Wind and Flame: Pentecost 2018

Pentecost
Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey, Used by permission.

Of all the images of the Holy Spirit, the one I like best is that of wind, breath, pneuma, ruach. We see its effects, we feel it, but we do not see the wind itself. With every breath we take, we draw it into ourselves; with every word we speak, we exhale it again. For those of us in the Western tradition, that connection between Word and Spirit is already a given, but how rarely do we take in its full implications! And fire, how often do we think about that? From the cosy crackling of logs in winter to the amazing spurts of flame and blazing lava-flows we see in Hawaii, fire and flame are still part of our world, still a challenge to our ideas of safety and control.

D. Werburg Welch’s chapter-house painting of the descent of the Holy Spirit has always fascinated me. Mary, the Mother of God, is wrapped in a flame-coloured garment and sits, as the hesychast sits, among the other disciples and is filled again with the indwelling Spirit. The rushing wind cannot be depicted, but we know it is there; and we know it will transform these anxious, frightened people. It will catapult Peter and the others out into the streets to proclaim the mirabilia Dei. It will transform the world. This morning may that same Spirit transform us, too.

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Spirit Days 2018

Spirit Days are a monastic invention, usually enjoyed after Pentecost since we are no longer allowed a liturgical octave in which to savour the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This year, however, we are keeping them before and during Pentecost, beginning today: three whole days of otium negotissimum, very busy leisure — a mini-retreat, if you like. The computer will be switched off, the answerphone switched on, and only the doorbell will be allowed to intrude on the silence (which we devoutly hope it won’t).

Like most monastic inventions (e.g. champagne, private confession) Spirit Days are capable of being very slightly subversive. The rationale behind them is beautifully simple. If we can’t have a proper liturgical octave, we can at least have some days of profound and joyous meditation on the Holy Spirit. Since we must follow the promptings of the Spirit in everything (or they would not be ‘Spirit’ Days), we are free to garden, make music, scribble poetry, knit, play with the dog or whatever (within reason) takes our fancy. This is liberty of spirit (small ‘s’) in action. As Fr Baker would often remind the nuns of Cambrai, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all,’  and we are Bakerites to a nun. The only limitations are that we must pray, read, eat and sleep — exactly what is asked of the novice, whose fervour is legendary, if not always measured.

So, from today until Sunday evening, we shall be young again and simply rejoice in the Lord. Join us in spirit (small ‘s’) if you can.

An apology
Tweets, blog posts, etc have been pre-scheduled as we are not online. Comments will have to wait until after Pentecost for moderation.

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Hands and Feet

Christ’s wounded hand: Willem Vrelant

I have already written about The Grilled Fish Test, so here’s another thought about today’s gospel (Luke 24. 35–48): the significance of Jesus’ showing his hands and feet to his disciples. We know that his hands and feet bore the wounds of the nails used during his Crucifixion, but they were somehow changed. Even Mary Magdalene had not recognized him at first because the Christ she saw after the Resurrection was subtly different from the one she had known before. There was continuity, yes, but there was also something new, something that inspired awe. The other disciples felt that, too. The evangelist says, ‘Their joy was so great that they still could not believe it, and they stood there dumbfounded.’

That wondering joy, that half-believing, half-denying questioning, is typical of all of us confronted with someone we love whom we had not expected to see again, and in this instance the hands and feet are crucial to the act of recognition. How did the Resurrection change Christ’s hands and feet? Many artists have tried to convey their idea of the change wrought in the wounds, depicting them sanitised, beautifully regular, scarcely wounds at all, or they have shown them with diamond points of light streaming from them; but none has succeded in capturing the complete transformation that had taken place.  After all, what the disciples saw, we shall never know; but just as the act of eating convinced them of the fleshly reality of the person before them, so those transfigured wounds convinced them of the reality of the forgiveness he offered — and that surely is the point. Jesus stood among them not to demonstrate the fact that he was alive but to show them that forgiveness of sin had been achieved, that his mission was accomplished. We are now reconciled to the Father and must share knowledge of that grace with the whole world. Is it any wonder that we sing, Alleluia?

Note on the iullustration
Willem Vrelant (Flemish, died 1481, active 1454 – 1481)
 Christ’s Left Hand with Wound, early 1460s, Tempera colours, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 25.6 × 17.3 cm (10 1/16 × 6 13/16 in.)
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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For Easter Sunday 2018

Piero della Francesca: Resurrection
Piero della Francesca: Resurrection

‘In the early morning,’ ‘before the sun had risen,’ ‘while it was still dark’: these phrases capture something of the mystery of the Resurrection. In the half-light only the eyes of faith see clearly. Is it any wonder, then, that St Mary Magdalene is the ‘apostle to the apostles’, that, through eyes washed clean with tears, she saw the Lord? Throughout Holy Week our attention has been focused on the terrible duel between good and evil and on those who surround Jesus with menace or sheer misunderstanding: Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, Peter. It has been a very male business, but now the women edge into the picture. They stood by the Cross, they anointed Jesus’ dead body and now they proclaim the Resurrection. Peter’s momentary failure will be forgiven; the disciples will be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit; and all our own sin and failure will be swallowed up by the empty tomb. Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!

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For Holy Saturday 2018

Holy Saturday: once more we experience the silence and stillness of this ‘time out of time’ when earth awaits the Resurrection. It seems so bleak: there are no sacraments, no light, no warmth, and we can do nothing. It is as though life itself were suspended; yet it isn’t. This is the day when God alone acts, powerfully, redemptively. This is the day of God’s unseen activity, the Harrowing of Hell. Tonight the darkness will be shattered for ever and heaven and earth unite in one triumphant blaze of glory and new life. Christ will rise, never to die again. We shall be one with the events of two thousand years ago and all our sin and shame will be seen in a new guise as ‘a happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam,’ and we shall know ourselves loved as never before. Our Redeemer will be with us.

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Preparing for Holy Week 2018

We shall soon be in Holy Week, the Great Week of the year, when we trace hour by hour the Lord’s Passion, culminating in his death on the cross on Good Friday and his resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday. Some of the concerns of other times fall away so that we concentrate on what really matters. Few of us, however, are able to mark Holy Week in ‘ideal’ circumstances. Work has still to be done, meals prepared and eaten; we may be ill or out of sorts, those around us may be cantankerous or demanding; we may be preoccupied with our role as priest or choir director and overwhelmed by all that is expected of us. It can be hard to accept that this is the best Holy Week for us, the one that will bring us closest to the Lord, provided we place no deliberate obstacle in his path.

There is really only one way to prepare for Holy Week. Centuries ago Walter Hilton included the Parable of the Pilgrim in his Scale of Perfection. The pilgrim’s constant refrain, ‘I will be at Jerusalem,’ is one we must echo. Whatever happens, whatever difficulties we encounter, we must keep our goal in mind and fix our gaze on Jesus. That simplifies everything. I myself, for example, will not be able to mark the Triduum as I would wish (I’ll be having chemotherapy on Maundy Thursday) but I am quite sure that I can still celebrate Holy Week and Easter with fervour and devotion. If we canot have the hours of prayer we long for, then we must make the most of the minutes we can have; if we cannot take part in all the great celebrations, above all the Easter Vigil, then we must  keep vigil in our hearts. Above all, we must allow Holy Week to do its work in us, and if we sense we are distracted, bored, filled with feelings of guilt or just numb and indifferent, we must trust that God’s grace is working powerfully within us — the same trust our Lord Jesus Christ displayed as he hung on the cross. That is what it means to live Holy Week in union with him.

Walter Hilton
If you are interested in Hilton, there are a couple of talks on him here, at the end of the page: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/talks.html. Flash needed.

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Preparing for Lent 1

During the coming week I intend, God willing, to write a series of short posts about preparing for Lent. Lent is itself a time of preparation for Easter, so you may ask why we need to prepare specifically for Lent. The best answer I can give is to point you towards the ancient tradition of the Church. Comparatively few now remember Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays as they were celebrated before the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, but those who do, and those who study liturgical history, know that this period was a time of preparation for Lent, one might almost say an anticipation of Lent, with violet vestments for the Mass and ‘alleluia’ dropped from the antiphons of the Divine Office.

To make the most of Lent we need to think and pray about it beforehand. Not every idea for ‘making a good Lent’ necessarily comes from the Holy One! Today, however, there is just one suggestion I think we would do well to consider. In the gospel (Mark 1. 29-39) we read of Jesus going apart to a lonely place to pray. There should be in the heart of each of us a lonely place where Christ prays unceasingly to the Father. Most of us are too busy and too noisy most of the time even to notice that such a place exists. If our Lent is to be fruitful, we need to try to find that ‘lonely place’, cultivate it and allow it to flourish. The best way of beginning to do that is, paradoxically, through not doing. Today, try, if you can, to find a few moments when you can be quiet before the Lord and allow him to take charge. You will not regret it.

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Beginnings and Endings: the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)

The Prsentation by Nicholas Mynheer
The Presentation by Nicholas Mynheer. Oil and gold leaf on handmade paper. Image copyright.

Today’s feast is one that looks two ways: back to Christmastide and forward to the Passion. I think that must be why it was chosen as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, because monks, nuns, friars, Religious Brothers and Sisters and so on are all marked with the grace and glory of the Incarnation in baptism but must, by virtue of their vows, follow also the often dark path that leads to Christ’s Passion and Death. We share in the privilege and the pain, but the focus must always be on Christ. That is why the Presentation of the Lord is such an important celebration, and the candles we hold in our hands are a reminder of both what we are and what we hope to become.

Today’s feast is always one of great gladness and rejoicing because it marks the point at which Jesus is taken up into the Temple and begins his mission. I think we could also say it is a great feast of the Church qua Church. For we do not think only of the joy of Mary and Joseph as their infant son is offered to the Lord. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Compline we sing into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirm our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, drearest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.

Yesterday, we received a beautiful gift from a friend and oblate of the community. The circumstances surrounding the gift, and the giver himself, make it very special. Nicholas Mynheer’s depiction of the Presentation is quite small, 20 cm by 20 cm, but it glows with great intensity (the illustration does not do it justice). It lights up the room in which it hanges. This morning as I was praying before it, it struck me that this wonderful feast of light and joy is itself a great gift to the Church. It allows us a little glimpse of eternity, a warm and supremely accessible vision of what the Church is and the importance of every individual within her, young or old. Today, please pray for the donor of the painting, for the maker of it and for the whole Church, especially those who think themselves ‘small and of no account’. It is what we are in the Lord’s eyes that counts, and to him we are worth much.

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Holy Innocents 2017

Three feasts of the Christmas octave are drenched in blood: we celebrate St Stephen and St Thomas as martyrs and the Holy Innocents as proto-martyrs. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the coming of the life-giving Prince of Peace should have meant violence and death for so many. We can ‘spritualise’ this fact any way we want. After all, it is true that Christ will always be a sign of contradiction, challenging our ideas about what is important. Today’s feast not only does that, it reminds us that the living out of our Christian vocation cannot be separated from the flesh-and-blood reality of everyday life. We cannot ‘spiritualise away’ our responsibility for others or the evil to which they are subject. Today we must ask ourselves whether our concern for children is mere sentimentality. Do we have a duty to do whatever is in our power to ensure that the life of every child is valued and protected, and if so, how do we fulfil that duty?

The publication of the UNICEF report has highlighted the appalling ways in which children today are being exploited and endangered. The summary for 2017 included

  • In the Central African Republic, children were killed, raped, abducted and recruited by armed groups in a dramatic increase in violence;
  • Islamist militants Boko Haram forced at least 135 children in north-east Nigeria and Cameroon to act as suicide bombers, almost five times the number in 2016;
  • Muslim Rohingya children in Myanmar suffered ‘shocking and widespread violence’ as they were driven from their homes in Rakhine state;
  • In South Sudan, more than 19,000 children were recruited into armed forces and armed groups;
  • Fighting in Yemen has left at least 5,000 children dead or injured according to official figures, with the real number expected to be much higher;
  • In eastern Ukraine, 220,000 children are living under the constant threat from landmines and other unexploded devices left over from the war.

I would want to add to this list the huge number of children denied any chance of life through abortion; those whose lives have been distorted by abuse; and those whose health and welfare could best be described as ‘marginal’. It is shocking to think of the number of children in the UK alone who live below the poverty line. That isn’t a problem ‘out there’, it is a scandal at the very heart of our society; and there is the danger that by tacitly accepting the brutalisation and misvaluing of children, we are storing up massive problems for the future.

Today’s feast is a difficult one at many levels, but it is also one that takes us away from the tinsel and tackiness of the secular Xmas and plunges us into the heart of the real Christmas. Suffering and sacrifice are part of all Christian life, because they were part of Christ’s. But the suffering of children is of a different order, especially when  inflicted by the neglect or ill-will of adults. Today we must search our consciences and resolve to do better by every child — not just those in our family or in our locality. Eleven million children are judged to be at risk in Yemen. The quarrels of their seniors are not theirs. Oughtn’t we to be lobbying everyone we can to change the situation? And oughtn’t our prayer to be not only for a change of heart among the people of Yemen and Saudi Arabia but also for forgiveness for ourselves that it has taken us so long to wake up to the evil in our midst?

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Christmas Day 2017

Christmas Dawn

A few hours ago we began celebrating Christmas, and we now have a whole Octave we can call ‘Christmas Day’. To some, that might seem like one of the ‘funny games’  theologians and liturgists play with words; to others it makes sense. The Octave has always been a measure of perfection, a way of linking finite linear time with eternity; so how could the birth of God in the flesh be anything other than the perfection of our humanity, the way in which time and eternity are made one? And when God chose to do that, he didn’t do so in the way we might have chosen. He elected to be born as a baby, a fragile, dependent baby, who would have to grow in knowledge and understanding of the things of God, just as his body and mind would have to grow. Thinking about that should change our ideas of what constitutes perfection. It is more of a process than something we attain once and for all, and it is inevitably messier and less predictable than we should like.

This morning, as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib, let us try to forget the impossible standards we often set ourselves and others. God asks nothing but our love. In the person of Jesus Christ he came into the world to redeem us, and one of the most humbling things we can learn is that he loves and accepts us as we are. That doesn’t mean he condones sin — far from it — or that ‘anything goes’. What it does mean is that God has always loved us and will always love us; we can rest secure in his love. Today may be happy or sad; we may feel completely out of tune with the time and its season. That doesn’t change the fact that with Christ’s birth salvation dawned upon the world. We rejoice and are glad, and we accept the gift he offers.

A blessed Christmas to you all!

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