Sunday, September 21, 2014

The workers in the vineyard

A homily on today's readings from a great and inspired servant of the Lord. The late Bishop Joe Grech preached this back in 2005. (It is from the website of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bendigo (Australia). Go HERE for some info about Bishop Joe.

The parable in today’s gospel is a wonderful story, but it is also very challenging, so much so that some of the people involved got very hurt and very angry at how the master of the vineyard dealt with them. It is quite correct to have pity and be generous with the latecomers, yet it is also hurtful to be treated in the same manner after you had gone through a hard day’s work.

Let us put the parable in context. The first thing to remember is those who were employed at the very last moment were not lazy, good for nothing people. They were sincerely trying to get some work. It was a case that no one had hired them before the very last hour.

In those days, men gathered from early in the morning in the market place hoping to get a day’s work from any employer who might turn up. It is conceivable to imagine that all sorts of workers turned up. There were those who were really craftsmen and who had the necessary skills and tools for their particular work. There were also others with no specific skill, and who hoped to get any type of work. If an employer turned up, naturally he would just pick those with the necessary skills, those who proved to be the cream of the crop; or those who looked most promising. If this was the process, then who would be left waiting at the eleventh hour? Those who had been rejected all through the morning, those with no skills, the lowest class of workers.  Now here is the lesson. It would have been totally foreign to anyone listening to this parable to understand why the master of the vineyard treated those who were chosen for work at the last moment, in an equal manner as those who had worked all day.

This is irrational. It is not right. Yet the first reading of today taken from the prophet Isaiah has God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” (Is 55:8) God thinks differently and His way of doing things is different from ours. I am sure that the people knew who Jesus was referring to in the parable. The people of the eleventh hour were the sinners and those who were not members of the chosen race. Those who had been working all day were the Jews, those who belonged to the chosen people of God. Therefore what Jesus was publicly proclaiming was that he had come to demonstrate that God is for everybody, and he desired to treat those who were forgotten in the same manner as those who considered themselves to be the cream of society. Jesus wanted to make clear that He is interested in everybody, especially in those who were confined to the margins of our society. He wants us to understand that his generosity and care extends both to the old people in the aged care facility as well as to those who considered to be self-fulfilled and in the prime of their life. He is also challenging us to act in the same manner, to remember that each person is created in His image and therefore deserves our respect and friendship and companionship.

It is not the first time that I have met people who have been away from God for quite a long time. I always try to share with them that as far as God is concerned the past is gone. What matters is to ask for forgiveness and build on the present with God.  God does not hold any grudges. We do. Very often I have heard this reply, “I would be a hypocrite if I turn to God now when I am in need.” We may act in this manner with one another. But God is different. God does not care whether you want to establish a personal relationship with Him at the very last moment. What matters is that we do when the opportunity arises. Like at this very moment. My brother, my sister, if you are in such a situation at this present moment, pray with me.

“Jesus I stand here before you. You know my past. You are well aware of where I am at this moment. I do not know how to pray but I am confident of one thing. You care for me because you died for me. Bless me at this moment. Put your hands around my heart. Heal me.  Make me feel your presence. Make me feel your love. I trust you. Thank you for thinking about me. Thank you that you are very generous with me.” Amen.

Friday, September 19, 2014

St Theodore of Tarsus: The Syrian Archbishop of Canterbury

In the Church calendar, today we remember Theodore of Tarsus, a monk nominated by Pope Vitalian as the sixth Archbishop of Canterbury. Theodore’s native language was Greek and he was born in Syria. Theodore had been educated in Athens and took monastic vows before travelling to Italy. Very quickly he became a scholar of repute in Rome. 

He was ordained priest and bishop in order to be sent to Canterbury, arriving in 669. Within three years, following visitations to most parts of the country, he called the first synod of the Anglo-Saxon Church at Hertford (672) with the purpose of healing the rift that had occurred between bishops identifying chiefly with Rome and bishops based in monasteries after the Celtic pattern. He was the last foreign missionary to occupy the metropolitan See. 

According to Bede, he was the first Archbishop able to earn the respect, loyalty and obedience of all English Christians, and it is sometimes said that this was the greatest influence in the creation of a uniquely English Church. He brought about the system of parochial organisation which to this day is the hallmark of English Christianity. He established a school at Canterbury where many great leaders and saints of the English church were educated. 

Theodore died at the age of 87 and was laid to rest at the side of St. Augustine in Canterbury. This aged prelate from distant shores had won the affection and esteem of the people of the whole land. St. Bede says of him that he was the first Archbishop of Canterbury willingly obeyed by all of Anglo-Saxon England. 

