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Sunday, 27 November 2016


The First Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year. Advent, for many people, is either barely present in the rush of work, school, travel plans and buying presents, or it is seen as a kind of minor version of Lent, vaguely gloomy and depressing. I take this opportunity once again to quote in extenso the admirable Advent meditation of Dom David Bird OSB, a Benedictine monk.

During the season of Advent, the Church proposes for our attention four truths which are general enough and profound enough to shape our whole spiritual life.

 The first is that, whoever we are, whatever our vocation, whether our life is happy or sad, fulfilled or frustrated, useful or a waste of time, interesting or boring, in harmony with God or sinful, it is destined to change; and what we consider normal now will, one day, become a thing of the past. This is true at every level of life and for everybody, and is even true of the whole creation in which we live. All will eventually end, because God so wills it. God is not in favour of every change, but his Providence is at work in every change.

   The second Advent truth is that Christ is present in every change, even if the change has been brought about against his will, and, at the end of every change, Christ will manifest himself to each and every one of us in a new way, taking into account what has happened, if we allow him. This will go on happening until  his Second Coming in which the whole of creation will be transformed into a new heaven and a new earth, and his presence will be manifested in a new and definitive way.

   This Sunday we celebrate the presence among us of the Risen Christ, as we do every Sunday; but, because it is Advent, at the same time, we are warned not to be satisfied with the level of our Christian life, our own holiness or our degree of commitment, nor closed to Christ's challenges when they involve us in change.  While we are alive, we can be confident that Christ has much more for each of us, and that he wants to make us capable of receiving what he has to offer. He would prefer our firmament should cave in, our whole world collapse rather than allow us to sink into a mire of complacency that would make us impervious to his grace. The Church has given us Advent as an antidote to complacency.  To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often, as Blessed John Henry Newman said, and Christ wishes to accompany us; and, round every corner, after every change, Christ is ready to meet us, to offer us something new.

   The third Advent truth is that when we meet Christ, we never meet him alone. Christ is in heaven and does not leave it when he comes to meet us. Where Christ is, there are Our Lady, the angels and saints. Whether in the Mass where we meet him as a Church, or in our hearts when we meet him in prayer, or when we recognise him as present in every situation, heaven and earth become one.

   We talk about Christ coming to us; but the early Church talked about our ascending into heaven, even as we remain physically on earth.   This is the theme of the Letter to the Hebrews and of the Apocalypse. It is a further paradox that, the more we are united to Christ who is in heaven, the more heaven is present on earth through us.

   Is it not strange that, in the early Church, when the Liturgy was at its most communal, when there was so much emphasis on the Church as the body of Christ, that Christians should have gone into the desert to become hermits? Was it a flight into non- Christian individualism? It may have been for some; but the classical Christian hermit was anything but an individualist. What united him or her to the Christian community was that both he or she and the community believed they were citizens of heaven before they were citizen of this world, precisely because they were members of Christ's risen body. The monk believed that, because of his own weakness, he could not really become what baptism had made him, a citizen of heaven, without entering a monastery or going into the desert.   Did you know that the word "cell", used for a monk's room, was believed to have the same root as "coelum" because, just as the Christian community was raised in the Eucharist to share in the liturgy of heaven, so the monk in his cell was raised up to heaven in his prayer, and his solitude was filled with Our Lady, the angels and saints who prayed with him, and even with all those on earth who are united to Christ in his risen body.  No space on earth was more populated than a hermit's cell! Moreover, people went to visit hermits and monasteries because they believed that, through the monks life of sacrifice and prayer, sacred spaces are formed where heaven and earth are united.

