"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Thursday 29 June 2017

IMAGE AND ICON - 2 : THE ANNUNCIATION AND THE NATIVITY by Father Alex Echeandia osb, Prior of Pachacamac, Peru.

a) Icons of the  Annunciation
b) Icons of the  Nativity


East and West have expressed central truths of Christianity.  They have responded with great devotion and creativity to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Annunciation is a great event in the history of our redemption. Images communicate the beauty of the Christian Mystery, of God made flesh in Mary’s womb. In addition, Scripture and Tradition give us a theological reflection on our faith that we want to express by images. The Gospel of Luke especially permits a good reflection of this event, not merely by giving us the brute facts but providing us with wonderful imagery in prose, hymns and poems within a liturgical context. Tradition gives Mary a title: in the light of the incarnation, she is called the Theotokos (God’s bearer).   She is also the bridge that leads to heaven, the Burning Bush, the Lamp, the Throne, the Ladder, the Gate, the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and the Chalice.

Mary plays a very important role in this mystery of the Incarnation because the Revelation given through Christ shows that what was given in the past, in the Old Testament, was fulfilled in the New Testament. Only in the fullness of revelation given found in Christ, can the separate mysteries of the Annunciation, Nativity and so on find their real meaning, be understood and be expressed in images. So, in the Annunciation, Adam and Even are kept in mind. This mystery involves the whole humanity.

Icons of the Annunciation are very numerous. In the Orthodox and Eastern Churches they are frequently seen on the walls or pillars, on the iconostasis of the Church which depicts the main feasts by a series of icons, on the Royal Doors as well as in icons provided for veneration on the day of the feast.

2nd Century Image
 of the Annunciation

The earliest existing image of the Annunciation seems to be a second century one in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome; then it became widespread as iconography developed. In the following centuries details such as the ray of light descending on Mary and the dove suspended above her as a symbol of the Holy Spirit became familiar. Some details in the depiction of the Annunciation icon come from the apocryphal book of James: It refers to the life of Mary. At the well, she hears a voice calling her, highly-favoured and blessed among women. She moves away in fear, and is then approached by the angel as she is working on the veil for the Temple. 
Annunciation XVc.
Ohrid,, Bullgaria

According to this apocryphal book the young Mary had been chosen to fulfil the task of preparing the purple and scarlet material to be used in the making of the veil.[1]   

It is not certain that the veil was for the Holy of Holies, but it may refer to the veil at the time of Christ’s death, a barrier between human and divine. So, this is why Mary appears in icons holding the yarn; other icons show that this yarn is falling to the ground as she hears the message of the Archangel. It can also mean that Mary is called to a higher vocation and becomes herself the Temple of God, the Theotokos, the God’s bearer. Through this icon, Mary teaches us to be detached, to let things go in order to receive a greater gift because, as we experience in our own lives, attitudes and anxieties can impede the work of God at a deeper interior level. 

Christians from the first four centuries used many sources to help them understand the mystery related to Christ because the cannon of Scriptures was not strictly defined at that time. Hence, the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, come from an apocryphal gospel.  However, the Gospel of St Luke is the principal source. The way in which the scene was depicted at that time has influenced all future art and has become part of the heritage, part of the Christian tradition down the ages.

In the Divine Liturgy, Mass for the West, is celebrated as a meeting of the human and divine.  The icon of the Annunciation at the Royal Door, reflects the living dynamic of how the assembly enter into the mystery that has been revealed in Christ. All this begins with Mary’s response to God at the Annunciation. So the Annunciation shapes our approach to worship; it calls us to collaborate in the reception of the gift of Christ, in order to seek and do his will. So, frequently the Royal Doors of the iconostasis have the figures of the four Evangelists, because it means that the Gospel record has to be heard and lived. Thus, the Annunciation icon emphasised the attitude of the worshipper in response to the Holy Spirit. It is not just an intellectual response; it requires mind, heart and will, a new beginning in Christ. 

The two standing figures, Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, make an impact on the viewer and bring us into that moment in which God enters into human life to renew and transfigure his creation. The significance of the event goes beyond particular time and place; although it is celebrated as a specific event in history.   It opens new possibilities, a reality of the divine presence seeking to enter in to this particular person, the one that contemplates the icon. Thus, if Annunciation is closely related to the Incarnation, when humanity has been taken back and united to God, the celebration of this feast cannot be regarded simply as an event in the past.

The icon of the annunciation is connected with the Crucifixion. To receive God, as Mary did at the annunciation, also means the way to Calvary.  The  seventh canticle for Compline on Good Friday in the Eastern Church, the lament of the Mother of God reflects this relationship: “Where, O my Son and God are the good tidings of the Annunciation that Gabriel brought me. He called you King and God and Son of the Most High; and now, o my sweet Light, I behold you naked, wounded and lifeless.” Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God, and it implied the cross. The same emptiness and self-living love of God are manifested in these two events. Mary receives the love and cherishes that love in the person of Christ.


The icon of the Nativity reveals what the First Council of Nicea in 325 discussed on the Divinity-humanity of Christ.  The focus is not on Christ’s human birth as a mere historical fact. It is about strongly emphasising Christ’s divinity. It is about the human birth of the Second Person of the Trinity. It shows the invisible reality of Son of God that takes place in the womb of Mary and is born in Bethlehem.

As we know in the West, under the Franciscan influence, Christmas has  a different character with the manger scene. Popular devotion focused on a human side of the mystery: Joseph the carpenter, the Child Jesus and his mother Mary. These images of the Holy family became widespread in the West but which was totally unknown in the East.  The emphasis was put in the celebration of Man-God (Christology from below), different from the Eastern view of God-Man (Christology from above). Icons are not principally sentimental. They reflect on the mystery in order to increase the faith of the people.

The Liturgy talks about God becoming flesh; God coming down to fill the virgin womb of Mary as the answer to the fiat on behalf of the whole of humanity, in order that man can become God (the deification of man). This is a central truth of Christianity.

The icon here is a 16th century Novgorod school. The type of this icon goes back probably to an image in a church built by Constantine in the site thought where the Nativity of Jesus took place.

This image does not look busy: it has sober colours and lines, and the spaces within it are perfectly separated.

The three rayed light and the dove appears in this icon as well as in the icons of the Annunciation and Baptism showing the manifestation of the Holy Trinity in different but related events. The dove represents the Holy Spirit because it recalls the Archangel’s words: “the Power of the Most High will take you under his shadow (Lk 1:35). St Gregory of Naziansus on the feast of Nativity: “O world, […] with angels and shepherds glorify the eternal God…Let us cry glory to God in the Trinity.”[2] This single ray signifies the one essence of God, and the division within the ray signifies the participation of the three persons in the economy of salvation.

Under the descending ray is placed the child Jesus as the centre of the icon. The True Bread is placed in the centre, in the house of Bread; that it what Bethlehem means. The star serves to reveal Christ who might not be recognised in a humble place. He is in a dark cave symbolizing that Christ is the light that comes into the world: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”, as John refers in his prologue. The darkness is dispersed by the power of the light. The depiction of the darkness symbolizes that the human ignorance has been replaced by the knowledge brought by Christ, the light of truth. Adam and Eve turn their back on God and hid themselves. 

They are called back from that exile of darkness and sin. Christ calls them back though his entire life: birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. It is reflected by the way he is depicted in the cave at Bethlehem. He is covered with swaddling cloth prefiguring his death. His strange immobility recalls Holy Saturday, the day of great rest.  Birth implies death; his mission was already depicted at his birth. 

The animals, ox and ass are shown adoring the incarnate Lord. It calls Scriptures one more in the book of Isaiah: “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib.” In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Mathew 11:30 Jesus says:  “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The yoke is carried by the ox; the burden by the ass. These animals reflect what Jesus offers to the believer. In that cave with the animals the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as the apostle John says. Thus icons contain a lot of symbolism and we can explore them in many way. We can also say that the cave is a place of a new life. It is a place of death and burial and also a place of birth and resurrection.

The figure of Mary, a Virgin Mother is reclining on a mattress, after having truly given birth to the Incarnate Son. Many icons depict Mary marked by three stars symbolizing her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ. The Virginity of Mary is a dogmatic truth of the Church.  Her half-seated position implies an easy birth because, unlike Eve, she was not under condemnation. She is the Eve, the Mother of all the living. As the New Eve, she pronounced her fiat for everyone. This is why she is the image of the Church because she represents the whole humanity.

Joseph, on the other hand, has an anxious pose because he still trying to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation. He knew he was not the father of the child Jesus. By looking at this scene of Joseph, we also identify ourselves every time we don’t understand or are tempted to neglect a central truth of our faith. Joseph was tempted by the devil as it is shown at the bottom-left of this icon. On the bottom-right are the midwives helping Mary with the child. This comes from the Apocryphal book from the first centuries. This washing of the child anticipates the baptismal bath at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

In the higher part, are the angels, Magi and shepherds. The angels fulfil different functions. Two of them, by looking toward the Source of Light  are contemplating God face to face, in eternity. They represent the unending praise of God in the heavenly liturgy. The third on the right and lower part is fulfilling his role as messenger, which is what the word “angel” means. He is bent towards mankind and watching like the guardian angel. The other three by the cave are contemplating the Incarnate Son of God, in human and divine natures. In addition, the magi are led by God to worship him by predicting not only his death but his resurrection, through the gold, the myrrh and the incense. Gold as the king of the ages; incense because he is the God of the universe; myrrh because the Immortal one was going to suffer death for three days and then rise again to save the world. Finally the shepherds remind us of the Good Shepherd, Christ himself. They are receiving the message from the angel. However, another figure like the shepherd is placed in a lower part. He is Satan who tries to convince Joseph about the event related to Christ.

Thus, angels, Magi and shepherds fulfil a role in revealing the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. They manifest our faith in a symbolic world and allow us to connect our heart, mind and spirit to the mystery of the Incarnation. Icons of the Annunciation and Nativity have put together heaven and earth, divinity and humanity depicted in one unity.

[1] Cf. Festical Icons for the Christian year by John Baggley, p. 27. It mentions how the council of priests call pure virgins of the tribe of David to make the veil for the temple of the Lord. Mary was chosen. She then went home to work on it.
[2] Cf. The Art of the Icon by Paul Evdokimov, p. 274. 

Monday 26 June 2017

IMAGE AND ICON - 1 An Introduction by Dom Alex Echeandia O.S.B., Prior of the Monastery of the Incarnation, Pachacamac, Peru.

Father Alex Echeandia is a native of Chiclayo in northern Peru and is a monk of "The Monastery of the Incarnation", founded from Belmont Abbey (UK) in 1981.   While he was studying Theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, he also studied iconography under Aidan Hart, an Orthodox iconographer.
Thr original icon of the Theotokos
"Our Lady of the Incarnation"

The above photograph is our monastic chapel in Pachacamac, not  as it is, but as we hope it will be.   In fact, only the left hand icon is up and painted.  Fr Alex hopes to paint the right hand icon of the child Jesus among the archangels towards the end of the year, and the much larger Christ Pantocrator, perhaps as a fresco, next year.

Fr Alex gives a retreat on spirituality of icons and a course on icon painting every year in England at Belmont Abbey and in Peru in our monastery here

Theotokos of Tenderness
"Our Lady of Belmont"



How to participate in the mystery of faith?
       a)    Why does Christian art exist? – Incarnation –                II Council of Nicea
       b)   Meaning of Icons
       c)    Roots of Iconography

      A work of art is a new creation. It manifests an organic unity. The artist strives to so unite the different elements that a new reality comes into being, something greater than its parts, something that bestows richness and purpose on all the elements that make it up. This is true of icons as  well as all other kinds of art.  So, what is the difference between Christian works of art and other works of art? It introduces another transcendent dimension to the image which is seen in the light of Christ. It gives people a new way of seeing things, in faith and meditation within Christian spirituality.

Christian art requires first the use of the most advanced artistic techniques and artistic talent in the execution of the work. Together with the skills of the craftsman, Christian art also receives from Tradition its Christian content. Christian Tradition is the interior life of the Church, born out of the harmonious cooperation between the Holy Spirit and the faith experience of the Church, and is itself the extension of God’s incarnation.  Thus, Christian art first began during the centuries of persecution at the very beginning of Christianity.   In the same Tradition, Christian art received new life from the dogmatic deliberations of the great ecumenical councils. Tradition combines with Sacred Scripture that it interprets to provide material for sacred art., Thus it is rooted in the very heart of our faith.

Images of God, as you know, were prohibited in Deuteronomy. Many believe that they are still against God’s Law and that using them in prayer is a form of idolatry. How can one make an image of the Invisible God? How can one represent the One who has no quantity, height or limits? In fact, not all figurative representation was prohibited in the Old Testament. There was the bronze serpent[1] and the ordinances concerning the cherubim in the ark[2]: “For the two ends of this throne of mercy you are to take two golden cherubs, you are to make them of beaten gold”.  So, the Jewish world, showed a certain tolerance towards images.[3] 

Mosaic Floor (517-528 AD) Beth Alpha Synagogue,   discovered  in 1922 in the Northern District of Israel. 
Scene of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his bound son Isaac

In fact, for a Christian the Incarnation of God in Mary, brought about a new situation,  a new reality, a New Creation. As St Paul says, Christ is the image of the invisible God.[4] Thus, for us Christians there should be no problem using images of God as signs of our faith because God has provided us with the Image of all images. John Damascene against iconoclasm declared: “I don’t adore the matter, but the Creator of the matter who became matter for me, and through this matter I was saved.” The incorporeal one became man for you. So, it is possible to make his human image. By Christ becoming man, one may see the image of the one who was seen by the Apostles in human features.

Damascene was a very important figure in the difficult time of iconoclasm, when there was a misunderstanding related to images. Iconoclasm means rejection or destruction of religious images seen as heretical. It involved religious icons, symbols or monuments.  Iconoclasm was motivated by people who adopted a literal interpretation of Scriptures texts which forbids the making and worshipping of "graven images or any likeness of anything"[5] 

  Fresco destroyed in Cappadocia

Iconoclasm appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. Since Constantine was converted and declare Christianity the religion of the Empire, images were allowed to represent Jesus Christ or other important figures of Christianity. The iconoclasts viewed the use of icons as pagan idolatry and therefore wanted to remove them from Christian worship. They also believed that the icons might be Nestorian.   According to their view, art can only depict the human nature of Jesus, leaving undepicted his divine nature, thus separating these two natures which, in fact, are united in One Person.[6] If the icons portrayed only the human side of Jesus, they could not help but promote a Nestorian Christianity as opposed to the true Christianity.

From a manuscript Psalter 68, Constantinople 843

The II Council of Nicaea in 878, the seventh of the ecumenical councils, restored the use and veneration of images.[7] This council used texts from Scriptures and the Fathers and proved that the veneration of images was legitimate. The central truth of the Council was focused on the honour given to images. They receive veneration (proskinesis), and not worship (latria), which is reserved for God alone. What is more, images are not the ultimate object of veneration because the image only has a reality in relation to the object represented. The image is the reflection of the prototype, Christ; the veneration is transformed into worship. Thus iconoclasm was condemned as heresy and liturgical veneration of images was re-established. Monks in the East played an important role in its restoration.

Now, when we talk on the subject of images, we need to refer to icons, frescoes, mosaics, oil paintings as well minor arts. Here let us concentrate in what an icon means. What is the essence of an icon? What are its roots? 

