Preparing for Advent 2016

Every year I pen a brief post about preparing for Advent; and every year I wonder whether what I write conveys anything of value to the readers. For example, last year I wrote:

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less . . . .

The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen. (abridged)

What I wrote is true and valid, I think, but this year I’d want to put a particular emphasis on the importance of silence. Here in the monastery we begin Advent with three days of near-perfect silence. Most people know nothing about it because our prayer tweets and FB prayer intentions are pre-programmed, but the house is as silent as we can make it and all unnecessary noise or conversation avoided. In the past, I’ve tended to see this as the watchful, expectant silence of those awaiting the Messiah, a chance to plumb the depths of our inadequacy and emptiness that Christ alone can fill and transform. This year, however, I think our silence will take another cast. So many brutal, treacherous words have been spoken; so many brutal, violent acts have followed; there is so much hatred and anger being expressed, even in the Church. Only silence, the silence of repentance, of the desire for conversion of heart, for real change, can turn this violent wordiness of ours into a preparation for the coming of the Word. St Benedict talks about setting a permanent clamp on our lips (aeterna clausura RB 6.8) to avoid the kind of speech that leads both ourselves and others astray. Clamping our lips tight may not look like the most obvious preparation for Advent but it could prove the one we most need to make — and the most difficult.

 

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A Monastic Year in Retrospect: 2014

Winter at HTM

Today has dawned grey and silvery, bright with frost and the sharp tang of woodsmoke. While the rest of the world busies itself with New Year resolutions and a more or less dreary catalogue of what went wrong in 2014, here in the monastery we are thinking about the good zeal we ought to have (RB 72) and what we can do to make sure that 2014 ends on a positive note, with wrongs, insofar as in us lies, righted, forgiveness given and received, and hope and trust restored. You might think that was easy for us, but we live in the same world as you do, and have just as many quirks of character. Indeed, I sometimes think that the reason for Benedict’s insistence on our bearing charitably with one another is because monks and nuns are more quirky than most and make bigger demands on one another.

To put things right with another, we must first admit that something has gone wrong. That can be difficult, especially if we secretly think the other person responsible. Unfortunately, thinking like that tends to lead to another rehearsal of the original grievance; and we all know where that ends. I think we have to ask ourselves what we most desire: victory or harmony. That doesn’t mean we do violence to our sense of right and wrong or pretend to a fault we genuinely believe we haven’t committed, but it does mean humbly acknowledging that somewhere along the line, we haven’t been all we might have been. Aquinas wrote of that which, though not sin, had something of  the nature of sin about it; and we all know how easy it is to perform what used to be called an act of charity in such an uncharitable way that it is quite the opposite. The end of the year is a good time to reflect on these things and see what we can do about them.

Here in the monastery today and tomorrow will be days of mutual apology and reconciliation, of giving thanks, of thinking about the events of 2014 and our way of living through them, all with the firm purpose of trying to do better in 2015. 2014 was not an easy year for us, but it has been a year of blessing. Learning to give thanks in all circumstances doesn’t come naturally to most of us, any more than forgiveness does. Maybe that is why St Benedict ends his chapter on good zeal with a simple but heartfelt prayer: May they prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. Amen.

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Wilderness Time: Preparing for Advent

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less; and the less talking means, for example, that we don’t write personal letters or emails or have people to stay at the monastery.

Our use of the internet and Social Media is always governed by the restraints we have agreed upon as a community, but during Advent it is, if anything, even more disciplined as we try to focus on the coming of Christ. The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen.

Perhaps there are a few ideas in this monastic approach to Advent you might find helpful yourself? Of one thing you can be sure, the nuns here will be praying for you as we go into our wilderness time.

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The Sacrament of Penance is Not For Losers

Year of Faith 2012 to 2013 logoReaders will know that I am rather keen on the Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation), which is as it should be, since individual confession was originally a monastic practice which spread to the whole Church. It also means that I am for once ‘on trend’ since we are all being encouraged to revisit the sacrament during this Year of Faith, and it is my hope and prayer that we shall rediscover its spiritual benefits. We won’t do so, however, unless we are clear about what is involved. Catholics of my generation will be able to name the essential elements for valid reception of the sacrament: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (reparation) — see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 1422 to 1523. Of these, reparation is often overlooked yet it seems to me so fundamental that I find myself wondering how we can have forgotten it.

The truth is probably that we find it difficult and therefore try to have forgiveness on the cheap, so to say. Reparation, seeking to make amends for what we have done, brings home to us the ugliness of sin and reminds us that absolution and performance of the penance given by our confessor are really only the first steps in putting things right. Having to apologize to someone we have treated badly; having to admit that we are responsible for some failure or other; having to put right an injustice, these are not easy options. It becomes much worse when we feel we cannot right a wrong because the person or persons we have injured is dead or in some way unreachable. Then we must rely on prayer and the grace of God to effect what no amount of human striving can achieve.

In the end, of course,  everything depends on God, from the first movement of contrition to the final act of reparation. Only he can make right what we have done wrong, but while we rely on his grace, we must never fall into the sin of presumption. The Sacrament of Penance treats us as responsible human beings and invites our co-operation in grace. It is definitely not for ‘losers’.

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Forgiveness

Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus include a showing of the wounds in his body. I used to think that they were intended to elicit or confirm faith. A prime example would be the showing to Thomas, but reading today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35–48, made me think again. Could it be that these showings have another purpose, one that the disciples found even more necessary — an assurance of forgiveness?

You’ll notice that Jesus never finds it necessary to show the women his wounds. As far as we can tell from the gospel narratives, they never abandoned Jesus and were never afraid when they met him again after the Resurrection. When Mary Magdalene met him in the garden she wept, but for her supposed loss rather than consciousness of any sin or betrayal. The men do not get off so lightly, especially when they are gathered together in a group. There is consternation when Jesus appears among them, doubt, disbelief, a whole gamut of emotions, including fear. Jesus reassures them and shows them his wounds. This showing not only demonstrates who he is but also what he has done: ‘God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself’.

Just in case any of my female readers is quietly congratulating herself, I had better point out that we are all among the male disciples now. We are all in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness which come to us through Christ our Lord. Those wounds on his body are there for all eternity as a sign of his love and forgiveness. We are each one of us ‘graven on the palm of his hand’.

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