Lost: Wednesday of Holy Week 2021

Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash 

Many call today ‘Spy Wednesday’, the day when Judas finally betrayed Jesus and went in search of those who wanted him dead. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26.14-25 ) is a familiar narrative, but I wonder whether it is not a little too simple, too inclined to portray Judas as the arch-traitor beyond redemption. We know that despite the deal made earlier with the Chief Priests, there was still time for a change of heart, for a renewal of the old love and friendship between Judas and his Lord. But it didn’t happen, not then, at any rate, and we are left pondering the dynamic of what did occur. How we interpret that says as much about us as it does about Judas.

For generations, Christians have taken delight in placing Judas firmly in hell. We have off-loaded onto him all the betrayals and broken trust that has afflicted the world throughout the ages, and we feel safe doing so because what could be more villainous than to betray our Saviour for a paltry 30 pieces of silver? It is vicarious justification for actions that would otherwise seem harsh and unforgiving. But notice the image that stands at the head of this post. It is a lost toy, a sad little bear. It wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. 

To me the photo is a reminder that Jesus and Judas were friends, and Jesus never stopped loving him. What might that mean? There is an innocence, a playfulness, about friendship we often forget when we think of Jesus and the disciples. Judas, himself possibly a Zealot, may have been disappointed in Jesus’ failure to become the political leader he hoped for, but was Jesus disappointed in Judas? Did Judas’s company bring him joy right up to the end and that painful parting of ways? Was Judas a friend still, lost in some ways, but always close to his heart? In other words, is it possible that we see the relationship between Jesus and Judas in ways that fit our own narrative rather than what truly occurred between them?

We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but those words of Jesus, ‘Better for that man if he had never been born!’, suggest to me not the prospect of eternal punishment but of eternal anguish. If true, Jesus did not approve of what Judas had done but forgave him and grieved at the suffering that lay before him. That is an important point, because it leaves open the question whether Judas is condemned to hell for all eternity in the way we tend to assume. In any case, we must remember it is Judas’s despair of God’s mercy, not his betrayal, that has always been considered the greater sin. We can see why. Such despair is to doubt the very nature of God, his love, mercy and forgiveness.

That thought should make us uncomfortable. The way we see Judas says a great deal about how we ourselves see God and the trust (or lack of it) that we have in his love and forgiveness. God does not approve of sin, anyone’s sin. He does not endorse the wrong we do or pretend it doesn’t matter, but he does forgive — utterly. It is we who hold others (and sometimes ourselves) to account, we who say ‘I cannot forgive X or Y’ as though it were a virtue in us; and we habitually assume God is of the same mind. Perhaps today we might spend a few moments thinking about that. Jesus on the cross suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. How dare we be less merciful than he? How dare we make ourselves, or anyone else, to be lost? We are not discarded toys. We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes, and his desire is that we should be with him for all eternity.

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Jar of Nard: Monday of Holy Week 2021

Alabaster jar photographed by Argie Hernandez

Yesterday we wreathed our processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his ultimate victory over sin and death. Today starts more soberly, with the alabaster jar of nard Mary poured over the feet of Jesus to prepare him for his burial.

None of the disciples demurred at yesterday’s marks of rejoicing. They cost nothing as far as they were concerned, and they may even have felt some reflected glory. It would have been better if their leader had entered the city in a more obviously dignified way, but the applause of the crowd was sweet to their ears. Jesus was, however briefly, undeniably a class act, a celebrity. Today’s more private anointing among friends at Bethany was another matter and Judas, diligent steward that he was, pointed out that a better use might have been made of the money spent: ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’

Poor Judas, he was always getting things wrong. Of course the poor matter; of course we must share with them; but there is also room for that jar of nard, and for the love of which it is a sign. Mary has understood what Judas has not. Her reckless, extravagant act is a response to the love Jesus has shown. It has no other purpose than to delight the Lord — a moment of humanity and care at a bleak and dangerous time. Holy Week will take us into some dark places, will confront us with betrayal and disbelief, torture and death, but we cannot accompany the Lord in his Passion if we do not also accompany him with our love and prayer. Just as that broken jar of nard filled the house at Bethany with its scent, so our prayer should fill the whole world with its fragrance. We too may need to be broken, poured out, pay a great price, but we know an even greater price has been paid for us. ‘To ransom a slave, you gave away a Son.’ (from the Easter Exsultet) There is no greater love than that, and it is that love which draws us today.

