Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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St Scholastica and Single-heartedness

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict. All we know about her comes from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. We are told that once a year she and her brother used to meet to discuss spiritual matters. On one occasion she wished her brother to stay longer, but he, anxious not to spend the night away from his monastery, refused. Scholastica prayed, and the result of her prayers was a storm so fierce and long that he was compelled to stay and passed the night discussing holy matters with her. He humbly acknowledged that she had prevailed with God because she loved much. The second reference to her occurs when Benedict sees a dove flying skywards and realises that it is an image of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven.

Pretty stories, or something more? It rather depends whom and what you want to believe. For some, Scholastica is no more ‘real’ than St Benedict, simply an image of prayer, the ‘feminine’ aspect of monasticism. For others, Scholastica is indeed an historical person, but merely an adjunct to the story of St Benedict. If she is remembered at all it is because she was, as the preface of the day says, ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ and his bones were allegedly placed in the same grave as hers. I myself think the truth is more complex.

The Dialogues are not history as we understand it today. Scholastica’s appearance in the narrative has a didactic purpose. She is presented in the first incident as the  teacher of St Benedict. He had to learn, first, that his purely human legislation (not spending a night away from the monastery) might, on occasion, and for good reason, be abrogated. More importantly, he had to learn that the  power of prayer proceeds from the love and fervour with which it is practised. At many points in the Rule Benedict insists that prayer be short and pure, that we shall not be heard for our many words but for our purity of heart and devotion; the motive he gives for almost every act is love of Christ. This is particularly noticeable in those passages adapted from the Rule of the Master and gives a completely different character to RB. Benedict learned his lesson well.

With the second incident, the vision of Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven, we come to a favourite topos or theme in hagiography. It confirms the holiness of both the visionary and the subject of his vision. Like the burial of brother and sister in a single grave (or side by side, as now) Benedict and Scholastica are both examples of Benedictine holiness, neither complete without the other. We cannot always be doing; we cannot always be praying in the formal sense; we can, and should, always be monastic, single-hearted in the service of our Lord.

May St Scholastica pray for us all.

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True and False Humility

Saturday is a busy day, not one for thinking Deep Thoughts, is it? Unfortunately, today happens to be the one on which we read RB 7. 51 to 54, the so-called Seventh Step of Humility, which confronts us with the difference between true and false humility.

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart, humbling oneself and saying with the prophet, ‘I am indeed a worm and not a human being, a byword among men and laughing-stock of the people. I was exalted and have been humbled and brought to confusion;’ (cfr Pss 21[22].7 and 87[88].16) and further, ‘It was good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments.’ (Ps 118[119].71, 73)

At first sight, St Benedict seems rather OTT, urging us to go around admitting our inferiority and comparing ourselves with worms. However, if we pay close attention to his opening words, the quotations from the psalms are given a different context, a much more challenging one. It is easy to say, ‘I’m no good’. It lets us off the hook. We can simultaneously excuse ourselves for any shortcoming and at the same time bask in our own abasement. That is false humility. What St Benedict actually says is rather different.

We are asked, first of all, to believe in our own unimportance. That is not quite the same as proclaiming our unworthiness. In fact, it is a much quieter business altogether, which is why most of us don’t like it. True humility doesn’t draw attention to itself. Secondly, we are given a context for our unimportance. Benedict quotes the Passion psalms, to remind us that our humility is grounded in Christ. We need to think about that. To recognize that we are not the centre of the universe yet are made in the image and likeness of God, endowed with a beauty and perfection which is truly God-given, is to see clearly both our infinite worth and our utter dependence upon God. There can be no room for pride in that because it is the vision of truth. In the same way, to realise that our littleness is taken up into Christ’s greatness, that our small disappointments and failures are transformed by the sacrifice of Calvary, is to understand that humility gives us a safe place on which to stand, indeed, the only safe place: in Christ.

This short paragraph of the Rule is a gem, worth mulling over as we go about our Saturday tasks.

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Monastic Obedience

Today we read just a single verse of the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7.34:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient unto death.’ (The scriptural reference is to Philippians 2.8)

The lay reader often passes over this with a vague sense that it is all right for monks and nuns but hardly applicable to life in general. Those who have tried to make sense of it in a lay context generally end up talking about the mutual obedience of marriage or the multiple levels of authority and obedience in the workplace. All well and good, but I think we touch here one of the reasons why I am hesitant about some aspects of ‘lay monasticism’, as it is sometimes called, because it does not have, cannot have, the same radical obedience at its heart.

For a Benedictine, obedience is of value insofar as, and in the measure that, it incorporates us into Christ. We obey ‘for the love of God’, ‘imitating the Lord’, and the obedience we give allows of no reservation, no holding back: ‘in ALL obedience’ means exactly what it appears to mean. Only sin is excepted (which includes folly, as my Junior Mistress pertinently remarked). The obedience, moreover, is given to a fallible human being, not to some saint or sage (unless one happens to live under a saint or a sage). It is incarnated and worked out in the dailiness of our lives.

We none of us know what will be asked of us when we vow this obedience, but it is there, shaping every moment of every day from our first entry into monastic life until the hour of our death. We surrender our freedom in order to attain a greater freedom in Christ. This paradox of monastic obedience is not easily explained. It has to be lived as one of those ‘small fidelities’ I alluded to in an earlier post. That is why our old monks and nuns are so precious. They show us what a lifetime of obedience can achieve: the formation of Christ in them, their hope of glory.

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Friends

We keep the feast of St Aelred today (tomorrow being the feast of St Benet Biscop for us) so my thoughts naturally turn to friends. Friends, please note, not friendship. Friends are people — awkward, imperfect, challenging, delightful to be with; friendship is an abstraction, a way of thinking and reflecting on what friends are and mean.

Today let us give thanks for our friends in all their quirky individuality and pray that we may be better friends in return. Christ is always the third person present in any friendship, so let us be friends in a way that he would approve; and if we can think of any friends from whom we are estranged or whom we have neglected, let’s make an effort to put things right.

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Baptism of the Lord 2012

I’ve written about this feast, its history and theology, many times, most recently here. Perhaps today a single thought will suffice. The Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of his public ministry. It represents something new in his life, and in the life of the world, yet it was, at the time, an obscure act in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. The baptism of an unknown Galilean by an eccentric preacher out in the Judean wilderness was hardly likely to cause any ripples in Rome.

Life is full of new beginnings. Some of them seem significant, at least to ourselves; others are unremarkable; yet if we are open to the grace of God, even our most obscure actions become capable of uniting us with Christ and his mission. As many of the Fathers loved to recall, when Christ went down into the waters of the Jordan, he took us with him. We must also rise with him to become beloved children in whom the Father is well-pleased.

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O Emmanuel: God with us

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.

Today’s Mass readings, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66, taken together with Isaiah 7.14, provide more than enough to think about as we listen to the antiphon:

 

We are very close to the birth we are waiting for. The prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, and the question with which the gospel ends is one we must ask not just of John’s birth but of Jesus’ also: ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ Sometimes people assume that ‘good’ Christians have no doubts, never ask questions, never experience a sense of bewilderment in the face of cruelty or disaster. That is demonstrably untrue. To be a Christian is surely to live with uncertainty, relying on the gift of faith to bridge the gap between our understanding and our questioning. Tonight’s antiphon reminds us that the God we seek is not a God afar off, but God-with-us, one who has shared our humanity and calls us to share in his divinity.

O Emmanuel expresses the theology of this in a few, meaning-rich phrases. Notice that expectatio gentium, although translated as ‘Desired of the nations’, really has more the sense of ‘hope’ or even more literally, ‘expectation’. The antiphon takes up and develops all the themes of the previous six. Christ is welcomed as God-with-us, King of David’s line, the true Law-giver, one who is the fulfilment of every human (= gentile) hope and longing, whose gift of salvation is open to all. The petition with which the antiphon ends is absolutely clear about the divine nature and mission of the Messiah: ‘come and save us, Lord our God.’

There in a nutshell is what Christmas is about. In his compassion and love, God wills to take our human flesh and blood and redeem us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our salvation is very near. It began with Mary’s generous-hearted consent to be the Mother of God. It will take physical shape with the birth of Jesus on Christmas night. It will be completed only when all are one with Him in the Kingdom. Truly, this is ‘a mystery hidden from long ages, a secret into which even angels long to look!

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O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7

 

We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.

Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.

It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.

The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.

The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.

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Patience

Patience is often described as the Benedictine’s fourth vow. It is a theme that occurs again and again in the Rule, where we are reminded that we ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ’. (RB Prol. 50) The newcomer to monastic life is to be ‘tested in all patience’.  (RB 58.11) Indeed, patiently bearing with delays and contradictions is one of the signs looked for as the mark of a genuine vocation. It all sounds rather wonderful until one has to practise it. For the plain truth is that patience is hard work. It means embracing suffering, not just stoically putting up with it, and doing so with a quiet heart. (RB 7. 35) Patience requires a great deal of trust and humility as well as self-control.

Patience, trust, humility: these are not qualities that our society cultivates or values very much. We prefer to be self-assertive, thrusting not trusting, testing everything by our own standards and rather despising those who are patient and humble, as thought they were milksops. In fact, it takes real strength of character to be patient, to accept adversity quietly, without anger or upset. Similarly, trust and humility are not for wimps but for those who are brave enough to look themselves in the face and know themselves for what they are.

Today each one of us will be given the opportunity to exercise a little patience, to show a little trust and be a little humble. Are we big enough to meet the challenge?

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Sons in the Son

There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.

I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.

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