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.

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Back to the Beginning (Again)

Already the new year is beginning to look a little frayed about the edges. The hopes expressed beforehand, that this would be the year when we became more united, more peaceful, have already been destroyed by a hail of bullets in an Istanbul nightclub and countless other acts of violence around the world. Yet we persist in our optimism. We are determined that this year things should be better. We will make a new beginning.

The trouble is, there isn’t much to back up our desire to make a new beginning. For most people in the West, the new year is devoid of religious significance.* There is no collective act of repentance, no rituals to affirm a determination to change, nothing to support our efforts to be more united, more peaceful. For a Benedictine, however, there is the Rule of St Benedict which, together with the gospel and the liturgy, acts as a constant encouragement to try.

Yesterday we began reading though the Rule again from the beginning.** We shall read it through in its entirety three times in the course of the year, and no matter how familiar the words, we shall find ourselves being confronted by much that is new and sometimes difficult. Yesterday we were urged to strip ourselves of self-will, to listen and to follow — things most of us are reluctant to do, especially in a society that exalts selfhood in all its manifestations. Today we are told to wake up, pay heed, get going. It is the spiritual equivalent of a ruthless exercise programme, and it is intended to make us more aware of God, ourselves and other people.

Is there anything a lay person can take from this? I am not a believer in making complicated rules of life for oneself or in trying to be so ‘spiritual’ one neglects to be human. To pray as best one can, to work as best one can: that is already much. There is, however, one idea all of us can try this year which may sound ridiculously simple but which, like Naaman’s washing in the Jordan, may yield unexpected benefits. It has to do with awareness, something the Rule is very keen on.

How often do we see people shut themselves away from others (and sometimes themselves) by playing with their phones or plugging in their earpohones? How about deliberately choosing to wait five minutes before immersing ourselves in our virtual worlds and letting the real world, the one we can’t control, take precedence? We may notice things we had forgotten existed; we may have an opportunity to share a smile or exchange a greeting with someone who really needs that moment of human interaction and kindness. We may even meet Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his’. That, surely, would be a new beginning worth making.

*We haven’t always begun the secular new year on 1 January (it used to be 25 March, feast of the Annunciation). 1 January is the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the oldest Marian feast in the Western liturgical calendar, but comparatively few celebrate it as such.

**If you want to listen to the Rule of St Benedict, read day by day as it is in the monastery, you can do so on the desktop version of our web site here. Flash needed as I have yet to replace the player with a HTML5 version.

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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 Oriens and Our Need of Light 2016

It is the shortest, darkest day of the year here in Britain but today’s O antiphon shimmers and shines. For the first time since we began the sequence, the coming of God as Saviour and Redeemer is hailed with three dfferent titles, all of them luminous: Morning Star, Splendour of Eternal Light, Sun of Justice. In a world that has embraced the thickest moral darkness we have seen for many a year, that Light is what we cling to in hope and over which we rejoice.

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is a short, ostensibly simple prayer but what a reversal of our usual thoughts and feelings it contains! Many sensitive and kind people are saying things like ‘I cannot have a happy Christmas while people are suffering in Syria’ or ‘how can we possibly rejoice when fear and terror are all around?’ I think that is to misunderstand what this antiphon explicitly teaches, that God will deal with the darkness, in his own way and his own time. What we have to do is to co-operate — and that is harder than it looks, because, of course, we want to be the doers, we want to be the ones who decide. We can and should rejoice at Christmas because the Son of God has chosen to be our Morning Star, our Light in the darkness, our source of justice and healing. It takes a special kind of courage to turn everything over to God, but that is precisely what we are asked to do.

There is another kind of darkness I should mention, the interior darkness of distress and mental confusion that many also experience at this time of year. It is a prison, a shadow, an all-enveloping gloom that causes much pain and suffering, made all the worse because often it cannot be shared with anyone. Loneliness adds to the sense of misery, and frequently there is a sense of failure, too, because, of course, no one actually wants to be ‘down’ or out of step with the season. It is easy to say that from this too Christ comes to redeeem us, but although that is true, it is not a truth universally experienced.

Sometimes in the early morning, when I go into the oratory to pray, everything is dark, as only a house in the countryside can be dark. Gradually, there is a little glimmer of greyness that marks the beginning of dawn. Then slowly, beautifully, light begins to flood the room until everything is transformed. Even the dust sparkles. Our lives are like that. For some, in this life, there is only darkness and the light will come later; for others, probably the majority, the light begins to shine even now, but uncertainly, by fits and gleams; and for a few, a very few, life is irradiated with sunshine from the very first. What we have to hold to is this: the light will come. ‘His coming is as certain as the dawn.’ Indeed, yes: come, Lord Jesus.

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 Clavis David and Our Need of Freedom 2016

Yesterday was a dark day. To the now customary tally of deaths in Syria, Yemen and sub-saharan Africa we had to make additions nearer home. The murder of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, sent shivers down the spine. Might it have the same dreadful consequences as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914? Then came news of people mown down in a Berlin Christmas market — possibly a terrorist attack, possibly an accident, but a hideous irruption of death into a scene of merry-making here in Europe. The darkness within, the interior prison we create for ourselves, can lead to dark deeds, we know, but we have a habit of positing them outside. They are something other people do, not us. We can do the same with salvation. Other people need a Saviour, not us — or at least, only in a general way. Today’s O antiphon knocks that sort of nonsense on the head. It is, so to say, close up and personal, less about ‘us’ than it is about ‘me’:

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

The image of the key is a compelling one. To be locked up, even for a short time, with no means of escape other than that provided by the keyholder is an unnerving experience. We soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is. But we have a way of turning this round and pleading our lack of freedom as an excuse for all the shortcomings we see in our lives. We blame our genes, not our uncontrolled appetites, for the fact that we are fat; we cannot do anything about it, can we? We inherited our moody disposition; too bad that you must suffer the consequences. The prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.

It is no accident that on the day we sing O Clavis David we also read the gospel of the Annunciation and hear again how a young Jewish girl, a daghter of David’s royal line, consented to be the Mother of God and in so doing set us free from all that had bound us hitherto. Jesus is the Key but Mary’s flesh provides the lock and wards, so to say, that enable the key to work. Her faith, her generosity affect us all. Darkness is scattered by the coming of light; sin will be conquered on Calvary. We have hope and know that we shall be set free — and that is the point: we shall be set free, we cannot free ourselves.

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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Nothing Wrong With Thinking

A few days ago, I was surprised to find someone attacking philosophy as an ‘airy-fairy’ discipline and lamenting its effect on contemporary theology. Personally, I would argue that it is precisely the abandonment of philosophy as a necessary discipline that leads to the weakness of much contemporary theology (no names, no pack drill). Woolly thinking does not give glory to God. On the contrary, thinking about God, asking questions about God and  the things of God can only contribute to our love and wonder. I often think of monastic life as doing theology on our knees, but reading, thinking, meditating are an essential part of the process that leads to prayer.

Of course, we are not all philosophers. I’m not one myself; but anyone who is serious about their following of Christ must surely be concerned with discovering more and more about truth, what the early Church believed about Christ, how that belief has developed over the centuries, how we are to understand and apply it nowadays. And we can’t do any of that without ways of thinking, questioning, arguing, using a language that expresses and defines even as it admits its limitations. We seem to be so concerned sometimes to be, on the one hand, ‘doctrinally lite’ or, on the other, ‘ritually exact’ that we miss something important: not only the utter transcendence of God but also his infinite tenderness and compassion. We will never succeed in articulating God, so to say, but surely it is a worthwhile endeavour to try to do what we can.

Tomorrow we shall be celebrating the feast of St Hildegard, Benedictine polymath and Doctor of the Church. Many people know something of her music, but I wonder how many have read her Scivias or engaged with some of her more difficult texts? She is a worthy patron of International Buy a Nun a Book Day (see here for an explanation of BANAB-Day): a reminder that in seeking to know more about God, we are seeking to know God himself.

Note
As I have explained, we ourselves are not publishing a wish-list for books this year. People have been very generous to us, and we would like others to benefit from the idea.

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Clarity

Having written about brain fog yesterday, it seems only fair to write about clarity today. What do we mean by it? Most people, I think, would reply that we mean the quality of being clear, intelligible, sharply defined. Some of us, however, particularly those accustomed to singing the Divine Office in Latin, might want to overlay such a definition of clarity with something others might find unexpected. The word clarus in Latin is associated with glory, more specifically the divine glory (cf the antiphons for Vespers on Holy Saturday). That takes clarity into another dimension. Just as I argued yesterday that the danger of the many varieties of brain fog is that we use them as an excuse for not making the effort to distinguish between true and false, right action and wrong, so I would argue today that striving for clarity infuses a very ordinary, everday activity with touches of divine glory.

I always pray before I write, and one of the things for which I ask in prayer is that what I write may be clear and truthful. That it should be truthful is, I hope, self-evidently necessary; but clarity isn’t always so easy to achieve and many might argue that it can appear ‘simplistic’ and  ‘unprofessional’. (I am thinking here of the turgid prose that too often masks the thought of the academic or expert while proclaiming to the rest of the world that he/she is one who knows — and is keeping the secret close.) In an age where speed-reading and headline-skimming are more and more the norm, I am conscious of how easy it is not to make one’s meaning plain; and even if one does make one’s meaning plain to one’s own satisfaction, there will always be someone who uses words and concepts differently and therefore understands differently. But that doesn’t invalidate the quest for clarity, or lessen its importance.

To be clear, to reflect something of the divine glory, to allow that glory to permeate, infsofar as one can, both thought and speech is not a trvial matter. It is the work of a lifetime — and it is work.

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Praying to the Devil

Have you ever prayed to the devil? Before you recoil in shock and horror, let me explain what I mean. We are all familiar with the prayer the pharisee prayed to himself in the parable of the pharisee and the publican, Luke 18.9-14, and most of us would admit, a little shamefacedly, to having had moments when we allowed a touch of smugness to infect us. We may not have lauded our own virtue but we have condemned someone else’s failure to live up to our expectations or cried ‘hypocrite’ when they acted in ways we disapproved. Praying to the devil is much worse than that, but it is dangerously easy to slip into if we do not hold ourselves in check. Only this morning we received a prayer request which was essentially a calling down of curses on another and willing their death. I don’t think the person who sent the request had any idea of the spiritual danger to which they were exposing themself. However hurt or angry we are, however incensed by someone else’s conduct, we must not allow our feelings to open us up to spiritual harm. Nonsense? Let’s see.

Whenever someone ‘prays’ with anger and hostility, wishing ill to another, they are praying to the devil. People whose marriages have broken up sometimes call down curses on their spouse’s new partner rather than praying for conversion of heart and an end to the adulterous relationship. Or people inveigh against someone they dislike or think evil in terms that are themselves evil. If this is allowed to go on, it becomes a prayer to the devil. All prayer is powerful but this kind acts as a concentrator of negative feeling. It is one thing to tell the Lord our distress and anger (and maybe get cross with him), quite another to demand he punish or hurt someone we regard as the cause of our unhappiness. That is the one kind of prayer that isn’t going to please the Lord; but it will please the devil very much indeed. If we are sufficiently filled with bitter zeal, we may think that is all right. We don’t care whether God or the devil hears our prayer so long as x suffers. What we forget is that when we open ourselves up to evil, we open ourselves up to something we cannot control, something that does not desire our well-being but our destruction. In the end, we are even more harmed than the one we want to afflict.

You will notice I have carefully avoided saying who or what the devil is, and that is important. It is a great mistake to think that sin and evil are outmoded notions, the product of a febrile imagination; it is equally a great mistake to think we have got evil ‘taped,’ so to say. It is precisely because we haven’t got evil ‘taped’ that we succumb to its allure.

If we fall into the habit of praying to the devil our lives will change as surely as they do when we pray to God. Instead of seeing the good in others, we will see only the bad. Instead of being generous, we will become mean and grasping. We certainly won’t be very nice to know. Ultimately, I think that matters more than we may be ready to concede when we are consumed with anger. People often quote the tag lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning ‘as we pray (or worship), so we believe’; it actually has a third part, lex vivendi, meaning ‘so we live’. Praying to the devil is what we might call a whole life choice — only it isn’t life at all, it’s death. The next time we are furious about someone or something, we might usefully remember that.

Additional Note
Several people have  commented on the difficulty they have with the cursing psalms. I wrote about them here. The two posts go together.

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On Not Being Cynical by Bro Duncan PBGV

One of the things that makes me sad is cynicism. Dogs don’t do cynical. We believe the best of everybody, all the time. It doesn’t matter if sometimes we are proved wrong. We were created to trust, and we do. You’ve probably noticed that we are all eager-beaver enthusiasm, even for people you wouldn’t let inside your front door. Whenever I suspect that the Enemy of the Moment has turned up, for example, I go into ecstacies of welcome. That soon brings everyone to their senses. You can’t go on being cool towards someone we’re treating with rapture, can you?

There is an important spiritual point here. Welcoming people — really welcoming them — is not about checking whether they have all the right credentials and espouse all the right views (i.e. the same as you) before trusting them but simply seeing them as they are, as God sees them. I think dogs have the gift of always seeing people as God sees them, which is why we don’t find trust difficult. Yes, human beans can be cranky (just look at My Lot!); they can be difficult, demanding, really rather horrible at times; but underneath all that messiness, the failures, the sin, they are rather beautiful.

Cynicism distorts the way human beans see others and blinds them to their good points. In the end, it can make the cynical lonely, because no one really likes someone who is always negative and trusts no one else. Except, of course, God and us dogs. 😉

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Easter Wednesday and Emmaus Moments

We all have Emmaus moments — times when we suddenly see and understand something previously hidden, or something we vaguely felt all along is revealed to be gloriously, unequivocally true. It is even more wonderful when we suddenly see not something but someone for the first time, as it were. It is an epiphany, a revelation; and seeing someone, really seeing them, is always to see something of God. Most of us will be very busy today. We’ll probably meet lots of people without truly meeting them at all: they will pass us in the street, drive past in a car or barely register as individuals in a crowd. Yet each one is a unique reflection of God, an expression of Christ ‘lovely in limbs not his.’ Let us give thanks for each one and ask a blessing on them as we pass.

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