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

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Joy and wounds

Yesterday I returned home from a meeting with sixty-six other RSCJ, most of us from England, Ireland and Scotland. For a few days, in small groups and large assembly we prayed, reflected, shared, listened and explored together how we can live the calls from last summer's Chapter.

Unavoidably, there were times of pain - both our own and that of the world. We began just after Theresa May's wearying, dispiriting announcement of her intention to call a snap election, and ended with the news of a fatal shooting in Paris. Refugees, the homeless and marginalised, trafficking, Brexit and so much more were ever present, in our prayer and in our discussions. But there was also laughter, the enjoyment of each other's company, the enlivening and energy of the large group, and the chance to catch up with friends, and get to know others better.

Throughout the week we were nourished by each day's Gospel, in which the Risen Jesus talked, walked and ate with his disciples, challenging, encouraging and calling them beyond their fears, incredulity and limitations, gently yet compellingly showing them their new mission. And that is how it was for us, as we too were led, in the face of anxieties and uncertainties, to discern and explore what we can do more fruitfully together, to strengthen and extend the Society and its life and mission in our provinces.

In our final reflection a sister in my small group spoke of experiencing the joy and the wounds of the assembly, and of each one. And it occurred to me that joy and wounds are at the heart of this Easter week - and at the heart of the Risen Jesus and our experience of him. We have the sublime joy flowing from Christ, permeating and transforming our own lives, enlivening us with the hope he offers to us and all the world. And we have the wounds, the indelible scars which, even in all his glory, Jesus chose to keep, and by which he was known and recognised by his disciples.

Joy and wounds... at the heart of Jesus, at the heart of the Resurrection, at the heart of our world, and very rightly at the heart of us; women called - with all our wounds and fragilities, our prayer and passion, and our capacity for love and joy - to be the Heart of God on earth.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Wood hath hope

I have written a few times about "my" vine, an untended mass of leaves and untrammelled tendrils, which somehow yields copious vintages. Last autumn I picked enough to not only give several pounds away, but also experiment with making two types of grape liqueur! Just a few yards from my window, the vine is part of a communal garden, but had mostly escaped the attention of the two gardeners who come at various times... until last winter, when they clearly decided that it was in need of some radical pruning.

I'm by no means an expert in viticulture, but I've seen vines after pruning, and there's usually more of them left than on this vine. This poor tree had been chopped back drastically, removing virtually all of it from the trellis it had been covering. The end result looked less like a pruning and more like a purging! All the newer, greener shoots were removed, and all that remained were the old trunk, desiccated branches - more like dry sticks than anything else - and a few gnarled old tendrils. How long would it be, I wondered, before the vine managed to restore itself and put forth new wood? Would this year be a fallow year for grapes?

A week or so ago, in the midst of spring's greening, I noticed the first tiny leaves beginning to bud, transforming the deadness and dryness with their tiny, pink-green freshness and promise of new life. As I marvelled at them I recalled a line from Caryll Houselander (referencing Job 14.7, and on which the St Louis Jesuits based one of their hymns in the 1970s):

Wood hath hope,
If it be cut, it groweth green again,
And the boughs thereof sprout.

Yes indeed, this dry old wood hath hope!

And then yesterday, when I went to take photos, I found the loveliest surprise! Each of those tiny leaf buds, now unfurling and stretching in the intermittent sunshine, contains the tiny seeds which will, over summer, gradually grow and develop into grapes. Wood hath hope! - lots of it, held in tiny pink seeds, smaller than grape pips - but each one filled with the hope and the promise of growth, and ripe, delightful sweetness. I had wondered if and when the vine could restore itself, could somehow acquire new life and a semblance of its former glory; could somehow grow green again, sprout boughs again... and now I had my answer - an emphatic yes.

On Good Friday, in a world filled with bombing and violence and instability we pondered Jesus' ultimate gift of himself on the wood of the cross. And today, Easter Sunday, in a world still filled with bombing and violence and instability we celebrate the hope and promise of Jesus' Resurrection. Today we know for sure that the wood of the cross has hope; that it has in fact been transformed into the source of all our hope, and our joy. Today we marvel at the seeds and the promise of new life, and at the reminders, large and small, that death is not the end, because love has triumphed, and will always prevail. And, as Pope Francis encouraged us in last year's Easter Vigil homily, we now become joyful servants of hope... As joyful servants of hope, we must announce the Risen One by our lives and by our love.

Have a joy-filled, grace-filled Easter, and may we all be joyful servants of hope - whether abundant or in tiny seeds - announcing the Risen One by our lives and our love.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Cross in Love

I've been reflecting on this image* quite a lot recently, finding new layers and depths of meaning each time I come to it anew.

As an image it is quite simple, amazingly so: three brush-strokes, two colours - but such riches to be found within that simplicity! A cross, symbol of suffering, sacrifice and death, of torture and barbarity, hate and violence; of the love which impelled Jesus to accept his passion and death, and the love which, daily, impels so many others in smaller acts of sacrifice and self-gift. And a heart, universal symbol of love, and, for RSCJ, our entry point into Jesus, and into the depths of God. It contains the bare elements of the congregational logo I wear every day, and no doubt speaks to me, in all its simplicity, precisely because I am of the Heart of Jesus.

What do I see?

I see Love - the Heart - flowing from the Cross; and I also see Love flowing into the Cross.

I see Love embracing the Cross, and also containing it; suffering and pain somehow held within the Love from and into which they flow.

I see the arms of the Cross thrust wide in welcome, and a sense of joy and exultation. And I see that the Cross doesn't hold a figure, because the Love which encompasses it is the figure, is Jesus, whose Love is larger than any Cross.

