Grumbles and Graces

It is often easier to find something to grumble about than be glad about, but St Benedict wasn’t keen on murmuring, although he did allow that there were occasions when monks might jutifiably complain. Unfortunately for us, they are few and far between; but they do exist, and with time, the grumbles can themselves become graces. Here, however, is a short-cut. In case you got out of the wrong side of bed this morning, I list a few of my own causes-to-be-grateful which may stimulate you into thinking about the blessings you yourself enjoy and for which you should give thanks:

I’m alive. Yes, I know I should be looking forward to the next life, but I haven’t quite finished with this one yet. I don’t share the happy Protestant certainty of heaven. As a Catholic, I rely utterly on the mercy of God. My consciousness of sin and failure suggests a prolonged period in Purgatory, at the very least. In the meantime, there are a few sock drawers still to be tidied . . .

I’m blessed with family, friends, community and the ever-wonderful Bro Duncan PBGV. The English don’t do feelings, so I reserve my emoting (thank you, American cousins) for the dog. He’s rather nice to have around.

I can read. What a world books open to us, and how many there are who cannot read or who do not have access to books! I am grateful, too, to know a little about book design and typography so I can enjoy beauties others sometimes miss. Of course, I also have a little grumble now and then, justifiable or not, about some of the dreadful things perpetrated by those who do not know but think they do. It adds zest to life.

We have a garden. This morning the bean flowers were beaded with raindrops when the sun shone briefly upon them, transforming them into diamond-studded cascades of red and white. I can lose myself for hours in the garden, thinking deep thoughts, or sometimes no thoughts at all. ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’ becomes a hopeful phrase when uttered in a garden. Eden is not lost for ever nor does Gethsemane last for ever; all will be made new in paradise.

We have an oratory. I save the best till last. Ours is small, plain but filled with Presence. It is where we take the most painful and most joyful moments of our lives; where we plead for others, and for ourselves; where we grumble, give thanks and are graced beyond measure. You may not have a physical oratory, but you have an oratory of the heart. Open it to God and I warrant his graces will flood your being.

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All Souls Day 2013

Had he lived, today would have been my father’s 100th birthday. It was always a joke between us that I would never forget to pray for him in years to come because on this day above all others, the Church prays in a special way for all the faithful departed. It is our ‘Day of the Dead’ — and that’s not a morbid or sad thought. It is a cause for joy.

In several earlier posts, I sketched the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and prayer for the dead (see, for example, this about All Souls or this about prayer for the dead, or use the search facility in the sidebar). It seems to me that the connection between the Church Militant (i.e. those of us on earth), the Church Suffering (i.e. the souls undergoing the final purification of purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (those who enjoy already the vision of God in heaven) is worth pondering for many reasons, not least because it reminds us of our essential dignity as human beings. We are not mere clumps of cells, with no meaning before we are born and none after we are dead. There is a continuity in being that nothing can destroy. We are, as Hopkins says, ‘immortal diamond’.

Like many, I have been haunted by the thought of those people from Niger whose bodies were found in the Sahara. Each was buried according to Muslim rites where he/she lay. In death they were accorded more respect than many of them probably experienced in life. But somehow that burial, that reverent consigning their dead and decomposing bodies to the sandy soil, is a sign of hope, whether we be Christians, Muslims or whatever. It is a mark of humanity, the triumph of simple decency over everything callous and inhumane.

Love does not end with death, nor does our fellowship with one another. Prayer and reverence is an expression of that. As a Catholic, I believe that my prayer can help those who have died, so I pray for those people of Niger as I pray for my father and all the departed. Requiescant in pace. Amen.

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St Lucy

Advent is all about light and darkness, and this feast of St Lucy is a lovely one, coming as it does when the stars are brilliant in the frosty sky and we know that the Sun of Justice is soon to shed his rays upon us. The story of St Lucy is well-known (and Quietnun would never let me forget it, even if the liturgy did) but I am squeamish about eyes and prefer to keep the gorier bits in the decent obscurity of Latin. For those who have a special interest in the needs of the visually impaired, as we and our volunteers do through our Veilaudio service, this feast is a reminder that light and sight are easily taken for granted. Perhaps we all need to remember that we see most clearly not with our eyes but with our hearts. That is why my personal heresy about judgement day is this: we shall each look into the eyes of Christ and know ourselves for the first time, loved in spite of all our failures, forgiven in spite of all our sins. It will be a sweet pain, true purgatory. Before then, let us make friends with the saints, that they may aid us with their prayers.

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All Souls 2012

Catholicism can be an uncomfortable religion to live by, but it is a wonderful religion in which to die. As death draws closer we are surrounded by prayer, our bodies are anointed and we receive the Viaticum to help us on our way. At the moment of death a singularly beautiful prayer is prayed, and after death our bodies are accorded the simple rituals I described in an earlier post. But that is not the end of of the matter. The Church goes on praying for us, perseveringly. November, in particular, is a month when we pray for the dead with special earnestness. Today, on the feast of All Souls, everyone will join in praying for all the faithful departed — not just the people known to us, but those unknown, those who have no-one else to pray for them. The feast of All Souls thus unites the living and the dead.

Last year I summed it up by saying

Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

Inevitably, there was a clash with some of my Protestant friends who reject the idea of purgatory. I very soon realised that few of my objectors knew what the Catholic Church teaches about purgatory (as distinct from what they thought the Church teaches) so in later posts I went into it in some detail. Underlying such misunderstandings is a much bigger question which no amount of explanation will ever really help. I would have liked to have taken my friends on a journey to a cemetery in southern Europe on the eve of All Saints, or transported them through time to the tombs of the early Christians. Possibly our very correct English sensibilities would be a little shocked but perhaps the sense of ease with death would take away some of the terror of death and dying that afflicts many people. All Souls is a reminder of the importance of death, and our part in assuring the entry into blessedness of all our fellow Christians.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

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God’s Laughter

Yesterday my friend Richard Littledale and I had a brief Twittervation (conversation on Twitter) about the Book of Jonah (Richard is writing a book on Jonah, which I’m sure will be well worth reading). I mentioned the humour in Jonah as an echo of God’s laughter, and that has inspired today’s post.

God teases Jonah from start to finish, but it is the loving, gentle teasing of one who wants to rescue Jonah from his own stupidity. Jonah’s attempt to flee God was never going to succeed, but being swallowed by a big fish then vomited on the seashore must have wounded his dignity. All the same, his preaching must have been effective, because even the animals in Nineveh don sackcloth in response to his warning! Only, the Lord does not destroy Nineveh as he has forewarned, so Jonah goes off in a huff then has a misunderstanding about the castor oil plant which gives him shade from the sun. Finally God questions him about his right to be compassionate to all those people ‘who do not know their left hand from their right’. God’s laughter is gentle, but it is very, very eloquent.

There are other passages in the Bible where we catch the sound of God laughing. When God and Moses argue about the backslidings of the Israelites, there is a distinct touch of argy bargy: ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt’; ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt.’ It sounds like two parents disowning their offspring to one another. And in the gospels we find Jesus teasing his disciples again and again, especially poor Peter who is always misunderstanding (thank God for Peter, he gives us hope!) Jesus responded to humour in others: the Syro-Phoenician woman won him over by her quick-witted rejoinder about house-dogs eating scraps from the table.

Perhaps we have made religion in England too serious and not allowed God’s laughter to prick our self-importance as we should. There is a laughter that is destructive. We need to avoid that, but as we get closer to Holy Week, it does not hurt to remember that it is the whole person who is redeemed, not just the ‘religious’ bits.  Our antics must make God smile. It may be too anthropomorphic for some, but I trust that when we reach our final destination, purified by purgatory, we shall be greeted with a huge smile and, quite possibly, a great laugh.

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All Souls

All Souls, the Day of the Dead, is something Catholicism does rather well. Instead of pushing the dead out of sight or surrounding them with euphemisms, we state the facts baldly and pray for the dead as we pray for ourselves, asking God to remove every trace of sin from those not yet ready for the blessedness of heaven. We believe that our prayers can help those who have died and are undergoing the final purification of purgatory, when the soul is prepared for the vision of God. To pray for the dead is thus a work of charity, a way of helping those who cannot help themselves.

In the monastery, prayer for the dead, like prayer for the absent brethren, comes at the end of every Hour of the Work of God and at the end of every meal. We are constantly reminded of our connection with those who have ‘gone before’. They are as familiar to us in death as they were in life and death itself is much less terrible as a result. I find purgatory a very comforting doctrine. I like the idea of being prepared for the vision of God; I like the idea that the Church will continue to pray for me when I can no longer pray for myself. Best of all, I like the hope of mercy that purgatory proclaims.

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All Saints

The communion of saints is something I never tire of meditating on. The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I suspect that for most people this rather lofty and liturgical conception of All Saints is much less interesting that the ‘tents and temple’ situation at St Paul’s. I don’t pretend to understand what is going on, but it is deeply troubling that, as many have mentioned, a dispute about capitalism should have become a dispute about the Church. It is in the nature of tent dwellers that they should move on; the temple stands as a reminder of the eternal. St Bede’s most important book, De Templo, was a sustained meditation on Solomon’s temple as an image of the Church with lots of number theory thrown in. Perhaps it would make good reading today for the tent dwellers around St Paul’s because it asserts the unity of the Church, both those who dwell within and those stuck outside in the courts, and the salvation possible to us all in Christ.

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