In a Monastery Garden

One of the things that has delighted me since coming here are the birds. They are everywhere: sparrows, thrushes, finches and, over the way, larks and the occasional buzzard. The garden is filled with birdsong from morning till night. There are oak trees and apple trees and the rich red earth of Herefordshire peeping through long green grasses. In the local churchyard the graves are marked with the names not only of the person who lies there but also of the farm from which he or she came. There is a rootedness, a closeness to the soil, that is no longer the familiar experience of the majority of British citizens.

Does this affect how other things are viewed? That I have yet to learn, but I suspect it makes one aspect of the Gospels easier to grasp. The allusions to the natural world, to seed time and harvest, to digging and trenching, the building of wine presses and barns, need no interpretation here. Indeed, I look out of my window at the old cider press in the garden and it takes no great leap of imagination to see, not an old horse trundling round and round, but one who comes from Edom, his garments stained red as from a wine press.

We must connect life and faith or there is a terrible disjunction in our lives, leading either to total disbelief or an equally total fanaticism — not, perhaps, what Ketèlby had in mind when he composed his eponymous piece!

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Prejudice

What is the point at which opinion turns into prejudice? I was stunned this morning to find a Christian pastor on Facebook promoting a poster from an American ‘Stop Islam’ campaign. I am very conscious of the fact that I don’t ‘get’ America, north or south, so don’t take what I say as a criticism, I’m merely thinking out loud. Had I promoted that poster, it would have been prejudice; I’m not sure that it necessarily was so for the pastor, but it set me thinking.

In Britain we tend to make jokes about being ‘politically correct’. The media love to seize upon the latest manifestation of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and we usually smile broadly when we hear that something or other may not be done or called by its traditional name for fear of giving offence to someone. For Christians, the smile sometimes wears a little thin when we find that Councils have abolished Christmas in favour of Winterval, or ancient liberties are attacked; but in general we accept that we live in a plural society and have to rub along together as best we can. We do not have to travel very far before we are in a different country, with a different language and culture. Whether we like it or not, we are used to adjusting.

Or are we? One of the disturbing aspects of Britain today is the extent to which extremism of various kinds seems to be flourishing, most of it underground though sometimes it surfaces in ugly ways. Whether we are talking about Islamic extremism or the racially-motivated extremism of other groups, the problem is the same: opinion has turned into prejudice. Opinion may not be based on fact or experience, but it is at least open to questioning. The Latin roots of the word ‘prejudice’, by contrast,  show very clearly that the attitudes it represents are not based on reason or experience nor are they open to question: prejudice is, quite literally, a judgement made in advance of knowledge, and, as such, it is very dangerous.

None of us is free from prejudice, but, as I asked at the beginning, what is the point at which opinion becomes prejudice? As a Christian, I believe that there is only one mediator between God and ourselves, the Lord Jesus Christ. For me, there can be no watering down of that; no casual accommodation to other beliefs and creeds. But I have no difficulty in honouring the truth I find in other religions — not in a wishy-washy, we all believe the same kind of way, but with wonder and gladness that I can learn something about God I might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. When we had a couple of Tibetan monks living with us for a year, we soon realised that the philosophical bases of Christianity and Buddhism, if one can call them that, were worlds apart, but the concept of purity of heart and the monastic quest for it were points of close agreement. The experience enriched my understanding of what it means to be a nun.

This Saturday morning it is worth spending a moment or two thinking about our own opinions and the point where they slide into prejudice. It is good to have firm opinions, to be zealous, to proclaim the truth as we see it; but to be prejudiced is to have a closed ear and a closed heart. And the problem with that is, nothing can get through except the bile we leak out.

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Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

I’ve written a lot about this feast in previous years but realise I’d never admitted, until recently, that the often syrupy form it takes in some parishes was always a barrier to my appreciation of its theology and, indeed, historicity (it was clearly a pre-Reformation devotion at Netley, which was impeccably Cistercian). I suspect others feel the same. The clue to overcoming this will be found, as so often, in the preface for the feast and its reference to the piercing of Christ’s side with a lance as he hung on the cross, and the streams of grace and mercy which flowed from the wound.

Videos and television may have accustomed us to the sight of gore. Blood flowing from a wound may no longer have the power to shock. But for a Christian, the thought of God’s Son shedding his blood for us is truly awful. (Interesting: I originally wrote ‘bleeding for us’ but thought the more conventional phrase might be less offensive . . .) The blood of Christ washes us clean of sin, nourishes us in the Eucharist and restores us to union with God. Christ’s heart pulses eternally with that redemptive blood. The feast of the Sacred Heart, therefore, challenges us with a love so complete, so unremitting, that we are forced to choose: will we accept that love, or reject it? One of the wisest things ever said to me was to look in the eyes of a crucifix and say, if I dared, that I didn’t give a damn. One might do the same with an image of the Sacred Heart. Who could possibly be indifferent?

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OMG

OMG: three little letters representing Creator and creature, infinity and love; or the fool’s laughter, signifying nothing?

There is a world of difference between ‘Oh, my God!’ used as a virtually meaningless  exclamation of surprise and ‘O my God’ used as the language of prayer. They are as different as chalk and cheese, as far apart as the East is from the West. If one were to say how offensive the misuse of God’s name is to the ears of believers, one might be regarded as rather strange, ‘excessively’ religious, a bit of a pompous ass (donkey to our American friends). The acronym makes it no better. To triviliase the Infinite is surely the mark of the very shallow.

So what of ‘O my God’? We use those three little words to call upon the Almighty with joy, thanksgiving and contrition. They are our comfort in sorrow, our help in times of need; the only words necessary to adoration. They are
‘church-bells beyond the starres heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices: something understood.’

Can we reclaim them? Does it matter? Look at the front page of today’s BBC website or any newspaper and ask yourself how and why we came to this. If that doesn’t bring you to your knees, I don’t know what will.

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In Praise of Rain

Jokes about the drought are frequent. Ever since it was declared, it seems, we have had nothing but rain. April was the wettest on record for a century; it was followed by an unusually wet May. Even now the skies pour down; so why not celebrate rain and sing its praises?

It is a grey morning here in Herefordshire, but the raindrops skittering down the window panes are more brilliant than the Queen’s ‘river pageant dress’ as they trace their delicate patterns of silver and crystal down the glass. Step outside, and the rain feels warm and fresh on one’s face. The earth is soaking up the rain, with grass and trees bending under its weight. From the undergrowth comes the unmistakable smell of wet earth and lush vegetation. One can almost hear the grass growing at one’s feet. Everything is vibrant with life.

In the Bible rain is always seen as a precious gift, giving life and freshness to the earth. As befits a nation of desert-dwellers, the Israelites celebrated rain as a blessing, to be longed for in time of drought, praised as spring rain and autumn rain, gloried in as a sign of God’s gift of fertility and growth. Like them, we pray for the heavens to rain down the Just One, liken the action of the Word of God to the rain doing its work on the earth, acknowledge Christ to be Lord of sky and storm.

We are glad of the rain, for two dry winters have reminded us that it is not a gift to be taken for granted. As we sing in the Canticle of Daniel, ‘springs and showers, bless the Lord’; and as Fr Baker reminds us in Sancta Sophia, we are called to ‘praise the Lord amidst the noise of the water-spouts’. A cheering thought as we raise our ‘brollies yet again.

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The Promise is Fulfilled

‘The promise is fulfilled: all is made new.’ With those words we greet the Solemnity of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and the greatest feast of the Church year. Probably a few readers are thinking to themselves, ‘Surely Easter is the greatest feast?’ But please note where I put the emphasis, on the Church year. Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole Church, our commission to mission, so to say. It is a feast that combines transcendence and immanence, grandeur and lowliness, in a most remarkable way. The promise made to our ancestors is fulfilled: we live now the newness of life that Christ our Lord has made possible. The Church is a sign of his presence and action in the world: it is our vocation to be what he is.

For us here at Hendred the promise is fulfilled in another, more material way. Yesterday we collected the keys to our new monastery in Herefordshire and this week we shall be moving in. We shall be offline for a while, at least until BT fits a new telephone line, but prayer never ceases; and very soon Howton Grove Priory will resound to the praises of God as we sing the Lord’s song in a new land. To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
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Other Kinds of Debts

The word ‘debt’ has become synonymous with ‘Eurozone crisis’, ‘Greece’, ‘recession’ and ‘default’. It conjures up visions of grey suits and number-crunching, police in riot gear, austerity and anxiety. There are other kinds of debts, however, and it can be good to remember them. Here is a random list of some of mine which you can compare with your own:

I am indebted to my ancestors, not just my parents, for pretty well everything attributable to nature and nurture, from my awkwardness of person to love of country, language and Faith; to my first teachers, for opening up the mysteries of reading, writing and arithmetic, so making possible the intellectual discoveries of later years; to friends, for rubbing a few rough edges off me and enriching life with their kindness and giftedness; to my employers, for convincing me that I was not cut out to be a banker for ever; to my community, for accepting me and showing me the possibility of holiness; to those I meet online or off, who challenge or comfort, as occasion demands.

These are debts that cannot be measured in pounds and pence but which shape our lives as much, if not more than, economic circumstances; and the interesting thing is that they are debts we can acknowledge gratefully, even gladly. Each one of us is capable of repaying them, if we are willing to make the effort. That is part of the glory of being human.

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Ascension Day: Word and Silence

Today Catholics in England and Wales (and many other countries, too) celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension. It is also World Communications Day, the theme of which this year is Word and Silence. There are lots of connections between the two we might explore, but let me suggest just one.

When the Word of God was lifted up from the earth on the Cross of Calvary, He desired to draw all to himself; but he still had more words to speak after his Resurrection from the dead. Today the Word of God is lifted up into the heavens and we shall hear his voice no more. The Word has passed into the silence of union with the Father. In that silence, in that union, he is closer to us than ever — dare I say, more effective than ever, because he is no longer limited by earthly presence. Now, truly, he draws all to himself.

But what about us, left gazing up into the skies? Are we left high and dry, so to say? We have the Lord’s promise, that he will be with us always, to the end of time; but how are we to understand that if we no longer hear his voice? Perhaps our trouble is that we have not grasped this new mode of being that the Ascension marks. We have a new lesson to learn. If we would understand God’s Word, we must enter into his silence and await his coming. In the meantime, we must ask the Holy Spirit to illumine our understanding. Our prayer now is veni, illumina, confirma (come, enlighten, strengthen), for we too must communicate the Word of God to others, must take on ourselves the mission of the Church.

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St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?

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Low Sunday

I love our homely English name ‘Low Sunday’ for Dominica in Albis, the Octave Day of Easter, when those baptized at the Easter Vigil traditionally laid aside their white garments and put on an Agnus Dei made of wax blessed by the pope to remind them of their newborn innocence in Christ. Another name is Quasimodo Sunday, from the words we sing at the introit of the Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. Alleluia, Alleluia. (‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile,’ etc, from 1 Peter 2.2). Low Sunday, however, is my favourite: it describes exactly that lowering of intensity we feel at the end of the Easter Octave. We have sung alleluia over and over again, rejoiced and given thanks: there seems nothing left to give. Joy, like grief, reaches a point where it almost numbs the senses.

Then we hear again the gospel of Thomas’s encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20. 19–31. I have often remarked that the Church uses John’s gospel at the peak moments of the Christian year. Surely this moment, when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and Thomas’s doubts are resolved, is a peak moment for all of us. It shows us not only what Christ accomplished through his Death and Resurrection but also why he suffered. His wounds are transfigured: love and compassion have made them beautiful, so that they are no longer blemishes but the source of grace and healing.

Christ’s Risen Body will always bear the wounds our sins have made upon them. That is not an easy thought. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, but at what cost! Surely we can tremble with Thomas at the enormity of the gulf that separates us from God, and the enormity of the love that spans the gap between. Low Sunday confronts us with the mercy and forgiveness of God less brutally than Good Friday, perhaps, but just as insistently.

The end of the Easter Octave is not the end of Easter. Low Sunday invites us to go deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Easter message. Just as the flame of the paschal candle continues to burn, so we too must continue to explore what it means to respond to our Lord’s invitation, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’.

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