‘The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since, few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to make its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.’
Rule of St Benedict Ch 49, On Lent
If you are new to the Rule of St Benedict and have just come across the quote above, you could be forgiven for thinking that monastic life is really for the spiritually elite and ordinary people need not apply. Nothing could be further from the truth. Monasteries are full of ordinary, fallible people trying to do the very best they can, with the people God has called into community. The Rule is a guide and support to help us to realise our full potential. And, as any teacher knows, if you set the bar quite high, some people will surprise themselves and discover strengths they never knew they had.
St Benedict is urging his community to do some monastic ‘sock pulling up’. Even though the horarium (monastic timetable) gives the monastic day a very clear structure, it’s quite easy to get a bit careless here and there. This might show itself in cutting corners in work and prayer, in a less than generous attitude to others and a general lack of focus. Someone looking in on the monastery may not notice these things at all, but the monastic knows when she has become careless. Lent gives us a chance to take stock and to re-focus.
So, if you feel rather weary at the prospect of giving something up, why not look at your daily routine and see if there are small changes that you could make to help you re-focus? These don’t have to huge things, but the cumulative effect can be quite surprising. Things done gently can often bear longer lasting fruits than our more Herculean efforts. I hear St Benedict’s image of ‘washing away’ our negligences as gentle, but firm. He’s not suggesting we set to with a scrubbing brush and some powerful detergent. Rather, I hear the image as water being poured over something and the dirt being dislodged by the force of the water.
For St Benedict the goal of all we do in Lent is ‘to look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’
So let’s make Lent a time of longing, re-focusing and gently preparing ourselves for the joy of Easter.
For many of the special feasts and solemnities in our calendar we are blessed with hymns written by members of our community. I often reflect that in these hymns we sing the theology of what it means to belong to the Benedictine Communities at Turvey. The feast of St Scholastica provides a particular challenge for the hymn writer, as we know very little indeed about her. What little we know of her comes from the Dialogues of St Gregory. The Dialogues are written in an hagiographical style and tend more to folklore than historical fact. There’s a certain freedom in this for me. We are left to listen to the silences and to allow poetry to fill those gaps.
In the Dialogues we find one story about Scholastica and Benedict:
‘Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, had been consecrated to God from her earliest years. She was accustomed to visiting her brother once a year. He would come down to meet her at a place on the monastery property, not far outside the gate.
One day she came as usual and her saintly brother went with some of his disciples; they spent the whole day praising God and talking of sacred things. As night fell they had supper together.
Their spiritual conversation went on and the hour grew late. The holy nun said to her brother: “Please do not leave me tonight; let us go on until morning talking about the delights of the spiritual life.” “Sister,” he replied, “what are you saying? I simply cannot stay outside my cell.”
When she heard her brother refuse her request, the holy woman joined her hands on the table, laid her head on them and began to pray. As she raised her head from the table, there were such brilliant flashes of lightning, such great peals of thunder and such a heavy downpour of rain that neither Benedict nor his brethren could stir across the threshold of the place where they had been seated. Sadly he began to complain: “May God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” “Well,” she answered, “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.”
Reluctant as he was to stay of his own will, he remained against his will. So it came about that they stayed awake the whole night, engrossed in their conversation about the spiritual life.
It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.
Three days later, Benedict was in his cell. Looking up to the sky, he saw his sister’s soul leave her body in the form of a dove, and fly up to the secret places of heaven. Rejoicing in her great glory, he thanked almighty God with hymns and words of praise. He then sent his brethren to bring her body to the monastery and lay it in the tomb he had prepared for himself.
Their minds had always been united in God; their bodies were to share a common grave.‘
This one story gives us a frame of reference for Scholastica and hints at her understanding of values implicit in the monastic path. Our Turvey hymn takes the little we know of her and gives me space to wonder. And it’s through this wondering that I can connect with her.
Jesus, desire of those you call apart To care for you alone, Brides of your Word in singleness of heart, Seeds in the desert sown.
We who receive the blessings of your grace Of all your mercies sing, For now Scholastica with unveiled face Praises our only King.
Though in her life she dwelled a hidden flame, A song by all unheard, Death has unlocked the music of her name, Clear as a singing in bird.
Be happy, Benedict, that she is gone, For love defeats the law; And you must follow where the dove has flown, In peace for evermore.
To Christ our holiness we make our prayer. When this world’s Lent is past, Clothed in your Easter joy and free from care, We share the feast at last.
As far as we can tell, it’s possible that Scholastica lived some form of consecrated life with a small group of women. She chose to set herself apart and to search for God with singleness of heart. Just what her life would have entailed is difficult to piece together. I like to think that the seeds of this search for God were sown in her childhood and the life she shared with her brother Benedict.
I have been struck over these past months by the huge part played by singleness of heart in coping with this pandemic. For all those who work in the NHS there has been no other way to proceed than with single-hearted devotion. Every hand held, every temperature chart checked, every patient intubated has had no other goal than to save life. Each week those who had already given their all, were asked to give a little more. There are many others, in all kinds of jobs, whose dedication has allowed us to access some of the things that are necessary to our lives.
Our hymn also picks up the theme of the hidden nature of Scholastica’s life: though in her life she dwelled a hidden flame, a song by all unheard. This is a common way of speaking about consecrated life and in particular, monastic and contemplative life. This phrase strikes me year after year. It gives me great hope to think that the smallest of flames can keep on burning.
I think there are many whose lives could be seen as hidden flames in our world today. There must be countless people who have turned up for work and given the very best they could manage without any real recognition. In the scientific world there will be those whose names will never be mentioned, but without whom our vaccines would never have been produced. I am conscious too of those who have worked through the night on experiment after experiment. The flame that these people have kept alight burns bright now as vaccines are distributed and administered. I think also of the hidden flame of love of a husband who can’t visit his wife in a care home. Those waves through a window that she can’t understand and his calls to the care staff to check that she is okay, all keep the hidden flame of love burning.
And, sadly, for some, death will have unlocked the music of their names. In the years to come we will hear the stories of those who gave all they had, put themselves in danger and paid with their lives. That song of selfless love will surely be heard in every race, creed and land.
While we can’t be certain that Scholastica existed (or even Benedict, for that matter) we can perhaps assume that this story was handed down to teach us something about connection and love. Scholastica and Benedict are connected by blood and by their search for God. Through Scholastica’s earnest prayer love triumphs over the particular practice of Benedict’s monastery. Gregory wants us to remember Scholastica as the one who ‘loved more’.
During this time of pandemic we have the opportunity to be people who ‘love more’. Whether that love be visible or hidden, Scholastica lights the path before us.
Throughout the liturgical year there are some hymns which seem to draw together all that I hold dear in biblical imagery and incarnational theology. Hail to the Lord who comes is one of those hymns. This hymn helps me make an immediate connection between the Gospel scene and my own life. Sometimes I need those connections to be very obvious.
Hail to the Lord who comes, Comes to the temple gate, Not with his angel hosts, Nor in his kingly state;
But borne upon the throne Of Mary’s gentle breast; Thus to his father’s house He comes, a humble guest.
The world’s true light draws near All darkness to dispel, The flame of faith is lit And dies the power of hell.
Our bodies and our souls Are temples now for him, For we are born of grace – God lights our souls within.
O Light of all the earth! We light our lives with thee; The chains of darkness gone All sons of God are free.
The hymn opens with a scene that is fairly easy to picture: Mary and Joseph, a little travel weary, come in faithfulness to the Temple, clutching their precious child. I imagine them standing on the Temple threshold, breathing in the sacred. They are filled with that awe that we have all experienced when we enter a sacred place. I imagine Joseph holding the offering tight and Mary holding Jesus tight. The gift in Joseph’s hands represents the love and longing of every faithful Jew to fulfill the Torah. The gift in Mary’s hand represents the love and longing of everyone who looked forward to the coming of the Saviour.
Can we see ourselves in the scene? Can we picture our hands open with all that we hold precious?
The world’s true light draws near All darkness to dispel
The promise of this light draws Simeon and Anna near. They have walked towards this light all their lives. Each prayer, each small act of kindness, each fulfilling of the Torah has made space inside them to recognise and receive the light. And there they stand, bathed in that light. God’s promises have come full circle.
Our bodies and our souls Are temples now for him,
These are the lines that touch me most from this hymn. They speak of wholeness and the goodness of every created thing. Read alongside the Gospel text they invite each one of us to be that Temple. We build the Temple out of the many fragments of our lives. It’s incarnational. It’s messy. But the promise is there that we are ‘born of grace’ and God ‘lights our souls within’. We were carried once, a precious bundle held tight. Our parents made an offering of all they held dear when they brought us to church for Baptism. God’s light has always been within us.
