Sunday, May 19, 2019

PRAYER FOR VOCATIONS TO RELIGIOUS LIFE



In 2018 the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, in connection with the founding of the new Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace: ‘Unless swift action was taken, some feared that the religious life could vanish from the Church of England for ever.’ 

The Roman Catholic Church makes it clear that prayer for vocations to the Religious Life is central to Vocations Sunday, which is observed on the 4th Sunday in Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday:  ‘The purpose of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations is to publicly fulfil the Lord's instruction to, "Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest" (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2). As a climax to a prayer that is continually offered throughout the Church, it affirms the primacy of faith and grace in all that concerns vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life.  While appreciating all vocations, the Church concentrates its attention this day on vocations to the ordained ministries (priesthood and diaconate), to the Religious life in all its forms (male and female, contemplative and apostolic), to societies of apostolic life, to secular institutes in their diversity of services and membership, and to the missionary life, in the particular sense of mission "ad gentes".’  (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Excellent resources can be found here:
and here:

Vocation was the subject of the sermon at the church I attended on Easter 4 and, quite rightly, the preacher made the point that vocation isn’t limited to ordained ministry.  Whilst I agree it was lamentably noticeable that no mention was made of a calling to Religious Life, and I expect that was the same elsewhere.

It does not appear that such prayer receives any prominence in the Church of England and I wonder why this is so?  If the Archbishop’s statement is taken seriously, then prayer for vocations to Religious Life is urgent and should be at the heart of what we pray for each year. 

At one time there was a Prayer for Vocations to Religious Life, but I cannot find a copy.  Do you know of such a Prayer?

Friday, May 17, 2019

‘BEAR ONE ANOTHER'S BURDENS AND SO FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST.’ (Gal 6.2)


Christ comes to us in every disguise and encounters us when we’re unprepared. Often he comes in those who we would not chose – or expect – him to be clothed in, yet still he comes. What does one do with the constant stream of those asking for help, for money, for a listening ear. I have turned from him so many times, yet still he comes. What matters is that we don’t allow our hearts to turn to stone, that each encounter might move us along the way to greater compassion and an openness to his voice. That can be hard when he speaks to us in public and we might feel embarrassed, or in the person to whom we find it hard to show mercy. It can be hard when our attention is give to ourselves, our needs and desires, and blind to the other, unless they have an appeal. But Christ comes, asking us to share his burden.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

MINDFULNESS AND THE PRAYER OF RECOLLECTION


‘The practice of Christian meditative Recollection eventually shifts into what (Evelyn) Underhill calls the prayer of Quiet, as the subject eventually stops the willed concentration on the object of Recollection and simply rests passively within this deep inner consciousness, free of all sensory and cognitive attachments.  Although Underhill speaks theologically of this condition as an awareness of the soul’s unity with its ground or ‘Pure Being’, she describes it as ‘an  almost complete suspension of the reflective powers’ that leads to a  radically passive condition that mystics have called in negatively descriptive language ‘ecstatic deprivation’, ‘nothingness’, ‘utter stillness’, ‘Interior Silence’, or ‘emptiness’. This altered state of consciousness is a kind of consciousness-purity that is not properly describable and is best characterized by silence. Although quite positively affective, mystics speak of the ‘naked orison’ or ‘divine dark’ of this state of consciousness purity, in contrast to the normal busy activities of the sensory-cognitive intentional mind.’

 From: EXPLORING PROCESSES AND DYNAMICS OF MYSTICAL CONTEMPLATIVE MEDITATION:
SOME CHRISTIAN-BUDDHIST PARALLELS

Thursday, April 25, 2019

TURN AND TURN AGAIN




In his account of the resurrection, St John records that Mary Magdalene, after peering into the tomb and conversing with two angels (20.11ff) 'turned' and saw Jesus, although she did not recognise him. A few verses on, after talking with him, John says she again ‘turned’ and said: “Rabbouni”.

This double turn is interesting - surely she didn't need to turn again as she is already facing him? Or does John want to underline the movement required to recognise who she was speaking with? This failure at first to see the risen Christ occurs at other times in the resurrection stories and emphasises that we need to really look in order to properly 'see' Jesus. A cursory glance will not reveal who he is - this 'seeing' need to penetrate the heart.

One of the motifs in this gospel is the need to ‘see’ who Jesus is – see beneath the outer appearance into the heart. This seems similar to the concept of ‘metanoia’, that turning which is needed to enable the heart to respond to the call of Jesus. How can we help people 'see' Jesus?

Saturday, April 20, 2019

‘RELIGION IS JUST A CRUTCH…’



It’s not uncommon for someone objecting to their partner going to church or attending Mass or say that those who do so are looking for a ‘crutch’ or that religion is a way of avoiding relationships.  It can be very painful to hear that said and can cause real difficulties for anyone who wants to grow in their faith and begins to sense that, to do so, they need the company of others. 

Like the Judaism from which it emerged, Christianity isn’t a solitary religion.  As with many other animals we’re designed to be relational beings – we live in societies; grow through relationships and discover who we are as we encounter others.  But like other religions Christianity goes further, it points out that in order to be fully human we need to be in relationship with something greater than ourselves – with God.  Our need to ‘go to church’ is an aspect of the realisation that, in order to grow, we desire to be with others as they seek God – is that a ‘crutch’?  If it is, then it’s one most of us need, for in order to be myself I need to be in relationship with you, or as one philosopher maintained 1 – every ‘I’ needs a ‘Thou’ in order to find meaning.  We need to be in ever-deepening relationship.

Some use the church, the People of God, as a means of developing those meaningful relationships when, for good reasons, no other way seems possible and Christians are found to be welcoming, accepting and inclusive.  Sadly, a few look to certain churches to support their prejudices.  Some partners might feel ‘church’ is a threat to their relationship and there are, indeed, those who become too involved and distant from their partner.  But in a similar way, friendships, even hobbies, can either be nurturing of a relationship – we enjoy the company of friends and need to have our own independently of partners – or they can become an escape. 

I need a crutch
I don’t mind admitting that I need a crutch.  I know I’m broken, not whole – are any of us?  I know I need people to help me become the person I’m meant to be; need people who love me, people who will encourage and enable me to grow.   In so many ways life wounds all of us and we need those who will help us heal and become whole.  No one is perfect.  Many are prepared to accept that they are enslaved and need a rescuer – a saviour, a Power greater than themselves to whom they can turn for help in this matter of becoming whole and growing into the fullness of our potential.  Christianity says that we have a godly identity that needs nurturing so we can grow beyond the limits of the self.

In all this the individual seeker, wanting to grow in their faith, beginning to sense that they need to do so in company with others, will need to be sensitive to the feelings of their partner, making sure that they are giving enough ‘quality time’ to them.  For growth in relationship with the God we have not seen is tested by our relationship with those amongst whom we live (1 John 4.20f). 

Growing beyond the church
But this need to be part of the church is only one step along the way and we are not to get stuck.  The point of ‘church’ is not, in the end, to provide friends but to belong to a community of those on a journey into God.  The journey we’re called to make can be hard to undertake alone and we can cease exploring and settle down into a comfortable place and take the eye of our heart off the goal.  ‘Church’ is where we gather to encounter the mystery of God, the Body of Christ on earth – and in heaven.  To be baptised into that Body is to be one with saints and angels ‘standing around the throne of God’. 

Perhaps we might give attention to going to Mass rather than ‘going to church’ – going to that celebration in which we seek to be open to the activity of God in word, sacrament and through the body of believers both seen and unseen.  As with the first Christians, we’re called into relationship with God in Christ through attending the Eucharist – and then living out of that relationship and seeking to deepen it through our personal daily prayer, acts of loving kindness, listening to God’s constant call that our heart might reflect His – and deepening our love for those to whom we are committed.

Imprisoned but not alone
There will always be those who, for whatever reason, cannot ‘go to church’.  The housebound through sickness or age; those unable to feel they can ‘belong’; those denied the opportunity because of their circumstances or because they are forbidden.  And there will be those imprisoned.  Back in the 16th century the great Carmelite mystic, S. John of the Cross 2, was cast into a tiny prison cell by his brothers because they objected to the reforms he wanted to make to their Order.  He spent eight months in appalling conditions, yet this was the means for him to compose some of the greatest mystical poetry.  Instead of making him bitter and angry the very privations he experienced were the means for him to escape by way of love.  Drawing on the biblical Song of Songs his heart sang in the darkness as he sought the One he loved:

                          Upon a gloomy night,
                                    With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,
                                    (O venture of delight!)
                                    With nobody in sight
                                    I went abroad when all my house was hushed. 3

Even when denied the company of others, he found a way of reading the Divine Office and, in the darkness, meditating on the love of God so that his heart was open to the movement of the Spirit and he was united with his beloved.  Today we have Apps to help us! 4

We must pray for our partners, that they will also be open to God; show that our faith is deepening our love for them, and be prepared to explain that ‘going to church’ helps us develop our desire to be more fully human – more fully the person I am meant to be – and then pray that our hearts might be open to that Love which gives life to the world.

_________________________________________

1  “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart. But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of his eternity, you? How would man exist if God did not need him, and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that which is the meaning of your life.”  (Martin BuberI and Thou, Simon and Schustner, 2000)
2  A sketch of Christ, made by St John of the Cross, was shown to Salvador Dali in 1949 moving him to paint his great work Christ of St John of the Cross.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfN67C9XLCM
3    Roy Campbell, Poems of St John of the Cross, The Harvill Press Ltd., 1951
4 Pray as You Go; https://pray-as-you-go.org/; Laudate, Prayers, Daily Readings and Various Devotions: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/laudate-1-catholic-app/id499428207?mt=8


Monday, April 15, 2019

JOHN OF THE CROSS and the call to seek Christ



THE MYSTICAL POETRY of St John of the Cross is a constant reminder that, even when it feels as if we’re imprisoned in a dark and gloomy cell – the prison of parish or church life, of the humdrum daily round, or the desolate surroundings where we live, where people torment us or colleagues goad us, where it seems as if there’s no escape, or all we can see is the cold darkness that seems to enfold us  – and re-focus into the light of Christ burning in the darkness.  Reach out to him in love and escape those surroundings which can ensnare and enfold us.  We’ve to redirect our attention, re-focus our heart, towards our Divine Lover:

Upon a gloomy night,
With all my cares to loving ardours flushed,
(O venture of delight!)
With nobody in sight
I went abroad when all my house was hushed.


In safety, in disguise,
In darkness up the secret stair I crept,
(O happy enterprise)
Concealed from other eyes
When all my house at length in silence slept.
Oh night that was my guide! 

Oh darkness dearer than the morning’s pride,
Oh night that joined the lover
To the beloved bride
Transfiguring them each into the other.
Within my flowering breast 

Lost to myself I stayed
My face upon my lover having laid
From all endeavour ceasing:
And all my cares releasing
Threw them amongst the lilies there to fade.

This is what St Benedict, less poetically, committed himself and his brethren to do as he sought for conversatio morum – that ‘conversion of life’ which has to be our daily concern.  Is your attention often taken by the weariness of life?  Set yourself free by cultivating that ’indifference’ taught by St Ignatius.  Don’t become trapped by thoughts and feelings that are life-denying, but, instead, take hold of Christ and ask him to let you abide in his Heart.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION AND CLERICAL MINISTRY - some reflections




From time to time the suggestion is made that clergy should not only encourage members of their congregations to seek a spiritual director but offer themselves in that role.  As someone said: ‘There is no magic, no expertise, just sister and brother sinners on the Way.'  However, there is a long tradition that clergy should not act as director to parishioners: as Madeleine de Saint-Joseph wrote to ‘A Cleric’:

‘First, then, I tell you this, sir, about the direction of souls.  It is very dangerous to meddle in it.  One must be constrained and called to it by God …’ 1

Whilst it’s true that clergy need to help parishioners deepen their relationship with God, there are dangers and pitfalls in directing them.  It’s one thing to be asked to preach and another to be a preacher – most benefit from proper training, and a few are simply not gifted in that way.  Just so with Spiritual Direction.  To offer that ministry requires a certain calling and the humility to seek some formation – it doesn’t come as part of the grace of ordination, any more than does the ability to be an effective preacher or teacher.  It’s also clear that some should not be offering this ministry, and several bishops are rightly concerned when they learn of directors who are not supervised in what they do.  

This ministry needs approaching with great sensitivity, for one is involved in dealing with another’s soul: the place where we stand is holy ground.  Whoever is prepared to offer this ministry needs to realise the primary importance of their own conversatio morum though their ongoing, deepening relationship with God.  Whoever offers direction must come to terms with the:

•  temptation to want to ‘rescue’ people or to focus into ‘problem solving’;
•  urge to be too directive;
•  need for a broad understanding of the Christian spiritual tradition;
•  need to trust in the ‘slow work of God’ in a directee’s life;
•  importance of insights from other therapeutic disciplines, especially in the areas of transference, counter-transference and projection and the dangers of rejecting these insights;
•  legal issues surrounding the ministry (aspects of confidentiality, safeguarding etc…);
•  importance of knowing how to listen contemplatively, and the danger of not properly listening;
•  temptation to ‘go it alone’ and think we don’t need help (supervision).
             
The dynamic between priest and parishioner can be complex – unlike the boundaried relationship between confessor and penitent, this relationship can confuse matters.  Spiritual Direction requires both to feel they are free to bring to the relationship what needs addressing, and there needs to be a certain distance between director and directee.  But the proximity between priest and parishioner in weekly services etc. leave both vulnerable to becoming inappropriately close in a variety of ways, and this can be a problem where, consciously or not, levels of attraction begin to emerge.  

For all these reasons, not least the many psycho-spiritual dynamics involved, it’s held that clergy ought not to direct members of their congregations.
             __________________________________

 1  William M. Thomson, ed, Berulle and the French School, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1989, p.208

Sunday, April 07, 2019

SERMON on the COLLECT and EUCHARISTIC PRAYER


preached at the Church of All Saints, Blackheath
on the
 5TH SUNDAY OF LENT (PASSION SUNDAY)
April 7th, 2019
________________________________________________________



‘Twas Christ the Word that spake it
The same took bread & brake it
And as the Word did make it, that I believe & take it.’

Those are the – somewhat enigmatic – words Elizabeth 1 reputedly used when questioned on her views about transubstantiation – that definition of what happens when the priest speaks the words of consecration at Mass.  As part of this series of addresses exploring the Eucharist, a Greek word meaning ‘thanksgiving’, I’ve been asked to talk today about the Collect and Eucharistic Prayer, sometimes called the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

The timelessness of the celebration
But let me first say that the Eucharist defines our faith.  Rooted in the Jewish Passover, the event celebrating the escape of the Jews from their slavery in Egypt, it unites us in Christ as we celebrate our liberation by his triumph over sin and death.  Time becomes timeless and we’re one with those disciples who gathered with him in the Upper Room as they were one with those who celebrate their freedom.  This ‘re-membering’ re-connects us with those events so that, as the Passover service says:
          ‘in each generation, each person is obligated to see themselves
          as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.’  (Haggadah cf.Ex.13.8)

‘Though Steve or Mary may preside over the celebration, their vestments – the stole and chasuble – symbolise that it’s Christ who stands before us.  The individual priest isn’t important, and the various colours of the vestments reflect the season or celebration – we don’t just choose something we happen to like!   But let’s begin with some thoughts on the Collect.

The Collect
The invitation, ‘Let us pray’, after we’ve been praying at the beginning of Mass, comes as something of a jolt – which it’s meant to be.  Corporate penitence and praise, in confession and the Gloria suddenly cease, and the priest is encouraged to invite us to share in a moment of silence when we can recollect our attention (hence the term, the ‘Collect’) before offering a prayer.  Such an audible change is meant to alter the tempo and encourage us to direct ourselves to God alone.  It’s been used at this point since at least the 5th century in Rome and concludes what are called the Introductory Rites. 
          The purpose of the Collect is to acknowledge what God has done for us in the past and then, on that basis, to ask for something in the present, always acknowledging that our prayer is in and through Christ.  Over time more than one prayer began to be offered at this point but in the 1970’s, with other changes made to the Liturgy, it was decided to return to the more ancient tradition of focusing into one prayer.  Apart from the fixed collects which appear in Common Worship, some of which are over a thousand years old, there are others more recently written to reflect the themes of the day.  So, for example, today we could have prayed this beautiful Collect:

God of power and mercy,
you bring forth springs in the wastelands
and turn despair into hope.
Look not upon the sins of our past,
but lift from our hearts the failures that weigh us down,
that we may find refreshment and life in Christ,
our liberator from sin …

Standing etc…,
I grew up in a tradition where you always knelt for prayer – regardless – certainly not crouch or sit.  Standing was reserved for singing hymns – and hearing the gospel read.  But times move on – or, in this case, they move back.  For the first Christians, following Jewish custom, stood to pray because they wanted to express respect and readiness to act, as can be seen in many frescoes in the catacombs of Rome.  You’d not dream of sitting if the monarch entered the room, and here we’re about to welcome the King of Kings!  We’re not an audience at a play or students listening to a lecture, but active participants in a divine drama.  Kneeling, on the other hand, was the position of servitude; standing straight, tall and free had special meaning for early believers, something we still recall when the priest says: 'we thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you ...'
          Of course, people have always sat if necessary – the term ‘weakest to the wall’ dates to pre-Reformation times when there were no pews but, if you were ill or elderly, you could sit on benches around the walls of the church.  Then, with the Reformation, the view that we’re ‘miserable sinners’ – unworthy and needing to kneel in God’s presence – began to dominate.  No!  We’re redeemed sinners, people who, through our baptism into Christ, have worth and dignity.   

Genuflecting
The one time in this great Prayer when people do kneel is at the prayer of consecration – in adoration of the mystery to which we’re present.  We also genuflect – drop onto one knee – as a profound sign of respect whenever passing the Sacrament indicated by a white (or, sometimes, red) light.  

Prayer of Preparation
Before the Eucharistic Prayer itself begins the gifts of unleavened bread (like matzo) and fermented wine are prepared during the Offertory.  These are used because they form an important part of the Passover liturgy.  It’s not easy to know what’s going on but – apart from anything else – there’s a rather wonderful prayer which the priest says as a little water is poured into the chalice:

            ‘By the mystery of this water and wine, 
             may we come to share in the divinity of Christ,                          
             who humbled Himself to share in our humanity’ 

Our humanity mixed with Divinity – that’s what we celebrate. 
            In the 19th century one of the founders of the Society of the Divine Compassion, Fr. Andrew, once wrote that whilst it’s terrible that beautiful things can be put to an evil use, here we have a reminder that the humblest thing may become the greatest.  A little white wafer is laid on the altar, a few drops of water mingled with wine, and ‘these humble elements become the holiest of mysteries.’ No wonder the priest offers those two prayers when all has been prepared:

            Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
            through your goodness we have this bread …
            this wine … to offer ... it will become for us
            the bread of life and cup of our salvation

The Eucharistic Prayer
Then our attention is directed to the vision of God’s work for us in what is called the Anaphora, another Greek word meaning carrying back or up, because we’re invited to ‘lift up’ our hearts – the centre of our being – to God.  We’re no longer to be focused into this passing world but to centre ourselves into the mystery of God.  We affirm that this is what we’re doing – we lift our heart to the Lord – and then find ourselves filled with thanks and praise.  And it is right so to do.  No penitence now, just the presence of heavenly glory where we stand with angels and archangels and join with them in singing the Sanctus.

Prayer of Oblation and Epiclesis
Then comes the long prayer of oblation or offering during which the priest, as they lower their hands on the gifts, invokes the Holy Spirit.  This is the epiclesis which concerns the way the Spirit, the creative energy of the Trinity, brings things into being.  The Spirit hovered over the chaos of the primal world to bring about light and life.  Orthodox Christians, in particular, believe it’s the Holy Spirit who ‘activates’ the yeast of Christ, that bread and wine might become his Body and Blood.  This invocation appears in most ancient texts but became lost in the old Latin Mass, the precursor to our Rite of 1662.  That was a work of its time – now we know better. 

Words of Institution
It was the words of Institution that Elizabeth the First referred to when asked her views on the Mass.  Most Christians recognise that something happens to the bread and wine but exactly what, when – and even for how long – has been the subject of argument and even conflict.  Many western churches consider that it’s at the words: ‘This is my body … my blood’ that change occurs – there was even a law preventing bakery’s operating close to churches just in case the priest spoke too loudly and – well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.  That’s also why bells are rung after the words of consecration; why we elevate the chalice and paten, and why we genuflect – for that indicates Christ is present beneath these outward signs.  The moment of Transubstantiation.
          It’s here that our eyes need to be drawn, not words in a book or – perish the thought – on a screen.  We’re those who stand as willing servants in the presence of God, for here the King of Kings has become present – no mere symbol but a true Presence.  Yet the Prayer we affirm through our ‘Amen’ (so be it) isn’t a magical repetition of the words of Jesus – it’s a prayer that opens up the great sweep of the story of our creation and re-creation, taking us into heaven as we engage with it.  So, as the prayer continues, we recall his one, perfect sacrifice made upon the Cross and unite all our little sacrifices with his one great sacrifice which reveals itself whenever we ‘do this in memory’ of him who is our Paschal Victim, the crucified Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  God’s heart bleeds that we might be free – behold!  See!  Look!   Christ’s Sacred Heart saying ‘abandon yourself to my love and join in my self-giving: that which is sacrificed can bring life!  All our sacrifices gathered into his whenever that sacrifice is re-membered – brought together – before the Father: for time is timeless and that event present as we celebrate. 

Communion
And when it comes time for us to unite ourselves with his sacrifice and feed on him who offers us his life, Christ comes to us in all his fullness in either the Host – and some prefer to receive only in that kind – or the Precious Blood.  It’s not necessary to ‘dip’ – or intinct – the Host into the chalice for we receive his fullness in either kind.   As St Thomas Aquinas wrote and as we sing in his wonderful hymn – Laud, O Sion thy salvation:

Yea, beneath these signs are hidden
Glorious things to sight forbidden:
Look not on the outward sign.
Wine is poured and Bread is broken,
But in either sacred token
Christ is here by power divine.

Conclusion
Week by week and day by day his sacrifice is celebrated; Christ becomes truly present beneath earthly forms of bread and wine and we who are part of his Body feed on that Body, becoming what we eat.  The Eucharist isn’t a trip down memory lane, but a real feeding on the Body and Blood of the crucified, risen Christ – the food that satisfies yet makes you hungrier.  The veil between heaven and earth has been parted by this Divine Mystery; we’re in the presence of God, a presence which is always with us and, like Moses we he returned from eating and drinking with God on the summit of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24.11), our faces glowing with having met Christ.  The tiny white Host reserved in our churches and exposed on our altars during Benediction or Holy Hour offering a perpetual doorway to the Real Presence of heaven on earth. 

O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see,
may what we thirst for soon our portion be,
to gaze on thee unveiled, and see thy face,
the vision of thy glory and thy grace.
(St Thomas Aquinas: 1225-1274)

Thursday, April 04, 2019

THE PRECIOUS BLOOD OF CHRIST



We will be aware – if we look beneath the surface of our lives – that we come to Christ as a sinner in need to a Saviour; a broken human being in need of wholeness; a creature needing to be re-fashioned in the likeness of the One who made us.  We have so much – potential – to be great and glorious, to reflect God’s wonder – yet we have besmirched God’s image within us.  What was created for the best has, so often, failed to live up to its potential.  What we need is to feed on his Body and be washed clean by his Blood that he may live in us as we in him.

Fr Andrew, one of the founders of the Society of the Divine Compassion, once wrote that it is a terrible thought that what is beautiful may be put to evil use – yet the humblest thing may become the greatest.  A humble village woman was called to share herself with God that she might become God’s Mother.  ‘A little white wafer is laid on the altar, and a few drops of wine mingled with water and poured into the chalice with the words: ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity’ – and these simple elements become the holiest of mysteries.  So whilst the best may become the worst, the humblest may also become the highest; for all things were meant to give God glory’ and if he is loved above all things then, through his love coming to us through these sacred things, all will be made whole.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

ALL CREATION SINGS YOUR PRAISE




Sitting in the gardens of the 16th century hotel in which we stayed one March day, the song of the birds filled me with joy and I immediately thought of those words from Eucharistic Prayer III - 'Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.'  That morning it felt as if the birds could not contain themselves for the joy they felt and I was reminded that this chorus is sung every day, yet how often I'm not aware of it.  But that morning I was and recalled what St Augustine said: "And I said to all those things that stand about the gates of my senses: 'Tell me something about my God, you who are not he. Tell me something about him.' And they cried out in a loud voice, 'He made us.'"   

The way that nature is filled with joy is something of which the psalmist was aware. He frequently allows his soul to sing::

Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created, and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away. (148.3f)

The saints also allow themselves to express their thankfulness; St Francis sang his great Canticle of Creation:

Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day and through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of you, Most High One.
Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars:
in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

It's easy to go around with the ear and eye of our heart closed to the way the wonders of creation is not only a sacrament of the glory of God but that that glory exults and cannot keep silence.  Priests, in particular, need to be aware of this ways in which God's glory cries out, but many people realise this and write about it, not least in poetry.  But many don't cultivate a heart which can listen for this divine song of creation, preferring to listen to songs coming out of their ipods, blind to the beauty around them.   Cultivating a silent heart that can hear this song is the way in which it can become open to this awareness.  Not just outward silence, 'tho that can help, but silence of the mind so that it's not constantly distracted, silence of the soul so that it's not distracted from being open to God and silence of the spirit which stills the heart.  Each morning we need to open ourselves, open our hearts, to this joyful praise that nature is expressing so that our hearts, too, can sing for joy like the sons and daughters of God.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A LETTER FROM EVELYN UNDERHILL TO DOM JOHN CHAPMAN


I came across these words of Underhill in a letter from her to Dom John Chapman dated June 1931 and found myself resonating with them:

9 June, 1931

I have been for years now a practising Anglo-Catholic … and solidly believe in the Catholic status of the Anglican Church., as to orders and sacraments, little as I appreciate many of the things done among us.  It seems to me a respectable suburb of the city of God – but all the same, part of “greater London.”  I appreciate the superior food, etc., to be had nearer the centre of things.  But the whole point to me is in the fact that our Lord has put me here, keeps on giving me more and more jobs to do for souls here, and has never given me orders to move.  In fact, when I had been inclined to think of this, something has always stopped me: and if I did it, it would be purely an act of spiritual self-interest ad self-will.  I know what the push of God is like, and should obey it if it came – at least I trust and believe so.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

AUGUSTINE - Confessing my-self


‘If I would not confess to you, what could be hidden in me, O Lord, from you to whose eyes the deepest depths of man’s conscience lies bare?  I should only be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.  But now that my groaning is witness that I am displeasing to myself, you shine unto me and I delight in you and love you and yearn for you, so that I am ashamed of what I am and renounce myself and choose you and please neither you nor myself save in you.  To you then, Lord, I am laid bare for what I am … I will confess therefore what I know of myself and what I do not know; for what I know of myself I know through the shining of your light; and what I do not know of myself, I continue not to know until my darkness shall be made as noonday in your countenance.’ (Confessions, 10)

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

MINDFULNESS AND THE CONTEMPLATIVE HEART

According to much Christian teaching the heart is the centre of our being, the focus of our thoughts and feelings which is the locus of the soul.  This challenges a culture which has made the mind – the place of our reasoning faculties – the centre.  Much spiritual teaching has long been concerned with creating a ‘right – clean – heart’ for the heart can become corrupted and so needs to be re-fashioned, re-focussed.  I need to make sure that my heart is focused in God, the source of all goodness, and underlined the need to live a recollected life, a life where the heart, the habitation of the soul, comes alive. 

MINDFULNESS
The recent interest in ‘Mindfulness’, those practices which NHS online says can improve mental well-being, by ‘paying more attention to the present moment, to thoughts and feelings and to the world around you’, has connected with many people estranged from Faith.  Echoing Christian teaching ‘Mindfulness’ is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or over-whelmed by what’s going on around us. 

From its use in prisons and schools its benefits are becoming more widely realised.  Yet it draws on practices older than Christianity which, unfortunately, became generally forgotten at the Reformation.  Christianity has taught these practices as aspects of contemplative prayer, practices which encourage us to enter the caverns of the heart as we let go of our thoughts and feelings and descend to our soul.  Unfortunately, our Faith became caught by notions of ‘onwards and upwards’ rather than ‘stillness and descent’, yet the great mystics of the Church always knew that this was the better way.

This ‘prayer of the heart’ is one of the simplest ways in which we can open ourselves to that ‘ground of our being’ which lies beneath the surface of our lives.  It’s a way of praying which is intended to cultivate that interior silence which can calm the raging seas of life and we can overcome the fear of our own hidden depths.  It requires of us nothing more than developing a deep inner stillness and silence as we seek to focus into our desire for God.  At a time when people are beginning to waken to the importance of their inner world the Church needs to re-discover its treasury of contemplative prayer where we can find the most important ‘fresh expressions’ of our Faith which speak to the actual needs people have. 

St Paul recognised the importance of Mindfulness when he prayed that ‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know what is the hope to which (God) has called you.’  The 3rd century Desert Mothers and Fathers taught that we need to focus into a word which we can gently repeat beneath our breath, which is often spoken of as Centring Prayer; Lectio Divina, taught by the Benedictines, allows words of scripture to enter the heart, and in the 17th century Brother Laurence taught the importance of living in the Present Moment.  In fact, these practices might be more rightly called ‘heartfulness’ for as St Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian monk, reminds us:

‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present .. within you.’

That reflects a far older teaching that if we gaze deep within our heart, we shall find there the ladder that leads to heaven. (St Isaac the Syrian)

THE HEART OF CHRIST
This reminds us that we need to give far greater attention to the heart.  We need to re-discover the importance of the Heart of Christ, the Sacred Heart of Jesus for His Heart reveals what our heart might be like.  ‘The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness’ says the psalmist (145.8) and reveals aspects of the Heart of God which it can be so hard to incarnate in our lives.  Can I be merciful, compassionate and kind?   If that’s the nature of God’s Heart, and if we were created in the image and likeness of God, then this helps to identify what being human is all about. 

We resonate to these human qualities which pierce beneath the shell that we can build around us and invite us to fix our heart upon them.  Yet they’re only emanations of the nature of the invisible and unknowable God whose nature must be greater than these describe.   To fix the heart on the Heart of God involves deepening our desire to reflect the Sacred Heart which doesn’t just call us to devotion to its physicality, any more than devotion to Christ is about tribal loyalty.  Rather, devotion to the Sacred Heart slowly opens us to the fullness of divine life.  I want my heart, my life, to be like His.  That’s what makes the saints so attractive, for they are people whose lives reveal something of the attractive beauty of God. 

God gently invites us to ‘fix our heart’ on His, to be awakened by and to Divine beauty.  To cleanse our heart that it might shine with the beauty in which it was created.   To recollect this call, hear its echoes and resonances.  This fixing of the heart means I’m being drawn out of my-self into the Sacred Heart.   Yet the heart can be distracted, can become enslaved to another who will lead me away from the Light of Love and needs cleansing, liberating and renewing in the image and likeness of the Sacred Heart.

THE HEART OF THE OTHER
This drawing into the Heart of Christ opens my heart to want to encounter the heart of the other.  In fact, what I have found, like so many others, is that encountering the heart of the other – of all Creation – I find my–self profoundly moved out of that ‘self’ as I gaze on the other.  From the simplest leaf, tiniest insect or most fragile butterfly, to the grandest mountain, vastness of ocean or celestial panoply my heart is moved and drawn more deeply into desiring at-oneness with that ‘other’.  And in allowing my heart to be moved in this way I notice how my own sense of humanity is nourished and affirmed.  I am more ‘me’ as I allow myself to be embraced by the Other.  This seems connected to the way the early Franciscan, St Bonaventure, noted that the very universe is a kind of ladder for ascending to God (cf. ‘The Soul’s Journey into God’) only this is a ladder which takes us into the wonder of the Divine.

BEING AND BELONGING
St Francis of Assisi knew that at heart, we are intimately connected with the heart of all that is.   He taught that we are sisters and brothers with the whole of creation.  The reverence I feel when contemplating the stars connects me to them, for I am made of the same stuff; the fact that I am moved in my depths when I gaze on the animal world should remind me to reverence it - and if it doesn’t, then there is something wrong with my humanity.   If I am not moved it suggests that my heart is closed and needs awakening so that it can be fixed on wonder, love and praise.  I find my sense of belonging widens from the particular (this family, place, nation) to a greater sense of belonging as a creature in creation.  This seems to be what Jesus recognised as he reached out beyond the confines of family (“who is my mother...”) and Paul taught (“circumcision is nothing ... what matters is a new creation”) and calls us to have a heart large enough to embrace the whole.  Slowly the heart needs to break free of its constraints so that it can sing the song of freedom. 

This is what being a Christian is all about - realising myself as a new creation whose heart is fixed on mercy, compassion and love for all things.  I need to be ‘mindful’ of this calling – to recollect this attention in the depths of my heart so that I’m not given to distraction.  And when – inevitably – I am, to collect my attention to its roots in the Heart of God.  This needs to be my well-spring.  And even though I may have a particular love, it is that Sacred Heart of Christ which is to enable all my loving.  As I gaze on His Heart so mine can be warmed.  It can also be challenged to grow beyond the limits of the self; challenged to be renewed (“a new heart create for me, O God...”) and refreshed. 

THE HEART AND DIVISION
This deep and often unconscious yearning for union – at-oneness – which is endemic to our being as a part of Creation will inevitably find the notion of separation a threat and a challenge and it’s experience deeply disturbing.  Yet, at a deeper level, our union cannot be broken – I remain your brother or sister and a brother or sister to the whole of creation whether that is recognised or not.  That recognition was the great gift of St Francis and other saints and their insights need to be recalled at times when we experience brokenness.  The eye of our heart needs to be fixed on the Heart of God which enfolds the whole of creation as we pray: “may you be well; may you be happy; may you know the compassion of Christ.”


MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION

At a time when people are beginning to awaken to the importance of their inner world the Church needs to re-discover its treasury of contemplative prayer.  Here we can find the most important ‘fresh expressions’ of our Faith which speak to the actual needs people have.  If we want to re-connect with them then why not begin by organising a contemplative prayer group – call it ‘Mindfulness and Meditation’ if you like, but let’s do something!