Living on the Edge of Eternity

One of the more useful consequences of having an incurable or terminal illness is the way it tends to change one’s perspectives. So many of the things we tend to worry about or waste our energies on become unimportant or, at any rate, secondary. Family, friends, community, and for the religiously-minded, God’s judgement — these are what we really value and sometimes fret about in the small hours. With energy at a premium, there is none to spare for self-indulgent moaning about what others are doing or not doing. Every moment is precious because we are living on the edge of eternity.

Advent is like that, too. We are given these few short weeks to prepare for the greatest of all gifts, the coming of our Saviour, and it is easy to become complicated and anxious about them because we have a lot to do and secular society doesn’t understand why our focus is elsewhere. We have to make a conscious effort to remember that we are living on the edge of eternity: the Lord will come, and he will save us.

St Bernard famously distinguished between the three comings of Christ: in the flesh at Bethlehem, two thousand years ago; in power and glory at the end of time; and here and now, when we keep his word in our heart. However busy you must be today, take courage from what St Bernard says about this coming and the promise it contains:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.

Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.

If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you. The Son with the Father will come to you. The great Prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come, the one who makes all things new. This coming will fulfil what is written: As we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, we shall also bear the likeness of the heavenly man. Just as Adam’s sin spread through all mankind and took hold of all, so Christ, who created and redeemed all, will glorify all, once he takes possession of all.

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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Indifference and Advent

Yesterday Sarcoma UK published its report on the current state of this cancer in the UK. You can read it for yourself here: https://sarcoma.org.uk/news-events/loneliest-cancer. It is not sensationalist, nor does it whinge about lack of interest or funding, but it does explain why the charity has chosen to call sarcoma ‘The Loneliest Cancer’. I have a personal interest because I myself have metastatic leiomyosarcoma and know, from the inside as it were, what it feels like and how it affects one. This is not, however, a post about sarcoma as such, nor is it yet another contribution to the ‘my cancer and me’ genre. It is about indifference, and I am using the Sarcoma UK report as an illustration because I think it touches on a bigger question: what we do during Advent.

My Facebook followers have responded to my post about the charity’s report with their usual generosity and kindness, so have many of those who follow me on Twitter; but when, yesterday evening, I looked at the number of people who had noticed Sarcoma UK’s original twitter announcement or its subsequent repeats, I realised what an uphill struggle it will be to engage people’s interest. Can you imagine any other cancer charity’s ‘likes’ and retweets’ being for the most part in single figures/low twenties regarding such an important announcement ? True, we have an election coming on, and Black Friday deals always seem to appeal to the acquisitive in us, and there are a thousand and one other things clamouring for attention, but even those who proclaim a burning interest in health matters and the future of the NHS seem disinclined to press the ‘retweet’ button. Perhaps it will gain momentum as days pass. It certainly won’t be for any want of effort on the part of Sarcoma UK, nor for any lack of professionalism.

What does this apparent indifference say about the way in which we react to situations that do not make an impact on us personally? I’m confident that anyone affected by sarcoma, even at one remove by way of a family member or friend, will have some interest in the subject. I am equally sure that no one, confronted by a sick person in the flesh, would want to do anything other than be as considerate as possible. But some causes make no appeal to the imagination, do they, and perhaps this is one of them, or maybe it is just a case of sheer ignorance. Many years ago, when my sister organized special events for the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital Appeal, she remarked that sick children were probably the easiest of all causes for which to raise money. Others were much harder to win support for and had fewer ‘feel good’ factors, especially if they ran contrary to society’s current obsessions or were beyond the ken of most folk. 

During Advent, most of us will be thinking about almsgiving and giving time or money to good causes. We all have our favourites, but perhaps this year we could do a little more exploring. Instead of automatically supporting X or Y, we might think who really needs help urgently. There are literally hundreds of charities run on a shoe-string that support causes we may never have heard of, or that supply a need we did not know existed. It would be good if we could each find one that we judge worthy of support and do what we can to show we are not indifferent, and never can be, because of love for our Saviour. That would make our Advent special, and perhaps transform the lives of others. It would assuredly transform our own.

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In Turbulent Times

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Few would dispute that we live in turbulent times. If we were once able to situate violence and civil unrest somewhere ‘out there’, we can do so no longer. The extraordinary scenes as British M.P.s row about Brexit, the protests of the gilets jaunes and the rise of populist movements throughout Europe, to say nothing of the daily shock of tweets from the President of the U.S.A., are surely enough to convince anyone that the world is a-changing, and not necessarily for the better. We continue to hate one another, pollute the world in which we live and generally act as though we had learned nothing from our past experience. We are not so much homo sapiens as homo vastans.

