Beginnings and Endings: the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)

The Prsentation by Nicholas Mynheer
The Presentation by Nicholas Mynheer. Oil and gold leaf on handmade paper. Image copyright.

Today’s feast is one that looks two ways: back to Christmastide and forward to the Passion. I think that must be why it was chosen as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, because monks, nuns, friars, Religious Brothers and Sisters and so on are all marked with the grace and glory of the Incarnation in baptism but must, by virtue of their vows, follow also the often dark path that leads to Christ’s Passion and Death. We share in the privilege and the pain, but the focus must always be on Christ. That is why the Presentation of the Lord is such an important celebration, and the candles we hold in our hands are a reminder of both what we are and what we hope to become.

Today’s feast is always one of great gladness and rejoicing because it marks the point at which Jesus is taken up into the Temple and begins his mission. I think we could also say it is a great feast of the Church qua Church. For we do not think only of the joy of Mary and Joseph as their infant son is offered to the Lord. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Compline we sing into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirm our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, drearest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.

Yesterday, we received a beautiful gift from a friend and oblate of the community. The circumstances surrounding the gift, and the giver himself, make it very special. Nicholas Mynheer’s depiction of the Presentation is quite small, 20 cm by 20 cm, but it glows with great intensity (the illustration does not do it justice). It lights up the room in which it hanges. This morning as I was praying before it, it struck me that this wonderful feast of light and joy is itself a great gift to the Church. It allows us a little glimpse of eternity, a warm and supremely accessible vision of what the Church is and the importance of every individual within her, young or old. Today, please pray for the donor of the painting, for the maker of it and for the whole Church, especially those who think themselves ‘small and of no account’. It is what we are in the Lord’s eyes that counts, and to him we are worth much.

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That Sinking Feeling

There are probably very few who do not feel, from time to time, that they are ‘going under’. Work, relationships, the sheer complexity of life in the twenty-first century, with its endless demands for immediate response/action, all take their toll — even on those of us who live in monasteries. The feast of SS Maurus and Placid is therefore one we can all take encouragement from. The story of Placid’s falling into the lake, his distress being seen by Benedict, and Maurus’s unhesitatingly walking on the water at his abbot’s command and rescuing his sinking brother, challenges any simplistic ideas about authority and obedience. It turns conventional ideas of perfection upside down and confronts us with an important truth about our desire to be in control all the time: we aren’t and can’t be.

Maurus and Placid are frequently presented as types of the ideal disciple, the bane of every Benedictine novice’s life, so perfect are they in their obedience to a charismatic leader. It is much more helpful to see Benedict, Maurus and Placid as all three engaged in mutual obedience, all listening intently. It is prayer, listening to God, that allows Benedict to know of Placid’s plight, and it is listening to his abbot that allows Maurus to rescue his brother. Any perfection there may be is in that intense listening, that alertness to the voice of the Holy Spirit. It creates a bond of mutual love and trust; and it is that which makes Maurus’s action possible.

All very well, you may say, but what about Placid’s experience? He was drowning, going under, suffocating. We identify with that rather than his miraculous rescue. Love and trust can’t be summoned up at will, we say; we can’t force a miracle just because we’d like one. Exactly. Love and trust have to be worked at, they don’t just happen; and sometimes it is only when we are out of our depth and adrift that we discover how much we have to rely on the faith of others. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. It is part of the meaning of the Communion of Saints. We rely on one another. We see that very clearly in family or community life, but our horizons need to be broader and take in the whole Church, the whole of humanity even. Whatever we face, however uncertain we may feel, we are buoyed up by the knowledge that we are sustained by the love and prayer of the whole Church in every age and generation. Our role is to contribute something to that ourselves.

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Working at Friendship

Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170
Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170

Today in our monastic calendar is the feast of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus, about whom I seem to have written a great deal in the past. Typically, I have written about this feast as a feast of friendship and hospitality, noting also that we have our Martha days, when life seems all work, our Mary days, when life seems all bliss and our Lazarus days, when we have to go into the tomb with Jesus and experience resurrection in a new and painful way. Today, however, I would like to think about this feast in relation to the second section of RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, verses 10 to 21.

The first thing that strikes one about this passage of the Rule is that it is almost wholly concerned with lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading characteristic of the Benedictine. Why? I think it is a reminder that we have to work at cultivating our friendship with God, just as Martha had to work at serving the Lord when he visited her household in Bethany. Dinner didn’t just happen: it had to be prepared, cooked and served before it could be shared. So, too, with us. We have to prepare ourselves for prayer, concentrate, abandon ourselves to an activity which seems to matter so much to God. It requires effort, even sacrifice, but most of all, it demands fixity of desire and purpose: I want to be friends with God; I will do everything I can to become friends with God.

We don’t become friends with God just by wishing. We have to give him time, not just any old time, but ‘quality time’. We have to lavish time upon him, in fact, lavish love and attention on him, as Mary lavished ointment on the Lord’s feet and sat to listen to his teaching. Others, even those we are closest to or who we think understand us best, are likely to be puzzled by this. We shall be challenged to do something constructive, as Mary was challenged by Martha, but we must hold to our purpose because, in truth, there is no other way of becoming friends of God.

Finally, we must go through the Lazarus experience: feeling that we have been abandoned by God, plunging into a dark place where all we seem to know is death and destruction and hope turns to ashes. This too has to be worked at. There are many surrenders into the hands of God that must be made before we make the final surrender of death; and just as Lazarus had to rely upon his sisters to bring the Lord to his tomb, so there are times when we have to rely upon the prayers and good deeds of others to help us. That is what the Communion of Saints means. It is the great circle of friendship embracing both the living and the dead which draws us into the life of the Trinity.

Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship,’ said St Aelred, the great Cistercian writer on Christian friendship. ‘I have called you friends,’ says Jesus in St John’s Gospel. And as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked, quoting Sallust, to like and dislike the same thing is a mark of friendship. Our friendship with God isn’t, first and foremost, about feelings: it is about willing and doing the same things. Both St Benedict’s chapter on work and today’s celebration of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus may suggest ways in which we can deepen our friendship with God and, incidentally, become better friends with one another.

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