Saturday, 28 December 2013

Holy Innocents

Giotto again: Massacre of the Holy Innocents, Lower Church, Assisi (detail)

This image says it all... what we humans are capable of doing to each other.  Kyrie eleison.

And what free, gratuitous love of God to choose to become part of such a broken world and redeem it.  Deo Gratias.

Holy Innocents, pray for us.  Christ Child, forgive us, restore our innocence and grant us peace. 

Friday, 27 December 2013

St Stephen

St Stephen, by Giotto (who else would have given him those eyes?)
And look at the stones... For more Christmassy Giottos have a look here
A little time left before this post is a day late! (I'm writing just before midnight). I think one of the last sermons I preached before leaving Anglican ministry was about St Stephen - don't worry, I'm not going to inflict it on you now (old sermons don't work, I think, and I haven't kept any!) but there are some things I can remember.

We read Stephen's short but dramatic story in Acts 6 & 7: the Apostles decide that it's not right that they should "neglect the word of God" to wait at tables, and so they select and ordain the seven first deacons, including Stephen, to do the waiting bit while they "devote themselves to prayer and serving the word".  (I have to confess that what looks like a split between practical service and the spirituality of the Word of God has always annoyed me just a tad... Maybe something to do with my pride? Or just that I'm rubbish at doing anything practical, as I was reminded when I was asked to cut a cake at our course staff party before Christmas. You've never seen so many crumbs...)

Stephen, who is full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power, a worker of signs and wonders - and whose face shines like an angel's when he speaks fearlessly of his faith in Christ; he is humble enough to accept the call of the Church to the ministry of a servant and make it apostolic too, through his faithfulness to God's gifts to him. Look - in Giotto's painting he holds the Gospel book (as a deacon should and would): he may wait at table but he's not neglecting the word of the Lord who said "I am among you as one who serves."  And is he not "devoted to prayer", every bit as much as the Apostles? He is given a vision of heaven opened, of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, and just like Jesus he prays for his torturers as he is stoned to death. The day after we celebrate Jesus' birth we are reminded of both the dignity and costliness of following him. 

St Stephen, you humble, challenge and inspire me. Pray for all who are entrusted with gifts and called to service, and long for the humility to carry it out with integrity and courage. 

And here is how Fra Angelico imagined Stephen's ordination (h/t to Once I Was A Clever Boy, where you can read about the painting):

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas tree?

I took this picture on my way home - by then it was a  bright wintry morning. 
Well, that was different... The first time I've ever had to climb a tree to get to Mass. The nearest Catholic Church to where I live is about half an hour's walk away across the river and along the side of parkland. I set off for the dawn Mass - leaving while it was still dark, with a bright half Moon and Jupiter as the Morning Star. The light and birdsong grew stronger as I walked... All very beautiful, but I'd forgotten about the damage caused by the recent storms in this part of the country. I picked my way through fallen branches without too much trouble, but then found the path completely blocked by a huge fallen tree (with official red and white tape in case anyone was stupid enough to try to get through). There was no other way - high fences on both sides - and the tree was big enough to need climbing even while lying on its side, so...

I remember being told in confirmation classes about Purgatory (not that it was called that in the C of E, but looking back I'm sure that was the idea) with the example that, if you got yourself dirty on the way to church you'd surely want to clean yourself up before going in.  Well, I arrived at Mass covered in mud, bark and lichen. It was, after all, the Mass of the Shepherds and I expect they weren't exactly tidy when they arrived in Bethlehem. 

A blessed Christmas to all!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Heaven unlocked

This is my ecard for this Christmas - I share it now with warm greetings to anyone who's still here... It's a bit of a shock to realise  that I haven't blogged here since Advent Sunday! Not really deliberate or pre-planned and I'm not quite sure why... The reflections and ponderings that have been going on for me over this, my favourite season, have not felt quite ready for the light of day. Not a lack of trust in you, dear readers and fellow bloggers - remember I'm an introvert and it takes me a while (longer than usual in this instance) to know what I'm thinking... And a fair bit of energy has been taken up in keeping the old Black Dog (thanks, GP) to heel - a seasonal hazard maybe?

So, Christmas Eve...  I said Morning Prayer today in a Caffè Nero (other coffee chains are available!) against a background of tinkly sleigh ride music, which unexpectedly segued into For Unto Us A Child Is Born.  It was all lovely!

And here, with my very best Christmas wishes to you, is St Augustine:
For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become the son of God? Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.

(Sermo 185). May you experience sheer grace this Christmas!

Monday, 2 December 2013


A moment of distraction and silliness in church (what do you mean, you never have them?)... So can you see the smiley faces in the Kyrie? Is this really what I should have been thinking about while praying for God's mercy on the solemn First Sunday of Advent?

Well, at least it made me think about mercy.  I remembered hearing the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh tell a delightful story: someone once took him to task for the way the prayer "Lord, have mercy" is sung over and over again - seemingly incessantly - in the Orthodox Liturgy.  Wasn't this "vain repetition", or wallowing in sin rather than trusting in God's forgiveness? Metropolitan Anthony replied with an account of his grandfather, who used to say that he liked a glass of wine because it made him feel like a new man. "And this new man, he also likes a glass of wine..." And so on!

So with mercy. Yes, it's a dread and awe-ful thing to stand in our brokenness before the Holy One. "Who may abide the day of his coming?" And yet this is the God who teaches us to walk and takes us in his arms (cf Hosea 11:3) - presumably when we stumble and fall, because you can't learn to walk without doing that. And, surely, with a smile? The taste of God's mercy gladdens us and emboldens us to ask for more, and more, and more... It's even more inexhaustible than our need for it. 

