A Virtual Vigil

I was reading over some of my previous posts on St John of the Cross, whose feast is today, in order to avoid repeating what I have already said when I broke off to scan the BBC web site for news of yesterday’s EU summit. Clearly, here in the UK we are plunging further and further into a political mess of our own making. As individuals, I am sure we have all prayed about it, but have we done so as a community? I know that in the monastery we haven’t really, although we have kept the subject in mind often enough.

Tonight, therefore, we shall be holding a virtual Vigil between 7.00 pm and 8.00 pm with the explicit intention of asking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help. Anyone who cares to join us can do so from anywhere, and at any time. We don’t prescribe any particular readings or formal prayers. I imagine we ourselves will just pray quietly and end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It isn’t much. It’s just a small gesture, but God has a way of taking small gestures and transforming them into something powerful. St John of the Cross was a man of very small stature and insignificant presence, we’re told, but how his love of God blazes across the centuries and what an immense amount he achieved — and all because he prayed, with an earnestness and perseverance that puts most of us — me certainly — to shame.

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Where Prayer Has Been Valid

Corbel at Holywell: Nabokov at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Yesterday we made a pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well and prayed for all the sick and suffering people in the world, which means, in effect, for everyone. We are all in some measure sick — not quite what we should be, probably rather less than we could be — and we are all in some degree suffering — not obviously, perhaps, but ‘underneath’, where we do not care to shine too bright a light. Today’s Mass readings remind us that we find our strength in the Lord. He carries us, just as the corbel at St Winefride’s Well shows a man carrying his friend.

There is always a beautiful quietness at Holywell. The battered old stones hold so many prayers, while the gentle bubbling of the spring recalls the waters of Shiloh and all the miracles of healing recorded in scripture. To pray in such a place, to light a candle in such a place, is to assert once again the supremacy of God’s love, the triumph of good over evil and the power of grace to transform lives. That is the true miracle of healing, the end to which our journey through Advent leads us.

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Learning from St Dyfrig (Dubricius)

Today is the feast of St Dyfrig, also known as Dubricius or Devereux, who was born a few miles from here at Madley and is roughly contemporary with St Benedict (his dates are usually given as c. 465 to c. 550). Most of the information we have about him comes from the Book of Llandaff, written about five hundred years after his death. The Wikipedia article gives a good summary hereWhat interests me, however, is not so much the historicity or otherwise of the unique events recorded in the lectiones as what is common to many accounts of early British, Welsh and Irish saints. Two hagiographical tropes stand out in particular: illegitimate birth and a miracle of healing.

Dyfrig was the illegitimate son of Efrddyl, daughter of King Peibio Clafrog of Ergyng. The story goes that Peibo threw Efrddyl into the River Wye when he discovered she was pregnant, but was unsuccessful in drowning her. There was a reconciliation later on when Dyfrig cured his grandfather of leprosy by touching him, but it is his illegitimacy that is especially interesting. It is remarkable just how many British or Welsh saints were allegedly born of rape or incest. Some scholars have suggested that this may explain why so many were brought up in monasteries as the only option available to them or their luckless mothers. I wonder, however, whether there is a deeper significance, the hagiographer using the story of illegitimate birth to show the despised and feared outsider who is beloved of God overcoming every obstacle to growth in holiness. Dyfrig went on to have a brilliant ecclesiastical career, but his early years were precarious, and even his later priesthood could not be taken for granted, given the requirements then in force. He breaks the mould of expectation, so to say.

It is not difficult to see how we can apply this thinking to our own times. Most of us are blind to our own prejudices, but there are also collective prejudices which allow us to despise or undervalue others. The idea of a saintly banker, for example, would probably raise howls of derision in Britain today, but is there any reason for assuming all bankers are bad? Of course not, but many unthinkingly do. I’m sure you can think of others whom we have a tendency to dismiss or treat with contempt. Yet we have in Dyfrig a reminder that ‘God does not see as man sees: God looks at the heart.’ I am reminded that when St Edith was taken to task by St Aethelwold in those very words for wearing a princely garment above her hair-shirt (which he couldn’t see), she responded with a crisp, ‘Quite so, my Lord; and I have given mine.’  Something to ponder there, I suggest.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

When Love Grows Cold

St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa de Jesús, more often known as St Teresa of Avila

Hardly a phrase one would associate with St Teresa of Avila, is it? But if one looks at the divisions in the Church, the sorry state of British politics or the sheer ugliness of much of which passes as ‘international relations’, one could surely be forgiven for thinking we have all gone mad. But it is more than that. I think, quite simply, we have forgotten how to love. We are all too busy pressing our own agenda — often, let it be said, an apparently good and worthwhile agenda — to notice that the well-spring of our actions isn’t, as we would like to think, love, but something much closer to selfishness. We are not good at self-knowledge and tend to hide the truth from ourselves. ‘The lie in the soul is a true lie’ is utter nonsense. A lie is a lie is a lie. So, is there a remedy? I think there is, and one of which St Teresa is herself a great exponent: prayer.

People often ask what prayer is (which makes a nice change from those anxious to tell me what prayer is) as though it were some strange activity in which one may occasionally indulge, but only as a last resort. My answer, that prayer is allowing God to love us and loving him in return often seems to disappoint. It is like Naaman being told to bathe in the Jordan to heal his leprosy — too simple, too easy. I smile a little smile at such times and think, ‘You try it, and you’ll soon see!’ For, of course, to pray perseveringly, day in, day out, not just when the mood seizes or when one feels the need, is a form of asceticism, properly understood — and how few are willing to submit to such a discipline!

Most of us are quite good at recognizing what is wrong with the world and we take to Social Media or blogging to share our insights (criticisms) with others. I wonder how many of us take to our knees instead or as well? St Teresa’s great work for her Order and for the Church rested upon her largely unseen life of prayer. We read her letters or pore over The Interior Castle and think how wonderful she was and how attractive the way in which she teaches us to pray, but at five o’clock on a cold winter’s morning or after a hard day at work, the enthusiasm drains away, and who can blame us?

Today’s challenge, therefore , is simultaneously hard and easy: it is to resolve, yet again, to make time for prayer and stick to it — not prayer as endless petitions; not prayer as flowery phrases or telling God what he already knows; but prayer as allowing God to love us and loving him in return. The prayer of love and silence comes to us as sheer gift but it transforms life because it leads to Life himself.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

New Saints, Old Gospels

Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980
Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980

At some time in their life, I imagine every religious has heard today’s gospel (Mark 10.17–30) addressed to themselves. To give up everything for Christ, including the intellectual and cultural riches that often form an even greater barrier to discipleship than the material ones, sounds wonderful. After all, it led Antony into the desert. Where might it lead us? But stop there for a moment. Much of the gospel is not about renunciation as such, it is about the difficulty of entering the Kingdom, of living virtuously, of being totally dependent on God who so often seems to hide himself or who behaves in ways we find inexplicable. The God of the poor and oppressed whom we invoke daily in the Magnificat is sometimes a difficult God to trust. The poor we have always with us, indeed, and their sufferings do not diminish.

Bl. Oscar Romero, who is to be canonised today, was not always the champion of the poor and oppressed he became. That he did become such a champion, that he pleaded with President Jimmy Carter not to arm the brutal Salvadoran security forces and that, ultimately, he was shot dead as he celebrated Mass, is a powerful witness to the miracles grace can achieve. Here in England we have our own history of martyred archbishops, but their deaths often seem far away and long ago. We do not connect them with the words of today’s gospel in the way that we can connect the archbishop of El Salvador. Because the truth I find arresting about Oscar Romero is this: he gave up everything for Christ, including life itself, not in an act of brave defiance but quietly, prayerfully, his gaze fixed on the Lord. The burning words of the homily he gave the day before were not on his lips as he died but the ancient words of the Church’s liturgy. The personal was subsumed into something much larger, much greater. If we forget that, I think we fail to do justice to the man. He was not ‘just’ a thorn in the side of the Salvadoran establishment, not ‘just’ what we would call an activist. He was someone who had given his whole life to Christ. Jesus had looked at him and loved him; and he returned the gaze.

Today we rejoice in the new saints the Church is adding to the calendar. Let us learn from them and ask their prayers. As we do so, perhaps we could spend a few minutes re-reading today’s gospel and asking ourselves what it demands of us, here and now. It is no good admiring saints like Oscar Romero from afar and thinking that is all we need to do. We may not be able to emulate their heroic gift of self, but surely we can try to rid our hearts of hatred, bitterness, and the selfishness that destroys others as well as ourselves.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Korean Church: a Lay Initiative

The feast of the Korean Martyrs is one of those liturgical celebrations that tends to make little impact on me. I don’t know many Koreans, and my knowledge of Korean history, especially Korean Church history, is sketchy; but there is one fact I do recall and about which I think we would all do well to reflect. The history of Christianity in Korea is largely the history of a lay initiative. We don’t know when the first Koreans became Christians, but it was probably in the seventeenth century. There were no priests that we know of. In the eighteenth century there are records of persecution, with an estimated ten thousand men, women and children executed for refusing to perform the usual sacrifices on the death of family members or otherwise failing to observe the usual customs.The first priest of whom we have definite note was, I believe, a Frenchman, who entered the country in 1836 and was beheaded three years later. The first Korean priest was Andrew Kim Taegǒn, who trained secretly in Macao, went back to Korea in 1845 and was martyred in 1846. As Pope St John Paul II remarked when he canonised the Korean Martyrs in 1984,

The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.

We are familiar with the story of the fidelity of lay Christians in many parts of the world — the Nagasaki Christians, for example — but I wonder how often we take to heart the lesson they provide. It is not merely their obvious love of the Lord, their courage and fidelity, that we applaud. There is something chastening (in a good sense) about the way in which they constitute the Church. At present, when many Catholics are expressing anger and disappointment at the way in which bishops and clergy have often failed to get to grips with the evil of abuse, the history of the Korean Church is a stark reminder of the role of the laity and the responsibility we all have for the Church’s growth in number and holiness. We do not abandon the Church because she is not all we should like her to be. We stay and work to ensure that she becomes what the Lord desires she should be — and that applies to all of us, whether we be bishops, priests, laity or religious. We all have a part to play, and though our roles differ, none can be regarded as ‘secondary’ or ‘unimportant’. The feast of the Korean Martyrs is a reminder to laypeople of the greatness of the lay vocation, a gentle warning to bishops and clergy that the power of ruling is not the only one to be valued in the Church, and an encouragement to us all that grace will be given in time of need. Thank God for that.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

An Inspiration for Older People and Others

Today is the feast of St Theodore of Tarsus who is credited with having set up the parish system we are familiar with in England and whose reputation both as a scholar and administrator persists to this day. What is less widely known is that he is a good example of European Man: born in Greece, he became a monk in Italy and did his greatest work in England. What is even less widely known is that he was 65 when he was ordained, just before becoming archbishop of Canterbury. Think of that — at a time when average life expectancy was probably somewhere in the forties, even for the most affluent, Theodore was not yet ready for the task that lay before him. He needed more experience, more testing; and what a test it must have been, to set off in his sixties for a country he didn’t know and to be given the task of bringing order and discipline to its Church!

The so-called Penitential of Theodore is not by him, although it contains a number of the judgements that he issued. Of particular interest to many historians today is section 22, ‘On the rites performable by women and their ministry in the Church’. This strikes a very contemporary note but, sadly, I haven’t the actual text to hand and am reluctant to quote from memory (if I remember correctly, the judgement says that women may prepare the altar and gifts and do whatever male deacons do but I forget the exact wording or what occasioned the judgement: context is always important, and it is likely, though not certain, that what we have in the Penitential are the responses of Theodore to questions put to him by young clerics studying in the Canterbury School). However, the fact that Theodore’s decisions were thought worth recording and referring to in later generations is significant. He was what we might call a creative administrator, not just one who stuck rigidly to someone else’s rule-book.

I think St Theodore is a great encouragement to those who are growing older, to those who are monks or clergy, and to those who have come to Britain from other countries to live and work. He is at once both highly traditional — the monk-bishop who becomes a saint — and a man who breaks the mould by virtue of his age and background. Something to ponder there, I suggest.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Sitting on a Fence or Jumping on a Band-waggon?

The events of the last few days have shaken many ordinary Catholics — not in our faith, but in our perception of the Church’s leadership and its ability to deal with the apparently never-ending revelations of abuse, corruption and cover-ups. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is merely the latest but potentially most damning accusation of all. That fact makes me want to repeat something I have said many times already: unless or until we know the full facts, we should be wary of adding further fuel to the fire by rash accusations or counter-accusations of our own. Sitting on a fence may not seem very brave — it is certainly uncomfortable — but it is better than jumping on a band-waggon. Just think for a moment. To make a false accusation against another is calumny and defamation of character. It is a serious matter. At the moment both Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò are having very grave allegations made against them. Most of us are not in a position to judge. We may have our suspicions, but suspicions are not evidence and usually reflect our own previous opinions about various matters. Unfortunately, this has led to some very ugly in-fighting made public online and soon, no doubt, in the press. I daresay that is exactly what the devil wants. Destroying the unity of the Church, setting us against one another, creating an atmosphere of chaos and toxic distrust, is not the work of the Holy Spirit! Those using the opportunity this discord brings to advance an agenda of their own should ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering those who have suffered or could be exposed, now or in the future, to abuse — which is, after all, where we began and is the terrible sin the Church must address.

I was thinking about this in the context of St Monica’s feast today. She is conventionally portrayed as ‘merely’ the mother of a much greater figure, St Augustine of Hippo, and as such often given rather short shrift. She had an impossible husband and a drink problem, and the years of her widowhood were far from easy. It all sounds rather dreary, so no wonder we look at the son and tend to forget the mother. But there is something about St Monica that I think we do well to remember: she was a woman of extraordinary persistence in prayer. Would Augustine have become a saint without her? Who can say, but surely those ceaseless prayers, that persevering faith, count for something. St Monica encourages us ordinary Catholics to go on praying, believing, hoping and, above all, trying to maintain the bond of charity which unites the Church. The unholy glee with which some Catholics have greeted the latest revelations is, indeed, unholy and destructive. May we never be party to it. May we not fail those whose wounds the whole Church now knows about and must try to heal.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail