The Light of the Lord

There is an invitation in Isaiah 2 I have always found attractive:

O house of Jacob, come;
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Have you ever asked yourself what that really means? To Isaiah it meant principally living by the precepts of the Lord, incarnating that integrity I spoke of yesterday. But I think for us as Christians it means something more. It means trying to see as God sees; and as we know, ‘God does not see as man sees’ because he sees the heart, which is so often hidden from us. There is a paradox here: that which is most hidden, most obscure, is also the most luminous. We see more clearly with the heart than with the eyes of the mind. The heart is, so to say, the fovea of the human person, that which sees without distortion, which can focus clearly upon God.

Advent is so full of activity that we can seem at times to be preparing for the coming of Christ in utterly contradictory ways. Today, for example, is Mega Monday, when internet sales peak; but one would have to be extremely strong-minded (or misanthropic or broke) not to take part in at least some of the pre-Christmas commercial activity. How, then, do we ‘walk by the light of the Lord’ in the midst of our everyday life when it seems to be pulling us in all directions? For me, part of the answer is to be found in RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, which happens to be the chapter we read today. The oratory should be what it is called, says Benedict, and nothing else should be done or kept there. For most of us, there is no physical oratory we can withdraw to, but we all have hearts in which Christ prays unceasingly to the Father. From time time throughout the day, we can briefly, quietly, remember that and join our prayer with His. We can allow his light to shine on what we are doing and transform it.

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Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

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In a Monastery Garden

One of the things that has delighted me since coming here are the birds. They are everywhere: sparrows, thrushes, finches and, over the way, larks and the occasional buzzard. The garden is filled with birdsong from morning till night. There are oak trees and apple trees and the rich red earth of Herefordshire peeping through long green grasses. In the local churchyard the graves are marked with the names not only of the person who lies there but also of the farm from which he or she came. There is a rootedness, a closeness to the soil, that is no longer the familiar experience of the majority of British citizens.

Does this affect how other things are viewed? That I have yet to learn, but I suspect it makes one aspect of the Gospels easier to grasp. The allusions to the natural world, to seed time and harvest, to digging and trenching, the building of wine presses and barns, need no interpretation here. Indeed, I look out of my window at the old cider press in the garden and it takes no great leap of imagination to see, not an old horse trundling round and round, but one who comes from Edom, his garments stained red as from a wine press.

We must connect life and faith or there is a terrible disjunction in our lives, leading either to total disbelief or an equally total fanaticism — not, perhaps, what Ketèlby had in mind when he composed his eponymous piece!

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In Praise of Rain

Jokes about the drought are frequent. Ever since it was declared, it seems, we have had nothing but rain. April was the wettest on record for a century; it was followed by an unusually wet May. Even now the skies pour down; so why not celebrate rain and sing its praises?

It is a grey morning here in Herefordshire, but the raindrops skittering down the window panes are more brilliant than the Queen’s ‘river pageant dress’ as they trace their delicate patterns of silver and crystal down the glass. Step outside, and the rain feels warm and fresh on one’s face. The earth is soaking up the rain, with grass and trees bending under its weight. From the undergrowth comes the unmistakable smell of wet earth and lush vegetation. One can almost hear the grass growing at one’s feet. Everything is vibrant with life.

In the Bible rain is always seen as a precious gift, giving life and freshness to the earth. As befits a nation of desert-dwellers, the Israelites celebrated rain as a blessing, to be longed for in time of drought, praised as spring rain and autumn rain, gloried in as a sign of God’s gift of fertility and growth. Like them, we pray for the heavens to rain down the Just One, liken the action of the Word of God to the rain doing its work on the earth, acknowledge Christ to be Lord of sky and storm.

We are glad of the rain, for two dry winters have reminded us that it is not a gift to be taken for granted. As we sing in the Canticle of Daniel, ‘springs and showers, bless the Lord’; and as Fr Baker reminds us in Sancta Sophia, we are called to ‘praise the Lord amidst the noise of the water-spouts’. A cheering thought as we raise our ‘brollies yet again.

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The Promise is Fulfilled

‘The promise is fulfilled: all is made new.’ With those words we greet the Solemnity of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and the greatest feast of the Church year. Probably a few readers are thinking to themselves, ‘Surely Easter is the greatest feast?’ But please note where I put the emphasis, on the Church year. Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole Church, our commission to mission, so to say. It is a feast that combines transcendence and immanence, grandeur and lowliness, in a most remarkable way. The promise made to our ancestors is fulfilled: we live now the newness of life that Christ our Lord has made possible. The Church is a sign of his presence and action in the world: it is our vocation to be what he is.

For us here at Hendred the promise is fulfilled in another, more material way. Yesterday we collected the keys to our new monastery in Herefordshire and this week we shall be moving in. We shall be offline for a while, at least until BT fits a new telephone line, but prayer never ceases; and very soon Howton Grove Priory will resound to the praises of God as we sing the Lord’s song in a new land. To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
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Irritable Nun Syndrome and St Athanasius

Yesterday I made a joke on Twitter. (I often make jokes and have the pleasure of seeing them descend to earth with all the delicacy of a lead balloon, but bear with me.) Irritable Nun Syndrome is a condition I have sometimes diagnosed in myself when tired or oppressed by the adolescent feeling that others just don’t understand. The lapidary sentence that distills a lifetime of thought and learning being taken a little too literally; the gracious nod in the direction of someone truly great being completely missed; the gentle irony mistaken for something much worse. You know the kind of thing. All terribly humbling, but annoying too.

I was chuntering along these lines when I realised that in St Athanasius I, and all sufferers from Irritable Nun Syndrome, have a wonderful ally. Not because we can compare ourselves in any way to such a great saint but because, as the dauntless champion of the Incarnation with a passionate concern for the integrity of Catholic belief, Athanasius was one of the most awkward men who have ever lived. He bristles, he burns, and he pays the price in exile and obloquy. At heart, I think he was something of a monk.

All monks and nuns are, to some degree, awkward people. We are free, as few other people are free, to follow the logic of our conversion to Christ. That freedom confers a great responsibility on us. There will undoubtedly be times when we wish to shirk it or shrink it to something we feel we can ‘manage’, but as St Benedict reminds us in the opening words of the Rule, we have stripped ourselves of self-will to fight for the true King, Christ our Lord, with the strong and glorious weapons of obedience. Athanasius was throughout his life a man of unwavering fidelity to the obedience he had vowed. May he pray for us all.

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Doing the Impossible

Doing the impossible comes naturally to Benedictines: we have a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to it, RB 68. Anyone able to fulfil its requirements is undoubtedly guilty of heroic virtue. First, the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when one sees its impossibility (RB 68.1). Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can one raise an objection, and even then, one can’t just blurt out the objection, one has to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to one’s superior (RB 68.3). Any form of argumentativeness is ruled out, and if the superior declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

I think this short chapter of the Rule which we read today gives the lie to those who think that there is anything ‘moderate’ about RB. We are asked to transcend our normal way of acting, to strive for an obedience which truly reflects the obedience of Christ. Heroic virtue, as I indicated, is never popular. It can be uncomfortable to others, challenging their attitudes and expectations, but note the characteristic note of  humility and love with which Benedict concludes his chapter. That is the key to understanding what it is all about: allowing Christ to act in and through us.

Doing the impossible is not an ascetic feat, an attempt to be superhuman, it is rather an acknowledgement that God can do so much more than we could ever think or dream, and au fond, all that we do is done in love or it is worthless. I think I’d like to be guilty of that, wouldn’t you?

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Forgiveness

Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus include a showing of the wounds in his body. I used to think that they were intended to elicit or confirm faith. A prime example would be the showing to Thomas, but reading today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35–48, made me think again. Could it be that these showings have another purpose, one that the disciples found even more necessary — an assurance of forgiveness?

You’ll notice that Jesus never finds it necessary to show the women his wounds. As far as we can tell from the gospel narratives, they never abandoned Jesus and were never afraid when they met him again after the Resurrection. When Mary Magdalene met him in the garden she wept, but for her supposed loss rather than consciousness of any sin or betrayal. The men do not get off so lightly, especially when they are gathered together in a group. There is consternation when Jesus appears among them, doubt, disbelief, a whole gamut of emotions, including fear. Jesus reassures them and shows them his wounds. This showing not only demonstrates who he is but also what he has done: ‘God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself’.

Just in case any of my female readers is quietly congratulating herself, I had better point out that we are all among the male disciples now. We are all in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness which come to us through Christ our Lord. Those wounds on his body are there for all eternity as a sign of his love and forgiveness. We are each one of us ‘graven on the palm of his hand’.

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Holy Saturday: a Day out of Time

An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.

Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.

Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.

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Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.

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