Fear of the Unseen: Radiation and the Devil

I have often observed that more people are afraid of the devil than actually believe in God. The idea of a malign power bent on our destruction is somehow more believable than a loving God who has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. I think that is why some people spend their lives trying to ‘placate’ this unseen power. Their lives are more or less crippled by fear: it never really leaves them alone. (This may not be your experience: I suspect that clergy and nuns tend to hear the darker secrets of their fellow human beings, and fear often features largely.)

In the last few days we have seen the focus of attention move from the suffering of those affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to what is happening at Fukushima. I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of what is happening there, but I find it strange that the world’s media is more concerned about what might happen than what actually has, and I think it all comes down to fear of the unknown. Radiation is something we cannot apprehend with the senses. It scares us because it is beyond our ordinary experience. We may pore over the statistics of the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, even Chernobyl, but we can’t quite convince ourselves that we may not be facing armageddon. We are, quite simply, afraid, and at root the fear is for ourselves. Put like that, the need to help the Japanese suffering from cold and hunger becomes more urgent, even if it has fallen from the headlines. In so doing we may find we have helped ourselves.

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Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?

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Thirsting for Life

John 4 is one of my favourite gospels. I love the feistiness of the Samaritan woman, the way in which she engages in dialogue with Jesus, neatly side-stepping some awkward questions but responding to him with generosity and increasing frankness until finally she can set off to tell everyone about him. There is such energy and vividness in the way in which the evangelist presents a quite complicated theological statement. One can have great fun tracing the significance of the five husbands, the five baals, and different elements of the story. Yet it was not this that made me think as I read the gospel at Vigils this morning but the simple fact of Jesus’ thirst.

The next time we shall hear of Jesus’ thirsting will be as he hangs on the Cross. Thirst is worse than hunger: a more insistent, more urgent need. The idea of God thirsting for our love so intensely that he is prepared to give the life of his Son is deeply shocking, enough, surely, to shock us out of our complacency. No? The sad fact is that we have heard the story so often, seen the image of the Crucified One so frequently, that we have become a little deadened to its impact. This morning’s gospel is all about life. Maybe we need to listen to it with fresh ears.

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Illustrations for the New Missal

Yesterday CTS Catholic Compass made public one of the illustrations it will be using in the new version of the Roman Missal. It’s taken from the lovely Ingeborg Psalter and you can look at it here. As a humble book designer myself, I entirely agree with one of the comments, that being from a book of similar proportions, it will make a better illustration than a scaled-down altar-piece or fresco. As a lapsed medievalist, I also agree that the illustration is in itself perfectly lovely and modern printing methods will allow it to be reproduced with an accuracy and brilliance impossible even twenty years ago. So, why do I have a niggle?

The Ingeborg Psalter represents talent in the service of religion, something which transcends time and place, but, as you can see from the illustration, is also very much the product of a particular time and place. I believe that our own generation is capable of producing art that is both faith-filled and beautiful, and part of me is sorry that the missal editors have not sought out some contemporary artist to illustrate its pages. I don’t subscribe to the view that all contemporary art is ugly and brutal. I do subscribe to the view that our churches and everything in them should be the best we are capable of. A beautiful medieval psalter is a safe choice but is it the best choice? What do you think?

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The Annunciation

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

Loveliest of all Marian feasts, the Annunciation reflects  a moment of unequalled faith, both on the part of God and of Mary. That God should put such trust in humanity, and Mary such trust in him! One cannot fail to be encouraged. We are, as Hopkins rightly perceived, not mere carbon but immortal diamond, capable of holding within ourselves the immensity of God.

I think it is the little details of the story that make such an impact. We see Mary almost thunderstruck by the angel’s message. As so often, awe comes out of a dazed kind of doubt or disbelief. A momentary questioning, followed by a wondering acceptance of so great a destiny. How many of us would be reckoning our lost hopes and fears rather than embracing what God asked of us?

Mary is a model for all who would be contemplatives in the way in which she treasures things in her heart. She is a model for every Christian, male or female, in her readiness to embrace the demands of the Word. On this day, above all others, she is a reminder that youth can do great things for God, that age and experience count for nothing beside love of God. It is a day for wonder and gratitude, a day for reaffirming our love and trust. It is also a day for rejoicing that God has such great love for us.

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Nuns on the Run

I would have preferred the statelier ‘Gad-abouts and Gyrovagues’, but given that language is about communication, using monastic jargon, even humorously, has its drawbacks.

Yesterday we went to Douai to join the community for Mass and a festive meal which was very pleasant and a world away from our usual humbler liturgy. Today we have a few deadlines to meet, then tomorrow we are off again, in the metaphorical sense. BBC 1 Breakfast TV may give you a glimpse of part of the monastery not usually open to visitors while Digitalnun makes her way to the Great Wen to take part in Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ programme. We’ll never know what the TV shows or doesn’t except by hearsay, but Quietnun may well listen in to the radio in order to add prayer support. That’s what she says, anyway.

All this begs the question: why do many people regard an occasional egress from the cloister in order to take part in serious discussion or engage with others on subjects of common interest as somehow not quite right for nuns? One of the long-range effects of the 817 Council of Aachen and subsequent canonical additions by Carlo Borrromeo (to mention only the most important) has been to make the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns diverge on this point. Given that there is no ‘Second Order’ among Benedictines (Benedictines antedate the whole concept of a Religious Order) one wonders whether this is something that we shall need to address in coming years. As William remarks in one of the ‘Just William’ books, ‘Girls aren’t so mere as they were in your day, Dad.’

 

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The Monk, the Nun and the Silicon Chip

Today is the feast of St Benedict and all true Benedictines will be celebrating with sober joy (it’s amazing what one can manage during Lent if one puts one’s mind to it). I must confess that we had set our hearts on inaugurating our new online retreat service today, but the many demands of the last few days seemed to have put paid to that. However, one should never underestimate a nun’s determination.

Inspired by our holy Father’s injunction to pray earnestly whenever one begins a good work, and enthralled as always by the possibilities of the silicon chip, we have beavered away in the night hours and this morning can present to you the first release of our Online Retreats with its easy-to-remember domain name, ‘onlineretreats.org’.

Everything was working as it should last night; I sincerely hope it is still doing so this morning. You can check  for yourself at http://www.onlineretreats.org. For the time being, we’re only releasing one of the modules so that if a glitch manifests itself, tracking the problem should be easier than if we are dealing with half a dozen. The next challenge is to turn it all into an iPhone app. Enjoy.

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Seeing only Jesus

The last few days have been moderately awful, even without the horrors experienced by the people of Japan and Libya. Several of our friends have been going through what one might reasonably call ‘a bumpy patch’, while we ourselves have been struggling to meet a deadline, not helped by a number of additional demands over which we had no control. So we reach the Second Sunday of Lent tired and scratchy and what do we find? One of the most beautiful and arresting liturgies of the Church year.

In the middle of this season of fasting and penance, the collect invites us to ‘feast interiorly on the Word’, then the gospel takes us up on to Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration. How embarrassingly petty seem all the irritations of the past week. Even those things which tugged at the heart strings are transformed by being taken into this mysterious presence whose calm and beauty illumine our inner darkness. ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.’ That surely is the secret: to see only Jesus whatever may befall.

A long time ago, when I used to be asked to produce Office hymns at the drop of a wimple, I tried to express something of this moment of  Transfiguration in words:

A single moment holds
Eternity’s vast span,
As wondering earth beholds
God’s heaven revealed in Man.

Both sun and moon grow dim
And lesser stars yield place
As Light from Light they hymn
In Christ’s transfigured face.

Now Law and Prophets speak
Of what must soon befall
The One who dares to seek
Salvation for us all.

Here Peter, James and John
Stand awed by this strange sight
As whom they gaze upon
Shines whiter than the light.

The Father’s voice is heard —
Bright cloud hides all around —
His Son, the listening Word,
Alone, alone is found.

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