Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, as we read in Galatians 5: 22-23. 'By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.' If the Holy Spirit is truly at work in our lives we shall be joyful people, and we shall be spreading joy despite our sufferings.
The world seeks happiness and so often is loolcing for it in the wrong places. Money, sex, and power are seen by many as the key sources of happiness, and this can lead to a frenzied and pathetic life-style, end in collapse, and perhaps with drugs. Sometimes I watch the news on television and before the news I may catch the end of the previous program. There are times one can see an obviously artificial and pseudo happiness when one sees skin-deep miles and pretended heartiness. How different is the true joyfulness of the Songs of Praise programme, which several of us monks like to watch on Sunday evenings when we are free! (I must add that I am not against all comedy — I would like to see a Charlie Chaplin film again.)
In a sense, when it comes to the question of suffering, I think some Christians overstress the place of suffering in the Christian life and others stress it insufficiently. What do I mean by that? To start with: stressing suffering insufficiently.
There are some Christians who believe that if we acrept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and give our lives to him then we can claim and expect healing, including physical healing, prosperity, and children for the barren married couples. I think it can be very right to pray for physical healing, for God to provide for our material needs, for children for married people. I think many Christians should be praying much more for such things. But I do not think God always wants to bless us by answering our prayers those ways. If we take that line, then those who are not healed physically, who remain in difficult financial circumstances, who remain childless can be worse for having come to us for prayer and ministry, indeed can lose their faith in Jesus, this Jesus who we are told wants to heal us physically but does not do it; who wants us to be prosperous and it does not happen; who wants married people to have children and they do not come. People can also wrongly feel guilty. 'I am not healed, am not prosperous, do not have children because of my lack of faith.' lack of faith could sometimes stand in the way of God blessing us in some ways, but sometimes the reason is simply that God does not wish to bless us in those ways — he wants to bless us instead in other ways.
In these cases we have to accept God's will for us, and it can be good to offer up to God the sacrifice and suffering involved, perhaps offer up for this or that intention or intentions, for example for the conversion of my son, for the health of my husband, and for peace in the world or in Israel. I think that in our prayer lives we have to learn to continue praying seriously for specific things, lilce the healing of cancer and accepting God's will and offering up the sufferings when our prayer is not answered as we first hoped. Only the Holy Spirit can show us how to harmonise in each case these two aspects of our prayer. Yes, often we need to believe more strongly in the power of prayer, but also to believe more strongly in the value of redemptive suffering.
Now to the other side, the over-stressing of suffering. Some Cluistians seem to want to only pray 'Thy will be done' when there is a special need. Certainly all our requests should be subject to 'Thy will be done'. However, when Jesus taught us to pray in the Our Father, it did not stop with the 'Thy will be done', it went on to pray for specific things like 'Give us this day our daily bread' and 'Deliver us from the evil one'. Jesus also specifically told us to pray for healing including physical healing. He said to the seventy in Luke 10: 8-9, 'Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, "The Kingdom of God has come near to you." ' We also read in Mark 16:17, 18, 'And these signs will accompany those who believe ... they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.'
Personally, I find it difficult to reconcile the near absence of praying for healing especially physical healing among many Catholics with the New Testament and with what is surely the authentic tradition of the Catholic Church. (See the 'Instruction on Prayer for Healing' issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of the Pope, 14 September 2000.) I am not for a moment criticising the already over-burdened clergy in many Catholic parishes who are doing their best in very difficult circumstances and who were probably never encouraged in the seminary to pray for healing, certainly not physical healing. However the situation results, in my opinion, in a vital part of the New Testament and Catholic tradition being neglected, with the further result that Catholics seeking healing go elsewhere. When they go to other Christian churches that can be all right, but when they go, as an increasing number do, to non-Christian New Age sources serious harm can be done, and this sometimes happens.
There is also, in my opinion, often a serious neglecting of the deliverance ministry in much of the Catholic church. Jesus' commandment to 'cast out demons' (Matthew 10:8) and his promise that 'by using my name they will cast out demons' (Mark 16:17) seems to have been largely forgotten in much of the Catholic Church, despite the official teaching of the Church on these matters. I not infrequently get telephone calls or letters from this country or abroad asking me where someone can find a priest exorcist for deliverance ministry. Not so infrequently the enquirers have been told that that ministry is not available in their diocese, despite the instructions of canon law, which places on the bishop the responsibility for providing for this ministry (Canon 1172).
(I have treated this subject much more fully in my book I Saw Satan Fall: the ways of spiritual warfare, 1997, also published by New Life Publishing, Luton. Obviously the subject of holiness is closely connected with spiritual warfare, for the devil is attacking each one of us to try to prevent us from growing in holiness.)
One result of neglecting or downplaying the healing and deliverance ministries is, in my opinion, that not a few people are suffering from burdens which could have sometimes been removed or lessened by healing or deliverance ministry. Jesus went round relieving suffering caused by illness and demonic troubles and he told us to do the same. He did this because he had compassion on suffering people. 'When he (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick' (Matthew 14: 14). True compassion for suffering people, in my opinion, requires that the Catholic Church seeks to become seriously involved in the healing and deliverance ministries of prayer, which is obviously not always happening today. Again, I must say that I am not criticising many over-burdened and overtired priests who are doing far better than I could have ever done in their very difficult circtunstances.
