Rooted, or Are We?

One hundred days to Brexit, announce the media, with varying degrees of gladness or dismay. Meanwhile, we are preparing to sing O Radix Jesse at Vespers tonight:

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delaying no longer!

Is this another instance of the Church working on completely different lines from the rest of society? Or do we pray in a way that encompasses the demands of Brexit and every other difficulty we face at this time? Consider that line, ‘at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek’. It is awkward in English, but it contains an important truth: God is in control and those who seek him, unlikely as it may seem, will one day find him. God wants to be found; he desires to lead us. Being a Gentile is at first sight a disadvantage, excluded as we assume we are from the Covenant and the privileges of the people of Israel; but the prophecies we have been reading throughout this period of Advent have been reminding us that the Covenant has been opened to all. Amazingly, as St Paul says, we, the wild olive, have been grafted onto the ancient tree. But there is more that is encouraging and surprising in equal measure.

Those who hold power in this world do so for only a time. They can do much good or much harm, but ultimately their power is transitory. Before God the powerful are struck dumb, because God sees with a clarity they do not possess. Only purity of heart, the purity of love and generosity, can enable anyone to see as God sees, and we all fall short of that but especially, perhaps, those whose main focus is their own advantage. It is sobering to remember that, but it is true. We need to see as God sees.

Today’s antiphon is not some form of pious escapism. It is a reminder not to lose heart, not to give up. God wills what is good for us, and no matter how contrary the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how dire we think the state of the country or how irresponsible our politicians, there is hope — but it is a hope that requires more of us than mere wishing. The Root of Jesse stands as an ensign to the peoples. We must rally to his standard, and that means exposing ourselves to danger, to misunderstanding and, as this world sees it, even to failure. The victory is won, but we must still fight. 

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Of Reverence in Prayer: RB 20 (Again)

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that I have often written about St Benedict’s twentieth chapter.* In a few short sentences he sums up all that needs to be said; but we are not so easily satisfied. We go on, tugging away at the mystery of prayer, not wanting to believe it is as simple as he says. Even in translation we can catch a hint of the poetic quality of the original, with its alliteration and sixth-century stylishness, and know that we are reading something Benedict considers to be immensely important:

Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realize that we shall be heard not for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore, ought always to be short and pure, unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together. (Trans. Wybourne)

It is no accident that this chapter comes at the end of the so-called liturgical code. After setting out his regulations for the common prayer of the community, the Divine Office, Benedict turns to the private prayer of the monk. There is no opposition between the two, indeed, the very qualities Benedict prizes in the one are to be reinforced by the other, but he is aware that our private prayer can run away with us, as it were, and end up not being prayer at all. He therefore advocates that our prayer should always be short and pure, unless prolonged by grace. I think we can all work out what he means by ‘short’ but what about ‘pure’?

We must remember that Benedict was writing as part of a monastic tradition that held Cassian in high esteem. For him, as for Benedict, purity meant purity of heart, a single-minded focus on God. Benedict is therefore asking us to concentrate on God and nothing else. That is why the pauses in the Divine office are so important and why every Office concludes with a few moments of silent prayer. As the words die away we are left contemplating the Word himself. Without this focus on God we do not allow the liturgy to have its full effect in us and our private prayer misses the mark. To achieve this focus on God we need a measure of self-discipline and restraint, even of things that are otherwise good and beautiful. In other words, Benedict is urging us all to face God in prayer without defences, without anything that could get in the way of our being open to him, and he is wise enough to know that most of us cannot keep that up for very long. The short, pure prayer he encourages is the mystic’s ‘longing dart of love’, the ‘short prayer that pierceth heaven,’ the poet’s ‘heaven in ordinarie’.

* For example, see http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/10/27/reverence-in-prayer-rb-20/

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Easter Tuesday 2017

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Today’s gospel, John 20.11-18, is shocking in its intensity. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ in a garden. As always in these Resurrection narratives, there is something about his appearance that prevents immediate recognition; and in any case, Mary is weeping. But she sees more clearly through her tears than many a disciple who turns the cold gaze of reason upon him. Her heart has been washed clean by love, and it is that purity of heart which enables her to recognize her Lord.

