Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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O Emmanuel: God with us

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, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

Today’s Mass readings, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66, taken together with Isaiah 7.14, provide more than enough to think about as we listen to the antiphon:

 

We are very close to the birth we are waiting for. The prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, and the question with which the gospel ends is one we must ask not just of John’s birth but of Jesus’ also: ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ Sometimes people assume that ‘good’ Christians have no doubts, never ask questions, never experience a sense of bewilderment in the face of cruelty or disaster. That is demonstrably untrue. To be a Christian is surely to live with uncertainty, relying on the gift of faith to bridge the gap between our understanding and our questioning. Tonight’s antiphon reminds us that the God we seek is not a God afar off, but God-with-us, one who has shared our humanity and calls us to share in his divinity.

O Emmanuel expresses the theology of this in a few, meaning-rich phrases. Notice that expectatio gentium, although translated as ‘Desired of the nations’, really has more the sense of ‘hope’ or even more literally, ‘expectation’. The antiphon takes up and develops all the themes of the previous six. Christ is welcomed as God-with-us, King of David’s line, the true Law-giver, one who is the fulfilment of every human (= gentile) hope and longing, whose gift of salvation is open to all. The petition with which the antiphon ends is absolutely clear about the divine nature and mission of the Messiah: ‘come and save us, Lord our God.’

There in a nutshell is what Christmas is about. In his compassion and love, God wills to take our human flesh and blood and redeem us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our salvation is very near. It began with Mary’s generous-hearted consent to be the Mother of God. It will take physical shape with the birth of Jesus on Christmas night. It will be completed only when all are one with Him in the Kingdom. Truly, this is ‘a mystery hidden from long ages, a secret into which even angels long to look!

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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O Adonai: the holiness of God

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
 

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.

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A Thought for Friday

I shall be spending much of today in London at various meetings. It will be all roar and rush and I’ll probably feel like the proverbial fish out of water. (The habit tends to attract some very odd types — the only people who don’t come anywhere near are usually wearing clerical collars!)

Is it possible to maintain an inner silence, a spirit of recollection, in such circumstances? My answer would be ‘yes’. Have all those years spent learning the discipline of silence perhaps begun to bear fruit? I now know that it is not exterior noise but the endless babble of interior thoughts and feelings that causes all the trouble. Cultivating interior silence isn’t easy, but I think it is necessary for both psychological and spiritual health.

This week scripture has been urging us to go out into the desert to seek Jesus. Today, however, romantic visions of a vast and starry sky, rock, sand and a luminous silence must give way to the reality of the modern desert, the urban landscape of concrete and steel, full of clamour and bustle. Is it possible to seek and find God here, among the fast-food outlets and the diesel fumes? Francis Thompson is not much read nowadays, but I cannot help recalling the concluding lines of his ‘Kingdom of God’:
. . . lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Today, wherever we are, is full of hope.

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Thanksgiving

The American custom of Thanksgiving Day has always appealed. Gratitude is such an attractive quality — one can almost hear the smile as one writes it. I have often wondered whether the habit of thanksgiving, along with plain religion and and a can-do spirit, are at the root of American philanthropy. Of course it helps to be blessed with material riches, but no one can accuse the U.S.A. of not being generous in its sharing with others. We have a Thanksgiving Day here in the monastery, the octave day of our foundation, when we thank God for our benefactors (you) and generally remind ourselves that everything is gift. That may sound trite to some, but saying thank you is never trivial. The most important act of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of praise and thanksgiving, saying thank you to God for the best of all gifts, Jesus Christ his Son.

A Greeting
We wish all our American friends a very happy Thanksgiving Day and assure you of our prayers.

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Of Music and Musicians

The feast of St Cecilia is a good day on which to think about music and musicians. Let me say straight away that I am very average choir fodder. Indeed, when being taught to sing plainchant, I so exasperated my teacher that she exclaimed, ‘It’s just a matter of intelligence!’ Whereupon, to my eternal discredit, I did an off-the-cuff translation of one of the trickier hymns in the Hymnale. Pride 1; humility nil.

Inability to sing or play should not be confused with the ability to enjoy. There are very few who do not enjoy music, although we certainly don’t all enjoy the same music. I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving.

Fundraising Update
We’ll be issuing a statement later today after we have met with our advisers. We’ll tweet when it’s up.

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Vacare Deo

With the week-end approaching, it is worth spending a few moments thinking about the old monastic injunction vacare Deo, to make space for God. The Cistercian equivalent is the otium sanctum, holy leisure, which St Bernard characterised as otium negotissimum, very busy leisure. How do we make space for God in our lives? What kind of sacred leisure should our lives contain?

The first thing to note is that making space is not the same as doing nothing. Doing nothing worried St Benedict, for example, who saw it as idleness and the enemy of the soul. Making space for God, by contrast, is more a change of gear, adopting a slightly different focus. We make space for God by attending to him. That may mean we have to think about what we do, but it doesn’t mean that we necessarily stop doing things. Have you ever thought of inviting God into your week-end activities, for instance? Of course prayer and reading the scriptures matter, but so do the other activities in which we engage. Time spent with others is not time stolen from God unless we are selfish and self-indulgent about it.

I sometimes think that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to create a God in our own image and likeness: exacting, a bit of a policeman, rather a killjoy, if truth be told. Yet in Jesus we see a much more attractive image of God, one who taught us to expect miracles at parties and holiness among the outcasts of society. The whole week-end, not just Sunday, can be filled with God. We just have to make space for him.

 

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13 November 2011

For most people this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, pure and simple, when we recall the sacrifice of those who died in defence of our freedom. It is a day for prayer and gratitude and solemn acts of remembering. Here is it is also Oblates’ Day, when we welcome those of our oblates and associates who can get here to a day of quiet fellowship at the monastery. The 13 November is the feast of All Benedictine Saints so is suitably challenging: holiness, and nothing less, is what we aim at, and we have a ‘great crowd of witnesses’ to encourage us. Today will have challenges peculiar to itself, however, as half the community is down with what looks suspiciously like ‘flu or a similar virus. It reminds me of that lovely Hasidic saying, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I trust there is a broad grin in heaven today.

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On Being Oneself

A few weeks ago, when I posted some thoughts about online engagement, my friend Tim Hutchings very sensibly asked whether some of my suggestions didn’t cancel themselves out, making us less ‘ourselves’ online than we are offline. I think the specific question he raised was addressed in the comments, but there is a bigger question that concerns all of us, whether we go online or not. How can we be ourselves in a world that, by and large, is always pressuring us to be something other than we are? The world of advertising wants us to be thinner, richer, more ‘stylish’ than most of us could ever dream of being (i.e to buy what it is selling). The world of Church wants us to be . . . what exactly?

I often ask myself what the homilist thinks he is doing (in the Catholic Church, the sermon is always preached by a priest or deacon, who must be male). Do the admonitions to be more prayerful, more generous, more this or that really affect us? When I’m exhorted to act in a certain way ‘because you are a nun’, does it ever change me? I have to say that, by and large, I stick with being me, trusting that God doesn’t make junk and sees something incomparably wonderful in each one of us, even me. That isn’t a pretext for not trying to be more prayerful, generous, etc (see above), I think it is to recognize a fundamental truth: we go to heaven, if we go at all, as ourselves — smudged with sin, only half-understanding, full of contradictions, the person God created and redeemed. Being oneself is ultimately the only way in which to give God glory.

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