Saturday, February 17, 2018

TURN, TURN AND TURN AGAIN

This poem by All Thieves (featured in the Grey's Anatomy Episode "No Good at Saying Sorry") seems very appropriate for the beginning of Lent and for those reeling from another mass shooting in the USA:

Worn from walking this far
So worn from talking this much
And what we found and what we've seen
As the road curves down

And the lights come up to meet us
Silent for the evening
We enter this town
Like new born creatures

Those I know I see anew
And the space between us is reduced
For I am human
And you are human too.

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen
Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every draw
So we can turn
And turn again

Only priests and clowns can save us now
Only a sign from God or a hurricane
Can bring about
The change we all want

And we've done it again
This trick we have
Of turning love to pain
And peace to war

We're just ash in a jar

So turn and turn again
We are calling in all the ships
Every traveler, please come home
And tell us all that you have seen
Break every lock to every door
Return every gun to every draw
So we can turn
And turn again 

Friday, February 09, 2018

REALISING THE DIGNITY TO WHICH WE ARE CALLED

‘Rouse yourself, man, and recognize the dignity of your nature. Remember that you were made in God’s image; though corrupted in Adam, that image has been restored in Christ. Use creatures as they should be used: the earth, the sea, the sky, the air, the springs and the rivers. Give praise and glory to their Creator for all that you find beautiful and wonderful in them. See with your bodily eyes the light that shines on earth, but embrace with your whole soul and all your affections the true light which enlightens every man who comes into this world. Speaking of this light the prophet said: ‘Draw close to him and let his light shine upon you and your face will not blush with shame.’ If we are indeed the temple of God and if the Spirit of God lives in us, then what every believer has within himself is greater than what he admires in the skies.’ (Pope St Leo the Great: Sermo 7 in Nativitate Domini, 2.6; PL 54, 217-218, 220-221).
            Humanity is capable of the greatest acts of kindness, generosity, selflessness and creativity – and we are also capable of their opposite. Looking at the world many often see only the negative effects of our humanity rather than the most beautiful or people who claim to have faith in a creative God seem to be inspired by the dark forces that lurk in the shadows. We have a capacity for good and ill and often forget that we have to strive for the good for the latter comes easily. For centuries the wonders of which we are capable have been attributed to God and, affirming that we have the image of God within us, saints like Francis of Assisi, Charles de Foucauld, Teresa of Calcutta and a myriad of others have striven to emulate and incarnate the grace of God in their lives. The power of the opposite to truth, beauty and goodness has also been recognised and named as evil or the work of Satan. As western society has rejected, denied or ignored the notion of God and Godliness the notion of evil, of dark forces which can corrupt us, has continued to catch peoples attention and worked on their imagination and  examples of wickedness can seem to be more apparent than those of goodness.
            Into this condition St Leo’s words echo: Rouse yourself, man, and recognize the dignity of your nature and I wonder if we have we forgotten the dignity by which we can live, a dignity that needs working at because it’s easy to fall victim to hatred and violence – physical, emotional or spiritual. Our age is one which needs saints – women and men who place a premium on living out of our human dignity and who are prepared to spend time and energy cultivating goodness in their lives; who hear the call to live out of our blessedness rather than our selfishness.
            Jesus said:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, 
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5.1-12)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

REFLECTIONS ON ST CHARLES OF JESUS’ ‘PRAYER OF ABANDONMENT’


Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures -
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

__________________

Father, I abandon myself into your hands. 
To be abandoned is a terrible thing, 
an act of carelessness 
that takes no account of what may happen to the one abandoned.  
Only an adult can abandon themselves, 
a child does not have the ability to make this reckless act.  
For it not to be reckless requires trust in another 
and a belief that the process of abandonment has a purpose. 
Jesus abandoned Himself into the hands of His Father;
He did so with faith in the One whom He had come to know and trust.
Every aspect of who I am I gift to You with no strings attached. 
I cut all ties; I entrust myself to You and let go of myself in Your absolute care. 
I place myself before You as a child before its Father, leaving myself at the doorway of your house. 
I hand over all power to You and entrust my future to You whatever happens.

do with me what you will. 
As I give myself to Him, God tells me to trust Him, 
trust that in saying ‘thy will be done’ I will be held safe 
and that God will never desert me whatever may happen. 
What matters is to live in the present moment. 
I need to turn to my Father as a child might turn to theirs and look into His loving eyes. 
There is something liberating in living in the Divine Will, whilst needing to resist evil – 
‘Jesus, I trust in You’.
To know God’s will means turning to Him in prayer, and simply saying
 ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’.

Whatever you may do, I thank you:. 
Let me live thankfully, eucharistically, whatever may happen to me. 
And when my heart becomes overwhelmed by sadness and anxiety, 
or desolation begins to cast a shadow over me, 
inspire me to give thanks that the darkness may be turned into light.
In all places and in all things let me see your hand and give thanks. 
In every blade of grass and every mountain peak may I see your glory and give thanks.
And when I cannot see you or sense your presence, teach me to thank and praise you.

I am ready for all, I accept all.
I know that both good and evil will come my way; teach me to accept them
with a necessary detachment and not be blinded by them. Teach me to love through them.
Give me a freedom of spirit to greet them and wisdom to know how to respond
as you responded to those who were the cause of your Incarnation, Passion and Death. 
Grant me gratitude and patience, courage, fortitude and detachment in the face of good and evil.

Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures -
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
My one will and desire must simply be this: ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
For in that prayer is encompassed all that God desires and it expresses all that we can desire:.
that the divine good might be accomplished in me and all that exists.
It is what Jesus taught us to pray for and we can pray for no more or less than that:
‘Thy will be done’.

Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
Take, Lord, and receive all that is your own
For I long to live in you,
to be enfolded in your love,
for my love to be your love
that I may flow with you.
Take my heart and mould it into the form of your most Sacred and Compassionate Heart.


for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
‘From Love in Love the leaping flame of Love is spread,
for none can love except by Love possessed.
The love that is outpoured was first Love’s gift of love.
Give, give, and give again is Love’s own song.
For Love is giving love and there is no end to Love.’ * 
 Lord, you continually awaken love in my heart; you who are the source of love and life.
When I gaze upon your revelation in Jesus
my heart is moved and I so want to give myself to you,
to let love flow through me –
love for the one I love and love for the whole of your creation,
especially the most unloved.
Yet it is hard to love those who seem unlovely
and only by your grace can I do this.
Let me gaze on all things with your inner eye of Love
as you gaze upon me and all things

that I may give myself to all that I encounter.

* Fr. Gilbert Shaw: A Pilgrim’s Book of Prayers

Sunday, January 21, 2018

ADORATION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT AND SILENT PRAYER





Many people do not know of the riches that are to be found in periods of silent adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  The small, white consecrated Host placed in the monstrance contains the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph.1:23) and saints down the ages have adored Him who is present to us.  "What wonderful majesty!” declared St Francis of Assisi, “What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation … In this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except for His Most Holy Body and Blood." (Letter to a General Chapter)

ADORATION OF JESUS
When we place ourselves in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament we place ourselves before the gaze of Christ who loves us and wants us to know that love.  As St John says, ‘This is what love really is: not that we have loved God but that he loved us.  We love because he loved us first.(1 John 4:10f)  When we celebrate the Eucharist we are taking the first step to being caught up in the divine life.  As with the Prodigal Son, as soon as God sees us coming home and, a long way before we even get home, God comes rushing up to welcome and embrace us and we need to let our heart welcome His extravagant, self-risking love that flows from heaven. 

In the silence of the Eucharist we taste and enter the silence of the Father from whom the Word eternally springs.  In Andre Rublevs icon of the Trinity the three Persons are gathered around the Eucharist and we, who gaze upon it, are the fourth.  We are enfolded into the silent, loving gaze of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit upon each other uniting each to the other and to the one who is before them.

St Jean Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars in France, tells of asking an old farmer why he came into the church every day to sit before the tabernacle: “I look at Him” he replied “and He looks at me and we tell each other that we love each other.”  This is the prayer of loving regard which seeks to fulfill Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength. And, in order to realise this command, we need to be still, silent and attentive on God.

SILENCE BEFORE GOD
Silence is a rare gift in today’s world. Those who live alone can experience enforced silence and crave for communication with another human being. T. S. Eliot recognized the emptiness that we can know when silence suddenly descends:

As, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too
long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness
deepen.
But there is another type of silence, a silence we can long for, when all those competing voices cease, the silence that comes at the end of a war or when two lovers let go of each other’s bodies and rest.  Silence can provide the space in which we realise what is present, the silence that is sought by those who desire to prevent themselves being distracted from attending to the great silence in which God is present.  As St Teresa of Calcutta wrote:

‘We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature -- trees, flowers, grass -- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.’ (‘Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta) 

This is a reminder of the way Elijah encountered God in silence after he had fled to the cave on Mt. Horeb to escape his persecutors:

‘God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’ (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

PAYING ATTENTION TO THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST
St Benedict, who also sought out desert places, used two words for silence: quies and silentium.  Quies is quiet, physical silence, an absence of noise not banging doors, not coughing or unwrapping sweet papers.  It is a physical self-restraint that respects the presence of other people.  Silentium, however, is not an absence of noise but an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God.  It is attention, and what greater attention can we pay to God than that which we give in the presence of the Eucharistic Presence. As Mary Oliver wrote:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed. (The Summer Day)

To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love.  There is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love. Meister Eckhart, the 13thc. German mystic, knew how God is clothed in silence:
‘It is the nature of a word to reveal what is hidden.  The word that is hidden still sparkles in the darkness and whispers in the silence.  It entices us to pursue and to yearn and sigh after it.  For it wishes to reveal to us something about God.’

This silence is not the absence of noise but the abode of God. 

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation my fortress; I shall never be shaken Psalm 62 : 1 – 2

Religious, especially contemplatives, have always recognised the importance giving themselves to long periods of silence, a silence that is lovingly welcomed and which interweaves the rhythm of their days, weeks and months. These act as reminders of the importance of giving loving attention to God and remind us of Jesus’ words to Martha when she complained about the way her sister was simply sitting at his feet: “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41f)

Eckhart doesn’t say God likes silence or likes silent worshippers but that God is like silence.  St Teresa of Avila said that silence is God speaking to us.  It is like God as nothing else is. When we pay attention to God we come to know that God is paying attention to us. Indeed it is Gods attention to us that allows us to pay attention to God.

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be there where he is like to appear, and
Wait.
Often nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
Expectancy.
No visible signs, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared
But when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.  (Ann Lewin)
__________________________

‘The tree of silence bears the fruit of peace.’
Arabian proverb

 ‘The heavenly Father has spoken one Word: It was His Son. And He speaks it eternally in an eternal silence. And it is in silence that it can be heard by the soul.’
St John of the Cross, Watchword 217

‘Preserve spiritual peace by lovingly gazing upon God. If you must speak, do so with the same calm and peace.’
St John of the Cross, Watchword 198

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) 






Tuesday, January 09, 2018

A (VERY) BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE BIBLE


The word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek word τὰ βιβλία (tà biblía) meaning ‘the books’. The Christian Bible, as we know it, is a collection of religious texts that were written over a period of some 1600 years, by more than forty authors in three different languages and across several continents. Because of such diversity, the context and purpose of each one of the individual books in the Bible varies. In the Christian tradition, we believe that the Bible has special value in our lives because it tells a story of God’s interaction with the world and of the people who follow God.

A list of books chosen to be part of the Bible is called a ‘biblical canon’, with the word ‘canon’ derived from the Greek word κανών (kanón), meaning ‘rule’, as in ‘an instrument by which to measure’, like a ruler. Different Christian traditions make use of different biblical canons, such as the Catholic Church (whose Bible includes 73 books) and the Greek Orthodox Church (whose Bible includes 76 books). The Church of England in Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles: “Of the sufficiency of the holy scriptures for salvation” states that “… the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine…’ thereby authorizing the use of the Apocryphal books. In the Protestant biblical canon, the Bible consists of 66 books, divided into the Old and New Testaments.

The Jewish (Hebrew) Scriptures
Many religions have a book or books which are considered holy or authoritative. They are often called 'Scripture', which simply means something that is written, but is usually used of sacred writings. Jews often divide their Scriptures into three parts: the Torah (the first five books (the ‘Pentateuch’ in Greek: Genesis to Deuteronomy, also known as the Teaching), the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah etc…and the Writings (including the Psalms, Proverbs etc…). These Scriptures describe God's involvement in the lives of individuals as well as in world history. They relate how mankind's relationship with God has been broken and how God has started to restore this through a 'covenant' (which means a binding agreement) with Israel, which would one day extend to the whole world. The Hebrew Scriptures also contain prophecies of a coming Anointed One ('Messiah' in Hebrew and 'Christ' in Greek).

The Christian Scriptures
Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hence he is often described by his name and title: Jesus (var. Joshua) Christ (Messiah/Anointed One). Christians believe that Jesus came to fulfil the Hebrew Scriptures and to introduce a 'new covenant' which would include all people in a new relationship with God. Various accounts of the life of Jesus, and the activities of the early church were first spread by word of mouth (‘Oral Period’) and only later written by some of the very first Christians.  Some quickly came to be seen as holy Scripture by Christians, ranking alongside the Hebrew Scriptures.

An archaic word for covenant is 'Testament', which led to the Hebrew Scriptures being called the 'Old Testament' in contrast to the 'New Testament' of the Christian Scriptures, with both together forming the Christian Bible. Most Christians see the Bible as being authoritative for what they are to believe and how they are to live.

What's in the Bible?
The word 'Bible' comes from the Greek and Latin words for book or books. But within the set of covers that we call our Bible, there are collected together 66 individual books: 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament plus 14 in the Apocrypha. The Old Testament is written mostly in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people (with a few parts in Aramaic). The New Testament is written entirely in Greek, the common language of the time. The Books called the Apocrypha were originally attached to the Greek Old Testament that were not in the Hebrew-written Bible. That is because they were "first-written" in the Greek language. They were considered scripture and used as such by the Jews of the Dispersion (Jews living in foreign countries) at the time of Christ.

About 60 years after the crucifixion of Christ, a group of Rabbi's (survivors of the Roman annihilation of Jerusalem) met at Jamnia and canonized some Hebrew scriptures that were specifically devoid of Greek writings. Any work of scripture not originally written in Hebrew was discarded as unclean.

This codification of the Hebrew Bible by the Jewish Rabbi's cancelled for the Jews the authority, not only of the contested books we now call apocryphal, but also the popular Greek Old Testament itself that foreign Jews had been using for the previous 300 years. That work had earlier been authorized for publication by the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem for use by the Jews of the Dispersion whose language was primarily Greek. Jamnia was a seminal decision because it isolated Christians from Jews on the basis, not just of scripture, but of language as well. The early Christians stuck to the Greek Old Testament and the Jews concreted themselves on the Hebrew Old Testament decided on by the Rabbi's at Jamnia.

The Old Testament
The 39 Old Testament books were written over a long period of time, perhaps as much as 1000 years, from about 1500 BC to the middle of the fifth century BC. The books include historical accounts, lists of laws, poetry, songs, prophecy and other types of writing. These accounts were not collected together merely because they were thought to be of historical interest, but because they were believed to show how God was at work in and through his people Israel.

The New Testament
The 27 New Testament books were written over a period of about 50 years. The exact dates for all of them are not known, but the earliest probably dates from some time in the AD40’s. Before that came the ‘oral’ period when people simply passed on stories, accounts and the words of Jesus until the time came when these needed to be written down.  But ‘telling the story’ remained necessary for centuries as most people were unable to read.  Four books are effectively biographies of Jesus – called Gospels.  Three are similar (synoptic) whilst John’s is somewhat distinct.  The author of Luke also wrote an account of the early church and its preaching called the Acts of the Apostles. One book, called Revelation, is a highly symbolic account of the end of the world. The rest of the books are letters written to various Christian churches with encouragement, criticism and advice, many being written by Paul, who was one of the most important early Christian missionaries.

The Apocrypha
‘Apocrypha’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘things that are hidden, secret.’ It refers to two collections of ancient Jewish and Christian writings that have certain affinities with the various books of the Old Testament and New Testament but were not canonized by Christians as a whole: the Old Testament Apocrypha (e.g. Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach), Baruch etc…), which are viewed as canonical by most Christians, and the New Testament Apocrypha (eg. Shepherd of Hermas, Third Epistle to the Corinthians, Epistles of Clement, etc…) which are not held as such by most – but not all – churches. These, and many more documents, witness to the way that Christianity spread throughout both east and west and began to assimilate with the other religions it encountered. There are, probably, many documents now lost that helped shape the church in lands now regarded as Islamic (eg. Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia) but which had churches under local bishops – including in China – but have lost their Christian heritage.

Who wrote the Bible?
Many different authors wrote or contributed to the books in the Bible. Many of the books do not explicitly name their author, although in some cases it is clear. In many other cases, the author is unknown or is known only from sources outside the Bible. Some of the books are edited works, collecting together or ordering older material, such as the Psalms which are attributed to a number of different authors, including King David. Whilst Muslims claim that the Koran is the ‘word of God’, for Christians that ‘Word’ is, obviously, revealed in Christ. Although the bible has an important place in the life of the Church it cannot have the same place for Christians as the Koran has for Muslims.

However, most Christians would agree that the Bible itself assumes that God chooses to reveal himself to us and to involve himself in our individual lives and wider histories. But as it was never ‘given’ to the Church in the same way that the Koran was given to Mohammed it cannot ‘teach’ although it does bear witness to certain teachings and is regarded as being inspired by God and, in places, containing the words of God. It needs to be remembered that the early Church decided which of the many writings could be accepted as ‘canonical’ at the Council of Rome (392). Most Orthodox Christians accept the canon agreed by the Second Council of Trullo of 692.  There was no one Bible before these Councils.

With the Old Testament Jews began to realise that certain books were authoritative, seeing these as inspired by God.  In the same way, Christians came to recognise the books that now form the New Testament as equally authoritative. This was more a realisation that these books were, in some way, special and different, rather than a specific decision as to which books to adopt as Scripture.  Hence most Christians recognise the Bible as actually written down by human beings, using their own knowledge, language and individual style, but equally inspired by God.

Where are the Original Documents?
We don’t have them! But they were copied – and copies made of those copies and so on until we have the documents that do still exist.  The originals wore out or were lost, but the various copies persisted.  Whenever a document is copied by hand (and that was the only way at the time) there is the possibility of errors creeping into the resulting text. Most of these are irrelevant to the meaning, but the issue needs to be considered. A whole area of study called 'Textual Criticism' attempts to study the different texts that remain and compare and contrast the differences to work out the most likely original. But in the vast majority of cases, we are not talking about huge differences that dramatically affect the overall meaning.

In the New Testament, about 80% of the differences between different manuscripts are found to be in spelling (remember that even during William Shakespeare's lifetime, his name was spelt in many different ways – even sometimes in the same document), while others use synonyms or give changes in word order (which in Greek makes less difference to meaning than in English). Most of these, in fact, make no difference to the resulting translation into English or other languages. Very few variations between documents affect the actual meaning or make any significant difference to what Christians believe.

As one example of the ability of those copying the Old Testament documents, we can look at the book of the prophet Isaiah. An almost complete copy was found in 1947 in the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to the first century BC. When compared to the earliest copy that was previously available, dating from a thousand years or so later, the translators of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible found it necessary to make only three changes to their updated translation. These changes were equivalent to the difference between spelling Saviour as Saviour (British and American spellings).

The original New Testament documents are also lost, but the copies we do have are very close to the date of writing – perhaps 50 to 100 years difference. Compared to most other works of ancient history, the validity of which are rarely questioned, this gap is minute. The works of Julius Caesar, for example, written in the first century BC, only survive in less than a dozen copies dating from about AD 800 – a gap of some 850 years. By contrast, there are many thousands of New Testament documents in the original Greek (not all of these give the whole of the New Testament, of course), as well as many more in translations into various languages, as well as quotations in other early writers.

(From various sources inc. Queens Park Govanhill Parish Church, Glasgow)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

PROVE GOD EXISTS

You ask,
‘Prove God exists’.

I ask,
where is the home of love,
the storehouse of beauty
or the source of music?

Tell me
where I can find the spring of joy
or the heart of wonder?

Show me 
where compassion can be found,
or where mercy and pity live.

God is the air I breathe,
the earth I touch,
the seas in which I swim.

God is the ocean of life
in whom we live and move and have our being,
whose offspring I am and without whom I cannot exist;
the One who is and was and ever shall be.

God is all that is most noble
seeking the nobility in me.
All that you and I can be
as we say our “yes” to that call.

What need I prove

– only that I am not deaf to that call.

John-Francis Friendship
January 4th, 2018

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

THE BLESSED SACRAMENT and the INCARNATION of DIVINE COMPASSION

After all the celebrations during the Christmas Octave I’m aware of having come to a period of peace when it’s possible to find time to listen more deeply to the Incarnation. The eye of the body has beheld Jesus within our Cribs and now the eye of the heart can begin to see the wonder of Emmanuel – God with us.

One of the books I’m reading at present is ‘The Drawing of This Love’ by Robert Fruewirth in which he explores aspects of the way Julian of Norwich realised how the compassion of God permeates Divine Love. In one chapter he quotes Julian saying: ‘Here I saw a great affinity between Christ and us … for when he was in pain, we were in pain.  And all creatures capable of suffering pain suffered with him … So was our Lord Jesus Christ set at nought for us, and we all remain in this way as if set at naught with him, and shall do until we come to his bliss…’ (Ch.18) This led me to consider the way we can always be present to His compassion when we come before Him in the Blessed Sacrament. I find there is something truly wonderful about being present to Him as He is present to us when the Sacrament is exposed on the altar and long for this practice – of placing the Host contained in a monstrance on an altar where anyone can sit or kneel in prayer – to be more and more common. Here we can talk with Him or just rest with Him and know that He is fully present to all who come to Him. And then we can take Him with us in the tabernacle of our own heart for, as St Francis of Assisi wrote in his Rule of 1221: ‘We should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where He can stay, He who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Dame Julian echoes this theme when she later writes: ‘The with a glad expression our Lord looked into his side and gazed, rejoicing and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side within. And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place, large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest there in peace and in love.’ (Ch.24)  As I read that I saw that ‘place’ as His Sacred Heart, a Heart large enough to contain all of us, enlarged by Compassion. This is the Sacrament of Love upon which we are invited to gaze, as Julian gazed on what was revealed to her. I find it a wonderful thing that we who have been made part of His Body can gaze on that Body which is lit up with Love – I see it as one might look on a building flooded with light both inside and out, throbbing with all the colours there are against the darkness that surround it – a darkness of both sin and a lack of recognition. This is what we are to realise as we gaze on His Incarnate Body shown to us in the monstrance.

So I love the idea of creating that inner-monstrance which is to be the dwelling-place for Jesus because I can then adore Him whenever I visit that place. I know few churches can offer perpetual adoration but He can always be with me and I can always adore Him whenever I choose to make this visit to my heart. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Anglican churches were able to offer this facility? Perhaps well-staffed cathedrals might offer this facility – I believe Southwark Cathedral contains the Tabernacle House from the Convent of the sisters of the Community of Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament which was founded in 1869 and ended with the death of the last sister in the early years of this century. Sadly I never visited this community and would love to find a way of continuing their charism. It’s exquisitely beautiful to come to Jesus in this way and be able to just rest with Him – ‘be there’ with Him who is in all places and fills all things yet who left us this way to realise His presence. It’s a presence that doesn’t require any words and the only effort is to focus attention on Him and Him alone. To be able to do this in places like Westminster Cathedral and Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place is a joy and I am grateful to those who make this possible.


So I wonder, might it be possible for individual churches to offer Jesus to us in this way – maybe just for an hour or so at a time? I did this when I was a parish priest and although few came it was such a blessing for me to be able to place Christ there on the altar and spend an hour in His presence. Could we not begin to develop a list – a rota, maybe – of times and places where this happened and encourage people to come to Jesus in this way? What a wonderful appeal to renew and refresh the spiritual life this would offer.

Friday, December 29, 2017

CHRIST THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD - some thoughts on the Incarnation

I wonder if you have an image of God? Many people do, even if it’s one they can’t believe in – that old man with a long white beard, the heavenly schoolmaster, the dictator who rules the world. Maybe a doting father – or even a loving mother. Or perhaps a painting you saw has left an impression on you – a painting of an ancient figure elevated above Jesus with a white dove between them. With such a plethora of images, some highly questionable, no wonder all three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, forbid the depiction of God. “But”, you might say, “what about all the images of Christ in churches?” Well, in a sense, they’re not images of God; they represent the human form in which Christians believe he clothed himself and as Orthodox Christians know, if God chose to reveal invisible things in visible matter then we honour God by doing the same. 

In the end God remains a mystery beyond our comprehension so to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ begs the question – well, what is it exactly that you don’t believe in because it’s likely that the Church doesn’t believe in that either. Once you begin to define what God is then God, in a sense, slips through your fingers.  Nowhere in the Jewish scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’) is there a definition of God – the closest one gets is that remarkable statement when God said to Moses: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or whatever the original Hebrew words mean. Now that seems to suggest God is not so much a ‘thing’ as a state of existence that cannot be named. One might say that God is the is-ness of is, pure being or becoming. Some speak of God as an ‘ocean of love’ or the heart of a mystery and so on. But none of these expressions seek to define what, in the end, is and always has been beyond our understanding.  I know some object to saying that God is a mystery but that’s how it’s always been. It’s not a ‘cop-out’ but, as St Ephrem the Syrian back in the fourth century realised, only something greater than God could possibly define God and there can be nothing greater than God …  So perhaps we might say that 'God' is a useful three-letter word to identify what is unidentifiable but which men and women down the centuries and around the world have believed in. I know we like to name things as it gives us the ability to identify them but – whoever or whatever God is – it would seem God clearly doesn’t want to be identified because as the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  beautiful little book of that name said: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Yes, there have been other ways of trying to identify God – the Holy, Faithful or Wise One for example – but these are merely attributes people have used to speak of God. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc. Two of the most common ways of speaking of God are as the 'most Compassionate' and 'all-Merciful' One or the Holy, Faithful or Wise One, attributes which lie at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc.  But you cannot say God is this or that. God is not this baby any more than God is that old man. What you can say, and what the Church says, is that God clothed Himself in our flesh and wore the garments of this baby who grew into a 33 year-old Palestinian man. He on whom we gaze with the eye of faith is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. And then you would be able to say that what we see in Him reflects the nature of that which He contains leading Charles Wesley to sing:

            Jesu, thou art all-compassion,
            Pure unbounded love thou art.

But, more wonderful still, what we see in Him is a bright reflection of what lies within us.  We can reflect aspects of that diamond-studied divine compassion and love that dwells in Him; our being contains a reflection of the wonder He incarnates and which we are to reveal. If you behold glory in this child, that glory can be reflected in us, as the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, has said: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.” Perhaps, them, we might say that the aroma of 'God' invites us to seek the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence. Maybe, then, it cannot be said that God ‘exists’ as you or I do, and that simple, three-lettered word offers the way we can express the inexpressibleness of life – that which painters and poets also struggle with. The great silence where a Word echoes; the expression of all that is, has been and will be. The silence of love.. The eternal darkness in which light shines.

If, then, the baby in the manger distracts you
from seeing what lies in the Cave of Bethlehem;
that reflection of the depth of human life,
then look beyond and realise the potential present in yourself,
the mystery that lies in the recesses of your own heart,
Perhaps, the importance of this Feast isn’t just that we celebrate God’s incarnation –

it is the Feast of what our humanity can become.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

CAN IT BE TRUE ... ?

O come all ye faithful – and not so faithful
who enter walls made holy by prayer 
and praise. What draws us to these places, 
from our world of the known 
into the unknown? Warm memories 
of childhood security? Snatched recollections 
of hymns and carols sung to tunes stored 
safely in half-remembered recesses of the 
mind? A desire to touch the hem of mystery?
Or the need to connect with our hidden self 
– ignored for so long yet never leaving us.
‘God, you have made us for yourself 
and our heart are restless until they find their rest in Thee.’

Just the memory of a sentimental childhood tale?  But, suppose it were true?

Suppose divine love had entered our flesh.
Imagine we had been brought into being by the overflowing of love.
Dare - for a moment - to be open to the possibility that all 
that is most noble in our humanity
is but a dim reflection of a Great Beauty?

Suppose it were true that we had a great dignity, were
temples of wonder to that which we call – God.

Suppose, just for a moment, that we were not just 
dust, but dust destined for glory?  That God had entered
the centre of our being.
That, hidden within us, we had the ability to do great things - to be
godlike.  Then, maybe, we would reflect, just for a moment

and marvel at our self;
rejoice in and give thanks for that mystery, 
pause before the wonder of our being
and have the courage to say, “Father…”

Suppose, not just for this moment in time, but for all time
it were true ...