Into this world steps the Church with the words of Baruch 5, urging us to take off our robe of sorrow and distress and put on the glory of the Lord for ever. Is that sheer escapism, the response of the weak and fearful to brutality and power? I don’t think so. The Messianic dream of the people of Israel will be realised; there will indeed be everlasting  peace; but first we must be ready to do our part — and that is where we tend to fall down. 

This Advent I have been impressed, as I always am, by the huge effort made by the Churches to show practical compassion towards those in need. Something more is required, however, and that is the inner transformation of each one of us. John the Baptist, who suddenly appears out of the desert in today’s gospel reading (Luke 3. 1–6), echoes the words of Baruch. The mountains of pride and self-sufficiency must be laid low, the valleys of fear and distrust filled in. Everything that is curved or devious in us must be straightened, and the rough places — the things that hurt or endanger others — must be smoothed out. Ah, we say, of course we’ll do that, but when circumstances are more propitious; yes, then we’ll work on our souls, but in the meantime, we are too busy with the affairs of  this world. We live in turbulent times, you know.

Perhaps the times are turbulent because we have got things the wrong way round. We are too busy trying to make the world suit us better to notice the basic flaw in our plan. We ourselves haven’t changed. We think we can go on as we always have, but we can’t. Every Advent we are faced with the same dilemma, the same invitation. Are we for the Lord or are we not? Are we ready to be converted or are we not? Our decision matters because it is one that affects not just us but everyone else. To choose godliness, to become pure and blameless as St Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, is to accept the challenge of our times. Advent is not just a preparation for Christmas but for the coming of the Day of Christ, and it is the third coming, of Christ to our souls now, that is the link between the two. 

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The Glory of the Lord

Yesterday the snow fell thickly, turning the Black Mountains white and ushering in a wonderful silence that has lasted all night. Into the hushed darkness a voice cries, ‘Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’ It is John the Baptist with his burning zeal, urging us to repent, to turn again to the Lord that he may heal us of sin and iniquity. We know that it is in the person of Jesus Christ that we are healed, and that it is his coming that will transform the world. That is the comforting promised by Isaiah, the glory of the Lord that will be revealed to us, but it is far from being the cosy business our common use of the word ‘comfort’ would suggest.

Throughout Advent we are stretched in ways that at other seasons we barely notice or conveniently ignore. We await a Saviour who has already come, and who is to come again at the end of the ages. We thus live in a strange time out of time, difficult to describe but very real to us who are in it. It can be exhausting; it is always demanding. Just as snow makes a familiar landscape fresh and new, so Advent confounds all our old certainties and invites us to set out on a way that is both known and unknown. We know our goal; we know in theory how to achieve it; there is ‘just’ the problem of the journey. And what an arduous journey it often turns out to be!

Today there are many false prophets in the world, with their seductive visions of how to attain personal fulfilment. For a Christian, personal fulfilment means something quite different from that usually presented as such. We are called to holiness, to a selflessness that makes no sense except sub specie aeternitatis. We may not yet have eyes to see it, but the glory of the Lord is all around. It shimmers and shines throughout creation. We must begin by allowing ourselves to be bathed in its light, then follow with joy:

Let every valley be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low.
Let every cliff become a plain,
and the ridges a valley;
then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
and all mankind shall see it;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
Go up on a high mountain,
joyful messenger to Zion.
shout with a loud voice,
joyful messenger to Jerusalem.
Shout without fear,
say to the towns of Judah,
‘Here is your God.’

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On Not Trying Too Hard

For the last few days I have been even more disagreeable than usual. On Sunday I made a huge effort to be a little nicer, but the effort exhausted me and nearly ‘did’ for everyone else. The truth is, one can try too hard; and at this time of year, when expectations are high, one can get sucked into a spiral of ever-increasing effort which is actually self-defeating. That doesn’t mean, however, that one should simply give up, muttering, ‘That’s how it is.’ As always, there is a balance to be struck. Courtesy, consideration for others, the kindness that shows we have really seen the other — these are possible at all times and seasons. But we may have to accept (as I myself have to accept in my post-chemo days) that we cannot do everything we used to do or want to do with as much ease or aplomb as in the past. It is humbling, it is irritating, but like everything else in life that isn’t exactly what we would choose, it can be made a way of learning — about ourselves, about others, and above all, about God.

