The Feast of the Visitation

The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, Chartres Cathedral
The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, Chartres Cathedral

When Paul VI moved the feast of the Visitation to 31 May, he ensured that May, ‘Mary’s month’, would finally have a feast of Our Lady, and what a beautiful feast it is!

There is something very moving about Mary’s making the difficult journey to visit her kinswoman when she was herself pregnant. Equally moving is Elizabeth’s amazed and humble greeting, ‘Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?’ We tend to think of the Visitation as the feast of the Magnificat, that glorious canticle of praise that fell from Mary’s lips, but perhaps for us it is Elizabeth’s question that matters. Why should the saints, chief of whom is Mary, bother themselves with us?

The Visitation is yet another reminder of the strength of the communion of saints, of the bonds of prayer and mutual concern that bind us together. The communion of saints is a reality here and now as well as hereafter. When times are hard, there is a tendency to put ourselves first, arguing that we cannot afford to be generous to others. Some British charities are experiencing the truth of this as donations decline and the work they do for for the poor or disadvantaged has to end. Today we have the example of Mary and Elizabeth to encourage us: we can and must help others and in so doing we may help more than we know. We must be saints for others.

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The Forgotten Apostle

St Matthias doesn’t make the headlines very often. Ask the average churchgoer and eyes will tend to glaze, ‘Um, er, didn’t he replace Judas or something?’ Indeed he did. Matthias’s election shows us the early Church in action, acknowledging the importance of the Twelve and claiming both the right and the duty of continuing the succession. Matthias’s fidelity, his having been with the disciples from the beginning, his obscurity and his humility, are tremendously appealing. I made profession of vows on his feast and have always found him, and the gospel of the day, John 15, inspiring. On the eve of Good Shepherd Sunday, he is a good saint to ask for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

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Monday Morning Tease

Tomorrow, Feast of the Chair of St Peter, we shall be making an important community announcement and on Tuesday, 1 March, we shall be launching a new online service. All Deo Volente, of course; but if you are interested, please keep an eye on this blog and on our web site at http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk.

In the meantime, I have been fascinated to learn that monkeys apparently suffer from self-doubt, just like human beings (see http://bbc.in/hz0z7y). I can’t help wondering how today’s saint, St Peter Damian, who was such a keen reformer (especially of clerical morals), would have reacted to that, had he known.

Peter Damian is sometimes judged harshly by those who see only his zeal and none of his compassion. He was orphaned early and never lost a sense of identification with the poor. As a Camaldolse (hermit Benedictine) his form of life was strict, but he was a gifted peacemaker and his love of the Church, though sorely tried during some of the sixteen papacies through which he lived, never left him. He is widely credited with having died of overwork, which is not a virtue but a measure of his obedience, which was heroic. The scandals of the last few years have reminded us how much we need another Peter Damian, fearless in speaking the truth, relentless in urging repentance, absolutely sure of what the Church, at its purest and best, should be. May he pray especially for all our clergy and those charged with their formation.

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Fat and Holy

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico
St Thomas by Fra Angelico

One of the things I love about St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we keep today, is that he breaks the stereotype of what we expect a holy man or woman to be. For a start, he didn’t look ascetic. In fact, he was so podgy that a little bit of the refectory table had to be cut out to accommodate the saintly tummy. His entry into the Dominicans had been in defiance of his family (who expected him to become a Benedictine) and only after a prolonged period of parental “house arrest” which ended with an undignified exit via a window at night (he was obviously thinner then than he later became).

Thomas’ early academic career was not crowned with success. His first theological disputation met with failure, although he himself prophesied that one day “the dumb ox” would fill the earth with the sound of his bellowing. The next years were filled with study and teaching as he moved from Paris to Cologne, then Naples, Orvieto and Rome and back to Paris again. It was an exhausting schedule, filled with intellectual activity, and brought Thomas into conflict with many.

In 1272 he had an experience of God which he records only obliquely. It made such an impact on him, however, that he abandoned his scholarly work, remarking that all he had done “seemed like straw” to him. He was on his way to the Second Council of Lyon when he struck his head while riding. He rested for a while at Monte Cassino (where his family had once hoped he would be abbot), struggled on to the Cistercians at Fossanova and there died on 7 March 1274, talking of the Song of Songs.

In 1270 Thomas had been implicitly condemned by the archbishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. In 1277, when he was no longer alive to defend himself, twenty of his propositions were formally condemned by bishop Etienne and led to an eclipse of both his reputation and his work. Fifty years after his death, John XXII declared him a saint and in 1567 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Even though he wasn’t as much quoted as Duns Scotus at the Council of Trent, his great Summa Theologica was placed on the altar alongside the Bible and the Decretals.

So, tubby, rebellious, argumentative and busy-busy-busy, yes; but a man of deep prayer and great humility who for love of God “studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught”. He is patron saint of all Catholic educational establishments.

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Obedience, Ordinariate and Beatification

I should like to say something about the Ordinariate, though that is to invite another brow-bashing, and something about the beatification of John Paul II, though others may well have said it better, but today is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, disciples of St Benedict, and I cannot pass them by, though I hope to discover a link between all three. Bear with me.

In Book II of the Dialogues, St Gregory presents Maurus and Placid as types of the perfect disciple, the obedience of the one complementing the innocence of the other. Both were offered to St Benedict as child oblates, to be brought up in monastic life. One story tells how Placid fell into a lake and was carried away by the current. Benedict became aware of the impending tragedy and ordered Maurus to save his fellow monk. In obedience to his abbot’s command, therefore, Maurus walked upon the water as though upon dry ground and dragged Placid to the shore. Benedict attributed the miraculous rescue to his disciple’s obedience, Maurus to his abbot’s holiness.

As any medievalist worth her salt will tell you, this little story is charged with meaning. It shows us a kind of trinity of listening. Benedict was praying when he learned of his disciple’s distress. It was how he became aware of the danger Placid was in and why he was able to act, in obedience to the voice of the Spirit. Maurus had no such supernatural aid, but he obeyed the voice of his abbot, in whom he saw the person of Christ commanding him (cfr RB 5). Placid, plucked from the water, said he saw the abbot’s cowl about him, bearing him up so that he could be saved: the good of obedience flowing back to him from whom it issued.

So how does this link up with either the beatification of John Paul II or the Ordinariate? Let’s take the pope first. In life, John Paul II bore the proudest of all earthly titles, Servant of the Servants of God. What is a servant if not one who obeys, who listens attentively? The Servant of the Servants of God must listen through a clamour of human voices to what he hopes and trusts is the voice of God. In death John Paul has become simply the Servant of God. No human voice can now disturb the clarity of his hearing. That is why we can invoke his prayers with confidence that they will be heard.

And the Ordinariate? Today three former bishops of the Church of England are to be ordained as Catholic priests. The way in which this is being presented in the media as an act of disaffection or, worse, defection, is disturbing. No one can really know the heart of another. Colophon has said many a time that to act for a negative reason is to act for no reason at all. Now iBenedictines echoes that stream of thought. There is only one reason for being a Catholic, for being ordained: because one believes heart and soul that it is the right thing to do, that nothing and no one matters as much as that voice of the Lord urging and insisting, “This is the way. Follow it!” Anything less will not do.

Let us pray today for all Benedictines, for all who are being ordained and for all who find obedience a struggle, which is to say every man-jack (or woman-jill) of us.

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St Benet Biscop

St Benet Biscop
St Benet Biscop

This little miniature of St Benet Biscop shows him holding a church. A typical medieval motif, you might think; except that this church is not one of the monastic churches he built in Northumbria but is meant to represent St Peter’s in Rome. Benet is an early example of the strong link between the English Church and the papacy. Even today, we have an annual Peter Pence collection which traces its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and is a mark of England’s special regard for the successor of St Peter.

Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible is a production of the Jarrow scriptorium (it actually lacks the Book of Baruch, but that is a mere bagatelle compared with what it does contain).

It is not this, however, that made him a saint. Contemporaries remarked on his patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is honoured as having admitted the genius of Benedict of Nursia. There was something recognizably English about Benet in both his ability and his piety.

Bede’s description of Benet should inspire us all. He describes him as being “full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.” Many of our Catholic “opinion makers”, bloggers and the like, seem to have forgotten that in their eagerness to score points off one another or advance their own view of what others should do. St Benet Biscop’s example should encourage us to lay aside all sniping and carping to practise the good zeal which alone builds up.

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