The mystics believed that we are all born with a capacity for God (capax dei). St Augustine believed that this capacity makes it possible for the human person to be re-formed through God’s gracious gift.
It has become common place for society to be described as ‘post Christian’ or as ‘secular’. While it may appear that Christian values are all but forgotten in the way in which our ordinary lives are ordered, I think we may have lost sight of the fundamental truth that we all carry within us the capacity for God. This capacity won’t always be expressed in the traditional ways, but I do believe that in the heart of every human being is the desire to know that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. Every human being wants to be connected to someone or something that gives meaning to their life. We are made for connection.
St Augustine sees our re-forming in terms of the image of the Trinity. Just as there is unity among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so too, there is unity in a person’s memory, understanding and will. At the core of each human being is a mystery which reflects the great mystery of the Godhead. In the ordinary run of life it’s easy to lose sight of this mystery that we carry within us. We are often more of aware of our failures than our triumphs. Maria Boulding, expresses this so well in her book, The Coming of God, which has become for me a personal spiritual classic:
All your hopes and disappointments, your joy and suffering, your achievement and failure, your ups and downs: none of it is wasted. Provided only that you consent without qualification, the work of grace is going on in you through the whole business of living, to hollow you out, to make you capax Dei, as the old mystics used to say, able to receive God. You yourself are the place of desire and need. All your love, your stretching out, your hope, your thirst, God is creating in you so that he may fill you.
How can you make space for God this Advent?
In the Orthodox tradition this famous Icon is known as Philoxenia. Translated literally, this word means ‘love of strangers.’ Its opposite, xenophobia, fear of the stranger, is a word with which we are all too familiar.
The Icon depicts the story in Genesis 18 where three unexpected guests are welcomed with lavish hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. There is a sense in which some risk is involved in providing such lavish hospitality. (Some commentators suggest that Sarah kneaded 36lbs of flour, which would be no light undertaking.) When you offer food there is always a chance that it may not be received well, that your guests may find some fault. There is also the chance that they may stay longer than is convenient for you.
Sharing food is a basic human response to another. It is a fundamental way of welcoming another. Once you have shared food with someone the relationship has shifted. It is just possible that in the act of sharing a stranger has become a friend.
It’s no accident that the highly successful Alpha Course structures its sessions around shared meals. A group of strangers comes together to share faith and food and in that sharing friendships are made.
Can you take the risk this week and welcome a stranger?
I have recently had the privilege of sharing a session of Lectio Divina with some of our Oblate community.(Lectio Divina is prayerful reading of scripture. It is distinct from Bible Study in that it is a matter of listening with the ear of the heart.) We used John 14:23-29, a passage that was familiar to us all.
I was struck by the lines ‘we will make our home’. Home can have many connotations, not all of them are positive. As I allowed the phrase to find an echo within me, I became aware of quality of intimacy and also of belonging that I associate with ‘home’. In a monastic context ‘home’ takes on a deeper meaning. In community we are called to be ‘homemakers’ for each other. We each have our areas of responsibility and together we create a space where growth can take place. Some will have responsibility for the fabric of the building, others for the spaces within it, but we all share the task of incarnating the values of our ‘monastic home’. While our endeavour is communal, growth takes place for us as individuals in our interior dialogues and the handwork of self knowledge.
The task of cultivating the space within is ongoing. Each year I am struck by this reading from St John Chrysostom:
‘Paint the house of your soul with modesty and lowliness and make it splendid with the light of justice. Adorn it with the beaten gold of good works and, for walls and stones, embellish it assiduously with faith and generosity. Above all, place prayer on top of this house as its roof so that the complete building may be ready for the Lord. Then he will be received in a splendid royal house and by grace his image will already be settled in your soul.’
Homily 6 On Prayer
Quite by chance, I came across Anthony Hulbert’s book, The Contours of God, in the Biblical section of our library. The title attracted me and when I opened it up I saw that he had signed it and given it as a gift to my community. It’s a beautifully crafted book. The contents page alone inspired me and set me thinking about my own image of God. Here are the first five chapter headings:
1. Beckoning God: The Call of Abraham
2. The Accessible God: The Story of Jacob’s Dream
3. The God who Calls by Name: Moses and the Burning Bush
4. The Over-Shadowing God: Moses Encounters the Glory of God
5. The Enabling God: The Commissioning of Joshua
I have been reflecting on these chapter titles and exploring how each has been significant in my monastic life. I have needed all of these images of God to sustain me on my monastic journey It often strikes me that biblical revelation can provide a pattern or a guide for our development as human beings. First we need to get to know the God of biblical revelation. We do this through the powerful medium of story. It can take many years to become familiar with the storylines. The point of the stories is not always immediately obvious and we need to take time to ‘inhabit’ these stories. It is through the exploring of the stories that we can become aware of God’s invitation to us. We are invited reflect on how we image the God who Beckons, the God who is Accessible etc.
Which chapter title speaks most strongly to you?
Today’s Feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus touches a chord with all those who are trying to live a monastic life. The Gospel texts have an immediacy about them and it is easy to picture the scenes. There is emotion and intimacy, challenge and reassurance. I have heard many a sermon which holds up Mary as the ‘contemplative’ and Martha as the ‘active’. I wonder just how helpful these categories really are? What stands out for me is the friendship between these four people. They care enough to be moved by the actions of each other. Jesus is part of this circle of friendship too and he engages with each of them where they are. He too is moved.
In the day to day happenings of a monastery we are called to be open to friendship, to meet people where they are. Part of this call means that sometimes we will offer re-assurance and sometimes it will be challenge. Sometimes we will be quite unaware of what we have provided for the other. Likewise, another’s simple kindness can gently strengthen a friendship. It’s the small things that build and strengthen the circle of friendship. It’s the small things that bind us together in Christ.
Each year when we celebrate the feast of St Bede I am thrilled by the knowledge that the little boy Bede grew up in my home town, Sunderland, in Tyne and Wear. Down by the river, now called Monkwearmouth, Bede took his first steps in the monastic life. Although Bede’s daily life and my daily life are quite different, we share a set of values. We both live with the Scriptures at the heart of our lives. We both desire to grow in knowledge and love of Christ.
In Cuthbert’s account of Bede’s death there are a few lines which have always struck me:
‘I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper, and napkins, and some incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of the monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me.’
Each year I wonder what my ‘treasures’ are now, what do I keep in a safe place? I also wonder what I will consider ‘treasure’ when my life nears its end. In monastic culture it’s often the little things that make their mark on us. Monastic writers talk of poverty and simplicity and the importance of non-attachment to ‘things’. The lived reality is far more complex. Each day I have the opportunity to evaluate my choices and to steer that careful path between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Perhaps the key thing here is not so much how much or how little you have, but how willing you are to share.
‘Come with grace unearned, unsought’ is the last line of the hymn: Spirit of the Lord, come down… written by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. It’s a beautifully written hymn which invokes the Spirit and is used by my community in the liturgy between Ascension and Pentecost. We sang this hymn for the first time on Saturday at Lauds. Just before Lauds I had been gathering my thoughts, preparing to introduce a session of Lectio Divina for a retreat for our Oblates. Several of the lines of the hymn leapt out at me and seemed so appropriate for the experience of Lectio Divina. So much of our lives can involve working through a ‘to do list’ and we are programmed to measure our own success and that of others. When it comes to prayer it is almost impossible not to have our mental ‘to do list’. We often to expect something tangible to happen in prayer. When nothing seems to happen we might begin to wonder about our method. And yet the wisdom of the monastic tradition tells us something different. All that is required is our faithfulness. We are called to open ourselves to God, through his Word and our simple prayer is one of calling on God; ‘Come with grace unearned, unsought.’
Both my Primary school and my Secondary school were run by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious congregation founded by Catherine McAuley, in Dublin, in 1831. Whilst I can’t remember any explicit teaching about Catherine McAuley, I can remember the atmosphere the sisters created in the school and the values they embodied. We often had school Masses, usually in the playground, as this was the only place large enough for whole school. At one such Mass I remember singing the words, ‘Mercy, droppeth as a gentle rain’ as a refrain, to a simple, haunting melody. I wouldn’t have been aware that these words were Shakespeare’s, but was keenly aware of how they made me feel. I associate these words with a quality of tenderness, of quiet acts of kindness, a smile or a gentle acknowledgement. At that young age mercy felt within my reach, something simple that I could do. In later years, when we studied the Merchant of Venice, I would learn the rest of the quotation:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
My understanding of mercy deepened as we studied Shakespeare, though I don’t think I was able to make the connection with the literary text and my own life. And now after more than 20 years of living according to the Rule of St Benedict, mercy is a ‘building block’ of my life. Each day there are opportunities to grow in this quality, each day there are situations that call for mercy.
I look forward to seeing how Pope Francis continues to embody mercy throughout this year.
Pope Francis Maundy Thursday
During Lent we have reflected as a community on the theme of kindness. We were invited to spend time with scripture quotations, references to kindness in the prayers of the liturgy and references from Patristic readings and other sources used at the Office of Readings (our first service of the day). I found this helpful on several levels. From the outset my awareness of the word ‘kindness’ was heightened and I began to listen more closely in the liturgy. As the weeks of Lent passed, I felt that my understanding of the Paschal mystery deepened as I saw God’s work in Christ as a supreme act of kindness. In the last week of Lent I began to make my own connections as to what this might mean for my living of monastic life. There was one scripture quotation that kept coming to the surface in my prayer: Give and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back. Luke 6:38 The image of measuring strikes a chord with me. I have managed our kitchen for several years and now know the importance of measuring. I know the times when things need to be exact and the times when I can take a guess. The image here is of a God who is more than generous, who measures out so much that my lap overflows. This is not a God who uses digital scales for absolute accuracy. No, God pours until things overflow. This is a God who is kind beyond all measure. It’s easy in the day to day to become so caught up in the jobs that need to be done, that the opportunities to show kindness pass me by. Once I start ‘measuring’ how far I am prepared to put myself out, then I have moved away from the image of God in Luke’s quotation. I hope that as Eastertide unfolds I am more open to those opportunities to show kindness, more open to measuring out as God measures out.
Each year, in Advent, I read Maria Boulding’s book, The Coming of God. I’d go so far as to say that this would be my ‘desert island’ book choice. Maria Boulding wrote this book in 1986, after nearly 40 years as a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester. The text is very human, thoroughly biblical and speaks page after page of God’s tenderness and mercy. It is a source of great hope to me that 40 years of faithfulness to the monastic path can produce such profound writing. From a theological perspective she touches on all the major themes of the life of a Christian. As I read I hear the echoes of her monastic journey. I hear the resonances of a life closely with scripture and all the joys and challenges of monastic community living. Her poetic style means that I only read a few pages at a time and then take time to stop and think. The quotation above is from the opening chapter and is one of the most powerful sentences that I have read in a long while.
Do you have a ‘desert island’ book?
Sr Miriam osb