O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7

 

We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.

Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.

It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.

The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.

The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

Murillo immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Let’s start with what the Immaculate Conception is, rather than what it is not. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain (labes) of original sin.’ In other words, unlike the rest of us, and entirely because of the merits of Jesus Christ (i.e. not her own), she was endowed with sanctifying grace from the first moment of conception. (Sanctifying grace is conferred on us after birth, through the Sacrament of Baptism.) In the narrowest sense, the doctrine refers to original sin only and makes no claim to Mary’s having remained sinless. Of course, Catholics do believe that she was personally sinless, and the Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who teaches otherwise.

Although belief in the Immaculate Conception can be found early and was probably being celebrated liturgically in Syria by the fifth century, later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. As Ineffabilis Deus makes clear, Mary was redeemed as all are, by our Saviour Jesus Christ, yet in her case the manner of doing so was exceptional.

In the Middle Ages the doctrine was much discussed. Theologians of the stature of St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas expressed reservations about the formulae used and it was not until Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, instituted a committee of enquiry (1851 to 1853) that the solemn definition given in 1854 took final shape.

Where does all this leave us today? People sometimes remark on the apparent absence of devotion to Mary in Benedictine monasteries. By that they really mean the absence of devotions (plural). Hopkins likened Our Lady to the air we breathe, and among monks and nuns I think that just about sums it up. We are privileged to live in a world of sign and symbol, where Mary and the saints are very close to us and highly honoured for their own closeness to God. Let Hopkins have the last word:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Deep Sense of Shame

The sex abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have appalled everyone. As a woman, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could think of abusing a child or young person. I’m sure most men feel the same way. In vain do some argue (what is actually true) that Catholic clergy are statistically less likely to be abusers than married men. The stories of abuse, the cover-ups, the ineptitude of many ‘official’ responses have left us all reeling. As a Benedictine, I feel a deep sense of shame that Benedictine monks have been among the offenders. I’ve known some of them, and it is painful to record that I’ve heard them preach, received the sacraments at their hands, even been lectured on how I ought to live while they themselves were breaking their vow of chastity and injuring those entrusted to their care. How does one deal with one’s feelings of disgust and betrayal?

One way would be to say, I will have nothing more to do with any of them. They are all hypocrites and liars and have profaned the holy of holies. A little bit of me does want to do that, if I’m honest. A bigger bit of me wants to say, perhaps even this can be a source of purification for the Church. Perhaps there will be less arrogance among the clergy. An even bigger bit of me wants to lament the evil that has been done and pray for all who suffer as a result, especially those who are losing many of the services the Church has traditionally provided because of the discrediting of the institution along with some of its members — the compensation payments to those who have been abused do not come out of thin air. Most of all, however, I want the Church, and the Monastic Order in particular, to ask itself how this could have come about. A scandal is literally something that causes us to stumble, that deflects us from the right way. Some people have accused us as nuns as being in some way in ‘collusion’ with the monks. That is nonsense, but I think it highlights the fact that a deep sense of shame is not enough. The past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed and everyone of us has a part to play in that.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Treasuring the Ordinary

There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The End of the World

Apparently, some people think the end of the world will come this week-end (21 May, to be precise). I cannot say that it would be a great surprise if it did. We have had more than enough of ‘wars and rumours of wars’, earthquakes, fires and tsunamis, deadly plagues and all manner of human wickedness envisioned by the writer of the Apocalypse and every other religious visionary. I daresay some people are running to their bunkers in the hope of surviving a little while, rather hopeless if you think about it. What shall we be doing here at the monastery? What we always do, I suppose. Part of me thinks that if the world should end I’d like to be kneeling in prayer, giving glory to God; but if I’m meant to be cleaning out the recycling bins or casting up figures for accounts that will never be audited, that’s what I’ll do. It is where I’ll be looked for, after all.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Jesus is not my Boyfriend

We are made of stern stuff here in the monastery and are celebrating the feast of SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. Not for us the wine and roses of St Valentine’s Day, although I did hear someone reciting Donne after breakfast and stopped what I was doing to listen. There is no finer poet of love in the English language, engaging mind as well as heart.

Donne, however, is not my subject this morning but the misapplication of the Bride of Christ theme. From time to time I look at an American web site frequented by (mainly) young people discerning a vocation and cringe at some of the soppier expressions of what is, I am sure, at base a very genuine love of the Lord. The sponsa Christi imagery applied to nuns and consecrated virgins is certainly valid, but one should remember that it can only be applied to the individual because it has first been applied to the whole Church. Christ has no other Bride but his Church, whom he espoused on Calvary.

It follows that there is no other way for any of us to go to heaven save as a Bride of Christ. That applies as much to the curmudgeonly old bachelor as the lissome girl. Strange thought! But if today you are alone and feeling that there is no one very much to care about you, and no one in particular for you to love in return, consider this: by virtue of your baptism you are espoused to him before whom the sun and moon bow down. Jesus is not your boyfriend, but he loves you more than you could ever possibly imagine.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Candlemas

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, formerly known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and popularly known as Candlemas, is really the end of Christmastide, coming exactly forty days after our 25 December celebration of Christ’s birth. It used to be celebrated on 14 February, forty days after Epiphany, since, until the 25 December date became general, the birth of Christ was always celebrated on that day. It marks the occasion when, in accordance with Jewish law, Jesus, as a first-born male, was solemnly offered in the temple and redeemed or bought back by the offering of a couple of  doves or young pigeons. In the monastery we ‘remember’ Christmas by eating one of the special foods associated with it. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’

The liturgy of the feast has evolved slowly. It was not until the eleventh century that the practice of processing with lighted candles seems to have become common (suggested, no doubt, by the words of Simeon in the gospel) but I think some of the old customs help to explain the dual nature of this feast, the looking back and looking forward, the joy and the sadness. Purple vestments used to be worn for the procession (probably because processions at the beginning of Mass have a penitential character) but were laid aside in favour of white, the colour of rejoicing, once the altar was reached. Just so we have in the gospel the joy of welcoming the Messiah for whom Simeon and Anna and the whole people of Israel yearned and those dark words of prophesy about the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart. It is a bittersweet celebration of the Child and his destiny.

It sounds lame, but much of life is bittersweet. I think this feast is a great encouragement as many of us are more than a little agnostic about why we are here or how free we are. Accidents of birth or education, or circumstances over which we have no control such as the economic situation, determine much of what happens to us. We can feel as though our destiny is thrust upon us. Yet we also know that as children of God we are supremely free, that grace is unconfined ; and so we live in this tension between constraint and freedom. The joy of today has the shadow of the Cross over it: a reminder, if we need one, that God’s ways are not our ways. He can bring light out of darkness, life out of what we experience as death.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Beatitude

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time is Matthew 5. 1-12, the Beatitudes. No matter how often we hear them (and it is important to hear them, not just scan the text with our eyes), the words fall into that unusual category of being both fulfilled yet still not quite fulfilled. We are blessed, but not eternally blessed. We have just enough of heaven now to long for what is to come.

Let us not forget that those who are poor in spirit can claim heaven now as well as hereafter; that the gentle have a right to the earth now as well as hereafter; and so on through the Beatitudes, no matter how often we fail to perceive what we have already been given.

The most challenging Beatitude of all is probably “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Purity of heart enables us to see as God sees, without the distortion of sin or pride. In that wonderful clarity we may hope to catch a glimpse, a reflection, of God himself, knowing that one day we shall see him as he is, perfect in beauty, the joy of all the living. That is why purity of heart is the great goal of monastic life, that for which all our observances are meant to prepare us, in the hope that one day we may enjoy the vision of God.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail