I cannot think unless I have been thought, Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken. I cannot teach except as I am taught, Or break the bread except as I am broken. O Mind behind the mind through which I seek, O Light within the light by which I see, O Word beneath the words with which I speak, O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me, O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me, O Memory of time, reminding me, My Ground of Being, always grounding me, My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me, Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring, Come to me now, disguised as everything.
Even in the darkness where I sit And huddle in the midst of misery I can remember freedom, but forget That every lock must answer to a key, That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate, Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard, Particular, exact and intimate, The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward. I cry out for the key I threw away That turned and over turned with certain touch And with the lovely lifting of a latch Opened my darkness to the light of day. O come again, come quickly, set me free Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.
Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11 Thessalonians 5:16-24 John 1:6-8, 19-28
Two themes intertwine in this week’s Liturgy of the Word. It’s the moment in Advent when we rejoice that the Lord is at hand and also commit ourselves to preparing for that coming.
The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison; to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.
‘I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity, like a bridegroom wearing his wreath, like a bride adorned in her jewels. ‘For as the earth makes fresh things grow, as a garden makes seeds spring up, so will the Lord make both integrity and praise spring up in the sight of the nations.’
Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
The voice we hear at the beginning of this week’s liturgy is familiar. I grew up singing these words in the popular folk hymn: God’s Spirit is in my Heart. Isaiah’s words offer a prophecy of hope and encouragement to a people who were shrouded in the darkness of disappointment and confusion. Imagine being exiled from your town or city and returning a generation later to find rubble where your cherished landmarks once stood. Imagine too that the building that represents all your hopes and dreams lies ruined. This is how the exiles felt when they returned to Jerusalem and saw the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was their assurance that God would always be with them. It is into this darkness that Isaiah speaks the words of his prophecy. All of Israel’s fragile hope can now find new strength in the person who is anointed to act and bring about God’s reign.
The Gospel text from The Prologue of John’s Gospel is a small gear change from the texts that we have heard from Mark in the two previous Sundays. Mark’s style is brief and the pace fast, whereas John’s Prologue moves at a slower pace, with space for repetition and the poetic unfolding of his major themes of Light, Life, Love and Glory. It’s into that poetic flow that today’s Gospel text comes a little abruptly:
A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.
This is how John appeared as a witness. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared, but he declared quite openly, ‘I am not the Christ.’ ‘Well then,’ they asked ‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not’ he said. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied:
A voice that cries in the wilderness: Make a straight way for the Lord.’
Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
There are no details of camel hair and locusts to arouse our curiosity in this text. Instead we have the stark message that John the Baptist is not the light. The most important thing about him is that he points away from himself to the LIGHT. It’s possible to see in these verses the figure of John as a model disciple. John stands right back and points the way for Christ. I think the text can also teach us something about humility and what it means to fulfill our vocations. In practice it’s actually rather hard to stand right back and do something totally at the service of another.
Humility often gets a rather bad press as a virtue. I am sure that many of us have had an experience of being told that we ‘should be humble’ and then assuming that this means that we can’t have an opinion or stand up for ourselves. In the Benedictine tradition our Rule contains a lengthy chapter on the practice of humility. It’s not an easy read as a monastic. Perhaps one of the most helpful insights I have had into St Benedict’s seemingly uncompromising teaching is from Dom Gregory van de Klej, the former prior of the monks at Turvey. He suggests that growing in humility is a journey and our goal is to be able to live in perfect love. We won’t achieve this overnight, but we can reasonably expect to have made some progress by the time of our monastic Golden Jubilee. This gives me hope..
We don’t always see our own progress on our faith journey. It’s easy to see the times where we have been rather lukewarm and not managed to do what we hoped we could. In the person of John the Baptist we have a model of someone who was bold, uncompromising AND humble. I think that he has much to teach us this Advent.
‘Console my people, console them, says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended…’
It’s impossible for me to read or hear the quote above without also hearing the plaintive melody from Handel’s Messiah. Texts that are sung seem to take on a new life for me and I like to hope that in my old age I’ll have a bank of these to sustain me. There is something about the tone of the music and the fact that Jerusalem is personified, that makes it very poignant. Isaiah’s words are a message of hope after long years of exile and confusion. At last there is a promise of a new Exodus and preparations need to be made.
A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low. Let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
Whenever I hear this section of Isaiah 40 I think of the stories told by one of our sisters who had spent time in Kenya. She told us that she actually had seen a road being built in the desert. It was built because the president was due to visit. There was nothing else, just one tarmac road. And the Kenyans were so proud of it. It’s easy to pass by the dramatic language of Isaiah’s ‘landscaping’ project. Everything is to be transformed so that God’s glory can be revealed.
Perhaps this year, more than any, we have a chance to think about our own ‘inner landscapes’. Where are the valleys that could be filled in? Where are the mountains that could be laid low? How ready am I to welcome the Lord?
Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem. Shout without fear, say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God’. Here is the Lord God coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him. The prize of his victory is with him, his trophies all go before him. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.’
We are spoilt for choice with images in this final section of our first reading. The Good news that the Lord has saved his people is told with joy, energy, triumph, tenderness and love. The message is all consuming. Isaiah’s words give me the sense of something which is so powerful that it cannot be contained any longer. There is similar energy in our Gospel passage.
Mark begins his Gospel by plunging straight into his message. There’s no setting of the scene or details of Christ’s birth to charm us. His purpose is clear: he is to tell the Good News (euangelion) of the Son of God. With his first sentence he catches the attention of his hearers. The term ‘good news’ was well-known in Roman culture and it was usually associated with the emperor. The birth of the emperor and any of his deeds were heralded as ‘good news’. Mark’s good news is this: the scene is set and all of Israel’s longing for the one who was to save them is about to be fulfilled.
The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way. A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.
And so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
Scholars often point out that Mark slightly misquotes Isaiah and blends together parts of Exodus and Malachi. We can see this clearly this week as we can have the texts side by side. Ordinarily I don’t think I would have noticed this. All of these phrases are part of my Advent memory bank and I am happy for phrases to weave in an out, accurate or inaccurate. Mark’s point is that scripture is fulfilled and an immediate response is required. It’s not a matter of intellectual assent to some truths, it’s a matter of the heart. The word Mark uses for repentance is metanoia. This is so much more than being sorry for your sins. It’s about turning your life around and changing your heart.
Monastics throughout the centuries who follow the Rule of St Benedict know this call to a change of heart only too well. We take a vow which needs a little explaining: conversatio morum. It is variously translated ‘conversion of life’ or ‘conversion of manners’. Implicit in this vow are the more traditional elements of poverty and celibate chastity. The monastic commits each day to turn away from self and towards God. Sometimes this turning happens in a gentle manner. And sometimes this turning is abrupt and shocking.
Hard though John’s message is, it doesn’t seem to have deterred his hearers. Mark tells us that ‘All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins.‘ The people were clearly ready for this message. How ready am I this Advent to hear the call to a change of heart?
The depiction of John the Baptist sounds strange to our ears. It’s probably only the detail of the honey that is any way attractive to me. But Mark’s hearers wouldn’t have found the details odd; John the Baptist is living the classic prophet lifestyle, modelling himself on Elijah. It’s likely that there were many prophets of John’s kind at the time. What is striking about John is, that despite his success, he stands right back in order to point to Christ. In vivid imagery he declares himself unworthy to undo the sandal strap of the one who is to come. Probably today we’d draw back from this type of language. We are all too aware of how weighted the language of being ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ can be. It’s all too easy to create a theology or model of church where we are ‘unworthy’. Perhaps the key here is to think of ourselves ‘at the service’ of Christ, ready to do whatever is asked. St Benedict sums this up in one small phrase, the monk is to ‘prefer nothing to Christ’. This simple phrase covers every choice you make in the monastery. It’s the work of a lifetime.
In this time of Advent can you prefer nothing to Christ?
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.
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.
‘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.
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.’
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.
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.
That promise of favours and kindness renewed each morning was writ large in the sky for me this morning. Deo gratias.
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.
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.