Christ’s Peace

Is today’s gospel reading (John 14.23-29) anything more than a nice little farewell speech from Jesus? Yes, there is the commission to keep his word, but don’t we customarily tend to get a lovely glow from that

Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you,
a peace the world cannot give,
this is my gift to you.

and gloss over the hard bits? The bits that tell us peace isn’t easy, cannot be be taken for granted, exists even in the midst of conflict and violence? The Benedictine device of the word pax, ‘peace’, surrounded by a crown of thorns is a powerful reminder not only that peace is Christ’s gift, but that the way to it is both protected by sacrifice and suffering and barred by pain and difficulty. It is, in truth, a very ambivalent sign.

The death of Fr Daniel Berrigan S.J. will have reminded those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War what an extraordinarly confused time that was. Peace activists sometimes gave the impression of not caring very much about the consequences of their actions. The cause was all in all, and it didn’t really matter if some people were hurt or even killed. I still can’t make up my mind whether that was the best way to oppose some of the enormities committed in Vietnam, but without that opposition, so the argument goes, there would have been even more death and destruction than there was. Much the same line of argument tends to be used today in support of everything from attacks on the pope to gender questions to whatever is the burning issue of the day. ‘I am right about this, and anyone who thinks differently is wrong. It therefore doesn’t matter how I treat them or what I say or do in support of my views.’

I think it matters very much. The peace of Christ is not something extra, something added on to our existence. It is fundamental — a peace, a blessedness, meant to inform our whole being and change the way in which we view everyone and everything. It is something we are to share with others, not just those we like or are in agreement with. At the heart of the biblical notion of peace is a sense of completeness. That can be a very challenging idea to grasp, but I think it boils down to this. Christ’s peace embraces the whole world. Does ours?

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Servanthood and the Women’s World Day of Prayer

FootWashing

The Women’s World Day of Prayer is one of those quiet initiatives that grows and grows. Today it is something that is shared in by many men and children, as well as women. The theme chosen by the women of the Bahamas, who were responsible for organizing this year’s programme, is one that fits well with this week’s gospel readings and is beautifully symbolized by the towel, pitcher and bowl of the Mandatum: servanthood. Today we might usefully spend a few moments thinking about our role as servants of the Lord, and how many of his servants have bent over our grubby feet in times past in obedience to his command, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

 

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The Point of Being Pointless

Occasionally, I am asked questions that I spend my whole life trying to answer. For example, someone recently emailed asking me to explain the monastic vision and how it differs from any other kind of vision. I still haven’t replied, because this blog and what we say on our main website are probably the best answer I can give; but the fact that something is hard or would take a lifetime to articulate fully is no excuse for not trying to say something. Tomorrow, Candlemas or, more formally, the Presentation of the Lord, is the high-point of the Year of Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer; so here is an attempt, brief and of necessity incomplete, to try to express one nun’s understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine engaged in the monastic search for God.

My starting-point is the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict, the one illumining the other. We are engaged on a journey back to God from whom we have strayed. For most people the path marked out will be the ordinary one of marriage/partnership and family life, or the less usual one of singleness. For the monk or nun, however, there is an essential solitariness (cf monos) that goes beyond being single. The only way I can begin to describe it is as an emptiness only God can fill: a stripping away of self-will, of ownership of anything or anyone, a complete and utter dispossession. From most people’s point of view, that is nonsense: it is natural to surround ourselves with people and things, to make a home in the world. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing wrong with that and much that is right, provided we don’t become obsessive about acquiring more and more. But the monk or nun isn’t called to make a home in the world, nor are we called to live lives that make sense in a way others understand. We are simultaneously on the edge of society, like John the Baptist, and at its heart, like Thérèse of Lisieux. What we do (or don’t do), how we spend our time, the great cycle of public and private prayer that determines the shape of our days is, from a worldly perspective, entirely pointless. We may incidentally become great scholars, artists, educators, champagne-makers or what-have-you, but that is not what we are aiming at; it is not the point of our lives.

For a monk or nun there is only one aim: to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Many people are able to achieve that through a normal family life; we can’t, and it is because we can’t that we are drawn to monastic life. From the outside, there is much that seems contradictory. We talk about being possessionless, yet monasteries tend to acquire property over time, some of it very expensive property; we stress obedience, yet there are those whose concept of obedience is, shall we say, at best elastic; we are very conscious of failure, both individual and corporate. From the inside, the contradictions are fewer. It is possible to live lives of real austerity in the midst of plenty; to go on, day after day, cheerfully fulfilling tasks for which we feel no attraction; to fall and get up again. Little by little, that constant exposure to scripture and prayer, that daily experience of imperfect human nature under an imperfect superior in an imperfect community, does its work. In old monks and nuns one often sees a beauty and a holiness that, for me at least, convince me it is all worthwhile. The point of being pointless, so to say, can never be expressed in utilitarian terms because, in the end, it is all about love — love given and received, love made visible in Jesus Christ.

On Candlemas Day, please pray for all who are trying to live religious life as well as we can.

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Of Victims and Victimisation

The word ‘victim’ apparently did not enter the English language until the late fifteenth century, when it denoted a creature killed as a religious sacrifice (cf the Latin, victima). Only subsequently did it acquire its modern meanings of someone harmed or injured as a result of crime/accident (now its primary meaning), a person who has been tricked/duped, or someone who feels helpless in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment. That in itself is interesting, and I’d like to examine how and why there was such a shift from the religious and universal to the secular and individual — and at that time. I can hazard a few guesses, but they are not really to my purpose. What really interests me is the way in which the concept of victimhood has expanded.

