Mercy and Forgiveness — 1 (to be continued)

Most of us are very happy to have mercy shown us and to be forgiven when we are conscious of wrong-doing. We are not always quite so happy to show mercy to others or forgive them their failings when we are the injured party, and least of all are we happy when mercy and forgiveness appear to be poured out indiscriminately on those we think unworthy of it. Perhaps I exaggerate and everyone reading theses pages is already much more saintly than I am, I can only speak from my own experience.

When Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, to begin on 8 December 2015 and end on 20 November 2016, there was some muttering in certain quarters. First of all, the whole concept of a Holy Year is widely misunderstood. The first was proclaimed in 1300, but its origins are much older since it is a form of the Jubilee, and I cannot do better than quote from the document which ushered in the Great Jubilee of the Millennium (2000):

A Holy Year, or Jubilee is a great religious event. It is a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin, it is a year of reconciliation between adversaries, of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace with our brothers and sisters. A Jubilee year is above all the year of Christ, who brings life and grace to humanity.

The origin of the Christian Jubilee goes back to Bible times. The Law of Moses prescribed a special year for the Jewish people: ‘You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim the liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the un-gathered corn, you will not gather the untrimmed vine. The jubilee is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.’ (Leviticus 25, 10-14) The trumpet with which this particular year was announced was a goat’s horn called Yobel in Hebrew, and the origin of the word jubilee. The celebration of this year also included the restitution of land to the original owners, the remission of debts, the liberation of slaves and the land was left fallow. In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the One who brings the old Jubilee to completion, because he has come to ‘preach the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2). . . .

The Jubilee is called Holy Year, not only because its begins, is marked, and ends with solemn holy acts, but also because its purpose is to encourage holiness of life. It was actually convoked to strengthen faith, encourage works of charity and brotherly communion within the Church and in society and to call Christians to be more sincere and coherent in their faith in Christ, the only Saviour.

A Jubilee can be ‘ordinary’ if it falls after the set period of years, and ‘extraordinary’ when it is proclaimed for some outstanding event. . . . The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year. There have been two extraordinary jubilees in [the twentieth century]: 1933 proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption and 1983 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark 1950 years since the Redemption carried out by Christ through his Death and Resurrection in the year 33. In 1987 Pope John Paul II also proclaimed a Marian year.

So, why the fuss about proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy?

Saying he has ‘thought often about how the Church can make more evident its mission of being a witness of mercy,’ the Pope announced the new Jubilee Year during a Lenten penitential service in St Peter’s Basilica.

‘I am convinced that the whole Church — that has much need to receive mercy because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. . . . Let us not forget that God pardons and God pardons always, the Pope continued.  ‘Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness. We entrust it as of now to the Mother of Mercy, because she looks to us with her gaze and watches over our way . . . Our penitential way, our way of open hearts, during a year to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.’

The Pope also said he wants the Church to live the upcoming holy year ‘in the light’ of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke: ‘Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.’

Part of the problem, of course, is that some people think Pope Francis too soft on matters they regard as central to their understanding of Catholicism. Part of the problem is confusion about the very meaning of mercy and forgiveness. What do all those Resurrection gospels where Jesus confers the power to forgive sin really mean?

We have to begin with a little exegesis of the language and concepts underlying the gospel. Biblical Hebrew has two closely related words which are sometimes translated in the same way. In the first place there is hesed, which denotes God’s unfailing loving kindness to his people. It expresses God’s fidelity to his covenant with Israel, his bride. See, for example, the references in Hosea 2.18 and Isaiah 54.5. It is a word that contains overtones of tenderness, love and strength,  which the scriptures often link with experience of morning. We awaken to God’s loving fidelity which will accompany us through the day, e.g. Ps. 142.8

In the morning let me know your love (hesed)
for I put my trust in you.
make me know the way I should walk
to you I lift up my soul. (trans. Grail)

There is also the word racham, which corresponds more closely to mercy or compassion in English. The differences can be seen more clearly in these sentences:

In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness (hesed) I will have compassion (racham) on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer. (Is. 54.8)

For the mountains may be removed and the hills may be shaken, but my loving kindness (hesed) will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord, who has compassion (racham) on you. (Is. 54.10)

The Lord’s loving kindnesses (hesed) indeed never cease, for his compassions (racham) never fail. (Lam. 3.22)

The Septuagint (Greek Bible) usually translates the word hesed as eleos, while the Vulgate (Latin Bible) usually renders it as misericordia, a word which links ‘mercy’ with ‘heart’. The fundamental idea to grasp, however, is that hesed, God’s loving kindness, is sheer gift — completely undeserved but bestowed on us from the first moment of creation and tenderly, faithfully, strongly maintained thereafter. Exodus proclaims the God who is rich in love and fidelity at the very moment the people of Israel have broken their covenant with the Lord. He goes on being faithful when we have failed to be. (cf Ex. 34.6) It is, ultimately, fidelity to a relationship that God has called into being, and in likening it to a marriage bond, the scriptures stress both the obligations it imposes and the huge dignity conferred on us by God.

When we come to the New Testament, mercy and forgiveness come to the fore. God sees our distress and weakness, like that of the straying sheep, and has compassion on us. It is the love of a parent for a child, a tenderness that can never be completely reciprocated. We cannot earn it, we cannot deserve it, it is simply lavished upon us. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post on St Anselm (I hope), connecting mercy and forgiveness with the idea of indebtedness may have blunted our appreciation of what is really going on. We repent of sin, that which destroys (mortal sin) or impairs (venial sin) the relationship with God, because we have been forgiven, not because we seek forgiveness. But because that statement may read to some as heretical, I’ll attempt to explain more fully tomorrow.

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The Allure of Evil

For Catholics in England and Wales, today is not Hallowe’en because the Solemnity of All Saints has been transferred to Sunday. That means I do not feel obliged to repeat any of the things I have already said on the subject, although, if you are interested, the Search Box on the right will lead you to them: just try searching All Saints and Hallowe’en. This is, however, a time of year when what we might call occult practices seem to attract more attention. Some are just plain silly: fake paganism of the most tawdry kind. Others are more serious and some, some are downright evil.

If you have been fortunate enough never to have come into contact with real, diabolical evil, you will probably smile, shake your head in disbelief, and make a few mild jokes about excitable types getting worked up over nothing. Those who have come into contact with evil will probably respond more quietly. Evil is, by its very nature, seductive. It has a false glamour. It never presents itself as what it truly is. Remember how Marlowe’s Faustus wanted to see evil in the guise of a holy friar rather than as it was, in and of itself? That is true of all of us. We do not want to see evil for what it is; we do not want to see sin for what it is.

I said yesterday that being a good sinner meant falling down and getting up again. No matter how far we fall, God’s grace is always beneath us. We can never fall beyond the reach of God’s mercy and forgiveness unless we deliberately and knowingly reject Him. Tonight and tomorrow, lots of people will be unthinkingly celebrating everything from fairytale goblins to the devil himself. A few will be sucked into a world of evil. Praying for those who have deliberately and knowingly chosen evil is dangerous; but we can all safely pray for the protection of those who are, so to say, innocents abroad, that they may escape the allure of evil and be brought, safe and sound, to the great feast of light that is All Saints.

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How to Be a Good Sinner

Sometimes my readers make me feel knee-high to a grasshopper. They manage to lead lives of great generosity and holiness in the midst of circumstances I would find unbearable. Here I am in the monastery, well-fed (too well-fed, to be honest), surrounded by books and music and gardens, with a handsome hound (a.k.a. Bro Duncan PBGV) and a very holy nun (a.k.a. Quietnun) to cheer and chivvy me by turns, the liturgy and sacraments of the Catholic Church to inspire me and the Rule of St Benedict to guide me, yet I still don’t quite make the grade. I fail as often as I try. I am a sinner through and through. And that’s not a little bit of hyperbole, like that of the Spaniard who had ‘El Gran Peccador’ carved on his tombstone, it is the simple truth.

Can anything redeem that bald statement, or is it all negative? I think being a sinner, and knowing and acknowledging that one is a sinner, means one is open to grace, which is what really matters. Our very need cries out to God for help, and we know he will never spurn our cry. I like to quote the example of the Desert Father who described his life as falling down and getting up again. To be a good sinner all we need do is follow his example, trusting in the mercy of God and asking his help to amend for the future. Grace will work its miracle in us, if we allow it.

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Envy: Left Out of the Party

Today’s the day when lots of Christian folk who are enthusiastic users of social media and the internet will feel left out of the party. They will not be at CNMAC13, the Christian New Media and Awards Conference taking place in London. Having attended a couple of conferences in the past, I know it will be an excellent opportunity to learn from others, share ideas and generally be encouraged. So, we are who are not there physically will be doing our best to be there virtually, following the #cnmac13 on Twitter and any subsequent blogs and videos. But we shall still feel ‘left out’, and not only because we shall not be meeting old friends or making new ones in the intervals of talks and workshops. Whether we like it or not, we shall be in the grip of envy.

Envy is a dewy-eyed old hound in comparison with the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Envy desires what another has, whereas jealousy would rather destroy what another has if it cannot be its own. Envy longs to share; jealousy will brook no rival. The danger, of course, is that envy may easily become jealousy if allowed too free a rein. That is why the psalmist reminds us that our every desire is before God, who is constantly scrutinizing heart and mind — not to catch us out, but because he cares about us and wants us to live free and joyful lives. The jealous person is not free and not joyful: he/she lives in a shrunken universe bounded on all sides by self. But we who are ‘merely’ envious are not let off the hook entirely. The roots of the word ‘envy’ are to be found in the Latin for ‘looking maliciously’ and ‘begrudging’. Malice and begrudging are not attractive qualities. They lead to sin, so let us be on our guard. There is an even greater party none of us would wish to be left out of.

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Sexual Abuse and the English Benedictine Congregation

Although I am no longer a member of the English Benedictine Congregation†, it is with sadness and a sense of deep shame that I have read of case after case of the sexual abuse of children and youths perpetrated by monks of the English Congregation.  As far as I know, no cloistered nun, whether a member of the EBC or any other Order or Congregation, has ever been accused, let alone found guilty, of abuse; so why the monks? I know that many monks have asked themselves that question and are just as baffled as I am. Shouldn’t we all be asking that question as well as setting up expensive, and as far as I can see, not necessarily effective safeguarding procedures?* Don’t we need to understand how such things come about, as well as trying to ensure that they never happen again?

I think most people recognize that abuse is a very complex subject with no simple explanation. We can argue that monks have opportunity: the schools and parishes they run bring them into contact with young people. But most people in contact with youngsters do not commit abuse. We can argue that there was insufficient screening of candidates for the monastic life, or insufficient supervision of those who were professed. Both are probably true, but there will always be those who somehow evade detection. We can argue that the monastic form of consecrated single chastity is unlivable, but there are many who have lived, and continue to live, it faithfully and generously. Ultimately, we are faced with the fact of sin.

Sin is always a personal choice, no matter how much we try to blame someone else or the circumstances of our life. The monk who does not live the form of consecrated single chastity to which he is vowed, who abuses another, has chosen to do so. He is responsible for his own actions; and as the gospel says, it would be better for him to have a millstone round his neck and be thrown into the sea. Anyone who listened to the men recounting the story of their experiences at Fort Augustus will have no difficulty recognizing the terrible consequences of sin— both for those who were abused and for good-living members of the monastic community. No matter that many boys enjoyed their schooldays at the Fort and have nothing but good memories. No matter that most monks do live godly lives. For those who suffered at the hands of monks, and for the brethren of those who did the abusing, there is only sadness, shame, and a pain that will never go away.

How do we put right so grave a wrong? I am not convinced that money is the answer, nor am I sure to what extent the monks of today can be expected to compensate people for what happened thirty, forty or fifty years ago. Yet I am sure of this. If Benedictines are part of the problem (as we undoubtedly are) we must also be part of the solution. As a nun, I know that my own contribution will be mainly at the level of prayer and personal sacrifice. The best antidote to what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called ‘this filth in the Church’ is holiness of life and charity. Some will argue that is just more airy-fairy nonsense from the Church, a typically wishy-washy response, showing how far removed from reality we all are. I’d argue the converse. It is precisely because each of us knows we must face God daily in prayer, must live our whole lives under his scrutiny, that such a thing is possible. We cannot change the past, but we can allow grace to heal and redeem. Pray God we do.

† The Benedictine Order is, strictly speaking, not an Order as commonly understood. The monasteries of monks and nuns are autonomous, although many are grouped into congregations or federations, e.g the English Congregation, the Solesmes Congregation. Others, like us, come under the jurisdiction of the local diocesan bishop.

*In common with every other organization in the Church, we pay an annual fee to support the Safeguarding procedures now in place, widely regarded as among the most rigorous in the world, and undertake training, etc,  to try to ensure that abuse never occurs. Nevertheless, no system is infallible.

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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.

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The Menace of Holy Week

Yesterday we read the story of Mary’s anointing the feet of Jesus at Bethany; today  the story of Judas’s betrayal at the Last Supper. Just like all those photographs of the Titanic setting out on its first and last voyage, there is a sense of impending loss, of a strange and violent ending.

Read at other times, the beauty of Mary’s gesture, the extravagance of that pound of pure nard poured over Jesus’ feet, the sheer innocence of her love and generosity are completely disarming. Read in Holy Week and the story is full of forboding: she is anointing Jesus as a preparation for his death, without knowing she is doing so. Likewise, the story of the Last Supper. At other times, we concentrate on Jesus’ gift of himself and rejoice, but today we hear the words ‘Night had fallen’ and know it is night in the soul as well as in the sky: Jesus is about to be betrayed by one he loves, and that betrayal will lead to torture and death.

I wonder what was in Judas’s mind. Did he know what he was doing? Was he a bad man, or was he merely portrayed as such by the early Church as they struggled to make sense of their experience? For me, the real menace of the story comes from thinking how easily it could be you or I making the same mistake as Judas — thinking we could force Jesus into proclaiming who he was and ushering in the Kingdom. As we know, Jesus did proclaim who he was, and his death and resurrection have ushered in the Kingdom, but not in the way Judas expected.

Today, if we can find a few minutes’ silence, it is good to reflect on Judas and pray that we may be kept safe from sin. Later this Week we shall see the duel between good and evil which took place, once for all, on the Cross, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that we can escape a similar contest in our own lives. ‘Deliver us from evil’ is not a prayer to be said lightly, but we can be confident that we shall be heard. Evil’s triumph is only transitory; death is never the end of the story.

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How to be a Good Sinner

Good people have a problem with sin. They are against it. The trouble is they are so busy trying to avoid sin they never take time to consider what it is and how it affects our lives. The more compassionate tend to minimize sin, knowing that God is all-merciful and all-forgiving, while the more rigorous, knowing that God is all-knowing and all-just, consign everyone, themselves possibly included, to hell. I personally think it is much better to try to be a good sinner.

A good sinner is one who recognizes the enormity of sin: who can look at a crucifix and say, I did that to you, but still you forgive me; who can admit that even their ‘best’ actions are not without an admixture of rather questionable motives; who knows that life consists in falling down and getting up again . . . simul peccator et iustus.

Let the last word be Phineas Fletcher’s, for I think he captured better than any the sense of the wound sin deals, the way it offends the infinite holiness of God, and the repentance wrung from the heart:

DROP, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace:
Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.
In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 1

Over the next few days I shall be writing a series of posts about St Benedict’s teaching on Lent. Today’s is concerned with the first few sentences of RB 49, On the Observance of Lent, which read as follows:

The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten quality; but since few are capable of that, we therefore urge the whole community during these days of Lent to lead lives of surpassing purity, and in this holy season wash away the negligences of other times. That may be properly done by abstaining from all sinful habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.

Let’s unpack that a little. Monastic life is a life of continual conversion, of turning back to the Lord, changing for the better, living a life of repentance in the sense of metanoia. Indeed one of our vows, conversatio morum, is precisely a vow to undertake this turning to the Lord every day of our lives. It is the dynamic of Benedictine life. What does Lent add to this? Surely it is the extra focus provided by a period of more concentrated effort.

Benedict accepts that we fall away from our ideals, that we become negligent. His remedy is to help us regain our initial fervour. The first thing he asks of us is a profound purity. It is sad that this beautiful word has come to be associated with sexual purity alone. In origin, it means much more: a focus upon God that is free from any contamination or distraction. It is concentrated energy, with a warmth and generosity about it that our narrower meaning does not really convey. So, Benedict asks us to focus on God and our search for him in community in a way that is truly joyous, and the tools he gives us are those we shall be exploring in more depth later this week

  • abstaining from sin
  • prayer with tears
  • reading
  • compunction of heart
  • self denial

Here I will just say a word about the first, abstaining from sin. We all know what sin is and how attractive we find it, despite our best intentions. The problem with sin is not only that it draws us away from God but that it quickly becomes habitual. Before we think about what we should ‘do’ for Lent in terms of what we should give up or take on, we need to look at our lives very honestly and ask ourselves if we have fallen into a habit of sin. If we have, it is there that our Lent should begin: with an attempt to root out sin from our lives. That is far more important than giving up sugar in our tea or saying one of the penitential psalms every day. It is the difference between life and death, but most of us are cowards when it comes to acknowledging our sins. That is why Benedict urges us elsewhere to begin every good act with prayer. To see our lives for what they are, to be able to bear the knowledge that act of seeing confers, we need the grace of the Holy Spirit. We can be sure that grace will never be withheld from anyone who asks. In other words, we can be sure that God will accompany us on every step of our Lenten journey.

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Praying for the Sick

The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes prompts a few thoughts about praying for the sick. What do we think we are doing?

First of all, we are obviously obeying biblical injunctions to pray for the sick that they may recover; but what are we doing when recovery is unlikely: for example, when the person for whom we are praying is very old and tired and wants to go home to God? I think prayer for the sick in such situations is praying on behalf of the sick person. Even a bad cold can make it difficult for us to do the things we normally do, and prayer is no exception. It can be a thousand times worse when we have a serious illness that exhausts us or makes us so ‘down’ that our spiritual lives go blank. It is then that knowing others are praying for us, that the communion of saints is holding us up before God, may yield a grain of comfort and encouragement. Finally, when we pray for the sick, we pray for ourselves. There is none of us who is not in need of healing, but most of us don’t know our own sickness or refuse to acknowledge it.

Today, when we pray for the sick and those who care for them, let us not forget to pray for ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation in Christ.

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