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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pausing Before Christmas

Today will probably present the last opportunity many of us have for a short pause before we are hurled into the maelstrom of Christmas preparations and celebrations. Some will be excited and hopeful; others tired and perhaps a bit crotchety; most of us will probably be too busy to register how we feel, we shall just get on with things.

I think ‘just getting on with things’ is exactly right. We are not called to be wondermen or wonderwomen. We are called to be human; and being human means accepting that we are weak and fallible at times. No matter how hard we try to make things perfect for others (or even ourselves), they never will be in this life. We live with imperfection, and it is a very good thing that we do. Otherwise, we should become completely impossible!

Today, if you can, try to make space for a minute or two alone with the Lord. Read through the readings for Christmas Mass, especially the Preface, and find a word or phrase you can take with you through the next few days. Return to it when you feel you are becoming stressed or agitated; silently recall it if you feel low; keep it close to you if you have to do something or spend time with someone you don’t much like. Let the Word take root in you, that you may welcome Him afresh on Christmas morning.

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014

Here in the monastery the Fourth Sunday of Advent is celebrated quietly and plainly: no decorations, no carols, nothing that anticipates Christmas save that Preface II of Advent clearly looks forward to the coming feast:

. . . all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

I’m not sure that ‘John the Baptist sang of his coming’ really makes the same point as ‘John the Baptist was his herald’, but we’ll let that pass. I am more interested in the gospel, Luke 1. 26–38, the same as we had yesterday, but how differently it reads in this context. Yesterday it was all about signs, Ahaz testing God by his refusal to ask for a sign, our looking to the future. Today it is about the fulfilment of God’s promises and our response, what Paul calls the ‘mystery kept secret for endless ages, but now so clear that it must be broadcast to pagans everywhere to bring them to the obedience of faith’ (Romans 16. 26). At the heart of today’s liturgy is that moment of unequalled obedient faith, when Mary said ‘yes’ to what God asked, without qualification or reserve.

We can stop there, pondering Mary’s speaking the word that would enable the Word to take flesh among us, but for most of us it is more helpful to reflect on how the gospel ends. ‘And the angel left her.’ That rings true, doesn’t it? We come down from the mountain-top and find the world apparently unchanged; and what is more, we no longer have the ‘buzz’, the excitement or exhilaration that accompanied our unstinted gift of self. We find, as generations have before us, that the ‘yes’ said neat in prayer must be worked out amidst the ordinariness of everyday life. It was exactly the same for Mary. After her meeting with the angel she had to face all the difficulties of her situation seemingly alone. Even Joseph, whom we see now as her great support, hesitated to believe her.

Perhaps what we can take away from the liturgy today is the realisation that we become more, not less, human when we encounter God. Nothing changes, yet everything is transformed. We do not become supermen or superwomen, any more than Mary did; but we do become holier, in our case just a little more like God. But that little increase in likeness is all it takes to live the Good News, which is what we are called to do. Let us ask Our Lady to pray for us.

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Gaudete Sunday 2014

Every year for the last ten years I have blogged about Gaudete Sunday. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have been to Mass on this Sunday and shared in the Sacrament of the altar. Today, however, will be different. I shall drive Quietnun to Mass (we live some miles away from the nearest Catholic church, common enough in England, but rarer elsewhere) and while she participates in the Mass inside, I shall be sitting outside, reading the lessons and prayers*. It is, if I’m honest, slightly miserable. Which brings me to my point.

This morning many a priest will be exhorting his congregation to rejoice. The Mass readings are full of exultant joy; and the choir, if there is one, will be raising the roof with glad song. Even the church’s appearance will change today, with a swirl of rose vestments and incense breaking in on our Advent plainness. So what do we do if our own feelings are out of step with the message, if we are, so to say, feeling like outsiders?

We cannot and should not pretend to a joy we do not have, but instead of shrugging off the whole idea and going our misanthropic way alone, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by rejoicing and why we are exhorted to be joyful. The joy of a Christian has nothing to do with feelings; it has very little to do with circumstances, either, but has everything to do with hope — our hope in Christ and our hope for all eternity. The broken heart is still broken, but now it is bound up; the poor are still poor, but now we hear the Good News; whatever our past failures, now we are wrapped in the cloak of integrity. (cf Isaiah 61. 1-2, 10-11) Like John the Baptist, we look beyond ourselves to the person of Christ; and like John, we rejoice, we find our joy in Him. We may be going through a desert period in our lives; we may be very conscious of our own fragility and unworthiness; but it doesn’t matter. Christ is all in all. As I sit in the car this morning, I shall try to remember that.

* The chemotherapy I’m having means I’m vulnerable to infection.

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The Sound of Silence

It’s easy to become lyrical about silence, isn’t it? All the great religions of the world seem to hold silence in veneration. In Christianity we have the immense paradox of  the creative word God speaks into the silence of non-being which is the Logos, the Word of God Incarnate. In the Benedictine monastic tradition, silence is the natural counterpart to the liturgy we celebrate in choir. We are immersed in silence, bathed in it all day long; but I don’t think you will find a single monk or nun who wouldn’t admit that, far from being the enviably peaceful state many imagine, it can be a searing experience. It confronts us with our inner poverty, challenges us to conversion of heart, casts a searching light on all that we would prefer to keep hidden.

The U.S. Senate report on the use of torture by the C.I.A. shows us another kind of silence, the collusive silence of fear and shame which has nothing redemptive in it. It is the silence of Adam and Eve after they had eaten the fatal fruit. This morning I think we all feel our humanity has been diminished — not because we are personally responsible, but because whatever one human being does to another affects us all. This shameful silence, too, has to be taken into our prayer, has somehow to be transformed, so that it is no longer destructive.

During these days of Advent we try to be a little more silent than usual because we are preparing to receive the Word of God as Saviour and Redeemer. We need to listen. Sometimes all we’ll hear is the sound of silence, like the beating of a bird’s wing against the air or the pumping of blood around our heart. We need the Holy Spirit to come and overshadow us with his mighty power,  just as he overshadowed Mary. If we ask, he will; but we must be prepared for the unexpected. God’s ideas are always so much bigger than our own.

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