We light our lives with thee; The chains of darkness gone All sons of God are free.
In these days of darkness and uncertainty we might look outside ourselves for light. In fact, the light we seek is already within us. We often glimpse it in others first. Today’s feast is an invitation to celebrate the light within each one of us.
‘Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom.’ ( Prologue, Rule of St Benedict)
I entered the monastery in 1993 and so have consciously lived the cycle of the liturgical year 28 times. That’s a lot of exposure to Scripture. I’m often asked what drew me to the monastery. In truth, a big draw was the beauty of the Psalms and the way in which Scripture is woven throughout the monastic day.
As I have journeyed with the Gospels, I have come upon several books which have been an enormous help to me in digging deeper into the text. I am always on the look out for an interpretive key that can help me when I find the text difficult, or things seem to have gone a little dry.
THE GOSPEL OF MARK
One of my favourite finds is: The Spiritual Landscape of Mark’s Gospel, by Bonnie Thurston
Bonnie Thurston journeys through Mark’s Gospel exploring the symbolism of wilderness, desert, sea, valley etc. I found it a very helpful way to approach passages which have become very familiar to me.
Since my A Levels I have followed the work of scripture scholar Nicholas King sj. I chanced upon this unassuming little book in our library.
It’s 30 pages long and not a single word is wasted. (I am not sure if it is still in print.)
You can listen to Nicholas King on Mark’s Gospel here:
He has also produced a whole series of lectures on the New Testament which make very engaging listening. Nicholas King is very much a teacher and guides you through the texts in way that is fresh and often challenging. ( This is available on Amazon)
Belmont Abbey have recently produced a very good online retreat on Mark’s Gospel:
This material is very accessible and beautifully put together by Dom Brendan Thomas osb.
THE GOSPEL OF LUKE
Witness: Five Plays from the Gospel of Luke
Several years ago I came across these plays on Radio Four. I love the scope for the imagination that a radio play allows. I was captivated by the opening sentences voiced by Peter:
‘The lake means all to us. We’d starve without it.’
After each play there is a discussion with a panel of experts. These discussions gave me some helpful insights. (Available on Amazon)
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
I have long been an admirer of the work of poet, priest and songwriter Malcolm Guite. Some years ago he gave a talk to my community entitled ‘Poetry and Prayer’. He is a captivating speaker and has a deep love for the Scriptures. He makes a great deal of his work available on his blog. I particularly recommend his talks on John’s Gospel which he as helpfully themed as Life, Light, Love and Glory.
You can listen to his talks here:
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Strangely, I can’t think of anything books that stand out for me on Matthew’s Gospel. This is not because of any difficulty with the text.
New Testament scholar Paula Gooder has a range of helpful material on the Gospels. I found this talk very good:
Her website has a wealth of resources:
Lastly, I have one recommendation for a good introduction to the Gospels: Beginnings, Keys that Open the Gospels, by Morna Hooker. I love her clear and fresh style. This book is a gem.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us O long-sought With-ness for a world without, O secret seed, O hidden spring of light. Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame, O quickened little wick so tightly curled, Be folded with us into time and place, Unfold for us the mystery of grace And make a womb of all this wounded world. O heart of heaven beating in the earth, O tiny hope within our hopelessness Come to be born, to bear us to our birth, To touch a dying world with new-made hands And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
O King of our desire whom we despise, King of the nations never on the throne, Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone, Rejected joiner, making many one, You have no form or beauty for our eyes, A King who comes to give away his crown, A King within our rags of flesh and bone. We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise, For we ourselves are found in you alone. Come to us now and find in us your throne, O King within the child within the clay, O hidden King who shapes us in the play Of all creation. Shape us for the day Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.
First light and then first lines along the east To touch and brush a sheen of light on water As though behind the sky itself they traced The shift and shimmer of another river Flowing unbidden from its hidden source; The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera. Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice Are bathing in it now, away upstream… So every trace of light begins a grace In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam Is somehow a beginning and a calling; “Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream For you will see the Dayspring at your waking, Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a,16 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38
My heart leapt when I saw the readings for this last Sunday in Advent. I have always looked forward to Advent for the prominence given to Old Testament texts. I think I would describe myself as having an Old Testament heart. Today’s first reading from Samuel has a been significant for me since I was a teenager. It is a pivotal text in Old Testament study and is described by Walter Brueggemann as ‘the taproot of the Messianic idea in Israel’. As with any text that is taken out of context, the hearer in the liturgical setting usually has to work quite hard in order to understand what is being said. This is especially true of today’s text.
