Here are the homilies that have been created
The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The doctrine of the Trinity contains within it the reason for the uniqueness of humanity’s relationship with God – Jesus, being true God and true man unites divinity and humanity, and by the gift of grace we are raised up to share in His divinity and all that that means.
Mary’s role and importance has to be understood in the context of that revelation. Her pre-eminence in salvation history is the result of human folly, that is the human race’s rejection of God’s friendship - Original Sin. Our humanity ties us to our first parents, Adam and Eve and as such all men and women are implicated in their sin. It is a sin which is transmitted by the transmission of human nature which is now deprived of original holiness and justice. It is called sin not because it has been committed by each and every human being since Adam, but because its character has been passed on to them – it is a state and not an act. Mary’s role is essential to the restoration of our human dignity – that is of our God-given dignity and our proper destiny. It is because Mary is a unique human being that she has such significance for the whole human race and in particular for the Church.
The Second Vatican Council declares that "only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light," (GS 22) If this is so then we must apply our attention to Mary, "daughter of the human race," that extraordinary human being who became the Mother of Christ. Of course it is only in the mystery of Christ that her mystery is fully made clear. Therefore in so far as the Church can grasp the meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation it is also able to make clearer the mystery of the Mother of the Incarnate Word.
The Council of Ephesus (431) declared that Mary is the Mother of God (Theotókos), since by the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived in her virgin womb and brought into the world Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is of one being with the Father. And so, through the mystery of Christ, the Church reveals the mystery of His Mother. The teaching of the Council of Ephesus concerning the divine motherhood of Mary makes it clear that the Word truly assumes human nature into the unity of His person, without cancelling out that nature. In other word, because of Mary Jesus is fully human and fully divine.
When considering the role of Mary, the Second Vatican Council, presented her in the mystery of Christ, and in so doing opened up a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Church. Mary, as the Mother of Christ, is in a particular way united with the Church, "which the Lord established as his own body." (LG 52) The truth about the Church as the Body of Christ (according to the teaching of the Pauline Letters) is closely associated with the truth that the Son of God, in the words of the Creed, "through the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate from the Virgin Mary – and was made man." The reality of the Incarnation finds expression in the mystery of the Church - the Body of Christ. And likewise one cannot think of the reality of the Incarnation without referring to Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word.
There is then a bond which unites the Mother of God with Christ and with the Church. The Church expresses this when it states that Mary "has gone before," becoming "a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ." (LG 63)
Mary as Icon
The Mother of God now enjoys the vision of God at the side of her Son. The members of the Church on earth, however, still have to strive to increase in holiness by conquering sin through the action of grace, and so it is fitting that “they raise their eyes to Mary, who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as a model of the virtues." (LG 65) Saint Bernard’s title of the Blessed Mother is most apt in this sense – Mary is the ‘Maris Stella’ the ‘Star of the Sea’ – a guide and an assurance on the storm tossed waves of this life. Thus we can give consideration to Mary as Icon of the Church, for the underlying idea of an icon is the manifestation of the hidden. And so, in like manner, Saint Paul can say: “Christ is the image of the invisible God.” (Col 1:15) Christ is the icon, the image of the Father, because He manifests – He shows and reveals the Father to all human beings. “To have seen me” says Jesus to the Apostle Philip “is to have seen the Father … I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:10)
An icon is not just a picture. From the icon emanates hope and consolation and it becomes a “channel of divine grace.” (St. John of Damascus) An icon portrays some aspect of the life of the Church, it embodies a strand of the robe of Truth that is worn by the Body of Christ. A saving truth is not communicated by word alone but by awakening vital life-giving forces, through the presentation of what is beautiful, virtuous and noble. The life of the Blessed Mother together with a striving to understand the mystery of those revelations closely associated with her deepens a knowledge of the love of God, of His divine purpose, and of the true destiny of the human race. Mary is like an icon. She is a person where Creator and creation meet, where divinity and humanity unite. From her emanates hope and compassion – she is a channel of divine grace.
Mary as Icon in Particular Church Teaching
In recent centuries two revelations have been formulated and presented to Christians that have been called Marian Doctrines, they are indeed doctrines closely associated with Mary, but they are actually a further uncovering of the truth concerning the Body of Christ. These two teachings clearly demonstrate the power of Mary as Icon of the Church.
The first is the doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception. It was finally presented to the Church by Pope Pius IX on December 8th, 1854. The states that: “the most blessed Virgin Mary in the first moment of her conception was, by the unique grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Saviour of the human race, preserved intact from all stain of original sin.” (Ineffabilis Deus (1854) Pius IX)
Sin is an estrangement from God. When such an alienation occurs there is also some sort of dislocation in human relationships and even a loss of focus within the individual self. This alienation – this estrangement, perpetuates itself from generation to generation, and is fundamentally a lack of a right relationship with God. So when it is said that Mary was conceived free from original sin what is meant, says Professor Macquarrie in his book “Mary for all Christians”, is that Mary did not lack a right relationship with God. (cf. ‘Mary for all Christians’- Ch.3) This is a somewhat negative expression and may even seem to obscure the more positive expression of the truth that Mary was preserved in a right relationship to God. Another way of expressing this might be to say she was “always the recipient of grace.” (cf. ‘Mary for all Christians’- Ch.3) Mary was ‘endowed with grace’ or in the more familiar expression, ‘full of grace’, this is an opposite condition from that of original sin.
The woman Mary, of course, has her significance not because of who she is, but because of her relation to Christ. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception clearly states that Mary’s ‘unique grace and privilege’ were granted ‘in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race’. Christ’s saving work, being of the divine order, reaches backward in time as well as forward. “Mary is subordinate to her Son,”… “she is the God-bearer, fully human; He is the God-man, fully human and fully divine.” (‘Mary for all Christians’- Ch.3) But in Mary, the fully human-being, we see the result of being ‘full of grace’. In her we see that virtue is faithful obedience to God, summed up in her memorable words to the angel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Some Christians have had serious difficulties with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception - but in Mary we can see God’s action in the Church. By her Immaculate Conception Mary was open to the life of grace from the very beginning of her life. She inherited her rightful destiny as a human being - and became alive with Christ at the Annunciation. Now after baptism Christians are freed from the effects of original sin and are made open to the life of grace in the sacraments – so that individual Christians become alive with Christ and together present Christ to the world. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin is therefore to do with the birth of Christ in Mary, and the ‘birth’ of Christ in each Christian and so in the Church throughout the ages till the end of time. The Immaculate Conception tells us about the power of baptism and the action of grace.
The second revelation focused on Mary is the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, which was presented to the People of God in 1954 by Pope Pius XII. In depictions of the Assumption - Mary is taken out of the midst of the praying Apostles, and is seen to be raised heavenward - body and soul - to the glory of God's Kingdom. Certainly something similar has been depicted by artists over the centuries. It is a scene that has all the advantages of being simple and direct but in its simplicity a person might be forgiven for rejecting it as simple-minded and fanciful. Others may also consider it of no particular significance and something of a distraction.
The important element of the story is that the whole Mary - what is called her body and soul - is raised to life in God. Remember that it is because of the resurrection that Christians believe that Jesus is Lord. It is Christ's power to raise up men and women through the gift of the Holy Spirit - his gift of grace - that is made clear in the doctrine of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady.
In our time the mass killing of people is often seen as justified to gain a military victory. To gain power, profit and even a heightened level of enjoyment other human beings are often disregarded, therefore to proclaim the value of the human person and the dignity of the human body is clearly of great importance. (ref. The Independent newspaper - ‘Faith and Reason’ series 1995) For example, the victims of the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki killed as many as 70,000 persons. They were reduced to dust and those who survived till the end of the war on what happened to be the feast of the Assumption, 1945, were suffering from horrific bodily disfigurements of burnt human flesh and the loss of those they had known and loved.
In the midst of such horrors the doctrine of the Assumption represents the triumph of Christian hope over the grim experience of human cruelty. It asserts the triumphant value of the human person over the blind forces of history, and of the human body over the ravages of war.
This wonderful revelation from a loving Father presents an alternative and optimistic vision of human beings as loved, body and soul by God and as destined to share fully in the victory of Christ. Such a vision offers a triumph of more lasting significance than any military victory or any triumph of worldly power. It also supplies a foundation for the building up of human society, continually undermined by war and injustice.
In the person of Mary what is human is united with what is Divine. The wonderful result of that union is the second person of the Holy Trinity – Jesus Christ. The Divine life was alive in Mary. She was made a complete and whole human being so that when her life on this earth came to an end it was her privilege to share the life of her Son. The Kingdom of God is the only possible home for such a human being. This is made known to us that we may know the proper intention of our Creator and be strengthened in hope. In Mary we see the purpose of creation restored - in Mary we see our true goal. The Assumption of our Blessed Mother is a celebration of hope in a world so intent on restricting its own vision.
God’s Purpose and Action Revealed through Mary
These doctrines, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are revealed and made accessible through the life of one that all Christians know to be intimately associated with the Saviour and mediator between God and human beings – the Mother of Christ, a human being who willingly allowed grace to work in her.
The presentation of these two doctrines is part of God’s desire that “everyone be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth", (Timothy 2:4). The Father's self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church.
These doctrines then, speak to all believers of the meaning of the new life in Christ. For in and through Jesus Christ, the whole of God's truth has been made manifest. "Full of grace and truth," he came as the "light of the world," he is the Truth (Jn 1:14; 8:12; cf. 14:6.) "Whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness." (Jn 12:46) The disciples of Jesus continue to strive after truth for "the truth will make you free". (Jn 8:32; cf. 17:17)
When speaking of the Church, her origin, mission and destiny, there can be then no better way than to consider Mary as the Icon of the Church. In Mary we contemplate what the Church already is on her own "pilgrimage of faith," and what she will be in the homeland at the end of her journey. There, "in the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity," "in the communion of all the saints" (LG 69), the Church is awaited by the one she venerates as Mother of her Lord and as her own mother.
Jesus says that we must love others as he loves us. We must think about what he might mean by this. In the first place we know that he showed his love by allowing himself to be put to death in a most horrible way. That is what the cross shows us. Some Christians have suffered like this in the past for following Jesus, and some are persecuted today in parts of the world, and others will suffer in the future. But most Christian will not have to suffer in any violent way. But all of us are asked to give up our selfish ways which will certainly cause a certain sort of hardship if not suffering for some. The opposite of selfishness is kindness. Kindness comes from being considerate to others – thinking of others needs as Jesus did.
Let me tell you a story. A group of young men were hurrying home having been at a meeting together. They were dashing back by taxi to the railway station. The train was about to leave the station. They jumped out of the taxi and ran down the platform. As one of the men ran to jump on to the train he accidentally knocked over a fruit seller’s table. Now one of the young men lived his life trying to be a Christian. He wasn’t the one who knocked over the table, but he jumped off the train and told the others he would catch up with them at the pub latter. When he got to the knocked over table he found that it was being looked after by a boy of about eight years old. He was blind and was waiting for his mother to return, for she had gone to a nearby shop. The young man picked up the fruit and rearranged the table. Then he gave the boy some money for the damaged fruit and told the boy he was sorry for the accident. As he walked away, the boy, who was blind and couldn’t see him, called to him and said: “mister!”, “Yes” said the man. “Are you Jesus?”
All of us show who we really are by what we do. If you are moody, impatient, mean and nasty, even only occasionally, you are not acting as Jesus’ friends. But if you try to be kind and considerate towards others, then you will be like Jesus and come to share his life of happiness, love and joy.
Living as a Christian means wanting to be a complete human being. We easily think of the Christian claim that Jesus is God, but we should also think that Jesus is a human being in the fullest sense of the word. Striving to be a complete human being is why people are baptised. We are saying that it is not just the things we can see, or hear, or touch, or taste, or smell that matter – we are saying that other things are important. In fact we go further – those things which are invisible are more important that what is visible. Love and friendship are not visible things, but who would doubt they are of immense importance to us.
We believe that through Christ we are offered the means of becoming a fully developed human being. In religious language we are given the grace to be divine. We are given the same Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ has, and so we call God Father. This also means we become citizens of a community that has certain characteristics. Being given the Holy Spirit has consequences and these are most realised in the way we behave towards other people. Christian citizenship is spiritual, social, political.
Jesus told us what values underpin this citizenship. It means seeking after justice, upholding what is true, and acting in a merciful fashion. So basically this requires a change in the way we think, speak and act. It means making right judgements and these grow in the soil of true love. True love has been revealed by Jesus Christ as sacrificial – that is why the cross is so important as a Christian symbol.
The Church is, therefore, a sign of our human journey towards its proper destiny. A journey that can only be achieved with divine help, that is grace. Baptism is the key to particular gifts of grace offered through Jesus Christ. The chief of these gifts is the Holy Communion – the gift of sharing Jesus’ life by eating and drinking the bread and wine that have become his body and blood. Baptism is the start of a journey – a journey in faith supported by reason!
Today Teddy enters the life of the Church! On this day Teddy becomes by grace an adopted child of God. As he grows up he will learn many things, but being taught to be forgiving, to be compassionate, to be a true witness to faith, hope and love, he will join with the other followers of Christ in making the Kingdom of God present in our world. Christian lives, filled with the Spirit of God, can be beacons of hope, fighters for justice, promoters of mercy and life, and makers of peace. May Teddy grow in true love and be a source of joy.
Christianity involves an understanding that a complete human being is reckoned more than the sum of his or her parts. In fact we might say that what is invisible is more important that what is visible. Love and friendship are not visible things, but who would doubt they are of immense importance to us.
Through Christ we are offered the means of becoming a fully developed human being. In the language of theology we given the grace to be divine. We are given the same Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ has, and so we can become sons and daughters of God. This also means we become citizens of a community that has certain characteristics. Being given the Holy Spirit has consequences and these are most realised in the way we behave towards other people. Christian citizenship is spiritual, social, political.
Jesus told us what values underpin this citizenship. It means seeking after justice, upholding what is true, and acting in a merciful fashion. So basically this requires a change of heart! To know what is just, true and merciful, and to act accordingly, means making right judgements. Right judgements grow in the soil of true love. True love has been revealed by Jesus Christ as sacrificial – that is why the crucifix is so important as a Christian symbol.
