Ash Wednesday | St Valentine’s Day

I was taken to task this morning for not mentioning St Valentine in my first tweet of the day, which is always a prayer tweet. I daresay  many will be celebrating him, or rather the popular romantic parody of him we have in the West, but 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of Reformed and Protestant Christians will be keeping today as a holy fast in honour of the Lord. We shall be doing our best to look cheerful, and many will be wearing a smudge of ashes on their foreheads as a reminder that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return.

With Ash Wednesday comes a wonderful freedom. Whatever we have decided to ‘do’ for Lent, we do with the joy of the Holy Spirit (RB 49.6). We are indeed ‘looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing,’ as St Benedict says (RB 49.7). The particularities of our penances melt into insignificance beside the fact that the Lord has invited us to make a Lenten journey with him and to him. He has spoken to us the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’ All he desires is our love.

I was thinking about those words of Hosea and realised that, without being soppy or sentimental, the gift of Lent can be seen as a kind of Valentine from the Lord in which he reaffirms his infinite love for us, and we try to respond as fully as we can. We know that parts of Lent will be hard, that the penances the Lord sends us will be much more demanding than anything we have taken on ourselves, but we have faith and hope that the journey will lead us closer to him. So, be of good cheer. Ash Wednesday gives us a fresh start and the assurance that the Lord will never abandon us. Let us set out boldly in his footsteps.

Lent
If you wish to know more about Lent and some of its practices, you may find this link useful: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html 

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Gaudete Sunday 2014

Every year for the last ten years I have blogged about Gaudete Sunday. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have been to Mass on this Sunday and shared in the Sacrament of the altar. Today, however, will be different. I shall drive Quietnun to Mass (we live some miles away from the nearest Catholic church, common enough in England, but rarer elsewhere) and while she participates in the Mass inside, I shall be sitting outside, reading the lessons and prayers*. It is, if I’m honest, slightly miserable. Which brings me to my point.

This morning many a priest will be exhorting his congregation to rejoice. The Mass readings are full of exultant joy; and the choir, if there is one, will be raising the roof with glad song. Even the church’s appearance will change today, with a swirl of rose vestments and incense breaking in on our Advent plainness. So what do we do if our own feelings are out of step with the message, if we are, so to say, feeling like outsiders?

We cannot and should not pretend to a joy we do not have, but instead of shrugging off the whole idea and going our misanthropic way alone, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by rejoicing and why we are exhorted to be joyful. The joy of a Christian has nothing to do with feelings; it has very little to do with circumstances, either, but has everything to do with hope — our hope in Christ and our hope for all eternity. The broken heart is still broken, but now it is bound up; the poor are still poor, but now we hear the Good News; whatever our past failures, now we are wrapped in the cloak of integrity. (cf Isaiah 61. 1-2, 10-11) Like John the Baptist, we look beyond ourselves to the person of Christ; and like John, we rejoice, we find our joy in Him. We may be going through a desert period in our lives; we may be very conscious of our own fragility and unworthiness; but it doesn’t matter. Christ is all in all. As I sit in the car this morning, I shall try to remember that.

* The chemotherapy I’m having means I’m vulnerable to infection.

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A Starry Sky

One of the joys of living in rural Herefordshire is the beauty of the night sky. We don’t have street lights — or many houses, come to that. Step outside the door on a clear night and the sky is velvety black, studded with silver. Stars I could never see in Oxfordshire are here visible with a brilliance and definition that make one gasp. It reminds me of an evening in Cambridge during one of the power-cuts of the 1970s when I cycled down Castle Hill and saw the whole city spread out in the moonlight, rather as I imagine Newton must have seen it: soft and shadowy, quivering with a life it did not possess during the daytime.

Night transforms many things. Fears may grow, but the mind often sees with a clarity it lacks at other times. Distractions fall away. It is the time of sleep, of abandonment, of trust. In the monastic tradition, it is also a privileged time of prayer, of keeping vigil while others sleep, a time for God alone.

Looking up at the night sky and seeing the promise made to Abraham glittering from every corner, one can but marvel. We are so very small, the universe so very great, and there are worlds beyond worlds we have no knowledge of, yet God holds all things in being — not as a remote and indifferent spirit but as a Father, intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. The beauty we see is a reflection of his unseen Beauty. As Hopkins said,

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

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The Baptist’s Cry

The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God  in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?

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The Art of Contentment

Here in the U.K. 28 November is ‘nothing special’. Our Jewish citizens are celebrating Hanukah, and our ex-pat U.S. citizens are celebrating Thanksgiving, but the average Brit is going about business as usual, which probably means more or less glumly, depending on such factors as weather, traffic and what they had for breakfast. The truth is, we are not a demonstrative people and it would be quite difficult to tell whether we are happy or sad just by observing us. Contentment, however, is something else, distinct from states of happiness or sadness. It is possible to be perfectly content while enduring the most appalling circumstances. That doesn’t mean acquiescing in what is wrong, or refusing to work for an improvement. Colluding with injustice is never right, nor should we confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment means, rather, not allowing what is, by definition, imperfect to destroy our serenity and joy. It is a way of transcending circumstances, allowing our inner self the freedom to be.

Serenity, joy, inner freedom, these are all, to my mind, attractive qualities we can cultivate. The art of contentment is to know that they are attainable and allow them to play a more important role in our lives than their opposites. That means a certain amount of discipline, especially over our thoughts. St Benedict was very keen on this disciplining of the mind and attention. He was, so to say, an early ‘positive thinker’, but he never intended that we should do violence to our nature. Instead, we work at recovering our true nature, our true identity, learning how to be content in any and all circumstances. If you wish to put a name to this, you could call it living the Beatitudes.

If we are content, we are grateful; and grateful people are happy people. So I would suggest that if you wish to know the secret of happiness, don’t make happiness your goal, as though this person or that activity could fulfil all your dreams. That is likely to end in disgust and disappointment. Seek contentment instead.

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St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!

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Forgiveness: Another Post by Bro Duncan PBGV

Last night I stayed up to welcome BigSis home after her return from York. I thought it was very sneaky of her to leave on Monday morning while I was having my post-brekkie nap, so I intended to do a dignified but distant kind of welcome, the sort that says, ‘I forgive you’ but means, ‘I’m putting you on probation: don’t you DARE do that again, or else!’ Well, you know me, once she walked through the door, my tail went into orbit (so much for dignified) and though I did manage to look soulful (my default look), I forgot about the distant bit. Then she said, ‘Hello, old rat-bag. Am I forgiven then?’ and something I didn’t quite understand about how there is joy among the angels when a sinner repents and is reconciled to God, which I think means that forgiveness is really rather wonderful and transforms everything, and my waggly tail is a good image of the sheer joy there is in heaven when humans come to their senses and are reconciled with God and one another; and then there was something about how stupid humans are to store up resentments, which is like taking poison and hoping the other person will die. I forget the rest, ‘cos I was really just pleased to have her back, but don’t tell her or she will become proud, and that is not good for her humility, not good at all.

I think I might do less of the dignified and distant in future and settle for forgiveness, plain and simple. It’s more fun, and if you try it, you may get a surreptitious bikkie or two like me.

Love,
Dunc xx

P.S. BigSis (Digitalnun) says I’m to get off her keyboard NOW. She will be blogging tomorrow.

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Saints Not Celebrities

What the Church needs is saints, not celebrities. When I tweeted that this morning in reply to a comment someone had made, I was indeed thinking of St John the Baptist whose solemnity we keep today. I have blogged a lot about him in the past (do a search in the sidebar if you are interested in any of the earlier posts) so perhaps I ought to restrict myself this morning to a single thought. John could easily have become a celebrity: the wild holy man whom even Herod liked to listen to despite his uncompromising views could have become the first-century equivalent of some of today’s mega pastors. But he didn’t. He became a saint instead and met a martyr’s death. A passionate, joyful love of God marks everything he said and did. There is a tenderness and humility about John that those who concentrate on the garment of camel’s hair or the stinging rebukes to the corrupt and extortionate easily miss.

Love, joy, tenderness and humility: these are not qualities we associate with celebrities, but they are qualities that bring us closer to God. Locusts and wild honey are optional asceticisms. The real asceticism, the one that counts, is loving and faithful obedience: daily taking up the Cross and following.

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From Justin Martyr to Emily Davison

Today, while we are celebrating Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, many will be thinking of Emily Davison, the suffragist, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in the hope of advancing the cause of votes for women. Justin was beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which neatly solved the problems some had found with his theology. Martyrdom, like love, covers not only a multitude of sins but also acts as the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy. The ‘secular martyrdom’ of Emily Davison is more problematic. There are grounds for thinking that her death was an unintended consequence of her action rather than planned from the beginning, and in the short term it achieved very little other than opprobrium for herself. The First World War did more to achieve votes for women, although it is undeniable that Emily Davison’s death drew attention and made some, at least, think about the injustice of refusing the franchise to women. It seems to me, however, that, brave as she was,  to talk of her as a martyr is to misunderstand the nature of martyrdom.

A martyr bears witness through his or her death to the truth of the Church’s faith in Christ. Death is not sought; it is accepted as the necessary consequence of belief, and it is important to note that it is the Church’s belief, rather than the individual’s, which is affirmed through the sacrifice of life. That is why so many graces flow from martyrdom. The Church has her martyrs in every age, but those we remember from the first centuries often have a peculiar sweetness and charm frequently at odds with the horrific tortures to which they were subjected. Justin himself is an attractive figure. A chance conversation with an old man transformed him from a Stoic into a Christian philosopher: ‘A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.’

Truth, joy, sacrifice: they are surely a form of witness we can all strive to emulate.

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Are Christians Really Too Moral?

Yesterday I caught a subliminal glimpse of a statement to the effect that Christians have reduced Christianity to morality and forgotten that it is meant to be Good News. Although I think I understand what the author was getting at, it might be fairer to turn the statement on its head and argue that Christians aren’t moral enough. Let me explain.

People sometimes complain that all one ever hears from Christians is a series of negatives: don’t do this, don’t do that, everything you want to do is wrong. Sometimes the complaint is justified. We all know people whose main joy in life seems to be curbing the joy of others. More often, however, the complaint is wide of the mark because it fails to see that the life of virtue is a necessary part of Christianity. The Good News is meant to change our conduct. The problem is that often it doesn’t change it enough.

Many a newcomer to monastic life has a harmless little fantasy about what it will be like ‘inside’. They see themselves floating down Gothic cloisters in a cloud of incense, going straight from the purgative way to the unitive way and living henceforth in a state of mystical ecstasy. Then they discover that there seems to be an awful lot of washing-up and getting on with difficult and sometimes disagreeable people which no amount of Gothic or incense can make up for. It is now that they must begin to learn what it means to be a monk or nun; that the ‘yes’ to God spoken neat in prayer must take concrete form among the pots and pipkins of everyday life.

There is no opposition between mysticism (if you must use that term) and morality: they are two expressions of the same experience of God. The deeper our knowledge and experience of God, the greater will be our love and desire to live a life pleasing to him in every detail. That inevitably involves morality, distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong. But it also calls for charity and commonsense. Being a killjoy isn’t being moral, though some believe it is. The true mark of morality is joy; and because Christ’s joy is in us, and we are counted among his friends, we shall indeed be transformed — and that must be good news, mustn’t it?

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