31/March/2008 Filed in: Chapter Talks
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!)
26/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Is it an illusion, or are there more siskins about than there were last year? They have such pretty plumage. Duncan (the dog) does not seem to have had any adverse effect on wildlife in the garden, except that (oh joy, oh bliss, oh rapture!) he has seen off the deer. Long may he continue to patrol the perimeters and keep them at bay. We are very behind with work in the garden, although thanks to the heroic labours of Damien and Terry, the winter digging is complete and the greenhouse almost ready for occupation. In fact, we seem to be behind with everything, or is it just that having an early Easter makes us feel we are?
23/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Christ is risen, alleluia! Like so many others, we are a little weary now. We have kept Vigil through the night hours and proclaimed the Resurrection. We have rejoiced through the day hours, and as evening falls we recall that this Easter Day will go on for a whole Octave, giving us time to absorb its wonders. The snow flurries have temporarily whitened the hedgerows, reminding us of the gravecloths burst asunder and the white garments of our own baptism into Christ's death. As the Easter Sequence questions Mary about what she saw on her way to the empty tomb, so we too must question ourselves: what does this great Mystery mean to me?
22/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
A day of blank, bleak emptiness, as after any death. The drama of the Passion is over, now there is only the waiting. So much of life falls into "Holy Saturday" moments, when nothing very much seems to be happening and hope itself seems dull and unreal. But just as when winter turns to spring, hidden shoots begin to sprout then burst out in a sudden blaze of beauty, so we know that today is not a day of despair. In silence and stillness, earth awaits the Resurrection. Tonight we shall kindle the new fire, listen to the story of our salvation by the light of the paschal candle, join with those reborn in baptism and celebrate the Eucharist with great joy. Out of the darkenss of this night will come the triple Alleluia that heralds Easter gladness.
21/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Church and oratory look desolate this morning, the altar stripped, the tabernacle hanging open, a huge emptiness where formerly there was Presence. This afternoon, during the Solemn Liturgy, the Church will revert to a very ancient form of prayer, stark in its simplicity but weighted with drama and tension. St John's account of the Passion can be read on so many different levels, but we shall hear it today as though for the first time. The tremendous sequence of Preces, during which we pray for everyone and everything, reminds us that the Crucifixion of Christ is of cosmic significance. Our minds stumble against this truth which only the poet and musician seem able to grasp, and then imperfectly. Fortunately, the liturgy gives us something we can all take hold of: the creeping to the Cross is our own part in this drama, a way of acting out our need for salvation, our recognition of Jesus as Saviour.
20/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Tonight we begin the sacred Paschal Triduum with the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Liturgically, that Mass, the Solemn Good Friday Liturgy and the Easter Vigil form a single celebration of the Lord's Passion, Death and Resurrection, the highlight of the Church's year. There will be no dismissal at the end of Mass. Instead we shall walk a torch-lit path up to the Chapel of St Amand and St John the Baptist at Hendred House, where there will be watching until midnight before the Altar of Repose. There is something satisfying in the thought that the Blessed Sacrament will be taken to a medieval chapel where it has been honoured for over seven hundred years. Nice also to think, as we sing the Tantum Ergo, that St Thomas's hymn was new-minted when the chapel was built. But whether we celebrate in the grandest of cathedrals or the meanest of mission chapels, nothing can compare with the immense significance of what we are recalling tonight: the Lord's gift of himself in the Eucharist and the ordained priesthood, and the example of service he set in the washing of feet.
18/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
There is an extra quietness in the monastery this week. The oratory is being cleaned as never before, the altar candlesticks and processional cross gleam; a sombre excitement seems to hang in the air. But it would be a mistake to think that we have withdrawn into a world unrelated to the one in which we live. Economic meltdown affects everybody, and requests for prayer never cease. Christ's pain and the world's pain are somehow held in tension. The starkness of the liturgy reflects the unfolding drama. What we have to do is to allow the liturgy to do its work in us.
16/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
The beginning of Holy Week, the Great Week of the Year. Strange to think that this English village, its quiet cobbles shining with rain, its poplars soughing in the wind, is liturgically one with a hot and dusty road leading into Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. The palms we hold are whitened by the sun, the bleak words of the Passion hammer like nails against the walls of our indifference. It is as well we know the end of the story and can pray with the poet:
Some fruit from the tree of thy Passion
Fall on us this night.
15/March/2008 Filed in: Chapter Talks
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.)
14/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
There is an arresting phrase in today's collect, in which we ask to be "freed from the fetters of sin our weakness has forged", a peccatorum nexibus quae pro nostra fragilitate contraximus . . . liberemur. So much of what we dislike about ourselves, and which others also dislike about us, stems from weakness rather than deliberate malice. Forgiveness is never easy, as we all know. Sometimes, to forgive oneself while at the same time striving to change that which requires change is the hardest task of all. We cannot for one moment escape ourselves.
