Family: Holy and Unholy

Today’s feast of the Holy Family is not among my favourites, but precisely because of that I have struggled with it and recorded my struggles in various blog posts over the years without any resolution of my fundamental difficulty. The subject seems to evoke either extreme sentimentality or an awkward kind of ‘Jesus was really just an ordinary guy like us who happened to be God’ banality. How can we realistically regard the Holy Family as a model for our own yet still maintain reverence and love? It is even more perplexing if one happens to live in community. The family model has never much appealed to Benedictines, at least not to those I know best. Maybe we need to drop the idea of the Holy Family being a model and settle for something more attainable — an encouragement perhaps.

I have often pondered a chance remark of a friend of mine: ‘Family is where one can behave the worst but will always be treated the best.’ For those of us lucky enough to have had a stable and loving family, I think that is true; but not all families are stable or loving, and in a world where the conventional family of yesteryear cannot be taken for granted, the idealised picture of Nazareth is a genuine difficulty. To associate membership of a family with love and acceptance is not the experience of all, yet isn’t that one of the deepest needs of all of us, and isn’t part of the purpose of today’s feast to lead us towards greater love and acceptance of others, whether we are related by ties of blood or not?

We come back to the problem of presentation, as mentioned earlier. Our Lady is often viewed through a very narrow lens, that of perfect mother (which, as Mother of God, she was), more exactly perfect mother according to the notions of unmarried male priests (which she wasn’t). It is a very hard act for ordinary women to follow or even aspire to, because it is so unreal. Quite what men make of the portrayal of St Joseph, I don’t know. In the Middle Ages he was a figure of fun, and it took a St Teresa and a Bossuet to recognize his true greatness, but it is a greatness most would find hard to emulate. As for our Lord Jesus Christ, what can we say? Today’s gospel suggests more of a lippy teen than the perfect child of many a feast-day homily.

Can we make a case for seeing in the humanity and, dare I say it, imperfection of the Holy Family an encouragement to ourselves? Without descending into banality or irreverence, the fact that at times Joseph may have been tetchy and Mary tired or glum is what we would expect. That Jesus sometimes tried their tempers is only to be expected, too. Yet it is in that very imperfection, in going on loving despite all the apparent failures, that human beings are somehow fashioned into something that is actually holy, that reflects the love and goodness of God. In the end, there is no such thing as an unholy family, only families with the potential to become holy. The Holy Family of Nazareth may not be a helpful model for us all, but it is, or can be, a very great encouragement.

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The Joy of Wonder

Sandstone sculpture from northern France, XIV century,
William Randolph Hearst Collection (50.33.9)

There are some lines from the collect we use for Christmas Vigils that always send a shiver down my spine:

Your eternal Word came down from heaven in the silent watches of the night, and now your Church is filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. (referring to Wisdom 18. 14–15)

They take us away from the sentimentality of ‘Jingle Bells’ and “Santa’ hats and plunge us deep into the mystery of God. All very well for those who dwell in monasteries, you may think, but for most of us the warmth and humanity of a family Christmas is a mixture of sentimentality and church and a thousand and one other things. True, and there is nothing wrong and much that is very right in that; but not everyone has a family Christmas to enjoy or grumble about. The news this morning is filled with stories of those made suddenly homeless by the Indonesian tsunami or other catastrophes across the globe. Indeed, we do not have to stray far from our own front doors to find the homeless, the sick or the suffering, for whom Christmas is not at all the brilliant superabundant feast of Dickensian myth. When there is no room for sentimentality, we are thrown back on the mystery, on the truth of the Incarnation and the meaning of Christ’s birth for each and every one of us.

For me that mystery is expressed in the line about the Church being filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. Wonder is not fashionable. It has no street cred. It is the reverse of ‘cool’, yet wonder is one of the most generous and joyful of emotions. We are surprised with wonder at the unexpected or even the familiar seen or heard as for the first time. It is not dependent on our circumstances. I remember once being moved almost to tears by the luminous beauty of a raindrop slowly coursing down a window-pane. At the time, I was busy with many things, distracted and irritable, but my attention was suddenly held and a rainy day transformed by that glimpse of loveliness. Christmas Day is a little like that. At one level, it is a day like any other; at another, it is a day out of time, a day that allows us a glimpse of eternity and of God himself.

Today we are invited to wonder at the miracle of God made man, the mighty Word reduced to a baby’s wail. This we can celebrate no matter where we are or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Too much family or too little, feasting or forced to fast, our God is near to us. All glory, honour and praise be to Him for ever and ever!

And a very happy Christmas to all my readers!