Once David had settled into his house and the Lord had given him rest from all the enemies surrounding him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘Look, I am living in a house of cedar while the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go and do all that is in your mind, for the Lord is with you.’
But that very night the word of the Lord came to Nathan:
‘Go and tell my servant David, “Thus the Lord speaks: Are you the man to build me a house to dwell in? I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be leader of my people Israel; I have been with you on all your expeditions; I have cut off all your enemies before you. I will give you fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth. I will provide a place for my people Israel; I will plant them there and they shall dwell in that place and never be disturbed again; nor shall the wicked continue to oppress them as they did, in the days when I appointed judges over my people Israel; I will give them rest from all their enemies. The Lord will make you great; the Lord will make you a House. And when your days are ended and you are laid to rest with your ancestors, I will preserve the offspring of your body after you and make his sovereignty secure. I will be a father to him and he a son to me; if he does evil, I will punish him with the rod such as men use, with strokes such as mankind gives. Your House and your sovereignty will always stand secure before me and your throne be established for ever.”’
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a,16
Previously in Ch 5 of the Second book of Samuel David has triumphantly taken Jerusalem from Jebusite control and also led a successful campaign against the Philistines. His triumph is attributed to the fact that God is ‘with him’. In Ch 6 he attempts to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in order to guarantee God’s presence in that beloved city. It doesn’t go smoothly at first, but after three months the Ark is safely placed in the tent which David has pitched for it. It is with this background that we approach today’s first reading. David now wonders about the possibility of building something grander to house the Ark. The prophet Nathan’s response contains an all important wordplay with the word ‘house’ as this can also mean ‘dynasty’. The roles are now reversed as David will no longer need to build God a ‘house’ as God intends to build David a dynasty. God makes a ground breaking promise that in the lineage of David his faithful love will be made manifest. Up until this point God’s promises have been conditional, but now the dynasty is guaranteed in perpetuity. None of this is David’s doing. As the story of salvation unfolds there are many falls from grace along the way. God’s promise remains.
It is with the words of this monumental prophecy that we approach our Gospel text from Luke.
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?’ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’ the angel answered ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.’ ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.
Each part of the promise to David is found in Luke’s text:
‘the Lord will make you great‘ He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High
‘your throne (will) be established for ever‘ The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David
‘I will be a father to him and he a son to me‘ He will rule over the House of Jacob for ever
‘Your House and your sovereignty will always stand secure before me and your throne be established for ever.‘ and his reign will have no end
I find the symmetry in these texts very comforting. I can see clearly that God’s power and promise reach their fulfillment in Christ. Yet, in each story God requires some human co-operation. In the realms of God’s faithful covenantal love there is room for mishaps and mistakes. It’s usual to see Mary’s ‘yes’ as freely given and wholehearted. Legend and faith tradition see Mary as chosen from all time, with a heart so pure as almost to guarantee a ‘Yes’. It’s not always easy to live up to this model. I’ve been greatly helped this Advent by a quote I saw online from Sr Elizabeth Meluch ocd:
The people of Advent are “us”. The Baptist prods us on to newness, and the Zachariah in us resists until our Elizabeth insists. Our Joseph lets it happen, and the young Mary in us seizes the gift and runs with it. It must be so if the Christ in us is to be born. ~
Perhaps we can have courage this Advent to allow the Mary in us to ‘seize the gift and run with it’?
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed, Rose from a root invisible to all. We knew the virtues once of every weed, But, severed from the roots of ritual, We surf the surface of a wide-screen world And find no virtue in the virtual. We shrivel on the edges of a wood Whose heart we once inhabited in love, Now we have need of you, forgotten Root The stock and stem of every living thing Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove, For now is winter, now is withering Unless we let you root us deep within, Under the ground of being, graft us in.
Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue, Unseeable, you gave yourself away, The Adonai, the Tetragramaton Grew by a wayside in the light of day. O you who dared to be a tribal God, To own a language, people and a place, Who chose to be exploited and betrayed, If so you might be met with face to face, Come to us here, who would not find you there, Who chose to know the skin and not the pith, Who heard no more than thunder in the air, Who marked the mere events and not the myth. Touch the bare branches of our unbelief And blaze again like fire in every leaf.