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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Easter Sunday 2013

One of the things I love about celebrating Easter in the monastery is the way in which we become (late) Romans again. Our liturgy reverts to a form St Benedict would have had no difficulty recognizing: very sober, very plain, unadorned psalmody and scripture for the most part, with a few great antiphons of heart-rending poignancy. Think Good Friday, with its extended scripture readings and the solemn preces at the altar: that is the model to which we revert in the Divine Office. It is very much the kind of prayer we associate with late Roman Christianity — spare, devoid of Gallican frills, almost terse in its formulations.

Then comes the Great Vigil itself, the sober joy of the Exsultet, the recounting of salvation history by the light of the paschal candle, the triple alleluia, so grave and yet so thrilling, and so on and so forth until we come to the Mass of Easter Day, when the sun has risen in splendour and church bells are ringing everywhere. Then what do we get? Musical fireworks? Cacophonies of sound? No. The introit for the Mass, Resurrexi, has the calm beauty of the rising sun; a joy so intense and profound it needs no other expression than this quiet, wondering awe at what has transpired.

Today most Christians will probably be feeling tired. It is all right to feel tired and not particularly joyful, if by joyful you mean the noisy variety we often mistake for real gladness of heart. We know that Christ has conquered sin and death once and for all. We are children of the Resurrection, and we rejoice in that knowledge. But if you want to go about it a little quietly, if you are feeling a little piano, that really is all right. Don’t feel guilty. You are just being (late) Roman.

Happy Easter! Gaudium paschale!

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The Times for Saying Alleluia

RB 15, which we read today, is all about the times for saying ‘Alleluia’. Has it ever struck you as odd that Benedict should devote a whole chapter of his Rule, admittedly a very short one, to when Alleluia should be said and with what parts of the Office? It is another little reminder of the centrality of Easter to his thought. The Rule hinges on the great paschal feast, just as the life of the monk or nun hinges on the fact of the Resurrection. To quote again my favourite saying of the Desert Fathers, ‘The monk’s cell is like Easter night, for it sees Christ rising.’

Traditionally, we associate Friday with remembrance of the Passion and Death of our Lord, but they are incomplete without reference to his triumph. So, if you are performing some penance in memory of him, don’t forget to do it gladly. ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’

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Some Thoughts on the Feast of St Francis

In my mind’s eye I am looking at a painting of St Francis by El Greco (copyright prevents my including the image here). The saint is marked with the stigmata and looking at a crucifix. Below the crucifix is a skull. Above, there is a fitful gleam of sky and a withered trail of ivy over the cave’s mouth. The colour scheme is sombre: black, brown, dusty blue. It is Francis as he is rarely portrayed: gaunt, dogged, ‘walking by faith, not by sight’. The Francis of popular imagination, joyful in his poverty, surrounded by God’s creatures great and small, is eclipsed for the moment by this other Francis, the man of God who wrestled alone and painfully with the divine will.

There are many this morning who are struggling with the divine will. The search for April Jones continues, but with less hope; the escalation of violence between Syria and Turkey is stirring vague fears of world war; add in the political stand-off between Israel and Iran, the situation in Afghanistan, and the eruption of anger against the west in many predominantly Muslim countries and you have a piquant mix. The skies are as cloudy and stormy as in the El Greco painting.

There is, however, a ray of hope. Just as Francis’s face is illumined with perfect peace and tranquillity in the face of suffering, so there is light for the world, if we look for it. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning. Sometimes we refuse to admit that. We are so determined to cling to old habits, old hatreds, old failures. They are the way we build a barrier for ourselves against feeling more pain. We prefer the goldfishbowl to the ocean because it has a kind of safety. Thinking about St Francis’ life, however, I am reminded that safety was one thing he never bothered about. His radical adoption of poverty meant that there was no barrier for him, no safety-net of property or private ownership. He faced the world throughout life as we must all face it at death.

Today it would be good to spend a few moments in prayer asking for the grace to rely upon God more completely. That doesn’t mean we should lessen our efforts to do whatever we can to meet our own needs and the needs of people around us. It is rather a question of deciding where we are going to set our hearts. Francis was supremely free because his heart was set on God alone. Can we say with equal truth that God is our treasure and that our hearts are set firmly on Him?

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Grief

The grief of the people of Norway one year on from the Breivik massacre is compounded by what happened a couple of days ago in Aurora, Colorado. At the back of most people’s minds is the thought, ‘It could happen again.’ Where the technology exists (guns, grenades, etc), there will always be people mad enough or bad enough to use them for mass murder and there is practically nothing that can be done to prevent it. Does that mean we are both helpless and hopeless? I don’t think so.

Death is something we must all experience sooner or later. When it comes early, or to someone we love, or with pain and distress, we rebel against it. Everything in us cries out for life. It is for life that we were created, after all. But for a Christian, life is changed, not ended, by death. The trouble is, we don’t know what lies beyond this life. All the assurances in the world can do nothing to overcome our personal feelings of doubt or difficulty. We must cling, as Mary, Martha and Lazarus clung, to our friendship with the Lord and trust that he will not abandon us after death any more than he has abandoned us in this life.

Grief weighs us down, shuts out the light, makes everything seem empty and hollow. At such times, it is good to look at a crucifix, that strange and terrible symbol of God’s aching love for us.  When there are no more tears to be shed and all the words that could be said have been said; when there is only the numbing pain of loss and the bleakness of an empty tomorrow, then the crucifix reminds us that God is not apart from us, uninvolved or uncaring. The bowed head of the Christus reminds us that he is with us always. He shares our sorrow, but unlike any other comforter we may have, he can and does transform our sorrow into joy.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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Monday Morning Blues

It is amazing how many people suffer from ‘Monday morning blues’. In the monastery one day follows another without the ‘week-end’ as such intervening — the liturgical calendar is the all-important demarcator of days and seasons. This Monday, however, is different. With Ash Wednesday only a couple of days away, if we have not yet thought through how we are going to make a fresh start during Lent, this is the day to do it. Inevitably, one starts with the negatives: where do I need to pull my monastic socks up? It can all seem a bit dispiriting.

The advice St Benedict gives for making a good Lent is remarkably straightforward, and I’ll be going through some of it in a later post, but here I want to draw attention to just one element. He says of our Lenten observance that whatever we do should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (cf RB 49. 6, 7). Joy and longing are not necessarily the first things we associate with Lent, but Benedict’s words remind me, at least, that ‘Monday morning blues’ can be  a trifle self-indulgent — or as Kirkegaard remarked, ‘The trouble with Christians is that they don’t look redeemed.’ Another challenge to meet!

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School of the Lord’s Service

We reach the end of the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule today (RB Prol. 45 to 50: you can listen to the daily portion of RB read in English on our main web site, here). The words are so familiar they sometimes lose their edge, yet this dominici scola servitii is constantly presenting us with new challenges because its favourite teaching methods are suffering and patience. No one ‘likes’ suffering; no one ‘likes’ being patient; but if we are to lay ourselves open to the mystery of God, there is no alternative.

Suffering can make us bitter and self-absorbed. Benedict, however, is much more sanguine about human nature. He expects that  instead of our closing in on ourselves, we shall open out, become big-hearted (quite literally — dilatato corde) and ‘run on the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love beyond all telling’ (inennarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei). However familiar the words may become, the lesson must always be learned anew, for our hope is not for this world only. We have our hearts set on Christ and his Kingdom.

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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Dominus veniet

Dominus veniet, the Lord will come: we sing those words over and over again this week, but I sometimes wonder whether we ever really think what we mean by them. Those who have recently experienced the death of someone they love will know what they mean without necessarily being able to articulate their understanding. They have experienced that moment when the Lord takes command and no amount of human effort is of any avail. We pray for the Lord’s coming at the end of time but, to be honest, most of us are happy to have it put off to an indefinite future. The Second Coming is, quite literally, too awful to contemplate.

In Advent and at Christmas we celebrate the three comings of the Lord: in time, in his birth as a Baby at Bethlehem; at the end of time, in his coming as Judge; and his coming to us now, at every moment of our lives, as the Word who gives life. The first and third comings are ones we grasp, or think we can; but the Second Coming baffles us, scares us even. It would be a good Advent exercise to spend a few minutes thinking about the Second Coming and how we are to prepare for it. If the idea of God as Judge paralyzes us, we can take heart from another image, equally demanding, but with happier overtones. ‘At midnight the Bridegroom’s voice was heard. Go out to meet him.’ We can so easily forget that that the Church is the Bride of Christ and in the Second Coming awaits her nuptials. No wonder we are urged to live lives which hasten the day of the Lord’s coming.

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