It seems no time at all since we were thinking about ourselves as straying sheep (fourth Sunday of Easter), now here we are, on the sixth Sunday of Easter, invited to consider ourselves friends of God — if we obey his commandments (cf John 15. 9-17).
I wonder whether we really take on board what that means. We can probably quote a whole series of edifying lines taken from the saints, such as Aelred’s Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship’, but it is our homely English word ‘friend’, with its connotations of mutual affection, equality, freedom and trust that gets to the heart of the matter. Who would ever dream of any kind of ‘equality’ with God? In one sense, it is absolute nonsense. But when John puts onto the lips of Jesus those astonishing words ‘You are my friends . . . ‘ we must take notice.
In a few days we shall celebrate the Ascension and, a few days after that, Pentecost. Our role and responsibility as disciples is growing. We are not to be merely followers, we must become active collaborators; and we can only do that insofar as we have taken on the lineaments of friendship with God. Becoming friends takes time. Those often apparently wasted hours reading and praying are part of the process; so, too, are what I call the blank times, when we are so bound up in grief or sickness or some other negative experience that we do not see what the Lord is doing, or we try to limit Him because we feel obliged to limit ourselves.
The rather cheeky photo I chose to illustrate this post is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, not to insist that we must be x or y before God can love us. He loves us as we are and wants to be friends with us now. That doesn’t mean we can go on being horrible to everyone or leading a sinful life. On the contrary, friendship with God is bound up with conversion and obeying his commandments. We change because we want to be friends with him. But let us not forget that we are meant to find joy in our friendship with God and, even more, his friendship with us.
Over the years I have spent a great deal of time thinking and praying about vocation, more particularly, the vocation to be a nun. I must have written thousands of words in response to enquirers and in posts for this blog and its predecessor. Yet every Vocations Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, I ask myself whether the effort has been worthwhile. Has anyone been helped to find their path in life or have I merely added to the confusion and uncertainty they feel? Worse still, have I discouraged anyone, not only by what I have written but also by what I have done or failed to do?
That is a question not just for me but for everyone. We all play a part in the vocation of others and can help or hinder them (family and friends take note). Sometimes we forget that God loves every person he has created, even the villains of history or those we are inclined to dismiss as somehow unworthy of our love and attention, if not God’s. He has called every one of us by name. He has chosen us and wants our eternal happiness. That is what a vocation really is: an invitation to be with the Lord for all eternity in a bond of mutual love and joy. We begin now, as members of the Church, baptized into the death of Christ and sharers also in his resurrection.
Membership of the Church is our Primary Vocation
To be a member of the Church is thus our primary vocation, and there is none higher or greater. The way our primary vocation is worked out differs with each individual. For some it will be through the holiness of marriage, for others singleness, for others again priesthood or consecrated life, perhaps changing as we grow older or according to circumstance. What we do with our time, our work, is bound up with this but does not define or limit our vocation. God’s love is unchanging, no matter how little we ‘achieve’ or the failures of which we are conscious. As Julian of Norwich says, we are ‘oned with him’, and being oned with him means we are oned with everyone else, too. Together we make up the Body of Christ and Communion of Saints. Our connectedness goes beyond denominational labels or the accidents of time or physical proximity. St Benedict reminds us again and again that we go to God together. We are incomplete without each other, and so is the Kingdom. With that in mind, let us look for a moment at the vocation of a nun following the Rule of St Benedict.
Monastic Life for Women
The illustration used for this post evokes contradictory reactions in most of those who look at it. Those who do not know the sad story of the nun of Monza, Sister Virginia Maria de Leyva y Marino, will probably smile at Molteni’s painting. That is what a nun should be — young, beautiful and romantically pensive. Those who do know the story may make a moue of disgust at the scandal surrounding her name and utter dark comments about sexual perversion and murder. Such reactions reveal how many view monastic life for women and their expectations of it. Fortunately, not everyone goes in for such extremes, although a quick search on Google is not reassuring. If we look for light relief, the nun as figure of fun fares scarcely better than the nun as angel or demon. The exhortations of popes and bishops often seem wide of the mark, too, with their flowery language and ignorance of what a nun’s life is really like. Maybe I am prejudiced, but it seems to me that nuns are often portrayed as different from other women. We’re either impossibly holy or impossibly evil. Even by our admirers we can be seen as milksops at best, dangerously dictatorial and unfeeling at worst, in constant need of supervision and control. Allow me to present an alternative view.
