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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Advent Waiting and Christmas Happiness

As a community, we are blessed with a small but very insightful group of oblates who often say or do things that leave me amazed at both their perceptiveness and their charity. Yesterday I was mulling over a few thoughts about the race towards Christmas and the failure to allow Advent to be Advent. Many people already have their tree up and their house decorated, and some, at least, will have eaten a handful of Christmas dinners before the ‘real’ one on 25 December. To me, living in a monastery, where the liturgy is full of poignant longing for a joy not yet attained, and the house is as bare as can be, with not so much as a Christmas card yet allowed (we do all our decorating on the afternoon of Christmas Eve), it seems a strange waste of opportunity. Advent: the very word means ‘coming’. We are waiting in hope, and if we would celebrate Christmas in all its richness, it is helpful to spend these few short weeks of Advent preparing, not acting as though we were already at Christmas itself. So I was thinking when one of our oblates broke in on my thoughts.

The oblate in question has cancer (please pray for her) and had been nonplussed by some people who were reluctant to wish her a happy Christmas on the grounds that she couldn’t really be happy because she is so ill. Now, I happen to know that the oblate in question is a woman with a delicious sense of humour and a lively interest in all that goes on around her. She has coped with more than one serious illness gallantly and good-humouredly. But that reluctance to wish her a happy Christmas, that awkwardness in the face of illness, what was that about? Why shouldn’t she be wished a happy Christmas, even if, especially if, which God forbid, it should happen to be her last? Wouldn’t we want to surround her with love and good wishes? I certainly would.

Our Christmas happiness stems from the fact that we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ; it does not depend on what we happen to be thinking or feeling on Christmas Day, or any of the days that follow. If it did, some of us might admit that we were not the happiest of people as we struggle with mass catering or try to cope with World War III breaking out among the assembled family and guests!

I think myself the reluctance to wish our oblate a happy Christmas has a double aspect. Part of it stems from a very British awkwardness in the face of illness and death. We are afraid of putting a foot wrong, which generally means we end up making a hash of things. But I think part of it also stems from a fundamentally skewed conception of the feast now gaining ground. Just as many start celebrating Christmas days (even months!) before the actual date, and often take down their decorations before the festivities have run their course (to Epiphany or Twelfth Night), so I think a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that Christmas is about Christ — about God made man, anointed to suffering and death to free us from sin and open the way of salvation.

We celebrate Christmas because God has heard our cry and come to redeem us. We rejoice that he comes among us as a baby, the mighty Word of God crying and gurgling like the rest of us, and that he comes as Saviour of all. Whether rich or poor, young or old, in good health or bad, we share the joy of his coming because we all need his salvation. We are happy because our Christmas joy does not depend on us but on him. That is the crux of the matter.

So, please wish our oblate a happy Christmas if you meet her; and, if you can, let these days of Advent be days when you experience to the full Israel’s longing for the Messiah. Let there be a little darkness, a little spareness, so that when we come to the great festival of light and warmth that is Christmas, we can do so with hearts ready to receive the gift. Sometimes we have to appreciate the vastness of our need if we are to appreciate how amply it has been met. Let us make the most of this waiting time, remembering that it is not about us but about Him; yet the wonder is, we are His happiness even more than He is ours.

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Spiritual Blindness

Most of us suffer from it most of the time, and those who claim that they don’t are probably deceiving themselves. Spiritual blindness is a fact of life. It makes me think of Coleridge’s ‘owlet atheism . . . hooting at the glorious sun in heaven’ and crying out, ‘where is it?’ We fail to see what is right in front of our noses: the beauty and holiness of God. We capture glimpses of it, or think we do, when we encounter a beautiful building or painting, or are moved by beautiful words or music. But capturing glimpses of it in failure, in ugliness or whatever is contrary to our wishes or ideas, that is more difficult.

Today’s Mass readings, from Isaiah 29 and Matthew 9. 27–31 are about being cured of blindness. What we may fail to take on board is that being cured of blindness doesn’t change the world, only our perception of it. We may recoil from what we think of as being somehow ‘contrary to God’ (by which we usually mean our ideas of God) but that is to perpetuate a kind of blindness, a refusal to see things as they truly are. It is especially dangerous when it concerns the way in which we see other people, because we can choose to see a distorted and distorting version of them. There is a part of the eye called the fovea where we see clearly, without any distortion. That is how God sees us and how, this Advent, we are invited to see him and all that he has created.

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Withered Leaves: the First Sunday of Advent 2014

There is something melancholy about Isaiah’s description of the people of Israel as ‘withered leaves, blown away by our sins, as by the wind’ (cf. today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 63.16–17, 64.1, 3–8 ). It conjures up a vision of dryness, deadness, being scattered to the four winds in a cold and dusty Gobi of the soul. Yet this is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, the first day of her Year of Consecrated Life! The irony is almost too much. Many a parish congregation, many a religious community, may secretly be feeling a lack of energy and enthusiasm. The last thing we need is to be reminded of our failure, isn’t it?

That is true if we believe in D.I.Y. redemption, but the fact is that we cannot save ourselves, nor can we be saved in spite of ourselves. At some point or other we have to face who and what we are and allow grace to work its miracle. We begin by acknowledging the fact of sin in our lives — not wallowing in it, just admitting it. This frees us from all the false selves and idols we have created and worshiped instead of God. Only then can the Lord Jesus Christ step in, as it were, as Saviour and Redeemer (cf. the second Mass reading, 1 Corinthians 1.3–9). But once he has stepped in, what then? Then we wait, as the gospel says, (cf. Mark 13.33–37).

The meaning of this waiting is admirably expressed in the first Preface of Advent. The English version we use now reads

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day
may inherit the great promise
in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
as we sing the hymn of your glory
without end we acclaim. . . .

But let’s spend a moment or two on the Latin and see if we can tease out a little more depth of meaning than the English translation suggests at first sight.

Vere dignum et iustum est, æquum et salutare,
nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere:
Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens æterne Deus:
per Christum Dominum nostrum.

Qui, primo adventu
in humilitate carnis assumptæ,
dispositionis antiquæ munus implevit,
nobisque salutis perpetuae tramitem reseravit:
ut, cum secundo venerit in suæ gloria maiestatis,
manifesto demum munere capiamus,
quod vigilantes nunc audemus exspectare promissum.

Et ideo cum Angelis et Archangelis,
cum Thronis et Dominationibus,
cumque omni militia cælestis exercitus,
hymnum gloriæ tuæ canimus,
sine fine dicentes. . . .

To me, the English text doesn’t really convey the interplay between the First and Second Comings of the Lord contained in the Latin (the latter is never mentioned as such in the translation, though it is plainly there in the original: primo adventu . . . cum secundo venerit), and it misses the force of the relative qui linking the introduction with the wonderful proclamation that follows (‘through Christ our Lord Who . . .’). These are small points, perhaps, but in such a pithy text, they are worth remarking. I’m not entirely sure that the translation doesn’t do violence to the original by suggesting that Christ opened the way to salvation, rather than the way of salvation itself. Again there is a difference which is breath-taking when one thinks about it. The Latin text states these things in a beautifully concise, declarative style: three short sentences announcing some of the greatest truths ever enunciated. But what really bothers me is the way in which munus has been translated. I have always taken this to mean the great work of salvation being made manifest, not just a vague ‘all’ or ‘all things’, for it is surely salvation that is our great hope, the promise to which we look forward. In Latin, that promise is the culmination of the Preface text, rather than, as in English, ‘in which now we dare to hope’ (nunc audemus expectare promissum . . .  ‘what we now dare to hope for, your promise’).

Am I just being pedantic or obscure? I hope not, because the Preface contains the theology of Advent in a little and I think it is worth trying to see exactly what that is and how the Church understands it. The interplay between First and Second Comings, the Day of the Lord which we await, the Salvation for which we watch, the Promise for which we dare to hope — these are the great themes we shall be exploring during the first part of Advent. They are what make us shake off our sloth or indifference and fill us with fresh energy and enthusiasm. They mark the springtime of our liturgical year and remind us that the withered leaves of sin and failure can become a rich humus from which new life will grow.

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Silence Days

From today, up to, and including, the First Sunday of Advent, we maintain complete silence in the monastery except for the liturgy and ‘necessary conversation’ — e.g. when the postman comes to the door. It is our way of bringing a sharp focus to bear on what Advent is about. It makes us realise how much noise we carry about within us, how many discordant thoughts and opinions. So, for three days we step back from that completely. I know from past experience it won’t be easy. If one drives one kind of noise out, another sneaks in to take its place. Punctuality for meals seems to undergo a mysterious sea-change. She who was always a minute late will now be five minutes early. Little quirks of behaviour that normally pass unremarked will become a source of profound irritation. On the plus side, one may be held entranced by the splash of light falling on a cupboard or feel, as if for the first time, the soft beauty of a wooden table or chair.

This change of pace and emphasis occurs when half the Western world seems to indulge in the mad materialism of Black Friday. I think that may be significant. We tend to confuse sufficiency and excess. Perhaps if we could all step back a little, even for half an hour, and think about what really makes for happiness, we might reassess our priorities. Silence is an eloquent teacher, if we are prepared to listen.

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Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.

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Christmas Eve in the Monastery

Christmas Eve in the monastery is, like Holy Saturday, a time out of time. We are still in Advent, but we have half a foot in Christmas as we put up the Christmas decorations and begin to think about sending Christmas greetings. Key to the whole is the singing of the Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation). I shall be thrifty and recycle what I wrote about it last year:

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

May you have a happy and holy Christmas!

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Come and Save Us: O Emmanuel

Today’s O antiphon is

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

I always think there is a kind of desperation in today’s O antiphon. We pile on the titles of God — Emmanuel, King, Giver of the Law, Desired of the Nations, Saviour of the Peoples — as though by making sure we have missed none out, we could be more certain of being heard. Then, when we have done all that, our exhausted plea is very simple: come and save us. That final, poignant ‘Lord our God’ is wrung from our very heart. God is indeed our hope and salvation, in whom we trust despite ourselves.

If you are blessed with a serene and unhesitating faith, none of this will make sense; but I suspect many wrestle with questions of faith and doubt, presence and absence, and know that we must somehow bring this inner turmoil of thought and feeling to God for healing and redemption. Advent now has almost completed its task in us. Today we stand naked before God, just as, in a couple of days, the Son of God will stand naked before us in the Child born at Bethlehem. Our defences are down, we know ourselves for what we are. Soon, very soon, we shall be privileged to know God for who and what he is: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

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Light in Darkness: O Oriens

Today’s O antiphon is

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, singing that antiphon on the day of the winter solstice seems especially appropriate. The darkness lasts so long, and this year, for those of us who live in Britain, there is the recollection of Lockerbie twenty-five years ago and the moral darkness we associate with violence and murder. Sometimes, when we look inside ourselves, we see darkness there also. Not, I trust, the darkness of violence, but perhaps the darkness of loneliness, failure (as we understand it), fear or despair. That is the darkness that keeps us imprisoned in the shadow of death, the darkness that the Morning Star comes to scatter with his wonderful light.

One of the small joys I experienced as a nun of Stanbrook was watching the dawn light steal over the sanctuary at Vigils. In the winter months we began and ended in inky blackness, but gradually, as the weeks wore on, the light began to pierce the gloom until finally, in summer, the great East window glittered and shone long before we went into choir. A similar rhythm can mark our sense of interior darkness. There are times when we think it will never end. We must hold firm and trust that it will lift. The Sun of Justice will rise with healing in his wings, as the prophet says, and they will be spread over us, too.

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