Preparing for Lent 4

The three traditional penances of Lent are

  • prayer, which helps re-establish a right relationship with God;
  • fasting, which helps re-establish a right relationship with self, especially our bodily self;
  • almsgiving, which helps re-establish a right relationship with others.

St Benedict was keen on three-fold patterns, and we can see how this one addresses all the important activities of life.

Prayer
When Benedict talks about prayer in the context of Lent, he concentrates on the idea of making good the negligences of other times (cf RB 49). We all know occasions when we have been half-hearted or done our best, like Jonah, to escape the Lord. Lent provides us with an opportunity to try to do better. For some that will mean trying to go to Mass daily or to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours in union with the rest of the Church. Even if it’s just the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening, we shall be trying to maintain a structure into which all other attempts at prayer will fit.

Setting ourselves an unrealistic target, a certain quantity of prayer to be got through every day as though we were engaged in some kind of competition, will quickly end in failure and disillusionment. So will piling on devotion after devotion. What we need to do is to quieten ourselves down, to listen; and to do so with regularity. Learning to love the Lord in silence and poverty of spirit is one of the gifts Lent offers us, and we should seize it gladly. In a later post I shall say something about the practice of lectio divina,  but for now it is enough just to highlight what our Lenten prayer is meant to do: bring us back to God.

Fasting
Fasting is not dieting, although in our crazy world the two are often confused. To deny ourselves some food and drink, some pleasure of the senses, is to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God and our own dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit. The body we have been given is holy, perfect; but we do not always treat it as such, nor do we always exercise the kind of restraint that its holiness demands. Lent is a time to do just that. But our fasting isn’t meant to impose burdens on others (I will have just a little brown toast and honey, if you please, but it must be this kind of toast and that kind of honey, served on good china, etc, etc) nor is it meant to improve our bank balance. If we fast and save money or time, what we save should be given to others in almsgiving.

Even more than with prayer, fasting can be undertaken with one eye on its effect on others. It can become a source of what Benedict calls ‘vainglory’ — inordinate pride in our own achievements — whereas it is meant to remind us of our creaturely condition. Few of us in the West ever experience real hunger except by choice. That cuts us off from the lived experience of millions of people living in less fortunate conditions. It is good for us to be really hungry from time to time, but even if we can’t fast from food and drink, we can fast from some of the other little indulgences that make our existence comfortable. Think of the ways in which we waste time or are profligate in our use of resources. So, how about not speeding in the car, not spending so much time on Netflix or computer games, not leaving rubbish for others to clear up but dealing with it ourselves? Add to these fasting from anger and bad temper and all the other negativities to which we are prone, and you will see that the traditional discipline can be reinterpreted in ways which make painfully clear that (a) we are not self-sufficient and (b) we have a tendency to misuse the gifts we are given. What we mustn’t do, however, is to fall for the temptation to be vague about fasting, fasting in a general way. We need specifics, a firm commitment, something that challenges.

Almsgiving
With almsgiving, I think we come to the most difficult of the three Lenten disciplines. It is comparatively easy to pray, or at least to observe times of prayer; it is comparatively easy to fast, or at least to omit something from our meals; but to give of ourselves, to go out to the other, to be generous, that requires much more. It means we have to be open to others, on the watch for opportunities to be of service, ready to take risks. Many use Lent as a time for planned giving to various charities, but it is the unplanned opportunities the Lord puts in our way that can be most costly. Small acts of kindness go a long way towards making people feel valued and loved. The trouble is, we have to be alert to the possibilities but how often do we lament, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t realise.’ Perhaps we should all try to make this Lent one in which we keep our eyes peeled, as it were, for the needs of others.

The Joy of the Holy Spirit
One final note: Benedict says that everything we give up or take on during Lent should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to the holy feast of Easter.’ One of the great attractions of Lent for me is that in community we live with great simplicity, and that simplicity is always suffused with joy. Jesus in the desert was not plunged in gloom, nor should we be. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving set us free from what binds us at other times, and such radical freedom must surely be a joy. Allow it to be so.

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O Clavis David and Our Need of Freedom 2016

Yesterday was a dark day. To the now customary tally of deaths in Syria, Yemen and sub-saharan Africa we had to make additions nearer home. The murder of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, sent shivers down the spine. Might it have the same dreadful consequences as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914? Then came news of people mown down in a Berlin Christmas market — possibly a terrorist attack, possibly an accident, but a hideous irruption of death into a scene of merry-making here in Europe. The darkness within, the interior prison we create for ourselves, can lead to dark deeds, we know, but we have a habit of positing them outside. They are something other people do, not us. We can do the same with salvation. Other people need a Saviour, not us — or at least, only in a general way. Today’s O antiphon knocks that sort of nonsense on the head. It is, so to say, close up and personal, less about ‘us’ than it is about ‘me’:

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

The image of the key is a compelling one. To be locked up, even for a short time, with no means of escape other than that provided by the keyholder is an unnerving experience. We soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is. But we have a way of turning this round and pleading our lack of freedom as an excuse for all the shortcomings we see in our lives. We blame our genes, not our uncontrolled appetites, for the fact that we are fat; we cannot do anything about it, can we? We inherited our moody disposition; too bad that you must suffer the consequences. The prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.

It is no accident that on the day we sing O Clavis David we also read the gospel of the Annunciation and hear again how a young Jewish girl, a daghter of David’s royal line, consented to be the Mother of God and in so doing set us free from all that had bound us hitherto. Jesus is the Key but Mary’s flesh provides the lock and wards, so to say, that enable the key to work. Her faith, her generosity affect us all. Darkness is scattered by the coming of light; sin will be conquered on Calvary. We have hope and know that we shall be set free — and that is the point: we shall be set free, we cannot free ourselves.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5

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Bearing Witness

The first few days of June are shot through with red, the colour of blood. Already this week we have celebrated the martyrdom of SS Marcellinus and Peter and SS Charles Lwanga and Companions, the martyrs of Uganda. Tomorrow we celebrate the martyrdom of St Boniface, the apostle of Germany; and today we mark another kind of bearing witness, that of the Tiananmen Square protestors of twenty-five years ago.

If I were at home, I would have searched out what is for me the most evocative image of Tiananmen: a solitary figure, clad in black trousers and white shirt, advancing unarmed towards a line of tanks. The courage and futility of that act remind me of many similar acts in the past. Times, situations, can make the most ordinary person extraordinary. We may think of ourselves as constitutionally cowardly, unlikely ever to stand up to evil, however much we might want to. But grace can surprise us all. It was another martyr* who remarked to his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made,’ and his martyrdom, too, had a political consequence as well as a religious one.

I’m not claiming that the people who died in Tiananmen and after were martyrs as the Church understands martyrs, rather that they bore witness to human idealism and hope. China has changed much in the past twenty-five years, but the freedoms for which the protestors hoped are still as elusive as ever. Corruption continues to bedevil local government. The persecution of minorities has not abated. Today as we pray for China, let’s ask the prayers of the Martyrs, who understand, as we who have not been tried perhaps cannot, both the cost of bearing witness and its importance.

*St Thomas More

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Love, Liberty and Licence

Two events caught my eye this morning: the release of Glen Ford after half a lifetime on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a kind of Magna Carta of the internet. A man unjustly deprived of liberty and a man arguing for less government surveillance may not, at first sight, seem to have much in common, but I think they do; and rather surprisingly perhaps, I think they have something to tell us about Lent as well.

Mr Ford’s conviction was legally unsound but appears (I use the word advisedly) to reflect a deep-seated fear of African American violence. We could say he was condemned to death to ‘protect’ other, overwhelmingly white, citizens. Sir Tim’s  plea recalls the high ideals with which the internet began as a highway for free information exchange, and the grubbiness that has invaded it since. Governments the world over seek to listen in to ‘protect’ their citizens — and their own vested interests. So much for liberty, we say; we have over-reacted because we are afraid, and when we are afraid, we clamp down. It is all rather negative.

There is a problem, however, when liberty becomes licence and loses all moral restraint. Violence left unchecked makes everywhere unsafe for all citizens; an internet without any limitations becomes equally dangerous, allowing terrorism and abuse of others free rein. That is why we have laws and  means of enforcing them. I don’t suppose Mr Ford would argue that law should be abolished just because in his case it was abused, any more than Sir Tim would argue that there should be a complete free-for-all on the internet. Common sense demands that we place some restrictions on our own freedom in order to guarantee the freedom of all.

Lent is rather like that. We limit ourselves in some ways in order to experience a greater freedom, a freedom of spirit we may not always enjoy. We fast, limiting our use of food and drink, to know our reliance upon God, to hunger for him both literally and figuratively. We give time to prayer in order to experience the love of God; and we give alms in order to share that love with others. Love, not fear, is our motive; and the checks we place on our freedom are not negative but liberating. Lent is a most joyful season when we revel in the freedom that is ours as children of God. More than that, we look forward to the freedom that will one day be ours for ever in the Kingdom of God.

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O Clavis David or Missus Est?

Today puts me in a quandary. Do I write about the day’s O antiphon or follow monastic tradition by commenting on the day’s gospel in what is known as a Missus Est because it focuses on the words, ‘An angel was sent from God’? Or can we have something of both?

Today’s O antiphon is

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is impossible to sing that antiphon without thinking of St Bernard’s words in a Missus Est written nearly nine hundred years ago. He addresses Our Lady, daughter of David’s royal line, urging her to give the waiting angel her consent to what God asks of her, to give the word which will give us the Word made flesh. He pictures all creation on its knees before her, including Adam and those imprisoned in darkness and the shadow of death.

I think we can identify with all those on the fringes with Adam, as it were, whose faith is sometimes wobbly, whose lives are sometimes messy but who are sure (most of the time) of this: our need for a Saviour. We are reminded today of both our fragility and our glory as human beings. Mary gave her consent to be the Mother of God in a moment of unequalled faith. Had she not done so, we would be in darkness still.  Jesus is the one and only Key, but his Mother provides the lock and wards that allow the Key to work.

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Roots: O Radix Jesse

Today’s O antiphon is

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

In the Middle Ages, Jesse was almost always depicted lying on his side, with a great tree of descendants spreading out from his body, ending, of course, with the person of Jesus. As a child I used often to look at the beautiful stone reredos in Christchurch Priory, where Jesse continues to dream of the salvation that would come from his line. Now, whenever I go to Abergavenny, I make time to look at its lovely Jesse figure, carved from a single piece of oak. Both artefacts remind us of what we have lost: an abundance of religious imagery carved in wood and stone. Sometimes, I think we have lost more than that. We are no longer easy in the world of sign and symbol the medieval sculptor inhabited. We are often only half-familiar with the story he tells and go clumpingly and uncertainly where he trod with assurance. We ‘spiritualize’ where he was happy to accept the human and imperfect.

The antiphon we sing tonight at Vespers forces us to confront the importance of roots, of knowing where Jesus comes from. We too must acknowledge the human ancestry of the Son of God, the play of genes in his make-up, the quirks of character and physiognomy that marked him as an individual. The Saviour we await did not come into the world fully-developed like Pallas-Athene sprung from the head of Zeus. He came as a baby, fragile, with a long and flawed human history behind him. Yet he was to be the Man before whom kings would fall silent, and whom the gentiles would seek. He is the guarantor of our freedom; and if we would be truly free, we must throw away our complicated ideas about what God should do and simply marvel at what he has done — and give our consent to his continuing that work in us. ‘He that is mighty has done great things: holy is his name.’

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Magnificat

Sometimes the Church’s liturgical year can seem very far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Today we celebrate St Luke, and some of us will have had thoughts running down predictable channels, e.g. Gospel, Acts, allegedly a physician and an artist, wrote better Greek than his fellow evangelists, seems to have been more friendly to women than they, etc, etc. For others, St Luke is but half-remembered, as in the phrase ‘St Luke’s summer’ (which means that this year he won’t be thought of at all). For the majority, however, I suspect the fact that today is Anti-Slavery Day will have more  impact. The statistics are appalling: 27 million people enslaved world-wide; human trafficking into the UK at its highest-ever level; and Christians are talking about St Luke?

Secular-minded people will never understand how the commemoration of a man who died nearly two thousand years ago can matter today. Of the many aspects of his life and work we could single out, I would like to suggest just this: the canticle we know as the Magnificat. It is a tissue of Old Testament quotations put into the mouth of Our Lady and sung every evening at Vespers. In other words, somewhere in the world, at whatever hour of day or night it may be here in Britain, someone is singing this ancient prayer, proclaiming through the darkness the Church’s trust in her Lord, her belief in his goodness to the poor, his fidelity to his promise. It is the prayer of the poor and the humble, the oppressed and downtrodden; and it is sung by the whole Church, no matter how rich or comfortable an individual part of it may be. It is the song of a people set free and, as such, we Christians should sing it tonight on behalf of those still in chains. St Luke’s Day and Anti-Slavery Day have more in common than you might think.

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Authors with a Mortgage

Authors with a mortgage never get writer’s block. It is a luxury only those with an income equal to their outgoings can afford. I suspect there are other afflictions which we can indulge in only when we have the time, leisure or opportunity to do so. That is not to suggest that that the pain or difficulty they cause is unreal (I have my own weekly duel with writer’s block, so I wot whereof I speak), but the registering it, the allowing it to take centre stage, so to say, are acts within our control.

So here’s a challenge for today. What is your favourite whinge about? Is it a genuine grievance, such as Benedict meant when he talked about ‘justifiable murmuring’, or is it a covert form of self-indulgence, a little bit of armour we put on to defend ourselves against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? If you’re not sure, or unwilling to admit that it might just be a way of defending yourself against (unspoken) criticism or (as yet uncertain) failure, think again. The chains we make for ourselves are the ones that really bind.

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Whitney Houston and Untimely Death

You would think we would be used to it by now. Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, so many popular singers have died early, often as a result of addictive behaviours involving drink and drugs. In Whitney Houston’s case, there was the added tragedy of drugs ruining her voice long before it would have naturally faded. She had to live with that, day in day out, and who can guess what that knowledge cost her?

In the face of untimely death we are all a little subdued, a little sad. We may not have known the dead person, but we recognize that something is not quite right: the expected order of things has been overturned. The religious among us may whisper something about ‘God’s purposes’ but, whether we have faith or not, we must confront the reality of death. The life we know now must come to an end, and neither the moment nor the manner of it is for us to choose. ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ True, but let us not forget the grief of those who mourn and reflect on the ways in which society colludes with destructive behaviours. As we pray for Whitney Houston, let us also pray for all who are in thrall to drugs, alcohol or anything else that limits human freedom and dignity.

 

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Steadfastness

St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.

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