13/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
A week may be a long time in politics but it can seem like an eternity in a monastery. We all seem to have been scampering from one urgent job to another and I notice that jawlines are becoming a little set and tempers a little frayed. It is timely therefore to be reading St Benedict on kitchen service. The sixth century kitchen was not a very attractive place — no gadgets, no extractors to keep the heat and steam levels down, no ergonomically designed tools and work-surfaces, but lots of beans and pulses to try to make appetizing, in season and out. Odd, then, that Benedict should single out working under such conditions as promoting mutual love and be anxious that no one should be excused kitchen service unless unwell or, like the cellarer, busy about multitudinous tasks elsewhere. Food can easily become a source of friction, while some people have strange attitudes towards tasks they regard as menial. I think Benedict uses kitchen service as a concrete example of the need for mutual service, and in the case of those with less skill, mutual forgiveness. "Respect the cook, it could be you" is the watchword for today.
11/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Every time I read chapter 33 of the Rule, I examine my conscience (and the conscience of the community). It is so easy to allow "possessions" to multiply, or treat as one's own goods meant to be common to all. Benedict was quite right in seeing the sense of private ownership as leading to a weakening of community. When one has nothing, absolutely nothing, one can call one's own, one is indeed wholly reliant on the community. Paradoxically, one is also free. I don't mean the kind of freedom which implies having no worries or cares or being at liberty to do whatever one likes without reckoning the cost. I mean the kind of freedom which cannot be measured by what one has or one's ability to impose one's will on others: the freedom simply to be the person one is. It is a freedom uniting one with others rather than separating from them. Perhaps we in the West should take a second look at our attitudes to the very poor: they are indeed our brethren, and our sharing with them is no more than their due.
10/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
I wonder how many people woke up, like us, to no electricity and had to bustle about extracting a camping stove from some dark cupboard to make a hot drink? A minor inconvenience for us is the status quo for much of the world. It can make one uncomfortable about some of the things we are "offering up" for Lent. But before everyone dashes off and decides that it is all a sham and we might just as well not bother, we might reflect that it is not so much what we are doing (or not doing) that matters as the motivation. It is humbling to think that God values our trifling "sacrifices" because they are done for love of him.
08/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
There is a lot in Benedict's chapter on the cellarer (=bursar/administrator) that is applicable to anyone who has any kind of management role or administrative responsibility. The personal qualities required are eminently reasonable — if daunting for the person chosen: wisdom, maturity of character, someone in control of his/her appetites and emotions, kindly and concerned. Benedict is aware that the cellarer will have to deal with people who choose exactly the wrong moment to make a request, or make outrageous demands. The response must be courteous, free from any pride or disdain. (CEOs, please take note.) There is also some positive teaching about the attitudes the cellarer should cultivate. A modern writer might sum these up as having a sense of corporate responsibility, a social conscience and a commitment to the right use of human and material resources. It would be going too far to say that Benedict was a Green avant la lettre, but the reverence he wishes to instil is unmistakable. If the monastery's goods are to be looked upon as sacred altar vessels, clearly there is no room for any form of exploitation or misuse. Finally, today's section of the Rule ends with a reminder that the cellarer should not go beyond the authority allowed him/her. There are restraints in life, and some of them are for a good purpose.
07/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
The last two weeks have been so busy that many good intentions have fallen by the wayside. Even looking out of the window seems to have been reduced to a minimum. Yesterday evening, however, I had a huge surprise. There in the garden was the frame of a greenhouse! I had not noticed it before. Some friends had sneaked it in while I was working on the other side of the house. Only fellow gardeners will understand the excitement this gift has caused. If the weather is equally kind, the monastery garden will be more productive this year.
05/March/2008 Filed in: Chapter Talks
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.
01/March/2008 Filed in: Jottings
Daffodils and leeks a-plenty to celebrate St David's day! Much as I love Wales, I have always found Celtic monasticism a little hard to take, especially the "aquatic" variety associated with David himself. There is something dourly athletic about it all, reminiscent of the Desert Fathers at their least approachable. If one were to take the current sections of RB at face value, one would have to admit something of the same in Benedict. Happily, I do not know of any monasteries where corporal punishment is still practised, nor do I think many communities adhere to the details of his prescriptions regarding warm baths or sleeping arrangements. But chopping and changing to suit oneself is dangerous. Possessiveness, whether of books, burgundy or basset hounds, can lead to serious problems in the common life; while excommunication at the social rather than ecclesiastical level is still an ever-present possibility. (Our latest podcast will be posted on Sunday evening, but you can now listen to previous podcasts on our archive page.)