Friday, October 16, 2020

A HEART FILLED WITH SONG


‘Sing to the Lord a new song,
Sing to the Lord all the whole earth.~
Sing to the Lord and bless his name,
Proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.’ 
(Ps.96.1f)

I love singing, always have. When I was a child it was suggested my parents put me forward for a St. Alban’s School Choral Scholarship, but nothing came of it. So I was very pleased to discover that Decca have just published ‘Light for the World’, a recording of the Poor Clares of Arundel, one of whom I know: https://umusic.app.box.com/s/zlk5iac6lhgfgaqxa5z6q3jigibkjvhy.  I hope, as the producers say, that this music which ‘goes back to the very roots of mindfulness’ will draw people to God.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Light-World-Clare-Sisters-Arundel/dp/B08DQL8HNF

Plainsong, and other monastic-based chant, can have that effect just as certain other types of music can be of help in worship as it lifts the soul with the voice of song.  At times I find those words of Psalm 96 - Sing to the Lord a new song - carried on the modern monastic chant I learnt when I was a Franciscan, echoing in my heart,  Music can fill the heart even when the heart is the only instrument available for music - singing is meant to aid worship, not be its focus, something the writer of Psalm 56 knew:

My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed,
I will sing and make melody.
Wake up, my spirit, awake lute and harp,
I myself will waken the dawn.

In this time of pandemic, when congregational singing is not permitted, it seems important to remember that even though we cannot communally chant our prayer and praise, the heart can still sing - the voice only magnifies what is there.  Is that one of the great lessons we might learn from this time of crisis?  That our lips express what is in our heart (the centre of our being), and our heart can still sing for joy even when our lips cannot? For surely a church filled with people whose hearts are singing with wonder and thanksgiving will be a place where God is manifest.

Friday, October 09, 2020

ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI: CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER AND CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING

I suppose many are familiar with Francis view of Creation by which he contemplated God in all things – as St. Bonaventure wrote in his Major Life of St Francis (IX:1):

‘In everything beautiful, (Francis) saw him who is beauty itself, and he followed his Beloved everywhere by his likeness imprinted on creation; of all creation he made a ladder by which he might mount up and embrace Him who is all-desirable.’

But did Francis practice what we would call ‘contemplative prayer’ or did he live contemplatively?  What is contemplative prayer?  Is it desiring and gazing and allowing ourselves to be held in the compassionate gaze of God whilst all the while treating all those logismoi – distracting thoughts – that come to us as so many children wanting to distract or gaze?  Or is it certain practices – Centring Prayer, for example, or spending time before the Blessed Sacrament or an icon seeking to be still?  Do our contemplative prayer-practices ‘stand-alone’ or do we find that they begin to affect the rest of life?  Are we beginning to live contemplatively’?  What do we mean by ‘contemplation’?

"Sometimes I sits and thinks, and then again sometimes I just sits."

Contemplation
The root of the word concerns a space reserved for sacred purposes from the Latin word templum, a piece of ground consecrated for the taking of auspices, or a building for worship.  It has ben associated with a long thoughtful look at something and has been described as simply taking a ‘long, loving look at the real’ (Walter Burghardt SJ).  It could be described as a way of offering a balance to activism for it invites us to stop and focus our distracted attention.  It is a way to realise a sense of being at one with an-other and can be practiced by anyone.  The Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee observed: ‘In a forest I have felt, many times over, that it was not I who looked at the forest.  Some days I have felt that the trees were looking at me … were speaking to me … I was there listening … I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it.’  

Be still and know that I am God. (Ps.46.10)

Contemplative prayer
Contemplative prayer is one of the classic forms of Christian prayer.  Whilst Discursive prayer is a prayer using words where we talk to God and meditation a type of prayer where we think about God, contemplation is a type that does not use words or thoughts but a prayer-practice where we are simply with God. 

For some it is exemplified in the English tradition by the medieval work of an unknown author, The Cloud of Unknowing: ‘Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him… Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular’ (Ch.3).  The writer then points out what had become clear to all contemplatives: ‘When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love’ (Ch.3).

‘For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought.
By love he can be grasped and held,
but by thought, neither grasped nor held.’
(The Cloud of Unknowing, Ch.6)

Meditation
Contemplation is sometimes confused with meditation.  Meditation is a practice which uses a particular technique, such as a mantra, to focus the mind in order to train attention and awareness.  One mantric prayer used by St. Francis was the simple: “Deus meus et Omnia – my God and my All”.

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering,
that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”
(Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya 19,)

Centring Prayer is a name given to various forms of meditation designed to aid the development of contemplative prayer by preparing our faculties to cooperate with this gift. ‘It is an attempt to present the teaching of earlier time (e.g. The Cloud of Unknowing) in an updated form and to put a certain order and regularity into it.  It is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; it simply puts other kinds of prayer into a new and fuller perspective.  During the time of prayer we consent to God's presence and action within’ (Contemplative Outreach).

Mindfulness
Rooted in ancient practices of Eastern and Western meditation this concerns focussing on opening the soul to God.  In secular terms certain practices are recommended in order to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.  Mindfulness has been described as ‘the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us” (What Is Mindfulness?, Mindful.org, 2014).  Is Meditation, which usually concerns openness to God through a loving inclination of the heart, the same as Mindfulness or is Mindfulness, primarily, a discipline focusing on developing inner freedom through practising certain techniques?  Or are mindfulness practices akin to the ancient practice of recollection which is the first step on the contemplative path?  Or are they two sides of the same coin?

