St John the Divine

I once tried to sum up why I love this feast:

Of all the Christmas feasts which follow thick and fast after the Nativity of Our Lord, I think I like St John’s best. He is the most poetic of the evangelists: a man who had learned ‘how to bear the beames of love’ and who reflects the beautiful light of the Word made flesh, as stars reflect the light of the sun. But there is more to John than beauty. There is grace and truth, again reflecting the grace and truth of the Word, and there is strength.

Truth needs strength otherwise it easily becomes something less — mere criticism, perhaps, or the kind of grumbling that achieves nothing except to make both grumbler and audience weary. St John is the most mystical of the evangelists not because he wrote beautifully, or because he reflected the grace and truth of the Word made flesh, but because he he was strong — strong in faith and love. It enabled him to see what others could only guess at, gave him the courage to explore what others might shy away from, kept him at the foot of the cross when he was tempted to run away. He was a true contemplative.

Whether we think of John as the young Galilean fisherman, the old man in Ephesus, the mystic on Patmos or simply ‘the author of the Fourth Gospel’ matters not a whit. John understood the nature of mystery. In secular parlance, mystery tends to mean no more than something we can’t fully grasp, a puzzle of little consequence; but to the Christian, mystery goes far beyond that. It is a secret we can know only because God has revealed it to us — a wonder and a joy, as in the holy Eucharist. John’s writings are full of mystery in this sense and take us very close to the mystery of God’s being. In his gospel, as in his letters, he expresses this through images of light and love, word and silence, hinting at what can be known only through faith. In our own lives, too, there must be something of the same light and love, word and silence, the same quest for God through prayer and sacrifice and fidelity to the covenant God has made with us.

All this — our understanding of the mystery and our eagerness to pursue it — comes to us as sheer gift, a gift given by our incorporation into Christ at baptism. It is the source of our strength, of the grace and truth by which we live, and it is our ultimate destiny, for one day we shall see Him as He really is. (1 John 3.2) That is a promise that goes far beyond anything we can think or dream of, but one we too often ignore. May the prayers of St John help us recognize it and respond wholeheartedly today.

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What’s in a Name?

People are sometimes puzzled by the fact that our community has two names. We are both Holy Trinity Monastery and Howton Grove Priory. The first shows that we are under the patronage of the Most Holy Trinity and was the name we chose when we were canonically established as an autonomous monastic community in 2004. At the time we lived in rented accommodation, and the impermanence of our situation was reflected in our decision to call ourselves just a monastery. It has since become our legal name and is the one by which we are recognized by the Charity Commission and Companies House (in law, we are an Incorporated Charity). But English Benedictine monasteries have always tended to take the name of the place where they are geographically, so since moving to Howton Grove we have become known as Howton Grove Priory (we are not big enough to be an abbey, so we are just a priory). There is something important about identifying with where we live, connecting with the soil on which we stand. It grounds us, literally.

So, what does calling ourselves Christian mean; and why do we further refine the meaning by identifying as Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or whatever? If we stop to reflect what a large claim we are making when we call ourselves Christians, most of us would probably end up as confused as the disciples on Mount Tabor when they glimpsed the glory of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. We are saying to all the world not merely that we are disciples of Christ, his humble followers, but that we have in an important sense been incorporated into Christ through baptism. We are no longer ‘just’ anything. We have been transformed. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, it is one thing to have been changed ontologically, quite another to live out the transformation in our daily lives.

But what about those other labels we give ourselves: do they matter or are they just tribal identifiers, so to say? My own answer would be that they do indeed matter. By calling myself a Catholic of the Latin or Roman Rite (as distinct from the Eastern Rite), I let everyone know what I believe about the Church, the sacraments, the whole economy of salvation. I don’t pretend to understand all that I believe, but I trust the Church’s guidance on these matters because where I have been able to test what she teaches, I have found her teaching true. For example, it matters greatly to me that the Church is consistent in her teaching about the sanctity of human life, with no quibbles or accommodations. It helps me think about some of the perpelexing moral issues we face in society today. Above all, it convinces me that it matters how we respond — what we say or do in these areas of life. Similarly, I have always found the Catholic take on Christology both immensely challenging and encouraging. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my gist.

This Sunday, why not spend a few moments thinking about the way in which the names we have taken on ourselves reflect what we truly are; and if they do not, let us ask the help of him who can do all things. Lent is a time of transformation. Grace is all around. We have only to accept it, that we may become what we are meant to be.

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