Sunday, 18 October 2015

Praying for the Synod

I know, I haven't said anything yet about the Synod on the Family in Rome. One reason is that enough - and more! - has already been written online. To be honest, I'm trying not to read too much of what's out there; one notable exception is, as always, iBenedictines. Do read this post, for some holy and charitable good sense.

But I did write something - because I was asked to - for The Portal. Here it is...

There is an ancient tradition of the ‘vestibule of prayer’, which comes from the monastic practice of statio - stopping for a few moments outside the chapel before entering for prayer. Sr Joan Chittister describes this practice as ‘meant to centre us and make us conscious of what we're about to do, and make us present to God who is present to us. Statio is the desire to do consciously what I might otherwise do mechanically.’  I’m thinking of that today because I’m quite sure that I need a statio space before I pray about the Synod on the Family.

Praying mechanically rather than consciously, as Sr Joan puts it, leaves us unaware of our preconceptions and prejudices, forgetting that we pray not to change God’s mind about anything, but that we ourselves might be changed. I have read and heard so much about the Synod over the last year; some of it measured and charitable but most (if I may say so) quite the opposite. I am feeling angry, confused, hurt, anxious, exasperated; I need to pause in that vestibule and acknowledge consciously how I am before God. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, ‘Take heed to thyself, that self which can deceive unless it is revealed in naked simplicity before its God.’  Unexamined and unconfessed desires for a particular outcome of our prayer can muffle the voice of the Spirit within us who ‘intercedes with sighs too deep for words,’ (Romans 8:26) ‘for we do not know how to pray as we ought’.

Moving on, we do well to turn to scripture to help us in our prayer, especially if we do it willing to be challenged and surprised. For example, I think I know what I mean by the word ‘family’. But the word only occurs once in the New Testament (in the Authorised Version, anyway): it’s Ephesians 3:15, ‘…from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’, and the word is patria, which is elsewhere translated as ‘lineage’. It’s a broader, looser word than our modern western concept of a ‘nuclear family’.
During last year’s Synod the Holy Father invited us to pray: ‘Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer’. Have we stopped to consider what that means? The Holy Family is the family of Jesus, and we are praying that our families might become like them. Well, indeed… but look at how the gospel speaks of the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus. As Catholics we agree that this implies an extended family without precise definitions - whether they are half-brothers, cousins or whatever, we are not told and don't need to know. And Jesus, while his mother waits outside, points to his disciples and says, ’Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ So, we’re really praying that we might find communion in some unexpected and ill-defined places. Do we dare pray that?

And this will of Jesus’ Father, which we have to follow to become his family? Keep praying with scripture and you’ll find answers like this one from Micah: ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ If I follow this thread of prayer from its vestibule to the heart of God’s word I’ll find that in praying for the Synod I’m praying for myself - to be changed, to be humbled. It’s a risky business, prayer.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

As I was saying...

Christ the Good Shepherd - engraving by Eric Gill
... Some time ago! Here is more on that powerful cry for God's help which prefaces each of our times of prayer. This is from Misericordiae Vultu, where Pope Francis writes about the Year of Mercy, to begin in December.

Merciful like the Father, therefore, is the “motto” of this Holy Year. In mercy, we find proof of how God loves us. He gives his entire self, always, freely, asking nothing in return. He comes to our aid whenever we call upon him. What a beautiful thing that the Church begins her daily prayer with the words, “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps 70:2)! The assistance we ask for is already the first step of God’s mercy toward us. He comes to assist us in our weakness. And his help consists in helping us accept his presence and closeness to us. Day after day, touched by his compassion, we also can become compassionate towards others.
 In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Come to our aid

Deus in adiutorium meum intende
Domine ad adiuvandum me festina

Italian Book of Hours, c1460
O God come to our aid;  O Lord make haste to help us.

The opening words of the Divine Office - so easy to say by rote, as a kind of preamble before we get to the real prayer.  They come from Psalm 70. St John Cassian believed that these words summed up all that scripture teaches about prayer and our trustful dependence on God: this verse… takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and…adjusts itself to every condition’. St Benedict took the words into his rhythm of daily prayer, and since his time they have been used to open every 'hour' of prayer in the western Christian tradition. If we mark the 'hours' of the day in this way it can be a good discipline to stop what we're doing.Perhaps we've been engaged in work we enjoy, when we were using our gifts and skills and - quite rightly - rejoicing in them. Or perhaps something stressful or demanding, outside our comfort zone, when we've had a lot of 'shoulds' around. We stop to ask God's help, and to plead for it to come quickly. We are forced to remember our utter dependence on God. Sometimes I think that opening invocation is more important than the psalms and readings which follow.

There's a story about St Columban, the Irish missionary who founded monasteries in present-day France and Italy at the end of the sixth century: when threatened by fierce wolves he quietened them by reciting 'Deus in adiutorium...' over and over. 'Every condition' indeed!

Traditionally, these opening words of the Office are accompanied by the sign of the Cross. God comes to our aid and hurries to help us in the person of Jesus.

Monday, 13 July 2015


Well, I've been shamed by the Ordinariate Expats blog, where it states that I 'blog' here at The Love... (note the present tense).  I've already had someone come up to me and say 'but you haven't posted since January!' So, I'm still here, dear readers. Assuming that there are a few of you out there who might care to follow my ramblings I will try to post here a bit more regularly. Come and leave me a comment to encourage me! I've missed you...

Saturday, 10 January 2015

An Epiphany 'Yes!'

Rembrandt: Christ healing the leper

I'm still thinking about yesterday's Mass gospel. Here's part of it:

Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ (Luke 5:12-13)

What does this have to do with Epiphany? It is, I think, the revelation of the desire of God - for our wholeness, our joy, and our acceptance of one another within the Body of Christ (note that the man who needed healing was a leper, the ultimate outcast of society. He was restored not just to health of body but to health within the Body). It is the Epiphany, the Theophany, of God's heart's desire for the fulfilment of our heart's desire: God's 'Yes!'

The leper asks tentatively ἐὰν θέλῃς... ἐὰν is stronger than simply if: we don't have an exact equivalent. That little αν at the end of the word gives it an air of doubt, of uncertainty: he's expecting a 'No'. Perhaps he's heard it many times before.

And Jesus replies Θέλω. It's stronger than the 'I choose' of the translation above. It means to wish, to desire, to be ready for action. I've seen it translated in this gospel passage as 'of course I want to!'

Are we ready for the Epiphany of God's 'Yes'? To have our habitual expectations of 'No' challenged? ('No' can be safer...) And, more to the point, are we ready to be the Epiphany of God's 'Yes' to the outcast, the other? 'No' can feel much safer here too.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Mercy in Person

More from The Portal, this time for Advent...

Christ 'with clouds descending', from the Doom painting
at Wenhaston, Suffolk
Tremendous, tiny, powerful, feeble,
cheeks fair of colour,
wealthy and needy, Father and Brother, 
maker of brothers,
this, sure, is Jesus, whom we should we welcome
as Lord of rulers,
lofty and lowly, Emmanuel,
honey to think on.
(Madawg ap Gwallter, 13th century Welsh Franciscan friar)

A group of Christian leaders recently met in an African country (I won’t say which) to put together a response to the threat of Ebola. The outcome included a statement that this terrifying illness was likely to be a punishment from God for their people’s immoral behaviour (again I won’t go into details. You can probably guess.)  So, is this the God, Emmanuel, whom we prepare to welcome - for whose sake we’re buying gifts for each other and untangling last year’s fairy lights? The punitive judge? (who, one might add, seems not to make a very good job of it: one of the horrors of Ebola is the apparently indiscriminate way it strikes.)

Well, it is indeed Advent, when we think of the Four Last Things; and they include Judgment. Perhaps the question is rather, who is the judge? How are we judged? There is a clue in the Gospel: we will look into the eyes of our Father and Brother and realise where we have, and have not, encountered him in the hungry, the naked and imprisoned. And he will often have been in less attractive guises than the baby in the manger.

‘Where is God?’ is the question that has resounded from hospital wards, concentration camps and the silence of broken hearts over the years. Enthroned impassively on high, or here in the mess? We meet Emmanuel in the outcast, the scapegoat; the African child’s body drenched in disinfectant and thrown into a hastily-dug grave; the person too weak to live the life of heroism seemingly demanded of them, and the one who in loneliness and hidden grief strives to live by the Church’s teaching and sometimes fails. Emmanuel, who even in great mediaeval Doom paintings ‘comes with clouds descending’, yet naked and wounded: human. In some ways, because of that, an even more fearful judge… ‘Lord, when did we see you?’

How then does this vulnerable and broken Emmanuel save us from all for which we fear being judged? What’s the Good News? I teach a class on Patristic spirituality, and what I long for most is that the students will catch some of the excitement, the life-or-death power, the saving wonder of those early declarations of faith. For example, the Council of Chalcedon: ‘one and the same is truly Son of God and truly son of man… A lowly cradle manifests the infancy of the child; angels’ voices announce the greatness of the Most High.’ Life-giving paradoxes echoed in the Welsh poem above. Christ is, in the words of St Leo the Great, ‘totus in suis, totus in nostris’ (complete in what is his, complete in what is ours). We find him in suffering, our own and others’, and he knows even more clearly than we do what the depths of human despair can be; and in that suffering he overcomes, redeems, raises us with him to new life and to share in his divinity. Only he can save; only he can judge - thank God.

As the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached at the start of the Conclave which was to elect him Pope: ‘Jesus Christ is divine mercy in person: to encounter Christ is to encounter the mercy of God.’ Honey to think on.

Saturday, 29 November 2014


Before we leave November behind and enter Advent, here's another Portal piece, beginning with a poem by Ann Lewin...

God’s work of art.
That’s me?
Then beauty must lie
In the eye of the beholder.
I feel more like one of those statues
Michelangelo left
Half emerging from the marble block;
Full of potential, on the verge of life,
But prisoned still by
circumstance and fear.
Yet part of me is free -
And you are still creating,
Bringing to life  the promise that is there.

Sometimes by hammer blows
Which jar my being,
Sometimes by tender strokes half felt
Which waken me to life.

Go on, Lord, love me into wholeness.
Set me free to share with you
In your creative joy; to laugh for you
At your delight in me,
Your work of art.

'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.' (Matthew 5:48). Two people sat with me in the space of a a week; both spoke about this text. The first was a new Christian. She was full of despondency after hearing this Gospel read in church: as the first enthusiasm of her conversion evaporated she felt she could never live up to what seemed to be demanded of her.  The second was a man about to retire after long years of ministry. 'If I'd translated that passage,' he said with a wry laugh. 'I wouldn't have used the word perfect: it's haunted me all my life.'

The word in question is teleios. It doesn't mean quite what we mean by 'perfect'. It means 'finished' in the sense of having completed all the stages necessary for growth or development. It has, of course, the same root as Jesus' cry from the cross of tetelestai - 'it is finished'. The blood and darkness of crucifixion don't look very much like perfection.

I'm told the word teleios was used by the Greeks in connection with sculpture, to refer to a piece of stone which had been hammered, chiselled, chipped and polished until - at last - the beauty the artist had first seen within it was completely revealed. A long and painful process which, as Ann Lewin's poem suggests, is still unfinished in us.

We begin November by celebrating All Saints, and so often the saints are held up to us as examples of perfection - all too impossible to follow. But look at their earthly lives... for example St Augustine, who deserted the woman he loved - and their child; St Catherine of Siena, who defied her confessor in the severity of her fasting, and starved herself to death. Imperfect, flawed human beings, 'half emerging from the marble block'. They were not yet saints on earth. Surely it is the saints' imperfection in this life which fuelled the compassion with which they now pray for us, and with which they still encourage us: 'Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire,' said St Catherine.

The long and difficult passage in Matthew which ends with 'be perfect' begins with the words 'blessed are the poor in spirit' (sometimes translated as 'who know their need of God'). Richard Rohr comments on these words: 'This is what the saints mean by our emptiness, our poverty and our nothingness... God alone can sustain me in knowing and accepting that I am not a saint, not at all perfect, not very loving at all—and in that very recognition I can fall into the perfect love of God.'

You see, the Greek doesn't actually say 'be perfect'. The verb isn't an imperative. Esesthe teleioi means 'you will be perfect'; 'you will be fashioned into who you are meant to be'. It's a promise for the future. How wonderful that we are all still in the Artist's hands.