The Octave Day of Easter 2017

Those of us privileged to live the monastic life are now exhausted. The liturgy of Holy Week and the Easter Octave, wonderful though it is, makes huge demands on both the individual and the community; and, of course, there are still weeks and weeks of paschal joy before us. Today, however, we come to the end of the Octave, the eight days we celebrate as one day, when time and eternity commingle, and there is a sense of completion, of fullness.

What does the Church put before us on this day? The gospel is taken from John 20.19-31. We are in the Upper Room on the day of the Resurrection, disconsolate, fearful, and suddenly Jesus is among us, commisioning us to forgive sin; but Thomas is absent and refuses to believe unless he can touch and see the reality of Christ’s wounds. Eight days later Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds and his hand in his side. Thomas speaks for all of us when he cries out, ‘My Lord and my God!’ In eight days we have moved from abject terror and doubt to a luminous and loving faith.

What brings about this great change? During the past week we have worked our way through the resurrection narratives. All of them are situated in the early morning,* even Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the beach, but now we have reached evening. We are entering a new phase when the Church as community of believers begins to take on the mission of Christ. We have not yet reached Pentecost, but the Risen Christ even now breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples and speaks of sin and forgiveness. That, it seems to me, is the Church’s mission: to extend through time the forgiveness of sin that Christ achieved through his Death and Resurrection. We can look back on two thousand years of history and question whether we have been very good at it, but that is surely unfair to the thousands upon thousands of good and holy people who have reflected our Lord’s love and mercy through the ages. It is also to make a fundamental mistake, to see forgiveness as something we do rather than something God does in and through us.

When evening comes, most of us would admit to being tired, weary even. Is it significant that the command to forgive comes when we are least able to rely on our own energy? When we have to rely on God? Many monastic communities find that the heaviest demands on their charity and patience are made during Holy Week and Easter, as though what we celebrate liturgically must be incarnated in our lives. As the Easter Octave comes to an end all of us, monastic or not, are called to continue the work God has begun in us. But we must remember that it is God’s work, not ours. We do not forgive, but we can allow God to forgive in and through us.

*Emmaus is a partial exception: Cleopas and the other disciple have walked with Jesus through the day but recognize him at supper.


The End of the Beginning: the Twelfth Step of Humility

The observant among you will have noticed that I blogged on every step or degree of humility last year as well as this so are probably wondering whether I can have anything left to say.

Perhaps we could start by re-reading last year’s post on the twelfth step of humility, RB 7.62-70, here? It includes today’s portion of the Rule in audio format, and I think it’s important to listen rather than just scan the text with one’s eyes. Monks and nuns listen to the Rule every day, an activity that requires attention and focus. Mediated through a human voice, the Rule takes on an urgency and insistence we might otherwise miss. Different things strike one at different times, and I have never managed to read this particular step of humility without feeling I have encountered it for the first time.

First of all, there is Benedict’s insistence on an exterior attitude of humility which is difficult to fake in community because we live too closely together. We are acutely conscious of one another’s imperfections. But humility is not a way of masking imperfection: it is a way of transforming it. We must allow the words of the gospel to change us. Once we have really made our own the publican’s words, ‘Lord I am a sinner, not worthy to raise my eyes to heaven,’ we see everyone and everything differently, with the eyes of compassion and love rather than judgement or condemnation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that the kind of compassion and love I’m talking about is the soppy, self-indulgent kind, oozing complacency and self-regard. The monk looks outward with compassion because he has had compassion shown him in abundance. Consciousness of his own sin brings to mind God’s mercy and forgiveness (cf Ps 37 (38). 7, quoted by the Rule). He can never forget that. It becomes the mainspring of his life.

In chapter 7, St Benedict charts the movement from fear to love and here, in the twelfth step, paints a wonderful picture of a life increasingly transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, in which we do all things for the love of Christ. Note that he does not present a static picture. We do not attain holiness and then stop, as though there were nothing left for us to do. We go on, becoming more and more Christ-like. The practice of humility becomes less of a struggle, more of a delight. (I take this on faith as I haven’t got there myself, but I have glimpsed such humility in older monks and nuns, and I am encouraged.)

If we look at the way in which Benedict has constructed this section of the Rule, we can see immediately that he has incorporated a lot of material from the Rule of the Master. The lengthy description of exterior forms of humility comes from him, but Benedict changes the ending, so that the effects of humility are experienced in this life rather than the next. Underlying both, of course, is Cassian, and much ink has been spilled on what Benedict means by his reference to the ‘perfect love of God’, ad caritatem Dei . . . perfecta. I think we are meant to take it as a reference to God’s love for us (cf John 4. 18) which can never be transcended or improved upon. We thus end Benedict’s chapter on humility on a warm and encouraging note, one in which all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are named together — the only time Benedict does so in the whole of the Rule.