The First Sunday of Advent 2020

Advent sky

Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.

Community Newsletter:
Complete with typo! https://mailchi.mp/d3ee45ba46b0/holy-trinity-monasterys-advent-newsletter-2020

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Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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Doing the Coenobitic Crawl

It would be nice to report that I had awoken this morning thinking, it is the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I am ready to ‘run with an inexpressible sweetness of love along the way of God’s commandments.’ (RB Prol. 49) The truth, alas, is less uplifting. I spent yesterday nursing a sick headache while filling in endless government forms, tossed and turned all night, and am now contemplating the day ahead with muted enthusiasm. Situation excellent! If I can’t run, it is time to do the coenobitic crawl.

Most of us have a tendency to have unreal expectations of ourselves. That little bit of D.I.Y. will only take an hour we think, and five hours later, there is still work to be done and we are discouraged and weary. Or we set ourselves a programme of reading and prayer that is completely unsustainable. As a junior nun, I decided I ought to read the whole of Aquinas. I did, eventually, but it took me years rather than months and there were a few syllogisms I think I read with glazed eyes and scant attention.

In a few days we shall begin Advent, our hopes high, our aims generous. Many of us will try to take on too much and end up exhausted and disappointed. But it is we who will be disappointed, not God, who loves a generous giver and would prefer us to be prudent as well as filled with holy ambition. How blessed we are to have this feast to remind us that growth doesn’t come all at once! Our Lady was dedicated to God’s service from the first moment of her conception but she had to learn, as we all do, what that meant. She had to crawl before she could walk, both literally and spiritually. What I dub the coenobitic crawl is merely the monastic version of something common to Christians in every age. There are days when we seem to sprint along; others, when we seem, if anything, to be going backwards. It doesn’t matter. God sees and loves us as we are. His encouragement will sustain us even when we can’t find any in ourselves. So will the prayers of Mary, if we ask her.

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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