The new monastery door sign
I was thinking about angels, it being the feast of SS Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and the unwillingness of our generation to admit their power or influence. It is not that angels don't exist, we just don't recognize them nor do we want to. Angels are messengers of God and as such not always welcome. How much easier to deny their existence, close our ears and eyes and live within our own little world, safe from the mystery that is God? It won't wash, of course, God will keep bursting in upon us in unexpected ways. In a sense, you could describe the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI as an "angelic visitation". He came and spoke to us of God; some opened their hearts to his message, others turned away; but it was the message, not the messenger, that ultimately matters.
The papacy is a sign pointing beyond itself to God and there are many similar signs in the world. One which is frequently argued over is the religious habit. Recently, The Anchoress wrote a thoughtful and deliberately provocative column on the subject which you can find here. The resulting debate is interesting on several counts. Not surprisingly, the majority of those who responded came down on the side of nuns and sisters wearing habits. Equally unsurprisingly, the majority of those wanting nuns and sisters to wear habits appear not to be nuns or sisters themselves but lay men and women. One or two linked not wearing the habit with a lack of faith or prayer, an opinion I would regard as defamatory except that it was probably made without really thinking. Many of the comments effectively proved my own point: that people who are not themselves nuns or sisters feel perfectly entitled to lay down the law about what nuns and sisters should wear, how they should behave and so on and so forth.
Leaving aside the historical/canonical inaccuracies and misunderstandings which are inevitable in such discussions, I was left wondering why it is acceptable to prescribe what religious women should wear while saying little or nothing about religious men. And why should lay people, especially men, presume to tell religious women what to wear? You have only to recall recent discussions about the dress code for Muslim women to see that it is a trifle contradictory. It is no good arguing that one is merely insisting that religious women follow the directives of Rome. Oddly enough, most of us are well-informed about what is required and take care to obey, even when some directives read a little quaintly (you should see what Sponsa Verbi had to say about fax machines at a time when most of us were already using email).
The community here wears a traditional habit and is happy to do so. We are well aware of the sign-value of the monastic habit and can give a good account of it; but it is not the habit which makes us nuns. I cannot help wondering whether there is a little false romanticism in lay enthusiasm for religious dress, a sneaking suspicion that the desire to make sure we act in certain ways, meet standards set for us by those who are not living our way of life (e.g. never angry, never tired, though the Lord Jesus was both), and regarding us as somehow not quite adult, is actually bound up with something few would acknowledge: a desire for vicarious holiness. The truth is, we are not children, nor are we angels in the popular sense. We are something much more glorious: redeemed sinners, signs of the KIngdom, even, sometimes and without our knowing, messengers of God.
We cannot simply brush differences aside with a well-meaning agreement to differ or accept mutually contradictory positions as though religious truth were a mere matter of opinion. Ultimately, each of us will stand before God to give an account of our life. We trust in God's mercy, yet at the same time, we know we shall have to answer for the decisions we made, for the paths we followed or did not follow. Terms like Low Church, High Church, Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic may be helpful in this life, but unless I am very much mistaken, they will avail us nothing in the next. We shall be judged by how we responded to grace, by what we did.
That is why the difficulties experienced by many Anglicans at this time matter to Catholics. We may think that the papal response, the offer of an Ordinariate and the preservation of some elements of Anglican patrimony, is enough. Leaving aside the fact that the Ordinariate is widely misunderstood, even by Catholics, (Anglicanorum Coetibus is essentially a document telling Catholics how to welcome and provide for those coming to full communion from the Anglican tradition), there is the obvious fact that most Anglicans, both here and abroad, are not going down the Ordinariate route. Most Anglicans are perfectly happy to remain Anglicans, and do so from conviction. Some elements of the Catholic press and blogosphere have overlooked this and indulged in some very unpleasant triumphalist nonsense. That is not helpful nor is it very Christian. I am myself convinced of the truth of what the Catholic Church teaches but it is precisely because of that conviction that I respect and find I can learn much from the religious traditions of others.
We must pray that the difficulties of Anglicans are resolved as quickly and charitably as possible. The calling into being of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda strikes me as being a little odd when one considers what Wilfrid argued so passionately for and Hilda was forced so reluctantly to accept (basically, the ascendency of Rome). To an outsider, it looks like a further multiplication of positions within the C. of E., one which may lead to more, not fewer, divisions. I hope I am proved wrong.
We must remember that our God is a God not of confusion but of peace. Only those who know first-hand the agony of uncertainty and division will really understand how painful the present time is. May God enlighten and strengthen all who seek his will in sincerity of heart and grant them his peace.
We are planning our next online virtual chapter, so if you would like to suggest a theme, please do so. (We upgraded our Broadband service recently and discovered new problems with our VOIP connection, hence the delay. The problems are not quite sorted out but we remain optimistic we shall be able to hold a chapter very soon.)
A Fundraiser Concert at St George's R.C. Cathedral, Southwark
Thursday, 28 October 2010, at 7.30 p.m.
Tickets £15, to include a glass of wine
Box office: email@example.com and 020 7202 2161
Organized by a Friend of Holy Trinity Monastery
Perhaps one of the most important things to grasp is that to make a new beginning spiritually does not mean taking additional things on but rather letting things go. It is as easy to clutter our spiritual life as it is our living space or timetable. Autumn is for slowing down, reflecting on what truly helps us seek God and just "wasting time with the Lord." There are lots of helps available, from the three-minute retreat to the BBC's "Thought for the Day", but there is a danger in multiplicity. Silence and stillness are the best helps of all.
Maybe today we could just go outside for a few minutes, ignore whatever needs to be done in the garden and simply look at the autumn light, smell the autumn scents, listen to the sounds of autumn on the breeze and give thanks. Ultimately, all prayer is eucharist – thanksgiving. That is the best beginning of all.
Perhaps what Benedict is driving at is the importance of uniting our will with God's. It is not that Benedict is censorious of less than perfect obedience as such, rather he sees the possibilities of our vocation as children of God. Amazingly, we can become like him, but the choice is ours to make.
But in battalions."
So Claudius in Hamlet, and so the universality of human experience. We have not had time to do much online during the past few days, but our prayerline has been buzzing with requests, most of them of deeply sad: requests from people with terminal illnesses, agonizing over broken relationships or facing the loss of everything they hold dear.
Prayer is often seen as a last resort. "When everything else has failed, try prayer: it cannot do any harm." That is merely another way of saying prayer cannot do any good. Prayer does change things, or rather, it changes us, although the situation we are praying about may not change. We cannot, for example, "undo" the earthquake in Haiti; but our response can change. We can move from comparative indifference to the sufferings of others to active involvement in trying to relieve them; we can forgive someone who has hurt us even though he or she is still as hostile as ever; we can become more accepting of difficulty or diminishment in our lives, or inspired to further struggle or generosity. The mere act of acknowledging that we are not in charge of everything can help us to inner peace and greater sensitivity to those around us.
It matters what we pray. "Thy will be done" is a prayer without pre-conditions, a prayer that unites us with the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus himself. That is why it is so effective. It is world-changing in its scope and reach, if we pray it in union with him. Unfortunately, we are usually happier with something much less: we do not want to become saints, just a bit kinder and, while you're about it, no financial/health worries, please, Lord. The real changes we need to make in our lives, the pockets of resentment and unforgiveness we need to let go or the selfishness we need to eradicate are of little interest. We'd rather not be confronted by the self we meet in prayer: it is too illusion-shattering.
The sceptic sees no value in prayer. I myself do not know if people who pray are any nicer than those who don't. I only know that I would be much nastier if I didn't.
We continue to pray that great good will come from this visit and we'll return to regular blogging after the week-end (must get the oratory finished).
It may be worth restating that:
- Benedict XVI's visit is a State visit; he didn't ask to come, he was invited by Gordon Brown. It would be shameful if he weren't accorded the respect we normally show to visitors, and tax-payers are not funding the whole cost of the visit.
- The media often gets things wrong; the misunderstanding of the recent updating of canon law (regarding clerics guilty of abuse and the ordination of women) is a case in point.
- The abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not and never can be acceptable; there have been terrible failures, but the Church is not to be defined by these failures (it is outrageous to accuse the whole Church of being paedophiles, for example); it is difficult to be sure how many instances of abuse there have been or whether Catholic priests are more prone to abuse than, say, married men - the statistics we have seen suggest the reverse - but the clumsy and defensive responses of some bishops have not helped.
- Marriage of the clergy is not in itself a remedy for abuse, and presenting it as such is insulting to women; Colophon is planning a post on the meaning of celibacy later this month, with a few figures for those who assume that the Church in this country could afford a change in the present discipline.
- Pope Benedict XVI has done a great deal to cleanse the Church of the "filth" he himself has identified within its ranks; the Church in England and Wales has very robust procedures in place for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, and a clear procedure for dealing with offences.
- Not everyone rolled out by the media for a "Catholic perspective" on things is well-informed or even aware, sometimes, of what the Church actually teaches; Colophon offers a special caution against taking the opinions of former politicians as anything other than opinions.
Our hope and prayer is that the pope's visit will be peaceful, that he will live up to one of his ancient titles of pontifex maximus (bridge-builder) because what the run-up to his visit has shown is how deeply divided and intolerant British society has become. Maybe this negativity can be turned to good by a shy and scholarly man who is in his eighties, not in the best of health, yet answerable to God for the lives of over a billion Catholics world-wide. Realisation of what an immense responsibility rests on his shoulders should alert us all, Catholic or not, to the fact that he speaks sincerely, as one who believes. That entitles him to respect, even if one disagrees with what he says.
Disagreement is not always based on careful reasoning, of course. Sometimes it proceeds from sheer ignorance. So, if you are a bit hazy about what the Catholic Church is, what she teaches, what she believes with every fibre of her being, may we suggest you read the Gospels and follow up with the man of the moment, John Henry Newman. See what he says about the holiness of the Church, its horror of sin, even venial sin, and you will understand something that goes beyond the clamour of public opinion to the heart of God himself. Cor ad cor loquitur, indeed, but first must come an openness, a willingness to listen.
So much for the feast's history, but what of its significance today? The fact that we are celebrating it on the eve of the pope's visit to Britain reminded me of some words of Newman (Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 7, sermon 8) which identify the cross with the yoke we are called to take upon ourselves:
We have a natural tendency to want to overlook the difficult aspects of our faith, but we cannot dodge the demands of Christ indefinitely if we want to be among his disciples. The ferocity of the attacks on Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church in this country have revealed an underbelly of hatred in our society that is deeply disturbing. You have only to skim through any blog mentioning the papal visit to encounter vilification and wild accusations of a kind that would not be acceptable if directed to any other person or object. That suggests to me that something good is going to come out of Benedict XVI's visit, that the Cross he is being asked to bear is indeed borne in union with the Lord Jesus. The devil doesn't bother to attack his own.
Let us set it down then, as a first principle in religion, that all of us must come to Christ, in some sense or other, through things naturally unpleasant to us; it may be even through bodily suffering, such as the Apostles endured, or it may be nothing more than the subduing of our natural infirmities and the sacrifice of our natural wishes; it may be pain greater or pain less, on a public stage or a private one; but, till the words "yoke" and "cross" can stand for something pleasant, the bearing of our yoke and cross is something not pleasant; and though rest is promised as our reward, yet the way to rest must lie through discomfort and distress of heart.
(For the historically curious: the photo shows an early example of the use of the cross image in Armenia. For details of the exciting archaeological work going on, see here)
Why, in the end, did we say "no" and ask for the donation instead? First, because we prayed. Before making a decision we asked our friend for time to think about our response. During that time we spent about an hour discussing the pros and cons (mainly the pros, let's be honest), then spent the next couple of days not thinking about the question, just commending it to the Lord. When we met again to make a decision, it was clear that we had reached a common mind. Yes, we'd love to have an iPad, but for us it would be a luxury. We can do what we need to do, as distinct from what we'd like to do, with what we have. Secondly, we are conscious of the needs of others: how can we amass superfluities when others lack necessities? Only yesterday someone came to our door asking for a meal and some money to get through a lean time. The meal was offered, of course (we do not give money). No matter how bad a press the Catholic Church is getting at the moment, people know that there will always be a welcome and help at our doors. That means we need the wherewithal to offer help; and the generosity of our friend in the States plays its part in making that possible.
Today the world will be remembering the events of 9/11 and we shall be praying for those who died, those who lost loved ones, all who have been touched by the tragedy. We shall also be praying for a maverick pastor in Florida who has been reckless, to say the least. It would be another tragedy if his meanness of spirit were to be remembered instead of the generosity of the American people, if his foolishness were to lead to more deaths. Pray that he too may avoid temptation.
The birthday of Mary ought to be something on which all Christians can agree: we do not need scripture to assure us that the mother of our Saviour was born. Her birthday is therefore something we can celebrate in the simple, uncomplicated way in which we celebrate the birthdays of family members. I think that is the secret. For both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, there is the sense that Mary is a family member. Church teaching is very clear that adoration (latria) is given only to God, but to Mary we show a special reverence (hyperdulia) which sets her above the rest of us (blessed art thou among women), as a mother is always reverenced by her children; but it is a reverence which has a great deal of freedom in it.
St Bernard's sermon for this feast expresses the theology of Mary's place in the Church in a way that even the thickest of us can understand. He calls her the aquaduct which channels the Fountain of Life to us. That is exactly right. Mary's glory is to be the Mother of God, but her gaze and ours are directed towards our Saviour.
That is where my distraction began. We know that Gregory was probably blue-eyed with fair hair himself (actually, he was pretty bald on top, but the hair at the sides was long and carefully curled, after the Roman fashion of the day). Both his parents were tall, so there is a distinct possibility that Gregory was, too. I wonder whether he saw in those young Anglo-Saxons a vision of himself in boyhood and thought what might have become of him had he not been a Christian? Our most important acts are sometimes prompted by thoughts and feelings that barely make a ripple on the surface of our conscious mind. Could it have been so with Gregory? I don't know, but I spent a pleasant couple of minutes wondering and I daresay I shall spend the rest of the day scrutinising some of my own motivations.
There's the rub. Distractions in themselves are neither good nor bad. It is what we do with them that counts.
(Note for the historically curious: Gregory had portraits of his parents frecoed on to the walls of his monastery of St Andrew's on the Caelian Hill and the monks had a portrait done of Gregory himself: these were seen about three hundred years later by John the Deacon, who described all three. Gordianus, Gregory's father, had "light eyes" and his mother, Silvia, had blue eyes. Gordianus's hair-colour was described as "light tawny". Clearly, neither was olive-skinned with dark eyes, as we might have expected.)