Beginnings and Endings: the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)

The Prsentation by Nicholas Mynheer
The Presentation by Nicholas Mynheer. Oil and gold leaf on handmade paper. Image copyright.

Today’s feast is one that looks two ways: back to Christmastide and forward to the Passion. I think that must be why it was chosen as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, because monks, nuns, friars, Religious Brothers and Sisters and so on are all marked with the grace and glory of the Incarnation in baptism but must, by virtue of their vows, follow also the often dark path that leads to Christ’s Passion and Death. We share in the privilege and the pain, but the focus must always be on Christ. That is why the Presentation of the Lord is such an important celebration, and the candles we hold in our hands are a reminder of both what we are and what we hope to become.

Today’s feast is always one of great gladness and rejoicing because it marks the point at which Jesus is taken up into the Temple and begins his mission. I think we could also say it is a great feast of the Church qua Church. For we do not think only of the joy of Mary and Joseph as their infant son is offered to the Lord. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Compline we sing into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirm our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, drearest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.

Yesterday, we received a beautiful gift from a friend and oblate of the community. The circumstances surrounding the gift, and the giver himself, make it very special. Nicholas Mynheer’s depiction of the Presentation is quite small, 20 cm by 20 cm, but it glows with great intensity (the illustration does not do it justice). It lights up the room in which it hanges. This morning as I was praying before it, it struck me that this wonderful feast of light and joy is itself a great gift to the Church. It allows us a little glimpse of eternity, a warm and supremely accessible vision of what the Church is and the importance of every individual within her, young or old. Today, please pray for the donor of the painting, for the maker of it and for the whole Church, especially those who think themselves ‘small and of no account’. It is what we are in the Lord’s eyes that counts, and to him we are worth much.

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A Candlemas Post 2015

Villagers on Their Way to Church
Villagers on Their Way to Church

This lovely Flemish illumination of villagers making their way to church for Candlemas (you can just see the lighted tapers being carried in procession) captures the essence of today’s celebration.
Detail showing Candelmas procession The Presentation of the Lord marks the end of the Infancy Cycle, the true end of Christmastide. Our gaze now turns towards the public ministry and, very soon, we shall begin the Lent and Easter Cycle. But for a brief moment all is gladness and joy as we mark the dedication of Christ to the service of his Father. It is uncomplicated: a fulfilment of the Old Covenant which ushers in the New. Simeon and Anna stand as types of Israel’s long fidelity, and there is only that fleeting reference to the sword that will pierce Mary’s heart to give us pause. Every night the Church joins her voice to Simeon’s in his jubilant Nunc Dimittis. We, too, have seen the promised salvation, and we rejoice.

It was no accident that today’s feast was chosen for the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. Every religious vocation begins with a joyful dedication of self to the Lord’s service; and like every vocation in the Church, it is never for oneself alone. The whole village participates, so to say; and though the menace of that sword of sorrow is acknowledged, it is not dwelt upon. The light that enlightens the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel guides us every step of the way.

Yesterday I wrote in very personal terms about my own understanding of monastic life. Today I  invite you to think more generally about the place of consecrated life in the Church — what it says to you, and what it asks of you. Of one thing we can be sure: it is a light that will never go out because it takes fire from him who is the Light of the World.

Note on the illustration
Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 – 1561) 
Villagers on Their Way to Church, about 1550, Tempera colours and gold paint on parchment
Leaf: 5.6 x 9.6 cm (2 3/16 x 3 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 50, recto

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The Point of Being Pointless

Occasionally, I am asked questions that I spend my whole life trying to answer. For example, someone recently emailed asking me to explain the monastic vision and how it differs from any other kind of vision. I still haven’t replied, because this blog and what we say on our main website are probably the best answer I can give; but the fact that something is hard or would take a lifetime to articulate fully is no excuse for not trying to say something. Tomorrow, Candlemas or, more formally, the Presentation of the Lord, is the high-point of the Year of Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer; so here is an attempt, brief and of necessity incomplete, to try to express one nun’s understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine engaged in the monastic search for God.

My starting-point is the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict, the one illumining the other. We are engaged on a journey back to God from whom we have strayed. For most people the path marked out will be the ordinary one of marriage/partnership and family life, or the less usual one of singleness. For the monk or nun, however, there is an essential solitariness (cf monos) that goes beyond being single. The only way I can begin to describe it is as an emptiness only God can fill: a stripping away of self-will, of ownership of anything or anyone, a complete and utter dispossession. From most people’s point of view, that is nonsense: it is natural to surround ourselves with people and things, to make a home in the world. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing wrong with that and much that is right, provided we don’t become obsessive about acquiring more and more. But the monk or nun isn’t called to make a home in the world, nor are we called to live lives that make sense in a way others understand. We are simultaneously on the edge of society, like John the Baptist, and at its heart, like Thérèse of Lisieux. What we do (or don’t do), how we spend our time, the great cycle of public and private prayer that determines the shape of our days is, from a worldly perspective, entirely pointless. We may incidentally become great scholars, artists, educators, champagne-makers or what-have-you, but that is not what we are aiming at; it is not the point of our lives.

For a monk or nun there is only one aim: to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Many people are able to achieve that through a normal family life; we can’t, and it is because we can’t that we are drawn to monastic life. From the outside, there is much that seems contradictory. We talk about being possessionless, yet monasteries tend to acquire property over time, some of it very expensive property; we stress obedience, yet there are those whose concept of obedience is, shall we say, at best elastic; we are very conscious of failure, both individual and corporate. From the inside, the contradictions are fewer. It is possible to live lives of real austerity in the midst of plenty; to go on, day after day, cheerfully fulfilling tasks for which we feel no attraction; to fall and get up again. Little by little, that constant exposure to scripture and prayer, that daily experience of imperfect human nature under an imperfect superior in an imperfect community, does its work. In old monks and nuns one often sees a beauty and a holiness that, for me at least, convince me it is all worthwhile. The point of being pointless, so to say, can never be expressed in utilitarian terms because, in the end, it is all about love — love given and received, love made visible in Jesus Christ.

On Candlemas Day, please pray for all who are trying to live religious life as well as we can.

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Candlemas and Consecrated Life

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord, otherwise known as Candlemas, is also the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. I wonder how many people in the British Isles ever come across what we used to call religious, and if they do, do they know it? If you bumped into me in the street you would certainly register the funny clothes (Benedictine habit), and I hope my conduct would not be unbecoming, but would you really know I am a nun?

That is not an idle question. When Jesus was presented in the temple he was ‘ransomed back from God’ by his human family. When a religious vows him- or herself to God, it works the other way on. When we look at the life of Jesus, every word, every act, speaks of his desire to save, heal, make whole. That is what those who are not themselves religious should see in us. Pray it may be so, for those of us privileged to live under vows know what a sorry job we make of things. Still, as my old Junior Mistress was wont to say, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ God doesn’t make junk, no matter how much we mess things up.

A Little Light Relief

Vocation videos are not my cup of tea, but this one has the redeeming grace of being funny and insightful. Benedictine, of course!

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