Lent, Popes and Plain Speaking

Depending on your preferred online reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lent had been forgotten amidst all the riot of discordant opinion about Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI.* To say that is a pity is an understatement. We are approaching the holiest time of the Christian year and we need to focus. Inevitably, there is a lot of interest in both Francis and Benedict, but if we are busier scooping up fascinating details about them or speculating about their intentions than living Lent, we may forget what really matters: preparing heart and mind for the solemn feast of Easter.

So, instead of getting into a fret about what may or may not be happening in the Vatican, why not ask yourself some hard questions to which you, and only you, know the answers. How is your prayer, fasting and almsgiving going? Does your Lent still have the purity of intention with which you began? Are you more aware of your own sin and the immense forgiveness of God? The next questions are trickier, and only those around you will be able to judge, if at all, the progress you have made. Have you become more charitable, more patient, in a word, more like our crucified Lord? Or have you been blessed with a grace so glorious and overwhelming that you have forgotten self entirely in your wonder and awe at the infinite goodness of God?

Sometimes a little plain speaking at this point of Lent is all we need to get us back on track. I would not dare to ask these questions had I not already asked them of myself and blushed at the answers I gave.

* I myself find attempts to exalt either pope at the expense of the other profoundly distasteful. I believe the papacy of both men to be important for the Church, but we lack perspective at present. I’d be grateful if readers would not use this blog to air derogatory opinions/engage in an argument which, by its very nature, can have no resolution. Prayer would be much more to the point.

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Another Thursday in Lent 2013

Today is just another Thursday in Lent, except that it isn’t. For about 1.2 billion of us it is the day when Pope Benedict XVI lays down his office and we enter a period of fervent prayer for the next successor of St Peter. It is a day out of time which paradoxically anchors us more firmly to time while pointing towards life beyond time, to eternity. By one of those wonderful coincidences which are really not coincidences at all, it is also sixty years since Crick and Watson’s discovery of the molecular structure of DNA (for the moment we must leave aside the unfair treatment of Rosalind Franklin as it is not germane to my argument). We are poised, as it were, between these two hinges, the natural and the supernatural, between our frail and imperfect humanity and the transformations of grace and the Holy Spirit.

Francis Crick was not, I think, a modest man, but anyone who heard him speaking of the beauty of the double helix could not fail to be moved. He was entranced, taken out of himself by the miracle of life. Benedict XVI is, by nature, much more reserved but when he speaks of the things of the Spirit he does so with the sureness of one who knows. In his own quiet way, he reminds us that to set one’s sight on the kingdom of heaven does not mean any less love for the things of earth. One cannot despise or disparage the beauty and holiness of what God has created when one seeks God himself.

Today is not a day for sadness or negativity but for hope and confidence in God. He is the true guide of the Church. He works with and through our humanity, not against or in spite of it. We are privileged to live through this moment, but with the privilege comes the duty. Now is the time for renewed prayer, renewed searching, renewed trust. God will never fail or forsake us.

 

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A Shrove Tuesday Like No Other

Yesterday, speaking quietly in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Within minutes the world was awash with speculation. First, was it true? Then, what was the real reason for his resignation? And finally, what were the implications for the Church? It was the best-kept secret of the digital age, but once it was out it spread like wildfire. Everyone became an instant expert on the papacy and began broadcasting their little nuggets of knowledge to all and sundry.

Anyone who saw the video of the pope making his announcement must surely have concluded that what the pope said was actually true: at 85 he is feeling the burden of his years and believes he can best serve the Church by making way for another. The voice was a little indistinct, the Latin phrases a trifle slurred, as though reading his prepared statement was an effort. It was, however, a typically clear and charitable statement, marked with the personal humility which has been so much a feature of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He is, first and foremost, a scholar pope, with all the strengths and some of the weaknesses that implies.

Inevitably, some looked back to the occasion in 2009 when Benedict XVI laid his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V and wondered whether it was more than a pious gesture, a hint of what was to come; others, myself among them, noted that the resignation statement had been signed on 10 February, feast of St Scholastica (St Benedict’s twin sister, a model of prayer), released on 11 February, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Day of the Sick, and timed so that a new pope could be in place by Holy Week, the Great Week of the Church’s liturgical year. A scholar pope, alert to the significance of history and liturgy, is quite capable of holding all these things in mind, but I believe the statement Benedict XVI issued is probably the simplest and least crafted of all his writings. It is the statement of a man who must answer to God not only for his own soul but also for the soul of every other member of the Church. Sometimes, people say exactly what they mean, especially when their true audience is God.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, so I shall resist the temptation to dredge up my own selection of facts and fancies and concentrate instead on how I see the link between yesterday’s announcement and the holy season we are about to celebrate.

We were powerfully reminded yesterday that the Church is a universal institution. How small and sometimes silly looked the ‘national’ reactions of some individuals, the vapid theorising about who the next pope ‘should’ be and the agenda the commentator would like to see being pursued! Lent is a reminder that salvation is not just about us. Our Lenten observance is not an arrangement between the two superpowers (God and us), it is something of truly cosmic significance: it involves others and unites past, present and future. We may think that what we are doing concerns our own personal salvation and nothing more, but that is an impossibility. We journey to God together, as a people, as a Church; so our personal penances, our attempts to make up for the negligences of other times, our turning away from sin, are all part of this greater movement towards God. That is one reason why our living Lent as well as we can is so important. What we do affects others.

We were also reminded yesterday of the importance of prayer, charity and gratitude in the life of every Christian. The penances we have chosen for ourselves this Lent may be dangerous. They may make us smug and self-satisfied if we are able to persevere with them, or conversely, they may make us cantankerous or depressed if we can’t. The penances God chooses to send us, however, won’t be dangerous at all. They will open us up to the mystery of his being in a way that nothing of our own devising ever could. They will evoke prayer and charity, if we accept them in the right way; they will stretch us, confound us, make us grow. The question is, are we ready for them, prepared to welcome them with gratitude? If we spend the forty days of Lent listening for the voice of the Lord in everything, prepared to embrace his will in everything, however contrary, we shall make a good Lent — but it won’t be a bit like what we had intended. It will be so much bigger.

One further point from yesterday that applies to Lent. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of his desire to continue serving the Church though a life of prayer. Every Christian life should be a life of prayer, but we are apt to make it very complicated. During Lent we Benedictines return to a primitive mode of monastic existence. One of the things we do is read through a book of the Bible in a very simple way. The books are assigned by the superior (i.e. not chosen by ourselves) and read straight through as lectio divina (i.e. slowly and prayerfully, without recourse to a 1,001 interpretative articles or commentaries). For the academically inclined, that can be quite hard. It isn’t a case of laying aside our critical faculties in favour of becoming holy asparagus, more a case of attuning our ear to a different kind of speech, of slowing down, becoming less busy.

So, instead of reading a whole host of good books about prayer, try spending a few more minutes in silence before the Lord. Instead of devouring a library on the subject of scripture, read scripture itself, but do so in a more reflective manner, chewing over the words until you find one that stays with you through the day. Make this Lent one in which you come to know the Lord; and remember, you can only do so in his way, and at a moment of his choosing.

Note
In community, I assign books of the bible to our oblates and associates at the beginning of Lent. If you would like me to assign one to you, please email or use the contact form at the head of this site.

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St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.

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