Benedictine Spirituality Gospel Scripture Uncategorized

A call to listening obedience.

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My eighth #Benedictine word is obedience. Obedience is an important part of Benedictine life. Along with stability and conversion of life it makes up the three vows that we take at Profession. Benedictine obedience is based listening and responding to the call of God in our lives. To some extent that’s straightforward, the desire to respond to God is at the heart of all Christian life. But, important as it is, it is only one aspect of Benedictine obedience.

St Benedict is very clear that our obedience is not only directly to Christ, but also to our monastic superiors who represent Christ in our communities and to the whole community through the mutual obedience that calls us to recognise Christ’s voice in the other members of the community. St Benedict writes:

“Because of the holy service they have professed… They carry out the orders of the Prioress or Abbot as promptly as if the command came directly from God.”

His words are challenging, especially in an age that values personal autonomy and independence. He calls into question our assumption we are better placed than anyone else to discern God’s will for us. Benedictine obedience insists that we recognise and trust the discernment and insights of others. It calls us to the humility of acknowledging that sometimes someone else will know better than we do the path we should take.

Where are you being invited to listen to God calling you through other people today?

Beatitudes Gospel Scripture Uncategorized

Desire and fulfilment

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Jesus says to his followers:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness they shall have their fill.”

It seems to me that the heart of this beatitude is desire and passion. At its heart is the passion of love that fuels our desire for communion with God. That love does not exist in a vacuum, our loving relationship with God soon spills over into a concern for the well-being of others. Our knowledge of God leads us to care passionately for all God’s creatures. It leads us to want to build communities based on fairness, justice, respect and equality for all God’s children.

This can quickly come to seem like an impossible task, and it can be very easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of the world. This beatitude shows us a way to around that. If our care for others comes from our relationship of love with God, we have a sustaining source to nurture us when we feel overwhelmed by the suffering we see around us.

Prayer keeps us humble, able to acknowledge and accept the limitations of our actions. It can remind us that we can’t (and are not called) to solve all the worlds problems. It can compel us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering in front of us, however large or small that is, and to put the rest into the hands of the God whose love sustains us all.

How is your desire for justice fuelled by your prayer?

Beatitudes Gospel Sermon on the Mount Uncategorized

Mourning and consolation

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Jesus tells his followers:
“Blessed that those who mourn: they shall be comforted.”
In the wake of the Covid pandemic this third Beatitude seems particularly relevant. It resonates deeply with the experience we’ve lived through in the past 18 months. Suffering, and the grief and mourning it brings has always been part of human experience, but they are particularly present in the face of a pandemic that has left us with much to grieve over.

Our grief covers a whole spectrum. There are the griefs that we recognise as significant and life changing, and there are other griefs that we dismiss as small or less significant. Wherever our grief falls on that spectrum Covid has left us all mourning. As we begin tentatively to rebuild our lives it’s tempting to turn away from that truth, to push it aside, denying it or burying it.

Jesus calls us to take a different approach. In his life he was not afraid to acknowledge his pain. He wept openly with Martha and Mary at the death of their brother, and again over the fate of Jerusalem. To show our pain can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed, especially in a society that expects us to be in control and on top of things. This beatitude reminds us that it’s important to acknowledge and to share our grief. It is by creating spaces in our lives where we can mourn our losses together that we will find the comfort and consolation that Jesus promises us.

Where do you need to be consoled at this time in your life?

Benedictine Spirituality Gospel Saints Uncategorized

St John Henry Newman

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Revisiting an older post to celebrate the feast of St John Henry Newman. When the Pharisees and Sadducees decide to put Jesus to the test they ask him a question that goes right to the heart of their faith, “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Jesus avoids their trap with a clear, precise and orthodox answer, saying:

“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind… You must love your neighbour as yourself.”

He goes on to remind his hearers that these two commandments are the underpinning of all of the Law and the Prophets. His answer is so clear and straightforward that it would seem impossible to mistake his meaning. We all know it’s true, we all believe it, but it doesn’t always make it past being a fine principle into the nitty-gritty practice of daily life. It is easy and comfortable to spiritualise the scriptural commandment to love, so that it has little effect on how we live our daily lives. We don’t have to reflect for very long to realise that that is not what Jesus meant. The love he talks of is practical, costly and life changing.

St John Henry Newman has never been one of my favourite writers. I mostly encounter his work as readings in the Divine Office. In that situation I confess that I often lose the sense of his words in the Victorian flourishes of his style. So I was surprised when one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons stressed the practical implication of the Gospels’ message of love in a way that shone through the restraints of language and style with a clarity I couldn’t ignore:

“By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.”

His words reminded me of another Victorian writer, George Eliot. In her novel, “Adam Bede” she writes:

“It is these people – amongst whom your life is passed – that it is needful that you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should admire – for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience.”

She doesn’t shirk from acknowledging that the call to love requires real effort and real engagement with the people we live among regardless of how we might feel about them. She knows the power we have over one another to build up or destroy. She knows that to practice this costly love can be enabling and life enhancing, and that to withhold it can be withering:

“[And it is these] real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.”

The words of these two Victorian writers took me back not only to the heart of the gospel, but to the heart of the Rule of St Benedict. Despite coming at the end of the Rule Chapter 72, “On the good zeal that monastics ought to have”, is its centre and the filter through which the whole Rule is interpreted. In it St Benedict writes:

“Bear with one another’s weakness of body or behaviour with the utmost patience. No one is to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else.”

St Benedict, St John Henry Newman and George Eliot all call us back to the centre of the gospel message, the call to love. The love they speak of is a call to action. It’s a call to put ourselves aside for the good of others, especially in the small, ordinary and apparently mundane interactions of daily life. We are called to be patient with weakness, kind and non-judgemental, accepting people as they are, not expecting perfection or even necessarily any noticeable change.

We are facing challenging times, full of fear, uncertainty and mistrust. In such circumstances it is tempting to withdraw from one another, to focus our attention on ourselves and our own needs. It seems to me that, now more than ever, we need to practice this gospel message of practical, costly and particular love. So let us face our times looking for ways to share those mustard seeds of love that can grow to “overshadow the whole earth”.

Beatitudes Gospel Sermon on the Mount Uncategorized

Learning gentleness

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“Blessed are the gentle, they shall inherit the earth.”

In many ways this sums up all of the Beatitudes, and the whole gospel message. At its heart is the call to love as Jesus did, without distinction or discrimination, not asking if the love is deserved, acknowledge or even recognised.

Gentleness is not a fashionable attribute. In times like ours that value assertiveness and individualism it can be dismissed as weakness. In this beatitude, and in the gospel as a whole, Jesus shows us another way. He openly proclaims that he is gentle saying:

“Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

His gentleness is apparent throughout the gospel in the loving service he offers to those around him. From the wedding at Cana to the post resurrection breakfast he cooks on the shore, his life is marked by a real desire to care for those around him. We see it when he refuses to turn the crowds away hungry even though his disciples tell him that the don’t have enough food. It’s apparent as he weeps over Jerusalem, and as he comforts his mother and beloved disciple from the cross.

This gentleness is very far from being weakness. It has a strength that can build and maintain communities and relationships even in the toughest of circumstances. Imitating the gentleness of Christ leads us to those daily acts of kindness that renew and sustain our neighbours and our communities. It calls us to a myriad of actions that, while they may seem small, can make people feel valued, cared for and safe.

How are you being called to learn gentleness today?