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

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Through every darkness

Unsurprisingly, given the many hardships and setbacks of Philippine's life, and her bold, generous, faith-filled personality, the weekly reflections for the Philippine Duchesne Year of Prayer have invariably focused on one or more aspects of the many challenges, difficulties and disappointments she experienced, whether physical or spiritual. This week's - Darkness into Light - is no exception. As the closing paragraphs say:

Philippine Duchesne didn’t give up when she had to face difficulties or when she had to accept that her dreams were far from reality. She had the capacity to discover light in every darkness; she was able to find ways where there seemed to be no pathway. Going to the frontiers of her abilities, she didn’t give up when she failed but opened herself to new horizons.

Is this the nature of a person who thinks positively? More than that, it is the strength of somebody who lets herself be guided by the Lord. It is the strength and the power of a woman who follows God through every darkness, step by step, trusting that every tunnel leads into light. Not her own will and desire determined what to do, but the reality in which she discovered God’s call.

Truly, I thought - (though not for the first time), as I prayed with this - we are standing on the shoulders of a giant... And then I reminded myself that the shoulders belong to giants, very much in the plural. Over more than two centuries countless RSCJ have faced - in some places continue to face - physical and existential hardships and insecurity; in times of war, disaster or revolution, in exile and upheaval; in reaching new frontiers or simply maintaining a service or presence against many odds. Maybe in inner darkness, maybe in public obscurity, they have lived and loved, prayed and served, following God through every darkness, step by faith-filled step, trusting that every tunnel leads into light...

Their witness is inspiring, and probably they in turn have drawn inspiration from Philippine, and from a spirit which was unquenchable, even in times of fragility and the uncertainty of her every darkness. I am sure she will continue to inspire, long into the future: may she also sustain us all with her prayer, especially as we seek to bring the love of God's Heart into this world, currently so scarred, and filled with too much political and ecclesial darkness.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The triumph of Love

There is something very engaging and personal about today's feast of the Triumph of the Cross. So many of us have experienced our own crosses, through illness or times of adversity, and have emerged, stronger, bolder, maybe even triumphant. It can be a profound experience of rising, and of new life; the transformation into beauty and hope of something filled with pain and memories of brokenness.

But of course, the mystery which lies at the heart of this feast is about much more than the resilience of the human spirit. The triumph of the Cross is really the triumph of Love. This is a Love which, as today's second reading reminds us did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself (Phil 2.6-7), accepting to spend his final hours in vulnerability and powerlessness. This is a Love which seemed like a spent force, literally drained to the last drop... dead and buried... but which then rose, gloriously triumphant, not defeated but defeating death, and giving us the assurance of our own new life and redemption.

This feast is welcome and lovely at any time, but especially so this year. The world is plunging into so much dystopian hatred, darkness and division, while those who sow this hatred, and abuse power - and people - seem to be unassailable and ascendant. Love and reason, compassion and peace can seem like small, feebly flickering, guttering candles, desperately trying to pierce through the encroaching darkness. So this feast is a timely, necessary reminder of the redemptive power of love, even - especially - when it appears vulnerable and vanquished. This ultimate, mysterious triumph of Love is - and has to be - the source and centre of our faith and lives, and of all that we dare to hope in.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

A time for proving...

On Thursday eleven sisters from ten countries were welcomed to their programme of preparation for their perpetual vows. Via Facebook RSCJ from around the world sent greetings and messages which spoke of the time ahead as 'precious', 'unforgettable', a time of 'grace and depth', of prolonged prayer, reflection, growth and space, and - very much - the 'gift of each one in the group'. And of course prayers were promised - as I discovered for myself back in 2003, our probanists are held in a very special, profound way at the heart of the Society and its prayer.

'Probanists' are what we call the sisters engaged in this programme - which is called 'probation'; a word which, in English at least, is more often used to describe a form of conditional, supervised liberty for offenders. Elsewhere, in most places new employees generally undergo a probationary period, in which their progress might be monitored - or even tested. And being tested is what this word is all about, deriving as it does from the Latin verb probare, meaning to test, demonstrate or prove. Probare also lies at the root of related words such as probe, and prove, and itself derives from a Latin word meaning honest or good. Here testing or proving is about bringing to the fore that which is good, rather as character can often be built in adversity.

So is an RSCJ probation a time of testing? Well, it can certainly be very intense, and have its times of difficulty and doubt: international community can be as demanding as it is enriching, the long retreat challenges as it calls, and, away from our normal busyness and home environment we can find ourselves very starkly before God, and maybe a few too many demons. But grace and growth await us in all this, the Team and our sisters are there with tenderness and support, and the Spirit is always hard at work within us as individuals and group.

But as any baker or fan of GBBO knows, in English at least, the word 'proving' is also a technical term used in bread-making to describe the times when the dough is left to rest, while the leaven which permeates it causes it to rise. And just as the stillness of the noviciate comes very early in religious formation, so in baking the first proving comes at the beginning, when the dough grows and expands and rises considerably. But then the dough is - often vigorously - kneaded, stretched and shaped, and needs a second and final rest - in which it will rise some more - before it is baked.

As with dough, so we too need to rest - especially after a time of stretching and shaping and life's kneading effects! - in order to allow Christ's leavening power to work in us, that we might rise and expand. So maybe it's no accident that 'proving' bread is also - though rarely - known as 'blooming'... because what does sustained rest do, except enable us to blossom, flourish, thrive and grow in energy? Blooming is also about growth, unfurling and opening up, to be and to display the fullness of the loveliness for which we were created. And all this has to be my prayer for my eleven sisters as they begin this time of probation: that it may be a time for proving, resting, leavening and rising... for opening to God and to the world... and most definitely for blooming, and becoming the greatest loveliness and love that God intended them to be...

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Swathes not slices

Our record-breaking too-long heatwave is over, temperatures are back to normal, and - this being Britain - variable. No, it's by no means a roller coaster, more like one of those merry-go-rounds with horses which go up and down - with twenty degrees being the median point. So when I looked out of my window this morning I was disappointed - though not surprised - to see an unending woolliness of clouds, with, here and there, signs of the sun ineffectually struggling to break through. I checked the forecast: yes, we were still being promised twenty-two degrees and sunny spells; thus, in hope, I dressed accordingly.

A few minutes later I went out to buy the paper. Stepping into the road I looked up and around... and beheld a sky which resembled, not an unbroken blanket of cotton wool, but a shoreline, where land and water are clearly demarcated. Only the cloudy side had been visible from my window, whereas from the road a whole swathe could be seen. And it occurred to me that the people who live across the road would have started the day looking out of their windows onto near-cloudless blue, as unaware of the encroaching clouds as I had been of the clear skies.

So much of life depends on the position from which we view something, be it politics, religion, another person or, indeed, the sky above us: and that position determines not just what and how much we see, but how we feel and respond to it. Someone whose first sight was of blue sky may well have felt disappointed to later see nothing but cloud, whereas I was uplifted at the reminder that the cloud cover was not complete! (Even though, as soon became clear, those clouds were advancing, slowly but surely, not retreating)

Our world is currently riven by discord, with battles fought in tweets and headlines, truth endlessly distorted or redefined and "fake news" shouted from each corner. From where I stand I can see the logic, goodness and sense in certain views and arguments, and wonder how other people of faith and goodwill cannot do likewise; they, of course, might wonder the same about my viewpoint. But our view of the same reality is only partial, our positions staked accordingly. Unless we meet at a central point - unless we emerge, and stand in that more open, less confined area between us, where we can see swathes rather than slices - that's how we will always be...

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Falling worlds and the fidelity of God

I know that when the stress has grown too strong
Thou wilt be there,
I know that when the waiting seems so long
Thou hearest prayer
I know that in the crash of falling worlds
Thou holdest me
I know that life and death and all are thine

The crash of falling worlds... These few words, from a poem by Janet Erskine Stuart, which came to me as I was holding the world in prayer, sum up much of how things currently feel. We have the Church, truly tempest-tossed, and the anguish, outrage and pain of Catholics across the globe, whose certainties and trust have been crashing around them. And if we look around, hoping for respite, it is hard to find. Instead, we have the rise of populism and fascism, rampant xenophobia, 'fake news' and the relativising of truth: over here we have the dangerous, unravelling mess of Brexit, while the US - and through its influence the entire world - is dominated by the even greater, unravelling danger which is Donald Trump.

It does indeed feel as though our world is fragmenting, falling and crashing all around us, along with the certainties and truths on which it has been built. But that's not what's at the heart of Janet Stuart's poem - rather, it is the God who holds us, in safety and tenderness, throughout. The same God who, St Paul assures us in today's first reading, is faithful. God is faithful, he states, simply yet firmly in 1 Cor 1.9 - not will be faithful, or has been, or can be, given the right conditions, but is. God is faithful.

Not manufactured: the breadcrumb really did crumble into a heart shape!
RSCJ make our vows Trusting in the fidelity of God and the love of my sisters... and over the years I have discovered that God is steadfast, generous, tenacious Love precisely because he is faithful. This is a fidelity which, according to our Constitutions, dwells at the very core of our weakness: that's where it has to be, because that's where it's most needed. And that's where I can believe the fidelity of God can be found as certainties, beliefs and worlds come crumbling, tumbling, crashing down all around us - at the very heart of our world and of all that is weakest and most fragmented. That is where we can find God, or at least know he is present; quietly, steadfastly, mysteriously keeping covenant.

God is faithful: and in his fidelity, as he promised to Julian of Norwich, though we will be tempest-tossed and wearied, he will not allow us to be overcome. I need the faith to hang on to that promise.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Love made me welcome

Whenever we prepare to welcome a guest, or are guests ourselves, it's often the little, personalised touches which count. Whether we're greeted by flowers in our room or our favourite chocolate, it's these little things which let us know, as much as huge, joyous hugs, that we have been expected and prepared for; that our arrival has been eagerly anticipated and we're most definitely welcome here.

That, at any rate, was the effect on me when I arrived for my retreat at Llannerchwen, moved into my hermitage and saw this little vase of freshly-picked flowers on the windowsill...And Welcome, Silvana, said God, so glad you've come...

I walked through familiar woods around Llannerchwen, through trees and untramelled undergrowth which has largely been left to its own devices. Some paths are well-trodden, others less so. And yet here too there are signs that visitors are welcome and expected: well-placed stepping stones, and plank bridges fording some brooks and narrow streams, complete with rudimentary handrails; and then those same handrails beside a few steps cut into an otherwise steep slope. Yes, I had been awaited, expected, looked forward to; and as I gazed as if for the first time at those steps, marvelling at this, God murmured  From before I formed you in the womb...

And then that evening, reading Martin Laird, this message from Jeremiah was reinforced: The baptism of which Paul speaks... heralds a fundamental truth about our lives: the God we seek has from all eternity sought and found us (Jer 1.5)... Which in turn led me to remember the first line of a largely-forgotten prayer-poem from several years ago - You are making me yours since forever... 

Sometimes, when describing a good retreat, we jocularly say that 'God showed up'. In reality, though, it is we who show up: God has been there all along, seeking and finding, preparing for and looking forward to our arrival; making us welcome, as he makes us his since forever.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Going on retreat

I'm packing my bags and preparing to go on retreat. I'm looking forward to eight days of solitude and space; of greenness and hills and woodland in which I can roam; of wide-open skies and a thousand stars; of prolonged prayer infusing my days, silence, some reading and much time to simply be with God. Obviously, I'm hoping for balmy days, stunning sunsets and clear night skies - a retreat is so much more pleasant in good weather - but I also know that God will be in any rain, clouds or chilly winds we might get instead. And if it rains then, maybe, there will be the delight of rainbows, and sudden bursts of sunshine turning wet grass into a carpet of glistening jewels.

But, some of you might wonder, how does a retreat unfold? How is all that time and space for a retreatant? What can it contain? Well, maybe this cartoon, which floated into my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, can give you some idea... Though I myself won't be floating, except maybe, hopefully, metaphorically... But yes, spending time with God can alter how we view our world, and ourselves; can fill us with compassion and sorrow, plus waves of pure joy, and enable us to see and experience God - and his angels - in some very surprising ways and places. Certainly, all this and more can and does happen while sipping tea, intensely observing bees nuzzling into flowers, climbing hills, dodging showers, cooking lunch and watching sheep endlessly, placidly munching, come rain, hail or sun... as well as while consciously seated in prayer...