Lenten Simplicity

Yesterday I read through one or two suggestions for Lent that left me reeling. I really don’t think Lent is about giving up or taking on more, as such; rather, it’s about seeking God with more intensity of focus than we manage at other times. To do that we need simplicity— and we have become such complicated creatures that simplicity is more and more alien to us. That is why our lives need to take on a plainness they often lack. Our food is simpler and less copious; our prayer is simpler, too, reverting to more ancient forms, especially as we enter Holy Week. Our compassion — almsgiving — has, or should have, a wider spread; and all because we seek the Lord. Love is our motive, and Love himself our reward.

When Jesus went out into the desert it wasn’t to do anything complicated or self-serving. He went into the desert to simplify his life and commune with his Father. I don’t suppose he wasted time wondering whether he had fasted enough, or prayed enough, (and I’m pretty sure he didn’t read any books about either!). The one thing we know about his desert experience is that his love of his Father grew and enabled him to reject the temptations of Satan. More than that, when he came out of the desert he plunged immediately into that life of loving service of others which led him ultimately to the Cross. Our Lent will lead us along the same path. All we have to do is follow it . . . with great simplicity.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Two Promises: One Hope

Today’s Mass readings (Isaiah 4.2–6; Psalm 121; Matt 8.5–11) allow us to glimpse what the fulfilment of our Advent hope will be. In Isaiah we see the fulfilment of the Messianic promise and the blessing that will come to Israel:

 . . . over all, the glory of the Lord
will be a canopy and a tent
to give shade by day from the heat,
refuge and shelter from the storm and the rain.

and in Matthew, the fulfilment of the promise to the gentiles and our shared eschatalogical hope:

 . . . ‘I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven.’

These are indeed great promises, and as the word ‘promise’ indicates (pro=forward, mittere=send), they are dynamic, they send us forward. They launch us out into the unknown towards the hope of salvation. Advent should shake us out of our complacency, make us look afresh at our lives and hear the call to holiness God makes to each of us. It will not be without cost. Advent is not a penitential season in the way that Lent is penitential, but it should be a time of great simplicity and most of us have forgotten how to be simple. There are just twenty-three days for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord this Christmas, to learn again the art of simplicity. We need to be watchful lest our opportunity slip by:

Give us the grace, Lord, to be ever on the watch for Christ your Son.
When he comes and knocks at our door,
let him find us alert in prayer,
joyfully proclaiming his glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Generosity: Pure but not Simple

Today is one of those days with multiple layers of meaning. We remember that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War for Civilisation which was to end all wars officially came to an end. We also remember St Martin of Tours, himself a former soldier like so many monks, but remembered today chiefly for one incident — the sharing of his cloak with a beggar.

I once summed up the secret of St Martin’s hold on the popular imagination in words that earned me a thorough scolding from some readers:

The fact that we still remember St Martin of Tours so long after his death may provide a few clues about how to attain long-lasting fame. It helps to have a good biographer (Sulpicius Severus) and to have been on the winning side in some historically important struggle (Martin championed Trinitarianism against Arianism). It is also useful to have done something novel (Martin is generally credited with being the founder of the first monastery in Gaul, Marmoutier, and introduced a rudimentary parish system to the diocese of Tours). It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a reputation for mercy (Martin did his best to save the Priscillianists from being put to death and the story of his sharing his cloak with a beggar has passed into legend). But the most certain way of ensuring that one is remembered is to seek not to be remembered at all and become a saint instead. Easy peasy really.

Perhaps I should have kept the smile out of my writing and concentrated on Martin’s generosity instead, because I think it is generosity that connects both Armistice Day and the saint. The selflessness of those who gave their lives for freedom is a theme many have recalled over the week-end; the lived generosity of day-to-day will be the theme of many a gospel homily this morning. Generous people are immensely attractive. They are big-hearted, kind, warm. They never misuse their gifts to make others feel small or inferior. They never praise one in order to make another feel slighted. They are great encouragers, even if inside they don’t feel quite as happy or confident as they appear on the outside. They remind us that generosity is a mark of the pure of heart, but attaining that purity isn’t as simple as it may seem.

Note:
Do read Tanya Marlow’s blog post for Saturday afternoon (link opens in new window), when she reflected on the CNMAC Blogger of the Year award, for which she, like me, was a finalist. It is a beautiful example of the kind of generosity I am writing about. Her blog is uniformly excellent: add it to your list of must-reads. You can find a list of the winners and runners-up of the CNMAC awards here.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Ash Wednesday 2013

Ash Wednesday, marked for most of us with a smudge of ashes on the forehead (or in the case of nuns, sprinkled atop the veil), is a reminder of our creation ‘from the dust of the earth’, a symbol of the cleansing from sin we hope to undergo. Ash plays so many roles in our lives, both figurative and literal: it nourishes our crops, is a component of some of our soaps and is the stuff our hopes turn to when they are disappointed. Ash Wednesday, however, is more than all these: a day apart, a day of prayer and fasting, a day of returning to the Lord. The ashes we use were burned from last year’s palms. They remind us that the victory is already won, although we have not yet attained its fullness in our lives.

St Benedict in his Rule prescribes that Vigils, the greatest prayer of the Divine Office, should always begin with the same invitatory, Psalm 94, and its urgent, ‘TODAY, if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ That really is the key to making a good Lent: do not harden your heart, listen out for the voice of the Lord and follow his promptings. It isn’t complicated or difficult, but, like Naaman bathing in the Jordan, its simplicity sometimes affronts our sense of what ought to be. Perhaps we all need to become simpler this Lent. How else shall we turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel?

May your Lent be blessed.

Books of the Bible for Lent
Later today I hope to distribute Lent books to those who asked after I had gone offline last night.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Saying Things Simply

This post is a little experiment. If you look at the attached presentation, do you come away with a clear idea of what we are asking/offering? Can you suggest any improvements? Please click on the link to see the slideshow (I have failed to install a suitable player on the page — something else to work on!)

HTM Presentation

In the meantime, I am starting a campaign to say things simply. This past week-end my blood-pressure has been raised by the number of instances of gobbledegook occurring in ‘official communications’ and even private conversation. Surely, we can say what we mean simply; or is the problem that we are not too sure what we do mean?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail