St Michael and All Angels 2018

St Michael's victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein, Coventry Cathedral
Jacob Epstein’s representation of St Michael, Coventry Cathedral
Whenever a human being encounters an angel, the first words spoken by the angel are always ‘Fear not!’ or some such phrase. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful, and the role they play in the economy of salvation is awful, too.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. The Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

We are given several helps. Scripture and the sacraments are the first that spring to mind, but there is also our fellowship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church. Too often we forget that we do not face evil alone. We have the saints and our ‘even Christians’ to do battle with us. We also have the angels themselves. The old prayer to St Michael is sometimes smiled at by those who dismiss the idea of evil as ‘quaint’ or the product of an over-heated imagination. I would suggest such persons look at the remains of an aborted child or the body of a victim of chemical warfare or of a woman raped and brutalised and then dare to say, ‘There is no evil.’ Meanwhile, I trust the rest of us will be praying:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. 

For a Benedictine, of course, angels are everywhere and are constantly linking us with heaven. Their role is primarily one of surveillance, which can be unsettling at times, but Benedict does not dwell on the negative aspects of that. He ends his discussion of the first step of humility, which we read today, with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with an important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins — murder, adultery and so on — we tell ourselves; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Our first step in humility, then, is to become aware of God and to make the angels our friends, that they may help us keep to the strait way that leads to life and eternal happiness. May St Michael and All Angels pray for us and all who seek their protection. Amen.

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Daring to Be Different

In an age when individualism is prized, it is odd how few people actually dare to be different. By that I don’t mean the boorish rejection of social norms that is all too common, but the willingness to adopt a completely different stance from others on many of the choices life demands of us. I mean, for example, taking one’s stand on the gospel and being prepared to follow through the logic of love and forgiveness in our relationships with others; believing that all life is sacred from the first moments of conception to (natural) death; holding chastity, whether of the single or married form, to be integral to our dignity as human beings. Then there are the more public manifestations of difference: for instance, concern for the poor and less able, a willingness to sacrifice personal advantage for the common good (e.g. in matters of taxation), a determination to secure just and equitable governance.

In a monastic context, daring to be different takes on a whole new dimension. The values that underpin the monastic enterprise are not ones that society in general admires. The idea of renunciation, especially the renunciation of much that is good (e.g. marriage and family), is definitely counter-cultural. Voluntarily submitting to the judgement of others (e.g. the superior) is another idea that, imperfectly understood, seems to crush individuality rather than lead to the full flowering of the person. In vain do we say that authority and obedience are two sides, so to say, of the same coin, twin aspects of that searching for God that lies at the heart of our vocation. It just doesn’t make sense. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter. Monastic life doesn’t make sense and never will so long as we look at it from the outside or concentrate only on the incidentals.

This morning the Rule of St Benedict has some hard-hitting things to say about evil desires and temptation (RB 7. 24–30). We don’t much like talking about evil today, save in the context of terrorist acts or child abuse. But what I think Benedict is drawing attention to is the fact that we are very easily swayed from virtue to vice. We conform more readily than we dare to be different. We make a thousand excuses for our falling away: our sin is so very little after all, just a nibble at the apple rather than a huge bite; but we are deceiving ourselves. Benedict will have no truck with such accommodations. With him, it is all or nothing. The Lord may spare us now, but the day of reckoning will come. As he says in RB 4.20, our way of acting should be quite different from that of the world, and the phrase he uses, facere alienum, is very definite, admitting of no compromise. Glad you are not a monk or nun, then? Well, when you read RB 4, as I hope you will, bear in mind that it is based on well-known forms of baptismal catechesis, intended in the first place for those who are not called to the monastic life. Daring to be different isn’t just for those who are peculiarly enthusiastic about their following of Christ, it is meant for all of us.

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Watchfulness and Humility

St Benedict ends his discussion of the first step of humility with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with a very important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels. We usually think of St Michael as our great defender against evil, God’s champion; and so he is. But the role Benedict assigns the angels in today’s portion of the Rule is one of surveillance. They are constantly reporting on us to God, a kind of heavenly GCHQ. It is an uncomfortable image, and I think it is meant to unsettle us. Good and evil, wisdom and folly, life and death: these choices confront us every day in the detail of our lives. Only at the end will we see the whole pattern, but God sees the pattern now and he waits, tenderly, patiently, as only a loving parent can, hoping that we will amend. Our first step in humility is to become aware of God and it is only possible because he is so keenly aware of us.

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