Three Sacraments

Yesterday I attended Mass. I can almost hear a collective yawn and a mumbled ‘So what, isn’t that what nuns are supposed to do?’ Those who are able to attend Mass whenever they want, or to whom the Mass is of no consequence, will not understand. I haven’t been able to attend Mass for a very long time, but yesterday a priest friend came and said Mass here at the monastery. Not only did we hear Mass, we were able to make our confessions, and I had the great blessing of being anointed. Three sacraments, three unique and precious ways of meeting the Lord.

To some, the very notion of sacrament is problematic; others limit their understanding to those they regard as being of Dominical origin; happily, those of us who are Catholic enjoy a much wider sense of the way in which the sacraments incarnate grace, so to say, as ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. One of the things I love about the Church is the fact that she uses ordinary, humdrum things — water, oil, bread, wine — and transforms them (and us) through the sacraments she celebrates. They anchor us in reality, in the messiness and incompleteness of life, but they also lead us into eternity, into the perfection of joy and love.

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Making a Good Holy Week

If Lent seems to have passed you by in a blur of good intentions you meant to get round to but never actually did; if you feel your prayer has been non-existent, your fasting a failure, your almsgiving embarrassing by its absence, do not despair. It is not too late to turn to the Lord and make a good Holy Week.

What do I mean by a good Holy Week? First and foremost, I’d say it is one in which we try to follow in the footsteps of Christ as best we can and in union with the whole Church. Some people do so by an imaginative entry into the events we recall in the major celebrations of this week, beginning with Palm Sunday. I have to admit that has never been my way. For me, it will be a slow, meditative reading of the scriptures the Church places before us that will be my point of entry, so to say — above all the reading of the Last Discourse that takes place just before Compline. Our monastic liturgy reverts to a very ancient form this week. We chant almost everything on a plaintive monotone, and our domestic liturgy, the fasting and the ceremonies we enact in the refectory, take on a peculiarly solemn cast. A secular counterpart might be very plain meals, not to deprive ourselves of good things but to impress on us that this is a special time, the Great Week of the Year; and any money saved should most certainly be given to the poor. Above all, taking part in all the great celebrations if we can — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil — is the best way we can make this a good Holy Week in union with the whole Church.

At a personal level, I think we make a good Holy Week by confessing our sins, making reparation where we can and resolving, with God’s grace, to do better in the future. If there is anyone we have wronged, we must try to put it right. One area everyone reading this might examine is their online conduct. Have we commented unkindly or used Social Media to condemn or belittle others? Have we imputed base motives to others or assumed we knew, and were in a position to judge, their motivation? That is certainly relevant when there is a General Election in the offing: we can sin against politicians just as we can sin against anyone else! But we must not let such an examination of our own conduct make us focus on ourselves. This is a week when we look only to Jesus. He is our Saviour. Let us keep our eyes on him and follow wherever he leads.

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Shrove Tuesday 2014

Last year, when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had just announced his resignation, I said we faced a Shrove Tuesday like no other. I little thought that this year I would say the same. The situation in the Crimea casts a long shadow, making the delights of pancakes and carnival seem trivial by comparison, yet the more solemn aspect of the day, the going to Confession, seems especially apt. Personal sin and what one might call communal sin are related. The standards by which we live our private lives inevitably spill over into our public lives. I am sure we can all think of instances of greed, brutality and dishonesty which first manifested themselves in domestic situations but then went on to create terror and havoc on a much larger scale.

While we pray today for the people of Ukraine we might also examine our own consciences about the ways in which we have lived a double-standard and the consequences for others of our own sins. Repentance isn’t just about saying sorry to God and having a firm purpose of amendment. It also means trying to put right what we have done wrong. Thank God we are given forty days in which to work hard at that.

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Candlemas, the Fifth Degree of Humility and Consecrated Life

The Presentation in the Temple

How good it is that on the Day dedicated to Prayer for Consecrated Life (monks, nuns and all the other kinds of religious there are today), we not only celebrate the Presentation of the Lord (olim Candlemas, or the Purification of Mary), we also read St Benedict’s Fifth Degree of Humility, which is about not merely acknowledging our sinfulness but confessing our sins (RB 7. 44–48). How St Benedict roots us in reality, a very concrete reality!

The practice of confessing one’s sins is a gift of the monastic order to the Church as a whole. Before monks popularised the practice, private sacramental confession was rare; and in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there was a marked decline in the practice of regular auricular confession. In the last few years, however, there has been a re-appreciation of the value and importance of this sacrament. Some are still inclined to argue that it is outmoded, primitive psychology at best. To which I can only reply that, unless sin is now outmoded and human nature has undergone a sea-change, the practice of confession remains a healthy one. So what if it makes us feel uncomfortable? Oughtn’t sin to make us feel very uncomfortable? So what if we find it hard and disagreeable? Oughtn’t it to be unpleasant to have to face up to the reality of our dark side and what we are not only capable of doing but have actually done?

Nevertheless, what Benedict alludes to in the Rule is not exactly what we have come to identify with the sacrament, and we should be aware of the difference. The old monastic traditon of ‘manifestation of thoughts’ is often misunderstood. In essence it meant — and still means — going to someone who is endowed with supernatural gifts of wisdom and insight and laying before them something of what is going on in one’s soul, especially the temptations with which one is struggling.

The role of the spiritual elder is a delicate one. Benedict says elsewhere that ‘they know how to cure the wounds of others without revealing them or making them public’. That is a much rarer gift than many suppose. There also has to be a freedom from ego in the elder, and in the junior. It can be lovely to talk about one’s soul, lovely too to be perceived as a guru; but that is not the Benedictine way. What we bring to the spiritual elder, and what the spiritual elder gives in return, is an intense form of honesty. The light of Christ is brought to bear on the dark places of the soul and the important thing is not to get in the way of it (the spiritual elder) or hide from it (the junior). That is the humility that returns us to earth. Whatever little molehills of pride and self-sufficiency we have constructed for ourselves are overthrown. We stand on firm ground again.

 I like the idea of light flooding our souls as we read this passage of the Rule today, when we process with our candles in remembrance of the true Light that has come into the world. I like too the idea of praying for my fellow religious — young, old, middle-aged — on this day. This is a day for rejoicing especially in the gifts of old age, of fidelity and perseverance, and above all, dedication. There is nothing more fragile than a candle-flame, but how its brightness can pierce the dark! Please pray for us all, that we may have the grace of perseverance and do our part to bring Christ to others, humbly, faithfully, joyfully.

Note on the illustration:
Master of James IV of Scotland (illuminator) [Flemish, before 1465 – about 1541], The Presentation in the Temple, Flemish, about 1510 – 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment, Leaf: 23.2 x 16.7 cm (9 1/8 x 6 9/16 in.) Justification: 10.9 x 7.4 cm (4 5/16 x 2 15/16 in.), 83.ML.114.135v. Used under the Getty Open Content Programme, with permission and with thanks.

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Preparing for Lent

Since Lent is itself a time of preparation, the idea of preparing for Lent may strike you as odd; but, rather like the vigil of a feast enabling us to anticipate what is to come, a little planning beforehand will make our Lenten journey more fruitful. In the monastery we write a Lent Bill: a note addressed to our superior (or, in her case, another nun) detailing what we wish to give up and what we wish to take on by way of penance, and submitting it all to her judgement. So, if she thinks that some picayune sacrifice of sugar in tea or salt on eggs is going to make us crotchety, she will refuse and probably impose something much harder, without any feel-good factor in it!

The point of the Lent Bill is that it gives us an opportunity to think about our personal Lent, as distinct from our community observance. Each of us takes stock of her life and thinks about what needs to be addressed. For one, it may be a tendency to talk too much; for another, it may be a tendency to avoid engagement with people; a casualness may have crept into our lectio divina; or we may have noticed ourselves daydreaming or half-hearted or otherwise deficient in our service. The chances are that the same faults and weaknesses will appear year after year on our Lent Bills, because human nature does not change very much. What matters is the love and devotion with which we try to put right some of the negligences of other times.

If you do a quick internet search, you will find many sites offering advice about how to make your Lent more fruitful. Over the next few days, I shall be offering my own ha’pennorth. Today, may I give you just one pointer? The classical penances of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For most people, that means taking on more prayer, giving up some food or drink and performing some act of charity or benevolence. These are all good, but do please bear in mind that merely giving something up (e.g. wine or television) shouldn’t result in a vacuum — money or time saved is meant to be spent on God and others; dieting is not fasting; and prayer is more than just saying prayers.

We can make our Lent so busy with different ‘practices’ that we ignore or even subvert its point. Lent is meant to open us to the mystery of God’s love and redemption. It is worth spending some time preparing for it; and one of the best of all ways is to reflect on your life and, if you belong to the Catholic tradition, make your confession and ask God’s help to see what you REALLY need to change.

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The Sacrament of Penance is Not For Losers

Year of Faith 2012 to 2013 logoReaders will know that I am rather keen on the Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation), which is as it should be, since individual confession was originally a monastic practice which spread to the whole Church. It also means that I am for once ‘on trend’ since we are all being encouraged to revisit the sacrament during this Year of Faith, and it is my hope and prayer that we shall rediscover its spiritual benefits. We won’t do so, however, unless we are clear about what is involved. Catholics of my generation will be able to name the essential elements for valid reception of the sacrament: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (reparation) — see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 1422 to 1523. Of these, reparation is often overlooked yet it seems to me so fundamental that I find myself wondering how we can have forgotten it.

The truth is probably that we find it difficult and therefore try to have forgiveness on the cheap, so to say. Reparation, seeking to make amends for what we have done, brings home to us the ugliness of sin and reminds us that absolution and performance of the penance given by our confessor are really only the first steps in putting things right. Having to apologize to someone we have treated badly; having to admit that we are responsible for some failure or other; having to put right an injustice, these are not easy options. It becomes much worse when we feel we cannot right a wrong because the person or persons we have injured is dead or in some way unreachable. Then we must rely on prayer and the grace of God to effect what no amount of human striving can achieve.

In the end, of course,  everything depends on God, from the first movement of contrition to the final act of reparation. Only he can make right what we have done wrong, but while we rely on his grace, we must never fall into the sin of presumption. The Sacrament of Penance treats us as responsible human beings and invites our co-operation in grace. It is definitely not for ‘losers’.

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Shrove Tuesday 2012

Shrove Tuesday: a day for being shriven (sacramental confession of our sins), for carnival (eating meat) and pancakes (clearing out the last of the butter, eggs and milk in the larder) before the Lenten fast begins — and for making merry, in the old-fashioned sense of rejoicing and having fun. It may be my warped sense of humour, but there has always seemed to me a marvellous inversion of the usual order of things on Shrove Tuesday. The Church traditionally kept the Vigils of great feasts with a fast; the Vigil of the great fast of Lent is kept with feasting. In both cases the purpose is the same: to impress upon us the solemnity of the occasion, its spiritual importance marked out by what we eat and drink and do.

Today we eat in honour of the Lord; tomorrow, and for forty days, we shall fast in honour of the Lord. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: these are the foundation of our Lent, but probably the most obvious to ourselves and others will be the fasting. It is worth thinking what our fast should be.

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