Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Food, Drink, Love and Hate

A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?

Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.

Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Making Sunday Special

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Gracious Living

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Living with Uncertainty

We crave certainty. We may like to think of ourselves as free spirits, ready to set off for outer Mongolia at the drop of a hat, but most of us, most of the time, prefer to know where we’ll sleep at night, where our next meal is coming from, that our legs and lungs will work predictably. Living with uncertainty is not, for most of us, a choice we would wish to make, yet most of our ‘certainties’ are nothing of the sort. We are, all of us, only a heartbeat away from eternity.

I think that is why Benedict urges us to ‘keep death daily before our eyes’. He is not being morbid or encouraging glumness. On the contrary, he wants us to recognize that every moment of life is a gift, even when hard or difficult. We are not in control, however much we like to think we are or want to be, so what is the point of worrying ourselves (literally) sick about things? It is not only riches but anxiety that chokes the growth of the Kingdom within us. With Lent just a few days away, perhaps we could start thinking about our Lenten resolutions as a way to recapture awareness of living daily by the mercy of God. That will involve more than giving up marmalade or some other delicacy. It will mean living with uncertainty.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Whitney Houston and Untimely Death

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.

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Smile Jesus’ Love Through

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Snowfall and Silence

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Paul and Silence

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Steadfastness

St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail