O Adonai: the holiness of God

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
 

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.

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Mindfulness of God

The section of the Rule that we read today, RB 7. 10 to 18, is a key text, not merely for Benedictines but for all Christians. To understand why Benedict links mindfulness of God with humility we must take a step back and consider the story of Adam and Eve. It was forgetting God that allowed pride to to take hold in their hearts, distort their vision and lead them into sin. It’s exactly the same with us. When we forget God, we are apt to sin because our vision becomes crooked and self looms too large. Consciousness of God makes us see ourselves as we are, and humility is, in essence, truthfulness. To be truthful about ourselves means there can be no room for pride.

For some, the idea that God is always watching them is disconcerting. I myself find it encouraging. To know that nothing escapes his notice, that the very hairs of one’s head have been numbered, that even when I sin his love continues to enfold me, is to know that God is indeed a loving and compassionate God. Maybe our problem is not so much mindfulness as fear. We forget God because we are afraid of so great a love. Put like that, isn’t it rather silly of us?

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People as Commodities

I was very much struck by a sentence in a friend’s email yesterday, ‘Some people think communities are commodities and ask questions as if that were the case.’ I think we could widen the terms of reference to include everyone: people as commodities.

How often does one read of some Government scheme which deals with statistics in such a way that the humanity is bled out of them, or read of some personal tragedy being picked over by the media as though those involved had no role other than to gratify our curiosity? Take the media comment on Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. There was a lot of speculation about the future of the company, some neat retrospectives detailing the amazing impact he has had on consumer technology, but not one of the (admittedly few) assessments I read did more than mention his illness as a ‘problem’ for Apple. No doubt it was ‘weak and womanish’ of me to think that half a sentence wishing the chap well, or expressing some hope for whatever life he has left would have been a more decent and humane response to the human story behind the headlines. But, no. There was some intrusive speculation about the nature of his illness (what right have we to know?) but that was all.

I suspect that this commodification of people, of seeing others principally as contributors to or detractors from my wellbeing, plays an important part in the decay of virtue which it is fashionable to decry. Consider me old-fashioned if you like, but doesn’t virtue have something to do with vir, being a man, being human?

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The Feast of the Visitation

The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, Chartres Cathedral
The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, Chartres Cathedral

When Paul VI moved the feast of the Visitation to 31 May, he ensured that May, ‘Mary’s month’, would finally have a feast of Our Lady, and what a beautiful feast it is!

There is something very moving about Mary’s making the difficult journey to visit her kinswoman when she was herself pregnant. Equally moving is Elizabeth’s amazed and humble greeting, ‘Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?’ We tend to think of the Visitation as the feast of the Magnificat, that glorious canticle of praise that fell from Mary’s lips, but perhaps for us it is Elizabeth’s question that matters. Why should the saints, chief of whom is Mary, bother themselves with us?

The Visitation is yet another reminder of the strength of the communion of saints, of the bonds of prayer and mutual concern that bind us together. The communion of saints is a reality here and now as well as hereafter. When times are hard, there is a tendency to put ourselves first, arguing that we cannot afford to be generous to others. Some British charities are experiencing the truth of this as donations decline and the work they do for for the poor or disadvantaged has to end. Today we have the example of Mary and Elizabeth to encourage us: we can and must help others and in so doing we may help more than we know. We must be saints for others.

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Overseas Aid: How Much is Enough?

The leak of Liam Fox’s letter challenging the Government’s plan to enshrine in law the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid has been brilliantly timed to coincide with Christian Aid Week. Or rather, brilliantly mistimed. On the one hand, we have the Defence Secretary raising legitimate concerns about the effect of such a statutory requirement on the Government’s freedom to allocate spending as it sees fit (something we all need to think about, given the commitment of British forces in Afghanistan, Libya, etc); on the other, we have the example of years of quiet do-goodery (using that word without any pejorative overtones) funded by the generosity of private donors to Christian Aid, an organization I very much admire.

Christian Aid is using the slogan ‘Help people in poverty out of poverty. For good.’ For me, the sting is in that ‘For good.’ You could dismiss it as merely fashionable punctuation. Which likes to do things differently. Or you could take it as an expression of something more important, the motive for and the consequence of giving being the good of others. Poverty is something one can find anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean being physically hungry or without access to education or medical care. Mother Teresa was appalled by the spiritual poverty she saw in the west, but we tend to dismiss that. We don’t need religious people telling us that we lack something. We are generous; we support lots of good causes; we believe in the secular redemption of a secular society.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it can lead to complacency. I can save the world by not eating meat/using wind power/delete as applicable. Complacency is another form of spiritual poverty, the refusal not so much to give as the refusal to share. To give is sometimes to place oneself above another; to share is to place oneself alongside. What troubles me about Dr Fox’s letter is that many will take the argument about Government spending and turn it back on itself, asserting that we cannot afford to give to others because of our own needs as a country. We need organizations like Christian Aid to remind us that overseas aid is not about giving to poorer nations but sharing resources with them. How much is enough? I don’t know, but I believe we need to think about it.

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The Problem of Possessions

RB 54 takes up a subject Benedict has already treated in RB 33, the problem of ownership and radical dispossession. Unlike most other religious, Benedictines do not take a vow of poverty; yet if we are serious about our monastic life, the degree of ‘dispossession’ is probably greater than among many who do. For example, in the community to which I belong, RB 54 is observed literally. No one receives anything from another without permission, and no one presumes to keep anything unless it has been authorised. Even at the communal level, strict watch is kept over any superfluity. A kind friend in the U.S. recently offered us an iPad and it was quite hard for a community of Apple geeks to say ‘no’; but we could not justify accepting something that was not truly necessary for the work we do. (Note for the curious: we got a donation instead which we applied to more urgent but less stylish needs.)

Possessions can be a problem: too many or two few and one wastes time and energy worrying about them. Living by the providence of God is something most Christians would applaud in theory, but it is incredibly difficult to do as one gets older and/or there are family members to worry about as well as oneself. There is no easy solution. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we do need to keep an eye on what we amass. Lent, with its call to almsgiving, is a good time for taking stock. Perhaps we could do more than take last season’s books and clothes to the Charity Shop?

Thank You
iBenedictines has climbed a few more places in the Wikio Top Blogs Religion and Belief category, thanks to our readers. That was a very nice surprise!

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Fear of the Unseen: Radiation and the Devil

I have often observed that more people are afraid of the devil than actually believe in God. The idea of a malign power bent on our destruction is somehow more believable than a loving God who has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. I think that is why some people spend their lives trying to ‘placate’ this unseen power. Their lives are more or less crippled by fear: it never really leaves them alone. (This may not be your experience: I suspect that clergy and nuns tend to hear the darker secrets of their fellow human beings, and fear often features largely.)

In the last few days we have seen the focus of attention move from the suffering of those affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to what is happening at Fukushima. I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of what is happening there, but I find it strange that the world’s media is more concerned about what might happen than what actually has, and I think it all comes down to fear of the unknown. Radiation is something we cannot apprehend with the senses. It scares us because it is beyond our ordinary experience. We may pore over the statistics of the accidents at Windscale, Three Mile Island, even Chernobyl, but we can’t quite convince ourselves that we may not be facing armageddon. We are, quite simply, afraid, and at root the fear is for ourselves. Put like that, the need to help the Japanese suffering from cold and hunger becomes more urgent, even if it has fallen from the headlines. In so doing we may find we have helped ourselves.

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Managing Expectations 2

I’ve already blogged on this subject but yesterday’s little dip into the world of TV and radio highlighted another area that is worth considering: the relationship between religion and money. (For those of you who haven’t a clue what I am talking about, one of us appeared on Radio 4’s ‘Midweek’ here while BBC TV showed a short video here and issued a written summary here about our newly-launched Online Retreats.) The BBC presenter ended his piece with a short to-camera  reflection: “This begs the question of the relationship between religion and money” or some such wording.

It’s interesting that many people, whether they would describe themselves as believers or not, expect “religion” and all its works to be free. To some extent, that is entirely reasonable. We have come to expect that our churches and chapels will be free to enter when we wish to pray. When we visit them as tourists we stump up our entrance fees a little reluctantly. We are still not used to the idea that buildings have to be maintained and the congregation cannot necessarily do so without help. It somehow goes against the grain: we expect things to be otherwise. We don’t expect to have to pay to listen to homilies or sermons, on the grounds that the priest or clergyperson receives a stipend for performing clerical duties, one of which is preaching; so sometimes we get confused about what we may reasonably expect. Ask the parish priests who are telephoned every time they sit down to a meal and you will get some pretty plain speaking!

When we visit monasteries we expect to be received hospitably. The monks and nuns will drop their work and ply us with food and drink as a matter of course. After all, St Benedict says that every guest is to be treated tamquam Christus, as if Christ. If we attend a day of recollection on monastic premises, we usually make a donation or pay a fee in recognition of the time and effort that has been devoted to us. Monks and nuns don’t receive salaries for what they do because we stand outside the clerical structures of the Church (I’m not talking of monk priests who have charge of parishes, obviously) yet there is still a common perception, shared maybe by our BBC presenter, that we ought not to charge for anything we do or provide. (How it is all to be financed is a question never addressed, but that is not what interests me here.)

I think this assumption that religion should be “free”, like the assumption that nuns, for example, should never be tired or angry, is actually a tribute to generations of good people who have been remarkably generous and remarkably virtuous. It is difficult, often impossible, for those of us who would describe ourselves as believers to meet the expectations of others in this regard; but when people senselessly knock religion and parrot out the view that all the bad things that happen in the world are the fault of religion, I think we can point to these assumptions and say, “If religion were as bad as you are claiming, you wouldn’t have these expectations.” The fact that we expect the clergy to be gentle with us and monks and nuns to be welcoming (and are rather put out if they aren’t) says something important about Christianity.

What, however, are the expectations that can reasonably be had of us as Christians, pure and simple? I am always immensely impressed by the way in which Christians in this country respond to any call for help. Disaster funds raise much of their money from those who have least. The tradition of tithing is well-established. We give our time, our talents, whatever we have; but how do we manage the expectations others have of us as people who should be endlessly giving? I’m not sure; but I am amazed and humbled into gratitude for all those from whom I learn so much, who somehow manage to be what I cannot.

 

 

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Information Overload and Compassion Fatigue

Two phrases which have become commonplace, ‘information overload’ and ‘compassion fatigue’, strike me as having enough truth to make them useful and enough untruth to make them dangerous. At the moment, it is difficult not to be caught up in the tragedies unfolding across the world: Japan, of course, but also Libya and Bahrain, Ivory Coast; and those by no means over but already gone from the headlines, the floods and earthquakes which have wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands if not millions. We know too much, but we know it only briefly; and though we do our best to respond, there comes a point when the wallet is, if not empty, at least not as full as it used to be and we are faced with making hard choices: life for you, but not for you.

In the monastery we are, to some extent, protected from both information overload and compassion fatigue. We don’t have unrestricted access to the media and we don’t have much material wealth to share with others. On the other hand, as anyone who has lived this kind of life will tell you, whatever we see or hear makes a much greater and more lasting impact precisely because our access to the media is limited, while not being able to help materially can be painful. So what do we do?

Our first response to any tragedy is prayer. For some people, prayer is a last resort, something one tries when everything else has failed; but to pray perseveringly, committing the outcome to God, trusting him absolutely yet ready to accept that prayer may not be answered as one would wish, is harder than it may seem, yet it is open to any Christian by virtue of the gift of prayer poured into our hearts at baptism. It is not a soft option, a cop-out. It means taking seriously Christ’s role as Eternal High Priest and uniting our prayer with his. It means taking time, wasting time. When we think we can’t take any more, can’t give any more, there is always that inner jar of nard to be broken and poured.

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Clenched Fist and Wicked Word

Yesterday the whole world was stunned into silence. News of the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed left us without words. Even the enormities being perpetrated in Libya or Ivory Coast seemed small by comparison, as if the loss of human life could ever be a small matter! Yet I noticed that a few sick types were soon active on the internet, expressing glee that so many had been killed. There is something cold and closed about hatred, well summed up in Isaiah’s phrase about clenched fists and wicked words. To me, the clenched fist has never symbolized strength or power but only impotent rage: a hand unable and unwilling to receive. In the same way, the wicked word is deaf to all kindness, its own ugly clamour shutting out all but its own noise.

There is a promise attached to doing away with clenched fists and wicked words. Perhaps realising how vulnerable we all are is the first step in learning compassion. What happened yesterday in Japan reminded us that the world is not under our control, nor can the disaster be expressed in terms of statistics. Every one of those statistics has a name, an identity. As we learn, hour by hour, of the number of people who have been killed or gone missing, we need to remember that. We need to pray for them as individuals, to speak good words instead of bad and to open our hands to give.

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