Some say that the Greek word eleison (have mercy) has the same root as elaion, which is olive oil. To receive mercy is to be anointed, for celebration and healing. 

Praise the Lord, my soul... [who gives] wine that gladdens human hearts,oil to make their faces shine,and bread that sustains their hearts.  ( Psalm 104) 


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Of prayer and snakes

A quickie... Out for a lunch of dim sum today, and a visit to my favourite Chinese shop. A customer was buying incense sticks. As the friendly assistant wrapped them she asked: "So, do you pray?" When were you last asked that in a shop? Or anywhere? I even sometimes feel shy about asking that of a new directee and take great care to wrap it up as a nice "open question". 

I couldn't resist taking a picture of this sign, which made me smile. And synchronously (is that a word?) this quotation from St John Chrysostom came my way this morning and made me think...

The Lord, however, does want them [i.e. his disciples] to contribute something, lest everything seem to be the work of grace, and they seem to win their reward without deserving it. Therefore he adds: You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves...

The Lord counselled the disciples to be not simply clever or innocent; rather he joined the two qualities so that they become a genuine virtue. He insisted on the cleverness of the snake so that deadly wounds might be avoided, and he insisted on the innocence of the dove so that revenge might not be taken on those who injure or lay traps for you. Cleverness is useless without innocence.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Perpendicular Pronoun

Narcissus (JW Waterhouse, detail): the first selfie. And we all know what happened to him...
HALO often tells of a former colleague who was very fond of talking about himself.  He also had a piercing voice and a strong regional accent (I won't say which) so that anyone walking past his office would hear a stream of "I, I, I..."  Fairness compels me to add that HALO will often go on to say in the same breath that I'm doing exactly the same whenever I post on this blog.  It's true, isn't it: the temptation to write about what I've been doing (translate that as: aren't I wonderful doing all these great things? See how in demand I am) or what I'm going to do (i.e. please, please come and boost my ego and tell all your friends so that more people know how great I am...)

I've never much liked that Sunday school thing about the Cross being "I" crossed out. I'd rather think of the Cross as the ultimate living mirror where I see myself reflected in the loving, truthful eyes of Christ. But I do need to watch how I use that perpendicular pronoun. (Spot the irony: five of them in this paragraph so far, not including the one in quotes. I am, though, deliberately using it rather than "we" to own what I'm writing as applying to me. So that's all right, isn't it..?). See, the danger isn't just of being turned into a pretty flower by a pool if I make myself too much the centre of my attention and my universe. It flows into how I use the word "my" too. And yes, here's Screwtape:

We teach them not to notice the different sense of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country" to "my God"... And all the time the joke is that the word "Mine" in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything.

The monastic tradition reminds us to consider speaking of "our" rather than "my".  In his early diaries  Thomas Merton wrote about putting on "our" socks and shoes after wading through a stream. That's the "our" of community - and also the "our" of "I and Thou"; the "our" of the Suscipe again - "everything is yours; dispose of it according to your will."  Love, reminds Ignatius "consists in a mutual sharing of goods" (Spiritual Exercises #231). And lest we think this might not be a joyous thing, read this:

It used to be
That when I would wake in the morning
I could with confidence say,

‘What am ‘I’ going to

That was before the seed

Cracked open.

Now Hafiz is certain:
There are two of us housed
In this body,Doing the shopping together in the market and

Tickling each other
While fixing the evening’s food.

Now when I awake
All the internal instruments play the same music:

‘God, what love-mischief can ‘We’ do
For the world

- Hafiz

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Folding the map

Map with sea-monster, 1572, Sweden
I heard this poem by W H Auden today on the radio. I was immediately struck by the words "stand up and fold your map of desolation", and of course I thought of Ignatius and his rules for discernment: though we can't change desolation and have to wait for it to take its course he urges us to practise agere contra - to move against the numbing, deadening impulse to turn back from the journey, to turn  in on ourselves, poring over the map; but (as Augustine said too in one of his sermons) to keep on walking. That's what this poem spoke of to me, anyway...

Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

(Twelve Songs VII)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Still thinking...

London Bridge
... about generosity. Almost a year ago I wrote here about praying while walking over London Bridge. I cross the bridge often these days, and did so yesterday on a cold, wet and windy Wednesday lunchtime. I paused as I always try to do if I'm not in a tearing hurry (risking being mistaken for a tourist, though I didn't have a camera!) and looked at the steady flow of the rain-flecked grey-brown water though the arches of the bridge. I thought again about the precious  offerings people have thrown into the river they saw as holy so many centuries ago...

My mind felt muddled and it was hard to pick out anything that felt "good enough" for me to offer God in gratitude - was this humility? Timidity? Or a reluctance to let go... and what's that about? In the end I simply said the Suscipe prayer: "Take and receive... Everything is Yours, do with it what You will. Give me only Your love and Your grace."  Sometimes - often - it feels a scary prayer; at other times it feels comforting to hand the whole sorry muddle over to God: "You sort it. Please." I suppose how I feel about the prayer depends on how I'm feeling about God. 

And then... The Gospel at Mass was the parable of the talents. It struck me that the man who hides his pound away and takes no risks with it does so not out of greed or laziness, but out of fear: fear of a harsh lord who will punish him if (when!) it all goes pear-shaped. So, before I think about what I'm doing, or might do (and those are questions much on my mind right now) with what I've been given, I need to consider what kind of Giver I believe in. And I mean believe in, not just have thoughts about.  How can I find the grace to be generous - how can I even ask for it - if I don't trust in a generous God?

The parable is set in the context of expectation of the Kingdom. So, Whose Kingdom are you longing, praying, waiting for? Whose Kingdom are you helping to build?

As Gerard Hughes wrote (I think it's in God of Surprises):

Invariably we create a God in our own image.
Because we do not love him very much, we are led to think he does not love us much.
Because we do not worry much about him, we imagine that he does not worry very much about us.
Because we are not very happy with him, we conclude that he is not very happy with us.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


The Spiritual Exercises #5. The "bottom line" for the exercitant, and for us all.

A quick post - a bright and frosty morning that is pure gift. My mind and heart seem to be being nudged towards thoughts of generosity today: here are two of the nudges.

First, iBenedictines' post from Monday. If I'm longing to be found loveable and attractive (don't we all?)  at least I can let God turn it into a prayer for the attractiveness of generosity. 

And then Quinn Creative this morning, about setting your ideas free. I realise how stingy I can be with my ideas as thought they were really "mine" and I'd created them! Quinn challenges and inspires me.

And finally, Michael Leunig.  This poem has been a favourite (challenging too!) over the years:

When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken
Do not clutch it
Let the wound lie open
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt
And let it sting.
Let a stray dog lick it
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell
And let it ring
Let it go.
Let it out.
Let it all unravel.
Let it free and it can be
A path on which to travel.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Wondrous doings

Waxing Moon
... is, of course, a phrase from the evening hymn, which says:
The Sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren 'neath the western sky

I've got one of those star-gazing apps on my phone, which tells you the names of the stars and planets you can see. It shows you the outlines of the creatures of the constellations - wonderful to see the celestial zoo above your head. We're in Suffolk this week, with its wide, clear starscapes - Venus and Jupiter in view, and the Milky Way ("Walsingham Way"), which as I've often said here I can't see at home. We've had rain and cloud, but also a couple of bright, almost frosty evenings when the stars seem so bright and close. I can wander about, holding my phone over my head, mapping my way though the heavens. 

And I've found another use for the app! Indoors, and held upside down. Sometimes I say Night Prayer using my phone (I've got a Breviary app too...) and then I switch to the star-map. If you hold it down it shows you what's beneath you and above the heads of those on the other side of the planet. I can see where the Sun is, and imagine my friends enjoying its rays in the parts of the world where it's daytime. In the solitude of darkness it's sometime comforting (even for an introvert!) to think of daytime things - work, play, conversations, creativity - happening. And of course the many parts of our fragile world where our prayer is needed. 

"I believe in the Sun even when it is not shining". These words were found scratched on the wall of Auschwitz. How dare I compare my trivial concerns with the suffering of whoever wrote this? But the words still comfort me. On especially dark, moonless nights it can be hard to believe in the Sun. But eventually a sliver of the waxing Moon will appear, catching the Sun's hidden rays and reflecting them to us, holding faith for us. Or the bright Evening Star. 

Of course this isn't really - or should I say only - about the sights of the night sky: "the Sun and Moon, your beautiful works - but they are your works, not you yourself." (St Augustine). It's about the light of the risen Christ, the light that no darkness can quench. The light we long for in this dark, fragile November season. 

PS to "Struggle"

... And inspired by Greenpatches' recent post. I'm reading David Steindl-Rast's The Music Of Silence - about the monastic hours  and how they can help us mark the changing moments or "seasons" of the day. This comes from his chapter on Vigils, the pre-dawn service, and I read it in bed at 3am today. It was one of those times when my tired body was out of synch with my refusing-to-relax mind so I didn't have the energy to get up and post this straight away. And I'm now feeling too lazy to type out the relevant paragraphs so a couple of screenshots will have to do, if that's OK with you. You can click to enlarge if you need to.


Wednesday, 23 October 2013


I'm borrowing, with great gratitude, this icon from Kirsten's Episodes and Interludes. It's a type of icon that originated in Macedonia and I was astonished to read, when tracking it down, that it's sometimes described as Our Lady with the Playing Child. It doesn't look like play to me...

I see an anguished mother struggling with a struggling child. An unbreakable bond of love between them - yet here she struggles to hold him and because of the inadvertent clumsiness and awkwardness of how they are together he grabs - or slaps? - her face.  Look at those eyes. Is she saying "No one told me it would be like this"? Or is she saying "This is how it always is this side of heaven"?

The joy and terror of her vocation. The pain and weariness of the journey and the birth. The tenderness and wonder of receiving and holding him. The prophecy of the sword. The losing and finding of the growing-up child. The rebuke and the miracle at the wedding. "Woman, behold your son".  The secret meeting on Easter morning (thank you, Ignatius!) too intimately wonderful to be told to the Gospel writers. Her life and his woven of Sorrowful, Joyful and Glorious mysteries. I don't want it to be like this. I don't like it. But as a kind friend told me in another struggling time, "it is what it is what it is what it is..."

Today my fingers were guided through the threads of Google to find this:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

It's Kahlil Gibran.  A couple of days ago, maybe even last night, I might have dismissed it as trite and chucked the iPad across the room. But morning's a better time for me and this morning I'm quite glad to have found it. 

I'm still struggling. Some things still feel like a slap in the face (I've been revisiting bits of my past story). But, ultimately, it's not me doing the holding. Thank God.
And apologies if the spacing or anything else here looks a big odd. I think Blogger's struggling this morning too!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

On the edge...

Idly following threads which began in my inbox, I found this delightful picture this morning - here. Huge and happy h/t to Erik Kwakkel. And I enjoyed his comment about the monk's face peering out at us from the letter Q:
"The pilot, looking spooked, has mixed feelings about the empty margin his sparkly Q-plane is heading for, the wordless abyss that nobody ever returns from."

Margins, edges, borders and boundaries... Liminal spaces. Scary, challenging, creative, empty yet fertile... If you look at the little images of extraordinary hybrids and fantastic creatures drawn in the margins of many Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts (have a look here, for example) you'll see just what creative (and unsettling) places margins can be!

Esther de Waal has written an excellent book about the edge-places we may inhabit, called Living On The Border - it grew out of her reflection on living on the borders of England and Wales. She begins the book by saying this: "There is a traditional saying of ancient wisdom: 'a threshold is a sacred thing'. In some places of the world, in some traditional cultures, in monastic life, this is still remembered.  It is something, however, that we often forget today..."

I'm still thinking about what it meant for me to be a deacon and how I might now live out some of that charism in my new(-ish; nearly 14 years as a Catholic - I'm a slow thinker!) life. The deacon was always associated with the doors of the church - the door-keeper and go-between.  It's cold and uncomfortable to stand in the doorway, but it's a place of mission, of encounter, of transformation. A "sacred thing" indeed.  There is a huge paradox I'm still exploring of what it means for me to be grounded, nurtured, held and to belong (without that, I know, my growth will be stunted and my ministry weakened) and yet not to lose sight of my place in the doorway.

Pope Francis spoke in his Chrism Mass homily about the image of Aaron's anointing, and how the oil ran down to the edges of his garments. This is the centrifugal dynamic of ministry - out to the edges, always; its origin and template is the outpouring love of God - the oomph of God, as James Alison puts it. And it's in the threshold places we remember this. In speaking to a parish on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis even said that "reality is understood not from the centre but from the suburbs, the margins." 

So the little monk sails out into the margin in his letter Q, which begins a whole clutch of question words in Latin. A letter we'd rather not get in Scrabble, but which carries a high reward if we can use it.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

To the chemist's shop

From C S Lewis' Screwtape Letters: ...For the Enemy [i.e. God] will not be used as a convenience.  Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the Stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist's shop. 

Powerful and challenging words. They go with Lewis' notion of "Christianity and..."; I feel another blog post simmering about that (if I get around to writing it.  Blog friends - are any of you as disorganised as I am, having all sorts of ideas at odd moments but always putting off the discipline of writing them down?)

Anyway, back to the Stairs of Heaven and the chemist's shop. I do know, or think I know, what Lewis means. But maybe there's also a sense in which we do use the Stairs of Heaven to get to the chemist's shop - if we only realised it: a way that is the opposite of using God as a convenience, but is rather a way of "finding God in all things."  A way of realising that we stand on holy ground wherever we are, and behaving with appropriate reverence to the people and things we encounter. I suppose we're back to mindfulness again, and reverence for the present moment, but it's a mindfulness not turned in ourselves but an awareness of constant communion, constant dialogue with the Other and the other - God in and through all his creatures. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it in Aurora Leigh:

No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim... Earth's crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

It's half way through October, the month of the Holy Angels.  "Turn but a stone and start a wing", as the hymn says. And soon it will be the thin, holy month of November - saints and souls. Look for the wings under the stones and the fire in the bush.

The picture above, by the way, is of one of my favourite chemist's shops - Barry Shooter in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. I always think of Lewis' quote there: just round the corner are the famous (and very steep!) Town Steps, and the top of those is the church of Our Lady and St Peter. At quiet moments in the Mass you can hear the cry of the gulls and when you come out of church you see the sea - beautiful and often wild - at your feet. Heavenly! And after Mass you can pop into the chemist's on your way to lunch.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Fingers and thumbs

According to this article a dying art, but that shouldn't worry us. What do you think?
As an exercise on the first day of the course on which I teach, we ask participants to reflect on what beginnings are like for for them, and as an example we invite them to remember when they first learned to tie their shoelaces.  This always makes me smile: it's a powerful and not altogether happy memory for me. Acquiring that skill was part of a long, steep learning curve! If I were a child nowadays I suppose it would be labelled dyspraxia - not a word we knew back then. I simply Could. Not. Do. Things. 

I remember when all the other children had happily dashed off at the end of the school day I would still be in the cloakroom with a teacher standing over me as I struggled to do up the buttons on my coat. I clearly recall the feeling of puzzled frustration! It became a ritual that I would be sent out of the classroom a few minutes early to change into my lace-up outdoor shoes to give me a head start. And once, as Christmas drew near, we were making a frieze of a winter scene to decorate the classroom. Each of us had to draw, colour and cut out a simple Christmas-tree shape to stick on it. Oh, what a struggle! Everyone was finishing theirs while I still could not draw the shape that was so clear in my head. I knew what I wanted but my fingers just wouldn't do it. I was frustrated, but bewildered more than anything. And, yes, rather ashamed of my efforts when everyone else found it so easy. And then there was the time I spent a whole lesson writing a single, wobbly letter A and got told off for being slow and lazy. 

Recently I was part of a group stuffing envelopes for a mail-shot. And of course I was the one holding up the production line! Our "boss" took my pile of papers from me and said "Antonia's not doing very well, is she?"  It was meant as a kindly joke and I joined in the laughter but, oh my, the memories came flooding back!

So why am I telling you all this today? I'm not trawling for sympathy, I promise you. Maybe these memories are around because it's autumn... I still have to remember to allow extra time to dress in the cooler months when there are more garments to put on. Socks and shoes, for example, (ah, lace-ups again!) after a simply having to slide my feet into sandals over the summer. And as for tights... It makes me laugh now, but the solemn first-putting-on-of-the-tights of autumn is a real rite of passage as I find I've "forgotten" how to do it!  (Apologies if all this is too much information, or if the image is putting you off your tea).  Tiredness, hurry and distracting thoughts make it much worse. See, I still struggle, though not so much, these days. 

A question I often ask others, and perhaps don't ask myself enough, is what is the gift in this? What is the gift in my slowness and clumsiness? I'm still working on that... Maybe it's a challenge to relish moving slowly and to cultivate mindfulness. I might be being challenged about my relationship with time (not to do things at a rush and at the last minute) or not to let my butterfly mind take me away from where my body is in the sacrament of the present moment. I've been reminded of the ancient advice "age quod agis" - do what you're doing -  and I'm trying to take it to heart. When Marin Alsop was conducting at the Last Night of the Proms someone had pinned up a sign saying "multitasking area - no men allowed".  Multitasking is supposed to be a feminine virtue but I have my doubts. It might be necessary sometimes but I'm discovering it's not good for me. I'd rather learn to do what I'm doing with my whole heart and being, even if the spirit of the age tells me I should do otherwise. 

Perhaps I could even pray over my shopping as I laboriously put my change in my purse and my purchases in my bag. (Listen, I'm not Pollyanna and I'm never going to enjoy the frustration and embarrassment as the queue builds up behind me at the till and I drop coins into the display of sweets and crisps). 

And here's a scripture text I'm going to learn and use.  It's Psalm 90:17 and I love the cadences of this particular verse in the King James Version:

"And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it."

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Go baptise

Baptism in the 3rd century
Last night I watched the first Papal Audience after the summer break. It felt exciting and moving to hear the gospel "make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" proclaimed in an array of languages, one after the other, to the vast crowd gathered from all nations - so it seemed - in the hot Roman sunshine (many sheltering under Papal-coloured umbrellas or oriental paper parasols).

In my previous life, as an Anglican deacon, the command of the gospel would have been a joyfully obvious one to follow. To baptise, to welcome someone into the Church of God, was one of the most awesome and beautiful aspects of my ministry. And I still hear these gospel command addressed to me as a Catholic laywoman. The challenge is - how to obey with authenticity here and now?

In the rites of the early Church the deacon would accompany the candidate down into the waters of baptism. It's an image I've explored many times with my spiritual director as we've tried to tease out what ministry means in my life now. It seems a fitting image for what I'm privileged to do as a spiritual director myself: walking alongside the pilgrim as he or she shares in the death and resurrection of Christ. But I think the gospel offers a challenge that's not just confined to what I do in the spiritual direction room.

I've long been struck that in the gospel we're called to baptise not in the name of the Trinity so much as into the name: eis to onoma. To plunge the new member of the Body of Christ into the vast ocean of love that is God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A lovely thought, but what a scary challenge: is my life such that others may glimpse in it the loving heart of God, enough to want to be plunged in (whoever does the baptising)? Not when it's left to me to run it, that's for sure, but with God's grace..? There are echoes here for me of yesterday's post about being apostles, and indeed of the Oaks of Mamre.  How do I show the loving hospitality of God, and attract others to it, not now as an ordained minister, not just as a spiritual director, but as me?  I need to pray...

Oh, and why, in my days as a deacon, did no one ever tell me about pyramids of tassels on a dalmatic?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Called to be apostles?

Christ calls the fishermen to be apostles (Greek icon)
When Pope Francis was tallking to some students from Jesuit schools he summed up the essence of Ignatian spirituality as "mission, mission, mission!". Not always what people might imagine it to be... On the Ignatian Spirituality Course last term we were discussing whether the Spiritual Exercises are a way of deepening the contemplative life or a formation for apostolic ministry - or indeed both! And if there is an apostolic dimension to Ignatian spirituality, does that mean it's only for those who feel called to an active life of service?

One of our students wrote to me recently asking me to say a little more. I really enjoyed thinking about the questions and, with her permission, I'm sharing my reply here.

Dear J
Many thanks for your email reminding me of our conversation.  I'm grateful to you for giving me something so exciting and important to think about as I enjoy the sunshine!
So...the "apostolic charism" of Ignatian spirituality! I suppose it starts with Ignatius' own vision - his passion and calling was always, as he put it, to "help souls". (And because for him "soul" always referred to the whole person I hope it's not too much of a gloss to see this as meaning helping people become the whole persons they are called to be). The fruit of his own mystical experiences (which always led him to service) and meticulous recording of God's dealings with him was a desire to share what he had received with others - hence the Spiritual Exercises existing at all, and us being here doing this!  And as you know, he was anxious that he and his followers should be free and at the disposal of the Pope to be sent wherever there was a need - that's why they didn't follow a monastic pattern of lengthy offices etc., though in the Rules for Thinking with the Church he insists we should praise such ways of worshipping.
Perhaps the term "apostolic" is off-putting because in these busy days we see it as primarily about doing - Martha at the expense of Mary. I prefer to see it as not so much about doing things as about the dynamic or orientation of our lives - a desire to be turned towards God and therefore to those God loves (how could we not?). A bit like paragraphs 314 and 315 of the Exercises! We are, in a lovely phrase from the Ordination of Deacons, "heralds of the Gospel" - how we live that out will depend so much on our gifts and temperament.  I'm comforted to think there's an authentic calling there for Introverts too!
I've been thinking about how the thread of apostolic spirituality unwinds through the Exercises. It's right there in the Annotations: all the stress on allowing the Creator to deal with the creature is in service of the directee's discernment of their own call to be, as Gerard Hughes says, a "unique manifestation of God" in the world - and that's apostolicity!
I suppose it's a bit harder to see on the Principle & Foundation, but it's there - how do we relate to the rest of creation? And the freedom we pray for is not just freedom FROM but freedom TO - for action.
The Kingdom is all about being called as an apostle of course... And Second Week is about seeing how Jeaus is sent by his Father and being called into our own discipleship. Third Week - the costliness of Jesus' being sent to fulfil his Father's will... Fourth Week - "go and tell", "the Lord is risen indeed", "feed my sheep".  And then the Contemplatio - walking home and reflecting on the mutuality of love and gifts. "What return can I make?" How do I pay it forward?
I don't see contemplative and apostolic spirituality as opposites. That's why I love Ignatius so much - they are perfectly balanced in his spirituality. We need both ends of the spectrum - like two lungs, or two wings. And ultimately both contemplation and apostolicity will have a unique expression in every person's life: Ignatius' Exercises are way to find out what is mine. And both are charism - gift.  We can't manufacture either, only be called to them.

Monday, 2 September 2013


Atkinson Grimshaw's Iris. She was sent to wither the flowers at the end of summer, but hesitated  because of their beauty
So September begins and, although the official start of autumn is still nearly three weeks off, there's a feel of the end of summer in the air - the days are warm still, but the mornings and evenings have that delightful crispness about them, with dewy cobwebs and those lovely slanting shadows. I feel strange urges to buy pencils and sharpen them neatly. I'm even tentatively picking up some threads of work - reading through the paperwork for the interviews we'll be starting for the Ignatian Spirituality Course next week. (Still not too late to apply - have a look here!)

There's a poem by C S Lewis on The Inklings blog today that was new to me. Do read it! It's about the song of a bird at the beginning of summer, but I found it helped me to review all that's happened over the last month or so:

...This year, this year, as all the flowers foretell,We shall escape the circle and undo the spell
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Look, look, look, look! the gates are drawn apart
I said "This might prove truer than you know,Some year.  And yet your singing will not make it so..."

I reflect that, although I have done very little (that was the idea!) some familiar old circles have been broken open and I suspect some spells are being unravelled. Amazing grace indeed! It's exciting. And daunting. And extremely tempting to think this is my doing, and I can continue the transformation in my own strength. Which is why God's grace nudged me to find this wonderful post about prayer on the blog of the Dominican nuns of Summit, NJ.  

So how has summer proved true for you?

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Oaks and angels

Chagall's depiction of Genesis 18
Surprisingly - a sunny August bank holiday yesterday, and a happy walk in a different direction from usual, among some majestic ancient oak trees. And, as befits the last public holiday before Christmas, several signs of autumn on the way: toadstools, berries and a mass of heavy fat acorns. (Along with all the tempting autumn catalogues in my inbox and on the doormat).

I'm fond of oak trees, and in awe of such old ones as these. I always feel they should be approached and greeted with some kind of reverence. The oak is a symbol of wisdom (befitting its longevity) and of hospitality, because such a variety of life is sustained in and around an oak tree - more than any other kind of tree, I believe. This always makes me think of Abraham's hospitality to the angels of the Lord under the oaks of Mamre (botanists, please don't tell me they were a different type of oak! The connection will do for me.)

During this summer I've had the joy (and nervousness - I'm a high-scoring introvert!) of being welcomed into new fellowship with some like-minded people. Oh, subtle discernment! Am I willing, in gratitude for the hospitality I've been shown, to pay it forward by looking outward and welcoming the next new person to arrive as one sent by God? Or am I secretly hoping that I'll simply go on being entertained as an angel?

Monday, 26 August 2013

Lord of all being

Christ enthroned on the rainbow, from the Doom painting at Wenhaston, Suffolk

Woke up this morning with this hymn running through my mind... I remember singing it at school. (The words are by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and you can read about him and it here.) It felt good to sing it out loud while HALO and Canis Minor were out for their early walk (my turn comes later).  I love the imagery of God as both "throned afar" and so close to our hearts - and as "centre and soul of every sphere".

I'm not sure about the third verse, though... I have known God's smile at midnight and I love clouds - I'd rather think of them as "God's ambassadors" (cf Mary Oliver) than symbols of sin. What do you think?

Lord of all being, throned afar,
thy glory flames from sun and star;
centre and soul of every sphere,
yet to each loving heart how near!
Sun of our life, thy quickening ray
sheds on our path the glow of day;
Star of our hope, thy softened light
cheers the long watches of the night.
Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn,
our noontide is thy gracious dawn,
our rainbow arch thy mercy's sign;
all, save the clouds of sin, are thine.
Lord of all life, below, above,
whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
before thy ever-blazing throne
we ask no lustre of our own.
Grant us thy truth to make us free,
and kindling hearts that burn for thee,
till all thy living altars claim
one holy light, one heavenly flame.

Source: Church Hymnary (4th ed.) #125

Wednesday, 14 August 2013


I love the beautiful (and, to some, surprising) reversal in the icon from which this detail comes, of the Dormition ("Falling Asleep") of the Mother of God. The risen Jesus receives and cradles his Mother, swaddled like a baby, as her life on this earth ends. She who carried him in her womb and her arms is now carried so tenderly by him. Tomorrow's feast, the Dormition or Assumption has been called "Mary's birthday into heaven."  As it happens, it's also the anniversary of my baptism - when, as a similar tiny baby, I was received into the Body of Christ. So by his grace I can dare to call it my " birthday into heaven" too. 

Not much time to write now, and no time tomorrow. I'm off to Buckfast Abbey in the morning, for a summer school run by the Maryvale Institute on Art, Beauty and Inspiration. So I'll leave you with one of the best things I read last year, by Archdruid Eileen. And some beautiful images of Mary collected on the art blog I've mentioned before - It's About Time.  Enjoy, and a Happy Feast!

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sorry, St Lawrence

This time last year I wrote about not quite having lovely red tomatoes ready for St Lawrence's feast day. Earlier this summer I planted some again...

Above you can see how far they've got. And no, they're not mini cherry tomatoes - they're supposed to be big juicy plum ones. Is it this summer, or is it me?  Ah, well. St Lawrence and I will have to wait for our luscious home-grown tomato salad a little while longer. Hold the mozzarella...

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cupcakes revisited

Annunciation With Virgin Reading (detail) Lorenzo Costa  c1460-1535
recently posted about "Cupcakes of Thought". Silvana's comment there gave me an idea... For a while now I've been thinking how I might collect together some of the snippets and quotations I come across that touch my heart. If you click on the Cupcakes/Quotations tab at the top of the home page (or you can click here if you prefer) you'll see the work in progress.

I toyed with calling it Thought For The Day, but that's been done, and there won't be one every day. (Mind you, I could always cite Psalm 90:4 to cover myself under the Trades Descriptions Act).  Anyway, it really is a work in progress and it will be a fairly random and of course subjective collection. I'm enjoying doing it - do have a look! And there are comment boxes there too so please tell me if anything I've shared resonates with you too. I look forward to that!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Pope Francis on Ignatius

Just a quickie today - I thought you might like to read the text of Pope Francis'  homily at the Gesù on Ignatius' feast day last week.  You can do so here.  He quotes the Spiritual Exercises - and, for those who have struggled with the Rules For Thinking With The Church (who hasn't?) there's some good stuff!

The image of Ignatius above is by Maria Laughlin. And a h/t to Christ In 10,000 Places for it.  AMDG!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Lammas Thoughts

Winslow Homer (American artist, 1836-1910) Waiting for an Answer.  Some discernment going on here!

A h/t to a lovely art blog, It's About Time, for this picture.  And another h/t to Catriona for her reflections on the parable of the wheat and the tares. (Dear Catriona, if you're reading this by any chance, I did try to comment but, well, you know what your comment thingy's like!)

I had my own "aha" moment with this parable a few years ago, listening to a homily at Ampleforth. The field in the story is not, oh so emphatically not, "them" and "us". It is me ('scuse, grammar: it is I). I am the field. My life - inner and outer - my experience, my choices are the fertile ground where the wheat and tares grow. And while they're both young seedlings I can't  tell the difference. 

I recall a period in my working life when there were tares aplenty in the field. Often when I've looked back I've beaten myself up for not recognising them and thus causing myself - and others - a lot of pain. But reading Catriona's post reminds me how much rich and healthy wheat was growing there too - wheat that might not have grown had the situation been different, or if I'd tried ham-fistedly to root out the weeds. I'm sorry about some of the things that happened, but now I can give thanks for the time I spent in that particular field; I see now how I'm still being nourished by the fruits of that harvest. 

What I hope I've learned, and hope that with God's  grace I might do a little differently another time, is that then I blithely thought there was nothing but wheat in the field. Now I hope (though I still have plenty of blind  spots - by definition, more than I know!) that I'm just that little more aware that tares will grow where I least expect them. With experience I might just recognise them sooner as they grow.  I won't try to root them out myself, though, as then I'll risk pulling up the  tender shoots of wheat. I must "pray the Lord of the harvest" (cf Luke 10:2).  It's more about the art of paying attention - giving my energy to nurturing and watering what I want to grow, what will give health and blessing to me and others. 

And another thing I've noticed in that parable. When at harvest time the tares are properly cut down they are burnt. I'm sure some version or other says that they're "thrown into the oven".  I like to think that even the tares are not wasted, just given their proper treatment. They give light and heat, perhaps around a merry post-harvest bonfire or even used as fuel for the ovens where bread is baked from the wheat with which they grew. 

Just some thoughts for this Lammas (Loaf-Mass) harvest day...

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Amo amas amat

Lewis & Short. I've still got mine (it makes a good door-stop)

Happy St Ignatius' Day! It's another "at-home" day for me, and I'm using my mid-morning coffee time to ponder how to spend celebrate the remaining hours of the day. I'm all for being idle and blessed, but sometimes too many concurrent ideas and distractions can fritter away the time and cause me to miss the blessings. I'm learning it's good for me to do one thing at a time..

I think of Ignatius having to go back to school and learn Latin with a class full of schoolboys so that he could be ordained. He wrote of having to push aside even holy thoughts in order to knuckle down and learn his verbs. I imagine him reciting "amo, amas, amat" and becoming distracted by thoughts of the love of God - "no, I must get on... amamus, amatis, amant".

It's a good verb to start with, amo. Nice and simple, and follows the rules. And love is a good place to start, whether we're doing theology, philosophy, or the weekly shop. I love, you love, he/she/it loves... The love that moves the Sun, even.  (Now I'm doing an Ignatius!)   Kathleen Raine wrote a beautiful poem called "Amo Ergo Sum" (I love therefore I am), including the lines:

Because I love
      The sun pours out its rays of living gold
      Pours out its gold and silver on the sea...

Read the whole poem here.

Some have commented that  her title could serve as a motto for God the Holy Trinity: I love therefore I am. Can I claim it as mine? I don't dare; something comes first. It's easy to think that I am the loving centre of the Universe - a harder bit of grammar is learning the passive voice. "Amor, amaris, amatur..."  I am here because I am loved - amor ergo sum. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19)

Ignatius knew this. It's what the whole Spiritual Exercises, from Principle & Foundation to the Contemplatio are all about.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Tote that barge

My "train book" at the moment (well, for quite a while actually) is St Augustine's Confessions, in the the translation by Henry Chadwick.  I was lucky enough to attend Henry Chadwick's Patristics lectures in Cambridge: his huge scholarship and wisdom, and occasionally wicked sense of  humour, kindled a life-long passion in me for the Early Church. And a love for St Augustine.

Anyway, I share today's gem with you as a spiritual nosegay. Who knew that the song Old Man River (from Showboat) contains a direct quote from Augustine?

"I gets weary
And sick of trying
I'm tired of living
And scared of dying..."

Honest! Have a look at Confessions IV:vi. ("I found myself heavily weighed down by a sense of being tired of living and scared of dying" - after the loss of his friend and when his Manicheeism failed to comfort him). I do wonder if using those exact words in his translation was Henry C's little joke... 

So I now have an indelible mental image of Augustine breaking into song in the rich tones of Paul Robeson. Well, he did say that whoever sings prays twice!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Dog Days - Sunday Snippets

Look at our regular visitor, sunning himself on our garage roof. I reckon he has the right idea about how to spend these hot, sticky dog days... I think of him when I want to learn how to relax and simply be...

It's been a while since I joined in with the Sunday Snippets Catholic Carnival, but greetings to you all, whatever the weather where you are!  If you want to have a look at some recent posts:

Happy summer days (if indeed it is summer where you live). Happy days anyway!

Unam Sanctam Catholicam...

Pope Francis in Rio
A week of juxtaposition (if that's the word I want). The shock and tragedy of the train crash in Santiago de Compostela just as pilgrims - some of them among the victims - gathered to celebrate the feast of St James. I leave it to Digitalnun to voice the pain and questions more eloquently than I can...

Pope Francis in Rio for World Youth Day, mobbed by the crowds, speaking out against injustice, posing with football shirts and taking part in exuberant liturgical extravaganza...

And having watched these events unfolding on television,  yesterday I went to the ordination in London of four deacons for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.  Splendid liturgy, music by Byrd and Tallis, rousing hymns - and the huge joy of seeing four servants of the Lord anointed by the Holy Spirit as heralds of the Good News.

Catholicity. The suffering, compassionate, challenging, joyful, humble, serving worldwide Body of Christ. Sometimes the wonder of that just hits me between the eyes. And I'm a tiny, unworthy part of it. Deo Gratias.  

Tuesday, 23 July 2013


Swedish storm cloud.  Not my own picture -I wish!
Well, you know I like weather. But I find it very hard to like heat and humidity, of which we've been having plenty. So I was glad the air was just a little cooler this morning. As I sat reading in the garden the clouds, God's ambassadors as Mary Oliver calls them, gathered in heaps, rolls and swells. The breeze freshened. I tipped back my folding chair and watched the colours marbling the darkening sky. Soon the grey underside of a cumulonimbus cloud was overhead - amazing to think of the energy and weight just above me, reaching up perhaps to the very edge of weather.  Dogs barked, swifts screamed and then the thunder began.

I put away what I was doing and, just as I always did in my schooldays when there was a storm (once I'd discovered T S Eliot) I read What The Thunder Said.Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata - Give, Sympathise, Control.  I remember how those words struck me (I was an impressionable, some might unkindly say pious, child) as expressions of our relationship with God - and I listened for their echoes in the rumbles of thunder. I still believe that, and perhaps now understand it a little more deeply: we first encounter God as giver - a sense of gratitude at the wonders of creation; we experience God's compassion, often mediated through the care of others as we grow into relationships; somewhere along the line we are invited and challenged to allow God to be in control of our lives. A resonance there, perhaps, of the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises?

An idea for an Examen after a stormy day: what have I been given today? Where have I shown, and received, compassion? Have I lived in acknowledgment that God is in control?

And after the thunder came the rain - at first just a few heavy, precious drops, then more... and more. I hurried to put the books and technology under cover and then went back and walked in the garden (the neighbours already have grave doubts about my sanity so I don't care any more...)  My coffee grew more diluted as I watched geometric ripples on the birdbath and spiders curious to see what was shaking their webs.  Then the clouds sailed on by and the rain stopped. Not enough to quench the parched grass and earth, but it did make them smell sweet.

Do follow the links and read the poems!

Friday, 19 July 2013


I've written before about the beautiful shift in perspective of seeing our planet home from outside. So I was thrilled to read about something exciting (but which I'd never have noticed) that's happening today. Read about it here.

So, smile today... Take time to smile, genuinely and joyfully. If today is sad, hard, painful (and I don't want to trivialise that) is there a memory that makes you smile? Make time for yourself to remember, relish and relive it.

Maybe even wave to Saturn if you feel light-hearted enough and are happy to be part of the Silly Season.*

Oh, and in the words of Anthony de Mello: "Behold God beholding you - and smiling."

*LATE EDIT: Here are some people doing just that!