Candlemas

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, formerly known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and popularly known as Candlemas, is really the end of Christmastide, coming exactly forty days after our 25 December celebration of Christ’s birth. It used to be celebrated on 14 February, forty days after Epiphany, since, until the 25 December date became general, the birth of Christ was always celebrated on that day. It marks the occasion when, in accordance with Jewish law, Jesus, as a first-born male, was solemnly offered in the temple and redeemed or bought back by the offering of a couple of  doves or young pigeons. In the monastery we ‘remember’ Christmas by eating one of the special foods associated with it. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’

The liturgy of the feast has evolved slowly. It was not until the eleventh century that the practice of processing with lighted candles seems to have become common (suggested, no doubt, by the words of Simeon in the gospel) but I think some of the old customs help to explain the dual nature of this feast, the looking back and looking forward, the joy and the sadness. Purple vestments used to be worn for the procession (probably because processions at the beginning of Mass have a penitential character) but were laid aside in favour of white, the colour of rejoicing, once the altar was reached. Just so we have in the gospel the joy of welcoming the Messiah for whom Simeon and Anna and the whole people of Israel yearned and those dark words of prophesy about the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart. It is a bittersweet celebration of the Child and his destiny.

It sounds lame, but much of life is bittersweet. I think this feast is a great encouragement as many of us are more than a little agnostic about why we are here or how free we are. Accidents of birth or education, or circumstances over which we have no control such as the economic situation, determine much of what happens to us. We can feel as though our destiny is thrust upon us. Yet we also know that as children of God we are supremely free, that grace is unconfined ; and so we live in this tension between constraint and freedom. The joy of today has the shadow of the Cross over it: a reminder, if we need one, that God’s ways are not our ways. He can bring light out of darkness, life out of what we experience as death.

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Heritage Security

People matter more than things, agreed; but no one watching the turbulence in Egypt can be indifferent to what has happened at the Cairo Museum. The damage to the mummies and the loss of precious artefacts recalls the terrible loss of material in Iraq or, a couple of decades earlier, in Lebanon. Yet, to many of our commentators, the effect on oil prices and speculation about the political consequences of what looks increasingly like the fall of the Mubarak regime is what matters.

For much of the twentieth century we in Europe thought of security in military and political terms. Defend ourselves against aggressors and all would ultimately be well. In the last twenty years or so, we have come to recognize that food and water security are even more essential, something our forebears understood but which we in our increasingly urban lives could easily forget. Looking at what is happening in Egypt, I want to ask if there isn’t another kind of “security” we need to think about, heritage security.

When I was a child, my mother used to go once a week to visit someone I’ll call Hedwig. Hedwig had escaped one of the German death camps but she had lost everything she valued. Pretty well all she had was contained in a carrier bag which she carried with her everywhere. What she most lamented was the fact that she had lost every physical remembrance of her family and culture and was adrift in a land where she didn’t speak the language very well and could share nothing of her inner world of memory and reference. She had been robbed of her heritage, which also meant for her a loss of identity.

We define ourselves in many different ways, but our sense of belonging to a group (be it family, nation, Church or whatever) is largely expressed through our ownership of places, language, artefacts and rituals. We can survive the loss of some of these but not all. Even losing some can do enormous damage. There are still Hedwigs in the world, and because what they suffer isn’t tangible, we tend to dismiss its importance. Perhaps we need to value our heritage more, not just because it is beautiful or interesting, but because it is intimately bound up with our sense of being human.

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Beatitude

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time is Matthew 5. 1-12, the Beatitudes. No matter how often we hear them (and it is important to hear them, not just scan the text with our eyes), the words fall into that unusual category of being both fulfilled yet still not quite fulfilled. We are blessed, but not eternally blessed. We have just enough of heaven now to long for what is to come.

Let us not forget that those who are poor in spirit can claim heaven now as well as hereafter; that the gentle have a right to the earth now as well as hereafter; and so on through the Beatitudes, no matter how often we fail to perceive what we have already been given.

The most challenging Beatitude of all is probably “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Purity of heart enables us to see as God sees, without the distortion of sin or pride. In that wonderful clarity we may hope to catch a glimpse, a reflection, of God himself, knowing that one day we shall see him as he is, perfect in beauty, the joy of all the living. That is why purity of heart is the great goal of monastic life, that for which all our observances are meant to prepare us, in the hope that one day we may enjoy the vision of God.

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Just Wondering

First we had Wikileaks, splattering our screens with all kinds of “private” information from the diplomatic bags of American officials. Now we have Egypt suspended in internet isolation while the Mubarak regime struggles to hold on to power. Has the web changed our understanding of freedom? It has certainly made the exercise of it more dangerous.

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Fat and Holy

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico
St Thomas by Fra Angelico

One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).

Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.

In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.

In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.

So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.

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Byte Sized Chunks

For the last day or two Digitalnun has been posting small chunks of Pope Benedict XVI’s address for World Communications Day over on the community’s Facebook page. They are a good summary of what Christian engagement with the internet generally, and social media in particular, should encompass; so why the little gobbets rather than the whole text or a link to it? Simple. The internet has changed the way we read. Online our attention span is rivalled only by the goldfish’s proverbial fifteen seconds. The papal document is too dense and daunting for many in the way in which it is presented on the Vatican web site, but split up into little chunks we can meditate on as we surf hither and hither, it works. It’s lectio divina for the silicon age.

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Posh or Public Spirited?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are apparently posh, or at any rate they went to expensive Public Schools (note the distinction). This fact is often remarked upon by political commentators who have noticed that all three main political parties are dominated by people who have been to private schools or Oxford or Cambridge. Is this evidence of the continuing power of class in our land? Do these people simply assume they have a right to govern? I wonder.

Long ago, in the Dark Ages, when my sister and I were young, our parents and our school drummed into us the idea of public service. Every Sunday, we would find a group of young immigrant workers invited to spend a “family day” with us, being fed a good meal and given some small treat or other. Terribly paternalistic it may have been, but the experience of being young, lonely and poor in a foreign country is not an enviable one and our parents were definitely overstepping the normal employer/employee boundaries of those days. We children were expected to volunteer to help out in the local geriatric wards (probably not allowed today on grounds of Health and Safety or  Safeguarding of Vulnerable Adults) or find some other way of giving back to society (not that anyone would have used that phrase then). I often rebelled at the time, but looking back I realise that I was being taught something that religion lessons alone would not have taught me: the importance of service.

When I went to Cambridge, the Mistress of my College lamented that graduates were tending to go for high-paid jobs in the private sector rather than showing the public spiritedness she expected in her gals (these were the days of Thatcherism). It looks a world away today, bound up with antiquated ideas of noblesse oblige and all that, horribly condescending and false, don’t you think?

Well, no, actually. I believe in the importance of service. Every time I hear of some public figure behaving badly, dipping his hand in the till or lying to preserve his skin, I feel almost personally affronted. It undermines the ideal of public service I grew up with and which certain schools and universities still inculcate despite the selfish celebrity culture which has come to have such allure elsewhere.

Public service remains an essential note of civilized society. If a privileged background can inspire people to serve then I, for one, am not too bothered about it. I’m just grateful that someone is prepared to do so.

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Tuesday Twaddle

A twaddle is not what you think: it is an instrument used by launderers of old to measure something or other, I forget what exactly. The only one I’ve ever seen was beautifully made of brass and looked vaguely postmodern. It rather sums up Digitalnun and Quietnun on this feast of St Paul, when we should be full of hope about the prospect of Christian Unity but instead are slightly glum.

The absences from the Anglican Primates’ Meeting in Dublin indicate that all is not well there. Nearer home, there is scant evidence that any real progress has been made during the past year and much to suggest the opposite. So, should we burrow our heads under the bedclothes and forget all about it?

It’s difficult to imagine St Paul pulling the bedclothes over his head when there was something that needed to be addressed in the life of the Church. No more can we. Maybe we have reached the point where we have got to reassess what it is that we think we are trying to do and change tack entirely. The one thing we can’t do is give up. Unity isn’t optional: to think that it might be really is twaddle.

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Religious Mockery

Yesterday was a busy day so I didn’t have time to do more than register a blog pooh-poohing the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and the Church’s canonisation process. They are hardly to be equated, but the blogger took her information from a former Catholic and seemed to think that was good enough to link them both in the magical mystery realm.

Quite apart from the fact that I don’t think it’s a very good idea to take one’s understanding of anything theological from someone who has rejected both the theology and its presuppositions, I was surprised to find I was upset (about the Eucharist, not the canonisation error where the ignorance shown was laughable and did indeed make me smile hugely). Religious debate has always seemed to me good and valuable but mockery is hard to take when what is being mocked is God himself. I can’t think what the equivalent of  the title “Transubstantiation and Santa Claus” would be, but I know no one in the monastery would use it of anyone’s religious beliefs. The blogger did not mean to give offence or cause hurt, which is important to remember. I wish I had had time to go into the questions raised but I didn’t, and it is the nature of blogging that yesterday’s post is one with eternity.

So why am I going on about religious mockery today? In this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, that blog post was a reminder that we have a long way to go before we Christians really understand and respect one another. St Benedict in his Rule never lets us forget that reverence for God must spill over into reverence for people and for all that is. Even the goods and utensils of the monastery are to be regarded as sacred altar vessels, capable of holding the mystery of God. Mockery, scurillitas, is something he condemns again and again because it is fundamentally opposed to reverence. If we are to to learn how to appreciate the gifts God has bestowed on us, we must learn how to revere one another, how to respect one another’s beliefs.

Yesterday I really understood why.

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