On Being a Bucolic Benedictine

A smattering of Greek and an Anglo-Saxon weakness for apt alliteration determined the title for today’s post. I have spent much of the last few days in delicious idleness, watching the calves over the way. They are Herefords, all legs and eyes and bumbling charm. Seen through the drifts of plum blossom, they are enchanting. If I were more religious (!), I’d probably quote the psalms and their references to stall-fed cattle, bulls of Bashan and the like; but we are in rural England in springtime, and the dust and heat of ancient Israel seem very far away. All that will change in an instant on Palm Sunday, when we become one with those following Jesus into Jerusalem and trace, step by step, the events of that momentous week. Today, however, it is life, new life, that surrounds us here at the monastery and reminds us of the everlasting creativity of God.

One of the biggest temptations we face is to believe that everything has been done: that from here on, everything goes downhill, gets worse, ends in dissolution and decay. It is a fundamentally pessimistic view of life, one that cramps both mind and spirit. Many physicists of the nineteenth century believed, by and large, that their subject had been exhausted. There were just a few loose ends to tie up. No physicist today would say that. We are on the brink of discovering so much more. Every day seems to reveal more and more wonders, opens up vistas we had never dreamed of, invites us to go further, deeper.

The calves over the way may strike the casual observer as a symbol of all that is unchanging in the countryside, but anyone with an eye for cattle or even the most cursory knowledge of the breed will tell you that the size of the Hereford has changed enormously over the past century. At one time they were bred very small, so that being shipped out to South America they fitted the cargo pens to which they were consigned. Today’s Hereford stands taller, stockier, a much more substantial beast than his 1950s counterpart. I wonder what they will look like a century hence. Of one thing, I’m sure: they will have changed; and as my vow of conversatio morum daily reminds me, I too must change. Being a bucolic Benedictine is not an opting-out but an opting-in to living by grace and being transformed by it.

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Still Thinking About Integrity

You must have noticed how often the the prophet Isaiah mentions integrity. Today’s first Mass reading, taken from chapter 48, is regretful about the integrity we haven’t practised and the happiness we have thereby forfeited:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,
I lead you in the way that you must go.
If only you had been alert to my commandments,
your happiness would have been like a river,
your integrity like the waves of the sea.
Your children would have been numbered like the sand,
your descendants as many as its grains.
Never would your name have been cut off or blotted out before me.

Still that word ‘integrity’ tugs at me endlessly. John the Baptist lived with integrity; so did St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today; so, above all, did our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve all known people of integrity and how difficult they can be to live with, even as we admire their courage, honesty and so on. That is because integrity has a way of transforming the lives of those who come into contact with it, often in ways that could not have been foreseen and might not have been welcomed if they had.

I like Isaiah’s image of the waves of the sea. That is exactly how the integrity of others frequently affects us: it topples us over, keeps coming back at us, won’t let go, swamps us at times, because it has an energy and force that its inconsequential appearance may belie. Four inches of water is enough to sweep a grown man off his feet. In the same way, it takes only a very little integrity to change things. Perhaps we should remember that and think about the presence or absence of integrity in our own lives.

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Elijah and Extra-Terrestrials

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which we celebrate today, set me thinking about Elijah, that strange and mysterious prophet whose story dominates the latter part of 1 Kings and the beginning of II Kings. Some sci-fi enthusiasts believe that Elijah was an extra-terrestrial, someone who visited earth from another universe. One can see why: he appears from nowhere, without introduction or ancestry, just like Melchizedek. He challenges the accepted order, works miracles and disappears in a chariot drawn by fiery horses. No wonder he has become associated with the end times. In both Jewish and Christian tradition, he holds an important place as harbinger of a new order.

On any other occasion I’d love to explore some of the themes associated with his name. This morning, however, my eye was caught by some speculation about the existence of life, perhaps even intelligent life, outside our own planet. What interests me is not principally whether such life exists (we’ll find out one day) but the enthusiasm many have for trying to make contact with it. I would have thought that the experience of a few thousand years of human history might make us more cautious. Can we assume that if life exists ‘out there’, it is beneficent? Are we so confident in our own powers that we believe we have nothing to fear and everything to gain? Might we not end up being exploited or enslaved, as human beings have exploited and enslaved their fellows at various times?

The enthusiasm for making contact is evidence of an irrepressible urge to explore the unknown, and I have to applaud the optimism and goodwill it suggests even if I sometimes wonder if it isn’t also a trifle naive. But I can’t forget Elijah, not this morning, anyway. He was not a comfortable man, happy with the status quo. The theophany he experienced on Mount Horeb changed him and made him an agent of change in Israel. Might not our extra-terrestrial be just as likely to upset our accustomed order, and would we really welcome the change?

Note for the literal-minded
The above is a little jeu d’esprit for a dismal Monday. 🙂 Please don’t forget to pray for all Carmelites today.

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