On April 5, 2013, Fr. James Early presented a paper at the International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Thought at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, USA. The topic of Fr. James’ paper was “Theodore of Tarsus: The Syrian Archbishop of Canterbury.” Go HERE to listen to Fr Early’s lecture.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marcus Loane on spiritual warfare

Don’t we hate it when (in the words of the hymn) “the strife is fierce, the warfare long” and we “feebly struggle”, not always hearing “the distant triumph song”?

One of the great things about the Prayer Book baptismal rite is that it leaves us in no doubt that in becoming Christians we enlist in an army in which we fight “against sin, the world and the devil.” Of course, as with Jesus, our weapon is love. But the battle is fierce, because the enemy is out to destroy what God is doing (just remember 1 Peter 5:8-9 from the old service of Compline!). I fear that underlying some of the changes people want the Church to embrace in our age is a sense of outrage that life should involve any kind of struggle at all . . . especially in the area of our deep seated desires. Well, we signed up for the struggle in our baptism. Sometimes the struggle is within; sometimes we are called on to stand for the gospel values of truth and justice in the public square; sometimes we are called to endure persecution, in a very real way “sharing the fellowship of [Jesus’] sufferings (Philippians 3:10). But we cannot airbrush out of ordinary Christian living the struggle of faith. 

It does help when we understand just who our adversary is.

Today we continue with the handful of quotes I have from Marcus Loane’s books. In Grace and the Gentiles (page 110) Sir Marcus deals with the spiritual warfare that everyone who follows Jesus experiences in one way or another:  

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.(Eph. 6:10-13 A.V.) 

“There is a marked pause at the end of the long and salutary passage on home relationships; then Paul called on his scribe once more and the Letter was brought to a close with a call to arms. He knew that, just like the ancient Spartans, we were born for battle: therefore we must learn to ‘endure hardness’ as good soldiers of Christ (2 Tim. 2:3 A.V.). We have to live on ground where we will be under attack; it is like a camp in hostile country which must be held until the Captain returns in triumph. Attacks are launched against it by unseen adversaries, for the devil is in command of a vast host. He is always a most aggressive enemy, and that host is skilfully organised for war without quarter. No true soldier of Christ will be immune from its assaults, nor can he be neutral in that conflict. The battle field is overhung with clouds, and he will be forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat. But each member of that beleaguered garrison can stand fast and prevail, because there are sources of strength available in Christ which can make them invincible.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Marcus Loane: When all human strength turns into weakness

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of feedback from yesterday’s post on Archbishop Marcus Loane. So, I will share with you over the next few days the handful of quotations I have from his writings. They are rich fare. Today’s is from his 1968 book, The hope of glory: an exposition of the eighth chapter in the ‘Epistle to the Romans.’

We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.  (Romans 8:22-27)

Archbishop Loane writes:

“St Paul strove to pile one reason for confidence on another: as hope sustains the sons of God, so the Spirit helps them in their weakness. He does not remove the cause of groaning, but He does support them in their travail. He is ready to help like an unseen friend who stands by their side and takes their hand into his own firm clasp . . . The deep inward longing of a man’s heart may be hard to define in words, and he may be keenly aware of the lack of coherent utterance. If the world of nature groans in travail, can the children of God escape from its manifold suffering? No, they cannot; but the Spirit Himself will draw near to impart strength to their soul even when they falter so much that they do not know how to pray. It is in such an hour of felt weakness that the Holy Spirit draws near to act for us in grace: but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (R.V). There are crises in life when all human strength turns into weakness; it is then that, left to ourselves, we find that we do not even know how to pray. But the Holy Spirit is the divine source and spring of intercession in our inmost being and He moves in the soul in such a way that His mysterious groaning mingles with ours.” 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Marcus Loane on compassionate preaching

The bishop at whose hands I was confirmed was Marcus Loane (1911-2009). He was to become Archbishop of Sydney. (Fifty years later, I still vividly remember his sermon from my Confirmation day.) Sir Marcus was in every way a “Reformation man”, who nonetheless as Primate of the Australian Church showed great respect for those Anglo-Catholics he felt were Christ-centred and who preached the Gospel. He was a particular friend of the Anglo-Catholic Archbishop Philip Strong - a friendship that went back to World War II, when Loane served as an army chaplain in Papua New Guinea. During his 97 years Archbishop Loane wrote many books and articles, including biographies of evangelical leaders. In They Were Pilgrims, Loane tells the story of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843) a minister in the Church of Scotland who, though he died at the age of 30, had made a big impact on the lives of many. This quote from the book reveals as much about Sir Marcus as it does about McCheyne:

“The secret of his success . . . was his faithfulness to the Word of God with tenderness for the souls of men. He went about his work with an air of reverence which made men feel that the majesty of God was in his heart. There were few who could exhort the guilty in more searching or tremendous terms; there were few who could address the troubled in more gentle or persuasive terms. Andrew Bonar once told him how he had chosen for a text the words with regard to the doom of those who forget God and are sent to hell (Psa. 9:17). M’Cheyne at once asked him:’Were you able to preach it with tenderness?’ He knew that there is an enormous difference between a voice that scolds and a heart that yearns . . . It is not by threats and thunder, but by love and pathos that hearts are made to melt; it is not by words that scorch and condemn, but by a heart that bleeds to bless that souls are won. M’Cheyne himself preached on eternal destiny as one whose heart was wrung with a sense of anguish. He did not spare his hearers a word of truth; still less did he spare his own feelings a stab of pain . . . J. H. Jowett once said that his seventies were terrific because they were so tender . . . Both the motive and the power in all such preaching may be discerned in his sermon as a broken heart and contrite spirit. ‘It is not’, he said, ‘a look into your own heart, or the heart of hell, but into the heart of Christ, that breaks the heart. Oh, pray for this broken heart!’”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Fr Hunwicke on post-enlightenment Biblical Criticism

Father John Hunwicke, now a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, is always worth reading and listening to. His blog is HERE.

This video, a lecture he recently gave, will confirm your worst suspicions of the sceptical Biblical Studies industry, the prejudices of which are fundamental supports to the theological direction a lot of insiders want to push Christianity in the contemporary world.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When the storm comes

Jesus and the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (Rembrandt)

A little talk from a retreat of a few years ago . . . 

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake, about thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. The Jordan River flows through it from north to south, and the fishing and farming businesses it supported were famous in ancient times. Important trade routes passed along the lake’s western shore giving rise to a bustling multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, society. Just the right sort of area for Jesus to reach out to the crowds. The region could even be called “Galille of the Gentiles.” The towns of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Tiberias, where Jesus spent a lot of his time, were there. 

The lake itself is 700 feet below sea level, surrounded by plateaus. Sometimes the air pressure changes dramatically without warning. When this happens huge gale-force winds sweep down, and the kind of unexpected storm described in our reading is the result.

Jesus was exhausted.

He had poured himself out in ministry to the crowds. As the day was ending he answered even more questions and helped even more people understand the ways of God. Eventually he called out to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.” That meant sailing thirteen miles to the region of Gadara. It would be long enough for him to have a decent sleep in the back of the boat.

Now, these disciples were professional fishermen, highly skilled with boats. Every day they were on this lake casting their nets. Nobody knew more about boats or about the Galilee lake than they did. They could handle storms. 

But this was no ordinary storm. They’d never seen anything like it. The waves kept crashing over the boat, pounding it, shaking it with enormous force. 

These tough experienced fishermen were gripped by fear. They lost their nerve. They imagined the worst.

They looked around to see where Jesus was.

After all, it was his fault. It was Jesus who had sent them out across the lake. It was he who had kept them standing there while he insisted on talking with people until the sun went down. They had warned him about the night-time squalls on the lake. Where was Jesus now?

To put it mildly, they were not happy to see that he was at the back of the boat, sleeping on a cushion. (I wonder if he was snoring!)

Sleeping! On a cushion! The boat looked as if it would sink, and Jesus was sleeping on a cushion! Could he really be so tired as to sleep through the storm and their fear?

So they woke him up. “Don’t you care if we drown?” They were so upset that he wasn’t panicking. 

After all he had done for them, they actually accused him of not caring about them. Full of fear in the midst of the raging storm, they vented their anger at him.

Haven’t you done that? I must confess that I have. When there is a real crisis, our anger boils over and we have to find someone to blame for our problems – even the Lord. (Especially the Lord!)  Those disciples were like you and me. When they came to Jesus they didn’t ask him what to do, or even to help. They just accused him of not caring about them.

Maybe they thought that because they were with Jesus, everything should be just fine all the time. Who hasn’t thought like that at some stage or another! Then things go wrong, maybe at work, in the family, at church, among our friends, with our finances, or perhaps our health breaks down. We get disillusioned. (What actually happens is that God lets us see how spiritually immature we really are.)

We forget that in the story of the two house builders (you know – the wise man who built his house on the rock, and the foolish man who built his house on the sand) Jesus didn’t say to those who followed him “IF” the storms come. He said “WHEN” the storms come.

Look at the passage again. Jesus dealt with the storm. How did he do it? He just spoke the words, “Peace, be still.” Then there was calm. It says that the disciples were now “in awe” of him. Why was that? I’ll tell you why. It was because in the amazing picture language of their Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) it is God alone who has the power to subdue the raging seas (Psalm 89:9, 93:4, 107:28-29). 

And, of course, he also stilled the storm in their hearts. 

We are all in the same boat. Sooner or later we are battered by storms of one kind or another. Every storm tests our faith in God; every crisis reveals whether or not we have learned to trust him.

Jesus has promised to stay with us, even - especially - in the midst of the storms that threaten to wipe us out. He loves us with an everlasting love. We can trust his love. We might be shaken to the depth of our beings. Sometimes there are beautiful friends who help get us through. But every now and then we are alone, even in a crowd. So alone . . . except for Jesus. Let’s turn to him, and call out to him in our distress. Let’s trust in his love. Let’s remember the frightened disciples on the evening of Easter Day when Jesus appeared in their midst, stretched his nail-pierced hands and gave them his peace. 

“Peace, be still!” He still speaks. He still sends out his Word. His Word still subdues the storm and heals us on the inside.

We know who he is. If we trust him and hang on, no matter how bad things are, his peace – that wonderful supernatural gift of his – the “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) – will protect us and keep us sane, for it is still a “peace that the world cannot give” (John 14:27).

Thank you, Lord. Amen.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The wonder of the Eucharist

"Behold, the Lamb of God . . ."
May 2008 at St Stephen's Coomera, Quseensland

Be pleased, O Lord, to accept this our bounden duty and service, and command that the prayers and supplications, together with the remembrance of Christ’s passion, which we now offer unto thee, may be received into thy heavenly Tabernacle; and that thou, not weighing our own merits, but looking upon the blessed sacrifice of our Saviour, which was once fully and perfectly made for us all, mayest pardon our offences, and replenish us with thy grace and heavenly benediction, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

- John Cosin (1594-1672)

* * * * * * * * * *

Evelyn Underhill defines Christian worship as ‘the total adoring response of man to the one eternal God self-revealed in time.’ This response is seen perfectly in Christ: ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God’ (Hebrews 10:5-9). The whole life of our Lord Jesus Christ is an act of worship: his obedience, his ministry, his self-offering on Calvary. We can also say that it is a liturgical act of worship which is expressly articulated in the words of Jesus’ High-Priestly prayer in John 17:1-5.

‘In Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:17) we enter the stream of obedience, devotion and love flowing from the Son to his Father. Therefore true worship is union with our Lord in the Holy Spirit, identifying ourselves with the Perfect Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which is why the Eucharist will always be the most perfect form of worship.”

- Frank Lomax (1921-2007), in Worship and Liturgy (Lecture, Trinity Theological College, Singapore)

* * * * * * * * * *

The Eucharist is the completion of all the sacraments, and not simply one of them . . . All human striving reaches here its ultimate goal. For in this sacrament we attain God himself, and God himself is made one with us in the most perfect of all unions . . . This is the final mystery; beyond this it is not possible to go, nor can anything be added to it.

- St Nicholas Cabasilas (1320-1371), quoted in The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware, p. 116

* * * * * * * * * *

The eternal liturgy . . . is the work of Jesus our Great High Priest, offering himself in and through his Church to the Father in the union of the Holy Spirit. ‘Through him, with him, in him . . .’ At the end of the eucharistic prayer, the priest raises the Host and Chalice together, and the self-giving or oblation of the whole Church is represented, taken up into the sacrificial self-giving love of the Blessed Trinity. The whole assembly responds with the great ‘Amen!’, the resounding ‘Yes!’ of the faith of a priestly people.”

- Peter Elliott, in Priest, Sacrifice and Eucharist, 2001

* * * * * * * * * *

The Eucharist is “surrounded by temporal ripples through which past and future things are refracted.”

- Robert Sokolowski (1936-), in Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure, p. 105

* * * * * * * * * *

“. . . the whole of Christian worship is focussed upon an altar where there is perpetually set forth the redemptive offering of pure love; and in that eternal offering, all other movements of love and sacrifice are sanctified before God.”

- Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), in Worship, p. 149

* * * * * * * * * *

Christ was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and break it;
And what that Word did make it;
That I believe and take it.

- Attributed to Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603)

* * * * * * * * * *

Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below, men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus.”

- St John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), in his Homily on Isaiah 6:1

* * * * * * * * * *

In the bread of the Eucharist 
and the cup of blessing 
Christ’s presence is revealed at its most intense. 
Let your life be permeated 
with a tremendous reverence 
towards this mystery of faith. 
Your adoration needs no justification 
more than your love and wonder 
for the infinite, delicate grandeur of God, 
the unfathomable depths of Christ’s gifts. 
Let his praise not depart from your lips . . .

The Eucharist sets you on the way of Christ.
It takes you into his redeeming death
and gives you a share
in the most radical deliverance possible.
And already the light of the resurrection,
the new creation,
is streaming through it from beyond.
Whenever you sit at table with the risen Lord,
it is the first day of the week,
very early in the morning.

- H. Van Der Looy in Rule for a New Brother

Thursday, August 28, 2014

St Augustine and amazing grace

Many places associated with St Augustine either no longer exist or cannot be identified with certainty. One of the possible exceptions, however, is the place of his baptism, which can still be visited today. This is a photograph of the ancient baptistry underneath the present day cathedral (duomo) of Milan, Italy. The cathedral is built on top of earlier churches, and the baptistry shown here is a sub-basement. There is very little doubt that it is the place of Augustine's baptism.

Today is the feast day of that great theologian of grace, St Augustine of Hippo. He defended the authentic Christian understanding of grace against those who thought that our attempts at goodness just needed "topping up" by God. Augustine's individual search, his experience of the worshipping, learning, discipling community gathered around St Ambrose in Milan, as well as his own reflection on the Scriptures assured him of our total reliance on God's grace for salvation.

Augustine was born in 354 AD in what is now Algeria. Even in his youth he was well known as a skilful teacher and debater. In fact it was his pride as an up and coming philosopher - and his intellectual snobbery - that caused him to reject the Christian faith of his mother and indulge himself in a lifestyle of colourful immorality. He eventually fathered a child outside marriage.

As unlikely as it may seem, given his early life, this man was chosen by God to become one of the greatest Christian teachers of all time.

You can read the story of his conversion in The Confessions of St Augustine - available in a number of translations. (online HERE, although I prefer Henry Chadwick's 1998 translation . . . Chadick calls the Confessions "that prose-poem addressed to God.") It is a thrilling story of God's grace at work in Augustine's life.

The values of the world in which Augustine lived, and the variety of religious philosophies on offer, makes his age uncannily like our own. In order to indicate the interplay of what was happening with Augustine's heart and soul with his being drawn into the worshipping community, I share with you five factors that led to and sustained his Christian experience:

First, his mother Monica never ceased to encourage and pray for him. St Monica is the patron saint of all those mothers who pray with tears for their wayward children. Later on, Augustine never doubted that his mother's faithfulness was the most important factor in his conversion.

Second, Augustine was genuine in his search for truth and wisdom. He loved the writings of Cicero and the Platonists, and even his seduction by the cultic Manichaeans was partly due to his seeking of "higher things." (Actually, he says that his breakthrough, philosophically, came when, to use his own words, "I no longer wished for a better world, because I was thinking of the whole of creation, and in the light of this clearer discernment I have come to see that, though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.") 

Third, Augustine experienced a growing sense of emptiness, futility and dissatisfaction with his life. His goals seemed to be eluding him and neither his learning nor his lifestyle brought the fulfilment he sought.

Fourth, at Milan, the teaching of St Ambrose changed Augustine's attitude towards the Scriptures, awakening both his mind and his heart. (Even so, he had a three year struggle before surrendering his life to the Lord.) Augustine writes:

". . . slowly I saw that what Ambrose taught was the truth. My trouble was that I wanted to be able to understand every part of the truth myself, as clearly as I see that two and two are four. As if a mere man can understand everything about you, my God, who are infinite and eternal Truth. Then you began to enlighten my mind. I saw that a man cannot discover all the truth about you by reason alone. It is necessary that you reveal yourself to us. And you had done so in your Bible, and above all when you spoke to us through your beloved Son, Jesus."

Fifth - and sometimes overlooked -, the worshipping life of the Church community in Milan had a profound impact on Augustine. During his struggle of faith he was supported by the community's prayers. At the time of his baptism he was touched by the community's worship. He writes:

"We were baptized [i.e. at the Easter Vigil, 24 April 387], and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose in the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience."

Augustine eventually returned to Northern Africa where he became a priest and then Bishop of Hippo. His most famous books are The Confessions and City of God; but all his writings have been influential in the Church's prayer, theological reflection and philosophical exploration right down to our own time.

Looking back over his conversion, and the "amazing grace" that had brought him thus far, Augustine writes these much quoted words in the first paragraph of the Confessions:

" . . . you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.?"

Later on, he speaks for each of us when he says to the Lord:

". . . I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who is over all things, God blessed forever, who was calling unto me and saying: I am the way, the truth, and the life . . .

"Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell upon those lovely things that you have made. You were with me and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness: and you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness: you breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do now pant for you: I tasted you, and now hunger and thirst for you: you touched me, and I have burned for your peace."

(Go HERE to read a short article on St Augustine by Malcolm Muggeridge.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Michael Ramsey, C.S. Lewis, Georges Florovsky & Carlo Carretto on PRAYER

We learn from St Paul’s prayers how the great themes of the Lord’s Prayer prevail in the prayer of the early Christians. As the apostolic age proceeds, a Trinitarian pattern of prayer becomes apparent. Prayer is to the Father, and Jesus is not only the one through whom Christians pray, but also the one who evokes a devotion that would be idolatrous if he were not indeed divine. It is the Holy Spirit who enables Christians to pray ‘Abba - Father’ (Romans 8:15), and to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. Experiencing a threefold relationship to God in their prayer, Christians encounter a threefold relationship with God Himself; and the discourses and prayer in St John’s Gospel begins to unveil this. It is within the Trinitarian character of Christian prayer that the theology of the Trinity grows.
    - Michael Ramsey in Be Still and Know, p. 42

“Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows himself to us. That he answers prayers is a corollary – not necessarily the most important one – from that revelation. What he does is learned from what he is.”
     - C.S. Lewis in The Efficacy of Prayer, p. 8

Christian worship is intrinsically a personal act and engagement, and yet it finds its fullness only within the community, in the context of common and corporate life. Personal devotion and community worship belong intimately together, and each of them is genuine and authentic, and truly Christian, only through the other. Common prayer presupposes and requires personal training. Yet personal prayer itself is possible only in the context of the community, since no person is Christian except as a member of the Body. Even in the solitude, “in the chamber,” a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.
      - Georges Florovsky, quoted in The Orthodox Church Magazine, NY, Vol 43, 2007

Prayer is not so much a matter of talking as listening; contemplation is not watching but being watched. On the day when we realize this, we will have entered finally into possession of the truth, and prayer will have become a living reality. To be watched by God: that is how I would define contemplation, which is passive rather that active, more a matter of silence than of words, of waiting rather than of action. What am I before God? If He shuts, no one opens, and if He opens, no one shuts. He is the active principle of love, He is before all, He is the one who makes within me His own prayer, which then becomes my prayer. . . It was He who sought me in the first place, and it is He who continues to seek me.
       - Carlo Carretto (1910-1988), in God of the Impossible, p.57 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

St Bernard, preacher of God's love

Bernard of Clairvaux, as a result of whose ministry flames of real revival were lit right across Europe, is said to have been one of the most powerful preachers ever in the history of the Church. He was passionately in love with the Lord, and proclaimed a message of God’s grace, inspiring hundreds of thousands seek God. 

Bernard was born in 1091 into the minor nobility of Burgundy, France, grew up relatively privileged, and received a very good education. At the age of twenty-two, however, he turned his back on a life of ease to join the newly founded Cistercian Order. He influenced thirty men from the same background to move with him to Cîteaux - an uncle, four brothers and twenty-five others. Only three years later Bernard was asked to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, where he was to remain as abbot until his death in 1153.

From this base, Bernard travelled around Europe, preaching the gospel. History records that many knights responded to his message, commiting their lives to Jesus, renouncing their glory, warfare and immoral behaviour, a considerable number of them joining the Cistercian Order, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and learning to live by the Scriptures.

A colourful personality towering over the twelfth century, Bernard became the most prominent figure of his day, and one of the most influential Christian leaders of all times. 

Over the next thirty years, Bernard founded sixty-eight new Cistercian communities, teaching Scripture and moulding Christ-like character. With these communities and their daughter houses, Bernard ended up being personally responsible for 164 centres across Europe. He threw himself into discipling new believers and training leaders for these monastic houses which became centres of genuine faith and conduits of spiritual regeneration for the surrounding countryside. Bernard’s writings led many to Christ during his lifetime and sparked a series of revivals that would sweep Europe over the next three centuries. But that’s not all. He carried on a huge correspondence in which he even corrected bishops, popes and kings, as he called the powerful in both church and state to genuine faith and servant leadership.

Nor did Bernard shy away from the controversies of his time. He boldly stood up against compromise in the church wherever he found it. He opposed the growing rationalism that he saw in the universities. And he urged the nobility of Europe to unite against the military threat of Islam. 

Mostly, however, Bernard tirelessly preached the gospel to his generation.

Scripture fills Bernard’s preaching and writing. In his written works, there is a quote or allusion to the Word of God in just about every sentence. He was soaked in Scripture! He loved it, and had memorised so many passages - that everything he said radiated God’s Word.

Bernard was an evangelist, pleading with his hearers to make a total commitment to Jesus. He wanted their conversion to be authentic.  He was a strident critic of the “nominal Christianity” predominating among clergy and laity alike. In his tract “On Conversion” he confronted sin head-on and declared that a new conversion is absolutely essential.

Bernard would not allow lukewarm or halfhearted faith in the Cistercian movement. All who joined were to have been soundly converted and following Jesus with zeal. 

For Bernard, conversion is not just a matter of renouncing the world. It is to enter into a deeply personal friendship with Jesus. He proclaimed and lived an evangelical catholicism. At a time when scholastic theologians were debating abstract propositions, Bernard insisted on practical application of the Scriptures in the disciple’s daily life. And though he wrote in beautiful Latin and was a gifted scholar, he brought Scripture down to earth, making it come alive at an individual level for each disciple in such a way as to nourish his or her relationship with God.

The image Bernard consistently uses in portraying our relationship with God is the nuptial symbolism of bride and bridegroom, in fact, resting on the primordial image in Scripture of Christ as the heavenly Bridegroom, with the church as his bride (Eph 5:25-33), being prepared for the great wedding feast (Matt 25:1-13; Rev 19:7-9 and 21:1-27).

In his writings, and especially in his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard personalises this reality and welcomes each believing soul to see itself as Christ’s bride and receive the Lord’s tender touch. [Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, trans. Kilian Walsh, 4 Vol. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1976).] Sometimes referred to as bridal spirituality, this message invites men and women alike to experience the closest possible relationship with the Lord. The goal of Bernard’s whole ministry was to bring hungry souls into true intimacy with Jesus.

“God is love,” (1 John 4:8) is the key verse in all that the Abbot of Clairvaux says. For dogmatic and political reasons, the medieval church often saw Jesus as the vengeful King coming to condemn the ungodly on the Day of Judgment. In Bernard’s teaching Jesus is the Good Shepherd whom the Father sends into the world to save the lost and dying. Jesus is approachable, offering grace to those drowning in their sin.

In his work, “On Loving God,” Bernard asks: How much did God love us? He answers with a tour-de-force of passages from the New Testament:

St John says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). St Paul says, “He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us” (Rom 8:32). The Son, too, said of himself, “No one has greater love than the man who lays down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). [Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, trans. G. R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 175.]

Throughout his writing Bernard emphasises God’s love and maintains that salvation is entirely by God’s grace. We could never earn it. In response to God’s love for us, we love him, desire him and seek him with our whole heart. The forgiven soul, says Bernard, “seeks eagerly for his Creator, and when he finds him, holds to him with all his might.” [Ibid., 176.]

* * * * * * * * * *

Anglicans are most aware of St Bernard through the well known translation of two of his hymns: 

Jesu dul­cis memoria 

Jesu! the very thought is sweet!
In that dear Name all heart-joys meet;
But sweeter than the honey far
The glimpses of his presence are.

No word is sung more sweet than this:
No name is heard more full of bliss;
No thought brings sweeter comfort nigh,
Than Jesus, Son of God most high.

Jesu! the hope of souls forlorn!
How good to them for sin that that mourn!
To them that seek thee, O how kind!
But what art thou to them that find?

Jesu, thou sweetness, pure and blest,
Truth’s Fountain, Light of souls distressed,
Surpassing all that heart requires,
Exceeding all that soul desires!

No tongue of mortal can express,
No letters write his blessedness,
Alone who hath thee in his heart
Knows, love of Jesus! what Thou art.

O Jesu! King of wondrous might!
O Victor, glorious from the fight!
Sweetness that may not be expressed,
And altogether loveliest!

(This hymn is also translated as: ”Jesus, the very thought of thee”
and “Jesus, thou joy of  loving hearts”

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesu, Rex admirabilis 

O Jesus, King most wonderful,
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou Sweetness most ineffable,
In whom all joys are found!

When once thou visitest the heart,
Then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanities depart,
Then kindles love divine.

O Jesus, Light of all below,
Thou Fount of life and fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
And all we can desire!

Thy wondrous mercies are untold,
Through each returning day;
Thy love exceeds a thousand fold,
Whatever we can say.

May every heart confess thy Name;
And ever thee adore;
And seeking thee, itself inflame,
To seek thee more and more.

Thee may our tongues forever bless;
Thee may we love alone;
And ever in our lives express
The image of thine own.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

St Maximilian, pray for us.

Maximilian was born in Poland in 1894. At the age of twelve he had a vision of our Lady offering him a white crown and a red crown. The white crown symbolised perseverance in holiness, and the red crown symbolised accepting martyrdom. He was to choose. This devout boy accepted both! (His first name was actually Raymond. He later took the name of Maximilian, an ancient Christian martyr.)

He became a Franciscan priest and as the years went by he developed into a remarkable evangelist, bringing many thousands of young people to the Lord in Poland and then Japan. But the darkness that spread across Europe during the 1930's gave rise to the Second World War, and on 17th February 1941 Maximilian, whose large following was feared by the Nazis, had been arrested. In May of that same year he was transferred to the dreadful Auschwitz concentration camp where he devoted himself completely to caring for the other prisoners. His kindness, love and generosity became well known.

At the end of July one of the prisoners escaped. In a fit of rage the commander ordered that ten prisoners should die in his place. The prisoners were lined up and ten picked out at random. The ninth one chosen, a young Polish soldier, broke down and asked for mercy on the grounds that he was married and had a young family to support. It was then that Maximilian stepped forward and asked if he could take the man's place. After giving the matter some thought, the commander agreed.

The ten condemned men were flung naked onto the concrete floor of an underground bunker and were left there to starve to death. The guards observed them through a peep-hole and could hardly believe what they saw. Frequently the condemned men were gathered around Father Maximilian. Sometimes they were joking, sometimes they were praying, sometimes they were singing hymns and praising the Lord. The assistant janitor, an eyewitness of those terrible days, said that it was as though the cell in which the condemned men were held "had become a church."

Fourteen days went by, and death overtook the prisoners one by one. Father Maximilian was the last to die when a guard put and end to his agony with an injection of phenol.

Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man whose place Maximilian had taken, survived Auschwitz and the war. Later he said, "At first I felt terrible at the thought of leaving another man to die in my place. But then I realised that he had done this, not so much to save my life, as to be with the other nine in their last terrible agony. His nearness to them in those dreadful last hours was worth more than a lifetime of preaching."

Maximilian might have contented himself with giving those men encouragement and advice. If it had been allowed he might have visited them in their death cell. But his presence with them, sharing their dreadful ordeal meant more than anything else.

Maximilian's death began a healing work in many hearts. After the War he became a popular symbol of the cry for a renewed respect of basic human rights in Germany as well as in Poland. In church circles, people of both nationalities pressed for his recognition as a Saint. This eventually took place in October 1982 in St Peter's Basilica, Rome. The next day, Franciszek Gajowniczek and many other survivors of Auschwitz and similar concentration camps were present at a special service of reconciliation in which Germans and Poles prayed together and exchanged the greeting of peace with each other. Gajownizek died in 1995, a great-grandfather.

Like Jesus whom he served, Maximilian gave his life for others. Like Jesus, his very presence reassured all kinds of people that God was real and that he loved them in spite of all the suffering and pain in the world.

St. Maximilian's cell in Block 11 at Auschwitz

Patricia Treece, in A Man For Others quotes one of the prisoners who witnessed Maximilian offer himself in Franciszek Gajowniczek's place:

"It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. More than one individual began to look within himself for this real world, found it, and shared it with his camp companions, strengthening both in this encounter with evil. To say that Father Koble died for one of us or for that person's family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands. And on this, I would say, rests the greatness of that death. That's how we felt about it. And as long as we live, we who were at Auschwitz will bow our heads in memory of it as at that time we bowed our heads before the bunker of death by starvation. That was a shock of optimism, regenerating and giving strength; we were stunned by this act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night . . ."

". . . For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall walk by your light . . ." (Isaiah 60:1-2)

St Maximilian, pray for all who face martyrdom today. Pray for all who are persecuted. Pray for all who suffer for the honour of the name of Jesus and for loyalty to the Faith once delivered to the Saints. Pray for the rent, torn, divided Church, a Church afflicted by the unbelief, sin, selfishness, careerism, and secularism of her ministers and people, that she may be renewed in the love of Jesus, purified by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, and strengthened by the intercession of Our Lady and the Saints, to proclaim the authentic Gospel in our day, by her words, her deeds and her presence with all who suffer.

The painting of St Maximilian at the Franciscan Church in Krakow.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Read the Summer edition of TOGETHER

This is the second issue of the newspaper “TOGETHER”, published and edited by the Church Union in co-operation with the Additional Curates Society, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and Forward in Faith. 

The Editor of TOGETHER is Fr Christopher Smith SSC, Vicar of St Alban’s Holborn.

Click HERE to download your copy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

St Dominic's prayer

We give thanks to-day for the compassionate and gentle Dominic who with his love of souls, his thirst fro0 God’s truth, and his organizing ability gave to the Church a mission to convert souls and relieve suffering. Here is a prayer of his:

May God the Father who made us bless us.
May God the Son send his healing on us.
May God the Holy Spirit move within us 
and give us eyes to see, 
ears to hear, 
and hands that your work may be done.
May we walk and preach the word of God to all.
May the angels of peace watch over us 
and lead us at last by God’s grace to the kingdom. 

Go to Mariane Dorman’s website HERE for an excellent appreciation and biography of St Dominic.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fr Michael Harper: "We cannot be beaten into shape"


There are a number of Hebrew words about salvation which also mean “to bring into a spacious environment”, “to be at one’s ease”, “to be free to develop”. 

“Salvation” can be seen then as the new life in Christ, in which we are to be “free to develop” into Christ-like people. 

For this maturing to take place, there needs to be a breaking down of barriers, a breaking up of the soil of our personalities, and a healing of inner wounds and hurts. The soil is softened, the clay becomes malleable through the experience of the tender love of God and the accepting, non-judgmental love of Christians. 

We cannot be beaten into shape.

- Fr Michael Harper (1931-2010), “Christian Maturing”, in The Lord Christ [1980], John Stott, ed., vol. 1 of Obeying Christ in a Changing World, John Stott, gen. ed., 3 vol., London: Fountain, 1977, p. 151

Go HERE for more about Fr Michael Harper.