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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently. Partly, I know, it is the effect of reading or listening to the news in the light of our readings from scripture and the Rule of St Benedict; partly it is the effect of knowing my disease is progressing and my not wanting to die burdened with a refusal to forgive others; mainly, however, it is the experience of myself being forgiven that weighs with me. I can look back on my life and see how often people have given me the benefit of the doubt, granted me a second chance, just put up with me — especially those who have treated me the best when I’ve behaved the worst, i.e. the community I live with.
This morning, however, I admit to feeling discouraged. Recently I was sent a letter by someone I don’t know. It was a courteous and kindly letter, urging me to reflect on what the writer perceived to be the errors of Christianity and embrace Islam. My first thought was, if only some Christians were as courteous how much better would be the impression we give of our faith. I said as much on some Social Media accounts. Most people got my point (though not, I suspect, those with a tendency to rant and rave!). Others either didn’t, or decided to use the opportunity to voice their own views of Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, that’s where prejudice and fear began to raise their heads. It hasn’t got too bad, but I may have to step in and delete my original post because, as I often have to say, I don’t want that kind of negativity on any of my Social Media accounts. Informed debate (even, let’s be honest, on some matters, ignorant debate) is fine; attacks on others aren’t; and the historian in me bristles when old chestnuts are brought out with little regard for their validity.
Prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of the facts. It means a preconceived idea based neither on reason nor experience. It is usually, but not always, hostile and often proceeds from fear. Frequently, there is a small smattering of truth contained within it: not enough to justify it, but enough to give it a slight appearance of reasonableness. So, for example, we can say that politicians are self-serving. Some are; most aren’t; but the idea is current because of recent high-profile cases of corruption in high places both in this country and elsewhere. Our prejudice against the political class can be said to proceed from fear of its power over our lives. (Please note, I’m saying this by way of example because I don’t want to be drawn into specifics by those who take everything literally.)
So, how do prejudice and fear link with forgiveness? That is where I’d say we have to do some hard thinking. Many people assume that forgiveness has to do with concrete acts: saying or doing what is wrong. But words and deeds proceed from thoughts and attitudes, which is why monastic tradition has always paid close attention to setting a guard on the thoughts that run through our minds incessantly. We don’t stop thinking, but we do have to check any tendency to let our thoughts run away with us into negative channels. Sometimes it seems to me that we carry a pent-up sea within ourselves, its waves crashing and breaking on many a different shore. It is a far-fetched analogy, perhaps, but just as the health of all life on the planet is intimately linked with the health of the oceans, so our willingness to ‘take every thought captive for Christ’ plays an essential part in our spiritual health. We let go of our prejudice and fear by inserting ourselves into his forgiveness, letting him forgive in and through us. And, as always, we find that if we do that, we ourselves are forgiven. Something to ponder, I suggest, when we read the headlines today.
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).
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.
It’s easy to miss the point of anything, isn’t it, and the fact that lockdown is giving some people too much time, and others too little, means that a querelous dissatisfaction with life is becoming more and more evident in some quarters. It often takes the form of angry little diatribes on Twitter or Facebook, childish squabbles that leave all parties feeling diminished. We all know people who have to be right all the time (not us, of course), who will pick away at minute details until one really wants to scream. Or there are those who like to reply to comments on our behalf, not always accurately and sometimes in ways that cause major misunderstandings we have to try to resolve. Then there are those who assume that because they read something ten, twenty or sixty years ago, it has achieved the status of eternal verity. Even as I write, there are disputes going on in social media about the ‘correct’ spacing after a full stop, the ‘correct’ timing of today’s prayer for healthcare workers and the ‘correct’ way to introduce people to Christianity.
If you don’t mind my pontificating a little, I can give you the answer to all three questions: single, doesn’t matter, depends. Only one, you notice, is specific. Years spent designing books and other printed matter means that the typographical standards known as Hart’s Rules are second nature to me — or at least, I know when I have broken them. But what about those other two, the ‘correct’ timing of today’s prayer for healthcare workers and the ‘correct’ way to introduce people to Christianity? Why do I claim that the answer should be ‘doesn’t matter’ and ‘depends’? It has to do with what I believe about prayer.
Prayer is much more important than the times of prayer, by which I mean that whether we pray for healthcare workers at 11.00 a.m. or at 1.00 p.m. is, in an important sense, immaterial. There is no time in eternity. As Christians we pray in Christ, and that is what matters. Now, I can understand that someone arranging a church service, whether in church or online, has to fix a time for assembling people together, just as we do in the monastery for the Divine Office, but surely proportionality applies to an extraordinarily brief silent pause? One minute? I shall barely have time to register it! All the time that has been lavished on deciding whether it is to be observed at 11.00 a.m. or 1.00 p.m. would surely have been better employed in praying, would it not, because that is the point of the exercise?*
What about introducing someone to Christianity? I don’t think there is one ‘right’ way, particularly where adults are concerned. One has to try to meet the needs of the individual one is trying to help. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) provides a programme many have followed with advantage. I know the method I myself have adopted on occasion would not meet with everyone’s approval, though it seems to have worked, if by that one means the person concerned seems to have grown in faith and love of the Lord. The key words here are ‘faith’ and ‘love’. I am a great believer in reading and reading deeply and widely, but I know it is not enough. Unless we pray we shall only know about God, not God himself. If those who act as catechists do not encourage prayer, it seems to me that an opportunity is being missed, an opportunity of enormous significance for both the individual and the Church as a whole.
Lockdown means that a lot of people are becoming bored, chafing at its restraints and seeing only negativity. Trying to spiritualise the experience doesn’t help, especially if one has fixed ideas about what the spiritual is. This morning I tried to encourage someone to think of it as a temporary experience of cloister. As Benedictines, most of our searching for God is done outside choir, doing routine things in routine ways, often in circumstances that are anything but glamorous or romantic. Cleaning a bathroom, listening to another’s grumbles or complaints, coping with a headache or bout of hay fever, doing what someone else asks or decides rather than what we would choose, experiencing loneliness or anxiety or any other feeling of inadequacy or pain, these are not earth-shattering events perhaps, but they are the stuff of which saints can be made. The secret of transformation lies in prayer, and prayer is nothing other than the desire to be pleasing to God, the point of our existence.
I am not referring to the discussion on our own FB page but speaking more generally.
Note: No audio today as I am too breathless to record.
This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.
Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning.
On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.
But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.
But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.
Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?
I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.
Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener.
I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life. A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.
So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.
When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.
My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.
*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.
P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!
We have probably all been shocked by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, people squabbling over packets of loo rolls or loading impossibly large amounts of food and drink into the back of their cars, not to mention the heart-wrenching photos of an elderly man or woman standing forlorn in the midst of the chaos, shopping-list and empty basket in hand. It has been a powerful reminder of how selfish we can be, how easily we return to the law of the jungle — only it isn’t the law of the jungle, but something much worse. It is the law of fear and anxiety. We are afraid that we might have to go without; afraid that there might not be enough to go round; afraid of a future we thought we could predict and control but now find we can’t. What we have been seeing is literally panic rather than panic-buying. The results are the same, but the origins lie deeper and are less susceptible of rational control.
We, of course, do not panic. In fact, we are inclined to take a rather severe view of those who do. So, instead, we tell stories of acts of unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness — strangers sharing scarce items, neighbours offering help or leaving little gifts anonymously, postcards through the letterbox to ensure that people know whom to contact in case of need. It is all heartening and reassuring of the decency of the majority of our fellow human beings. We smile over the jokes and clever memes on social media, enjoy clips of the balcony performances of opera singers, and share links to enchanting Youtube videos intended to keep our spirits up. The religiously-minded rush to Zoom and other platforms to maintain contact and provide cyber-worship while we all become a little starry-eyed over the possibilities opening up to us. Then a bubble-buster comes along with an inconvenient question. Is it possible to be a ‘panic-buyer’ in cyberspace as well as in a supermarket? Is there such a thing as feasting, fasting and maintaining a healthy nutritional balance online? I think the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.
If, like us, you live in a rural area, where the Broadband service is at best slow and at worst patchy or non-existent, you will understand the point I’m making more easily than if you live where blistering upload and download speeds are obtainable. Access to the internet is a resource like any other. Over the next few weeks and months it is likely that demand will go up hugely — just think of all those educational establishments taking classes online, for example. It is to be hoped that supply will be able to keep up. Even so, we know that there is an ecological cost involved, and that streaming video and audio uses more energy than other uses of the internet — about 50% of the total before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, there is more to be thought about than just, can we do something. The question is, should we do something?
That is one of the reasons we ourselves have decided not to add to the amount of religious audio or video being put online at the moment (there’s still quite a lot available on our main site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) and why we don’t often listen to, or view, the contributions of others (another is the need for silence and recollection in the monastery, which we protect as well as we can).
Perhaps it would be helpful to think of our (your) own internet usage in terms of feasting, fasting and maintaining nutritional balance. I myself think that the internet is a great way for those finding the isolation imposed by COVID-19 difficult to keep in touch with others and maintain some sense of normality, including, for many, worship. That I would liken to maintaining nutritional balance and good health. I also think it is a great resource for learning, dealing with boredom, and stretching the imagination. It can be glorious fun. That I would liken to feasting. And fasting? That is where discernment comes in. For example, I don’t think it necessary for us to add to our online engagement at present, and I don’t think that every parish, congregation or community needs to livestream everything every day. Nor do I think it quite in keeping with Lent to be spending unlimited amounts of time online (in the monastery we actually have rules about that, so it is easier for us to maintain some restraint). But that’s just me and the community here.
Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
During the past few days I have become increasingly uneasy about the response of some Christians to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In Catholic circles there has been outright war in cyberspace over the suspension of public celebration of the Mass in many countries. Some priests and pastors have chosen to defy their bishops; others have opted for live-streaming the Mass, organizing Eucharistic processions, or launching into videos or podcasts intended to meet the pastoral needs of their congregations. Lay people and others have condemned the decision to suspend the Mass and accused others of lacking faith or even, in extreme cases, of doing spiritual harm to themselves by denying what is essential to their being. Now that the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York have suspended public services in England, the war zone has become even wider. It is all rather noisy and confusing. Indeed, it led me yesterday to question whether we ourselves should step back a little from our own online engagement because the religious cyberspace is becoming rather crowded.*
Then, thanks to a friend, I read a no-nonsense response to the current situation from Don Antonio Gómez, the bishop of Teruel and Albarracín. He is not responsible for anything I say here, but he helped crystallize my thoughts. We are behaving like sheep, and rather unruly and bad-tempered sheep at that, with pastors treating their people as unable to do anything of themselves, and people treating their pastors as super-daddies, without whom they will perish. We will all perish if we go on scrapping and arguing as we are now, priests and people alike. So, let’s be clear about a few basic points.
The Church will never fail because she is founded on the rock that is Christ. During the long years of the Interdict in England, when none of the Sacraments could be celebrated, faith did not die, nor did anyone lack the graces he/she needed. The Nagasaki Christians survived for centuries without the Mass. I am not saying that not having Mass publicly celebrated is a good thing, no, never. One of the sad things about my illness is that I can rarely be present at Mass, but I may have begun to learn from that experience something worth sharing with others. God is bigger than our human perceptions. He can work through anything, and he often chooses experiences which seem to us negative to teach us something far from negative. For example, if we are lamenting being deprived of the Mass, we may well need to see the Mass in less consumerist terms, i.e. it is not about me and what I want for my spiritual life but what the Mass means for the Church as a whole, which must necessarily include those unable to have Mass because of lack of priests or illness or political repression. Mass is being celebrated somewhere every hour of every day. It is the eternal sacrifice of the Church, in which we all take part whether physically present or not. Let’s not forget that.
I am no great fan of broadcast Masses, as some of you know, so how do I link the Mass at which I am not present with my own experience, here and now? Quite simply, it is done though prayer — and I do mean prayer, not prayers. I have seen innumerable exhortations to say this or that prayer to make a spiritual communion. I don’t want to knock them. I am sure many people find them helpful and good. But could I put in a plea for fewer words, more silence, for the prayer of simple longing and adoration? For the prayer of lectio divina and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) in which we allow the Word of God to take charge; for the prayer of baffled quiet and blundering incompetence in which God does all because we cannot do anything? Instead of rushing from one thing to another, perhaps we are being asked to slow down, to give time to prayer, even to waste time in prayer?
This is proving to be a strange Lent. We have been asked to give up many things we would never have dreamed of being asked to give up. We have been asked to be unselfish in ways we would never have contemplated. Could it be that now we are being asked to learn to pray again? To give up some of the rituals we have not valued quite as much as we think we did, so that we may learn again how very precious they are? To give up some of our old words so that the Word of God may fill our being in new ways? In short, to allow Christ to pray in us?
*Some people address tweets and posts to me as a way of gaining attention for themselves, but it can cause consternation among those who think I share their views — which often I don’t. I’m also a bit sceptical about the quality of some of the broadcast material. We do not need to fill every void.
Having already written posts about social distancing and self-isolation and the importance of maintaining a welcoming attitude in times of pandemic, you would think I had said quite enough COVID-19. Probably I have, but yesterday I was struck by the number of people who are troubled about the prospect of being cut off from everyone and everything familiar and are struggling to make sense of what, at the moment, looks like total negativity. Perhaps that is the problem: seeing everything as negative. Would it help to look upon the limitations imposed by the spread of this new kind of coronavirus as providing us with an unexpected sabbath? The cessation of travel, the staying home, the curtailment of work to what is strictly necessary, the rediscovery of the joys of solitude and family life — aren’t these elements of sabbath we can find positive?
For us in the monastery the increased physical silence caused by less traffic on the road is already a blessing, reinforcing as it does the inner silence we cultivate as a means to prayer. Not everyone experiences silence as a blessing, of course, not at first anyway. It has to be learned, but perhaps the new circumstances in which we find ourselves will provide us all with an opportunity to discover why silence matters and to practise it in a way we’ve not had time for before. Call it an unexpected sabbath or making a cloister of the heart and we reclaim all that is positive about the experience of social distancing and self-isolation.
At the beginning of Lent we were invited to go into the desert with Jesus. The desert is a place of silence, demons, strange contests, immensely important to the monastic tradition as an image of the spiritual quest on which we are engaged. It is the place where Israel learned to love the Lord, where the Covenant was made, where the sabbath was given and where Jesus triumphed over temptation. The ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 takes many of us further into the desert than we ever expected. Let us go into it with faith, hope and joy, knowing that where we go, the Lord has gone before.
Is there anyone who does not love today’s gospel, John 4. 5–42? It turns all our ideas of what is proper upside down. A Samaritan woman (shock, horror, not an orthodox believer— the wrong sex, too) comes to the village well when all the respectable women have long since gone and encounters a strange rabbi who asks her for a drink. The dialogue that ensues shows her to be lippy and smart and not afraid of breaking the conventions of the time. She is happy to talk to a man, and he with her. There is an ease and humour about what follows we would do well to note whenever we are tempted to be stuffy or stand on our dignity. Scripture scholars tell us that the five husbands, who were not actually husbands, represent the five idolatrous kingdoms, but I myself find that they have much greater impact if we take them literally as the woman’s previous lovers. Here is a woman with a colourful past, as my parents’ generation would say, who questions Jesus, won’t be put down, and leads a whole community to faith. She is the most unlikely evangelist ever, and she does it all by simply being herself.
One of the great problems we face is learning how to be ourselves. I don’t mean that in a self-indulgent, navel-gazing sense. Rather, we need to accept that, flawed though we are, we are truly loved by God, and he goes on loving us no matter how often we fall short of what, with his grace, we might become. Many people can’t quite believe that and waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to win a love to which they feel they have no claim, not recognizing that God’s love comes to us as sheer gift and will never fail or forsake us. All that beating of breasts and lamenting one’s failures strikes me as being a form of appeasement, unworthy of the God of Christian revelation. Lent provides us with an opportunity to get back to basics. We begin by correcting our distorted image of God as a harsh taskmaster, allowing him to speak to our hearts, to reveal himself to us in the scriptures and sacraments, in times of quiet prayer and secret almsgiving. It is a process, not achieved in a single moment.
If we are fortunate enough never to have been burdened with a distorted image of God, there is still work for us to do. The early Cistercians, for example, never tired of talking about restoring the likeness of God to God’s image in us. Without using those terms, I think the Woman at the Well understood better than most that she was already valued, loved by God and able to be herself in his presence. She already reflected the image of her Creator. Her meeting with Jesus restored the likeness some refused to acknowledge and enabled her to share that gift with everyone she met. Something to think about, I suggest.