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New Year

January from the Très Riches HeuresFor many people, Christmas is over with the turkey and plum pudding on Christmas Day itself. For Christians, however, Christmas extends, first to the Octave (1 January) then to Epiphany (Twelfth Night), and only really comes to an end with the Presentation (2 February). So, the old year gives way to the new not just in the middle of the Christmas festivities, but very near their beginning. 1 January has always been linked to the Lord's birth, through the old feasts of the Circumcision or the Holy Name and, now again, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. It is good to begin the year with a reaffirmation of God's involvement in human history, a reminder that his plans for us are for weal not woe.

Holy Family

The comparatively modern feast of the Holy Family is difficult to celebrate liturgically — at any rate, many of us who live in monasteries tend to be unenthusiastic about it. The Christmas Octave contains so much, and already we are looking forward to the Octave Day, 1 January, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God (we are holding back this week's podcast until New Year's Eve for obvious reasons). Perhaps one difficulty stems from the fact that the very concept of "family" has undergone so many transitions. The Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph model isn't much help if one simply dwells on the perfection of its constituent members. Perhaps there is something there about growth in holiness which can be useful to us who are imperfect. Hope so.

Holy Innocents

No sooner does Christmas come than we are plunged into a round of lesser feasts: St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents, St Thomas of Canterbury. Looking at them, one is reminded that the cross is never very far from the crib, that the road from Bethlehem leads to Calvary. That is true of our own lives, too, of course. The murder of Benazir Bhutto will be commented on then slip from the headlines, but more thoughful people will reflect on the ways in which violence begets violence and will struggle to halt this seemingly unending cycle of death and destruction. Our Christmas prayer for peace and goodwill on earth cannot be just sentimental posturing. It has to be wrung from the heart.

Christmas Day

This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring . . .

Milton's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity conveys something of the majesty of Christ's birth (and, incidentally, contains one of the most magical lines ever penned, "While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave"); but we must look to the kitsch that adorns many of our churches and the tangle of wrapping paper and ribbon spilling out of millions of homes to understand the more human side of this tremendous mystery. God is involved in every aspect of our lives: the joys, the sorrows, the struggles and the triumphs. Since his birth at Bethlehem, He has become one with us, one might almost say, one of us. The even greater wonder is that we have become one with Him. Happy Christmas, everyone!

Christmas Eve

One of the most beautiful parts of the Christmas Eve liturgy is the singing of the Martyrology which situates the birth of Christ in time and place. When we reach the words "All the earth being at peace . . ." the music becomes more and more intense, while finally the Incarnation is announced on a falling cadence. When God has uttered his Word, there is no need for further speech, but as today's podcast reminds us, the emphasis at Christmas is not on God's humility but our great dignity.

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our King and Law Giver, longed for by the Nations and their Saviour, come and save us, O Lord our God. The prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 expressed in prayer. What do we really mean when we say Emmanuel, God-with-us? The idea of a God not "out there" but identified with us in the flesh is truly mind-boggling. We can end up sentimentalising the Incarnation almost to absurdity in an effort to grasp the truth it contains. Perhaps today we could just spend a minute or two thinking about our own personal need of a Saviour and be grateful. (To listen to today's antiphon, go to the Prayer Box on the Vocation page and use the drop-down menu. Recording by courtesy of Fr Jim Tucker and the North American College. Our Prayer Podcast for the week will be uploaded on Christmas Eve)

O Rex Gentium

O King of the Nations and the One whom they desire, the Corner-Stone who make both one, come and save man whom you formed from the dust of the earth. Both Isaiah 2 and Isaiah 9, from which this antiphon draws its language and imagery, speak of the coming Messiah's reign as one of peace. At this time of year many people speak vaguely of the need for peace and goodwill, almost as though they could be dispensed with at other times. Perhaps we could all ask ourselves how we contribute to peace in the world, from the way in which we drive or do our shopping to how we deal with personal criticism or decide to use our vote. It can be an uncomfortable exercise.

O Oriens

O Dayspring, Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, come and give light to those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. How lucky we are to live in northern latitudes, where midwinter darkness falls early and Isaiah 9.2 takes on an extra nuance. Perhaps today the "sitting in darkness and the shadow of death" strikes home in a way that it did not even a few years ago. We have all become so much more aware of human vulnerability and the vulnerability of the earth on which we live. "For evil to triumph, it is enough for the good to do nothing." That applies whether we are talking about some of the big challenges of life — climate change, international terrorism, poverty, etc. — or the smaller things — an ethical attitude to the contents of the office stationery cupboard, for example. We all need the Light of the World to shine on our hearts, cleanse them of sin and make us grow in holiness. Funny how we sometimes try to avoid the light, isn't it? (To listen to today's antiphon, go to the Prayer Box on the Vocation page and use the drop-down menu. Recording by courtesy of Fr Jim Tucker and the North American College.)

O Clavis David

Annunciation by Fra AngelicoO Key of David, and Sceptre of the House of Israel, who open and no one shuts: come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. The O antiphon recalls both Isaiah 22 (the key of the house of David) and Isaiah 9 (a child is born to us, a son is given to us, and government is upon his shoulder) while monastic tradition associates this day with the Gospel of the Annunciation. It is customary for the superior to give a talk on the Annunciation gospel, always called the Missus Est (from the Latin missus est angelus Gabriel a Deo, the angel Gabriel was sent from God). The finest of all Missus Est sermons are by St Bernard, but today, in every Benedictine monastery throughout the world, a monk or nun will be trying to say something about that moment of unequalled faith when Mary consented to be the mother of Jesus, and in so doing became the Mother of God. Surely there is a lesson there for us, too. God can transform our trifling acts of love and surrender into something that exceeds all our hopes and imaginings, if only we let him. (To listen to today's antiphon, go to the Prayer Box on the Vocation page and use the drop-down menu. Recording by courtesy of Fr Jim Tucker and the North American College.)

O Radix Jesse

By tradition, the O antiphons are usually sung by the most senior members of the community/certain officials for whom the imagery — roots, keys, and so on — seems peculiarly appropriate. O Radix Jesse naturally falls to the gardener: O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign for the people, before whom kings will fall silent, and whom the Gentiles will seek, come and deliver us — do not delay! Such a wealth of scriptural allusion is packed into these words, from Isaiah 11 to Revelation 5. The flower that arises from the root of Jesse is an image that poets and songwriters have delighted in. It conveys an idea of the simultaneous fragility and perfection of the birth of Christ:
A winter rose shall flower
On Jesse's ancient stem:
The word of God unfolding
Before the eyes of men.
(To listen to today's antiphon, go to the Prayer Box on the Vocation page and use the drop-down menu. Recording by courtesy of Fr Jim Tucker and the North American College.)

O Adonai

If you looked at the Roman sequence of O Antiphons yesterday, you will have been struck by the way in which they use the prophecy of Isaiah to proclaim different aspects of the Messiah. Today we ask the Lord, Ruler of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai, to come and free us with outstretched arm — a reference to Isaiah 11 (with righteousness he will judge the poor, etc.) and Isaiah 33 (the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our king, he will save us, etc.) with remembrances of the Lord's "outstretched arm" in Exodus. So, what does all this mean for us today? For a Christian, the absolute holiness of God, as seen in the Burning Bush, and the absolute primacy of God, as seen in the giving of the Law on Sinai, challenge our comfortable accommodations with the world in which we live. God is God, and he alone can save; but do we really believe that? (To listen to today's antiphon, go to the Prayer Box on the Vocation page and use the drop-down menu. Recording by courtesy of Fr Jim Tucker and the North American College.)

The "O" Antiphons

In this last week of Advent we sing every night until Christmas Eve a solemn Magnificat Antiphon, invoking the coming of God under various titles and attributes. The initial letters of these antiphons, read backwards, give ERO CRAS, which medieval commentators delighted to interpret as, "Tomorrow (Christmas Day) I shall be (with you)". Tonight God is invoked under the title of Wisdom (O Sapientia) which comes forth from the mouth of the Most High and stretches from end to end of the Universe, holding all things in being; and we ask that He show us the way of prudence. Prudence may not be the snazziest of virtues, but how essential it is! Benedict called discretion (= prudence) the mother of all the virtues. We underrate prudence at our peril. Let us pray that we may open our hearts to the coming of God as Wisdom in both the great and the little things of life.


Tomorrow we reach Gaudete Sunday and are exhorted to rejoice with great joy. Rose vestments and musical instruments will be in use for this one day; but it is difficult not to feel that the whole of Advent is suffused with joyous longing and expectation. No one has written more eloquently of this tremendous joy than St Bernard. Watching and waiting, opening ourselves to the Word of God and his daily coming to our souls by grace, how could we be downcast when such great hope is offered us?

RB 59 and RB 60

For a monastery of nuns in the twenty-first century, neither the chapter we read yesterday, about the offering of children, nor today's chapter, about priests wishing to enter the community, seems very relevant — or are they? Benedict is surprisingly fierce and insistent about two things in the monastery: living a common life from which every trace of private ownership/personal possessions is excluded, and a personal humility which recognizes that no individual gifts or distinctions confer any sort of privilege or status on the monk or nun. Everything we use in the monastery belongs to the community as a whole; our place in community is decided by the simplest of means, the order in which we came through the door or the superior's decision (for which he/she is answerable to God). In practice, this means learning the art of contentment with sometimes very unsatisfactory circumstances and being ready, for the sake of the community, to exercise talents through sacrifice. It strikes me that this is relevant for the world beyond the cloister. Would that those debating climate change in Bali were prepared to recognize that voluntarily limiting some freedoms for the good of all is far from wimpish.

Ruined Reputations?

As a community we have not yet got down to sending Christmas letters and cards to our friends and well-wishers. We usually send them after Christmas Day as Advent is such a precious time of preparation, but we have been touched by those we have received and the gifts that accompany them. In a village like this, the same deliverymen call throughout the year, usually dropping off such mundane items as candles for the church or paper for the press. Yesterday, however, we took delivery of a very luxurious-looking crate (a comment on the recent redesign of the web site?) bearing the words Fortnum & Mason on the outside. Doubtless the news will spread quickly — last year I was painting out a few scratches on the car and was surprised to find that our local petrol station, four miles away, knew about it within an hour of my picking up the retouching kit. I just wonder what yesterday's delivery will do to what is left of our reputations after the Veil Ale and Elderflower champagne-making of the summer. (The gift, by the way, comes from some dear friends in Canada with a wicked sense of humour.)


We finish chapter 58 of the Rule today. With profession the newcomer who until then is nameless, just "noviter veniens", receives a new identity as a member of the community. For the first time he is called "brother" ("novicius frater"). In monastic communities, belonging follows commitment. That is contrary to what western society in general seems to expect. Many people have a deep desire to "belong" to something or someone, but the need for commitment is less readily appreciated. Keeping one's options open is seen as a positive good. Even in monasteries, people sometimes want all the benefits of membership, so to say, with none of the obligations. Well, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Flawed and fallible as human history is, it does demonstrate that lots of married couples, monks and nuns have discovered the happiness that comes with commitment.

Of Nuns and Nibblers

Several people have made enquiries about joining the community during the past year, but when one suggests that a little more is required than simply saying "I have a vocation", there is a remarkable sifting and shifting. As Benedict makes clear in chapter 58, which we begin reading today, both candidate and community need to be open to the Holy Spirit, who tends to whisper rather than shout. Communities have to be ready to be changed by those who join them, but newcomers also need to be prepared to accept some, at least, of what they find with faith. (This is code for saying a novitiate is not all rapture and rejoicing!) Anyone joining a community like ours will need to have a pioneering spirit. We cannot offer the grand buildings and settled routines of longer-established communities, but we are fortunate in having a long monastic tradition to look back on and considerable fervour and enthusiasm for what we are about. I think one of the joys of monastic life here at Hendred is that there are fewer institutional compromises — probably because we have fewer possessions to worry about. But that will not appeal to everyone.

RB 57 Work and Prayer

If you read Colophon while at work, you may find today's chapter of the Rule interesting (go to the Prayer Box on the Vocation page.) The fundamental disposition required for any work — art, craft or what you will — is honesty and humility (competence is, I think, presumed). Today, monasteries have to be careful about not undercutting commercial competitors rather than overpricing their goods and services, but they still need to be sensitive about what they do and how they do it. What interests me about this chapter, however, is Benedict's acute psychological perception that work can become an ego-trip or worse. How many retired people suddenly feel life has come to an end because they can no longer define themselves as Joe Bloggs the Bank manager or Jill Bloggs the Practice manager? Advent is a good time for thinking about our own relationship with work (or lack of it.) If we are to prepare a highway for God in the desert of our hearts, that which takes up a large part of every day must be part of the structure. Work is not prayer, but it can be a preparation for prayer, can be accompanied by prayer. Above all, it can be transformed by prayer.

The Immaculate Conception

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is one of those feasts that divide East and West — not because we disagree about the privileged sinlessness of Mary but because we disagree about Original Sin. It is, however, a good feast to have during Advent because it is so full of hope. To enjoy it to the full, one really has to be in Spain, where it is celebrated with particular splendour. Anyone lucky enough to be in Seville ought to go to the cathedral and watch "Los Seises": six boys, heads covered according to sixteenth century custom, dancing with strange, slow steps before the tabernacle and singing hymns in honour of the Immaculate Conception. Rome has never been very enthusiastic about liturgical dance, but I wonder whether in Seville we have a faint memory of David dancing before the Ark?

RB 55: Clothing and Footwear

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.

RB Chapter 54

A timely reminder as we draw closer to Christmas! In chapter 54, as in chapter 33, Benedict makes it plain that monks and nuns are to have absolutely nothing of their own. Everything is to be held in common, and it is the superior's responsibility to ensure that excess and luxury do not creep in. But todays's section of the Rule adds an extra nuance. The monk/nun is not free to engage in the exchange of trifling things as a mark of special affection without the superior's agreement. That does not mean that there should be no affection, quite the reverse, Benedict wants our communities to be warm and loving; but there should never be any attempt to bind others to us by the use of material things. The superior is expected to bring a little clarity, a little objectivity into the situation. Being free for God does not mean being less loving to friends and family, but it does very often mean being a little strict with oneself.


This is a good time to be reading Benedict's chapter on Guests. All our plans for the beginning of Advent are in disarray. One of the community is very unwell; lots of people, both expected and unexpected, have arrived on our doorstep; and the pile of unanswered mail, both electronic and paper, would give one nightmares if one went in for that sort of thing. Situation excellent: that is exactly what is required — not the ample leisure of monastic myth, but the frazzled "just in timeness" of everyday reality. Benedict reminds us that all guests, even the unexpected, uninvited, perhaps unwelcome guests (such as illness) bring Christ into the monastery. They open us up in a way that perfect conditions of our own choosing never could. Our Advent won't be what we had hoped it would be, what we would have chosen for ourselves. It will be much better, because it will be what God has chosen for us.

The Last Day . . .

. . . of the Church's Year today. It looks like being a wet and blustery day, with darkness falling early. That seems very appropriate. Advent takes us into deeper and deeper darkness until Christmas comes, with its explosion of midwinter brilliance. And throughout, we shall have those hauntingly beautiful chants that express Israel's longing for the Messiah. Advent this year is short. We must make the most of it. (Our podcast will go up tomorrow — we have not yet solved problems with the feed which began when we updated some software. Oh dear.)