Monthly Archives: February 2014

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.