Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, the Carthusians say: the Cross is steady while the world turns. In the midst of what a great Anglican prayer calls the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”, the Church – and the truths on which it is built – stands fast.
The Carthusian motto has never been far from my mind in the first few months of this year. First we had the grim news about inflation, with steep rises in energy and food costs expected this year as we emerge from the Covid crisis. Then came the terrible war in Ukraine, which has resulted in thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and huge disruption to the global economy. We have all seen the heart-rending pictures from that conflict, and heard the unbearable stories of loss and destruction.
It can seem very difficult to know what to say in the face of such events. How can we speak of hope, joy or beauty to a woman and her children forced from their home by war and still waiting desperately for news of a husband and father who stayed behind to fight? One way to confront this difficulty is to remember that in such desperate times, we need actions more than words. All across Europe people have been sending aid for Ukrainian refugees, and even opening their home to them. In Berlin and Warsaw, German and Polish people lined railway platforms holding up signs offering accommodation as the trains from the East rolled in. The Catholic YouTube personality Matt Fradd flew to Poland and encouraged subscribers to send medical aid.
I was heartened to see this outpouring of charity, and especially to see Catholics at the forefront. Christian charities and individual churches are also on the frontline of the cost -of-living crisis here at home, with many food banks run or supported by churches (one in Hackney run by an alliance of local churches serves several thousand meals each week). Throughout lockdown, St Patrick’s Church in Soho, Westminster, served on average 400 meals to homeless people every day.
The Church has another role too, as a fount of hope and source of stability. The corporal works of mercy, as they are traditionally known – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the traveller and so on – are central to our mission. However, the very existence of the Church, the ordinary everyday rhythms of parish life, should be a source of great comfort to us all, especially when we are tempted to despair and worry. The Bible is full of entreaties to trust in God even when everything in the material world seems to be falling to pieces. A classic, if also rather daunting, example of this comes in the second half of Matthew, Chapter six. Jesus tells the disciples not to worry, but to “seek the kingdom of God”. In doing so, the things we need for life will come to us anyway. In the letter to the Hebrews, St Paul reminds his audience that “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever”. The interpretation of these passages, and what they are supposed to signify for our life as Christians, is not always straightforward. However, the overall message is clear; to be fixated on worldly concerns is bad for us.
This is worth bearing in mind particularly as we approach Easter, the great feast of hope, and triumph of life over death. There is great comfort to be found in the ordinary rhythms of the Church’s life – the familiar words and gestures of the Mass, the unchanging cycle of the Psalms in the Breviary, the fellowship with other Catholics. These are simultaneously both simple and everyday experiences, and also some of the most important and central aspects of our whole life.
Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to the Carthusians. As an enclosed and largely silent order they might, from the secular perspective, be seen as useless or irrelevant to the Church’s presence in the world. Their seclusion from the world and deliberate slowness can appear odd. Philip Gröning, who directed Into Great Silence, a wonderful documentary about the head Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, waited 16 years for a reply after asking the monks if he could make the film there. And it is true that their contemplative way of life is not for everyone, indeed not for the great majority of Catholics. There must be active and outgoing vocations too.
All the same, the solidity and constancy embodied by the Carthusian monasteries (we have our own in the UK, St Hugh’s Charterhouse at Parkminster in Sussex) is invaluable in conveying the ongoing mission and presence of the Church in the world. Whatever else happens – the rise and fall of countries and empires, changes in economies and climates – the Church and sacraments will endure.
There is a great reminder of this in St Peter’s Square, at the heart of the Vatican, in the form of the obelisk that used to stand in the Circus of Nero. It would perhaps have been one of the things seen by St Peter at his martyrdom. Today, 2,000 years later, it is topped with a cross, steady while the world turns.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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