Saturday, December 29, 2018

The death of Thomas Becket

The martyrdom of S. Thomas Becket

Today is when the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket, who was martyred on 29th December, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Go HERE for an outline of his story.

I share with you here some words from T.S. Eliot’s play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” which is all about Becket’s death. They are applicable to all martyrs, and indeed, all Christians, for they are T.S. Eliot’s meditation on the intertwining of sorrow and joy in the Christian life.

The Archbishop preaches 
in Canterbury Cathedral 
on Christmas morning, 1170:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. But think for a while on the meaning of this word “peace.” Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples: “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” So then, He gave to his disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world’s is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

(Click within the border of the above to enlarge it)

Saint Thomas Becket's Shrine 
on the place of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral

Friday, December 28, 2018

Those bloody days after Christmas

The Massacre of the Innocents, by Leon Cogniet (1794-1880)

Priests who celebrate Mass every day experience the Octave of Christmas as a chilling reality, for, while many of the people are enjoying a well deserved holiday break with their families, we and a handful of stalwarts are back at the altar immersed in a gruesomely bloody week.

On the day after Christmas Day we honour Saint Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. One of the first  deacons, full of the Holy Spirit and full of love for the people, he was stoned to death for his witness to Jesus. (And, of course, on “Boxing Day” the popular carol makes it impossible for us to forget the 10th century Duke Wenceslaus who went out “on the feast of Stephen,” and was martyred by his own brother.)

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those little boys two years of age and under, who were slaughtered by the deranged King Herod in his desperation to kill Jesus. I, personally, find it hard to stand at the altar on Holy Innocents’ Day and not hear the wails of the mothers, or see the blood running in the back streets of Bethlehem.

Then tomorrow we will celebrate Saint Thomas Becket, the tough-nosed 12th century ecclesiastical bureaucrat who became Archbishop of Canterbury, had a real conversion to the Lord, and was subsequently martyred in his Cathedral.

All that suffering, anguish and pain! The one thing we mustn’t do is to think of it as something that contrasts with the essence of Christmas or interrupts it. For it is the REAL world that God is saving, redeeming and transforming. It is REAL people like you and me - sinful, selfish, flawed in character, full of complexes and contradictions - he wants to heal and restore. He loves us, sinful as we are, with all of our problems and our propensity to hurt one another. 

This baby, God in human flesh, came to reveal the love with which we have been loved for all eternity. That love cost him everything. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). 

From one end of the Bible to the other, the tapestry of God’s revelation is held together by a bloodied thread. Let’s never forget that. Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die, and – in the words of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar - not just to die, but to experience the hell of God-forsakenness, before being resurrected from the abyss and exalted to the right hand of the Father WITH and FOR us, transforming all things – you and me included - with his suffering love. This is the mystery at the heart of our salvation; this is the mystery at the heart of the Church. This is the mystery that can make such a difference to families, communities and even nations if only we will stop pushing God away.

The blood of this strange week flows down through the Christian centuries.

Even in our day, the most astonishing signs of the presence of Jesus are in the midst of extreme suffering, where, in places like Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, parts of Nigeria, North Korea and China, our brothers and sisters in Christ routinely face vicious persecution and sometimes martyrdom. They are living out the experience of which Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)   

During this week, our emotions are stretched between the joy of the manger, the crib, the angels singing, memories of past Christmas celebrations going back to our childhood, family celebrations, when our own children were little . . . and on the other hand the sobbing, tears and pain, not just of the martyrs, but of their loved ones, and all who suffer illness, loneliness, forsakenness and even despair. As we look forward to a new year, may all church communities – and each of us in our daily lives – allow the Lord to use us to touch and bless the bloodied world into which he came that first Christmas. May we become better at proclaiming and living the Gospel in our day.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Father Stanton - an Advent sermon

Father Arthur Stanton was a leader of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England, an evangelical catholic preacher who drew large crowds, and for 50 years he was a curate at St Alban's Holborn, London. He died at the age of 74 in 1913. Go HERE for his life's story. This is a sermon he preached at the start of Advent 1910, at St Alban's.

