Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Wolds

I walk over the Lincolnshire Wolds on a misty, rainy day. A tree is black with water flowing down it, the glistening trunks snagging in every direction. It is actually quite beautiful, like a quivering animal about to leap.

Just taking a moment to stop and look at the intricate carving of nature is finer than any artefact of man. It is an almost spiritual moment.

Baptism of the Lord

The instruction in the letter of St Paul to Titus is a hard one.

“One must avoid” says St Paul, “Anything that does not lead to God.”

How can we do this, especially in modern-day living? Must one give up all the pleasures of life?

“All worldly ambition.”

One can’t become a monk in ordinary life. But surely all good things can lead to God and can still be fulfilling and pleasurable.

Doing a job, any job, can lead to God. Watching television or going for a walk can be a lead to God. Well, perhaps not most television, but I think the point is about seeing God in everything.

Today I went to Vespers in Westminster Cathedral, something I have not done before. Vespers is the precursor of Anglican Evensong. Much as I like Evensong, it is less formal. Somehow I am more spiritual during Vespers’ Benediction and Veneration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Would We Know Him?

And his teaching made a deep impression on them because he spoke with authority. (Mark 1,21-28)

I have always wondered what this means exactly. What was his obvious authority? Was it his intellect, his delivery or his charisma? Did they immediately guess who was teaching them?

Would we know him?

Second Monday in Ordinary Time

I love this reading because it is such a strong visual image. Who ever heard of someone being so keen on hearing a preacher nowdays that they make a hole in the roof to do so.

… As the crowd made it impossible to get the man to him, they stripped the roof over the place where Jesus was; and when they had made an opening they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic lay… (Mark 2: 1 – 12)

Five Temples of the Lord and Faith

First Week in Advent — Retrospective

Advent is the season of the readings of Isaiah, that masterful poet whose words reach a crescendo as the month passes.

During a week in Advent I went to five very different churches. On Monday I arrived at Westminster Cathedral to find that Mass was to be held in a side chapel. Why there I wondered. It seemed a somewhat dark, even dreary side chapel. Then the priest arrived and explained. Of course, it was St Andrew’s day. This was his chapel. The priest described it as, in the opinion of some, the finest chapel in the cathedral. He discussed the mosaics depicting where St Andrew had lived out his life of the Gospel. I realised how the subtle understated nature of the chapel captured its beauty. It occurred to me that this was a sort of parable of our faith – what seems to be ordinary, even banal at first comes to life with faith.

On Tuesday I was invited to St Paul’s for Evensong to mark English Heritage giving £250,000 to Lincoln Cathedral for much needed repair and maintenance work. There is no slowly awakening hidden beauty to be found here. As I walked up from the crypt and sat in the choir, the Renaissance glory of the richly gilded and exuberant ceiling hit me like a blow. The Magnificat was in Latin and echoed across the giant space. Here was a parable for me – that faith can hit one like a thunderbolt, not always something slowly awakening, as on Monday.

On Wednesday I went to the Brompton Oratory where I meet a friend for a little prayer meeting every month. I happened to read the account of John Sullivan, an American Deacon who was lecturing recently on his amazing cure from an excruciating back illness through prayer to Cardinal Newman. I had been under whelmed by his story before, but his prose was so moving, so transparently honest and so accurate in its description of an inexplicable pain that I was moved to tears. Here we find a parable that faith can come from prayer and not always like on Tuesday with an invasion of the senses

On Thursday I travelled up to Lincolnshire to go to a carol service at the tiny church of Upton. As we walked towards the church the bells were peeling, the village was dark, the church lit, the readings much loved, the carols familiar. Here it seemed to me that faith can be something deep within us. Traditional, sometimes comfortable seeming and no less good for that than any sudden revelation or insight.

On Friday I went down to Downside for an oblates retreat. The moment I walked into the Abbey I felt as I always do; that this is a second home. That evening as I sat alone in this vast space, with the lights turned off and only a hint of moon light coming in to the sanctuary I felt close to God. Yet even this great building is but a dot of architecture in stone, our galaxy lost in hundreds of millions of other galaxies? Once more the old doubts returned. How could the God of Abraham have created all this? Faith is therefore not a fixture in our minds. It ebbs and flows.

On Saturday I got up early for Vigils. Again the church was utterly black but one of the young Novitiates came in to light a single candle. Its lonely light seemed to hover and flutter for a moment and the rose up, confident – as in the light of Christ. “Lumen Christe”. It reminded me of the single light being lit at the start of the Easter Vigil.

Later on we were asked to read Hebrews 11.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seem… By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of god, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.

It seemed to sum up the week.

When it was dark again after Vespers I sat alone in the church. For the first time I felt that God was close. I didn’t try and pray or talk to God. One doesn’t always need to talk to someone you know and love well, a spouse or an old friend. You can sit in companionable silence. And it felt like that then. No words came or were necessary. I have often found that in a monastery, even staying for a short time, one’s spiritual awareness is brought to a new plane.

Later that night I lay awake thinking about this experience. I wondered if it was chance that in difficult times God brought me to this quiet place.

Over the Wolds

I walked with the dog from our home, over the Lincolnshire Wolds and to Market Rasen. The snow was deep, even the roads were covered, and the sky was bright and blue.

At Walesby our dog William had one of his little fits. Luckily the church was open so I took him in and sat down exhausted in the porch. Thank you Walesby for leaving your church open during the day for tired travellers such as William and myself.

Because today’s reading was from the Song of Songs I was inspired to read it all. I don’t think however, that poor old William quite matched the description.

I hear my beloved
See how he comes
Leaping over the mountains
Bounding over the hills
My beloved is like a gazelle
Like a young stag
(Song of Songs 2; 8-14)

When William and I finally got to Market Rasen I think we both felt far removed from the description in the scripture, at least physically.

Christianity in Modern Britain

Over the past week or so it has been encouraging to see comments being made by a number of high-profile individuals on the subject of Christianity in modern day Britain.

Last week we had the Prime Minister encouraging individuals in the public domain to be open about their faith and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey advocating a “tougher church” which should not be afraid to stand up and speak out. This week BBC Radio presenter Simon Mayo has spoken out against the Corporation’s marginalising of religion.

This is an encouraging step forward. Of course one would expect the former Archbishop of Canterbury to speak out for Christianity, but comments by the Prime Minister and a well known radio presenter of a popular show are less expected. One hopes that this is a sign of things to come and that the stigma which currently surrounds speaking about religion, especially Christianity, will become a thing of the past.

A Time to Keep Silence

I am reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence, a book about his visits to monasteries in France and given to me as a Christmas present. I was struck by what Karen Armstrong says in her introduction.

In the West, we have developed a culture that is rational, scientific and pragmatic. We feel obliged to satisfy ourselves that a proposition is true before we base our lives on it and to establish a principle to our satisfaction before we apply it. In the pre-modern period, in all the major faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behaviour. First you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God or Nirvana as a living reality.

This exactly sums up my belief that the decline in belief is fuelled by an obsession with it in the modern world. To be viable something has to be believed and proved. Because faith cannot be proved it is not viable. In fact religious thought or observance has value in itself without or before any conscious belief in the object of its worship. Indeed faith can often only follow from long hard work; it does not come as a flashing light from the sky.

Russian Christmas

Today as my wife is Russian Orthodox we all troop off as a family to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Chiswick. There is a magnificent new Iconostasis there newly installed by Russian craftsmen and I enclose a (rather grainy Blackberry)picture below.

Yesterday evening the priest read the Gospel in English aswell as in Russian.
At last after years of not understanding a word of the ancient Slavonic Liturgy, the text came alive. But it does not matter too much as the whole service is a riot of colour, smell and sound that invades all the senses.

Walking to Evensong in the Cold

It was cold. I was cold and was tempted to stay in the warmth, but instead walked across the freezing road to Evensong in the Abbey. Though the choir stalls were full I still found it extraordinary that in the middle of London there were not more people in the congregation. The music was literally magnificent. The Magnificat, the beautiful canticle magnifying the Lord by extolling his might and virtues, and the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon when he saw the baby Jesus, were sung in Latin.

The reading was from Corinthians and about the triumph of the spirit. Captured by the words, splendour and history of my surroundings during the reading I found myself falling into a kind of trance.

Perhaps inspired by the trance-like state I found myself in during the reading, that night, as I lay awake, I tried to imagine myself away from my body. We spend so much time concerning ourselves with ourselves that I found this an interesting exercise. I tried to suspend thought and concern for myself. Imagining myself to be someone else, I found it a challenging but worthwhile exercise.

Having experiencing the unselfish words of the Magnificat earlier in the day the exercise seemed entirely appropriate.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

The New Year is supposed to be a time of looking forward and back, as well as a time of parties and company. Gabriel sat for a time in the small local church, just to be content with the present, pondering neither the past nor the future.

He had a surfeit of family and friends.

There was a picture of Mary in the corner. He gazed at it as he had often done before.

When depressed, he had found a peculiar and unexplained comfort in turning to her.

Now he remembered that today’s psalm he had often heared before, but the words had passed him by.

O God, be gracious and bless us
and let your face shed its light upon us.
So will your ways be known upon earth
and all nations learn your saving help.

Let the nations be glad and exult
for you rule the world with justice.
With fairness you rule the peoples,
you guide the nations on earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
May God still give us his blessing
till the ends of the earth revere him.