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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Corpus Christi 2014

An austerely Protestant friend once confided to me that she didn’t really ‘get’ the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Two things in particular bothered her. One was the Church’s refusal to open reception of the sacrament to all Trinitarian Christians as her own denomination did, and the other was Catholic devotion to the reserved sacrament. She had been to Spain and been rather aghast at a Corpus Christi procession and the way in which people flopped to their knees as the priest passed by under a canopy of white silk, holding ‘some great gold thinggy in his hands’. I tried to explain.

Catholics have a very high doctrine of the Eucharist. We believe that it is much more than a memorial meal. It is a sacrifice, one with the sacrifice of Calvary. Bread and wine are transformed by the action of the priest into the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour, and it is necessary to share the faith of the Church in order to share in the sacrament. This did not satisfy her, nor did my patient offering of all the relevant numbers in the Catechism, Dominus Est and so on. I had slightly more success when I read through the Eucharistic Prayers with her and threw in some little tidbits of history and theology from Jungmann (see below). However, it was when we went into a nearby Catholic church during Adoration that light began to dawn. The sight of many people kneeling in silent prayer before the Host in the monstrance affected my friend profoundly. The candles, the flowers, the faint smell of incense probably helped, too; but it was the prayer and the depth of the silence that moved her most. That wasn’t faked; it wasn’t in any way exclusionary; it was simply a group of people united in their love of the Lord, kneeling before him and listening.

Today Catholics in Britain will celebrate Corpus Christi in many different ways. Some will hold Corpus Christi processions, scattering rose petals and singing hymns; others will spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (how we usually refer to the reserved sacrament), either exposed in the monstrance for Adoration and Benediction or contained within the tabernacle (its place of reservation); all, I trust, will take part in the Mass because, of course, it is the Mass from which all worship of the Blessed Sacrament proceeds. It is in the action of the Mass that we are united with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, with his death and resurrection, and in communion made one with him in love and prayer.

*

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Priesthood and Eucharist | Maundy Thursday 2014

The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 - 1040; Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.); 83.MI.90.38
The Last Supper; Unknown; Regensburg, Bavaria; about 1030 – 1040;

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s liturgy is so full, it weighs heavy on heart and mind. There is the Chrism Mass, with its powerful reminder of the great gift of priesthood and then, this evening, the beginning of the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper when we ponder the amazing gift of the Eucharist and Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us. We have barely registered these before we are plunged into watching with Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, conscious of sin and betrayal. There will be no let up, no lessening of tension, until the Easter Vigil. We are one with Christ on his long, last journey from this world to the next.

In previous years I have attempted to single out some aspect of the day’s events for reflection and prayer. Today, however, I suggest we think about the Preface used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It contains in a nutshell the theology of this day:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For he is the true and eternal Priest,
who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice
and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim,
commanding us to make this offering as his memorial.
As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us,
we are made strong,
and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us,
we are washed clean.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .

Note on the illustration
Unknown, illuminator
The Last Supper, about 1030 – 1040, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38,/small>

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Feasts, Fasts and Fasting Diets

The rhythm of feasts and fasts is so central to the Church’s year and her understanding of the spiritual life that it may be worth gathering together a few thoughts on the subject. At the outset, we ought to distinguish between fasting in the traditional Christian sense and the popular ‘fasting diet’.

At its simplest, fasting means going without food and drink in order to remind ourselves of our creatureliness and enable us to focus on God more clearly. One might say that it has nothing to with us, but everything to do with God; and the fast of Jesus in the desert is the model for all our own fasting. The Lenten fast makes this very clear. The current discipline of the Church prescribes that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we should limit ourselves to one meal and two collations (snacks). This is both a penance (denying ourselves some good thing to show sorrow for our sins and ask grace for amendment in the future) and a preparation for what is to come. In the monastery, of course, the fasts are more frequent and more rigorous (for example, we fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted) but the intention is the same. We seek the spiritual freedom that will enable us to follow the Lord more closely. Our fasting is meant to help us forget ourselves and our own comfort so that we are more open to God and others. The money we save is given to the poor. Any physical and psychological benefits are incidental. We might say that fasting as the Church understands it is essentially altruistic. The ‘fasting diet’ by contrast is primarily concerned with the health benefits for the dieter and, as a practice, has no larger end in view (though the individual may well have other motives for dieting in this way.)

When we come to feasts, the difference between Christian practice and secular custom becomes even more marked. The liturgical calendar highlights different occasions that throw light on our understanding of the central tenets of our faith. Sometimes, these seem to put us at odds, or at least out of step, with the people around us. During Christmastide, for example, we are still celebrating when others have taken down their Christmas decorations because it is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day itself, which opens the way of salvation to gentile Christians. The greatest feast of all, that of Easter, is ushered in by a fast so that we feel in our own bodies the movement from darkness to light, but it is a feast that has very little razzmatazz surrounding it. The great mystery of the Eucharist is a feast in which we share by means of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine transformed into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.

As we approach the last few days of the Christmas season and the thought of Lent begins to appear on the horizon, perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on the nature of feasts and fasts and the way we ourselves live them. The Rule of St Benedict is written around the feast of Easter. Everything is referred to that, and the joy and spiritual gladness that should accompany our every action should ensure our lives have a continual Lenten quality. As our American friends would say, go figure.

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The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.

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Images of Plenty

Our modern Western attitudes to food are complex and often contradictory. It can be refreshing, therefore, to turn to the scriptures and find, as in today’s Mass readings (Isaiah 25.6–10 and Matt 15.29–37), that what we are looking forward to isn’t just the Beatific Vision but a stupendously good meal as well. The image of feasting may have less impact on those who habitually have more than enough to eat, but most people would like to feel they could eat and drink to their heart’s content in the company of those they love best. Note the words: ‘heart’s content’ and ‘love’. The banquet we are promised is one that will satisfy every yearning because it will mark the fulfilment of our hope and the perfection of all our striving. The coming of our Saviour, Love made visible, is something we experience every time we share in the Eucharist. Let us start preparing now for our Christmas Communion and for the Banquet of Eternity:

Prepare our hearts, Lord,
by the power of your grace.
When Christ comes,
may he find us worthy
to receive from his hand the bread of heaven
at the feast of eternal life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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A Tale of Two Tunics

An idle thought struck me at Mass this morning. In today’s gospel, Mark 6. 7–13, we hear the Lord sending the Twelve out on what we would now call missionary work. His instructions are precise: they are to take nothing for the journey — no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purse; they are to wear sandals but not take a spare tunic. That absence of a spare tunic has always bothered me. It is often presented as an aspect of the ‘lean, mean, missionary machine’ idea, in which those who are to preach and teach in Christ’s name are to travel light, taking nothing that is not strictly necessary, depending rather on God to supply all their material needs. As a young girl, I concluded that the first missionaries were probably dreadfully smelly. Later, I began to think that those first missionary journeys were quite short, as though, until the institution of the Eucharist (‘no bread’) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (‘nothing for the journey’), the disciples were not fully equipped for their task. Even today, more commentaries than I care to remember later, I am still puzzling over the text.

St Benedict remarks, in the course of his chapter on the clothing and footwear of the brethren (RB 55), that when we go out of the monastery, our tunics and cowls should be better than the ones we normally wear. It is still our custom today to put on our ‘best’ habit when we have to go anywhere on monastery business. I think the reason we do so is so that, whatever the austerities practised within community, our public face should be like that of the faster, who no one should know is fasting. We represent our community best when we draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. Can the same be said of the missionary?

The life of a monk or nun is largely hidden, by its very nature; the life of a missionary, by contrast, is almost entirely public. For us, the habit preserves the privacy of the community — it may hide its penury; it certainly hides any excessive individualism. For the missionary, with just the clothes he stands up in, what we see is what we get: he or she must radiate Christ, allowing nothing to get in the way. Both missionary and monastic have the same end in view, but we approach it from different angles, so to say. My tale of two tunics may sound a bit far-fetched, but for me at least there is the germ of an idea there. Would someone like to take it further?

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Blessings Awareness Day

I have ‘Awareness Day’ fatigue. Too many good causes ask me to be ‘aware’ of this or that, to give my time, energy, money or what you will; to tweet or wear a ribbon; it is all too much. Apparently, today is, among other things, Bread Awareness Day. That set me thinking. Bread  is so important, a blessing in itself. Blessed and broken, it is a feature of most meals; consecrated and shared out in the Mass as the Body of Christ, it sustains both body and soul. So I hereby declare today Blessings Awareness Day, a day to acknowledge our blessings and give thanks for them. Nothing more is required, but it should put a smile on your face and laughter in your heart.

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The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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Thanksgiving

The American custom of Thanksgiving Day has always appealed. Gratitude is such an attractive quality — one can almost hear the smile as one writes it. I have often wondered whether the habit of thanksgiving, along with plain religion and and a can-do spirit, are at the root of American philanthropy. Of course it helps to be blessed with material riches, but no one can accuse the U.S.A. of not being generous in its sharing with others. We have a Thanksgiving Day here in the monastery, the octave day of our foundation, when we thank God for our benefactors (you) and generally remind ourselves that everything is gift. That may sound trite to some, but saying thank you is never trivial. The most important act of Christian worship is the Eucharist, an act of praise and thanksgiving, saying thank you to God for the best of all gifts, Jesus Christ his Son.

A Greeting
We wish all our American friends a very happy Thanksgiving Day and assure you of our prayers.

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