Ash Wednesday | St Valentine’s Day

I was taken to task this morning for not mentioning St Valentine in my first tweet of the day, which is always a prayer tweet. I daresay  many will be celebrating him, or rather the popular romantic parody of him we have in the West, but 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of Reformed and Protestant Christians will be keeping today as a holy fast in honour of the Lord. We shall be doing our best to look cheerful, and many will be wearing a smudge of ashes on their foreheads as a reminder that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return.

With Ash Wednesday comes a wonderful freedom. Whatever we have decided to ‘do’ for Lent, we do with the joy of the Holy Spirit (RB 49.6). We are indeed ‘looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing,’ as St Benedict says (RB 49.7). The particularities of our penances melt into insignificance beside the fact that the Lord has invited us to make a Lenten journey with him and to him. He has spoken to us the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’ All he desires is our love.

I was thinking about those words of Hosea and realised that, without being soppy or sentimental, the gift of Lent can be seen as a kind of Valentine from the Lord in which he reaffirms his infinite love for us, and we try to respond as fully as we can. We know that parts of Lent will be hard, that the penances the Lord sends us will be much more demanding than anything we have taken on ourselves, but we have faith and hope that the journey will lead us closer to him. So, be of good cheer. Ash Wednesday gives us a fresh start and the assurance that the Lord will never abandon us. Let us set out boldly in his footsteps.

Lent
If you wish to know more about Lent and some of its practices, you may find this link useful: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html 

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On Not Celebrating St Valentine’s Day

St Valentine does not appear in the revised monastic calendar. His place is taken by SS Cyril and Methodius and a series of dull, but worthy, Office readings about the importance of Church Slavonic and unity. Just occasionally, belonging to a global church has its longeurs. While we dutifully ponder the feat of developing an alphabet to cope with the Slav dialects, the rest of the world is eating over-priced chocolates to the accompaniment of sentimental music and the scent of wilting red roses — which, to my way of thinking, is probably worse. But for every joyous couple celebrating their love for one another, there is someone for whom St Valentine’s Day is an awkward reminder that they are no one’s True Love. For them, this is a day (and even more, an evening) to be spent miserably alone, lamenting what they lack. Encouraging talk about being precious to Christ cuts no ice. The lonely are lonely, and there’s no getting away from it.

If there is no getting away from the fact of loneliness, perhaps we can turn it round and embrace it. God never asks what he does not give, but we do not always understand the Giver or the gift. What we see as a lack is sometimes the only way in which we can truly become what we are meant to be. The single vocation is not often recognized for what it is: a unique way of being a disciple, and one that requires more courage than marriage or community life because it is lived alone. Lived stingily, it can turn one in on oneself, making one constantly harp on what one has not; lived generously, it can make one a source of blessing and encouragement to others. Today, let’s pray especially for all the single men and women who enrich the lives of others without claiming anything for themselves.

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Of St Valentine’s Day and Being Too Serious

Every year on this day I face a conundrum. The Church invites us to celebrate SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs, patrons of Europe and, whisper it softly, just a teeny weeny bit dull (I refer to the liturgy of the day rather than the men themselves). Meanwhile, the rest of the western world is celebrating St Valentine and love in all its forms with masses of pink ribbon, chocolates and wine. For those who don’t have a valentine, who are lonely or feel a bit vulnerable, it can be a difficult day. I think it is made more difficult still by those joyless Christians who are a little too earnest in their condemnation of others’ pleasures. My Catholic soul rises up in revolt when they attack the roses and romance and mutter darkly about love needing to be general rather than particular. It is a great mistake to think we love everyone because we are incapable of loving any individual. We forget what we learned at our mother’s breast, that love is particular before it can be general; and it never ceases to be particular to some degree, for how else will you explain the gift of friendship, for example?

The readiness of some Christians to condemn others is a very unattractive trait, but especially so when it concentrates on minor matters. We may think the world would be a better place if people did not eat meat or drink wine, but to censure those who do is preposterous and ignores the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ did both. I think we have become too serious about little things and not serious enough about big things. St Valentine’s day may have become a bit tacky and tawdry, but at its heart is a very Christian message: that love is better than hatred, joy better than gloom, and we need to get along with one another as well as we can. Can anyone really object to that?

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From Ashes to Roses (and possibly Back Again)

‘The time is out of joint,’ said Hamlet, and we know it. St Valentine in the secular calendar topples SS Cyril and Methodius from their place in the liturgical calendar, and with today’s unconfirmed reports that Oscar Pistorius has accidentally shot dead his girlfriend, the strangeness of this week, which has seen a pope announce his retirement from office, Carnival, and Ash Wednesday, continues.

But is it really so strange? We human beings tend to live life in linear fashion, going from one event to another, forgetting what has gone before unless it was particularly pleasant or unpleasant. Memory and forgetfulness are two sides of the same coin. The past is only as secure as our own or collective memory make it; the future is unknown. We must live in the present, and that surely is what Lent drives home to us. This is the day of salvation, the moment when we must choose good rather than evil; and without being too fanciful, I think we can understand it in terms of a movement from ashes to roses (and possibly back again).

Yesterday we wore ashes as a sign of repentance and the desire for conversion. Today many a rose will be offered as a sign of love and devotion. If our repentance is real, there must be the same rhythm in our own lives, the dynamic of love and forgiveness at work. You may not have anyone to whom you would wish to offer a rose today, but I daresay there is someone to whom you need to say sorry. It may be someone living or someone dead; it is, at any rate, someone you have bound in the chains of unforgiveness and whom you must set free. Saying sorry may be as dust and ashes in your mouth, but it will make something beautiful flower in your heart.

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