Beauty Matters

I like the fact that Ordinary Time opens with the feast of St Benet Biscop. If you know nothing about him, this old post may help, but if you are familiar with his life and work, you will understand why his feast turns my mind to thoughts of beauty. Benet understood the value of beauty in worship, but he was no mere aesthete, lauding l’art pour l’art. He was a practical man, a very practical man, whose enchantment with beauty in all its forms had a profound pedagogic instinct. He wanted our English churches to be beautiful because the beauty of created things can lead us to deeper appreciation of the beauty of our Creator. And what a persuasive man he must have been! To get John the Cantor to travel from Rome to England so that English monks and nuns could sing the chant according to the Roman manner; to get the glaziers and masons to cross the Channel so that their skills could be learned and practised in these northern climes; to get the manuscript-makers to share their gifts with our native-born scribes; all this took persuasion as well as imagination and hard work. He is a wonderful antidote to those who think that to be poor with the poor Christ we must choose the cheap and ugly over the beautiful and sometimes costly. He understood the meaning of the breaking of the jar of nard.

This morning, however, I think we need to dwell more on the source of Benet’s inspiration than its effects. The strong Christian faith that led him to identify completely with his Master; the ready acceptance of suffering (he was bedridden for three years); the unseen hours of prayer that nourished all he did; these are what make him a saint, not the beauties he created or left behind. Benet understood the holiness of beauty, certainly, but I think that was because he understood the beauty of holiness comes first. Today, as we look round the world and see how much unnecessary suffering and death there is, the myriad ways in which human beings are destroyed, perhaps we could pause and take stock of our own lives. We may protest that we do not perpetrate the kind of horrors we have seen in Baga or in Paris, but every time we fail to accord others their dignity, every time we close our hearts to others’ needs, we chip away at something important. The most beautiful of all the beauties God created is the human person. May we never forget that.


Spirit Days

Pentecost has come and gone and we are bounced back into Ordinary Time without benefit of an octave or even its dreary secular equivalent, the Whitsun Bank Holiday (now transferred to the last Monday in May). If, as a result of  this ecclesiastical minimalism, you feel a little bereft (or even quietly indignant), allow me to introduce you to the concept of Spirit Days.

Spirit Days are a monastic invention. Like most monastic inventions (e.g. champagne, private confession) they are capable of being very slightly subversive — although, if they catch on, in a few hundred years they will probably be enshrined in the calendar as an op mem at the very least. The rationale behind Spirit Days is beautifully simple. If we can’t have a proper liturgical octave, we can at least have two days of profound and joyous meditation on the Holy Spirit. Since we must follow the promptings of the Spirit in everything (or they would not be ‘Spirit’ Days), we are free to garden, make music, scribble poetry, knit, play with the dog or whatever (within reason) takes our fancy. This is liberty of spirit (small s) in action, and as Fr Baker would often remind the nuns of Cambrai, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all.’• The only limitations are that we must pray, read, eat and sleep — hardly burdensome, surely?

Do you think Spirit Days could become popular outside the cloister? If so, the gifts of the Spirit might have more time to produce their fruits, and that would be a Good Thing. Perhaps we might even get our octave back . . . or is that wishful thinking?

Note for the Serious-Minded
Quoting Fr Baker out of context and with a slightly different purpose from the one he intended is a well-known monastic ploy.


Ordinary Time Again

Today the Church returns us to Ordinary Time, and I must confess, it is something of a relief after all the glitter and brilliance of Christmas. I like the spareness of monastic worship: much of our singing is unaccompanied, the oratory in which we pray is very plain, and green is one of those colours that comes in an infinite variety of subtle tones and shades. Into this plain, green, sober world, the feasts and memorias of the Church burst like silver stars, all the more glorious for the contrast. It won’t be long before Lent is here and then the great feasts of Easter and Pentecost.

Make the most of this little interlude of Ordinary. We can’t always be feasting on the heights; most of our life must be lived on the plains, and this is a chance to learn how.


Treasuring the Ordinary

There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.