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.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Hallowe'en for some

For Catholics, of course, it's Hallowe'en tonight since we're keeping All Saints' Day tomorrow, because 1 November is a Saturday this year and Hallowe'en is of course All Hallows' Eve (I hope you're taking notes at the back there - there'll be questions later. And if you know the answers, please tell me. In words of one syllable, preferably). 

We've all got different thoughts about Hallowe'en, I suspect. For some good thoughts on keeping it all in proportion, see The Beaker Folk; for a consideration of some of the real dangers, see iBenedictines    

In a previous parish, we had Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction on Hallowe'en night, and prayed for all the streets of the parish by name, for protection and peace. Some of the local children saw the church lights on while out trick-or-treating, and came in. They sat quietly with us for a while in their witch and ghost costumes. Some people of a fastidious or traditionalist bent might have demurred, but I thought it was rather lovely; of course it meant too that I could explain to them what the occasion was really all about in the Christian calendar. 

Have a glorious All Saints' Day, and may we enjoy the prayers and friendship of all the saints. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Unity and Community

Back in September the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham held a series of events under  the banner of Called To Be One - open invitations to anyone interested to come and find out what the Ordinariate is all about.  I was invited to give a reflection at Evensong at the end of the event we held in our parish. I thought I'd share it here...

Poor old Ahaz, in our first reading (Isaiah 7). He demurs from asking God for a sign: perhaps he thinks he’s being humble or pious, or maybe he prefers to be self-sufficient. How do you discover what God is asking of you? Do you struggle on your own to work out an answer, or do you sit back and wait for divine revelation? A good discernment will alway, I think, be a mixture of both. Many of us here who have made the journey into the Catholic Church have done so after a time of agonising deliberation; not a few of us, I suspect, will have come to the point where we could only say to God, ‘your will be done. Show me…’

The sign that Ahaz is promised (despite his avowed independence!) is the sign of Emmanuel: God with us. Literally the word means with-us-God. Not ‘me and my God’; God with us… plural. One of Pope Benedict’s favourite words is gemeinschaft. It’s often translated as ‘community’, but that is an inadequate word. Gemeinschaft describes a group of people where togetherness itself is the goal, where values, ideas and faith are shared. Not like a group of people on a bus: they may have a common destination but each one is going there for his or her individual needs. There are rules on the bus - no smoking, no spitting, no speaking to the driver - which are largely obeyed; the passengers may form a community of sorts, but they are separate individuals: each one the centre of their own little universe.

The sign of Emmanuel has been part of the discernment of everybody here today. Among those who have joined the Catholic Church some made the discernment as a community; others of us have had to grow into one. What we have tried to do today is share a little bit of what that means to us, and how we have experienced gemeinschaft in the Ordinariate. All of us here right now, though, are here because of the gemeinschaft we share already: ‘all who have been baptised have put on Christ’: we are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’.

Those are words from tonight’s second reading (Galatians 3) where very early on we hear that uncomfortable little word sin. We can’t consider disunity without it. Isaiah’s prophecy of how the sign of Emmanuel will appear - the lion and lamb - is manifestly not fulfilled yet, not because of God’s indifference but because of our fallenness. Neither do we - any of us - live as though there really is ‘neither Jew nor Greek; slave nor free; male nor female.’ We still need the rules on the bus, and to feel the pain of the disunity they bring to us all, but they are not God’s ultimate dream for us.

Pope Francis addressed us all when he said recently, ‘We know well the sins against unity - jealousy, envy, apathy - which come about when we place ourselves at the centre… God’s will, however, is that we grow in our capacity to welcome one another, to forgive and to love, and to resemble Christ. May we all examine our consciences and ask forgiveness… and may our relationships mirror more beautifully and joyfully the unity of Jesus and his Father.’

Wherever the journey takes you, take care to seek the places where you encounter Emmanuel - God with us. To what deeper ‘us’ are you being called?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

What we're called to be

Credible and joy-filled witnesses
...according to Pope Francis at yesterday's General Audience . I don't want - or need, I think - to comment. Isn't that enough? Wouldn't it be more than enough, if that's what we all truly were?

Picture credit: Getty Images. Just because I liked it. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Blood Moon and Blessed JHN

What connects them, other than this being the day after the lunar eclipse and the feast-day of Blessed John Henry Newman?

Perhaps simply my wonder at the fact that the Love and Reason (hallmarks of the power of God, as Pope Benedict loved to remind us) which align the stars and planets could also be the 'kindly light' which led this one man's heart to the place where he found peace, 'like coming into port after a rough sea.'

Newman, theologian and philosopher, made this remarkable statement: 'From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no variations to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever.'

From someone of a lesser mind than Newman's this would sound facile, like laziness or infantilism. And I include myself in that! So dare I say that for me, the goal presented by Newman's statement means above all no longer having to argue,  to seek to prove or defend what I believe in an antagonistic, point-scoring way. It's a challenge to resist being drawn into competitive debates that ultimately get no one anywhere. It's an invitation to see evangelisation differently - and still to be fervent about doing it.

Blessed John Henry, pray for us.

O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church; graciously grant that, through his intercession and example, we may be led out of shadows and images into the fullness of your truth.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Synod on the Family

I'm still naive enough to be shocked now and again by intemperate language. I don't mean rude words: I have a good stock of those myself, and they can be quite useful on the right occasion.  No, I mean the kind of 'witty' remark (usually only so in the ears of its utterer) which is delivered without regard to those present who might be hurt by it.  

There are many opinions, hopes and fears around as the Synod on the Family opens in Rome. For wise reflection, as always, see Digital Nun; and visit the Eastbourne Ordinariate Mission for prayers about the Synod (and add your own petitions).  Not everyone is as thoughtful or prayerful as these bloggers, though.  I was saddened by 'jokes' I heard about 'votes for adulterers', which surely won't help or edify anyone.  So here is Duccio's painting of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42); of course I think also of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). We don't know the names of either of these women; might we, though, not ask their prayers for an understanding of God's merciful justice as we would of any of the New Testament saints who had a life-changing encounter with Jesus?

There are things on the Synod's agenda which touch my heart - and those of people I care about. I hope we are all able to pray not for what might be good for us as individuals but 'for our good and the good of all His holy Church.'

As Digital Nun says, 'The whole Church, not just the Synod participants, has a particularly important role in praying not only for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Synod’s deliberations but in the acceptance and implementation of its conclusions afterwards.'  Those of us who are still damp after our swim across the Tiber might need to remember that Synod now means something different to us as Catholics from what it might mean from within a 'church run by a debating society'. (I hope those words won't offend anyone; they're not my own. I know, I'm risking being guilty of the very thing I'm describing.)

Today's reading at Morning Prayer was James 2:12-13:

Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom, because there will be judgement without mercy for those who have not been merciful themselves; but the merciful need have no fear of judgement.

I quote it above all to myself...

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Asking for it

Id Quod Volo - dogs are very good at it
Here's another piece for The Portal...

In one of the scurrilously brilliant Julian and Sandy sketches from the 1960s radio series Round The Horne, Kenneth Horne visits the Bona Gift Boutique. As he browses the shelves, Hugh Paddick's  character Julian counsels (in a tone which suggests that this is part of his philosophy of life), 'If you don't see what you want, Ducky, ask for it!'

Useful advice too (oh dear, this sounds like a particularly clunky sermon-opener!) for the life of prayer - or is it? St Ignatius Loyola tells us that one of the preludes to any time of prayer should be to 'ask for what I desire' - id quod volo. Of course, within the structure of the Spiritual Exercises we are told what this should be: joy, sorrow, compassion, etc. depending on where we are in the dynamic of the Exercises. If you don't see the grace you need in your life, ask for it. All well and good. But what about the things we actually desire? Is it all right to ask for them?

St Teresa of Avila says somewhere that petition - asking for things - is a good practice for beginners in prayer. The trouble is, when we read something like that, we can tend to imagine a kind of hierarchy of prayer; we don't notice that St Teresa includes herself among the 'beginners'. Naturally we will want to explore what we see as the enticing higher planes of the spiritual life. We become bored and impatient with the foothills - fine for children and new Christians, but we feel we should be capable of better.

Actually, I believe God is everywhere in the landscape. Anything, if it is brought into dialogue with God, can become real and precious prayer - even the humblest faltering petition. If I hear suddenly that someone I love is ill, or has been in an accident, I'm not likely to sit calmly down and do some Lectio Divina. My instinctive prayer will probably be nothing but a garbled 'please, please...'  That's prayer which is real, from the heart. A surrendered silence where I can listen to what God says in response may come later, but it's not better or higher prayer, or prayer more pleasing to God - just different. After all, who was it said we should become like little children (who know all about asking for things, and not so much about doing it elegantly or subtly), and who taught his friends a prayer full of petitions?

Yes, but... Prayer for healing or forgiveness is of course a good thing. What if 'that which I desire' is not quite so good? Am I still supposed to ask God for it? What if my desire right now is that X, who has hurt me, should meet with an unfortunate accident involving a sewage tanker; or that - well, you can supply your own examples: I don't want to give too much away about mine! When St Teresa said petitionary prayer was good for beginners she told us why: because when we hear ourselves speak our desires out loud we can allow God to change and purify them. After all, God already knows the depths of our hearts; it's when we suppress or deny what's there that it can fester and grow out of proportion. Shame is far more destructive than any desire.

And, before Teresa, St Augustine had come to realise that beneath all the disordered desires of his colourful youth was the one longing 'to love and be loved'.  It's true for us all, under even our most shabby desires. God will help us discover that truth, and answer our longing, if only we tell him about it. 

Pope Benedict on Creation

... A plug, in case anyone's interested. Here's the blurb for a day I shall be leading next month:

Saturday 11 October 2014, 11am - 4pm
From God's Good Earth:
A Day With Pope Benedict XVI on Creation
at the London Spirituality Centre, Lombard Street EC3V 9EA

"God created the universe in order to enter into a history of love with humankind."

"We must not in our day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings."

An invitation to engage heart and mind as we consider the theology and spirituality of creation under the guidance of Pope Benedict's homilies on Genesis, which he gave in 1981 as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  This will be a day of recollection offering a balance of input and time for quiet personal reflection, as well as a chance for dialogue within the group.

See, email info[at] or call 020 7621 1391

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Angels of light and the winds of hell

 When I saw the title of Tim Muldoon's  recent post on the Ignatian Spirituality blog - 'Love in Hell' - I hoped it would be about Paolo and Francesca da Rimini in Dante's Inferno, and it was. Dante meets the two lovers in Hell, whirled about together by the fiery winds, and Francesca tells the story of how their love began with a kiss while they were reading chivalrous romances together. Rossetti's painting, shown here, illustrates the story (Dante and his guide Vergil are the two characters in the middle panel). 

Tim Muldoon uses the story of Paolo and Francesca as an example of Ignatius' teaching, in the Second Week Rules, about the 'enemy of our human nature' appearing as an angel of light: leading us, under the guise of good, away from God. (And Tim links to a thoughtful article by Rod Dreher which further explores this point - do read that too.) But, oh, the questions - can there be love in Hell? Isn't one of the definitions of Hell utter loneliness, forever cut off from love? And - dare one say - would it really be Hell to be forever in the embrace of the one I love?

No, I don't think there can be love in Hell, and that's the point. Does Francesca truly love Paolo? Or did she fall in love with an idea, an idol, of him as Lancelot, her imagination inflamed by a captivating story. Rod Dreher's article points out that, like other characters in Dante's Hell, Paolo and Francesca are not being 'punished' for erotic love. It's more subtle, and a more chilling lesson for us. You see,  I keep saying 'Paolo and Francesca' - Dante's readers would have known the story and therefore the names of the key players. But, in the text, Francesca never names him.  Indeed, he never speaks.  It struck me: is Paolo actually there at all? Or does Francesca merely clutch an idol, blown about like a withered leaf? In Rossetti's painting, even that first kiss looks awkward - their faces slightly distorted. The beginning of the deception? As they drift in the wind they clasp each other but their eyes are closed. They do not - cannot - gaze at one another and neither can we. 

And here's an even more chilling thought... Wouldn't it be true love, the highest form of love, to choose to enter Hell for the sake of the one I love? Isn't that the Easter love of Christ, after all? Ah, there's the angel of light par excellence. I am not Christ; I cannot, in my own strength, come anywhere near to loving like that. As 'angel of light', the enemy leads subtly into the lie of pride: I don't need a Saviour; I don't need God. And that's... Hell. What the Francesca in me is really saying is not, 'I will go into Hell for his sake', but 'I'll drag him into Hell with me (viz. I am like God: I can decide another's destiny).  And if I can't possess him (because ultimately I'm not God) I'll make an idol and to Hell with him (ha!) because I don't really care about the person he is...' That's the sin; that's the pride. And it's not beautiful, like two lovers forever held in one mutual embrace. It's sickeningly ugly.

This is the danger with any kind of love. If you want to see it in modern dress, read C S Lewis's The Great Divorce (steeped in ideas from Dante, of course)  There's a frightening description there of a mother's love distorted. And in today's Office of Readings there's a passage from St Augustine's Sermon to Pastors: how shepherds are nourished by the milk from their flock and clothed in their wool, and that's good; but there is a risk of the shepherd becoming so attached to what he gets from them that he loses sight of the sheep themselves and neglects those too sick and weak to give him anything, because they don't match the 'idol' of the perfect flock he's created. (I paraphrase, of course, but that's the connection for me).

We love, we desire, because we are made in the image of God. And we are fallen, and can all to easily be deceived. I think that's why Ignatius advises us to speak out our desires to God - all of them, unedited: to voice our id quod volo, whatever it may be, so that it's brought into the light. But that's for another post...

Augustine, Ignatius, Dante... Paolo and Francesca, wherever you are, pray for me.

Friday, 12 September 2014


There he was again tonight at Evening Prayer - Og the King of Basan (or Bashan).  Memories of giggling during the psalms in Evensong in my mis-spent youth. Apparently he's mentioned  22 times in the Bible.

Did you ever wonder who he was?  Have a look here or, for an entertaining read, here (including the picture above, and the story of how what was thought to be King Og's skeleton was in fact that of an elephant).

Let's hear it for Og...

Monday, 8 September 2014

Mary's Birthday

St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, British Library  
It's surely not unreasonable to imagine that the birth of a baby girl in the Middle East some 2000 years ago would have been seen as an event of little significance outside her immediate family (and even among some family members, dare one suggest?) Whatever the truth behind some of the beautiful stories surrounding this child's birth and childhood, they would have been treasured only in the hearts of those closest to her; creating, perhaps, a habit she would inherit. And yet...

Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, announced joy to the whole world, for from you has risen the Sun of justice, Christ our God. He released us from the ancient curse and made us blessed; he destroyed death and gave us eternal life. (Benedictus antiphon from today's Morning Prayer)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

St Gregory the Great

St Gregory and St Augustine (Westminster Cathedral)
For more images and some wise words, see Idle Speculations...

And here is a sermon on Ezekiel from St Gregory, from today's Office of Readings. I'm simply letting him speak for himself - words which should ring bells with any of us who have ever had pastoral responsibilities and been charged with being Praecones Evangelii - preachers of the Good News:

‘Son of man, I have appointed you as watchman to the house of Israel.’ Note that Ezekiel, whom the Lord sent to preach his word, is described as a watchman. Now a watchman always takes up his position on the heights so that he can see from a distance whatever approaches. Likewise whoever is appointed watchman to a people should live a life on the heights so that he can help them by taking a wide survey.
    These words are hard to utter, for when I speak it is myself that I am reproaching. I do not preach as I should nor does my life follow the principles I preach so inadequately.
    I do not deny that I am guilty, for I see my torpor and my negligence. Perhaps my very recognition of failure will win me pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in a monastic community I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and to devote my mind almost continually to the discipline of prayer. Since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I have been unable to keep steadily recollected because my mind is distracted by many responsibilities.
    I am forced to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I must judge the lives and actions of individuals; at one moment I am forced to take part in certain civil affairs, next I must worry over the incursions of barbarians and fear the wolves who menace the flock entrusted to my care; now I must accept political responsibility in order to give support to those who preserve the rule of law; now I must bear patiently the villainies of brigands, and then I must confront them, yet in all charity.
    My mind is sundered and torn to pieces by the many and serious things I have to think about. When I try to concentrate and gather all my intellectual resources for preaching, how can I do justice to the sacred ministry of the word? I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with men of the world and sometimes I relax the discipline of my speech. If I preserved the rigorously inflexible mode of utterance that my conscience dictates, I know that the weaker sort of men would recoil from me and that I could never attract them to the goal I desire for them. So I must frequently listen patiently to their aimless chatter. Because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle talk and I find myself saying the kind of thing that I didn’t even care to listen to before. I enjoy lying back where I once was loath to stumble.
    Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I do not stand on the pinnacle of achievement, I languish rather in the depths of my weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of mankind can give me, unworthy though I be, the grace to see life whole and power to speak effectively of it. It is for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies...

...When a new planet swims into his ken.

Keats would surely have benefitted from this very helpful diagnostic chart, from NASA APOD, one of my favourite sites.  If only I'd had it the other night; I'm sure those astronauts were waving...

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Weeds and wheat revisited

From Getty Images
Back after a long break! Here's something I wrote for the August edition of The Portal (do have a look...) I'm delighted to have been asked to be part of this e-magazine; I won't say more about it now, just encourage you to visit the website. And even consider subscribing..?

Anyway (end of plug), I'm returning to a favourite theme.

'I need 500 words,' said our good Editor, 'by yesterday. The theme is up to you.' Suddenly I was back at my Anglican selection conference when, just as I was about to leave the interview room, I was told: 'you're standing on the platform with three minutes before your train leaves. How do you share the essence of the Gospel with the anxious person who's just asked what you believe?'

Still in my mind was what, at the time of writing, was last Sunday's Gospel reading: the parable of the wheat and the darnel (Matthew 13:24-30). As the two memories collided and mingled, here's what emerged...

We were all told at Sunday School, I suppose, that one of the points of this parable is that wheat and darnel look almost identical while they are still immature. And so, as the owner of the field says, to try to weed out the darnel immediately would be to risk destroying the good plants too. But what else is there to learn? It's easy, and comforting, to think of the wheat as the Church and the darnel as the world. Frighteningly, it's just as easy - and it has a piquant comfort all its own -  to see the Church as the field, and enjoy trying to spot who's the wheat and who the darnel. Nearer the truth, I think, is the realisation that we ourselves - each one of us - are the field; within each individual heart and soul is a tangle of wheat and darnel that even the Lord of the Harvest himself counsels against trying to weed: not yet. And meanwhile, here we still are as the Body of Christ.

We are uncomfortable with the unconditional love of God. We find it safer to hedge it round with ifs and buts: I suspect that, deep down, we actually find it hard to believe that we are so loved. And so our welcome to others becomes conditional, and that's something we should be concerned about.  Surely we in the Ordinariate should understand what it is to be made welcome.  Probably we can't remember being welcomed into the Church of God at our baptism (received just as we were, 'mewling and puking' as likely as not*). But we can remember the welcome from our prodigal Father to the ragbag, the Noah's ark, the patchwork of fields of wheat and tares that is the banquet of the Catholic Church. Did any of us deserve such a lavish gift?

Why do we continue to regard the Eucharist as a reward for good behaviour? And we all do, don't we, from time to time - whether for ourselves or others? We forget that God's gift of forgiveness is not confined to the Sacrament of Reconciliation but is right there in the invitation we are offered at each Mass: 'Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world.' (Have a look at paragraph 1393 in the Catechism).  To come to Communion in humble astonishment and trust in God's unconditional and redemptive love - knowing that we could never earn or deserve it  - poses less risk, I believe, of receiving unworthily than to think we can or should somehow weed our own field first.

So, that's my three-minute message:
We are utterly unworthy;
We are utterly loved;
We are called to love as we have been loved.

Through the 'medicine of immortality' Our Lord nurtures the wheat already growing in us, and we can trust him to take care of the darnel as he knows best.  Deo Gratias!

* Some of us may have been received into the Catholic Church in a similar state. God still loves us.

Thursday, 6 February 2014


The Magi, from the St Alban's Psalter, 12th century
Did you know what 'desire' means - the word, that is, etymologically speaking?

It's from the Latin desidero, which like 'consider' comes from sidus, sideris - a star.

My desire is my guiding star, my lodestar - to follow it is to find Epiphany. 

May He give you your heart's desire... Psalm 20
You have granted him his heart's desire; you have not refused the prayer of his lips. Psalm 21

Our one desire and choice should be the end for which we were created... To praise, reverence and serve God our Lord... All other things on the face of the earth are created for us to help us. Spiritual Exercises #23 ask for what I desire... Spiritual Exercises #55 and passim

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

God of Surprises

 This picture appeared in several papers yesterday. I love it! It came as a gift for me - I'm doing some work at the moment on different ways of praying. This is something I'm passionate about - people (including myself!) exploring different ways of spending time with God. (And Jean Vanier suggested there are at least a thousand and one such ways!)

But there's a difference between prayer practices and prayer itself. The former we can learn about, and plan for, and do. The latter will - thank God! - creep up behind us and surprise us. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

So quick to judge...

I went to Mass in a very large, famous and busy urban place of worship. As people knelt after Communion I became aware of a stream of conversation nearby. Who could be so irreverent and insensitive? And I realised I could only hear one voice - was he on his mobile phone? Worse and worse... Eventually, irritated and distracted, I glanced round. An African man was on his knees, hands raised, an expression of sheer joy on his face, pouring out his prayer to God.

Kyrie eleison.  ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.' (Luke 18:14)

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Just after the Full Moon

Today's picture from NASA APOD
I'm back... A belated Happy New Year, everyone. (What do you mean, you didn't miss me?) To ease me back after my blogging sluggishness (and to make sure this gets posted before this Wolf Moon wanes too far) I'm  pinching gratefully borrowing from others...

I always enjoy the Poetry Chaikhana blog, and especially so yesterday's poem by Izumi Shikibu:

Watching the Moon 
at midnight,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely, no part left out.

Do read it there, and Ivan Granger's commentary. He says that, like the Moon, our individual consciousness only gives light if it reflects... And here I would say: if it reflects the Light of God, the 'love that moves the Sun and the other stars.'  'Look to him and be radiant', says the Psalmist in what has long been a 'touchstone' verse for me.  I give thanks for the ways in which that reflected light shines on me through colleagues, students, fellow-pilgrims, pastors, preachers, dear 'soul friends' and (God forgive me!) the most unexpected of people. And all the graces I pray for can be summed up as the grace to grow to fullness, like the Moon, so that I can reflect more.

A while ago, A Minor Friar (apologies, I've kept the quote but not the link to the exact post) wrote about watching the early morning light reflected in the sacred vessels on the altar and said 'take a moment just to appreciate the light; its dignity as the first of us creatures, the first of us to receive the original gaze of divine blessing, it was good.' 

 And this morning this little prayer came my way, and I'll try to make it my own as an invocation to start each day:

Sol iustítiæ, tibi dies noster consecrétur,
—qui in baptísmate nos illustrásti.

Sun of Justice, you filled us with light at our baptism,
– we dedicate this day to you.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

By the way...

... Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed a new page listed at the top of this blog, entitled 'Listen With Your Eyes'. It's about a course I'm creating and will be leading in London this summer: an experience of Visio Divina, or praying with art and the imagination. One of my passions!

Click and have a look; tell your friends - and please, if you're not too far away, consider coming along!

Thanks, and once again a very happy New Year to you!

New Year

 Last year I offered the Suscipe prayer as my post for New Year's Day, and I can do no better this time. The best prayer, to my mind, for a new day or the end of the day, the end and beginning of the year, before the Christmas crib - or indeed the Cross on Good Friday when it comes...

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty: my memory, my understanding and my entire will. All that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me; to you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours, do with it according to your will. Give me only the love of you, and your grace: that is enough for me.

And this year there's  a beautiful suggestion for a ritual to go with the Suscipe to begin and end the day, at  God in All Things - have a look...

And as a New Year's gift I share with you something my spiritual director gave me: a prayer based on Ephesians 3:14-21. I think it goes well with the Suscipe - a glimpse of what 'your love and your grace' might really be like.

I pray you, according to the riches of your glory, grant that I may be strengthened in my inner being with power through your Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith, as I am being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that I may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that I may be filled with all the fullness of God.