Vespers

A reflection written for Fisher House, Cambridge, for Friday, Week 6 in Ordinary Time

There are many ways to approach sacred scripture and often times in our personal prayer we may find ourselves gravitating towards our favourite passages. But in the Catholic Church we have been given a structure within which to read the Bible, one that has been built through the centuries with thought, prayer and the Holy Spirit. Seen from outside this might seem restrictive but in reality it means that as Catholics we are exposed throughout our lives to the entirety of holy scripture, the fuzzy, warm bits as well as those difficult to understand. The Liturgy of the Hours, while drawing from across the Bible is heavy on the Psalms. The Psalms were composed during Israel’s Exile and often reflect the moments of sorrow and pleading to God for justice. The Psalms are also filled with praise for God’s protective power. They are in short a reflection of Israel’s history but more importantly of Israel’s prayer. Through them the psalmists give us words with which to pray to God because they knew that it was difficult knowing how to dialogue with God. There are difficult passages in the Psalms, passages that seem to speak of revenge, passages that are psychologically difficult to understand and explain, even after so many centuries of study, that reflect the hidden aspect of so many of God’s mysteries.

When faced with those difficult passages that challenge our more frequent perceptions of God as an all loving and good God we wonder why there is this contrast in scripture between a wrathful and a loving God. This opportunity that the church has given us to consider who God is in his entirety should be seen as a gift as it allows us to better understand not just God but ourselves for we too are complex and have contrasting and opposing emotions and reactions. While we will never be able to fathom the essence of God we can learn much about human nature and through it learn to better be that which God has called us to be.

So, it was that today I turned to the structure, the Psalms and Gospel chosen for today’s evening prayer. It said Friday Week 6 in Ordinary time or Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order.  This sometimes happens in the Liturgy of the Hours, the person praying can choose to either follow ordinary time or that of some saint or saints. As I had never heard of them I searched for some information. They were a group of 7 Florentine merchants who in the 14th century retired from the life they had led until that point and following the advice of their Dominican spiritual director adopted the rule of St Augustine and founded a mendicant order. As I was reading this Fr Dominic reminded me that today is also the memorial of Fra Angelico.

I was caught in a dilemma only we as Catholics know, which saints to focus on and then the Holy Spirit gave me a nudge, that type of nudge that only the Holy Spirit can give.

It is our Lady who undergirds this day.

The Servites’ official name is the Servants of Mary and they promote the devotion to our Ladies’ Seven Sorrows, Fra Angelico’s painted many famous images of the Annunciation, and we will end this prayer as we do every vespers: with our Lady’s song of praise.

From the moment of the Annunciation our Lady ponders what is happening, she “kept all things in her heart.” And how many things she must have had to keep in her heart, things which we will never know about but which would have prepared her to ask Jesus to intervene at the Wedding at Cana, things that would have prepared her for Calvary. Prayer marks out her life, the angel Gabriel finds her in prayer and she ends her life after teaching the disciples to pray in the Upper Room as they prepared to receive the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to imagine what Jesus’ constant presence in her life meant for her life of prayer. What is clear, however, is that in having God before her always, who at the same time was her son, she knew the best response, that of pondering, of slowly meditating, letting what she saw daily to sit with her, deep in her heart to let it act upon her soul in a way no other thing could. We too are called to live out our lives in this way, though we do not have the living, fleshly presence of our Lord before us as she did but she can show us the way, turn Jesus’ face towards us so as to not forget that he is always there, we need just see like she did, with our hearts.

The Magnificat, the song of Praise of our Lady stems from that deepest part of her being, inspired by the Holy Spirit she praises first God’s mercy and love in her life to then turn to God’s mercy with all living beings. As with the Psalms they reveal something of Israel’s covenantal history with. God. It is a song of praise for the promised redemption of the people of Israel, which through the Incarnation extends out to all of humanity. It is worth taking a closer look. It begins proclaiming how God saves each individual soul, her soul in particular, and in the words that follow we are given insight into what only she and St Elizabeth appear to know at that time: that through her redemption will be born into the world. In Her proclamation of God’s mercy that “lasts from generation to generation” Mary is reminding us of God’s timelessness, his eternal presence amongst us. The comfort this is meant to bring us is brought home through the images she draws that his mercy is not something abstract but acts concretely in our lives because “ he has filled, and continues to fill, the hungry with good things”. She then concludes reminding us of the covenant established with Abraham for all generations to come, returning again to the merciful redemption through time that God promises us. Her words are not just of praise, they are a lesson in humility and gratitude for God’s everlasting goodness and mercy.

The psalmists’ may have given us words with which to pray but it is our Mother who teaches us how to use them.

Marystella, Cambridge Fraternity

February 2022