Life for the Benedictine monks of Christ in the Desert is based on prayer – ‘Opus Dei’ or God’s work – and the work that earns their daily bread. This article by Jonathan Malesic explores how these two activities can sit well together or clash and so undermine community life. When does work become too demanding for the good of the community or its members?
Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy reading this long essay slowly: it challenges our view of the work we do, efficiency and all. It was published by Commonweal magazine on 2nd February 2019.
It is on this day that the people of Greenland have their first glimpse of the sun for the new year.
Place yourself therefore in the midst of the world, as if you were alone, and meditate upon all the services which it doth unto you.
Suppose the Sun were absent; and conceive the world to be a dungeon of darkness and death about you: you will then find his beams more delightful than the approach of Angels: and loath the abomination of that sinful blindness, whereby you see not the glory of so great and bright a creature, because the air is filled with its beams. Then you will think that all its light shineth for you, and confess that God hath manifested Himself indeed, in the preparation of so divine a creature.
You will abhor the madness of those who esteem a purse of gold more than it. Alas, what could a man do with a purse of gold in an everlasting dungeon? And shall we prize the sun less than it, which is the light and fountain of all our pleasures? You will then abhor the preposterous method of those, who in an evil sense are blinded with its beams, and to whom the presence of the light is the greatest darkness. For they who would repine at God without the sun, are unthankful, having it: and therefore only despise it, because it is created.
‘Repine’ here we read as ‘moan’. Better to be grateful for what is given us, and so be happy.
The Services which the world doth you, are transcendent to all imagination. Did it only sustain your body and preserve your life and comfort your senses, you were bound to value it as much as those services were worth: but it discovers the being of God unto you, it opens His nature, and shews you His wisdom, goodness and power, it magnifies His love unto you, it serves Angels and men for you, it entertains you with many lovely and glorious objects, it feeds you with joys, and becomes a theme that furnishes you with perpetual praises and thanksgivings, it enflameth you with the love of God, and in the link of your union and communion with Him. It is the temple wherein you are exalted to glory and honour, and the visible porch or gate of Eternity: a sure pledge of Eternal joys, to all them that walk before God and are perfect in it.
From the Second Century of Meditations, 1. (Meditations 2:1)
This meditation follows on well from yesterday’s poem: those bubbles of joy may take us to Eden, but they are fed to us by the world in which we have been created.
Let us reflect on how we can make this Porch of Eternity in which we live more transparent to the eternal joys that the God who walks with us is waiting to pour out for us. WT.
Goatsbeard seed head, a sphere of joy, a lovely and glorious object.
This derelict chapel is lost in the Herefordshire countryside. The church at nearby Richard’s Castle is no longer in regular use for worship. Has God abandoned the Marches (the Welsh/English border country) or have the Marches abandoned God?
It’s more complex than that. People have gone. Farm work is done mechanically; the railways that employed thousands have closed or greatly reduced the number of workers, and so on. But also people have indeed turned away from Sunday worship.
This chapel was built around 1810 by local people who responded to the Methodist Revival led by the Wesleys. They wanted to live the Christian life more fully and when they were cold-shouldered by the established Church of England, they erected chapels that look as much like dwelling places as churches. Other groups were also building ‘dissenting’ chapels, like the Baptists and Congregationalists. One of my ancestors is believed to have ministered at Bethel Chapel in nearby Evenjobb, across the border in Wales.
It is a shame to see the building abandoned, the lawn gone to nettles, brambles, and buttercups – we can welcome the buttercups, but the others will soon be preventing people from entering. It is unloved. Perhaps no descendants of the worshippers live nearby, or they don’t know about the chapel, perhaps they don’t care.
So do we Christians pack up and go home? Or do we try to tune ourselves to Christ, live as he would do, in season or out of season?
In a final plug for Rowan WIlliams’s Luminaries, a few words from his reflection on Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
You’re free to offer God’s love quite independently of your own security or success. Sometimes the world may be in tune and sometimes not; sometimes there is a real symbiosis, sometimes a violent collision. But the labour continues, simply because the rightness of the service does not depend on what the world thinks it wants and whether the world believes it has got what it needs from the Church. (p116).
Continuing Saint Augustine’s sermon on 1John 4:4-12. The image of the ass running away from the safety offered by its rider bears further reflection.
May that virtue which ought never to depart from the heart, never depart from the tongue.
Jesus had no need to come except charity: and the charity we are commending is that which the Lord Himself commends in the Gospel:
Greater love than this can no man have, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13. How was it possible for the Son of God to lay down His life for us without putting on flesh in which He might die? Whosoever therefore violates charity, let him say what he will with his tongue, his life denies that Christ has come in the flesh; and this is an antichrist, wherever he may be, wherever he have come in. But the Apostle says, y
ou have overcome him. And whereby have they overcome?
Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in this world.
Every man now, at hearing this saying,
You have overcome, lifts up the head, lifts up the neck, wishes himself to be praised. Do not extol yourself; see who it is that in you has overcome. Why have you overcome?
Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world. Be humble, bear your Lord; be the beast for Him to sit on. Good is it for you that He should rule, and He guide. For if you have not Him to sit on you, you may lift up the neck, may strike out the heels: but woe to you without a ruler, for this liberty sends you among the wild beasts to be devoured!
For more reflections on a donkey, not directly relevant to this post, see here: and see tomorrow’s post.
The signs of the times cannot simply be material events or objective happenings. Such things, of themselves, do not indicate anything. They prompt a suspicion that things are brewing, it does not take very much to be aware of that. Sadly that is where most people stop. Whereas the real signs are human actions, human responses to challenges posed by these events. Only people can create realities pointing somewhere, through their words, gestures and actions. The “signs of the times” are these gestures which allow the Lord to be present. There will always be a connection between events and signs. St. Paul’s journeys depended on the existence of sea-routes, and the communications system established by the Roman Empire. But a study of these phenomena would not suffice to help us understand what was going on. Only people can be signs. Anthony in the Desert, Benedict, Francis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King… were all signs who were intimately involved with what was going on in their own world. Their sign value lay in the pathways they opened up for the Gospel life to move through them, relevantly, into the world.
If we are simply looking for new ways to win people to the church, all we need do is take note of modern resources on offer. Make use of the variety of ideologies at our disposal. But our task is different. A new Church demands freedom from the accretions and accumulations of time. We need to sweep away whatever makes the Word inaccessible. Just as individuals need to be set free from their past, so too do Institutions which are made up of individuals. We will only realise the need for change when we discover people who are not being reached. Recognising the signs of the times means risking letting go of much of the past. If Jesus had taken all the Jewish traditions on board he would have made many more converts, but nothing would have changed and the truth would have remained “safely” locked up.
Mission is not something extraordinary, it does not require the presence of genius; simply ordinary folk prepared to do ordinary things, extraordinarily well. When we rely over much on system and method we end up transmitting ideology, religion or culture, rather than access to Jesus Christ
Image from Saint David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire.
With our Lenten season we have set aside our long-running series from Traherne, the Little Flowers of Francis, and from Brother Austin. Let’s remedy that last one! There’s a challenge at the end: ‘I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?’
We cannot contrast Church and World. They are not mutually exclusive. The Church is supposed to be the community that makes God’s promises already present. When we celebrate the sacraments this is a pledge to what we have committed ourselves as community. There is no work blueprint, we are called to be creative through the possibilities everyday life presents. The Church cannot hand-out a programme to us telling us exactly what to do, how to do it and where. The Bible has no such blueprint. We learn more about the future when we respond to what we already know and are presenting solutions accordingly.
The early Church, seen through Paul’s writing, took slavery for granted as a feature of society – while insisting that the slave-owner respect their human dignity. Centuries later we began to realise that we must abolish slavery itself, because slavery as such is opposed to human dignity. We are also coming to realise that what we often call works of charity can be more crushing than poverty itself, that we can eliminate poverty simply by providing jobs and incomes for all. In the same way war was seen as inevitable, and not only killing but torture was therefore justified. With the formation of the UN we are starting to glimpse that war is not inevitable – Paul VI said to the UN with powerful conviction no more war, war never again.
The truth is that the “signs of the times” are those offering the church ever new opportunities to go out and meet others. Individuals may well set out believing they are going to teach, but they will end up learning, as did Paul. The church is given endless opportunities to rediscover itself in ever new light, but they do not happen every day. At certain moments of privilege, the Spirit summons the church to risk: “During the night a vision came to Paul: a Macedonian stood there appealing to him: Cross over to Macedonia and help us”. Acts.16.9.
The “signs of the times” are the external evidence of this call to Discipleship of Christ. Reasoned observation and rational planning have a place. Reason is able to perceive certain things that suggest there are changes requiring further and new steps to be taken. Different moments of time have their own signs. Not everyone sees them. Jesus criticised the Pharisees because their wisdom in this regard was deficient: “It is a wicked and Godless generation that asks for a sign; and the only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah” – Mt.12.39. There are insensitive people in every age, unable [unwilling] to see the call for something new. To them mission is no more than simply repeating what has already been achieved. This is the fear principle, prompted by the fact that I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?
Reading the Word and the World, Zakopane, Poland.
Our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God. There are we entertained with the wonder of all ages. There we enter into the heart of the universe. There we behold the admiration of Angels. There we find the price and elixir of our joys.
As on every side of the earth all heavy things tend to the centre; so all nations ought on every side to flow in unto it. It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the Soul, that we travel thither. By withdrawing our thoughts from wandering in the streets of this World, to the contemplation and serious meditation of His blood sufferings. Where the carcase is thither will the eagle be gathered together. Our eyes must be towards it, our hearts set upon it, our affections drawn, and of thoughts and minds United to it. When I am lifted up, saith the Son of Man, I will draw all men unto me.
Traherne was able to reconcile science and faith with his remarks on gravity.
The Cross as the door of Mercy
The WORLD is not this little Cottage of Heaven and Earth. Though this be fair, it is too small a Gift. When God made the World He made the Heavens, and the Heavens of Heavens, and the Angels, and the Celestial Powers. These also are parts of the World: So are all those infinite and eternal Treasures that are to abide for ever, after the Day of Judgement. Neither are these, some here, and some there, but all everywhere, and at once to be enjoyed.
The WORLD is unknown, till the Value and Glory of it is seen: till the Beauty and the Serviceableness of its parts is considered. When you enter into it, it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one’s own Felicity: and to find GOD in exchange for oneself: Which we then do when we see Him in His Gifts, and adore His Glory.
A scientist as well as a poet can happily lose himself or herself in comtemplation.
This is Thomas Traherne’s Seventh Meditation. He is grappling with the dilemma posed by Jesus’ words on loving the world alongside the Genesis story of creation as God’s good work. Here is Saint John:
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (2:16-17)
That is the King James Version which Traherne would have used. And here is his meditation: to contemn is to hold in contempt, to despise.
To contemn the world and to enjoy the world are things contrary to each other. How, then can we contemn the world, which we are born to enjoy? Truly there are two worlds. One was made by God, the other by men. That made by God was great and beautiful. Before the Fall it was Adam’s joy and the Temple of his Glory. That made by men is a Babel of Confusions: Invented Riches, Pomps and Vanities, brought in by Sin: Give all (saith Thomas à Kempis) for all. Leave the one that you may enjoy the other.
Mention of Thomas à Kempis reminds me that my grandmother’s Imitation of Christ turned up recently. Another text to be shared sometime soon. But I like the term ‘Adam’s Joy’! Would we be happy to show our ancestors and our creator what we are doing to the Temple of his Glory? Can we dare to say, Laudato si?
Image from NASA