Heart's ease - an infusion was said to help mend a broken heart

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Unyielding in hope

Earlier this month members of my Province were each given a small booklet of short reflections to help us prepare for the feast of St Philippine Duchesne, celebrated a few days ago. One reflection caught my attention in particular: it consisted of this single sentence - Let us learn from her how to contemplate the Heart of Christ, a Heart broken but unyielding in Hope. 

Today we commemorate the Society's birth, when Sophie and her first companions made their vows in 1800 in Paris, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. And it occurs to me that Sophie's heart was so clearly united to the Heart of Jesus, in that hers too was a heart broken but unyielding in hope. Broken by the bloodthirsty, devastating events of the Revolution, but steadfast in her hope for the future, and unwavering in her belief in the enduring power of Love - and the equally strong belief, that she and this tiny, fragile group could somehow be part of the rebuilding of society, and the re-finding of its soul and its values.

And now, today, we too, who share Sophie's vocation and mission, are also called to unite ourselves with a Heart which is broken, but unyielding in hope. In times which are increasingly dark and devastating, we are called to allow our hearts to break, and break again, at inequality and injustice, at vulnerability and pain and despair. But however anguished we may feel, we need to remain unyielding in our hope, and in our belief in Love - and, because of that, that we have something of Love's goodness and healing to offer to our world. Whether we have been RSCJ for decades, or are the probanists about to emerge from their long retreat, jubilarians or brand new, we are all called with a special urgency to live our mission of knowing and making known the tender and infinite love of God, in the Heart of Jesus, especially in the darkest and hardest of places - especially in these dark and hard times.

May Sophie, and the thousands of women who have shared this call with her and us over the past two centuries, support us in this with their unyielding prayer.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

God alone

Yesterday I posted a short reflection on our Province website, for today's feast of Philippine. At the end of a bicentenary year which has lasted longer than a year, and in which we have said and written so much about Philippine, I wondered what she would want to say to us. So, using a photo of the new sculpture of her in the garden of the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis, I invited people to sit down with her, and listen to what she has to say. What, I asked, can we learn from her, to enable us to live, love and serve with something of her spirit and her courage? And, as we end this bicentenary year, what gift would she like us to take with us?

When I sat down to consider these questions for myself, I realised I already knew the answer. One of my sisters had created a calendar for this year with Philippine's words for each month - which has also been reproduced on our website. One day last month I had been wondering, as I periodically do, how Philippine must be feeling about all the lovely things we've been saying about her. How does this woman, who saw her limitations all too keenly and through a magnifying glass, feel about our praise, our citing of her example and inspiration, our desire to learn from her? And then my eye caught the calendar, and gazing at her words, as if for the first time, I saw my answer: God alone and the desire of his glory - nothing else matters. 

That was - still is - everything to Philippine, and she is probably so caught up in the fullness of God and so desirous of his glory that she has barely heard our praise. Or rather, maybe she has heard it, but instead of tutting and hushing and shying away, she has simply, quietly, done her utmost to direct our gaze away from herself, and to the One who must always be the only One, however wide and spacious your heart - and to whom all praise and glory belong... The God for and in whom we must live, and whose glory must be allowed to shine through our fragility and limitations as much as our strengths. God alone - not prestige or praise or success or any of the other things we can all too easily crave.

God alone and the desire of his glory - nothing else matters: that's what Philippine has said to me; what she would want me to learn and take away from this bicentenary.

What is she saying to you...?

Saturday, 17 November 2018

On razed land life breaks through...

Brexit is a mess, and thanks to Brexit, our country, our government and likely future are also a mess. And not just any old mess, but a scary, tangled, precarious and unpredictable mess, taking up time and energy which could better be spent tackling rising poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, though interpretations and solutions about the Brexit mess might differ, ironically, in our increasingly divided country, complaining about it all seems to be the one thing around which both Remainers and Leavers are able to unite.

And there is little solace or escape to be found in news from the Church, the USA or indeed anywhere else. It isn't only winter darkness which seems to be inexorably descending on us - though at least winter darkness is guaranteed to be finite, and contains within it the hope of spring. No, solace has to come from elsewhere, often unexpected, or pushing through tiny cracks. In such a depressing time, the fleeting joy of a rainbow, a stranger's brief kindness or the warmth of a generous act can feel all the more precious, and so necessary to hold on to.

And the other day some heart-lifting solace pushed its way through a crack on Twitter, via a tweet from Austen Ivereigh, in which he quoted a few lines from Evangelii Gaudium. His tweet sent me back to the document, which I hadn't read in ages, and to the section from which he quoted, entitled The mysterious working of the risen Christ and his Spirit (#275-280). There is in a sense nothing new in there, in that it simply expands on fundamental aspects of our faith: but maybe these are fundamentals we are in danger of allowing to slip from our grasp, as we can become swamped by darkness and despair. I can find it easy enough to believe in and base my life on Jesus' resurrection and victory over death two thousand years ago; but do I truly, deeply believe that the power and hope and new life of his resurrection permeate our world even now, daily, hourly, breaking through all its darkness and death?

Paragraph 276 feels especially for now...

Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Such is the power of the resurrection, and all who evangelise are instruments of that power. 

Such is the power of the resurrection... and all who love, who hope, who care and heal, act justly and tenderly, who give their lives for a bigger, wider love... are instruments of that power...

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

In praise of... being a sister

On Monday evening I attended the official launch of a report by the Arise Foundation, revealing that nearly a quarter of the Catholic religious congregations in this country are battling modern slavery and trafficking. Individually, religious - and most especially sisters - have founded projects and work, often as volunteers, in frontline services; corporately, congregations have provided financial support, and, in several cases, properties which can be used as safe houses.

I sat through several presentations and a video, describing the work being carried out, whilst also lauding the contribution of sisters. We were reminded that this, for religious, is not about a career but about service, exemplified by the fact that the cumulative amount of time individuals have spent engaged in this struggle is - thus far - 643 years. By the very nature of their vowed commitment sisters are in this for the long haul; but quietly so - it was clear that publicity and prizes are accepted for the benefit of the cause, not the individual. We were reminded, too, that this is a natural service for us to engage in, as it is a modern expression of so many of our founding visions, charisms and choices made over the years. Whether our charism is to love the unloved, to heal those broken in body or spirit or to seek out the most vulnerable and marginalised, this work makes sense to religious - and especially to religious women.

At the end of all this my married colleague turned to me and said that everything she had heard made her really wish she could become a sister too! I knew exactly what she meant: listening to all the lovely things being said about us - our love, tenderness, commitment, capacity to inspire trust - made me feel, quite simply, very proud to be a sister. Or rather, very proud and overwhelmingly grateful to have been called to be one, and to share a vocation and spirit with all these amazing, feisty, faith-filled, dedicated and defiant women, whose hearts are wide and whose love is abundant. Being a religious sister is indeed a great thing to be. The challenge, of course, is to live and love and grow so that - wherever I am, whatever I'm engaged in - I too may live up to and radiate all these lovely things said about us.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Our war memorial

Yesterday, during a break in our Province meeting in Digby Stuart, Roehampton, I went out for a walk, stopping by the war memorial. Originally erected in 1918, it was renovated and moved to its current location in 1972. At some point names from World War II, the Korean War and a solitary death in the Boer War were added, along with tablets at each end from our convents in Armagh and St Charles Square. However, the majority of the plaques record beloved relatives of the religious and their pupils at the Convent of the Sacred Heart who died during World War I, plus a few army chaplains who may well have been personally known to members of the community.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of war memorials up and down the country: in parish churches, village greens and town squares, and on the walls of universities and major railway stations. Erected after WWI, "the war to end all wars", within a few decades any surfaces originally left bare were used to record deaths from the next major war. The names inscribed on them recall men who grew up in the same place, worked or studied together: the effect of so many names from this or that place, tells of a deep well of collective, localised grief and trauma we can barely begin to comprehend. In this respect, the Society's memorial is different, in that - with a few exceptions - there was nothing to bind the people on it to each other, other than their sister, daughter, aunt or niece in the Sacred Heart.

In total, the main part of our memorial bears one hundred and sixty-eight plaques from WWI, each bearing a name, and maybe some moving details supplied by the family, such as a heart-rendingly young age (including a midshipman who was only 16 3/4). Interestingly, a few plaques also recall women; civilians who died either during their war work or as a result of grief and exhaustion.

One hundred and sixty-eight names, over eleven metres of wall...

I do not know exactly how many girls and religious were at Roehampton at the time, but it was probably only a few hundred - certainly less than in many villages. And yet between them they lost one hundred and sixty-eight relatives - and probably several family friends as well, plus loved ones returning home seriously injured. (And for the community, the pain in October 1914 of Janet Stuart's untimely death, and the loss of so much promise) Those eleven metres testify to an unimaginable scale of loss and grief, to be repeated and deepened for some families in the next major war only twenty or so years later.

Since then we have been blessed with no major wars (though not a complete absence of conflict), and with the annual ache and knowledge and poignancy of a remembrance which makes peace a compelling need. As @BorderIrish said on Twitter today

Things grow on you sometimes:
remembering, which is better than forgetting;
remembering not to make the same mistakes again;
remembering to work to prevent future remembrance days.

May it be so, and a century on, may deep, regretful remembrance coupled with a growing awareness and understanding of the fundamental issues never cease, for us and for future generations.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Lying fallow

It seems a supreme act of trust in God to wait and do nothing, and a sort of act of worship to lie fallow before him like a field in winter.

Janet Erskine Stuart

Leaving a field fallow is part of traditional farming practice, whereby land is ploughed and harrowed, but then left unsown for a year or more. Whilst fallow the soil is able to rest, and to store up moisture and nutrients for itself, without expending them on producing crops. What can look like barrenness is really a restoration of fertility; land which appears empty is in reality full, and what might seem wasteful is a practice born of centuries of wisdom and prudence. It is a reminder to us, too, in a world driven by productivity and busyness, that seemingly unproductive rest, or waiting trustfully on God, can be filled with replenishment and restoration.

And it is, of course, an excellent metaphor for time spent in the dark, faith-filled silence of apparently empty prayer...

And then the other day, thanks to @ClerkofOxford on Twitter, I discovered that in Old English 'fallowing' means to turn yellow-gold. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, said the tweet, fallow is the golden-brown shade of fire, linden shields, bay horses and autumn leaves. They fallow then they fall. A bit of googling revealed that, though they have become identical words, both fallows originally derive from different roots, as befits their different meanings: one speaks to us of dull grey earth, unused and undeveloped, the other of fire and life and burnished gold. And yes, autumn leaves are dying, lying crisp and curling in their fallow shades at our feet - but definitely, for as long as possible, going out in a blaze of glory!

But maybe they're not so different: because isn't there a quiet glory and a slow, simmering fire in the supreme act of trust which enables us to lie fallow, empty and waiting, before the God who comes to fill and replenish us with his life and grace...?

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Bestirred in translation

The Pope's urgent call to Catholics worldwide to pray especially for the Church this month received a great deal of attention (and hopefully led to a great deal of prayer). Unfortunately, though, it may have detracted some attention from the planned intention, which rather affects me, as it's to pray for religious - and it's always good to be prayed for, and to know you're being held in prayer.

Specifically, the intention has been That consecrated religious men and women may bestir themselves, and be present among the poor, the marginalised, and those who have no voice. When I first saw this I was somewhat irked by that word, bestir: it speaks of a need to rouse or exert oneself, to make an effort, to give a damn - as if religious don't already do so, and need to be prodded by prayer into some sort of activity and concern! So I checked the Italian version of this intention (which I assume is the original language used), double-checked it with a couple of other languages, and discovered that the translator had taken a rather loose approach to the original prayer that religious reawaken their missionary fervour... 

So I ceased to be irked. Missionary fervour is something we all of us always need to keep fanning into a flame, and keep praying for an increase of, lest we become too quick to say we have done enough, served enough, given enough.

So, even though October is ending, please do continue to pray for religious, that, our missionary fervour reawakened and kept alive, we may be present with and for the poor, the marginalised and those without a voice. Pray that, as the world hardens and grows more divided, we may be where compassion, care and unity are most needed; that we may be there, too, with healing and hope. And please pray too that more young women and men will have the generosity and desire to allow themselves to be bestirred by the Spirit, and respond to God's call to religious life, lived with unsleeping fervour...