Stay Awake

Advent Sunday 1

Year B

Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

O that you would tear the heavens open and come down’ Is 63

Our Advent journey begins on a rousing note with a request so direct and graphic that it can almost shock us. This is no polite request to a God who operates somewhere in the background of our lives. This is the cry of the returned exiles who, buoyed up by the promise of a New Exodus, return to Jerusalem only to find it no longer offered sanctuary. The glory and beauty of Jerusalem is no more. The exiles felt like aliens in their own land. Their cry is urgent and heartfelt. And their cry is our cry too. The Israelites need and want God to intervene in their lives.

This sense of urgency and all that it stirs within us is our interpretative key to the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. The Gospel text from Mark 13 leaves us in no doubt as to how we are to begin Advent:

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’

In the five verses which form our Gospel we are urged to stay awake three times. If you have come to the liturgy a little lethargic, there is every chance that this will have woken you up. The hearers of Mark’s Gospel lived in a time of great uncertainty, their days marked by violence and threat. This level of threat probably meant that they were in a permanent state of alert. We know enough now about our physiology to recognise that our bodies suffer when the fight or flight response is triggered too often. So how are we to hear Mark’s words?

On a simple level I hear in the text an invitation to be open and ready to all the ways in which God will be revealed to me this Advent. I can neither control nor predict those ways, but I know for certain that they will happen. We have lived since March with a heightened state of alert and have had to accept a new way of living and moving in our world. Some of the ways in which try to stay safe have become habits for us. In our best moments we hold on and try to fix our eyes on the bigger picture. That bigger picture is a world where we are protected from Covid and can begin to piece together again the fabric of our lives. The hearers of Mark’s Gospel fixed their eyes on the bigger picture too: the Parousia. The Parousia promised that Christ would come again to the world to put right all that was wrong, unjust and broken. The hope enkindled in the promised return of Christ has inspired Christians through the ages. Each generation hears the call anew.

St Benedict in the Sixth Century knew the urgency of Christ’s call and promises too. When St Benedict writes his Rule he does so in the context of a collapsing world order and the uncertainty brought by various heresies. The Prologue to the Rule is full of language which rouses and encourages us to press onwards:

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to wake from sleep (Rom 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts. (Ps 94)

Rule of St Benedict, Prologue

There is a timeless quality to St Benedict’s writing and the urgency in his words seems very appropriate for us in Advent 2020. Throughout the Rule there is a strong conviction that although each individual monk is responsible for his spiritual journey, the search for God takes place with and in community. St Benedict knew the importance of mutual encouragement. In his chapter on the Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks he specifies that the monks sleep clothed so that they are ready ‘to arise with out delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Work of God before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum.’ St Benedict is under no illusions as to how hard it can be to get out of bed. He makes provision for this too: ‘On arising for the Work of God, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.’

So perhaps the invitation to us this Advent is to help each other, to quietly encourage, so that, TOGETHER, we can stay awake and be ready for Christ’s coming.

Our King is calling…

I’ve come to a rather slow realisation of the importance of the concept of Kingship in my own faith and the life of the Church. Some Old Testament study at school began to broaden my horizons. For the first time at A level I was being introduced to the role that archaeology plays in understanding ancient texts. It was here that I learned of the Mesopotamian King, Hammurabi, and his law codes.

Carved in stone and displayed for all to see was his code of practice in the form of legal rulings. It is thought that the concept of equal retribution originates here. From this we learnt that the king’s role is fundamentally one of ensuring justice for all of his subjects. It is his job to promote peace and the well-being of his people. So, in a sense, the quality of his kingship is seen in the lives of his subjects.

The history of Israelites and their experience of kingship is chequered to say the least. Dissasatified with life in their 12 tribe system they looked to the surrounding nations and wanted to be like them. This is so understandable. Very few kings really made the grade and most were considered to have done ‘what was displeasing to the Lord’.

