Preparing for Advent

Who does not love Advent? The beauty of the liturgy, the haunting quality of the ancient chants we sing, the darkness, the silence, the mystery, they all combine to produce a sense of anticipation. Something very great and wonderful is about to happen. And then Christmas comes, and the mystery is revealed, and it is ‘only’ the birth of a child in awkward circumstances against a backdrop of political skullduggery and religious squabbling. The feast is barely here before most people seem to be taking down their Christmas decorations and thinking about holidays in the sun. I exaggerate, of course. Some of us do not begin to celebrate Christmas until the afternoon of Christmas Eve and will spend the octave looking at the mystery of the Incarnation and all that follows from it. Epiphany will burst upon us with its tria miracula, and only with the Baptism of the Lord will we formally say farewell to the Christmas season, with a last ‘look back’ at Candlemas. In the meantime, what do we do about Advent? How do we link this holy season with what comes after? How do we genuinely make it a time of preparation?

Advent sometimes gets passed over too lightly. Instead of seeing it as a way of deepening our understanding of the reality of what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, it has often become drenched in sentimentality and superficiality — a kind of ‘Christmas already’ but without Christ. It is too early for mince pies and Christmas carols, but we tend to ignore the riches the Church sets before us and wonder why Christmas, when it does come, is almost an anti-climax. We are bored with the Christmas story before we have even heard it properly. We may need to remind ourselves that Advent is a time for reading and reflecting on the scriptures that provide the context for what happens on Christmas day, for asking ourselves what the coming of the Messiah means to us personally as well as to the world. It is a time for registering that disappointment and failure are part of the Christian story, that ordinariness is shot through with grace.

So, in these last few days before Advent begins, may I suggest spending a little time thinking about how to make the most of the season? It will be a busy time, with many demands made on us. We cannot avoid the commercialism that besets us on every side, but we can turn it to good by ensuring that our own focus is on what truly matters. To read each day the Mass lessons; to ‘waste’ a little time in silence and recollection if we can; to scale down our expectations; these are all tried and trusted means of ensuring Advent does its work in us. For that is the point. It is not what others do but what we do that makes Advent fruitful, that prepares us for the coming of our Saviour.

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A Little Whimsey for Monday Morning

No doubt you would much prefer one of my ‘aspirationally learned’ expositions of chapter 31 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be, which we are re-reading now, but I am going to disappoint you and share a little monastic whimsey instead. In due place to forget one’s wisdom is sweet, says Horace, and who dare disagree?

Last week, having much that was better to do, I decided to take the community on a culinary world tour. With the monastic oven out of action and two feast days to accommodate, it was a challenge. I limited myself to what we had in the freezer or the store cupboard, and here are the results.

SUNDAY — ALL SAINTS

We began in France, with pan-seared sea bass in a lemon, lime and caper sauce, with Lyonnaise potatoes. No pudding could be managed after that!

MONDAY

Monday saw us in the Maghreb with Shakshuka and home-made flatbreads. We grow a lot of herbs and a neighbour often gives us eggs from their hens, so this was easy-peasy.

TUESDAY — ALL SOULS

Back in France, Normandy region, for pork loin chops with caramelised onions and pears, mashed potato and wilted cabbage. This tasted better than it looks. It really needed a grill to finish it off properly as those little pieces of cheese should be golden brown. We live and learn.

WEDNESDAY

Off to Hungary for a vegetarian goulash with tarragon and horseradish dumplings (made from vegetarian suet, of course); served with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, spring onions and a chunk of almost-French baguette. Guaranteed to provide plenty of inner heat in cold weather!

Thursday saw us in Erewhon/Everywhere for a garlicky chicken and sausage casserole — comfort food for a nun having cataract surgery earlier in the day. Nothing to see here, just a mixture of odds and ends from the freezer and the vegetable basket, with lots of Lautrec garlic given by a friend and a slight Spanish touch in the use of pimentón.

Friday is a fast day with us, so we travelled in time rather than geographically: All Our Yesterdays Soup (i.e. made from left-overs), with a choice of home-made wholemeal bread and cheese or wholemeal bread and tuna, followed by an apple from the garden.

SATURDAY

‘One we made earlier’. Saturday quickly span out of control, so an Italian lasagne pulled from the freezer and served with salad fitted the bill. Even in a monastery it can be difficult to cook ‘properly’ but batch cooking for the freezer is a great help.

Some readers may have given up at this point but others will recognize that food, its preparation, service and sharing, plays an important part in the Rule of St Benedict and in Christianity generally. Our most important act as a community is the celebration of the Eucharist. By extension, meals in a monastery are never purely private, individualistic affairs, because of their eucharistic character. The ritual with which they are surrounded, the blessings and the readings, are a sign of the role they play and the way in which they connect the bodily reality of our lives with the spiritual. The cellarer, as we are reminded in RB 31, must never misuse food to exert control over others nor allow any material thing to be treated sloppily or carelessly but show reverence and forethought. It is probably whimsical of me, but perhaps there is something there for all of us, including those negotiating agreements at COP26.

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De Disciplina Psallendi | The Discipline of Singing the Psalms

Although it is generally agreed that the chapter titles in the Rule of St Benedict are a later addition, they often throw fresh light on the subject Benedict is writing about. Take today’s section of the Rule, for example. McCann paraphrased the title of chapter 19 as ‘The Manner of Saying the Divine Office’, which is fine, but doesn’t convey the crispness and point of the Latin. De Disciplina Psallendi reminds us that singing the psalmody of the Divine Office is instructive, not something we take up accidentally or without registering its significance. It requires all that is implied by the English word ‘discipline’: focus, attention, listening to others, holding back our own dulcet tones, possibly, to achieve harmony, hard work. It is a discipline that changes us. Singing the psalms, entering into the prayer of Christ himself, hour by hour, day by day, enlarges our understanding and compassion. We learn how to celebrate the beauty of creation, the mirabilia Dei, give thanks, acknowledge our sin and plead for forgiveness, experience the desolation of God’s apparent absence, know the depths of our tawdry desire for vengeance. We cannot hide from God or ourselves when we sing the psalms. They are the song of a free people, people God has claimed as his own, a little taste of Eden and of the heaven to come

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Dialogue versus Debate

For anyone seeking to know the truth both dialogue and debate are important, but I would suggest that dialogue is the more important of the two. We all know how quickly a debate can become ill-tempered, an exchange of insults rather than of arguments. Frequently, those entering a debate do so with the intention of winning, of scoring points, and emerging victorious from the fray. We are less interested in establishing or exploring truth than conquering the other, and those with the best debating skills are often capable of arguing for either ‘side’ with equal effectiveness. Dialogue starts with the recognition that both have something to learn from the other. It is a quest for truth, for mutual enrichment. It is humbler and more receptive, though equally hard work. Those who engage in dialogue may change their opinions as the conversation continues; those engaged in debate rarely do so. There are many calls today for ‘less toxic politics’, a ‘listening Church’. Perhaps we need to think more about dialogue than debate, let go of the desire to triumph and be content to learn instead.

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Metaverse: Promise or Threat?

An Old Idea

Years ago I remember arguing that one of the problems of the internet was that it was too static, too predictable, and what we needed, especially those of us interested in the presentation of religion online, was a more immersive experience that went beyond what was then possible. The ‘informative’ web sites and forums were all very well but they failed to capture the essence of Christian belief and practice. We identified a particular difficulty in sharing the monastic experience with others. Romantic photos of buildings and individuals, accompanied by snippets of plainchant, were popular but didn’t contribute much to understanding. We did our best to address this difficulty with our online chapters, videos and podcasts, but it was still largely us broadcasting our view of life to others.

A Connected World

In the years since we have seen some remarkable developments. We may groan about Zoom meetings or live-streams, but the technologies available have made much more engagement possible for those who have neither the wealth nor the expertise to set things up for themselves. Now everyone is buzzing about the metaverse and the possibility of creating a parallel world of virtual reality which could reshape the entire internet — and I find myself hesitating.

Hesitations

The reason I hesitate is because I think there is a possibility of losing touch with reality and I am far from convinced the Churches have thought through the implications. By that, I don’t mean to oppose physical and virtual reality, which I see as equally ‘real’ though with different modes of being. I am thinking more of what I can best call moral reality. One of the striking aspects of life in the twenty-first century has been the privatisation of morality. If I think something is right, that entitles me to do pretty much anything in pursuance of my ideals or goals. I can murder someone because he or she is ‘wrong’ about something and ‘deserves’ to be eliminated; I can exalt my rights over your rights, on the roads or anywhere else I please. In short, I have become my own moral compass, unconstrained by the need to consider society or any other group. A virtual universe which we experience as ‘real’, which we can manipulate at will, is not without its dangers because it dispenses with many of the controls life usually imposes.

Once upon a time, people worried about video game violence and the blurring of the distinctions between violence on screen and violence off screen. Even after decades of research, no one seems entirely sure what effect it truly has. Part of the current debate about untrammelled violence following the murders of Jo Cox and David Amess has concentrated on the role of social media and the violent language used there and by our M.P.s themselves. The dignified, eirenical statement of the Amess family is a welcome reminder that the values of kindness and consideration are important to any civilized society, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. That it needed to be said is, however, sobering.

What Will the Churches Do?

Of course, as soon as one uses the word ‘civilized’, one begs a series of questions about what constitutes civilisation. For me, grounded in the Western Christian tradition, the answer is not difficult and includes a host of values that are shared with millions of other people. To someone else, with a different cultural heritage, such ideas and values may seem alien. What I am thinking about this morning, therefore, is how the Churches as multi-national institutions will respond to the challenge and opportunity offered by the development of the metaverse. Will they stand to one side, initially hostile or disapproving; or will they embrace the possibilities and allow them to enrich the experience they offer believers and non-believers alike? Maybe those of us preparing for Synod 2023 could add this to the list of matters we are thinking and praying about. Your thoughts on the subject would be welcome.

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Synod 2021 — 2023: the Process Begins

The official logo

Yesterday evening, in Rome, Pope Francis formally inaugurated the process that will culminate in the synod we are to refer to as Synod 2021 — 2023. You can find the preparatory documents, Vademecum, Letter to those living a monastic or contemplative life, the timetable, details about how the logo may be used and other material here: https://www.synod.va/en.html (link opens in new tab). It is important that you should read the material for yourself, reflect on it and pray about it. Like other bloggers, I may occasionally comment on questions that have been raised; but for now, I think it is enough simply to say the process has begun. The community will be praying for everyone involved, for openness to the Holy Spirit and for wisdom, generosity and courage in following his promptings.

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With Heavy Heart

Abuse in the Catholic Church in France

This morning the publication of a report into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in France is expected to contain horrific details. Anyone who has read the IICSA reports must wonder what further horrors are possible, but the scale and ubiquity of the abuse in France is said to be devastating. The report was commissioned by the Church and took two and a half years to complete. The commission conducting the inquiry was led by a layman, Jean-Marc Sauvé, and is said to have been given access to church, court, police and press records.

Already people are taking up ‘positions’. I suspect most have not read the report yet— I myself haven’t — but I think it fair to say that those who have been abused are never able fully to let go of the hurt they have experienced, no matter how hard they try (and most try very hard indeed). The hurt goes too deep, and is one of the reasons why abuse is so evil. Sadly, in my experience, abusers never really admit or take responsibility for what they have done. There are always ‘extenuating circumstances’ or appeals for forgiveness that ring a little hollow. Yes, Christians try to forgive, but that doesn’t mean accepting or endorsing sin.

The Other Consequences of Abuse

Although we are a small community of cloistered nuns, without a chaplain, we have always taken safeguarding seriously and have spent a lot of time and money trying to ensure that we and our premises pose as little risk to others as possible. Inevitably, however, we have been the butt of some people’s hurt and anger, because that is one of the consequences of abuse. Trust is corroded and everyone — everyone — is tarred with the same brush and condemned, frequently in the vilest of terms. Once upon a time, I tried the ‘logical’ response to attacks on the community here: No, we weren’t born when those events took place, we’ve never been members of that congregation, we’ve never lived in that country, and so on and so forth. But it won’t wash. We’re not talking about facts but emotions, and emotions need respecting as much as facts do. It doesn’t matter that we were not personally involved, we are members of the same Church and that is enough to condemn us.

The Church is still Holy

This morning I am bracing myself for more of the hate letters and accusations. If I’m feeling well, I can usually cope with them; if I’m feeling ill or receiving medical treatment that puts my temper on a hair-trigger, it is more difficult. I don’t want to cause more hurt by my clumsy responses. I have no wish to deny or play down the wickedness of abuse as my many posts on the subject will attest, but honesty and truth work both ways. The appalling behaviour of some members of the Church does not mean that the whole Church is ‘rotten to the core’ as one of my friends said yesterday. The core of the Church is Christ, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that or sully His perfect holiness. I cling to that as I cling to Him, because it is true. The institutions of the Church need a thorough overhaul, and as individuals we need to examine our own conduct, but I hazard a guess that there is more light than darkness because of that shining core, Christ the Lord.

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A Lesson from Pontian and Hippolytus

Comparatively few people will be celebrating today’s feast of SS Pontian and Hippolytus with a great sense of their individual personalities. Hippolytus was an important Church writer of the third century although, as with many details of his life, there is disagreement about the exact scope and content of his work, despite many writings having his name attached to them. In The Apostolic Tradition he gave us the first account of the ordination ritual of the early Church which is significant in itself. He may, or may not have been, elected as an anti-pope. What we do know is that he had a furious dispute with the pope of the day about some of the latter’s decisions, accusing him of too much leniency towards sinners. Beginning to sound familiar and contemporary?

Pontian, the pope with whom he had the dispute, was imprisoned by imperial authority and sent to the quarries in Sardinia. Hippolytus was also sent there and somehow the experience led to a reconciliation. Their deaths are recorded as martyrdom, and their names are for ever united in the Church’s calendar. I ask their intercession for long-running and bitter disputes that seem impossible of resolution, for ‘nothing is impossible with God’— a lesson we need to learn again and again.

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Light and Darkness: Transfiguration 2021

‘A-Day’ First atomic bomb explosion at Bikini in the Marshall Islands
1 July 1946

A Local Event and Hiroshima

This morning, at 8 o’clock, Western Power will switch off the electricity supply to this area and we shall be plunged into a temporary physical darkness. It should only last a day, but we won’t be able to supplement natural light at the flick of a switch or do many of the things we usually take for granted. At 8.15 a.m. on this day in 1945 a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and in its glare the world was changed for ever. A moral darkness descended on the human race. It is not just the number of those killed or the way in which they died that appalls, but the fact that another boundary was crossed. Nothing in war was now beyond limits and that would have an impact on the way in which we behaved henceforth. As Robert Oppenheimer remarked earlier, after watching the detonation of the first nuclear weapon, a piece of Hindu scripture had run through his mind: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ In vain did he spend the rest of his life urging stricter control of nuclear energy and more thought about the possible consequences of its development.

Physical and Moral Darkness

Physical darkness, moral darkness, how do they connect with an event that Christians believe took place roughly two thousand years ago in what we have come to call the Transfiguration? Was that episode in the life of Christ another kind of boundary-changer, the spiritual triumph of light over darkness, begun on Tabor and completed on Calvary? Many have speculated that the Transfiguration took place at night, which would have made its strange and luminous beauty even more wonderful to those who saw it. It is not the loveliness of the Transfiguration that matters, however, but its significance.

The Transfiguration

Mark’s account is brief (Mk 9.2-10). As always, there is no lingering over the detail. He moves quickly to meaning and purpose. This is God’s beloved Son to whom we are to listen and as a consequence find life. The vision of the unity of the Old and New Covenants is meant to do away with doubt and disbelief but, of course, it has done no such thing. We continue to live with doubt, fear, death. Today, as much as ever before, the old certainties are crumbling. Climate change and the loss of habits and species in the natural world parallels the loss of agreed values in the social and political order. Even our religious institutions have shown themselves to be often corrupt and untrustworthy. Sin, we find, is not an abstraction but a brutal reality in the lives of us all. In a sense, we are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, still living in the not-yet of the kingdom, of eternal life glimpsed but not yet fully grasped..

That is not the whole story, of course. Sin and death do not have the last word; the promise is fulfilled, only those of us alive today have yet to experience its fullness when, as we affirm, ‘all is made new’.

I am encouraged by the fact that liturgically the Transfiguration is very much a Benedictine feast, popularised by the Cluniacs. Benedictines are not much given to hype — or despair. We just go on, century after century, trusting in God and hoping, little by little, to be refashioned into the likeness of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. That surely is the connection, the answer to the conundrum. Just as on Tabor Jesus allowed his disciples to glimpse his glory as God, so, in our everyday lives, his grace transforms us, allowing us to achieve the impossible because, in the end, good will always triumph over evil, love over hatred, life over death. God wills that all should be saved. We think about that too little or somehow dismiss it as something that doesn’t really apply to us. Yet that is the hope the Transfiguration confers on us and the whole human race. We may not see the glory now nor realise how wonderful is the promise made to us, but it is there, shimmering and shining throughout time and eternity. We are, because of Him, ‘immortal diamond’. Let us give thanks, rejoice — and pray for peace.

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