The word icon comes from Greek εἰκών eikōn "image" It also means likeness, reflection. When you look at your mirror and look at yourself it is also an icon.  Thus this word has different meanings.[8] However, when we refer to images of Christ and the Saints we can call them the “holy icons”.[9]  This image or reflection we find in the icons. St Steven the New[10] in the 8th century call the icon a “door”. It is a way to enter, to access the age to come; it is a way to encounter, to meet with the communion of Saints. As a door, the icon fulfills a mediating function. It makes person and events present to us: Christ, Our Lady, the Saints. Through the icon we participate in the mystery that is depicted. So icon means presence. 

Some people call it a window, from which one can see. A door is something through which we pass and we can become part of what is on the other side of the door. The door can also permit someone on the other side to come to us; and, in an icon, Christ can come to us from the heavenly kingdom in order to meet us face to face.  The icon makes the person present to us. 

The icon is seen from three aspects:  artistic, theological and liturgical   An icon is a work of art, with human and natural qualities. At a higher level, the icon has a theological meaning that teaches the people of God. Finally it is used in a liturgical context because the icon exists in an atmosphere of prayer and worship. Out of this context of prayer it loses its meaning, because, principally, it is sacramental, a sign that makes what is holy present. The Eucharist makes Christ present in the bread and wine after the consecration. At a different level, paint and board make Christ and saints present to us. By itself the icon does not become Christ as in the Eucharist, but it reveals the presence of Christ and His Saints in a special way. Icons reflect the reality of the incarnation. The iconographer uses wood and paint from God’s creation by which God’s glory is presented in a new way: thus is the world offered back to God. 

In addition, the icon is a product of Tradition that is formed within different cultures and styles. The icon, as well as the Early Christian art, did not develop in a vacuum. It is a result of a concrete evolution, and different cultures have contributed to its historical evolution. So, we can mention three main roots that have made the icon what it is today. 

From the ancient culture of Egypt icons received a profound sense of presence. Egyptian art normally shows calm men and women acting from an inner calm to express piety, family affection and social harmony. This is exemplified in the Elousia icon, which takes the ‘family affection’ prized by the Egyptians into a new dimension. Egyptian art is based on the hieroglyph, which like Chinese writing expresses primarily an idea that the writer intended to convey. The icon expresses specific information and is immediately recognizable by its form. In the icon the child is a miniature adult, and it is noteworthy that the reason given here is to draw attention to the fully human quality of the child.  

This can be contrasted with a modern attitude that justifies abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is not fully human. (An example of this type that came to Christian art and iconography is the example of “Mother & child” 1470 BC).[11] 


Egyptian canon to depict an image was very influential in iconography. A Egyptian figure found in the tomb of a priest shows how they measure out the dimensions of the body which had not changed since 1900 BC. The image of the body remained.[12] 

In practice, icons received a lot from the Egyptian art. Gesso was used for the mask to cover bodies from the earliest period (c. 2,000 B.C.). The gesso was made from glue and whiting, as today, and often polished to a very smooth finish. The surface was pointed in dense colours from a limited palette, or covered with gold leaf. Flat colour and simple natural tones were characteristic; the emphasis was on pure simple unmixed colour. Low relief carving as with icons was an important form of art. Workshops were under the direction of an educated supervisor, familiar with several crafts, able to recognise an inferior standard of work and to correct errors. Many similarities can be seen between this approach to sacred art and the later approach of the Christian icon. 

From the pagan Greeks the image possessed a mystical character. Statues of Athena and Artemis of Ephesus were said to be not made by human hands and to have fallen from heaven. These images were decorated with flowers and were venerated through a rite of unction.[13] We may say that the head of Medusa was a pagan model that Christians may have used to depict the person and the effectiveness that its holds.  Artistic inspiration came from different sources that for us can be difficult to make understand, but for the first Christians it was a new way of looking at things.  

In the Roman world images played a special role. They were also influenced by the Greek culture. The portrait of the ruler was worshipped as cult objects. They were honored as gods. Under special circumstances, the image of the emperor became a legal substitute; it was a vicarious presence of the emperor himself.  If the portrait of the emperor was present in court, the judge could decide a case as if it were the Caesar himself. It was also seen when the cities offered the keys to the emperor as a sign of submission.

 The keys were given to another person but in the presence of the emperor’s image. It was considered legal. The theory behind icons still remains as it was from the time of the Romans. Another element we find in icons is the halo. It is argued that Mithras was the origin of the halo around the head of Christ and the Saints.

 The Roman god Mithras was always shown with a halo, and this symbol was adopted by the Christian Church to signify the concept of divinity in sacred images.


Thus, the development of iconography and other Christian art was rooted in different cultures and traditions and took from them what can express the faith of the believers.

[1] Cf. Numbers 21:4-9
[2] Cf. Exodus 25:18
[3] A good example is found in the discovering of Synagogues in Israel.
[4] Cor.1:15
[5] "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them." (Exodus 20:4-5a)
[6] Shown in the Pantocrator  icon
[7] It had been suppressed by imperial edict inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717–741)
[8] Narcisus saw his face on reflected on the water; he saw his icon.
[9] Kallistos Ware refers to it in his lecture given at an Orientale Lumine session. See:  http://www.oltvweb.com
[10] From Constantinople, he died under torture and beatings. Finally, Emperor Leo gave orders to lock up the saint in prison, and to destroy his monastery. Iconoclast bishops were sent to St Stephen in prison, trying to persuade him of the dogmatic correctness of the Iconoclast position, but the saint easily refuted all the arguments.
[11] Cf.  ‘Egyptian Art’ by Cyril Aldred. It depicts Senemut nursing princess Nofrure.
[12] In the unfinished tomb of a priest called Ramose, his brother was the Pharaoh’s chief artist.  It shows exact squares in red lines. The figure was 19squares tall. The feet were 2 ½ squares long. The pupil was 1 square of the centre line. This is why the style remained unchanged for so long. Egyptian society did not want to change. The society was driven by stability and order reflecting the cultural values.
[13] Egon Sendler, The Icon, p. 9.

We shall have two of this series each week.

Saturday 24 June 2017


Such a mixed bag as the English Benedictine Congregation would have probably never been founded if it had not been true in the late Middle Ages that high contemplation was found as much outside the cloister as within it.  Tertiaries of the mendicant orders, lay people living outside the cloister like St Catherine of Sienna and St Rose of Lima, lay contemplatives and anchorites only too ready to profess that they weren't monks or nuns, like Richard Rolle and the author of Piers Ploughman in England, all showed that you didn't have to live in a monastery to seek God and live a life of contemplation.  Recent authors have  even doubted the common belief that Dame Julian of Norwich was a Benedictine nun and have suggested that she was a widow whose family had been wiped out in the plague.  Finally we have the example of the Jesuits who adopted the classical principles of the religious life, but insisted that they can be fully implemented as much outside the cloister as within, and under any circumstances, and called themselves "contemplatives in the streets".   It was only a short step to the foundation of a monastic congregation whose members lived both inside the community and outside, in habits and without habits, with a sense of coherence and continuity.

This is implied in a story of the abbot St Antony who was told, one day, by God that there was a man in Alexandria much holier than he was.  St Antony asked to see this man, so he was taken by an angel to a funeral.   There were two angels among the mourners.
"Who are they?" he asked the angel.
"Oh, they are the angels of Wednesday and Friday, which are the days on which he fasted."
"I see his wife and children; but who are all those other people?"
"They are all the poor and injured whom he has helped during his life.  He keeps a portion of his earnings for his family, a portion for the Church. and the rest he gives to the poor."
From this St Antony learned that however great the contrast between his life in the Egyptian desert and that of the Alexandrian family man, holiness for both consisted in living in harmony with God's will as revealed in the concrete circumstances of each of their very different lives.  The depth and strength of that "synergy" is the depth and strength of their holiness: a mere comparison between the external details of their different life-styles would be superficial and could lead to wrong conclusions.

It is not surprising that the French Jesuit de Caussade became the facourite spiritual guide for so many English Benedictines.  

 I learnt the basic principles of his spirituality after reading Thomas Merton from Father Luke Waring in my last year in school; and it was this that persuaded me to be a monk of Belmont rather than a Cistercian.  Father Luke learnt this spirituality from monks of Ampleforth in his home parish of Leyland in Lancashire.   In my noviciate, our commentary on the Rule of St Benedict was by a monk of Solesmes.  That and other books I came across at that time were by themselves poor preparation for the life I was to lead afterwards in school and parish; but, read through the filtre of de Caussade's teaching, they became pure gold.

Both St Benedict and de Caussade identify "self-will" as our main obstacle to seeking God and conformity to God's will at all times and in all circumstances as our way forward.  St Benedict would fully agree with de Caussade in finding God's will packed into the "sacrament of the present moment", in the ordinary details of every day, but he would see this whole quest within the context of living in the monastic community: while de Caussade, in his typically Jesuit way, applies this principal to any circumstance and any context.

Thus, de Caussade provides continuity and coherence to monks who have to live their lives in a variety of settings, doing a variety of jobs in different contexts.  I remember the example of a monk who spent his whole life on parishes since his ordination; and then, after his sixtieth birthday, returned to the monastery and took to its exigencies as though he had never left, a good example to us younger monks in his attendance at choir, at lectio divina and study, and in the work the abbot gave him to do.   He never complained about his parish work and did it with relish, but he adapted his own private monastic observance to the sacrament of the present moment; and, once returned to the monastery, he did not waste time indulging in nostalgic memories, but plunged into living a very different life-style with gusto, still finding God in the present moment.

De Caussade's book, "Abandonment to Divine Providence" needs to be complemented by the teaching of the monastic fathers on seeking the presence of Jesus Christ in the heart, but the two teachings fit into one another perfectly and without strain.  If we want to, we can find Jesus wherever we look, both without and within.  Who says that Christ is far away! We are like fish swimming in the Holy Spirit that unites us to Christ; and when we breath in these waters, we do not drown but are given life.

De Caussade gives us a rich teaching which is applicable to any circumstance. Here is a small introduction to what makes many of us English monks tick. It may be useful to you. 

my source:      

Caussade on the Practice of Self-Abandonment) by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J.:


On the Virtue of Abandonment to Divine Providence; Its Nature and Excellence


Sanctity Consists in Fidelity to the Order Established by God, and in Submission to All His Operations

1. Hidden Operations of God.

Fidelity to the order established by God comprehended the whole sanctity of the righteous under the old law; even that of St. Joseph, and of Mary herself.

God continues to speak today as He spoke in former times to our fathers when there were no directors as at present, nor any regular method of direction. Then all spirituality was comprised in fidelity to the designs of God, for there was no regular system of guidance in the spiritual life to explain it in detail, nor so many instructions, precepts and examples as there are now. Doubtless our present difficulties render this necessary, but it was not so in the first ages when souls were more simple and straightforward. Then, for those who led a spiritual life, each moment brought some duty to be faithfully accomplished. Their whole attention was thus concentrated consecutively like a hand that marks the hours which, at each moment, traverses the space allotted to it. Their minds, incessantly animated by the impulsion of divine grace, turned imperceptibly to each new duty that presented itself by the permission of God at different hours of the day. Such were the hidden springs by which the conduct of Mary was actuated. Mary was the most simple of all creatures, and the most closely united to God. Her answer to the angel when she said: “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”: contained all the mystic theology of her ancestors to whom everything was reduced, as it is now, to the 2purest, simplest submission of the soul to the will of God, under whatever form it presents itself. This beautiful and exalted state, which was the basis of the spiritual life of Mary, shines conspicuously in these simple words, “Fiat mihi” (Luke 1:38). Take notice that they are in complete harmony with those which Our Lord desires that we should have always on our lips and in our hearts: “Fiat voluntas tua.” It is true that what was required of Mary at this great moment, was for her very great glory, but the magnificence of this glory would have made no impression on her if she had not seen in it the fulfillment of the will of God. In all things was she ruled by the divine will. Were her occupations ordinary, or of an elevated nature, they were to her but the manifestation, sometimes obscure, sometimes clear, of the operations of the most High, in which she found alike subject matter for the glory of God. Her spirit, transported with joy, looked upon all that she had to do or to suffer at each moment as the gift of Him who fills with good things the hearts of those who hunger and thirst for Him alone, and have no desire for created things. 

II. The Duties of Each Moment.

The duties of each moment are the shadows beneath which hides the divine operation.

“The power of the most High shall over-shadow thee” (Luke 1:35), said the angel to Mary. This shadow, beneath which is hidden the power of God for the purpose of bringing forth Jesus Christ in the soul, is the duty, the attraction, or the cross that is presented to us at each moment. These are, in fact, but shadows like those in the order of nature which, like a veil, cover sensible objects and hide them from us. Therefore in the moral and supernatural order the duties of each moment conceal, under the semblance of dark shadows, the truth of their divine character which alone should rivet the attention. It was in this light that Mary beheld them. Also these shadows diffused over her faculties, far from creating illusion, did but increase her faith in Him who is unchanging and unchangeable. The archangel may depart. He has delivered his message, and his moment has passed. Mary advances without ceasing, and is already far beyond him. The Holy Spirit, who comes to take possession of her under the shadow of the angel’s words, will never abandon her.

There are remarkably few extraordinary characteristics in the outward events of the life of the most holy Virgin, at least there are none recorded in holy Scripture. Her exterior life is represented as very ordinary and simple. She did and suffered the same things that anyone in a similar state of life might do or suffer. She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth as her other relatives did. She took shelter in a stable in consequence of her poverty. She returned to Nazareth from whence she had been driven by the persecution of Herod, and lived there with Jesus and Joseph, supporting themselves by the work of their hands. It was in this way that the holy family gained their daily bread. But what a divine nourishment Mary and Joseph received from this daily bread for the strengthening of their faith! It is like a sacrament to sanctify all their moments. What treasures of grace lie concealed in these moments filled, apparently, by the most ordinary events. That which is visible might happen to anyone, but the invisible, discerned by faith, is no less than God operating very great things. O Bread of Angels! heavenly manna! pearl of the Gospel! Sacrament of the present moment! thou givest God under as lowly a form as the manger, the hay, or the straw. And to whom dost thou give Him? “Esurientes implevit bonis” (Luke 1:53). God reveals Himself to the humble under the most lowly forms, but the proud, attaching themselves entirely to that which is extrinsic, do not discover Him hidden beneath, and are sent empty away.

Abandonment to Divine Providence is also available as an Electronic Book Downland and as an Audio Book on CD.

Thursday 22 June 2017


When I first came across the Charismatic Renewal back in the early 70's, in spite of the funny way they prayed, what delighted me was their accent on the Holy Spirit.   It seemed to me that ordinary Catholic life is simply awash with the Holy Spirit, but its extent was unrecognised.   Not only does the Holy Spirit  make us Christians at baptism, change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, forgive sins through absolution and lead us to live a sacramental life, he turns the Bible into the Word of God.    Whenever the Holy Spirit acts through the reading of Scripture and the celebration of sacraments, the celebrants, the proclaimers, the readers and the praying and singing community become instruments through whom Christ works, and he also fills Christians with his Spirit so that they can understand and be sanctified.

As Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us, Christ really does  speak when the Scripture is read in Church, and, to the extent that they are open to him, he gives the Spirit to the preacher and to those who are listening, giving them a real insight into the Word of God.

Hence I believe we can look at our celebration of the liturgy during any week and ask what Christ has been saying to us doing that week. Of course, this is a highly personal collection of thoughts, and that Christ will have used the same texts to say different things to different people.   Nevertheless, I think you will agree that he has given us a renewed understanding of the Christian life.

On becoming human

A Christian lives in two "worlds" at once.  He has been born into one and baptised into the other.  We were not asked to be born, and all of us who are so privileged will one day inevitably die.  We are made to love and be loved and to enjoy the happiness of being alive, but these gifts are imperfect and transitory.  The truth is that this world can only find its true meaning in the other world and is destined to be transformed by it so that, in the end, there will only be one world.

If the synoptic gospels give accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, St John places the Washing of the feet in their place and gives us plenty of teaching to inform us  on the significance of the Eucharist.   Within this central act of Christian worship, Christ offers himself totally and without reserve to each and all of us, as he teaches in chapter 6.  He dwells in each of us, and we dwell in him.  We share his eternal life, the life of his Resurrection, and shall be raised up on the Last Day.  This only happens because he gives himself so utterly and thoroughly.  

“Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant[c] is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

 In our turn, we must wash one another's feet.   We are his servants and messengers, and if he is able to serve humbly, being master and lord, we have no justification to withhold our humble service.  In fact, he gives us a new commandment, to love one another as he has shown he loves us.

 33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Christ's love for us has its roots in his love for the Father and the Father's love for him.   If we are to love as he loved, our love too must be rooted in our love for him who dwells in us and his love for us.  This two-way love is nothing less than a participation by creation in the love of the Blessed Trinity and a reflection of the love of Blessed Trinity in creation; and, in the vocabulary of St John, in so far as it is visible and recognisable in concrete deeds and lives, it gives glory to the Father, revealing that "God is love," and also gives glory to the Son.   Thus, Christ says of his impending crucifixion:

 31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.

If we love as Christ loves, and that is our vocation as servants and messengers, we glorify the Father in the Son by reflecting God's presence in the quality of our love.   Without our Christian love, our teaching can be reduced to an abstract doctrine: our love, rooted in Christ who dwells in us, can make it for the world a living Presence.   Hence, we too share in his glory.   Jesus prays in John 17:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

My teacher, Pere C. Spicq O.P. used to say that, in St John's Gospel, the Church is made visible by the quality of its love.  Where there is Christian love, the world can glimpse at the Church as Christ's body: without love, the Church is seen as just one other worldly institution.

Let us now turn for a moment to St Paul.  Jesus died for us and in the act of giving himself to us and, by the same act. he was offering himself in loving obedience to his Father.  This act of self-giving was total and is thus a characteristic of his risen self: he is "slaughtered and yet standing."   We are on his wavelength and capable to actively participate in his divine-human love to the extent that we share in his death to self  and his living for others with a death and life rooted in his; and in this way, we share in his resurrection. In the Eucharist, we share in his life to the extent that we share in his death, which is why we cannot separate communion from sharing in his sacrifice.

(2 Cor. 5, 14-21)
The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer.


And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

He has given us the "ministry of reconciliation". We have become "the righteousness of God" and instruments of the Father who is reconciling the world to himself in Christ.  The presence of Christ in us by the power of the Spirit that is renewed and strengthened in the Eucharist becomes visible in the quality of our love, living for Christ and for all humanity in Christ and thus, in St John's vocabulary, sharers in God's glory.   As we share in his life in the Eucharist, "becoming what we eat," so we share in his glory by loving as he loves.  We bear witness by our lives that "God is Love", and show that all this is not just words, but a concrete reality.

In doing this, we help to transform society in this world by inserting into it the life of the resurrection, the life of the world to come.   

Thus Rome was partly transformed by the love of Christians for the poor - in the time before  the Last Coming the transformation is always partial and transient and always needs being renewed -  and the Egyptian Desert was transformed by the lives of the monks who lived there.  The transformation continues: in my country, the churches are responsible for a large part of the caring for the poor etc.  If this is rooted in their faith and in their life in Christ, this isn't just social work, but Christ showing his love through their activity. Places become transformed by the Christian lives of those who live there. The Celts talk of "thin" places where eternity can be sensed in the world of time.  Monastery guest houses get fuller every year, and more and more people go on pilgrimage, because people  experience peace, tranquility and a sense of the sacred, even many secular people.   This transformation isn't the immediate purpose of the Christian life. which is to live in communion with Christ, but it is an important effect of the Christian life. 

As we wrote above, we inhabit two world, one we were born into and the other we were baptised into.  In the first, we had no choice in being born into it, nor can we choose not to die.  Likewise, it is the product of the Big Bang and will, one day, come to an end. Although it is very beautiful and is loved by God whose creature it is, it receives its meaning from human kind whose horizons are limited by death and distorted by sin.

The  horizon is very different in the world of Christ's resurrection.   We enter it of our own free will.  Even if we were baptised as babies, we are always free to opt out: even the gates of hell are locked from the inside.  To the degree we share in Christ's death, to that degree we share in his resurrected life which is eternal and, moreover, a participation in his infinite divine life.

In the world we are born into, where my horizon ends in death, humiliation is nothing more than humiliation, suffering nothing more than suffering, pain nothing more than pain, and death is the end of it all.  In the world we are baptised into, humiliation is glory, a share in Christ's humiliation, suffering a share in his suffering, pain in his pain, and death is the gateway to eternal life  Hence Christ's words make sense:

Gospel Mt 5:38-42
Jesus said to his disciples:"You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.  Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow."

 This world, which is the reality brought about in Christ's own body by his resurrection and into which we are baptised, embraces heaven and earth by his Ascension and is called the "Kingdom of heaven" or the "Kingdom of God" in so far as it is open to God's action.   "Kingdom" does not mean a territory, as in "United Kingdom" but rather where God is actually ruling, implying God's present activity.  For St Matthew, it is where God's will is done  on earth as it is done in Heaven. It is especially present on earth at the Eucharist in which the Church on earth joins the Church in heaven in its liturgy that is both heavenly and earthly, where angel choirs and human beings on earth sing, "Holy, holy, holy.."   Living the Christian life is living the Mass.   God is Love and the Cross glorifies God by manifesting his very nature as self-emptying love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   This love is manifested to us sinners as forgiveness. The will of God is done on earth as in heaven when we love as Christ has loved us, as God loves all of us, each of us, and his whole creation: hence the following passage:

Gospel Mt 5:43-48
Jesus said to his disciples:"You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy."  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."

This forms the perfect context for understanding the "Our Father".  After addressing the Father and asking that his Name be hallowed, we ask that his kingdom come.  Here, it is an equivalent of invoking the Holy Spirit, the hypostasis of God's self-emptying Love, an epiclesis, so  that the Father's will is done on earth as in heaven.  Then we pray, "Give us this day our epiousion bread," which we translate as "daily bread" because it is the easiest translation though not the most probable.   The Douai Bible translated it literally as "supersubstantial bread"; but it could be translated "bread of the Coming" which, since the whole prayer is about the Kingdom, is highly probable.   As it is a Jewish prayer, it most probably has all these meanings at once.   Hence, "supersubstantial" and "bread of the Coming" mean the Eucharist.  That the central petition should refer to the central sacrament of the Christian life is very likely.  Thus there is a theme, the Coming of the Kingdom and the hyspostasis of love, the gift of the Eucharist which is vehicle of Christ's total gift of himself, our forgiving one another in love, and our deliverance from the evil one who is the very opposite of these things.

Finally, there is a warning.  All that glitters is not gold, and not every good work manifests the Kingdom.   We have noted that the kingdom is where God is active: where he is excluded by our egotism or lack of openness to God, where we are not mere instruments of God, allowing him to do as he pleases, where our works give glory to some cause or other, to our political party, to our country or to ourselves, and not to God, then these works are not works of the Kingdom and are being wasted, even if what we are doing is God's will, and the obstacle to God's activity is ourselves.  Hence:

Gospel Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said to his disciples:"Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streetsto win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms,do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street cornersso that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
"When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

This seems to be directly contrary to Christ's command to let your light shine among men so that they will see your works and give glory to God.  However, as kingdom people, we are mere instruments in God's hands; and, if he wants to use us as a torch, he will know when to switch us on and switch us off.  We must concentrate on renewing our resolve to be his instruments.

Finally, we have come to the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
That great feast of the divine-human love of Christ for humankind and for the whole of creation tells us that the love which holds the universe in existence is not only a divine love that is beyond our understanding, but also a human love, because of the Incarnation.

The church fathers teach us that,at the profoundest level of human existence, in each human being, there is the place where God is loving us into existence and where Christ prays to the Father in the Holy Spirit. They call it the heart.  They invite us to enter the heart and unite our prayer to that of the Spirit.

Christ is a human being and therefore has a heart in which God becomes man, and from where the Holy Spirit unites him to every human being in all times and places.  This heart is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.   Read more about the feast here. 

An acquaintance of mine who is the brother of two Chilean boys with whom I was at school constructed a huge hand in the Atacama Desert.  When I asked him why he did it, he said that it was an attempt of an artist to humanise the desert.   The feast of the Sacred Heart reminds us that, with the Incarnation, God has humanised creation.    At the heart of creation and in the heart of each one of us, in the divine Love by which all creation and each one of us are brought into being, the human heart of Jesus Christ is loving in harmony with God.

God is Love, and any time that our love is more than a chemical change in the brain shows us to be made in the image of God.    God is Love, and we cannot know him without loving him, and, as the Byzantine Rite reminds us, we cannot recite the Creed together with one heart and mind for long without loving one another.   The history of schism and heresy is, more basically a history of failure to love.   Greeks and Latins failed to love a long time before the schism, and both sides failed in charity at the Reformation.  We are able to love God and our neighbour because God first loved us and revealed his love to us on the Cross.

Reading 2 1 Jn 4:7-16Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have  loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us of his Spirit. Moreover, we have seen and testify that the Father sent his Son as saviour of the world.Whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God. We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.
God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.
We live in two worlds, one we were born into, the other we entered through baptism: one is destined to end, the other enjoys eternal life and is destined to transform the other into itself, and we Christians have the job meantime in transforming it by our lives, little by little.   However, we will have no effect if our morality is no different from those among whom we live.   Our morality cannot be that of the scribes, the pharisees and the pagans.

Gospel Mt 11:25-30
At that time Jesus exclaimed:"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. 
All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.
"Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

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