As the Waters Swell the Sea

As the waters swell the sea
As the waters fill the sea . . .
Photo by Krzysztof Gorowski on Unsplash

There is a line in today’s first Mass reading that has always haunted me:

They do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain, for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea.

Isaiah 11.10

Sometimes it is the idea of the holy mountain that captures my imagination. More often it is the thought of the sea. No one who has grown up beside sea or ocean can ever forget its changing moods; the way the light shimmers then darkens; the sound of waves breaking on the beach and the gravelly roar as they return; that unmistakable smell and tang of salt and seaweed on the air. But it is the sea’s vastness that I love. When the first photographs of earth viewed from space showed that we do indeed live on a blue planet, I remember thinking how much God must love water and everything that lives in it to have created so much. It is a kind of benediction wrapped round the earth. I think the prophet Isaiah must have sensed something of the same. When all is made new, when the reign of God is fully established on earth, knowledge of the Lord will be as all-embracing as the sea. That is the hope to which we look forward as we continue on our way through Advent.

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The First Sunday of Advent 2020

Advent sky

Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.

Community Newsletter:
Complete with typo! https://mailchi.mp/d3ee45ba46b0/holy-trinity-monasterys-advent-newsletter-2020

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Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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Hallowe’en, All Saints and All Souls

Pax pumpkin for Hallowe'en
The Pax Pumpkin

Hallowe’en barely registers at the monastery because once we have sung First Vespers of All Saints we shall be celebrating the triumph of good over evil. No ghosts or ghouls for us, no tacky accommodations with evil under the guise of ‘fun’. With All Souls on Monday, we complete a feast of the the unity of the Church Militant (us), the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (those in heaven).

For various reasons, I won’t be blogging for a day or two, so here is a round-up of a few previous posts, including one by the late Bro Duncan PBGV, to save you the bother of searching in the side-bar. There are several more, if you are bored.

The illustration alone is entirely new. I can’t say I’m exactly proud of my first attempt at pumpkin-carving, but it is amazing both it and I survived the process. The arrival of Anglo-American neighbours who have a wonderful line of pumpkins outside their front-door prompted me to think how we might join in the children’s fun without encouraging the very things I am doubtful about. So, the Benedictine motto, pax or peace, surrounded by a crown of thorns (please use your imagination), will be shining out into the Herefordshire skies, a little gleam of light amidst much darkness. There is a meaning there that goes beyond the obvious, I trust.

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The Awful Earnestness of Women

This post is not going to be what some may have assumed from its title. I am using ‘awful’ in the way many now use ‘awesome’, meaning awe-inspiring. Earnestness, too, is a word we need to take a fresh look at. For too long it has been associated with the kind of seriousness we rightly call deadly, yet it is nothing of the sort. Earnestness springs from inner conviction and is shot through with sincerity. For me, what I have called the awful earnestness of women is something both sexes can admire and seek to emulate because it is a quality we see in Our Lady: resilience, purposefulness and determination in the service of God.

Why do I think women exhibit this quality so clearly? Partly, I think, because the opportunities open to women are still fewer than those open to men in much of the world. Therefore, intensity often has to take the place of breadth. For women in the West, personally unfamiliar with the constraints experienced by women living in other parts of the world, the idea of being held back by anything more than prejudice may seem preposterous. But for those whose educational and other opportunities are more limited, life is more like Jane Austen’s little bit of ivory, something to be worked over with delicacy and attention to detail. In the spiritual sphere, if I may call it that, the same is true. The scope allowed to women in the Catholic Church is still restricted if we think in terms of activity and decision-making, but if we think in terms of prayer and holiness, not at all, and surely that is what matters, whether we be male or female. Our business, our mission, is to become holy and by so doing lead others to holiness.

Resilience, purposefulness and determination are all necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be, but they are not dour qualities. We do not become holy by gritting our teeth. Again, I think we may take our tone from Mary. Every evening at Vespers we sing the Magnificat, that lyrical outpouring of trust and praise from the whole Church. It is the perfect, joyful expression of the awful earnestness of women — and men, too.

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The Language of the Liturgy

This will be a short post, I promise, and it is one I never thought I’d write. I’ve been following in a half-hearted way the debate about the Scottish hierarchy’s approval of the English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) bible for the publication of its new lectionary. As someone who prays a lengthy monastic Divine Office in Latin and English each day and has, in the past, done a bit of liturgical translation (more from Latin than from Greek and only once from Hebrew), you will understand that I notice liturgical language. I care about language in general but especially the language we use in prayer. I don’t claim to be a good writer myself, but I do try to convey meaning as clearly and effectively as I can. That is why you will occasionally come across a flight of fancy or purple passage that I hope will add something to the words on the page, conveying a nuance or level of meaning, hint at a beauty or truth, that would otherwise not be there. When translating a text, however, more restraint is required. The text is what matters, and it is the translator’s duty to try to convey its meaning as fully as possible, without getting in the way of the original author. Translation, therefore, especially of liturgical texts, requires thought and prayer as well as scholarship. It also requires awareness of how the text will be used and by whom.

This morning I happened upon an online discussion that made me realise, to a degree I never have before, that just as a woman can never know what it is like to be a man, no man can ever know what it is like to be a woman. To have dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ the effect of hearing the scriptures proclaimed in an exclusively masculine voice is something I think only a woman can really understand. I am not, and never have been, one of those who want to force the language of scripture into politically correct channels but I have been saddened by the proposed introduction of gendered language where it is unnecessary and where, for many years, we have been accustomed to a more neutral or inclusive rendering. If you do a google search, you will find there are several articles discussing this matter, all of them illustrated with examples the writer finds telling, on both sides of the debate.

The Scottish bishops have shown that any consideration of the sensitivities of women is not up for discussion, even if that leads to questionable accuracy in translation at times. There is nothing I can do about that. But it does leave me wondering why those praying the Magnificat in English find the old Latin phrase, ancilla Domini, which means ‘handmaid of the Lord’ and is an undeniably feminine form, translated as ‘servant of the Lord’*. That could refer to either sex. Do the sensitivities work in one direction only? If so, perhaps a re-think would be in order. Please.

*In the Roman Liturgy of the Hours, which is not the work of the Scottish bishops, but will be familiar to many.

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Five Reasons Not to Like Religious People

You might think that, in my line of business, I would like ‘religious’ people (please note the inverted commas). The truth is, I have five reasons to dislike them. Here they are:

1. ‘Religious’ people are always right

because

2. They know God thinks exactly as they do

from which it follows that

3. They are happy, indeed specially qualified, to give everyone the benefit of their advice

which, because of 1 and 2, means

4. They may deliver their opinions/advice as unceremoniously as possible

with the result that often

5. They condemn others, frequently quite nastily.

This is, of course, a parody of true religion, but I think you will find it quite prevalent in the world today, whether the religion in question be Catholicism, Humanism or any other -ism. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking our own opinion universally valid and that it entitles us to behaviour completely at odds with the values we say we hold. Catholics who claim to uphold the Church’s teaching while sniping at everyone they disapprove of; intellectuals who ridicule the arguments of others instead of engaging with them; those who seek to eliminate racism while maintaining anti-semitic attitudes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can apply misplaced zeal to the questions of the day. I call it ‘religious’ because of the intensity with which the views are held. They bind the holder, whereas true religion sets free. There is no fear in true religion, no desire to score points, no wish to force the other to believe as we do (sorry, Augustine), just a desire to share the blessings we enjoy ourselves.

For a Christian, that means trying to win others for Christ by leading them to experience of him, not brow-beating them into submission. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was argued into belief, although I have met many who struggled to find the right spiritual home, as it were. It is not that kind of debate or exploration I am talking about but the more aggressive ‘I’m right; you’re wrong’ approach.

During the last few months, when lockdown restrictions have limited access to public worship and the sacraments, it has been sad to see how selfish and sometimes petty some of the online arguments have become. The Mass is so much more important than whether I myself can attend or not; reverence means so much more than whether one receives Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. St Laurence, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over the Church’s treasure, he did not hesitate. He sought out the poor, recognizing in them the lineaments of the Master or, as Hopkins would say,

Christ lovely in limbs not his.

That’s the kind of religious person I like.

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Post-COVID Beauty in the Church

While many of my contemporaries are gazing into their crystal balls and wondering what a return to ‘normality’ will mean for the post-COVID Church, I find myself less and less inclined to speculate. Whatever we think of as ‘normal’ for the Church will not return any time soon, if ever. Of that I am quite certain, and it troubles me that few of my clerical friends seem willing to admit any doubt. They have been so busy trying to minister to others under difficult circumstances, so bound up in mastering new techniques of outreach and pastoral care (think live-streamed worship, online bulletins and the like), most have failed to register the shift in attitudes that I believe has taken place.

We have seen the Church for what she is: still beautiful, still holy, but as an organization increasingly distant from many of her members. For most of the laity there has been no possibility of receiving any of the sacraments throughout Lent and Eastertide, the most important seasons of the liturgical year. Live-streamed worship, for Catholics at least, has tended to be dominated by male clerics and a few female religious, leaving some with a sense of being invisible, on the fringe, mere spectators not participants. For many, that invisibility will continue. The elderly, those with ‘underlying health conditions’ to use the U.K. Government’s unfortunate phrase, and those who simply wonder whether it is worth the effort of going to their local parish church when they can tune into a much more engaging liturgy online, are not likely to be returning to the pews for some time to come. The Church has changed. The ‘new normal’ will need to take account of this, both organizationally (think parish system) and liturgically.

So, why do I want to reflect on beauty when I could be writing about the response I think the pope and bishops need to make to meet the changes that have already taken place or are about to take place in the future? Two reasons. There is the obvious one, that the pope and bishops are not going to listen to any suggestions made by me, a mere woman and a nun to boot. The second is that beauty is itself a revelation of God and I think we have become too accepting of ugliness in every sphere of life to recognize its importance in the Church. Had you asked me forty years ago I would have said that I hoped, once the excesses of Vatican II re-ordering had been worked through, we might end up with some of the freshness and loveliness that marked the Church in the twelfth century. COVID-19 offers us another opportunity: it would be a tragedy if we were to mistake it in our eagerness to return to the old and familiar.

I had better say immediately that we all have our own ideas of beauty. Years of working with type and book design convinced me of that. But when we do encounter beauty, whatever form it takes, in the natural world or in the world of the mind or human culture, I think we tend to have much the same response. There is that moment of meeting, of recognition, that produces a ‘yes!’ in us that is all there is to say, all that can be said. The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted many of us anew to the beauty of the natural world but at the same time imperilled the freedom and beauty of the world of human culture.

The effect of lockdown on many of the arts, music-making, theatre, our exposure to painting, sculpture, architecture, museums, engagement in informed debate in our universities and other public fora, is incalculable. In a year’s time how much opportunity will there be for an encounter with a living expression of the arts? The buildings will still be there (we hope), but those who give life to the walls, where will they be? Can they survive? We seem more worried about pubs and hairdressers than we do about musicians and actors, for example. And what about the way in which we conduct our public debates? One of the frightening things about our present concentration on racism or any other popular topic is the way in which some views may not be articulated. We must conform to the current orthodoxy or keep silent. How far will that go? Then, what of the environment? Will the rush to negate the effects of lockdown on the economy lead to a short-sighted policy of ignoring the ecological ramifications of future-planning, so that we end up with more pollution than before? These questions are not additional to questions about beauty in the Church but give the context in which our answers must be worked out.

Traditionally, Catholic worship has always valued the beauty of the created world and delighted in the use of all the senses. Will our experience of COVID-19 and the restrictions it has placed on the world about us mean that we shall shrink and shrivel so much that we forget that? The smell of flowers, candle-wax and incense, the feel of wood and stone, the vibration of the organ, even the off-notes of the singing, the motes in the sunbeam as it splashes onto the floor or the drumming of raindrops on the roof are as much part of our experience of worship as concentration on the action of the priest or hearing the words of scripture or sermon. The being with others, united in purpose, experiencing all these things in different ways but at the same time, is intrinsic to our experience of beauty in church and of the divine beauty the Church exists to mediate. Can we do that in a Church starkly divided into clerical and lay, young and old, healthy and sick, to a degree we have not experienced before? Crucially, can we do that in a Church where privatisation of the experience of liturgy (as in live-streamed worship, where the worshipper decides which liturgy to follow and when, rather than simply forming part of a local community) is part of the ‘new normal’? How creative can we be, as distinct from merely being novel? Will we give time and effort to beauty or not?

I am sure I have not written as plainly or intelligibly as I should have, but I have tried to be brief. Here at the monastery, we are trying to work out our own answers to these questions and it is very much a work in progress. We shall probably make many mistakes along the way, but beauty matters — no matter how much it costs. The jar of nard broken and poured may yet fill the whole world with its fragrance.

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Preparing for a Feast

Tomorrow, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, is our patronal feast. God willing, we shall celebrate it in both choir and refectory, with a liturgy as splendid as we can make it, and a dinner more elegant than usual. But all this requires preparation and begs the question: how should we prepare for a feast? At Christmas and Easter, for example, most Christian households will cook and eat special foods and exchange gifts of some kind among family members. In a monastery the material celebrations tend to be more restrained and preparations are more focused on the liturgy. Choir practice looms large on the agenda, the chapel is cleaned and polished to within an inch of its life, and while there is certainly more activity in the kitchen, other preparations are perhaps not so obvious.

In normal times, there would be sacramental confession and a chapter of faults so that, as far as possible, we may be at peace with God, one another and ourselves. Chapter of faults is an opportunity to apologize to one another for the ways in which we have failed the community, by being careless or negligent, for example, or having a little tantrum about nothing in particular. It is a way of restoring relationships, acknowledging the imperfections and insensitivities that often weigh heavier on others than they do on ourselves. Then there is the reading for the feast, so that we enter upon it with a renewed sense of the Trinity’s immensity. There is always something more to learn, something more to reflect on. The mystery of the Trinity can never be exhausted by our puny human intellects, so we read and pray, read and pray.

The past week has been busier and rather more fraught than any of us anticipated. It is good to be able to look forward to the feast (which begins with Vespers tonight) and welcome it as a sabbath rest, a sharing in God’s own rest. The feast for which we are preparing now is a foretaste of the eternal feast to come. O Quanta qualia illa sabbata! May the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless us all.

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Recognizing the Risen Christ

Who does not love the gospels we read this week, with their stories of meeting the Risen Christ? How one’s whole being thrills with Mary Magdalene as she hears the Lord calling her by name or with those weary disciples, their hearts burning within them as the scriptures are explained to them on the road to Emmaus, and then that amazing moment of recognition as Jesus breaks bread with them. We shall see the Risen Christ on the sea-shore, put our hands into the mark of the nails, be questioned by him, be commissioned by him. We shall know him, yet not know him; recognize him yet still perhaps doubt. In a word, we shall be plunged into the mystery of the Resurrection — and it will all be new, strange, unsettling and the most profound joy we have ever known.

For most, the way in which we are celebrating Easter this year is without precedent. We have been discovering anew the power and holiness of the domestic church — making a chapel of our living room, an altar of our table and a lectern or pulpit of our tablet or smartphone. For some, live-streamed worship has taken the place of gathering physically with the parish community; for others, there has been a more conscious and regular participation in the ancient prayer of the Church known as the Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office. Whichever it is, the intention is the same: to meet the Risen Christ, to adore him, to love him, to serve him. That is why, no matter how engaged we are with worship, we cannot neglect him in our brothers and sisters, many of whom are suffering terribly at this time.

For a cloistered nun like me, that poses a special challenge but it is one I suspect my older or less able readers may share. Yes, we can pray; but can we do anything practical to help those in need? For many of us the answer will be a disappointing ‘no’. We haven’t the money or resources, physical or otherwise, to help others directly. Happily, that also means we can’t pat ourselves on the back that we have done something good and worthwhile. We actually have to live our faith. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have an ambiguity that draws us in. We don’t see him healing or preaching. He just is; but he is in a way that is intensely alive and life-giving. I have a hunch that we who call ourselves his disciples are meant to be the same. We may not do very much, but through our prayer and our readiness to respond to the Lord, we are inviting the Risen Christ into the heart of a sick and suffering world which he alone can heal and give new life to. It is a humbler role than we might like, perhaps, but it is the one that will prove most fruitful.

We may not always recognize the Risen Christ as we would wish, but I’m confident he will always recognize us; and that is what matters. Cleopas and his companion walked seven long miles in Jesus’ company, but only recognized him when he himself chose to disclose himself to them. Let us be try to be ready for that moment in our own lives.

Audio version

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