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Holy Innocents

The Flight into Egypt by Nicholas Mynheer
The Flight into Egypt by Nicholas Mynheer
Copyright © Nicholas Mynheer. Reproduction prohibited.
Used here by kind permission of the artist

Today's gospel is Matthew's account of the flight into Egypt. When I first typed those words I wrote "light into Egypt" which not only seemed peculiarly appropriate but also called to mind the above painting by Nicholas Mynheer. No, I am not going to "explain" the symbolism but just let you meditate on all the imagery suggests. You can find more of Nicholas's work at his new web site,

Christmas 2009

Giotto Nativity (detail)

We wish all our oblates, associates, friends and cybervisitors
a very happy Christmas.
May the Prince of Peace fill your hearts and homes
with joy and gladness.
We shall keep you in our prayers.
Mass will be offered for your intentions
on Monday, 28 December.



Christmas Eve 2009

Two years ago Colophon observed:

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, until finally the Incarnation is announced on a falling cadence. When God has uttered his Word, there is no need for further speech.

No need for further speech, true, but we continue to babble because we are afraid of that mysterious silence out of which the all-powerful word of God speaks. Somehow we need to recover a little interior silence to allow what we celebrate to remain at the heart of all we do and say. It won't mean our being any less genial, nor, alas, less busy, but it might make Christmas less stressful because we shall be more relaxed about the inevitable gap between expectation and reality, especially the expectation we have of ourselves.

If that seems paradoxical (relaxed? at Christmas?) just remember, Jesus was content with very little: a shelter, his mother's milk, somewhere to lay his head. We do not have to be perfect to pease him, nor do we have to be perfect to please others. Those we love are lovable with all their shortcomings; so are we. Married, single, widowed, divorced or separated; alone or with others; as a member of a religious community or as a hermit; we need to slow down (yes, slow down!) and lose ourselves, just for a moment or two, in wonder at the nearness of our God. "Tonight is born for you the Saviour of the World." Let us be glad and give thanks.

O Emmanuel

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

Today's Mass readings are Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66. The responsorial psalm is taken from psalm 24, and, instead of the antiphon of the day, O Emmanuel, we have a version yesterday's (O Rex Gentium). Once again Colophon will be perverse and consider the Mass readings in the light of O Emmanuel, the last of the Great "O"s.

According to Malachi, the advent of the Lord was to be preceded by the coming of his messenger, the prophet Elijah. The identification of Elijah with John the Baptist was made by the Lord Jesus himself ("I tell you solemnly, Elijah has come…") but it is easy to see in Luke's account of the Baptist's ministry parallels with that of Elijah, especially in that fiery zeal for God which must have been so uncomfortable for his listeners. But it is the end of today's gospel passage which draws our attention. "'What will this child turn out to be?" [the people] wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was upon him."' Here, just before the birth of Christ, we are asked to consider the birth of his forerunner, the man who would prepare the way for him. John's birth was strange and there is a sense that something stranger still is about to take place. Who could have foreseen that the Son of God was about to be born? We know that John will be driven out into the desert by his love for God; that he will live on the margins of society, dress in weird garments and live on an austere diet; that he will be fearless in proclaiming the truth, challenge the kings of this world and pay the price exacted for such courage; that he will point his own disciples towards Christ and rejoice that he himself must diminish. And all because "the hand of the Lord was upon him."

Tonight's antiphon prepares us for the coming of Christ by heaping upon him titles which explain who he is and what he has come to do. As King and Law-giver he fulfils the promise of the Old Testament; he is the one for whom, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the whole of humanity (= the gentiles) has been longing; he is the Saviour of all. It is as Emmanuel, God-with-us, that we invoke him and ask him again to come and save us.

O Rex Gentium

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

Today's Mass readings could be described as a celebration of the Magnificat, a sustained exposition of Mary's song of praise. We begin with 1 Samuel 1. 24-28, the story of Hannah's dedication of the infant Samuel to the service of the Lord; as responsorial psalm we sing her song of triumph, 1 Samuel 2. 1, 4-8, on which so much of the Magnificat is based; the alternative gospel acclamation echoes the O antiphon of the day, O Rex Gentium, while the gospel is the Magnificat itself, Luke 1. 46-56.

