Ash Wednesday Conference 2013/1

Ealing Abbey                            Ash Wednesday Conference 13 February 2013EA-logo2

Be ambitious for the higher gifts….

This phrase has kept reappearing in my head ever since it came up a few Sundays ago. It keeps coming back, I think, because we have biome rather introspective, looking at what’s wrong and failing to see our strengths, the strengths we have in Jesus.

So, for what should we be ambitious?
We have listened to the Rule in the Chapter on Lent, but this doesn’t sound particularly ambitious; pray a fraction more, eat a bit less, be a little more silent. All small steps, eminently achievable by anyone. Yet there is a sting in the tail for us. Whatever it is we decide to do for lent, it shouldn’t be us alone who decide it. It should be discussed with someone else, the Abbot and only done with his blessing and approval, otherwise we are being presumptuous. Perhaps in Benedict’s world this was a mere statement of the obvious and it would have been the mildness of his ascetic demands that would have caused comment. For us it is otherwise; there isn’t much (any) danger that we will be carried away by devotional excess, yet somehow I am not expecting a stampede of monks to my door asking for a blessing for their Lenten observance. This would be a real challenge for us; not that I am saying that the Abbot, I, should decide, but rather that these are not things we can claim entirely for ourselves. Much of life is justifiably personal, but that’s not the same as making it private. Even, perhaps especially, the small things in our monastic living for ourselves alone: our lives are a shared enterprise. To admit that, to really live that; now that would be ambitious.

But back to our reading. Be ambitious for the higher gifts…

Paul, of course, is talking about faith, hope and love. What would ambition in this regard mean for us?
Faith: the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things unseen. Surely, at this point we need lots of this conviction and desperately need assurance. But faith in what precisely? During lent our minds are drawn to penitence and forgiveness and perhaps it’s in this that we need conviction and assurance. I will remember their sins and misdeeds no more and where there is forgiveness there is no more sacrifice. Do we really believe what Hebrews claims? That Jesus has won forgiveness. Perhaps it’s because really accepting his forgiveness involves really knowing why we need it and therefore really knowing ourselves; that’s the hard part since forgiving is a transaction, it’s not simply something scattered on the world like the sower’s seed, or if it is it isn’t effective unless it is taken up by us, by us knowing our neediness. We must know our need and in faith and trust offer that to God; it’s then that we are forgiven.

What holds us back?
If we can only have this faith then we can really have hope, which is faith in action, if you like, faith informing what we do and how we perceive. It’s easy to see darkness; seeing light requires something more to be given us. Our problem is that we have that something already, but it’s not that we don’t know it, theoretically we do. But we are held back from feeling and living it.

Which is why our work with Bernd (our community facilitator) is so important. This might seem like so many words, but those words are important; their sole function is to help us to grow so that we have the words to support each other, to feel and live and be locked away in a private world, one private from each other, and I suspect, one that we feel, or fear,  is private from God.

God is the arbiter, the one who decides, who gives blessing to the smallest of our actions. Believing that, having faith in that, hoping in that and so living in love the highest gift, now that’s being ambitious.

So, be ambitious for the higher gifts…
If you really love something you seek it as much as you can; it’s the pearl beyond all prize, whether an attainment a prize, or a person. So how do we seek? By our Lenten fast, from food, from distraction, from self. By this means, our soul fast, we clear out the rubbish, all the poisons that afflict and are stored up within us; as we do for the body, so we do for the mind. That’s our monastic way, that’s our constant lent, now just tweaked, to remind us that it is there. Are we ambitious enough to live like this? After all, God loves us; we know that, don’t we? We live that, can we? We are that….there’s no question I can add.

Benedictine Institute      Albion Institute

© Ealing Abbey, copyright, 22 February 2013