Holy Saturday: once more we experience the silence and stillness of this ‘time out of time’ when earth awaits the Resurrection. It seems so bleak: there are no sacraments, no light, no warmth, and we can do nothing. It is as though life itself were suspended; yet it isn’t. This is the day when God alone acts, powerfully, redemptively. This is the day of God’s unseen activity, the Harrowing of Hell. Tonight the darkness will be shattered for ever and heaven and earth unite in one triumphant blaze of glory and new life. Christ will rise, never to die again. We shall be one with the events of two thousand years ago and all our sin and shame will be seen in a new guise as ‘a happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam,’ and we shall know ourselves loved as never before. Our Redeemer will be with us.
Sometimes words flow as easily as tears; sometimes there are no words, only a painful numbness in the face of suffering and fear. I have already written many times about different aspects of Maundy Thursday and its liturgy, so today I give you instead an image to think about and pray before. It is Nicholas Mynheer’s Angel of the Agony which occupies a place of honour in our chapel. It takes us to the heart of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane, plunges us into the depths of his loneliness and near-despair, and reassures us that, when we least expect it, God’s help is at hand. (Please note: the painting is copyright; reproduction prohibited.)
There is a line in today’s first Mass reading (Isaiah 49.1–6) that may have haunted Jesus during the course of this week:
I was thinking, ‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.’
How many of us have felt like that when something we cared about greatly has ended in apparent failure? It may have been a project or a relationship, even what we understood to be our vocation in life. Was Jesus troubled by such thoughts in the days between his entry into Jerusalem and his anguish in Gethsemane, the thought that he had failed his Father, failed in his mission? Failure is hard to bear and is made harder still when we believe we have done everything we can to ensure success. We cannot even comfort ourselves, if that is the right word, with a regretful ‘if only I had done so and so.’ There was nothing more we, or Jesus, could do; there are no alternative scenarios we can invent to take refuge in, we must simply face facts.
Facing facts is what Holy Week is about: facing the facts of sin and death and seeing how they are transformed by Jesus’ acceptance of death on the cross and his resurrection on Easter morning. This is the week when Jesus’ love and trust were tested to the utmost, when he plumbed the depths of human despair and suffering and rose triumphant. We must do the same. We must learn afresh our need of God, experience again our utter reliance on him, if we are to share his resurrection. That will mean, for most of us, plumbing the depths of our own sin and failure, bringing to God all that we are, all that we have failed to be, trusting, as Jesus and the prophet Isaiah trusted, that
all the while my cause was with the Lord,
my reward with my God.
I was honoured in the eyes of the Lord,
my God was my strength.
Palm Sunday was glorious, wasn’t it? The sun shone, the procession was a riot of colour and waving palm fronds, and only the reading of the Passion narrative reminded us that in a few days the hosannas will be replaced by shouts of ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ The Monday of Holy Week dawns bleaker and colder. We read Isaiah 42. 1–7 and realise, with a start, that while we genuinely wish to be the Lord’s true servants and model ourselves on him, almost everyone believes they are ‘serving the cause of right’. The High Priest did; the Sanhedrin did; even Pilate thought he was doing his duty by Rome and the province he was governing. Our problem is not always seeing what is actually right but instead allowing ourselves to be guided by principles that smack of self-interest or may do harm to others by perpetrating injustice or untruth.
A few days ago Arnaud Beltrame, a lieutenant colonel in the Gendarmerie, showed us what it means to serve the cause of right. He gave himself up in place of a hostage and paid with his life. Few are called upon to make such decisions with so little opportunity to think through the consequences. There was surely more at work there than training or discipline. To give one’s life for another can only be possible when there have been lots of acts of self-surrender and service beforehand. Perhaps today we could think about the ways in which we must learn to serve and the renunciations we have to make. As St Augustine says of martyrdom, the way cannot be hard when it has been trodden by so many before us, but we must each of us walk it in our own way and in our own time. Holy Week give us a unique opportunity to learn how to serve the cause of right. May we not funk it.
We shall soon be in Holy Week, the Great Week of the year, when we trace hour by hour the Lord’s Passion, culminating in his death on the cross on Good Friday and his resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday. Some of the concerns of other times fall away so that we concentrate on what really matters. Few of us, however, are able to mark Holy Week in ‘ideal’ circumstances. Work has still to be done, meals prepared and eaten; we may be ill or out of sorts, those around us may be cantankerous or demanding; we may be preoccupied with our role as priest or choir director and overwhelmed by all that is expected of us. It can be hard to accept that this is the best Holy Week for us, the one that will bring us closest to the Lord, provided we place no deliberate obstacle in his path.
There is really only one way to prepare for Holy Week. Centuries ago Walter Hilton included the Parable of the Pilgrim in his Scale of Perfection. The pilgrim’s constant refrain, ‘I will be at Jerusalem,’ is one we must echo. Whatever happens, whatever difficulties we encounter, we must keep our goal in mind and fix our gaze on Jesus. That simplifies everything. I myself, for example, will not be able to mark the Triduum as I would wish (I’ll be having chemotherapy on Maundy Thursday) but I am quite sure that I can still celebrate Holy Week and Easter with fervour and devotion. If we canot have the hours of prayer we long for, then we must make the most of the minutes we can have; if we cannot take part in all the great celebrations, above all the Easter Vigil, then we must keep vigil in our hearts. Above all, we must allow Holy Week to do its work in us, and if we sense we are distracted, bored, filled with feelings of guilt or just numb and indifferent, we must trust that God’s grace is working powerfully within us — the same trust our Lord Jesus Christ displayed as he hung on the cross. That is what it means to live Holy Week in union with him.
If you are interested in Hilton, there are a couple of talks on him here, at the end of the page: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/talks.html. Flash needed.
All night snow fell, hushing everything. This morning the world is full of mystery as familiar sights take on strange shapes and forms. Snow lies thick on the cider mill, the fruit trees and the lawns. The Black Mountains are white again and there is a beautiful, luminous silence which quietens mind and heart. It is a precious time, one in which to learn again the meaning of prayer, fidelity and perseverance. Too many people want to fill the world with clamour, shrieking loudly that this is wrong or that is bad and they alone have the answer to all our problems. The truth is, there is only one solution to every wrong, every human failure: Christ Jesus our Lord. The snow understands that. Its bright, warm mantle covers everything, dresses it all anew in white — the bride clothes of the Church. This morning, here in Herefordshire, the union between Christ and his Church is written in the landscape. It is a huge encouragement, a blessing, as we go deeper into Lent.
St Benedict was no sentimentalist. Even though he thought that human nature would make us tender-hearted towards the most vulnerable, he nevertheless stipulated that the Rule must protect both the very old and the very young. He adds that they should not have to observe the rigour of the Rule as regards mealtimes but be allowed to eat earlier. Thus, in two short sentences, he sums up what we, in our wordier way, seem to need endless reports and official recommendations to ensure: how to look after those unable by reason of age or infirmity to look after themselves.
It is worth thinking about that for a moment. A monastic community is not (usually) made up of people tied to one another by the natural bonds of family or kinship. Quite often there are substantial differences in background and outlook as well as age and fitness. It is the shared enterprise, the quest for purity of heart and the realisation of the Kingdom, that unites the community. That is why mutual encouragement and sharing one another’s burdens is so important. It is also why Benedict never, for one moment, suggests that anyone in community is superfluous or beyond the scope of the community’s love and concern. No matter how weak some are or how badly individuals may behave, the community has what we would call today a duty of care that every single member must exercise towards his/her fellows.
How do we measure up to that in society today? How often do we hear mumblings about how ‘the Government’ has failed us because X did not get the medical care we thought he should, or ‘the Council’ has failed us because it did not provide Y with the childcare solution we think it should? Yes, we pay taxes and expect services in return, especially for the young (e.g. education) and the old (e.g. healthcare), but that does not mean we can ignore our own individual responsibility to look after those who need help. During Lent we have an opportunity to think more deeply about the meaning of almsgiving and what may be asked of us. It is comparatively easy for most of us to drop a few pence into a Charity collection box, but to give time to that grumpy old neighbour or provide a safe environmnet for the young to play in may prove much more demanding. Perhaps that would be a useful subject for us to ponder today?
We have reached that stage of Lent when I am just bumbling on. In case this state of affairs is unfamiliar to you, let me describe some of its main characteristics. All efforts to make good the negligences of other times, as counselled by St Benedict, seem to be fading fast. The prospect of chemotherapy later this week and a number of urgent tasks there is no one else to do is making me grumpy. ‘Fervour’ is a word I have excised from my vocabulary. Instead of a halo, I have horns. All I can do is bumble on as best I can, falling down and picking myself up again, always getting things wrong but continually trying anew. The trumpets won’t sound for us bumblers, but perhaps there may be a penny whistle as Easter approaches.
Do not underestimate bumblers or bumbling. Like the tortoise, we may last the course better than the hare. The secret of bumbling is this: to place everything in the hands of the Lord and do our best to follow wherever he leads. There is no need to look at ourselves or try to measure our own progress. We have set out on the way that leads to salvation and are content to limp into heaven if need be. It is enough.
Well-meaning exhortations to stay safe and warm have been falling as thickly as snowflakes recently. Part of me is tempted to respond with a crisp reference to the Letter of St James, but that would be mean-spirited and curmudgeonly. I think of those who are much worse off than we are, who really have nothing to complain of: those sleeping rough, those without adequate heating or with empty store cupboards, those too weak or ill to do more than pile on another blanket (if they have one) and hope for the best. Throughout the U.K., mainland Europe and the eastern seabord of the U.S.A. there must be many thousands shivering their way through the day’s misery, and this is not one of those problems that can be solved by the intervention of an aid agency or some official support service. It can only be alleviated by human kindness, by simple, personal acts of love and concern. Staying safe and warm is not just for those who are rich enough or able enough to ensure that they remain comfortable whatever the weather. It is for everyone.
So, the question for today is, how can I help those who aren’t safe or warm? Do I even know who/where they are? This is where today’s Lenten almsgiving begins for us as a community, and perhaps for you, too.
Today is the first day of spring, difficult to believe when there is a blizzard blowing and regular radio alerts to avoid unnecessary travel. It is also the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales, when we remember his dying exhortation to ‘be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things’ — or, if we are inconveniently historical-minded, remember also his gruelling asceticism, which involved monks pulling the plough themselves, drinking only water and living off bread and salt. The relationship between joy and asceticism is one many find strange; and looked at from the outside, I suppose it is. But from within, it makes pefect sense. Asceticism is a necessary discipline, though the particular forms it takes are variable.
During Lent the whole Church undergoes a kind of collective asceticism, with everyone trying to free themselves from the negligences of other times. Older writer used to call it the ‘spring-cleaning’ of the soul: a time when we get rid of the clutter and allow grace to do its work in us. I like the idea of Christian souls becoming more highly burnished with love and zeal the closer we get to Easter, but I admit it can be exhausting. By this stage of Lent our enthusiasm can be waning. The extra time to be spent in prayer is shrinking; the fasting has many exceptions; and almsgiving is on hold while the charity sector sorts itself out. It is, in truth, a bleak start to spring.
Bleak it may be, but it is spring nonetheless: a time of growth and preparation for future fruitfulness. The snow has beaten down the daffodils in the garden but they are still there, ready to straighten up once the cold wind has passed. The buds on the fruit trees are in suspended animation, but not for long. So too with us. We may be feeling a dip in fervour for the moment, but we keep our goal in sight. St Benedict loved Lent and wanted his monks’ lives always to have a Lenten quality. Like his near-contemporary St David, he saw the connection between asceticism and joy, or, as we might say today, the connection between self-discipline and true self-fulfilment. Without asceticism there can be no real love, no real joy. Stick at it!