One could be forgiven for thinking  we are all victims nowadays. There is always someone to blame for whatever is going wrong in our lives (blame = another word of religious origin, meaning to blaspheme). Whether we’re talking about public service cuts, the milk price, or boorish behaviour, those who suffer the consequences are victims of Tory policies/profiteering supermarkets/loutish lads and ladettes. There may be some truth in the allegations, but why should we be so keen to adopt the language of victimhood and apply it to ourselves or others? Does it let us off the hook somehow or allow us a sympathy that might otherwise be denied? For example, I recently heard someone refer to ‘cancer victims’. I have never thought of myself as a victim just because I have cancer. As far as I know, nothing in my life-style is responsible for the particular cancer I have, and it would be absurd to blame my ancestors for the genes they bequeathed me. It is just ‘one of those things’. I see no point in railing against fate or God. No one is to blame.

I think it may be significant that both ‘victim’ and ‘blame’ are religious terms we have adapted to secular contexts. They retain (some of) their power to shock and awe, especially when we make verbs of them. To victimize someone conjures up a horrible picture of cruelty and injustice inflicted on another; to blame someone suggests pinning responsibility for something bad on another person. In both cases, we use the words to condemn. The evil is placed safely outside and beyond us; and that, I think, is the problem.

Very often we use the language of victimhood to evade responsibility ourselves or to make another pay. Sometimes, this can be taken to absurd lengths. To give another example. I’m a Catholic, but I don’t feel personal responsibility for the slaves owned by Christians in the fourth century or the putting to death of Cathars in the twelfth any more than I imagine modern Eqyptians feel for the enslavement of various peoples under the pharoahs or the death of Christian subjects in later epochs. Of course, the nearer we are in time to the events in question, the more difficult it is to think clearly about these things. We are tempted to view everything the same way and use the same language, which ultimately cheapens not only the language we use but deadens our understanding of the horrors we are talking about. I am appalled by the African slave trade, for instance, but I am uneasy about comparing it to the systematic genocide of the Holocaust: six million people murdered in six years because they were Jews is an enormity one cannot get one’s head round. The evils of the slave trade over centuries are also an enormity, but the common factors — cruelty, injustice, death — are complicated by such things as the involvement of Arab/African traders and, cynical though it may sound, the fact that those involved in it were not such good record-keepers as the Nazis. I feel deep shame that human beings can behave so badly to one another, but how can I apologize for that in which I had no part? I imagine my serf ancestors would understand, even if no one else does.

For me, as a Christian, there is only one true Victim: the mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ, who gave his life on the cross and has forgiven every sin of which we are guilty. Forgiveness frees, whereas blame merely imprisons further. Christ on the cross shows us the Victor-Victim paradox. We are now able to shoulder our own responsibility in union with him and in so doing discover it is nothing we need fear or run away from.

At three o’clock this afternoon there will be a short pause in the monastery when, as on every Friday, we shall mentally stand beside the cross and thank God for redeeming us in Christ. In that moment of silent prayer we gather together all the needs of a wounded world and ask God to have mercy. The language of victimhood will again resonate with its true meaning

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The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190
The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v

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Carrying the Cross

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

 

During Holy Week there are are so many words, so many actions freighted with meaning. Paradoxically, we can feel drained by the sheer richness of the liturgy. Spending a few minutes just looking at an image or listening to some music can help us enter depths of meaning and significance from which we tend to shy away as unbearable. This painting by Marco d’Oggiono shows us a youthful Christ, with strong, workman-like hands, bearing the sin of the world — your sin and mine. That’s worth pondering, isn’t it?

 

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A Friday Prayer

Fridays are important to all the children of Abraham. For Jews, tonight marks the beginning of the sabbath and its rest, ushered in with joy and thanksgiving; for Muslims it is a day of prayer, and after the call to prayer has sounded, also a day of resting from work. For Christians it is a memorial of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, a reminder that we cannot save ourselves. For us too it is a day of joy and gladness, but it is a sober, plain joy, for it is lived in the shadow of the Cross. For all the children of Abraham this is a day of prayer. What might the world be if we all, individually and collectively, lived what we believe?

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Wind

The wind is blowing through the garden, making the apple trees rustle and sigh, tugging at the tomato plants and sending a shiver through the beans as they cling to their canes. One can see why wind is used as an image of God. It is powerful, mysterious, uncontrollable. We see its effects, but cannot trace its source. It shifts and changes according to its own inner dynamic, not our preferences. Perhaps that is why so many people are afraid of God. He is the ultimate mystery: powerful, unpredictable, inescapable.

Friday is a good day for reminding ourselves of the human face of God. Jesus Christ, with arms nailed to the Cross in an everlasting embrace, is surely not a terrifying vision; and yet, as Julian of Norwich mentioned in her Revelations, there is still that wind: the dry wind that passed over Calvary and parched the skin of Christ as he hung dying. If we think we have got God ‘taped’, if we think we understand, we are very much mistaken.

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A Thought for Friday

Some people love Fridays; other people hate them. Friday certainly has a different ‘feel’ about it compared with Monday, say, or any other weekday. In the monastery, Friday is a fast day and has its own atmosphere of cool self-restraint, always associated in my mind with such delicacies as pilchard hash or nuts-and-onions, a particularly unpleasant dish accompanied with sauce made from packet tomato soup (a relic of the Stanbrook tradition long since banished from Howton Grove Priory!) The fact that it is a fast day, however, is a reminder that every Friday is lit up with the mystery of the Cross. It has become rather unfashionable to meditate on the Passion and Death of Christ. We want to rush on to the Resurrection and the performance of good works, bypassing the messy, gory bits in the story. Perhaps today we could spend some time thinking about the redemption won for us by Christ our Lord, the cost to him, the gift to us.

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