Thirteenth Week

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

I am reading Eckhart Tolle at the moment – “A New Earth”. I buy some of his arguments that spirituality has become too buried in form and dogma. And his criticism of the ego as the dominant motivator in all our lives has resonance. But for most people, spirituality is hard to sustain in a vacuum. One can contemplate a flower and empty the mind – but for what, and where to?

And the Psalms do not need to sing of a religion of form and intolerance. They can sing of themselves.

“I will sing for ever of your love, O Lord
Through all ages my mouth will proclaim your truth
Of this I am sure, that your love lasts for ever
That your truth is as firmly established as the heavens.”

MONDAY

Tolle is right to identify the ego as the source of many of our problems. He is wrong to want to blanket it out. Of course exercises to still the mind, to rest it from its innocent worrying are good, but to what purpose?

I believe the point of emptying the mind of the material ego is to seek the soul within. Mindfulness is a technical secular body-based thing. Religious spirituality is then conducted for a purpose.

“Mark this, you who never think of God.”

TUESDAY

I was thinking of the time I went sailing. I was in a day dream. I noticed a large buoy and sailed next to it. On the way back, to my horror, I realised I had sailed without realising it at exactly the right place through the submerged submarine cable in the Spithead. I hadn’t even directed the boat, I just let it sail where it wanted with wind and tide balancing sail. I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten about this hazard, a nasty one. On the way back I noticed even small boats carefully making for the marked gap. I was fighting against the wind, drifted to leeward, had to desperately start my engine being on my own. The tiller slipped, the boat did a violent jibe. I just made it through the gap. Yet going at it had been so happily unconscious that I had rested by back, gazed aft, and let the boat steer itself.

I was thinking of this when I read today’s reading:

“’Save us, Lord, we are going down!’ And He said to them, ‘Why are you so frightened, you men of little faith? And with that He stood up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and all was calm again.” (Matthew 8:23-27)

WEDNESDAY

With a friend I was reading a passage from Escriva’s “The Furrow”. In the chapter on cheerfulness, the author says something like ‘In life, if you try to be happy, you won’t be.’ The implication is that happiness can only come in the next life. I don’t know that this hard-work Christianity really appeals to me. Why not try and be happy here? Who knows what will happen next? But to be fair to Escriva, he does make plain that we should at least attempt to look cheerful. I suppose if you look morose you are focussing too much on the tribulations of the ego. Switch off and try to look cheerful.

Look at this lovely poetry from today:

“Let me have no more of the din of your chanting.
No more of your strumming on harps.
But let justice flow like water
And integrity like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

THURSDAY

Tolle mentions Decartes’s famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.”

In the context of the ego, being mistaken for reality, our thought is not reality. Only when we recognise it as separate from us, when we look at it from afar instead of being ruled by it, can we find any peace.

As Tolle explains, Sartre hit upon this distinction when he wrote “The consciousness that says ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thanks.”

I would take this further. At the back of my mind I have always felt but not been able to articulate that we are not our thought. Part of me thinks we can be everywhere. In that sense all of humanity is a unity. But this is still too all-encompassing a thought. I now think that “I think therefore there is a thought. I am because there is a soul.”

FRIDAY

Tolle reminds us that it is only with some great loss that the ego can be freed. This is what he thinks St Paul meant by “the peace that passes all understanding”. We can lose a ring or have it stolen but memory of it soon eases, but sometimes the ego finds relief in resentment at feeling that we are a victim, or fate has been unjust or God has forgotten us or that given this catastrophe he clearly doesn’t exist or at least care.

So the ego no longer really cares about the loss of the ring or a job or reputation or a relationship, it cares about unkind fate.

SATURDAY

I sat in our local medieval church and continued my slow passage through the Psalms.

Dominus me salve (Ps 26)
Lord save me

It is rather nice going through this literature framed on some blazing desert over two thousand years ago, in a land of intense heat and battle in this quiet English country church.

Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

SUNDAY

Our priest brought the sixteenth-century vestments to show us at Mass. They date from the recusant times. On the back is a crucifix. Finely woven angels collect Jesus’ blood in a silver cup.

It made me contemplate on the extraordinary faith of these times – a faith it seems I cannot emulate, a certainty. I hoped that my trip to the baptism site on Monday might help give me that faith. Meanwhile, we can remember simple pleasures.

On Saturday evening, the longest day, we set the table up for a barbecue in the middle of the garden. As the family ate its hamburgers, the light gently faded about us. Until by eleven we were in total darkness.

MONDAY

I was here at the baptism site on the River Jordan. A blazing sun, 39 degrees Celsius in the shade, hot and stiffly. I walked towards the Jordan. Scrubby bushes, yellow, gravely soil, far away on the hazy far-off hills. Jericho.

And here was the Jordan, cut deeply in its dried-bushed banks, barely twenty feet wide, moving, yellowish, slowly. We walked on and here was the site at Bethany, east of Jordan. It is believed this is the site because very ancient remains of early Byzantine churches washed away by floods and earthquakes have been found here. The Jordan now flows a hundred yards to the west in its new course. It was so hot it would indeed have been nice to bathe.

I had hoped that in this most holy spot, where it had all started, I might feel more emotion but like any modern tourist I was more concerned with taking my photos. But the memory remains. I have been there. I suppose what remains is the very great simplicity of the place. This is Christianity shorn of all its trappings and liturgy. In the lowest part of the world, in this heat and in a place by no way beautiful, a man comes to be baptised.

ST JOHN’S DAY

A complete contrast. Here I was for the St John’s Day Mass of the Order of Malta at the Brompton Oratory. Tired, having flown all night to see my daughter get a medal for her work at Lourdes. A two-hour mass sung in Latin, all the detailed trappings. What a world away from that simple man at that dusty place of baptism. I fell asleep a couple of times. The mass, the investitures, seemed very long, very pompous. Yet beautiful and sure. There is nothing wrong in beauty and respect and ceremony but is it the essence?

WEDNESDAY

Perhaps I was vaguely discouraged. No revelation had appeared at the Baptism site but here I was at a simple low evening mass in the crypt of Strasbourg Cathedral. The words of the Gospel in their simplicity and the sermon seemed to have their effect.

“I repeat, you will be able to tell them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

I started to realise: we are so self-conscious, too inwardly focused. We should concentrate on what we do, not who we are. In this simple mass, a golden lesson was found.

THURSDAY

I went to the early Mass in Strasbourg Cathedral. I’m afraid I can’t really get into the complexities of the politics of Joachim, particularly when it is in French, but a calm moment anyway before getting back in the train.

FRIDAY

We were at Downside for Mozart’s Coronation Mass. Is there anything more glorious than this piece of music? When I have my funeral, may it not be a dreary requiem Mass with black vestments but something jolly like this. How much better than going to hear this Mozart in a concert hall. The effervescent glorious Agnus Dei needs to be played by an orchestra, yes, but in the context for which they were written: a Latin Mass.

SATURDAY

Eckhart Tolle bemoans that spontaneity is submerged by words but who can doubt the power of poetry.

My eyes wasted away with weeping
My entrails shuddered
My liver spilled on the ground
At the ruin of the daughters of my people
As children, mere infants fainted
In the squares of the citadel.
(Lamentations 2:2)

Trinity Sunday and Eleventh Week

TRINITY SUNDAY

I am always amused at how the priests struggle to explain the Trinity. The end line is always the same: it is unknowable.

Glorious Trinity. Unknowable. Distinct. Separate. Together. What gods are there? When or where the source? We cannot tell or know.

MONDAY

Someone in our parish wants to have a mass in the Extraordinary (Tridentine) Form. Actually the Novus Ordo Latin Mass is very simple, shorn of the fiddly bits and silences. I always think the sung Latin Novus Ordo Mass in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday morning is the most beautiful of the week. It is short too, only fifty minutes. We should have just moved to this type of mass after Vatican II and spared ourselves a lot of trouble.

TUESDAY

We went down to Downside for Father Philip Jebb’s funeral. These monastic funerals are simple affairs. Sung by the monks, no hymns – a short tribute. It is the way they would like to go.

Father Philip was close to us. He gave us marriage counselling thirty years ago this summer. I remember it well, sitting in his Headmasters Study. A strong charismatic figure in the days of his health, he was always full of sound good advice. I wonder why he never became abbot – I suppose there were other good people around.

WEDNESDAY

Always a difficult gospel, this one.

“And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogue and at the street corners for people to see them…”. (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)

Well, maybe I shouldn’t be writing this, but isn’t it a good idea to bear witness?

THURSDAY

Isn’t the poetry of the Book of Ecclesiasticus glorious?

“Taken up in a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with fiery horses.”

Who inspired such poetry? How was it written? Was it one genius, or poetry sung by the camp fire and passed on?

FRIDAY

Whenever you feel depressed about the shortcomings of life, you should remember these words:

“Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moths and woodworms destroy them and thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-23)

How many jumpers have I lost to moth, how many things stolen? Anything in this world is soon lost or gone but what is Heaven? It is unimaginable. Are we there as part of the mathematical equation of the universe? We then become part of the eternal 2+2=4. Is it a living experience? I remember how Father Philip telling me that after death, when we encounter God, it is a crowd of perpetual “ahhh…”, of wonder and delight.

SATURDAY

The longest day. Here in Lincolnshire in the North, the sun sets very slowly around 9pm over the western hill at the top of the valley. At 10pm you can still see everything. It is a long, gentle, blissful twilight.

Today’s Gospel is apt for this natural glory.

“Think of the flowers growing in the fields: they never have to work or spin, yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:24-34)

Third Week of Easter

Third Sunday in Easter
Now we are back on the glorious road to Emmaus. And the Sunday Mass echoes its every word. All Gospels are great but is this the greatest.

Monday
On a clear bright summers morning I walked to our local church and looked up the twenty-fifth psalm, Ad te Domine, levavi. Unto thee oh lord will I lift up my soul.

Tuesday
The people ask for a sign from Jesus “What sign will you give us to show that we should believe in you” (John 6:30-35).

We too always ask for a sign and grumble that it is not given to us, but perhaps they are all around us.

Wednesday
After the Mass in the crypt I could not remember any of the readings, just the drawing of the risen Christ on the front of the mass sheet, but perhaps this is instructive. Images, sensations are more important and cleave closer to the brain.

“You can see me and still not believe.” (John 6:35)

Thursday
I went to Mass in the Cathedral and in front of me the missionary fathers were packed in to the choir. In a receding row they looked like angels in heaven. Perhaps some of them in reality were not so angelic?

After, they prayed in the chantry chapel to Cardinal Vaughan who founded the Mill Hill Seminary. I often pray to him in the hope that unlike the Saints, he has got more time to listen, and after all I pass by his tomb most days. St John Southwell is also around but he comes from a more remote, more sure age, whereas Vaughan – a modern in a time of disbelief, educated at Stonyhurst and Downside – seems more likely to understand.

The reading today is all about Philip’s journey to baptise the Ethiopian in his chariot. We are also in our chariot trundling along through life, but perhaps we are not reading Isaiah like the Ethiopian. If we did, we might notice more things.

Friday
I was reading Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer, a marvellous book. He describes the prayer of the early desert mystics as being based on psalmodia, lectionaries, oratio and contemplatio. It is a continuous turning from the World to God. A prayer of watchful listening of the heart. It is a wordless and total surrender of the heart to silence. Early mystics call this prayer of the heart. A prayer that seeks its centre in the ground of our being.

There was stress in in the early monasteries on simple prayer such as Deus in adjutorium meum intende, O god come to my aid. The mystics did not look for extraordinary experiences. They forgot themselves and applied themselves just to love of God. They very much looked to the Psalter as a compendium of the Bible.

Saturday
Full of thoughts of Thomas Merton, I had had a happy sleep. I got up for Vigils in the monastery at twenty to six. I rarely do this. I don’t have the energy. Between Vigils and Lauds I lay down on my bed. I was tired. I had one of those rare moments of real mindfulness, of a grounding in the eternal and a separation from worry.

Second Week of Easter

Monday
At this moment I wish the Gospel stories of the Resurrection continued but they don’t. Why are there so few? Does that give me a tiny dot of doubt? But this week I start to concentrate on the readings from the Acts of the Apostles. Now, against all the odds, they are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday
There is something inspiring about the way the community is organised, a sort of religious communism. The whole group of believers were united we are told and I am sure it was so but human nature intervened.

Wednesday
We were reminded today of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. This was in the context of the Apostles sticking by their guns and carrying on preaching. It is amazing how lacking in courage we really are most of the time.

Thursday
I went to speak in a school, Stonyhurst and reminded them of Eleanor’s words. Earlier I went to mass in the Sodality chapel. I am always struck there by the plaque put up by grieving parents to the loss in the Great War of their only two sons. As a father I hate all war and I think the enemy would have to be sailing up the Solent for me to vote for it, as of course in 1546 they were!

Friday
After Mass I made a three-hour walk up to the Trig point, high up on the Fell. Here in the sunshine I looked over the great glorious expanse of the Forest of Bowland. As I walked shown the countryside was so glorious I could have been wandering in Ithilien.

Saturday
Back in Lincolnshire I made the short walk to look up the twenty-fourth psalm. Domini est terra, the Earth is the lords, and all that therein is. It seems a complement to the twenty-third. Dominus refit me. The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. The Lord is my Shepherd.

Easter Week

Easter Monday
Do you, like me, doubt?

“God raised this man to life and all of us are witnesses to that.” (Acts 2:14)

I sat in the Cathedral during Mass and looked at the beautiful display of flowers. This statement from today’s first reading struck me more than the momentous events described in the Gospel.

Are we witnesses too, but only in our own heart? Peter was transformed from a cowardly wreck in a matter of weeks into the confident who could stand up in front of hundreds and say this, but he had seen. Can’t the will be as strong as the eye?

Easter Tuesday
I love these days after Easter and always make a particular point of going to Mass. Today, Mary stands outside the tomb weeping. I love the way that she too does not recognise Jesus. I sympathise with her, as I have spent a lifetime doing the same.

Easter Wednesday is the day that we hear the Gospel of Emmaus. The whole mass is in this reading which must be my favourite. Here the scriptures are read to us and here we recognise The Lord in the breaking of the bread.

I took my little boat out in Portsmouth Harbour. Here everything was rain and wind, so we gave up and went round the Mary Rose exhibition. What a strange and moving evocation of a previous world. One moment five hundred men full of vigour and fight, the next plunged into that same grey patch of Spithead sea that I have so often sailed over.

I am reminded of the small cross on the road rising to the fell above Stonyhurst and its inscription: “Glad in the evening, sad in the morning. Watch out! You neither know the day or the hour.”

Let’s not be morbid but still think upon the surgeon of the Rose. A man of substance. We have his possessions now, but who was he? Is he, I wonder, chuckling at us now?

Easter Thursday
And now when they return to the room where the apostles are, Thomas is not with them. Just as we often are not there.

I went to Oakham Parish Church for the memorial service of my predecessor Lord Kimball. The centre of the town is a perfect mix of school and church. After, we sat by the quiet waters of Rutland Water, dappling sunlight, the lightest of airs, and small beached boats, the remembrance of summers past and reflected came back to us.

Easter Friday
And now we are by the side of the Sea of Galilee. The scene is homely and still convincing.

I was due at the launch of a Euro campaign but I took some time off to go the Eucharist in Lincoln Cathedral. How inspiring to be there listening to see words under the enormous East Window towering above us and way above me the tiny Lincoln Imp having a laugh. Somebody gave me some time ago some pretty hideous Imp cufflinks. I am wearing them now.

Easter Saturday
Now Mark summarises the whole extraordinary week.

We travelled to Rome on a wing and a prayer for the canonisation of the two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. We had no ticket but Ryanair had a place. In the evening we watched the Polish groups led by their parish priests winding their way through the Piazza della Rotondo in front of the Pantheon. Their red and white flags waving to show them the way.

Divine Mercy Sunday
My daughter managed somehow to grab a mass book. Lucky, because there was a mile and a million Poles between us and the altar. But no matter, at the other end of the bridge over the Tiber leading to Castel Sant’Angelo there was a screen at an angle so we could watch the Mass, sort of. What an experience to be packed on that bridge in the crowd. We saw the dignitaries being whisked to their seats in their limos. Very nice, but they miss something.

Easter

HOLY SATURDAY

Sit in the church. In front of you, the Tabernacle is empty. Everything is empty, still. God has left the Earth.

Is God gone? Has He ever been? Is He that which is in my mind? What is my mind? Is it that which God is in?

“In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth. And the Earth was a formless void.” (Genesis 1:1)

EASTER SUNDAY

We attend the service, we listen, but in our heart of hearts, do we see and believe?

“He saw and believed.” (John 20:1-9)

After the great services, the three-hour vigil, the great hymns. “Thine be the glory”, the ringing Exultet, I sat alone in the empty abbey. Now all was deathly still. I looked in my mind’s eye at the empty tomb. I had listened and I believed. He had gone. He is risen.

“Salva festa dies, toto venerabilis aevo, qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet.”

Hail, festival day, revered for all time, on which God conquered Hell and holds all the stars in his sway.

EASTER MONDAY

Do you, like me, doubt?

“God raised this man to life and all of us are witnesses to that.” (Acts 2:14)

I sat in the Cathedral during Mass and looked at the beautiful display of flowers. This statement from today’s first reading struck me more than the momentous events described in the Gospel.

Are we witnesses too, but only in our heart? Peter was transformed from a cowardly wreck in a matter of weeks into the confident who could stand up in front of hundreds and say this, but he had seen.

Cannot the will be as strong as the eye?

The Fourth Week of Lent

The reading today is about the cure of the blind man. What I like about it is that faith gradually comes to him. He is actually quite cheeky in his replies. Faith I thinks can be like that. We needn’t take it too seriously and we can acknowledge that it has its ups and downs. One thing one can be sure of: whatever the evidence, the Pharisees in our midst will continue to mock.

On Tuesday the court official travels all the way from Jerusalem to find Jesus in Galilee. Quite a journey and no doubt he was mocked at court for seeking out an obscure provincial faith healer. Courts are still the same today, the preserve of the politically careful. How many today would have the courage or time to seek out the likes of Jesus.

On Tuesday I had lots of meetings to go to so I was very late at Mass. Like the crippled man at the Pool of Bethzatha, I could not get to the heeling waters in time but what a joy to arrive at the raising of the host. Well worth the hot walk down Victoria Street.

Again on Wednesday I had had a long-walk across central London. By the time I arrived at Mass I was tired but the fifth chapter of John gradually spread into the consciousness. “I tell you most solemnly, whoever listens to my words and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life.”

The Gospel on Thursday again from John 5 is even longer and even more soothing: “You have never heard his voice, you have never seen his shape, and his words find no home in you”.

