A Terrible and Bitter Irony

There is a terrible and bitter irony in the fact that Egypt, the land to which Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to find refuge from the murderous pursuit of Herod, should today stand as a land of blood in which Christians are being persecuted unmercifully. The struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood grows every day more violent. The crackdown on the protest camps has cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

So today, instead of writing about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I would simply ask your prayers for the people of Egypt. Perhaps those of you who have a devotion to Our Lady as Mother of God would join me in asking her intercession: for peace, for the dying, for all her sons and daughters.

Note: if you would like to read something about Catholic devotion to Mary, this short post may be useful.

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Monday in Holy Week 2013

Today’s gospel, John 12. 1–11, is about the supper Jesus shared with Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany. It contains a shocking extravagance: the jar of nard, a whole pound’s weight, which Mary poured over his feet. It is the kind of gesture only someone very, very rich or very, very indifferent to others’ opinion could make.

Our lives should be like that nard: poured out as a fragrant offering, generously, without a care for what others think, our eyes fixed upon Jesus. It isn’t easy. There are too many who think, like Judas, how much better it would be to spend our lives in the service of some more obvious good. On this Monday of Holy Week, however, we dare to be with Mary, focusing our love and service on the Lord, aware that in serving him we are drawn to serve others, too.

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May is Mary’s Month

Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a mark of both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, so much so that those innocent of Church history sometimes express surprise that St Benedict never mentions Mary in the Rule, unless we are to understand that she is included among ‘the saints’ to whom he refers in general terms. Indeed, judging by today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 73, he is keener for the monk to take Scripture and the Fathers as models than Mary or any other saint or martyr.

It would be wrong, however, to deduce from this that Benedictines are indifferent to Mary or have no devotion to her. On the contrary, it is because Mary is so close to us, Our Lady as we call her in England, that we do not make much of a razzmatazz about her. We ask her prayers, and are confident that she prays for us as she prays for the whole Church, with a tender sympathy and interest. May is a month peculiarly dedicated to her honour: one in which we rejoice in her as Mother of God who leads us closer to her beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

Some years ago we produced a little booklet of poems as a kind of monastic jeu d’esprit, a May Day gift for Mary. We hope you will enjoy it.

If you like Ladyflower, have a look of some of our other digital books on our main web site, http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Media/Media/books.html

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Facing Both Ways

1 January, Octave Day of Christmas and Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the oldest Marian feast in the calendar), the day when we make (and break) our New Year resolutions, is, as its name proclaims, the doorway of the year, facing both ways like the old pagan god Janus* from which it takes its name. It wasn’t always the beginning of the year, of course: that used to be Lady Day, 25 March, feast of the Annunciation. But calendar reforms and changes in public perception (‘in the year of Our Lord’ and ‘in the year of grace’ being seen as rather quaint, if not unacceptably exclusive) mean that we now end one year and begin another with barely a nod in the direction of religion.

That facing both ways, however, is valid whether we are religious or not. We look back on the old year and assess its triumphs and failures and look forward to the new, assessing its potential. We are not altogether there, not altogether here. The religious might say we are at the interface of time and eternity.

Today’s feast is so rich in allusion, so deep in theology that we can forget that it too faces both ways: back into time, forward into eternity (which is outside time). The Word which was from the beginning took flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. That is what we celebrate throughout the Christmas season. We start our secular year with a reminder that God’s love for us is infinite, Incarnate Love, which wills that all should be saved. Just as the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day foreshadows the shedding of his blood on the cross, so the symbolism of the eighth day expresses perfection, salvation.

We face both ways, into the abyss of our nothingness and the abyss of God’s love, but with this assurance: ‘The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ That must give us confidence as we begin 2012.

A happy and blessed New Year to you all.

* I originally wrote Januarius: my old Latin mistress would have boxed my ears for such a mistake and many thanks to John for pointing out the error.

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O Clavis David: liberation theology

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

I suggest we read Isaiah 22.22 and Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .’ as we listen to the antiphon:

 

I had hoped to write something fresh and new for today, but my mind is taken up with the chapter talk I’ll be giving this afternoon, the Missus Est. The story of the Annunciation reveals layer upon layer of meaning and every year I find myself marvelling at some new facet, which is not really ‘new’ at all but something I had been blind to previously. I suspect we all feel like that. This is a day for doing theology on our knees.

So, I’d like to repeat something I’ve said before. Read it in the context of our current preoccupation with what is happening in North Korea and elsewhere. The key image is telling. Don’t we all feel powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which we have no control? Don’t we need some sort of key to understand them? If we feel entrapped, don’t we need some sort of key to set us free? O Clavis David is liberation theology for today.

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.

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Moonlight

Last night I could not sleep (too much sitting during the day made my back painful). There is only so much prayer and reading one can manage when wriggling around trying to make oneself ‘comfortable’; the charms of the World Service quickly pall when every half-hour brings a reminder of the turmoil in Europe. Only the moon made the night bearable.

How beautiful it was last night! Older Catholics will remember that the moon was often referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Lamp’ (no green cheese or men in the moon for us). I suppose it was the inevitable consequence of the idea of Mary as Star of the Sea (one of the happiest typos in history). Anyway, I spent a pleasant hour or two recalling all the poetry about moonlight I’ve ever known and could only marvel that God should create something of such loveliness to lighten the darkness of night. In case you suffer from a sleepless night, here is Walter de la Mare enchanted by the moon’s silvery beauty:

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

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The Birthday of Our Lady

A couple of years ago I wrote of this feast:

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, ‘Naked Lady’, is a reference to Mary.

I failed to mention my theory, which I daresay many will shoot down in flames, that devotion to Mary has been both a help and a hindrance to women in the Church. On the one hand we have been given a model of Christian discipleship we can make peculiarly our own: Mary, the strong woman of Nazareth, whose love and faith were unequalled; who gave us our Saviour; who intercedes for us now and at the hour of our death. On the other, we have the ideal no one can ever measure up to: the perfect woman, the eternal mother, someone remote from the inadequacy and messiness of our own lives.

Much of the history of women in the Church can be written as a study of the tension between these two conceptions of Mary. That is why this feast has always seemed to me important. It reminds us of the reality behind the narrative of Christ’s birth, his human lineage; and just as the genealogies of Christ weave into the story some surprising figures, so our ignorance of Mary’s antecedents means we cannot assume that her background was fairytale perfect. We must remember Mary, born an ‘ordinary’ human being, growing up with no one thinking her in any way special, with no education to speak of, no glorious future mapped out for her (a mere girl!), never apparently destined for any great service — and yet, the Mother of God whom all generations would call blessed. Today we think of her small and vulnerable, possibly even a disappointment to her parents, and ask ourselves: would we have passed her by as just another baby, just another girl?

May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, help us to see ‘Christ, lovely in limbs not his.’ Amen.

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Asking for Miracles

People tend to divide into two groups when it comes to asking God for favours: those who never do, and those who never do anything else. Prayer is more than just petition, but it does, at times, include petition. Sometimes people will say, ‘I’ll pray for others, but not for myself’ and then wonder why they are making such a bad fist of being Christian. We sometimes forget that conversion has to start with ourselves, and it is a grace we must ask for in prayer.

I have no difficulty asking God for favours. Indeed, right now, I am asking him for nothing less than a miracle. We have done everything we can to prepare the way but we have reached the end of doing. We ask with perfect confidence and trust, prepared for a ‘no’ as well as a ‘yes’, because the point about asking God for anything is that we ask not for our will to be done but for our will to be aligned with his. That alignment of will is the secret of Mary’s obedience, the heart of her prayer for the Church. Genoito moi kata ta rhema sou, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Let it be to me according to your Word. Amen.

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The Assumption of the B.V.M.

In previous years I have written about the Catholic Church’s teaching on this subject. Rather than go over that again I thought I would spend a minute or two this morning reflecting on the position that Mary holds in the life of ordinary Catholics. For a fuller treatment, take a look at one of my earliest eBooks, Magnificat (link opens in new window).

Our essential belief about Mary is that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. Everything else flows from that. Her preservation from the stain of original sin, her assumption, body and soul, into heaven after death, her invocation as greatest of the saints: all these derive from her role as Mother of God. The Church describes the reverence we show Mary as hyperdulia, not to be confused with latria, the adoration given to God alone, or dulia, the reverence we show, or should show, one another as human beings.

What this teaching doesn’t really convey is the warmth of Catholic devotion to Mary. She is both God’s Mother and ours: someone whose prayers we ask with confidence because she knows exactly what it is like to cope with the multitudinous demands of ordinary life. She is one of us, yet shows us what it means to be truly blessed. Hence all that tacky ‘art’, those sentimental hymns, the slightly over-the-top expressions of love and devotion. They are our imperfect human way of rejoicing in the gift she has given us: Jesus Christ our Saviour. Perhaps because we are women ourselves, or perhaps because we belong to such an ancient tradition in the Church, Benedictine nuns tend not to talk much about Mary. We have no special devotions, no flamboyant gestures. We don’t need them because Mary is very close. She is, in truth, Our Lady.

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In Praise of Grandparents

The feast of SS Joachim and Anne, (traditional names given to the parents of Our Lady and hence the maternal grandparents of Our Lord Jesus Christ), is an apt day on which to sing the praises of grandparents. You see them today doing the school run, providing out-of-hours childcare, often more engaged with the children than the children’s parents. It wasn’t always so. The grandparents of today are usually healthier, wealthier and more leisured than their own grandparents were. They are Baby Boomers turned Baby Buddies and have a very special place in their grandchildren’s hearts.

Because that is the point about grandparents, isn’t it? They can be so much less complicated about the love they have for their grandchildren, and grandchildren instinctively recognize the fact. Grandparents don’t have the 24/7 responsibility of parents; they can be indulgent; they can enjoy their grandchildren’s company in ways and at times that parents can’t. Their influence can be huge, and it is always the influence of love. Thank God for grandparents, living and dead.

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