Once we enter the world of the New Testament writers there is more to be grappled with. The power and influence of the Roman Empire weighs heavy and the Evangelists craft narratives which seek to tell the important truth that it is Jesus who is Lord of all and not Caesar. When the Emperor has his good deeds and prowess announced as ‘euangelion’ (good news) the Evangelists counter this with the good news that is Jesus Christ. Chapter by chapter the story is told of Jesus who, in his very being, heralds a new order. In his every word and action Jesus reveals that the new order has begun, the kingdom is in our midst. Every value is upturned. It’s very easy to lose sight of the primacy of this message when we look at the Church today. The human desire for power is never far from the surface.

Pope Francis leaves us in little doubt of his vision of a ‘poor Church’. This is the Church of the servant-king where the poor show us the face of Christ. This is the Church where serving the poor is not an optional extra but a mark of our authenticity. Are we ready to recognise Christ? Are we ready to hear our king calling?

Christ the King
Mathew 25: 31-46

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Malcolm Guite

The Handiwork of God’s Grace

ORATORY, TURVEY ABBEY

‘We are gathered together to celebrate the dedication of a house of prayer. This is our house of prayer, but we too are a house of God. If we are a house of God, its construction goes on in time so that it may be dedicated at the end of time. The house, in its construction, involves hard work, while its dedication is an occasion for rejoicing.’ (St Augustine)

Last night we gathered as community to begin celebrating the Dedication of our Oratory here at Turvey. In our vigil office we listened to one of St Augustine’s sermons and so many of his words had resonance for me. Since March I have read many posts about the importance of churches being open and the value and necessity of public worship. I follow the arguments and I do understand the real pain that has been suffered these past months. And yet, I wonder if we aren’t being given an invitation to move deeper and to explore Augustine’s words; ‘we too are a house of God’? It’s undoubtedly a challenge to work out just what those words mean for us today.

Augustine can help us with this:

But Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan, must be joined in perfect harmony, must give each other the support as it were of love, or no one would enter the building. When you see the stones and beams of a building holding together securely, you enter the building with an easy mind; you are not afraid of its falling down in ruins.

The invitation couldn’t be clearer: be ONE in charity.


Since lockdown began I think we’ve shown that we have a huge capacity for small acts of kindness. We know how to give others ‘the support of love’. Though we may not be able to come together to celebrate the Eucharist, Christ is no less present in those small acts. We ARE those beams and stones, set apart and consecrated to mark the sacred. Our challenge now is bring the peace and blessing that we experience in a church building to every interaction we have.

Our own hearts are the starting place for this work of love. We may feel that the past months have rather dulled our hearts. Low level anxiety and constantly adjusting to new directives can make many things seem uphill. But it is precisely into this dullness that Christ is ready to make his home:

Christ the Lord wants to come in to us and dwell in us. Like a good builder he says: A new commandment I give you: love one another. He says: I give you a commandment. He means: Before, you were not engaged in building a house for me, but you lay in ruins. Therefore, to be raised up from your former state of ruin you must love one another.

There are levels of meaning emerging here as we imagine ourselves forming a building and then Christ as the builder within us. While our outer worlds may be shrouded in uncertainty, we have a chance for Christ, the master builder, to work and transform us from within. We can be more than confident that something beautiful will take shape.

In the weeks to come you may well drive past your regular place of worship and wish more than anything that you were able to gather there with your community. This final thought from St Augustine may just give us a way through this sense of loss:

The work we see complete in this building is physical; it should find its spiritual counterpart in your hearts. We see here the finished product of stone and wood; so too your lives should reveal the handiwork of God’s grace.

The challenge in the coming days is to allow God to work in us and little by little to reveal the ‘handiwork of grace’, wherever we find ourselves.

Sr Miriam

The Better Part

Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’

Luke 10

Whenever I hear today’s Gospel I always start to imagine a scenario where Martha’s upset could have been avoided and both Martha and Mary could have chosen the ‘better part.’ The text doesn’t tell us how big the gathering was. I like to think of it as small: Mary, Mary Lazarus and Jesus.

If I had invited Jesus to dinner I’d definitely make sure that I’d planned things so that I could spend as much time as possible talking to him and as little as possible worrying about the meal. I imagine that time with Jesus, away from the crowds and demands was perhaps quite rare. I would certainly want to make the most of it.

So here’s my plan and menu:

Tagine
Flatbread (made early in the morning)
Salad
Olives

Fresh fruit
Dates
Honey cake (made the day before)

The only thing I would need to keep an eye on would be the tagine. It would be bubbling away while I welcomed Jesus. When there was a natural break in the conversation I would serve up the food. We’d use one bowl for the main course, a side plate and one bowl for dessert. We’d recline and let the conversation unfold. We’d laugh and tell our stories.

When it was time for Jesus to go we’d make our goodbyes. I’d put the food away and leave the washing up until the morning.

As I drifted off to sleep I’d remember fragments of conversation and start looking forward to the next time.

I’d give no thought to the distinctions of action and contemplation, or contemplative religious life and apostolic religious life. All that would matter would be time spent with Jesus.

I watch the sunrise…

Sunrise, Turvey Village

Over the past few years I have begun to discover anew the power of watching the changes in the morning light and the breath taking beauty of the sunrise. This morning I was able to take an early walk on one of my usual routes through a field. Today it struck me that no two early morning skies will ever be the same. Each day the light, colours, shapes and clouds will make a unique sky. It’s as though the sky tells a story of the unique potential of each day.

As I walked along, I turned over in my mind some thoughts that I have been gathering on the Benedictine understanding of ‘seeking God’. I have come to see the Benedictine search for God as an expression of the deepest yearnings of the human heart. Our ancestors searched for meaning in the ordinary stuff of their lives and particularly in the forces of nature. From poetic fragments, artwork and monuments, we know that the sun has always been a source of fascination. I remembered being very moved as an 11 yr old when I began to have lessons in Classical Background Studies and we learnt about Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Sun:

You arise beauteous in the horizon of the heavens
Oh living Aten who creates life.
When you shine forth in the Eastern horizon you fill every land with your beauty.
You are so beautiful: you are great; gleaming and high over every land.
Your rays embrace the lands and all you have created;
You are Re and reach out to all your creations, and hold them for your beloved Son.
You are afar, but your rays touch the earth;
Men see you, but know not your ways.

I knew little of the Psalms then, but now see clearly the parallels with Ps 104. I hear in these ancient texts the cries of human longing. I do believe that every human heart longs for a connection with something or someone bigger than themselves. Every human heart asks the questions: Where have I come from? What is my purpose? Where am I going? Many will never find a path that helps them explore this. Many will need someone to believe in them before they dare take a step on the traditional paths of faith. And then there are those, like myself, who haven’t needed to search out a path as it has all been laid out before them, those first steps taken on their behalf by their parents.

Just as I was nearing home I found myself trying to remember the words of ‘I watch the sunrise’. I must have sung this 100s of times in school. It’s a simple a text and one which I memorised quickly as a child. There is something about the narrative shape that is in itself comforting:

I watch the sunrise lighting the sky,
Casting its shadows near.
And on this morning bright though it be,
I feel those shadows near me.

But you are always close to me,
Following all my ways.
May I be always close to you
Following all your ways, Lord.

I watch the sunlight shine through the clouds,
Warming the earth below.
And at the mid-day, life seems to say:
I feel your brightness near me.

For you are always close to me,
Following all my ways.
May I be always close to you
Following all your ways, Lord.

I watch the sunset fading away,
Lighting the clouds with sleep.
And as the evening closes its eyes,
I feel your presence near me.

For you are always close to me,
Following all my ways.
May I be always close to you
Following all your ways, Lord.

I watch the moonlight guarding the night,
Waiting till morning comes.
The air is silent, earth is at rest
Only your peace is near me.

Yes, you are always close to me,
Following all my ways.
May I be always close to you
Following all your ways, Lord.

I love the simple progression in the last line of every verse: shadows, brightness, presence, peace. My spiritual path might have led me to books, people and places that appear a good deal more sophisticated than this simple hymn, but I see my spiritual experience very clearly here. There’s a progression in the chorus too: but you are always, for your are always, yes, you are always. This progression is not unlike the dynamic of a psalm of lament.

Today is the 20th anniversary of my Solemn Profession and over the years there has certainly been ‘shadows, brightness, presence, peace.’ As I reflect on my experience since Solemn Profession there are verses from Lamentations which come so quickly to mind:

The favours of the Lord are not all past, His kindness is not all exhausted; every morning they are renewed; great is his faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

That promise of favours and kindness renewed each morning was writ large in the sky for me this morning. Deo gratias.

Spaces for the Sacred

Piano at St Pancras Station, London

I have returned many times to Philip Sheldrake’s book Spaces for the Sacred. It’s a fairly challenging read for me on a philosophical level. He explores the profound effect that places and landscapes can have on us and how they shape us as human beings. Of special interest to me is his chapter The Practice of Place: Monasteries as Utopias. In this chapter he looks at the desert origins of monasticism and how the physical and psychological adaptation needed to survive there laid the foundations for a theology of monastic living.

The desert in early monastic texts is both a paradise, where people live in harmony with wild animals, and at the same time a place of trial where ascetics encounter inner and outer demons.

In a strange way, to depart from the noise of the city to the great silences of rock and sand made space for the chattering voices of inner conflict to surface and be confronted.

And this experience of inner and outer conflict has held true for every monastic through the ages. Entering a monastery today you are unlikely to experience any of the privations of the physical desert, though some adjustment to the environment is needed. I think it’s fair to say that we Benedictines cultivate a rather moderate environment in our monasteries. Largely we don’t set out to make things more difficult than they need to be.

What is particular about the monastic environment is that it is intentional. Everything that happens within the monastery walls is for one purpose only: to seek God. The monastic enters a new physical world in order to encounter the kingdom of God.

Monasticism is concerned with changing places, literally and metaphorically. At the heart of Christian spirituality is an invitation to enter a new world, the Kingdom of God. We are drawn even now to become citizens of a place of the imagination, defined by the ‘place’ of Jesus, that reshapes our identities. From its origins, Christian monasticism has expressed this proleptic vision of the Kingdom in an intensive way. Its prophetic power is that it is a socially eccentric place where, paradoxically, the imaginative world of the kingdom is lived out in radical terms.

The chapter goes on to explore the idea that life in a monastery is life that is lived ‘as if’ the Kingdom were already a reality. The thinking is that if you live ‘as if’ then it may become a reality. The structure of the day, the physical space of the monastery, the principles of the Rule of St Benedict all contribute to living ‘as if.’ Of course, the inhabitants of monasteries are very human and we don’t float around feeling as if we are in paradise or a utopia. But what we do have is a very specific set of tools that can at help us to inch towards a sense of the Kingdom.

You might be reading this and longing for all that you imagine a monastery can provide in terms of space and silence, but feel that this is so far from your own reality. I’d like to suggest that in the events of everyday life there are some simple ways of sensing the sacred, even in the busiest of environments. I have personally been helped a great deal by the teaching and writing of Sr Meg Funk osb. She has taken the wisdom of the Desert Tradition and made it accessible for everyone. In a workshop for monastics she spoke about ‘bringing enclosure with you’ any time you leave the monastery. Enclosure, she explained, is not just the physical boundaries of the monastery, but also includes the ‘guarding of the heart.’ She suggested that if you guard your heart when you are on a journey, this opens you up to the divine. I have interpreted this as being open to the glimpses of God in the busiest and noisiest environments.

I lived in London before I entered the monastery and I feel at home in the busy and the bustle. There is something strangely reassuring for me knowing that a whole crowd of people are heading in a particular direction and I just need to keep up and follow. People often ask me if I find the noise of London difficult after the peace of the monastery. In truth, I don’t really. I have learnt to try to be open to the sacred wherever I am.

A very obvious glimpse of the Kingdom for me is the piano at St Pancras Station. It always draws me. I sense the sacred in the group that gathers and the connection that is made between the pianist and the group. The playing is always without music and this adds to the wonder for me. It’s extraordinary how the human brain can learn an instrument and play a piece from memory. Very often the group that gathers is silent, with some taking pictures and videoes. Together we are caught up in the moment. The Kingdom is close. In that moment we are united. As I head towards the underground I take some of that sense of the sacred with me. I might be standing on a platform four people deep, but I try to hold onto that sense of the Kingdom.

I have a sense that we can make space for the Kingdom wherever we are. All it needs is a little intention. There is a line from a sonnet entitled ‘St Benedict’, by poet and priest, Malcolm Guite, which captures this for me beautifully: to clear and keep for Love a sacred space that we might be beginners in God’s grace.

The whole sonnet is a beautiful weaving together of the key themes of Benedictine spirituality and reminds me that cultivating a space for love is a daily task, wherever I am.

St Benedict

You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found

You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.

Which spaces have you cleared and kept for Love?

Where can you make space for the Kingdom?

Sr Miriam

God is dwelling in my heart

I was very much inspired this morning by a blog post from Sr Silvana. She writes about her memories of her First Communion:

http://allthislifeandheaventoo.blogspot.com/2020/06/seeped-into-every-sense.html

We are fairly close in age and what she describes is very similar to my own experience. Her post has sparked all kinds of memories for me. You’ll see that I look rather pale in my photograph. Alas, I was recovering from yet another bout of cold. The day before my First Communion I had a temperature of 102 and for some hours there was doubt as to whether I would be able to make the great day. I missed school that week and as a consequence missed the class trip to my parish church for First Confession. Arrangements were made for me to have confession just 30 mins before the big Mass. The nuns were beaming, telling me that my soul would be ‘extra clean’ for Jesus. And at that moment, the full and awesome nature of what I was about experience hit me. Jesus was going to be so close he could see the cleanliness of my soul. I calculated that I was unlikely to cross paths with my brother before Mass started, so I’d nicely avoid an ‘occasion of sin’ there, that left only the Mass itself. We’d all been so primed to be on our very best behaviour, so there was unlikely to be any temptation there.

I have to confess to feeling a little over-awed as the Mass started. Luckily, the general excitement of seeing everyone so dressed up took away a little of my fear. During Mass I had more than one glance down at my white patent leather shoes, which were to be my pride and joy for many months to come. My dress was handed down from one of my English cousins. I secretly would have preferred a new one, but the new shoes just about made up for this.

My memories are hazy around the actual moment of receiving Communion. But what I do remember with all my heart is singing this hymn:

God is dwelling in my heart
He and I are one
All his joy He gives to me
Through Christ his son
And with Jesus in my heart
What have I to fear
For He is the Son of God
In my heart He’s near


Christians who are baptized
Have You ever realized
The great mystery
God dwells in You and me.


This joy God gave to You
Share it, with others too
Tell them, that God is love
Lift their hearts above.

Imagine 35 seven year olds raising the roof singing this, smiles filling our whole faces. You can listen here to all its schmaltzy loveliness:

What I love about this hymn is its simple directness. My seven year old self meant every word of this. And, now as an adult there is not a great deal I would add.

Fast forward to 1990, to St Vincent’s school in Acton and you’ll find me teaching this to my class as they prepared for First Communion. They loved it too. I hope today that they have continued to have that strong conviction that God is dwelling in their hearts.

There is a lot to be said for the innocence of our childhood faith and I’m am grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with mine.

What will this child turn out to be?

What will this child turn out to be?

I have always loved this line from Luke’s account of the Birth of John the Baptist. The reader knows just who he will turn out to be. And yet, I am always caught up in a feeling of expectancy and possibilities. An earlier line in the account kindles a similar feeling of expectancy for me:

The time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness, they shared her joy.

This longed-for child is already surrounded by a network of love and joy. I’d like to think that it is from this implicit place of security that John was able to make his radical choices and follow a path that would eventually lead to martyrdom. No parent would wish this for their child, and yet, there Elizabeth and Zechariah stand as models of righteousness and faith. Their trust in the power of God’s promises was truly tested.

I have to confess to being a little unnerved by many of the portrayals of John the Baptist that I have seen on films etc. There is always an element of the ‘wild man’ about him. And the puzzling detail of surviving on locusts and wild honey can make it very hard to identify with him on a human level. (Now the leather belt and sandals are a different matter, as they are part of my everyday wardrobe!) I can however identify with the clarity of his preaching. That one word, REPENT, change of heart, is the essence of the Benedictine vow of Conversio Morum. It’s a daily call to reorientation and to making space for God. It’s through this vow that I have the opportunity to grow a little more each day. In truth, we never stop growing and never stop asking of ourselves: ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ And, thankfully, what’s not always clear to us, is always clear to God.

First, last and central

Over these past few months many of us have had to adjust to some very challenging routines. We’ve lost the markers and structures that subtly orient us. If attending a church service on a Sunday was something that had become a habit, then that loss is perhaps felt on more levels than you might have expected. In many ways, the absence of the opportunity to gather physically in a church has provided an important opportunity to be creative in our understanding of prayer, worship and community. That opportunity to be creative isn’t always a place of comfort. It can often appear to offer more risk than comfort.

Uncomfortable though it may be, we have a golden opportunity to look afresh at our rituals, to examine how we use a liturgical space and to try to uncover what is essential in our worship. It’s no small task. And as any monastic will know, re-assessing liturgical practice touches us at a level that can be hard to articulate. We can know viscerally that we hold something very dear but be unable to put it into words.

From my monastic context I have come to experience the Psalms as one of the essentials of my prayer. When I think back to the time when I first discovered Turvey, it was the poetry of the Psalms that captivated me. As I took my first steps on the monastic path it was the images of the Psalms that kept me company. For there in the Psalter I found a tree ‘whose leaves shall never fade’, ‘a rock of refuge’, ‘silver from the furnace’. Here was a world with image upon image, a world which included and celebrated the complete spectrum of human emotions. In those early days I had an intuitive sense that it was in this Biblical world that I might find my path.

Praying the Psalter has certainly stood the test of time. Some form of the Psalter has been part of public corporate worship from the very beginnings of Church life. Monastic tradition embraced this practice and over centuries it grew and flowered. St Bede in the 7th Century is in no doubt as to the place of the Psalms in his life. St Bede would have credited King David with the authorship of the Psalms and in a stirring sermon says this:

If we keep vigil in the church, David comes first, last and central. If in early morning we chant songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, David is first, last and central.

It’s a beautifully uncomplicated vision. And strikingly exposure to the Psalms is not just the preserve of monastics:

O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the psalter by heart. Nor is only in cities and churches that David is famous, in the village market, in the desert, in uninhabitable lands or if girls sit at home and spin, he excites the praises of God.

There is something very compelling for me about this vision of texts learnt by heart and repeated while doing the ordinary tasks of the day. It may well be idealised, but is says something to me about integration and sacredness being woven through the day.

It looks as though it may be a very long time before it is safe for communities to come together and celebrate the Eucharist. I wonder if in that void we might be able to make a place for the Psalms? I wonder if we could allow the Psalms to be our voice? Much of the hard work of ‘what to say, and how to say it’ is done for us. We can walk a path that has already been smoothed out for us, where there are signposts and resting places, green pastures and bread to strengthen our hearts.

Read a Psalm a day and before long they may become ‘first, last and central.’

Boundaries and Holiness

I often surprise people by sharing that I have taken Leviticus as my Lent book two years in a row. When I see a look of disbelief and puzzlement on people’s faces it only makes me all the more enthusiastic. The trouble is that in order to explain why it fascinates me so much I would need to give a mini lecture and would definitely need something visual to be sure of getting my points across. Understandably, nobody wants to hang around that long. The fact remains that I really do love this text.

At first sight, Leviticus reads as a complex handbook for rituals and ways of living that are at best peculiar and at worst very off-putting. But what if we took one verse as our hermeneutical key: Love thy neighbour as thyself (Leviticus 19:18). This verse comes from Ch 17-27, known as the Holiness Code. This code comes at the end of Leviticus and provide a lens through which to view the preceding chapters.

The endless details of the sacrificial system, the food laws and purity laws all have one goal and that is unity and LOVE. Leviticus is edited and shaped into its final form during the period of the Exile. This was a period of soul searching and dislocation for the Israelites. Faced with the feeling of confusion as to what the covenantal promises could possibly mean now, the Priestly circle of writers outline a code that is intended to safeguard love and restore hope. The Israelites are in a relationship crisis.

The writers are of the mind that worship is key for Israelites in their longing to restore right relationship with God. Their worship is to have order, shape and form and these are the hallmarks of holiness. The Hebrew word they use for holiness is kavod, a word that means set apart. Writ through every aspect of their lives is need to create boundaries and to ‘set things apart’. The Hebrew thinking is that the desire and ability to do this mirrors the work of God in Genesis who ‘divides light from darkness’.

Oratory at Turvey Abbey

Probably part of my fascination with Leviticus comes from my years of learning the ropes of the monastic path. Monastic life of its nature places a very high value on order, shape and form. I think it would be fair to describe it as a life ‘set apart’. It is also a life that is intentional. Of course, there are ways of organising that are just sensible, but many of the ways in which we try do things have charity and love of neighbour at their heart.

Having an overall structure for every day of the year more or less ensures that we know what is coming next and what we should be doing. I’ve read a great many posts about how to survive lockdown and all of them mention a routine. Of course, I agree with this in principle, but I would like to add a caveat. Don’t be afraid to change that routine if it isn’t working. In his Rule St Benedict lays out several ways of organising life in the monastery, but wisely adds that if an arrangement is found to be unsatisfactory, the abbot ‘should arrange whatever he judges better’. (RB Ch 19)

You will probably have found by now that you need to factor in some untimetabled time. I think its important to allow some time for ‘freefall’ because it is during that time that your learn about yourself. It seems important that we allow ourselves to experience that restlessness that comes from having spent several hours in escapism. Our monastic ancestors, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, knew this restlessness well and called it acedia. Not only did they know this feeling well, they also suggested a potential cure: clean out your cell. Yes, pretty much every malady could be helped by manual work. It’s just possible that this could be a great help to us during lockdown. Any small area where we can create outer order has the potential to create a little ‘inner order’ and contentment.

I am sure that many of us are learning that having to be in the same physical space with others for long periods of time is a huge challenge. I think this might be where the idea of boundaries and ‘things set apart’ might help us. In the busyness of everyday life many boundaries have subtly been eroded. The pace of life demands for many that they take their ‘lunch break’ at the computer screen and answer emails on their commute. Perhaps this time of lockdown could help us to identify where our own boundaries have blurred and to reset them if that is possible. The idea of boundaries also has something to say to our relationships and how we share physical space with others. I am often sitting with a question myself: How do I make space for others? It is just possible that respecting the physical space of another allows them some psychological space too. These things are rather subtle and no two people are the same.

Whatever our circumstances during this lockdown, there is a deep call to make space for others, to love the neighbours we have discovered and the parts of ourselves that often lie hidden. This is Holiness.

Sr Miriam