Lenten Silences

One of the many blessings of Lent is the profound silence that marks the community. Conversation is reduced to what is strictly necessary (not always the case at other times, I must confess) which allows us to weigh our words and try to avoid any that wound or are unprofitable in other ways. The constant backdrop of noise that many live with is something we rarely experience. But before anyone gives way to envy, let me mention something that may be found more challenging. If we are silent, we can be lonely. We may have to deal with anxiety or distress or any other negative feeling or concern without voicing it to anyone else. That is not because we cultivate a stiff monastic upper lip but because the kind of silence I am describing forces us, as it were, to take everything to God. It is meant to lead us to prayer, and it usually does.

Silence is often described as a discipline, something that teaches us. It is because it has a purpose that it is so highly valued in monastic life— and why it takes a lifetime to learn the difference between being merely taciturn and being truly silent, waiting for the Word to speak.

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In the Desert Again — and Hungry, Too

We are back in the desert again, but this time not under the velvety star-studded skies of Advent but in the blazing noon-day heat of Lent, alongside a weary Jesus who, after forty days and nights of fasting, is being tempted by Satan.

There is a line in today’s gospel (Luke 4.1–13) I find arresting : ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ I wonder how often we hurry over the fact of Jesus’ hunger in our eagerness to reflect that temptation always assails us when we are at our weakest. From there it is but a short step to stripping the gospel of much of its power. Turning stones into bread is one of those miracles that hasn’t much appeal for us because most of us in the West never experience real hunger. We are much more interested in power and wealth and may even experience a frisson of excitement at the thought that we might be deluded into believing that the devil might grant us what God will not. Yet a hungry Jesus has something important to teach us about Lent and its traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, especially, I think, fasting.

Fasting has, unfortunately, got a bad press nowadays. It has become synonymous with dieting (which it isn’t) or associated with things that have nothing to do with it (e.g. people ‘fasting’ from Social Media). Very often it has been reduced to a token foregoing of some luxury or indulgence such as wine or chocolate, or the Christian fast is compared unfavourably with the Moslem by those unfamiliar with either. There is a vague idea that fasting somehow unleashes spiritual power, but that has become mixed up with and diluted by the notion that it is primarily a penance, an expiation of sin rather than a means of drawing closer to God.

Now, please do not mistake me. I am quite sure that any offering made out of love of the Lord is immensely pleasing to him, but I would argue that we all need to think more deeply about fasting as the Church has understood and practised it for centuries. I know that some Catholic commentators have already begun to make the same point, but I hope that a word or two from a monastic perspective may be helpful, too.

Fasting is meant to make us hungry. Obvious, I know, but how often do we forget that! Hunger does not mean a passing feeling of emptiness that is easily put right or mere boredom with eating plain food. No, it means actual hunger: the gnawing pain of being utterly empty, weak. It is such a powerful thing that the Church has always been very careful about the rules she sets for it. The young, the old and the sick are not permitted to fast with the rigour allowed to healthy adults in their prime, and even they are required to be prudent (folly, you remember, is a sin).

In the monastery those who fall into the category of healthy adults fast every day during Lent (Sundays are not included). That means that what we eat and when we eat are carefully regulated, and as Lent progresses, our hunger grows. By the time Holy Saturday comes, the prospect of soft white bread and butter on Easter morning is sweet torture. But we aren’t fasting in order to prove that we are spiritual athletes or out of some masochistic desire to make our bodies suffer. We are fasting to become closer to Jesus, and our fast is not a matter we decide for ourselves but a ‘given’, something determined by the superior of the community who must always take into account individual weaknesses and the needs of the community as a whole. The monastic fast is thus never rigorous enough for some though, if my own experience is anything to go by, it isn’t the easiest of disciplines.

Fasting makes us realise our dependence on God in a way that many of us in the West have forgotten. It makes us aware of our bodies and the fact that it is the whole person that is redeemed, not just the mind or soul. Above all, it makes the link between prayer and almsgiving clear and direct. We cannot fast properly unless we pray; fasting is not doing its work in us if it does not make us want to pray more and to be more generous towards others. ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ What a tragedy it would be if, at the end of Lent, Jesus was still hungering for our love and devotion.

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Limping Into Lent

Ash Wednesday is only a week away, and I realise I shall probably still be in the throes of post-chemo yukkiness while everyone else is smiling bright, purposeful smiles as they tackle their Lenten penances. Thank goodness we Benedictines don’t go in for that sort of thing. I can limp into Lent with a good conscience. St Benedict does indeed say that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, but when one analyses what he means by ‘Lenten’ it is reassuring to find that he concentrates on purity of life and the basic disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but without any competitive striving. We are not being asked to be heroic, just fully what we should be at all times but often aren’t. (cf RB 49)

In previous years, I have examined what some of the traditional disciplines of Lent might mean for each of us and I see no reason to change anything I’ve said before, though it may be useful to re-state them.

Prayer
Prayer is the fundamental Lenten discipline because Lent is all about letting God become close to us. Sometimes people decide that ‘more is better’ and set themselves a daunting routine of extra prayers to be said each day. I think myself that that is self-defeating. Either one cannot keep it up, in which case one feels a fraud and a failure, or one does somehow manage it, and is tempted to sneak a little admiring glance at oneself now and then. Much better just to be simple and try to be whole-hearted about one’s prayer as it is.

For a Benedictine, prayer is intimately connected with lectio divina, and in the past I have written about the usefulness of the Lent Book — the book of scripture each of us is given to read during Lent. Not, please note, one we have chosen for ourselves but one we have been given, the one that, however unpromising it may look to us, has something important to say. If we do not have a kindly superior or community to choose a Lent book for us, there is always the rich sequence of readings to be found in the Mass lectionary. In fact, I would always suggest starting with them, because to pray with the rest of the Church is the best way of ensuring that we do not go off on some unfruitful byway of our own.

Fasting
Fasting, like prayer, is best done with the mind of the Church. It isn’t the same as dieting, and giving up what Isaiah calls ‘the wicked word’ is much more important than some trifling sacrifice of wine or chocolate that half the world cannot afford anyway. It is, however, necessary to introduce an element of plainness into our food, and to curb the self-indulgence of other times. Whatever we save in our spending on food here at the monastery goes to a relief agency, and I think that is important. Fasting is meant to simplify our life and make us more attentive to God and other people. Feeling in one’s own body a little of the hunger that many experience daily is good at many levels, but it must not get in the way of spiritual alertness or the practice of charity. So, if fasting becomes just a covert way of improving one’s waistline or one’s bank balance, stop, think again. And if fasting turns one into an angry, hot-tempered dragon, belting fire and brimstone at all and sundry, stop, stop, STOP! Better to eat a slice of bread one didn’t intend to than chew one’s brethren to bits.

As to the other things St Benedict suggests we might fast from — unnecessary conversations that can easily turn into gossip or scurrility, for example — we must each find our own way. For some people, it might even be a case of becoming more, rather than less, conversational: greeting the concierge with a smile and a kind word, for example, rather than passing them by as though they did not exist.

Almsgiving
It is telling how often, in the West, almsgiving as a Lenten discipline is forgotten. It is not that people are not generous, but somehow the connection between giving alms — showing love — and the pilgrimage towards Easter is broken or not understood. We are all capable of giving to others, and often it is giving what we never thought of giving that proves the most costly gift of all. So, for example, being patient, with ourselves as well as others, is as valuable as a monetary gift to a Charity that appeals for help. Not being able to do some of the things we’d like to do during Lent can be an offering in itself. For instance, I doubt I shall be well enough to fast ‘properly’ on Ash Wednesday, but I can offer my sadness and regret instead. Again, we must each find our own way; and that brings me to my main point.

Preparing for Lent
For each and every one of us, Lent will be much more fruitful if we spend a little time beforehand thinking and praying about it by way of preparation. In the monastery we have the wonderful practice of the Lent Bill in which we set out what we intend to do (or not do!) during Lent and show it to another for evaluation and permission. I think that helps keep us on the right track. We do not always see ourselves clearly enough to make wise decisions. To ask the advice of another, to be humble about our choices, is to enter into the dynamic of Lent. For forty days we are asked to accompany the Lord along the way to Jerusalem and we cannot do that unless we are prepared to follow rather than lead. Some of us will run along the way; others will limp. It doesn’t matter which, provided we get there in the end.

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On the Edge of the World

Living in rural Herefordshire after living in Oxfordshire is a little like living on the edge of the world. Everything is different. Instead of chalk downland we have the red soil and oak-covered sweeps of the Golden Valley, with the ‘blue remembered hills’ of Shropshire to the north and the grey Marcher castles to the south and west. Instead of the bustle of Oxford and its honey-coloured stone, we have the quieter, more sedate streets of Hereford. Even the diocese is different in character, Cardiff being less populous than Portsmouth and Welsh rather than English. At times, one can feel quite ‘out’ of things, a mere spectator, no longer in demand as a speaker or interviewee on TV or radio — what one old nun, now dead, called ‘holy asparagus’ — but I must admit, it has its charms. At the heart of what I’ve called living on the edge of the world is a glorious paradox: to be closer to what genuinely matters because more distant from what does not.

To be on the edge, at the margin, is to experience a tremendous freedom. It is to understand what drove the prophets and the first monks and nuns into the desert. By disengaging from much that the world considers valuable or important, one can enter into a much deeper engagement with God; and one necessarily carries with one the pain and suffering and hopes of humanity. It is thus not only a tremendous freedom, it is also a tremendous privilege, one that monks and nuns are able to live every day of their lives. Those who have to worry about their families and their jobs may not find it so easy to live with such intensity, at least not all the time, but Lent gives us all an opportunity to ‘go to the edge’ as it were, and experience the desert for ourselves.

As we begin thinking about our preparations for Lent, may I suggest that we do not start with what we are going to give up? That puts the emphasis on us and often leads to confusion, e.g. fasting is not dieting, however much we would like our abandonment of some particular food to do good to our waistline! No, I think we have to start with the marginality of the desert, the place where Christ struggled with the demons and where we must learn to alter our focus. Before we even begin to think about what we shall give up, therefore, let us pray for our eyes to be opened to what needs to be changed in our lives and ask God’s help to do what is necessary. Lent is God’s gift to us. Let us use it as he intends.

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From the Perspective of Eternity

Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?

Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?

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For Holy Saturday 2018

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.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

For Maundy Thursday 2018

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.)

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved.
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Facing Facts

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.

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Serving the Cause of Right

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.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for Holy Week 2018

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.

Walter Hilton
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.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail