What a Difficult Day Can Teach Us

Photo by Chitto Cancio on Unsplash 

A Difficult Day

Yesterday was a difficult day for many people. Unless there is some on-going horror to be worked through, the dawning of another day changes the mood and gives perspective. In the West, a decent night’s sleep or an unexpected kindness can prove transformative. They remind us what whimsical creatures we are and how apt to let the enemy of the moment, be it pain or muggy weather or some disappointment, dominate our lives.

Yesterday I stayed off social media because I was feeling a little below par myself and was surprised this morning to see how many people had not only been having a bad day themselves but had been busy sharing their irritation with others. Sometimes the way that irritation is expressed speaks volumes, especially when listened to with the ear of love and attention. Of course, it is quite a big ask to listen to a ‘moaner’ lovingly and attentively! (Please note the use of quotation marks.) Sometimes, with the best will in the world, we can only conclude that they are out of sorts; sometimes we can glimpse a deeper pain within — and it does nothing to assuage that pain to talk about how much worse must be the experience of those in less affluent parts of the world. Pain is pain.

Monastic Prayer

One aspect of monasticism that is not always sufficiently recognized is that monks and nuns withdraw from the world, so to say, in order to be closer to it. Many people ask us for prayers, often specifying a particular outcome they desire. There is no harm in that and much that is good; but monastic prayer has to go beyond such specifics. It has to embrace all the pain and hurt, sin and failure, difficult days and disappointments, that we experience as human beings. I do not know what it is like to be a parent in Ethiopia watching my child die of starvation; I do not know the despair of someone locked into an over-crowded prison cell in South America; I do not know the agony of decision-making of someone who feels they must choose this minute between two evils. I do not know, but my own experience of difficulty and of a gracious God whose love and mercy are beyond anything I could ever dream or imagine, mean that these unknowns can be brought into prayer. 

Giving a Difficult Day Time

If a difficult day merely turns us in on ourselves or makes us snappy with others, we need to give it more time. Not everything is made plain all at once. Just as we grow physically and mentally over the years (or, at least, I hope we do), so does our understanding and our ability to use that understanding for good. We learn to reflect as well as react. We can turn a difficult day into a learning day. That may sound trite and obvious but with the challenges the world faces, it is not to be despised. Let us continue to pray for the G7 Summit, for those whose decisions affect us most personally, for ourselves and our impact on others. And as for those seemingly intractable problems, those we personally can do nothing about, let us entrust them to the mercy of God. God knows, and God will.

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Health, Happiness and the Holy Spirit

Today many of the most awkward restrictions of lockdown in England will come to an end, and people will be free to mix in a way that hasn’t been possible for months. There will be much relief, a certain amount of rejoicing and perhaps a little anxiety among those who know that a dose of COVID-19 could be a death-sentence for them or those they love. Here at the monastery we shall be maintaining some of the restraints we have been practising throughout the past year, including visitors ‘by appointment only’. That may sound unfriendly, but it is a reflection of the difficulty my health places the community and me in.

During the past three and a half months there have been a few little blips, with the result that I am now unable to walk more than a few steps without becoming very breathless. A ‘phone conversation is only manageable if I know in advance someone is calling and I can prepare by sitting down and not attempting to do anything else for a few minutes. I tire quickly and, unfortunately, even if I can sleep, it isn’t restorative. All this is par for the course for people with advanced cancer and/or major respiratory illnesses. One consequence, I’m sorry to say, is that I tend to avoid face-to-face meetings and have gone from being a bad correspondent to a very bad correspondent. I value your letters, email and messages, but even if I had no other claims on my time, it would be impossible for me to answer them all; and in a small community such as ours, there is no one else to do so.

Health, however, is not essential to happiness in the way the Holy Spirit is, so please read on.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Novena we Pray

In May 2016 I tapped out a series of posts on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as the community prayed for them each day during the Novena; and I’ve often written about individual gifts at other times. You can find the original sequence of posts by using the search box on this blog. Today I offer you just a few, rather dry thoughts on the subject.

The nine days before the feast of Pentecost are very precious. They allow us to pray earnestly for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the renewal of his gifts within us. We are asking for a radical transformation of ourselves and of the world in which we live. Just think for a moment. What would we — or the world in general — be like if we were filled with wisdom, understanding, right judgement, fortitude, knowledge, piety (in the sense of reverence), and fear of the Lord (in the sense of wonder and awe)?

St Thomas Aquinas said that four of these gifts — wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and right judgement — direct the intellect, while the remaining three — fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord — direct the will towards God. He links them to the seven capital virtues. Of course, we can go further and, following the Vulgate, consider the twelve fruits, or rather, the twelve manifestations of the fruit [singular], of the Holy Spirit : charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity. (This list enlarges on the one Christians of all traditions will be familiar with from Galatians 5. 22–23, where St Paul lists nine visible attributes of Christians as the fruit [singular] of the Spirit). There is more than enough there to reflect on over the days before Pentecost, but I would like to add one further thought.

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is the Spirit of Truth. Truth is not always comfortable. In fact, it can be difficult to accept and make us feel naked and defenceless. If we look at the world around us, how much untruth there is, how much defensive posturing! When we pray for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, perhaps we should be praying above all for this gift of truth, both in our own hearts and minds and in the heart and mind of every person on earth. Have we the courage to do so? Do we dare to be happy?


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April Sunshine, April Tears

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:

https://images.app.goo.gl/6vZcRHhSUb4m3oQ26

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Living with Insecurity

Some people like to live dangerously but, after a certain age, the majority seem to want some kind of security. The trouble is, whatever we think will provide security may not do so. Health may give way; house and home may be lost along with the job that we imagined would provide a livelihood; the person most dear to us may depart or die or perhaps never come into our lives at all. If we live long enough, old age will strip us of the strength and certainties of our youth. The conventional religious answer is to place our trust in God, to rely on him alone. That is fine in theory but extremely hard to do when feeling weak or helpless.

This morning there are many anxious people struggling with COVID-19. A report I read stated that most of those in Brazil requiring intubation are having to undergo the procedure without sedatives because the country has only 6% of the medication it needs. Intubation is ghastly enough without that! There are people in Ukraine waiting to see whether Russian tanks are going to cross over the border and invade their country. In Hong Kong, Myanmar, much of Africa, there is political uncertainty and fear of repression. Add to that what we now call ‘food insecurity’ and the threat of ethnic violence, and our own troubles seem small enough.

We express our solidarity with those who suffer through our prayer and by doing whatever we can to alleviate the distress of others. It is our privilege to provide the human response to the prayer of those placing their trust in God. Let’s think about that for a moment. Then be humbled and give thanks that God should place such trust in us.

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Ears Have Walls: a problem for Tweeting Brides of Christ?

I wonder how many people will read ‘walls have ears’ rather than ‘ears have walls’? I wonder, too, how many will know the source of the quotation. It comes from graffiti seen in Paris in 1968, that year of endless radical questioning. To me it expresses very neatly a common problem. We tend to see and hear what we expect. St Benedict’s opening to his Rule, Obsculta, ‘Listen carefully,’ not only shows awareness of this tendency but also offers an immediate corrective. We are to pay attention, think, allow ourselves to be shaped and stretched by what we encounter, but how difficult most of us find that. We prefer our comfort zone — most of us, anyway.

A Religious Life Thread on Twitter

Yesterday there was a Twitter thread on religious life, more specifically the use of Bridal imagery in relation to religious women. It was not easy to follow because some who joined late responded to tweets that had been sent much earlier, while others introduced ideas/themes that, though fascinating and enriching in themselves, were secondary to the matter in hand. 

The thread began because @CarmelNunsGB noticed a poll by a non-religious asking the question ‘Are nuns and religious sisters married?’ The wording of the question suggested unfamiliarity with traditional language yet at the same time invited reflection on the meaning and purpose of such language. It evoked a wide-ranging response from the #NunsofTwitter and others.

Brides of Christ and Nuptial Imagery

Some people were happy to think of themselves as Brides of Christ; others definitely weren’t. Some insisted on limiting application of nuptial imagery to the Church as a whole (cf St Paul); others found even that difficult. We touched on religious profession (Catholic and Anglican, of both nuns and religious sisters), marriage, the rite of Consecration of Virgins, the diaconate, the use of signs and symbols (e.g. rings), eschatology, and individual experience, with some valuable insights from an Orthodox perspective. I had to bow out of the discussion early because of other duties but not before I had posited a link between the rite of Consecration of Virgins and the diaconate. 

Taking the Subject Further

It would be good to take these topics further, especially as they relate to the post-pandemic Church, but some of them, e.g. discussion of the diaconate in relation to women and the nature of religious/monastic profession, presuppose a level of scholarship we do not all possess. In an ideal situation, I think a writer would need

  • A sense of period and historical development. The fourth century is not the same as the fourteenth, and the fourteenth is different again from the twenty-first. This sense of period is rarer than one might think.
  • Familiarity with the sources — historical, theological, liturgical — and the scriptures and legal forms on which they depend. That means hard work, knowledge of languages and intelligent interpretation. 
  • Theological literacy, and awareness of how the Western Tradition has evolved. 
  • Judgement. Probably the most difficult quality of all, but the most important. Not every shred of ‘evidence’ is equally valid but it isn’t always easy to recognize that.

I’d love to explore some of the questions the thread raised, but a very little reflection showed how ill-prepared I would be for such a task. But there is another reason, just as pertinent, which I think throws light on the nature of religious community and the kind of obligations we assume when we join one. My community asked me not to do so.

Post-Vatican II Reflection on Religious Life*

If I may be allowed a very broad generalisation, the best reflection on religious life* comes from religious themselves, those who actually try to live the values they profess. Much post-Vatican II commentary on religious life emanating from the Vatican itself has reflected an anthropology and sociology I, and others, find unconvincing. For women, in particular, the results have been disappointing; but it is not just women who have been affected. The concentration on clerical control and the reluctance to see women as fully participant in the life of the Church has had negative consequences for the Church as a whole. It is actually quite difficult to discuss some subjects openly and freely without attracting the kind of attention that chokes off such discussion because of its virulence. My community does not want me to give anyone grounds for misunderstanding — in other words, contributing to the negativity often encountered, especially online.

Discussing Hot Questions

I know the community is especially nervous about my discussing the diaconate. Since St John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, Catholics have been forbidden to discuss the ordination of women to the priesthood and many have taken that to include discussion of the diaconate as well. Some will recall the high price Lavinia Byrne paid for Women at the Altar (which she wrote before the Apostolic Letter was published). I regret to say that even today some people regard it as their duty to delate others to Rome for opinions they may or may not actually hold, but which the delator thinks they do and have expressed. Although such a drastic reaction to anything I might write is unlikely (the benefits of obscurity!), I do know how much time and energy can be taken up dealing with objections and criticisms, many of which are the consequence of sheer carelessness (on my part, or that of the reader) or misunderstanding. My community has a right to my time and energy, so, in this I must comply.

A Tension in Religious Life

My decision highlights a tension inherent in religious life, and in membership of the Church more generally. We all have a commitment to our communities whether they be little or large, religious or secular. That commitment may be experienced at times as a freedom, an energiser, at others as a restraint. It would be easy to make a show of bravado along the lines of ‘publish and be damned’ but it would be just bravado, and rather selfish bravado at that. We are called to build one another up, to hasten the coming of the Kingdom. That may mean questioning, challenging, refusing to be sidelined or silenced. It may also mean patience, not saying all one wishes, listening rather than adding to the clamour.

I believe some subjects do need to be discussed quite urgently or we are likely to see a further loss of members of the Church and of the religious communities that form part of her. As I said at the beginning, ears have walls. I hope someone with the necessary learning and love of the Church will break them down. It won’t be me, but I will be praying for them.

*The term ‘consecrated life’ is used nowadays, but the term ‘religious life’ will be more familiar to many readers.

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A Sleepless Night

The elderly, the sick and the parents of new-born children tend to be more familiar with sleepless nights than most people. When in ‘holy mode’ I advocate trying to pray. Nothing is more likely to induce slumber than turning mind and heart towards the Lord at an unexpected hour. Alternatively, one can listen to the BBC World Service (I learned more about lithium last night than I ever dreamed possible), finish the last chapter of one’s current book or three, or toss and turn as one reflects on the various difficulties and anxieties facing oneself or those one loves. Once one has exhausted those possibilities there is nothing left but to listen to the sounds of the house and of the night.

We are fortunate to live in a converted barn on the edge of the Golden Valley, a beautiful part of rural Herefordshire with a long monastic history behind it. The old oak timbers of our house are constantly moving slightly: they creak and groan softly, and when the wind and rain blow, as they did last night, they utter a quiet protest. The garden makes its own response. I love listening to the snuffles and squeaks of whatever is abroad in the night-time, beginning with bats at dusk and moving through a whole range of owls and rabbits and foxes, with the occasional rough bark of a deer or perhaps the husky note of a badger out on patrol.

There is more to this than finding a way of passing time. To listen to the sounds of night as they come from house and garden is to reconnect with the world in which we live and for which, often enough, we have no time except when we make a point of going for a walk or doing some gardening. I can’t do either of those, so listening to the soundscape of where I live matters. It is another way of seeking the Lord — and being found by him. A sleepless night may leave one feeling tired and crotchety next morning, but it is never wasted. It is an opportunity to be relished.

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‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

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?

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Easter Wednesday 2021

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus: Provenance unknown, possibly from York

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.

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Silence and Stillness: Holy Saturday 2021

Today is a strange day. The drama of the crucifixion is over and we are left, tired, empty, devoid of the sacraments and the conventional rhythms of church life, to ponder what we do not see: the coming of the light, Christ’s harrowing of hell, and the promise of the resurrection. It is a day when we do nothing because God does everything. An early Christian writer captured the essence of this time by speaking of its silence and stillness:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

It is hard for us to do nothing. We seem to think everything depends on us, and life would certainly come to an end were we to fold our hands and expect food, shelter and everything else to fall into our laps. The kind of nothingness I am talking about is a recognition of God’s supremacy. It requires the silence of humility, the stillness of love, but we find both difficult. We tend to fill the universe with our noisy chatter and busy plans for this and that. One of the lessons of Holy Saturday is to let all that go, to allow God to be God in our lives, to own the mystery. Only then can we embrace the resurrection.

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A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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