Christ is risen! Alleluia! There are no words adequate to this great joy. So, instead, here is an image of the Risen Christ meeting the women who came to anoint his dead body, and the nuns of Jouques singing the introit to the Day Mass of Easter, Resurrexi. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to describe this chant as being like a ping-pong sitting on a fountain of water, serene not shouty, as the deepest joy always is. A blessed Easter to you all!
We don’t often think of tenacity as being a particularly religious quality, but it can be a necessary one. Today’s Mass readings (Esther 4 and Matthew 7. 7–12) provide examples of persistence in prayer, but I think they also teach the importance of tenacity. We make known our need to the Lord, then we act.* Once we have decided on a course of action, we must hold to it otherwise our prayer is an empty babble. We are just saying ‘Lord, Lord’ and not really engaging, either with him or anyone else.
In the monastery, holding to a course of action to which we have committed ourselves (e.g living the monastic life) is usually called perseverance. These days the word can sound a little dull. We persevere against the odds; we stick stolidly to our duty. It is a trifle grim-sounding. Of course, to those of us trying to do the persevering it isn’t grim at all (well, only occasionally). Substitute the word tenacity for perseverance and we have something we can literally get our teeth into. It all becomes much more exciting — a challenge, an opportunity.
Esther’s prayer led her to courageous action; Jesus’ teaching on prayer emphasises the need for persistence and trust. In other words, whatever resolution we are led to make in prayer has to have effect in our lives. I wonder how we shall measure up to that today?
* I am speaking here of intercessory prayer.
One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.
Later today many of those with week-end cottages in Wales will be hurtling down the A465 to get to their chosen destinations. Inside the monastery, we shall scarcely be aware of the rush, apart from noticing a few more headlights if we look at the main road. In effect, there will be two different time-scales at work. Outside, people will be pressing on, with as much speed as they can; inside, we shall be savouring the words of the liturgy, circling round the still point of eternity. No one on the road is likely to be aware of what is going on inside the monastery, and yet, without that quiet, monastic prayer, might there not be even more jangle and upset than there is? That is not to claim anything for the monastery. It is to acknowledge that the victory over sin and death won by Christ on the Cross extends to the present and is actualised, if I may use that word, by the prayer of believers.
Many people say they are too busy to pray or are called away from prayer by some urgent task. That is not, or should not be, the case with monks and nuns. By making prayer the heart of our day we sometimes incur the irritation of those who want us to do something else, but it is surely important that we remain true to our vocation. Our prayer is never for ourselves alone but for everyone. It is never prayed alone, either, but always in union with Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is his prayer that holds us, and the universe, in being — even if, perhaps especially if, we are hurtling along the A465.
Here is a word of encouragement for anyone who is tired. For the last few days I have myself been feeling as though every effort were beyond me, so it comes from the heart. The community even has a word for this state of weariness — exhaustipation — from which you can see it is commoner than you may have imagined. Everyone experiences it from time to time. The problem is that tiredness is often associated with grumpiness and a feeling of guilt. We tell ourselves we should be doing more; and because we are angry with ourselves, we tend to lash out at our nearest and dearest. We may not say anything hurtful, but most of us are quite good at the pointed silence, the ‘hard stare’ of Paddington Bear or the selective deafness of the PBGV — endearing in them, but not so much in adult Human Beans.
The solution to the problem is actually very simple: a supernumerary nap, a quiet nodding off over a book (or even an email), a period of reflection requiring closed eyes and an absence of engagement with those around us, but with this difference. Our restorative nap needs to be ushered in with a prayer, so that even our sleep can become prayerful. I have always taken as the motto for what I call the Prayer of Gentle Drift those encouraging words from the Song of Songs, Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat. I sleep, but my heart keeps watch (Song of Songs, 5.2). In sleep, we cannot erect any barriers to God or his will as we do when we are awake and on our guard, so that’s worth thinking about. Solomon was a wise man. Let us be wise in our generation, too.
For a couple of days now I have been trying to put up a blind in my room. I have a powerful electric drill and enough screws and rawlplugs to last the community many years to come. What I don’t have is enough puff or breath to hold the drill for more than a a minute or two at a time. The obvious solution, to ask someone else to do the job, isn’t actually a solution at all. I wouldn’t have begun the task if anyone else had been available — and that, I suspect, is a situation familiar to lots of people. We find ourselves trying to do something that exceeds our ability or strength and end up feeling foolish or cross when we fail. Worse still, we sometimes berate ourselves for our pride or silliness (as we see it) and forget something rather important. We tried. We had a go. We didn’t allow our all-too-obvious limitations to define what we would attempt, and we recognized that if we didn’t try, no one else would.
We shall soon be beginning the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.* At times, Christian unity seems impossible of attainment. Our differences cannot be minimised, unless we are prepared to be dishonest with ourselves and others; nor can we kid ourselves that holding a few services together or joining in some action plan to improve the lot of the poor or disadvantaged is enough to satisfy the longing Christ has for his Church, that we may all be one. St Benedict urges us to pray that grace will supply what is impossible to us by nature, and that is as true of our quest for unity as anything else. Ultimately, our unity depends on fidelity to grace. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and, as such, must be led by the Spirit. ‘Led’ you notice, not, ‘don’t think of doing anything because God will do everything’. We have to begin somewhere. We are involved. The praying and working together is essential, but it must be prayer that goes beyond the joint services, work that exceeds the token gesture. What lies before us is indeed beyond our strength, but we do not rely on ourselves alone. It is grace, and grace only, that allows us to see the humility of God in inviting us to co-operate with him and gives us courage for the task.
*The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is traditionally held from 18 to 25 January. You can download resources for this year from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland: https://ctbi.org.uk/resources-for-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity-2020/
I come from a monastic community that has always been extremely reticent about prayer and spiritual experience. D. Catherine Gascoigne, the first abbess of Cambrai, said all she wanted to say about prayer in half a dozen sentences; her contemporary, D. Gertrude More, was the exception that proves the rule — she had more of the prolixity of Fr Augustine Baker, her teacher. It remains a community joke that no one should ever write her spiritual autobiography. How fortunate we are that St John of the Cross was untroubled by such restraints, though I dare to say that I think many misunderstand him or read him superficially. His teaching on prayer is wise, deep and immensely challenging. Even after a lifetime of trying to pray, I am not sure that I quite ‘get’ him. I can revel in the beauty of his poetry, shudder at the way he was treated by his confrères, delight in his courage and the anecdotes we have about him, understand some of what he is saying, but there remains a distance, a degree of unknowing, which not only proves I was right to become a Benedictine rather than a Carmelite, but also that there are many ways of praying which, despite having much in common, also have their differences. We have to find the one that suits us, that is intended for us, and it can be a long and hard task to discover what it is.
The hardness of the task must not put us off, however. A few years ago I tried to express what I mean by that, and what I wrote then strikes me as still being valid. The darkness of Advent is a preparation for the coming of Light, just as the darkness of prayer is a preparation for the coming of the Giver of prayer, God himself; and the gifts that God gives are never intended for ourselves alone. They are to be shared:
Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rock-face for all the world to see.
I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.
During these days of Advent, Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.
November is the month for remembering. We pray for the dead with special zeal, but as the days go on and the anniversaries increase in number, the parallels and ironies become ever more troubling. Today, for example, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, is described as a feast of unity and peace under the see of Peter — a celebration of the ‘whole assembly of charity’ which is, or should be, the Church. But no -one, looking at the Church as portrayed in the press and social media, could describe her as being united or at peace while different factions snipe at one another in the name of orthodoxy. It is also the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and, further back, the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Yesterday Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech which seemed capable of ushering in another cold war with its brusque condemnation of China and Russia. This morning there is blood on the doors of a synagogue in Brighton and Liliana Segre, an 89 year old Italian survivor of the Holocaust, is under guard because of the death threats she has been receiving. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s candidates for election to Parliament make huge promises to the electorate and hurl accusations at one another. Tomorrow there will be a kind of truce as we observe Remembrance Sunday, but some may suspect that all the talk of sacrifice and the heroism of those who fought in World War I has been assimilated to another agenda. We are caught up in a troubling war of words and ideas that we instinctively feel matter but which we can’t quite get ahold of. Where is all this rhetoric leading?
When I was a child, the very idea of abusing a Holocaust survivor or desecrating a synagogue or Jewish cemetery would have been unthinkable. Yet, year by year, The Jewish Chronicle has noted a rising number of attacks and the row over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party refuses to subside. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall I attended a Regulae Benedicti Studia conference in Kassel where I was practically the only non-German or non-Austrian in attendance. We listened to a nun of Alexanderdorf describing what life had been like for her community under the G.D.R. and then argued late into the night (and most subsequent nights) about the way in which Germany was trying to come to terms with her past and build a good future for all her citizens — including the Turkish ‘guest-workers’ and Albanian refugees who were then a source of anxiety for many. It was honest and open and hopeful. Today Europe appears to be fragmenting again; Hungary and Poland have adopted policies that are stamped with the ideology of the Far Right; and no one seems sure whom or what to believe any more, least of all when politicians campaign for our votes.
Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. Whom or what are we to believe? It would be easy for me as a Catholic to say, we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is true. But we have to work out how we are to apply that belief in Christ to any and every situation. May I make three suggestions, none of them novel, which I think could prove helpful?
First, we have to pray; and prayer is not telling God what we want him to do or comforting ourselves with the thought that God approves of what we have decided is right. Prayer is risking being completely and utterly thrown off balance because it means opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit and letting go of our own ideas. It means letting God be God in our lives, and believe me, that is easier said than done.
Second, we have to learn to read both texts and other people carefully. Many disputes are caused because we haven’t taken the time to register exactly what is being said but made assumptions. I find that people often react to a blog post title without reading the post itself and are somewhat discountenanced when it is pointed out that the argument they thought was being made wasn’t. It is the same with other matters, such as the political and economic arguments that are the staple fare of Brexit Britain. We have to learn to slow down, think, consider nuance. Too often we are busy with our response before we have allowed the other’s argument to sink in — and sometimes we are too lazy to check facts!
Third, I think we need to grant to those with whom we disagree the courtesy to which they are entitled simply because they are human beings. We may not think much of their arguments; we may find them tiresome or silly or anything else you care to name; but not to treat others with respect is to fail to treat Christ with respect; and that, surely, is unacceptable to any Christian. Learning to be firm and clear in argument while remaining courteous is a difficult art, one that requires goodwill and generosity. We all make mistakes, but sometimes we take refuge in obstinacy when it would be better just to admit we are wrong. Are we big enough to do that or not?
I said at the beginning that November is the month for remembering. The Latin origins of the verb are linked to a conscious effort of mind. No one is suggesting that the problems and challenges we face as a Church, as a society or as individuals can be solved without effort, but the way in which we approach finding a solution is important. One question we could all ask ourselves today is, are we ready to make the effort? Do we really want to make a difference, or do we want to offload the responsibility onto others? In other words, if, as I believe, we live in troubled times, are we prepared to try to make them better?
I am surely not alone in having found the events of last week a trifle trying. Add to that one’s own personal difficulties or annoyances — in my case not being well and the guilty feeling that engulfs me when not able to meet requests for help/attention as I’d like — and one can end up in a state of negativity that is as exhausting as it is disheartening. All over the world it seems other people are experiencing exactly the same, with little hope of any remedy. Poverty, sickness, corruption, political chaos, a sense of betrayal by the Church or other institutions on which we thought we could rely — it is all black, bleak and broken. Only, I’d say it isn’t quite.
Yesterday evening I walked into our chapel to pray for one of our oblates who is going through a tough time. The little silver lamp that burns before the tabernacle was glowing brightly in the darkness. I’d like to say I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of Presence, but I wasn’t. It was, to be honest, a rather barren experience: the prayer of hanging on rather than anything more obviously comforting. But I think that is precisely the prayer most of us are called to make most of the time. We know that the mercies of the Lord never end, that they are new every morning, but connecting that knowledge with our daily experience isn’t easy.
Today’s gospel (Luke 18. 1–8) is often presented as being about persistence in prayer. I think it goes deeper than that. God is not an unjust judge, only willing to give us a hearing if we pester him night and day. On the contrary, his ears are always attuned to our prayer, but Luke’s deeply subversive portrayal of God is meant to shock us into a more adult relationship. Luke’s God is not a fairy godmother, handing out treats to all and sundry, irrespective of whether they are good for them or not, but rather a God who confounds all our expectations, a God of infinite compassion and holiness whose justice exceeds our own grudging conceptions. In short, Luke’s God really is God, not the pale imitation of him that we are apt to construct in order to shield ourselves from the reality.
Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.
Yesterday the BBC website ran a brief article on the Vatican’s launch of an eRosary bracelet — a snip at £85. I did what any twenty-first century nun would do, enquired of others via Social Media whether they had any experience of it. Of course, not one had, though I learned quite a lot about what they did have and what they thought about the principles involved (too expensive being a recurring theme).
I have often explained that, for us as Benedictines, the Rosary is a purely private devotion. I personally take the view that whatever helps someone to pray must be good, and a prayer that concentrates, as the Rosary does, on the life, death and resurrection of Christ and some of the doctrines that flow from that is of special value. But I’m not sure about expensive gadgets or an app that ‘checks’ how we pray. Big Brother and Loving God are not one and the same. If you have an eRosary or experience of using it, do please let me know what you think of it. It may encourage me to dust off an app I designed some time ago but never actually got round to releasing . . . .
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