Recently, I heard an inspiring, true story of a secret library in Syria. For about four years before the town of Daraya, SW of Damascus fell in 2016, volunteers would rescue books – sometimes whole libraries – from bombed-out buildings and house them in an underground bunker from where they could be borrowed by the besieged locals. During years of extreme suffering, to the point of near starvation, the souls of those afflicted people were being fed by books and their hope kept alive. Truly, we do not live by bread alone.
Of course, it is not the physical books themselves which engender hope but the words they contain, words which bear testimony to the irrepressible spirit of humanity to learn, to record, to share experiences, to tell stories. And for Christians it is not simply words which give life but the Word, the Logos, through whom God the Creator made all things and who was sent into our world at the Incarnation to save us and bring us eternal life.
This coming year, the Bishops of England and Wales have asked us to focus on ‘The God who Speaks in Scripture’. In his post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini (2010), Pope Benedict XVI, citing St Bernard of Clairvaux, reminded us that as Christians we are people of the word, rather than the book and not of ‘a written and mute word but of the incarnate and living Word’ (Homilia super missus est, IV, 11). The emphasis is important – Scripture is a channel for God to communicate with us, to enter into dialogue with us, and this he does through his Son, the Word. And so even our listening to, and pondering of, Scripture have the quality of prayer, a conversation with God.
Such an approach to the Bible is the one we find in the Rule of St Benedict where so often Scripture ‘speaks to us’, for example, stirring us from sleep in the Prologue (v. 8) or ‘crying out’ to us at the start of Chapter 7 on humility. And remember how each morning the monks are exhorted in the words of Psalm 94/95, ‘Oh, that today you would listen to his voice…’.
What might that voice be saying this Advent 2019 at the start of a new liturgical year amidst so much uncertainty and suffering in our world? The message will be different for each of us but one word which leaps out to me in the Advent liturgy is ‘Ecce’, ‘Look!’ – a visual parallel to our more familiar Benedictine ‘Listen!’
So many antiphons and readings begin with this arresting command in the pre-Christmas season:
‘See, the name of the Lord comes from afar.
His splendour fills the whole earth.’
(Magnificat antiphon for First Sunday of Advent, Roman Office)
‘Lift up your eyes, Jerusalem, and see the power of your king.
Behold, your Saviour comes. He will free you from your bonds.’
(Benedictus antiphon, Week 1 Advent, Roman Office)
It’s as if the Lord is asking us to widen our vision just at a time – at least in the Northern hemisphere – when the temptation is to batten down the hatches and keep the head down to get through the winter.
In Advent we listen again to the words of those visionaries the prophets, who were party to God’s plans to save our world and who, with great faith, recorded the message to give us hope.
So, on the first Sunday of this new year the liturgy presents us with Isaiah’s beautiful vision where the whole world is restored to peace and all nations are united in worshipping God (Isaiah 2: 1-5).
How do we get there? Psalm 24/25, Advent’s signature tune, provides an answer: by keeping our eyes always on the Lord (v.15a), by allowing him to rescue us (v. 15b) and by constantly lifting up our spirit in trusting prayer (v.1).
This Advent, as always, God invites us, as he did Abraham (Gen. 15:5), to look up at the stars – surely one of the great compensations of the dark nights – to look beyond the current chaos of our world and our lives and to put all our trust in the God who keeps promises.
As a modern poet and visionary has put it, our part is to look, to be astonished, and to tell….
Sr Laurentia, Stanbrook Abbey
‘The Way of Benedict: Eight Blessings for Lent’ by Laurentia Johns OSB is due to be published by SPCK on 19 December 2019