Preparing for a Feast

Tomorrow, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, is our patronal feast. God willing, we shall celebrate it in both choir and refectory, with a liturgy as splendid as we can make it, and a dinner more elegant than usual. But all this requires preparation and begs the question: how should we prepare for a feast? At Christmas and Easter, for example, most Christian households will cook and eat special foods and exchange gifts of some kind among family members. In a monastery the material celebrations tend to be more restrained and preparations are more focused on the liturgy. Choir practice looms large on the agenda, the chapel is cleaned and polished to within an inch of its life, and while there is certainly more activity in the kitchen, other preparations are perhaps not so obvious.

In normal times, there would be sacramental confession and a chapter of faults so that, as far as possible, we may be at peace with God, one another and ourselves. Chapter of faults is an opportunity to apologize to one another for the ways in which we have failed the community, by being careless or negligent, for example, or having a little tantrum about nothing in particular. It is a way of restoring relationships, acknowledging the imperfections and insensitivities that often weigh heavier on others than they do on ourselves. Then there is the reading for the feast, so that we enter upon it with a renewed sense of the Trinity’s immensity. There is always something more to learn, something more to reflect on. The mystery of the Trinity can never be exhausted by our puny human intellects, so we read and pray, read and pray.

The past week has been busier and rather more fraught than any of us anticipated. It is good to be able to look forward to the feast (which begins with Vespers tonight) and welcome it as a sabbath rest, a sharing in God’s own rest. The feast for which we are preparing now is a foretaste of the eternal feast to come. O Quanta qualia illa sabbata! May the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless us all.

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Repentance v. Remorse

Everyone knows that there are subtle — sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way we use words. We talk of Britain and the U.S.A. being divided by a common language, for example, and smile at the joke. Sometimes there is no joking and precision must be sought. The media seem to use repentance and remorse almost interchangeably, but not the Church. I think there is good reason for that, one that may illumine our understanding of today’s Mass readings (Jonah 3. 1–10 and Luke 11.29–32) and the practice of sacramental confession.

Take remorse first. How often do we read ‘The prisoner showed no remorse’ or some such phrase? My response tends to be, ‘Why should they?’ Although there is a tendency to equate remorse with regret, the origins of the word show that it is personal to the point of selfishness. It literally means being bitten by something — the recollection of wrongdoing, but chiefly as it affects the wrongdoer (from the Latin, remordere, to bite again, bite fiercely). Repentance, on the other hand, means sorrow for wrongdoing, an attempt at restitution (making good), and commitment to change (from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry). Repentance looks outwards as much as remorse looks inwards. It joins us to others rather than separating us from them.

When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they didn’t just put on sackcloth and pray, they renounced their evil behaviour and it clearly wasn’t easy. Jesus uses them as an example in his preaching today. The Church is insistent on the effectiveness of sacramental confession and the way in which it restores a right relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. People sometimes say it is just a way in which Catholics delude themselves — confess, perform a quick penance and go on sinning. Confession is rather more demanding than that! It requires us to change, to try to make good that in which we have offended. Most of all, I think, it asks us to be honest about our neediness; and we know that God will always stoop down to the lowest part of our need. There is nothing we cannot take to him for healing.

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