Thursday, February 27, 2020

The God who Speaks, and our Lenten Journey

Here is a wonderful introduction to Lent produced by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in collaboration with the Bible Society and the National Gallery.

Monday, February 24, 2020

An invitation to make the most of Lent

Traditionally, Christians have regarded the season of Lent as the ‘healing time’ of the Church’s year ...

# the time when we look at our lives and work out where we really are in our walk with God.

# the time when we realise afresh that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt ...’ (Jeremiah 17:9) and that our capacity for self-deception is limitless.

# the time when we allow holy Mother Church to care lovingly for us and to help us face reality as the necessary prelude to a new and wonderful healing encounter with Jesus.

Sometimes we can be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually worn down by life’s challenges, not to mention the pressure of the battle against evil (within us, within our communities, and the spiritual warfare we wage with the cosmic powers of evil) in which we were enlisted in our Baptism. 

If we are worn down right now, then this Lent can be a time of spiritual refreshing, as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come apart and rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). 

There are also mysterious stretches of spiritual dryness followers of Jesus sometimes go through, seemingly unconnected to any particular fault or sin on our part. Memories of our long past ‘springtime of faith’ torment us, and we find ourselves banging on heaven’s door, asking for the grace to re-live those old days. God seems a million miles away.

All the great saints down through the ages struggled at times just to hang on to God in naked faith, trusting in his promises. Some of the saints - like Mother Teresa of Calcutta - endured literally decades of this, even while selflessly drawing so many others into God’s love. 

If that is where we seem to be at the moment, we, too, must hang on to God in naked faith, supported by the love and prayers of our Christian brothers and sisters, and strengthened by the grace of God in the sacraments of his presence. The main thing is not to give up. Remember the saying, ‘When the train goes into the tunnel, the safest thing is to stay on the train!’ Maybe for you this Lent will be a time when your trust in the promises God is strengthened.

Having recognised that we can be simply worn out, or going through one of these inexplicable periods of spiritual dryness, we need to be honest enough to admit that often our spiritual, emotional and psychological problems are connected with our relationship with God becoming dysfunctional.

In our relationships with other people, the causes of dysfunctionality are complex, and both parties are very often at fault. We need wise counsellors and psychologists to help us work out why things are as they are. 

But the one thing we know about dysfunctionality in our relationship with God is that God is never at fault. He has loved us with an everlasting love. He sacrificed everything to redeem us in Christ. He could not have done more. He made us his people and gave the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. He speaks to us through the Scriptures, and he comes to us in the miracle of Holy Communion.

He gives himself completely to us. Any dysfunctionality in our relationship with him is OUR fault.

There are at least two ways in which our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional: 

The first is when we deliberately ignore what God says in the Scriptures and try to run our own lives. Each one of us has a huge struggle to bring the various aspects of our lives into conformity with the will of God, even with the Holy Spirit within us, and the encouragement of our Christian brothers and sisters. 

But we cannot deliberately shut God out of this or that area of our life and expect our overall relationship with him to survive - any more than we could do that in our relationships with people. And we DO shut him out when we ignore his will as we find it in Scripture. The end result is that instead of the ‘life more abundant’ he wants us to have (John 10:10), we end up in a loveless hell of our own making.

The second way our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional also reflects what can happen in ordinary relationships. It’s when we become so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with what we are doing, so busy fulfilling our ambitions and goals, that we just drift from God without meaning to, and probably without realising what is happening. This seems fairly innocuous, but the end result is the same.

In Orthodox Churches, the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is the account of Jesus healing the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12). You remember this paralysed man . . . his friends got him to Jesus by pulling the roof apart and lowering him, sleeping mat and all, into the house.

The man’s physical paralysis is used in the liturgy as a picture of our spiritual paralysis, the end result of allowing our relationship with God to remain dysfunctional. 

It is also used to convey two other truths: First, that the paralysis caused by sin can only be healed by Jesus. So, it is to him we return this Lent, in order to know his forgiveness, his love and his healing power. Second, that those wonderful friends who helped the paralysed man remind us that this Lent we need to help each other as brothers and sisters in our local Church community get to Jesus in spite of the obstacles that might be in the way.

Lent takes us back to the basic question of our priorities. Saint Paul tells us what mattered most of all to him in these powerful words:

‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 

‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’  
(Philippians 3:8-12)

‘Faith’ for Saint Paul certainly includes believing the right things about Jesus. But it is far more than that. It means to RELY on what Jesus has done for us, and to TRUST him with the details of our daily lives. It means to abandon ourselves to his love.

The self denial, fasting and penitence that the Church urges during Lent are not ends in themselves. They are meant to help us examine our hearts so as to see clearly the areas in which we have gone astray, and to then re-focus our lives on Jesus. 