Now it is high time to awake out of sleep." - Rom. xiii. 11. 

These are S. Paul's words to the Romans, but is there any exhortation at this time more needed than that? I beseech you, one and all, "Owe no man anything." Pay all your debts. Be just. The man who owes money and has not paid commits an injustice. I wish the parsons in the West End would preach about this. A good many shops in the West End are being ruined simply because the people never pay their debts, and owe thousands. Here is practical Christianity: "Owe no man anything," S. Paul says - but there is one debt - "Love one another."

And again I say, isn't that exactly what we want? All round about in the world of politics everybody is abusing the opposite party, setting one political party against the other. You read the newspapers on both sides, and see. "Owe no man anything, but to love one another." O Christian men and women in the middle of all this strife and turmoil, here is your motto for this December, "Owe no man anything, but to love one another." Could there be a better Advent message to us all than this?

Being Advent, we are bound to look into the state of our spiritual life. We are bound to judge ourselves lest we be judged of God. Do you, dear brethren, all of you take stock of what your spiritual life is, and ask yourselves, Have I discharged all my debts? How can I give Christmas presents to anybody if I owe money? Take stock of yourselves about love. How can you pay that debt? Oh, it is a beautiful text! " Owe no man anything, but to love one another." Have you discharged your debt of love? Now is the time. There is plenty of opportunity. When other men are going about heaping on one another political abuse and poison, you go about with Evangelical grace.

Then the Apostle goes on to say, "It is high time to awake out of sleep." Now is the time - at this moment - for the practical Christianity of today. There are some people who tell us they want to go back to the immaculate Early Church. That is rather nonsense. You would not be a man in swaddling clothes? - Why, then, do you want the Church today to be in the clothes of its infancy? I know there are many difficulties in the Church today, and so there were then. Many then denied the Lord who bought them, and counted the Blood of the Covenant wherewith they were sprinkled, unholy. There are troubles in the Church of England, I know. We have our troubles - but we live in the twentieth century. I love Mediaevalism - I think it is beautiful, but we could not go back to that. Where there is life there is progress, development. We never can be mediaeval again. No, let us be true Christians now, in the century in which we live. Now, let us awake.

Some of us, dear brethren, are sound asleep. We have no sense of any spiritual awakening. Perhaps we have received our religion from others, and taken it for granted, but we cannot feel within ourselves that we are wedded to Christ and lhs Cross. We have no "experiences." I remember a clergyman who was older than myself saying to me once, "Stanton, Stanton! What on earth do these people mean by talking of the spiritual life?" And that was thirty years ago.

There are some of us so fast asleep that we do not know what is meant by the spiritual awakening. There is no vision of that which is beyond. There is no looking forward to the hereafter. We go through our religion in a way, but what is it to us? We are sound asleep. And today I say: "Awake! Awake! Begin." "O quicken Thou me according to Thy word." (Ps. cxix. 25). For goodness' sake, don't be asleep. "It is high time to awake out of sleep."

Then, again, there are some of us who are falling off fast. We know it. We feel it within us. We are dropping off to sleep spiritually; that is, there was a time when we prayed, but now we say prayers as a matter of course, but never pray. We come and sing hymns. We like the music of the hymns, but there is no melody in our soul. Then, again, we go to Communion - we have received the Sacrament on the tongue, but the presence of the Saviour is not realised in the soul. There was a time when we used to creep to church, put our hands before our face and think of our sins, and tell the Master, and it may have been that some tears came into our eyes and trickled through our fingers. It does not happen now. I know some of us still go to Confession. We used to feel that we kissed the wounded Feet. But now it has become a sort of form; and we ask ourselves, "Well, what good does it do us?" We might as well ask ourselves, "What good does Holy Communion do us?"  "What good do our prayers do us?" We are falling off.

And the worst of it is, dear brethren, as you know perfectly well, other people, when we are so sleepy, stumble over us. We lie in the way, and they stumble and fall over us. The unbeliever says, "I told you so. It was all nonsense, and you never found it out." The worldly man says, "My dear fellow, I told you it would never pay. It cannot work." And the cynic says, "Of course, now you have got older and wiser, my friend, you won't believe it." They stumble over us. Sloth is a deadly sin. It is a sin within the sanctuary. Oh, sloth is the canker of the sanctuary. Do not let us forget the truth that the only people who can crucify the Lord afresh, and put the dear Master to open shame are those who have known and have loved him, and have deserted him. Is it nothing to us to remember that Jesus Christ was deserted of all? Oh! Sloth and slumber in religion is a deadly sin. Awake! Come back! Awake!

Again, there is the third point, which is this: some of us are somnambulists. Have you ever seen a somnambulist? It is a curious state. They are alive, yet not alive. They seem to know things in a way, and they do not know them. They never have any remembrance in the morning of what they have done. Well, so it is with spiritual people - with some of us - we are somnambulists. We say our prayers, and we do not know what we say. You have come to church to night, and if asked "Why?" you might say, "Well, I really hardly know - but I thought I would." And if I ask: "Do you feel the movement of the service? Does your soul go out of you to something higher you would say: "What on earth is the fellow talking about?" We can go to our prayers, to our Communions, and come away, and hardly know we have been. Did you say your prayers this morning? And you answer, "I do not know - I am not sure." "When did you make your last Communion?" "Well, I think it must have been about a couple of months ago." Why, we are walking in our sleep - somnambulists in grace. We go through the form, but we are lost. The life and the music of the Gospel does not sound, and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ does not build up the soul. And yet, after all, you are what you would call a "good Churchman." Oh, how many feel this! I know, when I speak to you, there are many here who feel this deeply. We think and walk in our sleep, knowing it is high time to awake out of sleep. My brethren, I say the world is wide awake. Look at this political crisis, they call it. Why here, there, and everywhere, the political world is awake. I saw on the placards today, "Working men, awake and claim your rights"; "Women revert to war." And I say to us Christians, Awake! It is high time. We are citizens of heaven. Let us claim our right to eternal citizenship. We are citizens of the world to come. Awake, women! Revert to war - war against sin, the world, the flesh and the devil; war against the injustices and inequalities you see round about you. War against everything that is bad. Oh, ever since the Blessed Mary brought Christ into the world should women carry salvation in their arms. You and I, who were created by God, and redeemed by God, it is not for us to be asleep. It is high time to awake out of sleep.

Now, just a few reasons why it is high time to awake out of sleep. Because of the coming of the Lord. The Lord shall come with all his saints. We look forward to the coming of the Lord. Christians are ever like that; they stand waiting with their loins girt about, and their lamps burning. And do you say that the Lord delays his coming, and that a thousand years have past, and he has not come? Stand back and look out into eternity. Why do you talk like that, you who live under the Kingdom of God? What is a thousand years before the great range of eternity? It is but as a moment. It is as nothing. Just as this world is to an atom of space, so is a thousand years before the eternal years. Oh, he will come. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the Disciples fell asleep; when they awoke they saw, Jesus in all his glory. Awake! It is high time to awake, to see the Master in all His glory, "As seeing Him who is invisible" (Heb. xi. 27). If you are awake, you shall see the glory transcending all else. "Surely, I come quickly," he says, and he will. To every one of us the Master comes.

So I am watching quietly       
Every day,
Whenever the sun shines brightly
I rise and say, 
Surely it is the shining of his face,'
And look unto the gates of his high place
Beyond the sea, 
For I know He is coming shortly
To summon me. 
And when a shadow falls across the window
Of my room,

Where I am working my appointed task, 
I lift my head to watch the door, and ask
if he is come; 
And the Angel answers sweetly
In my home,
"Only a few more shadows, 
And he will come."

We who are Christians stand waiting for the coming of the Master. That is our Advent position. Awake out of sleep. Stand up, man - gird your loins, let the lamp be burning in the sanctuary of the soul, and wait for the coming of the Lord.

