Opening Address for UK Visitation3 February 2007
One of the alternative offices I use in my private devotions is the shortened Benedictine Liturgy. I do so because it offers me the opportunity to use a non-biblical reflection – and I often turn to Robert Ellsburg's – 'All Saints' – a compendium of saints, prophets and witnesses for our time.
This week has been a particularly fruitful week, offering reflections from characters as diverse as St. Brigid of Ireland; Alfred Delp, Aelred of Rievaulx; although the week began with Mahatma Ghandi.
Anticipating this visitation, I have been seeking to understand what might make suitable opening remarks. Visitations are a part of community life, but they are viewed with a measure of anxiety as well as anticipation; a certain world weariness, as well as hope that vision will be clarified and energy renewed. It is not only the community that is nervous!
My fellow visitors have much more insight and experience of the realities of communal religious life than I have. I look forward to learning much in these coming few days. So tonight, I want to turn to my 'saints of the week' to see what they have to say to us as we begin this God-given time together.
St. Brigid of Kildare – Abbess (450-525) is a kind of 'repository of primeval religious memories and traditions (RE). This 'Mary of the Gael' is shrouded in myth and mystery – as much as in hard evidence. Certainly the record of her cures leaves one wondering how there could have been anyone sick left in Ireland.
What attracted me to her this week was her wonderfully clear and incontrovertible statement concerning the hospitality of God.
'I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings;
I would like the people of heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.'
We, your guests this week thank you for your hospitality, reminding ourselves and you that this is among the highest of graces commended in the scriptures; and to which we may well return throughout the visitation.
But St. Brigid, like Mother Emily had only one real desire: 'to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable man.
Whether or not he was a 'miserable man' it is said that the local bishop was so 'intoxicated with the grace of God,' as a result of his encounters with St. Brigid, that he did not know what he was doing and ordained Brigid as a fellow bishop. Well, there is hope yet for Anita!
Alfred Delp has become something of a religious hero for me since he was introduced to me by Christine Roberts. A Jesuit Priest, he was hanged by the Nazi's on February 2, 1945. His Advent reflection provides a powerful and poignant reminder of the imperative of a Christian inner life. Stripped of everything, he was incarcerated in a cell 'three paces this way, three paces that way.'
He, like Bonhoeffer and others, opposed Adolf Hitler, but through it all sought to 'surrender thyself to God and then shalt find thyself again.'
For Delp, 'the conditions of happiness have nothing whatever to do with outward situations. They are exclusively dependent on one's inner attitude and steadfastness, which enables one, within the most trying circumstances, to form at least a notion of what life is about.'
Religious life has rarely experienced the spotlight or suffered from the fantasy that it does today following the programme such as 'Monastery' – and its somewhat less edifying female counterpart. I was speaking with Abbot Christopher Jamieson earlier this week – joining, it seems, an endless queue of Anglican Bishops who want him to address this group or that conference.
We might ask – why? Particularly in a time when vocations are increasingly hard to nurture and sustain. It is, I believe, at least in part that there is a longing for what Delp calls 'the condition of happiness.' Ephemeral though the secret to such conditions may be, there is both within the public perception – and indeed the rule of Mother Emily, a belief that within community they can be met.
Certainly Aelred of Rievaulx believed so. 'God is friendship,' he declared, 'and those who dwell in friendship, dwell in God and God dwells in them.' Aelred, at a time when monks were warned of the dangers of 'particular friendships' called his monastery 'a school of love' and spent his energy 'in seeking to be loved and to love.'
As 'friendship's child' – he believed that those who suppress this natural capacity for friendship were incapable of truly loving God.
Paradoxically friendship, as Elie Wiesel once observed 'stamps a life as deeply, more deeply than love. Love can degenerate into obsession, but friendship never means anything but sharing.'
'What is a friend?' The person who first makes you aware of your solitude and helps you escape it, so that you in turn may help him. It is thanks to him that you can fall silent without shame, and unburden yourself without loss of face.'
Hospitality, happiness, love, friendship – marks of grace filled life – Brigid, Alfred Delp, Aelred, Elie Wiesel, Mother Emily – Mahatma Ghandi – who was attracted by the true message of Jesus, the law of love.'
May it be so: for all of us.
Bishop Peter Price
+Bath and Wells
our Visitor Bishop