On Friday I was grappling with a problem about what to do, which had vexed me for some time. Several Hail Marys had not done the trick. I tried one last time. I imagined I was with Christ in the garden and the choices that are given to us and I asked to do his will. Almost immediately a firm thought came into my head. “Do not do this.” This seemed to have resolved the problem. I woke refreshed.

Where had this sensible advice come from? From an illusion in my own head or perhaps just possibly from somewhere else? Perhaps it is true.

By Saturday the problem and the choice remained, but so too did the firm advice. I will not ignore something that could come from Christ himself. How difficult it is, though, to do his not our will.

Today’s Gospel asks a pertinent question “do prophets come out of Galilee”.

Third Week in Lent

We were in the Abbey for Sunday Mass for Father Leo’s last mass as Headmaster. A week later as I was writing this up I could not remember the reading but now it comes back to me. The woman of Samaria at the well. One shouldn’t forget it because actually it is quite remarkable. Jesus breaking all the taboos. Talking to a woman, on her own, she an outcast going alone to the well in the high heat of the day. Yet He reveals Himself to her:

“I who speak to you, am He.” (John 4:5-42)

The purpose of the sermon I think was Jesus’ words “Give me a drink”, which are addressed to us as well.

On Monday, we had the reading about Naaman being angry with Elisha for telling him to bath in the Jordan to cure his leprosy. I sympathise. Often we are asked to do so little with such immense consequences. Eventually Naaman, does the simple thing and he is cured. Like Naaman, who wants to bathe in his own waters, Abana and Pharpar, we too want to bathe in our own waters, in our own prejudices.

It is strange: sometimes within an hour or two of listening to a reading I just for the life of me cannot recall it. I cannot recall today’s reading without looking it up. It is about the wicked servant. Our debts are forgiven: how often do we forgive others?

On Wednesday we had a statement on the Ukraine. If only the EU and Russia could share influence and investment the country could become a bridge to peace, not a downward path to war.

Thursday’s readings are about “A house divided against itself is heading for ruin.” Seldom remembered.

On Friday I went to a funeral for a friend, Mary in Market Rasen. She cared for the church. It was full. The Lord is my shepherd.

On Saturday I carried on my visits to our local church and came to Psalm 18 “Diligam te Domine”. I will love thee, O Lord my strength. This is a long one, but beautiful. It is all about reliance. The Saturday before I had reached Psalm 17 – “Exaudi Domine”, Hear the Light, O Lord – and the Saturday before that Psalm 16 – “Conserve me, domine”, preserve me o God for in thee I have put my trust.

It is rather a nice thing to do, to sit in an English country church, small in its medieval quiet and read from the King James Bible, the glorious English language, week by week.

Second Week in Lent

Although this is not the Feast of the Transfiguration, the reading from Matthew 17:1-9 is about the Transfiguration.

It has never made much sense to me before, but at our little parish mass it did. Some strange, probably inconsequential thing clicked, the story seemed beautiful and consequential. I wonder why.

Monday was the feast of St Patrick. I couldn’t find Mass at first in the Oratory. Then I noticed it was at his own altar. An outsider, he seems to have ended up making quite an impact.

On Tuesday, we were debating Ukraine which means ‘borderland’ in Russian. I ask why it can’t be a bridge to peace rather than a path to war. At Mass, commenting on everything they do is to attract attention, the priest asks why we put so much importance on place.

On Wednesday we celebrated St Joseph’s feast day. It’s strange that from the loss of Jesus in the Temple we know nothing about him.

It was also Budget Day. They come, they go. 0.3% difference in the give and take by Government!

On Thursday I spoke on the Budget, notwithstanding talk of money. The reading today is the most demanding of them all. That of Lazarus and the rich man who actually doesn’t seem to do a great deal wrong apart from nothing, which I suppose is quite a lot.

Obviously today’s – Friday’s – reading is one of my favourites.:

“It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone.” (Matthew 21:33-43)

On Saturday we went down to Kings Bruton in Dorset. The picture of the parish church, the five-hundred-year-old school, the green hills which I ran over in a cross-country, was perfect.

First Week of Lent

I was still reading in the Abbey guest wing Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence:

“Certainly one thing the Monk does not, or cannot realise is the effect which these liturgical functions have upon those who see them. The lessons, the truths, the incidents, and values portrayed are simply overwhelming. For this effect to be achieved, it is necessary that each monk as an individual performer be absolutely lost, ignored, overlooked.

Excellence here is in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished. Only faults and mistakes drew attention to the individual. The logic of Cistercian life was the complete opposite to the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward so that the most excellent is the one who stands out. But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the Monk is hiding from the world becomes not less himself, not less a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself: for his personality and individuality are perfected in their time order, the spiritual, interior order of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis Gloria ejus filiae legis ab intrus.

The logic of the world by success rests on the strange error that our perfection depends on the applause of other men! A weird life it is indeed to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could be real!

This seems to me, particularly the last paragraph, to be a very powerful point. Strange how it is that in the Abbey, good intentions and thoughts rush forward in the mind.

I realised that what I was putting to you was that you can create a monastery in your mind. That, yes, you can attempt to steady the mind with mindfulness. By all means meditate and concentrate on your breathing and recognise pressing thoughts are not your real self no more than others’ opinions. But then fill it at times every day with attention to God and the spiritual.

As I lay awake in my cell I could not remember today’s Gospel reading, that was for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. It was 3am and I turned on the light. It all came up painfully slowly on the blackberry, but finally it was there, line by line, from Luke 5:27-32.

“Jesus noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting by the customs house, and said to him ‘Follow me’, and hearing everything, he got up and followed Him.”

As I lay awake those words “Follow Me” kept repeating themselves in my mind. So try every day to create a monastery in your mind. Go to Mass or a service or just read the Mass readings, day by day. For one small part of the day empty the mind. Do not, as Merton would put it, live in other peoples imagination.

On Monday the first week in Lent we are asked the most difficult question (Matthew 25:31-46):

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

What does this mean? Is it not an impossible task to treat everyone, however irritating, as God? But this is the task laid down.

Tuesday’s task is more simple: (Matthew 6:7-15)

“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

It is easy enough to repeat a prayer. But who is listening? We must assume it is listened to.

On Wednesday we are told that the only sign we will be given is the Sign of Jonah, but where is this sign?

On Thursday I was looking at the parish newsletter in the Cathedral. There was an interesting reference to the Meditations of St Frances de Sales. The one on death arrested me. Imagine that you have just died. Your soul bids farewell to its body. Very soon the body is burned and the person forgotten. As the soul looks back on its life in the body it remembers how it has treated other people.

On Friday funnily enough I was at the funeral of Dom Sebastian Moore at Downside Abbey. A friend, he died at the age of 96. He had been a monk since 1938. His latest thing had been Eckhart Tolle and the Power of Now, but far more than his many books and great, deep – sometimes incomprehensible – intelligence was his great kindliness to everyone, certainly to me.

By Saturday I was back in our little local church and up to Psalm 16 in the Prayer Book. Conserve me Domine – preserve me Lord.

Final week in Ordinary Time

We went to Matins in Lincoln Cathedral, the legal service for the High Sheriff.

I was struck by a quote used by the Dean. “No living man has ever seen God, no man who sees God ever dies.” Or something to that effect.

As usual I went to Westminster Cathedral for Ash Wednesday and submerged myself in Allegri’s Miserere.

On Friday we had a meeting of the Cathedral Council at Lincoln. I questioned as usual putting up the entry fee, this time to £8. I admitted I had no answer except that the Holy Spirit might provide. The fair rejoinder from the Dean: the Holy Spirit looks after those who help themselves.

Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

All my life I have been a most reluctant Christian. Every lazy way of thinking came my way. Jesus was a great world teacher, but God? Well guess what he said about himself? If thats the case he was a lunatic or a charlatan. This week I have completed Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I cam across it by accident. There had been a particularly silly and simplistic Times article, fairly typical, airily dismissing Christianity as a legend and a letterwriter to the paper had recommended this book. So would I.

Lee Strobel is an investigative crime reporter. He uses questioning techniques to ask questions that should be asked in schools. Everywhere you look the evidence is compelling that the Gospels are a very early accurate record of what happened. Archaeology and scholarship has only bolstened the case in recent years. This is not legend. Early lazy assumptions like Jesus conveniently faked his messianic outcomes are disproved one by one. Torture on the cross could have ensured that a Roman soldier speared him rather than break his legs. Why were the Apostles prepared to die for something they had faked, like removing the body, even if that was true? And the sheer weight of circumstantial and outside evidence. But be that as it may, reason only goes so far. Reason tells me that the creed is correct, but I still wrinkle with the nature of God. How can one intellect create billions of stars? Are there not hundreds of millions of intelligent life forms? Why should God care about or concentrate on first-century Palestine? But perhaps for me the next step is study of philosophy – if reason can play any part.

One thing is certain, reason is dear and when faith and acceptance reach it, it is transforming.

Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

I was walking up a mountain in the Alps. First I went up the side of the piste under the chairlifts with the skiers chatting up above my head as they were taken up. But then the path plunged into the woods. Soon I was utterly alone in the wilderness. The snow crunching beneath my feet and it was snowing steadily all the time, great large flakes settling on my jacket. I kept plodding up a thousand metres, to the cafe at the top which the skiers ascended to so quickly in their chairlifts and descended from even quicker. The pistes were crowded with half term skiers but here on this silent path all was quiet.

I stopped. Now there was no sound. Occasionally a weight of snow settling on a branch of a great fir tree would cause it to topple and a gentle cascade would tumble down, sometimes on my head in a gentle shower. It was like those water bamboos in Japanese gardens. The water drips on them and suddenly they topple over and then start again. Thus for a moment time was marked only by nature. One could focus thoughts on the present moment, on nature. With infinite regret I thought of the afternoon ahead of the busy airport, the crowds surging back and forth.

On Monday James asks us to treat our trials as a happy privilege. On Tuesday he asks us to stand firm when trials come. On Wednesday he asks us to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

On Thursday I was in the small chapel at Combloux for a Mass. In these surroundings, it is easy to pay heed to James when he asks us to be rich in faith. There were few in the chapel. So simple in its white-washed walls, so glorious in the baroque magnificence of its baroque reredos. On Friday James asks us to consider the cause of someone who has never done a single good act but claims that he has faith. And on Saturday, he reminds us that the only person who can reach perfection would be someone who never said anything wrong.

Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Our service was in the small upstairs chapel in Osgodby. I always love it there, the simplicity of the small room, an upstairs room. On Monday I was asking about the commemoration of the First World War. Surely the important thing is that they felt – the allied soldiers – that they were not involved in some European power play but that they were resisting militarism and protecting the freedom of small nations.

On Tuesday there was a statement on our involvement, or rather non-involvement, in the assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. How do we reconcile the necessity of the state to maintain order and the desire of religious – Sikhs in this case – to have their voice. No one talked about this kind of issue. It’s all too difficult.

On Wednesday it was the feast of St Agatha. I suppose she paid the ultimate price for having resisted authority: mutilation and death. I was talking about the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza. 1.7 million in a vast prison camp. What’s important is not endless debate about the complexities of the two-state peace process but the cry of humanity.

On Thursday to Friday, I struggled in with Lee Stobel’s The Case for Christ. The difficulty with this sort of book is that intellectual arguments based on obscure biblical quotes, however accurate in themselves, don’t answer the fundamental difference in scale between an historical figure, a human in time and place, and the stupendous uncertainty of the creator of an unlimited universe.

It was a relief on Saturday to bury myself in the liturgy of the Abbey. Against the unknowable, the best response is a gentle immersion in the lap of the Psalms. I was reading once again the passage in Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence. I had last read this passage fifteen years before at Prinknash.

“I discovered that the young man… was a postulant. He was entering the monastery that day. That day we could see him down there in the choir in his dark secular clothes, which made him easy to pick out in the shadows among the uniform white of the novices and monks. Then suddenly we saw him no more: he was in white. They had given him an oblates habit, and you could not pick him out from the rest.

The waters had closed over his head and he was submerged in the community. He was lost: the world would hear of him no more.”

I dreamt that night after vigils that I had made a model aeroplane. Being me, with my handy skills, it was pretty pathetic. Its wings were all ruffled. My friends’ flew much better. My wife was scournful. How cross I was to be so humiliated. I stomped off determined to have no more. Then I awoke and as I lay there I thought how much nicer to think of immersion in the liturgy than trying to make things and be things.

I was at the Abbey for the monthly oblates’ meeting. I am not sure I had previously understood how important the Rule of St Benedict is. It is archaic but there is a certain rhythm in it. For instance, in the reading of the Rule from February 8 we read: “The eleventh step in humility is that when a monk speaks, he does so quietly, with laughter, with humility, with restraint, making use of few words and reasonable ones, as it is written ‘The wise man becomes known for his few words’.”

At first sight it seems hard that words written in the seventh century for a monastic life in community have any relevance for us, but in the monastery of the mind perhaps they do. For us they are not so much a rule as a window into another quieter, more ordered, and more focused world, focused on what is important. The readings this week take us through the trials of David. On Monday he is told ‘the hearts of the men of Israel are now with Absalom’. On Tuesday we hear of his death ‘hanging from an oak’. On Thursday to avoid pestilence hitting Jerusalem he admits his guilt to the Lord. On Thursday ‘as David’s life drew to its close he laid this charge on his son Solomon: I am going the way of all the earth’. On Friday Ecclesiastes sums up his career. All this is moving, a story of success, ambition, guilt, and despair.

The trials and tribulations of David

The readings this week are from the book of Samuel, a description of David’s trials and tribulations. On Monday he is supreme. I arrived too late for Mass in the Cathedral at Strasbourg and made do with a visit to the seminarian church.

Even an empty church is soothing. On Tuesday amid great rejoicing David “brought the arc of God up from Obed-Edom’s house to the Citadel of David.”

I could not get to the evening mass. I was speaking in the Council of Europe urging the case for Israel to stop creating settlements. Strange how two and a half thousand years later we are still in the same part of the world. Surely this is no accident. Here it really does seem that God has created the fault line of humankind. On Wednesday evening I could not get to mass either. I was speaking on the impact of migrants. And where are more being displaced now than anywhere else? In the Middle East: in Syria. The poetry in the revelation to David is beautiful:

I will provide a place for my people Israel; I will plant them there and they shall dwell in that place and never be disturbed again; nor shall the wicked continue to oppress them as they did.

I did hear Mass on Thursday. Nathan seems pretty happy with David. I love today’s reading about the lamp: “For there is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed.”

Up early for Mass on Friday, everything now goes pear-shaped for David. And we know why he conveniently gets rid of Uriah the Hittite. What exactly does the mustard seed parable mean? Is its growth dependent on our faith? In which case I fear with me it might stay small indeed.

I was back in the Cathedral in London on Saturday for 8am mass. The words of Nathan to David are all too depressing especially as the reader reads them out very – too – slowly. Does anyone dare talk to our leaders now in this way?

“Then Nathan said to David ‘You are the man. So now the sword will never be far from your house.’”

Later I was walking over the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, a two and a half hour walk from station railhead to cottage. An extraordinary yellow light filtered down from the clouds, bathing the plain in a luminous shaft of white light. A track led down from a five-bar gate, down from the high point on which I stood, towards the light. The track was muddy. The gate closed and locked. I turned aside from the light and went on my way into the darkening valley in which a tiny distant dot of yellow light welcomed me home to tea.

Wednesday
We start the story of David in his unequal fight with the Philistine. I suppose all this gives us courage that whatever obstacle we encounter we can overcome it.

Thursday
Saul not unnaturally is jealous of David. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on the nature of jealousy. It’s so much easier to sympathise with the failure or bad luck of others than with their success. I suppose it’s part of our human nature.

How do we overcome it? The priest at mass today had some ideas. Look at the cross or think that all this success pales into insignificance at the final count, or count our blessings. Frankly, I do not know the answer. Perhaps it’s an interesting spiritual exercise, to force oneself to rejoice in someone who is younger, better-looking, more powerful, or richer than oneself, whatever one’s jealous of.

I find quite a good way is to think well of so and so who has a big job that I would like to have, but I have my children and that is much more precious.

Friday
Saul is in David’s power, yet he refuses to strike. He merely cuts off the border of the king’s coat. Can we always too be content with just the border of the cloak?

Saturday
But Saul falls anyway in honest battle and David can make his lament over him in honest grief. Why do we murmur in our jealous minds against others when their doom and ours is already encompassed.

5-11 January

SUNDAY

I was thinking again of Jean Vanier. Follow your star is a good motto for Epiphany. Conformity to conscience his motto.

MONDAY

Jean Vanier again. If I was to hold a meeting on some political issue, half a dozen would turn up. The room was packed for Jean with two hundred people there. Yet he has no “policies” or prescriptions or advice: he just tells his life story. Basically he just lives with people who nobody else wants to live with. They are often difficult, angry, selfish, or worse. One of his housemates spat his soup over a visiting policeman. Yet year after year Jean persists. A living saint.

TUESDAY

Russian Christmas

I didn’t pick up a lot of the sermon in Russian even with a quietly mumbled translation but there was something about the Nativity being the new light.

In the Western Catholic readings for the 7th of January, the Marriage at Cana is the subject for discussion. So here the first of the signs take place on the same day as the Eastern Orthodox Christmas.

WEDNESDAY

It was announced in Mass that Paul Goggins had died. He was only 60, and suffered a stroke out running. It makes you think. Why do we worry so much about the future? Be happy, and live for the day.

THURSDAY

I did a reading at the Epiphany carol service for the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. I didn’t know what I was reading til I turned up. T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi. Rather alarming especially as in the poem the journey is rather depressing. Not here the cosy Christmas card picture of three kings on camels.

… and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.

Some of it didn’t make much sense. What does this mean?

And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all the way for
Birth or Death?

Anyway the service was grand and beautiful.

FRIDAY

I am back in Lincolnshire, the day before speaking on rural affairs.

I was looking for a bit of poetry about the countryside. I didn’t use this quote from John Clare. It arrived too late on a broken blackberry. Perhaps I should have done.

For Nature is love, and finds haunts for true love,
Where nothing can hear or intrude;
It hides from the eagle and joins with the dove,
In beautiful green solitude.

In our church I looked up Psalm 9:

Confiteor Tibi

I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, with my whole heart.

SATURDAY

I looked up Psalm 11 in the Anglican Prayer Book:

Ut quid domine

Why standeth thou so far, O Lord, and hidest thy face in the needful time of trouble.

The Changing of the Year

SUNDAY

The Feast of the Holy Family

It was nice to persuade my children to go to mass today and hear the readings about the Holy Family. People can complain if they want that the readings are gooey or old-fashioned but they are beautiful and loving and right too.

MONDAY

I was trying to think of a more personal prayer. I thought of this.

May my thoughts be beside you, God Creator, whoever you are, wherever you are, however you are. Who are you? Who am I? You are all that creates and is created. You are all of humanity and all of every life in the universe. You are not just in Heaven. You are here in this room, beside me. You walk in the fields. You are sky and forest and sea: unchanged, mover yet unmoved.

TUESDAY

I was late for Mass because they put the time forward but to arrive in time for communion is something. I saw unexpectedly that there was a midnight mass at 11:30. I should have gone. I went instead to the fireworks on the river. A mistake. There is something depressing about tens of thousands of people seeing thousands of pounds of fireworks go up in smoke in ten minutes. A sort of fatuous municipal bread and circuses. But they are beautiful.

WEDNESDAY – New Year’s Day

Mass at the Carmelites was cancelled so I missed it. I listened as always to the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna: it’s not the same in London as it is looking at the winter sun in Lincolnshire. So I rely on my notes for the previous year and Psalm 66 still resonates.

THURSDAY

Feast of Sts Basil and Gregory

I was listening to the sermon about how these gentlemen fought the Arian heresy. I suspect I have been prone to Arianism. Perhaps I still am. I am attracted to a vague Godness in the universe. I wonder how a man who walked in Palestine could have made all this. But curiously as I listened to the sermon about how we should reject this very unworldliness and accept God’s willingness to share this world with us I saw the logic of Christ’s divinity too.

FRIDAY

A watery day. We went to the film ‘All is Lost’ with Robert Redford.

No word is spoken for one hundred and eighty minutes. An epic of survival as everything goes wrong. What I like about the film is that Redford is old, the yacht is old. He lives for the present and never til the end despairs and is given survival from death in the end.

SATURDAY

We went to the Pearl exhibition in the V&A. Pearls are mass produced by the hundreds of thousands now but up to the 1910s were only caught naturally in the sea. A pearl diver had to open on average 2,000 oysters for every pearl he found.

And on they fished, on they were brought up, they prayed.

We went to a talk by Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche communities for the disabled. He is 85 now, still a truly inspiring teacher. He tells the tale of Pauline, multiply disabled, and Eric, blind and deaf. Their anger comes from not having been loved and having been humiliated. Anger comes from humiliation, in being disregarded. He was asked, Jean, if he meets politicians. No, he doesn’t debate he says, he just listens. He says we must put conformity to conscience above all things. Go where your conscience decrees: him to join the navy as a youth and then out of no resources to create the first l’Arche house.

26-28 December

THURSDAY

In the Anglican prayer book, the readings in the King James Bible for St Stephen’s Day repeat John 1:1. He that believeth, I sit there as light pours in.

FRIDAY

St John the Evangelist

I go back to the open empty church and try to understand the parting words of Christ to John who affirms that all this is true. Happy those who have great faith.

SATURDAY

A Times journalist had written a particularly nasty piece about Christianity. He went to a Christmas Day service but of course only for the music and the pretty fairy tale. But he made one good point: the Archbishop of Canterbury should have concentrated in his talk about convincing people of the existence of God. Of course the church is right to speak about poverty. But the modern day crisis, which sets us apart from previous generations, is not our concern or lack of concern for the poor but our lack of faith. The Archbishop cannot convince anyone of course in one or a dozen sermons. Faith is not an arithmetical problem. But he could say, I believe that we must persevere.

Faith does not come except in rare fortunate cases for life in a flash. It is not a question of having blue or brown eyes. One keeps them forever. You have to persevere. In Catholicism we have the great gift of the daily mass. I find it a great consolation. But other denominations have their daily communal worship, or at least we should be encouraged to go in for daily communal worship. My faith is like a high gear bicycle. I have to pedal furiously every day to make a little progress. Others have a low gear religious mind. With little effort, on the flat anyway, they can go along at a tremendous lick.

I was lying awake thinking of all this but these, I thought, are just arguments. What is important is to pray. I prayed very slowly as I got to ‘Thy will be done’ I thought maybe His will is an increase in faith and in my mind’s eye I saw a light, rectangular, solid stone, like one of the Stonehenge stones, but in pure white light. I wonder do self-proclaimed atheists never have religious experiences?

The Nativity of Our Lord

We start by going to the Holy Rood Catholic Church at 8pm for a simple spiritual vigil mass. We go on to the magnificence of Sung Eucharist in Lincoln Cathedral and then to carols and readings on Christmas Day morning in the tiny church at Stainton le Vale.

In the middle of the night, we awake thinking really is it just a pretty legend? Only light comes during the simplest of the three services and the reading from John with the words about light and belief.

Up to Christmas

SUNDAY

That reading again: “This is how Jesus Christ came to be born.” The patter of words carries on.

I went for a walk around Chiswick House. The Ionic temple sat reflected in its pool of light, calm and still. The paths laid out by Lord Burlington radiate out in perfect symmetry.

MONDAY

Zechariah’s power of speech returns. And, of course, his faith.

Third Week of Advent

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

I remembered a story from the sermon the week before, prompted by what I heard today which I could not remember.

A blind man had put out a sign as he begged, sitting on the street: “Blind. Please give generously.” Very occasional coins tinkled into his hat. He sensed a person stopping. He could only feel the shoes. The lady wished him well and departed. Then suddenly coins started pouring into his hat. Later she returned and he touched her familiar shoes. Why had things changed after she left? “I turned your sign around,” she said, “to read ‘It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.’”

Words matter.

Of course the new sign excited pity. Words matter. It is worth writing them down. But there’s a deeper meaning. How often do we forget that it’s a beautiful day; or a beautiful world? And who, what created it?

Last week I walked to the Thames. There was heavy fog, so heavy that I could not see across to the other side. I might have been on the edge of the ocean. The sight of the Thames was extraordinarily beautiful.

MONDAY

We went to a friend’s funeral, the same church, the parish church in Gainsborough, for another friend a few weeks ago. Here in a small town you are remembered, surrounded by friends and family, the church packed. In a big city, you are lost.

TUESDAY

The genealogy of Jesus Christ was read out at Mass. You can always hear people inwardly moaning. It is very long, but calming and beautiful in its way. But I never quite see its point. It ends with Joseph, but surely he wasn’t Jesus’ father.

