The Power of Regret

No one reading today’s first lesson from Isaiah (Is. 48.17–19) can fail to be moved by the note of regret. Missed opportunities, the sins of omission rather than commission, how they lie heavy about us! But Isaiah is not talking about the regret we feel, rather he is expressing God’s sorrow at the way in which we have messed up. Yes, for once this is all about God, not us. The gospel (Matt 11.16–19) takes this one step further when Jesus voices his frustration at the fickleness of our response. We want the reverse of what we have. We fail to recognize the opportunities offered us, and ultimately, it is our loss.

I think these two passages mark an important stage in our Advent journey. They are the point at which we have to stop playing around, grow up and prepare for change. The call to live with integrity becomes ever more urgent the closer we draw to the Light. Today is the feast of St Lucy, whose name comes from the same root as the word for light. Under the old Julian calendar, her feast marked the shortest day of the year, when everything was at its darkest. There is a psychological truth in that. Very often our decision to follow Christ has to be made in less than ideal conditions, in darkness rather than light, and what spurs us on can seem, at first sight, negative. Our regret at misspent opportunities may provide the initial impetus, but it will not last unless something more positive takes its place. We have to hand everything over to God and allow his love to provide what we need to sustain us.

The movement from fear to love, from self-interest to God-interest, is the work of a lifetime, but we must begin. We do not want to hear on Judgement Day the Holy One lamenting our failure to co-operate with grace. Regret, like nostalgia, is a very adult emotion. Today we can see that it is also potentially a very powerful one. May St Lucy help us with her prayers to live up to our vocation:

Let the prayer of the virgin martyr Lucy support us, Lord,
so that with each passing year we may celebrate her entry into life,
and finally see you face to face in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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Puny Mites, Threshing-Sleds and Glow-Worms

I may as well admit that this morning I feel knee-high to a worm. I am indeed one of the puny mites Isaiah is speaking of, yet the thought of being transformed by grace into a threshing-sled is not an attractive prospect. Far too effortful! (Isaiah 41.13–20) But there is something in this scripture passage that I, and perhaps you also, need to take to heart. It is that the Holy One of Israel is holding us by the right hand, and with him all things are possible. It is easy to forget that God is with us every moment of our lives. He is not a God afar off, but one near at hand: a God who loves us, sustains us, and ultimately redeems us from sin and death. We are preparing for his birth in time, the moment when, as St Leo says, the Creator became part of his creation. That is more than just a glittering paradox. It is an assurance both of God’s essential goodness — he is not, like the pagan gods of old, a fickle and sometimes malevolent being — and of our ability to relate to him. Sometimes that seems so hard. We know him by his absence more than by his presence, and we wish it were otherwise.

We can take scant comfort from today’s enigmatic gospel (Matt 11.11–15). Who are these people taking the kingdom of heaven by storm and being greater than John the Baptist? Surely not wimps like me. I was thinking about that, and the description elsewhere of John as a lamp, a lamp that prepares the way for the true Light coming into the world, when illumination struck. The glow-worm is, zoologically speaking, an insect, but we think and talk about it as a worm: a small, humble creature, wingless and rather unremarkable in daylight, though the female glows in the dark. If I cannot be a threshing-sled but must remain a worm, may the Lord make me a glow-worm, so that I too can say, ‘The hand of the Lord has done this . . . the Holy One of Israel has created it.’

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Eagles’ Wings

From time to time we are all affected by ‘Elijah sickness’ — the temptation to lie down and give up. We become tired, scratchy, fed up. It is no good trying to hector ourselves, still less hector others, into going on. We have instead to resort to a little trickery, stepping to one side rather than meeting a difficulty head on, even retreating in order to advance. Better still, we can rely on another to give us the necessary oomph. I love the imagery of eagles’ wings used in today’s reading from Isaiah (Is. 40.25–31) and elsewhere in scripture to convey the idea of being supported, lifted up, by God when we are wont to droop. It is especially powerful at this time of year when even the most equable can feel torn in many different directions.

I don’t think, however, that we should ignore the fact that the image is not an entirely comfortable one. The eagle is not a tame bird. To be close to one is unsettling (at least, for me it has been). The power, the unpredictability, the amazing beauty and sheen of the bird are a  little frightening — in a good sense. We can also see eagles’ wings as a metaphor of God’s otherness. Throughout Advent we are called to explore this otherness and resist the temptation to domesticate God. Babies in cribs are easy to coo over, but the desert imagery of Isaiah and the other prophets confronts us with something stranger and more terrible: a God who is beyond human understanding, whose love is searing. We have a bad tendency to project onto him our own ideas, as though God should conform to our version of perfection, conservative, liberal or whatever it may be. In our foolishness, we ignore the question Isaiah poses.

Today’s gospel (Matt 11.28–30) invites us to yoke ourselves with Jesus, to walk with him, work with him and, ultimately, die with him. It is not something we can do by our own efforts. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are but mortal — but with what a destiny!

At your bidding, Lord,
we are preparing the way for Christ, your Son.
May we not grow faint on the journey
as we wait for his healing presence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Note
This Advent I am deliberately using the daily Mass readings as the basis for my blog posts. If you would like to know more about Advent itself, see our main website here.

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Righteousness and Self-Righteousness

There is nothing worse than the self-made man or woman who worships his or her creator. (Think about it.) Not far behind come those who mistake self-righteousness for the real thing: the righteousness given by God. The self-righteous (and we can all be self-righteous at times) are cruelly self-deceived — deaf, blind and inclined to be hard on others. They make magnificent assumptions about themselves and others. The fact that I was born into this particular family, went to that school or am a member of such and such a Church means that I am sure of success in this life and salvation in the next. I am, so to say, untouchable; and if I deign to notice you, it will be merely to compare and contrast my superior status with your inferiority. And to all that, Isaiah says the equivalent of ‘poppycock’.

The truth is, we none of us have anything that was not given, and given on trust. But for the gifts and graces we have received to bear fruit, we need a teacher. We have to learn how to be honest, kind, generous to those less fortunate. We do not necessarily know by instinct the right thing to do in any and every situation. We have to apply principles, tests, work things out for ourselves, make mistakes, start afresh, fail; and often we learn more from ‘the bread of suffering and the water of distress’ (Isaiah 30.20) than we do from being at ease and enjoying a life of plenty.

The teacher of whom Isaiah speaks we recognize in Jesus. We think of him as a great healer, a miracle-worker, compassion personified. We sometimes forget that he could be severe and challenging, too. One of my own private heresies is that on the day of judgement we shall look into the eyes of Christ and see mirrored there what he sees in us. Let us pray that, before that moment comes, we shall have learned to become like him. Then will our moonlight shine seven times brighter than the sun. (Isaiah 30.26)

Note:
Today is the feast of St Ambrose. You can read more about him here or do a search in the sidebar for previous posts about him.

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The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.

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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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The Mirror of Love

Nostalgia is the most adult of emotions, and one of the trickiest to navigate. We can be inspired by the past or, more exactly, our version of the past, or we can be imprisoned by it. It can energize us or make us angry. Nostalgia is a kind of homesickness — and ‘home’, as we know, can be a good memory or a bad one, but it never lets us go. Our lives reflect the love and goodness we have experienced, or their opposite.

I wonder whether St Luke, whose feast we celebrate today and whose gospel has qualities we do not find in the other evangelists, had an unusually happy childhood. I have sometimes imagined him growing up among a host of sisters, indulged, teased and challenged by turns. Some of the interactions he records between Jesus and women have just that kind of friendly respect that men who are at ease with women display. His interest in Mary, too, suggests that he was fascinated by everything about Jesus and did not despise the family details.

Did St Luke grow up among girls? I don’t know, and my kind of speculation is historically inadmissable; but his gospel brings a warmth and humanity to the story of salvation that we need to remember. I am all for theology, liturgy, etc, etc; but we need to keep a lively sense of our home being not here but in heaven, from whence we await our Saviour, a Person, not an abstraction. We meet him every day in the faces of those we encounter. Do our faces mirror the love and respect Jesus has shown us? In other words, do we allow others to see Jesus clearly in us?

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Victim or Victor?

This morning, as I was praying vigils, I was struck by a thought that connects with what I was saying yesterday, although it approaches the subject from a different angle. Have you noticed how, in the gospels, Jesus never refers to himself as a victim, never refers to his woundedness after the Resurrection? It is always, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’. The wounds are there, etched into his flesh for all eternity, but the victory over sin and death has transformed them. It is as though he anticipates that transformation, that victory, while never denying the reality of the present situation. When we grumble, we tend to take on the role of victim: ‘poor me’. I wonder whether it would help to see ourselves as sharing in victory more often. Not so much ‘poor me’ as ‘blessed me’. That is not pretending, more a case of seeing things as they really are: transformed by grace and redeemed.

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A Feast of Friendship and the Problem of Internet Trolls

The festive board
The festive board

Yesterday we used the new monastery table for the first time for a meal with friends. Today would have been even more appropriate, because in the monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a feast of friendship and hospitality. So, while the rest of the Church is celebrating St Martha alone, we are celebrating all three siblings together. For us, it is a reminder that all true friendship, all true hospitality, never involves just two but always three; that our Martha days, when life seems all work, and our Mary days, when we glimpse what it means to rest in God, are incomplete without our Lazarus days, when we know the depths of our own helplessness and the graciousness of God who stoops to the lowest part of our need. It is a day for praying for our friends, living and dead, and for learning to be good friends ourselves. Above all, it is a day for acknowledging what a great privilege it is to be friends with Christ — something we would never have dared to say, were it not that he called us friends first.

So far, so good. Friendship is a great blessing, and we can all agree that friends are to be treasured, online and off. But the online world is also home to a particular nasty kind of cyber bully, the internet troll. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned in the media for women to feature on British banknotes, but as soon as it was announced that Jane Austen would appear on the newly designed £10 note, she began to receive a torrent of abusive tweets, threatening her with rape and death. It is dangerous to generalize from a particular case, but I am sure many people have experienced unprovoked abuse and threats of violence online. Sometimes it is purely verbal: there are some who think that freedom of speech means they have the right to insult others at will and they say exactly what they want without regard to the truth of what they are saying or the feelings of the person about whom they are writing. The comments pages of many sites are not for the faint-hearted! Sometimes, the abuse becomes more hidden, as when an individual is stalked and bombarded with unwanted messages/images. That can be difficult to deal with, especially as some people will go to extraordinary lengths to attain their ends. At the risk of alienating some of my readers, I think there is a noticeable difference between the way in which men are abused online and the way in which women are abused. Men have their arguments rubbished; women are more likely to have their bodies rubbished, and, as in the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, to be threatened with physical violence.

Which brings me to my point. There is much discussion at the moment about how to deal with cyber bullying in all its forms. The official response from Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez has been a bit weak, but I think the objection to a ‘report abuse’ button should be weighed carefully. It will itself be abused and will tend to drive abuse underground. What is hidden is much more dangerous than what is open, as anyone who has had to deal with internet trolls will testify.

I have no magic solutions to propose, but there is one course of action that I think we should all consider seriously. I think we need to be better friends to one another online. We need to watch out for one another so that no one need suffer abuse alone or fearfully. If we read an abusive or threatening comment or tweet, instead of just ignoring it with a virtual shrug of our shoulders, we could spend a moment or two countering it. If we do so politely, reasonably, but firmly we may encourage others to do the same. Bullies only have power because they think no one will stand up to them. Maybe that’s what we all need to do a little more often: stand up to them online. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, says the Book of Sirach (6.14). Please spend a few moments today thinking about how you could be a better online friend to others.

Spot the Dog
Dog-lovers are encouraged to look hard at the photo. Bro Duncan PBGV is there somewhere.
🙂

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Contemplative Pause

Every now and then I stop what I am doing and pause, just listening, looking, absorbing what is going on around me. It is probably an overstatement to call these moments ‘contemplative pauses’ but that is, essentially, what they are: moments when I withdraw from the hurly-burly of all that has to be done, the many people and things clamouring for attention, and simply register God’s existence and my own. I hesitate to call this resting in God prayer, but it is definitely a turning towards him in the course of the day. Does it achieve anything? Probably not, because it is not about doing; but I think it helps to focus mind and heart at the times appointed for individual or communal prayer. It helps to keep one within the orbit of prayer, so to say.

On this midsummer day, may I commend to you the idea of not doing, of pausing, just being, and allowing the Sun of Justice to scatter whatever darkness lingers  in your hearts and minds?

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