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A Moment of Peace

Christmas Eve in most households is anything but peaceful. Even the most organized seem to be full of last-minute activity, from cooking to present-wrapping, to say nothing of the long treks homeward many a son or daughter and family will make in order to celebrate together with other family members. In the monastery there is no present-wrapping or travel to worry about, but the preparation of a complex liturgy which goes on throughout the Octave and a more than usually ample dinner for Christmas Day itself, can be demanding, especially when unexpected visitors turn up or those in distress telephone in search of comfort. How do any of us find peace in all this? The conventional wisdom, to go with the flow, is at best a half-truth. Peace is not to be identified with the absence of struggle or a kind of mental or moral opting-out, nor can we glibly assert that embracing reality, whatever that means in this context, is the answer.

There is only one way to find peace on Christmas Eve and that is to allow the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds. It means consciously stopping, at least for a few moments, all our frantic activity and saying, ‘Lord, you see how busy I am. If I forget you, please don’t forget me!’ In that acknowledgement of our inability to slow down or halt the Christmas rush, we are being honest; and, instead of turning the Lord away for a time when we think we will be better able to receive him, we are inviting him into our chaotic present, admitting it is far from perfect, but wanting to be with him, and him with us, all the same.

To stop, even for a moment, is not easy, especially if there is no-one else to do whatever it is that we are doing. Most of us need to use our imagination more. Going from one room to another, clearing a table, climbing the stairs, washing-up or loading the dishwasher — all provide moments we can use to turn to the Lord. And if anyone feels self-conscious about doing so, a little lonely in their desire to keep their focus on the Lord when everyone else expects them to be full of a festive spirit that seems to have nothing much to do with the Incarnation, I hope they will find encouragement in this thought. Throughout the world there are monks, nuns and countless others praying the prayer they themselves would pray if they had time. The Communion of Saints is not an abstraction. It is part of the new order ushered in by Christmas, one of the precious gifts our Saviour gives to the world.

May God grant you and those you love a very happy Christmas.

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The Cry of Anguish

‘The hardest thing in life,’ wrote the young André Gide in his journal of 1890, ‘is to be sincere.’ Our generation might amend that slightly: the hardest thing in life is to distinguish the sincere from the fake or merely opportune. Sometimes, even our prayer seems tinged with insincerity. Do I truly want what I say I do in this prayer, to be completely converted to the Lord/forgiving/generous or whatever, or am I like St Augustine, desiring chastity, but definitely not yet?

During the past few days we have been considering a few phrases from the ‘O’ antiphons. Their simplicity and directness are immediately attractive, but then we find something in them that requires effort because it has elements alien to our current ways of thought. Take today’s antiphon’:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster. 
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the One for whom the nations long and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

The piling up of all those grandiloquent titles is excellent theology and history, but, if we are honest, doesn’t it make God seem a little remote? We are not accustomed to addressing him as though he were some Eastern potentate. We are more comfortable with the idea of God as loving Father — a kind of SuperDad perhaps. We ignore the obvious, that God is as far above our understanding as the heavens are above the earth, and condemn the unfamiliar as insincere. But consider the antiphon’s final phrase, ‘Come and save us, Lord our God.’ Nowhere else in the sequence do we make that direct reference to the Lord our God Our last word, so to say, is very simple and sincere: it is the cry of anguish uttered from the heart: Come and save us, Lord our God. We spend our lives learning that we cannot save ourselves. All our fine words, all our magnificent gestures, come down to this: we need a Saviour, the one who will first appear among us in the fragility of a baby’s body on Christmas Night. Let us pray that he will come to us and save us.

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A King! We Want a King!

There is a curious irony in the fact that it is often the most allegedly democratic of peoples that countenance the most absolutist forms of government. No names, no pack-drills, as they say, but I can think of two much in the news of late. It reminds me of the old Israelite cry, ‘Give us a king! We want to be like other nations!’ (cf 1 Samuel 8). God did give Israel a king, but it was not an unmitigated success. What are we to make, then, of today’s ‘O’ antiphon?

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

The translation is awkward, but I wanted to preserve the obvious scriptural references and, rather than smooth over the difficulties of qui facis utraque unum or even hominem, leave them in plain sight. Sometimes we need to be challenged by the theology of a prayer rather than whittling it down to something we can digest and endorse. However, it was not those phrases that caught my attention this morning so much as the opening invocation of God as Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles. It is an ambiguous phrase. On the one hand it proclaims God’s lordship over all; on the other, it claims God for the gentiles, those of us outside the Covenant, the slightly dodgy folk of least account who do not keep the Law. We know that we have been made sharers in the Covenant — Christ is indeed the corner-stone that unites both Jews and Gentiles in the family of God — but it is by way of privilege, a privilege we are apt at times to forget.

It can be hard not to think that the world as we know it is disintegrating. The Church is in disarray over the sex abuse scandals that have destroyed the trust of so many; our politicians seem incapable of putting the interests of others before their own pet plans and projects; the people we have always relied upon seem less dependable than they were. Into this mess comes a tiny, vulnerable baby, born in an obscure corner of the world yet bearing the greatest of titles, who will redeem the world; and we, smudged with sin and endlessly misunderstanding as we are, are privileged to share in the salvation He offers. Our prayer today is not for ourselves alone but for the whole world. The King of the Nations is Lord of all that is.

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Rooted, or Are We?

One hundred days to Brexit, announce the media, with varying degrees of gladness or dismay. Meanwhile, we are preparing to sing O Radix Jesse at Vespers tonight:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delaying no longer!

Is this another instance of the Church working on completely different lines from the rest of society? Or do we pray in a way that encompasses the demands of Brexit and every other difficulty we face at this time? Consider that line, ‘at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek’. It is awkward in English, but it contains an important truth: God is in control and those who seek him, unlikely as it may seem, will one day find him. God wants to be found; he desires to lead us. Being a Gentile is at first sight a disadvantage, excluded as we assume we are from the Covenant and the privileges of the people of Israel; but the prophecies we have been reading throughout this period of Advent have been reminding us that the Covenant has been opened to all. Amazingly, as St Paul says, we, the wild olive, have been grafted onto the ancient tree. But there is more that is encouraging and surprising in equal measure.

Those who hold power in this world do so for only a time. They can do much good or much harm, but ultimately their power is transitory. Before God the powerful are struck dumb, because God sees with a clarity they do not possess. Only purity of heart, the purity of love and generosity, can enable anyone to see as God sees, and we all fall short of that but especially, perhaps, those whose main focus is their own advantage. It is sobering to remember that, but it is true. We need to see as God sees.

Today’s antiphon is not some form of pious escapism. It is a reminder not to lose heart, not to give up. God wills what is good for us, and no matter how contrary the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how dire we think the state of the country or how irresponsible our politicians, there is hope — but it is a hope that requires more of us than mere wishing. The Root of Jesse stands as an ensign to the peoples. We must rally to his standard, and that means exposing ourselves to danger, to misunderstanding and, as this world sees it, even to failure. The victory is won, but we must still fight. 

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Dancing for Joy | Gaudete Sunday 2018

Today our churches will be a riot of rose vestments, incense and music, but very few, I suspect, will be filled with dancing. Catholics don’t do that sort of thing, except perhaps in parts of Africa where dance is intrinsic to the local culture. In the West, liturgical dance tends to be something of an embarrassment. It conjures up visions of middle-aged persons executing vague swoops and dives to the accompaniment of drums and guitars: a kind of church-goers’ Strictly without the glitz. In Spain, they take a more relaxed attitude: As Henri Pirenne remarked, ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. That certainly applies to Seville, the city of dance. Those who have witnessed the beautiful Baile de los Seises, that strange, slow dance  of the choristers before the altar of the cathedral, will have been told how hard-won their privilege is. In the seventeenth century the Vatican took seventeen years to agree that the ancient dance might continue, but only ‘for as long as the choristers’ clothes do not wear out’. Of course, they never have. A patch here, an addition there, new shoes or breeches now and then; so the dance goes on.

It is important that the dance should go on because it symbolizes much more than may be apparent at first glance. One of today’s Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14–18, provides us with an unforgettable image of God dancing for joy over his children. We can identify with David, dancing for joy as the Ark of the Covenant is brought back to Jerusalem, but God dancing for joy over us! That is a joy to fill the whole of creation. As this last week of Advent begins, we rejoice at the nearness of our God, but only because he has first rejoiced over us:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a victorious warrior.
He will exult with joy over you,
he will renew you by his love;
he will dance with shouts of joy for you
as on a day of festival.

This is the Wisdom from on high whom we shall invoke in tomorrow’s ‘O’ antiphon, the God of infinite power and love who reaches from end to end of the universe, who will teach us the way of truth — and whose joyful dance will never end.

O antiphons:
For texts, translations and music of the ‘O’ antiphons, beginning on 17 December, please see http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html (Flash needed for the audio).

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Descending into Tribalism Again?

There have been many times recently when I have wondered whether we are descending into tribalism again. The rise of the hard right in mainland Europe, the violence on the streets of Paris, the ugly anti-semitic placards captured by photographers at various demonstrations and the shameful factionalism we are treated to every day from Parliament are not encouraging. Is this the world in which we wish to live, a jungle where what’s best for me and the rest of you can go to blazes is our mantra of choice? What happened to our nobler ambitions, our desire to live in peace, to ensure that no-one should be in want?

It is a mistake to think that Advent can be so spiritualized that we do not connect what we pray with what we say. If we are longing for the coming of the Messiah, for his reign of justice and peace, we have to work to create that justice and peace here and now. We cannot one minute be cursing the enemy of the moment (the E.U., Brexiteers, Remainers, Republicans, Democrats, whatever) and the next asking God to make everything wonderful and lovely. In any case, wonderful and lovely for whom? Just me and my friends? Is that really what we take from our reading of the Gospels?

The first reading at Mass today (Isaiah 40. 1–11) is especially dear to our community, but we have always interpreted the Consolamini  of the Vulgate as ‘strengthen’ rather than ‘console’. God does everything, of course, but he requires our active co-operation; and that co-operation may well mean renunciation of some good for ourselves as well as seeking good for others. We easily forget that, convinced as we usually are that our view is the right one. Perhaps a moment or two reflecting on today’s gospel (Matthew 18. 12–14) will give us pause. The lost sheep, the one that caused the Lord grief and anxiety, the one who didn’t do what the rest of the flock did, was chosen and precious in his eyes. The Lord did not allow the stray to remain apart for ever. Is there a lesson there for all of us? The new tribalism separates and ostracizes. Shouldn’t we really be trying to achieve unity, to build up rather than tear down? Isn’t that how we shall recognize that the kingdom of God is truly among us?

65. 

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Living with Uncertainty

In retrospect, the world in which I grew up was remarkably secure, yet the memory of war was very real for my parents’ generation and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was ever-present. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I remember going into the garage to announce the news to my father, who stopped what he was doing, looked very grave and said, ‘This may mean war.’ He was wrong, of course, but that was the great fear lurking behind the political polarisation of the day. We lived with uncertainty. We still do, but it is a different kind of uncertainty. The enemy we fear is often unseen or unrecognized, in our midst, even our own bodies. We fear the consequences of the way we have abused earth, sea and air; the terrorist who is implacably opposed to our way of life; the disease that perhaps even now is coursing through our body. No-one looking at the world today can afford to be complacent. There seems to be so much that is beyond our control, that menaces us.

That is one of the reasons why Advent is a helpful time of year. We are looking forward to the coming of Christ with expectant joy yet, at the same time, acknowledging both our own sinfulness and the brokenness of the world we inhabit. There is the uncertainty of the not-yetness of salvation; the uncertainty of our own response. For those of us living in Britain, there is also the uncertainty of Brexit and what will or will not happen in the next twenty-four hours. This uncertainty accompanies us as we make our pilgrimage through Advent and lends it a peculiar force and directness. We need a Saviour, a Redeemer: one who will make us secure, transform our deafness and blindness and free us from everything that holds us back from being  who and what we are meant to be. We are therefore living a paradox because, of course, Christ has already come, has already saved us. Our uncertainty is whether we will lay claim to the salvation he offers us — whether, in the words of Isaiah, we will allow everlasting joy to shine forth from us, or whether we will prefer darkness to light. The choice is ours.

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In Turbulent Times

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Few would dispute that we live in turbulent times. If we were once able to situate violence and civil unrest somewhere ‘out there’, we can do so no longer. The extraordinary scenes as British M.P.s row about Brexit, the protests of the gilets jaunes and the rise of populist movements throughout Europe, to say nothing of the daily shock of tweets from the President of the U.S.A., are surely enough to convince anyone that the world is a-changing, and not necessarily for the better. We continue to hate one another, pollute the world in which we live and generally act as though we had learned nothing from our past experience. We are not so much homo sapiens as homo vastans.

Into this world steps the Church with the words of Baruch 5, urging us to take off our robe of sorrow and distress and put on the glory of the Lord for ever. Is that sheer escapism, the response of the weak and fearful to brutality and power? I don’t think so. The Messianic dream of the people of Israel will be realised; there will indeed be everlasting  peace; but first we must be ready to do our part — and that is where we tend to fall down. 

This Advent I have been impressed, as I always am, by the huge effort made by the Churches to show practical compassion towards those in need. Something more is required, however, and that is the inner transformation of each one of us. John the Baptist, who suddenly appears out of the desert in today’s gospel reading (Luke 3. 1–6), echoes the words of Baruch. The mountains of pride and self-sufficiency must be laid low, the valleys of fear and distrust filled in. Everything that is curved or devious in us must be straightened, and the rough places — the things that hurt or endanger others — must be smoothed out. Ah, we say, of course we’ll do that, but when circumstances are more propitious; yes, then we’ll work on our souls, but in the meantime, we are too busy with the affairs of  this world. We live in turbulent times, you know.

Perhaps the times are turbulent because we have got things the wrong way round. We are too busy trying to make the world suit us better to notice the basic flaw in our plan. We ourselves haven’t changed. We think we can go on as we always have, but we can’t. Every Advent we are faced with the same dilemma, the same invitation. Are we for the Lord or are we not? Are we ready to be converted or are we not? Our decision matters because it is one that affects not just us but everyone else. To choose godliness, to become pure and blameless as St Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, is to accept the challenge of our times. Advent is not just a preparation for Christmas but for the coming of the Day of Christ, and it is the third coming, of Christ to our souls now, that is the link between the two. 

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