Cleansing Fire

Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of
D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey. Used by permission

My favourite image of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is fire, cleansing fire. At a time when COVID-19 and a lack of leadership in many countries have contributed to a sense of being adrift in a stew of corruption and fear, the idea of the Holy Spirit sweeping in like a storm-wind, scattering the darkness with flashes of fire and lightning, cleansing the world of sin and negativity and putting fresh heart into us all is immensely attractive. But it must be the Spirit’s doing, not that of some self-appointed messiah who thinks they have the right to order the world according to their own notions. That raises important questions about discernment and co-operation with grace — in other words, how we work out what God is asking, and how we follow his lead.

I think D. Werburg’s painting provides a clue. Whom do you see, and what are they doing? We see some of the apostles, certainly, but also Our Lady and Mary Magdalene, a reminder that the Church is not confined to a single group but embraces all humankind. The figures are shown at prayer and the Spirit has come upon them, but notice how the symbol of the Spirit, little golden flickers of flame, is painted against their haloes. To me, that suggests that the Spirit works through the ordinary and everyday as much as through the dramatic and unusual. Indeed, the action of the Holy Spirit may be almost imperceptible at first, but think how it changed the early Church! There is more. D. Werburg was a great admirer of the Desert Fathers. When she painted Our Lady robed in a flame-coloured garment, I wonder whether she had in mind the story told of Abba Joseph

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?

We, too, can become fire, but our fire must be ablaze with God not self. Only if it is can we hope that others will take fire also and the renewal of the world be accomplished.

No audio today: breathing not very good.


Wind and Flame: Pentecost 2018

Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey, Used by permission.

Of all the images of the Holy Spirit, the one I like best is that of wind, breath, pneuma, ruach. We see its effects, we feel it, but we do not see the wind itself. With every breath we take, we draw it into ourselves; with every word we speak, we exhale it again. For those of us in the Western tradition, that connection between Word and Spirit is already a given, but how rarely do we take in its full implications! And fire, how often do we think about that? From the cosy crackling of logs in winter to the amazing spurts of flame and blazing lava-flows we see in Hawaii, fire and flame are still part of our world, still a challenge to our ideas of safety and control.

D. Werburg Welch’s chapter-house painting of the descent of the Holy Spirit has always fascinated me. Mary, the Mother of God, is wrapped in a flame-coloured garment and sits, as the hesychast sits, among the other disciples and is filled again with the indwelling Spirit. The rushing wind cannot be depicted, but we know it is there; and we know it will transform these anxious, frightened people. It will catapult Peter and the others out into the streets to proclaim the mirabilia Dei. It will transform the world. This morning may that same Spirit transform us, too.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Doing This, Doing That

From time to time someone will ask whether I have done such-and-such — usually, have I finished the book I’m writing, or updated the web site, or done any of the thousand and one things they regard as important and which they know are on my to-do list. The problem is, of course, that my to-do list is actually unachievable. It contains far too much for one lifetime, especially one monastic lifetime where all the doing has to be fitted into an overall scheme of prayer and community life. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt what is on the list, but I have learned to be flexible about the priorities. The person in distress who telephones and takes up an hour or more becomes the priority of the moment, the way in which God is asking one to use his gift of time. If it means the community meal is late, or other tasks have to be abandoned, tough. The ever-increasing amount of administration required by law or the demands of living in a house where we do all the general maintenance and so on make further inroads into one’s time. Mutatis mutandis, I imagine it is much the same for most of my readers. So, how do we make all this doing into prayer, into a way of becoming closer to the Lord?

St Benedict is very straightforward on the matter. He tells us that every good work we undertake should begin with prayer. In the monastery that means that every job we do begins with a silent commendation of the task to God. We pray before reading, switching on the computer, eating, driving, weeding, writing, doing the accounts, before doing anything, in fact. We do not pray with many words, just a lifting up of the heart and mind to God — and that is the point. Into our busiest moments we need to inject a little interior silence, a small space in which God can act. It is inevitable, with a General Election next week, that everyone should have become much noisier than usual. We are all keen to share our valuable insights (=opinions) with others, and some of us like to immerse ourselves in the storm and fury of media debate. We react rather than reflect, and all those beautiful gifts of the Spirit for which we have been praying so earnestly become forgotten in the rush and tumble of our words.

On the eve of Pentecost, let’s try to find a moment to pause, to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit find a chink in our armour against him. Our priorities may need re-thinking. Our to-do list may be placing absurd burdens on us or on others. Above all, we may be living with such interior clamour that we are wearying ourselves unecessarily. We do not need words to reassess our lives, just a willingness to allow God’s grace to work within us. Of one thing we can be sure, his generosity in responding to our need.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Pentecost Sunday 2014

Pentecost: from the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch © Stanbrook Abbey.











This painting by D. Werburg Welch helps us to understand something that is often overlooked when we think about Pentecost. Luke describes the apostles meeting together in the Upper Room and devoting themselves to prayer ‘together with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.’ That reminds us that the Resurrection brought about a change in the disciples’ grouping. For the first time, women begin to make an appearance not as a mere adjunct but as constituent members, so to say, of the nascent Church. Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles, announcing the fact of the Resurrection. Now we see women joining the men at prayer in a way that would have been almost unthinkable earlier. What is happening?

I think myself that what is happening is that the Church, born from the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, confirmed in faith by the Resurrection and Ascension, is now given her mission and identity by the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a universal mission, to both men and women, Jews and Greeks (gentiles); and it is at this moment that the Church truly becomes the Body of Christ, inseparable from her Head, one with Him because she is now drawn into the life of the Trinity. It is a new life that she lives, not just the old one changed in a few details.

D. Weburg’s painting shows us Mary robed in flame coloured garments, a sign that she was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment she consented to be the Mother of God. Mary Magdalene is there, too, robed in white like the apostles; the Beloved Disciple alone wears darker clothing, a sign that we are all drawn into this mystery, not just a select few. An essential part of the artist’s perspective is that we are not mere spectators but part of the picture. We complete it, in an analogous way to that in which, in a much more important sense, the Holy Spirit completes us and the Church. There, surely, is something worth thinking about this Pentecost?

N.B. Please respect the copyright of Stanbrook Abbey regarding the illustration.

Additional Note 2015: In case you don’t make it to the comments section, the Beloved Disciple is wearing a dark tunic, i.e. everyday clothing, rather than the white festal garments of the other disciples. It is a sign that the Church is open to everyone. It is not just for a select few, untouched by the messiness of life.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

White Space

Monday morning, and I am thinking about white space. What does it mean to you? To me it means, first of all, the space on the page which sets off text, gives words shape and impact and allows meaning to flow from the jumble of letters and words. It is a necessary adjunct to thoughtful composition and close reading. White space is what makes poetry poetic and architecture architectural; it is the silence between musical notes; the inner form of sculpture; the hidden essence of the painted image; the heart enthralled by prayer.

Space does not mean the absence of colour or form, anymore than the air we breathe implies an absence just because we cannot see it. It has nothing to do with size, but the fact that it is white is important. White reflects light and warmth, increases our sense of spaciousness and confers a sense of freedom. It is the colour of the Resurrection and Ascension, of joy and triumph, of a transformation wrought by grace which reveals the mystery within. Pentecost will clothe us in red, the colour of blood and flame, but for now we are surrounded by white. It ‘unclutters’ us. White space helps us know ourselves, and knowing ourselves is a step towards knowing God.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Promise is Fulfilled

‘The promise is fulfilled: all is made new.’ With those words we greet the Solemnity of Pentecost, birthday of the Church and the greatest feast of the Church year. Probably a few readers are thinking to themselves, ‘Surely Easter is the greatest feast?’ But please note where I put the emphasis, on the Church year. Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole Church, our commission to mission, so to say. It is a feast that combines transcendence and immanence, grandeur and lowliness, in a most remarkable way. The promise made to our ancestors is fulfilled: we live now the newness of life that Christ our Lord has made possible. The Church is a sign of his presence and action in the world: it is our vocation to be what he is.

For us here at Hendred the promise is fulfilled in another, more material way. Yesterday we collected the keys to our new monastery in Herefordshire and this week we shall be moving in. We shall be offline for a while, at least until BT fits a new telephone line, but prayer never ceases; and very soon Howton Grove Priory will resound to the praises of God as we sing the Lord’s song in a new land. To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory
Bro Duncan inspects his new kennel: Howton Grove Priory

Time and Eternity: the Easter Octave and the Eighth Day

The Easter Octave is a good time to think about time and eternity. In everyday conversation we use the words loosely, casually even, without regard to the more precise meanings given them by theologians and philosophers.

On Sunday we celebrated in a more intense form than usual the Resurrection of Christ. That is something we do every Sunday, but on Easter Day and throughout these days of the octave we go on celebrating that event as something that occurs uniquely today. Our ‘day’ therefore stretches over eight days, allowing us to assimilate different aspects of it. The Resurrection gospels read this week add to our understanding. They are like the many facets of a polished jewel, each one revealing different depths of colour and meaning.

But what of the eighth day? Is that the same as the octave day? The short answer is ‘no’. In Christian tradition, the eighth day is a sign of the new creation ushered in by the Resurrection. Sunday, as well as being the first day of the week, is also spiritually the eighth day. The early Christian writers made great play with this, seeing the eighth day as a symbol of perfection and fulfilment, the point where time intersected with eternity. Justin Martyr (c.154) described it thus: ‘the first day after the Sabbath [Saturday], remaining the first of all days, is called, however, the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle, and [yet] remains the first.’

So where does that leave us during this Easter octave? We have, in effect, eight days of eighth days. We are living eternity now. And if that were not enough, the Easter season culminates in Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, ‘when the promise is fulfilled; all is made new.’ No wonder that we sing ‘alleluia’ over and over again.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Pentecost 2011

The images used for the Holy Spirit are so evocative: wind, fire, water, all things  we cannot predict the course of, and whose power we cannot tame.  Even the dove image reminds us that the Spirit sees in ways we do not and cannot. On this great feast of Pentecost let us rejoice that God is everlastingly creative, always ‘doing a new thing’. May we, too, be recreated, made new, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Humility of St Barnabas

When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.

We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’

Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail