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.