From Wholeness to Holiness

Three years ago I reflected on today’s Mass readings in these words:

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. . . . Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of his presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when he comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion. (abridged)

Today I would want to add this. The Latin root of the word ‘integrity’ contains important notions of being whole, consistent, yet how often do we hear people speak of their feeling broken, not being themselves, as though their inner core of stability had crumbled under the weight of events? How often, too, in response to some unexpected behaviour, do we say of others, ‘he acted out of character’ or ‘that wasn’t like her’? We expect consistency and a degree of predictability from both ourselves and others, but it does not take much to unsettle us. Is there something here we need to think about?

Advent, with its invitation to set out into the unknown, can be a bewildering experience but can also, if we allow it, make sense of much that ordinarily puzzles us. We are asked to let some of the concerns of other times fall away so that we can  spend more time in prayer and reading the scriptures, or, at any rate, in conscious reflection on how we live as Christians and respond to the Lord’s call. To live with integrity is not merely to act with honesty, it is to live from the central core of our being — only most of us are too busy and preoccupied to discover what that is. Perhaps this Advent we are being asked not only to live upright lives but also to learn something about ourselves we never knew before. It may prove painful or difficult or something we are tempted to shy away from, but there can be no real holiness without some degree of self-knowledge — call it truthfulness about the self, if you like. There is thus a direct connection between wholeness and holiness all the saints have recognized.  So, a useful question for today might be, are we ready to risk being made whole, that we may become holy? Are we ready to become people of integrity?

A prayer intention for today: let us pray for all whose integrity is relied upon by others; those whose lives have been scarred by a lack of integrity or whose integrity has been questioned; those who are broken and in need of healing (which includes all of us, one way or another).

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Ascension Day and the Gift of Counsel

For those of us celebrating Ascension today rather than on Thursday, there is a special appropriateness in our praying for the gift of counsel. This third gift of the Holy Spirit can be said to complete the gifts of wisdom and understanding, just as the Ascension can be said to complete the paschal mystery.

The opening sentences of chapter 11 of Isaiah remind us

And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.  And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge according to the sight of the eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of the ears. But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. And justice shall be the girdle of his loins: and faith the girdle of his reins.

Counsel is thus an attribute of Christ himself but not one we often think about. It is sometimes described as the perfection of prudence (which Benedict calls the mother of all the virtues), an interior working of mind and heart that leads to right conduct. I have sometimes wondered whether, when Jesus urged the rich young man to sell all he had and follow him, we are right to assume that the story ended with his going away sad because he had many possessions. He was obviously a thoughtful and prayerful man. Did he make a once-for-all rejection of the invitation given him? Isn’t it just as likely that he went away and wrestled with his conflicting thoughts and emotions, and perhaps did do as Jesus asked? That would have been counsel at work in him.

Today we tend to talk rather glibly about counselling of one kind or another. Usually we mean the kind of listening/guidance given by someone trained to help those with specific problems or difficulties. Counsel, as the Church understands it, is sheer gift: it can be developed, but not taught. It must operate within the individual before he or she can share its fruits with others. To be attentive, to be receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that is our role; and it requires steadfast prayer and reflection on the scriptures. As we pray for the gift of counsel, let us pray also for perseverance in those things that make us open to the Holy Spirit.

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The Wolf and the Lamb

The first reading at Mass today, Isaiah 11. 1-10, has many resonances. Different words leap out of the page according to the context in which the passage is read. Today, when we commemorate the martyr saints Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant, it is the wolf and the lamb living together that captures my imagination.*

We tend to think of the martyrs as lambs to the slaughter, accused of treason and subject to appalling torture. We forget that our Elizabethan and Jacobean ancestors were no keener on torture than we are ourselves but adopted a contemporary form of the mantra, ‘desperate times call for deperate measures’. On the eve of the Commons’ debate on whether to bomb Syria, questions of war and peace, the right conduct of society, moral obligation and personal integrity, are peculiarly urgent. In the context of the Advent call to holiness of life, they are illumined by the words of Isaiah in ways we may find surprising.

Often, when we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. I wonder whether that isn’t missing the point. Isaiah’s messianic vision sees the wolf and the lamb living together, achieving a mutual respect and harmony that the traditional roles of predator and prey do not allow. Is that what we should be praying for today; and if so, how does it work out in our own lives as well as internationally?

*the lion eating straw like the ox is not to my purpose today but will be saved for another time.

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On the Holy Mountain

From our monastery we look out towards the Black Mountains and the Brecons. They are a constant reminder that in scripture mountains are a privileged meeting-place between God and humankind. Today Isaiah 11 speaks of the holy mountain on which no hurt or harm will be done. It is a messianic vision, we say, pausing only to pull out our concordances and commentaries to extract every little nuance of meaning we can from the text. It is a prophecy of the end times, not really meant for here and now.

How wrong can we be! The holy mountain on which no hurt or harm is done should be the ground we tread every day of our lives. God wants to be known and loved now, not just hereafter. If we feel there is some block to this knowing, something that hinders us, we need to look at it and be prepared to change. We can be people of integrity, as Isaiah says. We can be ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ — if we wish. That is the crux of the matter. What do we really want? During this Year of Consecrated Life many people will be challenged to answer that question in a way they never thought possible, but it isn’t a question just for religious or clergy but every one of us. We are all called to know the promise of the gospel (Luke 10.21-24), all called to know the Lord.

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A Joyful Integrity

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. To one who believes, silence is never merely an absence of sound, never, in any sense, an absence of meaning. Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of His presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when He comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion.

St Francis Xavier, whose feast it is today, was, by all accounts, a man of singularly joyful integrity who won people to Christ by what he was, as much as by what he said. Let us make our own the collect for the day:

Lord God, you won so many peoples to yourself
by the preaching of St Francis Xavier.
Give us the same zeal he had for the faith
and let your Church rejoice
to see the virtue and number of her children increase
throughout the world.

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God’s Holy Mountain

They do no hurt, no harm,
on all my holy mountain,
for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea.

These words, taken from Isaiah 11, express the dream of every religious person: a world at harmony with itself because it is filled with knowledge of God. Not, you notice, a purely secular society, a socialist paradise of the kind that has never yet been achieved but which briefly captured the imagination of many in the twentieth century; not a world which is merely ‘free from’ but one which is ‘filled with’.

Why do I insist on the difference? The answer can be found in that same passage from Isaiah and the gospel for the day, Luke 10.21-24. Quite simply, the world was created by God, redeemed by God and is incomplete without God. That is why our hope is not for this time only. Only God can fulfil the deepest longings of the human heart. That doesn’t mean we can ignore our own part in bringing about the completion to which we look forward. Notice how Isaiah again speaks of integrity. The Shoot of Jesse will judge with integrity; integrity will be the loincloth round his hips. In other words, the wholeness we desire we first find in God but must cling to, must wrap ourselves in, so that it is unthinkable we should ever discard it.

The mountain is an ancient image of the holiness of God, his otherness. We go up to the mountain of God, it is surrounded with fire and smoke, cloud and mystery. Sometimes its holiness is such that we may not touch the mountain itself. It is set apart, holy ground where God and man (it always was man) might, on occasion, meet. The Incarnation has changed that for ever. The whole earth has become the mountain of God, the place where God is at home among his people. Now we are privileged to approach God in human form, to touch him, to know him as simultaneously God and one of us. If we have eyes to see, if we see as God sees, then indeed we know that ‘the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea’.

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