What are we to make of all this joy and gladness? Why do we exult? Surely it is because we have been given a rare privilege. For gentile Christians being adopted into the "family of God", sharing in the promises made to his Chosen People, and coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord is something beyond our wildest dreams. When we look at our Saviour, we can say with Hannah, "This is the child I prayed for, and the Lord has given me what I asked"; and with Mary, "The Almighty has done great things for me; holy is his name." At our baptism we received the gift God offered us, made our profession of faith (or had it made for us by our godparents) and so were welcomed into the community of believers, the Church. We were baptised into Christ's death that we might rise with him to newness of life. This is the new creation we sing about with such wonder and gratitude. Of course, we "know all that"; but these last days of Advent are a good time for reminding ourselves of truths that sometimes slip from view. Just as the snow is making us look at the world about us with fresh eyes, so the liturgy can help us focus anew on the miracle of salvation.

Tonight's O antiphon provides an exquisite setting for the Magnificat. It expresses our deep longing for redemption and recalls the act by which the Lord Jesus opened the way of salvation to all. Jew and gentile have been made one through his sacrifice on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he formed from the dust of earth.

O Oriens

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page. Please note that the concluding prayer (veni …) is in the plural form, not singular as it was yesterday. Now read on.)

Today at Mass we read either the Song of Songs 2. 8-14 or, as we do in community, Zephaniah 3. 14-18, and the account of the Visitation we had yesterday, Luke 1. 39-45, with verses from psalm 32 as responsorial psalm. The gospel acclamation ignores the O antiphon for the day and instead provides shortened forms of those for 20 and 23 December. We shall not do likewise because to address Christ as the Morning Star (O Oriens) on this, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, is symbolic of our hope both for this world and the next.

The exuberant joy of the passage from Zephaniah finds a lively echo in the gospel. Neither Elizabeth nor John can contain their gladness at the nearness of their Lord, and although we do not read the next few verses of Luke today, we know that they contain Mary's own hymn of rejoicing, the Magnificat. There is a world of difference between such Spirit-filled outpourings and the forced jollity of some of the "worship songs" inflicted on innocent congregations. But the presence of such delight in God begs the question. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Too frequently, I suspect, we are a little piano, unwilling to risk all that admitting God into our lives "with no holds barred" may involve. We prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary's part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, "Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death."

O Clavis David

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

This is the day on which, throughout the Benedictine world, a sermon or talk known as the Missus Est is traditionally given to the community, in keeping with the gospel for 20 December, Luke 1. 26-38. It is not difficult to link the Annunciation with the antiphon O Clavis David, but the readings of the Fourth Sunday of Advent take precedence over the ferial ones; so instead of the Annunciation, we are invited to reflect on the Visitation, Luke 1. 39-45, together with Micah 5. 1-4, Hebrews 10. 5-10, and verses from psalm 80.

Unusually, all three Mass readings focus attention on the body of the one we are awaiting. There is the mysterious prophecy in Micah of "the time when she is to give birth gives birth"; in Hebrews there are references to the "body you prepared for me" and "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all"; and the gospel has Elizabeth's lyrical outburst, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" while the unborn John the Baptist senses the nearness of his God and dances for joy in his mother's womb.

This concentration on the sheer physicality of birth and the "bodyliness" of the Lord Jesus should make us think. We do not worship a God who is somehow "out there", remote, uninterested, uninvolved. On the contrary, we worship a God who, in Christ Jesus, has experienced what it is to be human, who has promised to be with us always, to the end of time. As Christopher Smart said so well, he is "a native/Of the world he made." He is also, as Isaiah prophesied, the Key of David, the Sceptre of the house of Israel, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been committed; but unlike many politicians who strut about the world's stage, sometimes leaving things a little better but often much worse, not culpably or intentionally but because their interests are limited to their own time or their own country (think Copenhagen), Jesus' ambition, so to say, is cosmic. There is nothing and no-one beyond the scope of his love and mercy. He wants to free us from the prisons we have made for ourselves, the grubby little sins and shabby half-truths that prevent our becoming what he desires us to be. Tragically, we often prefer a half-life in chains to living fully the glorious freedom of the children of God. If we could only believe how much he loves us, we could pray with perfect confidence "come and free from prison one who sits in darkness and the shadow of death."

O Radix Jesse

(For information about this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

Today at Mass we read Judges 13. 2-7; 24-25 and Luke 1. 5-25, with verses of psalm 70 and a shortened version of O Radix Jesse before the gospel. Once again we reflect how God brings life and hope where previously there was only death and despair. The theme of the barren woman miraculously made fertile is found throughout the Old Testament and lies at the heart of the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. The birth of Samson and of John the Baptist belong to this genre and have some striking parallels. The appearance of the angel of the Lord, the giving of the promise (only half-believed by Zechariah), and the setting apart for God's service of the child who will be born (indicated in both cases by the requirement to live as a nazirite, abstaining from wine and strong drink) can blind us to differences which are perhaps even more telling than the similarities.

The Lord blessed Samson, his Spirit moved him, but Samson's ultimate failure was as tragic as his vocation was heroic. There was no such failure with John. He did indeed inherit the spirit and power of Elijah, was filled even from his mother's womb with the Holy Spirit and proved great in the sight of the Lord. ("I tell you solemnly that among those born of women, there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist.") Yet we know that, great as John was, his role was to point to someone greater still. Mary would not doubt the angel's message but embrace God's will with joyful alacrity (genoito moi kata to rhema suo has much more eagerness in it than our rather feeble "Let it be done to me according to your word" can convey), and God would work in her a wonder the world had never seen before and never would again. Jesus would be born of a virgin, not a barren woman; and he would prove to be the true Deliverer of Israel, before whom kings would fall silent and in search of whom the gentiles would come.

How does this tie up with O Radix Jesse? The symbolism of the antiphon is clear enough, but Paul helps to articulate the theology underpinning it, especially in Romans 15. 8-13. He says Christ became a servant of the Jewish people to maintain God's faithfulness by making good God's promises to the patriarchs and by giving the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy. He quotes Isaiah also, for Christ is that scion of Jesse who will rule over the gentiles and in whom they will place their hope. What is this promise to Israel, this mercy shown to the gentiles, this hope we all share? Surely it is freedom from sin and death and the enjoyment of eternal life made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary? The Messiah for whom Israel has prayed and longed is become the Saviour of the World. All the jangling discordances of humanity are quieted; the divine harmony is restored; but here on earth we have yet to experience the fullness of redemption. So we pray, "Come and free us; delay no longer!"

O Adonai

(For information on this O antiphon, text, music and recording, please see our liturgy page.)

For today's Mass readings we have Jeremiah 23. 5-8 and Matthew 1.18-24, with verses from psalm 71 and an abridged version of O Adonai as the link between them. The passage from Jeremiah is fascinating. Here is a portrait of true kingship; honest, wise, full of integrity, instilling confidence and enabling Israel to live in perfect freedom. This vision of messianic kingship is realised in Christ Jesus, who is indeed the "virtuous Branch of David", the fulfilment of the psalmist's dream. He is also to be identified with the all-Holy One who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, who gave the Law on Sinai and saved the Israelites with outstretched arm, just as the outstretched arms of the Lord Jesus on the cross brought salvation to all the world.

The gospel reading contains lots of difficulties for scripture scholars but we can derive much to think about without becoming too narrowly academic. Here we have a second Joseph, a man of dreams and integrity like the first, but one who, as a descendant of David, can confer on the Son who is to be born of Mary, all the privileges and expectations of his royal ancestry. There is something very likeable about Joseph. He is perplexed by Mary's pregnancy, tries to find a human solution to the "problem", but is utterly accepting of the angel's reassurance and command. No wonder he has become a model of Christian obedience. What draws our attention here, however, is the name disclosed to Joseph: Mary's Son is to be named Jesus, Joshua, because he is the one who is to save his people not from material slavery but from slavery to sin. We have entered into a new order of creation: God's ideas are so much bigger than our own. Well may we pray that he will come and save us with his outstretched arm.

O Sapientia

In these last days of Advent we sing the "O" antiphons at Vespers with great solemnity: candles, incense, church bells, a special book from which to sing . . . all intended to focus mind and heart on the significance of the words. Colophon commented on the antiphons in 2007 and on our liturgy page you will find texts, music, and recordings (fear not, sung by others!) with some suggestions for scripture to ponder.

So it is with a cheerful conscience that we turn to the Mass readings for inspiration. Today we have Genesis 49. 2, 8-10 and Matthew 1. 1-17, together with Ps 71 and a curiously abridged version of O Sapientia as the Gospel Acclamation. The opening prayer of the Mass, with its breath-taking "may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity", will still be ringing in our ears when we hear the gospel. Some people find the Old Testament genealogies tiresome. Even the genealogy of Christ is sometimes read as though it were meaningless. But today we shall be reminded forcefully that God became man in Jesus Christ, that he came of an ordinary human family, and like all of us, had a few skeletons in his family cupboard. Look at some of the names in Matthew's list and you will see what I mean: alongside the great and good are the decently obscure and a few instances of what we might most kindly call folly.

We begin, of course, with Abraham, our father in faith, and go on through the patriarchs, some a little dodgy it is true, but made respectable by their antiquity; but what about Rahab? A prostitute is not the kind of ancestor most people glory in, unless she happens to be the paramour of kings. And Ruth, why, she wasn't even Jewish. David may have been the great hero of Judaism, the kind of king Israel hoped to find in the Messiah, but his son Solomon was born of adultery with Bathsheba. Only when we come to "Joseph the husband of Mary; of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ" does this long list of begetting reach its end. With Christ we come to the perfect fulfilment of creation, of everything the Divine Wisdom brought into being; and it is Christ whom we shall invoke tonight under the title of Wisdom and ask to come and teach us the way of prudence.

Zoom, Zoom

As readers of this blog (all three of 'em?) will know, we want to update the equipment we use for making audio books for the blind and have been trying to find the most suitable then raise money to buy it. Our friend Joe has been helping Technonun research digital audio recorders and at (long) last they have agreed: the Zoom H4N is their recorder of choice to replace our outmoded and increasingly rackety cassette recorders. It is the only affordable digital recorder with a big enough screen and buttons for our "mature" volunteers to use comfortably, something that may be of interest to anyone with a similar problem.

Digitalnun is pleased about this choice as she already uses the H4N's baby brother, the HandyZoom, to record podcasts for our web site and is enthusiastic about the audio quality which can be obtained. She may not be quite so enthusiastic when she realises that to replace all the recording equipment used by our volunteer readers (i.e. the people who record the texts for us) is going to cost around £6,000, but never mind, Christmas is coming and one can always hope. Replacing the recorders will enable us to introduce phase 1 of our changeover to mp3 files and CDs and memory sticks. Introducing DAISY CDs for more complex books will take a while longer, not least because the kind of equipment needed is more expensive and the process involved more complicated, but at least we can expect to make a start in 2010.

Meanwhile Technonun is continuing to research OpenSource library software for the audio library. Perhaps someone reading this could make a suggestion about which would be most suitable? We have under 1,000 audio titles at present, but we need to keep track of who has what as well as maintaining a proper catalogue, preferably online as well as in St Cecilia's itself. We have two volunteers who are willing to do the keying-in for us and we don't want their enthusiasm to evaporate while we dither. We'd prefer a little more "zoom, zoom" all round, in fact.


I'm not sure where Monday went: in a flurry of telephone calls, chauffering community members to various appointments and an inbox groaning with emails and letters, I suppose. All the ordinary things, praying, working, reading, cooking, tend to recede into the background on such days (though it did register with me that I was making apple pies at 9.00 p.m., practically midnight in monastic terms, because of the number of visitors expected at the week-end!).

The trouble with Advent is the difficulty of matching expectations with reality. We want to give more time to God, to prepare thoughtfully for the coming feasts of Christmas and Epiphany, and we know that silence and solitude are important aspects of that. But we can't opt out of the busyness of life which seems so much more intense at this season of the year, and we certainly can't refuse to answer the doorbell unless we have hearts of stone (which perhaps we do: awful thought). The alternative is to embrace the busyness, to see it as part of the preparation. In other words, to stop railing against the demands on our time and energy and accept them as the way in which we are enabled to celebrate properly, a necessary part of our sanctification.