   The fourth Advent truth is that heaven changed radically when Jesus, having died and risen again, ascended into his Father's presence. The Incarnation had brought about a new relationship between God and his creation. When this relationship was perfected by Christ's obedience unto death and became the central reality in heaven by means of Christ's ascension, heaven became the new reality into which the whole human race and the whole of creation were destined to be transformed.   It became the ultimate destiny of all that is. Jesus said that this generation will not pass until all these things shall happen; and in a certain and real sense this is exactly what took place when Christ ascended into heaven. For this reason, the early Christians never changed the texts in which Christ foretold the end of the world. We are in the last days, not, as the Jehovah Witnesses believe, because some world-destroying calamity is about to happen, but because every time we celebrate Mass, every time we pray, every time we meet Christ in the circumstances of the present moment, we are brought into the Father's presence by Christ in the Spirit, and we share directly in heaven which is God's final solution for the whole of creation; and every time we go to Mass or simply pray, Christ, Our Lady, the angels and saints enter our world through and in us.

   Advent is the time when we remember that this life receives its value only in so far as it incarnates God's will revealed to our faith in Christ's presence.  As the gospel today teaches us, we must be awake, ready to receive him and not pass our time in debauchery and drunkenness.   In every situation we must pray, "Come, Lord Jesus," and he will be there.

   In this world of change, we find Christ's will in the present moment. We must not try to re-create a past that is agreeable to us, because God's will is not to be found there. Nor must we seek our fulfilment in an imaginary future, because that is our own creation, not God's. We must find God's will where Christ is, in the present; but we must not be so attached to present circumstances that we try to hold on to them when it is God's will that they be changed.

   We must become Advent Christians for whom everything in this world, past, present and to come, must make way for the Christ who comes. Only our self-will stands in the way.

Dom David Bird, OSB (from his blog Monks and Mermaids at

Monday, 21 November 2016


     In the Sanctus we sing “Heaven and earth are filled with Thy glory.” It suddenly struck me yesterday how curious that is. Heaven, yes. We know it is filled with His glory. But dear old Earth? I recently attended a conference occasioned by the quincentenary of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia: almost all the sessions either were about dystopian subjects or used “utopia” and “utopian” in the sense of daydreams and illusions. At best we are encouraged to regard our blue planet with alarmed compassion, like a seriously-wounded person encountered by a car wreck: possibly dying and direly in need of something we are not competent enough, or not numerous enough, to perform. And this poor wretched miserable planet, the ultimate champion in the Victimhood Stakes, is “filled with His glory”?
     Note that it is not a prayer, a begging, a wish, not even an optative like the first three petitions of the Our Father: it is a statement, bold, absolute, that dares to equate Earth with Heaven. Not the lovely, innocent Earth we think once existed before humanity screwed it up; not the final, redeemed Earth of the Second Coming; no, this same planet in which we live, move, and have our being. Right now.
     First, this should give us furiously to think. Second, it should send us off into our daily comings and goings with fiercely-open eyes, in an exercise to which Pokemon Go is mere flummery. Where is the glory? Where is it hiding? If the Earth is full of it, why can’t I see it? Why aren’t I overwhelmed wherever I go?
     We furiously think because if we are to find it we need to know what it looks like. Clues? Well, it presumably looks like Heaven; and it presumably looks like God. Mmmm. So, an Alpine valley at sunrise? Beethoven’s Ninth? The Northern Lights? Well, overwhelming beauty is certainly an aspect of God’s glory. So, I suspect, are a surprisingly large number of human beings. The truly righteous (note: not “self-righteous”) of all faiths are perhaps the hewers of wood and drawers of water of the glory: but without wood fire cannot burn and without water we die. When I look at a group of small children in a playground, there is kind of pearly spider’s web of glory being made there. When, on a busy street, I see a thoroughly professional beggar woman, with scarf and baby, whining for alms, and someone nevertheless stops and puts something fairly large in her paper cup, it’s as if a quick flash of glory came and went. In the psychiatric hospital where I spent a few hours this year visiting an agèd friend, the sheer kindness of the staff, joking lovingly with those who stared, those who cried inconsolably and those who just looked lost, created a kind of mist of glory that hung, not quite visible, in the ancient cloister.
     The Sermon on the Mount, which Benedict XVI calls the “New Torah”, may help us to find this fullness. Note again, that the Beatitudes are not promises or prayers: they are statements. The pure in heart are blessed. And as such, they are also blessings: each a tiny ray in that immense glory that fills the earth. And usually recognisable when we meet them.
     The Cross, which still and always stat in our orbis, is not a negation of this glory, but the culmination of it. He who was the Living God made man, is now the Living God with man, and in man. Yesterday’s Gospel showed us the two thieves crucified beside him, and his answer to the good thief’s begging: “Amen, I tell thee: today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” After that, the Communion is a wellspring of glory.

“Heaven and Earth are filled with Thy glory.” Perhaps we just need our eyes opening. 

Saturday, 19 November 2016


I put this up a couple of days ago from an iPad, and my lamentable techo-incoherence created a monster. Here, I hope, is a better version. 

  In the Book of Common Prayer, this is this morning's second Psalm; and its infectious joyfulness seemed a good thing to share. The "beauty of holiness" is often interpreted by Anglican liturgophiles as if it meant the holiness of beauty; but reading Juliana of Norwich or St John of the Cross suffices to show that the original holds a deeper, and not incompatible, truth. I do like the rejoicing trees.

Psalm 96Cantate Domino

O SING unto the Lord a new song : sing unto the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing unto the Lord, and praise his Name : be telling of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his honour unto the heathen : and his wonders unto all people.
4 For the Lord is great, and cannot worthily be praised : he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the heathen, they are but idols : but it is the Lord that made the heavens.
6 Glory and worship are before him : power and honour are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people : ascribe unto the Lord worship and power.
8 Ascribe unto the Lord the honour due unto his Name : bring presents, and come into his courts.
9 O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness : let the whole earth stand in awe of him.
10 Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King : and that it is he who hath made the round world so fast that it cannot be moved; and how that he shall judge the people righteously.
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad : let the sea make a noise, and all that therein is.
12 Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it : then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord.
13 For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth : and with righteousness to judge the world, and the people with his truth.

Friday, 18 November 2016


"The flame of charity is the cry of the heart."

Today I found this wonderful line in my beloved Carthusian miscellany The Wound of Love. The author attributes it to St Augustine's commentary on Psalm 37, but I haven't found it there. Any pointers welcome; though tracing it is really superfluous. Just letting it resonate in our minds throughout the day is enough.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016


Stat crux, dum volvitur orbis

It was a privilege for me, a European, to be present at this, the most important American election for a number of years, and in its result the most startling for many decades. One thing that strikes unprejudiced observers from my continent is the idealism of the American people, which shows so strongly in their national events, in their collective enthusiasm, in their warmth, in their communal kindness, and even in their anger. Idealistic, patriotic, they are the products of a nation that invented itself instead of just growing, and thus is obliged periodically to reinvent itself.

It is now accepted among many that during the recent campaign the vilification was all on the Trumpian side; but I must say that rarely in peacetime have I heard a politician so consistently an comprehensively abused as Donald Trump. We may say, in schoolyard mode, that "he started it", but the fact remains that he got as good as he gave, and that not only his opponent's team but much of the political establishment and the media returned the fire with interest. Yes, he said many reprehensible things no candidate for high office should say; but equal and worse (whatever the justification) was said about him. It was a savage and uncivilised campaign; and even those who initially wanted "when they go low, to go high" were soon convinced that highmindedness would get them nowhere.

Then came Election Day, and (for us, the right-thinking ones) it all went pear-shaped. All the polls were proved wrong, and the Great Beast was elected in what one commentator called "a primal scream" of an election. In the subsequent 24 hours, hindsight provided many valuable and even sensitive insights: it was race, it was gender, it was the economy, it was millions who felt left behind, ignored and unheard and who had provoked what one pundit called a "whitelash". It was finally realised that (as Tina Brown, former New Yorker editor, said) a lot of people had been feeling that on certain subjects conversation was closed, taboo. And the Great Beast alone had sensed the pent-up energy of disappointment and anger, and had realised it contained enough nuclear energy to propel him to the goal.

Why am I writing about this here, in a blog that deals with faith, prayer, and such things? Perhaps because the experience has taught us that ambient opinion, social and unsocial media and a culture of vituperation, in solving nothing, may teach us a profound lesson. The lesson is that, in politics -- local, regional, national and even international -- the one unpardonable sin is humiliation. The humiliated all too often cannot and do not forgive, but seek for revenge. The revenge may take the form of an assault rifle fired upon innocent bystanders, or of an electoral slap in the face for hated "élites": revenge it is, and it curdles the blood.

The ordinary citizen, indeed any individual, can do little but can and must do something: needs to know that the television has its own world and agenda, that social media are hollow vessels open to any filling, and that one's own small world, the few dozen humans with whom one actually interacts, is the terrain one is given, the place where, for you or me, the world turns: volvitur orbis. Here we live, here we act, adiuvante gratia tua, with the help of Thy grace; never forgetting that, for us as for our neighbour, while the world turns, dum volvitur orbis, stat Crux: the Cross stands, the Cross remains. Not as a memento mori, to speak of death, but as a reminder how far love can go. "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."

Perhaps we should turn off the TV, the computer and the smartphone from time to time and look, really look, at the few square miles of the orbis in which we can and must act, react, and interact, with the few people upon whose lives we can truly have an effect. He did this; he loved us, he did his Father's will; he died for love of us, he rose again for love of us, he humiliated no one, he rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar's and unto God what was God's, he showed us the way love works.

Adiuvante gratia tua: with the help of Thy grace. A wise man I knew long ago told a woman who came to him for counsel, "Your problem is that you are trying to live a sacrificial life without the grace to do so." At the time this seemed to me harsh: now I realise its kindness and its wisdom. Only with grace can we live in this turning world under the Cross; and only through prayer can grace reach us.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016


I came upon the traditional Latin text of the Act of Contrition the other day, and found it moving. However, all the translations I saw seemed not to do justice to their model. So, greatly daring, I embarked upon my own, emboldened only by the fact that many years ago I spent a great deal of time on the prose rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer. Now, still greatly daring, I share the result.

Deus meus, 
ex toto corde pænitet me 
omnium meorum peccatorum,
eaque detestor, quia, peccando,
non solum pœnas a te iuste statutas promeritus sum,
sed præsertim quia offendi te, summum bonum, 
ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris.
Ideo firmiter propono,
adiuvante gratia tua,
de cetero me non peccaturum 
peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum.

My God,
with all my heart I regret all my sins,
and I hate them because, in sinning,
not only have I richly deserved
the pains thou hast justly decided
but mainly because I have vexed thee 
supreme good and most worthy 
for me to love above all
Therefore I firmly propose
with the present help of thy grace
henceforth no more to sin
and to flee sin's future occasions.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016


A melancholy Dutch poet, J.C. Bloem, wrote a poem about autumn that begins, "Asters en chrysanthemen / Het leven staat allengs stil."(Asters and chrysanthemums / Life gradually slows to a halt." Today (as I write, it's already evening) is, in France, le jour des morts, the Day of the Dead; in England, All Souls; for the Church, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Chrysanthemums decorate tombs, and we remember those whom we have lost to our world. Some of us pray for their souls in the hereafter, perhaps hoping thereby to shorten their purgatory. Some just remember with tenderness and affection. Some still mourn, filled with the torn selvedge of grief.
I am always struck by the heart's selection of those whom it truly mourns. Embarrassingly, they are not always all our nearest and dearest: one may mourn one parent more than the other, one sibling more than another, one friend more than another equally close; and sometimes one finds oneself genuinely mourning someone one only met a few times. The heart has reasons reason knows not of, indeed.
The history of our faith's theology furishes many details concerning our future after that passage called Death: I wonder how many people know or believe them today. My mother, nearly 90 and suffering from Alzheimer's, once had a late-night conversation with me in which death came up. I asked her what she felt about it as it neared; and I've always remembered her answer. Ï don't know what happens,"she said, "but I don't think we're meant to know. That's what faith is: you go into the dark, trusting."
Many people believe that the dead are with us still, watching, encouraging, and sometimes even helping us. Our affectionate remembrance of them, our attention to their resting-place, and our prayers for them and for us, and for what still joins us to them: these are the quiet trusting joys that fill this day.