St Michael and All Angels 2018

St Michael's victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein, Coventry Cathedral
Jacob Epstein’s representation of St Michael, Coventry Cathedral
Whenever a human being encounters an angel, the first words spoken by the angel are always ‘Fear not!’ or some such phrase. Angels are not the chubby putti beloved of renascence artists and sentimental Christmas cards, they are mighty spirits, messengers of God. Fire and flame attend them; they are truly awful, and the role they play in the economy of salvation is awful, too.

‘War broke out in heaven.’ With those terrible words we enter into a spiritual reality with immense consequences for us all. The battle between good and evil, the thrusting out of Lucifer, the triumph of Michael, are events that can be understood figuratively yet at the same time make sense personally. We all know the war between good and evil in ourselves and what a close-run thing it is at times. The Church is clear-eyed about this struggle and encourages everyone to hope without presuming. Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death, once and for all, but each of us must make his triumph our own, and that is the work of a lifetime.

We are given several helps. Scripture and the sacraments are the first that spring to mind, but there is also our fellowship with one another in the Body of Christ, the Church. Too often we forget that we do not face evil alone. We have the saints and our ‘even Christians’ to do battle with us. We also have the angels themselves. The old prayer to St Michael is sometimes smiled at by those who dismiss the idea of evil as ‘quaint’ or the product of an over-heated imagination. I would suggest such persons look at the remains of an aborted child or the body of a victim of chemical warfare or of a woman raped and brutalised and then dare to say, ‘There is no evil.’ Meanwhile, I trust the rest of us will be praying:

St Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen. 

For a Benedictine, of course, angels are everywhere and are constantly linking us with heaven. Their role is primarily one of surveillance, which can be unsettling at times, but Benedict does not dwell on the negative aspects of that. He ends his discussion of the first step of humility, which we read today, with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with an important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins — murder, adultery and so on — we tell ourselves; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Our first step in humility, then, is to become aware of God and to make the angels our friends, that they may help us keep to the strait way that leads to life and eternal happiness. May St Michael and All Angels pray for us and all who seek their protection. Amen.

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The Cloister of the Heart

Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.

I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.

When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.

We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.

Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.

We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.

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