All have their pitfalls, especially when they become focussed on perfecting techniques. It’s easy to forget that meditation needs to be understood in the context of the commandment to love God and neighbour – in fact, it’s all about putting self aside to centre on God rather than attaining a particular experience.  Living in a society where the self often seems all important Jesus teaching to put self aside and that those who seek to save their life will lose it – and those who lose their life for his sake will find it – are challenging.  As is his observation that whoever wants to follow his way must deny themselves and take up their cross.  This seems to make clear that we ought not to be too concerned with the perfecting of techniques but by the loving gift of self through our practice (Matt. 16:25f).

The orans mentale (mental prayer) of which St Teresa of Avila wrote in her Book of the Life (Chs.8-10) seems similar to aspects of Mindfulness.  But her practices were motivated by a desire for intimacy and “unknowing” (‘the soul’s profit consists not in thinking much but in loving much’ – Foundation 5.2), not for the benefit of the individual but for the purpose of the exercise of ‘good works’ brought about by loving desire.

Orthodoxy uses the word theoria to indicate beholding God leading to theosis, which is union with God through the ascetic practise of hesychasm, that process of letting the mind be enfolded in the heart to enable the sinful person to be changed, by grace, into a child of God.  It is connected with the desire to create a pure heart which enables the vision of God (Matt. 5.8) and, in the Christian tradition, is rooted in the cosmic Christ. 

Contemplative living
For some the practice of contemplative prayer/meditation is an important part of their life of prayer.  It is quite possible to develop such a practice separate from the rest of life – having a ‘quiet time’ can be important in a hectic life, but I wonder if it’s really possible to have such a distinction between contemplative prayer and contemplative living?   In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton wrote: ‘Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, and fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source’ (New York: New Directions Press, 1962: 1-3). So Merton begins to invite us to consider practice contemplation in action which will affect the way we look at the homeless as much as the trees.

Later, in a survey (Robert Toth, The Merton Institute) most of those contacted defined contemplative living as ‘leading a less busy, more quiet life or engaging in certain practices such as meditation, centering prayer or yoga.  In the popular imagination contemplative living is still influenced by the close connection between contemplation and monks and nuns who leave "the world" and live in monasteries.’ 

_________________________________

‘There are some profoundly important characteristics in Merton's interpretation of contemplative living that distinguish it from popular notions of spirituality.  First, it is specific in its focus on our four essential relationships.  Secondly, it asserts that our contemplative/spiritual practices lead us to a clearer understanding of our responsibility in these relationships.  Thirdly, it emphasizes that our everyday, active life is our spiritual life and that our contemplation should guide our actions; and fourthly, it provides direction to our actions that deepens and transforms our relationships in ways that are visible and measurable.  These distinctive characteristics of contemplative living make it tangible and easy to adopt as a way of life.’  (Contemplative Living, The Abbey of the Arts, https:///abbeyofthearts.com/blog/2007/07/29/contemplative-living/)

_________________________________

That was clearly an impetus to the development of monastic life and would seem the cause for St. Francis’ Rule for Hermitages.  Richard Rohr OFM has said that ‘Creation itself was Francis’ primary cathedral, which then drove him back into the needs of the city, a pattern very similar to Jesus’ own movement between desert solitude (contemplation) and small-town healing ministry (action)’ (A Cosmic Mutuality, CAC, October 6th, 2020).

Like others who heard the call to live with a deepening awareness of the presence of God in all things Francis found an example of the contemplative life in Mary the Mother of God.  She had listened to the Word, given birth to it in the silence of her womb and contemplated Him with a growing awareness of His identity as she became what she was called to be:

Hail, holy Lady, most holy Queen,
Mary, Mother of God, ever Virgin.
You were chosen by the Most High Father in heaven,
consecrated by Him, with His most Holy Beloved Son 
and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

On you descended and still remains all the fullness of grace and every good.
Hail, His Palace.
Hail His Tabernacle.
Hail His Robe.
Hail His Handmaid.
Hail, His Mother.
and Hail, all holy Virtues, who, by grace and inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
are poured into the hearts of the faithful so that from their faithless state,
they may be made faithful servants of God through you. 

Both Francis and Merton show that contemplation affects the one who contemplates and concerns living in true relationship with oneself, God, others – and nature.  As Fr. Richard Rohr OFM has written: ‘For Francis, nature itself was a mirror for the soul, for self, and for God.  Clare used the word mirror more than any other metaphor for what is happening between God and soul.  The job of religion and theology is to help us look in the mirror that is already present.  All this “mirroring” eventually effects a complete change in consciousness’ (Contemplating the Goodness of God with St Francis). 

Rohr points out that contemplative practices will affect the psyche to the extent that they can lead to a movement of the soul to want to live in such a way.  Finally, our own Fr. Gilbert Shaw said in a talk to the Sisters of the Love of God: ‘(God) has brought in the Kingdom.  There is nothing static about it: it is not an escape of the soul from the encumbrance of the body; nor is it a mystic consciousness of entities and experiences beyond the temporal.  It is the experience of the whole of life lived for the will of God’ (Paper on Contemplative Prayer).

Sunday, October 04, 2020

SERMON FOR 27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY (St. Francis Day) - October 4th, 2020


Is. 5: 1-7 God’s vineyard not producing grapes
Phil.3: 4b-14 Longing for life in Christ
Matt. 21: 33-46 Parable of vineyard (2) – God gives vineyard to others.

‘There was a landlord who planted a vineyard.’ (Matt. 21:33)

INTRODUCTION
I wonder what you feel about Greta Thunberg, that teenage climate activist from Sweden?  I have a sense she’s a bit like marmite – but I quite like marmite.   I also like St. Francis of Assisi who, in a similar way to Greta, had a deep concern for the environment.  I mention this because the church normally celebrates Francis’ life today, October 4th, although Francis gives way to Jesus this year.  And today is also the final day of that five-week period named ‘Creationtide’, developed through an initiative of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople – the focus of which, this year, has been preparations for the 26th International Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow next autumn.

CHALLENGE OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
I know we need to care for the planet and try to do my bit, although Greta shook my middle-class conscientiousness.  But it’s the more radical approach of Francis I really value, because he not only had a concern for creation but celebrated our inter-connectedness.  Brother Wind, Sister Water – Mother Earth – are not terms dreamt up by a bohemian environmentalist, but by this humble Italian saint whose life many consider to be closest to that of Jesus.  Francis’ has long inspired creative people: his great ‘Canticle of Creation’ lies behind that popular hymn, ‘All creatures of our God and king’; in 1972 Franco Zeffirelli wrote and directed Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a slightly hippy presentation of Francis’ early life, whilst fifty years beforehand Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis offered a far earthier version which he wanted to present as "the perfume of the most primitive Franciscanism".


Why, then, does a thirteenth century saint appeal to twentieth century musicians, film makers and thousands of Christians around the world – and I’m one who have heard his appeal and joined the Franciscan Third Order.
  One popular view is that he was kind to animals, but that is to trivialise his message.  Rather, it’s his life of poverty which stands in stark contrast to the superficiality of today’s quest for wealth and power; his complete obedience to Jesus which reveals that love which brought all things into being, and his profound joy and compassion for humankind which touches the hearts of all who have come to know him.  But back to nature.

FRANCIS AND CREATION
Francis’ life, which culminated in him receiving the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side revealing the depth of his love – reveals the wonder of what humanity is called to discover through profoundly alternative ways of living.  Francis asks – where does your treasure lie?  He showed that we need to live in harmony with all things because we are sisters and brothers with one another and creation.  He saw and venerated the Creator in Creation revealing that one of the greatest evils is to seek domination and not approach life with humility and compassion.  As his biographer, St. Bonaventure, wrote: ‘In everything (Francis) saw him who is beauty itself, and he followed his Beloved everywhere by his likeness imprinted on creation; of all creation he made a ladder by which he might mount up and embrace Him who is all-desirable.’

REVERENCING CREATION
I have a profound respect for what Greta Thunberg, Sir David Attenborough and so many others are seeking to do, and am ashamed at times when I realise what my generation has done and is doing with the planet.  I see behind Greta and Sir David that Little Poor Man of Assisi whose smile lights up when Earth sings in harmony but who weeps at our inhumanity and lack of compassion.  And I see in him One who suffers as we rape and pillage the earth and who says to us – ‘but this Earth is my precious gift to you!’   So, let’s open the eye of our heart to see, value, reverence and celebrate the wonders of this gift and, like St. Francis, live more simply that others may simply live.  But how does all this connect with our readings today?

THE VINEYARD
Well, two of them – the Old Testament and gospel readings – both concern vineyards.  The first, from the prophet Isaiah, warns Israel of what will happen if the vineyard isn’t cared for; and the gospel reading also contains a warning about those who use the vineyard for their own ends.  The story is, of course, another parable and parables aren’t meant to be taken literally – their meaning reveals itself when we look at what it is saying through the lens of faith in the call of God.  And what is clear is that this one is a warning to those who act irresponsibly in relation to what they have charge of.   

FACING THE CRISIS
I think it’s fairly clear that we are virtually into a climate catastrophe brought about by our own misuse of creation.  People like Greta and Sir David appear as a present-day prophets to warn us of the dangers we face.  Sadly, there are many powerful people who care more for creating wealth for themselves and protecting their interests than caring for the planet.  Many are associated with energy companies – but you don’t need to be an expert in global energy production to know this – just go around any supermarket and see how, in the space of a lifetime, we have abandoned ourselves to the grip of plastics and those petro-chemical industries that profit from our addiction to them.   

Recently I came across these words by a Franciscan layman call Gerard Straub in his book ‘The Sunrise of the Soul’; he writes: ‘Our Society glorifies in the amassing of individual wealth and an ever-growing accumulation of goods.  … Anything that furthers our goal of individual material prosperity is considered good, and anything that hinders it is considered bad.’ (p.203)  His words are a consequence of his commitment to St. Francis who heard Jesus’ stark warning: “Where your treasure lies, there will your heart be also”, and who warned us of the corruptive power of wealth.  St. Francis looked at Creation and saw another kind of wealth – the wealth and wonder of all that freely exists for our benefit – providing we don’t grasp at them.  Providing we treat the planet with respect and demand that our politicians take a stand against those who profit from treating the earth as if it owes us a living.  Finally, let’s consider how this all connects with this Eucharist.

CREATION AND EUCHARIST
Back in the 1980s it was popular with some preaches to quote a saying of the early Church Father, St. Irenaeus: ‘The glory of God Is man, fully alive.’ (Forgive the gender specific but it has a poetic crispness to it.)  We would then go on to explore what ‘being fully alive’ might entail, but we often forgot the second part of Irenaeus’ saying: ‘And the glory of man is the vision of God.’

Last week I pointed out that this celebration isn’t just about receiving a piece of bread or even a sip of wine but about feeding on the Body and Blood of Christ and realising that glory with your inner eye of love.   Even in the time of St. John some found that too demanding – surely this is just a reminder of a simple meal Jesus shared with his friends?   No!  It’s far more than that!  Beneath these ordinary gifts lies the glory of God: that’s why we venerate the Sacrament – why we genuflect – take the knee – as we approach Christ – because we see beneath the outer forms the glorious Presence of the Creator.   St. Francis knew that and, in one of his letters, wrote: “O sublime humility!  O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble himself like this and hide under the form of a little bread, for our salvation.”

If we venerate Christ here, see with the eye of our heart that he comes to us on this altar and adore him beneath these forms of bread and wine, if we can do that, then our view of all created matter can change.  For, just as God is present in these precious gifts, so God is present in all he has made, and our inner eye will be able to see and venerate him in all things – in every majestic tree or simple blade of grass; in flowers and fruits, fish and animals – in every rock and stone God says, ‘see, I am pleased with all that my hands have made’. 

You don’t have to be a creationist to believe that, or a biblical literalist – or a Buddhist, just a creature who realises that we are one with all that exists.   To do so can be of real help during this pandemic – be conscious of your connectedness with all creation.  Look at everything around you, relish it and then give thanks to God – even if it’s something as simple as a leaf or a feather.  Let me close with St. Francis’ great song of thankfulness for all this:

All praise be yours, my Lord,
through all that you have made,

And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.

All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather’s moods,
By which you cherish all that you have made.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful is he, how merry!
Full of power and strength.

All praise be yours, my Lord,
through Sister Earth, our Mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

Let us praise, bless and adore Him in all His creation,
and in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON

 

               

I have a feeling Greta Thunberg is a bit like marmite, and I quite enjoy marmite.  I also like St. Francis of Assisi (not like marmite) who, in a similar way to Greta, had a deep concern for the environment.  I mention this because we celebrate Francis’ life on October 4th, the final day of a five-week period which the churches call ‘Creationtide’, developed through an initiative of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.  This year the focus is on preparations for the 26th Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.

I know we need to care for the planet and try to do my bit although Greta shook my middle-class conscientiousness.  But it’s the more radical approach of Francis I really value, for he not only had a concern for creation but celebrated our interconnectedness.  Brother Wind, Sister Water – Mother Earth – are not terms dreamt up by some woke environmentalist but by this humble Italian saint whose life many consider to be closest to that of Jesus.  Francis’ life has long inspired creative people: his great ‘Canticle of Creation’ lies behind that popular hymn, ‘All creatures of our God and king’; Messiaen composed an opera in his honour; in 1972 Franco Zeffirelli wrote and directed Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a slightly hippy presentation of Francis’ early life, whilst fifty years beforehand Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis offered a far earthier version which he wanted to offer as "the perfume of the most primitive Franciscanism".

Why, then, does a thirteenth century saint appeal to twentieth century musicians, film-makers and thousands of Christians around the world?  One popular view is that he was kind to animals, but that is to trivialise Francis.  Rather, his life of poverty cuts through the superficiality of today’s quest for wealth and power; his complete obedience to God reveals that love which brought all things into being, and his profound joy and compassion for humankind touches the hearts of all who have come to know him.  But back to nature.

Francis’ life, which culminated in his receiving the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side – those wounds which revealed to him the depth of Jesus’ love – is a life which reveals the wonder of what humanity is called to realise through profoundly alternative ways of living.  He asks us – where does your treasure lie?  He reveals that we need to live in harmony with all things because we are sisters and brothers with one another and creation.  He saw and venerated the Creator in Creation showing that one of the greatest evils is to proudly seek domination and not approach life with humility and compassion, for we are sisters and brothers of this small, fragile Earth.

I don’t ‘like’ Greta Thunberg – I have a profound respect for what she and so many other young people are seeking to do and am ashamed, at times, at what my generation is doing with the planet.  I see behind her that Little Poor Man of Assisi whose smile lights up when Earth sings in harmony but who weeps at our inhumanity.  And I see behind him One who suffers as we rape and pillage the earth and who says to us – but this Earth is my precious gift to you!   So, let’s open the eye of our heart to see, value, reverence and celebrate the wonders of this gift and, like St. Francis, live more simply that others may simply live.

______________________

‘Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him.  And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!  Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness. … Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for they will be crowned’ (Canticle of Creation)


Friday, September 25, 2020

JESUS - MY LIFE

Three days ago, on my birthday, I was touched by all who sent kind messages. But I also found myself immensely grateful, at 74, to have come to know Jesus and to be a Christian.

I know terrible things have been and are done in His Name for, created in the image of God, once that image begins to become corrupted it can become very dark and life-denying. Yet as I look at Him, I realise that He invites us into a way of life far richer than anything offered by our consumerist society. The early Christian writer, St. Paul, put his finger on it when he talked about being called to ‘knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.’ That ‘knowledge’ isn’t just about something that happens in the head but in the heart of who I am, and we are. And as I look at what’s happening in our world, once I listen beneath the corruptions of Christianity spouted by some for their own ends I begin to wonder – who else but Christ can show us what it really means to be human? He realised the way our humanity can become perverted and pointed us to what we can become - and he showed the way. Shows me that suffering can be overcome, sin redeemed, and death is not the end. Shows me that ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’

As I wrote in 'The Mystery of Faith':
'Being a Christian is to be on a journey, a pilgrimage, which like Abram in the Old Testament (Genesis 12) involves saying that ‘yes’ to something or someone who invites us to step out from the confines of our known world into a new world where we are gazed on with the eyes of Love. It’s a way walked by saints, known and unknown, who journey with us and whose prayers aid us. We begin where we begin and gradually set our sight on what has been called the heavenly City, the ‘New Jerusalem’, which is above and beyond us.' (xviii)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

IS RELIGIOUS LIFE DEAD?


Following a recent Zoom meeting of an Anglican bishop with a society of priests to which I belong, I’ve been ruminating on his critical comments concerning the state of Religious Life in the Church of England.

Whilst it’s clear that many of the traditional Orders are a shadow of their former selves and some have died or will soon come to an end, that is not true of all. First Order Franciscans have a number of novices and the Third Order is flourishing (yes, it’s a recognised Order); the Benedictines at Mucknall have been slowly growing over a number of years and a few others (the Sisters of Bethany, Tymawr and Wantage) all have novices, as does Mirfield. Not in the numbers they once had, but there is plenty of life in those communities.

The re-establishment of Religious Life in the Church of England was considered by many as the crowning glory of the 19th century Catholic Revival. It was catholic clergy from Fr. Benson SSJE to Fr. Robert Grafton CSWG who heard that call to consecrate their lives through Religious Vows and Anglo-Catholic clergy who assisted many women in particular to consider their own call. All that was done against the background of a church which was often disinterested and sometimes hostile to that ‘romish’ development – a disinterest that seems to be growing. During research for my new book ‘What Do You Seek; Treasures of Religious Life’, I have encountered young women who were actively discouraged from considering such a Life by their DDO’s and told that they needed to be priests. Others had no idea there were Religious in the C of E and had been looking to Rome.

One of the marks of true Catholicism has always been that it sees the need, value and benefit of those consecrated to God under Religious Vows. To forget or ignore that not only diminishes the possibility of vocations to that Life but also denies it the support and encouragement it needs and diminishes the catholic nature of the Church. Whilst I regret being called to leave SSF I also believe it ought to be one of the marks of a truly catholic society such as SMMS to actively pray for, encourage and support vocations to Religious Life. We ought to be involved with Orders, especially those such as SLG who have a commitment to pray for clergy; to be using those monasteries and convents which still exist both for our own needs and the benefit of our parishes and institutions – Hilfield Friary, for example, welcomed hundreds of parish, educational and military groups whilst I was there.

Numbers of younger people are also often not found in the church, but I have encountered some on visiting communities because they find there a depth of spirituality they don’t find in their local churches. Might it be one of the distinctive marks of the Sodality that we picked up the baton of praying for, encouraging vocations – and to be re-discovering the riches offered by Religious Life?

Monday, September 14, 2020

PANDEMIC PONDERINGS (6) - Coping with fear in a time of crisis

“Have no fear, little flock” (Luke 12.32)

During our holiday this summer my partner and I decided to experience a ride on the ‘Eastbourne Eye’, a cantilevered wheel similar to that on the banks of the Thames.  It was a very windy day and as we went round and arrived at the top the Wheel stopped – and so did my heart.  Neither of us like heights, although we’re both up for an adventure, but as the insubstantial swing- boat in which we sat suddenly became buffeted by the wind I found myself petrified by fear.  However, after the initial shock I decided to breathe deeply and make a mental ‘health and safety check’ which led me to realise it was unlikely we would die.

Fear and pandemics
I’m not alone in noticing how, in the wake of the Covid-19, many are expressing profound fears about the virus and the interrelated matter of the environmental crisis.  Fear is a natural response to perceived dangers and is built into our primal memory bank as part of the brains complex “threat detection system” but whilst fear can be a healthy thing, it can also take on negative forms which can begin to control our lives.  So whilst it’s natural to fear whatever might overwhelm us, the prophets of old knew the dangers it posed:

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel: 
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine. you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you. (Is. 43.1f)

Jesus went on to build on this prophetic assurance:

“Peace I leave with you (said Jesus); my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn. 14.27)

‘He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Mk. 4.39)

‘Why are you afraid (said Jesus); you of little faith?’ (Mk. 8.26)

Trust and faith
In all these statements there is an element of recalling our need to trust. That doesn’t mean people of faith are to be na├»ve in their response to the virus, but it does suggest that we need to trust that, in the end, we are called into a relationship that will never fail us and that, in particular, we are not to fear death.  Whilst we might be concerned to avoid pain that can come in varied ways, the call to trust echoes through the gospels and inspired the saints to acts of great compassion in the face of other’s suffering. Whatever the outward circumstances we need to trust that God is always present. As St. Francis de Sales said:

Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow.
The same Eternal Father who cares for you today
will take good care of you tomorrow
and every day of your life.
 
Either he will shield you from suffering or
He will give you the unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace then and put aside all useless thoughts,
vain dreads, and anxious imaginations.

Faith overcomes fear
Jesus clearly recognised the crippling effects of mistrust, anxiety and fear and so, in the embolism during the Our Father at the Eucharist, the priest prays: “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety (italics mine) as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”  
    We need to remember that our faith is in One who Himself faced the chaos of sin and death with complete faith in His Father, and we are called to be rooted in that same faith in the face of fear.  That doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand and ignore crisis but that we need to be rooted in this truth – that Christ has conquered the darkness and, specifically, the darkness of death.  For whilst many fear the ending of life, we need to hold firm in the faith that Christ will draw us through death into life.  

Mindfulness, philosophers and apatheia
If the church has forgotten this teaching practitioners of Mindfulness have filled the gap with a simple mantra: ‘face fear and keep going’ which, in its simplicity, has much to teach – but the Desert Fathers and Mothers knew more.  They were aware that classical Stoic philosophers had already identified the dangers of our disordered passions which can begin to control our lives and had developed a teaching called ‘apatheia’ (a word meaning without passion or suffering) to eradicate the tendency to react emotionally to uncontrollable external events.  Instead we are to manage our passions in order to enable us to create a sound emotional state.

    They understood fear to be one of four passions – distress, pleasure and appetite usually being the others – and believed these to be unnatural and unreasonable corruptions of how the soul needed to respond in life.  Each had its opposite that needs cultivating and the opposite of fear (something bad is going to happen) was understood to be caution (or concern).  They believed fear, like the other passions, to be an excessive emotion that has gone beyond reasonable judgement, and to help counteract the influence of our unhealthy passions realised the need to nurture healthy emotions.

Desert Mothers and Fathers and the saints
Turning to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those early Christian guides to seeking God, they recognised that ‘purity of heart’ about which Jesus spoke in the Beatitudes (Matt.5.8) was the way to the attainment of sanctification of life and on that path these Elders recognised how our passions can lead us astray.  They read in the Letter to Titus that we have become ‘slaves to various passions and pleasures’ (3.3) and Origen (c.184-c.253AD) in particular understood that out of the heart come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander (Matt. 15.19) and knew we needed to address these disordered emotions in seeking to purify the heart.  Whilst fear as a ‘passion’ isn’t an evil, it’s clear that it leads us away from faith. 
    In his book, The Orthodox Church, Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko writes: ‘According to the spiritual tradition of the Church, we need to control the spiritual mastery over the lusts of the mind and the flesh often called “passionlessness” by the spiritual masters. Passionlessness (apatheia) does not mean the destruction of the natural drives and desires of the body and soul, such as the need for sleep, food and drink; or the emotions such as spiritual desire, zeal, excitement, joy, awe, sorrow or fear. It means rather the control of the feelings that are normal, natural and healthy, and the mortification of the feelings that are wicked and evil.’  

Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) wrote that ‘psalmody calms the passions and curbs the uncontrolled impulses in the body; and prayer enables the intellect to activate its own energy’ (On Prayer, 83).

John Cassian (360-435) avoided the word apatheia preferring the Latin term puritas cordis (purity of heart), a term which has shifted the focus away from prayer being a mental activity to a more heart-felt response.  It underscores the love of God rather than the knowledge of God as the essential element in the union between God and the one who prays, emphasising that it is not the individual’s struggle against the passions that produces a pure heart, but God’s grace (Conference's 1:4, 5-6, cf. 1 Cor. 15.10).  Humility plays a crucial role in this work of opposing the passions (agere contra) which St. Ignatius Loyola would later develop in his Spiritual Exercises.   

Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) distinguished between the object of the passion and the passion (disordered desire) itself.  He maintained that created things come from God and are, therefore, good but that evil can implant the disordered desire concerning the creative thing in the mind and heart (Centuries on Various Texts):

‘Until you have been completely purified from the passions, you should not engage in natural contemplation through the images of sensible things: for until then such images are able to mould your intellect so that so that it conforms to passion.’ (II: 75)

Maximus was more concerned that the will should be freed from the passions and apatheia, for him, did not mean lack of emotion but a state where the passions are transformed into love.  All created things are of God and reflect God's image and likeness and the kind of love of which he writes is only possible if one has attained this apathia through contemplation.  

Francis of Assisi (c.1182-1226) knew all about fear – he had a great fear of leprosy: “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me” (Testament, St. Francis). This change came about when, realising the power of the desolation he experienced, he decided to embrace a leper, the symbol of his fear, and discovered a deep sense of consolation.  Such consolation wasn't so much a feeling of happiness as an awareness that he lived with faith, hope and love. (This account needs to be heard in the same way as Jesus’ instruction to tear out your eye if it offends you (Matt. 18.9f)

    Later, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) became aware of two different spirits at work within the soul and attributed the cause of feelings of dryness and discontent to the evil spirit and the feelings of being consoled and content to God. (Autograph 8).  He doesn’t write about apatheia as such but does say, in the opening of his Spiritual Exercises, that “… it is necessary to pray for ‘indifference’ (detachment from disordered passions; tranquillity of soul) to all created things, in regard to everything which is left to our free will and is not forbidden”  (Principle and Foundation).  Such indifference is rooted in the understanding of God’s ultimate love and faithfulness for us and is clearly similar to apatheia.     
    He also teaches the need for that agere contra (Admonition 16) taught by John Cassian saying that in the face of disordered tendencies towards riches, honour and pride (and fear) a person should make every possible effort to oppose this tendency so that their goal becomes simply the love and service of God.  In this way they discover a higher degree of spiritual freedom enabling them to act rather than, in the case of fear, to freeze.  This is contemplation-in-action: ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love’ (1 John 4.18).

Apatheia and fear
Our response to fear is often to freeze, panic or to seek distractions.  Whilst Buddhism teaches that we need to learn to face our fear, looking at it as you meditate to quieten the heart and mind, Christianity seems to have forgotten its own insights.  Apatheia isn’t the same as the English corruption, ‘apathy’, but connotes a calmness and composure in difficulties by practicing Ignatius Loyola’s teaching about agere contra – working against disordered desires.  In fact, Ignatius shows he understands the real value of this ancient wisdom by teaching the importance of living with indifferentia, (not the same as careless indifference) which is akin to the practice of detachment about which all spiritual writers teach and which is the way into that purity of heart which enables the vision of God.  It implies the soul’s state of ‘spiritual peace’ or well-being whereby excessive and negative emotions are replaced by reasonable desires based on love and humility.

(with thanks to: Joseph H. Nguuyen SJ, Apatheia, Cascade Books, 2018)

Thursday, July 09, 2020

DAILY EUCHARIST - from a letter by Fr. Andrew SDC


If we really believe in (our Lord’s) coming in the Blessed Sacrament, we shall learn to rest in His coming a good deal more.  Do you think that when He comes He does not come to stay and will leave us, and that we must be hurrying back to the altar again and again in order to be sure of having Him in our hearts?  It is to me the greatest possible privilege to say Mass daily … but I often have to go without saying Mass for a day or two, and … if illness or obedience take that away from me I know very well that the Presence which I have received will never leave me except I sin wilfully.

It must have been very hard for S. John the Baptist who loved our Lord so tenderly to go right away from our Lord’s presence at Nazareth, and live all those years in the wilderness, but you see he knew that it if it was our Lord’s will that he should live apart from His visible Presence on earth, he would gain a greater nearness to the spiritual, invisible, Real Presence in the wilderness.  

You say, ‘It would be terrible not to take one’s Communion daily.’ S. Francis was forty days alone, and he did not make his Communion.  S. Benedict was months without hearing Mass or making his Communion. The saints of the Egyptian desert, who knew more about our Lord than anyone, only had Mass on Sundays and Saint’s days.

There are people who are saturated in Sacraments and don't know God.  They don't want more grace: they want to learn to use grace.

S. Paul the Hermit only made one Communion in his whole life S. Antony, S. Bernard, S. Bruno, S. Francis all had their periods when they were deprived of the Sacraments.  S. John of the Cross went months without his Communion when he was imprisoned by the bad monks at his monastery, and during that time he learned all his greatest knowledge.

The thing is to put first is the will of Jesus and the love of Jesus, and not the consolation of the Presence of Jesus.  

I have learnt to know that it is very possible to go to Mass daily and not to go to Jesus at all interiorly, and to go to confession weekly and never to repent.  It all comes from a want of interior silence and detachment, and as the natural comes before the spiritual and the exterior in a measure before the interior, you must get an exterior silence and an exterior detachment before you can have any idea how it is with your soul.   there is no such thing as a daily Mass with God.  It is an everlasting Sacrifice, and if we are true to our Communions we are always in the attitude of those who are assisting at the everlasting Sacrifice.

The Caldey Brothers in their beginning had to go weeks sometimes without a Mass, I am almost absolutely sure.  Certainly I know they took that risk in order to gain the essential silence and separation.

From: The Life and Letters of Father Andrew SDC, ed. Kathleen E. Burne, Mowbray, London, 1948, p.109f
(Emboldened texts by J-FF)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

SACRED HEART TALK 2020: Priests of the Sacred Heart (3)



Hello and welcome to the third and last of these talks concerning the Sacred Heart in which I want to consider how we’re called to be Priests of the Sacred Heart.

One of the important purposes of the priesthood, of course, is to share with others something of the love of God – to help them consider that Love and to grow in their free gift of themselves to that Love, and to do that we need to be growing in that love.  In his gospel St. John records, of course, that triple question Jesus asked Peter: “Do you love me – love me more than these?”  (Jn. 21:15).  He wasn’t speaking of sentimental love, but agape love, love which is costly. He wanted to get Peter to consider in depth – in the depths of his heart – that love which the image of the Sacred Heart reveals.  It’s this love which needs to animate the vocation of every priest and we need to hear Jesus saying to us: “Do you love me – more than these?”  It’s the question that needs to refresh our vocation and to which we need to constantly return.

It’s the question reflected in the image of the Sacred Heart and is one of the reasons why it can be of great benefit to everyone, not least to priest.  We all know the importance of images – how they can speak more powerfully than words – and, as we know, the image of the heart speaks across religions, cultures and ages.  Whether on a heart on a Valentine’s card or one made with our hands, it has a warm sentimental feel; which is the difference between those romantic hearts and the Sacred Heart.  For the Sacred Heart portrays the cost of Jesus’ love shown in the way this Heart is illustrated with symbols of the Passion, so let’s consider them for they reveal the depths of Christ’ love, a love which is of far greater importance than the fuzzy glow that can come with a Valentine.

THE BLOOD-FILLED HEART
Firstly, it is a heart pumping with blood, the one organ which enables the whole body to live.  Unseen, but not unheard, it works away 24/7 for the whole of our time on earth – we could manage without many of our body parts, but not without our heart and it’s that unseen beat of the heart which needs to animate our vocation.

THE PIERCED HEART
Then there’s that matter of the blood with is shown, dripping from a wound. That makes it clear how the Heart of Jesus, like that of His Mother, was pierced; hers by a sword, his by a lance – the holy lance of the soldier, St. Longinus – as he hung on the Cross.  The lance pierced through His side into His Heart, into what this drawing by St. Margaret Mary made clear was a reservoir of caritas, love, from which flowed blood and water, the water of Baptism and the blood of the Eucharist, Sacraments of the Love of God.  In the past the Holy Blood was revered for the way it was that ‘ocean of love’ which could cleanse and renew our own –
Wash thou my wounds in that dear Blood
Which forth from thee doth flow,
New grace, new hope inspire, a new
And better heart bestow.

As Jesus said about the German mystic, St. Gertrude: ‘The proximity of her heart to the wound in my side means that I have so joined her heart to mine that she is able to receive, directly and at all times, the flow of my divinity.’  So we’re also to be priests of the wounded Christ, realising that the wounds of those with whom we minister are reflected in the Wounded Heart of Jesus.

THE CROWNED HEART
To underline the connection between the Sacred Heart and the Passion of Christ, the Heart is encircled by the Crown of Thorns.  Firstly, that reminds us how it wasn’t just His body which reveals the cost of love, His mind also paid the price.  But just as the Holy Lance which pierced the side of Jesus symbolises those ‘darts of longing love’ which gain us entry into Christ’s heart, so we can meditate on the way this Crown of love pierces him.

THE CROSS-CROWNED HEART
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’ (Phi. 2:1f).  It also reminds us that, whilst we may not find ourselves having to physically suffer for our faith, there will be many times when we’re pierced and humbled and all we can do is hold on to our consecration as priests of the Sacred Heart.  No wonder, then, that the Heart is surmounted by the Cross.  Or, perhaps we might consider how the Cross rests on the Sacred Heart reminding us that when we gaze on it, we must always contemplate it as the sign of God’s love.  Priestly ministry will always be under this sign of our Master and reminding us that we should never be surprised that we’re called to suffer with Him.  St. Teresa of Avila said: ‘the important thing is not to think much but to love much and do that which stirs us to love.’  How often do we place our mind in our heart?  Where is the centre of our being – in the head or the heart?

THE FLAMING HEART
Again, that consideration is informed by the way the Cross is enflamed – the fire of God’s love by which so many have said we must be consumed.  ‘May the power of your love’, prayed St. Francis of Assisi, ‘fiery and sweet as honey, so absorb our hearts as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.  Grant that we may be ready to die for love of your love, as you died for love of our love.’  That prayer should take us back to that triple question posed to St. Peter, a prayer which might be one every priest should pray daily.   The Sacred Heart is a warm, glowing heart, radiating compassionate love; a hurt, open heart which is the gate of heaven and needs to inform our priesthood.

THE NON-DUALISTIC HEART
But there’s an aspect of some Sacred Heart imagery many find off-putting – the way they show Jesus in an androgynous way – he seems partly male and partly female, certainly not a man’s man!   There’s a femininity about many images which can be challenging, but which fits with the classic symbolism of the heart as feminine and the mind as masculine; the softness and approachability of Jesus in such images is revealed by artists who, perhaps unconsciously, knew the Sacred Heart was meant to open us to the feminine in the divine and is meant to answer the false dualism pictures can inevitably portray.   For we know that in Christ there is neither male nor female, we are all one in Him (Gal. 3:28), something we need to realise in ourselves.   Our priesthood needs to incarnate both the feminine and masculine in God.

THE COSMIC HEART
Finally, I want to acknowledge that the Sacred Heart is not only a universal symbol, it’s also a symbol of the universe. ‘We know’, wrote St. Paul, ‘that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ (Roms. 8:22) and can rightly believe that, at the heart of the universe is the Heart of Christ, the Creator.  Within the Cosmic Christ is a cosmic intimacy; the Creator we proclaim isn’t some majestic deus ex machina, but a power of Love, a love whose nature is constantly creative.  The universe is like a woman struggling in giving birth to an infant conceived in love. 

One of the reasons why devotion to the Sacred Heart is so important is that it declares that we were made in that image and if you want to understand what this human-being is all about, look at the Sacred Heart.  As Teilhard de Chardin wrote in The Heart of the Matter, this devotion gave him a sense of the ‘solidity of Christ … the immersion of the divine in the corporeal … a glowing core of fire … able to insinuate itself everywhere … to make love of the cosmic milieu.’  Such a realisation lies behind eucharistic living, living with a constant realisation of the loving, compassionate presence of God in all things.  As priests, we are not only those who preside at the sacraments, we need to enable others to live sacramentally as we deepen our own awareness of God’s loving presence in all things.

CONCLUSION
So as we come to the end of this meditation, let’s keep a few minutes of silence at the end of which I’ll read a reflection by the late Mother Osyth of Malling Abbey.

(Silence)

Wind, fire and flame
   the outward sign 
   but in the heart
   breath of the spirit
        love and light
   heavenly dew
of sanctifying grace
   God’s very presence hallowing the place
   restoring to his image
        the souls face