Then let us awake and be ready because our opportunities are passing away one by one. "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith " (Gal. vi. 10).  Now is your opportunity. You know the old motto " I shall pass through this world but once, any good thing therefore I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now, let me not defer it, or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."

Many of you may die before next Advent. Let me say to myself what I would have you say, "While I have the chance now, as long as I have the chance - let me do all the good I can." The sands are running out. I shall not have many more opportunities, let me be as kind as I can, as helpful as I can, and worship God as well as I can." Time, is going, going! Awake! Awake!

Not many lives, but only one have we 
Frail, fleeting man! 
How sacred should that one life ever be
That narrow span! 
Day after day filled up with blessed toil; 
Hour after hour still bringing in new spoil! 
(From Ezekiel and other Poems, by B. M.  Bonar.)

Don't let the candle splutter out till the sanctuary lamp is lit. Because the sands are running out, and the time is getting shorter and shorter, it is high time that we awake out of sleep.

And last of all, dear brethren, "For now is our salvation nearer than when we believed." For our salvation is the destiny which God has prepared for us. If you ask yourselves, "What is the reason of my creation and redemption?" The answer is - it must be - God needs my flesh - God never created the soul without it, and the soul shall pass on into perfection.

". . . him that is able to keep you from falling," says St. Jude, " and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy." The end of existence of God's creature must be the perfection of his creation. For this Christ died, for this the Holy Spirit of God was put into your hearts, to worship, to serve him - this is the end, even the salvation of your souls, the perfection of your life. Why did God create us? S. Augustine says, " God created man for himself." There is no other explanation. Read the 121st Psalm, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: and he that keepeth thee will not sleep." There is a religion for you!

Well, then, knowing the time, "That now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer," so I call upon you this Advent, and I say, "Awake! Awake! Awake! knowing the time. Awake! All the world is awake, and we Christians for whom Christ died, are we to fall asleep? Awake!"

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Christ the King of My Disappointment (Matthew John Paul Tan)

This morning, a friend put on his Facebook page a link to an excellent article by Matthew John Paul Tan, a Roman Catholic theologian based in the Archdiocese of Sydney, an author and adjunct senior lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and a member of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission. He is the author of Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus (Cascade 2016) and Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ: The Theolopolitical Complex of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II (Pickwick 2014).
A sample of his writing and presentations can be found here.
This reflection is shared with readers because of the large number of friends and parishioners who seem to need a little bit of encouragement right now. 
Over the weekend, we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, more commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King.
This feast was introduced into the calendar by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in his encyclical Quas Primas (“In the First”). Though addressed to the universal church, the encyclical itself was partly a response to a number of local historical factors, which included the rise of fascism in Italy.
As the title suggests, Christ was reasserted as being the first of all things, opposed to the growing sense of putting nation either before or in the place of God. The Lectionary for the day put Christ’s reminder in the Book of Revelation:
I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
This line in the readings loomed large in my mind, for it juxtaposed with another theme I came across this week. This was the theme of disappointment.
This was the result of reading Bryan Stoudt’s moving article on learning of his son’s autism in Desiring God. The story can be extrapolated to a range of other scenarios, but the theme that endures is one of the closing of possibility by the circumstances of life.
How does Christ being King of the Universe square up with this very visceral experience of disappointment, especially given that this feast also stands at the threshold of Advent, where we wait the coming of the Incarnate Word? Is God incarnate or not? If he is, does his reign show its limit in the experience of disappointment?
What struck me in reading Stoudt’s article was his wife finding, if not the solution to her problem, certainly a response to her question, which she found in the book of Job. When Job asks God “Where were you in the maelstrom”, God asks in turn:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, tell me if you have understanding?
At first glance, this passage smacked of reinforcing the image of the distant king, exercising great power from afar. What corrected my imporession was the phrase “when I laid the foundations of the earth”. The image there was that of Psalm 113, where God sits on a throne and yet stoops down to look at the earth. But not only stoop down. He would lay it down, his fingers working into the earth, leaving his mark in the very foundations of the ground we inhabit.