I must admit that I think that some Catholic spiritual literature, especially in the past, did not always reflect truly the atmosphere of the New Testament on the subjects of suffering and joy. Obviously we should say Yes to that cross which God wills for us or at least try our best to do so, and we may have to suffer much in this life — consider the persecuted Christians in many countries today, or many of the innocent people infected with Aids, or indeed many of the people suffering severely in every hospital, or the starving children in not a few countries of the world today. At 83 and with very wobbly health I would not be at all surprised if the road ahead for me will involve serious sufferings before by the grace of God I reach my heavenly home. I do not feel that something will have necessarily gone wrong with God's loving Providence for me if that happens. But I will not refuse pain killers, and I will be grateful for those who pray for me including for the relieving of my suffering. And I thank God that through his grace my sufferings could be very meaningful and fruitful.
I think there has sometimes been a certain grimness in the religious life which
is not really the spirit of the gospel. For instance, sometimes in the past, religious were forbidden to visit
sick or dying members of their family. I once listened to a meditation being read which suggested that if we liked
the food set before us we should eat it quicIdy to shorten the enjoyment, and if we disliked the food we should
eat it slowly to lengthen the penance. I heard the story of a wealthy French monastery where in the middle of a
very cold winter there was no heating in the rooms of the monks. One cold day the abbot entered the room of a monk
in the middle of the day and found the monk sitting at an empty desk with a blanket round his shoulders doing nothing.
The abbot asked the monk what he was doing and received the reply: 'I am
waiting for the spring.' After that they apparently installed some heating.
However, it needs to be said that sometimes religious life has become too soft — and one could give examples of that. Some people would say 'Dom Benedict!' What are we
to think of people who ask God for more suffering? I must admit that I am very wary of that. I am not prepared
to say that no Christian has ever been
There are many beautiful texts in the Bible on joy and rejoicing. Here are two more. Jesus said, 'Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete' (John 16: 24). 'Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls' (1 Peter 1: 8-9). In times of serious suffering our joy may be a very hidden joy, and in the presence of the suffering of others we mmust know how to, 'Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15). Christianity, I think, is more a religion of joy than of suffering because for those who have allowed Jesus to save them the sufferings come to an end, but the joy will go on throughout eternity Alleluia!
Jesus wants us to experience some joy in this life, not only suffering. As far as possible he wants us to know joy even when we are suffering. The disciples of Jesus must have experienced wonderful joy, especially, I would think, at the resurrection of Jesus: 'Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord' (John 20: 20)'. When Jesus ascended into heaven the disciples 'worshipped him, and retumed to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God' (Luke 24: 52). In Christian healing services today there can sometimes be floods of joyful tears when people have been deeply touched by Jesus or experience healing. In the lives of some of the great saints, for example St Ignatius Loyola, we sometimes find that there was quite a lot of weeping, 'the gift of tears', some doubtless out of sorrow, but others out of joy.
Certainly we have to avoid exaggerated emotionalism, but that is not much of a danger for most of our congregations of aging people in this part of the world. Jesus wants to transform our whole being including the emotions. Following Jesus round Israel must have been for his disciples a very emotional experience. And following Jesus today can also involve the emotions at a deep level.
The Second Coming of Jesus
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Whereas the New Testament Christians were looking forward to the Second Coming, and indeed praying for it: 'Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!' (Revelation 22: 20), many Christians today seem to hope very much that it will not happen in their lifetime or at least not until they have had more time to do this or that and enjoy life for some more years. Indeed I can understand that a little. After having worked hard on my first book for some years, I asked myself whether I would have rejoiced if the Lord returned the day before it was due to be published. Part of me would have felt like saying, 'Lord, please wait until my book has been published for at least a short time!' Of course such thoughts would show a profound lack of faith and understanding. When Jesus returns God's plan for creation will be wonderfully fulfilled in every way and nothing more perfect could be imagined.
Someone could want Jesus to delay his coming, either for the individual at his or her death or for the Second Coming so that they could be better prepared to face judgement. Well, if we do not feel we are ready, that could spur us to try to get ready without delay. Death may overtake anyone at any time! However in one important sense we never shall be ready, we shall never have ironed out all the wrinkles, got everything in perfect order, for we are all sinners dependent for salvation on the forgiveness, grace, and mercy of Jesus. God help us if we should ever think, 'Lord, here I come in all my perfection!'
Jesus said to St Paul when he asked Jesus to remove his thorn in the flesh, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Corinthians 12: 9). We shall always in this life experience our weakness in one way or another. I am writing this just before Holy Week. In Holy Week we think of following Jesus in our weakness and brokenness, not as spiritual athletes and heroes.
When will the Second Coming of Jesus, the Parousia, happen? In St Matthew's gospel we read the following words of Jesus concerning the time of his return, 'But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' (Matthew 24: 36). That might seem to suggest that any speculation as to the time of Jesus' return is simply a waste of time, and many good Christians would take that position.
However Jesus also said, in the same chapter, 'From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also when you see all these things, you know that He is near, at the very gates' (Matthew 24: 32-3). This would suggest that the signs mentioned in Matthew 24 and the parallel passages in the gospels of Mark and Luke may be able to tell us something about the Second Coming of Jesus and its timing. Other biblical prophecies are also relevant, concerning the future, for example the reference to the new heaven and new earth in the book of Revelation, 'Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more' (Revelation 21: 1). (See also references to the new heaven and new earth in Isaiah 65: 17 and 2 Peter 3: 13.)
At different times over the centuries some Christians have felt that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent or would be soon. St Paul seems to have thought that when he wrote his letters to the Thessalonians. Pope St Gregory the Great (c. A.D. 540-604) thought that the Lord was about to return because the situation in the Roman world of his time had become so disastrous with barbarian armies walking up and down Italy plundering as they went. When the year A.D. 1000 arrived not a few Christians expected the Parousia because of the references to one thousand years in Revelation 20. In the fourteenth century when the Black Death killed as many as two-thirds of the population in some areas of Europe the belief that Jesus was about to return was not uncommon. In the nineteenth century in the United States of America one agricultural Christian conununity was so convinced that Jesus was going to return that summer that they did not bother to sow the seeds in the ground, with very unfortunate results!
In our own tunes there are tens, indeed hundreds, of millions of Christians who are convinced that Jesus will return soon. That includes all the members of the Pentecostal churches and other charismatic churches. What is meant by 'soon' will vary. Some people expect Jesus to return any day now, others would be more flodble. However, they would all say that we are living in the 'end times', and by that they do not mean the whole period between the first and second comings of Jesus, but something relatively soon.
For a number of years I used to say to other members of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal that we should not follow the Pentecostals in teaching that Jesus would be returning soon. I pointed out that some Pentecostals had been saying that for nearly one hundred years and he had not returned yet. I also said that that would make other Catholics think that we had been brainwashed by the Pentecostals, which would not have been helpful for us.
Well, I have to admit that I now think the Pentecostals are probably right in this matter and that Jesus will probably return fairly soon. However, I must also say at once that I may be wrong! I have not received a dramatic divine revelation — and if I thought I had it would need very careful discernment from suitable people, including the authorities of the Catholic Church. One could be so easily mistaken in such a matter. Looking at the facts of the present world situation it seems to me that humanity has got itself into such a mess that no normal or indeed extraordinary historical development could get us out of our present dangers.
I am not a scientific expert, but when one loolcs at the threatening crises in several areas of life there seems humanly speaking no way out. The dangers ot nuclear disasters, of biological warfare, of chemical warfare, of terrorism, of genetic developments, and of the destruction of the environment humanly speaking threaten the existence of human life on earth as never before. For example, we are told that a large chest of drawers could contain enough anthrax to destroy all human life on a continent. Anthrax is not all that difficult to make. We are also told that one aeroplane landing on Sellafield, a nuclear centre in the north of England, could have results a hundred times worse than the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Russia some years ago — and who or what can ensure that no terrorists would ever be able to get through with one aeroplane?
It is not, I thinlc, that humanity is more wicked or fanatical than it was in the past. There have always been terrible things done by wicked, fanatical and ignorant men. But the development of science has enabled these men to do so much more harmful things than in the past. Now we realise that humanly speaking, the continued existence of human life on earth could very well be in question.
If I were a humanist who did not believe in the existence of God, I would think that this human experiment on earth was drawing to a conclusion, coming to an end. As it is, however, I believe as a Christian that God is working his purposes out, that he has the whole situation under control, that he will not allow anything to happen that would destroy his plans for humanity, despite the attacks of the devil.
So I look to the Bible and Christian tradition to know what to expect, and there we find the teaching about the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we now know it, to be followed by the new heaven and the new earth. Among Christians who are expecting Jesus to return soon there are real differences in what they expect will happen. A well known Pentecostal leader, Morris Cerullo, expects in his own lifetime to be caught up in the rapture in accordance with 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18, and millions of Christians would agree with that. Millions of Christians are expecting Jesus to return soon and reign for a thousand years from Jerusalem in a very literal way.
Catholic theologians since the time of St Augustine (354-430) usually think that the milletmium mentioned in Revelation 20 started with the early Church and will end with the Second Coming of Jesus, whenever that happens. So for them the number 1000 is not to be taken literally.
Many liberal Christians think that the book of Revelation and other prophetic passages in the Bible have very little or nothing to tell us about what in the future is going to happen on earth or indeed in heaven. Indeed for some of them, all talk of the Second Coming of Jesus is really irrelevant. In their opinion there will probably never be a Second Coming. So, let us concentrate, they would say, on trying to improve life on earth, which is of course a very worthy aim. As to life after death, some of them even doubt as to whether there will be any life after death. In this way Christianity is more or less reduced to the position of the agnostic humanists. For Christians of this kind, the Bible is more or less placed on the same level as the Buddhist scriptures, and you can pick and choose anything you find helpful, forgetting the rest.
In case it may be thought that I am being over critical of very liberal Christians, I must add that many of them are dearly living very fruitful lives in helping other people, and the Lord will reward them for their loving lives. That does not mean, however, that they may not have seriously watered down the Christian faith. Sound teaching can help us to love more fully.
What is the official teaching of the Catholic Church on this whole question of the end times and the Second Coming of Jesus? I have the impression that most Catholics, including some priests, would think that there is no official teaching on this subject. So I think it may be helpful to quote at some length what the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 673-677, has to say on this subject.
The glorious advent of Christ, the hope of Israel
673 Since the Ascension, Christ's coming in glory has been imminent (cf. Revelation 22: 20), even though 'it is not for you to know times or periods which the Father has fixed by his own authority' (Acts 1: 7; cf. Mark 13: 32).
This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are 'delayed' (cf. Matthew 24: 44; 1 Thessalonians 5: 2; 2 Thessalonians 2: 3-12)
674 The glorious Messiah's coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by 'all Israel', for 'a hardening has come upon part of Israel' in their 'unbelief' toward Jesus (Romans 11: 20-26; cf. Matthew 23: 39). St Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost: 'Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.' (Acts 3:19-21). St Paul echoes him: 'For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!' (Romans 11: 15). The full inclusion of the Jews in the Messiah's salvation, in the wake of 'the full number of the Gentiles' (Romans 11: 12, 25; cf. Luke 21: 24), will enable the People of God to achieve 'the measure of the full stature of Christ', in which 'God may be all in all' (Ephesians 4:13; 1 Corinthians 15: 28).
The Church's ultimate trial
675 Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (cf. Lulce 18: 8; Matthew 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth (c.f. Luke 21: 12; John 15: 19-20) will unveil the 'mystery of iniquity' in the fonn of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2: 4-12; 1 Thessalonians 5: 2-3; 2 John 7; 1 John 2: 18, 22).
676 The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realise within history that messianic hope which can only be realised beyond history through the eschatological judgement. The Chtuch has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism (cf. DS 3839) especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of secular messianism (Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, condemning the 'false mysticism' of this 'counterfeit of the redemption of the lowly'; cf. GS 20- 21).
677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (cf. Revelation 19: 1-9). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (cf. Revelation 13: 8; 20: 7-10; 21: 2-4). God's tritunph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgement after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (cf. Revelation 20: 12; 2 Peter 3: 12-13).
So the Catholic Church teaches that there will be a Second Coming of Jesus, bringing to an end the present clispensation of human existence; that we do not know the hour or the day of Jesus' return; that the Jews will recognise Jesus before he returns; that before Jesus retums the Church will have to pass through a very difficult time which will be linked to the coming of the Antichrist; that the Church does not believe in milleniarism, that is to say that there will be a special 1000 years of blessings on earth before the return of Jesus; that God's final triumph will be at the Second Coming of Jesus, and the Last Judgement, and the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.
Another reason which for me points in the direction of the Second Coming of Jesus
fairly soon and in connection with it the conversion of Israel, is the extraordinary spiritual vitality of some
of those Christian groups who have that conviction. The rise of Pentecostal and Pentecostal type Christians from
nothing to 500 million in one hundred years is quite unique in Christian history. Is part of the reason for that
incredibly rapid progress due to the fact that they have discerned better than other Christian groups the signs
of the times concerning the Second Coming? I am thinking here also of movements like Alpha which is based in the
Anglican church in London, Holy Trinity, Brompton. In a few years they have developed a powerful international
outreach inducting many conversions in prisons in England and abroad. In Holy Trinity, Brompton they also would
spealc about living in the 'end times'.
What did Pope John Paul 11 think about the Second Coming of Jesus? I think that we have a hint as to his thoughts in the homily he delivered on the occasion of the dedication of the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Krakow-Lagiewniki on 17 August 2002. 'Today, therefore in this Shrine, I wish solenutly to entrust the world to Divine Mercy. I do so with the burning desire that the message of God's merciful love proclaimed here through Saint Faustina, may be made known to all the peoples of the earth and fill their hearts with hope. May this message radiate from this place to our beloved homeland and throughout the world. May the binding promise of the Lord Jesus be fulfilled: from here there must go forth 'the spark which will prepare the world for his final coming' (cf. Diary, 1732).
I find Pope John Paul II's choice of this short passage from St Faustina's diary strange if he himself were not thinking that the Second Coming of Jesus could very well be fairly soon. Why did he bring in this reference to the Second Coming? He could have chosen instead so many other suitable passages from St Faustina's lengthy diary. Perhaps he wanted Catholics to be thinlcing more about the Second Coming.
Our Going Home
For us, our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ
(Philippians 3: 20; New Jerusalem translation)
Obviously the mother of young children is rightly very much wanting to remain alive for the sake of her children. I have just at this moment received a phone call from a father of children with whom we had been praying for his healing. He is immensely relieved to learn that the scan shows that the dangerous object on his x-rays is not cancer. He said to me that his main fear was that of leaving his children without a father. Much of my ministry in recent decades has been in praying for healing, including physical healing. I think there needs to be much more praying for healing in the Catholic Church. However, the background to praying for healing should surely be the recognition that the only perfect healing all round is going to heaven, and we should try as best we can by the grace of God to say Yes to God's perfect will, even if that includes an early death or suffering from sickness. Pray for healing including physical healing, yes, but against the background of accepting and offering up whatever happens, be it pleasant or painful. And thank God that our sufferings can by the grace of God be meaningful and fruitful.
Perhaps I may be allowed here to be autobiographical. My physical health was pretty good and I was involved in active tninistry until at the age of eighty I collapsed one morning during Morning Prayer in the church for no apparent reason. Fortunately one of my fellow monks caught me as I fell, so that I did not bang my head. I was unconscious for about eight minutes and, so I am told, turned blue. The ambulance took me to hospital and they did further tests. As I was waiting in a cubicle in the hospital for results of the tests I began to feel very odd. I said to my brother monk, 'I think I may be dying. Would not that be wonderful.' Then I wept three times with joy at the thought that I may be dying.
I did not remain on cloud nine. Indeed for some time I had to take a weak dose
of anti-depressant. However something of the joy of that experience has remained with me, and I am looking forward
to going home when I have finished my task. I prayed, and still pray, 'Lord,
take me soon if it is for the advantage of your kingdom.' However, rightly
or wrongly, I have
Perhaps God gave me that beautiful experience when I collapsed physically nearly three years ago because I am temperamentally a fearful person and in my weakness needed that reassurance to strengthen my faith. Perhaps however he also wanted me to share that experience with others to encourage them and strengthen their faith and help to take away their fear of death. Hence this autobiographical interlude. However I can understand some people feeling that a monk should not be sharing his spiritual experiences in this way!
Am I not being over-confident as to my eternal destiny? I am very aware of having sinned and of my wealcrtess. However my confidence in Jesus' loving mercy and forgiveness is much greater than my fears of judgement. If he in his loving mercy has got me through this far, I am confident that he will complete the task.
St Paul wrote to the Philippians when he was in prison and in danger of being executed, 'For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith' (Philippians 1: 21-5), which of course is what happened.
Our concern should surely be to remain alive until we have finished the task God wants us to do on earth, also to have the health to do the task God wants us to do. Both prayer and medical science can be important in keeping us going, as also a healthy life-style as far as possible. But we should be ready, indeed happy, to go whenever the Lorrl calls us. Our aim is not to clutter up geriatric and other hospital wards for as long as possible or to over-burden other members of our families. I think some people are clinging on to life when they should let go. Such things as fear of death, fear of judgement and guilt can, I think sometimes delay our departure when it is time to go.
Sometimes we need, I think, to try to help someone spiritually to complete their
'unfinished business'; so that
they can go 'home' in peace without
undue delay. However we have to be ready to go on living on earth for as long as God wants, and we know that the
timing has to be His not ours. No to euthanasia, hidden or otherwise! (A Dutch Catholic friend told me that his
brother-in-law who was not all that old had decided on euthanasia. My friend said that it was all arranged very
efficiently and quickly No fuss, no problems. It sounded rather like arranging to have a tooth extracted.)
Yes, 'We ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies,' for the resurrection of our bodies. What exactly our risen bodies will be like we, of course, have very little idea. However, we know that they will be perfect, 'So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body' (1 Corinthians 15: 42-4).
We know that it is not only human beings who are waiting for redemption. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, 'that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay'. There is much in the creation whidi is very beautiful and wonderful. The advances of science reveal even more the greatness of the Creator. I myself am often moved by the beauty of nature, which reflects the wonderfulness of the Creator. However, there is much in the natural creation which is not perfect and shows that nature itself has in a mysterious way been affected by the Fall — just how we do not know. For instance, a cat playing with a mouse it has captured is not a beautiful thing, nor is a cuckoo pushing out the other baby birds from a nest, nor are animals dying of thirst when there is a serious drought — one could of course easily continue the list. Tennyson wrote of 'nature, red in tooth and claw'. It will not be like that in the New Jerusalem. As Isaiah prophesied, "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them... They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain' (Isaiah 11: 6-9). Yes, 'the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.'
'But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" ' (1 Corinthians 2: 9). So what the Christian is finally looking forward to is no special flourishing of Christian civilisation on earth, no special historical period of peace and justice, no time when the benefits of science are made available to all mankind, no utopia on earth, great and important though these things could be. No, we are looking forward to something far more wonderful, the 'new Jerusalem', the 'new heaven and the new earth' spoken of in the Bible.
What will this new creation be like? Of course in many ways we know very little. However, the Bible gives us some fleeting glimpses or hints. 'For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known' (1 Corinthians 13: 12). I think the visions and spiritual experiences of the saints and other Christians can be a, foretaste of what is reserved for us, especially the transfiguration of Jesus witnessed by Peter, John, and James: 'And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white' (Matthew 17: 2).
St Paul's experience related in 2 Corinthians 12 is surely another important reference: 'I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not Icnow, God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat' (2 Corinthians 12: 24).
Then there are the visions and experiences of some of the Old Testament saints and prophets such as Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, which point towards a world which is outside and beyond historical experience. The same applies, I think, to some of the experiences of the great saints and mystics like St Francis of Assisi, St Teresa of Avila, and St Seraphim of Sarov. Indeed I think that countless numbers of holy people have had experiences which were and are something of a foretaste of the heavenly bliss which awaits us, and which reveal something of the life to come.
While we are on this earth we must pray and work to make life here below more like life in heaven: 'Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' We shall continue to work for that aim through our prayers when we have left this earth. It is Catholic teaching that the departed in heaven and in purgatory can fruitfully pray for those still on earth. Catholics are accustomed to ask the saints to pray for them. However they tend to think of the very great saints who have been canonised, whereas they should also be thinking of the devout members of their families and friends who have gone ahead. Every day for many years I have been praying for the repose of the souls of my departed family and at the same time asking them to pray for me and for the other living members of my family. I thinlc these are the departed ones who are most likely to be praying for us, for I think the family link and other links which were formed on earth can carry on beyond the grave.
Three times after the death of my devout father I was aware of his presence in a special way, and each time there was a message for me linked with his presence. And when I lay in a hospital bed after the collapse of my physical health three years ago, I saw a round image of my mother's head and shoulders about 12 feet up on the hospital wall for about twenty minutes. The message to me was dear, that my loving mother was with me through her prayers in my time of need. I think that experiences of this kind are far more common than some people realise. Many people are very reluctant to talk about such an experience in case they are regarded as mentally ill.
It needs to be said here that spiritualism or spiritism is of course forbidden by the Bible and the Catholic and other churches. We may not ask departed ones for messages either directly or through a clairvoyant (Deuteronomy 18: 10-12. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2117). However that does not mean that we may never receive a message from a departed one, which we find sometimes happening in the lives of the saints. In such cases there needs to be careful discernment because we can be mistaken about the source of the supposed message — it could just be our imagination, or indeed it could come from a demonic source. However in the cases of my experiences connected with my departed Anglican parents, the spiritual and human results were entirely positive and there is no reason to doubt their authentidty, and that is also true of many people's experiences.
Why have I digressed on this subject of the departed praying for us? Because it can help us to understand better the life to which we ordinary Christians will be called in heaven. Our first activity will doubtless be praising, thanking and adoring God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However we will also have a ministry of intercession for those on earth — that is not only for the great saints. As I have said to our healing teams, your praying for healing will, God willing, not end with your life on earth. Of course we are not all going to be great spiritual giants like St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Padre Pio who have worked remarkable miracles through their intercession from above. But our prayers from above could be very important in helping our families and others. I have met quite a number of ordinary Christians who are convinced that their departed mother, father, or other people are helping them through prayer from above. Only last week a member of our monastic community said to me that he was feeling the support of the prayers of a devout member of our monastic conununity who died recently. Experiences and awareness of this kind are not rare.
The knowledge that we shall, by the grace of God, be helping people on earth through our prayers after our death can sometimes help people to accept their approaching death more easily. The dying mother who is worried about the future of her young children after her death, can be consoled by the thought that she will be able to continue to help them through her prayers from above. When St Padre Pio was nearing his death and his followers were saying, more or less, 'Padre, we still need you. Do not leave us,' he replied, 'I will be able to help you more when I have departed.'
We can and sometimes should storm heaven for a mirade of physical healing for a dying person, but subject to, 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' However there is also a time for remembering the words of Jesus: 'Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit' (John 12: 24) I believe we should be thinking much more about death as an opportunity for bearing fruit, as well as the passage to the fuller life for which we were created.
Jesus laid down his life for us, he offered up his death for our salvation. We also are called to offer up our lives and deaths to God. In that way our lives and deaths by the grace of God can be very fruitful. I think it is a wise and good thing for us to offer up our deaths and dying to God for whatever intentions God gives us beforehand, for no one knows when death and any suffering involved in it will come to us. So if we have accepted and offered up in advance, then if we are hit by a car acddent, a sudden heart attack, or any other sudden death or trial, we have already accepted it and offered it up. Yes, our passage to eternal life can by the grace of God be truly meaningful and fruitful for us and for others. Our lives the other side of death can also by the grace of God be truly fruitful. Alleluia!
A More Prayerful Liturgy
I must say strongly at the beginning that I am not suggesting that monks and nuns are not participating prayerfully in the monastic liturgy — obviously there are monks and nuns who participate in the monastic liturgy with great devotion. However, I do think that changes could often be made which would make it easier to participate prayerfully. To give an example, at any rate in the past, there were monks and nuns who did not know Latin and spent hours every day reciting Latin psalms: If their intention was right this could have been pleasing to God. However, it was surely not, objectively speaking, a very helpful or intelligent way of praying.
My own ideas on monastic liturgy have been coloured by my experience of over fifty years. I did my novitiate in a large monastic community where the full Benedictine Latin liturgy of those days was celebrated with solemnity. after my novitiate I spent the next eight years in a small Benedictine community which celebrated the Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, because our conununity was specially involved in the work for Christian Unity There were not a few things which I preferred in the Byzantine Rite, such as the custom of listening to psalms being sung or recited rather than singing or reciting them backwards and forwards between two choirs.
I have also lived for a time in the Benedictine abbey at Pecos in the U.S.A., where the conununity is involved in the Charismatic Renewal, and where the practices of that Renewal, such as singing in tongues, were incorporated into the monastic liturgy. There was much greater flexibility and freedom in the liturgy in Pecos, and indeed my time in Pecos was for me personally an especially happy experience of monastic liturgy.
I am also influenced in my thinking by what goes on in Taizé, which, I think, we in older monastic orders need to take very seriously. In my opinion we have to dare to ask ourselves why it is that many thousands of people, especially young people, go to Taizé from many countries, where they joyfully participate in the monastic liturgy, while comparatively few people are attracted by our monastic liturgies. I am told there were roughly 10,000 people, about 90 per cent of whom were young, at Taizé this Easter. While in one abbey where they have a school, I was told by one of the monks that almost none of the boys in the school ever attend any part of the Divine Office.
It will be said that the Divine Office is celebrated primarily to glorify God and not to attract outsiders. That is indeed true. But, as the Orthodox know very well, the liturgy can also be a powerful apostolate. Of course, some people are attracted and helped by our monastic liturgies, more in some places than others. It seems to me that our monastic liturgies on the whole attract and help few non-believers or semi-believers, and that the Taizé liturgy has obviously played an important part in the conversion of many thousands of people, especially the young.
'Be still and know that I am God' (Psalm 45 (46)) should in my opinion also be applied to the monastic liturgy. I think that the times of silence in the liturgy can be the deepest times of liturgical prayer. In one monastery in which I used to live we had a time of silence of about fifty seconds after each psalm in the Divine Office, which, it seems, was the practice in the time of St Benedict. The result was in my opinion very prayerful. However, I have visited monasteries in which the Divine Office is nothing but words from beginning to end.
One of the Taizé brothers wrote to me that 'we have one rather long (around ten minutes) silence in the middle of each office, usually fairly soon after the Bible reading. Several silences tend to break the office up.' In my opinion the important place of silence in the Taizé liturgy is a key element in its prayerfulness.
I think that it is especially important to have a good time of silence after Holy Communion in the Mass. That surely should normally be the high point of personal conunurtion with the Lord in our daily life of prayer. In my experience this communion is not helped by singing hynms at that moment, and even less by reciting the psalms of a liturgical office.
In a community of Benedictine oblates. in London, which is very much involved in the John Main tradition of Christian meditation they have a half hour of silence inunediately after receiving communion in the Mass. I find myself thinking that it is a great pity that this does not happen more often in conununities of monks and nuns.
In my opinion, the introduction of more silence is the single most important change that would make for a more prayerful monastic liturgy.
Since the time of the Fathers of the Desert the tradition of reciting the whole psalter from beginrting to end has been normal in monastic circles. However, there are monasteries now where this is no longer the case, where it has been found more prayerful to select psalms or parts of psalms. And in the present Roman Breviary a few psalms have been omitted and other psalms have been cut in parts — I was told that the decision to do this was the personal decision of Paul VI.
Let us honestly face the facts. Some psalms are a very wonderful help to prayer, others are a moderate help, and some psalms are less than helpful, indeed are difficult. Would it not make for a more prayerful liturgy, especially but not only for our visitors, if in the use of the psalter we made greater use of the more helpful psalms and less use (or no use) of the less helpful ones? Praying is not an easy occupation, and we need all the help we can get. We do not want to make the devout praying of the Divine Office harder by using difficult texts.
The late Dom Bede Griffiths O.S.B. produced what he called a Christian Psalter (now published) in which more than fifty psalms have been eliminated and parts of other psalms have been cut out. He found the use of this psalter more helpful for the conununity and the guests, many of them non-Christians, who stayed in or visited his monastery.
What is a modern young pagan, or indeed a young Christian, visiting a monastery to think when he hears the monks or nuns solemnly chanting: 'Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!' (psalm 136 (137)). Or, 'I hate them with perfect hatred' (psalm 138 (139)). There are other sirnilar passages one could quote, which express very un-Christian sentiments, which could have been spoken by Hitler against the Jews. Of course, if one has to recite such passages one can apply them to hating sin etc, but do we have to make praying the psalter more difficult for ourselves and especially for our visitors?
A recent visitor to Taizé informed me that in their present three daily celebrations of the Divine Office there was only one full recitation or singing of a psalm at each Office. The remaining use of psalms was through the well-lcnown Taizé chants, many of which are based on psalms and which are used extensively before, during and after the Office. Obviously these Taizé chants select the more helpful parts of the Psalter and other books of Holy Scripture.
When some years ago I spoke with the late Abbot David Parry O.S.B. on this subject, he said that since he had learned that for the Jews the Psalter was an anthology from which they selected in their worship rather than a book which they had to go right through, he had no difficulty with the principle of selecting psalms and parts of psalms.
The manner of using psalms in the Divine Office
When I was a novice the psalms were invariably sung or recited to and fro from one side of the monastic choir to the other, and this is still largely the usage in Latin Rite monasteries. However, in my eight years in a Byzantine Rite monastic choir, the normal way of praying the psalms was listening to them being sung or recited. I found this more relaxing, prayerful, and contemplative than the alternating method. After the long Latin Rite offices of my novitiate I felt tired and that I had performed my duty, but I did not feel that I had been lost in prayer, whereas I would leave long Byzantine services more refreshed by a time of interior prayer.
It would seem that the forwards and backwards method is not primitive, that the monks in the time of St Benedict were largely listening to psalms. Why did the more contemplative listening give way to the more active reciting or singing? Was it to give people more the impression that they were doing something" or even to stop monks from falling asleep!? Whatever the reason, I think it was a step away from a more restful contemplative time of prayer and a step towards a more penitential active Office.
In the monastic community where I used to live we listened to the psalms at the
Office of Readings and that I find more of a help to prayer. Perhaps in
If you attend the Liturgy in a Byzantine Rite monastery you may well see some monks, perhaps especially elderly monks, saying the Jesus Prayer on their beads during the Office. This might scandalise some western monks and nuns who might say that it was entirely out of place and unliturgical. However, in one Orthodox monastery in England the saying of the Jesus Prayer during the liturgy would not only be tolerated but also be actively encouraged.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves not whether saying the Jesus prayer (or Maranatha) is 'liturgical', but whether it really helps people to pray, without disturbing others. The same question could be asked about praying in tongues silently during the liturgy. Perhaps we could recognise that the Holy; Spirit may inspire different people to pray in different ways during the littugy, and that provided the liturgy is kept going and that others are not disturbed, this could lead to a more prayerful liturgy and happier monks and nuns.
I think that it is most important when considering the question of the monastic liturgy, not to limit ourselves to the experience of the Latin Rite. The Holy Spirit has been worlcing not less powerfully in Eastern Christian monasticism — and monasticism started in the Christian East. A study of the Eastem Christian experience could broaden our western tmderstanding of what is truly liturgical and truly monastic.
There is also greater freedom in the Christian Eastern tradition to adjust the length of the Divine Office to the circumstances of the monastic community. So in a small monastic skete there could be a considerably shorter office than in a large monastery. Moreover, in the Eastern tradition not every monk would necessarily be expected to be present at every office. That is a matter which could be arranged with the monlc's spiritual father and his superior.
I think that in Benedictinism we can suffer from an over-rigid sticking to 'Let nothing be preferred to the work of God.' In so many other places in the Rule we have got away from a literal interpretation, so why are some monasteries so unbending on this point? Once as a young mord( I failed to investigate whether a man lying on the ground about fifty yards from the road needed help, in order to be in time for the office. Later we heard that the man was found dead. Perhaps I had left a dying man alone in order to be at the Divine Office. That sort of thing can happen if we stress too much the importance of attendance at the Divine Office.
It can often be difficult for a monk to know whether he should leave a spiritually needy person or go to the Divine Office. For example, should I hear this person's confession now or go to the Office? He or she might not be willing or able to wait until the Office is over. Or I may not be available after the Office. Too much stress on being at the Office can lead a monk to making wrong decisions.
Too much stress on being present at the Office can also do harm in other ways. In the monastic life there needs to be a balance between liturgy, spiritual reading and personal prayer. This balance can easily be lost if the Divine Office is stressed at the expense of the other two. Other demands on time and energy can easily result in spiritual reading and personal prayer being seriously neglected over long periods, because the time and energy available for prayer must by priority be given to the Office. (This is probably more of a problem in a monastery where the monks or nuns are involved in apostolic work than in a very endosed community.)
When I was prior of a small monastic community years ago I would sometimes dispense a simple professed monk who had been out studying from attending part of the Office so that he could spend the time instead in spiritual reading and personal prayer. This enabled him to have a more balanced life of prayer.
If the monks or nuns are present at the Divine Office when they are too tired or when they think God is wanting them to be elsewhere serving Him in other ways, then this does not make for a prayerful monastic liturgy. Fewer people at the Divine Office could sometimes lead to a more prayerful celebration.
After writing the above paragraphs, however, I must say firmly that I am not advocating an approach of attending the Divine Office when you feel lilce it - that could lead to the disintegration of the monastic life. Obviously there has to be a genuine reason for not attending the Office. There will be times when we do not feel like going to the Office but Icnow that we should be there - and then obviously we must go. (I have not yet yielded to the temptation to look at the intemational rugby match on TV during Sunday vespers!) The life of prayer calls for discipline and sacrifice, and that includes for monks and nuns our A last point about freedom. In the Byzantine Rite, the canonical obligation of saying the Office is on the monastery, not on the individual monlc or nun. So a Byzantine Rite monlc or nun who has not been at an Office for whatever reasons is not obliged to say the Office in private. Of course he or she is under the general obligafion to pray, but this might be largely fulfilled by saying the Jesus Prayer and reading the Bible. The Latin Rite canonical obligation can in some circumstances lead monks and nuns to be rushing through several offices at pace to fulfil the canonical obligation, when the reciting of one office prayerfully, and a time of silence would be more fruitful and meaningful. Our present Latin Rite obligation can lead to the Divine Office being seen as a burden rather than a blessing.
However, perhaps we can leam something from the worship of the rapidly expanding Pentecostal churches, which are often attracting many young people, including some Catholics. In these services there is more opportunity for people to pray aloud spontaneously when they feel led by the Holy Spirit to do so. Thus an ordinary member of the congregation can ask all present to thank God for her husband's successhil operation, or to pray for a neighbour who is an alcoholic, or to pray for peace in the Sudan. In this way public worship is very much linked up with the concrete circumstances and needs of life.
My plea here is largely for a more contemplative liturgy. In our western monastic
tradition we seem to some extent to have separated liturgy and contemplation, whereas the liturgy, especially the
Mass, should surely be very much a place for contemplation. Some monks and nuns teach and write
Benedict Heron OSB
This Version: 13th April 2020