Conference 22nd November 2010
As we come to the end of the Church’s year and look forward to the Season of Advent, I thought it would be appropriate to say a few words about hope, confidence and trust, themes that impregnate the liturgy at this time and underlie both the beginning and the end of the year. St Benedict, of course, doesn’t mention either Advent or Christmas in the Rule and yet he does present us with a rule and a way of life that should build up within us a deeper trust and confidence in God and an undying hope that his call to us to walk with him on the monastic way is a call to salvation and eternal life. In the Prologue we read, “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than the voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.” God’s call, the gift of our vocation, is a sure sign of God’s love for us and a cause for rejoicing because we know that he has called us to his kingdom. St Benedict continues, “Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom.” That is the goal, to see God, who has called us to his kingdom.
To be sure, on this way of the Gospel that leads to the kingdom and to that ultimate vision of God, there will be many times when things don’t go according to plan, as it were, and we fail. At times we are led astray by our thoughts and desires that are not always set on God. At times we are discouraged by the words and behaviour of others, both inside and outside the community. It doesn’t take much to bring us down and much of our life seems to be spent floundering and seemingly getting nowhere. But that love of God, which moved him to call us to this life, is still there and will never go away. “We might be unfaithful, but he is always faithful,” as we sing in the canticle from St Paul’s second letter to Timothy on Saturday evenings. God is always faithful and his love for us is steadfast and unchanging. Hence in the Tools of Good Works, just over half way through, St Benedict writes, “Place all your hope in God alone.” He ends the list with these words, “And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy.”
Placing ones hope in God alone is what faith is really about, the confident trust that God will see us through and that he will never let us go no matter what might happen to us as we go through life with its ups and downs, its sunshine and its clouds. Then again, faith is never losing hope in God’s mercy, always keeping in mind the promise that he will forgive and carry on loving us even when we find it difficult to love others and forgive them or to love and forgive ourselves, which is the hardest thing to do. It’s not surprising then that the first great chant of Advent, the Introit for the First Sunday, comes from Psalm 24. “Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam.” To you I have lifted up my soul, my God, in you I trust, I will not be confounded.
One of the recurring calls of Scripture throughout Advent is that we should “stay awake”, meaning that we should keep vigil, that our vigilance be constant, that we should be ready and prepared for the Second Coming, when Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead. In a more immediate sort of way, it is a summons to be ready and prepared to receive Christ, for each one of us has a personal Second Coming at the moment of death, when our judgement begins in earnest. And yet we are all aware that Christ is ever present with us in the now of the present moment and that he sees all our actions and knows what lies at the very depths of our being. As the Gospel says, “He knew what was in a man.”
The question is, how do we stay awake? Obviously those words are not meant only in the physical sense of not sleeping, or not sleeping during prayer, not giving in to distractions, but rather of keeping focussed on God and on the things of God. A good way is to fix ones attention on the love and mercy of God and on God himself by constantly remembering those two short phrases from the Rule I mentioned earlier – “Place your hope in God alone” and “Never lose hope in God’s mercy.” Repeat them often like a mantra or litany. Draw them down from your mind into your heart. In the words of St Benedict, again from the Prologue, “attend to them with the ear of your heart.” We should try to allow our vocal prayer to become interior prayer, i.e. Augustine Baker’s second degree of vocal prayer, where our attention is to God rather than to the words. However, you need to begin with the words of Scripture and the rest will be God’s doing if we allow him to work in us. Vocal prayer in itself, as Fr Baker reminds us, can be truly contemplative.To go back to that wonderful Introit “Ad te levavi”. It introduces the great Advent theme of trust and hope in God, the God who in Christ and through the Incarnation shows us so clearly that he will never let us down, that he loves us dearly and wants only what is best for us. Lifting up our souls, our hearts and minds, our whole being to him, we will never be put to shame, our enemies will never triumph, neither the enemies without nor the enemies within. God has chosen us for his dwelling. All we need do is turn to him, yet another of the great Advent themes, conversion, but it’s best to attempt just one thing at a time. As we approach the beginning of Advent, let us simply lift up our souls, lift up our very selves to him, the God of hope, the God of mercy and the God of love. He will most surely take us to himself and envelope us in his divine embrace giving us the confidence, the trust and the hope that we need to persevere to the end. May the good Lord grant us all a very happy and a very fruitful Advent. Amen