An old rabbi used to say that if he came across any particularly delightful fruit, he would save it for the sabbath. It was a reminder to him of the joy and blessing that the sabbath is. For Christians Sunday can all too easily become a day like any other with a little bit of church on top. I exaggerate, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Perhaps if this morning you are preparing to go into overdrive, with a million things to do, you could pause for a moment and ask yourself just how many are really necessary, you might have time to taste and see how good Sunday can be. Rest isn’t the same as idleness, any more than peace is the mere absence of war or joy the absence of sorrow. Sunday is a day for allowing the Lord more scope than we usually do, letting him show us the true value of what we are and do and rejoicing in his presence and action in our lives. We each have to find our own way of making Sunday special.
While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.
Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.
There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.
You would think we would be used to it by now. Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, so many popular singers have died early, often as a result of addictive behaviours involving drink and drugs. In Whitney Houston’s case, there was the added tragedy of drugs ruining her voice long before it would have naturally faded. She had to live with that, day in day out, and who can guess what that knowledge cost her?
In the face of untimely death we are all a little subdued, a little sad. We may not have known the dead person, but we recognize that something is not quite right: the expected order of things has been overturned. The religious among us may whisper something about ‘God’s purposes’ but, whether we have faith or not, we must confront the reality of death. The life we know now must come to an end, and neither the moment nor the manner of it is for us to choose. ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ True, but let us not forget the grief of those who mourn and reflect on the ways in which society colludes with destructive behaviours. As we pray for Whitney Houston, let us also pray for all who are in thrall to drugs, alcohol or anything else that limits human freedom and dignity.
A few days spent roaming about on behalf of the monastery may have addled my wits, or maybe I’m just getting sentimental (not a quality usually associated with me), but I woke up this morning thinking about smiles, the kind that use 22 muscles on the human face, or whatever.
Smiles communicate so much and yet so little. We have a whole vocabulary to suggest their various shades of meaning, from appeasing through supercilious to warm or even zany. Smiles which don’t reach the eyes or are inconsistent with the words being spoken trouble us greatly. By contrast, a smile from someone we love is treasured in the memory. Sometimes the smiles of strangers are, too. I remember one hot summer’s evening long ago when I was working at the Bodleian and thanked a very tired-looking librarian for the book she had just got me: the brilliance of her smile has remained with me as a reminder that even a simple ‘thank you’ can be just what someone needs to hear — or maybe the smile was just what I needed to receive.
You can’t force a smile. Those gruesome photographs splattered all over the web showing faces with hugely improbable smiles are testimony to that. A smile has to start from the inside and work its way out. ‘Smiling through’ isn’t an idle phrase, for use only in hard times. If eyes are the mirror of the soul, surely a smile is too? So, please don’t start a National Smile Day (there probably already is one); please don’t start contorting your face into a huge rictus every time you meet someone; just spend some time ensuring that what is inside is worth displaying. That is more challenging than may appear, and certainly not likely to appeal to sentimentalists. ‘Smile, Jesus loves you’, no. Smile Jesus’ love through, yes.
Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. The words with which she dedicated herself to the service of the Commonwealth on that day in 1952 have been amply fulfilled. In a message released for today, she dedicates herself anew to public service. That should make all of us, whatever our political opinions, think about our own service of others. Personally, I am grateful for the quintessentially British and rather understated way in which her Christian faith suffuses all she says and does. We are fortunate to have a genuinely Christian monarch as Head of State. Let us pray for her today with thanksgiving.
Snow is beautiful to look at, but what I love best about it is its silence: great drifts of silence falling from the sky and hushing everything. The world is noisy and we sigh over the necessity of having to cope with incessant clamour, sometimes amazed to discover that the worst din of all is from within. Snow changes our perception of reality, transforming common objects into strange shapes and revealing the mystery hidden within the apparently ordinary. Lying white and still, it quietens the world around us so that our inner noise is heard for what it is: ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
May you be blessed with a day of great interior silence in which to wonder at the beauty of the snow and its Creator.
I was surprised to find an Anglican friend commenting, almost in throw-away mode, that Catholics don’t read the bible much, or at any rate, not as much as Anglicans do. Is that true? Certainly, the Church puts before us a great deal of scripture during the course of the year and the use of the vernacular means that no one should be put off by having little Latin and less Greek (to say nothing of Hebrew). What is often forgotten is that scripture in the vernacular is not new. The Rheims New Testament was published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament in 1609/10, just antedating the King James version. My recollection of the Catholic homes of my childhood is of seeing copies of these Rheims/Douay bibles alongside copies of the Vulgate. They were often modest volumes, printed on thin paper in a minute type size and small enough to be secreted in a large pocket. The really radical probably had copies of Ronald Knox’s translation somewhere, but it was the old bibles that charmed me. They spoke of a faith kept alive under difficult circumstances, not quite ‘respectable’, often hidden, always slightly ‘alien’ to the mass of their fellow citizens.
Perhaps the ‘Catholics don’t read the Bible’ idea comes from the way in which different traditions approach the scriptures. Many Catholics I know can quote huge chunks of the text but glaze over if one gives them, literally, chapter and verse. That doesn’t happen with my Protestant friends, who can conduct whole conversations bandying references back and forth. Possibly, the rich devotional life of Catholics needs to be considered, too. For example, the Jesus Psalter incorporates a lot of scripture as texts to meditate on, just as the Divine Office is itself made up almost entirely of psalms and scripture readings, but neither is a lectio continua of the whole bible such as one finds in many Protestant and Reformed churches.
So, perhaps my friend was right? I don’t know. What I do know is that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.
Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.
How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.
In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.
There are two colours that old-fashioned printers like me think about more than any other: black and white. What subtle gradations of white there are, and how important the white space on the page is! How many shades of black there are, and how delicately they affect our perception of what is printed! It is my firm opinion that until one can appreciate shades of black, white and grey one ought not to be let loose on colour as commonly understood. Colour is often used to compensate for weak design because it captures the eye and lends an obvious charm. It is rather like make-up applied to the human face: well-done it can add striking effects, but it can never achieve anything as simply perfect as bone and muscle can unaided. The key to good book design is structure: the harmonious blending of white space, typography and layout, all of them in the service of meaning. On the whole, with some important qualifications, I think that holds good for the design of digital pages, too. We need to think in black and white before we can express ourselves in colour.
Is there any analogy to be drawn with prayer? I think there is. Very often we get asked about prayer: what prayer is; how to pray; why God won’t answer my prayers (usually meaning, why won’t God do what I want). Sometimes we get lectured about prayer by Those Who Know (or think they do). We get people writing to us about some of the more difficult passages in mystical authors. We seem to be regarded both as experts in prayer (which we aren’t) or complete boobies (which I suspect we aren’t, either). So, when people ask my advice, I always want to say, start at the beginning, don’t be afraid of the fact that you will never be as ‘advanced’ as you think you should be. God places the desire to pray in our hearts. ‘All’ we have to do is to allow him to pray in us. That is harder than you might think because it means taking our gaze off ourselves. The very learned and the very complicated must become very simple; and the process of becoming simple is never easy because we cling to our complexity for dear life. We do not like being stripped of the fig-leaves we have gathered for ourselves.
Sometimes those who write about prayer suggest that it is a wonderful adventure, full of light and colour. I hope it is, eventually. My experience, however, suggests that if we wish to learn to pray, we must first learn to think in black and white, in the colours of Calvary as well as of Eden. We must read the scriptures and learn to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Just like the printer designing a page, we must give the process time and never be afraid of beginning again. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning.
This feast is often used by Catholics to condemn the evil of abortion. I have already written something on the subject here. Today I would rather share some thoughts with you about the strange event to which the gospel refers: Herod’s murder of young boys in the Bethlehem district. The historicity of the event is often questioned, although we all know that not every villainy is documented in ways that would satisfy a court of law. What interests me, however, is Rachel ‘weeping for her children because they are no more’ (referring back to Jeremiah 31. 15 – 17).
In their original context these words relate to Israel’s experience of exile and restoration. I find unconvincing attempts to turn the words into some sort of messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. I think Matthew uses the phrase to express the grief and hopelessness of Jewish mothers suffering the loss of their sons at Herod’s orders and links to Ramah because that is the place from which the Jews were gathered together for deportation to Babylon. It is, if you like, a coded message: death and destruction were not far from Jesus from the very beginning of his earthly existence as they have never been very far from any of the Chosen People.
There are a number of Jewish midrashim on ‘Rachel weeping’ which add to our sense of the universalism of Matthew’s point. In one of them Rachel moves heaven and earth and the Holy One, blessed be he, to weep with her; in another she not only weeps but argues with God and prevails upon him to rescue Israel from danger. In other words, the grief of Rachel is the grief of every generation which experiences death and exile.
Today, with so many refugees in the world and the borders of many hitherto hospitable nations being closed against them, we could spend a few moments thinking about the plight of those who, like the Master we follow, ‘have not where to lay their heads’ and whose lives are vulnerable to attack. Tyranny did not die with Herod, nor did the coming of the Prince of Peace destroy the cruelty in human hearts.