The Mass: ever ancient, ever new

I rarely comment on liturgy, not because I am uninterested or lack any opinions (far from it!), but because I am sometimes uneasy about the way in which the subject is discussed. The introduction yesterday of a new translation of the Mass has prompted a few thoughts, however.

The language of prayer used in church has always an objective character. It is not a question of ‘what works for me’ but of what expresses the Church’s faith. It is, if you like, theology turned into poetry and drama. The words matter; the actions matter; the setting matters. It is a holy sacrifice in which we are called to share; so what we are matters, too. Every form of Mass sanctioned by the Church is, in the most literal sense, traditional: something precious handed on through the generations — one with every other Mass that ever has been or ever could be celebrated, one with the sacrifice of Calvary itself. Sometimes I think we forget that. Because we are interested in liturgy, because we enjoy the ‘doing’ of it, we treat liturgy like anything else, allowing ourselves a freedom I’m not sure we actually have. Liturgy in the Catholic Church is a ‘given’: one that requires whole-hearted collaboration and provides endless scope for true creativity (note the emphasis) of course, but a ‘given’ nonetheless.

We have decided in community that we shall say nothing, good or bad, about the new translation until six months have elapsed. If anyone is familiar with the Latin texts and has some years’ experience of liturgical translation, it is important to lay aside any prejudices or preconceived notions. We need to see the Mass with fresh eyes; listen to it with fresh ears. Discussion can get in the way of that, and with the approval of the new translation, the time for discussion is in any case effectively over.

Liturgical discussions often turn nasty because they are not really about liturgy at all. They are an excuse to vent negative feelings, using an irreproachable subject as pretext. The Mass is too important for that, too holy for that. Maybe over the next six months we shall have an opportunity not only to rediscover the Mass but also to discover something new about ourselves, too. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the more we seek to know God, the more we get to know ourselves.

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The Annual Retreat

You may wonder why contemplative nuns should need an annual eight-day retreat. I am half in agreement with you, if you do. If we lived monastic life as it should be lived, our recollection would be perfect and a retreat unnecessary; but in actual fact, none of us does live monastic life as it should be lived. We are not saints in heaven, just sinners struggling on earth, and a retreat is an excellent means of reminding ourselves of the fact.

For the next few days, therefore, the community will be almost invisible: no tweeting, no blogging, no Facebook, no Google +, save in the most exceptional circumstances.  What shall we be doing? That rather depends on the Holy Spirit. The whole point of a retreat is to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and union with God. It’s a rather open-ended contract. All we know is that, provided we aren’t deliberately obstructive, what God wills will come about and in a small way (or perhaps even a big way) the world will reflect God a little better than before. Pray for us as we do for you.

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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People as Commodities

I was very much struck by a sentence in a friend’s email yesterday, ‘Some people think communities are commodities and ask questions as if that were the case.’ I think we could widen the terms of reference to include everyone: people as commodities.

How often does one read of some Government scheme which deals with statistics in such a way that the humanity is bled out of them, or read of some personal tragedy being picked over by the media as though those involved had no role other than to gratify our curiosity? Take the media comment on Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. There was a lot of speculation about the future of the company, some neat retrospectives detailing the amazing impact he has had on consumer technology, but not one of the (admittedly few) assessments I read did more than mention his illness as a ‘problem’ for Apple. No doubt it was ‘weak and womanish’ of me to think that half a sentence wishing the chap well, or expressing some hope for whatever life he has left would have been a more decent and humane response to the human story behind the headlines. But, no. There was some intrusive speculation about the nature of his illness (what right have we to know?) but that was all.

I suspect that this commodification of people, of seeing others principally as contributors to or detractors from my wellbeing, plays an important part in the decay of virtue which it is fashionable to decry. Consider me old-fashioned if you like, but doesn’t virtue have something to do with vir, being a man, being human?

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The Council of Nicea

When the first Council of Nicea met in 325, there were delegates from every part of the Roman Empire except Britain. I smiled over this recently when a cleric of my acquaintance waxed wrathful over what he saw as a slight from Rome. Although some may believe that God is an Englishman, his deputies do not always concur. Our windy, rainy island off the coast of continental Europe is, ecclesiastically speaking, rather unimportant — at least, as seen from one of the ancient patriarchates. Perhaps the rot began at Nicea, with our absence from the council chamber.

We tend to forget how much we owe to Nicea: the formulation of the first part of the Nicene creed which, with its clear proclamation of both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, effectively dimissed the Arian heresy; the separation of the calculation of the date of Easter from the Jewish calendar (the matter under discussion at our own Synod of Whitby); and the promulgation of what we would call canon law (most of its provisions now subsumed into other legislation, although we still acknowledge that bishops and priests should receive Holy Communion before deacons, while the ban on kneeling for prayer on Sundays and during Eastertide survives mainly in the posture assumed for the litany and anthem to Our Lady). Interpretation of the sixth canon, concerning the authority of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, is still hotly disputed in some quarters, so one cannot say that Nicea resolved all the questions it addressed.

We have a number of accounts of the council which make modern ecclesiastical rows look almost gentlemanly by comparison. Arius, for example, was slapped in the face by Nicholas of Myra (who was later canonized). Clearly, had there been delegates from Britain it might have been more decorous. We cannot rewrite history, but we can learn its lessons. Let’s hope that the various discussions under way in various Churches will be conducted with more kindness and more understanding of others’ points of view.

Follow up to HTM Presentation
I have replied to the most recent questions, so if you wish to follow-up on the discussion, please go here.

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Scepticism

‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ asked Nathanael, who is usually identified with today’s saint, Bartholomew. We all have our ‘Nathanael moments’, when we are profoundly doubtful or sceptical, but probably few of us are worthy of the Lord’s subsequent commendation, ‘incapable of deceit.’ It is so often the experience of deceit in ourself or in others that makes us sceptical in the first place.

It is worth thinking about this for a moment. We can’t do anything about other people, but we can take stock of our own attitudes. To try to live honestly, with integrity, may mean a great deal of pain and suffering, but it will also give us that clarity of vision without which we have no choice but to be sceptical, even pessimistic. I know which I would rather choose, don’t you?

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Living With Stress

A tweet from @Deborahhollamby caught my eye this morning. She was talking about the impact stress can have on our health. Anyone who suffers from an immune disorder knows how damaging stress can be, but what exactly is stress and how long have we been subject to it? I can’t find any references to ‘stress’ in the sense that we use the word earlier than the twentieth century; so is it a modern phenomenon? A case of re-minting an old word to give it a keener edge?

‘Distress’ has been around a lot longer; and to me, at least, its root meaning, from the Latin distringere, to pull or stretch apart, is both clearer and more evocative. We all know the feeling of being torn apart by worry or conflicting duties or events in our lives which make us unhappy. Is the way we cope with distress fundamentally different from the way in which we cope with stress?

Whether we call it stress or distress, we all have to live with imperfect circumstances that can make huge physical and emotional demands on us, but I do think monastic life offers some guidelines for dealing with it that should be better known. I have often mentioned that end-of-the-day review (examination of conscience) which allows us consciously to accept both the good and the bad and turn it all over to God. That act of turning things over to God isn’t a cop out. It is a recognition that we aren’t in charge, God is. When we take ourselves from centre stage, we allow God more scope; and that must be good.

It isn’t only the end-of-day review that helps. Every time we go into choir to sing the Divine Office, we sign ourselves with the Cross and with holy water. That is a powerful reminder both of our baptism and of our desire to stand before God with clean hearts, free from anything that might be unworthy of him. Sometimes we don’t just have to purify our hearts, we have to pacify them as well. Letting go is often hard to do, but being regularly called back into the Prayer of Christ is a way of freeing ourselves from the bonds that stress (or distress) create.

For those who don’t live in monasteries, this could seem a bit remote from reality; but most of us do have odd moments during the day when we have no particular duty or job to do. Such moments can be used for turning to the Lord, creating out of the chaos of our lives something that is quiet and still. If all else fails and the demons continue to haunt us, we can remember that Jesus’ quiet time was in Gethsemane and it was on the Cross that he finally, irrevocably turned everything over to God.

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Saying Things Simply

This post is a little experiment. If you look at the attached presentation, do you come away with a clear idea of what we are asking/offering? Can you suggest any improvements? Please click on the link to see the slideshow (I have failed to install a suitable player on the page — something else to work on!)

HTM Presentation

In the meantime, I am starting a campaign to say things simply. This past week-end my blood-pressure has been raised by the number of instances of gobbledegook occurring in ‘official communications’ and even private conversation. Surely, we can say what we mean simply; or is the problem that we are not too sure what we do mean?

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The Challenge of St Bernard

Challenge is fashionable. We talk about a ‘challenging situation’ and mean one that we find difficult. I have not the slightest hesitation in describing St Bernard as ‘challenging’. It was, after all, his sermons that transformed my own academic study into a personal quest for God in the monastic way of life. But he is challenging in other ways.

He wrote like an angel, especially when he was angry (which was often). His Latin is as near to French prose as anything  I know, and there are times when he manages to say nothing and say it very brilliantly as most French writers do (no racist slur there). He was beastly to Abelard (who actually wasn’t very nice and certainly no romantic)  and he is usually condemned for preaching the Second Crusade, yet Bernard was kind to Jews at a time when no one was kind to Jews. Indeed, in the early fourteenth century we find a rabbi in Cologne recalling the help and protection afforded by the abbot of Clairvaux, so at least his reputation for good survived him (he died in 1153) instead of being interred with his bones, as is often the case. He had a great love of family and inspired lasting affection in those who knew him, yet he was not exempt from criticism. I rather like Cardinal Haimeric’s put-down, when he thought Bernard had been meddling in matters above him, ‘It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.’ But I like even better the response Bernard made, which disarmed Haimeric and showed the true monk, ‘Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption.’

Bernard has been called a protestant avant la lettre because he did not hold the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and because his understanding of  justification was often quoted by Calvin in his exposition of the sola fide principle. ‘Our words are ours, their ends none of our own.’ Bernard is scarcely to be blamed for any interpretation put upon his words in after centuries. No one could really accuse him of lacking orthodoxy. In his lyrical writing on the Blessed Virgin Mary, he himself admits that he sometimes runs on a little too far. Pius XII proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church and called him the ‘last of the Fathers’, but perhaps his best memorial is the fact that his name has become synonymous with the Order he did so much to foster. He was involved in the foundation of no fewer than 163 monasteries in his lifetime. At his death, the Cistercians, the first true Order in the Church, numbered 343 communities. Even today, in Spain, you will hear the Cistercians referred to as ‘los bernardos’. It is a fitting epithet.

 

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Something for the In-Laws

Everyone loves today’s first reading at Mass (Ruth 1:1, 3–6; 14–16, 22). Looking at the wedding flowers in the church and reflecting how often the ‘Wherever you go’ passage is used of the love of the bride for her groom, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d do better to use it as an encouragement (and exhortation) to the in-laws. Ruth makes that beautiful declaration to her mother-in-law. It tells us something important about the relationship between the two women: the love and mutual concern they had built up over a period of years and its resilience in the face of many trials.

It can’t have been easy for either: Ruth, the Moabitess, the complete outsider, being welcomed into the Jewish family circle; Naomi, the mother of two sons, seeing them both marry ‘out’ and then die before her. It could have led to endless discontent and bickering, but it didn’t. At a time of supreme difficulty, famine, the bond between the two women showed itself immensely strong. We should rejoice that it did, for Ruth was to become one of the ancestors of Jesus — a reminder that there are no ‘outsiders’ in the family of God.

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