On Being Monastic

Today’s feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny seems to have inspired people to tell me what being monastic means. I had been thinking about composing a Letter to a Would-Be Nun for Vocations Sunday, but few readers can be bothered with long posts, so perhaps I can abstract a few details and offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject in the context of today’s feast.

Cluny was Benedictine, and Benedict was very clear about what a monk should be and how he should behave. You will never find him using the word monk when someone falls below the expected standard or acts in a way inconsistent with the ideal: he uses the word brother instead. That tells us something quite important. When we act badly or let others down in some way, our relationship with the community is not broken but we forfeit the right to be thought of as expressing its values. Cluny ’s reputation in the earlier Middle Ages stood high precisely because it was a very disciplined organisation and its monks expressed the monastic ideal in ways that made a profound impact on others.

First of all, there was community, there was an abbot and there was a rule of life (the Rule of St Benedict) which each followed. Now, I may be guilty of partiality here, but I think what we know of Cluniac history (and we know a great deal) suggests that obedience to the Rule and to the abbot gave the community its characteristic qualities. The laus perennis for which it would become famous stemmed from its understanding of the role of liturgical prayer; its scholarship derived from its engagement with the culture of the times and its concern for hospitality; its wealth was the by-product of living simply and chastely. What do I mean when I say that?

For many people monasticism is a bit of a mystery, often a romantic mystery. It’s all about wearing funny clothes and inhabiting grand buildings. The reality tends to be disappointing. It’s really about lifelong single chastity, obedience, prayer and the service of others. The grand buildings, where they exist, are often a headache to the cellarer, who must try to keep the roof on and the rooms heated, Even the Divine Office can become a source of intense suffering to the musical, while the less talented usually discover some other mortification they were not expecting. The point is, the monks of Cluny stuck at being monks despite the difficulties they encountered, either individually or as a community. They persevered; and perseverance is one of those unshowy qualities many people practise in their marriages or ordinary lives but which a monk (or nun) must practise faithfully every day because the life of the community depends on the fidelity of its members The community exists for no other reason than to give glory to God. It does not exist to provide mutual support or upbuilding (though it does); it does not exist to allow individual talents to flourish (though they will); it exists solely for God. I cannot empgasize that enough.

Cluny demonstrated in a remarkable way how existing solely for God could be translated into structures and practices we continue to value today, though the abbey of Cluny itself is now a ruin. Most of us who try to live the monastic life would be the first to confess that we don’t live up to the ideal, but we do try; and sometimes all the love and the striving is in that daily trying. Be encouraged if you, too, are trying.

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Seeing Through Tears: Easter Tuesday 2019

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Who does not love today’s gospel in which Mary of Magdala meets the Risen Christ? There is something very moving about that encounter in the early morning, the dew still fresh upon the ground and Mary seeing him through a mist of tears. Are those tears the reason she does not recognize him at first but thinks he might be the gardener ‘in his stained and dirty kirtle,’ as Julian of Norwich describes him? Or do the tears allow her to see him clearly for the first time, as the New Adam — not so much a tiller of soil but as the giver of life itself? It is said that the Cross on Golgotha was planted where Adam’s skull lay buried. The Fruit it bore surpassed any known in Paradise.

This morning many tears are being shed throughout the world: in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, wherever death holds sway. But the Risen Lord still comes to meet us in our pain. His body bears the wounds of suffering and death for all eternity but they are transformed now into channels of life and peace for us. Let us cling to the hope they bring, not just to us but to the whole world.

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Good Friday 2019

The cross at Notre Dame de Paris after the fire
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis } The cross stands while the world turns

Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.

At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.

Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?

sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.

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Maundy Thursday 2019

The Sacred Triduum begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the monastery we anticipate the Triduum with a day of special silence and prayer. At noon we have a solemn meal that recalls (but does not replicate) the kind of meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples while our reading of the Last Discourse as the final act of the day ensures we do not lose our focus as Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday. The liturgical celebration we begin tonight does not end until Easter morning. It is all one, as you can see from the fact that no dismissal is uttered from the end of Mass tonight until the end of the Easter Vigil. This is the high-point of the Christian year, and it is not a merely historical commemoration, a kind of play-acting that we engage in. By means of the liturgy we enter into the events we recall: we are one with what we are celebrating. What does that mean for us today on Maundy Thursday?

First and foremost, I think it means that we are each bound to scrutinize our own fidelity or lack of it to the commandment to love one another. Unless we are unusually complacent, I daresay most of us feel a little shame-faced when we consider how often we have missed opportunities to serve or done so in a way that was distinctly unloving and ungracious. Some of us may even have made consciousness of our own rectitude — in our own eyes at least — a source of boasting. How many, for example, have noisily turned their backs on the Church, saying they can have no part in her because of the terrible scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up? Then we read of Père Fournier going into the blazing heart of Notre Dame to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and know we are on firm ground again. That is what we expect of our priests! And tonight we recall the giving of that great treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. We give thanks and try to express our love and devotion in those precious hours at the Altar of Repose where we bring all the world’s sin and sorrow and our own pain and confusion.

Maundy Thursday is intense in its movement from Judas’s betrayal to the Agony in the Garden. It is intense in both its joy and its sorrow. We cannot live all our lives with such intensity but tonight we can and must. It is our entry into Christ’s Passion.

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As Holy Week Draws Near

Tonight, when we sing First Vespers of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins but my guess is that most Christians will already be thinking about Holy Week and many will be actively preparing their churches and choirs for all that is to come. It is a very human tendency to want to live either in the past or in the future and avoid the present altogether, but the truth is, the present is all we ever have. So, today, on the eve of Palm Sunday, I think we are invited to take stock of where we are now. Whatever our plans for Holy Week and Easter, the Lord has a way of subtly re-writing them. We may be faced with something unwelcome or simply unexpected, but in the midst of it all we must find peace. Today’s first Mass reading, from Ezekiel 37, sets the tone: the Lord will make an eternal covenant of peace with us; he will be our God; but we must do our part, too. We must allow ourselves to be cleansed of our sin and defilement.

We tend to think in terms of our seeking forgiveness, of our making amends, of our being determined to ‘avoid the occasions of sin’ as the old prayer has it. How rarely do we appreciate that being freed from sin is something we must consent to, that in every case God takes the initiative? As I wrote a few days ago, putting the emphasis on our own activity leads to unproductive feelings of guilt and failure. What we must cling to more than ever is the grace of God. We must believe that he wills our salvation, he wills our freedom; and he wills it now. Therefore, we must not let our gaze be so fixed on tomorrow that we fail to see what today offers. During Holy Week we shall mark hour by hour the journey of our Saviour to the Cross and Resurrection but today we are with him in Ephraim, a town bordering on the desert (cf John 11. 45-56). We are hidden with him, and we trust that God is powerfully at work. We do not see; we walk by faith — and that is the best preparation any of us can make as Holy Week draws near.

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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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