Star Dust

The announcement that scientists have discovered the oldest material known to exist on earth in the Murchison meteorite is thrilling (see, for example, what the BBC made of it here: https://is.gd/UZpjOA). Older than the earth itself, older than the sun, it is literally star dust — fragments of real stars — and 7.5 billion years old. That conjures up a lovely vision of something glittery and bright. The reality, however, is slightly more prosaic. Ground up, shavings from the meteorite apparently smell like rotten peanut butter, then have to be dissolved in acid for testing.

I’m sure many a homilist will be using this report to make a point which, depending on their temperament, may include any of the following

  • our Creator God existed even before this;
  • our celebrity culture stinks and destroys those who embrace it;
  • the world was made 4,004 years ago and to deny that is to deny scripture, so this can’t be true.

Only the first appeals to me. The discoveries of science are rather like what St Bernard says of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘a wonder and a joy’. The Murchison meteorite and its fellows may hold more secrets to be uncovered, but the lessons we draw from them mainly depend on us and our openness to the unknown. A small mind and a small heart often go together. Let’s hope that ours will be large, with more than a scattering of another kind of star dust, the kind that really matters: love of God and others.

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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On Being Oneself

The statement issued yesterday by the duke and duchess of Sussex is being picked over by the media and every Tom, Dick and Henrietta with any kind of online access. Some applaud; others deprecate. I have no particular interest in the royal family (leaping over 51 candidates with a nearer claim to the throne to ensure the Protestant succession in 1714 doesn’t make me a Jacobite though it does make me feel a little distant from the institution) but I am interested in one of the underlying questions prompted by the statement, viz. how to be oneself. It is both a profoundly moral and profoundly religious question which goes beyond individual personalities.

As a Benedictine and erstwhile medievalist, I have always felt the force of the importance of community, the group. For many, a parallel is to be found in family. The individualism we associate with the Enlightenment is really only possible in a world where we are not dependent on one another for the basics of existence — food, shelter and so on — but can obtain these things for ourselves without reference to community/family. In other words, if we can buy something, we do not have to rely on its being provided by our group. That has not been the case for most people most of the time. Indeed, if parents were not to provide for their children, the human race would have died out long ago. Some degree of mutual co-operation is essential, but the amount may be determined by our economic circumstances — which is why the rich have choices the poor can only dream of.

Benedict sees things differently, of course. He comes from the world of sixth century Rome, and his values are not primarily economic but religious. Someone who can write of the property of the monastery in terms of sacred altar vessels, as he does when addressing the cellarer, is by no means indifferent to the importance of material things, however, nor is he unaware of how they affect the well-being of both individuals and community.

The abbot is to provide everything the individual needs via the cellarer or some other official, while the monastery itself is to be equipped with everything the community is likely to need in order to sustain itself. As a corollary, there is a delicate system of checks and balances, an etiquette all are expected to observe which is meant to ensure that the community not only functions but flourishes. This includes mutual obedience, reverence for the old, kindness towards the young, consideration about when to make requests (even by the sick and cantankerous), patience, giving help when needed — and accepting that when one fails, there is a discipline to be undergone to reassert a right relationship with those who have been affected by one’s shortcomings, whether it be a false note in choir or a more serious matter. Being oneself does not mean doing anything one chooses — that, in Benedictine terms, is to be a sarabaite — but accepting the yoke of the Rule as a way of becoming what one is meant to be and freely doing all those things which once required effort (cf RB 7). It isn’t easy at first, which may be why newcomers to the monastery often have difficulty seeing how their individual quest for God, their sense of personal vocation, fits into the common endeavour of the community. We go to God together, but it takes time to realise that we become more free, more ourselves, as we go on.

This morning, as I mulled over the first Mass reading (1 John 4. 11–18), I had as an echo at the back of my mind the thought that in the Lord’s service is perfect freedom. It is in him that we find our deepest, truest identity, are most genuinely ourselves. Let us pray for all who are learning how to be themselves, especially the young; for those who feel they have made mistakes or lack courage; and for those who are baffled or hurt by the choices made by those they love. It takes most of us a lifetime to learn how to be ourselves, but we have the Lord’s assurance in the gospel that we should not be afraid (Mark 6.45–52). Let us trust him.

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On Starting Afresh

Bro Duncan PBGV sending a message from Beyond

My first blog post of 2020 is not being written under the happiest of circumstances. The situation in the Middle East has brought home to everyone how fragile is the peace between nations, how easily the conventions by which we live can be overturned, and what a terrible price could be exacted for our folly. Yet still we persist. There is an obstinacy about human nature that, for good or ill, seems to determine the course we follow. I have therefore done what any sensible person would do and consulted my canine friends about how to proceed. Bro Dyfrig BFdeB was too busy napping to give a coherent reply, but Bro Duncan PBGV responded from Beyond in his usual good-tempered way. (I think they follow a different horarium up there.)

The trouble with you Human Beans is that you complicate everything. You spend far too much time giving everyone the benefit of your opinion instead of just getting on with the business of living. You waste so much energy saying Mr Trump was right, or Mr Trump was wrong, or the Ayatollah is doing this, that or the other, that you fail to see what is right under your noses. Yes, the world could go up in smoke tomorrow (then you’d all be with me in Beyond, which would be nice) but the chances are that you’ve got some more living to do down below and you need to make what you do worthwhile. You may not be able to do very much, but you can still make life pleasanter for those around you.

You can be kind, considerate and selfless. Rather like a dog, now I come to think about it. You can live in the moment, not in the past or the future. You can be grateful for everything, even the tiniest, silliest little thing — and it doesn’t have to be food. You can be ready for any adventure, no matter how much your old bones creak or the warm fireside lures you. Above all, you can learn to forgive. I don’t remember holding a grudge against anyone, ever (not even when BigSis forgot my Dentastick) and I know it made me a happy boy. Happiness is much under-rated by Human Beans. You think you will find it in having all the things you want. One day you will understand that that it is being with the Person you want that really counts. God is waiting for you Beyond. There’s no rush. He will call you when he’s ready. In the meantime, learn to be a good boy (or girl) like me and live in the sunshine of God’s love (like my successor, The Ginger Fiend).

That’s not quite vintage Bro Duncan, but it makes sense to me. The New Year may be looking a little ragged, but we start every day afresh, with new opportunities and new challenges. The love of God is the constant in our lives. As 2020 unfolds, we may need to remind ourselves of that more often. I have no doubt we will need to share it more often.

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Holy Innocents 2019

This morning I re-read some of my earlier posts about this feast. That for 2017 was hard-hitting in its statistics and left me with a feeling of despondency. Things are no better now than when I wrote. In fact, they have got worse. There are more children said to be living in poverty in the U.K., for example, than there were three years ago. World-wide, there are more children being aborted, exploited, trafficked or exiled than ever before. Yet the Church continues to assert the importance of this feast. Is it merely a reminder that the defenceless will suffer because of those who think they don’t matter? A kind of liturgical corrective to the sentimentality of the secular celebrations of Christmas to which we are exposed? Or is it something more, something that goes deeper, into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation?

I think we can only understand this feast by looking at Christ’s birth, an event that is located in place and time, within the specifics of a particular family. One consequence of this is to change our notion of what matters and our responsibility for others. Christ’s coming into the world means we can no longer plead indifference about the importance of individuals, even those we have never met. Everyone matters. There isn’t a single human being God has not looked at with love, so who are we to argue or act otherwise? The massacre of those young Jewish boys two thousand years ago is an event in time, with its own particularities, but it is also an event that transcends time because it is for ever present in the mind and heart of God. As such, it is both a comfort and a challenge. A comfort, because it assures us that God’s love never ends; a challenge, because it demands a response from us. While there is any child who goes to bed hungry, thirsty, or exploited, any child who is not allowed to be born or live with dignity, we have failed to meet that challenge. We have failed to recognize Christ when we saw him.

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Christmas Day 2019

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

This icon of Our Lady of Consolation reminds us that Christmas is never without its sorrows. The tear on Mary’s cheek recalls that poignant medieval lyric in which Christ’s death is lamented in deeply personal terms. Our salvation did not come cheap:

Lovely ter of lovely eye,
Why dost thou me so wo?
Sorful ter of sorful eye,
Thou brekst myn herte a-two.

We rejoice in the most perfect of all gifts, the gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ, but we also acknowledge the grief and sadness of the world in which we live. We may be mourning the loss of someone we love or grieving the violence that has killed so many in Burkina Faso and Syria, or there may be some more private sorrow that weighs us down. But still we rejoice. The bitter irony of the birth of the Prince of Peace coinciding with a fresh outbreak of war is not lost on us, nor is the seeming inability of our leaders to work together to end poverty and homelessness and all the evils we regard as insupportable. But still we rejoice. We rejoice because we must. Destruction, negativity, hopelessness is not the whole story and never can be. With the coming of Christ into the world, God has bound himself to us in a way that can never be broken. He has become what we are — for ever and ever. If we let that truth sink in, we can indeed find cause for joy.

On behalf of the community, may I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and the assurance of our prayers. Thank you for your engagement and support during the past year.

If you are struggling with serious illness, you may find something useful in this earlier post about celebrating Christmas with cancer: https://is.gd/BCZDup There are also several posts about the Nativity which can be found using the search box in the right-hand sidebar.

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On a Dark Night

I come from a monastic community that has always been extremely reticent about prayer and spiritual experience. D. Catherine Gascoigne, the first abbess of Cambrai, said all she wanted to say about prayer in half a dozen sentences; her contemporary, D. Gertrude More, was the exception that proves the rule — she had more of the prolixity of Fr Augustine Baker, her teacher. It remains a community joke that no one should ever write her spiritual autobiography. How fortunate we are that St John of the Cross was untroubled by such restraints, though I dare to say that I think many misunderstand him or read him superficially. His teaching on prayer is wise, deep and immensely challenging. Even after a lifetime of trying to pray, I am not sure that I quite ‘get’ him. I can revel in the beauty of his poetry, shudder at the way he was treated by his confrères, delight in his courage and the anecdotes we have about him, understand some of what he is saying, but there remains a distance, a degree of unknowing, which not only proves I was right to become a Benedictine rather than a Carmelite, but also that there are many ways of praying which, despite having much in common, also have their differences. We have to find the one that suits us, that is intended for us, and it can be a long and hard task to discover what it is.

The hardness of the task must not put us off, however. A few years ago I tried to express what I mean by that, and what I wrote then strikes me as still being valid. The darkness of Advent is a preparation for the coming of Light, just as the darkness of prayer is a preparation for the coming of the Giver of prayer, God himself; and the gifts that God gives are never intended for ourselves alone. They are to be shared:

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rock-face for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent, Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

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Seeing Clearly

The morning after a General Election is not generally remarkable for restrained or kindly behaviour. People are tired, emotions are raw, and many say or do things one hopes in more reflective mode they might not. There is quite a lot of ’emoting’ on social media, where the accusations and insults of the disappointed fly around in a profanity-laden whirlwind and the jubilations of the jubilant require a flak-jacket and ear-plugs to avoid. Some are prophesying a coming age of gold; others, doom and gloom. Some are preparing to leave the country; others are convinced that the U.K.’s finest hour is just around the corner. It all depends how we view things.

Today is the memoria of St Lucy and I think we can learn a useful lesson from her. According to the Acts of the Martyrs, she was martyred in Syracuse under Diocletian. Most of what we know about her is really just the conventional stuff of early hagiography. There is enough, however, to have given us some very fine Vesper antiphons, while artists through the centuries have seized on the detail that Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before she was killed. Not surprisingly, therefore, she is patron of the blind and visually impaired — all who do not see clearly. This morning I think she must be working overtime.

Physical blindness or visual impairment can be frightening, as I know from experience, but not to be able to see in a moral or intellectual sense can be more daunting still. We lose touch with reality, are thrown back on the inchoate thoughts and emotions that bubble on and on inside us like the Tennysonian brook. My sense is that something like that is affecting many people in Britain this morning, yet the Advent liturgy provides a valuable corrective. Isaiah 48. 17 is explicit where our trust and confidence should lie:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,I lead you in the way that you must go.

The Lord never abandons us, never allows our cloudy vision to hamper his plans for our well-being. However much we may disagree about political leadership, the Lord is our true Leader, the one who will guide us into the way of peace and salvation. If we follow him, all will ultimately be well. Easy to say, I know, but much harder to believe and act on, but that is precisely what we must do: believe and act, which means trusting and, as often as not, silencing the inner clamour that prevents us from doing so. God does not insist or force us. We have to allow our eyes to be opened to the possibilities that grace offers.

This morning let us pray for our newly-elected M.P.s and for ourselves, that we may see clearly and do what is right.

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A Word for the Weary

Weariness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, it is a more or less chronic condition that goes along with being the parents of small children, illness, or caring for someone who makes huge demands on our energy and patience. Today, in the U.K., I sense a kind of collective weariness about our forthcoming General Election. People are beginning to tire of the debate, the endless accusations, the promises that don’t quite add up, the gimmicks, the shoutiness of social media. For those of us observing Advent, there is also a kind of mid-season weariness to be factored in as well. Can we really be so close to the third Sunday of Advent when we don’t seem, to ourselves at least, to have even begun? Is there a word for the weary we can all take to heart, that will provide balm for our souls and encouragement for what lies ahead?

What a gift today’s Mass readings prove to be! Isaiah 40. 25–31 comforts us with the reassurance that even the young may stumble and tire but the Lord will bear us up as on eagle’s wings. Then in Matthew 11. 28–30 we have those comforting words of Jesus himself, inviting those who labour and are overburdened to come to him and share his yoke. But there is a snag. There always is a snag. Most of us don’t recognize that we are weary or overburdened. Those who go around proclaiming how tired they are or how much they need a holiday are not usually exhausted. They are still able to register what they think and feel. Their judgement is still at work. The truly exhausted are no longer able to judge their own exhaustion but tend to go on, becoming wearier and wearier, often more and more silent or sending out cries for help that go unnoticed by others. In my experience, it is not those who can articulate their distress who tend to have the break-downs but those who can’t. Can anything or anyone reach such depths of weariness?

The conventional answer to that question is that grace can touch and transform anyone at any time. Weariness is no obstacle to God. I agree with that, of course, but I think I would want to add a small nuance. St Benedict is very eloquent about the mutual support community members are to give one another. Much of it is unspoken, rather understated, but it relies on being aware of others and their needs. To give a simple illustration, last night was wet and windy and I admit to shivering a bit. When I went to bed I discovered that someone had put a hot water bottle between my sheets — unasked, just because she noticed. Hot water bottles are a very practical response to a perceived need, but it isn’t only, or even especially, practical needs we can help with. A smile, a prayer, a little patience may be all it takes to give someone else the courage to face another day — and in helping others, we may find that we have been helped, too. Those eagle’s wings take many forms.

General Election 2019
Whenever we have an important decision to make in the monastery, we stop discussing it for twenty-four hours before voting on it in chapter. That gives us time to think and pray without being distracted. Accordingly, apart from posting our prayer intentions, we shall be abandoning social media until tomorrow so that we can reflect more deeply on the choices we and the rest of the country have to make in the Election.

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Psalm 118 (119)

Once upon a time, and a very bad time it was, there was a fashion among (some) Benedictine communities to omit the section of the Rule that constitutes the so-called liturgical code (effectively, chapters 8 to 20, though some grudgingly conceded that 19 and 20 might be read) and to shorten the number of psalms recited each week, distributing the psalter over a two- or four- week cycle. At the same time, others in the Church decided that some psalms are just too violent for Christian lips to utter, so the Roman Office lost the cursing psalms completely. We, by contrast, have continued to say the whole psalter every week and enjoy a spectacularly good curse on Saturdays, though we do not follow exactly Benedict’s arrangement of the psalms. I am grateful, however, that we have continued to say Psalm 118 (119) in all its glorious repetitiveness as it ducks and weaves around the Law and the beauty and majesty of God. Yesterday and today the Rule reminds us of the importance of this psalm (cf RB 18). What it does not do is remind us of what I consider to be the best commentary on the psalm, that of St Ambrose.

In 22 chapters, variously described in translation as homilies or sermons (expositio in Latin), Ambrose dwells on the presence of the Word in the text of the psalm. He is discursive, but never boring. He takes us down some unexpected roads, but like his younger contemporary Augustine, whose Enarrationes on the same psalm are also well worth reading, he has a consistent theological purpose in view. There is a sustained emphasis on the unity of the Word with the Father and the Holy Spirit, such as one would expect at a time when Arianism flourished; there is a wonderfully rich ecclesiology, often expressed though a Marian typology linked to the Song of Songs; and there are Platonic and Pauline elements (e.g. in Ambrose’s account of the ascent of the soul and the Christian’s participatio in the imago Dei) that leave a lasting impression on the reader.

So, this morning’s challenge from the cloister is this: try reading Psalm 118 (119) straight through, then look at Ambrose’s commentary. If you do not already know Ambrose’s work, I guarantee you will find much that will transform your view of this psalm.

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