For us, the public face of preparation is largely a matter of cleaning, cooking and "running through" different elements of the liturgy. But what about the private face? Whatever sort of Lent we may have had, whether we have been fervent or lackadaisical, today presents a great opportunity to focus on what really matters: to give some time to prayer, to fast, to give alms, to get into the rhythm, so to say, of Holy Week.
Each day of the Triduum forms part of one great whole: it is a single Liturgy that unfolds in three parts. We begin the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday with Paul's words about glorying in the cross of Christ; Mass ends without the usual blessing and dismissal, because we are expected to be present at the next phase, the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday afternoon. The Good Friday Liturgy looks forward to the resurrection and again leads naturally to the Great Vigil on Easter night. Only then will there be a blessing and dismissal, because with the Easter Vigil we reach the summit of the Christian year.
Betrayal, Death and Resurrection: that is what we see when we look at Jesus as he passes through his Triduum. When we look at ourselves, we wonder what he can see in us to merit what he has given: his very self in the Eucharist and in the Priesthood, Redemption and Eternal Life. As we shall sing on Easter night, " to ransom a slave, you gave away your Son." Our day of preparation might include a few minutes spent thinking about that.
This year the Church is asked to go through Holy Week carrying the burden of a self-knowledge many find deeply distressing. The revelations about abuse and cover-ups may have been hyped by the media but no one with any integrity is going to use that as an excuse for not confronting this darkness within the Church. For contemplatives there is an added dimension to the suffering: we are called to make reparation in ways that few understand. It is a part of our vocation that is not often alluded to, probably because it has to be lived before it can be explained. This week we are called to live with an intensity unknown at other times of the year.
Over Holy Week hangs a great sadness but a great confidence, too. Christ our Lord has taken upon himself every sin and forgiven them all. We cannot change the past but it can be redeemed. We can "go and sin no more". Let us pray for the whole Church, that we may become what we are meant to be: a people purified and fit for the Kingdom of God.
Then we noticed a book with Haiti in the title and were ashamed. Yes, our loss is real, but it in no way compares with the loss the people of Haiti have experienced or the difficulties they face every day. We treasure our books, but we shouldn't invest so much of our hearts in them. The gospel is clear about that kind of thing. We dream of having more space, of being able to do things that are at present impossible; and I am confident that one day we shall; but for now we must relearn the lesson. In small things as in big, God is in charge. Sometimes you just have to begin all over again.
So, before you send me your book and tell me to print it "just as it is", please consider this. When we set out to design a book we begin with pencil and paper, protractor and set square, and map out the page size, text block and margins. We think about the typeface (note the singular: a mark of bad design is an abundance of typefaces spattered across the page), the illustrations, the kind of paper to be used and the colour of the ink (black inks differ from one another and change appearance depending what they are printed on). Above all, we think about the content and how it will be used.
We look at the illustrations and the screening, correcting tints in photographs, cropping and enhancing. We check for things like transparency; change to vector art where appropriate; make sure that everything will output as it should. This takes time, and the equipment used is expensive. Quite often, trying to put right what others did wrong takes longer than starting afresh, but it is difficult to convince people of this, so we do not always try; although Digitalnun is usually patient about explaining why things that look marvellous on screen can look disappointing on the printed page. It can be very hard work.
Why do we bother? Printing is one of the invisible arts: you will know when it is well done because nothing will jar, nothing will scream at you, "look at me! me! me!" There is an integrity about the well-printed page that sits well with monastic life. For fifteen hundred years Benedictine monks and nuns have worked with words: writing them, printing them, digitizing them. The internet is opening up even more opportunities for allowing words to speak eloquently to us. It is worth taking trouble about them.
The Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord is one of the most attractive feasts in the Church calendar. There is always something fresh to ponder in Luke's account (1.26-38), while the abundance of music, poetry and art devoted to this subject is amazing. We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that we are remembering an event in history which was to have consequences for us all. Our salvation, and that of the whole world, hung upon the readiness of an obscure young girl (perhaps as young as twelve or thirteen) to do what God asked of her. All the Fathers agree that Mary's consent was necessary for the Redemption to take place. That does not mean that God would not have redeemed us had Mary not given her consent but that God foresaw her acceptance from all eternity (cfr St Thomas, Summa III.30). It was indeed a moment of unequalled faith: of Mary in God, and of God in Mary.
Recently I learned that there is a delightful legend said to come from Nazareth. The Angel Gabriel found Mary sitting by a fountain. Not surprisingly, his appearance startled her and she fled from him in fear. He followed her into the house to deliver his message, which is why the Annunciation is often depicted as taking place inside. In fact, the iconography of the Annunciation is a fascinating study in itself. Early Christian depictions usually show Gabriel as an angel of the Old Testament, severe and terrifying, before whom Mary kneels tremblingly. From about the twelfth century onwards, a new lyricism transforms the scene. The stiff hieratic forms yield to something much more youthful and human. Now Gabriel kneels before Mary. To be the Mother of God is to be exalted above the angels. Paradoxically, it is Mary's humility and obedience that lifts her so high.
A podcast about the Annunciation has been posted here.
This is the anniversary of the day on which Romero was gunned down at the altar. He knew that he was likely to die and had already forgiven those who would do the deed. Most people think of him as a brave man who changed from being a pillar of the establishment to one who openly questioned whether the inequalities of the society in which he lived were justified and who worked tirelessly for social justice. My questioner asked why the Catholic Church had been "so ambivalent" (his words) about Romero for so long. I think it is a valid question.
Martyrdom, as the Church understands it, is to give one's life for Christ and for the truth of his teaching. Some have tried a little chop-logic on Romero, arguing that he died for something other than that. None of us knows what was in his heart and mind at the moment of death, any more than we know what was in the heart or mind of the man who shot him; but it seems reasonable to suppose that a priest saying Mass was focused on what he was doing, that as the gun rang out God was all in all.
I do not know if Oscar Romero was a martyr or not; but I do know that this morning his courage and generosity have made me feel a little shabby, a little cowardly. I do not live in daily expectation of being murdered, but I grunt and groan about the petty inconveniences of life as though they were important. I am not sure that anyone would find enough evidence to convict me of "working tirelessly for social justice". There is a danger in concentrating on one's own shortcomings, however. I do not expect to become a martyr, but who knows what God may ask, what grace he may give. I must be ready even here, in dear old England. After all, I have vowed my life to him.
Meanwhile, over at the Vatican, there is at last an official Vatican News Twitter feed. Six in fact: for the English language version look for news-va-en. There is also a new web site for "Vatican Resources" at http://www.resources.va/. Both the Twitter accounts and the Resources site are currently dominated by the abuse scandals, which is telling. Here in the UK people have been quick to comment on the Pope's letter, often negatively, but the whole subject seems to be generating more heat than light. The anti-Catholic feeling finding expression in the media is nothing new, but if it were directed at any other group in society might be found unacceptable. There is a danger that some will react to the negativity rather than tackle the underlying issues. May St Benedict help us with his prayers to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thinking about one's own shortcomings is not good for the temper, so it was a relief to catch sight of one of the books in my room: a book of Jewish blessings in which there is a blessing for every conceivable occasion. See the sun or the moon? Bless God. See a new animal or taste a new food? Bless God. Go to bed or rise up? Bless God. In the Rule of St Benedict, every important action in community is accompanied by a blessing: before we read, before we serve in the kitchen, when we receive a guest. It is harder to bless God when painful things happen, but who has not struggled in the face of death to say, "Blessed be the Lord who has given and who has taken away"?
The abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have caused much anguish. Readers of this blog will know exactly where we stand so will understand when I say that even for this we must bless God. Bless him not for the pain or the destruction of trust, but in the midst of the pain and destruction. Bless him for coming upon us as purifying fire. Bless him above all for being God and loving us despite our failure and our shame. It is when we are least lovable that we need his love most.
Humilty and persevering fidelity to the task in hand are not spectacular qualities but they are very necessary to the good order of both family and society. I am not alone in thinking that fatherhood does not seem to be properly valued today, and I find it troubling. We may be learning to our cost that single-parent families are hard on both parents and children, but there seems to be an inbuilt presumption that mothering is more important than fathering. I wonder. Good fathering is important to both boys and girls, we all agree, but perhaps even struggling, incompetent and not very assured fathering is better than no fathering at all.
So, take heart if you are a father and don't feel that you are making a very good fist of it. Your child needs you, just as you are. Would Jesus of Nazareth have been the person he was without both Joseph and Mary to help him towards adulthood? Did they never make mistakes, get things wrong? Of course not! They were human, too. Let us pray today for all fathers: good, bad, indifferent and absent. Especially the absent.
The reason for this restraint in speech is simple: we need to listen. The very first word of the Rule is "obsculta", listen carefully. We need silence to hear God, we need silence to hear others, we even need silence to "hear" ourselves. (How often have you heard a harrassed parent say, "Shh, I can't hear myself think!") One facet of modern life many find irritating is the sheer volume of meaningless noise with which we fill the world (think being put on hold on the telephone). I do not know what we do about it, but I have made a token protest. The ringtone on my mobile is a very meaningful piece of plainsong. If we have to have noise, let it be prayerful.
What history fails to record, legend often supplies. There are some good stories about St Patrick, but even so, this morning they fail to stir. We are at that point of Lent where we seem to have been trekking across the interior desert for ages and the way ahead stretches long and lonely before us. Excellent! Lent is doing its work. It is making us more sensitive to God and hopefully to others also. It is making us confront the fact of sin and forgiveness and the bleakness of our inner landscape. It is not enough, however, to lament our fallen state. We are meant to do something about it.
St Patrick was moved by the plight of his captors to spend the rest of his life trying to win them for God. He could do that only because he had experienced the power of God's forgiveness in his own life and was therefore able to forgive those who had injured him. Forgiveness spurred him to action. We too have been forgiven, but do we pass that forgiveness on? Or are we "hearers of the word only?"
We can let you into a little secret. St Cecilia's Guild is about to be renamed and will soon become Veilaudio. We hope the new name will not only describe better what our audio service to the blind and visually impaired actually is but also help identify it more immediately with the monastery. We already have Veilnet (for web design and hosting), Veilpress (for typography and printing and Veilshop (for retail sales). If you are wondering about the use of "veil", it is a play on "vale" (as in Vale of White Horse, where we live) and a nod in the direction of our being nuns. We have a simple logo (see above) to go with the new name and will be launching it properly when our rejigged web site goes "live".
No podcast this week because we have lent our HandyZoom to a friend. After using the Zoom any other audio seems inferior, and since we don't consciously do inferior here, you are spared our ramblings for a few more days.
By a nice irony, today's gospel (Luke 15) is all about men: a prodigal son, a scratchy elder brother, and a generous father. Of course, at the heart of the gospel is the teaching about God's tender love for his wayward sons and daughters which transcends all questions of sex. John Paul I described this love of God as "motherly" and one can see why. In fact, for me, the missing character in the gospel is the mother. Has she been written out of the story, as women have so often been written out of the story of the Church?
In asking that question, I am not seeking to make a cheap point. The abuse scandals which have hurt so many are not about celibacy, not about the clergy alone: they concern the Church as a whole, you and me as much as bishops and priests. They are about an abuse of power, collusion and cover-up: the Church failing to nurture and protect, seeking things other than the Kingdom. Attempts to apportion blame get us nowhere. What we need above all else, I would suggest, is to regain a sense of the Church as Mother, of our mission of service, of profound humility before God and one another. A humble, servant Church will still be a Church of sinners; but God has no problem with sinners, even if we do. It is hypocrisy that corrupts and destroys.
This is a very good day on which to pray for our Mother the Church and for ourselves.
Two elements of Benedict's treatment of the subject stand out: all are to share equally in the burden of cooking unless some other business of overriding importance to the community has to be attended to, and help is to be given whenever needed. The spiritual motive and benefit are never far from the surface. Serving in the kitchen "secures a richer recompense and greater love"; so all are to "serve one another in love". The trouble is, kitchens can be hot and steamy places, and I am not referring to the pots and pans. There is nothing like having to produce a meal for others when one is tired or the store cupboard is low to make one irritable. Feeling guilty because temper has flared only makes matters worse. (If you do not recognize this scenario and cheerfully move around your designer kitchen, glass in hand, producing fantastic meals from fresh organic produce, sourced locally, for an admiring circle of family and friends, the likelihood is that you have no need to cook for others but do so for sheer delight. Lucky you. Or maybe, not so lucky: meals are sacramentals, and to provide them for others is a wonderful form of service.)
Perhaps this is a week-end when Mums could be freed from feeling guilty for all the times they are manifestly not "the angel in the house". It is difficult to love an angel. Human beings, with all their shortcomings, are much more lovable. Be human.
However, we do have some good news. Thanks to generous gifts, the future of this web site looks assured for another year, at least as far as hosting and ancillary matters are concerned. (Inspiration depends on the Holy Spirit.) Myles' s Jazz Evening together with the Raffle organized by Mary and Damien raised £446 for our work for the blind, which was a brilliant result for a small village in the bleak midwinter.
Today we have a lot of catching up to do. There are about 80 letters of condolence to which we must reply and some work and admin deadlines to meet so there are likely to be a few tense moments. It is just as well that Digitalnun has given up worry for Lent. "Cast all your burdens upon him, for he has care of you" as we sing at Compline. That is a sentence to treasure throughout the day.
As the day unfolds there will be work to do, people to see, unexpected delights and probably moments of difficulty or disappointment also. The holiness of the ordinary is something we do not always appreciate as we ought. It is, however, on ordinary days such as these that our salvation is worked out. Whether we are full of energy and hope, or tired and a little grumpy, the present moment is the only one in which we can meet God. We may forget that most of the time: the important thing is not to forget it all the time. The ordinary is really not so ordinary after all.
It made me think about how we welcome others. So often we concentrate on the adjuncts of hospitality: food, drink, setting. The really important element of welcome, giving time and listening to the other, is something we are less good at. Why? It is surely easier than killing fatted calves or organizing great celebrations. The analogy with prayer is obvious. God asks of us a listening heart rather than great sacrifices, but we often seem keen to give him sacrifice (often trivial) rather than obedience. It doesn't work the other way, of course. God gives us everything and listens to us, too. Perhaps we should think more about how God has welcomed us into his life than how we try to welcome him into ours. Look at the crucifix and see how his arms are spread wide to receive us, eternally.
Meanwhile, anyone who has an administrative or managerial role may find it helpful to listen to the Rule today and tomorrow. Chapter 31, on the Cellarer or Bursar of the monastery, is a succinct treatise on the spiritual aspects of management. Goods and tools are to be accorded the same care and respect that we give sacred altar vessels. People can be more awkward to deal with, but even the most demanding must be treated with courtesy and respect. When there is nothing else to give, there is always the good word which is above the best gift. A good word. Surely we can all speak one today?
What is it that enables some people to maintain their religious identity for centuries while others fall away or reject it quite early in life? The theologian may argue the case for grace, the sociologist for cultural influences and endogamy, and so on and so forth. I suspect there is no one answer. Religious communities reinforce a sense of identity by their use of common texts (e.g. for us as Benedictines the Rule and Customary), common rituals (our ways of dress/worship) and common history (the retelling of the story of how we came to be). During Lent we are particularly conscious of the latter: the telling of the story. On Easter Night we shall listen by the light of the paschal candle to the whole of salvation history, culminating in the gospel of the Resurrection. The fact that the Son of God became man for our sakes, shared our flesh and blood and identified with us in both his birth and his death, is breath-taking. In Jesus there is not a single selfish gene, only the purest, most generous love. That is a story worth telling again and again.
True praise is beautifully simple and leads to ecstasy in the literal sense. We stand outside ourselves, our gaze wholly focused on the other, our very body language reflecting the joy and delight we experience. Children and dogs are good teachers of how to praise. When we were reunited with Duncan the other day his whole body was one ecstatic wiggle of delight (PBGVs are well-named "the happy breed"). In England our worship of God tends to the stately rather than the ecstatic, but perhaps we should allow our praise a freer flow. David danced before the Ark, indifferent to the disapproval of his wife or any other onlooker. I doubt whether we'll be wiggling in choir today, but I hope our singing of the psalms will be full of a similar transcendent joy. Let everything that lives and that breathes, praise the Lord!
This is a real challenge to anyone who has ever had to "take disciplinary action" because it is easy to assume that all blame lies with the offender. It may do, but that doesn't mean we can wash our hands of responsibility for his/her conduct. It is also a challenge to the Churches as we struggle with our interior dissensions and disputes. How do we maintain that "bond of unity which the Spirit gives" when some of our members seem to be adopting positions diametrically opposed to the historic faith and belief of our Church? How do we reconcile all this "comfort-giving" stuff with the need to be clear and firm in our belief and practice?
Benedict is wise enough not to answer that question. Instead, he demands of the abbot an almost super-human degree of effort to win back the straying brother, reminding him that he has undertaken the care of weak souls not tyranny over strong ones, warning him not to give up just because the task is difficult. Ultimately, he uses the example of the Good Shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and going in search of the one that is lost. He adds a poignant detail, however. He assumes the lost sheep was found and that the Shepherd "had such great compassion on its weakness that he deigned to place it on his own sacred shoulders and so brought it back to the flock."
It is rare to find such a clear statement of the obligation to be compassionate, to take on one's own shoulders the burden of another. We can dodge it; we can fudge it; but we can't finally escape it, because it is part of what it means to be Christian and a member of society. I hope that thought makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me.
It is, however, good to be back in the routine of monastic life and the simplicity of Lent. Lent seems so long when we begin but passes so quickly, we need to make the most of it. We have decided that this year we shall drop our usual programme of Lenten talks, etc as we have a great deal to catch up on and it is silly to overstretch ourselves. We shall, however, honour all our existing commitments to the CWL and local parishes.
Today marks the thirtieth day since the death of D. Teresa, the completion of the "month's mind". Now we must begin in earnest the sad work of sorting through her effects and dealing with all the legal business which is more complicated than usual so will require more time. One of her sisters will be staying with us for a few days, so please keep her in your prayers. Our audio service to the blind continues but please bear with us while we try to disentangle various elements. D. Teresa was the audio librarian and the only one of us really "au fait" with the system.