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Palm Sunday 2021: a Moment of Choice

The Entry into Jerusalem
The Entry into Jerusalem by Giotto

Once again we are faced with a moment of choice. Are we going to follow the Man on the donkey, or stand among the onlookers? Are we going to take to heart his message or merely allow ourselves to be entertained by the unusual spectacle? The confusion on the disciples’ faces and the incomprehension on those of the bystanders mirror our own mixed feelings. This is not what we expected. Only the Man and his donkey go serenely on their way, certain of their purpose.

Modern Britain is not so very different from the Roman Palestine of two thousand years ago, and this morning Roman Palestine and modern Britain are one. The liturgy is not just an act of historical recall; it is an act of participation. We are there, on those busy streets, among the crowd that has gathered to witness this strange sight. More than that, we are sharers in this drama.

Do we understand what we are seeing or how to measure its significance? We don’t always see clearly, and the last twelve months have been so difficult for everyone, it is hard to recognize what is being asked of us this morning. Yet we feel the heightening tension, experience the hint of menace, and know that we must make a decision, without being able to reckon the consequences.

We must make the journey to Jerusalem with Christ, there to suffer and to die with him, that we may rise again on Easter night. We may drag our footsteps, or we may be like Giotto’s donkey, and gladly allow ourselves to take the Lord wherever he wishes to go. In the end, it does not matter. What does matter is that we go with Christ, that we are with him every step of the way, no matter how brutal or horrifying this week becomes. For Catholics celebrating Palm Sunday in Makassar, Indonesia, the brutality and horror are real enough. Let us pray with and for them as Holy Week 2021 is already stained with blood.

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Preparing for Holy Week 2021

On the Eve of Palm Sunday

Today will be a day of hustle and bustle throughout the land as we prepare to celebrate Holy Week — with slightly fewer restraints than last year, but still with a number of restrictions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued detailed guidance on what may or may not be done, and what it recommends should be done. You can read it here, and I would urge you to do so if you can (it includes the revised intercession IXb for Good Friday). It is a reminder that the liturgy is not a private possession, as it were. Whether we celebrate as one among thousands or on our own, we do so as part of the Church. Having the mind of the Church, acting in accordance with her precepts, her tradition, is not an arbitrary matter. It doesn’t mean we can’t innovate or adapt, but it does mean that we do so in accordance with the principles she gives us.

Domesticating the Liturgy

Tonight our Jewish friends will celebrate the first night of Pesach or Passover. More than any other group, I think Jews understand the domesticating of the liturgy. Martin Buber often spoke of the dinner table as an altar — something many Christians have forgotten with today’s trend towards fast food, takeaways and the Netflix supper eaten in front of a screen. I suggest we need to re-think that. For many Christians this year, home will be where Holy Week and Easter are principally celebrated, and we need to find ways of doing so with dignity and recollection. Here in the monastery we have always had a substantial domestic liturgy accompanying every day of Holy Week but especially the Paschal Triduum. We revert to an older, simpler form of prayer, much of it chanted monotone save for the achingly beautiful Christus factus est and so on. We read the Last Discourse before Compline and huge quantities of scripture and psalmody at other times. It is a demanding week, as it is for everyone, but because our domestic liturgy takes place in the monastery, in our home, it blurs the distinction between public and private, and because what we do strives to be always consistent with the Church’s tradition, it illumines the public liturgy in a way nothing else could.

A Suggestion

As you prepare for Holy Week, may I suggest you give some thought to how you can ‘domesticate’ the liturgy without making things complicated or burdensome or adding loads of devotional elements that will merely tire you out? For example, I’ve mentioned reading the Last Discourse from the gospel of St John; or perhaps you could pray Psalm 118 (119) over the course of the week. As it ducts and weaves around the theme of the Law, it reminds us of the New Covenant made in Christ. And if you find you can’t do any of these things, if for you Holy Week is just getting through as best you can, do not berate yourself. Holy Week, like redemption itself, is his gift to us. Receive it gladly.

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The Perils of Good Advice

We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.

Spiritual Advice

I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.

Classical Monasticism

Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.

A Warning

Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!

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A Word of Encouragement for Followers of Classical Monasticism

St Benedict
St Benedict

A transferred solemnity always feels a little odd, and the fact that the popular Universalis app fails to mention St Benedict at all has led to one or two people questioning whether we have got our dates muddled here at Howton Grove. No, we haven’t, this really is the day when we celebrate the Transitus or Passing of St Benedict, which was displaced by the fifth Sunday of Lent yesterday. It is a day of solemn joy in the monastery. St Benedict was keen on Lent, but he was also keen on joy. The whole of his Rule can be said to be woven around the theme of Easter, for which Lent is preparation and joy the outcome; so today we rejoice, for what was, what is, and what is yet to come.

That said, I have been thinking about what I would call classical monasticism, living in community under a rule and superior, with both the scope and limitations that a fixed place and circumstances allow. It has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Monks and nuns who follow this older way are sometimes treated with a curious kind of disregard, as though the way we live is archaic, no longer valid. Is the only kind of monasticism worth talking about a newer kind, not necessarily bound by vows, often dispersed or specifically rejecting some aspect of the Rule (e.g. lifelong single chastity, renunciation of private ownership) in favour of a more individualistic approach? I think it is time that we who have done our best to persevere in the more classical form speak up, especially the nuns, and encourage one another.

Why do I think that important? There is the obvious reason, that without the handing on of the monastic tradition in its classical form, there is always the risk of its being lost or submerged under the partisan vision of some charismatic founder-figure who cherry-picks what he/she likes/dislikes, to the detriment of the whole. The roots of the word monasticism provide the essential clue. Monks and nuns live alone with God. Prayer and observance are our métier, day in, day out. Our buildings may not be as beautiful, our habits as romantic, as those who choose for themselves, but it is our very renunciation of choice, of self, that is crucial.

Nuns play an especially important role here because we are not clergy and are not usually asked to serve in ways some of our male brethren are. We can live the classical form of monasticism in a purer, less distracted way than many of them can. Of course, where women in the Church are concerned, there is another danger. Despite some useful provisions, Cor Orans has demonstrated the danger of assuming that contemplative is interchangeable with monastic.For Benedictines, the rules about numbers and governance reflect a completely different religious tradition from that with which we are familiar, and it has caused some communities much needless heartache and expense. Even among our friends, who belong to Orders strictly so called, there has been some raising of eyebrows at what is expected or imposed. Women are not inferior men, incapable of making decisions about how to lead their lives.

However, my chief reason for saying that I think classical monasticism needs encouragement is because, as far as I can see, it continues to promote holiness — which is what monasticism is about. It doesn’t matter if a community is old or poor, not making a very good job of livestreaming or whatever the fashion of the day may be, not attracting new recruits or whatever, if it is producing holiness in its members, if it is leading others to holiness, then I’d say it is doing all right. Instead of dismissing such communities, I think we should encourage them — and encourage those who are thinking about how best to serve God to take another look. I like to think St Benedict would agree. He saw the whole world caught up in a beam of light. Isn’t that what monks and nuns should be: light for the world?

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Drawing Closer to Holy Week: Sunday V of Lent

Spring may have only just begun, and tomorrow we shall celebrate the transferred Solemnity of St Benedict (his Transitus, or birthday into heaven), but there is still a chill about today having nothing to do with temperature or mood. If we have not been serious about Lent before, we are now. Holy Week is on the horizon, and the liturgy is insistent in its call to conversion, suffering and death. 

Bleak? In one way, yes. Most of us find the prospect of suffering and death easier to contemplate in the abstract than reality. The fact that both are unavoidable and bound up with our eternal salvation is scant comfort. We know we must allow the Lord to inscribe his law on our hearts and enter into a new covenant with him. We know we must learn to obey. Most important of all, we know we must begin to turn towards the cross as sentence is passed on this world. (cf today’s Mass readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Hebrews 5. 7-9;  John 12. 20-33.) But no-one is denying how hard it can be, nor the reluctance some of us may feel.

Many will say, isn’t that what we have been trying to do all our lives? Indeed, but this week before Holy Week seems to me pivotal. There is an unavoidable urgency about it. Until now, we’ve been doing our best, trying to focus on the Lord rather than how well or otherwise we are doing. It’s been a joyful and refreshing simplification of our everyday lives. In the desert of our hearts, love of the Lord has ben rekindled as the prophet Hosea promised. But now it is that distant view of Calvary which takes centre stage and we know that we must either take our stand with Christ or not stand at all. The moment of choice will soon be upon us, and we must make ourselves ready. Already the cross is calling. If we find that prospect daunting, we should remember that we do not face it alone but in union with every generation, with our Saviour himself.

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What Can I Do?

How often do we respond to a crisis or emergency with those words? In a monastery, where we own nothing and neither our time nor ‘our bodies and wills’ are at our own disposal, as St Benedict says, it can be particularly hard. Of course, sometimes the desire to help is more a reflection of the desire to quieten our own conscience than anything nobler, but, by and large, the will to do good to others is there. We pray, we give whatever we can, and we hope for the best. What we actually do may seem little enough: a kind word, a smile, picking a few items of litter from the verge, restraining ourselves from replying to an angry tweet. The point is, life is made up of little things. Most of us are not in a position to do much about the world’s gravest problems, but there are plenty nearer home that we can tackle. So, if I have any message at all for this morning, as we come to the end of the fourth week of Lent, it is a simple one. Be encouraged. Be a prophet for our times, leading by the example of doing what you can, when you can, as you can, and placing everything in the hands of God to bring to fruition.

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St Joseph: Icon of Masculinity

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

I detest the phrase toxic masculinity. There is nothing ‘toxic’ about masculinity any more than there is about femininity. True, there are behaviours which are deeply unpleasant, even dangerous, more usually associated with men than women, but masculinity per se is a gift from God, to be celebrated as the grace it is rather than derided and denied. Happily, in St Joseph, we have an icon of masculinity that is positive and encouraging.

I confess it took me a long time to see the greatness of St Joseph. All those saccharine statues of grey-bearded men holding a lily in one hand and a blue-eyed, flaxen-curled Jesus in the other put me off. The medieval tendency to see him as a figure of fun, an unwitting cuckold, was slightly more appealing if only because it treated him as a person rather than an abstraction. Then I read St Teresa of Avila and Bossuet and began to realise that the Jesus-and-Mary narrative had blinded me to the significance of the Jesus-and-Joseph narrative. Fathers are as important as mothers, and the unassuming holiness of Joseph helped make Jesus the man he was.

It was Joseph, surely, who taught Jesus what it meant to be an observant Jew: to read, to pray, to take his place in society, at ease among both men and women, to work and to play. How rarely do we allow ourselves to reflect on those facts! There is much more we should like to know but can only speculate about. Was Joseph young or old when he married Mary? Did marriage and family life fulfil his human hopes or not? We think of his Old Testament namesake, the place of dreams in his life, the flight into Egypt, the place of exile and slavery, the personal renunciations he embraced. Are we to assume Joseph did not question because he obeyed so completely? Did he not feel pain at times, confusion? And what about life at Nazareth? Was he a great Dad, in the way that men are expected to be today? Did he struggle to make ends meet at times, spend sleepless nights worrying about the future? We shall never know exactly, but we see in Jesus the fruit of his masculinity, of his being a man, a real Mensch. When Jesus hung upon the cross in obedience to his heavenly Father, he did so as Joseph’s son, one who had taken on the lineaments of his adoptive father here on earth.

May St Joseph pray for all fathers, living and dead; those from whom the gift of fatherhood has been withheld; and those who have never known a father’s love and care.

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Cleansing and Healing Waters

Photo by mrjn Photography on Unsplash

Today’s Mass readings are deliciously watery. We have the life-giving waters that stream from the Temple (Ezekiel 47. 1–9, 12) and the quieter waters of the Pool of Bethesda that also cleanse and heal (John 5.1-3, 5-16). Cleanse and heal, please note, rather than cure. I wonder how often we pray for someone or something to be cured, asking for the restoration of a situation as it was before illness or disappointment struck? Biblically, however, it seems to me that we pray for cleansing and healing, to be made whole again, sound, rather than cured. The distinction may be a false one, but it makes sense to me. It is not my old life I want back again, but a new one freed of the limitations the old imposed. I take heart from the fact that the body of the Risen Christ still bore the wounds of crucifixion. Even the most appalling evil can be redeemed and transformed.

Yesterday was a difficult day for many, for all kinds of reasons. We cannot undo its sorrows as though they had never been, but we can open them up to the healing power of God. It may not happen all at once. Indeed, we may not be aware of anything at all happening; but just as water can wear away a stone, so God’s love and mercy can transform our lives. We can be cleansed and healed.

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