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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Living on the Edge of Eternity

One of the more useful consequences of having an incurable or terminal illness is the way it tends to change one’s perspectives. So many of the things we tend to worry about or waste our energies on become unimportant or, at any rate, secondary. Family, friends, community, and for the religiously-minded, God’s judgement — these are what we really value and sometimes fret about in the small hours. With energy at a premium, there is none to spare for self-indulgent moaning about what others are doing or not doing. Every moment is precious because we are living on the edge of eternity.

Advent is like that, too. We are given these few short weeks to prepare for the greatest of all gifts, the coming of our Saviour, and it is easy to become complicated and anxious about them because we have a lot to do and secular society doesn’t understand why our focus is elsewhere. We have to make a conscious effort to remember that we are living on the edge of eternity: the Lord will come, and he will save us.

St Bernard famously distinguished between the three comings of Christ: in the flesh at Bethlehem, two thousand years ago; in power and glory at the end of time; and here and now, when we keep his word in our heart. However busy you must be today, take courage from what St Bernard says about this coming and the promise it contains:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.

Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.

If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you. The Son with the Father will come to you. The great Prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come, the one who makes all things new. This coming will fulfil what is written: As we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, we shall also bear the likeness of the heavenly man. Just as Adam’s sin spread through all mankind and took hold of all, so Christ, who created and redeemed all, will glorify all, once he takes possession of all.

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A Reed Shaken by the Wind?

Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 11. 2–11) is a stark contrast to the lyricism of the Mass’s first reading (Isaiah 35. 1–6, 10) and the explosion of colour and sound accompanying our celebration of Gaudete Sunday. John the Baptist is in prison, soon to be executed at the whim of a tyrant. He has heard about Jesus, but isn’t sure he is the One he, and all Israel, is longing for; so he sends some of his followers to question him. Jesus sends back an answer linking himself to Isaiah’s prophesy, then goes on to discuss John in terms some of us may find surprising.

We tend to think of John the Baptist as a ‘wild man,’ living on the edge of the desert, austere to the point of emaciation. He is obsessed with the coming of the Messaiah — joyful, fierce, capable of spell-binding utterance and blistering honesty, a man of contradictions. Herod didn’t know what to make of John yet liked to listen to him. The scribes and pharisees whom John called a ‘brood of vipers’ were also keen to hear him speak. Clearly, there was something irresistibly attractive about him — a strength, a clarity of purpose, on which others could rely, however uncomfortable it might prove at times. Yet Jesus’ first words about John are enigmatic. ‘What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’ The words are so unexpected that the irony is not immediately apparent. A reed looks fragile as it trembles in the wind, but who would have thought of John as fragile? Then there is that allusion to the garment of camel-hair and the contrast with the fine clothes worn in a palace. Finally, Jesus gets to the point: John is a prophet and, as such, a strong man, dressed in the garments of salvation, a challenge to our way of thinking and acting, just as Jesus himself is a challenge to us. 

Why did Jesus play with his audience in that way? A scripture scholar would probably wish to explain literary forms and semitic usages, but I think a much simpler explanation may suffice. Jesus wants his hearers to think. What was it about John that drew them to him? What was it about John that Jesus wanted his own disciples to emulate?

Let’s go back, for a moment, to the reed image. Reeds are found in marshy areas, in marginal lands. They have hollow stems, making them good conductors of sounds or liquids, and they can be used to manufacture almost anything from a basket to a roof. They are, in fact, immensely tough, amazing for all their seeming ordinariness. Without trying to stretch the analogy too far, we can say that John, too, was tough, living on the margins of society and with so little self-importance that he desired to grow less that Christ might grow greater, a human example of the amazing-in-ordinary. He was shaped by the Word of God to be his instrument. He proclaimed the demands of righteousness to all who would listen, showing no fear. He gave a baptism of repentance to those prepared to humble themselves, and baptized Jesus himself at the beginning of his public ministry. He did all this without fuss or fanfare, content to let Christ be all in all, ultimately laying down his life for him.

In a moment of exquisite tenderness, Jesus recognizes John’s stature and allows us to see how much he loved him. John was both forerunner and follower, the greatest among those yet born of women, a witness to truth and justice. We know that but don’t often think about the love Jesus had for John, nor do we frequently reflect on the dynamic between them. Perhaps we should do so more often, because if we could understand the relationship between them, we should understand better what it means to be a disciple and how to prepare for the coming of Christ. For many, John remains a little distant, a little severe, but if we think about the role he played in Jesus’ life, I think he becomes the warm and attractive figure he undoubtedly was, the ‘one joy man’ beloved of monks and nuns. The respect Jesus and John had for each other is telling. John, we could say, was necessary to Jesus in the accomplishment of his mission. That is a huge claim, and must be followed by an equally huge question. Are we also necessary? We might usefully ponder that as we enter the third week of Advent.

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Seeing Clearly

The morning after a General Election is not generally remarkable for restrained or kindly behaviour. People are tired, emotions are raw, and many say or do things one hopes in more reflective mode they might not. There is quite a lot of ’emoting’ on social media, where the accusations and insults of the disappointed fly around in a profanity-laden whirlwind and the jubilations of the jubilant require a flak-jacket and ear-plugs to avoid. Some are prophesying a coming age of gold; others, doom and gloom. Some are preparing to leave the country; others are convinced that the U.K.’s finest hour is just around the corner. It all depends how we view things.

Today is the memoria of St Lucy and I think we can learn a useful lesson from her. According to the Acts of the Martyrs, she was martyred in Syracuse under Diocletian. Most of what we know about her is really just the conventional stuff of early hagiography. There is enough, however, to have given us some very fine Vesper antiphons, while artists through the centuries have seized on the detail that Lucy’s eyes were gouged out before she was killed. Not surprisingly, therefore, she is patron of the blind and visually impaired — all who do not see clearly. This morning I think she must be working overtime.

Physical blindness or visual impairment can be frightening, as I know from experience, but not to be able to see in a moral or intellectual sense can be more daunting still. We lose touch with reality, are thrown back on the inchoate thoughts and emotions that bubble on and on inside us like the Tennysonian brook. My sense is that something like that is affecting many people in Britain this morning, yet the Advent liturgy provides a valuable corrective. Isaiah 48. 17 is explicit where our trust and confidence should lie:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,I lead you in the way that you must go.

The Lord never abandons us, never allows our cloudy vision to hamper his plans for our well-being. However much we may disagree about political leadership, the Lord is our true Leader, the one who will guide us into the way of peace and salvation. If we follow him, all will ultimately be well. Easy to say, I know, but much harder to believe and act on, but that is precisely what we must do: believe and act, which means trusting and, as often as not, silencing the inner clamour that prevents us from doing so. God does not insist or force us. We have to allow our eyes to be opened to the possibilities that grace offers.

This morning let us pray for our newly-elected M.P.s and for ourselves, that we may see clearly and do what is right.

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Poor Worms and Tiny Mites

I, the Lord, your God, I am holding you by the right hand; I tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, I will help you.’ Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm, Israel, puny mite. I will help you — it is the Lord who speaks  — the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.

The opening words of today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 41. 13–20

As General Election Day dawns in the U.K., these are potentially encouraging words. I say ‘potentially’, because they presuppose our willingness to accept the Lord’s help. Most of us know that we can and do resist grace, that we make selfish choices. A few of us (me, for instance) will also admit that we can be plain stupid at times. To acknowledge weakness, however, goes against one of the popular memes of society today, that of empowerment and entitlement. From being told that we can become whatever we like to attacking any awareness of difference as discrimination, it can be confusing to try to work out what we are or where we stand without incurring misunderstanding, disapproval or alienation. Today, as the U.K. goes to the polls, there must be many agonizing about how to vote, conscious that they are but a small drop in an ocean of electors. The values we hold dear, the desires we cherish for a better, kinder world and the way in which we see them being achieved, are not necessarily the same for everyone. And being but one among millions of voters, there is a temptation to abandon the whole process, to say we cannot make a difference. Without actually saying so, we acknowledge our own weakness and give up.

I think we are thrown back on 2 Corinthians 12.10. Like Paul, we confess the paradox that when we are weak, then we are strong. It is not the strength of the human strongman, not the strength of the victor, but the strength that comes from a willingness to put the needs of others before our own, relying on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how weak we may feel, we have the assurance that He is always with us and that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid. One of the great themes of our Advent liturgy is integrity and trust. Today, all over the U.K., whether believers or not, we must act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be, or can become, one that serves the common good. Poor worms and tiny mites that we are, let us pray it may be so.

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Sheep: a challenge for Advent

Photo by George Gastin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

How many of those reading this blog post have ever had a close encounter with a sheep? Here we are never far from the sight or sound of them, which makes the numerous references to them in scripture and the Rule of St Benedict both lively and topical. The straying sheep; the sheep on the wrong side of the hedge or fence; the wounded sheep, attacked by a dog its owner failed to control; the sheep that is ill or having difficulty lambing — these are all well-known to us and what I tend to think of when reading today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 40. 1–11 or Matthew 18. 12–14. Admittedly, the haunting tones of Consolamini, consolamini or even Handel’s Comfort, ye tend to provide the background sound-track, but it is the muckiness and smell of real sheep in real fields that I think of first. Which is just as well because we can’t dismiss the sheep image of today’s readings with sentimental visions of fluffy white lambs gathered around a spotless manger. We’re lost, wounded, in need of a Saviour.

One of the great challenges of Advent is to acknowledge that we really do need a Saviour. We all have a tendency to favour the DIY approach to salvation, seeing Advent more as a count-down to Christmas than as a season of waiting and joyful anticipation for something and someone that can only come to us as sheer gift. The late Thomas Merton, who died on this day in 1968, never tired of proclaiming our neediness and the graciousness of the God who stoops down to us. He knew that we are apt to become uncomfortable when confronted with the realities of the present and often seek refuge in a past of our own making. That is to be sheep-like in a bad sense. Instead, we must be bold and strike out in new directions, not lost, not wounded, but following the Shepherd of the flock. Time is not given to us to keep a faith we once had but to acquire a faith we need now. The faith we need now: that is what we must seek this Advent.

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A Spoonful of Sugar

Today is St Nicholas’s day, when, with a good conscience, we can rot our teeth with toffee and gingerbread, punch our opponents on the nose, and, provided we have all the necessary safeguarding measures in place, enjoy the company of children, exchange gifts, pray for seafarers and do good by stealth. If you haven’t a clue what I mean, or don’t ‘do’ irony, these posts may help:

St Nicholas and Santa Claus
Death in the North Sea

We tend to be serious about Advent, but not always in the right way, as some of the responses to yesterday’s post made clear to me. Yes, it is a time for concentrating on the coming of the Messiah, but it is also a time for recognizing that we are already living in the Messianic age. The plainness most of us adopt throughout this short season of preparation for Christmas isn’t meant to be gloomy or misanthropic, ‘penitential’ in the popular sense of the word. On the contrary, our penance should be life-enhancing. There should, ideally, be something of the rubicund Father Christmas/Santa Claus about it — a generosity of spirit and intention, even if we can’t manage material generosity. Not all of us can do that, nor should anyone be made to feel guilty about it; but we must beware of complacency. ‘I can’t’ is sometimes a pretext for ‘I won’t’.

In earlier posts about St Nicholas, I have stressed the importance of prayer. It is one thing we, as nuns, are committed to giving to the Church and to the world, and never has it been more necessary. Recently, I looked at the statistics for the number of abortions performed in England and Wales, the number of children living in poverty in the UK as a whole, the numbers officially ‘in care’ and those estimated to be surviving on hand-outs from food banks, despite the fact that their parents may be doing two or three jobs to try to keep themselves above the breadline. It was a shocking contrast to all the ads for consumer goods that marked Black Friday and continue to besiege us that we may have the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This morning the prayer of the community is for conversion of heart for us all: for St Nicholas to be honoured by more generous giving to children in need, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. If a rich country like the U.K. can tolerate such shameful inequality, such cruel indifference to children, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Our giving may be no more than a spoonful of sugar, but even one spoonful has the potential to make a huge difference. Try it.

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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A God of Love

One of the saddest things I have read recently came from someone describing himself as an ex-Catholic who said that, in his experience, the Church was made up of perverts and abusers who took delight in condemning the sins of others. He particularly disliked the use of the crucifix, calling it morbid; while his own experience of abuse had left him with a profound distrust of the clergy and everything they say. Is it any wonder that his image of God — for he still believes, in an odd kind of way — is of an angry and hostile God who cares nothing for his creation? What would today’s solemnity of Christ the King mean to him?

I cannot answer that question, for obvious reasons, but I think it is one we must all address. What does today’s feast mean to us? Conventionally, the solemnity of Christ the King, with its clear, eschatological significance, is about the restoration of all things under Christ, King of the Universe. It is about lordship and service, divine love and sacrifice; but as soon as we use those terms, we are using religious language remote from the everyday experience of most people. Yet loving and being loved are not, usually, remote from our experience, thank God, nor is the idea of making sacrifices (pl) for others — ask any parent. It is the way in which we use those words in a religious context that confuses or injects a note of misunderstanding or unreality. Indeed, the very notion of kingship, biblical though it is, is alien to many whose ideas about it are drawn principally from history or from what they see of today’s European monarchies.

As always, I think the preface for today’s celebration gives us not only the theology of this feast in a nutshell but also some themes we can dwell on with profit. From the beginning, it strikes a note of rejoicing, referring to Christ our Saviour being anointed with the oil of gladness. We know that he went joyfully to the cross and surrendered his life for us, freely and gladly. It is the final vision, however, the promise of the kingdom, that holds out most hope:

an eternal and universal kingdom:
a kingdom of truth and life,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.

I do not know what my new-found friend would make of that. I suspect that beneath all the pain and suffering he has undergone, he still clings with part of his being to the hope that such a vision may be realised. It is a vision God is humble enough to ask our co-operation in achieving. As the old saints never tired of repeating, ‘Without him, we cannot; without us, he will not.’ The God of love invites; he does not force.

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