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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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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