I am a long way from having achieved that myself. I am quite sure I shall continue to go to bed each night mentally comparing my "to do" list with my "have done" list and fretting about the discrepancy. I am equally sure, alas, I shall continue to be grumpy whenever someone asks me if I could "please just" do something or other. I'll continue to wake up most mornings looking like a lemur. BUT, I also trust that somewhere, somehow, in the midst of all this apparent failure, grace will be at work, that even what I see as failure can be transformed; is, in some small way, part of God's plan for my life and the lives of those with whom I come into contact, so that when I come to celebrate Christmas, it will be as a humbler, possibly less selfish, person than would otherwise have been the case. I hope so; I really hope so.

Conditor alme siderum

The kindest thing anyone has ever said about our musical ability is that we are "brave" to sing the whole of the Divine Office. It is with some trepidation, therefore, that one dares to say anything about the Advent Vesper hymn, Conditor alme siderum (O Loving Creator of the stars), but the combination of shooting stars overhead and Gaudete Sunday is irresistible. For anyone who lives in a monastery, the melody of the hymn is so evocative that one might almost say it is Advent.

Opinions differ as to the hymn's authorship. Some ascribe it to St Ambrose himself, others more cautiously credit it to "Anon. seventh century". Either way, in just five classical Ambrosian quatrains plus a doxology, the writer gives us an overview of salvation history, all the more powerful for being expressed with great simplicity and economy: Christ himself is the creator of the stars of night, the light of all believers, who came to save a fallen world under sentence of death; as Bridegroom of the Bride, he came at evening time from the spotless womb of the Virgin; now all creation acknowledges him as Lord and awaits his Second Coming and the Day of Judgement. These are the great themes of Advent and the melody of the accompanying chant, haunting in its simplicity, is one of the most beautiful in the repertoire.

For those who would like to ponder the hymn as lectio divina, the text, translation and music are given below (click on the icon to download the PDF). Finding a non-copyright recording has been more difficult. We tend to sing the hymn as taught by our mentors, with a light, almost dancing movement (hence shooting stars . . .). There is a slightly ponderous recording from Belo Horizonte here. Best of all, however, would be for you to learn to sing the hymn yourself. If plainchant is new to you a good place to start is the excellent Musica Sacra site.
Download Conditor Alme Siderum text and music
Conditor download

There is a recording of our latest Virtual Chapter on the podcast page. We now know that the echo chamber effect is caused when someone uses an inbuilt computer microphone rather than a headset, so technically this last recording is a great improvement on 28 November's. The next Chapter will be in the New Year.

This week's prayer podcast is on the podcast page. Gaudete!

Surprise, surprise!

After the novice has made his vows Benedict refers to him for the first time as novicius frater, the new brother. Until then he has been completely anonymous: is qui (he) or noviter veniens (someone newly coming to the monastery). I always find this sudden tenderness on the part of Benedict strangely moving. The patriarch of western monasticism dissolves into something much more human. People often surprise us, especially when they prove to be nicer or kinder than we had expected or reveal qualities which, for good or ill, we are reluctant to allow them.

One of the questions we face during Advent is what kind of God shall we be welcoming at Christmas? The Jesus born at Bethlehem wasn't the kind of Messiah many in Israel had been hoping for, and my guess is that he won't be the kind many of us are hoping for today. The daily Mass readings for Advent express our longing for redemption but also make us aware that the Saviour we are awaiting is going to be very different from anything the world has ever known, and we prefer the familiar. Perhaps the cribs being prepared in many of our churches can teach us something we need to learn again and again. If we have a tendency to think of God as always enthroned on the cherubim, to think of him in nappies forces us to admit the enormity of his humility and graciousness. Our (limited) ideas have to go if the (infinite) reality of God is to make any impression. It won't be a comfortable experience, but falling into the hands of the living God never has been, has it?

Reminder: Virtual Chapter today at 11.00 a.m. GMT

Chapter 58

RB 58 is about the procedure for admitting newcomers to the monastery, the tests to be applied, the qualities to be looked for and so on. Whenever we read it in community we are reminded of the tension between the "charismatic" and "institutional" aspects of discerning a vocation. Vocation isn't something one has, it's something one is, something one lives. An ability to cope with the imperfections of others is an absolute prerequisite, but it is remarkable how difficult that often is in practice. It can be helpful to remember that all Benedict really asks of the novice is to eat, sleep and meditate: living in community and studying the Rule will do the rest (I exaggerate slightly). What is asked of the novice master is that he should have a talent for winning souls and watch over the novices to see whether they are genuinely seeking God and are zealous for the Work of God, obedience and things that humble them. That is rather more difficult, demanding skills very few novice masters would claim to have. The experience of the last sixteen hundred years would tend to suggest, however, that Benedict's recommendations work, that Chapter 58 is a valuable tool for the discernment of vocation.

Benedict assumes, of course, that there will be a steady stream of people knocking at the door of the monastery and asking for admission. In Europe that has not been the case for several years. Some communities have died out, others have dwindled in numbers. The "explanations" offered by those who have never lived monastic life often seem shallow. The plain fact is that those of us who do live a monastic life are not very good at communicating what is so wonderful about it. The reasons for that are many and various, but one must ask whether we sometimes lack conviction and are therefore not convincing. For myself, I can only say that I find monastic life my natural element, a pearl of great price, something I want to share with others; but I am happy to leave the outcome to God.

Perhaps we should have devoted tomorrow's Virtual Chapter to the subject of vocation but we've received quite a lot of questions about prayer and how the internet helps or does not help spread interest in and information about religion, religious life and kindred topics; so, if you are free to join us at 11.00 a.m. tomorrow, let us know what you think. Hopefully, Digitalnun will not be locked out of the system this time so the Chapter will go ahead at the intended hour!

A Bright Spot in the Gloom

Shhh! Approach Colophon with caution today. Digitalnun is sunk in gloom at the cynicism and cowardice, as she sees it, of the Chancellor's pre-Budget report which does not seem to have grasped the gravity of the country's financial state and decidedly tetchy about the swingeing increase in charity bank account charges from RBS. It is rumoured that Duncan the dog has been working so hard at his eyes-like-melting-chocolate-drops-look-of-sympathy technique that he is prostrate with exhaustion. However, there is a bright spot in the gloom. Digitalnun is a great admirer of Mouse and his blog and is delighted to be able to point you in the direction of his new Twurch of England web site. Why doesn't the Catholic Church in England have something as imaginative? There's no tax on brains — yet.


Christians have a reputation among non-Christians for being uncongenial companions, loudly disapproving everyone else's harmless little indulgences while hypocritically covering up some heinous sins of their own. (The vocabulary is as predictable as the attitudes: Christians are always "hypocritical", their sins "heinous", whatever Church they belong to; Catholic is now commonly preceded by "child-abusing"; and when was "cloistered" popularly used in anything but a pejorative sense?). Colophon wonders where and when this dourness crept in. Christians OUGHT to be the most convivial of people. Our most important liturgical act is, after all, derived from a sacred festive meal. Our hope for the future is (scripturally) expressed in terms of banqueting, of "food rich and juicy and fine strained wines".

Today's brief chapter of the Rule reminds us that the monastery ought to be a place of conviviality, of shared life, where guests are welcomed to our table as they are to our liturgy and other aspects of monastic life. We have three separate groups meeting here from 2.30 p.m. onwards and the community will be working flat out to be welcoming, to give each visitor time as well as the endless tea/coffee/biscuits which seem to fuel church gatherings. Inevitably, the question will arise: is what we are doing a bit irrelevant? Budget cuts, climate change, family concerns are all much closer to people's hearts than anything we may be discussing in our meetings. So why do we bother?

I think the clue lies in the word conviviality: feasting, shared life, is never very attractive to the outsider, the onlooker. One has to be involved, to take part. The challenge for us as a community is the same as for the Church as a whole. We need to draw people into the life we share in Christ, and we can only do that if we are living that life as deeply and generously as possible through prayer and sacrifice as well as service. Advent is a good time to ask ourselves whether we are so busy giving out that in reality we have nothing of value to share. The answer may shock us into reassessing how we live. It won't make the budget cuts any less painful; it wont solve the problems of global warming; but it might, just might, make us nicer to know: real Christians, in fact.

Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

As promised on Saturday, we are today putting online a little ebook Digitalnun made many years ago (see Digital books page). It was inspired by the Chapter House paintings of D. Werburg Welch, a nun of Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, who was widely regarded as one of the foremost religious artists of her day. We are very grateful to the Abbess and Community of Stanbrook for allowing us to make the ebook available and would ask everyone to be scrupulous in respecting Stanbrook's copyright and other restrictions.

Magnificat was begun on the feast of the Immaculate Conception 1999. The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. must be one of the most misunderstood feasts in the calendar. Even Catholics tend to stray into unconscious heresy when asked to explain what it means. What the Catholic Church actually teaches is that "the Blessed Virgin Mary in the first instance of her conception was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race." (Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854) In other words, Mary, although conceived and born like the rest of us, was not cleansed from original sin by baptism as we are but was preserved from such sin because of the merits of her Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Maximus of Turin uses a lovely phrase, he talks of "original grace" at work in her in contrast to original sin at work in us (see Nom. viii de Natali Domini). Mary was not exempt from the temporal penalties of sin such as pain and death, nor was her sinlessness something she herself achieved. It was entirely the gift and grace of God, a fruit of the redemption wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ. Only he can save us from sin. Thinking of the Climate Change Conference currently taking place in Copenhagen, I am tempted to add, only he can save us from ourselves.

Advent II

St John the Baptist

The Second Sunday of Advent takes us out into the desert with John the Baptist and that lonely Voice urging us to prepare for the coming of the Word. There is something immensely attractive about John which this painting by El Greco conveys better than any words. We see the saint in a rocky landscape with a diffuse light about him. Everything except John's face seems to resolve into triangles, even the sheep near his feet. A distant city at the foot of the mountain is shrouded in gloom, but there is a beautiful light playing on the cross John holds in his hand, and on his face, the only truly rounded shape in the whole painting, there is a radiance and sweetness which is utterly compelling. El Greco has captured both the gentleness and the loneliness of Christ's Forerunner, the contradiction of the prophet in every age.

Today also happens to be the anniversary of the wreck of the Deutschland, which inspired Hopkins' greatest poem. I suspect John's prayer was very like that of the dying Franciscan, '"O Christ, Christ come quickly" since he was, as Daniélou perceptively remarked, "a one-joy man". For those of us whose hearts are not quite so focused, there are these lines, especially the last, to offer encouragement:

I kiss my hand
              To the stars, lovely-asunder
          Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
             Glow, glory in thunder;
               Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
            Since, tho' he is under the world's splendour & wonder,
                His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
            For I greet him the days I meet him, & bless when I understand.

Saturday Shopping

Today is apparently the busiest day on the High Street, and how glad we are that we do not have to join the fray. We tend to shop online, making use of our Easyfundraising page which splits the retailer's referral fee with us. Painless giving is something we heartily endorse, so we are happy to record that during the past two years 37 supporters have helped raise £372.07 for our charitable works just by channelling their online shopping purchases via the Easyfundraising site. As there are over 2,000 retailers participating in the scheme, it is worth investigating for your church, school or charitable organization, but can we be shameless and suggest that if you do not wish to support us, you might nevertheless use our referral link to find another cause to help?

For those already exhausted with pre-Christmas shopping there is an alternative on Saturday, 12 December, when we shall be hosting another Virtual Chapter. Talkshoe has explained that they were rebooting their servers when we scheduled the last one (if only we had known!). Let's hope for better things next week. We have received a number of questions about prayer so will make that a major theme, but you are welcome to suggest other topics. It is helpful but not essential to submit questions/suggestions in advance.

Finally, Digitalnun recently came across an ebook she made ten years ago. It's entirely possible it may appear on our Digital Books page on 8 December. Can anyone guess what it is?


Glastonbury Chair for the Oratory
Here is a photo of our latest acquisition, the craftsmanship of which so delighted Handynun. It may seem very ordinary to you, but having started with nothing and quietly worked to make an oratory fit for singing the praises of God, we hope you will not begrudge our pleasure in adding to its "treasures". Those who inherit great riches from the past know the joy of association with the first age of their history; those of us actually in the first age have a rather lonelier and sometimes daunting path to tread!

Yesterday Benedict spoke to us about the oratory. Today and tomorrow he speaks to us about guests. The two subjects are closely linked, especially for Benedictines, because the God whom we seek in prayer is to be encountered, reverenced and served in those who come to our door (which in our day includes the digital door). It can be difficult to get the balance right, and many a monastic community has lamented the demands of hospitality and sought to limit or distance its guests. The truth is, of course, that once one sees hospitality as an expression of love of God and love of neighbour, talk of "balance" begins to seem inappropriate. Purity of heart, that ability to recognize what God is asking and respond to the sacrament of the present moment with alacrity and generosity, becomes much more central. Here at Hendred we do our best to be welcoming but we are aware of our failures. "The life so short, the craft so long to learn" can apply to monastic living, too.

RB 52: On the Monastery Oratory

Having just completed our online grocery order for Christmas, it is a relief to turn to today's chapter of the Rule. There's nothing wrong with commercialism as such, one doesn't mind being exhorted to buy this or that for a perfect Christmas, but then, we know Christmas is going to be perfect "whatever". Thinking about the place of the oratory in our lives is, however, a valuable corrective to Christmas stress; and it reminded us to donate to CAFOD and some other favourite charities.

We all need a sacred space but comparatively few have the luxury of an area devoted only to prayer and worship. We have to cultivate instead an inner space, a holy ground of mind and heart, with time we reserve for God alone. The Lord Jesus understood that. When he told his disciples to go into their inner room and pray, he must have meant withdrawing into the inner chambers of the heart since there were few private rooms in first-century Palestine.

I think we can apply what Benedict says about the monastery oratory to this inner space, this sacred time. We need to value the time we devote to prayer, ring-fence it round with a little selfishness even to ensure that it becomes as regular a part of our life as breathing. Reverence and silence on our part are fundamental attitudes but we tend to learn them gradually and have constantly to relearn what we thought we already knew. During Advent we have the example of John the Baptist waiting in the wilderness for the appearing of the Saviour. Perhaps his family thought of him as being lost to them during that time, possibly wasting his life. These days before Christmas can be "wilderness days" for all of us, but they do not have to be lost days. Prayer is never a waste of time.

Just to show that we are not above a little commercialism in a good cause ourselves, here's a reminder about John and Penny's Christmas Book Sale this afternoon. Enjoy!

Moonlight Publishing Christmas Sale

Preparing the Liturgy

There is a copy of the Portsmouth diocesan Ordo or Liturgical Calendar on our Liturgy page together with some notes on Advent and recordings of the O antiphons which may be useful to those who have to prepare liturgies/school assemblies during the next few weeks. This afternoon at 2.30 p.m. and again at 7.30 p.m. we shall be hosting a "guided discussion" of the Sunday Mass readings, something we'll do every week until Christmas. Usually we get a nicely ecumenical group taking part and everyone seems to benefit, from learned scripture scholars to simple pew fodder like Digitalnun.

Redecorating the oratory has had to be postponed because of work pressures, but we are delighted to record the purchase of a Glastonbury chair for use by the presiding priest at Mass. Handynun put it together on Saturday with much muttering about its being properly made, no glue anywhere, nice patina under the grubbiness, and so on and so forth. Even after a preliminary cleaning and waxing it looked very good; and the monks who said Mass for us on Monday and Tuesday both declared it "very pleasing" so we are distinctly gruntled. Our friend Neville has made a new oak base for the processional cross which is a great improvement on the metal one, so we have begun Advent feeling that the oratory looks much more dignified than before. Next we must think about replacing our red lectern fall (which is looking a little sad) but this is a good time of year to be looking for red fabric. Reindeer and Fr Christmas patterns not required.