Let us draw closer to him this Lent. Let us slow down a little. Let us allow the suffering love of Jesus to impact on our hearts and minds. Let us open ourselves afresh to the Holy Spirit and experience the mending of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

The sign of the cross made on our foreheads with ashes on the first day of Lent -  Ash Wednesday - is a gritty reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. It is also a reminder of the price of our redemption. This little ceremony launches us on a journey through the wastelands of our lives, hungering and thirsting for the living God. We face the inner wilderness of our dangers and temptations. This is, in fact, a journey back to the baptismal waters. We make it, not primarily as individuals, but as a community of disciples growing together in our Saviour’s love.

Lent as a season evolved early in the Church’s history from the annual fasting and repentance of Christians as they prepared to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. It was a springtime in which new converts completed their preparation for Baptism, which would take place at the great Easter Mass. It was also a time when those Christians who had been separated from Holy Communion because of serious sin received forgiveness, and were restored . 

The whole Church came to see the value of an annual season of self-examination and repentance, acknowledging that although we have been Baptised, we all betray the gift of new life we received in the waters. And so, now, as Father Alexander Schmemann writes:

‘Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return - the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own “passage” or “pascha” into the new life in Christ. If, as we shall see, Lenten worship preserves even today its catechetical and baptismal character, it is not as “archaeological” remains of the past, but as something valid and essential for us. For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.’


The First Sunday of Lent  
Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7
We go right back to the beginning, to the Genesis account of our rebellion against God’s love. 

The Second Sunday of Lent 
Genesis 12:1-4
We hear about God’s blessing of Abraham our ‘father in faith.’ 

The Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:3-7 
We hear of the Israelites, set free from slavery in Egypt, journeying through the desert, sustained by God himself. 

The Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13
We hear of the anointing of David as king, foreshadowing the kingship of his descendant, Jesus. 

The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12-14
We hear from the prophet Ezekiel who shows how for centuries God was working in human history towards the redemption that Jesus would bring.

This Lent we dip into St Paul’s letters to the Romans, Timothy, Ephesians and Philippians, and hear of the love and compassion of God who is reaching out to us in Jesus.

The First Sunday of Lent 
Matthew 4:1-11 
We hear how Jesus battled the tempter in the desert.

The Second Sunday of Lent
Matthew 17:1-9
We hear of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain where his glory was revealed to the disciples. 

The Third Sunday of Lent
John 4:5-42
We hear of the Samaritan woman at the well

The Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 9:1-41
We hear of the healing of the man born blind 

The Fifth Sunday of Lent 
John 11:1-45
We hear of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. 

(Notice that for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent, we switch to John’s Gospel and hear these powerful passages about who Jesus is, the same passages that were popular in the ancient Church for teaching new converts who were preparing for their Baptism.)

Special times have been set aside for Confessions on Shrove Tuesday, and also in Holy Week. If none of our usual times or the special times advertised will work for you, please get in touch for  an appointment.

‘For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition of love, embracing both trial and joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.’  (St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), in Manuscrits autobiographiques) 

At heart, prayer is a process of self-giving and of being set free from isolation. To pray is to enter into a relationship with God and to be transformed by him.’ (Kenneth Leech in True Prayer, p.10)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Great Power of Love - Walter Hilton

The English mystic, Walter Hilton, who died in 1396, seems to have studied theology and canon law, and after that to have lived for a time as a hermit. Very little is known about him, except that he became an Augustinian canon at Thurgarton Priory in Nottinghamshire where he eventually died. He was a popular teacher of the Faith during the Middle Ages. The Scale of Perfection is the best known of his writings.  One of its themes is our purification and sanctification as part of growing into union with God. Hilton also affirms that an active life 'in the world' can be mixed with real contemplation, that anyone can draw closer to God if they only allow themselves to be drawn by his love.

The following passage was suggested by the Gospel at this morning's Mass (i.e. Matthew 5:38-48 on loving our enemies).

When love acts in the soul it does so wisely and gently, for it has great power to kill anger and envy, and all the passions of wrath and melancholy, and it brings into the soul the virtues of patience, gentleness, peaceableness, and friendliness to one's neighbour.

People guided only by their own reason find it very hard to be patient, peaceful, sweet-tempered and charitable to their neighbours when they treat them badly and wrong them. But true lovers of Jesus have no great difficulty in enduring all this, because love fights for them and kills such movements of wrath and melancholy with amazing ease.

Through the spiritual sight of Jesus it makes the souls of such people so much at ease and so peaceful, so ready to endure and so conformed to God, that if they are despised and disregarded by others, or suffer injustice or injury, shame or ill-treatment, they pay no attention. 

They are not greatly disturbed by these things and will not allow themselves to be, for then they would lose the comfort they feel in their souls, and that they are unwilling to do. They can more easily forget all the wrong that is done them than others can forgive it even when asked for forgiveness. They would rather forget than forgive, for that seems easier to them.

And it is love that does all this, for love opens the eye of the soul to the sight of Jesus, and confirms it in the pleasure and contentment of the love that comes from that sight. It comforts the soul so much that it is quite indifferent to what others do against it. The greatest harm that could befall such people would be to lose the spiritual sight of Jesus, and they would therefore suffer all other injuries than that one alone.

When true lovers of Jesus suffer harm from their neighbours, they are so strengthened by the grace of the Holy Spirit and are made so truly humble, so patient, and so peaceable, that they retain their humility no matter what harm or injury is inflicted on them.

They do not despise their neighbours or judge them, but they pray for them in their hearts, and feel more pity and compassion for them than for others who never harmed them, and in fact they love them better, and more fervently desire their salvation, because they see that they will have so much spiritual profit from their neighbours' deeds, though this was never their intention.

But this love and this humility, which are beyond human nature, come only from the Holy Spirit to those whom he makes true lovers of Jesus.

The Scale of Perfection II, 3, chapter 8 (modernised as per the blog of Fr Aidan Kimel). 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Ash Wednesday at All Saints' Benhilton

Your invitation to join us for the beginning of Lent . . .

(Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Lourdes and healing love

O God, 
who in the Blessed Virgin Mary
consecrated a dwelling fit for your Son:
Grant that we, 
celebrating the appearing of Our Lady to Saint Bernadette,
may receive healing both in body and soul;
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

Anglicans often try to compare Lourdes and Walsingham; but I think that is wrong. Each of Our Lady's shrines has its own particular charism, its own emphasis, and its unique ministry. I do believe that God has graced the shrine at Lourdes in a special way, and, through the intercession of Our Lady, millions who have prayed in that holy place over the last 162 years have experienced the healing power of Jesus and the refreshing of the Holy Spirit ("the rivers of living water"). Hebrews 11:6 says that God rewards those who seek him. To go on prayerful pilgrimage to this place that he has particularly graced (or other places like it) enables us to be open to his love, and as a result we experience a spiritual renewal or receive some other precious gift from him.

If you are ever in France, you MUST visit Lourdes. You can get there on an overnight train from Paris. As well as accommodation for the well-heeled, the town has some very basic and cheap places to stay if you are on a shoestring budget. It's good to book in for for two or three days and join in the pilgrimage devotions. Read, pray, stroll around. You will be blessed.

Scroll down, and after the photographs there is the homily preached by the then Archbishop of Canterbury at the Society of Mary Lourdes Pilgrimage in 2008.

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Homily 
at the Society of Mary Pilgrimage 
to Lourdes, 2008

(From the archive of his speeches and sermons 
as Archbishop of Canterbury HERE.)

The babe in my womb leaped for joy.’  (Luke 1.44)

Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, carrying Jesus in her womb. The Son of God is still invisible – not yet born, not even known about by Elizabeth; yet Elizabeth recognises Mary as bearing within her the hope and desire of all nations, and life stirs in the deep places of her own body. The one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist, moves as if to greet the hope that is coming, even though it cannot yet be seen.

Mary appears to us here as the first missionary, ‘the first messenger of the gospel’ as Bishop Perrier of Lourdes has called her: the first human being to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to another;   and she does it simply by carrying Christ within her. She reminds us that mission begins not in delivering a message in words but in the journey towards another person with Jesus in your heart. She testifies to the primary importance of simply carrying Jesus, even before there are words or deeds to show him and explain him. This story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is in many ways a very strange one;  it’s not about the communication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a primitive current of spiritual electricity running from the unborn Christ to the unborn Baptist.  But mission it undoubtedly is, because it evokes recognition and joy. Something happens that prepares the way for all the words that will be spoken and the deeds that will be done. The believer comes with Christ dwelling in them by faith, and God makes that current come alive, and a response begins, not yet in words or commitments, but simply in recognising that here is life.

When Mary came to Bernardette, she came at first as an anonymous figure, a beautiful lady, a mysterious ‘thing’, not yet identified as the Lord’s spotless Mother. And Bernardette – uneducated, uninstructed in doctrine – leapt with joy, recognising that here was life, here was healing.  Remember those accounts of her which speak of her graceful, gliding movements at the Lady’s bidding;  as if she, like John in Elizabeth’s womb, begins to dance to the music of the Incarnate Word who is carried by his Mother.  Only bit by bit does Bernardette find the words to let the world know;  only bit by bit, we might say, does she discover how to listen to the Lady and echo what she has to tell us.