Monastic tradition honours the gift of tears. Indeed, praying for compunction of heart is a very necessary part of every novitiate — and it does not end there. Until we realise the enormity of our sinfulness and the wonderful forgiveness of God, we are apt to be harsh in our judgement of others and resistant to grace. There is a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears in the Sarum Missal, which looks back to the experience of the Israelites in the desert:

O Almighty and most merciful God, who caused a fountain of living water to spring forth from a rock for your people in their thirst; draw tears of compunction from our stony hearts that we may weep over our sins, and, by your mercy, deserve to obtain pardon for the same. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is also another, more elaborate one, by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required, and Mary Magdalene shows us how richly and warmly the prayer of humble love and faith is answered.

Fra Angelico has captured the moment of blissful meeting between Jesus and Mary — in a garden, in springtime, with only the dark entrance to the tomb to remind us of what went before. Our own meeting with the Risen Christ may be just as unexpected. Let us make sure we are ready for it, for to be surprised by grace is also to be surprised by joy; and like Mary Magdalene, we are not to keep that joy and grace to ourselves but to proclaim it: to be, like her, an apostle of the Resurrection.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Clowns, Killjoys and the Tenth Step of Humility

To many, religion is a dreary matter of keeping rules, most of which begin with ‘thou shalt not’. It can be rather a shock to such people to discover how very cheerful Catholicism is and how many jokes are cracked in the cloister. We may not always look redeemed, as Kierkergaard complained of Christians in general, but, by golly, we make a good fist of acting as though we were. Benedict’s tenth step of humility comes as a douche of cold water on all this merriment:

The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written, ‘The fool raises his voice in laughter.’
Decimus humilitatis gradus est si non sit facilis ac promptus in risu, quia scriptum est: Stultus in risu exaltat vocem suum. (RB 7. 59, quoting Sirach 21.20)

What is that about?

First, let us notice that the word Benedict uses for laughter is risus, which has many shades of meaning, from simple laughter as we understand it today, to mockery and even scurrility. The clue to how we are to understand it here comes from the scripture quotation. In the Old Testament laughter is predominantly a mark of disbelief, e.g. Sara laughed with disbelief when told she was to bear a son in her old age. Those who disbelieve God are closed to his promises. They place themselves outside his salvation and are therefore the very worst fools, doing no good either to themselves or to others.

What I think Benedict is warning against in this precept is the kind of laughter in which we lose control and end up in a situation similar to that of the biblical fool, destroying either our own faith or that of another. We begin with a harmless joke, a little bit of clowning, but we are easily intoxicated by our own wit. The joke may be turned against someone else, go too far, become mockery. Humour misused easily becomes cruel, and what began as one of God’s pleasantest gifts is warped into something horrible. It is not being a killjoy to suggest that we need to watch our laughter and ensure that it builds up rather than destroys. That doesn’t mean becoming terribly self-conscious, never daring to say anything, but it does mean cultivating a sense of appropriateness and mindfulness of God and others.

In the end, humility is meant to make us more charitable, more open to God. It doesn’t do away with humour, but it does purify it from anything that is cruel or destructive. Then can we truly laugh, when we are pure of heart.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Generosity: Pure but not Simple

Today is one of those days with multiple layers of meaning. We remember that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War for Civilisation which was to end all wars officially came to an end. We also remember St Martin of Tours, himself a former soldier like so many monks, but remembered today chiefly for one incident — the sharing of his cloak with a beggar.

I once summed up the secret of St Martin’s hold on the popular imagination in words that earned me a thorough scolding from some readers:

The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

Perhaps I should have kept the smile out of my writing and concentrated on Martin’s generosity instead, because I think it is generosity that connects both Armistice Day and the saint. The selflessness of those who gave their lives for freedom is a theme many have recalled over the week-end; the lived generosity of day-to-day will be the theme of many a gospel homily this morning. Generous people are immensely attractive. They are big-hearted, kind, warm. They never misuse their gifts to make others feel small or inferior. They never praise one in order to make another feel slighted. They are great encouragers, even if inside they don’t feel quite as happy or confident as they appear on the outside. They remind us that generosity is a mark of the pure of heart, but attaining that purity isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Note:
Do read Tanya Marlow’s blog post for Saturday afternoon (link opens in new window), when she reflected on the CNMAC Blogger of the Year award, for which she, like me, was a finalist. It is a beautiful example of the kind of generosity I am writing about. Her blog is uniformly excellent: add it to your list of must-reads. You can find a list of the winners and runners-up of the CNMAC awards here.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