Shepherds and Nuns
Let’s begin by thinking about the popular name for this Sunday: Good Shepherd Sunday. I haven’t met many women who are shepherds, but the three I have, although very different in age and size of flock they look after, impressed me with their toughness, their resilience and their obvious care for their sheep. In fact, they were rather like many of the nuns I know, for all that their ‘habits’ consisted mainly of wellies and old anoraks. There was a shrewdness and realism about them I found appealing, a determination just to get on with things and persevere whatever difficulties or setbacks they encountered. That may not sound very ‘spiritual’ but such qualities are very necessary in monastic life, perseverance above all.
Perseverance, Joy and Fruitfulness
I think the unshowy nature of perseverance distinguishes the reality of being a nun from unreal conceptions of what a nun is or should be. To put it bluntly, seeking God is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who give up easily. Prayer cannot be taken up one day and dropped the next. We cannot fritter away our time on inanities or waste our energies on anything with a tendency to destroy rather than build up. Selective obedience is not obedience at all and, though we might like to, we cannot dodge the dura et aspera of community life. Of course we most of us try, at one time or another, and we can be quite devious in the means we employ. Flopping to our knees or using personal ‘religious fervour’ as an excuse for skiving off the less congenial duties in monastic life is a recognized tactic easily spotted by the novice mistress. We must embrace the whole life, including its occasional tediums and companions we find just a teeny weeny bit tiresome, or we will never really begin. We soon discover that there is nothing romantic about the life we lead, it is all too grounded for that. Even those lovely habits and beautiful buildings have their drawbacks, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.
The novice mistress is obliged by the Rule to tell every candidate for admission of the difficulties ahead of her, but most novices experience them for themselves soon enough. We grow into monastic life and I think its most positive side is often experienced later, sometimes much later. It is only then that we see the meaning of certain practices or understand why some things are as they are. It takes a lifetime of prayer, reading and obedience to appreciate the riches lavished upon us in community or see how grace has fashioned others (never ourselves, alas!) into saints. That is one reason every community needs older members who have taken on the shape and form of the Rule through a lifetime of trying to live by it, whose experience can teach us so much. Their example is an encouragement, especially when we ourselves may be feeling tired or inadequate or simply unsure about going on. They show us how monastic life can be lived joyfully and fruitfully.
To speak of joy and fruitfulness in connection with a life that is highly disciplined and frequently austere may seem strange. There may be grudging acknowledgement of the joy, but fruitfulness, where does that come in? I think that is where we have to insist that monastic life is lived by faith. We do not see; we have to trust. For those who are prepared to give themselves completely not just to a way of life but to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, the rewards are very great. ‘We shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may be made worthy to share also in his Kingdom.’ (RB Prol. 50). That is the hundredfold of the Gospel, the answer to the question of the title. It is our privilege as nuns to seek and find the Lord, not for ourselves alone but for all. May I humbly, but with conviction, encourage any who may be thinking about monastic life to listen to the whispering of the Holy Spirit and follow the Risen Christ wherever he may lead you.
The solemnity of St George tends to bring out much that is good, a little that is bad, and, if I am honest, a certain amount of silliness as well, among the English. Leaving aside those learned discussions about the origins of the dragon-slaying legend, the displacement of St Edmund as patron saint of the English, and the feast for the eyes that St George-themed paintings and sculpture have produced over the years, what are we left with? For some there is only that red and white flag showing our tribal allegiance, prominently displayed at football matches or on the number plates of cars. For others, there is the annual St George’s Day Dinner, with sentimental speeches pledging fidelity to ‘our own dear Queen, God bless her!’ and a selective recall of history that is both enchanting and infuriating. For many more, the day brings with it either an embarrassed indifference or a sober assessment of England’s role in the world and what are regarded as typically English characteristics. Perhaps we could spend a moment or two looking at these latter.
English Qualities: Myth and Reality
Everyone knows that the most characteristic quality of the Englishman or woman in every age is emotional reserve. Along with that goes a highly-developed sense of duty, honesty and sense of fair play. We pride ourselves on our sense of humour, but not enough to make fools of ourselves learning another language. We just speak English more loudly. We can safely assert that the English are not very imaginative but we do make good administrators. We are entirely clueless about the Arts, depressingly bad cooks, and kinder to animals than to our children. Bluff and gruff, that’s us. Only, it ain’t absolutely true.