God isn’t a fairy godmother, to be invoked whenever we would like things to be other than as they are. God is. Those two words are key. During these last few days before Advent, we are confronted by the fact that God is supremely free. He does not have to conform to our ideas about him; does not have to act as we would have him act. We know that when we try too hard we usually end up making a mess of things. When we try too hard to make God be what we want him to be, we end up with a golden calf. That is worth thinking about. Who would exchange a lifeless idol for the wonder of the living God?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

From Wholeness to Holiness

Three years ago I reflected on today’s Mass readings in these words:

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. . . . Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of his presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when he comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion. (abridged)

Today I would want to add this. The Latin root of the word ‘integrity’ contains important notions of being whole, consistent, yet how often do we hear people speak of their feeling broken, not being themselves, as though their inner core of stability had crumbled under the weight of events? How often, too, in response to some unexpected behaviour, do we say of others, ‘he acted out of character’ or ‘that wasn’t like her’? We expect consistency and a degree of predictability from both ourselves and others, but it does not take much to unsettle us. Is there something here we need to think about?

Advent, with its invitation to set out into the unknown, can be a bewildering experience but can also, if we allow it, make sense of much that ordinarily puzzles us. We are asked to let some of the concerns of other times fall away so that we can  spend more time in prayer and reading the scriptures, or, at any rate, in conscious reflection on how we live as Christians and respond to the Lord’s call. To live with integrity is not merely to act with honesty, it is to live from the central core of our being — only most of us are too busy and preoccupied to discover what that is. Perhaps this Advent we are being asked not only to live upright lives but also to learn something about ourselves we never knew before. It may prove painful or difficult or something we are tempted to shy away from, but there can be no real holiness without some degree of self-knowledge — call it truthfulness about the self, if you like. There is thus a direct connection between wholeness and holiness all the saints have recognized.  So, a useful question for today might be, are we ready to risk being made whole, that we may become holy? Are we ready to become people of integrity?

A prayer intention for today: let us pray for all whose integrity is relied upon by others; those whose lives have been scarred by a lack of integrity or whose integrity has been questioned; those who are broken and in need of healing (which includes all of us, one way or another).Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Into the Unknown

When I was first diagnosed with cancer and told it had spread significantly, I shared a little private anguish with my old friend, Bro Duncan PBGV. I told him my plans had been scuppered and I felt somehow ‘cheated’. But he just looked at me with those wise old eyes of his, and something about them brought me to my senses. We are never cheated by life. Our plans are exactly that: an attempt, a desire, to achieve something in the future, nothing more. They have no separate or real existence apart from our dreams. We may be reluctant to admit it, but our desire to control the future is illusory. We step daily into the unknown. To a dog, the unknown is a place to be explored with enthusiasm and delight, whereas to human beings it can be a source of confusion and distress.

In Advent we step out into the unknown in a new way. We are being called to prepare a place for the Lord in our hearts and that means being prepared to be turned upside down and inside out. I say ‘prepared to be,’ because most of us are spared such dramatic twists and turns. The majority of us seem to get by with just a little rust being scraped off here and there. That can be painful, of course, but it is hardly earth-shattering. Throughout Advent we shall constantly be reminded that this journey into the unknown is not made alone:

the glory of the Lord
will be a canopy and a tent
to give shade by day from the heat,
refuge and shelter from the storm and the rain. (Is. 4.6)

As the Israelites discovered in the desert, and as those in Aleppo and Mosul know only too well today, the protection of the Lord does not mean that we shall be immune from sorrow and distress. God never promised us ease or material success or any of the things we tend to prize. He promised us something much better: a Saviour, and eternal life.

A prayer intention for today: let us pray for the people of Syria and Iraq and for the thousands of refugees and migrants living in refugee camps or temporary shelters, especially those vulnerable to bombing and military attacks.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Luminous Silence of Advent

Christmas Dawn

How ironic that my 1,400th blog post on iBenedictines should be about silence! After so many words, to use yet more words on something that implies the absence of sound and speech is, at best, paradoxical. But it is a paradox worth exploring, especially during Advent when we are confronted with so many images of the Divine Word leaping down into our world and creating it anew. Silence is to sound and speech what presence is to absence, a way of knowing and understanding that surpasses human language. Our faltering words cannot encompass the mystery of God, but they try. If we always end in failure of some kind, there is no loss because with God all is gain. We know that; and so, as we begin our journey through Advent, we are buoyed up by hope and joy. Israel’s redemption is close at hand. A Saviour will be born to us. Our deafness will be healed. But first, we must be still, we must be silent; we must listen. And like anyone taking their first steps in prayer, there is the distinct possibility that all we’ll hear to begin with is the sound of our own heartbeat and the cacophony of voices pulling this way and that in our own minds.

If we persevere and make the effort to allow the interior noise to fall away, if we set a guard over our lips as the psalmist says and check the tendency to give everyone the benefit of our opinion, we will discover a store of silence within. At times, it may appear bleak or barren, sheer emptiness; but it is a silence waiting to be filled, and as Advent goes on, we may begin to see that what at first seemed like emptiness is a kind of fullness and our silence, far from being bleak, is warm and luminous. Alas, that is not everyone’s experience. For many there is only the dark and terrible silence of war and violence, exploitation and human misery — the enforced silence of not being heard, not being allowed to speak. How do we reconcile the beautiful silence of Advent I have written about with this oppressive and ultimately destructive silence?

I think the answer lies in what we do with our silence. We can luxuriate in it, hug it to ourselves, thinking that we are in some way being ‘spiritual’ because we are not being noisy. That is self-indulgence and will lead to nothing but disgust and weariness. Alternatively, we can use our silence to embrace the world’s pain and bring it before God for healing. That is to enter into the dynamic of God’s own redemptive love, the reason he became man for us. It isn’t easy. Our own words, our own ideas about how things should be, the good advice we long to give others (even God), they all have a way of creeping in and creating an inner din that drowns out the whisperings of the Spirit and clouds our vision of the light. We get in the way when we need to step aside. Learning to do just that, changing direction, so to say — metanoia — is what our Advent obsevance is meant to teach us. Our practice of silence should not merely change us; it should transform us.

For me, personally, the challenge this Advent is to be quieter, more attentive, less full of my own words (or anyone else’s) so that the Word of God may find a welcome in my heart and mind. Here in the monastery we begin Advent with three days of total silence — three days of intense listening. They are usually the most difficult and distracted of the year — not because we don’t want to be silent (after all, much of our daily life is silent) but because once one has decided to be silent, everyone and everything conspires against it. Place oneself in the front-line, so to say, and the devil will attack; and because he is clever and an angel of light still, the attack won’t be obvious, but it will be exhausting. Advent is one of those wilderness experiences we have to go through and we must expect it to be arduous.

As the community here goes into Advent, we carry with us the hopes, fears and  longings of all who have asked our prayers, and the hopes, fears and longings of those who cannot or will not ask but whose need is known to God. May the luminous silence of Advent lead you to the Word made flesh this Christmas. Amen.

Please note: during these three days of silence, all tweets, FB prayer intentions and blog posts are pre-scheduled. We do not respond to emails, letters or messages or engage online during these days. This time is for the Lord.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On Being Tired and Weary

Today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 40. 25–31 and Matthew 11. 28–30, linked together by Psalm 102. 1-4, 8, 10, speak to all of us at times. We have all experienced moments — perhaps even weeks, months or years — when everything goes flat, hope shrivels and life becomes a struggle we seem destined to lose. It is at such times that difficulties and disappointments multiply. We may cry out, ‘Why me?’ or shake our fist at the skies and declare, ‘There is no God!’ but answer comes there none. God’s silence is as disconcerting as his word. We are alone in a hostile universe. What is the point of going on? We also know that it doesn’t take much to restore our confidence and good spirits: a smile, an encouraging word, a good meal or some small piece of unexpected good fortune can transform everything and we can laugh at our previous gloom. We are indeed fickle creatures.

But I think there is another side to the weariness the scriptures speak of that we need to consider more deeply. There can be a kind of disgust with God and the things of God that is much more serious than our transitory ups and downs. We can try to escape God in a thousand different ways, which can exhaust us and leave us spiritually and morally shipwrecked. That may not mean that we abandon our Christian principles altogether. On the contrary, we construct our own version of Christianity, with all the bits we like left in, and all the bits we don’t left out. We cocoon ourselves in a religion of our own devising which means we never have to confront the reality of God and his demands. But we need to remember that the God who invites us to come to him for rest is also the God who asks us to shoulder his yoke. Perhaps this Advent we should spend a few minutes thinking about what it means to labour for God, as well as taking our ease in him.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail