To Bless or Not to Bless

I see Pope Francis has refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing twice recently: to the Italian Red Cross and to a Youth Meeting in Sicily*. The reasons he gave for not doing so were that in both cases the audience was made up of many who were not Catholics — Christians of other denominations, followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists — and he did not wish to give offence. I presume that the pope was being very exact about the liturgical significance of blessing, understood as a prayer or rite performed in the name of the Church and by a duly qualified minister by which persons or things are set apart or sanctified to the service of God or God’s favour is invoked upon them. Not being Italian, I don’t know whether papal blessings are a source of outrage to those who are not Catholic. Having encountered a little hostility to the habit on visits to Rome, I suspect that the question arouses more emotion in Italy than it would here. Perhaps the pope judged the situation accurately. I don’t know, but it has prompted me to think more about blessing in general.

Most readers will be familiar with the many instances of blessing in the Old Testament while some will know and love the beautiful blessings used in contemporary Judaism. In addition to liturgical blessings, the Church has always allowed for a wider use of blessing formulae. As praise and thanksgiving many of us use various forms of blessing throughout the day — before and after meals, for example. St Benedict was very keen on blessing as part of the ritual courtesy of the cloister and as the necessary prelude to entering upon any task or service. For him, it was an invocation of God’s help, as in kitchen service, or recognition of  the grace of God in the other person, as in the greeting of a guest or fellow community member, as well as a means of giving glory to God. This kind of blessing is not reserved to the clergy, and perhaps we should all be more courageous about its use.

I have mentioned before that over the years I have become less reserved about expressing my faith in public. You are not likely to see me carrying a banner or flopping to my knees in a public place, but you may well see me using the ritual gestures as I pray the Office in a quiet corner of the hospital or hear me responding to someone with ‘May God bless you!’ I have not yet encountered any hostility for doing so, though I know that the expression of Christian belief or practice in the workplace is now very problematic in Britain. I find that sad. It is a measure of how far we have strayed from even a residual understanding of Christianity. I would agree that aggressive attempts to proselytise are unacceptable, but I do not see why wishing well to another (blessing) should be seen as an attack on another’s freedom or personal integrity. I’d say it isn’t blessing that hurts another but cursing, and the world is full of that.

So, this Sunday morning, whatever you are doing, please spare a thought for the role of blessing in your life. A blessing doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken aloud nor accompanied with any particular gesture. It is enough that mind and heart should agree to bless, to praise, and to give thanks; and we could all do with more of that, couldn’t we?

*Update
I now have more information about what happened in Palermo and wish to correct the misleading impression given by my words, viz. that ‘the pope refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing’. Although the pope did not give a blessing in Trinitarian form (as he would have done had he used the liturgical format) he did indeed bless all the young people present, using the name of God and adapting his words to the occasion. I am sorry that some have used this as an opportunity to attack the pope. In any case, my post is about our blessing of others, not the pope’s!

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Re-Imagining the Church: the Triumph of the Cross 2018

For some, today will be coloured chiefly by the liturgy as we celebrate the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross. For others, there will be a remembrance of the death of Dante, surely among the greatest of all poets and Christian thinkers. For those who dwell in monasteries, especially those who serve as cook, there will be some more worldly concerns as we begin the winter fast. The link between all three is membership of the Church. The liturgy for this day reminds us very firmly of the central mystery of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Dante’s vast, imaginative sweep gives expression to centuries of meditation on that same mystery, while the monastic cook ensures that we feel in our flesh something of what that mystery demands. All well and good, but for many more, if they think about the Church at all, it will be to ask what is being done about the abuse scandals in the absence of any coherent answer from the pope and bishops beyond an exhortation to prayer and penance and the promise of a synod of bishops some months hence. As some have pointed out, asking the laity to do penance for what is largely a sin of clergy and religious strikes something of a false note. Of course we recognize that we are all involved, that our membership of the Church means we have a collective responsibility, but I do not think it works out in quite the way that those outside the Church assume. If we spend too much time on what we’d like the Church to be, we shall be in danger of missing or misunderstanding what she actually is. We need to do a little re-imagining, and I think today’s feast is an encouragement to do so.

Today’s gospel ends with the words

God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved. (John 3.17)

Have we lost sight of that in our preoccupation with how we would like the Church to be? So many of the disputes within the Catholic Church tend to be an attempt to refashion the Church according to our own notions. We would like the Church to be ‘traditional’. The problem with that is that we tend to interpret the word according to our own ideas, locating the ‘perfect’ Church in a particular time and form, ignoring all the rest. Alternatively, we would like the Church to be ‘liberal’. The problem with that is that our ideas may stray quite far from the teaching of the Church, leading us into heresy of one kind or another. We forget what today’s feast and today’s gospel insist upon: the Church exists to bring us all to salvation. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back, as it were, from our own experience of the Church and ask how the Church’s mission might best be accomplished in the world in which we live and why she is as she is. Her structures will not change overnight; the Truth she teaches will not change, although the way in which she presents it may (just think how much we have learned about the universe since Dante wrote of ‘the Love that moves the sun and lesser stars’!). Above all, human nature remains essentially the same. Our re-imagining of the Church must take account of all these. Perhaps what we most need at this time is humility and a willingness to let go of our own ideas. The problems we confront, from environmental pollution to Artificial Intelligence and its as yet undreamed-of ramifications, will stretch us, no doubt about that. But in the midst of it all, at the very centre of whatever worlds there are, stands the Cross, unmoving. That gives us hope. It also provides the impetus to question, to reflect, to pray.

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The Poor and Needy

Historically, the feast of St Laurence (or Lawrence) which we celebrate today poses a number of questions. He is thought to have come from Toledo and was one of the seven deacons of Rome, martyred on 10 August 258, just a few days after Pope St Sixtus II and his companions. Within a very short time, celebration of his martyrdom had become much more popular than that of Pope Sixtus, and by the fourth century he was clearly among the Church’s favourite saints. We remember him today chiefly for the antiphons of Vespers of his feast, with their touch of black humour as the saint, lying on the grid-iron, tells his torturers to turn him over, as he is done on this side now, his being named alongside Sixtus in the Roman canon, and for the story that, when asked to produce the treasures of the Church, he brought forward the poor. Perhaps that is why he is so popular: he is the archetypal deacon, concerned with serving the poor, one who sees them not as objects of pity but as individuals who bestow riches on others.

Sometimes in Britain today the language we use about the poor and needy is the language of ‘otherness’. We give help, but the way in which we do so is tinged with awkwardness. The State is failing in its duty, we say, as we note that children are going to school without breakfast or those in employment are having to make use of Food Banks to ensure that their families are fed adequately. We become angry, but the rhetoric of indignation often betrays us. No one likes being done good to; no one likes being thought of as different. Do we actually recognize that while the poor need help, we who try to give it are ourselves the needy?

When Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The poor you have always with you,’ (Matt. 26.11)  I don’t think he was necessarily making a comment about the ineradicable nature of poverty and inequality, although it is frequently interpreted as such. I think it more likely he was emphasizing two modes of presence among us: uniquely in his flesh, and now among those who are open to receive him, who put up no barriers, the poor. We who are rich enough in this world’s gifts can only echo the Beatitudes and try to be poor in spirit. I suspect the really poor may have their own views on that, but it is a starting-point.

Today, when there are so many forms of poverty in the world, let us try to be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and share what we have with others. If it makes us uncomfortable to reflect that they have a right to what we share, well and good. We shall have begin to think as St Laurence thought and seen where true treasure lies, where we may find Christ our Lord.

Community Retreat 2018
The community’s annual retreat begins tonight and ends on the morning of Saturday, 18 August. Please keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.

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The Importance of the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

Yesterday we began re-reading the chapters of the Rule that deal with the liturgical prayer of the community. Over the next two weeks we shall go through the various Offices (Hours) of the day, the psalms to be said, the number and kind of lessons to be read, the postures we should adopt and so on. I’m told that some communities have abandoned reading these chapters on the grounds that their daily Office no longer conforms to the pattern of the Rule. Our own Office does not conform in every respect — for example, we have an English Office of Lauds which follows a different arrangement of psalmody (as provided for in the Rule) — but we certainly pay close attention to Benedict’s liturgical code because it is normative. By that I mean that it gives us the principles on which our community prayer should be based, and enough detail to ensure that we do not devise some whacky scheme of our own that takes us away from the objective nature of the liturgy. Do these matter? I think they do.

One of the dangers of liturgical ‘creativity’ is that often it isn’t actually creative but really quite deadly. It can substitute a highly subjective and time-limited view of reality for an older, more challenging one. What we often forget is that we have to work at the liturgy. For instance, we have to pray the psalter as Christ prays it, and usually that means letting go of our own ideas. Here we pray all 150 psalms every week, as stipulated by St Benedict, without any worries about whether the cursing psalms should cross a Christian’s lips or not. If they crossed Our Lord’s, they can certainly cross ours. Nor are we bothered by notions of quantity being the enemy of quality. The psalter is complete in itself, carefully arranged, ideally suited to the rhythms of liturgical time, the day and the week. When we lose touch with that, we lose touch with much else that is relevant.

One of the joys of being a Benedictine is that we are remarkably free of the devotionalism that has marked the growth of the Church in later ages.* That means we have no let-out. We cannot substitute the personal for the communal. We have to make the liturgy the focus of our personal prayer as well as of our prayer as a community; and because at one level that is all very simple, psalms and scripture for the most part, we have to become thoroughly saturated with what would today be called a biblical spirituality, familiar not just with the texts but with the way in which they have been interpreted and understood by the Fathers. Even the chants we use to sing the words of the liturgy are biblical in origin, having their roots in the synagogue music of the time of Christ.

So, if you are reading through the Rule day by day, as we do in the monastery, be encouraged. These supposedly dry chapters on liturgy have much to teach us. They end in chapter 20, with one of the most perfect statements of what prayer is and how we should prepare for it. It presupposes all that has gone before, because one of the things we all have to learn, sooner or later, is that there are no short-cuts in prayer unless God chooses. And that is the rub. The liturgy is a gift, and it is given by God.

*Please don’t misunderstand me: I would be the last person to undervalue the significance of Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, for example, although they play no part in our community prayer because they did not exist in Benedict’s time or for centuries after. They are left to the individual’s personal attraction on the Bakerite principle, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all.’

Addendum
A couple of people have asked about our arrangement of the psalms in the Divine Office. The diagram below gives the psalm scheme for Ordinary Sundays of the Year and Ferias, with the exception that the Sunday Lauds canticle is recited after psalm 116. The sections are Vigils, Lauds, Midday Office (which incorporates the lesser Hours), Vespers and Compline. We follow the Septuagint numbering of the psalms.

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Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus 2018

Yesterday I made the mistake of re-reading some of my previous posts about this feast (to try not to repeat myself today) and was brought up short by the realisation that I have frequently wittered on about repository art and kitsch, especially in connection with the Sacred Heart. It is difficult for an English Catholic to avoid the topic altogether since so many of our churches were built with the pennies of the poor at a time when accommodating the largest number of worshipers was more important than anything else. The devotional art with which we filled them was indeed devotional rather than art and has not been helped by the subsequent reorderings of Vatican II and the reorderings of the reorderings that have followed since. But to harp on about tackiness when considering this feast! It shows, I have to admit, a lack of perspective. This is the great devotional feast of the Passion, as Corpus Christi is the great devotional feast of the Holy Eucharist, and it allows us to pause for a moment and reflect on the endless compassion of God, the outpouring of sacrificial love we see in Christ Jesus.

Even the most superficial glance at the headlines will show that compassion is not the most obvious quality we as human beings possess. There is too much strife, too much hardness of heart. A celebrity may obtain the freeedom of someone gaoled for what many consider to be a minor crime, but the plight of children separated from their families because they fall foul of immigration legislation, that is a ‘more difficult area’ (sic). Perhaps today we could spend a few minutes kneeling before the crucifix and pondering the last two lines of today’s first Mass reading, from Hosea 11.9,

I am the Holy One in your midst
and have no wish to destroy.
and the significance of that piercing of Christ’s side with a lance that John describes (John 19.31-7). The blood and water that poured out came from the dead body of Christ. The Fathers loved to meditate on the meaning of the blood and water, but for us there may be more to be gained from thinking about the fact that Christ had already died when his side was pierced. He, for a little while, could no longer act, only be acted upon. Sometimes compassion has to be drawn from us when we are unable to give it of ourselves. Are we ready for that? If not, this feast may help us prepare.
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Another New Feast of the Church: Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest

For those whose lives are ordered according to the liturgy, one of the problems of liturgical calendars is that they tend to lose their original simplicity and become overladen with new feasts and memorias. These are often ‘devotional’ in character and express the personal enthusiasms of the pope of the day, a bishop or someone else with a desire to spread a particular message or foster devotion to a particular saint. Sometimes they are feasts of a local Church extended to the Universal Church, or they are aspects of the Mystery of Christ celebrated by a particualr Order or group and later taken up more widely. A good example of the latter would be the lovely feast of the Transfiguration, first celebrated at Cluny.

This week we have two new feasts: the obligatory memoria of Mary, Mother of the Church, celebrated on the Monday after Pentecost; today, on the Thursday after Pentecost, the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest. One can see the connection between the two, and if one reads the official documents, one can understand why they have been instituted but I must confess to a little liturgical exhaustion. I think St Aldhelm, whose feast we used to celebrate on this day, would probably have understood — and he would have been celebrating the Octave of Pentecost, anyway, which, to me, is the great feast of the Church qua Church and one I would love to see restored.

What I think both new feasts try to do is to focus on aspects of the Church we may have missed during Holy Week and Easter, but I wonder whether they will prove successful. The priesthood of Christ has become an ever more popular theme to meditate on during the last five hundred years or so. Lumen Gentium 10, for example, expresses this growing awareness very concisely and beautifully, but I do question whether today’s feast adds anything to what we celebrate so starkly and powerfully on Maundy Thursday. Perhaps that’s just me, growing old and curmudgeonly (which has nothing to do with actual age), and it is precisely those of us suffering from liturgical overload who most need today’s feast. Either way, I am glad to have the assurance of Hebrews that in Our Lord Jesus Christ we have one ever living to make intercession for us, aren’t you?

You can read why today’s feast was instituted and obtain the propers for its celebration here: https://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Calendar/Sanctoral/May.shtml

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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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