’t; but no matter how barren our reading may seem to have been, no matter how difficult we may have found the text, grace can only grow in a spirit of gratitude. That doesn’t mean we abandon our critical faculties or meekly agree that everything in the encyclical is wonderful. It may be; it may not. But we can, and should, give thanks that the encyclical exists, that God speaks to us through the text, and that we are ready to listen and respond.

Finally, I promised you a prayer. Every new book that comes into the library here at the monastery has a blessing said over it. The text comes from a medieval Subiaco manuscript, i.e. it has impeccably Benedictine origins. Here is a rough and ready translation:

Almighty, everliving God, we ask that the power of the Holy Spirit may come down upon this book. May it be cleansed and purified through the invocation of your name and its meaning opened to our understanding. May your holy right hand bless and sanctify it, enlighten the hearts of those who read it and grant them true comprehension. Grant that they may keep safe the teaching revealed and put it into practice in accordance with your will, through the performance of good deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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