Light and Darkness: Transfiguration 2021

‘A-Day’ First atomic bomb explosion at Bikini in the Marshall Islands
1 July 1946

A Local Event and Hiroshima

This morning, at 8 o’clock, Western Power will switch off the electricity supply to this area and we shall be plunged into a temporary physical darkness. It should only last a day, but we won’t be able to supplement natural light at the flick of a switch or do many of the things we usually take for granted. At 8.15 a.m. on this day in 1945 a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and in its glare the world was changed for ever. A moral darkness descended on the human race. It is not just the number of those killed or the way in which they died that appalls, but the fact that another boundary was crossed. Nothing in war was now beyond limits and that would have an impact on the way in which we behaved henceforth. As Robert Oppenheimer remarked earlier, after watching the detonation of the first nuclear weapon, a piece of Hindu scripture had run through his mind: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ In vain did he spend the rest of his life urging stricter control of nuclear energy and more thought about the possible consequences of its development.

Physical and Moral Darkness

Physical darkness, moral darkness, how do they connect with an event that Christians believe took place roughly two thousand years ago in what we have come to call the Transfiguration? Was that episode in the life of Christ another kind of boundary-changer, the spiritual triumph of light over darkness, begun on Tabor and completed on Calvary? Many have speculated that the Transfiguration took place at night, which would have made its strange and luminous beauty even more wonderful to those who saw it. It is not the loveliness of the Transfiguration that matters, however, but its significance.

The Transfiguration

Mark’s account is brief (Mk 9.2-10). As always, there is no lingering over the detail. He moves quickly to meaning and purpose. This is God’s beloved Son to whom we are to listen and as a consequence find life. The vision of the unity of the Old and New Covenants is meant to do away with doubt and disbelief but, of course, it has done no such thing. We continue to live with doubt, fear, death. Today, as much as ever before, the old certainties are crumbling. Climate change and the loss of habits and species in the natural world parallels the loss of agreed values in the social and political order. Even our religious institutions have shown themselves to be often corrupt and untrustworthy. Sin, we find, is not an abstraction but a brutal reality in the lives of us all. In a sense, we are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, still living in the not-yet of the kingdom, of eternal life glimpsed but not yet fully grasped..

That is not the whole story, of course. Sin and death do not have the last word; the promise is fulfilled, only those of us alive today have yet to experience its fullness when, as we affirm, ‘all is made new’.

I am encouraged by the fact that liturgically the Transfiguration is very much a Benedictine feast, popularised by the Cluniacs. Benedictines are not much given to hype — or despair. We just go on, century after century, trusting in God and hoping, little by little, to be refashioned into the likeness of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. That surely is the connection, the answer to the conundrum. Just as on Tabor Jesus allowed his disciples to glimpse his glory as God, so, in our everyday lives, his grace transforms us, allowing us to achieve the impossible because, in the end, good will always triumph over evil, love over hatred, life over death. God wills that all should be saved. We think about that too little or somehow dismiss it as something that doesn’t really apply to us. Yet that is the hope the Transfiguration confers on us and the whole human race. We may not see the glory now nor realise how wonderful is the promise made to us, but it is there, shimmering and shining throughout time and eternity. We are, because of Him, ‘immortal diamond’. Let us give thanks, rejoice — and pray for peace.

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O Oriens | 21 December 2020

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

At about 4.30 to 5 o’clock this evening, on the shortest, darkest day of the year here in Britain, if we look to the south-west, we may be able to see a bright light: the grand conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that many think may have been the star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to Jesus. How fitting, then, that we should be singing O Oriens at Vespers. For the first time since we began the sequence of O antiphons, the coming of God as Saviour and Redeemer is hailed with three different titles, all of them luminous: Morning Star, Splendour of Eternal Light, Sun of Justice.

With all the current talk of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ and the sheer misery of being separated from those we love or seeing them suffer, it is hard not to think of the world as being very bleak and very dark. But today’s antiphon is a reminder that light will always overcome darkness. God will deal with it in his own way and his own time. Christmas has not been cancelled, though much that we associate with the celebration of the feast is going to be off-limits this year; hope is not diminished though we may find it more difficult to hold onto. We can and should rejoice at Christmas because the Son of God has chosen to be our Morning Star, our Light in the darkness, our source of justice and healing. Salvation is still the gift he offers us; we are still loved infinitely, tenderly, far beyond our human imagining.

