Mass in a Time of COVID-19

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of St John Paul II. He was a man of very definite opinions, as others often discovered to their cost. His role in the collapse of several dictatorships is widely recognized although not yet fully documented. Within the Church, too, he could be formidable. This morning I was thinking about one of his Apostolic Letters, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which came out in 1994 and stated that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.’ The problem for many was the way in which this teaching was subsequently expanded to prohibit any discussion of the matter. As far as I know, it is the only subject that may not be discussed by Catholics, which makes it quite difficult to address something the Church is going to have to deal with increasingly in the future, and which our current experience of COVID-19 has highlighted: access to the Mass and other sacraments.

Let me be quite clear. I am not disputing the teaching of the Catholic Church nor am I arguing for the ordination of women to the priesthood. What I am doing is asking whether the present situation is challenging our understanding of the Church and the sacraments. For example, if we forget for the moment those emoting about being unable to go to Mass as though they alone were affected, or those lamenting having to celebrate ‘their’ Mass behind closed doors, we face an uncomfortable truth. The only people to have physical access  to the Mass at present are men — male clergy. Of course, every Mass is offered for the whole Church, living and dead, and we can participate by spiritual communion; but the only people who can actually receive Holy Communion at present are the clergy.

I think that affects how we see the composition of the Church and the role of the sacraments within it. There is a kind of irony in the fact that under Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken against clericalism, the Church should have become extremely ‘clerical’ in her approach to the sacraments. Mass has become, in a certain sense, ‘privatised’. There is a movement, largely led by Protestant theologians, which is arguing for the validity of a digital Eucharist and online Communion. I myself do not see how such a thing could ever be countenanced according to Catholic sacramental theology, but the underlying questions are another matter. The Eucharist was given to the whole Church, not just part of it. How does the Church qua institution make that a reality?

Live-streaming Mass, making a spiritual communion, that is the experience of the greater part of the Church today. What was once confined to the invisible Church — the old, the sick, those in countries where priests are few and far between — has now become universal. Mass in a time of COVID-19 is very different from what most of us have known for most of our lives, and so with the other sacraments. I don’t, for one moment, deny the validity or even the necessity of the current arrangements, but I am glad that we are beginning to ask some very important questions about the Eucharist and other sacraments. The pro multis of the words of Eucharistic consecration are not to be lightly abandoned or understood in a restrictive sense, are they? Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us into a fuller understanding of this treasure entrusted to the Church.

Audio version

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Learning to Pray Again

Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

During the past few days I have become increasingly uneasy about the response of some Christians to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In Catholic circles there has been outright war in cyberspace over the suspension of public celebration of the Mass in many countries. Some priests and pastors have chosen to defy their bishops; others have opted for live-streaming the Mass, organizing Eucharistic processions, or launching into videos or podcasts intended to meet the pastoral needs of their congregations. Lay people and others have condemned the decision to suspend the Mass and accused others of lacking faith or even, in extreme cases, of doing spiritual harm to themselves by denying what is essential to their being. Now that the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York have suspended public services in England, the war zone has become even wider. It is all rather noisy and confusing. Indeed, it led me yesterday to question whether we ourselves should step back a little from our own online engagement because the religious cyberspace is becoming rather crowded.*

Then, thanks to a friend, I read a no-nonsense response to the current situation from Don Antonio Gómez, the bishop of Teruel and Albarracín. He is not responsible for anything I say here, but he helped crystallize my thoughts. We are behaving like sheep, and rather unruly and bad-tempered sheep at that, with pastors treating their people as unable to do anything of themselves, and people treating their pastors as super-daddies, without whom they will perish. We will all perish if we go on scrapping and arguing as we are now, priests and people alike. So, let’s be clear about a few basic points.

The Church will never fail because she is founded on the rock that is Christ. During the long years of the Interdict in England, when none of the Sacraments could be celebrated, faith did not die, nor did anyone lack the graces he/she needed. The Nagasaki Christians survived for centuries without the Mass. I am not saying that not having Mass publicly celebrated is a good thing, no, never. One of the sad things about my illness is that I can rarely be present at Mass, but I may have begun to learn from that experience something worth sharing with others. God is bigger than our human perceptions. He can work through anything, and he often chooses experiences which seem to us negative to teach us something far from negative. For example, if we are lamenting being deprived of the Mass, we may well need to see the Mass in less consumerist terms, i.e. it is not about me and what I want for my spiritual life but what the Mass means for the Church as a whole, which must necessarily include those unable to have Mass because of lack of priests or illness or political repression. Mass is being celebrated somewhere every hour of every day. It is the eternal sacrifice of the Church, in which we all take part whether physically present or not. Let’s not forget that.

I am no great fan of broadcast Masses, as some of you know, so how do I link the Mass at which I am not present with my own experience, here and now? Quite simply, it is done though prayer — and I do mean prayer, not prayers. I have seen innumerable exhortations to say this or that prayer to make a spiritual communion. I don’t want to knock them. I am sure many people find them helpful and good. But could I put in a plea for fewer words, more silence, for the prayer of simple longing and adoration? For the prayer of lectio divina and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) in which we allow the Word of God to take charge; for the prayer of baffled quiet and blundering incompetence in which God does all because we cannot do anything? Instead of rushing from one thing to another, perhaps we are being asked to slow down, to give time to prayer, even to waste time in prayer?

This is proving to be a strange Lent. We have been asked to give up many things we would never have dreamed of being asked to give up. We have been asked to be unselfish in ways we would never have contemplated. Could it be that now we are being asked to learn to pray again? To give up some of the rituals we have not valued quite as much as we think we did, so that we may learn again how very precious they are? To give up some of our old words so that the Word of God may fill our being in new ways? In short, to allow Christ to pray in us?

Additional but related content:
Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

Where Angels Fear to Tread

An Unexpected Sabbath

*Some people address tweets and posts to me as a way of gaining attention for themselves, but it can cause consternation among those who think I share their views — which often I don’t. I’m also a bit sceptical about the quality of some of the broadcast material. We do not need to fill every void.

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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Folly is a sin, but distinguishing between a fine disregard for unnecessary constraints and foolish recklessness is never easy. At the moment we have some arguing that the Churches are over-reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic; others wondering whether we are doing too little, too late. I understand why some are feeling sad about not being able to go to Mass or receive the other Sacraments, but it is important to reflect on the reasons for the decisions taken by Church authorities and ask ourselves whether we are seeking the common good or privatising our religion, i.e. wanting what’s best for me.

Those of us blessed (or should it be cursed) with a historical memory may be recalling what happened in Burgos and Zamora during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic early in the twentieth century. The mortality rate in those cities was much higher than elsewhere in Spain (in October 1918, 12.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants and 10.1 per 1,000 respectively, as against 3.8 per 1,000 elsewhere in Spain). In Zamora, Church authorities refused to cancel Mass and encouraged a public novena in the cathedral which was widely thought by epidemioligists then and now to have played a major part in spreading the disease. Although I certainly don’t believe that death is the worst thing that could happen to us, I can understand why we should want to stagger the impact of the current virus and would not myself wish to make others run an unnecessary risk.

Here at the monastery we have decided to implement a policy of Virtual Welcome for the time being, but that does not mean shutting ourselves off from others, least of all from those who have come to depend on us in some way and whose own religious and social worlds may be contracting because of the pandemic. Perhaps it would help others if I set down a few of the matters we took into consideration before making our decision. 

Prayer never ceases. As you will see from the statement appended to this post, the celebration of the Divine Office remains unchanged. It is just that it is being celebrated privately rather than publicly. If you cannot get to Mass, you may like to think about saying the Divine Office on a regular basis. Some of you will already do so, but if you don’t, you may be encouraged to know that it is the ancient prayer of the whole Church — not just clergy and religious. It hallows all the different hours of the day, which is why it is sometimes known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Here in the monastery we say a long form peculiar to ourselves, but there are a lot of resources available online which give the shorter Roman form. For example, Universalis https://universalis.com/index.htm provides a free version for every Hour of every day in English. 

Keeping in touch is important, especially if one lives alone or is more than usually isolated because of illness. I am pleased to see that many churches are organizing ad hoc fellowship groups, maintaining some form of online or telephone contact among small groups of people. Our 24/7 email prayerline is always available but we have had to give up using Messenger (our Broadband service is too flakey) and WhatsApp. However, there are still services like Skype or Facetime for video conferences. These can be a great comfort to people, and I doubt whether our email inbox will grow any smaller. My only worry here in rural Herefordshire is that, if everyone goes online at the same time, our already feeble Broadband service may peter out entirely.

A few people have asked for suggestions about how to pass their time if they are living in self-imposed isolation. That is very difficult to answer. I am always wanting more time to get things done and don’t know how many people would share my interests. What I do think is that it need not be a negative experience. Once the daily chores are over, I would suggest reading, music, gardening, hobbies, anything that stretches mind and imagination. This might be a good time to explore what is freely available on the internet. For example, here in community we have taken advantage of some of the free courses offered by the Open University and others for the FutureLearn project: https://www.futurelearn.com/. Definitely worth exploring.

Finally, isolation for the common good reminds us that we have a duty to others — a duty to show care and compassion and to help when we can. Sometimes all that is required is a little thought about the consequences of our actions. Stockpiling over and above what we genuinely need is sheer greed. In fact, it can even be theft from those unable to afford what we can and so are deprived. A ‘phone call to someone who may be lonely; an email to check on someone who may be in need of help; even posting a petition on our Facebook prayer page can all help. Solitude is, for many of us, a great blessing; for others it is a painful kind of loneliness, a feeling of not mattering to anyone very much. It would be a tragedy if that were to be the legacy of COVID-19.

Statement from Holy Trinity Monastery | Howton Grove Priory

We have decided that, from the Third Sunday of Lent until further notice, the monastery will offer a Virtual Welcome only. That means

· the Divine Office will be recited privately
· no retreatants
· no visitors

We shall continue to pray and maintain, as well as we can, our online outreach as an expression of our desire to welcome everyone tamquam Christus, as though Christ.

We did not make our decision lightly. One of the community has no immunity and little respiratory reserve, which means that any infection, but especially COVID-19, could prove fatal. It therefore seems prudent to limit for a while the number of people coming to the monastery. However, this does not mean that the nuns care any less about you or your concerns. You are the apple of God’s eye. We never will, nor ever could, forget that.

13 March 2020

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The Undeserving Poor

One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.

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The Devil Isn’t Fair

One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.

Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.

Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.

Mass readings
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11

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Recognizing a Prophet

Prophets do not make the easiest of companions. They tend to say and do things that make us uncomfortable and can sometimes be downright alarming. They see what we don’t. Unfortunately, those who claim to be prophets are often no such thing; but we can be taken in for a while because, deep down, we want to be reassured we have a guide, a way of accessing that which is beyond us with a certainty that removes the possibility of risk and failure. We talk about applying the Gamaliel principle but in practice rarely do. If the prophet speaks attractively or acts in a way that we approve, our judgement goes out of the window and we hail the saviour of the hour.

I exaggerate, of course, but there is an element of truth in that first paragraph. Whenever a cause becomes fashionable, our celebrity culture requires individuals to latch onto it and prove their wokeness by dragging the subject into every speech they make, every interview they give, every tweet they inflict on an adoring public. The original prophetic vision becomes distorted or is forgotten. Who now remembers how The Silent Spring changed the way many of us think about the world in which we live and our responsibility for what happens here?

It is the same with Christianity. In the Catholic Church, for example, there are currently a number of battles raging, with the champions being hailed as prophets by those dazzled by what they see. But what do they see? In some cases, I suspect it is a cracked reflection of their (our) own prejudices and preferences, given legitimacy by being associated with someone we regard as a prophet. Instead of taking responsibility ourselves, we prefer to rely on another’s vision and articulation of something we think important or necessary. It is a kind of vicarious faith that has little substance to it.

Today’s gospel (Mark 6. 1–6) confronts us with the question of how we recognize a genuine prophet. What is necessary in us, rather than in the prophet him/herself? From Jesus’ words we gather that a genuine prophet can only be recognized if we ourselves have a living faith — we cannot have what I called a vicarious faith. No one can believe for us. Maybe that is why recognizing a real prophet is so difficult. It is not just what they say and do that matters but what we say and do. To attain the clarity of vision we need, we have to be living the life of faith in all its fullness. Perhaps, instead of looking for prophets and guides outside, we should turn our gaze more inwards and consider what we find there. Only in that way can we hope to recognize the true prophets of our own day and respond to their message when it comes. As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, we must always be on the alert for God’s word and none of us knows in advance how it will come to us today or any day.

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Contentment

To be content without becoming complacent is not easy; harder still to be content with ‘the meanest and worst of everything’ — including, it must be said, others’ treatment of us — as St Benedict writes in the sixth step of humility which we read today (RB 7.49–50). It gets worse. He goes on to say that, in respect of any task laid upon us, we must regard ourselves as ‘bad and worthless workers,’ which is contrary to everything we are taught to believe about our own self-worth and value as human beings. If Jesus had not said something similar in the gospel (Luke 17.10), we might be tempted to dismiss what Benedict says as the meanderings of a mad monk with a ‘down’ on humanity. In fact, it is precisely because Benedict has such a high vision of what we are capable of that he writes as he does. It is the innerliness of the monastic life, if I may coin such a word, that provides the clue. The monk or nun must contain within him/herself the source of their joy.

Today we mark the anniversary of the dedication of our monastery chapel. It is very small, rather mean-looking to an outsider, but it is the most important room in the house and, as such, the locus of the most intense moments of our lives as individuals and as a community. It is where we take the requests for prayer we receive from all over the world; where we recite the Divine Office, hour by hour, day by day; where we go to pray silently; where we keep vigil, and where we give thanks. We are content with its plainness, its small size, even its battered wooden floor. The secret to such contentment is to live in the present, not the past or future. The difficulty comes when the present is painful and we want to escape it, but Benedict has already written of that in the fourth step of humility, where he tells us not to tire or give up. We can only do that if we cultivate a life of prayer. Stoicism by itself is not enough because it lacks the all-important element of love. It is love, and love alone, that enables us to bear ‘the intolerable shirt of flame’ with joy and peace, to go on when all seems pain and loss. It is the secret of the Cross — a secret each of us must learn one day .

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Sunday of the Word of God and Emmaus Moments

The third Sunday of Ordinary Time has been designated by Pope Francis as the Sunday of the Word of God. There is a good summary of the ideas behind it, and suggestions about how to observe it pastorally, from the Liturgy Office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales here: https://liturgyoffice.org/News/sunday-of-the-word-of-god/. Anything that encourages people to read and meditate on scripture is to be welcomed, so perhaps a few words about lectio divina would be in order as a monastic contribution to the day.

The practice of lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of scripture, is so characteristic of Benedictines that one could almost say it defines us. The teaching of lectio divina, however, seems to be something of a growth industry among those who specialise in spirituality, and I have to say that some of it seems to me to be dangerously gnostic. I cannot emphasize too strongly that we must read and pray scripture with the Church, that is, with the mind of Christ.

If you are not familiar with lectio divina, here is a very simple guide:

  1. Try to find somewhere quiet, preferably in the morning.
  2. Ask the Holy Spirit to be with you as you read.
  3. Open your Bible and begin to read. I always suggest starting with one of the Mass readings for the day. That way, you will be reading in union with the whole Church.
  4. Read slowly, expectantly.
  5. You may find a word or sentence sings out for you from the page. If it does, savour it. If it doesn’t, be at peace. Something may come to you later.
  6. Thank God for the gift he has given.
  7. Carry the word you have received with you and let it speak to you as you go about your ordinary tasks.

