Gaudete: the art of rejoicing

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments, musical instruments, and general air of rejoicing, marks a further stage on our pilgrimage to Christmas, but have you ever stopped to think what ‘rejoicing’ actually means? Is there an art of rejoicing that we have to learn or can we simply laugh a great laugh and be joyful in His presence? A bit of both perhaps.

I have been pondering that lyrical first reading from Isaiah 61. It is often used at monastic Clothings because of the reference to the ‘garments of salvation’. When I was clothed, my father sent me a small card on which he had inscribed not ‘he has clothed me in the garments of salvation’ but ‘he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity’. To anyone who did not know him, my father’s choice might have seemed puzzling. Why prefer the cloak of integrity to the garments of salvation? I think it has to do with the obligation that integrity lays upon us and the freedom and joy that fidelity to vocation confer. We cannot stretch the metaphor too far, but the garments of salvation are a sign of gladness of heart, a gift from the Lord, but to be wrapped in integrity is to assume a duty, that of being prophets in our own generation. Integrity is never very comfortable and will always lead to difficult and demanding situations. It is no accident that St John the Baptist was a man of the utmost integrity. He was also one of the most joyful. May he teach us not only how to be people of integrity but also the art of rejoicing.

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A Thought for Friday

I shall be spending much of today in London at various meetings. It will be all roar and rush and I’ll probably feel like the proverbial fish out of water. (The habit tends to attract some very odd types — the only people who don’t come anywhere near are usually wearing clerical collars!)

Is it possible to maintain an inner silence, a spirit of recollection, in such circumstances? My answer would be ‘yes’. Have all those years spent learning the discipline of silence perhaps begun to bear fruit? I now know that it is not exterior noise but the endless babble of interior thoughts and feelings that causes all the trouble. Cultivating interior silence isn’t easy, but I think it is necessary for both psychological and spiritual health.

This week scripture has been urging us to go out into the desert to seek Jesus. Today, however, romantic visions of a vast and starry sky, rock, sand and a luminous silence must give way to the reality of the modern desert, the urban landscape of concrete and steel, full of clamour and bustle. Is it possible to seek and find God here, among the fast-food outlets and the diesel fumes? Francis Thompson is not much read nowadays, but I cannot help recalling the concluding lines of his ‘Kingdom of God’:
. . . lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Today, wherever we are, is full of hope.

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The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

Murillo immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Let’s start with what the Immaculate Conception is, rather than what it is not. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain (labes) of original sin.’ In other words, unlike the rest of us, and entirely because of the merits of Jesus Christ (i.e. not her own), she was endowed with sanctifying grace from the first moment of conception. (Sanctifying grace is conferred on us after birth, through the Sacrament of Baptism.) In the narrowest sense, the doctrine refers to original sin only and makes no claim to Mary’s having remained sinless. Of course, Catholics do believe that she was personally sinless, and the Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who teaches otherwise.

Although belief in the Immaculate Conception can be found early and was probably being celebrated liturgically in Syria by the fifth century, later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. As Ineffabilis Deus makes clear, Mary was redeemed as all are, by our Saviour Jesus Christ, yet in her case the manner of doing so was exceptional.

In the Middle Ages the doctrine was much discussed. Theologians of the stature of St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas expressed reservations about the formulae used and it was not until Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, instituted a committee of enquiry (1851 to 1853) that the solemn definition given in 1854 took final shape.

Where does all this leave us today? People sometimes remark on the apparent absence of devotion to Mary in Benedictine monasteries. By that they really mean the absence of devotions (plural). Hopkins likened Our Lady to the air we breathe, and among monks and nuns I think that just about sums it up. We are privileged to live in a world of sign and symbol, where Mary and the saints are very close to us and highly honoured for their own closeness to God. Let Hopkins have the last word:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

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Things A Dog Has Taught Me

Bro Duncan, the monastery dog
Bro Duncan, the monastery dog

A couple of times this week Bro Duncan and I have been viewing Hendred by night because he has been in agony (sic) with his tummy. You don’t think those 3.00 a.m. walks through the village were a sign of mere eccentricity, I trust? No, they were initiated by a large wet nose nudging me awake and indicating that, whatever the clock said, it was time to go OUT.

There is nothing like accompanying a hound to make one think. There is the eager-beaver approach to going walkies irrespective of time or place. All that dancing around and scooting up and down the corridor belies the kohl-rimmed eyes pleading, ‘I’m sick. I need to get out.’ But I fall for it every time and off we go. First there is the obligatory charge down the road and some lawn-mower-like chomping at the grass, which goes on for ages because ‘I’m sick, see, I need medication.’ This quickly passes into ‘How interesting this place is at night. Let’s explore.’ And so we do. We plunge into deeper darkness and hear only the strange, snuffly sounds of night.

In this deeper darkness, Duncan leads. We spend several minutes standing at a gate  while he traces the scent on a single blade of grass, savours it, commits it to memory and moves on, regretfully, as though there were a history he cannot share with me. Medieval rooftops look magical at night, even when there is no moonlight, but the biting wind does not invite lingering. So we walk and walk and I become a little suspicious about the upset tummy.

Seeing the village by night impresses me with how remarkable ordinary things are when viewed under different circumstances or from a different angle. Dare I admit that the familiar can become spooky, yet what was ugly by day can take on a strange  beauty at night? The change of perspective may be of no more than passing interest but sometimes it can lead to a reassessment of accepted values. I’m certainly not claiming that Duncan’s nocturnal ramblings have led me to any profound insights, but I will say this. Wisdom 18 verses 14 to 16 comes alive in a way it never has when read. The leaping down from heaven of God’s all-powerful Word is an event in time as well as beyond time, to be expected now as it was two thousand years ago.

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Light and Darkness

In community we are trying a little experiment for Advent. Instead of singing Vespers (Evening Prayer) at five or six every evening, we are timing it to coincide with the waning of the light. Benedict does, indeed, say that Vespers should be so timed that it can be completed without the use of lamplight, but in the modern world most communities have adopted the practical, if rather prosaic, custom of a fixed hour. At least, that way, most of the community will turn up!

What have we to report of our experiment so far? First, we have been captivated by the sheer beauty of the darkness stealing across the lawn outside; the grey November sky flushed with touches of palest pink; the clouds softly luminous; beads of rain slipping down the windows like liquid crystals. Then there is the power of the words we sing and the haunting beauty of the accompanying chants. All this week we proclaim that ‘on that day there will be a great light’ (et die illa, erit lux magna). The contrast between the gathering darkness and the great burst of light that signifies the Incarnation, between the bleakness of early winter and the messianic promise of mountains running with sweetness (et stillabunt montes dulcedinem) is truly dramatic; but it is with the Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, ‘Loving Creator of the stars,’ that time and eternity meld and merge. The promise to Abraham realised in the flesh of Jesus is written across the sky in the little points of light we call stars.

The liturgy is a great teacher of prayer and theology but it is not divorced from the world around us. Singing Advent Vespers as light changes to darkness is a wonderful reminder of the dynamic of salvation, of the mystery of the Incarnation and of our own infinite need of God.

Advent Season
The Liturgy section of our main website has information about Advent, recordings of the ‘O’ antiphons and so on.

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Thinking Aloud about Society

Yesterday, as our Silence Days were coming to an end, three subjects dominated British media headlines: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, the prospect of public sector strikes today and the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran. Only time will tell which will have the most lasting effects on society. I am probably in a minority in thinking that the attack on the embassy could have the most disastrous long-term consequences, not just for Britain but for the west in general. Why? Because I think that, irrespective of what the Chancellor does or does not do, we are in for a prolonged period of economic stringency, which no amount of striking is going to change. The attack on the embassy, however, and the anger which fed it mark a departure from the standard of behaviour and practice on which modern diplomacy relies; and if it be true, as many suppose, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, that anger and that refusal to observe diplomatic conventions is troubling. Those old enough to remember the Cold War will recall what it was  like to live with the ever-present idea of nuclear annihilation. Does that shadow begin to loom over us again, and if it does, how do we reconcile it with what Advent is about?

The only way in which I can begin to answer that question for myself is to say that it is bound up with trust. Advent reminds us of the trust God placed in his Chosen People. Despite the misunderstandings and the backslidings, the Covenant remained firm and the promise of a Messiah was indeed fulfilled in Jesus. But if God’s trust in humanity remained unshaken, how much more was human trust in God tested to the uttermost? Mary’s acceptance of her role as Mother of God expressed an unequalled  faith in God, a faith that we can only marvel at and be grateful for. The present situation also calls for trust and faith. That is something we all need to work at this Advent.

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Silence Days

Either before or during Advent, we try to have three days of complete silence: no noisy machinery or unnecessary conversation of any kind, no digital noise, no nothing. While this gift of physical silence can be helpful, it is the interior noise that causes most difficulty. For it is from within that the real trouble comes.

The idea of freeing ourselves from every distraction in order to concentrate on God and the things of God may seem wonderful, but as soon as one has switched off the computer, one thinks of writing a letter; one goes into the oratory to pray and immediately contemplates the tasks one hasn’t completed. We cannot escape ourselves, however much we try, so the trick is to bring ourselves into the situation and then let go; register the distraction and then dismiss it. That is especially important during Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, and a time when we revisit the whole of salvation history. It is in silence that we hear the Word speak, but attaining that silence is a struggle.

I tremble slightly before writing the next few sentences because I fear they will be misunderstood. It is absolutely essential that we remember that God is in charge of our Advent, not us. We are likely to fail again and again in the matter of recollection. One of the old Desert Fathers used to say of monastic life, ‘I fall down and get up; I fall down and get up.’ In other words, it is not success in our own terms, or in the terms of our peers, that matters. Our growth comes from humility, and very often the only way of learning humility is through the experience of failure.

So, as our thoughts turn towards Advent, let us be encouraged by the goodness and kindness of God rather than discouraged by our inability to respond adequately to his love. Let us read and pray the scriptures so that when Christmas morning comes we too can say, ‘To us a Son is given.’ Then we can dance with the angels and sing. (cfr St Basil.) Our Advent will have brought us into the ‘now’ of Eternity.

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Cyberspace is Not Enough

We thought 21 November would mark the deadline for our buying the house in Didcot which we believe would make an ideal monastery. Happily for us, that has proved not to be the case, so we are redoubling our efforts to raise the necessary sum.

You will understand that during the past few months fundraising has occupied much of our time. We have some very exciting plans for the development of our web sites and smartphone apps, but just now they are ‘on hold’.

We are very grateful for all the help and support we have received. Please don’t stop now! Check out our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk or go straight to our donations page:

Help the Nuns

THANK YOU!

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Patience

Patience is often described as the Benedictine’s fourth vow. It is a theme that occurs again and again in the Rule, where we are reminded that we ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ’. (RB Prol. 50) The newcomer to monastic life is to be ‘tested in all patience’.  (RB 58.11) Indeed, patiently bearing with delays and contradictions is one of the signs looked for as the mark of a genuine vocation. It all sounds rather wonderful until one has to practise it. For the plain truth is that patience is hard work. It means embracing suffering, not just stoically putting up with it, and doing so with a quiet heart. (RB 7. 35) Patience requires a great deal of trust and humility as well as self-control.

Patience, trust, humility: these are not qualities that our society cultivates or values very much. We prefer to be self-assertive, thrusting not trusting, testing everything by our own standards and rather despising those who are patient and humble, as thought they were milksops. In fact, it takes real strength of character to be patient, to accept adversity quietly, without anger or upset. Similarly, trust and humility are not for wimps but for those who are brave enough to look themselves in the face and know themselves for what they are.

Today each one of us will be given the opportunity to exercise a little patience, to show a little trust and be a little humble. Are we big enough to meet the challenge?

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Fundraising Update 2

It is a nail-biting time here at the monastery. After saving every penny we could for the last seven years, we are slowly inching our way towards the deposit we need for a house of our own. Or rather, not ‘our’ house at all, but a house of God where all are welcome. We have made great strides in the past few days, but we still need to raise £150,000 (whether by way of our Charitable Bond, donations or the underwriting of mortgage payments). For an overview of the situation and details of the way we hope to finance this project, please go here.

In the meantime, please keep us and those who wish to join our community in your prayers. It is tantalising to realise that the hard economic times we are all experiencing offer a unique opportunity to establish the monastery in a part of south Oxfordshire which is developing rapidly and where the Christian presence needs strengthening. How better than by a monastery dedicated to prayer, with one door open to everyone on the internet and another to everyone passing by on the road?

Help the Nuns

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