Today [December 1st] the church, leastways the Anglican part of it, celebrates what one might call its archetypal failure, Blessed Charles de Foucald. One of the very few saints who would be rather delighted to be sharing his day with HIV awareness day, I feel. Charles de Foucald was a minor French aristocrat born in 1858. He joined the cavalry and led a thoroughly dissipated life and frittered away his fortune. In 1883 he was sent on an expedition to Morocco and fell in love with North Africa. Four years later he returned to the faith of his childhood and after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he became a Trappist monk in 1890. But he sought a more austere life and in 1897 he left to become the servant of the Poor Clares in Jerusalem and Nazareth, living in their stable. He was eventually ordained priest in 1901 and went to live as a hermit in Algeria, ending up at Tamanrasset, the centre of the Tauregs, a war-like tribe and a place that has recorded some of the hottest temperatures on earth. He learned the local language and his care and concern for the local people made him accepted and then much loved, though he never sought converts. He composed rules for brothers and sisters though no-one ever joined him. He was killed ninety four years ago today, by the Tauregs, in the news at the moment for their depredations in Mali to the south, people whom he had befriended. It seems the killing was undoubtedly a mistake, somehow someone thought he was a spy. It was an unfortunate accident rather than a cold-blooded assassination.
Inspired by his rule the little sisters of the Sacred Heart were founded in 1933 and similarly inspired, Rene Voillaume and others started the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1945, during Charles’ life and until then there was nothing. When he celebrated Mass he used to consecrate hundreds of hosts and then go and plant them in the sand around his hermitage. I think you will have to wait to ask him why he did it. Archbishop Kallistos Ware said that one of the least inadequate reasons for the Church to exist is to celebrate the Eucharist. And there must be times in every priest’s life when as they look at those inside the church and think of those outside they wonder whether that is what they are doing, planting hosts in the desert.
Mercifully we have no idea of what God is doing through us; but no worry, it is still and increasingly the privilege and the wonder of the Eucharist that never ceases to feed and to enthral.
When I was most beautifully prepared for confirmation, it was generally assumed that truth that we would make our Communion about once a month. In truth that was about as often as the very small school could get a priest to come. Our school chapel was the converted stable of the old house, the great loose box at one end was the sanctuary and the stalls were where we sat. The stable was next to the carpenter’s shop and our prayers were often accompanied by the whirr of the lathe. And communion was once a month. We were given the most comprehensive scheme of preparation and thanksgiving. We began our preparation for communion a fortnight before the Sunday we were to make our communion, and we ended our thanksgiving a week after. Then we had a week off and then started the whole cycle again. We prepared the readings and searched our consciences and beat our breasts beforehand and wept copiously in joy afterwards, with daily prayers and duties. I wasn’t of an age that queried these things, but when I found I wanted to make my communion every week – pretty daring in the ‘50s in a very Anglican school where Pope St Pius xth was not often read – it became obvious that this system would not work and it was even more difficult when I was able to go to Mass every day – except that I could never make my communion on a Sunday, because the 11 am Solemn High Mass on a Sunday was non-communicating and that was when we had a lie-in. What I have always tried to do, is to remember at the beginning of Mass when I last went to Mass and then before I leave church to make myself aware of when I will next go to Mass. To make that chain of prayer through Mass complete as it were. Above all this helps me to bring all of myself to Mass: the good bits, the bad bits, the well thought through bits and the work in progress bits, the wondrous relationship bits and the total mess bits; the good news and the bad news; me in fact.
And then the second vital thing, is meditating on, turning over in ones mind constantly some part of the Mass. For example: Jesus took, blessed, broke and shared bread and wine, those four actions are at the very centre of what we are doing. The new liturgies make these four actions very obvious, whereas in some old liturgies I’d be pushed to work out which was what.
But Jesus blessed: I have always understood that the whole of the Eucharistic prayer was the prayer of blessing, that is to say that this is the prayer that sets the bread and the wine that we have taken aside, makes them holy, makes them the body and blood of Christ. I tread carefully deliberately. Yet we genuflect in the middle of it. I think that it only stems from the Schoolmen, from the middle ages, from the twelfth / thirteenth century. And the question that they had been posed was what happens if the priest drops dead having said the words over the bread and before he reaches the words for the wine. Is the bread Christ? and so priests started elevating and genuflecting to show the answer yes, but is it still necessary to do this? In my present parishes in three I don’t in one I do. Perhaps that is an indication of my ambivalence. I have been turning this over in my mind for six years already, that is part of the wonder of constantly meditating on parts of the Eucharist, there is so much time to do it. There are no deadlines to meet.
