A Terrible Irony

Yesterday we read of the death of Joachim Ronneberg, the brave Norwegian who, with five others, in a daring raid on Rjukan, Telemark, in 1943 effectively put an end to Nazi attempts to develop an atomic bomb. We also read of President Trump’s threat to start another arms race by withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing here a terrible irony. In eighty years we have swung from thinking nuclear war a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs, to relying upon a nuclear arsenal to ‘keep us safe’. I’m not an expert in what keeps people safe from war or violence, but I have a hunch that those who amass weapons are inclined to use them or, at least, become more casual about using them when they perceive a threat to something they value. The world’s leaders usually have bunkers to go to; it is the ordinary man, woman and child who must bear the brunt of the violence. We saw that in Japan at the end of World War II. Pray God we never see it again.

So, why do I write about this today? It is for the simple reason that, although it is our leaders who decide issues of war and peace, we, as citizens, have a huge responsibility to hold our leaders to account, to make our views known and not allow the world to blunder into another war — one in which we know there will be no winners. If we don’t, we give our leaders carte blanche to perpetrate whatever wrong they choose. No one in their right mind would choose destruction, but it has often been the unintended consequence of not being challenged or failing to foresee the consequences of certain policies or actions. Today I’m praying for wisdom and restraint in China, Russia and the U.S.A. and in all those lesser states, like North Korea, that will be taking a keen interest in how the world reacts.

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The Gentleness of Christ

I love Dante’s characterisation of St Luke, whose feastday it is, as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, scribe of the gentleness of Christ. Gentleness isn’t a quality that gets a very good press these days. We seem to admire more those who are loud in their own praise, the doers of deals, the ‘strong men’ of the Kremlin and the White House. Those who do value gentleness are often considered to be milksops, people who exalt weakness because they are incapable of strength. What a topsy-turvy way of looking at things! Only the truly strong and brave know how to be gentle, because to be gentle is to admit the truth of any and every situation and meet it with dignity and resilience. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the gentle man par excellence; the one who, in Julian’s words, ‘was never wroth’ but looked upon our sins with the eye of mercy, even as he hung upon the cross to die for us.

Can we emulate such gentleness in our own lives? The English origins of the word suggest nobility, and we would all like to be noble; but there is something more if we look at the Latin gentilis from which our English word comes. Gentilis literally means belonging to the same clan or gens; so to be gentle is to be of the same family, the same blood or, as we might say today, one with the other. I think that if we look at the life of Christ, especially as portrayed by St Luke, we can see immediately how closely Jesus identified with others. His courtesy towards women, his patience with his disciples even when they were jockeying for position, these spring from an understanding and human sympathy that we can try to cultivate. To be gentle with others is not to say ‘anything goes’ or allow others to trample us at will. It is to find in Christ the courage and strength we need to meet everyone and everything with the same compassion and generosity of spirit — to be, in other words, channels of his love and grace to the world.

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St Benedict and Europe (Again)

Readers of this blog may think I have written more than enough about St Benedict and Europe already. I have had more than one go at expressing my thoughts about Brexit, and as I try very hard to keep iBenedictines free from party politics, it is difficult to say more without inviting the kind of one-dimensional comment that is the moderator’s nightmare. However, the events of the last few days have concentrated minds wonderfully. The spectacle of the government disintegrating before our eyes, the fact that Brexit negotiations are still stuck at a rudimentary stage, and the grave doubts many have about the wisdom of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the way in which it was presented to the public at the time of the EU referendum combine to make me think that there is still something to be said.

When Paul VI proclaimed St Benedict patron of Europe (a title he now enjoys with several others) he was acknowledging the unique role of the Benedictines in shaping the Christian culture of the West:

Messenger of peace, moulder of union, magister of civilization, and above all herald of the religion of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West: these are the proper titles of exaltation given to St Benedict, Abbot. At the fall of the crumbling Roman Empire, while some regions of Europe seemed to have fallen into darkness and others remained as yet devoid of civilization and spiritual values, he it was who, by constant and assiduous effort, brought to birth the dawn of a new era. It was principally he and his sons, who with the cross, the book and the plough, carried Christian progress to scattered peoples from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to the plains of Poland (Cf. AAS 39 (1947), p. 453). With the cross; that is, with the law of Christ, he lent consistency and growth to the ordering of public and private life. To this end, it should be remembered that he taught humanity the primacy of divine worship through the ‘opus Dei’, i.e. through liturgical and ritual prayer. Thus it was that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture felt they constituted the one people of God; a unity that, thanks to the constant efforts of those monks who followed so illustrious a teacher, became the distinctive hallmark of the Middle Ages.

He went on to draw an analogy with the formation and purpose of what we now know as the EU. Half a century later, the optimism looks a little naive. The bright dream of the future is no more — and it isn’t ‘Brussels red tape’ that has destroyed it but horrors like Srebrenica and the resurgence of a populism that preys on the weak and rejects the stranger. The antidote many have offered is a return to the past, to a time that never was save in our imagination, and the selective recreation of a Europe that has closed its eyes to what lies beyond its borders. (The Europe I speak of includes Britain.) Perhaps it is time for a reality check, using the same Rule of St Benedict that Paul VI saw as so creative.

First and foremost, the Rule of St Benedict is about seeking God and living in a manner pleasing to him. There are no half-measures, no indulgences, no small accommodations we can make to suit our whims and fancies. The Rule catches us at every turn and leads us back to the Gospel, to living with the eyes of God always upon us, our ears always alert for his voice. The human society regulated by St Benedict, the monastic community, has what we would call ‘democratic elements’, but it is not a democracy as we understand it today. It is inclusive by its very nature, but its inclusivity is far removed from what is usually meant by that term nowadays. It is uncompromising in its insistence on virtue, orthodoxy, hard work and plain living. In other words, it is a demanding Rule — not harsh, in the way that Celtic monasticism was harsh; not burdensome, in the way that many a later rule has been; but a Rule that gets to the heart of things and asks our all. It has been an important instrument for the creation of a Christian culture without which I dare to say Europe (again including Britain) has no future. Its influence goes very deep — so deep, in fact, that we are often unaware of the Christian origin of much that we take for granted.

It isn’t fashionable to assert that Europe is Christian or it is nothing. We would much rather talk about multicultural richness and diversity. As I understand it, multiculturalism means that every culture must be accorded equal value. To suggest otherwise is to be narrow-minded, bigoted or worse. Increasingly, I think the multicultural experiment in Europe has failed, not because we do not value the gifts that other cultures bring but because it has led to lazy thinking and acting. Government attempts to define ‘British values’ have been doomed to failure because they have no real centre, nothing to hold them together. It would be more profitable, perhaps, to think about Benedict’s teaching on hospitality. RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, is welcoming, but it is the welcome of people who have confidence both in what they offer and what they receive. Do we have such confidence, or are we desperately trying to find it? Are we simply reluctant to welcome others, afraid of them, or do we we lack a sense of ‘home’? It is worth thinking about that for a moment.

To welcome others to one’s home, one must first have a home, which means a sense of identity, a uniqueness we can share but not forego. Our home doesn’t need to be a fortress, but it does need to be somewhere we can relax, feel at ease, know our place. For me as an Englishwoman, a Catholic and a Benedictine, that sense of home is undoubtedly linked to my country, my Church and my sense of Europe as the natural expression of my cultural identity. I hope that doesn’t make me unappreciative or fearful of what lies outside or beyond. Without roots, the tree cannot flourish. I know I cannot, and what is true of the individual is also true of Europe. There are indeed many things of which Christian Europe should repent; many things that, even today, we do not see clearly enough to know whether they are as they should be or not; but if we give up on the ‘Christian’, what is left? Only a soulless concentration on wealth, which forces the weakest under, and a growing inequality untempered by conscience or ideas of altruism. Surely we can do better than that?

St Benedict has many quotable sentences in his Rule, and to those of us who know the text by heart, they tend to come unbidden at various moments of the day. One that often comes to mind is RB 4.74, Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare, Never to despair of God’s mercy. Whatever the difficulties we face, however great the chaos that threatens us, there is not merely the hope but the fact of God’s mercy. It may not come to us in the way we are expecting, but come it most certainly will. We must be ready to receive it.

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For Good Friday 2018

Crucifix by Giotto
Crucifix by Giotto

Good Friday is one of those days when I take refuge in poetry or look at a crucifix and feel stupid and dull, unable to get my mind round the sacrifice Jesus made. Above all, I seek the bare, stark forms of the liturgy because everything else seems too small, often too ‘pious’, for the hugeness of what we celebrate.

The liturgy is objective in a way that forces us to consider the Crucifixion anew every year. Our understanding is stretched almost to breaking-point. The liturgy’s quiet dramas and haunting music, the return  to forms of worship familiar to the early Church, help us cope with the vastness of the story it tells and the inadequacy of our response. The death of Jesus on the Cross has changed everything. What can we possibly say after that?

The Preces of the Solemn Liturgy gather into a sequence of ten prayers our needs and the needs of the whole world. They articulate what we cannot. So, today, let us pray as the whole Church prays: for holy Church; for the Pope; for all orders and degrees of the faithful (i.e. bishops, priests, deacons and laypeople); for catechumens (i.e. those under instruction before becoming Christians); for the unity of Christians; for the Jewish people; for those who do not believe in Christ; for those who do not believe in God; for those in public office; for those in tribulation (i.e. asking God to cleanse the world of error, banish disease, drive out hunger, free the imprisoned, loosen fetters, grant safety to travellers and return to pilgrims, give health to the sick and grant salvation to the dying.) AMEN.

Note
There are several earlier posts that treat other aspects of Good Friday. Please do a search in the sidebar if interested.

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Preparing for Christmas — with Cancer

This post is addressed to those who, like me, have some form of cancer and are doing their best to prepare for Christmas.

It isn’t easy, is it? It’s difficult to hide the fact that energy levels aren’t what they were, or that nausea and dietary restrictions make the foodie element of Christmas festivities a minefield to tread rather than a source of enjoyment. It must be especially hard if you are a Mum or Dad or a much-loved grandparent, because one of the few things families seem to agree on is that Christmas should always be the same. If one isn’t up to producing that wonderful spread on Christmas Day, or doing that traditional Beach Walk after lunch or whatever, there is a feeling of failure. Then, too, at the back of one’s mind, there is the thought that this could be my last Christmas, and if so, I want it to be a good memory for everyone. In a monastery there aren’t quite the same individual expectations although, as a member of a small community, I sometimes chuckle when people airily advise me to leave something to others. There aren’t any others for some things, and although I hope the spiritual focus of Christmas is unaffected by our ability or inability to maintain certain traditions, I know in my heart of hearts that not to have the Martyrology sung on Christmas Eve, or not to be able to sing the whole of the Christmas Office, does make a difference. Is there a remedy, and if so what?

I think the remedy is the one we have been thinking and praying about through the whole of Advent and especially during these last few days when we have been singing the ‘O’ antiphons. We have to hand everything over to God, knowing that when we cannot, He can. It doesn’t matter if we can’t manage this or that, although we’ll continue to try. It doesn’t matter if Christmas doesn’t come up to our expectations, provided they come up to God’s — and unless we deliberately choose to reject Him, they always will. However awful we feel, however much we fear disappointing others, we can be sure that God will work his very own Christmas miracle — a miracle that is not about success or material perfection but about his indwelling. It is when we have the fewest defences that God is able to draw closest to us.

So, be of good cheer, fellow cancer pilgrim. The Christmas God has prepared for us is the one that will bring the greatest joy to ourselves and all whom we love. No matter how empty and unprepared we may feel, we do not come empty-handed to the celebration. It may sound old-fashioned, but we can ‘offer up’ our weakness and our sense of guilt and failure. With our prayer we can reach out to the millions of suffering people throughout the world, to the refugees and displaced persons who have no home, to the impoverished who go hungry or thirsty to bed, and to those dying alone and unloved. We can, in a very important way, bring Christmas to them. What a wonderful privilege that is!

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On the Anniversary of 9/11

I’m sure I’m not the only British person who has to think twice about the date of 9/11 because we habitually use the order day, month, year (in despite of Hart’s Rules) for recording dates. For many people the events of 9/11 are now a rather shadowy memory. For those who lost family or friends it can be a painfully lonely anniversary. They still grieve, but the rest of the world has moved on to other tragedies, other enormities. To remember what happened, to pray for those who died, to allow both the horror and the hope that followed in its wake to move us is to acknowledge our common humanity. Here in the monastery we shall be joining in prayer with all who remember this day and desire a world in which peace and mutual love and respect triumph over the will to destroy.

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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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O Radix Jesse and Our Need of Roots 2016

A winter rose shall flower
On Jesse’s ancient stem:
The Word of God unfolding
Before the eyes of men.

That verse from the hymn we sing at Lauds captures something of the freshness and beauty of the imagery behind today’s O antiphon, the grace of growing things, of flowering and fruitfulness:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

We think of those beautiful medieval images of Jesse and the great tree of descendants springing from his loins — in stone at Christchurch, wood at Abergavenny and glass and stone at Dorchester — and the genealogies of the gospels which all end with the birth of Christ. Jesus has a human ancestry as flawed and imperfect as our own. His looks, his gait, his mannerisms, all have a human origin. He is, so to say, of the earth, earthy. But there is something more. Before him, the humble Galilean, kings stand silent and gentiles come in search. He, and he alone, can set us free from all that binds us and lead us into the Promised Land where all is peace and joy.

I was thinking about this as I read through the latest grim statistics about refugees and migrants. We in Europe are experiencing the greatest mass movement of peoples since the Second World War. People are being uprooted from all that is familiar by war, economic pressures and the dream of something better existing elsewhere. We need our dreams, but we need our roots even more. For a Christian that means being rooted in Christ, growing in love, compassion and holiness throughout our lives.

We are, of course, always inclined to set limits. We don’t mind being a little stunted, a little pot-bound, it’s more comfortable that way. I’ll love other Christians, but I draw the line at loving Muslims/atheists/blacks/whites/conservatives/liberals (complete as appropriate). But if we read through the genealogies of Christ, we notice an interesting thing. This good Jewish boy, this descendant of David, had some very dodgy ancestors, including a non-Jew and some whose private lives were, to say the least, disreputable. If the Son of God was willing to take his flesh and blood from such, who are we to decide who is or is not a worthy recipient of our love and compassion? If our roots are secure in Christ, there can be no fear of the stranger. Yes, we may be hurt; yes, we may find that we lose much that is precious to us, perhaps even our lives. But we are aware that the tree of Jesse leads inexorably to the Tree of Calvary, that the winter rose has blossomed and filled the whole world with its fruit.

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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Has God Failed to Keep His Promise in Syria?

How different today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 54. 1–10, seems when read in shortened form at the Easter Vigil, yet the promise it contains is one and the same. The Lord does not forget; he has joined himself to us in an everlasting covenant. If that is true, then it is true in the streets of Aleppo and the dark corners of Yemen as well as in the peaceful, well-nourished households of the west. Our problem is that we do not see it like that; we feel that God has failed in some way to keep his promise, and we are angry and disconsolate. We blame God for the tragedy, for all the misery inflicted on those he claims to love.

One of the uncomfortable truths with which Advent confronts us is this: God relies on us to fuflfil his promises — most spectacularly, when he relied upon the consent of Mary to be the Mother of God, but also, less spectacularly, when he relies upon us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and do good to them that hate us. We may think that we can do nothing to help the people of Syria or the starving children of Yemen, but in fact we can do a great deal. By living as we ought to live, with integrity and generosity, by being peace-makers in our own circle, by cultivating an unshowy sense of mutual support and kindness, we contribute to the store of good in the world and undo much that human malice and evil attempts. It is easy to dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky-idealism, but as G.K. Chesterton remarked long ago, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that Christianity has never been tried. We cannot silence the guns, perhaps, but we can create a climate of opinion in which the guns cannot be fired.

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