Sabbath Calm and Chuntering On

The monastery is being besieged by aggrieved pub owners and hairdressers because of a throwaway remark I made earlier this week about H.M. Government being apparently more interested in them than in the Arts. If I were a pub owner or a hairdresser, no doubt I’d be besieging the monastery, too.* The fact is, we all tend to react to what most concerns us, or we admit to having a divided mind on some subjects where we can see both positives and negatives. At one level, for instance, I’m pleased the Government thinks it must do something to preserve Wetherspoons and the jobs it provides. At another, I’m less than pleased that the Government seems to think the Royal Albert Hall and the jobs it provides is expendable. As regards the opening of churches and places of worship, I admit to equally divided feelings, but I am very conscious of the fact that the monastery has a chapel, that the Blessed Sacrament is kept there, and that the Divine Office, with its steady round of prayer and worship, is maintained daily. I can do exactly what St Benedict recommends, go in at any time and pray. That isn’t possible for many of my fellow Christians. I am privileged in a way most are not, and I shall spend part of today praying for those who are not so blessed and reflecting on how the Church must meet the needs of its members.

I think that is one reason why Sundays are so important. It’s not just a question of liturgical significance, nor is it anything to do with the human need to rest, or not exactly. Sundays provide a moment of sabbath calm for reflection on all that has gone before. When God rested on the sabbath day and viewed all he had created, he found it not merely good but very good. Sometimes we need to pause to register the good in a situation or person. Otherwise we just go chuntering on, missing the moment and missing the blessing, too. It is no accident that St Benedict saw the pursuit of peace as a key element in monastic life. His peace wasn’t the mere absence of activity or conflict; it was much more like the sabbath calm in which God’s creativity takes full effect. May your Sunday be blessed with sabbath calm, too.

*joke

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Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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Cleansing Fire

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

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.

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St Augustine of Canterbury and the Gift of Piety

One of the paradoxes of monastic life is that we begin by knowing everything, and the closer we get to the end, the more we realise we know nothing at all. Yesterday a friend reminded me of something I had written a long time ago:

My novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper . . . . The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there. So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

That was, if I may say so, the gift of piety at work — or at least its beginnings. Piety is the gift for which we pray today in our novena to the Holy Spirit and one which St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast this is, possessed in abundance. He didn’t want to come to Britain and dawdled on the way, but as soon as Gregory the Great told him to make haste, he did. He didn’t much like what he found when he arrived, but he toiled away diligently. Miracles followed, and when Gregory expressed disapproval, Augustine made sure that they were not bruited abroad. To this day, they remain unknown. In short, Augustine learned day by day what his mission was to be and did his best to fulfil it, becoming in the process a great saint, one who loved the Lord with all his heart and desired to please him in everything. That is truly piety at work.

In popular parlance, being pious is almost a term of abuse. We tend to think of limp, Lydia Languishes of virtue, living horribly circumscribed lives and disapproving of everyone else. The more classically-minded think of pius Aeneas with all his trickery and often distant relationship with truth. The Church, however, has always been clear what she means by piety. It is what one might call an instinctive love and reverence for God that makes us want to worship him and do his will. It makes us want to be reverent; makes us want to be pleasing to God. It does not come all at once but it can be cultivated and grow. Piety is one of those gifts that require us to co-operate with grace. Its effect on others can be huge. Just think what St Augustine did for Christ in this country. Just think what we can do, too, (even, I daresay, in a hen-coop).

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Broken Relationships | Building Community

Too much togetherness or too much distance often leads to the same thing: a broken relationship. Sometimes the break is temporary, sometimes permanent, and it is not for the outsider to judge or apportion blame. The world’s current experience of lockdown is placing new strains on many, but seventeen hundred years ago an ex-soldier and convert from paganism to Christianity named Pachomius introduced something novel into the life of desert ascetics who were physically or temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life: coenobitic monasticism. He grouped his monks into communities and provided common buildings for their use, with a rule of life based largely on the prayers they were to say together. He never lost his regard for the eremitical life but fostered the development of communal endeavours and in so doing provided an alternative to the rigours of a solitary existence, with all the dangers that poses to those who are not suited to it.

I wonder if we need a new Pachomius in Church and society today? Not literally, of course, but someone who will look with clear-eyed love at the suffering of those trying to conform to a way of life that is beyond them and yet who still desire to follow Christ and to be good and useful members of society. I have a hunch that a constant watering-down of what is asked of us may not be the best way to go. Most of us like a challenge, provided we find it do-able and not completely beyond our strength. The novices of a community are usually the ones who are least attracted to adaptations of the time-table or liturgy to accommodate senior members! In society more generally, there is an impatience with lockdown restrictions that reflects the keenness of youth to be up and doing. It is how we manage this that is proving difficult.

When we turn to the Church, we face particular problems. I often wonder whether the large, expensive, and sometimes cumbersome organization we call the Church is sustainable in the future. Some would argue that the future lies in smaller, less ‘traditional’ groupings, loosely modelled on monasticism. It is well-known that I have reservations about some of the so-called ‘new’ monastic communities — some, not all, and for reasons that go to the heart of what monasticism is — but the experience of living at a time when not just I but most of the Church is effectively unable to receive the sacraments must surely demand of the pope and bishops a response we have not yet received. How do we live in a world where the old structures, the old certainties, are crumbling? We talk about the ‘new normal’ and rightly so, because the ‘old normal’ will never return. A few clergy have expressed delight that they have larger congregations for live-streamed services than they used to have in church. Will those online congregations return to the pews, or will they fade away once lockdown restrictions are removed or amended? Who knows?

Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, when all is made new. This year, perhaps more than any other in my lifetime, I shall be praying for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the great mender of broken relationships, the great builder of community. Let us never forget that and think, mistakenly, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Our hope remains high because we depend on the Spirit.

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Normal for Whom?

One of the ways in which I annoy my friends is by asking them not to include me in the photo- and video-sharing in which they delight. That is not asceticism as such, although anyone seriously trying to live monastic life needs to think about how they use their time, which belongs to the monastery just as much as their bodies and wills (cf RB 58.25 and passim on obedience). It is a consequence of rural broadband speeds being slow and unreliable. Those living in towns and cities tend not to be aware of the limitations this imposes. For example, all the excitement about live-streaming church services tends to become more muted where the fields and the furrows  take over from the tarmac. We are resigned to blurry images and hiccuping speech. Fortunately, we no longer have to go out into the garden and climb a ladder when we want to use a mobile, but we still suffer from breaks in the signal and the frustrations that follow. What this means in practice is that our definition of ‘normal’ is different from those who enjoy faster connection speeds or the facilities of a more urban environment. 

Where the Church is concerned, that is significant. It must be clear to everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for how we worship, how we celebrate the sacraments, and how we experience community; but how we interpret those consequences, and the ideas we take from them, will vary according to what is ‘normal’ for us. I wonder if that is where those who live in the countryside, whose incomes are often lower than those of town-dwellers and who have fewer choices, will lose out. If so, I think it is where the rural monastery has the possibility of a renewed flourishing. Time was when I assumed that the old ideal of a large monastery situated in the middle of nowhere, dependent on an agrarian economy, was a relic of the Victorian Gothic imagination, wholly unsuited to the world of the silicon chip. I still think the large monastery of former times is less likely, but the role of the rural monastery itself is more certain.

We think of ourselves here as small and insignificant, of no importance to the diocese and no interest to most of the people around us, but that may be to look at ourselves through the wrong end of the telescope. Here, day after day, prayer is made real; here, day after day, we try to live up to Benedict’s ideal of hospitality. Above all, the focus is not on us but on Christ; and that, surely, is where the eyes of the Church must always be. So, even if for many people living nearby their experience of church is now confined to those blurry live-streams in their living-rooms, we can say that here the Church has a living, beating heart, ready to embrace all. It may be somewhat obscure, it may not have the grandeur of the old monasteries or large public buildings we have tended to associate with the Church in the past, nor any of the silicon chip wizardry of online celebrations, but it is here. It’s normal for us. Could it become normal for others, too?

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The Language of Sacrifice: a new kind of Mass?

Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?

I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.

As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’. 

Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?

Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.

Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends. 

That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.

Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.

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Vocations Sunday 2020

The fourth Sunday of Easter, often called Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when the whole Church prays for vocations. Most often, vocations to the priesthood are meant, although in recent years vocations to consecrated (or religious) life have been included. You might think that this would be a safe topic to tackle in a blog post, but I can assure you, it isn’t always.

In the past, for example, I’ve been scolded for saying that I thought everyone was a vocation, inasmuch as we are all called into being by God and are unique and precious in his eyes. The particular way in which we live out that primary vocation — whether as a single person, married, ordained, a religious — is, I would argue, secondary and may change over time, according to our circumstances or the decision of the Church. What doesn’t change is God’s love for us and our need to respond to his love, whether we be lay, ordained or consecrated. 

Very softly, therefore, may I say that whoever you are who may be reading or listening to these words, you are loved by God and called to be part of his Church, and that is a wonderful vocation. It is, in fact, the most important vocation of all, because it makes you part of the Body of Christ — and we can never be more than that!

I can’t say anything about priesthood except that I pray daily for our priests and those training for the priesthood. You are a great gift to the rest of us. The way in which you live your vocation is humbling and inspiring, and the sacrifices you make are an indication of the generosity with which you serve. May you be blessed and encouraged, and may others join you!

Now I suppose I should say something about monastic life for women, but what? Recent church legislation has made it more difficult because one ends up trying to explain what one does not fully understand oneself. 

What I can say, and say with full conviction, is that being a Benedictine is the joy of my life and if you are trying to discern whether God is calling you to this particular form of service in his Church, then I think what Benedict says in chapter 58 of his Rule is clear, simple and helpful.

Our vocation is always to a specific community. We become Benedictines at X or Y and take on the colour and cast of the community we aspire to join. So, get to know the community. Read their web site (many would-be members of our own community omit this step), see if their way of living the Rule is one with which, over time, you think you could identify. Read the Rule — it will only take you an hour, if that. Ask questions. be prepared to learn. Above all, give the process time. Benedict tells the community not to give anyone an easy entrance but to test the spirits to see whether they come from God. That doesn’t mean putting obstacles in anyone’s way but rather taking seriously the need to discern along with the candidate for admission whether this is the right place for them. Can they grow in this way of life? Have they sufficient health? Are they ready to learn or do they already know all the answers? You get my gist.

What form monastic life for women will take in the future is matter for speculation, but I am certain it will never die out because God will always continue to call people to seek him through prayer, obedience and renunciation of the joys of marriage and children. What I might call the accidentals of monastic life — the clothes we wear, the language in which we pray the liturgy, the work we do — though far from negligible may change. What doesn’t change is our commitment to God and his commitment to us.

Perseverance isn’t a showy quality, but it is a necessary one. We are only gradually fashioned into what God desires to make of us, and at times it can be a messy and painful business. Many a novice has comforted herself with the thought that everything would be all right if it weren’t for the superior and the community, but they are precisely what we need, not just as novices but throughout our lives. We go to God together. Those we find annoying at twenty-five may still be annoying us, and being annoyed by us, at eighty-five. The difference is that we may have begun to see in them what God sees: the image of his Son. Because that is the point of monastic life: being transformed into Christ. Or, as St Benedict says at the end of his chapter on humility, ‘we shall come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear and begin to observe without struggle . . . all those precepts we did not previously observe without fear . . . for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB 7.68, 69)

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Emmaus Moments 2020

Today, on the third Sunday of Easter, when we read the Emmaus gospel, the vast majority of the Church will not be able to receive the Eucharist. Let that sink in for a moment. Today very few members of the Church will be able to receive holy Communion wherever they live. We are taught, correctly, that every Mass is a public Mass, even if celebrated behind closed doors with none but the priest physically present. We are also taught, correctly, that every Mass is offered for every member of the Church, as the Eucharistic Prayers make plain. Finally, we we reminded that we can make a spiritual communion when sacramental communion is impossible. I don’t dispute any of that, nor am I among those loudly lamenting not being able to attend Mass as though I, and I alone, were experiencing loss or deprivation. I know many people — priests, religious and lay — are suffering in ways none ever thought possible. But it must be evident to everyone that the current lockdown and all that flows from it poses some important questions of ecclesiology, i.e. what we mean and understand by the word ‘church’.

A number of theologians have argued, in some cases for years, that online Communion should be possible. I don’t see how that could ever be squared with a Catholic understanding of the sacraments so it forms no part of my question here. And I have only a question, not an answer, but I believe it is important because its implications stretch much further than lockdown. Is the present situation, where, by and large, the Eucharist is the preserve of only one part of the Church, viz. priests and a few religious communities with a resident chaplain, right? Are we really being what the Lord intends? I have always been struck by the fact that Cleopas and his companion recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, not during his long exposition of the scriptures. The celebration of the Eucharist and the sharing of Communion was the essential moment of disclosure, recognition and union.

The Church rightly regards the Eucharist as a great treasure and sets many rules and regulations to guard it from profanation or misuse. At the same time, what is more vulnerable, more open to being treated casually or disrespectfully, than a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, the very things the Lord chose to give himself to us? How do we reconcile the desire to ensure that the Eucharist is treated with love and reverence and the desire that it should do what it is intended to do, constitute the Body of Christ?

I don’t know the answer, as I said, but this Sunday, amid the busyness of live-streaming services, adding extra prayers to the Rosary and what you will, I hope we will all take a few moments to think about the nature of the Church, the role of the Eucharist, and our need for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I sense we are at a kind of ecclesiological cross-roads — which is not a bad metaphor for an Emmaus moment, is it?

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Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell

Fra Angelico: Christ in Limbo, c. 1441-1442
Fra Angelico: Christ in Limbo

Holy Saturday: we are used to this being a time of silence and stillness, when earth awaits the resurrection and we do nothing because God is doing everything. We are used to its being a day without the sacraments, but this year we plumb the depths of emptiness and loss more deeply than ever. Even our churches are closed. There is no busy preparation of altar and font, no careful placing of flowers and candles, no last-minute rehearsal of music and ceremonies. We have only the weariness of death, the coldness of the tomb, and the long, dry psalms of the Divine Office, chanted recto tono, to sustain us. Tonight, when we might have expected a blaze of glory from the kindling of the new fire and the glad tones of the Exsultet, there will be only darkness, emptiness, silence. But if we think nothing is happening, if we think that God has somehow abandoned his people, that Easter is cancelled, so to say, we are very much mistaken. 

Holy Saturday is the time when Christ descends into the underworld to preach salvation to those who died before his coming. He goes to seek and save the lost. Today is a day of mercy, a mercy beyond compare. Traditionally, artists have portrayed Christ leading Adam and Eve out of Sheol, followed by a whole band of prophets and patriarchs and a nameless throng of people now rising to new life. On such a day as this, I like to think of Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as to a friend, of the unknown persons who form a distant part of my own family, of all the generations that existed before Christ, whom he desires to be with him in his glory. This is the day when captives are freed, when new life and hope spring up in the darkness, when the resurrection begins with the harrowing of hell.

It may be fanciful and probably bad theology to say that tonight, when we gather in choir to pray the Great Vigil, the church across the way and all churches throughout the world will not really be empty. They will be filled with the spirits of the just, risen to newness of life and singing the praises of God. And it will be because Christ has experienced death for all mankind and thus brought to completion his work of redemption. Even now, he is acting, awakening the dead, bringing joy and gladness. An ancient writer expressed this better than I ever could. Christ says to those who sleep in death, as one day we trust he will say to us also: ‘Rise! I am the life of the dead.’

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

Audio Version

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