As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.

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Shrove Tuesday 2015: Praying for IS

Earlier today this tweet caught my eye: how can we pray for IS (or ISIS)? The tweeter is an Anglican bishop whom I admire, and the question he poses plunges us straight into what Lent is all about: conversion of heart, transformation in Christ. Like many others, I am increasingly hesitant about discussing IS (or ISIS) and its latest atrocities because publicity is what it craves. But the death of those twenty-one Coptic Christians whose only crime was to call on the name of Jesus makes the bishop’s question urgent. How do we pray for those whose every act seems to be evil?

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that we pray for IS as something ‘other’. We cannot identify with their mindset, still less their actions. But, if you think about it, very few of us are so in tune with others that we can identify with them completely. The fact that even our nearest and dearest sometimes seem to be worlds apart from us should give us pause. Even Jesus was to discover that his closest disciples were unable to keep watch with him in Gethsemane as he underwent his agony. I think the secret of praying for IS is to pray for them as we pray for ourselves, asking God’s mercy and enlightenment. The gift of conversion of heart sounds splendid — until we actually receive it in some small measure. In asking God to turn the hearts of IS to better things, we are asking for a hard and difficult grace that, if received, will shake them to the very core. God burns evil from our hearts and, say what you like about healing pain, it is always a searing experience.

Shrove Tuesday is a day when Christians take stock of their lives in preparation for Lent. In an earlier post I described it thus:

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.

Perhaps this year our fasting could include an element of denying ourselves the easy solution of thinking of others as different, ‘other’, so that we pray for them as for ourselves. Lent is often seen in negative terms, giving up this and that, making small sacrifices that, by the end of six weeks, seem enormous. We tend to overlook the fact that the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving unlock great spiritual power. They enable us to stand aside, so to say, and allow Christ to be all in all. Ultimately, it is only God who can solve the problem of evil in the world; but, as we are destined to learn again this Lent, he does so in a way none of us could have foreseen.

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The Holiness of God: O Adonai

Today’s O antiphon is

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!

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush makes one tremble. God’s holiness flaming out from an insignificant shrub is a thought to strike awe; but the thought of not seeing it, of mistaking his presence, is more terrible still. I suspect many of us would admit that there have been times in our lives when God was there but we didn’t register his presence. We were too caught up in other things. We ignored the hand he stretched out to us.

If we do nothing else this Advent, let us open our hearts to embrace the salvation offered us, seizing the moment and not putting off to a tomorrow that never comes the conversion of heart the Lord desires.

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From Ashes to Roses (and possibly Back Again)

‘The time is out of joint,’ said Hamlet, and we know it. St Valentine in the secular calendar topples SS Cyril and Methodius from their place in the liturgical calendar, and with today’s unconfirmed reports that Oscar Pistorius has accidentally shot dead his girlfriend, the strangeness of this week, which has seen a pope announce his retirement from office, Carnival, and Ash Wednesday, continues.

But is it really so strange? We human beings tend to live life in linear fashion, going from one event to another, forgetting what has gone before unless it was particularly pleasant or unpleasant. Memory and forgetfulness are two sides of the same coin. The past is only as secure as our own or collective memory make it; the future is unknown. We must live in the present, and that surely is what Lent drives home to us. This is the day of salvation, the moment when we must choose good rather than evil; and without being too fanciful, I think we can understand it in terms of a movement from ashes to roses (and possibly back again).

Yesterday we wore ashes as a sign of repentance and the desire for conversion. Today many a rose will be offered as a sign of love and devotion. If our repentance is real, there must be the same rhythm in our own lives, the dynamic of love and forgiveness at work. You may not have anyone to whom you would wish to offer a rose today, but I daresay there is someone to whom you need to say sorry. It may be someone living or someone dead; it is, at any rate, someone you have bound in the chains of unforgiveness and whom you must set free. Saying sorry may be as dust and ashes in your mouth, but it will make something beautiful flower in your heart.

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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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Lacrimae Rerum

Death moves us to tears. The tragic murders in the Jewish school at Toulouse have a particular poignancy because the victims were so young and defenceless. No amount of security, no amount of forethought is adequate protection against human malice. So, there is ‘mourning and weeping in Ramah and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more’ and the rest of us feel helpless in the face of such horror. Tears express what we  cannot put into words.

Feeling helpless is not the same as being helpless. There are two things all of us can do, no matter where we live or what our age. First, we can pray: for those who have died, those who grieve, those who are trying to find the perpetrator, for the murderer himself. Prayer invites God into situations where he seems absent, makes it possible for him to change hearts and minds, allows change to occur. Second, we can examine our own conduct. Violence begins inside. In most of us the angry word, the unkind thought never go beyond that, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that we are ‘incapable’ of doing violence to another. As we pray for the teacher and children killed in Toulouse, and the three soldiers killed the week before, let us also pray for ourselves, for pure and compassionate hearts.

As always, I should love to know what you think.

*Lacrimae rerum: The quotation is from Vergil, Aeneid 1. 462, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’ (These are the tears of things and mortal things [i.e.sufferings] touch the mind), spoken by Aeneas as he gazes at a mural depicting the Trojan War. Vergil’s warrior hero is overcome by thoughts of the futility of war.

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