The Spiritual Selfie isn’t Helfie

The feast of the Transfiguration goes back to the early fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh (Roseflame). He kept the old name for the Christian feast because ‘Christ opened his glory like a rose on Thabor.’ It is an arresting image. When we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent (Mark 9. 2–10), roses are usually nowhere to be seen. There are just bare branches, with a few little reddish buds showing where the new growth will come. The analogy with Lent is embarrassingly obvious. Here we are, trying to open ourselves to the grace of conversion but apparently plunging deeper and deeper into a sense of failure and sin. The promise of future growth may be there, but one has to look hard to find it; and in any case, we’re always being told that we need to take our gaze off ourselves and focus on Jesus instead. The spiritual selfie isn’t helfie.

While I agree with that, I think we may need to nuance things a little. The old practice of a daily examination of conscience, going over the events of the day and asking ourselves not so much what we did or didn’t do as where we placed our desire, what we wanted so much that it became the wellspring of our thoughts, words and deeds, is a good check on slipping into indifference. But today’s gospel asks more than that. It asks us to look hard and see only Jesus. That means seeing Jesus in ourselves as well as others, of having such a huge reverence for him that we simply cannot choose sin because to do so would be to profane his image in us. I have always loved the collect for today, with its invitation to feast interiorly on the Word — such a stark contrast with the fasting Lent lays upon us. The liturgy of the day piles paradox upon paradox, but the greatest of all is the fact that God became man and we, creatures of clay, now are filled with hope of the divine glory. The true selfie is all around us, ‘lovely in limbs not his’.

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The Blessing of Sleep

One of the incidental blessings of my recent surgery has been the ability to sleep ‘normally’ again. After two years of disturbed nights, I appreciate how easily we are affected by aches and pains — and what a pain we are to others when we don’t sleep well!

You can find recommendations a-plenty for how to get to sleep and ensure your sleep is sound, but along with the milky drinks and the regular routines advocated by the sleep specialists, there is one conspicuous absence: the need for a quiet conscience. I don’t mean by that an innocent conscience. Few of us are fortunate enough to live wholly unblemished lives; but although we all sin, we don’t have to let sin define us. We have it in our power to repent, to change, to try to put things right. When St Benedict gives as a tool of good works ‘make peace with your opponent before sunset’ (RB 4.70), he is merely putting into concrete form something he alludes to many times in the Rule: never nurse a grudge, never allow your conscience to become accustomed to thoughts of revenge, see where your desire leads and check it if it is leading you astray.

The old practice of ‘examination of conscience’ before bedtime is a helpful way of reviewing the day’s events. It enables us to give thanks as well as repent of wrongdoing. It can also help organize our discordant and jangling impulses into a programme for tomorrow, when we will try to live more truthfully, lovingly, etc.

Despite years of research we still do not know all sleep’s secrets. Perhaps the most elusive is the way in which sleep fashions our future. We know that the wear and tear on our bodies is repaired during sleep; we also know the psychological benefits of a good night’s sleep and the way in which problems are often resolved without our consciously thinking them through; but what of the spiritual benefits of sleep? Sleep is the one time when we can’t put up any barriers to God, when there are no obstacles to the working of grace. You may not be a monk or nun, but before you go to sleep tonight, try making your own that lovely saying of the Desert Fathers, ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night: it sees Christ rising’, and quieten heart and mind in readiness.

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Examination of Conscience

The words ‘examination of conscience’ had always sent a chill to my heart, but today’s section of the Rule, RB7. 19 to 23, proved a liberation. Benedict quotes Psalm 49.21, ‘My every desire is before you.’ How much easier, and searching, it is just to ask, ‘what have I desired today?’ than to try to go over the events of the day and scrutinize all one’s motives, etc, etc. Self-will has a way of disguising itself, but desire stands plain and naked. And sometimes, one can be surprised to find that one has chosen good when one might have chosen evil. Then one can give thanks for grace received and co-operated with rather than spurned or neglected.

Bad Behaviour
We are trying to reduce the number of Russian porn sites linking to the blog by means of a WordPress plug-in that blocks certain IP addresses. If any legitimate user has difficulty accessing the site, please let me know and we’ll adjust the confirguration.

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