St Cecilia’s Day 2013

St Cecilia’s Day usually leads to reflections on music and musicians. Indeed, on a former occasion, I tagged onto the feast a few thoughts about music and community life:

I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through Western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving. (See post for this day 2011).

I stand by every word, but from a liturgical point of view, St Cecilia is celebrated chiefly for her virginity and her martyrdom. Neither is a particularly popular concept, but Christianity has never been about popularity, so perhaps we should spend a moment or two thinking about them and try to ignore the cheapening of words and ideas that marks Western culture today.

For a Christian, martyrdom is bearing the ultimate witness to Christ, giving one’s life-blood. To be a martyr, one mustn’t court death but must accept it as the price of fidelity. The grace of martyrdom isn’t one we can presume upon. It is a harsh grace, unpalatable, contradictory, and none of us knows whether we would have the courage to accept it, should the moment ever come. Cecilia was young in years but old in virtue when she died. We, by contrast, may be old in years and still infants in virtue, but it is never too late to try to cultivate a habit of fidelity, of readiness. That is to accept the seriousness of our faith and its implications for both life and death.

Virginity is another of those things many Christians are uncomfortable with. We are much readier to talk about marriage and family, yet the Church has always honoured virginity freely chosen out of love for God. St Augustine wisely remarks that ‘the whole Church is virginal by virtue of the integrity of her faith, hope and love’ while the beautiful Prayer of Consecration attributed to St Leo carefully insists that ‘the dignity of marriage is not lessened’ even as it becomes lyrical in its enunciation of the theology of virginity. One of the impoverishments of the Church today — and perhaps of society, too — is that the theology of virginity, so clearly linked to our understanding of the nature of the Church, has been almost totally eclipsed by our contemporary obsession with sex.

On St Cecilia’s Day, let’s listen to some good music; give thanks for the beauty of sound and silence; pray for the deaf, for whom music is an abstract concept, never to be enjoyed as we who have hearing can enjoy it; and spend a few moments thinking about the paradox that death is a gateway into life, and virginity fruitful in ways most never dream.

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St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?

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Patrick and Rowan: a tale of two bishops

I first met Rowan Williams when, as a youthful Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he came to tea at the monastery and three of us spent the afternoon discussing the psalter with him. It was, if truth be told, a slightly sticky occasion and only really lost all trace of self-consciousness when we moved from small talk to theology and poetry. I suspect that for many of us who are not Anglicans (and possibly for many who are) it is that ease with monasticism, theology and poetry that we first think of when we think of the archbishop. All that he has done, or tried to do, for the Anglican Communion during his tenure of Canterbury, the difficulties he has faced, the obloquy he has endured, remind me of Paul VI, with whom I think he would have had an affinity. He has done an impossible job to the best of his ability, and those of us who are less able can only be grateful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, Canterbury’s loss is Cambridge’s gain; and I am already looking forward to the books he will be writing.

St Patrick was bishop in very different times, but, mutatis mutandis, the challenges he faced bear comparison with those faced by Archbishop Rowan. To proclaim the gospel loud and clear, to help others understand subtle points of theology, to question the values of society, to retain in the midst of busyness a monastic calm and focus (though not a monk himself), these sound very contemporary, rightly so. A bishop can never be ‘popular’ in the way that a singer or movie star can be popular: he must stand up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost to himself. In the case of Patrick, his steadfastness led to Ireland’s becoming a missionary centre of the Church for hundreds of years, no mean achievement for an ‘outsider’.

Britain owes much to Ireland; in the person of Patrick, Ireland owes much to Britain — a reminder that, from a Christian perspective, so many of our quarrels and disagreements are unnecessary. They generate heat, as family squabbles always do, but they do not always serve to advance the message of the gospel. Today, as we pray for all who look upon St Patrick as their patron, let us also pray for Archbishop Rowan and the world-wide Anglican Communion.

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Keeping Faith

There has been a lot of comment on the Pope’s Memo regarding the Year of Faith (2012). Some of it has reminded me how grateful I am that this blog has never, as far as I know, become a battleground for conservatives and liberals, never ‘Catholic’ in the narrowly partisan sense, but has always been enriched by contributions from many differing Christian and non-Christian traditions. Yet I trust that no one reading it would have the slightest doubt that I write as a Catholic, from a Catholic perspective born of study of scripture and the Fathers and that immersion in prayer which is at the heart of monastic life. Some, I know, would prefer to see a more overtly theological stance or more explicit discussion of liturgy, but I think I can safely leave that to others. I am more concerned with the foothills of Christian living, and for that reason I am looking forward to what the coming year will bring.

The Year of Faith promises much, but if there is one aspect I would want to emphasize, it is this. All theological disciplines, every attempt to articulate or express faith, should begin, and end, in prayer. Only prayer can keep us centred on Christ and in charity with one another, because only prayer can enable us to face the truth of God and of ourselves. No one, having seen him- or herself for what he or she truly is, could ever despise or disparage another. The Year of Faith is not an opportunity for neighbour-bashing in the name of religion but for learning how much further we each have to go to realise our vocation of holiness. Keeping faith will also keep us humble.

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Talking about God

Monday’s post about the language of filation and sonship brought a number of interesting emails. I should like to quote from one which expresses, better than I ever could, both the difficulty of predicating anything about God and the necessity of the struggle to do so.

These [reflections] are all bound up with my growing sense of the relative irrelevance of words. I say this as one for whom words are an overriding passion, and of course they remain the way into the Word: there are combinations of words which slit open the eternal like knives. That is just one of the paradoxes so fundamental to our religion that I am beginning to wonder if anything non-paradoxical can be true!

. . . My true refuge from linguistic problems, minor and major, is Pseudo-Denys and the unknowability of God. If one cannot even say ‘God is good’, then surely one cannot, in any literal sense, say ‘God is our Father’. From the darkness of Denys I fly to the Syrians and specifically to St  Ephrem, who describes God as ‘clothing himself in language’, now putting on metaphors for our sake, now stripping this one off again and fetching another out of the wardrobe – all because our minds are small and limited. For Ephrem the whole of Scripture is one great metaphor. I find this infinitely consoling, probably because my mind is at ease with metaphor: it creates a great space in which one can move around unimpeded; I leave systematic theology to the seriously clever.

I know the writer well enough to take that remark about systematic theology with a smile of complicity. The point is, however we talk about God, however helpful or indeed unhelpful we may find the language of scripture or theology, the language of prayer transcends all limitations. It is wonderfully subversive, because types and shadows fall away in the face of the reality of God.

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Sons in the Son

There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.

I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.

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