A Moment of Peace

Christmas Eve in most households is anything but peaceful. Even the most organized seem to be full of last-minute activity, from cooking to present-wrapping, to say nothing of the long treks homeward many a son or daughter and family will make in order to celebrate together with other family members. In the monastery there is no present-wrapping or travel to worry about, but the preparation of a complex liturgy which goes on throughout the Octave and a more than usually ample dinner for Christmas Day itself, can be demanding, especially when unexpected visitors turn up or those in distress telephone in search of comfort. How do any of us find peace in all this? The conventional wisdom, to go with the flow, is at best a half-truth. Peace is not to be identified with the absence of struggle or a kind of mental or moral opting-out, nor can we glibly assert that embracing reality, whatever that means in this context, is the answer.

There is only one way to find peace on Christmas Eve and that is to allow the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds. It means consciously stopping, at least for a few moments, all our frantic activity and saying, ‘Lord, you see how busy I am. If I forget you, please don’t forget me!’ In that acknowledgement of our inability to slow down or halt the Christmas rush, we are being honest; and, instead of turning the Lord away for a time when we think we will be better able to receive him, we are inviting him into our chaotic present, admitting it is far from perfect, but wanting to be with him, and him with us, all the same.

To stop, even for a moment, is not easy, especially if there is no-one else to do whatever it is that we are doing. Most of us need to use our imagination more. Going from one room to another, clearing a table, climbing the stairs, washing-up or loading the dishwasher — all provide moments we can use to turn to the Lord. And if anyone feels self-conscious about doing so, a little lonely in their desire to keep their focus on the Lord when everyone else expects them to be full of a festive spirit that seems to have nothing much to do with the Incarnation, I hope they will find encouragement in this thought. Throughout the world there are monks, nuns and countless others praying the prayer they themselves would pray if they had time. The Communion of Saints is not an abstraction. It is part of the new order ushered in by Christmas, one of the precious gifts our Saviour gives to the world.

May God grant you and those you love a very happy Christmas.

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The Cry of Anguish

‘The hardest thing in life,’ wrote the young André Gide in his journal of 1890, ‘is to be sincere.’ Our generation might amend that slightly: the hardest thing in life is to distinguish the sincere from the fake or merely opportune. Sometimes, even our prayer seems tinged with insincerity. Do I truly want what I say I do in this prayer, to be completely converted to the Lord/forgiving/generous or whatever, or am I like St Augustine, desiring chastity, but definitely not yet?

During the past few days we have been considering a few phrases from the ‘O’ antiphons. Their simplicity and directness are immediately attractive, but then we find something in them that requires effort because it has elements alien to our current ways of thought. Take today’s antiphon’:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster. 
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the One for whom the nations long and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

The piling up of all those grandiloquent titles is excellent theology and history, but, if we are honest, doesn’t it make God seem a little remote? We are not accustomed to addressing him as though he were some Eastern potentate. We are more comfortable with the idea of God as loving Father — a kind of SuperDad perhaps. We ignore the obvious, that God is as far above our understanding as the heavens are above the earth, and condemn the unfamiliar as insincere. But consider the antiphon’s final phrase, ‘Come and save us, Lord our God.’ Nowhere else in the sequence do we make that direct reference to the Lord our God Our last word, so to say, is very simple and sincere: it is the cry of anguish uttered from the heart: Come and save us, Lord our God. We spend our lives learning that we cannot save ourselves. All our fine words, all our magnificent gestures, come down to this: we need a Saviour, the one who will first appear among us in the fragility of a baby’s body on Christmas Night. Let us pray that he will come to us and save us.

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A King! We Want a King!

There is a curious irony in the fact that it is often the most allegedly democratic of peoples that countenance the most absolutist forms of government. No names, no pack-drills, as they say, but I can think of two much in the news of late. It reminds me of the old Israelite cry, ‘Give us a king! We want to be like other nations!’ (cf 1 Samuel 8). God did give Israel a king, but it was not an unmitigated success. What are we to make, then, of today’s ‘O’ antiphon?

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

The translation is awkward, but I wanted to preserve the obvious scriptural references and, rather than smooth over the difficulties of qui facis utraque unum or even hominem, leave them in plain sight. Sometimes we need to be challenged by the theology of a prayer rather than whittling it down to something we can digest and endorse. However, it was not those phrases that caught my attention this morning so much as the opening invocation of God as Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles. It is an ambiguous phrase. On the one hand it proclaims God’s lordship over all; on the other, it claims God for the gentiles, those of us outside the Covenant, the slightly dodgy folk of least account who do not keep the Law. We know that we have been made sharers in the Covenant — Christ is indeed the corner-stone that unites both Jews and Gentiles in the family of God — but it is by way of privilege, a privilege we are apt at times to forget.

It can be hard not to think that the world as we know it is disintegrating. The Church is in disarray over the sex abuse scandals that have destroyed the trust of so many; our politicians seem incapable of putting the interests of others before their own pet plans and projects; the people we have always relied upon seem less dependable than they were. Into this mess comes a tiny, vulnerable baby, born in an obscure corner of the world yet bearing the greatest of titles, who will redeem the world; and we, smudged with sin and endlessly misunderstanding as we are, are privileged to share in the salvation He offers. Our prayer today is not for ourselves alone but for the whole world. The King of the Nations is Lord of all that is.

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Held by the Right Hand of God

For some of us the present turmoil in British politics is disconcerting. We are not fazed by blatent personal ambition or the curious kind of ‘political-speak’ many adopt when they wish to avoid committing themselves to anything, but we are wondering whether the concepts of public service and the common good mean anything any more. Amid all the insults being traded in Parliament and on the internet, it can be hard to discern the voice of mature reflection. At times, the apparent lack of political vision is extremely worrying. Whatever we think about Brexit, the present shambles helps no-one, and any attempt to look into the future is discouraging.

Today’s first Mass reading (Isaiah 41. 13–20), therefore,  could not be more timely. We may feel as helpless as a worm, one whose fate is entirely decided by others, but we’re not. God is holding us by the right hand. That doesn’t mean we can just sit back and make no effort of our own. On the contrary, it is because God is involved in every aspect of our lives that we  can find the courage to go on, however adverse the circumstances in which we  find ourselves. Hope is the great message of Advent, but it is one we have to live in practice, not just theory. That includes being hopeful about the present chaos — not in a silly, ostrich-like refusal to look facts in the face, but in genuine openness to what may come about. It means going on praying, going on searching and working, refusing to give way to the rancour and self-seeking of some or the bitterness and hostility of others. In other words, it means allowing God to lead us,

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Where Prayer Has Been Valid

Corbel at Holywell: Nabokov at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Yesterday we made a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well and prayed for all the sick and suffering people in the world, which means, in effect, for everyone. We are all in some measure sick — not quite what we should be, probably rather less than we could be — and we are all in some degree suffering — not obviously, perhaps, but ‘underneath’, where we do not care to shine too bright a light. Today’s Mass readings remind us that we find our strength in the Lord. He carries us, just as the corbel at St Winefride’s Well shows a man carrying his friend.

There is always a beautiful quietness at Holywell. The battered old stones hold so many prayers, while the gentle bubbling of the spring recalls the waters of Shiloh and all the miracles of healing recorded in scripture. To pray in such a place, to light a candle in such a place, is to assert once again the supremacy of God’s love, the triumph of good over evil and the power of grace to transform lives. That is the true miracle of healing, the end to which our journey through Advent leads us.

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Living with Uncertainty

In retrospect, the world in which I grew up was remarkably secure, yet the memory of war was very real for my parents’ generation and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was ever-present. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I remember going into the garage to announce the news to my father, who stopped what he was doing, looked very grave and said, ‘This may mean war.’ He was wrong, of course, but that was the great fear lurking behind the political polarisation of the day. We lived with uncertainty. We still do, but it is a different kind of uncertainty. The enemy we fear is often unseen or unrecognized, in our midst, even our own bodies. We fear the consequences of the way we have abused earth, sea and air; the terrorist who is implacably opposed to our way of life; the disease that perhaps even now is coursing through our body. No-one looking at the world today can afford to be complacent. There seems to be so much that is beyond our control, that menaces us.

That is one of the reasons why Advent is a helpful time of year. We are looking forward to the coming of Christ with expectant joy yet, at the same time, acknowledging both our own sinfulness and the brokenness of the world we inhabit. There is the uncertainty of the not-yetness of salvation; the uncertainty of our own response. For those of us living in Britain, there is also the uncertainty of Brexit and what will or will not happen in the next twenty-four hours. This uncertainty accompanies us as we make our pilgrimage through Advent and lends it a peculiar force and directness. We need a Saviour, a Redeemer: one who will make us secure, transform our deafness and blindness and free us from everything that holds us back from being  who and what we are meant to be. We are therefore living a paradox because, of course, Christ has already come, has already saved us. Our uncertainty is whether we will lay claim to the salvation he offers us — whether, in the words of Isaiah, we will allow everlasting joy to shine forth from us, or whether we will prefer darkness to light. The choice is ours.

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Preparing for Advent 2018: Five Suggestions

This year Advent is very short. It begins on the evening of Saturday, 1 December, and lasts barely three weeks, so we must make the most of it. Here in the monastery, Advent is eagerly anticipated. We relish the simplicities of the season — the silence, the haunting chants we sing in choir, the wonderful prophecies we read, even the extra plainness of the food we eat. Sadly, we are unable to begin with our usual three days of complete silence because I am scheduled to have chemotherapy on Thursday and the side-effects affect everyone for a week or so. I will have to accept that as humbly as I can, knowing that others are being very patient and kind. It does mean, however, that we need to keep our focus if Advent is to do its work in us.

Benedict does not mention Advent in the Rule, which is not surprising as Western Christians were only just beginning to observe it as a liturgical season at the time of his birth. He does, however, have a great deal to say about the things that make for a blessed and fruitful Advent. He is keen on silence, prayer, the common life; he wants us to read the scriptures, act humbly, justly, and forgive readily. These may be easier in a monastery, where everyone is vowed to live according to the Rule, than in society at large, but I think there are some practical suggestions any Christian can make their own. May I suggest the following?

  1. Read every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass (the Eucharist). In that way, even if you can’t go to Mass yourself, you will be joining with the whole Church throughout the world in this great act of preparation for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
  2. Try to find a few minutes for prayer each day. Don’t worry if circumstances aren’t ideal. It is what God thinks of our prayer that matters, not our assessment of it, and thankfully God seems much more easily satisfied than we are. Just try.
  3. Try to cultivate a few minutes of silence each day, too. Learning to let God love us can only happen if we make some space for him in our lives. Constant chatter, especially angry chatter, isn’t helpful. Yes, there may be times when we explode, but we can try to be quieter, more patient, more open to God.
  4. Keep it simple; keep it kind. Many want to celebrate Christmas before we have even begun Advent. No one wants to be the party-pooper who sprinkles the vinegar of disapproval over everyone else’s fun. A mince pie or two is not going to lead to eternal damnation! The jolliest man I ever knew drank nothing but water and ate sparingly. It was his joie de vivre and kindly nature that made him such a delight. Most of us, alas, are not so obviously attractive, so it is better to nibble away at the festive goodies with a warm smile than refuse with a self-righteous sniff.
  5. Try not to worry about the commercialism of it all, or your inability to meet some of the demands made on you. God did not come into the world to make us sad or unhappy. He knows our weaknesses; he knows our strengths, too.  As we get older, we begin to appreciate that giving is a surer way of finding happiness than amassing things for ourselves. We may think we have nothing to give, but a kind word, a few minutes of our time, even a smile can be a precious gift to share with another.

That is more than enough, I’m sure. Do, please, share your own ideas in the comment section below. A quick search in the sidebar will provide anyone interested with a selection of earlier posts on this subject. The section on Advent in our main website also contains information about the history of the season, the O antiphons and some Advent traditions. You can read it here. Flash is needed to play the music files.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Does it Matter What the Churches Do?

Following on from yesterday’s post, in which I thought aloud about how we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in the light of the recent withdrawal agreement and on-going Brexit debate, I have been musing on the role of the Churches. There are those who think that the Churches should be entirely excluded from political discussion (though they are often happy for the Churches to pick up the tabs, so to say, for anything the State is reluctant to fund); others expect the Churches to give some kind of moral leadership (though they tend to be selective about what is to be deemed ‘acceptable’ and what isn’t); and others again who think all religion is irrelevant and the Churches especially so (though some seem quite ready to reap the benefits of the Churches’ educational work, for example, as in the case of Professor Alice Roberts). What interests me, however, is the role of the Churches in a post-Brexit world. Some are quietly preparing for a social doomsday, having taken to heart warnings about potential food shortages, unemployment and increased poverty. I think we can take the Churches’ response to such things for granted. Although some may dislike my saying so, Christians always respond generously to appeals for help and take an active part in charitable works that provide food and shelter for the needy. What is of more interest to me is how the Churches will meet the challenge of a Britain severed from the rest of Europe and more isolated internationally than she has been for over forty years.

The brave new world posited by those who think Brexit a good thing tends to look to a golden future some years hence. There is comparatively little acknowledgement that the immediate future could be difficult, though in recent weeks even such ardent Brexiteers as Jacob Rees-Mogg have conceded that the benefits of Brexit may be a long time a-coming. In such circumstance, I suggest that what the Churches do is of critical importance. There may be comparatively few church-goers in Britain today, but the influence of the Churches is still felt; and one of the areas in which that influence is important is in the sense of international connectedness and engagement. As a Catholic, I have always had a vivid sense of belonging to an organization that transcends national boundaries. Sometimes that in itself has led to difficulty, as when directives come from Rome that reflect the situation in Africa or Asia, for example, or a single kind of vernacular is imposed that is far removed from the spoken English of these Islands,. On the whole, however, the international character of Catholicism does us a useful service. We are constantly being reminded of our cross-border connections. Every time Mass is said, the pope of the day is named in the Eucharistic Prayer; papal encyclicals are read from our pulpits and so on and so forth. But is that enough? Will the Churches — not just the Catholic Church — have to work harder to maintain that sense of engagement?

Everyone knows that the advent of the internet and Social Media has transformed how we see and interact with the rest of the world, but many who initially embraced cyberspace with enthusiasm are now becoming tired of its negative aspects. Giving up Social Media, abandoning the internet, disengaging is becoming increasingly popular. We have had our fill of online anger, trolling and bullying; we don’t want ‘news’ we can’t trust; we are suspicious of the way in which we are being manipulated by China, Russia or even our own government. I must confess that I have myself been tempted to disengage, but I am held back by one thought. If we abandon cyberspace to the demons of our culture, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the consequences. If the Churches do not think long and hard about how they can best use the opportunities offered by the internet to create and maintain a sense of connectedness with other peoples, they will have failed in part of their mission — only a part, however. I am not one of those who think the internet is the solution to everything. The bigger challenge facing the Churches in a post-Brexit world will be linked to opposition to isolationism, moral, philosophical and actual. How we shall meet that challenge, I don’t know, but I am convinced that the role of those of us committed to prayer in the monastic tradition will be as important in the twenty-first century as at any time in the past. The paradox contained in that statement, like the tension between being in but not of the world, is one that each of us must work out for ourselves, not just as individuals but as members of a greater whole.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Liturgical Year’s End

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King and enter upon the last few days of the liturgical year. Already some are celebrating Christmas when we haven’t even begun Advent, while dark mutterings about ‘commercialism’ and so on can be heard in certain quarters. I think myself that the main problem is that we are reluctant to live in the present. We are always either looking back or looking forward. The past allows us certainty; the future, endless possibility. The present, alas, offers only reality, and humankind cannot bear very much of that. Moreover, Christmas without any preparation is an enticing prospect. We can ignore or skip much that is demanding so that we end up with no giving of the Law; no bondage in Egypt; no trekking through the desert; no covenants made and broken, then renewed again; no prophets, no exile, no Maccabean wars; just plunging straight into the Incarnation and happy ever after. Only, we know it doesn’t work like that. We cannot have Christmas without Advent recalling us to our senses and reminding us of the long history of the Jewish people’s search for God and our own place in it, at the very end, the wild olive grafted onto the ancient stock.

There was a time when I thought of the solemnity of Christ the King as an unwarrantable intrusion into this process. I almost despised it as a modern feast that spoke more of the political preoccupations of the earlier twentieth century than of anything more ‘spiritual’. But then I began to see how shallow my thinking was. To proclaim the lordship of Christ over everything that exists when dictators stalked the land; to assert the truth and beauty of following the gospel when many were seeking salvation in material things/totalitarian regimes, whether of left or right: that was not small or weak or contemptible. It was to assert not only the power of God to transform our human situation but also his freedom to do so in a way and at a time of his choosing. It was a message of hope in dark times; a re-statement of Christian faith and love in a world that has never really embraced it in all its fullness. We have always wanted Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent; but it cannot be.

At Christmas we shall indeed celebrate the Incarnation: God’s way of definitively entering human history and redeeming it, but we are not there yet. These last days of the liturgical year are very precious. They put before us the record of human sin and ingratitude and warn us of the sufferings we heap upon ourselves if we are reckless or indifferent. We know, in our heart of hearts, how badly things go wrong when we do not allow God full scope in our lives, but how reluctant we are to admit it! This Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect, live in the present and begin preparing for Advent. In other words, an opportunity to let God take back control.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The End Times and Hope

There is only one thing more terrifying than the Mass readings we have as the end of the liturgical year draws near, and that is the people who claim to be able to understand and interpret them. Every generation tends to see signs of the approaching end. Calamity follows calamity, and we are plunged further and further into gloom and despondency. Of course, that is not the case for all. Our present political difficulties seem to be encouraging some to hope for high office for themselves, and I daresay some entrepreneurs are continuing to make money out of what others experience as disasters; but for most of us, there is a recognition that we are entering into a kind of darkness where old certainties are less assured. Our interior landscape mirrors the exterior, and it can be bleak.

It is at such times that the virtue of hope is both most necessary and perhaps most difficult to practise. We try will-power, with little success; we lecture ourselves (or even worse, someone else lectures us); then we grit our teeth and  just soldier on. There is something to be said for simply doing our best and accepting that it isn’t perfect. Hope is what I call a cinderella virtue. We tend not to notice it until we need it, but when we do , how hope can transform a situation!

Most of us have something we are hoping for. Some of our hopes are slightly absurd — wanting great wealth to fall into our laps, for example — others are more modest — being able to cope with illness or a practical problem, for instance — but, whatever we hope for, we know that wishing alone won’t make things happen. We have to pray and work. This morning as we listen to the words of the gospel (Mark 13.24–32), let us keep our hopes high and prepare for the end times with confidence in our Saviour Jesus Christ. There is no other way.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail