Applying the Parable of the Sower Personally

All over the world preachers will be diligently preaching on the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13. 1–13). Some will be giving superb scriptural homilies; others will be making great theological leaps and connections that will leave their listeners spellbound; but I daresay the majority will be doing their best not to sound too hackneyed as they try to breathe fresh life into the old, old story. The preachers will be trusting to the Holy Spirit to make good their defects, but what of the listeners? How many of them will be praying to have their hearts and minds opened, and will they like what they hear if they do?

I think we often forget that while it is the preacher’s task to preach, it is the listener’s task to listen — and listening implies more than merely hearing the words the preacher speaks. We are required to engage with what is said, and with what is not said. In the case of the Parable of the Sower, I think there are at least two points that always cause me difficulty.

The first is, what causes me to be unfruitful ground? The evangelist suggests that the cares and worries of this life choke the growing seed so that it produces no harvest. I can easily relate to that because some of the other temptations are not so obvious in monastic life, but perhaps I’ve not quite understood. The times I’ve worried about the community’s finances, giving the right answer to someone, welcoming a newcomer, or even fretting about my own health, they are unproductive activities, certainly, but are they a cause of unfruitfulness or merely a sign of a barreness already there?

For instance, the way in which I and my fellow Catholics have reacted to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s tribute to Cardinal Meisner has set me thinking. We have all done so in ways that show our inner disposition. Those who choose to understand the tribute as a condemnation of Pope Francis are usually the people who seize on every word or act of the pontiff and either reject them as heretical or ridicule them as inadequate, blissfully unaware, for the most part, of the destructive nature of their activities. The Church will not be purified of all that needs to be purified by grumbling or lamenting, still less by gloating over what I suspect was intended as a tribute to a friend’s faithfulness and loyalty, not as a criticism of the present pope. Christ will not abandon his Church, come what may. That is how I read Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words, and that is what make me shudder. They remind me that the Church belongs to Christ, and I have a duty towards her. How have I contributed to the building up of the Church? How often have my words and conduct been destructive? I am not thinking so much of the big failures (eg public dissent from the teaching of the Church, ill-founded speculation about intentions and the imputation of base motives to others) which most of us manage to avoid most of the time, but the little lapses, the private accommodations, the desire to hear this but not that, to interpret something my way rather than Christ’s way. Isn’t it the lack of whole-heartedness that makes us unfruitful, even if we manage to avoid the grosser temptations and sins?

My second point is like the first. What would make me bear abundant fruit? The evangelist simply says, ‘the one who hears the word and understands it’ is the one who produce a good harvest, and it will vary, some producing a hundredfold, others ‘only’ thirtyfold. So, all the reading and praying that are an essential part of monastic life must be faithfully performed. I cannot hope to hear the word, still less understand it, if I’m not willing to lavish time and effort on these two activities. That doesn’t mean I can abandon anything else, of course, but I must make sure I never allow anything else to take first place in my life: Christ must be all in all. But note that discrepancy in fruitfulness which Matthew mentions. I do not know whether I’m called to render thirtyfold, sixtyfold or a hundredfold. It is, frankly, not my business — nor yours, nor really anyone’s but God’s. That can be hard to take. We all have a tendency to measure ourselves against others, and most of us can’t resist the temptation to tell others what to do if we feel we can safely get away with it (eg by commenting on blog posts and the like) or assessing their fruitfulness by standards of our own. Our own life will be the one for which we must answer first, and there is quite enough matter there for us to ponder.

It would be sad if anyone hearing the Parable of the Sower this Sunday were to go away without questioning him or herself how it applies to them. It would be sadder still if such questioning were to lead to discouragement. For the great truth contained in the Parable is also contained in the first reading (Isaih 55. 10–11). The word of God will always accomplish its purpose provided we do not deliberately try to shut it out.

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O Emmanuel and Our Need of God 2016

There can be no doubt about it. With today’s O antiphon we have touched rock bottom. All our fine phrases, our careful allusions to salvation history, our bold attempts to name God and so have some sort of power over him (as if we could!), come down to this: a desperate plea for a desperate plight. For the first time we address him as ‘Lord our God’ and humbly, brokenly, ask him to come and save us. Before we get to that point, however, we pile up title after title used in previous antiphons, as though to make sure we miss none out that might touch his heart. But there can be no disguising the fact that this antiphon leaves us stripped naked, acknowledging our need of God, just as, on Christmas morning, God in Christ will stand naked before us, needing our love.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, the One for whom the nations hope and long and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.

Many a Christmas sermon will dwell on the meaning of Emmanuel, God-with-us, but if we are honest, most of us know times when God, if there is a god, seems distant, unapproachable, not interested in us or our doings. We look at the latest disaster and ask, ‘Where was God when those children died, screaming in agony, in Aleppo?’ ‘Where was God when that lorry plunged into the crowd in Berlin?’ ‘Where was God when X died, or I lost my home or job, or I found out I had a terminal illness?’ These are legitimate questions, and the standard answer, that God was with us as we suffered, rarely convinces. We need a God not afar off but close at hand, and for many, God is not close at hand.

Perhaps instead of trying to answer the question ‘where was God?’ we have to explore the question ‘where is God?’ At first sight, that may seem like mere word-play of the most barren kind; but if we stop and think about it, it is anything but. To ask where was God is to ask a question of history, to go back in time; to ask where is God is to pray and enter into a relationship with him here and now. And that surely, is what the Incarnation has brought about in a most wonderful way. We cannot fear God or think him unapproachable when we know that in Christ he has taken human flesh and blood and been born, just as we are, just as dependent as we are. He cannot undo that — he has bound himself to us for ever and is with us to the end of time. Whatever happens, however low we fall, however much distress or failure we experience, the Everlasting Arms are beneath us. God is indeed with us.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS AND CHRISTMAS NEWSLETTER
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.

Our Christmas Newsletter is available online here: http://eepurl.com/cukCsr. It has a stunning photo of the sun shining on the earth taken from space.

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O Rex Gentium and Our Need of Unity 2016

Unity is something to which we pay lip-service but often shy away from in practice, at least as regards its more demanding aspects. A nice, cosy feeling of togetherness on some issue or other, that’s fine; a vague agreement on some basic principles that doesn’t demand any radical reassessment of how we go about things, no problem; but unity of the kind today’s antiphon urges? Perhaps not. Let’s remind ourselves what we pray for today:

Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. 

O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

This is a prayer for us gentile Christians, who have been grafted on to the Jewish rootstock through the gracious action of God. We have come late to the Covenant but have been welcomed into it through the blood of Christ. We are frail vessels of clay, but in Jesus Christ, we find the strength of the corner-stone who makes us one. Our prayer is accordingly short and stark: come and deliver us!

Why should our prayer be so simple? I think it is because in this antiphon, as in no other, we are confronted with our own need. The prayer is wrenched out of us, as it were. We may have difficulty with the idea of God as King; we may be hazy about what that meant in Old Testament times; we may stumble over the idea of desiring God, longing for him — it seems so unBritish to allow any emotion to enter our religion, doesn’t it?— even if we concede that unity, wholeness, especially at the personal level, makes sense and is desirable. But this prayer is for something more, it is for a unity that goes beyond the merely functional to the essential. Ultimately, what we are asking is not merely unity in Christ but union with Christ — and that is scary. It means entrusting ourselves to God wholly and for ever, and most of us are frightened of that.

Today we look around the world and see everywhere the signs and consequences of disunity. The rise of nationalism and the disintegration of many of the old political entities has implications for us all, wherever we live. Even in the Church there is bitterness and feuding. In the West, the possibilities opened up by the internet and Social Media have not always been used positively. It is easy to lament what we have lost and indulge in a kind of après nous le déluge nostalgia. The idea of consensus, of working towards a common goal, of sharing ideals and aspirations, may not be as strong as it once was. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to live in isolation or in little bubbles of like-mindedness. Today’s O antiphon reminds us that we are made of clay. Think of the possibilities that implies. Clay moulded and fired makes excellent brick, and brick laid carefully makes a strong building. When God created Adam from clay, he knew what he was doing; and in Jesus Christ, the new Adam, he has given us a glimpse of what we can become, indeed already are, united with and to him:

I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond. (G. M. Hopkins)

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In Sight of Our Goal

Today . . . tomorrow . . . the interplay of those words is Advent in a nutshell. We await a Saviour, but his coming must be prepared today; the tomorrow for which we long is here and now, for Christ has already come. Christianity is so full of paradoxes, but a paradox is really only a truth viewed from all sides and appreciated for what it truly is. We may feel that we have been plodding through the desert these last few weeks, but tomorrow, on 17 December, we begin a week of proximate preparation for Christmas and the Church can scarcely contain her joy. We are in sight of our goal and have every reason to rejoice. We sometimes forget that. We are so busy doing good deeds, or lamenting our failure to do good deeds, that we forget the rapturous joy with which the Church greets the approach of Christ’s birth.

The Second Preface of Advent, which we shall use from tomorrow onwards, expresses the hope and joy of this last week before Christmas:

It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy . . .

If we are pressed for time, we could do worse than ponder each phrase of the preface, giving ourselves permission to rejoice, as it were. At Vespers tomorrow we shall begin singing the ‘O’ antiphons which chart the final steps of our journey. And if we hesitate, if the thought of Syria in flames or the corruption and sadness we see in so many areas of life makes us reluctant to rejoice, we can take heart from today’s reading from Isaiah 56. It is the Lord who gathers us to his holy mountain and makes us joyful in his house of prayer. Our business is to follow and be glad. It is as simple as that — as simple as a baby’s cry or happy gurgle.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.

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As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.

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Hospitality on the Way

It isn’t difficult to see the connection between today’s first Mass reading, about Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18.1-10), and the gospel, about Martha and Mary and the supper they gave Jesus (Luke 10.38-42). Hospitality, we say enthusiastically: it is all about welcoming the stranger and the different ways in which we welcome God into our lives. Well, yes, it is; but both readings present us with some difficulties which remind us that it is more than that.

Genesis’s account of Abraham welcoming angels unawares and ending up with the gift of a son, through whom God’s promises will be realised, may read a little strangely to us, but it is a warm and reassuring kind of strangeness. We can take away from it nothing more demanding than the idea that if we are nice to others, we shall be blessed. We can conveniently forget the terrifying aspect of angels in the Old Testament or the strict rules about hospitality among nomadic peoples and the demands they made on both individual and tribe. The way in which the text, even in translation, switches from plural to singular and back again may alert us to an underlying complexity; but we do not have to engage with it, if we do not want to. Abraham is hospitable. That is all we have to take to heart, isn’t it?

The same is not true of the Martha and Mary story. It has often been used to exalt contemplation over action, with an awkward nod in the direction of admitting that Martha and Mary are sisters, so consequently both prayer and action are necessary in the Christian life — which is true, but tends to make the preacher’s homily end a little lamely. Occasionally, a few historical details are thrown into the mix which hint at something more going on than a sisterly dispute about who does what. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. That is the attitude of the rabbi’s disciple, from which she, as a woman, is culturally excluded, as well as that of the hesychast. Then there is the ambiguity of where all this takes place. We assume it is at Bethany in Judah, where Martha had her home, but Luke situates this story in the midst of a series of passages connected with Samaria. Is this about hospitality in the land of outcasts? Are Martha and Mary accompanying Jesus on his journeying and going ahead to prepare a meal? Suddenly, this familiar passage begins to look unfamiliar, transgressing boundaries, making us think anew about what it means to be a disciple, our conventional roles, and the expectations we have of others.

One thing I think we can all take from this, even if we want to go on reading the texts at a simple level, is the need to be welcoming whatever our circumstances. Most of us tend to be hospitable at home, where we can decide the level of welcome we will extend to others, the amount of time we will give, the food and drink we will set before them. It is, if we are honest, the hospitality of those who are in control. But I think that, as Christians, we are called upon to exercise the hospitality of those who are not in control, those who receive rather than bestow grace and are often stretched further than they would like — the hospitality of the nomad suddenly confronted with hungry strangers whom he must feed, no matter how slim his resources, the hospitality of women making the best shift they can in unfamiliar territory, the hospitality of the Benedictine who must see each guest as Christ. Hospitality on the way is less about giving, more about sharing. It topples us from the familar position of host or hostess, but it grants us a place at the table; and who could ask more than that?

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