Alan Henning, St Francis of Assisi and the Quest for Peace

El Greco: St Francis receiving the stigmata

Alan Henning’s murder has shocked and saddened everyone in Britain — everyone, that is, except those who believe the vicarious death of an innocent man is justifiable because of perceived cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the U.K. That fact alone makes it difficult to write about. We are conscious of Mr Henning’s grieving family and the pain they are suffering, yet at the same time we are aware that there are those, even here in Britain, who rejoice at what they see as a great ‘victory’. It is sadly ironic, if that’s the right word, that we are faced with these contradictions on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, one of the best known and best loved saints of the Christian West, whose prayer ‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace’ has become almost a cliché of the quest for peace.

Last year I wrote about the danger of sentimentalising St Francis, illustrating my post with the only known contemporary portrait of the saint. This year I have chosen one of El Greco’s paintings of St Francis receiving the stigmata (the marks of the wounds inflicted on Christ’s hands, feet and side during the crucifixion). The contrast between the beauty of the saint’s hands and the terrible wounds piercing them, the darkness the saint inhabits and the brilliance of the vision before him, above all, the harsh light El Greco throws on his subject’s face, parallel the role of prayer and suffering in Francis’s quest to be a man of peace — moments of peace and tranquillity glimpsed through prayer and long years of  sacrifice in which he was broken open, scooped out, transformed. To be a man of peace meant identifying completely with the Master he followed, snatching victory from apparent defeat.

Mr Henning left home and family to help others in distress. He was clearly a charitable man, prepared to take risks to be of service to others. Francis was also a man of great charity, who lived a life of simplicity and joy. For both of them there was an integrity and courage that bore them through the difficulties they faced. I think we can learn something from each of them. In the end, it is charity and peace that secure the world; but neither peace nor charity is attained without sacrifice.

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The Exaltation of the Cross 2014

If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.

The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Suggestions for further reading from this blog (link in blue)
Exaltation of the Cross 2011
Exaltation of the Cross 2013

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Rejection

Unless we have lived charmed lives, we have all experienced rejection in one form or another. We know how painful it is to be rejected, literally ‘thrown back’, by someone we love or in whom we had placed hope and trust. Not getting the university place we had set our heart on or that job we wanted so badly can be crushing. We are left feeling inadequate, a failure. We plumb the depths of self-doubt, perhaps even despair. I wonder if that is how John the Baptist felt on the morning of his execution.

The liturgy blithely assures us that the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the feast we celebrate today, was a glorious martyrdom — and so it was, but perhaps not quite in the way we often assume. The Forerunner experienced an unjust death just as Jesus Christ was to do. But I wonder whether the feast is more helpful to us if we consider not John’s triumph, but the loneliness and fear that must have accompanied his final days and hours. He had longed to prepare a way for the Messiah. He had burned with love for his fellow Jews; but, ultimately, he was made to pay the price for honesty and integrity.

It isn’t difficult to make a splendid sacrifice in front of the cameras, so to say; it isn’t difficult to stand up for what one believes when the microphones of the world are turned in one’s direction; but to remain steadfast in the darkness and dirt of a Palestinian prison, when there is no one to hear and apparently no one to care, is much harder. All at once the martyrdom of St John the Baptist takes on a very contemporary quality.

I think we honour his feast best by praying for all who speak the truth and must pay the price for it: those silenced by the regimes they live under or ridiculed and abused into submission. Let’s pray also for those who experience another kind of rejection: the three million Syrians who have fled the war in their home country; the Christians and other religious minorities who have been forced out of Iraq; all who know what it is to live in fear of death at the hands of those close to them.

 

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All Saints Day 2013

I made the mistake of re-reading last year’s post for this day and realised that it says most of what I want to say this year too, so I’ll spare you the repetition. There’s just one thing to add. A twitterstorm yesterday afternoon has heightened my awareness of the need for real holiness among the people of God. I don’t mean the kind of self-conscious ‘sanctity’ that seems chiefly to consist in adopting all the currently fashionable attitudes of liberal left or conservative right, I mean the kind of holiness that costs: the holiness of prayer, sacrifice and service; the kind of holiness that shakes us out of our complacency and changes us for ever; the holiness that reflects the holiness of God himself. It is that kind of holiness we celebrate today, not only among the saints in heaven but also among the saints on earth.

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From Justin Martyr to Emily Davison

Today, while we are celebrating Justin Martyr, the great Christian apologist, many will be thinking of Emily Davison, the suffragist, who, a hundred years ago, threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in the hope of advancing the cause of votes for women. Justin was beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which neatly solved the problems some had found with his theology. Martyrdom, like love, covers not only a multitude of sins but also acts as the ultimate guarantee of orthodoxy. The ‘secular martyrdom’ of Emily Davison is more problematic. There are grounds for thinking that her death was an unintended consequence of her action rather than planned from the beginning, and in the short term it achieved very little other than opprobrium for herself. The First World War did more to achieve votes for women, although it is undeniable that Emily Davison’s death drew attention and made some, at least, think about the injustice of refusing the franchise to women. It seems to me, however, that, brave as she was,  to talk of her as a martyr is to misunderstand the nature of martyrdom.

A martyr bears witness through his or her death to the truth of the Church’s faith in Christ. Death is not sought; it is accepted as the necessary consequence of belief, and it is important to note that it is the Church’s belief, rather than the individual’s, which is affirmed through the sacrifice of life. That is why so many graces flow from martyrdom. The Church has her martyrs in every age, but those we remember from the first centuries often have a peculiar sweetness and charm frequently at odds with the horrific tortures to which they were subjected. Justin himself is an attractive figure. A chance conversation with an old man transformed him from a Stoic into a Christian philosopher: ‘A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do.’

Truth, joy, sacrifice: they are surely a form of witness we can all strive to emulate.

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Of Nuns and Sisters

Would you object to a little light-heartedness on this wet and windy Friday in Lent? Admittedly, my purpose is serious, but one does not always need a sledge-hammer to make a point.

One of the oddities of the world today is that people talk about nuns when they mean religious sisters and about sisters when they mean nuns. We are indeed all sisters, but not all of us are nuns. Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter (well, not to me, anyway); but there are occasions when precision of meaning matters very much — when dealing with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at the Vatican, for example, or applying the relevant canon law to such things as vows, enclosure (cloister) and the like.

One of the main differences between nuns and sisters is that we nuns are useless. We are ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’, so we don’t teach, nurse, do social work or anything else that the world values. We may write, speak or do things online or within the enclosure (cloister) of the monastery, such as receiving guests or, as in our case, running an audio book creation and postal loan service for the blind, but our lives are largely hidden from public view. We may run small businesses to support ourselves and fund our charitable outreach, but again, they must be such as can be carried on from within the enclosure. Nuns usually wear habits of varying degrees of antiquity (both senses), sigh over their mountains of unanswered correspondence (no time, no time) and suck their teeth whenever they hear the phrase ‘the good sisters’ or are asked ‘what do you do all day?’.

Religious sisters, by contrast, are very useful indeed. They are out in the thick of things and can be found virtually anywhere, working with the poor and marginalised, the druggies and the drop-outs, teaching at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, specialising in law, physics or what you will. They don’t always wear habits and are often unfairly criticized for not doing so. In this country they tend not to have a very political profile, but elsewhere they challenge existing power structures, bring compassion to death row prisoners and act as a salutary thorn in the side of the establishment. We in the cloister admire them very much: they do what we couldn’t, and we pray for them daily. They in their turn are very supportive of us.

The Church needs both nuns and sisters. It is not that the nuns pray and the sisters act. They represent two vital aspects of the Church, and of course they overlap, are complementary, form part of the ‘seamless robe’ that is Catholicism. St Bernard talked of Mary and Martha as sisters, of the same stock, with different characters, but both equally members of the same family, both necessary. During this past week we have heard Pope Francis give a very clear call to service. That service can only be sustained if it is rooted in prayer and sacrifice, and I am confident that the Church’s nuns and sisters will respond whole-heartedly. Please pray for us all.

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Good Friday: the Moment of Truth

Yesterday’s events are still uppermost in our minds. We are weary with watching through the night. The morning brings no relief, only the prospect of a long trudge through hot and dusty streets, then out to Golgotha and the final act of this tragedy.

Today is a day of emptiness, when we are numbed by the experience of suffering and loss. We long for it all to be over, and yet we don’t. Every nerve is stretched to breaking-point, but we do not want it to end, because we know it must end in death. Yet the death we await is not the death of Jesus only, it is the death of all our false ideas of him, our shabby equivocations, our casual accommodations to ‘the spirit of the age’, our self-made religion. The Crucifixion of Christ is a moment of truth for all of us.

The Cross shows us, better than anything else, that God’s ways are not our ways. Our idea of him is too little, too monochrome. We try to edit out the bits we find uncongenial, reducing God to a kind of wishy-washy compassion that cannot encompass the reality of the compassion displayed on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross challenges us to rethink all our ideas, not just those we label ‘religious’. Painful though that is, it is not negative for we have his assurance that ‘the truth shall make you free’. Although we cling to our illusions, deep down we do desire that truth, that freedom, we just lack the courage to be free.

We shall never find the courage we need within ourselves. Only grace can work the miracle. Today, as we look into the eyes of the dying Christ we know ourselves for what we are: grubby, smudged with sin, yes, but loved infinitely, tenderly, more than life itself. Without us, he will not; without him, we cannot; with him everything is possible.

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The Triumph of the Cross 2011

I have written so much about this feast in the past that I am in danger of boring myself, so this morning just a slightly quirky thought to share with you. For Benedictines, this feast, like the Cross it commemorates, is a hinge, a turning-point in the year, for it marks the beginning of the winter fast and our preparation for Easter. It is a case of liturgy and observance making explicit a theological truth we might not otherwise understand. The Cross stands throughout the ages and the world turns on its axis. It is the pivot of human history.

We are constantly reminded of the cosmic significance of what happened on Calvary by the crosses and crucifixes in our churches and chapels. Is there any difference between the two, apart from the obvious one of having, or not having, a figure of Christ? Our processional cross here in the monastery has a corpus, a representation of Christ crucified. Should the community ever have an abbess, she will wear a pectoral cross without any figure on it. Why the difference?

Our processional cross reminds us that Christ is our leader. Where he goes, we follow. It wouldn’t really matter whether we used a plain cross or a crucifix; the symbolism is the same. The plain abbatial cross, on the other hand, represents an older tradition in the Church. It implies a close identification between the wearer and the sacrifice of Calvary. As we sing on Good Friday, Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit: Venite adoremus. ‘Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world: come, let us adore.’ We reverence the wood of the Cross, the actual physical instrument of the Lord’s death; and our future abbess, mindful that she ‘holds the place of Christ’ in the monastery as St Benedict enjoins, must identify herself with the sacrificial act of our Saviour. She must become, so to say, one with the Crucified, prepared to lay down her life for the community she serves. She must be the hinge of the community, as the Cross is the hinge of the world.

The Triumph of the Cross is a great and beautiful feast. It is also one which challenges us to the core of our being. Christian service cannot be other than sacrificial, prepared to give everything, even life itself.

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Vocation: the Personal and Communal Dimensions

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.

For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.

None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.

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Thirsting for Life

John 4 is one of my favourite gospels. I love the feistiness of the Samaritan woman, the way in which she engages in dialogue with Jesus, neatly side-stepping some awkward questions but responding to him with generosity and increasing frankness until finally she can set off to tell everyone about him. There is such energy and vividness in the way in which the evangelist presents a quite complicated theological statement. One can have great fun tracing the significance of the five husbands, the five baals, and different elements of the story. Yet it was not this that made me think as I read the gospel at Vigils this morning but the simple fact of Jesus’ thirst.

The next time we shall hear of Jesus’ thirsting will be as he hangs on the Cross. Thirst is worse than hunger: a more insistent, more urgent need. The idea of God thirsting for our love so intensely that he is prepared to give the life of his Son is deeply shocking, enough, surely, to shock us out of our complacency. No? The sad fact is that we have heard the story so often, seen the image of the Crucified One so frequently, that we have become a little deadened to its impact. This morning’s gospel is all about life. Maybe we need to listen to it with fresh ears.

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