I have a confession to make. I am not proud to be English; I am not proud to be Catholic; I’m not even proud to be a Benedictine; but I am supremely grateful to be all three. The current fashion for saying one is ‘proud’ to be this, that or the other leaves me cold. I’m never sure whether the being proud is an attempt to claim greatness by association or simply a way of saying politely ‘ya, boo and sucks to you!’ I daresay it can be both — and more. Pride and gratitude both arise from a deep sense of satisfaction, but with this difference: pride is centred on self and gratitude on the other; one looks inward, the other outwards. Could that be why the Christian tradition has never been very keen on pride but always loved gratitude? As our American friends say, go figure.
The word ‘debt’ has become synonymous with ‘Eurozone crisis’, ‘Greece’, ‘recession’ and ‘default’. It conjures up visions of grey suits and number-crunching, police in riot gear, austerity and anxiety. There are other kinds of debts, however, and it can be good to remember them. Here is a random list of some of mine which you can compare with your own:
I am indebted to my ancestors, not just my parents, for pretty well everything attributable to nature and nurture, from my awkwardness of person to love of country, language and Faith; to my first teachers, for opening up the mysteries of reading, writing and arithmetic, so making possible the intellectual discoveries of later years; to friends, for rubbing a few rough edges off me and enriching life with their kindness and giftedness; to my employers, for convincing me that I was not cut out to be a banker for ever; to my community, for accepting me and showing me the possibility of holiness; to those I meet online or off, who challenge or comfort, as occasion demands.
These are debts that cannot be measured in pounds and pence but which shape our lives as much, if not more than, economic circumstances; and the interesting thing is that they are debts we can acknowledge gratefully, even gladly. Each one of us is capable of repaying them, if we are willing to make the effort. That is part of the glory of being human.
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.
While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.
Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.
There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.
Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. The words with which she dedicated herself to the service of the Commonwealth on that day in 1952 have been amply fulfilled. In a message released for today, she dedicates herself anew to public service. That should make all of us, whatever our political opinions, think about our own service of others. Personally, I am grateful for the quintessentially British and rather understated way in which her Christian faith suffuses all she says and does. We are fortunate to have a genuinely Christian monarch as Head of State. Let us pray for her today with 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.
We wish all our American friends a very happy Thanksgiving Day and assure you of our prayers.
For most people this Sunday is Remembrance Sunday, pure and simple, when we recall the sacrifice of those who died in defence of our freedom. It is a day for prayer and gratitude and solemn acts of remembering. Here is it is also Oblates’ Day, when we welcome those of our oblates and associates who can get here to a day of quiet fellowship at the monastery. The 13 November is the feast of All Benedictine Saints so is suitably challenging: holiness, and nothing less, is what we aim at, and we have a ‘great crowd of witnesses’ to encourage us. Today will have challenges peculiar to itself, however, as half the community is down with what looks suspiciously like ‘flu or a similar virus. It reminds me of that lovely Hasidic saying, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I trust there is a broad grin in heaven today.
It has been an ‘interesting’ week, hasn’t it? Week-ends don’t happen in monasteries. In fact, we are gearing up to receive a parish group here on Saturday, and Sunday is always full; so there won’t be much time to pause and look back on the past few days. One of the distinguishing characteristics of monastic life is that we try to ‘digest’ the day’s events on the day itself rather than postpone them to some future time which may never come. Hence Benedict’s insistence that, before the day’s end, we should make peace with anyone we have had a dispute with. We reflect on the day, giving thanks for graces received, asking for enlightenment, pardon or strength. It is a time for honesty. If we are feeling ragged and running on empty, we need to acknowledge the fact because God cannot fill a closed heart or mind.
Perhaps Friday, which is the end of the working week for many people, would be a good day on which to think about the week past and bring it into one’s prayer. More than that, let’s not go home for the week-end without saying ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or even, ‘that’s O.K., it’s been difficult, hasn’t it?’ Forgiveness can transform a situation as anyone who heard Tariq Jahan this week would agree.
The feast of SS Joachim and Anne, (traditional names given to the parents of Our Lady and hence the maternal grandparents of Our Lord Jesus Christ), is an apt day on which to sing the praises of grandparents. You see them today doing the school run, providing out-of-hours childcare, often more engaged with the children than the children’s parents. It wasn’t always so. The grandparents of today are usually healthier, wealthier and more leisured than their own grandparents were. They are Baby Boomers turned Baby Buddies and have a very special place in their grandchildren’s hearts.
Because that is the point about grandparents, isn’t it? They can be so much less complicated about the love they have for their grandchildren, and grandchildren instinctively recognize the fact. Grandparents don’t have the 24/7 responsibility of parents; they can be indulgent; they can enjoy their grandchildren’s company in ways and at times that parents can’t. Their influence can be huge, and it is always the influence of love. Thank God for grandparents, living and dead.
It is hot here in New York, seriously hot, with a high humidity content. My habit is as limp as I am, so I have chosen to stay indoors and work next to the air conditioning rather than go to the Cloisters Museum as I had hoped. Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the noonday sun, but not sensible Englishwomen like me (? Ed.)
So, I have been looking at life through the window, as it were. The deer feed near to the convent in the early morning, and there are a couple of turkeys who seem to have taken up residence on the edge of the woodland. It is familiar and strange at the same time. It struck me this morning that ‘looking at life through a window’ is exactly how illness or age may force us to experience much that goes on around us. How much we miss when we cannot hear, smell, touch or taste. The same is true if sight goes and we must rely on the other senses.
I don’t feel deprived that I cannot smell, touch (or taste) those wild turkeys but I am glad that I have the choice, whether to go outside and experience the sensory beauty of the early morning or stay inside my air-conditioned room. Not everyone has that choice. Thinking about that has certainly transformed my disappointment at not going to The Cloisters. Instead I give thanks for what I have, and want to pray for those who have much less. Please join me in that.