Moonlight and Roses

The Rose of Sharon
The Rose of Sharon

Today the Catholic Church celebrates SS Cyril and Methodius while the rest of the world, or so it seems, celebrates St Valentine or, more accurately, Valentine’s Day. I seem to have written about this far too much, but I woke up with Donne’s ‘Hail, Bishop Valentine’ running through my head, so I bow to the inevitable. Moonlight and roses you shall have.

Moonlight, first. Reflecting the light of the sun, the moon’s strange, silvery glow has always had a more feminine aspect than its more fiery counterpart, which is usually identified with masculinity and godhead. An old name for the moon is Our Lady’s Lamp. It is a name that expresses beautifully the relationship between Christ and his Church. He has no need, no desire, for any other Bride but us, but it is the whole Church that is his Bride, not any particular part of it, and we reflect, to greater or lesser degree, his love and grace. Whether we are male or female is, in this context, immaterial because the Church is always feminine before God.

And roses? Again it is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary that comes into view. She is the biblical Rose of Sharon (Song of Songs, 2.1), the purple and white flowers St Bernard identifies with humility (purple) and purity (white), the rosa mystica of which the Litany of Loretto sings and of whom St John Henry Newman writes

Mary is the most beautiful flower ever seen in the spiritual world. It is by the power of God’s grace that from this barren and desolate earth there ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory; and Mary is the Queen of them all. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore, is called the Rose, for the rose is called of all flowers the most beautiful. But, moreover, she is the Mystical or Hidden Rose, for mystical means hidden.

From ‘Meditations and Devotions’ published 1893.

The beauty of the rose, the loveliness of the moon, and both can be applied to us! Today, we celebrate the fact that we are God’s valentine, loved infinitely and tenderly, and we are privileged to reflect back some of that same love with our own love and devotion. Whatever our state in life, whether we be single, married, widowed or consecrated, we can take Mary as a model of loving fidelity and generosity. Obscure and of no account in our own eyes we may be, but to God we are his very heaven.

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Floods of Tears and of Rain

New South Wales is awash with rain, so is much of the U.K. following Storm Ciara. Online news sites are treating us to the obligatory photos of water inundating houses, people paddling about on upturned waste bins or emerging from cars roof-deep in flood-water. Lighthouses are shown being swamped by massive waves while brave members of the R.N.L.I. battle to save surfers silly enough to go into the sea in such conditions. For those directly affected, it is miserable and will go on being miserable for a long time to come, but we shall soon be focusing on something else. Our appetite for the sensational is intense but short-lived. In any case, we prefer the secondary detail, the appealing stories of rescued pets and madcap attempts to resist the irresistible, to considering more difficult questions about climate change, weather and planning for the future. It is rather the same with St Scholastica, twin sister of St Benedict, whose feast we keep today. Many will speak of her tears but few will speak of the love for both God and her brother that summoned a storm when Benedict was being an idiot, or the strength of mind and heart that made her a saint in advance of him.

I’ve often written about St Scholastica and give below a few links to previous posts. If you follow them up, you will see that I have no time for the weak and emotional Scholastica portrayed by those whose ideas of sanctity (and of women) are far from reality. I daresay many would argue that the Scholastica narrative is made to conform to long-held ideas about the place of women in the Church and our tendency to behave in ways male authors find disturbing. I’ve done so myself at times. I think part of the problem is caused by the concentration on secondary matters. Take those tears, for example. They are a mere detail, but some people latch onto them and draw conclusions that, the more I think about them, are absurd.

Saints do not become saints by being wimps. St Scholastica was a strong woman. She could not have lived the life she did had she been given to fits and starts of excited emotion. Just as St Gregory says of Benedict that he cannot have written other than as he lived, so I think Scholastica cannot have lived other than as she was written about, as a truly devout and prayerful woman who had grown in knowledge and love of God her whole life long. How much she influenced St Benedict, we cannot know; but we do know that twins often have a special bond, and there was clearly mutual love and understanding between them. Benedict was wise enough to recognize that his sister had mastered something he himself had not yet learned but which was more important than the dutiful pursuit of monastic observance. He saw her being welcomed into heaven before him because she had learned that love of God comes first, before everything else. That is a lesson we too must learn. It does not matter whether we learn it early or late, provided we do. Not long after St Scholastica’s death, St Benedict also died — finally a master in the school of the Lord’s service. I like to think he had Scholastica, in part, to thank for that.

A few links

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A Word Fitly Spoken

‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). St Francis de Sales, the Catholic bishop of Geneva and patron saint of writers and journalists (and nowadays, surely, of bloggers, commentators and opinion-makers also) seems to have understood that very well. His courtesy was legendary, but there was nothing complicated about it. He wished to win others to Christ and saw that ‘whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love’. That didn’t mean that he watered down what he believed or that he endorsed views or actions he thought wrong, but he was never one to refuse to engage with those who thought or taught differently. On the contrary, he took more trouble than might have been expected to try to understand those whose opinions or beliefs differed from his. He recognized their goodwill and regarded dialogue as preferable to condemnation, convinced, as he was, that holiness was for everyone, not just ‘professional religious’ like monks and nuns.

We are almost at the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the questions we are asked to consider today is how we tackle prejudice and exclusion in ourselves and in our communities. I think St Francis de Sales, with his gentleness and love for others, has something to teach us all. In the seventeenth century, D. Prudentiana Deacon, a nun of Brussels sent to help the young Benedictine community at Cambrai, obviously thought so, too, for she translated some of his work into English. At first sight, St Francis de Sales is the antithesis of of Fr Augustine Baker, then vicarius of the monastery, and a great exponent of the medieval mystical tradition. A little thought, however, will soon show how wrong that is. Those who truly seek God in prayer cannot but love all his children; and those who love the children must surely seek to deepen their love for the Father.

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St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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A Reed Shaken by the Wind?

Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 11. 2–11) is a stark contrast to the lyricism of the Mass’s first reading (Isaiah 35. 1–6, 10) and the explosion of colour and sound accompanying our celebration of Gaudete Sunday. John the Baptist is in prison, soon to be executed at the whim of a tyrant. He has heard about Jesus, but isn’t sure he is the One he, and all Israel, is longing for; so he sends some of his followers to question him. Jesus sends back an answer linking himself to Isaiah’s prophesy, then goes on to discuss John in terms some of us may find surprising.

We tend to think of John the Baptist as a ‘wild man,’ living on the edge of the desert, austere to the point of emaciation. He is obsessed with the coming of the Messaiah — joyful, fierce, capable of spell-binding utterance and blistering honesty, a man of contradictions. Herod didn’t know what to make of John yet liked to listen to him. The scribes and pharisees whom John called a ‘brood of vipers’ were also keen to hear him speak. Clearly, there was something irresistibly attractive about him — a strength, a clarity of purpose, on which others could rely, however uncomfortable it might prove at times. Yet Jesus’ first words about John are enigmatic. ‘What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’ The words are so unexpected that the irony is not immediately apparent. A reed looks fragile as it trembles in the wind, but who would have thought of John as fragile? Then there is that allusion to the garment of camel-hair and the contrast with the fine clothes worn in a palace. Finally, Jesus gets to the point: John is a prophet and, as such, a strong man, dressed in the garments of salvation, a challenge to our way of thinking and acting, just as Jesus himself is a challenge to us. 

Why did Jesus play with his audience in that way? A scripture scholar would probably wish to explain literary forms and semitic usages, but I think a much simpler explanation may suffice. Jesus wants his hearers to think. What was it about John that drew them to him? What was it about John that Jesus wanted his own disciples to emulate?

Let’s go back, for a moment, to the reed image. Reeds are found in marshy areas, in marginal lands. They have hollow stems, making them good conductors of sounds or liquids, and they can be used to manufacture almost anything from a basket to a roof. They are, in fact, immensely tough, amazing for all their seeming ordinariness. Without trying to stretch the analogy too far, we can say that John, too, was tough, living on the margins of society and with so little self-importance that he desired to grow less that Christ might grow greater, a human example of the amazing-in-ordinary. He was shaped by the Word of God to be his instrument. He proclaimed the demands of righteousness to all who would listen, showing no fear. He gave a baptism of repentance to those prepared to humble themselves, and baptized Jesus himself at the beginning of his public ministry. He did all this without fuss or fanfare, content to let Christ be all in all, ultimately laying down his life for him.

In a moment of exquisite tenderness, Jesus recognizes John’s stature and allows us to see how much he loved him. John was both forerunner and follower, the greatest among those yet born of women, a witness to truth and justice. We know that but don’t often think about the love Jesus had for John, nor do we frequently reflect on the dynamic between them. Perhaps we should do so more often, because if we could understand the relationship between them, we should understand better what it means to be a disciple and how to prepare for the coming of Christ. For many, John remains a little distant, a little severe, but if we think about the role he played in Jesus’ life, I think he becomes the warm and attractive figure he undoubtedly was, the ‘one joy man’ beloved of monks and nuns. The respect Jesus and John had for each other is telling. John, we could say, was necessary to Jesus in the accomplishment of his mission. That is a huge claim, and must be followed by an equally huge question. Are we also necessary? We might usefully ponder that as we enter the third week of Advent.

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On a Dark Night

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.

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A Forgiving God?

On the memoria of St Ambrose the ‘godly internet’ will be awash with a single quotation: ‘No one heals himself by wounding another.’ Very few, however, will read what St Ambrose has to say in his treatise, Concerning Repentance, from which it is taken. You, dear reader, can, and in English, too, if you follow this link: St Ambrose on Repentance. If you do, you will find something that may make you think about two things that are very important this Advent.

First, Ambrose wasn’t judgemental in the way that we habitually use that word. He knew what he believed and was anxious to win the Novatians back to Catholic unity, so he advocated gentleness and patience rather than blistering attacks on the integrity of others. He could only do that because he believed in the forgiveness of God. I sometimes wonder whether we do. Do we really believe that others can repent, and that God’s mercy will embrace their desire to be reconciled? Some of the ‘debates’ taking place in the Church and the fierce and unforgiving language in which they are expressed might make an outsider question that. We are often more demanding than God, more certain that everyone should believe as we do — in short, more exacting, less forgiving.

Second, forgiveness is personal. During Advent it is important that we should, if possible, make our confession and be reconciled with God and one another. The sacrament of confession isn’t an endorsement of sin, as some maintain. We genuinely do have to repent, to seek forgiveness, be prepared to make amends and avoid sin for the future. Sometimes we will be asked by our confessor to go to someone we have injured and say ‘sorry’ if we haven’t already done so. That can be very hard, especially if the person we’re apologizing to is in no mood to forgive. We have to believe in the reality of grace before we can allow God to forgive in us, or accept forgiveness ourselves.

So, today’s Advent challenge is very simple. Am I willing to forgive and be forgiven? Do I believe in a God who forgives or do I not? Will I make my confession, or will I refuse the coming of God into my life?

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A Spoonful of Sugar

Today is St Nicholas’s day, when, with a good conscience, we can rot our teeth with toffee and gingerbread, punch our opponents on the nose, and, provided we have all the necessary safeguarding measures in place, enjoy the company of children, exchange gifts, pray for seafarers and do good by stealth. If you haven’t a clue what I mean, or don’t ‘do’ irony, these posts may help:

St Nicholas and Santa Claus
Death in the North Sea

We tend to be serious about Advent, but not always in the right way, as some of the responses to yesterday’s post made clear to me. Yes, it is a time for concentrating on the coming of the Messiah, but it is also a time for recognizing that we are already living in the Messianic age. The plainness most of us adopt throughout this short season of preparation for Christmas isn’t meant to be gloomy or misanthropic, ‘penitential’ in the popular sense of the word. On the contrary, our penance should be life-enhancing. There should, ideally, be something of the rubicund Father Christmas/Santa Claus about it — a generosity of spirit and intention, even if we can’t manage material generosity. Not all of us can do that, nor should anyone be made to feel guilty about it; but we must beware of complacency. ‘I can’t’ is sometimes a pretext for ‘I won’t’.

In earlier posts about St Nicholas, I have stressed the importance of prayer. It is one thing we, as nuns, are committed to giving to the Church and to the world, and never has it been more necessary. Recently, I looked at the statistics for the number of abortions performed in England and Wales, the number of children living in poverty in the UK as a whole, the numbers officially ‘in care’ and those estimated to be surviving on hand-outs from food banks, despite the fact that their parents may be doing two or three jobs to try to keep themselves above the breadline. It was a shocking contrast to all the ads for consumer goods that marked Black Friday and continue to besiege us that we may have the ‘perfect’ Christmas. This morning the prayer of the community is for conversion of heart for us all: for St Nicholas to be honoured by more generous giving to children in need, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. If a rich country like the U.K. can tolerate such shameful inequality, such cruel indifference to children, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Our giving may be no more than a spoonful of sugar, but even one spoonful has the potential to make a huge difference. Try it.

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The Obedience of St Cecilia

I was surprised to read this on Twitter today:

‘She (St Cecilia, whose feastday this is) was one of those strong souls for whom it costs nothing to obey the voice of God.’ Père Adolphe Roulland, MEP

Quite apart from the mere detail of its having cost Cecilia her life, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has found obedience to God entirely easy or undemanding. We have to make an effort to listen, and for most of us, most of the time, that means renunciation of some other good so that we can pay attention to the Lord. Frequently, it means choosing something we find hard or difficult. Even St Benedict reserves to the twelfth step of humility the less stressful obedience born of long experience and practice — and Cecilia was about twelve when she was martyred (cf RB 7. 67–70). Those of us who are not the stuff of which martyrs are made have an additional difficulty. We are not very good at assuring ourselves that the promises made us can be relied upon. I know that I am a coward. Faced with the choice between dying for Christ and living on with some sort of accommodation to whatever was asked of me, I have a horrible feeling I would opt to live on.

Happily, it doesn’t all depend on us. Leave grace out of the equation and the Church would have no martyrs, no heroes or heroines of faith. Whatever challenges today presents us with, it is worth remembering that grace is all around. We may not be called to martyrdom in the sense of dying for Christ, but we are all called to witness to him. Grace will be given as and when we need it. We have only to ask.

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