Vacare Deo

With the week-end approaching, it is worth spending a few moments thinking about the old monastic injunction vacare Deo, to make space for God. The Cistercian equivalent is the otium sanctum, holy leisure, which St Bernard characterised as otium negotissimum, very busy leisure. How do we make space for God in our lives? What kind of sacred leisure should our lives contain?

The first thing to note is that making space is not the same as doing nothing. Doing nothing worried St Benedict, for example, who saw it as idleness and the enemy of the soul. Making space for God, by contrast, is more a change of gear, adopting a slightly different focus. We make space for God by attending to him. That may mean we have to think about what we do, but it doesn’t mean that we necessarily stop doing things. Have you ever thought of inviting God into your week-end activities, for instance? Of course prayer and reading the scriptures matter, but so do the other activities in which we engage. Time spent with others is not time stolen from God unless we are selfish and self-indulgent about it.

I sometimes think that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to create a God in our own image and likeness: exacting, a bit of a policeman, rather a killjoy, if truth be told. Yet in Jesus we see a much more attractive image of God, one who taught us to expect miracles at parties and holiness among the outcasts of society. The whole week-end, not just Sunday, can be filled with God. We just have to make space for him.

 

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St Francis as viewed by a Benedictine

If you go to Subiaco, where St Benedict lived as a hermit before deciding that coenobitic monasticism was a safer option for the rest of us, you will see one of the earliest paintings of St Francis in the chapel of St Gregory. The saint is shown without stigmata or halo, suggesting that it was executed during his lifetime. Interestingly, one eye is larger than the other, reminiscent of the icon of Christ at St Catharine’s Monastery, Sinai. Another fresco shows Cardinal Ugolino, later Pope Gregory IX, consecrating the chapel. A friar stands behind him. In my view, it is St Francis again, so perhaps he was present at the consecration. (Sadly, I can’t show you any photos as those we have are the Subiaco community’s copyright.)

These two images seem to me to tipify the Benedictine view of St Francis. He is recognized as being a kindred spirit although the way of life he drew up for his friars is very different from that of monks. He is also recognized as a holy man while yet alive. I think that says something important about both forms of religious life, something we may lose sight of as we bustle about doing our various good works today.

Benedictines sometimes forget the years Benedict spent in his cave, alone with God. Franciscans sometimes forget the saint of the stigmata, who was anything but sentimental. Both were men of huge compassion, open to the new, their lives rooted in prayer. Benedict probably was not a priest, Francis was a deacon; neither was in the least ‘clerical’ in the bad sense. Both had a tremendous sense of the holiness of God and his endless creativity. That portrait of St Francis in the heart of a Benedictine holy place is an encouragement to all of us to open our eyes and see what God is doing now.

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A Morning Walk

This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.

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