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about consulting concordances or commentaries. That’s not because I’m against them — far from it! — but because the study of scripture is not quite the same as praying scripture, though the one does lead into the other and vice versa. The problem for many of us is that we have become too accustomed to thinking and have forgotten that wise sentence of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, ‘He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden, but by thought never.’ It is easy to end up doing some interesting research about scripture but forget its purpose, which is to lead us to God. Fortunately, even if we go wrong, so to say, the Holy Spirit can put us right. It is like dealing with distractions in prayer. Don’t worry or fuss, or try to bat them away with huge effort, just return quietly to your purpose.

On this Sunday of the Word of God, therefore, try to set aside a few minutes for reading and praying the scriptures. Let it become habitual, if you can. You may be surprised what great things God can do with something so small and simple. After all, he revealed himself to us as the Word made flesh at Christmas, and he continues to reveal himself daily in the breaking of the word of the scriptures and the holy Eucharist. Emmaus moments are to be treasured.

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The Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

Today we return to the liturgy’s Ordinary Time. That has always seemed to me something of a misnomer. To anyone who lives in a monastery the ordinary is really extraordinary, every moment of every day freighted with meaning and grace, leading us deeper and deeper into the paschal mystery. Even the words we say again and again or the gestures we routinely perform are transformed into runways into God. A deep bow during the gloria at the end of every psalm reconnects us with our creatureliness as we face the ground, then raises us to our new identity as ‘sons in the Son’ as we stand erect. And to those of us who are, so to say, ‘brands snatched from the burning’, the sense of the preciousness of the ordinary can never be extinguished. The raindrop on the window pane, the weed growing through the asphalt, the feel of the sun or wind on our cheek, these are ordinary things, but they are miracles, too.

A personal thanksgiving
Most of us like to mark anniversaries and the passage of time. Today I have a very personal reason for giving thanks. Six years ago today a letter was sent confirming a diagnosis of metastatic leiomyosarcoma. The cancer had spread to my lungs (already scarred with sarcoidosis), my liver, my hip and various other parts of me. The outlook was not encouraging. I thank God, the many, many people who pray for me, and all those who have worked hard and long to keep me alive — especially when I’ve found things a bit tough and haven’t been my nicest, kindest or sunniest self. I hope my experience will encourage others not to assume the worst when they receive a shattering diagnosis; and to treasure every moment of life as a gift. I know my own life could end at any minute but, as a Benedictine, I take to heart the Rule’s exhortation to ‘keep death daily before one’s eyes’, not as a threat but as an invitation to make the best of things, serving God and others as well as I can, and joyfully, too. Laus Deo.

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Christmas Day 2019

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

This icon of Our Lady of Consolation reminds us that Christmas is never without its sorrows. The tear on Mary’s cheek recalls that poignant medieval lyric in which Christ’s death is lamented in deeply personal terms. Our salvation did not come cheap:

Lovely ter of lovely eye,
Why dost thou me so wo?
Sorful ter of sorful eye,
Thou brekst myn herte a-two.

We rejoice in the most perfect of all gifts, the gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ, but we also acknowledge the grief and sadness of the world in which we live. We may be mourning the loss of someone we love or grieving the violence that has killed so many in Burkina Faso and Syria, or there may be some more private sorrow that weighs us down. But still we rejoice. The bitter irony of the birth of the Prince of Peace coinciding with a fresh outbreak of war is not lost on us, nor is the seeming inability of our leaders to work together to end poverty and homelessness and all the evils we regard as insupportable. But still we rejoice. We rejoice because we must. Destruction, negativity, hopelessness is not the whole story and never can be. With the coming of Christ into the world, God has bound himself to us in a way that can never be broken. He has become what we are — for ever and ever. If we let that truth sink in, we can indeed find cause for joy.

On behalf of the community, may I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and the assurance of our prayers. Thank you for your engagement and support during the past year.

If you are struggling with serious illness, you may find something useful in this earlier post about celebrating Christmas with cancer: https://is.gd/BCZDup There are also several posts about the Nativity which can be found using the search box in the right-hand sidebar.

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