Easter Tuesday 2017

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Today’s gospel, John 20.11-18, is shocking in its intensity. Early in the morning Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ in a garden. As always in these Resurrection narratives, there is something about his appearance that prevents immediate recognition; and in any case, Mary is weeping. But she sees more clearly through her tears than many a disciple who turns the cold gaze of reason upon him. Her heart has been washed clean by love, and it is that purity of heart which enables her to recognize her Lord.

Monastic tradition honours the gift of tears. Indeed, praying for compunction of heart is a very necessary part of every novitiate — and it does not end there. Until we realise the enormity of our sinfulness and the wonderful forgiveness of God, we are apt to be harsh in our judgement of others and resistant to grace. There is a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears in the Sarum Missal, which looks back to the experience of the Israelites in the desert:

O Almighty and most merciful God, who caused a fountain of living water to spring forth from a rock for your people in their thirst; draw tears of compunction from our stony hearts that we may weep over our sins, and, by your mercy, deserve to obtain pardon for the same. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is also another, more elaborate one, by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required, and Mary Magdalene shows us how richly and warmly the prayer of humble love and faith is answered.

Fra Angelico has captured the moment of blissful meeting between Jesus and Mary — in a garden, in springtime, with only the dark entrance to the tomb to remind us of what went before. Our own meeting with the Risen Christ may be just as unexpected. Let us make sure we are ready for it, for to be surprised by grace is also to be surprised by joy; and like Mary Magdalene, we are not to keep that joy and grace to ourselves but to proclaim it: to be, like her, an apostle of the Resurrection.

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Seeing Clearly | Easter Tuesday 2014

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Today’s gospel about the meeting between Mary Magdelene and the Risen Christ has always been a favourite of mine. I love the fact that the meeting takes place in a garden, and that Mary is weeping unashamedly. She mistakes the person she sees for a gardener, but once she hears the Lord’s voice her tears enable her to see more clearly than any other. She sees with the eye of a heart washed clean by love. That is what purity means and what the gift of tears bestows. There is a beautiful prayer in the Sarum Missal for the gift of tears, as well as a longer, more ornate one by St Augustine; but no words are really necessary. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is all that is required.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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