So there is good news for all of us who seek to follow Jesus’ summons to mission in his Name; and good news too for all who find their efforts slow and apparently futile, and for all who still can’t find their way to the ‘right’ words and the open commitment. Our first and overarching task is to carry Jesus, gratefully and faithfully, with us in all our doings: like St Teresa of Avila, we might do this quite prosaically by having with us always a little picture or a cross in our pockets, so that we constantly ‘touch base’ with the Lord. We can do it by following the guidance of the Orthodox spiritual tradition and repeating silently the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner’. And if we are faithful in thus carrying Christ with us, something will happen, some current will stir and those we are with will feel, perhaps well below the conscious surface, a movement of life and joy which they may not understand at all. And we may never see it or know about it; people may not even connect it with us, yet it will be there – because Jesus speaks always to what is buried in the heart of men and women, the destiny they were made for. Whether they know it or not, there is that within them which is turned towards him. Keep on carrying Jesus and don’t despair: mission will happen, in spite of all, because God in Christ has begun his journey into the heart.

And when we encounter those who say they would ‘like to believe’ but can’t, who wonder how they will ever find their way to a commitment that seems both frightening and hard to understand, we may have something to say to them too:  ‘Don’t give up;  try and hold on to the moments of deep and mysterious joy; wait patiently for something to come to birth in you.’ It certainly isn’t for us as Christians to bully and cajole, and to try and force people into commitments they are not ready to make – but we can and should seek to be there, carrying Jesus, and letting his joy come through, waiting for the leap of recognition in someone’s heart.

Of course, as often as not, we ourselves are the one who need to hear the good news; we need people around us who carry Jesus, because we who call ourselves believers all have our moments of confusion and loss of direction. Others fail us or hurt us;  the Church itself may seem confused or weak or even unloving, and we don’t feel we are being nourished as we need, and directed as we should be. Yet this story of Mary and Elizabeth tells us that the Incarnate Word of God is always already on the way to us, hidden in voices and faces and bodies familiar and unfamiliar. Silently, Jesus is constantly at work, and he is seeking out what is deepest in us, to touch the heart of our joy and hope.

Perhaps when we feel lost and disillusioned, he is gently drawing us away from a joy or a hope that is only human, limited to what we can cope with or what we think on the surface of our minds that we want. Perhaps it’s part of a journey towards his truth, not just ours. We too need to look and listen for the moments of recognition and the leap of joy deep within. It may be when we encounter a person in whom we sense that the words we rather half-heartedly use about God are a living and actual reality. (That’s why the lives of the saints, ancient and modern, matter so much.) It may be when a moment of stillness or wonder suddenly overtakes us in the middle of a familiar liturgy that we think we know backwards, and we have for a second the feeling that this is the clue to everything – if only we could put it into words. It may be when we come to a holy place, soaked in the hopes and prayers of millions, and suddenly see that, whatever we as individuals may be thinking or feeling, some great reality is moving all around and beneath and within us, whether we grasp it or not. These are our ‘Elizabeth’ moments – when life stirs inside, heralding some future with Christ that we can’t yet get our minds around.

It’s very tempting to think of mission as something to be done in the same way we do – or try to do – so much else, with everything depending on planning and assessments of how we’re doing, and whether the results are coming out right. For that matter, it’s tempting to think of the Church’s whole life in these sorts of terms. Of course we need to use our intelligence, we need to be able to tell the difference between good and bad outcomes, we need to marshal all the skill and enthusiasm we can when we respond to God’s call to share his work of transforming the world through Jesus and his Spirit. But Mary’s mission tells us that there is always a deeper dimension, grounded in the Christ who is at work unknown and silent, reaching out to the deeply buried heart of each person and making the connection; living faithfully at the heart of the Church itself, in the middle of its disasters and betrayals and confusions, still giving himself without reserve.  All that we call ‘our’ mission depends on this; and if we are wise, we know that we are always going to be surprised by the echoes and connections that come to life where we are not expecting it. 

True mission is ready to be surprised by God – ‘surprised by joy’, in the lovely phrase of  C. S. Lewis. Elizabeth knew the whole history of Israel and how it was preparing the way for God to come and visit his people – but she was still surprised into newness of life and understanding when the child leapt in her womb. Bernardette’s neighbours and teachers and parish clergy knew all they thought they needed to know about the Mother of God – and they needed to be surprised by this inarticulate, powerless, marginal teenager who had leapt up in the joy of recognition to meet Mary as her mother, her sister, bearer of her Lord and Redeemer. Our prayer here must be that, renewed and surprised in this holy place, we may be given the overshadowing strength of the Spirit to carry Jesus wherever we go, in the hope that joy will leap from heart to heart in all our human encounters;  and that we may also be given courage to look and listen for that joy in our own depths when the clarity of the good news seems far away and the sky is cloudy.