And then someone like Richard Giles comes along and writes a book like ‘At heaven’s gate – reflections on leading worship’ and suddenly you have to go back and think everything through again. It is so exciting; I cannot think a better word. Exciting.
For the Eucharist is the very centre of all our prayer. And just as I rejoiced that the original uses of the building that became my school chapel made so many connections with the Gospel so I rejoice in all the connections that there are between the Eucharist and daily living.
Richard Giles suggests seven building blocks of good worship –  good leadership;  building community;  creating assembly – by which he means making sure that your community knows what it is doing – that it is indeed the Body of Christ, called to exercise a priesthood within its community;  including children;  turning to the sun, that is being expectant that you will meet God;  making space for your worship; and  going counter cultural – that it challenging the world. But all these points are actually what is or should be happening in our homes as we build our own human family. I have been totally fascinated by the process of getting to know our sons-in-law and helping them to become part of our family, helping them to understand our family story and even to laugh at family jokes. And our daughters have gone through the same process as they have been assimilated into their new in-laws. And in our family preparations for Christmas, we have no problems about expectation, but we do have serious conversations about how we time things. The youngest at our table will be eighteen months old, the oldest is just six months short of her century. And perhaps these family celebrations are counter cultural too because, they are just a time of being. And it is not just great celebrations such as Christmas that lead us into the Eucharist. Every meal tells us something. Why do we choose to share our meals with some but not others? Why do some meals seem totally blessed? What is the difference between cosy candlelit dinners for two and noisy, rambunctious, joyous parties and what does this tell us about the Eucharist? We, as Christians, see ourselves as people of the Book, as members of a human family we are members at least of an oral tradition and to be members of the human family we must know that oral tradition to be part of it. The connections between our family meals and the Eucharist are legion.
Finally, for our attendance at the Eucharist, our Bible reading, for our conversation with the world, we need a rule of life. It is exactly the same as the rule that any athlete needs and has and as an athletes rule one really does need a personal trainer or guru or soul friend or whatever. And exactly like an athlete belongs to a gym, it is well worth being associated with a religious community but that depends entirely on your particular needs. I was first an Oblate of the Community of the Resurrection, until I committed the sin of matrimony and now I am an Oblate of Alton Abbey – a Benedictine foundation – Benedictine spirituality is very Anglican or rather Anglicanism was formed by Benedictine spirituality. It suits me and Alton Abbey for me is a thin place, a place where I find God easily.
And what is this rule, well it does depend where you are in your life – what sort of athlete you want to be. One of our daughters, who is, among other things, a tri-athlete, an exponent of an Iron Man, swimming five miles, cycling 100 miles and then running a marathon, monitors everything from her eating and sleeping through to exactly how much she does anything every day. At a saner level, my rule of life is about saying the office, going to mass, interceding, confession, fasting, alms-giving. It is also in a slight state of flux at the moment as I try to retire from full time ministry. A rule may take time to devise, but once it is in place it needs to be firmly fixed, like the yoke on an oxen, that if it is tight and well-fitting allows the oxen to do its best.
But having said all that: when Jane Frances de Chantal was newly widowed, aged thirty-one, she met for the first time Francis de Sales. He used to visit her father’s house and then hers where she lived with her widowed father-in-law and four children. On one of these visits one of the servants stopped him and complained about madam. It is impossible to do our work said the servant, every time we start doing anything, madam has the bell rung and we all have to go off to pray. Francis said to Jane that there was no need to say all these offices rather she should pray all the time, pray constantly. Of course there should be times when we go to our holy place and shut out the world and give all of our attention to God, but what we are aiming for is to live our lives and say our prayers knowing that he is constantly by our side, seeing and understanding everything we do and constantly guiding us and helping us and empowering us, if only we listen to him.
Here I am: ready to do your will. Speak to me.