His rule is not just from a distant centre. It operates in the dissemination of his imprint in the very texture of creation. In the vein of St Bonaventure, that imprint is none other than God himself in the Word, through whom all things were made.
What does that say of Christ’s rule as King in the midst of disappointment? It means that Christ the Word is part of the DNA of creation, and nothing falls outside the purview of the Word. Every event, every move of every creature occurs under the oversight of the second person of the trinity, because it is operative in everything that occurs.
What then of situations where disappointment or even trauma reign? The passage from Job looked at the foundation of God’s order, so what of the disorder that we see outside and experience inside?
It is here that Stoudt’s article reminded us of a well worn, but no less true, motif of the Christian faith, that Christ suffered on the Cross for us. God’s stooping down meant that His rule extended to having a cross for a throne, the death of God being the font of life for all creatures. Put another way, because of Christ’s passion, God’s rule extends even to the disorder within creation. In the words of the founder of Focolare, Chiara Lubich, because of Christ’s experience of abandoment from the source of order, the seeming abandonment of order, the divisions and separation that comes from it, paradoxically makes the person of the King – not just his rule – present in the foundations of the earth.
Still we return to the question: what does it say of His rule as king?
In the Office of Readings for this feast, the long reading is a passage by Origen, reflecting on the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy Kingdom Come”. Origen suggests that the kingdom is already present, especially in the jarring experiences of one’s life. Furthermore, it is not merely left as inert presence. As suggested in a previous post, the imprint of the Word imprints also those words in the Apocalypse: I am the beginning…
His rule thus extends to what Aaron Riches and Creston Davis call the imputation of “pure beginning” into the DNA of creation, its events and experiences.
This is why Origen can say in the midst of our disappointment “with God ruling in us, let us be immersed in the blessings of regeneration and resurrection”. The rending of our expectations and plans is thus the doorway through which the King enters.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Let light perpetual shine upon them - All Souls' Day

At the end of the Second World War, Austin Farrer preached a sermon in All Souls' Chapel, Oxford, recalling how the chapel had come into being for the purpose of praying for the repose of those who had died in the numerous wars and conflicts involving medieval England. This passage from that sermon (part of the collection published in 1960 by Faith Press as Said or sung: An arrangement of homily and versedeserves to be better known. Indeed, the whole sermon draws together many of the  theological, spiritual and pastoral considerations that undergird the Church's habit of praying for the departed.

(Use the SEARCH tool in the sidebar of this blog to find some other excellent All Souls' Day resources.)

‘May they rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them’ - those millions among whom our friends are lost, those millions for whom we cannot choose but pray; because prayer is a sharing in the love of the heart of God, and the love of God is earnestly set towards the salvation of his spiritual creatures, by, through and out of the fire that purifies them. 

The arithmetic of death perplexes our brains. What can we do but throw ourselves upon the infinity of God? It is only to a finite mind that number is an obstacle, or multiplicity a distraction. Our mind is like a box of limited content, out of which one thing must be emptied before another can find a place. The universe of creatures is queuing for a turn of our attention, and no appreciable part of the queue will ever get a turn. But no queue forms before the throne of everlasting mercy, because the nature of an infinite mind is to be simply aware of everything that is. 

Everything is simply present to an infinite mind, because it exists; or rather, exists because it is present to that making mind. And though by some process of averaging and calculation I should compute the grains of sand, it would be like the arithmetic of the departed souls, an empty sum; I could not tell them as they are told in the infinity of God’s counsels, each one separately present as what it is, and simply because it is. 

The thought God gives to any of his creatures is not measured by the attention he can spare, but by the object for consideration they can supply. God is not divided; it is God, not a part of God, who applies himself to the falling sparrow, and to the crucified Lord. But there is more in the beloved Son than in the sparrow, to be observed and loved and saved by God. So every soul that has passed out of this visible world, as well as every soul remaining within it, is caught and held in the unwavering beam of divine care. And we may comfort ourselves for our own inability to tell the grains of sand, or to reckon the thousands of millions of the departed. 

And yet we cannot altogether escape so; for our religion is not a simple relation of every soul separately to God, it is a mystical body in which we are all members one of another. And in this mystical body it does not suffice that every soul should be embraced by the thoughts of God; it has also to be that every soul should, in its thought, embrace the other souls. For apart from this mutual embracing, it would be unintelligible why we should pray at all, either for the living or for the departed. Such prayer is nothing but the exercising of our membership in the body of Christ. God is not content to care for us each severally, unless he can also, by his Holy Spirit in each one of us, care through and in us for all the rest. Every one of us is to be a focus of that divine life of which the attractive power holds the body together in one. 

So even in the darkness and blindness of our present existence, our thought ranges abroad and spreads out towards the confines of the mystical Christ, remembering the whole Church of Christ, as well militant on earth as triumphant in heaven; invoking angels, archangels and all the spiritual host.

(Click on this flyer to enlarge it . . .)

Monday, October 1, 2018

St Thérèse and the grace of God

“Nothing in my hand I bring. 
Simply to thy cross I cling.” 

From the hymn “Rock of Ages” 
by Augustus M. Toplady, 1776.

On 24th August, 1997, during the Mass he celebrated at the Twelfth World Youth Day in Paris in the presence of hundreds of bishops and before a huge crowd of young people from all over the world, Pope John Paul II announced that he was to proclaim St Thérèse a “Doctor of the Universal Church.” This he did on Sunday 19th October 1997 when he pointed out that Thérèse is the youngest of the 33 officially recognised Doctors of the Church, the one closest to our time, and the third woman among them. In his apostolic letter Divini Amoris Scientia, the Pope said: 

“As it was for the Church’s Saints in every age, so also for her, in her spiritual experience Christ is the centre and fullness of Revelation. Thérèse knew Jesus, loved him and made him loved with the passion of a bride. She penetrated the mysteries of his infancy, the words of his Gospel, the passion of the suffering Servant engraved on his holy Face, in the splendour of his glorious life, in his Eucharistic presence. She sang of all the expressions of Christ’s divine charity, as they are presented in the Gospel.” 

The Pope also said that 

". . . we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experienced faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ . . . That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit." 

No wonder that Thérèse is the most quoted woman saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

Her Life
Marie Frances Thérèse Martin was born at Alençon, France on 2nd January 1873. When she was four years old her mother died, and she moved with the family to Lisieux. 

As a child, Thérèse had a deep awareness of God’s presence in her life. She grew up loving the Lord Jesus and understanding the Sacraments to be deeply personal encounters with him. By the time she became a teenager she knew that God was calling her to embrace the Religious life in its contemplative form. 

In 1887 Thérèse went to on pilgrimage to Italy with a group from Lisieux. On 20th November Pope Leo XIII met with them and Thérèse was able to ask him for special permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux at the age of fifteen, which she did on 9 April 1888, receiving the habit on the following year. She made her religious profession on 8 September 1890, the Birthday of Our Lady. 

Thérèse embraced the spiritual principles of St Teresa of Avila while faithfully fulfilling the various community responsibilities entrusted to her, especially the menial ones. During this time her faith was severely tested by the sickness of her father who died on 29th July 1894. 

She continued to be nourished by the Scriptures, which were central to her spiritual life. Her response to God’s Word in openness of heart and mind nurtured her growth in holiness and made a deep impact on those around her. 

The autobiographical manuscripts she wrote are a detailed account of her walk with God. Based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, she called it the “little way” of “spiritual childhood” and taught it to the novices entrusted to her care. 

She also accepted the ministry of spiritually supporting two missionary priests with prayer and sacrifice. Indeed, seized by the love of Christ, whom she described as her “only Spouse”, she became increasingly aware of her own apostolic and missionary vocation. 

In her autobiography Thérèse says that on Trinity Sunday 1895 (9th June), she gave herself completely to the love of God. Several months later, on the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday (3rd April 1896), she suffered a haemoptysis, the first sign of the illness which would lead to her death. From this point, her writings speak of the trial of faith, which would last until she died. In the midst of her pain she wrote that her vocation was simply “to be love in the heart of the Church.” 

Thérèse was transferred to the infirmary on 8 July 1896. During this time her sayings were collected. Meanwhile her sufferings intensified. She accepted them with patience, right up to the moment of her death in the afternoon of 30th September 1897. “I am not dying, I am entering life”, she wrote. 

Her final words, “My God, I love you!” were uttered at the age of 24, after years of illness and spiritual struggle, sealing a life lived in total surrender to the Lord’s love. Then she began what she had already foreseen as her new responsibility - her ministry of intercession, prayer, and love in the Communion of Saints, “in order to shower a rain of roses upon the world.”

Thérèse was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 17 May 1925. 

Since her death, Christians of many cultures and traditions - especially young people - have been inspired by her holiness, love and steadfast faith to give themselves completely to the Lord.

Letters to Maurice
To get a truly rounded picture of Thérèse – and in order to move away from the rather saccharine stereotype of her that has been built up, it is a good idea to read Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love, by Patrick Ahern. This is the collected correspondence between Thérèse and Maurice Bellière, a stumbling young man she had never met, who was preparing to become a missionary priest. They exchanged twenty-one letters at a time when Thérèse’s suffering and pain was at its height, and when her spiritual struggle was most intense. It is significant that she was able to write such letters of support and encouragement to someone else. (The letters are accompanied by Ahern’s commentary.) 

Maurice had experienced a moral failure, and couldn’t quiet his conscience. Thérèse told him that God does not want our relationship with him be based on an obsessive fear of punishment. Neither, she said, does God want us to try and bargain for salvation by promising to do good works. With all who have begun to grasp the meaning of the grace-filled Gospel down through the Christian centuries, Thérèse knew that no amount of “good works” could purchase God’s love, and that in our better moments we would always wonder if we had done enough. In fact she even said to Maurice that the best of our good works are blemished, anyway, and they make us displeasing to God if we rely on them. 

Thérèse knew that Jesus came into this world to save us, to set us free. She reminded Maurice of St Augustine and St Mary Magdalene, both of whose sins “which were many” were forgiven. 

She wrote to him, “I love them. I love their repentance, and especially their loving boldness.” 

Thérèse knew that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Indeed, she said, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but Mercy and Love?” “Confidence, nothing but confidence” in God’s love was what she stressed. This may sound like spiritual presumption to some. But it echoes the teaching of Hebrews 10:19-22: 

“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” 

Justification, Faith and Works
Thérèse practised what she taught. Just four months before she died, she wrote:"I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, 'I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,' I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works . . . Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake." 

And in her Act of Oblation, she prays to Jesus: “After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.” 

At the level of Christian experience, Thérèse articulates the theological convergence on the doctrine of Justification that would appear in the the Agreed Statements of the Roman Catholic/ Lutheran dialogue, as well as the Roman Catholic/ Anglican dialogue. It is significant for the ecumenical journey ahead that she occupies such a central place among the Doctors of the Church and in the Catechism.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


The following background to today’s Mass is from the blog of Father Christopher Phillips, ATONEMENT ONLINE. which describes itself as “random thoughts and various things of possible interest from the founding pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Church in San Antonio, Texas.”

We celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th and now on September 12th we commemorate the giving of her name by her parents, Ss. Joachim and Anne. They chose the Hebrew name of Miryãm, which means “lady” or “sovereign.” The feast of the Holy Name of Mary originated in Spain and was approved by the Holy See in 1513. It was Pope Innocent XI who extended its observance to the whole Church in 1683, and for a very special reason. It was an act of thanksgiving to our Lady for the victory on September 12, 1683 by John Sobieski, king of Poland, over the Turks, who were besieging Vienna and threatening the West.

