Monday of Holy Week 2015

Monastic life is sometimes presented in terms of today’s gospel, John 12.1–11: as the jar of nard broken and poured, a scandal to those with a social conscience because, of course, monks and nuns don’t do anything ‘useful’. It is a beautiful analogy and reminds us how close we ought to be to Christ in his Passion; how all-embracing our prayer should be, so that the wideness of our charity wafts abroad as a pure fragrance. But — and it is a very important ‘but’ — that gospel is set alongside the reading from Isaiah 42.1—7 about the Suffering Servant and the bringing of true justice. No matter where we are, no matter what our role in the Church, we ALL have a duty to share in the work of Jesus Christ our Saviour, bringing about a right order — true justice — and in so doing ‘opening the eyes of the blind, setting captives free, releasing those imprisoned in darkness.’

During Holy Week it is easy to live in a kind of bubble, just God and us, if I may put it that way. We think and pray — rightly — about our relationship with God, all that he has done and continues to do for us; but today’s readings remind us that it can never be just God and us. The whole world is involved. The little circle of the monastery; the bigger circle of the Church; both these are part of a bigger circle still, that of the entire globe. As Christians we have been given an immense privilege, but with privilege comes responsibility. We must work tirelessly for true justice — and break that jar of nard over some surprising feet.

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The Cornerstone: O Rex Gentium

Today’s O antiphon is

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, and him for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

It is a little too bald for some people’s liking. We are not often reminded that we are of the earth, earthy. We know we are divided, not just one against another but very often within our own self, but to think of ourselves as clay! As something that can be moulded, refashioned, fired, broken into dust again, that takes some getting used to. Yet the knowledge of our origin can remind us of something else, equally important. We are clay that has been stamped with the image and likeness of God. Our dust has been shared by the Son of God himself. It follows that the whole earth is sacred, every step we take is on holy ground.

I was thinking this morning of the tragedy unfolding  in South Sudan — the unimaginable violence; the destruction of human beings by human malice; the profanation of Christ in the person of those who suffer. It seems such a weak hope to pray for an end to the conflict, but pray we must; and I think today’s O antiphon gives us the words we need. We invoke the King of the Nations, the ruler of the gentiles, the one for whom we long, as the Cornerstone who alone can hold together the warring factions. In his humanity he too is clay, but unlike us poor potsherds, he has been fired to a strength and beauty that surpasses anything we could dream or desire. He comes as Saviour and Redeemer; today we pray that he will have mercy on the people of South Sudan, whom he created in his love and redeemed by the blood of his cross.

If you would like some scripture references to ponder in relation to today’s antiphon, try these: Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 28:16; Haggai 2:8; Ephesians 2:14; Genesis 2:7

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The Problem with Being Perfect

Yesterday I made use of the Twitter hashtag ‘phrases that annoy’ in connection with a mild joke. I was surprised to be taken up by another Twitter user who said that he thought being annoyed was contrary to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. My reply, that it wasn’t the being annoyed that was the problem but what we did with it, and that the Rule is for those who are not yet perfect, probably didn’t cut much ice. However, in the context of today’s reading from the Rule, RB 7.62–70, the twelfth step of humility, I think it highlights a problem we are all familiar with: ‘religious people’, nuns especially, are expected to be ‘perfect’; and when we don’t measure up to the other person’s expectations, there is grave disappointment.

Part of the problem, I suspect, stems from the fact that most people think of perfection as something static whereas I think it is much more a process of endless becoming. Take that being annoyed again. Someone who is unaffected by others, whose temper is always calm and unruffled, is not necessarily exercising any virtue. He/she may simply be ignoring what is happening, refusing to engage, living a rather inhuman life. The person who is annoyed, admits it, tries to turn the annoyance into changing things for the better is, in my view, much more virtuous, much more human. He/she is also likely to experience repeated failure and so will need to keep on reaffirming his/her original choice. That, to my mind, is part of what it means to grow in virtue.

When today Benedict talks of humility existing not only in the monk’s heart but also affecting our outward bearing, he is doing exactly the opposite of what most people expect. Nearly everyone thinks that one begins by practising humility outwardly and letting it percolate inwards. The reverse is true. We start by keeping the fear of God before our eyes and end, if we can ever be said to end, with a humility that is manifest to others — which is why most of us are going to go on appearing very imperfect to others. Moreover, the perfect love of God to which we aspire is not something in which we rest; it is something in which we move and act. For Benedict, the perfection of humility draws us into an ever more demanding observance in which the keynotes are love of Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. Nowhere does he say that we shall be free from temptation or that we shall not fail.

So, as we read Benedict’s words, I think we should take heart. Unless we are quite deliberately rejecting God, the messiness and imperfection of our lives is something to be treasured. If we were perfect, we would have no need of a Saviour; and I, for one, would much rather the Lord Jesus stooped to my need. Our struggles are transformed by grace, but even grace needs a chink or two to find a way in.

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And the World Goes On

Three days of silence at the beginning of Advent and one returns to find the world going on pretty much as usual. People are still murdering one another, hurling insults, performing random acts of kindness and generosity, shivering, smiling and making the best of things. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has. We are closer now to the coming of the Kingdom, both individually and as a community, than we were three days ago. We don’t often advert to the fact that, while time is linear, the point at which it intersects with eternity lies outside time. In this it reflects the nature of Advent itself, which is simultaneously a waiting for something yet to come and a celebration of that which already is.

This morning I was struck by the reference to ‘the hand of the Lord’ in Isaiah 25. It is a phrase we hear again and again in scripture, usually as an allusion to God’s power and might. We are saved by his hand; his hand assures the victory; he does things by his own hand and no other — and if not his hand, then his arm. The arm of the Lord has gotten the victory. The trouble is, all this smashing and grabbing that the hand of the Lord appears to be doing is rather at odds with the hand of the Lord we see at work in the gospels. Jesus is always stretching out his hand to sinners and touching them. There is a gentleness there that corresponds to the beauty of the imagery of our being graven on the palms of his hand (Isaiah 49) and of the Advent season itself. We await a Saviour who has already come. We know what he is like. We know his gentleness and his strength — we have nothing to fear at his hands, nothing at all.

Advent reminds us that the coming of God may be attended with trumpet blasts and manifestations of power, but it may also be attended by something as fragile as a baby’s breathing. The important thing to remember is that he always comes as Saviour. Our business as the world goes on is to stay alert and await God’s coming, as and when he wills.

(In case you didn’t realise, the last three blog posts were written before our Silence Days and scheduled to appear at daily intervals; likewise the daily prayer tweet. The wonders of technology!)

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The Silence of Holy Week

This is a week when words buckle under the strain of meaning. Already yesterday’s hosannas are forgotten. We are left with the dust and anonymous noise of the city streets, the quiet plotting taking place in private rooms. We are moving inexorably forward to the Lord’s Passion. The sense of looming menace increases hour by hour.

These first days of Holy Week are very precious. They are a time for silence and reflection. One of the ways in which we prepare in community is by reading the Last Discourse in John’s Gospel before Compline. As the words echo through the darkness of the oratory, we enter into our own darkness and know our need of a Saviour. Such knowledge does not cast down, because to know our need of God is also to know that he has bowed down to meet it, that throughout the terrible events of this Week we are held by a Love that is infinite and eternal.

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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.

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