Of course, there is another kind of darkness many are experiencing, the interior darkness of distress and mental confusion we associate with this time of year, and made worse by months of COVID19-induced anxiety and isolation. It is a prison, a shadow, an all-enveloping gloom causing much pain and suffering, horribly intensified when it cannot be shared with anyone. Loneliness makes any kind of wretchedness much bleaker, and frequently there is a sense of failure, too, because, of course, no one actually wants to be ‘down’ or out of step with the season. It is easy to say that from this too Christ comes to redeem us, but although that is true, it is not a truth everyone accepts. Add to that the moral darkness and confusion we see in the unceasing violence and corruption the news headlines reveal to us day by day and we can argue that despair is understandable. Understandable, perhaps, but not an option for a Christian. We continue to hope; we continue to trust — not blindly, nor against all the evidence, so to say, but because we have placed our hope and trust in One who never disappoints and will never let us down.

I’d like to end with something I’ve said before because I think it expresses these ideas as well as I can. Today’s antiphon turns them into prayer:

Sometimes in the early morning, when I go into the oratory to pray, everything is dark, as only a house in the countryside can be dark. Gradually, there is a little glimmer of greyness that marks the beginning of dawn. Then slowly, beautifully, light begins to flood the room until everything is transformed. Even the dust sparkles. Our lives are like that. For some, in this life, there is only darkness and the light will come later; for others, probably the majority, the light begins to shine even now, but uncertainly, by fits and gleams; and for a few, a very few, life is irradiated with sunshine from the very first. What we have to hold to is this: the light will come. ‘His coming is as certain as the dawn.’ Indeed, yes: come, Lord Jesus.

As scripture, I suggest reading Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6. 12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2

Blog subscribers: the update to WordPress 5.6 has broken the plug-in used to send out automatic notifications. I’ll try to sort it out when we come to the end of our Silence Days.

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Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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The Fragility of Hope

Is it just me, or do the news headlines of the last few weeks seem to be full of sadness? We read of natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and wildfires, taking their toll of human life; disease spreading fear and death into countries already ravaged by war and civil unrest; the unremitting violence of terrorists and thugs; and then the high-profile deaths of some who have taken their own lives or who have been brutally battered in their homes or on our supposedly ‘safe’ streets. We read of broken promises, agreements reneged upon and political spats that may have consequences for years to come. It all seems very dark, and then we add to it the stories few others may know about: the family torn apart by alcoholism, the would-be nun living in a homeless shelter because her bishop has closed the monastery in which she used to live, the famous person close to despair. It is difficult, in such circumstance, to keep our hope up, especially if we think of hope as something that innoculates us against doubt or fear. Depression, anxiety, even a fleeting feeling of being down in the dumps, are realities we have to face.

This morning I found my own personal encouragement in something that may strike others as strange. In today’s gospel (Mark 3. 20-35) we read that those hostile to Jesus said, ‘Beelzebul is in him!’ Think about that for a moment. It is an utter travesty of the truth, but Jesus had to live with it. The argument he uses to refute the scribes’ allegation impresses us, because we know the truth of the matter, but I wouldn’t mind betting that at the time, both to him and his hearers, it looked a little weak. There was no act of power to substantiate what he said. We do not often think of Jesus as needing hope.* Trust in the Father, yes, but hope, no. I think, however, that this is an instance of Jesus’ living by hope, uncertain of the outcome, but continuing nonetheless. It is a variant of what I have called elsewhere ‘just plodding on’. In our weakest moments, when everything seems black, that is all we can do. We cannot summon up a feeling of faith we do not have; we just have to go on.

Please pray today for those who feel they cannot go on; and give thanks for those whose humanity enables them to reach out to others in their need and give them comfot.

* I speak of Jesus in his humanity, not as he was and is as the Second Person of the Trinity.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

On Planting a Lilac Tree

Yesterday we planted a lilac tree. Or rather, D. Lucy did most of the work while I merely supervised and indulged in vague thoughts about the lost gardens of Aleppo and the vanished Lemoine nursery that developed the cultivar we planted, Syringa Vulgaris Belle de Nancy. There is something about tree-planting that is very life affirming. We plant, knowing that we shall never see the tree in its full-grown beauty but with the hope that its leaves and blossom will delight another generation. Tree-planting is a truly anonymous act, a collaboration with nature rather than a defiance of it and, as John Evelyn understood so well, an act with consequences beyond the particular. Trees may be felled or sicken and die; gardens may be destroyed, nurseries disappear, but the impulse to plant, to cherish and to grow remains. We do not know what will be the fate of our little lilac tree, but it was planted with a prayer — a reminder of Eden, of Calvary, and of the hope that sustains us all.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Worry and St Cyril of Alexandria

Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in  later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.

I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.

I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.

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Email and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas and Companions

The death of Ray Tomlinson, the creator of email, probably made many of us pause for a moment. Email is both a blessing and a bane. It is immediate, cheap and a huge help in keeping in touch with multitudes of people, especially for those of us who have not yet adapted fully to the smartphone and social media. It is also a significant time-waster, a source of scamming and dangerous when one is rattled about something. As far as I know, no one has yet published, electronically or otherwise, a collection of the world’s greatest emails; and I have a hunch no one ever will. Email is essentially transient, read this moment, forgotten the next.

What a good thing, therefore, that email didn’t exist when Perpetua wrote her account of the circumstances leading up to her martyrdom and that of Felicitas. It is a kind of prison diary, written in the first person and full of the sort of detail that gives the story an amazing vigour. There are two versions of the Passio, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here, and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation into English here. It is one of the earliest texts, if not the earliest, written by a Christian woman to have survived. We are at once under the Carthaginian skies of 7 March, A.D. 203 and can feel the heat, hear the brutal cries and smell the sweat and blood of the arena where an extraordinary display of courage is taking place. There is pathos, too, for Perpetua, the nobly-born, is a nursing mother and Felicitas, a slave, is in an advanced state of pregnancy. As we read the text, we begin to realise that this account is not merely historical, something from nearly two thousand years ago that belongs to a vanished world. It is appallingly, violently contemporary; and the dreams and the arguments Perpetua records as leading inexorably to her death still have the power to shock because they have their dreadful equivalents today.

Let us pray for persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, especially those who are subject to the brutality of IS and its imitators; and let us not lose hope. SS Perpetua and Felicitas remind us that death is not the end but the entrance into life, and that those who kill the body cannot kill the soul.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A God of Integrity and a Saviour

The title of this blog post is taken from the first reading at Mass today, Isaiah 45.6-8, 18, 21-25. If you have time — and surely, you do have time — read the omitted verses as well. It is a magnificent piece of writing, expressing the power of God, his intimate connection with creation and his tender love towards all that is. I think the astronauts on the International Space Station, whether they be religious or not, must have something of the same sense of wonder and awe as the prophet Isaiah when they look back at the earth and see the beauty and fragility of our slowly-spinning blue globe.

There is a paradox here, as so often. The planet on which we live is torn by war and division, sullied by our abuse of the environment, its beauty equalled only by the brutality of its inhabitants (you and me, to speak plainly). But that is not the whole story. We may be just a little speck of life in the Universe, but a little speck with a glorious destiny. As Isaiah proclaims, our God is a God of integrity who will restore wholeness, a Saviour who will redeem our sin and failure. In these dark days, when the weather is bleak and the news full of stories of death and disaster, it can be hard to maintain hope, but that is preciasely why we are given Advent. These few days invite us to reflect on what it means not to have a Saviour, not to know the mercy of God, and, having reflected, to experience anew the hope which is already fulfilled in Christ. The Promise of the Messiah is for all generations, including our own.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Broken Dreams

The people of Thailand awoke this morning to find that they are under martial law, although the Army has denied anything as definite as a military coup. The situation in Ukraine seems ever more desperate; and if we look at the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, the ‘Arab Spring’ that so excited Western journalists has turned, by and large, to a bleak and unpromising winter. Not so long ago, the economic ‘growth miracles’ being hailed in Europe and the U.S.A. proved they were no such thing and ushered in a long and dreary period of financial failure and business collapse. Yet still we dream of a better tomorrow. The shape our dream takes is determined by our own ambitions, fears, desires, but the common element is always that the future will be an improvement on the present.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it can make us complacent or unappreciative of the present. Christians are not immune. As we look forward with hope to eternal life, we can ignore or pay too little attention to what is happening here and now. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ is one we must all learn to celebrate. We cannot live in the past nor in the future: now is all we have, so we must make sure it is a good ‘now’ — not in any self-indulgent, vapid way, but as the time given us for a reason and a purpose.

St Benedict, as you might expect, has quite a lot to say on this subject. Today, for example, in RB 4. 22–43, he lists among the tools of good works several that concern inner and outer truthfulness and control over one’s appetites. We cannot put off doing good till tomorrow: our salvation must be worked out today. There is an urgency about his insistence on living virtuously because it affects not just us but everyone with whom we come into contact. His prayer towards the end of the Rule is that we may all be brought to everlasting life (RB 72.12). All, without exception. That is a big dream to have, and one that, please God, will not end as broken.

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Loss of Enthusiasm

Whether we call it loss of enthusiasm or End of the World Syndrome, we all know what it is: the moment when feelings go flat and the world turns monochrome. We no longer believe, no longer hope, all is is blank and bleak. When this moment comes in the novitiate, then the real work of conversion can begin. We no longer try for perfection by our own efforts but settle for the rather messier, less obvious work of the Holy Spirit in us. (cf RB 7.70) So, too, with life in general. Enthusiasm is a great quality, especially when the inspiration comes from God; but it is not meant to be a permanent state. If, today, you are feeling knee-high to a grasshopper, lacking energy and bored stiff by everything, do not assume that something dreadful has happened to you. You are simply discovering anew what it means to be human. Like it or not, we have to be human to be redeemed; and isn’t that a rather wonderful and inspiring thought?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail