Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.
Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.
When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.
If Lent seems to have passed you by in a blur of good intentions you meant to get round to but never actually did; if you feel your prayer has been non-existent, your fasting a failure, your almsgiving embarrassing by its absence, do not despair. It is not too late to turn to the Lord and make a good Holy Week.
What do I mean by a good Holy Week? First and foremost, I’d say it is one in which we try to follow in the footsteps of Christ as best we can and in union with the whole Church. Some people do so by an imaginative entry into the events we recall in the major celebrations of this week, beginning with Palm Sunday. I have to admit that has never been my way. For me, it will be a slow, meditative reading of the scriptures the Church places before us that will be my point of entry, so to say — above all the reading of the Last Discourse that takes place just before Compline. Our monastic liturgy reverts to a very ancient form this week. We chant almost everything on a plaintive monotone, and our domestic liturgy, the fasting and the ceremonies we enact in the refectory, take on a peculiarly solemn cast. A secular counterpart might be very plain meals, not to deprive ourselves of good things but to impress on us that this is a special time, the Great Week of the Year; and any money saved should most certainly be given to the poor. Above all, taking part in all the great celebrations if we can — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil — is the best way we can make this a good Holy Week in union with the whole Church.
At a personal level, I think we make a good Holy Week by confessing our sins, making reparation where we can and resolving, with God’s grace, to do better in the future. If there is anyone we have wronged, we must try to put it right. One area everyone reading this might examine is their online conduct. Have we commented unkindly or used Social Media to condemn or belittle others? Have we imputed base motives to others or assumed we knew, and were in a position to judge, their motivation? That is certainly relevant when there is a General Election in the offing: we can sin against politicians just as we can sin against anyone else! But we must not let such an examination of our own conduct make us focus on ourselves. This is a week when we look only to Jesus. He is our Saviour. Let us keep our eyes on him and follow wherever he leads.
Today’s Mass readings (Isaiah 4.2–6; Psalm 121; Matt 8.5–11) allow us to glimpse what the fulfilment of our Advent hope will be. In Isaiah we see the fulfilment of the Messianic promise and the blessing that will come to Israel:
. . . over all, the glory of the Lord
will be a canopy and a tent
to give shade by day from the heat,
refuge and shelter from the storm and the rain.
and in Matthew, the fulfilment of the promise to the gentiles and our shared eschatalogical hope:
. . . ‘I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven.’
These are indeed great promises, and as the word ‘promise’ indicates (pro=forward, mittere=send), they are dynamic, they send us forward. They launch us out into the unknown towards the hope of salvation. Advent should shake us out of our complacency, make us look afresh at our lives and hear the call to holiness God makes to each of us. It will not be without cost. Advent is not a penitential season in the way that Lent is penitential, but it should be a time of great simplicity and most of us have forgotten how to be simple. There are just twenty-three days for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord this Christmas, to learn again the art of simplicity. We need to be watchful lest our opportunity slip by:
Give us the grace, Lord, to be ever on the watch for Christ your Son.
When he comes and knocks at our door,
let him find us alert in prayer,
joyfully proclaiming his glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Since Lent is itself a time of preparation, the idea of preparing for Lent may strike you as odd; but, rather like the vigil of a feast enabling us to anticipate what is to come, a little planning beforehand will make our Lenten journey more fruitful. In the monastery we write a Lent Bill: a note addressed to our superior (or, in her case, another nun) detailing what we wish to give up and what we wish to take on by way of penance, and submitting it all to her judgement. So, if she thinks that some picayune sacrifice of sugar in tea or salt on eggs is going to make us crotchety, she will refuse and probably impose something much harder, without any feel-good factor in it!
The point of the Lent Bill is that it gives us an opportunity to think about our personal Lent, as distinct from our community observance. Each of us takes stock of her life and thinks about what needs to be addressed. For one, it may be a tendency to talk too much; for another, it may be a tendency to avoid engagement with people; a casualness may have crept into our lectio divina; or we may have noticed ourselves daydreaming or half-hearted or otherwise deficient in our service. The chances are that the same faults and weaknesses will appear year after year on our Lent Bills, because human nature does not change very much. What matters is the love and devotion with which we try to put right some of the negligences of other times.
If you do a quick internet search, you will find many sites offering advice about how to make your Lent more fruitful. Over the next few days, I shall be offering my own ha’pennorth. Today, may I give you just one pointer? The classical penances of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For most people, that means taking on more prayer, giving up some food or drink and performing some act of charity or benevolence. These are all good, but do please bear in mind that merely giving something up (e.g. wine or television) shouldn’t result in a vacuum — money or time saved is meant to be spent on God and others; dieting is not fasting; and prayer is more than just saying prayers.
We can make our Lent so busy with different ‘practices’ that we ignore or even subvert its point. Lent is meant to open us to the mystery of God’s love and redemption. It is worth spending some time preparing for it; and one of the best of all ways is to reflect on your life and, if you belong to the Catholic tradition, make your confession and ask God’s help to see what you REALLY need to change.
A few days ago a friend confided that her daughter had anorexia; a few days before that, another friend confided that his son had ‘a major drink problem’. Too fat, too thin, too much, too little: our relationship with food and drink manifests itself in our bodies but goes deeper than that. We know that under/over eating is not just a question of quantity, it has to do with all kinds of things our conscious mind may not be able to grasp. So too with alcohol: a great gift, but for some a terrible curse. How do we make sense of the pain and suffering these things cause? Can we, in fact, ‘make sense’ of something that seems so negative, that makes us hate our bodies?
Lent can be a particularly hard time for people who struggle with food/alcohol issues. For many the concept of fasting has been reduced to dieting, and control is something entirely negative. Our culture isn’t very kind to those who can’t meet its demands. I wonder whether we need to reassert the goodness of what God has created and encourage people to love their bodies instead of hating them? That’s harder than might appear. Very few of us are a ‘perfect’ shape or weight, but does that really matter? Look at a crucifix and you will see yourself as God sees you: someone so infinitely beautiful and precious that he gave his very life for you. The trouble is, anorexia and alcoholism have their own inner logic that defies reason. The argument falls flat.
Ultimately, unless we have some professional skill that can be of service, I think all we can do is to pray and to love. My own personal decision has been to offer my fasting this Lent not just as a penance for my sins but as a plea for the healing of all who suffer from food/alcohol related illnesses.
Today is the feast of St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns. If you want to know more about Etheldreda, I suggest you read Bede; but if you don’t have a copy to hand, there is a charming account here; and if you are lucky enough to be in Ely today, do go and pray beside her tomb, now a plain slab set into the floor of the cathedral. The first cherries of the year are traditionally eaten on this day, a reminder to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ If you can’t manage any of these things, here is a little puzzle for you (and I apologize for the fact that we have been here before, so to say).
When, in the nineteenth century, Fr Laurence Shepherd exhorted the nuns of Stanbrook to be like their great Anglo-Saxon predecessors, he was holding up to them an ideal of holiness and learning that is at odds with the average person’s conception of a nun today. Why have nuns and sisters become figures of fun or worse, and does it matter?
Early this morning I did a quick web image search for ‘nun’, ‘medieval nun’ and ‘Etheldreda’. The results were not very pleasant. But it isn’t just the imagery that is a bit ‘off’. It is the accompanying assumptions that are equally puzzling. Most of the nuns I know are fairly well educated and competent people, serious about their vocation, kind and humble; so I don’t really ‘get’ the dismissive attitudes of many who should know better. We are more than the clothes we wear or the work we do, so why should nuns and sisters attract so much negativity? Isn’t it time we reclaimed nuns for God?
I think the negativity I mention affects the make-up of the Church. For generations, nuns and sisters have brought an important feminine dimension to bear on a very male institution, freeing women from being forced into the wife-mother-widow-or-nothing view of women’s place within the Church. Negative perceptions of religious women affect vocations. More than one of our enquirers has said, ‘I spoke to my parish priest and he was very off-putting about my becoming a nun saying it would be better to continue as an active layperson.’ Others have reported the hostility of family or friends or even downright derision. Yet I wouldn’t mind betting that in theory all those people ‘valued’ religious vocations.
In Britain, we have seen the closure or radical ‘downsizing’ of community after community and the Church has become, to all intents and purposes, clergy/laity rather than clergy/laity/religious (as an aside, perhaps that is why our need to ‘upsize’ strikes many as odd). Take the religious out of the Church and you lose an important voice as well as much prayer and sacrifice. We learned recently that another community in this part of the diocese will soon be closing, and quite apart from the sadness of the remaining members, there is the effect on the parishes and places with which they have been connected for many years. I wonder whether we realise what we shall be losing by their going.
Nuns and sisters have a long history of doing amazing things without having to rely on or compete with men. That’s good for both men and women. One of the sad facets of contemporary western society is that many women feel they are still struggling to attain recognition of their rights and dignity, while many men feel they have been sidelined by women and stripped of their rights and dignity. The freedom and non-competitiveness of the nun can be a valuable corrective to much strife and anxiety.
There is a third point I might make, and I do so with some hesitation. The recent exposure as a paedophile of Fr Kit Cunningham, who served for many years at St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, has distressed many. That distress is as nothing to the distress of those who were abused. One begins to wonder whether this wound in the body of the Church will ever heal. As far as I know, cloistered nuns have never been charged with any kind of abuse. Can our prayer and sacrifice make some reparation for the terrible things that have happened? Can we, even though we are few, ‘make a difference’? Will you join us in that? Can we together ask the prayers of St Etheldreda and all holy nuns for the comforting of those who suffer, and for the purifying of the Church?
Perhaps because I am writing this half asleep, after a week of short nights and long days and a particularly full one yesterday (BBC TV were filming a short feature for Breakfast TV on 23 March, we had guests for supper, there was a loaded inbox, deadlines to meet, you know the kind of thing: a leisurely day in the monastery), I am wondering what my Friday penance ought to be. The custom of marking Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent, as days when we perform some special act of penance is a very salutary one, in both senses of the word; but practically speaking, when one already has a Lenten programme spelled out in one’s Lent Bill (Benedictines) or in one’s resolutions for Lent (everyone else), Fridays are a problem. What does one give up or take on that is not already covered?
Some people read through at least part of the Passion in the early afternoon, on their knees. That means stopping what they are doing, which is not easy, especially when trying to meet a deadline, and switching to another mode, one which acknowledges that God is more important than anything we think important. Reading the Passion narrative in this way does have a penitential aspect but, more significantly, it reminds us why penance on Fridays is encouraged.
I don’t recommend that you should kneel down in your office or on your factory floor on Friday afternoon and get out your New Testament unless you want to be the cynosure of neighbouring eyes, but if you too find the whole question of Friday penance rather perplexing, maybe you could find something just as simple that would be a help to you. It is not what we do but the love which accompanies it that matters. I’m not sure what I shall do today, but I’m pretty sure you will never know. The other aspect of Friday penance is keeping it a secret between God and ourselves.