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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New Every Morning

I am surely not alone in having found the events of last week a trifle trying. Add to that one’s own personal difficulties or annoyances — in my case not being well and the guilty feeling that engulfs me when not able to meet requests for help/attention as I’d like — and one can end up in a state of negativity that is as exhausting as it is disheartening. All over the world it seems other people are experiencing exactly the same, with little hope of any remedy. Poverty, sickness, corruption, political chaos, a sense of betrayal by the Church or other institutions on which we thought we could rely — it is all black, bleak and broken. Only, I’d say it isn’t quite.

Yesterday evening I walked into our chapel to pray for one of our oblates who is going through a tough time. The little silver lamp that burns before the tabernacle was glowing brightly in the darkness. I’d like to say I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of Presence, but I wasn’t. It was, to be honest, a rather barren experience: the prayer of hanging on rather than anything more obviously comforting. But I think that is precisely the prayer most of us are called to make most of the time. We know that the mercies of the Lord never end, that they are new every morning, but connecting that knowledge with our daily experience isn’t easy.

Today’s gospel (Luke 18. 1–8) is often presented as being about persistence in prayer. I think it goes deeper than that. God is not an unjust judge, only willing to give us a hearing if we pester him night and day. On the contrary, his ears are always attuned to our prayer, but Luke’s deeply subversive portrayal of God is meant to shock us into a more adult relationship. Luke’s God is not a fairy godmother, handing out treats to all and sundry, irrespective of whether they are good for them or not, but rather a God who confounds all our expectations, a God of infinite compassion and holiness whose justice exceeds our own grudging conceptions. In short, Luke’s God really is God, not the pale imitation of him that we are apt to construct in order to shield ourselves from the reality.

Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.

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The Lord’s Prayer and the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Today’s feast of St Ignatius of Antioch is one I have written about many times, but I don’t think I have ever really thought about it in the context of today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 13. 12–14, which gives the reasons for ending the offices of Lauds and Vespers with the Lord’s Prayer said or sung out loud.

Benedict was clear-eyed about community life and knows how often we offend one another. However, we make a solemn pledge in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive one another, and Benedict insists that we remind ourselves of this covenant of forgiveness frequently and always at the end of the two peak periods of the Divine Office, Lauds and Vespers. It is the superior who is to recite the prayer, not because he is set above the brethren but because he must provide the unity and leadership the community needs. We give our assent by saying Libera nos a malo – deliver us from evil.

The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is not a mere matter of routine, the expected ending of a Christian service of worship: it goes to the heart of the monastic enterprise. We seek God in community under a rule and an abbot. That means frank acknowledgement of failure and a readiness to begin again — and allowing others to begin again, too. At the other offices, most of the prayer is said silently, except for the conclusion. For myself, I find in that a reminder that we do not always have to articulate everything, that sometimes forgiveness is better mediated through an accepting silence rather than an attempt to clear up every detail of misunderstanding and hurt.

Ignatius of Antioch left us seven letters which breathe charity and forgiveness. He remarks of the soldiers who guarded him that the better they were treated, the worse they seemed to behave; but that did not stop him trying to treat them well. He met a martyr’s death with courage. ‘I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.’ May we too meet the challenge of being transformed by grace as he was. We can start by making the Lord’s Prayer the rhythm of our lives.

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Enhancing Shower Activity

Last night, on the Shipping Forecast, we were advised that an advancing weather front would result in ‘enhancing shower activity’ (i.e. more rain). Usually, such gobbledegook leaves me muttering about plain English and doing a fairly good impression of Colonel Blimp. Not this time. I was entranced by a vision of raindrops dancing across the grey waters of the North Sea, shimmering and shining with all the colours of the rainbow as light pierced the gloom. It was the word ‘enhanced’ that got me. I know its ordinary meaning is just to intensify or increase (in + altus in Latin, meaning to elevate, via a complicated path in Norman French) but that is to ignore its sound; and to go from enhancing to dancing is a good instance of how words affect us at many different levels, not all of them subject to logical analysis. That is why poetry matters; why translation is such a difficult art; why the Word made flesh makes even the most garrulous of us dumb with wonder, love and praise.

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Lesson from a Failed Banker and Ex-Jailbird

Today is the feast of St Callistus — failed banker, ex-jailbird, ex-slave, probably something of an invalid — oh, and pope. And not only pope, but the man who, despite much opposition from such luminaries as Tertullian and Hippolytus (who did not think him strict enough and spread what most historians consider false rumours about him), grasped the importance of reconciling sinners to the Church. He argued that the power of binding and loosing was given not just to Peter himself but to every successor of Peter and that mercy should be shown to the repentant. In the days of the Donatist schism that was a matter of great urgency. I think it is still a matter of great urgency for us today. We are so often inclined not to show mercy, being rather more rigorous than God who seems to tolerate those we disagree with or believe to be seriously wrong about anything or everything (usually the latter).

I am certainly not arguing that nothing matters, that all beliefs are equally valid and that we can endorse anything we please, expecting God to follow suit. Of course not! But today’s feast and Callistus’s decree remind us powerfully of the importance of charity and mercy in our interactions with one another and the way in which they echo God’s own mercy towards us. We are often tempted to assume that we know what others think or mean and judge accordingly, and that can make us unduly harsh or self-confident when a little more reflection and a little more willingness to listen might transform the situation and our understanding of it.

It isn’t just the successor of Peter who has the power of binding and loosing. In a non-sacramental sense, all of us do. We can set others free from the chains of hatred and unforgiveness, if we choose. In so doing, we unbind ourselves. How that works out in particular situations, I can’t say; but I have a hunch that trying to be more forgiving, charitable and merciful will make the world a bit friendlier, a bit more peaceful and, dare I say it, more godly, too. Isn’t that worth trying? And in case you think that we can keep all this delightfully abstract, may I suggest we all examine our consciences. Is there someone against whom we hold a grudge or who we think has done us harm or behaved badly whom we need to forgive? To whom, in short, we must show mercy, as a brother or sister equally flawed, equally living by the mercy of God?

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On Not Being Catholic Enough

Our retreat ended yesterday evening, so this morning I have begun the process of catching up. One of the first things I did was to run through some of the comments/prayer requests on our Facebook page. One in particular caught my eye. A reader questioned why we prayed about climate change (in connection with Friday’s protests) but did not add a prayer for the conversion of all to the one, true Catholic faith. I suspect that our answer, that we try with our daily, public prayer intentions to encourage a Christian perspective on what is currently engaging people of all faiths or none, will not have been found very satisfactory. Even the addition, that we have sometimes had to ask people to ensure that what they post in response is consistent with Catholic faith and practice (no arguing about Eucharistic theology or abortion on the prayer page, for example), may not have helped. I feel confident that our reader is sincere and genuinely puzzled, but I am not sure how best to answer the underlying question, which is how we should express our Catholicism publicly in such places as our prayer page.

One of the difficulties we encounter here at the monastery is that every Catholic tends to have an opinion about what other Catholics should believe and how they should behave — and we don’t always meet the mark. I defy anyone to say that we are not orthodox in our beliefs, but for some the authentic test of Catholicism is located somewhere else, in Eucharistic Adoration or saying the Rosary, for example. In vain do we protest that, as Benedictines, not only are we pre-Eucharistic Adoration and pre-Rosary, and have such a strong sense of the Eucharistic centre of our lives and the importance of Our Lady, that we don’t find either devotion necessary. The Divine Office, the practice of lectio divina and our personal prayer in the Bakerite tradition suffice. That is the living tradition of our monastic heritage. It is gospel spirituality, if you like, and one reason why I think we can be open to the graces and insights of other Christian traditions without sacrificing or playing down the uniqueness of our own; but for some it simply means that we aren’t Catholic enough.

I think I can live with that, but it still leaves unanswered the question about how we should express our Catholicism. We pray daily for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all our doings, but that is no guarantee that we always ‘get it right’. In fact, I agree more and more with Fr Jean Leclercq (a great Benedictine) that there are mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us make. I have never made any secret of the fact that I personally would love everyone to know the joy of believing, but God seems to have his own ideas about that, and I, for one, am content that he should do things his own way and in his own time. The role of a monastic community is unspectacular: to be responsive to God and walk humbly before him, to be followers, not leaders. If, in so doing, we can encourage others, that is all to the good. We may not be Catholic enough for some, but I would argue that the essence of Catholicism is to place God first and to be compassionate and merciful to all, not with our own love but with his. It is sobering, and heartening, to realise that we shall never look into the eyes of anyone God has not first loved and willed to be redeemed. Perhaps that is something we all need to hear.

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The Worker Monk

I like the fact that we read today’s section of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict, which envisages God looking for a worker among the multitude of peoples (vv 14–20), on the same day that we celebrate the feast of St Gregory the Great. Gregory was the first monk to become pope, an admirer of St Benedict (who is the subject of Book II of Gregory’s Dialogues) and responsible for sending St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. On previous occasions I have written about the enormous contribution he made to liturgy and papal administration — and the enigmatic nature of his personality, insofar as we can know it from his writings. Today I would like to emphasize just one trait. Gregory had a huge appetite for work and is widely credited with having shaped the medieval papacy. He was a worker monk, if you like, always longing for the cloister but always busy about many things. Today’s section of the Prologue could have been written just for him.

My saying that will probably surprise many. Certainly, Gregory was not always an obvious seeker after peace (cf RB Prol 17). His dealings with the Church in the East, for instance, were made more complicated by the fact that he never learned Greek, while his attempts to engage his clergy in providing charitable relief to the poor were often marked by a severity that Benedict would not have countenanced. Gregory was no Benedictine. But — and it is an important ‘but’ — Gregory had a profound sense of what it meant to be the servant of God. His energy, his zeal, and his ability were all placed at the service of God and the Church. He understood what was implied in seeking to find God, and because he himself responded fully to God’s invitation, he was able to draw others to respond, too.

St Benedict speaks of God looking for his worker (singular). It is the individual who is called to respond to the invitation God offers; it is the individual’s fidelity that will lead to his finding the way of life (cf RB Prol 20). We know that Benedict will go on to map out how this individual response is to be lived in community, but here, at the beginning, there is just one person listening and responding, one person who must take upon his/her shoulders the yoke of obedience, living by the commandments and the precepts of the gospel. In an age when numbers are often taken to be a sign of success, even in the Church, it is good to be reminded of the significance of the individual, of the difference one person can make if they truly wish to serve God.

History has recorded many of St Gregory’s achievements. Most of us will never know in this life whether we have achieved anything of importance to God or anyone else. But we trust, and we go on, knowing that what matters is that we try to be pleasing to God. The promise of finding the way of life, of finding God himself, draws us on. All we have to do is . . . work at it.

This post was scheduled for publication at 6.30 a.m. while I was on my way to Oxford. For some reason, it didn’t get published then.

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Neither Bang Nor Whimper: the Death of St Maximilian Kolbe

The earth did not move from its foundations when St Maximilian Kolbe died. Everyone else in the bunker had already died, so it only remained for the guards to inject him with carbolic acid, wait for him to die, then remove his body and burn it. End of story. Just one more death at Auschwitz, one more inconvenient opponent of the Nazi regime disposed of. With time, one might expect all the singularities of this man to be forgotten along with the manner of his death; but it proved not to be so. Today we recall his devotion to Our Lady, his championing of the latest and best technology in promoting his religious ideals, and, above all, his volunteering to die in the place of a stranger. In other words, that apparently hidden death is not forgotten, is not meaningless.

Many people struggle with the idea of death, with the sense of loss, especially if the death is of someone young or someone we love. Glib words about uniting our own death with the death of Jesus on the Cross tend to remain just that — glib words — unless or until we are given grace to see the love that lies behind the loss. In the case of St Maximilian, we tend to focus on his extraordinary power of love and self-sacrifice, but perhaps we should look at the love that drew him, the love of the Lord for him that enabled him to do what he did. His death was not an act of bravado, at its deepest level perhaps not even a response to God as we commonly understand that term, but acceptance of God’s invitation to be fashioned into an icon of his beloved Son. The initiative remains God’s always, and neither bang nor whimper quite fit; nor can death, with its promise of being united eternally with One who has loved us from the beginning, ever be meaningless. 

Thank You
Thank you for your prayers and good wishes. I am getting over the latest chemotherapy and can now see with both eyes, though it will take a few days longer for them to co-ordinate properly.

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Nothing New Under the Sun: Silence

In recent months, as my eyesight decreased and I went around in a frustrating blur of light and shade, I became more and more aware of sound. Listening to the Italian Quartet playing Mozart or the clear fluting of a local blackbird could almost reduce me to tears. Almost, but not quite. What did cause a moist eye was hearing hate-filled speech on the radio: cruel voices clamouring for vengeance and calling it ‘justice’ instead; others making rash accusations and false promises, denigrating, stirring up hatred, doing the devil’s work with unholy glee. Being unable to see made it so much worse. There was no opportunity to register facial expressions or those little details that sometimes make the actual words less ugly — the pinched face, the obvious poverty of the surroundings, even the politician’s crumpled suit or ashen countenance. The problem was, how to deal with it all without being drawn into a reactive anger myself.

The conventional, pious answer would no doubt be to pray and do what one can to present an alternative view — the prayerful activism of the committed Christian. I have no problem with that, but it wasn’t the way that suggested itself to me. As a Benedictine, my way was to go deeper and deeper into silence, letting the anger and turmoil ebb away until it was, practically speaking, noiseless and unable to do harm.

To choose silence and stick to it isn’t easy. It means checking one’s own first angry response, the desire to give a smart answer or argue a case one is convinced one will win because, of course, one is right. It means acknowledging one’s own helplessness in the face of something that seems very powerful and hostile. Silence does not immediately soothe. In fact, initially it makes everything much more painful. One feels more, not less. Only with time does one begin to see why silence is important. It allows God into a situation which otherwise is full of human noise and discord. More than that, it allows God to be God in that situation, not our idea of God, which can be misleading and dangerous.

At present there is a lot of violence and anger informing our political discourse, our online activities, even, alas, our social relations. Some will respond with the kind of activism I mentioned above. Others may find more helpful the practice of silence — not the easy, empty silence of the cowardly but the more challenging silence that finds its origin and fulfilment in God.

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Instant God: a Little Sermo Canis ad Anglos by Bro Duncan PBGV

I have never really understood why Human Beans think PBGVs (Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen) know all about laziness. The first sniff of a rabbit at five thousand paces and we are away. The merest chink of kibble in the food bowl or covert unwrapping of a morsel of cheese and we are by our Human Bean’s side. Even here, where we stretch out in the sunshine of God’s presence, waiting for Them to turn up at the Pearly Gates and make our heaven complete, every nerve is alive, on the alert for everything happening down below; and I must say, recent events have made me realise what silly-billies most of you Human Beans are.

After much thinking, I have come to the conclusion that it is because you are ever so slightly . . . lazy. You want instant solutions that require no effort or exertion on your part. If you have a ‘comfortable shape’, you want to attain your ideal body shape in a matter of days, without the pain of changing your diet or exercise regime. You believe that all your problems will be solved if you can rid yourselves of ‘difficult people’ — the ones you don’t like or fail to understand. You can ridicule them as ‘pompous fools’ or tell them to ‘go back where they came from’ or simply behave so brutally that they will want to get away from you as fast as their little legs will carry them. (In the case of PBGVs, whose legs are indeed little, that is very fast indeed: try saying ‘Vet!’ or ‘Time for your grooming!’ if you don’t believe me.) Then there are those Human Beans who want others to do all the work for them. I call them Instant Gratification Grabbers or IGGs for short. Rather than read a book or even scan a web page, they will send someone an email asking for all the information they require on a certain subject and be grumpy and grudging if they don’t get an instant reply. I have sometimes thought about taking such Human Beans hunting with me, but it wouldn’t be much fun. You need patience to catch rabbits, and lots of persistence, but those who want instant answers wouldn’t know about that.

The big problem, as I see it, is with Human Beans who want Instant God. They want God to be created in their own image and likeness, doing their bidding whenever they deign to notice him. So, they are happy to ignore him most of the time, but the moment something nasty or difficult occurs, there he must be, the kind of God they want at that minute, all trendy and treacle-y, endorsing the latest fashionable fad without so much as a Commandment or Gospel precept to trouble or challenge them. They don’t like the effort that goes into preparing for prayer, so they opt for short-cuts of their own devising, and as for a life of virtue! Well, that is but a fetter on a free spirit, is it not? Even worse, in my view, if they aren’t up to this themselves, they spend their lives condemning those who are. Laziness isn’t very nice, but condemning others for their laziness is even less nice (and I can only do it because I am Beyond and love everyone because I have fulfilled my True Nature as a PBGV and am writing this as a kind of latterday Sermo Canis ad Anglos).

So, my friends, may I urge you to take stock a little and see whether you have fallen into the trap of wanting Instant God? Have you become a little lazy in your thinking and doing, a little lazy in your preparations for prayer? You don’t need to become complicated about it. Take a lesson from me and my pals up here. I mentioned the way we stretch out in the sunshine of God’s love. That’s all there is to it, really. No one close to Him wants to be anything other than His joy and delight. Yes, it takes effort, but never was effort more richly rewarded. The results are not instant but they last for eternity. 🙂

Note from Digitalnun
I’m very grateful to Bro Duncan PBGV for blogging today. I’m delighted to say I can now see with one eye but I have a mountain of admin to catch up with and a daunting amount of correspondence, too. Thank you for your prayers and good wishes, all of which have been much appreciated.

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