Merrie England was not all myth, and in the sixteenth century Erasmus paints a very different picture of England from the one we have now. He didn’t think much of our beer(!), but the cheese was better than that in Basle and he found the English habit of kissing one another on every possible occasion utterly delightful. Everyone sang or played an instrument, and, at least in the circles in which he moved, there was an ease with languages, especially Latin, that made communication easy. Then, I suppose, the rot set in. The English became a little more dour, more intent on empire-building and the martial qualities that go with conquest and administration. By the time we get to the Victorians, the myth becomes reality.
England Today: Values and Virtues
Today, I think very few would claim that the English are emotionally reserved, although there remains an awkwardness about the kind of display of personal emotion we see in Prince Harry. To speak of duty is to invite derision. There are serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of some holding public office, and the uncomfortable feeling that we can no longer count on anyone’s word being their bond. Administration is not our forte, if it ever was, and although we can claim to be more imaginative than allowed in the past, we are just as mono-glottal, inward-looking and dull as ever we were. Is there any hope for us then, as a nation and as individuals?
I think there is. English love of country never descends into nationalism, ‘my country right or wrong,’ except among the eccentric. Despite what I see as the tragedy of Brexit, we are still open to collaboration with others and appreciate their good points. Even after the current Government’s cut in the aid budget, we continue to be one of the most generous providers of help to other countries, both as a state and as individuals. Our cooking has improved but so too has our awareness of the need to share what we have with the hungry. We’re still not good at languages, but we remain kind to animals and we are becoming kinder to our children.
The qualities I have singled out are not obviously Christian virtues but they contain within them some important Christian values. Thinking of Erasmus, though, and his remarks about music-making and kissing, maybe one quality we largely lack nowadays is joyfulness. Easter is the season of joy, and alleluia is its song. Let us not stop at patriotism but ring out our joy to the Lord.
Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.
I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.
Image The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:
The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.
This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.
I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?
We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.
I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?
There are a number of dream-like elements in Luke”s account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). A stranger suddenly joins the disciples as they trudge wearily along. Something stops them recognizing him, just as something stopped Mary Magdalene recognizing him in yesterday’s gospel. Even Jesus’ questions and explanations of scripture leave them unable to make the connection. At table the stranger takes on the role of host, breaks bread and shares it with them. The evangelist goes on to say
And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’ They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.
The disciples are not permitted to linger in the presence of the Lord, any more than Mary was, but must proclaim the resurrection. Jesus, too, is not to linger with the disciples, though his mission is more hidden and will not be complete until he has returned to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit (cf John 16.5-16). That is clear enough, but why this mystery, what I have called the dream-like elements in the story?
I think myself it is not only extremely good story-telling, which makes a profound impact on the listener, it is also a way of making us aware of the change the resurrection has wrought. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The newness of life we celebrate takes us where we have never been before. It transforms everything, even the old and familiar. In other words, what the disciples experienced on the road to Emmaus and at table with their mysterious guest is an experience every Christian shares: an invitation to share in the life of God himself. As the priest prays whenever Mass is celebrated, ‘May we become sharers in his divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ Amen. Alleluia.
Every Easter Tuesday I try to say something new about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the Risen Christ, and every year I fail. The failure is not because there is nothing new to say but because, like Mary, I find myself falling to my knees, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The meeting between Jesus and Mary is one in which we all share — the moment our souls are touched by grace and we recognize him as our Saviour.
It is no accident that Mary sees her Lord through a mist of tears. The human heart must be washed clean if it is to see clearly, and it tends not to be the big, dramatic sins that obscure our vision so much as the little faults and infidelities we allow to become habitual. Mary’s gaze has the simplicity and freshness of the garden in which Jesus stands. For us, that may be more difficult to achieve but the great privilege of monastic life is to do our theology on our knees. It keeps us grounded, and I think it enables us to see what otherwise we might miss. The wounds in Christ’s feet, now channels of grace and healing, hold our gaze as they held Mary’s, and they make sense of what could easily be baffling: we have a God who is near, not one afar off; one who has shared with us the human experience of birth and death and now shares with us the divine gift of resurrection. Mary’s privilege will one day be ours, too. But there is more.
The post-resurrection gospels are full of women whom the Lord comes to meet. They have no need to climb mountains or prepare elaborate sacrifices to find him. He surprises them as they go about their ordinary tasks. This morning Mary is lingering by the tomb when she encounters Christ. There is that momentary lack of recognition characteristic of all the post-resurrection appearances, but then everything changes. Jesus is the same, but different, but how is he different? For Fra Angelico, there is no ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ to suggest a gardener, but Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. When he recognizes her, she is able to recognize him. There is something to ponder there. We think we must go in search of God and sometimes become sad and angry when we feel we have failed to find him, not realising that the initiative always remains his. He finds us; he names us; he calls us.
One further point. Look at the garden and what is beyond the garden. The trees outside are fairly uniform but within, what a variety! Where Christ is, there is always abundance. It was to restore the fullness of life to the world that God gave his only Son. This morning Mary experiences what that means, and she is charged with telling the Church in every generation. We have been redeemed by one who knows us by name and lives for evermore.
Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia! Easter is not, as many tend to think, the end of Lent but a new beginning, indeed, the true beginning of everything. With Christ’s resurrection, we too rise to newness of life — not the old one, somehow given a gloss of fresh beauty and truth, but a new life, completely and utterly transformed by his victory over sin and death. The solemn tones of the Triple Alleluia with which we greet the resurrection gospel, or the sober joy of the introit for today’s day Mass, Resurrexi, capture the wonder of what has occurred. The ‘happy fault’ of Adam has given us a Redeemer, a Saviour. All is changed, for ever.
While I was thinking about a suitable image to accompany today’s post, I naturally thought of Piero della Francesca and was delighted to find this photo. The fresco has an unusual history and was only saved from destruction during World War II by Tony Clarke, a British Artillery officer, who disobeyed orders to raze the city of Sansepulcro. This is how the fresco is to be seen nowadays, rather more awkwardly than we are accustomed to seeing it in art books or on screen. I like the fact that Piero’s work was commissioned not for a church but for a civic hall, and that one can ‘read’ a few political details into its imagery. Easter, and the mystery it proclaims, is not just for the ‘religious’ moments of our lives but for every moment.
The next eight days of the Octave are all equally Easter Day when we shall have the opportunity to look at the resurrection from many different angles. This morning, however, it is the hiddenness of the resurrection that we focus on. Mary finds the empty tomb and tells Peter and John that the Lord is not there. Silently, while the world slept, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and will never die again. Our life too is now hidden with his in God — and it is life, not death (cf Romans 6.3-11). Alleluia.
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.
Is it significant that during these nine days of prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit the first three are dedicated to the inter-related but often misunderstood gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel? You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it is. Although I have been re-posting a series on the gifts of the Spirit that I wrote back in 2016 and intend to continue doing so, this morning I was struck by how pertinent they are to a debate going on in the political sphere concerning the behaviour of Dominic Cummings and his recent flouting of the government’s avowed policy regarding lockdown. It may be possible, therefore, to add to what I’ve already written.
Let me say at once I have no interest in arguing the rights or wrongs of Mr Cummings’ conduct here. That is not the point of this post. Instead, I’d like to invite you to reflect on why we begin our novena to the Holy Spirit by asking for these particular gifts. Wisdom is a quality we associate with God himself, of course, and most of us are aware that we are not especially wise; understanding is something most of us seek but don’t always attain; but counsel, oh, how happy we are to give others the benefit of our opinion or advice! With what speed do we rush to inform others of our insights or share our experience! How confidently we assert our predictions for the future! But if we have neither wisdom nor understanding, our counsel is worthless. We must be filled before we can give to others.
I think that is why the Dominic Cummings affair is relevant to what we are doing now. He is a special adviser to Boris Johnson and, as such, bears a great responsibility to ensure that the advice he gives is sound. It is easy for us to criticize politicians and their advisers but if we are not praying for them, and in particular, if we are not praying for them to receive the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, we are not exactly helping, are we? We need wise government in both Church and State; we need understanding, and we need good counsel. This morning, may I suggest that we need to ask for these gifts not just for ourselves but for all whose conduct and decisions affect the lives of others — including those we find personally objectionable or unsympathetic?