What do we mean by praying for the sick? I suspect answers to that question would range from, "I'm praying for someone to get better (which may or may not require what is, humanly speaking, a miracle) to "I'm not really sure, but I believe it matters". Personally, I have no problem with either answer, although when, for example, we are asked to pray for someone who is very old, has a terminal disease and is in great pain, I am less inclined to ask for a miracle of physical healing than for the grace of peace and a good death when God wills. Is that a cop out? Possibly, but then, I think that when we are praying for the sick that is precisely what we are doing: praying for those who are too ill to pray themselves, rather than praying for any specific good for them.
Just recently I have myself experienced how difficult it is to pray when pain and sleeplessness upset the normal order of things (and in my case we are not talking about something terminal, at least I hope we're not!). It has been a great comfort to know that others have been praying, that every Hour of the Divine Office has concluded with a prayer for "absent brethren". But I believe in the power of prayer. Someone who doesn't, or is afraid that prayer might change things, might be resentful (has anyone asked Christopher Hitchens how he feels about all those Christians who are praying for him?). Should that stop us praying? Does our respect for others mean that we should not pray for someone who does not want to be prayed for?
On the evidence of yesterday's Mass readings, the answer should be a resounding "no". As Christians we have a duty of prayer, however hostile the law or public opinion may be. Abraham's intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18.20-32) is a type of the kind of intercessory prayer in which we engage. When Abraham bargained with God on behalf of others, did he really believe that ten just men would be found, or was he just trying to turn God's anger away from the city by wearing him down? In other words, was Abraham taking on himself the duty of prayer which the citizens of Sodom had shrugged off?
Today is the feast of SS Joachim and Anne, parents of Our Lady and hence grandparents of Jesus. It is a day for thanking God for grandparents but also a day for thinking about how we pray for the elderly. Old age often brings sickness, loneliness, money worries and other cares which get in the way of prayer. We who can must pray for them and leave the results to God, for he knows best. Sodom was not spared, but if it had been perhaps Abraham would not have become our Father in Faith and we would not have had that Son of Abraham who is also the Son of God.
We take the Eucharist for granted. Shock! Horror! How could anyone take so sublime a Gift for granted? Isn’t that verging on the blasphemous? Well, no. We are meant to take the Eucharist for granted, as children take for granted the fact that their parents will provide for them. That doesn’t mean we should be in the least bit sloppy or casual, or assume we have “rights” in the matter. The Eucharist is a gift of God, which he gives to whom he chooses, how he chooses and when he chooses. It never ceases to amaze that God should give the Eucharist even to me. I take comfort from the fact that the gifts of God are irrevocable, which is why we can take the Eucharist for granted: it is given to the Church till the end of time and is, as Newman said, “a higher gift than grace”.
A higher gift than grace: that is worth thinking about. Truly we should approach the Eucharist with awe as well as gratitude. It pains me that so many people fail to answer “amen” when they receive the Sacred Host or Precious Blood. It pains me when people talk about “the bread and wine”, as though they were no more than that. It pains, but it does not surprise; and I rather suspect it does not surprise God, either. Bread and wine are so ordinary; eating and drinking are such ordinary activities. It is easy to forget that they are both transformed and transformative because of what the Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper. Today, as at every Mass, we shall be invited to approach the altar of God and “taste and see that the Lord is good”. As always, we take the invitation and the Gift for granted. That is what it means to be a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit and a tabernacle of the Lord.
Today's chapter of RB makes two things clear: there must have been a lot of children in the monasteries of Benedict's time, and many of them must have been poor. No one writes legislation for theoretical or unlikely situations (unless a teeny weeny bit mad). Benedict was writing about a genuine consecration to God, just as Samuel was consecrated in the Old Testament. In both cases, it was a consecration decided on by the parent. We find the idea of anyone deciding a child's future repugnant, although it is not so very long since it was taken for granted, at least in the case of girls, that Papa would make the important decisions regarding marriage, etc. Is there anything in this chapter of value, or is it all to be consigned to history?
First, I think we need to tackle the obvious. Benedict alone among early writers allows parents to make binding decisions about their children's future. More commonly, the parent's choice has later to be ratified by the child or it is rendered null and void (cfr Basil of Caeserea, Augustine). The wrapping of the child's hand in the altar cloth not only emphasizes the consecration, it also emphasizes the fact that the child is reduced to a chattel, a mere thing. Sadly, Benedict paved the way for later legislation that must, in many instances, have proved heartbreaking. Gregory II (726) forbade any child offered to a monastery in this way ever to leave it. For every happy little Bede there may have been an unhappy little Beowulf.
Child oblation is no longer permitted, thank God, but we can exert influence on other people; so perhaps a little conscience-searching about how we limit the choices of others may be in order. We can bully others both actively and passively, and we use comforting little phrases like "it's for your own good" to hide from ourselves the enormity of what we are doing. That is worth thinking about, especially if we have a pet project or an idea we are keen to implement, whether at home or at work.
Secondly, but importantly, there is some severe teaching about private ownership and the potential for discord that "having expectations" can create. Benedict touches on this theme at several points in the Rule, and experience confirms his wisdom. To look outside the community for the supply of this or that creates inequalities. Those who do not have rich relations or friends are put at a disadvantage, and that is not what Benedict wants. "We are all one in Christ and serve alike under the standard of the same Lord." It is dangerously easy to try to compensate for a "deprived" childhood or a temporary unhappiness by amassing material things. What Benedict is asking of us is to look beyond the material. In the monastery that means to accept the demands of a common life which may entail going without what we think we need as well as what we would like. How hard that can be at times!
Finally, I would like to draw attention to one small point I think deeply significant. Benedict mentions only the children of the nobility and of the poor. That covers everyone in the sixth century, does it not? No, not quite. Slaves could not become monks; they had to be set free first. The same is true of us. Only a truly free person can become a Benedictine. Freedom is more than just the absence of constraint. The roots of the English word go back to an Indo-European term connected with love and friendship, so that St Paul's statement that "for freedom Christ has set us free" has many levels of meaning. Accordingly, a question for today might be, how free am I? How Benedictine am I?
I love Lent. I suspect every monk and nun feels the same sort of exhilaration when Ash Wednesday dawns. There is something immensely attractive about the simplicity of it all. The liturgy becomes very spare: no musical instruments to sustain our voices; no flowers to adorn church or oratory; and only the rich, sombre tones of Lenten purple for vestments and furnishings. Food becomes simpler, too, because we fast every day during Lent (except Sundays, of course). If there is a downside, it is that everybody is so determined to be helpful, to perform little acts of kindness and generosity, that one has to be always on the alert. (Opportunities for almsgiving inside a monastery have to take the form of service because we don't have money to give.)
Part of this year's Lenten chapter talk may be heard on our Podcast page, and there are a few notes on Lent itself on our Liturgy page. One custom we did not mention is that of reading through in its entirety one book of the scriptures as assigned by the superior. This year at Hendred we shall be reading Genesis and Deuteronomy. Without doubt, we shall discover new things in each, just as Lent itself will teach us a great deal.
The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten quality, says St Benedict. It ought always to be open to the possibilities God offers us. Perhaps that is one lesson we all have to learn anew every year. The simplicity to which we return during Lent is an important part of what we have to learn. As we shed our superfluities, we also shed the carapace with which we try to protect ourselves from God. It is a thought worth pondering as we contemplate what to do for Lent.
Today's section of RB ends with Nihil amori Christi praeponere: to prefer nothing to the love of Christ or to put nothing before the love of Christ. That sums up the whole purpose of monastic life. Those who are not monks and nuns may well ask why we Benedictines make such a fuss about what should be true of any Christian. The answer is, of course, that we don't. Chapter 4 of RB has its origins in a collection of precepts for Christian living which would have been used in adult baptismal catechesis. It is, in highest degree, lay spirituality, a reminder of the centrality of baptism, of our immense dignity as children of God. On a murky Monday morning when a multiplicity of urgent tasks presses upon us it is heartening to recall that this isn't "all there is". For each and every one of us there is something more, a share in the life of God himself.
(Note: this week's podcast will not go up until this evening. Blame those urgent tasks referred to above.)
RB 20 On Reverence in Prayer follows naturally from RB 19 On the Discipline of Singing the Psalms. Our practice of learning the Rule by heart means that these few sentences have been prayed and pondered throughout our monastic lives. They have become quite literally a core teaching (from the Latin word for "heart"), something to which we return again and again. They remind us first of the tremendous majesty of God, the God whom we came into the monastery to seek and serve. God is indeed our loving Father, but there should always be awe and reverence in His presence. When we come into the oratory we show by our whole demeanour that we are in the presence of the Most Holy. The oratory is the most important room in the house, the place where we perform our most important work, receive the Sacraments, take our profoundest need, our deepest joys and sorrows. The heart of each us must also be an oratory where Christ prays unceasingly to the Father.
Benedict reminds us that the dispositions for prayer come from within: profound humility . . . pure devotion . . . purity of heart . . . tears of compunction. Read those lines in Latin and the alliteration alone will make them memorable. They are the attitudes of one who has learned that she is nothing and is no longer bothered by consciousness of her own nothingness: her gaze is fixed on Another. There is a part of the eye where there is no distortion, where we see perfectly. It is called the fovea. Prayer is like cultivating the fovea of the heart, focusing on God alone.
If that seems a bit high falutin' for us as Benedictines, remember that parody of the psalm, "My eyes are always on myself. My feet are always in the snare". We learn principally by our mistakes. As St Bernard liked to point out, humility is usually learned only after we have plunged into the depths of pride. Prayer is a gift that is poured into our hearts at a time of God's choosing and in God's way, often when we have privately decided that this prayer business is not all it is cracked up to be and we'd be better off doing something useful. When we are "disgusted" with prayer, that's when we must stick at it.
There is, as we all know, another temptation, though it tends to come at the earlier stages of getting to know God, the temptation of revelling in moments of joy and consolation, delighting in the gift rather than the One who gives. Benedict will have none of it. Our prayer is "always to be short and pure unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God's grace" and in community "very short". We have little difficulty in making our prayer short, but do we have what it takes to make it pure? That is the challenge of today's chapter. Yet again Benedict has reminded us that however long we may have lived in the monastery, we are beginners all our lives. Prayer is new every day.
It is no accident that St Benedict follows his lengthy treatment of the abbot with a chapter on the role of the brethren in giving counsel. Today and tomorrow we shall trace the outlines of his thought, and depending on our age and which side of bed we got out of, we'll probably flatter ourselves that Benedict agrees with our view of the subject. O dangerous complacency! Mistress Shallow, look again! Benedict was not a democrat, nor was he a champion of youth over and against the middle-aged and elderly. He was, however, remarkably clear-eyed about the needs of a community and sensitive to the way in which the Holy Spirit tends to whisper rather than shout. The abbot cannot abdicate responsibility to the community but must listen to everyone, even (especially) those held in least regard. Wisdom is often found where least expected, as every superior can attest. Of particular interest in the passage we read today (RB 3. 1-6) are the guidelines Benedict gives for the way in which counsel is to be sought and given. What we are to aim at is a process, consultation, not a specific result, consensus. That is why courtesy and charity are essential. If we disagree, then we must learn to disagree agreeably. I do not need to remind the community that respect for others must flow over into respect for what they say. We must listen to what is being said (which may not be what we think is being said) and that requires effort and attention our part. Let us resolve to try to become better listeners to each other, in the hope that in so doing we may become more attentive to the Holy Spirit. As St Benedict reminds us in the Prologue, we need to bend close the ears of our heart if we are to hear the voice of God which cries out to us every day. Let us not forget that, sadly, becoming harder of hearing can afflict us as we grow older . . . Scroll down to comment and please be patient while the comment box loads. You can edit the "Guest" tag to use your own name or nickname.
Today's section of RB 64 acts as an examination of conscience for anyone entrusted with any kind of authority or responsibility, not just monastic superiors. Benedict reminds the abbot that he must constantly reflect on the kind of obligation he has undertaken: service of the community must never become automatic, unthinking, because there is a danger that pride may creep in. Instead, the abbot is to be learned in the law of God and a wise steward. Note the qualities Benedict singles out: the abbot is to be chaste, sober and merciful. In other words, his emotions mustn't run away with him, there must be no self-indulgence of any kind. For the abbot there is no "off-duty" time. Benedict next considers the question of wrong-doing in community and gives the abbot some guidelines for dealing with it: kindness and mercy are the keynotes, but there is to be no weakness or collusion. The translation of verse 15 is one I have changed my mind about over the years. I think we should understand Benedict more literally, "the abbot should take pains to be more loved than feared." Yes, there should be some godly fear in our love for the abbot because he represents Christ in the monastery and is entrusted with maintaining the spiritual vigour of the community. Finally, Benedict paints a picture of the perfect superior: not moody, anxious, given to extremes, obstinate, jealous or too suspicious, never driving others too hard but always encouraging them to do better. One can see why RB has become a fashionable teaching aid for managers! Let's remember, however, that it is given to us to make us grow spiritually and to enable our communities to be places where the love of God is made tangible. If each of us takes this chapter to heart, not only the monastery but the world in which we live will be, not exactly transformed perhaps, but different from what it is now. It will have become a little more what it is called to be.Scroll down to comment.
It may be rash to comment on RB 64, Benedict's second consideration of the role of the abbot, but anyone entrusted with the care of a community has a duty to reflect on the nature of the task; and I think there is something in this chapter for all of us because, in a sense, we must all be abbots for each other, must all take responsibility for one another and for the community.
The first sentence of today's section is challenging to the point of being troubling. The criteria for appointment of an abbot are not those of liberal western democracies. Benedict is conscious of the role of the Holy Spirit and allows, first, for methods of election that would surprise today (reread the account Jocelin of Brokeland gives of Abbot Sampson's election at Bury and you'll see the senior vel sanior pars in action) and then requires qualities which would not necessarily impress a voter: goodness of life and wisdom in teaching. Clearly, the abbot is to be so shaped and formed by the Gospel and the Rule that he becomes a living embodiment of both. As Benedict says elsewhere, the abbot is to teach by every means available to him, adapting and accommodating himself to the needs of the brethren. That is daunting and would be overwhelming were it not that we know grace is offered in accordance with our need. Whatever our personal limitations, we can trust God.
Benedict next adds a few sentences that are often overlooked. He specifically mentions the role of "the local bishop" and "neighbouring abbots and Christians" in ensuring that a community lives up to what it has professed. In other words, the kind of scrutiny we now tend to think of in connection with the Quadriennial Visitation was for Benedict much more of an ongoing scrutiny by the people among whom the community lived. That is worth thinking about in the context of our life today. Here much of our life is open to scrutiny, and we can all think of occasions when visitors and guests have made useful (and sometimes not so useful) observations. The point I want to stress, however, is that this kind of scrutiny is something we should welcome, should see as a way in which the Lord takes care of us and expresses his will for us. It is also something those we live among need to think about, too. We have responsibility for one another and we can't dodge it, however difficult or disagreeable it may seem at times.
St Bernard, whose feast we keep today, was an incomparable abbot, blessed with a charm and eloquence that the centuries have not lessened, but he was first and foremost a monk, one who sought to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. That is what people saw and admired in the early Cistercian monasteries and explains why they had such a huge impact on society. I pray that we too may be equally focused on following Christ through a life of generous fidelity. We can safely leave the outcome to him. Scroll down to comment.
Today we celebrate the Assumption of Our Lady. Sadly, because we shall be joining the parish for Mass, we shall not be singing the Assumption Day alleluia, one of the most glorious to be found in the Gradual, but that lack notwithstanding, we shall do our best to "sing to the Lord with cheerful voice" throughout the day. The doctrine of the Assumption confuses some people who are convinced that it means that Mary did not die. On the contrary, the doctrine of the Assumption is actually all about death and the promise of Resurrection. Mary's privileged sharing in the merits of her Son did not exempt her from dying or from the necessity of being redeemed by him. In Munificentissimus Deus, promulgated on 1 November, 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a dogma of the Catholic Faith. Similarly, the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium that "the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things (n. 59)." It is a hopeful doctrine, as today's vodcast makes clear. (No podcast this week, because we have given you pictures instead.) Scroll down to comment, because we still haven't cured the commenting gap!
One of the striking things about the Annunciation, to me at least, is that it is so much a feast of youth. Mary herself was very young, yet not so young that she could not freely and joyfully accept the tremendous trust placed in her by God. Had she witheld her consent, failed through fear or self-concern to speak the word which would allow the Word of God to take flesh in her, would not the world have grown old and cold, a sadder and a sterner place? Instead, we have this wonderful sense of springtime come again, the sin of Adam and Eve forgotten in the hope that the promised birth of a Saviour confers. Through the ages poets and painters have tried to express the beauty of the Annunciation scene. This painting by Botticelli is more austere than most, yet at its centre is a theological statement of luminous simplicity. Mary and Gabriel do not touch: their gestures mark the moment of Jesus' conception, a conception achieved without human intermediary. Mary is no longer an ordinary Jewish girl, living obscurely in Nazareth. She is the Mother of God, and Gabriel kneels before the mystery.
Today an ash cross will be marked on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our liturgy will be stark and simple: the beautiful alleluias of other times will be silenced, there will be no musical instrument to sustain the chant, even the flowers will be removed from the oratory. The Lenten fast always comes as a shock to the system. To feel hunger is unusual in our culture, but by tonight we shall begin to recognize that we have eaten less than usual and tempers may be starting to fray. It is at that point that Lent really begins for us, the moment we are forced to recognize that we cannot do things by our own strength. All those laudable schemes to give up this or that or take on something extra to unite ourselves to the Passion of Christ will begin to look, not silly perhaps but certainly a little ambitious. What matters is not what we decide to do for Lent but what we allow the Lord to do with us. St Benedict's teaching is so wise and straightforward. He urges us to lead lives of surpassing purity and make up at this sacred season the negligences of other times but to do so with humility and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Our Lent should be joyful, for it should see Christ being formed anew in us.
It can be a very telling exercise to go through the Rule of St Benedict and note how often he refers to the will and what he has to say about it. Today's brief extract (RB 7.31-3) compares and contrasts self-will and the will of God. I think this Second Degree of Humility causes more trouble than most others! It is not that it is difficult to love God's will or prefer God's will to one's own, though heaven knows that can be a struggle at times, it is that that we are often confused about what God's will is. How do we distinguish our own will from his? We have all experienced strong drawings or attractions that we thought were God's will, only to discover that they were in fact our own will dressed up in a little borrowed piety. Benedict gives a few pointers: following the voice of authority, the pursuit of obligation or necessity. They are grey and undramatic, as life frequently is. Perhaps it would be more helpful to think back to the day when we knew we must become a nun: no trumpets sounded, we simply knew that this was what we had to do, and we embraced the unknown, sure only of God's involvement in our choice.
Last night, at the Friends' Committee meeting, someone asked a good question: if people are to give money to the monastery appeal they'll want to know that the community will survive, so what guarantee do they have of its continuance and growth? My off-the-cuff answer, that there's no guarantee, is the starting-point for our reflection today. People often ask how viable we are and we usually respond by reference to the Gamaliel principle. We started with nothing, really nothing, yet here we are today, persevering in the life of prayer, with a number of worthwhile projects to our name and abounding in hope. Our questioner spoke out of love and concern for the community, but I wonder whether he was asking the right question — and whether I gave the right answer to the question he put. In human terms, there is no guarantee of any community's continuance. Bigger monasteries than ours, with a lot more in the way of human and financial resources, have dissolved because of internal tensions and divisions. It is not surprising therefore that someone should question the chances of a small and poor community such as ours. Even the Benedictine Confederation tends to think in terms of numbers, which means some old and famous establishments now look distinctly fragile. But — and it is a big but — none of us would want to think in purely human terms. The survival of a community is analogous to the certainty we have about being faithful to our profession. When we make our vows, we do so with confidence because we are not relying on ourselves or any human agency but on the utter reliability of God. In the same way, it is God who called our community into being, who sustains us today, and will do with us what he wills. We know he will never forsake or fail us, though he may lead us down paths we would rather not travel. That is the answer I should have given our questioner but didn't. And the question he should have asked? The only one worth asking, which none of us can answer: how holy is your community, how generously and faithfully do you respond to God's grace?
We complete our reading of Benedict's chapter on the admission of new community members today. I am struck, as always, by the uncomplicated way in which an understanding of human psychology is wedded to a spiritual purpose. The constant testing and probing of vocation, sometimes in ways the candidate might consider baffling ("the newcomer . . . should not be granted an easy entrance") or even contradictory (to keep someone hammering at the door for four or five days is not obviously welcoming), the frankness with which the difficulties of monastic life are to be pointed out, and the watchful care to be exercised by those responsible for the novice's formation, all show Benedict's seriousness of purpose: is this person truly seeking God? The programme the novice must follow is designed to lead to a mature and responsible decision, and there is no hiding the renunciations that will be involved ("henceforth he will have no power even over his own body"). But there is a wonderful warmth also. At profession the anonymous newcomer becomes "the new brother" and is united in prayer with the whole community. Sometimes in the joy and enthusiasm of hearing God's call for the first time the idea of being tested can seem alien, and many a monastic vocation has been lost in the humdrum of everyday life in the monastery. The point is, if we are seeking God we must go where he is to be found; that may well mean abandoning our own ideas of where he ought to be found. It may be in choir or our own cells that God awaits us, in the library or the garden, in the doctor's waiting room or at the kitchen sink. Where he is, we must be also.
Today's entrance antiphon calls upon us to rejoice with the angels in celebrating a feast in honour of all the saints who did battle under the Rule of St Benedict and together praise the Son of God. People sometimes smile at the way in which we Benedictines humbly acknowledge the countless thousands who have attained holiness through fidelity to the Rule of St Benedict, but that antiphon should put an end to any tendency to smugness. Fidelity isn't something we can take for granted. The opening prayer of the Mass reminds us that we must pray for the grace of perseverance. Perseverance doesn't sound very heroic, does it? Far better surely to pray for something a bit more spectacular, something more obviously difficult? I think you know that true fidelity, true perseverance, can demand huge things of both individuals and communities. For a Benedictine, today's feast is a reminder that we depend utterly upon God. Let us be glad and rejoice that here at Hendred we can daily experience the truth of that. Take as a thought to accompany you through the day the words of the Preface which, as so often, express the theology of the feast, and pray especially for our oblates, associates, friends and benefactors that they may unite with us in praising the Son of God.
Preface of the Day
Truly it is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.
You raised up the holy abbot Benedict, as a teacher of the steps of humility by which a countless number of his sons and daughters have reached the love which drives out all fear.
Preferring nothing to the love of Christ, they recognized Christ in the sick and in the stranger, in the poor and in the pilgrim.
Praising you seven times by day, and even in the night, they placed all their hope in you, and taught us never to despair of your mercy.
Even today, their lives distill a holy wisdom, inflame us with longing for life everlasting, and inspire us to sing your praise in the joy of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, in the sight of the angels, with heart and mind in harmony with our voices, we exalt your glory forever, as we ceaselessly proclaim: holy, holy, holy . . .
Has it ever struck you as odd that the gospel of the day is the genealogy of Christ? What does that tell us about Mary, whose birthday we celebrate? Why did the compilers of the lectionary not choose one of those passages which give us a glimpse of Mary's personality, the Wedding Feast at Cana for instance, or the Finding of the Child Jesus? Instead we have this rather dry and obviously stylized account of Jesus' ancestry, into which Mary is inserted almost as an after-thought as the wife of Joseph and mother of the Christ. Could that be precisely the point? St Bernard calls Mary the aquaduct who channels the Fountain of Life to us: no matter how glorious the aquaduct, it is the Water that we must focus on. Todays feast reminds us powerfully that we hold Mary in high honour because she is the Mother of God. The liturgy underlines both this great dignity of Mary and her sharing in our common humanity. Looked at in that light, what possible gospel could we have but the genealogy of our Saviour?
This glorious feast may remind us of many things: visits to St Peter's or St Paul's-outside-the-Walls, perhaps; memories of popes of our own time; the liturgical antiphons for today; sweet peas before the altar; the smell of Basilica incense; even the earnest exhortations of dutiful parish priests to "contribute generously to Peter Pence". And in the midst of this thick clutter of remembrance, there is the fact that the Lord chose two quite flawed people to be leaders in His Church. There is Peter, so weak and wobbly at times, his very volatility seeming to disqualify him from any special office. But the Lord does not see as we see, He looks at the heart; and He found Peter's exactly what He desired. Then Paul, such an awkward man, so full of argumentative self-righteousness, who would have thought that he would be so captivated by Christ that he would spend the remainder of his life meditating on the mystery of redemption and preaching it to all and sundry? There is hope here for us all, and a warning. Flawed as we are, we too have a role to play in the work of salvation; yet we must remember that we too may be called to martyrdom. As St Augustine remarks in another context, "Can the way be so very hard which countless others have trodden before us?"
This lovely feast, which has given us the Magnificat, has also given us an insight into the family life of Christ. There is something singularly sweet and gracious about the way in which Mary, herself preganant with Jesus, makes the difficult journey to help her older cousin; but there was nothing particularly sweet or gracious about the journey she must have made to do so. And when Mary and Elizabeth meet, there is no recounting of hardships on the way or grumblings about the aches and pains of pregnancy. Instead, from Mary comes a wonderful stream of praise drawn from the scriptures and from Elizabeth that humble, wondering response: "Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?" John leaps for joy in his mother's womb at the nearness of his God. Only Jesus Himself apparently gives no sign. The Word of God is silent and still, awaiting the moment when He will reveal Himself, speak His gracious word of forgiveness and leap upon the Cross to redeem the sins of all. As Zephaniah prophesied long ago, God will rejoice over us with shouts of joy and dance for us as on a day of festival.
Pentecost is the great feast of the Church. It is easy to think about the gifts of the Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, and become "lost in the numbers", so to say. What we often forget is that we already have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us by virtue of our baptism. Curiously, it is our ritual of death that makes this most clear. We bow towards the dead person's body, we sprinkle it with holy water, we place the Easter candle at its head and when finally we come to lay it in a coffin, we place on the coffin the Book of the Gospels — all these are powerful reminders that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that gives life, that makes the Church.
The Annunciation is surely a favourite feast, and it is a special joy to be able to celebrate it during paschaltide. Mary is such an encouragement to anyone trying to live a Christian life — a reminder that we do not have to do great things for God but rather allow him to do great things in us. To outsiders, her life must have seemed quite unremarkable, although it had its share of difficulties: an undistinguished marriage followed by the unusually prompt birth of a son who caused much grief to his parents and eventually died a criminal's death. Nothing very wonderful in that, except, of course, that the Son in question was Jesus our Saviour and his death on the cross was not the end of the story. The holiness of Mary is indeed hidden, but it is a holiness stronger and more perfect than that of any other human being who has ever lived. (We are not doing a podcast until Saturday as our voices are all a bit scratchy after having sung and sung during the Octave!)
By a happy coincidence we are reading St Benedict's chapter on the care of the sick on the eve of Palm Sunday and the (transferred) feast of St Jospeh. During Holy Week we shall all be anxious to concentrate on the unfolding story of our redemption in Christ; but we know, without being superstitious or pessimistic, that something, or more likely someone, will probably wreck our plans. Perhaps that is why we need to hear this chapter of the Rule today. Benedict is so often characterized as saying that nothing should come before the Work of God. Quite right: nothing should come before the Work of God. But there are times when we are not sure what the Work of God is at this particular moment. As Benedict reminds us in this chapter, and in the Tools of Good Works, we are not to turn away when someone needs our love or service. We might want to be in choir, but if, under obedience, we are serving a sick member of the community, we can be sure that that is where we will find God — and nowhere else. St Joseph is the type of the quiet man who does his duty faithfully, without grumbling that things have not turned out as he would have chosen. He gave up much to be the adoptive father of Jesus, but in so doing he gained everything. (Our Palm Sunday podcast is scheduled to go up sometime on Sunday.)
We are a little more than half-way through Lent: a good time to reflect on the value or otherwise of the penances we adopted at the beginning. I suspect that for some of us our good intentions are already looking a bit like New Year resolutions, charming folies de jeunesse or mere distant memories. We all know that what we intend to do is not nearly as important as responding, generously and whole-heartedly, to the demands God actually makes of us. Usually, these demands come to us via others, and that is where the difficulty lies. For myself, I had not expected to have quite so many people requiring time and energy, and I know that I have sometimes been grumpy and grudging because their demands conflicted with what I wanted to do. That, of course, is the whole point. It is easy to be a "saint" when we can lay down how and what life should be like; but real saints are made in difficult and demanding situations. Lent may not have made saints of us yet, but it is giving all of us the opportunity to become such.
There seems to be a deep-seated longing in every human heart for the possibility of making a fresh start, a new beginning which cancels out the muddles and mistakes of the past. Lent is just such a possibility, offered anew every year. Perhaps that is why Benedict saw it in such joyful terms. We enter upon this season of fasting and abstinence, prayer, penitence and alsmgiving with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward with eager longing to the great feast of Easter. Let us make the most of our opportunity.
The obedience of an automaton or slave is completely unworthy of a Benedictine, or indeed any human being. Chapter 5 of the Rule which we begin today is extremely clear on this point. We are free people, and our obedience is given to the superior as to God because "we hold nothing dearer to us than Christ" and because "we are spurred on by love to attain everlasting life." If that were not enough, Benedict appeals to our sense of honour, the vows we have made, "the holy service we have professed". Only incidentally does he mention "fear of hell" and "the glory of eternal life", presumably because the blockheads among us (you and me) need a reward and punishment system at times to keep us up to the mark. The whole emphasis of this chapter is on our eagerness to seek and find God in the everyday reality of our lives. Superiors are not always wise, their decisions not always just. We are to remember that imperfect circumstances provide perfect conditions for becoming truly humble, truly one with Christ.
Maurus and Placid are models of perfect discipleship, while the end of RB 2 is more concerned with perfect abbacy. There is, of course, a connection between the two. Just as the young monk's obedience enables him to accomplish exrtaordinary things, so the abbot's fidelity to the office he has received enables him to order all things wisely, never overlooking the material needs of the community, but always placing its spiritual needs first. Just as the disciple's obedience proceeds from a desire to hear the Word of God (the word obedience has its roots in ob-audire, to listen hard), so the abbot's ability to command proceeds from his attentiveness to the Word of God. Notice how often at the end of chapter 2 Benedict mentions the judgement of God, the examination the Shepherd will make into the flock entrusted to the abbot's care. Whatever our role in community, it is this sense of living always in the presence of God, of being always alert to the promptings of grace, that is our best guarantee of fulfilling the task given us, "to share by patience in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve to share also in his kingdom". (RB Prol. 50)
Today we finish reading the Prologue to the Rule. We have been reminded that our way of life is given us that we may obtain purity of heart in this life and heaven in the next. Perhaps, like me, you find that distinction a little false — a bit like the old Catechism answer which assured us we were created to know, love and serve God in this life and be happy with him forever in the next. I always wanted to protest that God wants us to be happy with him in this life, too! Possibly if I had thought more about the meaning of purity of heart I would have understood things better. The first Beatitude affirms that the pure in heart shall see God. If that is true — and I believe it is — the promise is for our own time as well as hereafter. A pure heart sees as God sees. That is a humbling and inspiring thought.
Benedict's instructions regarding clothing and footwear are quite straightforward and, among nuns at least, are usually adhered to unless someone has some special need. So, each of us has two habits, one for summer and one for winter, a pair of shoes and a pair of sandals, with wellies for wet weather (Benedict did not live in Britain) and hiking boots for stomping the Downs. The difficulty comes with the socks and gloves and other little items that are "supplementary". It is dangerously easy to start amassing things we do not really need, but without which life would not be so comfortable. Life in a monastery is not meant to be comfortable; but we should be careful about how we judge the "comforts" of others. Be tender towards your sister's need, and realistic about your own. Better to ask for a hot water bottle o' nights than risk hypothermia — or the cold and unlovely pride which takes delight in its own renunciations.
St Benedict's chapter on manual labour, which we begin reading today, is a remarkably straightforward expression of the value of work. Not for Benedict the false "mysticism" that informs some writing about work (usually from those so fascinated by the subject that they can sit and look at it for hours). Instead, we have an honest recognition that work needs to be done and is an essential ingredient of the spiritual life. That is not always easy to accept. How many a fledgling monastic vocation has foundered on being shown a broom or a hoe! In the monastery, we do not choose our work: it is given to us; and sometimes, seemingly impossible things are asked of us (see chapter 68). What matters is that, whatever our task, we accept it as the perfect means of forming in us dispositions pleasing to God. Our whole life is to be a search for him. No point in wanting to be rapt in choir if God is waiting for us among the soapsuds in the scullery.
St Gertrude the Great is one of those Benedictine saints who are too little known in the British Isles. Born in 1256, she entered Helfta as a child oblate at the age of five — like St Bede the Venerable — and also like St Bede, was placed under the care of another saint, in her case, St Mechtilde. Her early life was devoted to study but at the age of twenty-five she experienced the first of that series of revelations or visions which, in the words of her biographer, turned her "from being a grammarian to being a theologian". It is worth pondering that phrase. Whatever we think of the more extraordinary manifestations of grace in her life (and British Benedictines, by and large, are slightly uncomfortable in the presence of the extraordinary), we too need to become theologians in the truest and best sense: we are all of us called not merely to think about God, to read and write about God, but, as the psalmist says, "to taste and see that the Lord is good". Tasting and seeing. All of us. Now there's an extraordinary thought. (Note on the illustration: this statue of St Gertrude the Great comes from the choir at Arouca, Portugal. It is wooden, painted to look like stone, and was done in the eighteenth century by a sculptor from Braga. The last time I saw it, Portugal was in the throes of a revolution.)
This beautiful feast of All Saints is a wonderful reminder of what we are now, and what we shall be in the future. Today we honour not only those saints whose names we know, but also those countless other saints whose holiness is more hidden. The communion of saints is something we enjoy now, and we know that it works on the horizontal as well as the vertical plane. So, today, let us ask the prayers not only of the great ones of the Church, but also the prayers of those who have revealed to us something of God's glory and compassion. Let us ask the prayers of our friends in heaven and on earth, for each of them is first and foremost a friend of God.
Three times a year we read through chapters eight to twenty of the Rule. Three times a year we listen to Benedict's arrangement of psalmody and lessons for the Divine Office with a kind of glazed awareness that most monasteries have adapted Benedict's original schema to one of their own devising. Is there any point in listening again and again to a liturgical code few adhere to nowadays? Would we not do better to omit all the detail of the preceding twelve chapters and skip to the magnificent teaching on prayer in chapter twenty? Perhaps the divine is in the detail. We need to be reminded how our prayer in common has to have a structure; how that structure unites us with the Universal Church — we sing "according to the Roman custom" — and is itself a facet of the "disciplina" that helps us towards God. The liturgical chapters are not easy listening, nor is the quest for God easy. The "disciplina psallendi" is part and parcel of our way towards Him.
Benedict's sixth chapter, which we begin reading today, is more than just a bald summary of the uses and abuses of speech. It is a reminder of the necessity of silence in our lives. We need physical silence just as we need sleep: to process what is going on around us, to recoup our energy, to confront those aspects of ourselves we spend a lot of time trying to avoid. We also need moral silence, abstention even from good things, to allow the life of the Spirit to grow in us. But we can find all sorts of ruses to dodge that kind of silence, pretending that we are quiet simply because we are not actually speaking and ignoring the fact that we spend an inordinate amount of time reading the newspaper/writing emails/or whatever our form of interior noisiness takes. We can also abuse silence by assuring ourselves that we are "observing the rule of silence" when charity demands that we speak "the good word which is above the best gift". Silence as laziness, evasion and cowardice is not at all what Benedict meant.
Has it ever struck you that, although Easter is a central theme of the Rule, with even the times of meals being arranged in relation to it, St Benedict says very little about Christ's Passion, save to mention in the Prologue that we "share by patience in the sufferings of Christ"? Unlike some later saints, he dwells on the Resurrection and the glory that is to come, rather than on the horrors of the Cross. The author of "The Dream of the Rood" seems to have had something of the same understanding, and although the extract we read at Midday Prayer will indeed mention the blood and the nails, we shall be left with the vision of the victorious young Warrior and the awe inspired in the wood of the Cross which bore him. Today's feast is a celebration of triumph. Let us celebrate it with joy and thanksgiving — a sober and restrained joy, of course, because today also marks one of those turning points in the Rule when we begin the "Little Lent" of fasting until we come to the"Great Lent" that leads to Easter.
Very soon we shall be in retreat. You may wonder why contemplative nuns should need a retreat. Isn't monastic life itself a continual retreat? I think the answer may be found in St Benedict's chapter On the Observance of Lent. There we have an excellent guide to what a retreat should be, written long before our Jesuit friends made life complicated and introduced one or two slightly foreign notions. Like Lent, a retreat is a time for purifying our lives of all that is not God or falls short of his glory, an opportunity to review our lives and make the changes which at other times we are too busy or indolent to make. It requires some effort on our part, but the emphasis is not on some kind of muscular attempt to take the kingdom of heaven by storm. It is more a change of focus. Benedict exhorts us to give ourselves more completely to prayer, to wash away the negligences of other times, to stint ourselves of some legitimate pleasures, but to do all joyfully, "with the joy of the Holy Spirit". Our lives can be busy and distracted, with apparently irreconcilable demands pulling us this way and that. The doorbell or telephone rings, the email pings through the ether, the letter lands on the mat, and we know we must do our best to meet the need. A retreat is a privileged time when we may enjoy, so to say, a sabbath with God. So, to your prayer and your reading, please add a little rest, a little leisure, sheer delight in the presence of God and the beauty of his creation.
Today's solemnity is not the oldest feast of Our Lady, but it is the patronal feast of all churches dedicated to Mary without any other specific title; and it is a feast which puts before us the theology of Mary and the Church in a way no other quite manages. As Christ is "the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep", so Mary is the first-fruits of his redemptive work, an image of the Church as she will be when all is made new. No wonder that the liturgy should be full of joy and hope. The Alleluia for today is one of the most lyrical pieces of chant we ever sing, arching upwards as the windows of Chartres arch upwards, in boundless delight. Let us pray that our "minds will be in harmony with our voices" as we sing the praises of the Mother of God.
As Benedictines we can take special joy in this feast because it became popular in the western Church principally because of the influence of Cluny. It is, of course, a feast which has much to teach about contemplative prayer. With Peter, James and John, we too must make our way up the mountain into what Gregory of Nyssa called "the dazzling darkness of God". Like the apostles, we too must expect to experience confusion and fear; and there is every likelihood that our response to grace will be as lame and and blundering as Peter's. If God chooses to reveal something of himself, to grant us, so to say, a glimpse of his divinity, we will want to hold on to the experience. But we know that that is not the way of Christian prayer. We cannot contain God or tie him to our littleness in the way that we would like. If God allows us to taste even a little of his sweetness, let us rejoice, give thanks and make our way down the mountain to immerse ourselves once more in the tasks of everyday life. Here we must walk by faith, not by sight.
There is something immensely appealing about St James. His nickname, Boanerges, surely indicates that he had a hot temper or, at the very least, a "definite"way of speaking. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, together with his brother John he was one of Jesus' closest companions, a privileged witness of the Transfiguration and many other key events in Our Lord's life. He had a pushy mother, too, and one can't help wondering if there wasn't a little family conference before she approached Jesus with the request that her two sons should occupy the places of honour in his kingdom. A quick-tempered man, then, with a sharp tongue and a desire to get on in the world, who met Jesus and was transformed, dying a martyr's death. There must be hope for our conversion, too.
We keep today the feast of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, mindful that the Cambrai community shared their prison and only narrowly escaped the guillotine. I remember once being reprimanded for having said the community "luckily" escaped execution. Clearly, I undervalued the grace of martyrdom! In these days, when the words "martyr" and "martyrdom" are most commonly used as self-descriptions by suicide bombers or associated with minor ailments, it is worth reflecting on the Christian tradition of martyrdom. The word means "witness" and the Church has always acknowledged two types of martyrdom, the red martyrdom of shedding one's blood for Christ, and the white martyrdom of striving to live a holy life. Both martyrdoms are a witness to what we believe and hold most precious, and both require courage. We may not seek red martyrdom, but we are all encouraged to live holy lives. Living the monastic life ought to be a powerful witness to the primacy of God. If it also happens to be something of a "martyrdom" in any other sense — tough.
Up early yesterday and an early morning drive through the New Forest. Sang Lauds to a few startled ponies, then discovered I/we had forgotten the coffee flask — so our "festive" St Benedict's Day breakfast was suitably sixth century. No recriminations, just laughter and apologies all round: chapter 74, On Being Nice to Others, in action. That missing chapter of the Rule is worth pondering. Benedict gives us so many helps towards community living: offering opportunities for saying sorry and making amends when things go wrong, ritualising the courtesies of everyday life so that different backgrounds and temperaments cause as little friction as possible. But we often fall short of making community "a good place to be". We know perfectly well how we can observe every precept of the Rule yet miss its point. It is generally easy to do things for others, sometimes, alas, with an inner glow of beatific self-sacrifice and, dare I say it, self-satisfaction; but to overlook shortcomings and accept inconveniences with good grace is much harder. It can be harder still to acknowledge another's good points; hardest of all to hear their praises being sung by someone else. We need generosity of spirit to practise being genuinely nice to others.
This feast of Our Lady of Consolation will always be precious to us by association, and our prayers today will, in a special way, be with the community at Stanbrook. It is a good day to reflect on our vocation both as individuals and as a community. A vocation isn't something one either "has" or doesn't "have" (like measles): each of us is a vocation, uniquely called by God to be a part of the Body of Christ that no one else ever has been or ever will be. Our community, too, is a vocation, called to give glory to God as no other community ever has or will do. We should be awed by the grandeur of our calling and encouraged by the fact that God chooses such weak and wobbly creatures as ourselves. What Hopkins said of Mary is true even of us. Like her, our community "This one work has to do — Let all God's glory through." Let us pray that we may do our work well.
This brief chapter is a concentrated treatise on prayer. The Latin text is full of alliteration and other devices which make it easy to remember. Notice that there is nothing about "technique", merely a reminder that humility and respect are necessary preconditions for prayer, which is linked with "purity of heart" and "pure devotion". The pure heart, of course, is one which focuses all its energy, all its love, upon God. How strange, then, that "puritas cordis" should be the translation of the Greek "apatheia", the original, pagan meaning of which was "detachment". In the Desert Fathers as in Evagrius of Pontus, we find the word "apatheia" occurring again and again, and let's be honest, there are times when the athletic asceticism of the desert strikes a chill note. But the detachment of Christian Tradition is something of a paradox. We are "detached" because we are supremely attached to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, our prayer is an expression of this, and St Benedict warns that it needs few words, indeed none at all.
There is much that we should pray about today – those suffering from the effects of the floods, the sufferings of the peoples of Africa and the Middle East, those who have asked our prayers for particular needs – but let us remember that the most important prayer is the prayer of simple love and adoration. The Father knows what we need before we ask.
This morning we had Mass in St Amand's Chapel, Hendred House. It is always a privilege to worship where Catholics have worshipped for centuries – the communion of saints is a lived reality, after all – and especially in a house where descendants of St Thomas More still live. But today's feast is more than just a celebration of two great and holy men; it is an invitation to reflect on the demands of Christian living in a society which, by and large, has adopted secularised values. How easy it would have been for Fisher and More to submit to Henry VIII's demands as so many other good and sincere men had done. All sorts of reasons might have urged them to do so, including that most seductive argument, that it was for the common good. But as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, we have a duty to oppose tyranny. With the benefit of hindsight, tyranny is obvious. It is rarely so clear-cut to those caught up in events. Indeed, the person who stands up to the tyrant is often derided by his/her peers, silenced, ostracised (does not Aquinas say that one of the fruits of tyranny is to destroy friendship?), most painful of all perhaps, laughed at. There are many forms of tyranny in the world today, and Church institutions in their human aspect are not exempt. It takes wisom and humility to recognize tyranny, so we must pray for those gifts. We must also pray for courage. Whether it wear a crown or a cowl, tyranny must be opposed: we are God's servant first.
There is so much to like about today's Gospel. The unnamed woman who made her way into the house of Simon the Pharisee and, heedless of the stares and mutterings, expressed both her love and her sorrow so recklessly is at once an inspiration and a rebuke to us who are less generous, less courageous. All sin, no matter how "tiny", is a terrible rejection of God, something we need to repent of; but it is a still greater sin not to believe in God's readiness to forgive. To accept forgiveness is to acknowledge that we are indeed sinners, but forgiven sinners. Sometimes it is easier just to hug one's unloveliness to oneself. It is so much safer. The woman in the Gospel was supremely forgetful of herself, of her own "safety". That is why Jesus was able to see so clearly into her heart: she had not put up any barriers, nor was she going to hold anything back, not even her sin.
The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart is one of those feasts Benedictines sometimes get a little embarrassed by. There is so much syrupy devotionalism associated with childhood memories of the day that some people feel they have "grown out of it", as one might grow out of a passion for jelly babies or sherbert fountains. Nothing could be more wrong. Grown-up religion is exactly what this feast is about. If you go to Netley Abbey in Hampshire, you will see at the base of one of the ruined piers of the old Cistercian monastery the familiar symbol of Christ's wounded heart. It is a reminder that the whole superstructure of monasticism, or indeed any form of church organisation, is raised on something simple and strong: God's love for us - a love that led him to suffering and death. St Benedict certainly understood this. The constant exhortations in his Rule to "prefer nothing to the love of Christ" or to act "out of love of God" and so on, are put there precisely because he knew his followers would try to rob the cross of its power to shock and settle for a religion that was all niceness and good taste. The brutal fact is that the crucifixion wasn't nice nor in good taste. As monks and nuns we are called to follow a crucified Lord, and just as his heart reached out in compassion and love to all at the very moment of his greatest suffering, so must ours. Surely only someone who has really grown up can attempt that.