Families: holy and unholy, perfect and imperfect

Readers of iBenedictines’ predecessor, Colophon, will know that neither I nor the community to which I belong really ‘like’ the feast of the Holy Family. It’s a fairly recent addition to the calendar and often sentimentalised. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were hardly an average family, so not much use to us as role models, unless we are prepared to live with a constant feeling of failure because we can’t begin to emulate their perfection.

The fact that we don’t like a feast or find it difficult is, paradoxically, all the more reason for thinking about what it has to teach us. Maybe if we could drop the ‘role model’ idea for a minute we might see more clearly, because it is not the perfection of the Holy Family we need to aim at but its imperfection.

Jesus grew in stature and understanding, just as Mary and Joseph grew in understanding and obedience. The key words, I think, are ‘growth’ and ‘understanding’. Mary gave her consent to the angel without realising all that would be asked of her in the future. She grew as her vocation grew, constantly renewing her initial acceptance of her role as Mother of God. Joseph obeyed the angel, only to find that one obedience demanded another. Jesus himself seems not to have understood all at once what his Sonship would entail. He had to choose obedience to the Father step by step, had ultimately to accept death on the cross. For all three, it was a process, a perfecting of their lives.

In the messiness and imperfection of our own lives, that is a tremendous encouragement. None of us lives in a perfect family; many of us don’t live in families at all; but each of us can learn and grow through our experience of ordinary, everyday life. The Holy Family of Nazareth prepared the way for the Holy Family gathered around the cross on Calvary. We too have to make a similar journey, perhaps with many false turnings on the way but always with the same end in view. As we draw closer to Christ, we hope that we shall be made holy, not as members of his family but as members of something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church.

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Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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Dyspeptic Dames

From time to time, and especially when I am feeling cold, discouraged, or just plain curmudgeonly, I allow myself a little grumble. Only a little grumble, you understand, and usually whispered into the ear of Bro Duncan. Grumbling changes nothing: it merely makes us and those close to us more wretched. (Bro Duncan, being a dog, allows nothing to interfere with his happiness unless one mentions baths or cuts off the supply of dog biscuits, so he is a safe audience for dyspeptic monologues.) Why do we all love to grumble? I used to think it had something to do with idealism and the quest for perfection; now I think it more likely that we simply love the sound of our own voices and believe it is somehow ‘unhealthy’ to restrain our negative thoughts and feelings. Benedict, as so often, seems to have been right: most grumbling is not justifiable and is corrosive of community. Advent isn’t usually seen as a time for giving up things, but I certainly intend to try harder to give up grumbling. Being nice to be near isn’t just a question of which soap one uses.

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Benedict’s Bench: welcoming others

At this time of year we all think about hospitality. For many of us, that leads to concentration on the food and drink we provide rather than the quality of attention we give others. A letter from one of our Associates has reminded us what welcoming others is all about, so, with her permission, I am going to quote part of it today.

When I became an Associate, you urged me to consider hospitality, Benedictine hospitality. This came as something of a challenge to an introvert living on a track between fields, outside a very small, workaday village. Responding to the challenge, I dragged a wooden bench, ‘Benedict’s Bench’, out onto a small patch of land beside the field of cattle opposite my house . . . .

I sat on the bench, often with a cup of tea, whenever it was time for me to water the cattle . . .Watering cattle is one of those wonderful tasks that requires one to be present but only actually doing something, i.e. changing the hoselines, for a few minutes in the hour. It makes for good prayer time.

The first thing that happened was that I came to know and love the cows. The second that people started to drop by, to stop on their walks, to collect their post at watering time, to simply sit with their own cup of tea and enjoy the peace.

The bench changed much. Gradually I came to know [the local] people far, far better. A teenager with girlfriend problems turned up for an evening or two, another with exam results and a career choice looming. Mothers sat down and let their children play while we just sat together. Our cattle farmer arrived each morning, and when it wasn’t harvest, stayed on drinking tea.

Benedict’s Bench has had an extraordinary effect on me and this tiny community. We are organising a Christmas Dog Show in the village. (N.B. Bro Duncan – outdoor, with classes and agility runs for everyone) and despite the sensible advice to take in garden furniture over winter, the bench will stay. It has opened hearts.

The writer goes on to describe cattle-home, when this year the bench was joined by several tables and chairs, a side of beef, ham sandwiches, cake, sloe gin and all the accoutrements of a country feast. It is a heart-warming story but it begins with one small step, a gesture of faith and trust. P. has taught us something important about how to welcome others, not merely into our space but into our lives.

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Moonlight

Last night I could not sleep (too much sitting during the day made my back painful). There is only so much prayer and reading one can manage when wriggling around trying to make oneself ‘comfortable’; the charms of the World Service quickly pall when every half-hour brings a reminder of the turmoil in Europe. Only the moon made the night bearable.

How beautiful it was last night! Older Catholics will remember that the moon was often referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Lamp’ (no green cheese or men in the moon for us). I suppose it was the inevitable consequence of the idea of Mary as Star of the Sea (one of the happiest typos in history). Anyway, I spent a pleasant hour or two recalling all the poetry about moonlight I’ve ever known and could only marvel that God should create something of such loveliness to lighten the darkness of night. In case you suffer from a sleepless night, here is Walter de la Mare enchanted by the moon’s silvery beauty:

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

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A Thought for Friday

I shall be spending much of today in London at various meetings. It will be all roar and rush and I’ll probably feel like the proverbial fish out of water. (The habit tends to attract some very odd types — the only people who don’t come anywhere near are usually wearing clerical collars!)

Is it possible to maintain an inner silence, a spirit of recollection, in such circumstances? My answer would be ‘yes’. Have all those years spent learning the discipline of silence perhaps begun to bear fruit? I now know that it is not exterior noise but the endless babble of interior thoughts and feelings that causes all the trouble. Cultivating interior silence isn’t easy, but I think it is necessary for both psychological and spiritual health.

This week scripture has been urging us to go out into the desert to seek Jesus. Today, however, romantic visions of a vast and starry sky, rock, sand and a luminous silence must give way to the reality of the modern desert, the urban landscape of concrete and steel, full of clamour and bustle. Is it possible to seek and find God here, among the fast-food outlets and the diesel fumes? Francis Thompson is not much read nowadays, but I cannot help recalling the concluding lines of his ‘Kingdom of God’:
. . . lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Today, wherever we are, is full of hope.

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A Nun’s Letter to Father Christmas

Dear Father Christmas,

I know there is a difference between you and Santa Claus, but I’m not sure what it is, so I am writing to you in the hope that you are the right person to address. You must be very busy just now with all the wish-lists you get, especially from grown-ups. I bet some of them make you smile! I’d love to see what Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel have on theirs. Probably the pope’s and Ian Paisley’s are a bit different, but I expect you have some kind of confidentiality agreement forbidding you to discuss them.

I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you what we’d like for Christmas.

We realise you can’t do any of the important things, like ridding the world of hunger, poverty and disease, but this is what we’d like to find in our Christmas stocking, please:

1. The wherewithal for a house (e.g. an affordable mortgage) so we can go on serving those who often get forgotten by bigger establishments and can welcome those who want to join our community (sorry to keep going on about it, but we have been working away at this for years and the need is greater than ever). Perhaps one of your elves could pop this button in among all the chocolate ones in everyone else’s stocking?

Help the Nuns

2. Some volunteer help with the remastering of recordings for the blind and visually impaired — you know we can’t do everything although we do the best we can.

And that’s it, really. We don’t want anything just for ourselves. Our present to all the others on your list will be to go on doing what we’ve always done: praying and working for their salvation. That’s what Christmas is about really, isn’t it?

Love and keep warm,

Digitalnun & Companions

P.S. Quietnun says she doesn’t want to be ungracious but videos of other religious communities give her indigestion, so no stocking-fillers of that kind, please; and Bro Duncan says he doesn’t mind what he gets so long as there’s enough to eat.

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Things A Dog Has Taught Me

Bro Duncan, the monastery dog
Bro Duncan, the monastery dog

A couple of times this week Bro Duncan and I have been viewing Hendred by night because he has been in agony (sic) with his tummy. You don’t think those 3.00 a.m. walks through the village were a sign of mere eccentricity, I trust? No, they were initiated by a large wet nose nudging me awake and indicating that, whatever the clock said, it was time to go OUT.

There is nothing like accompanying a hound to make one think. There is the eager-beaver approach to going walkies irrespective of time or place. All that dancing around and scooting up and down the corridor belies the kohl-rimmed eyes pleading, ‘I’m sick. I need to get out.’ But I fall for it every time and off we go. First there is the obligatory charge down the road and some lawn-mower-like chomping at the grass, which goes on for ages because ‘I’m sick, see, I need medication.’ This quickly passes into ‘How interesting this place is at night. Let’s explore.’ And so we do. We plunge into deeper darkness and hear only the strange, snuffly sounds of night.

In this deeper darkness, Duncan leads. We spend several minutes standing at a gate  while he traces the scent on a single blade of grass, savours it, commits it to memory and moves on, regretfully, as though there were a history he cannot share with me. Medieval rooftops look magical at night, even when there is no moonlight, but the biting wind does not invite lingering. So we walk and walk and I become a little suspicious about the upset tummy.

Seeing the village by night impresses me with how remarkable ordinary things are when viewed under different circumstances or from a different angle. Dare I admit that the familiar can become spooky, yet what was ugly by day can take on a strange  beauty at night? The change of perspective may be of no more than passing interest but sometimes it can lead to a reassessment of accepted values. I’m certainly not claiming that Duncan’s nocturnal ramblings have led me to any profound insights, but I will say this. Wisdom 18 verses 14 to 16 comes alive in a way it never has when read. The leaping down from heaven of God’s all-powerful Word is an event in time as well as beyond time, to be expected now as it was two thousand years ago.

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