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December 14 : Zechariah, unlikely Advent Star II.

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Zechariah quickly becomes the focus of St. Luke’s narrative:

Now it happened that it was the turn of Zechariah’s section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there. At the hour of incense all the people were outside praying (1:8-10).

Here is Zechariah, an older man, exercising his priestly duties once again. I see him wearing the priestly robes, silently entering the sanctuary and carrying out the rituals prayerfully and in the prescribed manner. He does this, perhaps rather slowly due to his age, but also beautifully, with innate grace of movement and dignity of bearing. This has happened many times and Zechariah knows all the prayers and actions by heart. Everything flows smoothly. He reverently lights the coals; the incense fills the holy place with its fragrance. He loves this religious duty and never tires of it. He is alone with his God and prays fervently for his people.

There are never any surprises here for Zechariah. Ever. Perhaps this is another clue to Zechariah’s character. He knows what should happen next. Maybe he knows this a bit too well. Ordinarily, for frail human beings, our greatest strengths have a flip side, when our greatest weaknesses take over. We usually have a hard time being balanced. Zechariah is like all of us here. His great religious devotion, and his familiarity with what was prescribed by the Law in exercising his priestly office, might not have prepared him for what would happen this time. New ideas are never easy to absorb, especially new ideas about religion. And what would happen this time to Zechariah, as we know, was not merely a new idea, but an entirely new experience of the numinous, and a new revelation of God’s will.

ZMaybe this is a good place to stop and pray. Is this a time in my life when God is asking something new of me – for which I do not feel prepared? Advent is always such a time. The Incarnation is something so new that it cannot be imagined: God’s very Son is born. The Eternal Word of the Father becomes an infant. Have I lost my sense of how astonishing this is? Am I somewhat entrenched in a religious mind-set that I have acquired and maintained for years now? Can I imagine letting go of this so that God can lead me to something I have never experienced before?

SJC

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December 13. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: I.

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The story of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, and his encounter with the archangel Gabriel, has been an important one in the Church’s Advent liturgy. Every year we hear St. Luke’s narrative (1:5-25) on December 19th at Mass, one of those privileged days in the final week before the great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

To be honest, I have often felt a bit sorry for Zechariah. First, his outstanding personality and goodness is mostly eclipsed by his extraordinary son, John. We tend to forget about Zechariah. Then, when Zechariah does figure in sermons, he is often portrayed as the perfect example of how not to act when one is vouchsafed an angelic visitation. He is usually contrasted with Our Lady, who also received an angelic visitation, and who is perfect. Now, I have no problem with Our Lady being perfect. She is. But I contend that Zechariah, although not perfect, is a loveable and heroic man, and should be given credit for getting quite a lot of important things right. I have found that he can be a good companion to have during the season of Advent.

Zechariah’s story comes at the beginning of St. Luke’s gospel in chapter one (all biblical texts in these posts are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible).

In the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood, and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron. Both were upright in the sight of God and impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless. Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in years (1:5-7).

The first thing I notice here is that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are ‘upright in the sight of God.’ To my knowledge, it is a rare thing in the bible to be described as upright in the sight of God. As I linger over this phrase and repeat it slowly to myself, a picture begins to form in my mind of a married couple who pray together every day, who are united both spiritually and physically, and who strive to discern God’s will together. Moreover, we learn from St. Luke that Zechariah and his wife ‘impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord.’ Impeccably is a strong word. Who among us can be described in this way with regard to all God’s commands? On the contrary, it is so easy to think, ‘Oh, the Lord didn’t mean me to do that all the time. Surely, I can let myself off this or that practice today. He’ll understand.’ Yet, St. Luke implies that neither Zechariah nor his wife thought in such terms. This is made more impressive by the fact that they were “advanced in years.” Their integrity is not, therefore, a case of the neophyte’s fervour: Zechariah and Elizabeth are an example of long-term, day in and day out faithfulness. They are a holy couple.

Yet, they are childless. This, as verse twenty-five will indicate, was a very deep humiliation for both of them. Barrenness was a cause of shame at that time, and was even seen as God’s punishment. But, what had they done? They were upright in the sight of God; they were innocent, faithful and devout. Yet, their prayers for a child had been unanswered and now it was too late. They are too old.

Perhaps many of us can relate to this. We know that we are not perfect, but at the same time, something painful is happening or has happened to us that we know we do not deserve. What do we do? How do we deal with this? It can be helpful to draw near in prayer to this holy couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who had been enduring something painful and humiliating for a very long time. They do not turn away from God in anger. They accept their childlessness, and the unanswered questions they surely had, and they continue faithfully in their life with God, day by day, carrying out his will as they understood it. They are upright in the sight of God. Perhaps they became so precisely through their prayerful acceptance of a sorrow they could not understand.

SJC

Walking together through the desert – Zechariah and Elizabeth.

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12 December. Zechariah, an Unlikely Advent Star: Preface on Lectio Divina.

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It is always good to hear from Sister Johanna at Minster Abbey. Today she introduces her Advent reflections on Zechariah (or Zachary) by explaining how they came to her. She was reading the Gospel story of how John the Baptist came to be born to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth when a very human and likeable figure emerged.

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a rather fancy Latin term that may not be known to every reader of these posts. It means ‘sacred reading’, or ‘holy reading’ and refers to the practice of slowly and prayerfully reading the bible. For a Benedictine nun or monk, lectio is a daily exercise, lasting anywhere from one to two hours, and it is a wonderful experience. But lectio is not merely a pious exercise for monks and nuns. If you take your spiritual life seriously and wish to grow closer to God, try to set aside a period of time each day for this beautiful practice. Busy people may not have time for a full hour or two, but even a daily habit of fifteen minutes can be full of grace.

If you have never tried it, lectio may seem strange at first. Reading the bible is not like reading any other book. You are not trying to ‘find out what happens next’, or quickly reach the end. You are reading a bit like a child eats an ice-cream cone: you try to make it last, and to savour each line like the child savours each lick.

Soon, the reader finds that lectio divina yields a harvest of rich meditations. This in turn leads to deeper prayer, as the Holy Spirit gives the reader new insights, which can be deeply personal ones that shed light on the way God is working in the reader’s life. I have found that writing down my lectio meditations helps them along. As I write, more insights come. The following posts are based on the meditations I have had when using the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke for my lectio.

Reading can be a window looking beyond ourselves. Zakopane. Poland.

 

 

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December 11: Things in the night that monstrous seem

crypt.monster Take far away each hideous dream,

Things in the night that monstrous seem …

Two lines from the compline hymn came to mind when I read about the Christmas TV Ad which shows a boy who has a monster under his bed. Not a lot to do with the real meaning of Christmas, I hear you say.

This monster above has lived in the crypt, or basement of Canterbury Cathedral for many hundreds of years, along with a few more of different kinds, not unlike the imaginary beasts in the margins of ancient manuscripts. This fellow is within sight of Mother Concordia of Minster’s Mary and Child.

Ancient writers imagined the infant Jesus creating living creatures from the mud of the ground. I can imagine him playing with toy monsters and dinosaurs as so many children do today. After all, there were plenty of monsters to be seen among the deities of ancient Egypt where he grew up!

Can we not play, and play fairly, in the world created for us and be grateful? Let’s play fairly by some of our less favoured sisters and brothers this Christmas – we all know several ways of helping. Let’s not be selfish monsters!

 

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An evening with Julian of Norwich: reminder.

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A reminder of the evening of music, dance, narration and art at Minster Abbey on Sunday November  12, interpreting the revelations of Julian of Norwich.

It’s easy to get to Minster: the Abbey is a short walk from Minster railway station with hourly trains from London, Ashford, Canterbury and Ramsgate.

Follow this link to see the poster:

Julian of Norwich at the Abbey 121117

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An evening with Julian of Norwich at Minster Abbey.

 

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Good Evening Friends,

Back we come from Wales to find a note from our contributor Monica (MT), inviting us to an evening of music, dance, narration and art at Minster Abbey on Sunday November  12, interpreting the revelations of Julian of Norwich.

It sounds interesting! Minster Abbey is a short walk from Minster railway station with hourly trains from London, Ashford, Canterbury and Ramsgate.

Follow this link to see the poster:

Julian of Norwich at the Abbey 121117

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18 October, Saint Luke: Watching

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The wind whisked and sighed all night and

at sunrise-time some secret sun

shed what passed for light, but even

bats were sceptical of day and shot

by in fitful flight, long past their

vanishing-hour,

 

while wind kept sweeping through, rustling

like ladies in long silken skirts.

Nothing sparked or spiked in morning

sunshine that wasn’t, and yet,

this shadowed and speaking scene seethed,

strange with the life

 

I strained to see.  Autumn’s sunflowers

rocked and swayed, scarcely able to

stand, like tall thin drunks on their stems,

sleepy heads lolling, and they seemed

about to slither down, feet first,

into a heap,

 

while wind – I relished standing in

it – used its huge hands to swish the

leaves of trees and push tree tops round

in circles and made sounds like surf

foaming, swirling, hurling itself

on the seashore,

 

sliding back, all slick, and hurling

itself over and over –

 

such

dark, brooding exuberance –

 

such

fierce sibilance –

 

such lavishly

lively gifts of Being –

 

all mine, at dawn

 

as I stood

in the dark wind

 

watching.

 

 

 

SJC.

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Sister Johanna’s poem about Watching and the Wind seems appropriate for Saint Luke, who gave us his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, where he tells how the Spirit came in a great wind and settled over the Apostles.

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30 September: Fortitude VII, More Endurance.

 

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This idea of endurance is worth lingering over. When I taught this subject as a class, a student once asked, “Isn’t it better to fight for what is right, rather than just put up with something that is evil? Shouldn’t we utilize anger and aggression against an evil which threatens?” St. Thomas allows this, in fact. Moreover, he nowhere says that we should ‘put up with evil’ in a passive way. He says that in resisting evil, all the emotions of the soul can be employed by the virtuous person if they are modified according to the dictate of reason. But as for anger and aggression, they are effective only sometimes. At best, “moderate anger”, as he calls it, can be useful because it is both “moved by the commands of reason and it renders an action more prompt.” Moderate anger, then, is not a tantrum, a rage, a show of personal power. It is intelligent, it speaks without shouting, it has a rational basis for its concerns. That is what Thomas means by being “moved by the commands of reason.” Moreover, an angry person doesn’t delay and stall about doing what needs to be done: an angry person acts quickly. This can be a very good and useful thing.

Then, if the anger is under control, if one has a reasonable set of objections and can communicate them in a rational way, and without dragging one’s feet, then this would be St. Thomas’s idea of the virtuous way to utilize the emotion of anger and grow in fortitude. It might be effective if the difficulty is the type than can be resolved by reasonable argument. Some are.

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The Iron Bridge is a symbol of endurance: Abram Darby III’s endurance against scoffers, and nearly 240 years of Shropshire weather and the vagaries of the river Severn.

But, sadly, not all difficulties can be resolved in this way. For Thomas, the bottom line still seems to be that we must accept that most serious problems take a long time to resolve. This is why endurance, in his teaching, is more effective than anger – even moderate anger. Endurance isn’t merely a passive virtue, for ‘do-nothings’. Rather, endurance actively stands firm on the side of what is truly valuable and good when trials come. It does not capitulate to pressure. It keeps hold of the ethical reasons for taking the stance we take. This, as anyone knows who has ever tried it, is not easy. That is why fortitude is a virtue.

I would like to end these reflections with what The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about fortitude.

Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice one’s life in defence of a just cause (no. 1809).

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press

http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/

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29 September: Fortitude VI, Fortitude, Justice and Endurance.

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And the virtue of justice? What does that have to do with fortitude? St Thomas says of justice that it is ‘…the lasting and constant will [to] render each his due’ (S. T., II, II, 58,1). Fortitude stands firm against whatever threatens a value. That valued thing might exist on a world scale, such as the freedom of our country, or on a personal scale, such as my right to a just wage; or on any other scale you choose, but the key word is value. By the virtue of justice, we become able to recognise what is of true value, and honour it by a certain kind of commitment to it, as appropriate. By the virtue of justice, in other words, we are able to identify what is worth the kind of self-dedication that fortitude requires.

Which brings us to the consideration of St. Thomas’s teaching on the chief “act” of fortitude. For him, fortitude is about endurance. This may be surprising. Perhaps we expected fortitude to issue in a big display of obvious power directed against something big and bad. How does endurance figure into fortitude? St. Thomas explains that endurance is “an action of the soul cleaving resolutely to good, the result being that it does not yield to fear” (S. T. II, II, 123, 6). Endurance, then, in “cleaving resolutely” to something, implies length of time. We don’t have to cleave resolutely when the difficulty disappears quickly. Resolute cleaving is only necessary when we have a difficulty that doesn’t go away.

So we see here that first of all, fortitude is a virtue for the long haul. Fortitude is what comes into play for situations that require time in order to achieve their fulfilment. Take something like marriage. The wedding day is not the fulfilment of the marriage vows. It is the golden anniversary that fulfils what the couple set out to do and become when they made their commitment to each other. In the meantime, fortitude is what helps them to weather the storms that are inevitable in a relationship between two fallible beings; it helps them to learn from their mistakes, admit their share in them, say ‘Sorry,’ and start again.

SJC

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press

http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/

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28 September: Fortitude V, Fortitude and the True Self

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Today is the feast of Saint Wenceslas, King of Bohemia. Gathering around his statue helped people to develop and exercise fortitude in times of oppression and eventually to win freedom for their country.

 

What does fortitude do for us in these painful situations? Does it make us invulnerable? Does it make us completely fearless? Does it make us feel strong? The answer to all these questions is no. We will need fortitude as long as we are alive, and we will be vulnerable as long as we are alive. We will never be without the need of this virtue. Fortitude is about helping us to be strong, but it will not make us feel strong.

Then, what kind of strength are we talking about here? We do not have a “fortitude button” in our hearts, that we can turn on whenever we need it. But, fortitude does get help from the other virtues, so that it can become part of our character as a human being, part of our personality. This is where we can return to our reflections on the virtue of prudence. Prudence gives us the ability both to see reality and to see the good for which we are striving. This identification of and commitment to the good in a given situation is the vital thing that sustains us in situations requiring fortitude. Sometimes a situation is confusing, and there are several good things that seem to be in conflict. We can find it hard to identify which good thing we should be focused on. We often need the counsel of a wise person to help us sort through the confusion, and to gain clarity. Once we do, however, then we need fortitude so that we do not begin sliding back because of the pull of our emotions. Fortitude strengthens us on the level of our will, so that we become able to hold fast to that which we perceive to be good and true and worth suffering for. In this way, we become able to handle the emotional reactions that can otherwise be overwhelming in the face of danger or difficulty.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of these emotional reactions by using the concepts of fear and of daring. In his thinking, the fear and the daring are on opposite sides. Because of fear, he says, we simply want to run away from the threatening thing. If we do that, though, then as St. Thomas puts it, the will withdraws from following what the reason knows to be right, good and true. This is where fortitude helps us to become the person we really want to be, for we lose something vital here on the level of personal integrity if we run away from everything that is difficult and emotionally threatening. By holding firm to our convictions and principles, even at great personal cost, we grow. We become recognisable as someone whose actions match up to our system of values. It is not easy to be such a person. Fortitude is about this kind of growth.

At the other extreme from fear, there is the tendency to be “daring” in the face of danger – by which St. Thomas means that, rather than try to escape, we race headlong into a dangerous situation ‘without taking counsel’, and in a manner that is not helpful to anyone, but only makes the situation worse. While there can be a time when a situation truly calls for a kind of bravery that advances into battle against the enemy, for St. Thomas, this is precisely what “daring” does not do. Daring, in his thinking, seems to be another word for a knee-jerk reaction, which dashes precipitately into the face of danger, taking foolhardy risks, endangering oneself or others unnecessarily.

In other cases, as St. Thomas points out with shrewd awareness of human nature, the person reacts by both running away from and running toward danger. He quotes Aristotle here and says, ‘Some hurry to meet danger, yet fly when the danger is present. This is not the behaviour of a brave man’ (see S. T., II, II, 123, 6). This brief sketch perfectly captures the personality of someone who talks big, but cannot cope with real danger.

For further study:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church ,Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994

The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper, University of Notre Dame Press

http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/

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