After Woolwich

Like many people, I learned of yesterday’s horror in Woolwich from my Twitterstream. At first, I was puzzled. There were many tweets expressing indignation about the phrase ‘of Muslim appearance’.* Was this another of those endless arguments about politically-correct expressions, and who would use such an odd and meaningless phrase anyway? I decided I wasn’t interested. Then a few tweets began to trickle in using words like ‘butchery’ and ‘machete’ and I realised something dreadful had happened. I followed the links, watched the video and read the news reports. Only then did I learn that a man had been killed. It took still longer for me to learn of the extraordinary bravery of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett and other women who confronted the killers and shielded the body of the dead man before the security forces turned up. (You can read an account here, link opens in new window.) In the meantime, there were the usual calls for vengeance and some pretty nasty comments about Islam, the police and just about anybody who was in any way involved. In short, a Twitter spat which may have alleviated feelings but which did nothing to change the facts: a man had been brutally murdered in broad daylight on a ‘safe’ London street.

I record all this because I think the sequence of events unfolding in my Twitterstream is quite revealing: first the argument over language, which some might think almost an irrelevance in the wake of such horror; then the report of the incident itself and the sickening knowledge that a human being had been butchered to death; next, the reaction, often vengeful and violent; finally, recognition of the courage and humanity of some in the midst of brutality and hatred.

My own immediate reaction was to pray for the dead man and his attackers, which did not go down well in some quarters. Pray for the dead man and his family, yes, but for his attackers, no: let them rot in hell! But isn’t that wrong? We are as connected to the murderers as we are to the murdered, and in more ways than you might suppose. We are all capable of the violence we saw in Woolwich yesterday, and if we think we aren’t, we are kidding ourselves. We are all capable of hating with insane intensity. Fortunately, most of us never act out the violence we carry within ourselves, but we know it is there. Equally, we know that when anyone’s life is ended, we too are diminished. We too are vulnerable, we too are at risk. Prayer makes whatever sense can be made of this conundrum. It is a way of trying to bring love into a situation that is full of hatred and pain. No one wants sermons at such a time. What we need is the reassurance love gives.

Love and forgiveness can free us from the cycle of death and destruction, but not everyone is ready to forgive at the same time. We sometimes need someone else to show us the way. Yesterday, I think the women who went to help in Woolwich gave us all a fine example of how courage and compassion can transform an ugly situation and bring love where there is none. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett was travelling on a ‘bus, stepped down to give First Aid to what she thought was the victim of a road accident, then drew the attackers’ attention to herself so that others might be safe. It was an heroic act, certainly, in marked contrast to the cowardice of the attackers, but I think it was something more. I do not know whether she has any religion or not, but to me her actions speak of purity of heart. Hers was a redemptive act, and we should thank God for it.

*I understand why the phrase is as objectionable as it is meaningless, but it seemed odd to me to be concentrating on that in the immediate aftermath of the killing. Twitter often approaches things sideways on.

Update 24 May 2013

According to an article in today’s Catholic Herald, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett is a Christian and was inspired by her Catholic Faith to do what she did. See here (link opens in new window).Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Reverence in Prayer

Today we read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. I have commented on this chapter many times, but every time I read it I find something new, something that lights up some aspect or other of prayer that I have been struggling with. If you are not familiar with the text, I suggest you read it over slowly and carefully, or listen to it on our community website, here. The English translation can’t convey the poetic qualities of the Latin, but something of Benedict’s sureness of touch communicates itself: he knew whereof he spoke.

The word that sings from the page for me this morning is ‘purity’. We aim at purity of heart, we keep our prayer short and pure. Purity in this sense means without any admixture of anything else. I wonder how many of us could truthfully say our prayer is pure? We are so busy chattering away to God, asking for this, thanking him for that, we forget that what he most desires is communion with us. Deep down, it is what we most desire too; but we are like Naaman, faced with bathing in the Jordan. We are sure it ought to be more complicated; so we read endless books on prayer and search out different techniques, and all the while the gift of prayer is within us, poured into our hearts at baptism.

Prayer is simultaneously the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. It is also, incidentally, the only activity of this life that endures to the next. Today, try to find a moment or two when you can just be with God, enjoying his presence (even if it seems to you like absence) and allowing him to enjoy yours.

Note: a Twitter friend picked up on an ambiguity in this post. When I said that prayer is the only activity that endures to the next life, I meant that we shall continue to pray (ie love and contemplate God). If a meaning is not clear, it is the writer’s fault.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail