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?
No one likes a favourite, although most of us enjoy being someone’s favourite. The paradox is easily explained, at least in a family/community context. Our innate sense of justice is outraged when we see someone being treated better than we are for reasons that are not entirely obvious to us. What does my younger sister have that I lack that she should be so favoured? And so on and so forth. On the other hand, there is a certain secret pleasure to be derived from knowing oneself the beloved eldest son, for whom nothing is too good or too much trouble. Sometimes religious superiors do have favourites, more’s the pity, but not if they have read St Benedict on the subject. In the portion of the Rule we read today, chapter 2 verses 16 to 22, which you can listen to here, the abbot is given some very precise instructions about avoiding favouritism.
What is interesting is not so much the fact that Benedict endorses St Paul’s view that we are a new creation in Christ without any of the old distinctions applying as that he qualifies it. One equal love to be shown, one equal discipline to be imposed, yes, but. Someone found better in good works and obedience, in bonis actibus aut obedientia, does have a greater claim on the abbot’s love; the freeborn is not to be preferred to the slave unless there is some other reasonable ground for it, nisi alia rationabilis causa exsistat. The principle is clear: we are all one in Christ and serve alike under the banner of the same Lord, but the abbot must look at everything as God looks — and that’s where the nuances come in.
In God’s sight, says Benedict, we are distinguished for our good works and humility (RB 2. 22). I have heard some argue that that makes us at least semi-pelagians, but I don’t think it’s quite true. What I believe Benedict is trying to do is to encourage the abbot to take seriously his obligation to lead the community to grow in holiness — and that means both giving up his own personal preferences and studying the needs and talents of his monks. He is there to serve so he must make use of all his gifts, his powers of observation, his understanding of human nature, his judgement, to bring about the best result he can.
It is a difficult path to tread but familiar to many a parent or teacher. How to obtain the best from someone doesn’t necessarily mean equal shares of everything. In the Rule, for example, Benedict is very sensitive to the fact that some need more material goods, others fewer. What matters is to keep the end in view and to prevent any inequality in distribution acquiring a significance it does not have. Love is not measured out in pounds and pence or chocolate treats or what you will. Love hangs naked on the tree and makes us all sons in the Son. One equal love indeed.
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.
Who does not love the gospels we read this week, with their stories of meeting the Risen Christ? How one’s whole being thrills with Mary Magdalene as she hears the Lord calling her by name or with those weary disciples, their hearts burning within them as the scriptures are explained to them on the road to Emmaus, and then that amazing moment of recognition as Jesus breaks bread with them. We shall see the Risen Christ on the sea-shore, put our hands into the mark of the nails, be questioned by him, be commissioned by him. We shall know him, yet not know him; recognize him yet still perhaps doubt. In a word, we shall be plunged into the mystery of the Resurrection — and it will all be new, strange, unsettling and the most profound joy we have ever known.
For most, the way in which we are celebrating Easter this year is without precedent. We have been discovering anew the power and holiness of the domestic church — making a chapel of our living room, an altar of our table and a lectern or pulpit of our tablet or smartphone. For some, live-streamed worship has taken the place of gathering physically with the parish community; for others, there has been a more conscious and regular participation in the ancient prayer of the Church known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Whichever it is, the intention is the same: to meet the Risen Christ, to adore him, to love him, to serve him. That is why, no matter how engaged we are with worship, we cannot neglect him in our brothers and sisters, many of whom are suffering terribly at this time.
For a cloistered nun like me, that poses a special challenge but it is one I suspect my older or less able readers may share. Yes, we can pray; but can we do anything practical to help those in need? For many of us the answer will be a disappointing ‘no’. We haven’t the money or resources, physical or otherwise, to help others directly. Happily, that also means we can’t pat ourselves on the back that we have done something good and worthwhile. We actually have to live our faith. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have an ambiguity that draws us in. We don’t see him healing or preaching. He just is; but he is in a way that is intensely alive and life-giving. I have a hunch that we who call ourselves his disciples are meant to be the same. We may not do very much, but through our prayer and our readiness to respond to the Lord, we are inviting the Risen Christ into the heart of a sick and suffering world which he alone can heal and give new life to. It is a humbler role than we might like, perhaps, but it is the one that will prove most fruitful.
We may not always recognize the Risen Christ as we would wish, but I’m confident he will always recognize us; and that is what matters. Cleopas and his companion walked seven long miles in Jesus’ company, but only recognized him when he himself chose to disclose himself to them. Let us be try to be ready for that moment in our own lives.
It is curious how often the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are put into a kind of hierarchy of importance. The women going to the tomb to anoint his dead body are mentioned because they are, according to Matthew, chronologically the first to see the stone rolled away. Their meeting with the Risen Christ is noted (Matthew 28. 8–15), but the evangelist quickly passes on to the way in which the authorities of the day ‘squared’ the guards with a little judicious bribery. Tomorrow, when we read John’s account, we shall linger over Mary Magdalene’s meeting and its poignant detail, but not for long. By Wednesday we are on the road to Emmaus and an ambiguous encounter that reveals its full meaning only later; and by Thursday we are back with the men and their mission. From then on, women are less evident, appearing from time to time in the Acts or the Letters, but definitely in much more elusive roles.
It is unfortunate that this increasing invisibility of women has become a source of contention within the Church. It has led to anger and frustration and some very silly things being said and done on both sides. The fact that I write of ‘sides’ is an indication of how often the ministry of women has led to a loss of focus on Christ himself. Partly, I think that may be because a lot of preaching in the Catholic Church is done by men who are awkward around women. Personally, if I hear one more homily telling me that Mary is the model of holiness for women, I shall shriek. Male or female, Christ is our model. There can be no other. The Resurrection means that there is now no male, no female, no slave, no free, no Jew, no gentile, we are all one in Christ, as St Paul says. That is why the appearances to the women are important. It is not that they are incidental to the real business of the early Church and the evolving ministry of men. They are part of the mission of the whole Church to proclaim Christ, the whole Christ.
This morning, as we think about those women meeting Jesus as they come away from the tomb, it may be helpful to consider the obvious. They did not find Jesus where they expected to find him. They found him — or rather, he found them — where they did not expect, as they were coming away, disappointed at not being able to fulfil the task they had laid upon themselves. Sometimes we have to learn that what we think is important isn’t; that what God wills is ultimately best for us all; and that we shall meet God at a time and place of his choosing, not ours. We just have to be ready — and that is undoubtedly the hardest task of all.
Almost the only topic of conversation online or off seems to be COVID-19 and its implications. Every day we hear of more restrictions being imposed, more curtailments of what we like to think of as ‘normal life’. Amid so much gloom, it is easy to forget that we are in Lent and that Lent is the springtime of the soul, preparing us for the most important event of all time: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Latterly, I think the sunshine here in England has helped lift our mood. Flowers have graced our gardens and window boxes, while the hushing of roads and streets means we can hear the birdsong often drowned out by the noise of cars and lorries. But what has been going on interiorly? Has the Lenten springtime really touched our souls?
Many clergy and communities have rushed to put their services online or to offer reflections designed to encourage their congregations in a time of stress and anxiety. Individuals have been generous in offering practical help and moral support to those in need. But what of the inner journey each of us is called to make during Lent, the journey from death to life? Today would be a good day to pause for a moment and consider where we are. How have prayer, fasting and almsgiving characterised our Lent so far? Do we need to reassess what we are doing or not doing in the light of our present circumstances? One of the great temptations of Lent, as of the Christian life in general, is what we in the monastery call Elijah Sickness. Just as Elijah was tempted to sit down under a tree and give up, so are we. We begin well, then we become distracted, bored or weary. Let’s remember that the Lord’s mercies never cease, they are new every morning (Lamentations 3.22–23). We still have some way to go till Easter, but He will be with us every step of the way. Be encouraged!
Strong winds are rocking the garden this morning, twisting and turning the willows and propelling little bursts of fruit blossom this way and that. It is such a contrast to the calm beauty of Easter Sunday. In the course of a few days we have moved through so many different emotions — pity, fear, horror, rejoicing — that we need today and Mark’s brief summary of the events following the Resurrection before we can celebrate the fulfilment of the Octave tomorrow (Mark 16. 9-15). This is a day for taking stock, for quiet prayer and reflection if we can, for allowing the reality of Easter to take root in us and renewing the hope and faith we and the world badly need.
It is breakfast on the beach time again. The disciples have been night-fishing: they were at a loose end and needed to occupy their time to distract themselves from their darker thoughts, but they have had no success. Then that mysterious figure appears on the shore, gives an odd instruction which nets a huge catch, and Peter does his best to escape. It is all very human and understandable. The difficulty comes when we begin to notice the more explicitly theological elements in the narrative (John 21.1–14) — the 153 fish (the square of the Trinity plus the square of the apostles according to some medieval commentators); the meal of bread and fish (recalling the passover meal as a symbol of the Eucharist as well as the miracle of the loaves and fishes) and so on and so forth.
I find particularly interesting the way in which the disciples react to what they see. ‘None of the disciples was bold enough to ask, “Who are you?”; they knew quite well it was the Lord.’ Once again we seem to have some doubt, some newness about the Risen Christ which confuses the disciples, who are nevertheless confirmed in their faith by what they experience. And there is Peter, poor hot-headed Peter, who has no doubts at all but simply wants to get away and hide his shame. He, at least, seems to recognize the person on the shore; but even though he knows who he is, he doesn’t fully understand the new relationsip of love and forgiveness that now exists between them. It will take the threefold question and commission of the next few verses to make that clear.
One of the difficulties many of us experience is believing that we are fogiven. We forget that God always takes the initiative. From the first moment of our becoming conscious of sin, of our wanting to repent, grace is at work in us. We don’t often feel any different after we have confessed and been absolved from our sins; but we are different. We are in a new relationship with the Lord, and no matter how often we fall, how often we sin again, his grace is always waiting for us. That is all very well in theory, but it is actually quite difficult to live by because it reminds us that we are not in control. And we do so love to be in charge! Today’s gospel teaches us that all our so-called certainties can be over-turned by God in a moment; that his abundance is never limited by our imagining.
This morning we see the disciples struggling to understand, and we struggle with them. Breakfast on the beach is never effortless.
Last night’s rain has scattered cherry blossom on the lawn, where it lies in great drifts of creamy loveliness. The Black Mountains are hidden behind a watery greyness while the air holds a kind of electric thrill of birdsong and raindrops. On just such a day, on just such an evening in spring, surely, Jesus came and stood among his disciples and showed them his wounds. And their reaction was very like our own when we are ‘hoping against hope’ but are finally allowed to see and hear what we have been longing for — the sight of someone we love whom we never expected to see again, the sound of their voice, perhaps the touch of their hand.
I love the fact that Jesus convinces the disciples that he is no ghost by eating a piece of grilled fish. There is something so human and natural about eating and a piece of grilled fish — cold, no doubt — is about as unappetizing to the imagination as it is possible to be. It suggests to me that our Lord was indeed a young man when he died and still retained a young man’s iron constitution and boundless appetite!
Be that as it may, there is a more important point here. We tend to think that everyone should have realised who the Risen Christ was. The empty tomb, the opening of the scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, the breaking of bread, weren’t these enough to show who he was? Apparently not. The empty tomb proclaimed the Resurrection, as Peter and John allowed, but actually meeting Jesus and recognizing him was beset with difficulty. Mary had to hear the sound of his voice before she truly knew him; the disciples had to see him eat before their eyes.
We too can be dumbfounded when we meet the Lord; we too can disbelieve for joy. The problem is not so much that we have failed to see him as that we have predetermined what our meeting should be like; sometimes, alas, we miss him even as we look for him because we do not recognize the reality before us. Something there to ponder, I suggest.