A Virtual Vigil

I was reading over some of my previous posts on St John of the Cross, whose feast is today, in order to avoid repeating what I have already said when I broke off to scan the BBC web site for news of yesterday’s EU summit. Clearly, here in the UK we are plunging further and further into a political mess of our own making. As individuals, I am sure we have all prayed about it, but have we done so as a community? I know that in the monastery we haven’t really, although we have kept the subject in mind often enough.

Tonight, therefore, we shall be holding a virtual Vigil between 7.00 pm and 8.00 pm with the explicit intention of asking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help. Anyone who cares to join us can do so from anywhere, and at any time. We don’t prescribe any particular readings or formal prayers. I imagine we ourselves will just pray quietly and end by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It isn’t much. It’s just a small gesture, but God has a way of taking small gestures and transforming them into something powerful. St John of the Cross was a man of very small stature and insignificant presence, we’re told, but how his love of God blazes across the centuries and what an immense amount he achieved — and all because he prayed, with an earnestness and perseverance that puts most of us — me certainly — to shame.

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St John of the Cross Revisited

A couple of years ago I tried to express some inchoate thoughts about St John of the Cross and the Mass readings for the day by writing

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

I stand by what I said, but today’s Advent liturgy provides us with different readings, Numbers 24.2-7, 15-17 and Matthew 21.23-27, which cast a different light on the feast. Today we are confronted with the question of authority. Like Balaam, St John of the Cross was one who heard the word of God and saw what God made him see; so too, St John the Baptist, who, more than any other before the coming of Christ, was so utterly on fire with love of God that he almost ceased to exist as a separate entity — he was just the voice who would precede the Word, the lamp eclipsed by the Sun.

We are sometimes tempted to think that there are two Superpowers, God and us; and that what we think right must be what God thinks right, too. We are often tempted to shortcircuit the process of discernment, so to say, and sit a little lightly to doing our homework and praying about what we have learned. It is no accident that St John of the Cross, like his namesake St John the Baptist, was a man of profound humility and persevering prayer, a man whose whole life was an exploration of the will of God. We can look back on his history and think how badly he was treated by the religious authorities of his day, but we must also remember that what St John of the Cross sought was also what he lived: fidelity to God in all the circumstances of life. We say to ourselves, with our better knowledge, we would not have imprisoned him, even for a minute, no; we would not have crucified Christ, either, would we? There is a very uncomfortable question there that we might all usefully consider today.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Glory Within

Today’s feast of the Presentation of Our Lady strays a long way from historical Judaism but I think we can see in it an important truth, a metaphor, if you like, of the way in which God dwells within every human being. When Mary stepped into the Temple, the Shekinah — the glory of God — took on a new and important form, dwelling within her, not merely over her. Even though she was still a child, and did not yet bear within her the infant Christ, the Fathers have consistently taught that she was sanctified from the first moment of her conception. She was holy in a way that no one before her had been holy, illumined by the Glory within; and since she gave birth to our Saviour and we have been incorporated into Christ by baptism, that same gift of the indwelling Spirit has been ours, too.

We are close to Advent now, and it is a short leap from that thought of the child Mary being dedicated in the Temple to St John of the Cross’s

Del Verbo divino
la Virgen preñada
viene de camino:
¡si le dais posada!

With the Divine Word made pregnant, the Virgin walks down the road — if you will give her shelter!

‘If’: what a world of meaning is in that word! Today’s feast can be covered with a sickly sentimentality but at its heart lies a question each of us must answer. Will we welcome Christ in whatever form he chooses to come to us — even in the uncertain form of those we are tempted to overlook or fear?

Pre-Advent Newsletter
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St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

St Teresa of Jesus, usually known as Teresa of Avila, the ‘great’ Teresa as distinct from the ‘little’ Thérèse, the eagle not the dove, is one of those saints whose character seems forged by the landscape and townscape in which they lived. The stony beauty of Avila — its cold, clear light in winter and its burning, intense sunshine in summer— have always struck me as factors in Teresa’s strength of purpose, her passionate love of God, and her equally passionate but commonsensical approach to life. The intelligence, the drive, the shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and her ability to win over opponents with flashes of humour bespeak her Jewish ancestry (her grandfather was a converso or convert from Judaism). I find her both engaging and mysterious: a saint who attracts but who is also, in some measure, alien, ‘other’.

If you want to learn about contemplative prayer, read Teresa, not John of the Cross. She misses nothing out and takes her readers stage by stage, through mansion after mansion, until the seventh is reached. Her letters, too, are full of wisdom. Today, at Midday Office, we’ll read one in which she teases her sisters about their dislike of choir, their feigning of excuses, little headaches and so on, that prevent their serving His Divine Majesty. But it is her actions that make me realise what a very different world Teresa inhabits from the one in which I live. When, as children, she and her brother set off to meet martyrdom at the hands of the Moors, she displayed a zeal, a fervour I find completely alien. The nearest we come to it today is among those young men and women seduced by Islamic extremism who set off to fight in the ranks of IS or Boko Haram. Is it the same impulse at work? I don’t think so; but I also hesitate a little because the explanation I would give will not make sense to everyone.

St Teresa of Avila is a very great saint; and she is great not because she was fervent or full of zeal or reformed the Carmelite Order but because she loved much — both God and her fellow human beings. As her friend and confidant St John of the Cross remarked, ‘At the end of the day, it is by the quality of our loving that we shall be judged.’ Teresa of Avila has been judged and not found wanting. May she pray for us who go along but limpingly in the way of holiness.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Flaring Torch

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail