Doing a Nun-ly Thing

On Friday, 5 June, feast of St Boniface, apostle of the Germans and Frisians, and incidentally a very sensible monk, blessed with the friendship of many Anglo-Saxon nuns, nearly all of whom ended up as saints, we begin our annual retreat.

All most people are likely to notice is that we are not online, and those who haven’t yet discovered scheduled tweets or Facebook posts probably won’t even notice that. However, because we are not online, we shall seem to many to be inactive, silent, invisible. Some may see this as an opportunity for rest and recuperation (which it is) but we shall also be engaging in the spiritual struggle St Paul writes about. It isn’t fashionable to refer to such things. It isn’t fashionable to admit that sin and malice have warped our understanding of God, or that we need times when we plunge deeper into the mystery of grace; but we shall indeed be praying, or at any rate, trying to pray, with an intensity we can’t sustain at other times. That is, by its very nature, an interior work no one else can know much about. Our silence, our lack of presence, may seem like nun-ly negativity, but they aren’t.

I must not give the impression that we shall emerge from our eight days of retreat with a new and saintly persona. I know I won’t, alas. Exposure to prayer and scripture tends to reveal a lot about ourselves before it shows us anything of God. It can be uncomfortable, disconcerting, thoroughly unpleasant, as our remaining illusions about ourselves are shattered one by one. The moments of light relief, the holiday aspects we also enjoy during the retreat, can never distract for very long from that rather searing experience. Is it any wonder we approach the annual retreat with mixed feelings?

I take heart, however, from one very obvious fact. God is not a destroyer. It may be a long while after the retreat has ended before we see any positive good coming from it, but we can be confident that, however much we may shrink from the self we are forced to confront during the retreat itself, God doesn’t. His love never changes. Doing a nun-ly thing like making a retreat is a powerful reminder of that.

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Spiritual Warfare for Christians

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

There is a spiritual warfare that requires not a drop of blood to be shed, not a single angry word to be said, not one unkind thought to be thought. To put it in contemporary terms, you could say Lent is the Christian Jihad, when we oppose everything in our own lives that is hostile to God. The qualification is important. For the next few weeks we are principally concerned with following Jesus into the desert, allowing the searing light of truth into the hidden parts of our being, making us face up to the reality of who and what we are. We know it will be uncomfortable, but we were never promised a life of comfort when we became his disciples.

St Benedict tells his readers that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, and there are many places in the Rule where he refers to fighting for the true King, Christ our Lord, the fraterna acies or battleline of the community and the spiritual combat of the desert in which solitaries engage. But he never presents this spiritual warfare as something dour or grim. On the contrary, it is immensely joyful — because it brings us closer to Christ. His chapter on Lent, RB 49, is one of the most lyrical in the Rule and reminds us that we are looking forward to Easter ‘with joy and spiritual longing’, that everything we do, even the restrictions we place on ourselves, the things we ‘give up’ for Lent, is done ‘freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. In this, I think he is echoing the joy Jesus found in the desert, when he spent those precious forty days exploring the depth of his relationship with the Father. Yes, he was tested; yes, the temptation was real and urgent; but he was driven out into the desert by the Spirit — the Greek verb used is very strong, almost catapulted — and he was accompanied by angels, messengers of God. In other words, he was alone with the Alone.

For us, as disciples, our moments of being alone with the Alone can be very few and far between. In Lent we try to make more time for prayer, reduce the number of distractions (fasting) and seek to serve God in others (almsgiving). We know that we can sometimes be very self-regarding in all three, whereas what we intend is to forget ourselves. That really is the secret both of spiritual warfare such as I have described, and the joy that accompanies it. We need to stand aside, as it were, and let Christ be all in all — and that is so hard for us difficult, argumentative beings, who like to be in control all the time and find it virtually impossible to let go! The illustration at the top of this blog post may help change our perspective a little. It shows Christ carrying the Cross: the logical conclusion, if you like, of his forty days in the desert. The battle with Satan that began there reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ wins the victory for all time.

Christ has shed his blood for us, once and for all; so no more need be shed. He has borne every insult and angry word that has ever been uttered; so no more need be said. He has experienced all the contradictions of being human and transformed them so that now we can live the life of grace. Yes, Christ has triumphed and we live now with a vast opportunity before us. This Sunday is a good day for asking ourselves what we truly desire: God or something less, joy or endless sorrow?

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Spiritual Warfare

The devil isn’t fashionable any more. Behaving diabolically seems as popular as ever, but the devil? He’s just a figment of fevered religious imaginations. You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t subscribe to that view. I would much prefer to believe that the devil doesn’t really exist, that evil is an abstraction, only of use to those who write tabloid headlines; but I can’t. Evil exists: it is intelligent, personal and dangerous. When St Paul wrote about our having to do battle with the elemental spirits of the universe, he was using the language of his day to express a conflict that will go on until the end of time.

There are two points to grasp. First, the devil may be a fallen angel, but he is still an angel of light. If we were to see evil for what it truly is, none of us would be seduced by it. But we don’t see evil for what it is most of the time. We see something attractive, that has the appearance of good, and we fall for it. Secondly, the battle against evil has been won and the devil is vanquished. Our problem is how to reconcile these two apparently contradictory notions without giving way to either fear or presumption. To Catholics I would say that prayer and the sacraments are the ordinary means of  ensuring that we remain spiritually alert, but we have to be perpetually on guard, aware of the deceits that can affect us.

Whenever we have important decisions to make, about our own lives or the lives of those who are dear to us; about the politicians who will serve in government or the way in which public funds will be spent; about the use (or abuse) of the earth’s resources; we need to keep in mind that we cannot simply assume we are doing the right thing. Christianity is full of paradoxes, and one of the most sobering reminders comes from St Paul who, when he wanted to do the right thing, often found himself doing the very opposite. Sobering, yes, but also encouraging: God made a saint of Paul. He can surely make saints of us, if we let him.

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