WEDNESDAY

Once again the reading from Matthew 1:18-24: “This is how Jesus Christ came to be born: …”

Heard again and again at carol services and masses, like a patter of rain, the usual image seeps into the brain. We were told today that the translation of “Joseph, being a man of honour” is a rubbish translation. It should read “being a just man”. What if he had said no? No marriage, Mary stoned to death, Jesus killed in the womb, a silent God on high, no message, no redemption. His son still dying for us but we know nothing of it.

THURSDAY

Poor Zechariah. When Gabriel gave him the good news about his wife, he didn’t believe it. She was too old. As a punishment, he was struck blind. How many times should I have been struck blind for not believing.

We all went to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. A slightly bizarre occasion. The Prince of Wales expressed the hope to me that I would carry on. I almost said “Just like you, I intend to” but didn’t. Perhaps this would be lese majeste!

FRIDAY

I was in Tate Britain looking at a painting by Reginald Frampton, Brittany 1914. The figures seem curiously detached from the reality about to hit them. Did Mary truly understand the cataclysm about to hit her?

SATURDAY

The sun streams through the narrow windows behind the altar in the Cathedral blinding me; only vague shapes emerge on the altar. Like Zechariah, my lack of faith dulls my senses.

Second Week of Advent

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

We went back to the play. As my son was singing “Bring him home” for a moment, in his look or in his voice or a transitory note, I saw and heard my dead brother. What an extraordinary sensation. Of course it is not unlikely. The genes after all are the same but I had never noticed it before. It was only the emotions of the song that caused the recognition. The song is a prayer for protection of a living person. My fleeting recognition was of a dead person, once so familiar now gone. Who are we? Are we a single entity or part of the part of something else?

MONDAY

I went to the House for tributes to Nelson Mandela. The point is obvious. Like many great men he will be judged by magnanimity in victory, or rather he is one of the few people who fulfilled it.

TUESDAY

Although the poetry comes round every year, it never ceases to astound. Has anyone ever written anything finer than Isaiah?

“Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low… then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

WEDNESDAY

I did a reading in the Order of Malta carol service. Some years I have done, attended five of these. They can be a bit formulaic. This one is made not so much by the beauty of the church or the candlelight but by the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the power of John’s verse, healthily spoken out. For a moment, its power overwhelmed me.

THURSDAY

To another carol service, at Downside Abbey. The king of all carol services. It is the power of the Schola of course but also the fact that it is bookended by plainchant and focused at its centre on the Benediction. Too many carol services are just jaunty tunes interspersed by fairy tales… in the view of many who go to them. How sad.

FRIDAY

Advent to me is about a light. It flickers at first, then grows as the candles do. The response to the psalm then has particular power:

“Anyone who follows you, Lord, will have the light of life.” (Psalm 1:1-4)

These words kept rolling over in my mind. What light, what life, whose, where, how? Is this a general statement or addressed to me? Do I believe it? Yes, listening to it during the Mass I did, then forgot it for the rest of the day.

SATURDAY

As I was walking down off the Wolds at around four o’clock, it was nearly dark. The features of the landscape were fading into each other – trees, bushes, grass were all fading into each other. Each shape was inchoate. There were no longer bright greens, blues, yellows; the last colour of late autumn, only a delightful greyness, some dark some lighter, fading into each other.

Belief for the Unbeliever

FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Today is the start of the Church’s year. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity to start too a guest in faith. Why do I struggle with belief? How can I believe? Some will or may come to it suddenly or unexpectedly.

But for me and I suspect for most of us it is a daily struggle. So I think it’s worth looking at it – the question of God’s existence or otherwise – not as a great mountain but as a daily step.

In reading every day and trying to go to Mass perhaps I can make a little progress and maybe others too may find this approach useful.

Today I went to a family First Communion in St Nicholas Church on the river at Chiswick. A beautiful Anglican service, complete with Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin. The church, this ancient church seemed content with the service.

Later I walked to Barnes Bridge. Here I was brought up, here I used to walk nearly fifty years ago. I wondered if I walked now to the Crescent, if I rang the bell, would my mother open it? Would I find my father inside on the green chair reading his newspaper, the chair on which he died. Where are they now? But in my mind’s eye, they still were there. So faith is in the mind.

Later, in the Cathedral, I read today’s words in the Gospel:

“Stay awake! You do not know the hour.”

No we do not, and most times we plod on, forgetful. But just once a day cannot we think internally?

MONDAY

We went along to Lambeth Palace for an Advent Service with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is always a most beautiful service. In these ancient medieval melodies one can lose oneself. For a moment one can feel real joy. Here too in today’s Gospel one can walk with the Centurion.

“Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof.”

A good reading for the first weekday in Advent.

TUESDAY

We had a debate on the persecution of Christians in the twenty-first century. There was the usual relativism. We were told that Christians are persecuted in 105 countries and Moslems in 101. Maybe all persecution is wrong. But the overwhelming denial of human rights and downright persecution in the world is against Christians.

I referred to the French film “Of Gods and Men” which I had seen on Sunday night. There is a lovely passage when Father Christian confronts his tormentors with the passage in the Koran exhorting peace between faiths. If you persevere, if you concentrate sometimes as in a moment at the Advent service you can feel joy.

“Filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 10:21-29)

WEDNESDAY

I led a debate on funding of dermatology. One of the best moments of the week, indeed of the month, was when walking out of the debate. A lady who suffered obviously from a skin condition thanked us.

“He sat there, and large crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb, and many others.” (Matthew 15:29-37)

THURSDAY

As I emerged from a meeting with some important people, I should perhaps have remembered today’s psalm (117):

“It is better to take refuge in the Lord, than to trust in princes.”

FRIDAY

I was talking to someone at a surgery who clearly has a lot of problems and is almost defeated by life and ill health.

What a pity one cannot do this:

“Then he touched their eyes, saying ‘Your faith deserves it, so let this be done for you.’ And their sight returned.” (Matthew 9:27-31)

SATURDAY

We went to a performance of Les Miserables at my son’s school. He told us he was in the chorus. In fact, he was playing Jean Valjean. Les Miserables in particular the song “Who Am I?” is I think a profoundly Christian play. The words express the Christian dilemma. At one level, they pose the question: should one lie to survive? “If I remain silent, I am damned. If I speak up I am condemned.”

But I think there is a deeper meaning. Who am I? Do I have a separate or meaningful existence? Where does my consciousness of self come from? Is it a mechanical, chemical, or spiritual consciousness? Is it material, fleeting? Should it owe allegiance to this real world or another, unseen, which may be illusory?