The Church is, therefore, a sign of our human journey towards its proper destiny. A journey that can only be achieved with divine help, that is grace. Baptism is the key to particular gifts of grace offered through Jesus Christ. The chief of these gifts is the Eucharist – the gift of sharing Jesus’ life through participating in the meal that consists of his body and blood. Baptism is the start of a journey – a journey in faith supported by reason!
On this feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God in the lives and hearts of all people. The words of Isaiah capture this coming of the Lord, “Rise up in splendour Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shine upon you. See darkness covers the earth, ... but upon you the Lord shines...” The words are full of expectation. But at the journeys end the Wise Men find a stable and a Mother and her baby boy. No power, no glory, no riches - but only that which unites us all - life itself. New life is the gift of God to the world, a new life that is tenderly cradled in the arms of a mother - that is wrapped in her selfless love. The gift is His life which we are invited to share.
What a day to be baptised on, what a day to enter the life of the Church! For on this day our Christian vocation is brought to light as well. For by grace we are the adopted children of God, and through us He continues his Epiphany. Each of us as members of His Body - the Church - share Mary's task - and present Christ to the world. By our daily efforts to forgive, by our compassion, by our witness to faith, hope and love, we strengthen the Light of Christ and dispel the darkness of sin. And so to make our witness strong we are not asked to offer gold but the precious gift of our time in the service of others, not frankincense but the fragrant gift of our prayers rising to the presence of our Lord and King, and not myrrh but a humble and contrite heart full of sorrow for our sins. In this way our lives - filled with Spirit of God - may help draw all nations into the heavenly Jerusalem - the City of our God which is our unity with Him and each other - and through which we find true peace.
Hail Mary, full of grace. This is the beginning of the prayer we offer every day before the statue of Our Lady, Mary, Mother of God. It is for the gift of grace that we lift up our minds and our hearts to God in this church – or anywhere for that matter. If we really do want a happy new year it is for God’s grace that we must ask. God’s grace is the giver of life – the divine life. By the power of the Holy Spirit the Divine Life has been communicated to us through the Virgin Mary. Because of Mary, the Word became flesh.
In the person of Jesus Christ the Divine Life was made present for us in time. The flesh and blood, atoms and molecules of the man Jesus became a tangible and historical presence among men and women. God Himself was made present among us with a real human nature and a real human body. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary - and it came to be – others could see, hear and touch the Divine presence. The Holy Spirit overshadows the offerings placed on the altar and the atoms and molecules of bread and wine make it possible to touch and taste the Divine presence in our time, now, and at every Mass.
Belief in the Incarnation, with the Sacrifice of the Cross, together form the bedrock of faith in the Holy Eucharist. Mary is the Mother of the Word made flesh, the Mother of the Holy Eucharist and Mother of our Crucified and Resurrected Saviour. Because of Mary we are all able to be one with Jesus, spiritually and physically. Is it little wonder that those who have little or no regard for Mary and shy away from her veneration also have a weakened understanding and respect for the Holy Eucharist and can even attack and belittle the doctrine.
So to remember Mary today, is to remember the God of grace who does great things for the lowly, the humble, and the ordinary. Saint Paul says, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the law." There seems nothing special about "this woman", a title that comes from before the Fall as recorded in the Book of Genesis, - but in this we are given an insight into the working of God's power. For God works through people who are willing to do His will – that is what makes them great, not exalted in the way the world thinks. Through Mary we have, today, the possibility of a share in the life of God. By grace we may be united to Christ, and in Christ we become the adopted sons and daughters of God.
And so as we begin our new year, our thoughts are turned to Mary, and we recall the great things God has done for her, and caused her to be the Mother of our true Life. Let us also imitate what Saint Luke says concerning Mary: "She treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart." Happy will we be if we too treasure all the things God has done for us. And happy will we be if we resolve, in the coming year, to allow God's treasure of grace to work in us and to share its riches with others.
Monks called Benedictines have been following the Rule of St. Benedict for over 15 hundred years. Of course the Rule has no purpose except to help a person live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In its many lived forms it has been rather successful and is still considered a useful document today - especially by the likes of me! In the context of this conference let me quote two excerpts from The Prologue to the Rule.
LISTEN carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20). .............. And so we are going to establish a school of the Lord’s service.
Monks read, with a discerning mind, the Word of God in scripture and pray so that they may be prompted to listen to voice of the Holy Spirit. St. Benedict says it is for the master to speak and teach and for the disciple to be quiet and listen. It is for this reason that we maintain the quiet calm of the monastery so that in silence we may indeed hear the voice of the Lord. St. Benedict also tells us in Chapter 6 of the Rule:
“Therefore, since the spirit of silence is so important, permission to speak should rarely be granted even to perfect disciples, even though it be for good, holy edifying conversation”
this is necessary to help protect us from 'doing wrong with our tongues' because it is important to eliminate vulgarity, gossip and frivolous chatter. But above all we must desire silence so as to promote the quiet and calm that helps us to listen - intent listening, which is the meaning of obedience, is meant to assist in doing the will of God, and this naturally supports our proclaimed desire for conversion of life through the monastic way.
According to the Rule monks are to keep silence for several hours a day and during what is called the ‘great silence’ after Compline, the last community prayer before retiring for the night. During meals, the monks keep silence while another monk reads from a suitable book, speaking only through gestures, and then only if absolutely necessary.
There is always something about Saint Benedict’s advice that requires us to stop and think about what we had hitherto taken for granted, and indeed silence is one such example. With radio, television, iPads, mobile phones and all the other devices of incessant, insistent, noisy communication, not only is all room for silence abolished but there is danger that all appetite for silence is also lost.
In the face of all this chattering world St Benedict’s voice is a plea for moderation and self-control. One can shrug one’s shoulders and forget it, or one can accept St. Benedict’s intervention and face the fact that it has some importance for our lives.
Monasteries thus become rare and precious places where it is possible to rediscover one’s true self, hidden beneath the chattering surface, through quiet and silence and the inner health that it may bring.
The inner health that comes with regular times of silence is rudely denied to most people in the world today where incessant din is inescapable. It may be that even at night time, from birth to death the children of any city, may today grow up and die without ever having the experience of a moment’s true silence. St Benedict’s understanding of silence would save them from that fate.
Let me leave you with this thought: the monastic life, indeed the Christian life, demands change - a change of heart, that is of our inner selves. Silence is necessary to listen, listening is necessary in order to learn, and learning is necessary for any change to take place.
The first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict is LISTEN. I suppose as a teacher might say: ‘pay attention’. We usually use the word listen when we are hearing someone or something else, but it could also be applied to the reflection we give to ideas that are written down or the consideration we give to the thoughts in our own minds. Why does Saint Benedict start, what he calls a Rule for Beginners with this word? Well if we do not listen we do not learn, and if we do not learn, we do not change. Being attentive in this way is very important for human beings – it is how we progress individually and socially. Remembrance is part of this process. What does the past – people and events – say to us now? What do we hear the past saying to us so that we can learn and change for the better. This sort of remembrance is dynamic, but as with all we do, remembrance can be good or bad.
On the one hand remembrance can soften the sadness of loss, it can help us rejoice in the goodness we recall in the loved ones and friends that are now dead. Remembrance can help our resolve never to do something again, to avoid being foolish, for nations also to learn from past tragedies such as wars and other conflicts. But on the other hand remembrance can be used to keep open a painful wound, it can be used to stoke the fires of bitterness and hatred, but that kind of remembrance is devoid of God’s grace for it lacks love, it is dark and destructive.
For all of us remembrance is something of a double edged sword! Joy and sadness, success and disappointment weave their way through each of our life stories. These experiences make us what we are as individuals and, as individuals so organisations and nations. It has been said that people are the sums of their memories. We all have memories of those who were loved and are no longer with us.
We Christians are constantly called upon to remember the Lord Jesus – through His words in the Gospel, through His commands, especially His command to remember Him in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This sort of remembrance, this listening, opens our minds to the power of God – His grace – and we are fundamentally changed, made new, made into what we were always intended to be – the sons and daughters of Divinity. A sign that God’s power is in us is the kindness we show to others. We can know how much we love God by considering the person we love the least – for God is present in those we are thought of as the least and unimportant in this world. How we love these is how much we love God.
Today let our remembrance of people and events rest on the Christian hope of the divine life in Christ. Death is never an end for a Christian even though it is a time of sadness. Christ himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, yet at the same time he spoke these words of hope: “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Today let us acknowledge our need of God’s grace to use remembrance that we may be fuller human beings. We are weak and are in need of God’s mercy and love, but with that mercy and love we ordinary men and women can do extraordinary things.
The Rule of Saint Benedict is an eminently human document, a moderate and reasonable text that has as its aim the re-formation of an individual within a community context. With the support of those in community monks and nuns are re-created in the image of our Saviour so that they may share in His divinity. The pattern of life within the monastery is meant to help monks and nuns to put on Christ, as Saint Paul would say. This means that the supportive ethos of monastic living, its regularity, its rules and systems, are designed to help all in such a monastic community to be open to the voice of the Spirit and the power of grace. It is of course by grace that all Christians become like Christ. It is by grace that we become more loving, more truthful, more just, merciful and compassionate. It is by grace that we forgive others and so are forgiven ourselves.
The Gospel motivates us as Christ’s disciples and the faith of the Apostles enable us to put our faith in the Risen Lord. The life and example of countless members of the Body of Christ, that have done likewise and placed their faith on the faith of the Apostles, helps men and women to commit their lives to Christ in a public way not demanded of all the baptised. So it is, for example, that monastic vows are expressly targeted toward growth and freedom in Christ. The rules of daily living which flow from these vows are in the service of growth and liberation. Thus monastic vows are designed to help monks and nuns to focus their lives so that they can experience growth in the Spirit. This, of course, implies change, and that involves repentance and reconciliation – a key evangelical approach leading to the restoration of all the baptised as full human beings in Christ.
To help Christians live out this faith in the Risen Lord men and women freely place themselves under a Rule of Life. Now for many, the word “rule” immediately conveys a limiting, perhaps even a negative approach to living. The expression “keeping to the rules” reminds us of what is not allowed at all, where limits are faced that may not be crossed and where stipulated sanctions follow the breaking of the rules.
In the Rule of St. Benedict there are these elements, but they always serve positive values: personal growth, the prospering of the community, taking good care of things. Even the prescriptions regulating correcting and punitive actions of the Superior are targeted towards welfare and improvement, not toward revenge or punishment as such. Rules and norms should always be seen as giving support on a road which leads toward positive values. Things are regulated in view of a goal, a value to be achieved, a faith to be strengthened. When the connection between rule and value, direction and purpose, is missing, a rule or a directive is worthless. Rules and norms which are devoid of value are empty and are therefore not respected.
In the Rule of St. Benedict the joining of order and flexibility is noteworthy. It is almost humorous that St. Benedict has dedicated long chapters towards an orderly regulation of even the smallest details of the Divine Office, but then writes: “if this distribution of the Psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should arrange them otherwise, in whatever way he considers better. . .” (ch. 18) - provided that the substitute list be orderly arranged over the prescribed time. That is typically Benedictine: order and regularity are essential for a blessed life, provided they are combined with flexibility.
LISTENING AND RESPONDING
In the Rule of St. Benedict there are many definitely practical chapters - about clothing and shoes, about what psalms must be sung and when, about correction and punishment. Only with careful reflection can these passages be made spiritually nurturing. But other parts of the Rule speak to us in a more obviously spiritual way when read quietly and reflected upon, such as the Prologue, the chapters concerning the abbot and the cellarer (the “bursar” in modern parlance), the short chapter about the manner in which decisions are to be made in the monastery, and of course the chapters On Good Works and Humility, among others.
The first sentence of the Prologue, however, contains the essence of the Benedictine outlook: “Listen, my son, to the precepts of your master, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.” This is not a severe and dominating commander speaking, but a loving master and father. Also, this is not about blind obedience or the discipline of a slave: the master and father hopes for an enthusiastic, vigorous and an active agreement in carrying out his rules.
“Listen,” the first word of the Rule means listening very attentively. The goal of such attentive listening is to hear what a situation demands of us, and then to respond to it. This clearly reflects the Lord’s own injunction for those who wish to be His disciples – hear the word and act upon it. Benedictine life may be summarized in a single rule: to listen very carefully and to respond heartily and actively so to achieve a result. It is interesting, and not by chance that the last word of the Rule is pervenies: you will arrive. So those committed to the monastic way of life will arrive where they want to be, they will achieve a result. By listening monks and nuns engage with the spirituality of the Rule. Saint Benedict’s approach to Christian living has, of course, no other purpose than to help those who choose to follow the Rule to live the commitment made at Baptism.
If one can speak of a good result it is also possible to speak of a bad result. A bad result is when a person has not paid sufficient attention. This is true with small things, but also true with far less innocent matters. Much of what goes wrong, both small and not so small, is not the result of negative intentions or evil plans, but of bad listening, carelessness, sloppy work, and mismanagement. And vice versa: where something succeeds notably well, that may often be related to the ability to listen well to one another, with full attention, and with concentration.
THE BENEDICTINE VIEW OF HUMANITY: WE ARE ABLE TO KEEP GROWING
The Benedictine pattern of careful listening, agreeing sincerely with the heart, and achieving results, demonstrates a view of humanity and a psychology that presupposes the experience of a person who pays attention and responds, who has, in other words, an aptitude for spiritual growth. In this, the term “spiritual” must be considered quite broadly. It would include everything that has to do with the “life of the spirit,” including, for example, cultivating the arts and developing stimulating friendships.
Being human is not merely a static condition but is a state that allows continuing growth. This is an insight common to all times. A passage from the second-century diary of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius illustrates this point:
When you arise reluctantly early in the morning, think like this: I arise to accomplish a human task. Should I then complain, when I am about to do that for which I was born, and for which I was placed on earth? Or was I created to pamper myself under the blankets, even if that is more pleasant? Were you born, then, to enjoy and, generally to feel, but not to act? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees, who all perform their own tasks and in their own way, helping to let the cosmos function? Don’t you then want to do your work as a human? Don’t you hasten to do what is befitting with your nature?
What then is our nature, our disposition? What is specifically human? To begin with, we may affirm that human beings - differently from birds, ants, spiders, and bees - are not altogether complete even when physically fully grown-up. Even at an advanced age people may yet have the gnawing feeling that they need to change drastically, that they need to work on themselves, though they may not be quite sure how to do so. Never the less, we recognise that in many functions we have a noticeable potential for growth.
We could name certain vital and spiritual conditions which pertain to every human being. This has been done quite pertinently by the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, who formulated five ‘imperatives’, as he called them, for authentic human life (‘Method in Theology’ 1996). They are called ‘imperatives’ because they need to be worked on. St. Benedict would no doubt have approved as they are all reflected in the Rule.
The first imperative is to be attentive. This requires us to be observant, to listen, and pay attention to the needs of those we live with and serve. Be alert, be attentive to what is happening - and not only to what happens to appeal at a given time. Listen, so that like the physician with the stethoscope who listens for breathing and for the heartbeat of a patient – we may learn what is going on - and what needs to be done.
Lonergan's second imperative suggests that we be intelligent. We need to show that we are learning and can apply that knowledge. The more one knows, the more one can share, and the more one can be of service for others.
Lonergan suggests in his third imperative that we should be reasonable. Be sensible and try to arrive at a good judgment through reasoned thought. Knowing others concerns can help in communication, and better communication leads to more informed decisions that are good for everyone.
The fourth imperative, is to be responsible. Make an effort at realizing that our thoughts and action have different moral values and consequences. Be conscious of what other people expect in different situation.
The fifth imperative is to be loving. Perhaps it is easier to think of this imperative in terms of being kind. Showing courtesy and concern for another person usually elicits a positive response and may set the tone for the future. Being kind and treating someone with respect can naturally make a huge impression, and a kind person, after all, is more likely to be trusted than someone who is not kind. Being loving also surely means putting your heart into something – in other words giving a hearty response and allowing oneself to be fully committed.
To be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving are attitudes and responses that are at the heart of monastic living because they are at the heart of what it means to be a human being. A Benedictine way of life is designed to make its followers fully human. It is a humanistic way of living because it is based on the gospel. Christianity is a humanistic religion, because through the action of grace we are made whole, complete - in and through the person of Jesus Christ so that we may share in the divine life.
The life we choose as Christians should challenge us and effect a change within us. Of course, we should not embrace change for the sake of change. Nor should we make changes without considering the potential consequences. We should, however, always remain open to the possibility that better ways of doing things may exist, and we should implement them whenever we can.
The human being is a creature with a permanent capacity for growth – of movement towards the realization of being fully human – of movement towards deification. This constant being on the move, of being a pilgrim - daily working on our growth in Christ, fits wonderfully with the vision of St. Benedict. A monk or nun is a permanent student, a beginner, a careful listener to what every new situation demands of him or her.
SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE IN THE RULE
Among Christian spiritualities, Benedictine spirituality is perhaps the least spectacular. It is down to earth, it is not dramatic. The Rule only gives a very modest measure of spiritual guidance, it is not directed toward ‘interesting’ experiences of enlightenment or ardent moments of conversion. This is well expressed in what I believe is a Zen saying: “Before the enlightenment: cut wood and draw water; after the enlightenment: cut wood and draw water.” Living the Rule is about doing the same thing differently, not to ascend to totally new and different insights or mystical experiences.
Benedictine spirituality is firmly rooted, it is not swept together from all sorts of spiritual traditions; it offers a measured approach, it does not make haste; it contains nothing mysterious or esoteric; it does not focus on the spiritual quest of the individual, but the growth of the person who is living in a community, with his daily and often very ‘worldly’ activities.
It is revealing that the central principle of Benedictine spirituality is not the often cited ora et labora, which is not even found in the Rule and which is even somewhat misleading because it suggests a dualism while Benedictine life wants to be concerned with life as a whole. The central principle of Benedictine spirituality is written in perhaps what might be considered one of the more worldly chapters of the Rule, that is chapter 57, On the Craftsmen of the Monastery.
The goods produced by the monks must be priced a little lower than those in ‘the world’, not because of false competition, but in order not to give opportunity to covetousness or meanness. There is also another reason: the sympathetic pricing allows “that God may be glorified in everything” – “ut in omnibus Deus glorificetur.” This is Benedictine spirituality in a nutshell: that everything offers a chance to sing God's praises - including the context of buying and selling; that each activity may be sanctified. Benedictine spirituality is an integrated system – all aspects contribute to the re-formation of the whole. It has as its aim the gospel aim of restoring us to what our Creator intended.
THE HOLY IS FOUND IN THE COMMON
An attractive aspect is that the spirituality of the Rule directs itself so distinctly toward what needs to be done here and now, at this moment. It is not directed toward remote and exalted ideals, which are only gained by spiritual masters. For Saint Benedict the holy is found in the common, so that asceticism is not directed toward elevated experiences, but everyday dedication to the improvement of quality.
In ordinary language I suppose one would say “if anything is worth doing it is worth doing well” – a phrase that would, quite easily, have tripped off the tongue of either one my parents when trying to get me to do things properly. This popular term is, in a way, only the contemporary way of expressing: “ut in omnibus Deus glorificetur”.
Reading the signs of the times, in other words being attentive to the influences and changes around us, is something that monks can successfully do from the regularity of their monastic living. By this I mean that monastic lives are not in constant flux and monks and nuns do not have the worries of those in the world, therefore they are given the opportunity to develop and grow – altering their inner attitudes – their hearts – without having to cope with external change as well. Ironically, change through stability!
Every contribution to reasoned understanding, or to what is beautiful, and to the moral quality of this world is a contribution to the kingdom of God. When elements from Christian spirituality have a wholesome effect on the attitude and lifestyle of non-Christians or on those without any serious Christian commitment, then that should be considered a real gain.
MONASTIC LIFE PREACHES MORE BY EXAMPLE THAN BY WORDS
Benedictines present Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, by listening to their monastic Master and Father, so that the gospel is preached more by the example of their lives than by words. We are well aware at Buckfast that people are naturally curious about a group of men whose lives are guided by a 1500 year-old Rule. What, they may well ask, are these men doing putting themselves back in the Middle Ages? But of course at Buckfast we live in the present time: being monks does not mean we have to shun the modern world. Modern equipment of all sorts, can have its place in the monastery. Also the people who know about or who come to Buckfast will know – in some way - that prayer is important to us without quite knowing why or perhaps even knowing what prayer is. They may see the monks at prayer at the different times of the day, or they may see them engaged in different works. But whatever the monks are doing, wherever they may be, they should be striving to be attentive – to hear the words of the Gospel, the precepts of the Rule and the voice of the Holy Spirit so as to get things right – so as to be a fruitful example – inside or outside the community.
Another characteristic which should give voice to the monastic way of living the Gospel is the calm and properly maintained order of the monastery. Even little things are important. Beauty and order are contagious in their effect.
A monastery, no matter how isolated it may seem, is surrounded by a circle of people and activities which are fed by the monastic life. So, for example, there are people who are directly employed by the monastery, and the many guests who come for a day or longer - for all sorts of reasons. In these ways the monastery radiates its spirituality. Also, a new way of communicating – of radiating the life of a monastery, has been a monastic presence on the Internet. The websites of monasteries draw many visitors, sometimes thousands a day. The Buckfast web site certainly provides a window into our way of life.
The point of mentioning all this is to re-state that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane in a Benedictine monastery. Saint Benedict inspires this attitude. This may be illustrated, for example, in chapter 31 about the cellarer, where we read: “Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” This also relates to the attitude of all, concerning the monks or nuns different activities.
Tasks and activities may indeed be different, but one is not worthy of more attention (“is more sacred”) than another. This attitude is especially difficult to cultivate. It is very tempting and quite natural to view some activities as more worthy of time and attention than others, and it might be tempting to consider other activities as less important. But monks and nuns are called upon to realize that all their tasks, though not the same, are equally worthy and that all of them deserve to be done attentively, as opportunities “to praise God”, - then all activities will increase in quality.
Of course I realize all too well how great may be the distance between the ideal which Saint Benedict's Rule holds before his disciples and how we monastics manage in our daily lives. Fortunately, our holy father Saint Benedict writes very reassuringly that his rule is for beginners. He does not mean by that, that after reading it and after sufficient practice we are promoted to the following level, while he offers another rule for the more advanced. On the contrary: there is only this rule for beginners. Monks and nuns remain always and daily beginners on their pilgrim road to a better quality of life. In that sense, monks and nuns remain novices. When an old monk once said when he was asked by a journalist what more than a half a century of Benedictine life amounted to: “Falling and getting up again. Falling and getting up again.” We do this – so that we may be transformed – through, with and in Christ, and that in all things God may be glorified.
“God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.” Everything that is, creation considered as a whole, came into being and remains in being by the Word of God. He spoke, and it came to be. All that exists in creation is an expression of God outside Himself. It is of the nature of a spoken word to express the meaning of the speaker. God is love and all that He says, that He creates, reveals the meaning of love. Original sin can be understood as the free creature's unwillingness and failure to express God's love.
The summit – the glory if you like of the entire work of creation – came to a climax in the human person, intelligent and free. When human beings chose not to love, chose to misdirect their freedom, the whole of creation ceased to express the love that God is. In the Original Sin, the word of God that is present in humanity and the universe no longer carried God's meaning. They spoke a different language and became alien to God and to their own nature.
Apart from all the words of creation God has Another Word, an Only-Begotten Word, a Son. This is the Son, the Word Who was with God in the beginning. And this Word was God. Not a creature, this Word of God inwardly expresses God's knowledge of Himself. To win back the world, lost in Original Sin, the Father sent His Eternal Word into the womb of a young girl of Nazareth. The virgin's name was Mary; and her title will forever be the Blessed Mother of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary, who was herself a created word, was able to bear the Uncreated Word. He became flesh and dwelt among us.
God redeems the world by sending His Word into it, this is God’s Plan of Salvation. The simplest expression of the essence of the Mystery of our faith is this: God sends His Word and man receives It. This Divine Word restores to created words their lost meaning. And what is more awe-inspiring, He bestows upon all who receive Him an infinitely sublime meaning of love, that is, the Word of God confers His own meaning upon His followers. “All that I have learned from the Father, I have made known to you.” Created words may now speak with the eloquence of the Divine Word.
We are saved, sanctified and raised up to the Divine life by receiving God's Word. This perception reveals the nature and orientation of all Christian spirituality:
1. to receive the word 2. to become one with the Word by receiving It 3. to be a sacrament of the received Word for others, and, finally, 4. in the Heavenly Jerusalem, to see and be united to the Word-Son eternally expressing all the Fullness of the Love that is God ...seeing, meaning, receiving and giving that Love, forever.
Since it all begins with the reception of God's Word, our first concern is to identify that Word in our lives.
Where is God's Word to be received?
God's Word comes to us in the whole of our existence and experience. Our existence is an expression of God's Word. Our material experience, moment by moment all through life, is a manifestation of God's Word. Unfortunately for us we find ourselves unable to appreciate that our being and experience is the Word of God. It is too difficult for us to grasp that "we live and move and have our being" in Him at every instant. We must attribute this blindness and deafness to God's Word to the fact that we are merely creatures and sadly - sinful creatures. God has undertaken to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. In His mercy, He gives us a medicine and a therapy to enable us to see and hear His Word. He has given us Jesus, the Word Incarnate. We are required to receive Jesus in faith and grow in intimate knowledge and love of Him. Our closeness to Jesus will gradually enable us to perceive God's Word always and everywhere.
We can meet Jesus and be transformed by Him in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our loving relationships with other people, in our appreciation of nature and in our own hearts where He dwells. It is however, union with Jesus through the Scriptures which is at the heart of Sacred Reading.
The Practice of Lectio divina.
The term and the practice of Sacred Reading can be understood broadly to include besides Sacred Scripture a great variety of spiritual and devotional books. However, primarily the meaning of Lectio divina is the search for union of mind and heart with God through Sacred Scripture.
The search for this union through Lectio divina might be thought to be the subject of a particular technique. However, a technique is a humanly devised plan of action leading to a determined result. It is based on the usual behaviour of nature and human beings. The result attained by a technique is normally predictable. Whenever the technique, or disciplined action, is properly performed in a controlled environment, the desired result follows. But creation does not control the Creator. It is by grace – the free action of the Holy Spirit - that human beings are given a share in God's own inner life. Grace involves the inter-play of divine and human free will, with the initiative on the side of God. A technique is a humanly conceived and initiated exercise for the production of a desired effect.
A specific experience of Lectio divina is a grace from God. That is to say it is God's gift to the person. It is indeed the action of the person, perhaps even an habitual action. But this action, or repeated action, is, first of all, God's gift. An act of Lectio divina, and indeed all good actions, are God's gifts. If these actions rose uniquely from the will and decision of a person, then they could be organized into a methodical system, a technique, a Christian equivalent of Eastern yoga. In that case, the method of Lectio divina could be codified in a set formula and reproduced at will, given the required circumstances.
It would then be merely human spiritual discipline. But in fact, Lectio divina is an experience given by God, if He wills, when He wills, and to whom He wills. There is nothing automatic about it. It cannot be produced by efforts, method, system or discipline. It is not a human technique.
There is no way to codify the unlimited possibilities of experience of God in scripture, but in the Christian monastic tradition four general categories have been used to express the experience of Lectio divina. Reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation indicate the four main paths along which we may be led in Lectio divina.
Reading Scripture First of all, scripture is read as the basic activity of Lectio divina in order to seek a Person and be united with the Divine. Reading in this context is not done to gain information or facts. There must be no fulfilling an obligation, nor reading in order to gain practical or professional skill. Instead of all that the Word of God is read in order to repent, in order to cleanse the heart of sin, in order to return to God. The approach to Sacred reading is mystical: through it we are seeking union with God.
In other reading we soon move to a conclusion. With Scripture, we must read slowly, considering each meaningful phrase. In Scripture, there is no conclusion to hurry to. It has no ending, only beginnings, only openings. We read Scripture not to gain influence or security, but to find out how weak and insecure we are. Scripture does not show us how to be confidently assured. It can teach us to hope, when there are no longer hopeful signs; and to trust even amidst fear and trembling.
We can read other books "critically," passing judgment on what is read, and rightly so. But we come to the Word of God to submit to its judgment upon ourselves.
The Real Presence of God is in Scripture. There is no Real Presence of God in the book of the bible considered as a material object, unlike the True Presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But when a believer reads God's Word, the Real Presence of God becomes operative. This Presence of God in the reading of Scripture is not less Real than in the Eucharistic Presence. All those who truly love the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist will certainly love that Divine Presence in Scripture read in faith. And in Sacred Scripture Christ can be received again and again as often as we return to the bible to read it in faith.
We read that Moses removed the sandals from his feet and prostrated himself in the presence of God in the Burning Bush. Sacred Scripture is a fulfilment of that Burning Bush in the life of the Christian. Here in Scripture, as from the Burning Bush of old, God will speak to us. He will reveal Himself to us. He will teach us to know Him and to understand His will for our lives. Here we receive our mission from God, as did Moses at the Burning Bush.
Before reading we should ask God to cleanse your heart and mind to make them worthy to receive His Sacred Word. We should pray that He will illumine our minds to know Him and strengthen our wills to carry out all that He tells us in Scripture. We would also do well to invoke Our Blessed Lady, asking her intercession; for she is the model of all who desire to receive the Word of God and ponder it in their hearts.
There are different ways of reading Scripture. According to inclination one might read an entire book of the bible from beginning to end - though not all at once! Start at the beginning and read a passage each day until the book is finished. Another way of reading Scripture is to read particular passages out of context and independently of the rest of the book. For instance, one may read the Sermon on the Mount (Chapter 5-7 of Matthew) or Our Lord's Final Discourse in the Gospel of John (Chapter 14-16); or again, for example, a person might feel moved to read the Passion narrative in Luke.
Simply reading Scripture in faith is a tremendous grace of union with God. As we read, our minds take in the thoughts of God...our hearts are conformed to the love of God...we identify our wills with His will revealed in the Scriptures we read.
The Spirit of God enables us to read and understand. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to reveal the secrets of the depths of God. It is by the Spirit that we can assent to the mysteries of God shown in the bible. The Eternal Plan of God, the Mystery of Christ, is presented to us. This mystery is hidden from the wise and learned of this world, unknown even to prophets and holy men in ages past. To us God reveals all this in Scripture.
It often happens during spiritual reading that a particular phrase, sentence, or longer section appeals to our minds and hearts. It can seem that there is an unusual power, beauty or truth in a particular passage. When this happens, one has to stop reading and concentrate on the particular passage. It usually becomes necessary to read it over slowly again, perhaps again and again. It is not important to analyse it. The grace, the healing and life-giving power is in the words and meaning of the text itself which is the Word of God. There are other times when one can reflect in a more reasoned way about this text (or any text) as much as one likes. But during the time set aside for Lectio divina it is better to allow a more intuitive approach to prevail.
God leads us to a phrase or a word in Scripture that is for our benefit – perhaps for a quieting of our restless spirit – possibly a remedy for one of our ills, or a life-giving word that will activate an aspect of our Christian lives. This word of God is a divine seed. It has the power to come alive and grow when planted in the soil of our hearts. Meditation, as a part of Lectio divina, means the reading and pondering of these texts which are experienced as especially important to oneself. It is God who highlights these texts and makes them attractive to the needs and capacities of each person at any given moment of their life. God draws us to His Word.
One should meditate upon the passage as long as one feels inclined to do so, as long as it holds one’s attention and seems worthwhile. It might be a short period of a few minutes, or it might be days, or even longer, indeed the text or word may return at any given time. The meditation consists in pondering a particular text and it ends when that text no longer has any special attraction. At that point one simply resumes reading.
An additional fruit of meditation is that in prayer the Lord will bring to mind words and phrases from scripture that have been sown in the mind and heart. These can help us express ourselves or enable us to hear the voice of God speaking, especially when we are concerned about particular circumstances – perhaps worried or even angry!
Prayer and Lectio divina
Very often a person who reads Scripture is led to prayer rather than to meditation. As one reads in a reflective manner it can happen that one feels an inclination to speak to God about what is being read. For instance, when reading a text from Isaiah in which the prophet is denouncing the social injustices of the people. At that moment the Holy Spirit may stir up an awareness of the social injustice in our own time and indeed make us aware of the requirement in our own lives to show true justice to those in need. This may then lead us to ask for God’s forgiveness and strength to repent. It may cause us to ask Him to show us what we should do to correct a particular situation. Another example could be the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, of whom only one returned to give thanks. This might kindle a desire to pause in a prayer of gratitude to God for all He does for us.
Through scripture we can be led to every form of prayer, - praise, petition and intercession. Each time is a grace of the Holy Spirit. This prayer cannot be planned. All that is necessary is to remain open and sensitive to the impressions and invitations the Holy Spirit will give during Lectio divina. Sacred reading is a threshold to prayer. This practice of Lectio divina prayer allows us to identify with the people in scripture and it permits us to place our own experiences in the context of sacred history as recorded in Scripture.
In the context of Lectio divina contemplation refers to that first instant of awareness, before we begin to formulate thoughts and words, when we are exclusively engaged in concentrated, entrancing awareness. It typically lasts only a few moments, though it may be longer. Then we return, as usual, to thoughts and words about the beauty we have experienced. There is a quick descent from contemplative vision to a reflective and cerebral description of what has been sensed.
One might compare this moment of contemplation to that experienced when suddenly one is confronted with an unexpected splendour, the stars and moon revealed from behind a cloud at night, a rainbow, or a glorious sunset. The beauty and power of natural phenomenon certainly have the ability of catching us unprepared. So it is during Lectio divina when the Word of God strikes us into awareness of the Divine Mystery. The contemplative awareness has the character of being sudden and unexpected. Naturally it cannot be striven for or deliberately sought. All that is required of us is to welcome the Word when He comes. We have to be awake, alert, and ready.
The contemplative moment of Lectio divina is an experience of illumined consciousness, that is, it is a heightened awareness of God. At that moment we are united to Him, but not by means of the words and thoughts of Scripture. These thoughts and words serve to stir us into awareness of God Himself. There is no saying when, or by what passage, this contemplation will be given. This contemplation is not a rapture, not an irresistible ecstasy, and we can accept or refuse it.
Contemplation in Lectio divina, is a wordless response to God evoked by His Word. There are no thoughts or words associated with it. It perceives God through a gift of grace that also focuses our attention. This contemplation instinctively knows God and it makes a person joyfully aware of the Divine Presence.
Lectio divina begins with reading, this is the moment when we hear the Word of God, when we listen to the Lord. Our eyes, our ears, our minds are the mere passageways for the Word, whose destination is in fact our very soul. As the Lord said to the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears.” (Ez 3:10 – RSV) We may understand the ‘heart’ as the place where the Lord is welcomed (Theophane the Recluse). Listening to the Lord through reading leads to meditation, when the words of scripture are reflected upon, digested as it were, for as St. Augustine says, scripture is “sweet and nourishing food”. This food must be savoured. The spiritual significance of this is explained by St. Gregory the Great when he says that it serves to “open the way for the Lord so that He can enter into our hearts and inflame them with the grace of His love.”
Prayer flows naturally from “the encounter of the human ‘heart’ with the heart of God by means of the Word of God” (St. Gregory the Great). At this moment God speaks to us and we listen; we speak to God and He listens to us. As Newman said, “heart speaks to heart”. It is not surprising that a ‘heightened awareness of God’ may flow from this prayerful experience. This is the moment of contemplation. St. Bernard says that it is the moment that “catches God and almost touches Him. You touch Him with the hand of faith, with the embrace of devotion, with the eyes of the mind.”
The fruit of Lectio divina is true obedience – a moulding of our will to the will of God. It is the seed that fell on rich soil – a cultivation of the spirit of discernment. Those who hear the Word of the Lord and accept it, yield a harvest, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold (Mark 4:20). Through Lectio divina the Word permeates all that we do, we become a channel of grace, for as St. Paul says, “It is God, for His own loving purposes, who puts the will and the action into you” (Philippians 2:13) for:
“In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all this came to be, not one thing had its being but through Him. All that came to be had life in Him and that life was the light of men, a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.” (John 1:1-5)
In the Creed formulated in the year 325 – called the Nicene Creed and other similar statements later, the Church gave, what it hoped were definitive answers to the reflections and difficulties of interpretation arising from scriptural accounts. But, despite these statements, difficulties soon arose. For example, in what sense is Jesus God? This question was raised in a crucial form by the Arian controversy of the 4th century. And this is still, today, an important question. The Christian response to questions concerning Jesus Christ certainly separates us from Judaism and Islam, the other monotheistic religions.
Arius Arianism is perhaps the most typical and persistent of the ancient heresies. Basically it involves a denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ. It was first effectively advanced by Arius (256-336), a priest of Alexandria in Egypt, who denied that there were three distinct divine Persons in the Holy Trinity. For Arius, there was only one Person in the Godhead, the Father. According to Arian theory, the Son was a created being. For the followers of Arius, Christ was "the Son of God" only in a figurative sense, or by "adoption" (just as we are children of God by adoption through grace), not in his essential being or nature.
Arianism was formally condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Indeed, it was the spread of Arianism and Arian ideas among the faithful, and the disputes and disorders that resulted, that prompted the Emperor Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in the first place. What the Council decided — against Arius and his followers — was that the Son was "one in being" or "consubstantial" (homo-ousios) with the Father. In other words, that the Son of God was himself God because He shared the same divine nature. The fathers of Nicaea issued their Creed precisely to insist on the three Persons in one substance in the Trinity and on the divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, then the world was not redeemed by his sacrifice on the cross. Eventually the faith itself dissolves if Christ is not understood to be divine; after all, he very plainly insisted in the Gospels that he was. As we read in the Gospel of John 10:30, I and the Father are one - 10:38, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father; 14:10, Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
Entire communities broke away from the Church as a result of the Christological definitions of the 4th century councils. Some of these breakaway communions still exist today in the ancient churches of the East, such as the Assyrian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian (Jacobite), etc. Today many of these ancient communions are rethinking their positions and are close to agreement with the Catholic Church on doctrinal essentials, stating that their ancient disagreements stemmed at least in part from misunderstandings of exactly what had been taught or affirmed — for these ancient councils also had condemned by name certain individuals (such as Nestorius) who commanded personal followings, and some of these communities were unwilling to accept the judgments of the councils regarding their leaders of that time.
Protestant Arian Tendencies The denunciation of "Arianism" by the Nicean Churches dominated all subsequent opinion. The teaching of the Councils prevailed, but ideas similar to Arius’ continued to surface over the centuries and to the present day.
So, for example, the "Arian" appeal to Scripture, for theological vindication certainly has resonances in Protestant thinking. According to this thinking orthodox doctrine, i.e. pro-Nicene, was developed only in response to Arianism by distorting and misrepresenting what Arius said. The triumph of the Nicene faith is, therefore, a dubious one at best and no more plausible a resolution of Christian doctrine than "Arianism." This, of course, does not take into account the Catholic belief in the working of the Holy Spirit in guiding the bishops in council to uncover the Truth in relation to God and humanity.
After the Reformation, Arianism resurfaced, feeding on the plea for simplicity and riding on the band-wagon of protest against non-biblical – philosophical and theological jargon. The concept of God as an autonomous, single entity (undifferentiated mona) will always have its appeal, while attempts to explain the relations between co-equal divine persons can easily be portrayed as lacking directness and confusing. Yet, for all its plausibility, Arianism is fatal to Christianity. We cannot call a creature, however glorious, Lord! Arianism spread in the 18th century, particularly in English Nonconformity, such as Baptists and Puritans. The reasons for this probably lie in a passion for theological freedom and a general feeling that churches must reserve to themselves a total liberty to reform their doctrine, worship and discipline according to the scriptures.
Add to this the influence of Anglican Arianism, which in the 18th century argued that everyone, including Arians, should be allowed to subscribe to the formularies of the Church of England in his own sense – very much like today one might say! And with the addition of cold rationalism introduced into English religion by the philosopher, John Locke, it becomes easy to understand how Arianism could make progress even among the heirs of the reformation zealots of the 16th and 17th centuries. Modern parallels
"Arianism" has been commonly been applied to several more recent non-Trinitarian groups. These include: Unitarians, who believe that God is one as opposed to a Trinity, and many of whom believe in the moral authority, but not the deity, of Jesus. Jehovah's Witnesses and Christadelphians, also only regard Jesus as a man.
The doctrine of the Godhead, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons, is similar to Arianism. The Mormon doctrine of the unity of the Godhead is reminiscent of the Arian explanation of the unity of the Son with the Father: Jesus is seen as subordinate to God the Father, in that Jesus acts only according to his Father's will. They are "one" in the sense that there is no possibility of a disagreement between them, and they are both perfected and sinless.
The Mormons also believe, similar to the Arians, that Christ is a separate being, but "co-eternal" with God the Father, and yet that there is only one (capital "G") God. However, the Mormons are unique in believing that there are many exalted beings, or gods; and in their belief that three distinct beings comprise the Godhead. This agreement and close intimacy of three distinct beings according to Mormon doctrine, is properly labelled tritheism compared to Trinitarian definitions of monotheism, which the Mormons dispute. Mormons themselves do not object to their Godhead being referred to as a kind of Trinity, but assert that it's merely a very different idea of the Trinity as compared to most of the rest of the Christian world.
Islam has been identified as the largest descendant of Arianism today. (Archbishop Dmitri of the Orthodox Church in America.) There is some superficial similarity in Islam's teaching that Jesus was a great prophet, but very distinct from God, although Islam sees Jesus as a human messenger of God without the divine properties that Arianism attributes to the Christ. Islam, it must be remembered, sees itself as a continuation of the Jewish and Christian traditions and reveres many of the same prophets.
It is interesting to note that the successes of the Arab Muslim invasion and conquest of the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh century was most successful over areas of Christian society where the understanding of the nature of God and the person of Christ had been so violently debated in previous centuries, and where not all Christians held the same beliefs about these matters at the time of the Muslim conquest. Muhammad certainly had a very confused idea of Christian belief, ideas that he may have obtained from Christians not considered orthodox. Unfortunately these ideas are now set in stone, so to speak for Muslims, in the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. Though these ideas are clearly erroneous, Muslims cannot be persuaded that this is the case for this would mean that Muhammad was mistaken, and that, for them, is unthinkable!
Because of the situation regarding Islam in our society today I think it useful to consider their ideas in relation to these fundamental issues of God and Jesus as they have ramifications for our society as they touch on the nature of truth, which in turn affects one’s attitude to history and society.
Muslims on the Trinity Islam condemns the Christian approach which raises Jesus to an equality with Allah. It condemns veneration of Mary because this at times verges on idolatry. Islam condemns anything which attributes a physical son to Allah and invents the doctrine of the Trinity, which according to Muslims is opposed to all reason.
Islam emphasises that God is self-subsisting, and sufficient, without need for forebears, offspring or equals. Having stated that Jesus was simply a man like Adam, the Qur’an leaves it at that – Jesus was not divine. He was not one of three gods. Obviously, the Qur’an misunderstands the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as a tritheism, belief in three Gods, whereas the Biblical and historic Christian position is that the Godhead is Triune - that there are three persons (hypostases) commonly possessing the unique divine nature (essence), inseparable and eternal. It follows that Christians are not ‘associating’ any being with God, since the single divine essence is not divided, nor do Christians propose that there is a plurality of divine natures; rather Christianity affirms an inseparable difference within the unique divine nature (essence). Neither should the birth of Jesus in time allow for a difference between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. There was never a time when the Son did not exist, nor is His nature (essence) different from that of the Father (or the Spirit). It should also be noted that Christian doctrine does not present a composite divine being; on the contrary, Christianity affirms the undivided unity of the divine nature (essence). The Muslim writer Suzanne Haneef in her book ‘What Everyone should know about Islam and Muslims’ published in Pakistan (Kazi Publications, Lahore, 1979), misrepresents Christian belief on this issue as holding to a deity in ‘three parts’, to which she responds ‘God is not like a pie or an apple which can be divided into three thirds which form one whole’. Christians would heartily agree with her on this point; we do not believe that God is in three parts. There is one unique divine nature (substance, essence). The Qur’an misunderstands Christian doctrine on the Triune nature of God, and this in itself indicates that the Muslim holy book is fallible, and thus not divinely inspired.
Of course, the Qur’an not only misconceives the nature of the Trinity, it misconstrues the identity of the Persons: it presents us with three deities – Allah, Mary and Jesus. (Sura 5:116 - a Sura is a chapter in the Qur’an) And behold! Allah will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah?"’ Again, this presents a picture of a divided divine essence that Christians deny. Christianity does not believe that Jesus is a separate deity from the Father; still less do we believe that Mary was a member of the Trinity.
It appears that early on Muslims realised that they had problems with these assertions – because, of course, Christians believed no such things. So they made the Najran Christians the scapegoats for the blunders of the Qur’an. (Najran is a province of Saudi Arabia, located in the south of the country along the border with Yemen.) However, whatever their sect, the Najran Christians would not have believed that Mary was divine, part of the Trinity, or that Jesus was the ‘third of three’.
It is clear from the study of the Qur’an’s denunciations of Christians for believing in the divine sonship of Jesus that Islam’s sacred text accuses Christians of making a mortal human being divine. The historic Christian doctrine is the reverse – the whole concept of the Incarnation hinges on the belief that God became Man. At the very beginning of the Gospel of John (1:14) we read: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. Linked to this is the Islamic idea that we Christians hold that Jesus was the natural Son of God – produced by God being intimate with Mary, much like Zeus cavorting with Leto to produce Apollo!
The Qur’an says, concerning the birth of Jesus (Sura 19 (35): Then came she with the babe to her people, bearing him. They said, “O Mary! now have you done a strange thing! O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a man of wickedness, nor unchaste your mother.” And she made a sign to them, pointing towards the babe. They said, “How shall we speak with him who is in the cradle, an infant?” It said, (that is the new born Jesus) “Truly, I am the servant of Allah; He has given me the Book, and He has made me a prophet; And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and has enjoined me prayer and almsgiving so long as I shall live; And to be duteous to her that bare me: and he has not made me proud, depraved. And the peace of Allah was on me the day I was born, and will be the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised to life.” This is Jesus, the son of Mary; this is a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It beseems not Allah to beget a son. Glory be to Him! when he decrees a thing, He only says to it, Be, and it Is. A Muslim commentary on this text (Yusuf Ali) says the following: ‘Begetting a son is a physical act depending on the needs of men’s animal nature. Allah Most High is independent of all needs, and it is derogatory to Him to attribute such an act to Him. It is merely a relic of pagan and anthropomorphic materialist superstitions.’
Of course, we Christians believe nothing of the kind. We believe that Jesus is the eternally generated Son, and in regard to the Virgin Birth, the Gospel passages do not give the slightest hint of sexual intercourse between God and Mary, or the idea that Jesus was a demi-god. Yet it is quite clear that this idea of naturalistic generation is the accusation of Islam against Christianity. The obvious inference is that Muslims confused the Christian concept with pagan ideas of divine progeny. Yet again, we can recognise how embarrassing this claim would have been once Muslims began to properly understand Christian doctrine, and thus discover that what the Qur’an accused Christians of believing was not the case. Yet again the Sira came to the defence of the Qur’an, placing Qur’anic doctrine on the lips of the Najran Christians.
As one reads the Qur’an and studies its denials of what Christians are supposed to believe, one is struck by the absence of any reference to the fact that Christians believe that Jesus is both divine and human. Yet the whole point of the Incarnation is that God the Word became flesh (John 1:14). The impression one receives is that Christians believe that Jesus has only one nature, the divine. As the Muslims began to understand Christian beliefs after their conquests of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, they would have realised that the Qur’an had failed to properly understand and depict Christian doctrine on the Person of Christ – once more undermining the claim to divine inspiration. Further, the Qur’an gives one the idea that there is an exclusive choice – Jesus is either divine or human; He could not be both, whereas the Christian position is precisely that Jesus is both divine and human. Conclusion
The idea that a man might be a god is a concept that has been rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Even in its heyday it allowed for capricious gods, interfering in the world of human beings. It also led to utterly ridiculous notions of god-emperors who thus felt able to do whatever they wished.
Common sense rightly turns us against such a notion. But the converse, God becoming a human being, now that is something quite different. We know our world is imperfect, we know each of us will suffer in this life in some way, but when God enters into our experience of creation then we know we are being accompanied on this life’s journey and we have someone to share the burden of our present imperfections – someone who has shown us where our proper destiny lies.
It is only by believing in the eternal divinity of the Word made flesh that we as human beings can achieve our completeness. In other words Jesus’ divinity means that we can be fully human, and thus true humanists! We become by grace what Christ is by nature. Sadly men and women settle for a humanity that is less that what we are capable of. Our society is one where the quest for what is in reality so small and transient – easily cast-off relationships, material items that just waste the world’s recourses, entertainments that only serve to belittle. All of this is an effort to quell that yearning for some sort of completeness that no human being can really shrug off. To settle for some thing less is a great temptation. So for example it seems easier in an era of scientific thinking to cast of ideas of god-men, and if one wants to be religious it may be less of an effort to something akin to Arianism. Of course, today's Arians do not call themselves Arians; for the most part they are not aware that they are Arians. Yet a religion such as Unitarianism is nothing else but Arian in its denial of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity. Similarly, a modern American religion such as Mormonism is wholly Arian in its account of a divine being, even if it is ignorant of Arianism historically.
Even today, poorly instructed Christians can be found espousing one or more of these variants when they are examined closely concerning who and what they think Jesus Christ was and is. The authority of the Church, therefore, is pitted against the authority of a single human being. This can lead to beliefs such as: there is no Trinity, that Christ was not one nature with the Father and Holy Spirit, that He was not conceived of the Holy Spirit, but fathered by St. Joseph, that His Death and Passion were not undergone to bring about our redemption, and that the Blessed Virgin was not the Mother of God, neither did she retain her virginity. This mind set is also likely to believes that dogma creates problems, and so if we move away from dogma we can find ecumenical harmony and even inter-faith unity! All this, of course at the expense of integrity and truth!
However, for orthodox Catholic Christians the Trinity and the Incarnation are of paramount importance in understanding who God is and who we are. Each person is created in the "image and likeness of God". If we find it difficult to understand God, it is, of course, equally difficult to fully understand another person. How do we come to some sort of understanding of other human beings? Surely it is through ties of friendship and love. Saint John tells us God is love, therefore the key to understanding God is a loving relationship with him. Such a relationship is the basis of faith.
Of course we have to have an idea of what love is in the way that God is love. Through Jesus Christ we are given such an idea. Through Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, this fundamental idea is communicated to us. This divine idea is created anew in each human being. We know of its presence because it drives every human being to seek what is good. Sadly, however, when that urge turns in on itself we identify it as evil. This leads us away from the goodness of God and so damages our relationships - whether human or divine. Our journey to our proper fulfilment as human beings relies on faith in the Most Blessed Trinity and in the belief that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. We need the action of God’s power to raise us up in Christ. It is not possible to do this by human means alone. This action of God is his free gift of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus we see the perfect revelation of God’s love. By being one with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we come to a share in God our Father’s life.
The revelation of the Trinity allows us to grasp the wonder of our destiny. It allows us to see, through a fellow human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the true nature of divinity as sacrificial love. Through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we are able to grow in the love revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross and thus be clothed in the mantle of divinity ourselves.
Let us pray: God our Father, who by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification made known to the human race your wondrous mystery, grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end. Amen.
I am sure from what I hear and read in the media that today many people, even among some who consider themselves Christians, hold that Christ was not really divine: He was just a good man, a great moral teacher, a model to follow; perhaps he even represented the highest ideal of a man for humanity. But, as an all-too-common human scepticism asserts, he was surely not God for the simple reason that no human being could be God. This, of course raises the question of who or what is God. What do we mean by divinity! Generally speaking those who hold a belief in God would say that God is the Creator of the universe, the author of everything that is. The Creed proclaims: I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
God the Creator and the Unique Nature of Human Life
This is a starting point so to speak. However, it is only because we are human beings that we are able to think and speak in this way. So being human is actually the important issue. It is through our humanity that we are able to know something about God. Human beings alone are the creatures that are invited to know the nature of the Divine Life. So by seeking to discover what sort of human beings we are supposed to be will also help us know something about our Creator.
Scripture says that in the beginning "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:27) We learn in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis that human beings occupy a unique place in creation: we are created "in the image of God"; in our nature we unite the spiritual and material worlds; we are created "male and female"; and of particular importance - God has established us in His friendship.
Of all visible creatures only human beings are "able to know and love the Creator." (Gaudium et Spes 12:3) Human beings are "the only creatures on earth that God has called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. So we can say that it was for this end that men and women were created, and this is the fundamental reason for our dignity.
Being in the image of God each human individual possesses the dignity of a person. We are capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving ourselves and entering into a relationship, a communion with others. We are endowed with the power of imagination and of being able to make judgements as to what is best or of better value.
It is our belief as Christians and as inheritors of Jewish thought that throughout history God has sought to establish a covenant with humanity, and human beings have been called upon to offer a response of faith and love that no other creature could give. This covenant is a communion between the divine and the human, a relationship between Creator and created. The Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly encapsulates the thought of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes when it says “God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him”. (CCC 385 quoting GS 12:1; 24:3; 39:1) Jews and Christians both understand that God wants to be known. Faith and reason tell us that “God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve Him.” (CCC 1721) The Patriarchs and the Prophets spoke to the People of Israel so as to open minds and hearts to the wonder of the unseen God; and the further self revelation of God has enabled us to uncover and articulate a previously unimagined destiny for the human race.
As the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, who he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:1-3) This leads us, as Christians, to say in the words of the Creed:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
Christians have come to understand that in reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of Divinity and humanity truly becomes clear (cf. GS 22:1). Central to any understanding of our true destiny is the divine relationship, which in faith we call the Blessed Trinity. To be sure, God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation and in his Revelation throughout the Old Testament. But his inmost Being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone or even to Israel's faith before the Incarnation of God's Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Human Destiny Lies in the Life of the Trinity From the beginning, the revealed truth of the Blessed Trinity has been at the very root of the Church's living faith.
Such formulations of the divine relationship are to be found in the apostolic writings, so Saint Paul writes to the Church at Corrinth “Now there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.” (1 Cor. 12:4-6)
We do not, of course, confess three gods, but one God in three persons. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: "The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God." (Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 530:26.)
There can be little doubt that some Christians dismiss the mystery of the Blessed Trinity as simply "a truth which is above reason, but revealed by God". Some may even regard Christ's revelation that He came to take us to the Father by giving us His Spirit, as no more than “extra knowledge about God” which, in so far as living the Christian life is concerned, one could manage equally well without.
Nothing could be further from the truth: Christ did not reveal the life of God, that is the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in order to confuse. It is revealed to us that we might share it. This is our destiny - this is what we were created for. Our ultimate end is entry into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity. So Saint John writes in his gospel: “…that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:21-23) When we proclaim Jesus to be True God and True Man, we are declaring that perfected humanity is at the centre of what we call Divine. The Fathers of the Church were very bold in this regard. Saint Athanasius put it like this: “God became Man that we might be made God.” (De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B) Saint Irenaeus on the other hand put it this way: “The Word of God, Jesus Christ, became what we are in order to make us what He is Himself.” (Adv. Haeres. 3, 19. 1:PG 7/1, 939), in other words we become by grace what Christ is by nature! Grace is the divine power that makes us complete, fully alive, fully human. So we say in the Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.
Christian teaching reveals that our destiny lies within the divine relationship. However, although we may recognise that this is so, it is not within our power to achieve this divine state. To attain this destiny we need what has traditionally been called grace, which is just a word for God's free giving of Himself. We need this gift because through it we are transformed – changed – and redirected towards God. Jesus came into this world to carve a Way for us – The Way - that would lead us back to the Father. "I am the Way", He told His disciples, "No one can come to the Father except through me”. Now Jesus did not specifically teach his disciples about the Trinity, but He did speak of His Father and the Holy Spirit in terms of unity and love. “He who sees me sees the Father", "I and the Father are one", “If you had known who I am, then you would have known who my Father is”. He also speaks of them as of one mind, when for example He says that the Holy Spirit “will glorify me since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. Everything the Father has is mine...” In this way the Trinity is not presented as a concept to be analysed - but always as a personal relationship to be entered into.
Our greatest obstacle to entering into the mystery is not the shortcomings of our intellect but the limitations of human vision and love! The revelation of three persons in the Godhead is impossible to grasp merely by thinking hard about it. The unfolding of the mystery lies in the meaning of true love, in other words in the nature of Divinity. This is the heart of the divine mystery itself; this living, dynamic activity of love has created everything. This creative love is the Holy Spirit - that is why He is given the title Lord and Giver of Life. It is through an understanding of Divine Love that we can imagine and strive for justice, that we can temper justice with mercy, be tollerant but not lose sight of truth, seek happiness but not be overcome with indulgence.
At Pentecost the Body of Christ - the Church, became animated with the Holy Spirit. We are now being immersed into the life of the Trinity by the power of that Spirit - by the creative, transforming love of the Trinity Itself. That is why at Baptism we are a New Creation, - that is why we are given the confidence to call God our Father. By the creative power of love that emanates from the Trinity we are able to achieve our true destiny.
Because of Jesus we know that humanity, raised to what it was intended to be, is part of the Godhead. Therefore if we let God have His way, we can come to share the life of Christ - this is the offer Christianity makes - we are, by the power of the Spirit made sons and daughters of God, heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ, sharing His suffering so as to share His glory. For Christ became what we are in order to make us what He is Himself!
The Teaching on the Dogma of the Trinity
The teaching concerning the Trinity developed over the first centuries of the Church. In our present day Catechism of the Catholic Church the following is stated: ‘From the beginning, the revealed truth of the Holy Trinity has been at the very root of the Church's living faith, principally by means of Baptism. It finds its expression in the rule of baptismal faith, formulated in the preaching, catechesis and prayer of the Church. Such formulations are already found in the apostolic writings, such as this salutation taken up in the Eucharistic liturgy: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (CCC 249) ref: 2 Cor 13:13; cf. 1 Cor 12:4-6; Eph 4:4-6.’
During the first centuries the Church sought to clarify its Trinitarian faith, both to deepen its own understanding of the faith and to defend it against the errors that were deforming it. This clarification was the work of the early councils, aided by the theological work of the Church Fathers and sustained by the Christian people's sense of the faith. (CCC 250) In order to articulate the dogma of the Trinity, the Church had to develop its own terminology - so such notions as "substance," "person" (or "hypostasis,") "relation" and so on were used. (ref: CCC 251)
The Church uses the term "substance" - restated at times by the concept of "essence" or "nature" - to denote the unity of God – the unity of Divine Life. The term "person" (or "hypostasis") to indicate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the term "relation" to specify that their distinctiveness lies in the relationship with each other. (ref: CCC 252) So we firmly believe that the Trinity is One . We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons. "God is one but not solitary." (Fides Damasi: DS 71). "Father," "Son," "Holy Spirit" are not simply names designating different characteristics of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another. (ref: CCC 254) The divine essence is one but known through three persons. The divine nature remains exactly the same in all three, thus it may be said that each person of the Trinity shares the same divine thought!
It is interesting to reflect that the revelations we often take for granted were in fact formulated not in tranquil ecclesiastical discussions or demure conversations by pious bishops, priests and theologians. In fact the likes of the Creed, which we today repeat, were born out of bitterly contested struggles. Ideas concerning the nature of God and the person of Christ were sometimes actually fought over! Emperors, civil officials, bishops, priests, deacons, men and women, all contributed to situations that can easily be regarded as being far from the spirit of the Gospel. Bloodshed and exile, exaggerations and false accusations, were hurled about. Doctrinal discussion could be a very dangerous thing! But is was this very difference of opinion, violent at times, that yielded the fruits of doctrine, which we can appreciate today and in which we can have faith.
Year after year, during the approach to Easter, we Christians recall the events of Christ's passion and death. In some ways they appear to be about a small religious group concerned for its doomed leader. The story is quite familiar, how he had one last meal with his followers, was condemned as a common criminal and was led to an agonising death. Why does this pitiful and tragic set of events have significance now? What has it to do with the lives of millions of people who have lived since then, millions of whom have never even heard of Jesus and others who would never have considered themselves his followers?
No doubt, we who are followers of Christ recall these incidents with a whole range of emotions, sadness, sorrow for sin, gratitude. Scripture makes it clear that this story of passion and death is far from personal or private: it is a story that has the power to affect the destiny of every man and woman, to affect the whole human race. Therefore it is not just right or respectful to remember, but important to do so.
With the eyes of faith what we see played out before us is not merely the last agony of a failed prophet, but a dramatic presentation of the depth of God's involvement with the human race. The passion and death of Christ do not simply reveal the measure of commitment of one man to a religious cause. Saint Paul tells us that Christ's state was divine, but for our sake he became human, he suffered and died, and by his faithfulness reconciled humanity to its Creator. The crucifixion does not just reveal a human passion, it reveals the passion of God. It shows us that through the Incarnation, God made man, God is involved in every aspect of the human condition; it reveals the lengths our God will go in order to save us from our sins and folly.
At this time of the year we Christians and indeed the whole world, are reminded that in every difficulty, every anxiety, every occasion of abuse and violence, every instance of torture and cruelty, every act of senseless killing, God is present. At those times of apparent abandonment we are never alone.
Picture, for a moment if you will, a bright sunny day and a group of small children playing. In their innocence they run around and laugh , they are carefree and are enjoying the freedom to be out of their houses. Among them is a little girl, no more than three years old. Her mother keeps a watchful eye on her from inside the house, for she is still unsure that it was right to let her little girl go out into the open, but what could she do, the child had been inside for days, and indeed now she was playing so happily. The little girl had on a clean, bright dress and her golden curls caught the sun. As the mother watched there is an explosion, dust rises, vision is impaired, silence, screams of terror. We see that mother now holding that little girl in her arms, her pretty dress is torn, splattered with blood. She lies in her weeping mother's arms, limp and as if asleep. She opens her eyes, at seeing her mother she gives a little smile. Her small head nestles tighter against that mother's breast and she dies, for this is the Middle East, Chechnya, almost anywhere in Africa, or for that matter anywhere in the world these days.
Would not this, and similar tragedies cause some to ask 'Is there a God at all?' 'Why do the innocent have to suffer?' Whatever difficulties and problems comes to us we earn them, but what of these little ones? Consider that if we truly hold that God is Emmanuel , 'God,with,us', then He is in every human situation. The suffering and cruelty are because of us, the possibility of unity and peace is from God. But in the flesh it costs God. 'Crucify him', calls the crowd, who only a week before sang his praises. Mockery and torture are the soldiers gifts. A cross and nails the contribution of jealousy and fear. And Pilate asked them 'What harm has he done?' But they shouted all the louder. 'Let him be crucified!'
The mother holds her little child, Mary cradles Jesus in her arms, desolation, she is alone in her anguish. But no , God is in that pain, the God,man Jesus has felt the mockery, the humiliation, the outrage, He has felt iron tearing his flesh. Hold the cross before your mind's eye, it is God's Cross, on which hangs the sufferings of the world.
God became man in Christ so that we might know the Father's love. As we increase in our knowledge of Jesus, so we are able to know God our Father. Jesus himself said to his disciples, ‘He who sees me sees the Father.’ The letter to the Hebrews describes Christ as the perfect image of God. So when Jesus spoke words of forgiveness and compassion he was revealing his Father's love and compassion; when his actions brought comfort and healing to people it was the Father's gift that was reaching out in him. So we find that Jesus shows the nature of our Father just by being himself.
But why did Christ have to suffer? Because truth and love are at the core of God's life , there could be no compromise , Jesus, who came to do the will of the Father could not deny his mission. And so he was taken down the path of suffering at the hands of sinful men. What seems to be God's rejection of Jesus was in reality a demonstration of the infinite love of God. It is in the total gift of Jesus, even to the last drop of his blood, that we can glimpse the truth that the love of God has no limits. This is the love that sees sin defeated. If sin has come into the world through disobedience, and all sin is disobedience to the will of God, , then it is through loving obedience that all sin is overcome. The love of God expressed in human flesh and blood met the effects of sin and selfishness, pride and hatred, violence and death. And we discover in the suffering of Christ, the completeness of his love, the completeness of his offertory. For it was not possible for Jesus to give more.
The Gospel story of Christ's suffering teaches us many things. Jesus shows his need of human support in Simon of Cyrene, his forgiveness of those who crucified him, his understanding of Peter, the love for his Holy Mother, his compassion for the repentant thief. This is the path that we must tread , of love, truth and forgiveness.
The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. (CCC 164) Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. (CCC 272) God is infinitely good and all his works are good. Yet no one can escape the experience of suffering or the evils in nature which seem to be linked to the limitations proper to creatures: and above all to the question of moral evil. Where does evil come from? (CCC 385)
Let us consider first what Sacred Scripture reveals concerning the nature of creation: • that it is good; • that human beings are made in the Creator’s own image and likeness. Scripture also enables us to hold in faith that God the Creator is: • good and loving, • merciful and just, • compassionate and wise, • steadfast and faithful
As human beings are made in the Creator’s image and likeness then men and women must mirror the attributes of their maker. Experience shows us that in reality this does not appear to be the case, far from it! Nothing in creation can be said to be perfect, there is a quest for wholeness, a movement towards some form of completeness. Indeed all things are changing. Human beings certainly strive to better their lot, and have been doing so in one way or another throughout history. Living creatures change and adapt all the time, whether this is in regard to short term behaviour patterns or long term evolutionary adaptations. Human beings, though, are unique. We know we are not perfect. We know we are capable of exhibiting what can be called ‘divine attributes’, yet we also know that we are capable of great wrong doing, of perpetrating evil. It seems we are the only part of creation, apart from the Creator, that knows this.
We appear to share a knowledge and a capability that mirrors the Creator. Never the less we are, logically, less than the Creator. Our vision and capability must therefore be limited. Even though our efforts are limited, what we seek to achieve must, at its heart, be directed towards doing good. Being limited does mean that our sights are set low, our vision is hampered, often to the extent of seeking only what is good and pleasurable for ourselves! Our weak and misplaced focus leads us off course so to speak. Human choices and consequent actions, are often misdirected. We can never have all the information possible to make the absolutely ‘right’ choice, we can only do what we think is ‘best’. As a consequence human behaviour is usually muddled and faulty. We are capable of knowing that we deviate from what could be called the way of the Creator through the wisdom of history, reasoned thought, science and meditation. All of these also provide fertile soil for the flowering of revelation – the revealing of essential truths.
The evil we experience and know of is the result of an imperfection, a certain incompleteness, inherited by the mere fact of being human, and also by confused choices for which individuals are responsible to a greater or lesser degree. Supposedly evil people have the same drive as supposedly good people. It is just that evil, bad, immoral or amoral persons have a limited vision. Their seeking of what is good and pleasurable, what in other words seems to them to give the greatest happiness, can revolve around merely themselves, or around those closest to them such as family, tribe, nation or any easily identifiable grouping through which they feel they can achieve some measure of happiness. Cultural, ideological and religious groups can in this way do harm, even inflict evil, in the pursuit of doing good! Hitler is a good example of this. Presumably he wished to do good for himself, the Nazi Party, and the German nation, but his badly focused approach resulted in a twisted morality that led so many to make muddled and faulty choices, what we can now easily judge to be evil choices.
Evil and its consequent suffering has to be the result of faulty choices. This posses a number of questions. How do we made the ‘right’ choices? Why, if the Creator is good and loving, did He make us capable of making such bad choices? Why do we have to have choices at all? Some of this must be do with the pursuit of happiness and what makes us ‘feel’ satisfied. It must, more importantly, have to do with the nature of love. Love that is the basis of a relationship, which must be sacrificial, considerate and outward looking, and even that which is centred on the self, which is small minded, self serving and inward looking. Can we conceive of a love without the freedom of choice? What sort of love each human being opts for is the key choice in life.
The Passion of Christ is about the true nature of love, divine love. The Passion also opens a window of understanding concerning some common experiences in the sufferings of human beings. First Christ prays in the garden of Gethsemane that his expected torture and painful death will be taken from him , the prayer of anguish; it is not granted. Then He turns to His friends , they are asleep , just as so many friends can be, or we can be, or busy, or away, or preoccupied , not understanding the real need of the one seeking help. Then Jesus faces the priests, the Church of His time , that institution brought into existence by His Father , and it condemns Him. This is also characteristic, for in all religions, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it was established. But as the story unfolds there seems to be another chance. Perhaps there is hope in the State; in this case the Roman state. Its claim to importance were far lower than those of the Jewish religion and it might properly have been free from local fanaticisms. Indeed that was true, but as it was then so it is now, such freedom is governed by political expediency and reasons of state. Individuals become mere counters in a complicated game. Perhaps an appeal could be made to the people. And so they are asked what is to be done with the man Jesus, who is called the Christ. But the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom he had healed and fed and taught, to whose race He belongs, have become overnight a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. What is left, where is He to turn? He will turn to God. And to God, the Son of God’s last words are ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ As each part of the Passion story unfolds they are representative of the human situation. We do not have to look very far to see and hear of tragedies, of mental and bodily sufferings, of cruelties and anguish. Every news programme shows us how fragile our supposedly civilised society can be , evil, pain and suffering are very close to the surface.
What then is the Christian to think, to say and do if even Jesus cries out to God ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ If the crucifixion was the end we would not be here in any case so this particular problem would be removed , for there would be no Christians. Our hope is in what follows, our faith is belief in the disciples testimony. We pass from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, never forgetting that every man and woman has to live some form of Good Friday. No human being can escape a measure of anxiety, pain or suffering, how each person faces this depends, like everything else, on the preparations made beforehand. The world throws its hands up in horror and seeks someone to blame; and the worldly way often seeks escape in passing pleasures in a desperate effort to avoid depression and the consequences of any real change of heart. The Christian will undergo these temptations, but we hear the voice of Christ saying to us, 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me'. The key must surely lie in those words , ‘follow me’. We are asked to make a choice and follow Christ and so to die to sin , to the immaturity of egotism, to the wilful denial of truth, to the wastefulness of time and resources and to greed. In following Christ we die as we live.
Christ’s way is the way of the cross. It is presented to us by the Gospel writers because they want us to face death, to confront it, so that we will be prepared for Life! As the Hebrews when they were in Egypt, marked the door,posts of their houses with the blood of a lamb , that the angel of death and destruction might pass by and leave them unharmed, so we are marked with the sign of the Cross onto which flowed the life,giving blood of Christ. For even with all its horror the Cross is the victory sign of every Christian.
Through the sign of the Cross Christ offers his disciples, and of course all those who would come after them , what should be, with a little thought, a rather obvious lesson. Remember, Jesus' disciples have kept up a significant concern about the rewards they might gain from him when he enters His Kingdom. Christ now exposes their dreams for what they are. This He does, not by rebuking them, but by fulfilling their dream. On Palm Sunday He allows Himself to be treated as a king , a hero , in a worldly fashion, but only so that the flattery of that day and the later condemnation may be more clearly laid bare. The sham of worldly adulation is contrasted with the reality of the divine kingship exercised through the way of the Cross. Indeed the reading of the Passion tells us that there is also another, wiser and truer meaning to kingship. The true king is not one who is served by his subjects. He is one who even on the road to abandonment turns to his followers with care and compassion. Christ wants us to share His kingship, He invites us to be with Him in His Passion, to bear His cross with Him, for He is there bearing ours. He asks us to die with Him, to kill off the old self so as to put on the new life of the Spirit. And he offers us the joy of participating in His wondrous resurrection , to be one with Him in life everlasting.
And so it is that Jesus ardently wants His disciples to share the Passover with Him , for in His Body and Blood we are made one with Him. This share in His flesh and blood will entail a duty of service, which is our part in His passion and sacrifice. But our earthly nature is fearful, and wishes to draw back from such a wild and reckless course. Even in Jesus we note the anguish he suffered in Gethsemane , the drops of blood that fall from our Saviour's brow. But then we see the work of the Spirit in the face of the powers of darkness. Clear,sightedness, refusal of all violence, generosity towards His attackers. And even from the Cross , three significant words , a plea for His Father's forgiveness of His tormentors, a promise of a share in His kingdom to the repentant thief, and the entrusting of His spirit into the Father's hands. Throughout His passion and to the end, Jesus does not cease to do good.
Let those who choose to follow Him keep themselves from betraying Him like Judas, from denying Him like Peter, from running away as did every other apostle. Let them avoid the irreverent curiosity of Herod and not resemble the easily led crowd, now praising, now accusing, occasionally intrigued, even at times showing sympathy or repentance. It is difficult to side with Jesus when the hour of darkness comes. Rather let us then be inspired by these other persons who appear on the way to Calvary or who stand at the very spot of the Crucifixion: a man coming in from the country who helps Jesus carry His cross; a thief who begs for salvation; a Roman Centurion who praises God for the just man he sees dying; a pious Jew, an upright and virtuous man who dares to show his attachment to the rejected Galilean; and above all the faithful and holy women who keep vigil at the foot of the cross.Jesus came to unite us in the love of God. But this is divine love, and it is clearly revealed to us as a love whose very foundation is sacrifice. Do we, today, actually accept this? Is it possible that really we want Jesus to fulfil our own ideas, for Him to be on our side rather that us being on His?
I suppose liberal minded Christians may think Jesus is on their side, and when they think He is with the more traditionally minded they turn away from Him. And when the traditionally inclined pour scorn on those who work for change, do they not appear to do so with the apparent certainty that Jesus would agree with them? And perhaps the more fundamental Christians may think Jesus is on their side, and when they hear that some aspect of His truth is with the Jews or the Muslims, they reject that idea and so reject Him. But Truth cannot be contained. And what if He is with the unmarried mother, or the morally questionable? Where there is self,sacrifice, where there is love and mercy , there is Jesus. Jesus came, not to join our causes, but to teach us and help us to take up our cross and join His. His cause, His way of life, reveals and rejoices in divine love, the Father's love and truth.
Now the Gospel of John, apart from reporting the facts relating to the history of Jesus, takes the reader or hearer beyond these. We are invited to meditate upon the events that are recorded, to look deeper, in the hope that we will be faced with and accept the Truth. Throughout his gospel, St. John employs the word ‘sign’. Everything he reports about Jesus is a symbol, an indicator of some deeper meaning. Consider his account of Jesus before Pilate. St. John depicts Jesus as a person of majesty. One could ask ‘who is on trial?’ Clearly, for St. John, it is not Jesus but Pilate. The Roman Governor is in a situation which he cannot understand; he seems bewildered, and he appears to lack that arrogant contempt with which we can imagine he would normally have treated Jewish matters. Even his famous question, ‘What is truth?’ seems to be uttered wonderingly. But his wonder is born, not of awe, but of uncertainty, between Jesus and the Jews who are demanding his crucifixion. Finally, he poses to Jesus what he considers the most important question: ‘Where do you come from?’ And St. John adds, startlingly: ‘Jesus gave him no answer.’ There were other times when Jesus was silent. He was silent before the High Priest. He was silent before Herod. He was silent when the charges were made against him by the Jewish authorities. Is it not true that sometimes we have the experience of finding that argument and discussion with others is no longer possible; there is nothing more to say that can make any difference.
The scene between Jesus and Pilate comes to an end when Pilate brings Jesus before the crowd. Jesus is clad in purple finery, crowned with thorns, and bearing a reed for a sceptre. Waving his hand toward the crowned Jesus, he cries: ‘Am I to crucify your king?’ Despite the crowd's angry reaction, notwithstanding their cries to crucify Jesus, Jesus remains silent. Serenely, he has accepted the cross. He is noble and dignified in this moment when his fellow human beings did so much to humiliate him.
A little while later, Jesus' arms are flung wide, nailed in an agonizing crucifixion. John the Apostle, Jesus' Mother Mary and three other women stand near the cross. And once again, St. John's reflections reveal a deeper meaning than his words immediately suggest. ‘Behold your Mother’. ‘Behold your son’. Here, surely is one of the most poignant and indeed, beautiful moments in the gospel narratives. As He is dying for us, Jesus gives us another gift; his Mother is now our mother. And then, St. John remarks carefully: ‘When Jesus knew that everything had been completed, He said, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘I thirst’. Of all the happenings that occurred during Jesus' three hours on the cross, most of which are not reported in any gospel, why does John , and John alone , report this seemingly trivial event? Because Jesus thirsted for that moment for which he was born; to effect our salvation.
After the Roman soldiers had, not surprisingly, misunderstood this request , He uttered in a loud voice, ‘It is consummated’, that is it is accomplished; it is achieved; it is finished. Our salvation has been secured. And then, with quiet deliberation, Jesus dies.
We are Christians because we are sinners , because we are people who at times reject God’s revelation of love. God is love and our turning from Him is sin. True love though, allows for the possibility of rejection , it often suffers at the hands of those who are loved. See how children and parents can hurt one another, see how Christians can turn on each other. See how Jesus was rejected by His own people , how even His disciples ran from Him. We tend to draw back in the face of rejection , but there are times when we can absorb the pain of hurtful words or actions , parents often choose to keep loving even when their children hurt them. Jesus seemed to wonder if He should draw back while He was the Garden of Gethsemane , but by the time Judas and the Temple Guard arrived He had won the battle of unconditional love despite His fears of the consequences.
The Passion evokes sorrow. The Passion inspires penitence. The Passion offers us the hope that we can, even to the smallest degree, overcome our sinful pride and so unite ourselves with that moment, that one solitary moment in the history of creation when the humility of God triumphantly overcame our sinful pride. In humility, considering the forgiveness of God which Jesus Christ won for us, we rightly remember the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ and rejoice in the triumph of the Cross.
To pray for the dead or not is one of the great arguments which divide Christians. Yet prayer for a loved one is, for the believer, a way of erasing any distance, even death. In prayer we stand in God's presence in the company of someone we love, even if that person has gone before us into death.
When we pray for the dead in the first Eucharistic prayer we ask the Lord to remember 'those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.' This simple phrase expresses two very important things about the Christian view of death and the life to come.
First, those who have gone before us, who we remember today, were 'marked with the sign of faith'. This transforms our view of what death means for them and for us. Unlike many people today who see death merely as final physical disintegration and separation, the Christian sees death as his full and final joining with the death of Christ in whom he is destined to rise again. This is the sign of faith with which the Christian is marked.
This view has important consequences for the way we think about our relatives and friends who have died. Like the saints we remembered yesterday, the faithful departed are those who have died in the grace of God. True, they may still await their final perfection, but they can no longer fall away from God's grace. It has been given to them finally and definitively. The waiting for that final perfection is their purgatory. Purgatory is not some sort of inflicted pain that people have to pass through to get to heaven, rightly seen it is a consoling belief.
"We must not make purgatory into a flaming concentration camp on the brink of hell….or even a 'hell for a short time.' It is blasphemous to think of it as a place where a petty God exacts the last pound or ounce of flesh .... St. Catherine of Genoa, a mystic of the 15th century, wrote that the 'fire' of purgatory is God's love 'burning' the soul so that, at last, the soul is wholly aflame. It is the pain of wanting to be made totally worthy of One who is seen as infinitely lovable, the pain of desire for union that is now absolutely assured, but not yet fully tasted" (Leonard Foley, O.F.M., Believing in Jesus).
Growth is an essential part of life. People grow, not only physi¬cally, but also as persons. They grow towards maturity. Some times growth is painful, but we know that if we are to become fully mature we must change and grow. We cannot stand still. But in this life few of us reach full maturity; we are conscious that we have not fully become the people we were created to be. We fall short in all sorts of ways. We still have a long way to go. Will we, even at the hour of our death, have reached that fullness of life, that wholeness, which Christ calls us to? Most of us would be reluctant to answer a positive 'yes' to that question. One way of thinking about Purgatory is to see it as an opportunity provided by God whereby even after death we have the chance to grow into the fullness of Christ. In other words, Purgatory is a tremendous example of God's mercy rather than the torture-chamber we have sometimes imagined it to be. So when we pray for our relatives and friends who have died, we are not praying that they will be speedily released from some unspeakable torment; we pray rather that their union with Christ which began during their lives on earth, will be brought to perfection.
The second point about the way we can think of the dead is that they are 'those who have gone before us'. The prevailing view of death in our society is that it is a lonely business; everyone must face death alone. This is not the Christian view, no Christian dies alone. Yesterday's feast of 'All Saints' reminded us that we are not lonely individuals but members of the Body of Christ. That includes the members of the Church here on earth, and those who have died. They are part of the communion of saints, linked to every member of the Body of Christ: the saints in heaven and ourselves here on earth. That's why we can pray for them.
This is something we should remember in a special way when we receive Holy Communion. For in uniting ourselves to the Lord through the Eucharist we are also uniting ourselves to those who have gone before us, for they, too, are united to him. Our prayer today should be that they may grow more deeply into that love which binds us all together in Christ, and so reach that fullness of life which Christ promised to those who believe in him.
It would be probably true to say that everyone has a sort of yearning for something or somewhere that is better, - a desire to experience joy, justice, truth, mercy and of course - peace. This is an expression of a sensitive side of human nature that has a more spiritual quality about it, and it needs to be expressed in a satisfying way. Often such an expression takes a religious form, - though it does not have to. Sometimes the adoption of a 'cause' helps in some way to quieten this longing spirit. To be involved in something bigger than oneself stimulates the mind and helps to cast off feelings of isolation. Human beings are restless creatures - Saint Augustine recognised this and concluded that men and women would never be content until they were at rest in God. Perhaps the present day urge to create a New Age is part of this. For Christians this is nothing new, for us the New Age is the New Jerusalem, the heavenly homeland, where each person is an adopted son or daughter of the heavenly Father and a co-heir with Christ.
The longing or yearning experienced in so many different ways can be likened to a search or quest. In similar fashion the life of a monk is often said to be a search for God - and of course finding God means finding our Heavenly homeland. Saint Benedict puts it in this way, "Who is there who longs for life and desires to see good days?" If you hear and reply, "I do", God says to you, "If you desire true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it." Then, when you have done so, my eyes will be upon you and my ears open to your prayers. Even before you call upon me, I will say to you, "See! Here I am." (Prologue to the Rule) Pope John Paul speaking about the Rule of Saint Benedict (Montecassino, September, 1980) had this to say: "The teaching of Saint Benedict is simply the teaching of the Gospel. It is this which explains its lasting value and at the same time its special power of attraction. It has no other object than to make the monk into a man who seeks and finds God, His holiness and His kingdom. For this reason the whole thrust of the Rule is directed toward the goal of following the basic gospel precepts: love of God and neighbour, the spirit of faith, humility, obedience, prayer and brotherly love." Now it can be said, "What then is so special about the monk or the monastic way? Surely all people are called to seek God, are called to pray, are called to exercise brotherly love?" Indeed this would of course be right. Lumen gentium, that fundamental document of the second Vatican Council, states that "It is the special vocation of the laity to seek the Kingdom of God", and "it is evident that all the faithful, whatever their station or rank, are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity."
And yet it has to be said that some of the things written and said of religious life, of which monasticism is a part, seem to suggest that others, those who are not monks or nuns or other sorts of Religious, do not fully dedicate their lives to God (this may be inferred from statements in the document 'Perfectae Caritatis' which was the decree of Vatican II on the Renewal of Religious Life), and that some of Christ's sayings are quoted as if they only fully apply to religious rather than to the whole Church, for example the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38) and the sayings of Christ regarding renunciation (Mark 10:28).
Individual religious, monks or nuns can be good and holy people, but like everyone else they might not be. It is true that people expect a high standard from religious and from diocesan priests and especially bishops, but that seems to point to a strong desire for religious and priests to give an example through their public commitment of what the nature of the Christian life is and what it leads to.
Every person in the Church is called to be part of the Body of Christ, and with Christ as head, to be a priestly people who share in the task of sanctifying creation. There are however many facets involved in this participation in the Body of Christ. Some for the individual’s own good, some for the Church and some for the whole world. Consider the human body, some parts are better able to convey a person’s identity and character to others, for example the tongue, the hands, facial expressions - the way someone smiles. They do this in a way that is clearer than say the bones, or any of the internal organs, vital as they are. Even so, each cell of the body contains the same genetic information, yet they all have different but inter-related functions and some more easily identify an individual.
In like manner therefore, religious life, and particularly monastic life, offers the Church and the world an idea of its God given identity, it presents a strong clear sign of the very nature of the Christian life. It is in a unique position to convey to the world what exactly the Body of Christ is about. Indeed it may be understood as a gift from God to all His people which is meant to convey a message - in every age. It is rather like a living story, being told by the Body of Christ - it is a present-day parable.
Monasticism has often, as Trotsky might have put it, been consigned to the rubbish heap of history. Monks and nuns can be thought of as something of the past, perhaps not judged as harshly as to be placed on history's rubbish heap, but often regarded as something romantic and not really of the 20th century. Indeed many Kings, Presidents and governments have made bold and often ruthless attempts to rid their countries of any monastic presence, exaggerating in the style of present-day tabloid newspapers the human failings of some. This was the case in 16th century England. The King, and some of those in power, tried to destroy monastic life in this country. And yet no matter what the world thinks of monastic life God clearly has other ideas.
The history of Christian monasticism is one of foundation - decay and/or destruction - re-foundation and revival. Buckfast is a good example of this - for who would have thought that 300 years after the monks left one February morning in 1539 that they would ever return? Though monks and nuns are not essential to the life of the Church, God seems to want monastic life to be present in it. Perhaps this is because monasticism says something about the very nature of the Church.
There are three main elements that enable human beings to be members of the Church, to be partakers in the life of God now, and of the New Jerusalem. The first is that the baptised form a COMMUNITY. It is through this community that men and women grow in their experience of the union of the divine and the human that ultimately leads to resurrection and a share in the life of the Risen Lord. In the first place, the Church is a community that PRAYS. And secondly it should be a community that WORKS together not only to sustain itself but to support the needy - in the Christian sense, service may replace the word work. The reason for this is that the grace of God, if it is at work in a person will reveal itself as selfless love - building up and strengthening. So as Saint Paul says to the Ephesians (4:12&13): "Together we make a unity in the work of service, building up the body of Christ. In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ Himself".
These three elements - community, prayer and service - are essential in the life of every Christian. They are not always clearly demonstrated in the Church or by the Church to the world. However, God in his infinite wisdom has called men and women to live lives that emphasise these very aspects. And so he has raised up in the Church the monastic order. As quite different individuals, monks and nuns are drawn to monastic life because they recognise in it something that will deepen their experience of what it means to be a Christian. God uses this attraction and causes it to be a sign to others. It is in this way that it is possible to speak of monasticism as a sort of living parable - a parable that points to humanity’s ultimate destiny - its union with God. The monastery becomes a City of God on earth pointing to that Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem.
Saint Benedict's idea of a monastery clearly presents these important elements in a workable framework. Its strength lies in the fact that it is a community that prays and works together. In the monastery, monks and nuns are called to be members of stable communities - this form of Christian life leads to the conversion of the individual on one level and the sanctification of the whole community on another. The first step along this path of Christian life is Baptism. Now the public commitment of an individual to the monastic way is assisted by the making of promises that serve to reinforce the commitment made at Baptism. And just as Baptism unites men an women in the Church - so within a monastic family individuals are united by a common promise. This common promise determines the distinctive monastic character and has three elements: stability, conversatio morum and obedience.
These are not three distinct vows, as the vows of religious life are commonly understood. Rather they describe the content of the monastic promise. It is a commitment to the whole way of life as indicated by Saint Benedict in the Rule. Stability declares the firmness of intention to follow the monastic way of life as lived in a particular community, thus assisting the fulfilment of the promise of conversatio morum - which is the general promise to follow the way of life observed in a monastery which must be according to the Rule, the Constitutions and the Customs of the house. Within this context an individual must not exaggerate his or her own needs or indulge their human weaknesses, but be an example of purity and simplicity. To help these endeavours a promise of obedience is made. In this way the individual is free to be of service to the community. Indeed this promise can only be properly understood in the Christian sense as a desire to love, for monks want, as followers of Christ to put His will before their own. As Jesus says in St. John's Gospel, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). The very word "obedience" has a treasure hidden at its source. Ob audire is to listen intently. When someone really wants to love they listen intently to know the mind of the other. So with love for God. Christians wait upon His word. This is St. Benedict's attitude to loving obedience.
The vows of poverty and chastity, which are not explicitly made by monks and nuns, seem to be open to misinterpretation. Poverty is often thought of as destitution - not something anyone should witness to; and chastity, which means the proper use of sex according to one's state in life, has come to mean abstinence! Therefore, for example, there may well be some unfortunate confusion when speaking of chastity in marriage! The monastic promise which expresses a desire for simplicity and purity of life - a desire that should be held by all Christians - would seem to be preferable.
Some mention must be made concerning Benedictine Spirituality. Human beings are restless creatures. As I said at the beginning, we all have an innate yearning - a yearning to be fulfilled and of course to be happy. It really does creep into everything we do. Sometimes it is focused - such as in ambition to become or do this or that. The trouble with this desire to be fulfilled and or be happy is that it is often self centred. Surely this is because part of our human nature seeks to ensure that we have regard for ourselves - what we call in the animals a desire for self-preservation! Every age seeks answers to the intangible questions of our existence - no less our own. Communications in our time give us the opportunity of sharing and searching for such answers in a way not contemplated before. Re-evaluation and re-discovery of things spiritual or an acceptance of something that will at least give meaning and focus in men and women’s lives is certainly evident. People turn to monks in the hope that there they will find some assistance. Unfortunately, at a first glance at Benedictine monks and the Rule and life of St. Benedict they might be disappointed. There is no manual of Benedictine Spirituality, no particular guide lines were laid down by St. Benedict, there are no tried and tested 'exercises', as can be found in later religious orders. However, Benedictine Spirituality does exist. Basically it is found in Saint Benedict's attitude to life in community.
In Chapter 4 of the Rule, which has as its title 'The Instruments of Good Works', is a clue to what may be considered Benedict's vision of spirituality. The first of the 'Instruments of Good Works' is to Love the Lord God. This is a command that demands meditation. It is necessary to consider how God has revealed His love, and then to live in a similar way. This allows the Spirit to effect the transformation that is needed in every human being. It is no wonder that the second instrument is to love one's neighbour as oneself. In the context of a small community - a painful and demanding exercise - a truly sacrificial task, for it is the call to surrender the self. In reality however, it is the simple adoption of an attitude, a simple intention to be kind. Is it not true that this is all anyone would ask of others for themselves - that they too would be willing to be kind? Kindness, understood in this way, is faithfulness to God in little things, on which any deeper level of commitment must be based.
Now the central motive of the Christian life is Christ Himself. If there is one thing that is implicit in the Rule, in everything that Benedict says, it is preferring Christ. In another chapter it is stated 'Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ' the reason being that 'He may bring us all alike to life everlasting.' It is fundamental to the Rule that this Christ, (the Lord, the Shepherd and Rock) is embodied in the many who are greeted and with whom monks have dealings with each day. That is especially true of strangers and the sick, but it is true in the brethren with whom each member of the Community is called to share his prayer, his work and to serve in obedience. In this way Christ is preferred and found in the daily opportunities to give and receive the love of Christ. The 'Instruments of Good Works' are Benedict's answer to what, in practical terms, this might mean. And so he speaks to his brethren of prayer - because that is how an individual comes truly to know Christ and to be nourished by Him; then of fasting, because by this and other bodily disciplines the monk trains his body to be a servant and fellow worker with Christ, rather than an instrument so delicate as to lack the capacity to serve as required; and then he speaks of service to the poor, the sick and afflicted so as to discipline the spirit towards generosity and habitual self-giving.
Human beings are by no means perfect - that is true outside the monastery and within it - and of course everyone experiences strong feelings at one time or another. Often these are selfish reactions to others - to protect one's own self image for example, or a lustful reaction, or one born out of anger and frustration. So Benedict warns his brethren not to yield to anger, not to render evil for evil, not to be a grumbler, not to fulfil the desires of the flesh, to hate one's own will, not to be jealous, and never to give way to envy. Benedict suggests in this chapter on Good Works that those who would follow his Rule should simply be attentive to these impulses, these vices, and let them go as it were, release them - he describes this as dashing them on the Rock of Christ. All that is asked is to be attentive - to oneself, to God, and to the Community.
With this attitude of mind each is urged to trust Christ, so that being aware, attentive and prayerful, the Holy Spirit will be free to move powerfully within. Because if the Spirit moves within, then the individual is able to attribute to God and not to himself whatever good he see in himself, and to put his hope in Christ. In the concluding part of this Chapter, Benedict deals with the spiritual foundations of these actions. The key to this is 'Do not wish to be called holy before you are so; but first be holy, that you may be truly called so.' This implies that he regards his monks to be on the path to holiness and that they can look forward to the growth of holiness - the essential meaning of this is nearness to God. Finally, Benedict urges his monks never to despair of God's mercy, for even in their difficulties they may depend upon Christ's nearness and dwell within it. And so Benedict looks at spiritual disciplines in so far as they show up in daily activities. He is perfectly aware that daily habits are important. What is done, day in and day out, profoundly forms a monk's spiritual capacity. The way a person trains himself through daily habits will make a great deal of difference in that individual's capacity to receive the grace of God, especially in those moments which call for a spontaneous and immediate response.
And so, to conclude, God has given monks and nuns the grace to be seen - within the context of their communities - as men and women who publicly witness to the unity in love which should be the hallmark of the Church on earth. This unity is best demonstrated in a common prayer life - though this is not to deny a demonstration of unity through some common work accepted by a community as its apostolate. But as stable communities, monastic houses have a tremendous opportunity to offer an insight and an experience of the praying Church to others. This experience may awaken or develop that work of the Spirit, which through prayer and the sacraments will transform the life of the individual - and so the wider community. It remains for monks and nuns to be faithful to the Rule with its rich interplay of prayer, work and meditative reading. Then, with Christ as foundation, monastic communities will be a living parable and truly demonstrate a stability, unity and a journey into peace that is so needed in the world of today.
Abbot David Charlesworth Buckfast Abbey
The gospel for the feast of Saint Bruno has Jesus speaking about the requirements of being a follower of His, and some of the language is quite strong. 'Let the dead bury their dead' means that those who are spiritually dead can bury the physically dead, those who are open to the Holy Spirit, the spiritually alive, are concerned with the living. Christ’s message is a message of life, His gift is a share in the divine life.
When any of us have birthdays I suspect we might reflect on past years and wonder about what the future holds. Human beings do have a natural tendency to consider them selves, each one of us thinks a lot about ourselves, that is about our general well-being. I am not suggesting that this always degenerates into self-centredness, but we know it can! Never the less we should think about ourselves, what in fact do we really think we are up to? Well as it is a significant birthday of mine I have certainly thought about this.
A defining factor in my life was an event I was completely unaware of. Some weeks after I was born I was baptised, I don’t know what day it was, but I do know where it happened, Corpus Christi Church, Weston-super-Mare. On the day of my baptism I was welcomed into the Christian Church, but significantly into the Catholic Church. I am not saying this out of any narrow denominational pride, but because I have always been aware through my membership of the Catholic Church, that Christ’s message and call does not belong to any nation, race, culture or social group.
No-one, anywhere in the world has the slightest right claim Christ as his or her own possession. A thought that stems from this is that Jesus, God, is never on our side, we can only place ourselves on His side. This is the fundamental choice for all human beings during our life on this earth. I know a lot of people cannot cope with the idea of God, sometimes this is because of the bad name He has got from religious people, but to deny ourselves the riches of spirituality because of a narrow view of the potential of human beings, or because a lack of understanding of what is divine and holy, seems to me like a self inflicted wound on our humanity; and to reject religion as a support to spirituality and faith is rather like saying I will not enjoy the benefits of motor travel because I do not understand the workings of the internal combustion engine, and it breaks down occasionally!
The Catholic religion is a universal vehicle for exploring the dimensions of the spiritual. As a vehicle it can be as baffling and confusing to some as the engine of a car. One may find the institution of the Church infuriating at times and consider it merely a relic of a past age, but at its core it continues to present the truth about Christ, and the Truth that is revealed through Jesus Christ.
Christians must be caught up in a quest for the proper fulfilment of life itself, life that does not cease when our bodies return to the dust of this earth. While we live in this world we are given tremendous insights into the riches of this eternal life. Some of these riches are discovered in the mind, others through the senses, but most of all we discover the riches of God in other human beings. This is the glory of the Incarnation, the union of what is divine and what is human celebrated at Christmas.
This is how God chooses to show Himself to us, in the Holy Family in Bethlehem and Nazareth, in the group of friends we now call the Apostles, in the saints and fellow Christians who are our brothers and sisters, and of course in our own family and friends. It is no wonder that we are commanded to love God and our neighbour, because this is the key to life and eternal happiness.
What our age is now is of no real consequence, except in our vain imaginings. What is of more importance is how we use our time to grow and develop as human beings open to the promptings of the Spirit.
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Saturday 29th April 2017 19:30 Harpsichord recital. Richard Lester Harpsichord. The Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach. Entry Free with retiring collection.
A breakfast morning with the Devon Chamber of Commerce at the Grange Restaurant. From 7.30am to 9.00am.
'Leave the light on. Why are we afraid of darkness in our lives?' Saturday 6th May', 10.00am - 3.00pm. Violet Evelyn Hall Southgate Retreat Centre, Buckfast Abbey.