What happened was this: the Turks had been hammering the city of Vienna for a couple of months, and finally enough was enough. Under the leadership of Poland’s king an army comprised of Germans, Austrians and Poles made their move against the Turks, routing them completely. It was such an important victory that the Pope was inspired to do something special – thus, what had been a localized commemoration was now an act of thanks from the whole Church. But there’s more to the story…

When the Turks made their hasty retreat there were all sorts of things left behind, including several sacks containing a strange bean unknown to the victors. Thinking it was food for the invaders’ camels, the Viennese were about to dump it all in the Danube. But there was a citizen of Vienna who had been a captive under the Turks. He knew these beans were roasted by the Turks, and after grinding them up they would put them in hot water, making a drink they really seemed to relish. This man, Kolinsky, received exclusive permission to make and sell this new and unfamiliar drink – coffee.

The Viennese people hated it. It was bitter. The grounds got stuck in their teeth. It didn’t seem much better than drinking a cup of mud. Then a friend of Kolinsky made a suggestion. Strain out the grounds. Put a little milk in it to lighten it up. Add some sugar to make it more palatable. After following that advice, the people flocked to buy it, and so the first coffee house was born.

But let’s face it – what’s a cup of coffee without something to go with it? And with that came a new pastry which not only tasted good, but poked a stick in the eye of the defeated Muslim invaders. The delectable comestible was formed into the shape of a crescent – that symbol which had become so hated during the Turkish occupation – and with every bite of these wonderful pastries the Viennese were able to have another small victory over their invaders.

So there we have it. There’s the story of how Turkish coffee was made drinkable, and how the croissant – the “Turkish crescent” – came into being. And it all happened as part of the victorious triumph achieved under the banner of the Most Holy Name of Mary.

Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that thy faithful people who rejoice in the name and protection of the most holy Virgin Mary, may by her loving intercession be delivered from all evils on earth and be found worthy to come to everlasting joys in heaven; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, August 20, 2018

S. Bernard - Loving Jesus with all his heart

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 to 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, committing 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 time. 

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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

S. Maximilian - a martyr for our time

Canterbury Cathedral: 
The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time
Photo by Bob Culshaw (go HERE for info)

When he visited Canterbury Cathedral on the eve of Pentecost 1982, one of the things Pope John Paul II did was to pray with Archbishop Robert Runcie in a small semi-circular chapel lit with high stained-glass windows, not far from where St Thomas Becket was martyred, right at the easternmost end of Canterbury Cathedral. For a long time this was known as the Corona Chapel, having been the place where part of Becket’s skull was housed as a relic. By 1977 the Corona Chapel had been given a new name: “The Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time.” It honours those who have more recently given their lives in martyrdom. 

A notice on the wall reads:

"Throughout the centuries 
men and women have given their lives for Christianity. 
Our own century is no exception. 
Their deaths are in union with the life-giving death 
of Our Lord Jesus Christ the Saviour of mankind. 
In this Chapel we thank God for the sacrifice of martyrdom 
whereby truth is upheld and God’s providence enriched. 
We pray that we may be worthy of their sacrifice."

The change in designation took place following the murder of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda by Idi Amin’s forces in 1977 As David Douglas says in Touchstone Magazine of December 2000, ". . . Plastic-sheeted pages inside offer brief biographical sketches of more than a dozen twentieth-century martyrs, among them the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the priest and hermit Charles de Foucauld. Two nuns, Edith Stein and Maria Skobtsova, are included . . .

"Without fanfare, in stained-glass stillness, the East Chapel transforms the beatitude, 'Blessed are those who are persecuted,' into lives of flesh and spilled blood . . ." 

Today is when the Church celebrates the triumph of sanctifying grace in the life of Maximilian Kolbe, one of the martyrs commemorated in the east Chapel. Born in Poland in 1894, when he was just 12 years old Maximilian had a vision of our Lady offering him a white crown and a red crown. The white crown symbolized persevering in holiness, and the red crown symbolized accepting martyrdom. 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 had a remarkable ministry of evangelization in Poland and Japan. Through his ministry so many young people came to know the Lord. 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 greatly feared by the Nazis, had been arrested. In May of the 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. The commander was furious and 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 and singing hymns. 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)

The painting of St Maximilian at the Franciscan Church in Krakow