I see space, plenty of space: like Julian of Norwich, I see a lovely and delightful place, spacious enough for everyone... to rest there in peace and love.

And I see a small gap at the foot of the Cross, formed by the ever-open Heart; thus Love can flow out, just as we can all come in.

Which do I see first, when I look at this image? I really cannot say. And if I were to draw it, where would I begin and end? I don't know. All I do know is that it speaks so powerfully of the Good Friday mystery we commemorate, and attempt to comprehend today.

And you... What do you see...?

* A friend used this image on social media a while back, and was able to trace it back to an old blog, but it's unclear where they got it from. If anyone knows who the artist is, please let me know.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Holy Week, sunshine and cloud

Last week spring and summer threw a party and danced delightedly for a while. Spring brought along trees frothing over with blossom, overblown magnolia, their petals flapping lazily in the breeze, and leaves tentatively unfurling on recently bare branches. Summer contributed sunshine and warmth, temperatures reaching the low 20s and a brilliant, blue sky against which trees could triumphantly thrust their blossom-laden branches. Tulips of every hue clamoured for attention, and here and there an early iris could be seen. (Camellias unaccountably started flowering in late February, so they had already left the party, along with daffodils, having performed a heart-lifting service of heralding spring) For a week or so we basked, warming our bare limbs and feet, while tree-lined roads were transformed from the mundane into places of beauty. Everything seemed to peak on Palm Sunday. If Jesus had chosen to make his triumphant entry down the Woodstock Road, he'd have been greeted not by pale palms, but by a riotous, colourful phalanx of blossoms, and petals strewing his way.

And then on Monday the sun disappeared, temperatures dropped by about ten degrees, and the sky changed, overnight, from azure to pale grey. During the week the sun has reappeared teasingly, temporarily parting clouds before disappearing again. Today has felt especially grey, but without the usual accompaniment of rain, though some has been forecast. The trees are still spilling over with blossom, but whereas a brilliant blue sky heightens all colours - even the palest, a pale grey one simply dulls them.

And really, lovely though the sunshine is, this chilly greyness has been the perfect weather for Holy Week, a week filled with grim, unremitting foreboding, after the euphoric glories of Palm Sunday. Just as we brace ourselves for the gruesome murder in a film we've already seen, so we brace ourselves in these days for the inevitable crucifixion of Love. The fitful sun has been a good reminder of Holy Week's chinks of light, the clouds of its consistent overshadowing by the foreknowledge of the suffering and death to come. And the new growth and blossom...? They speak of hope and promise, and the certainty that death is not and never will be the end...

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Perfectly folded, held, dropped

This morning, as I walked to the chaplaincy for Mass, I came across this palm cross, lying on a deserted stretch of pavement. A minute or so later I saw a few people walking home from Mass, crosses in their hands or tucked into breast pockets - like this one, all perfectly aligned and folded. Someone had clearly spent time putting this cross together with care and devotion. Someone else had held it, maybe for an hour or more; might even have carefully tucked it into a bag or pocket, or entrusted it to a child... but then, in one heedless, careless moment, it had fallen, unnoticed and forgotten, onto the pavement.

Today we commemorated Palm Sunday against a backdrop of violence and senseless murder: atrocities in Syria, Sweden and now Egypt the latest in an increasingly heart-rending roll call. Meanwhile, here in England a young asylum seeker is viciously attacked, in one of a growing number of race hate crimes. So many lives created and sustained in love; so many bodies nourished with care and devotion, only to be treated as expendable, something easily discarded... This little cross, perfectly folded, blessed, held, then dropped on a pavement, is now a focus for my prayer, somehow speaking to me of all those innocents, those discarded people, of the many who grieve and care for them, and of the anguish and pain seeping through our world.

And to paraphrase a tweet I saw this morning from Cardinal Vincent Nichols: this Holy Week, may Jesus absorb the violence of this world and transform it in love, as only he can...

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

But are you happy?

The other day this advert on a bus stop - for a reality TV programme - leapt out at me as I was walking home. I posted it on social media, with the caption: Yes!! Religious life: if it's God's call for you, then you will be truly, deeply happy (with or without a nice car). And indeed that is so, and needs to be proclaimed, especially to those whose anxieties imagine only joyless austerity and constriction, rather than the fulfilment and depths of joy and inner freedom those of us living this life can attest to.

And yet... a caveat. I really believe that God doesn't call anyone to anything - be it religious life, marriage, priesthood, devotion to a cause, service overseas or whatever - primarily for their own joy, growth or fulfilment, but for the greater joy, growth and fulfilment of the world. Any call is at heart a call to greater love, and to service; to go beyond ourselves, and to focus on giving rather than receiving. And the measure in which we embrace that call; in which we love and give, and offer ourselves and all that we are, will be the measure in which we receive the mysterious miracle of the hundredfold in return. Somehow, our gift is transformed and given back to us; not as a nice car, but as something infinitely more satisfying, and a source of lasting happiness...

Thursday, 30 March 2017

One heart in a divided world

Yesterday was a day of both unity and division. A week after the terrorist attack in London, a large, diverse group of people stood, walked and mourned together on Westminster Bridge, where it all began. Those who had been there - whether victims or those tending them - stood alongside bereaved relatives, faith groups, adults and children of all ages and backgrounds. The significance of this happening on a bridge - a place of connection, of bringing people together - on this day in particular, struck me forcefully. Because yesterday was the day when the letter triggering Article 50 was delivered, and the UK's confused, slow, likely to be painfully messy departure from the European Union officially began.

And I feel immense sadness. Brexit strikes at the heart of my lifelong identity, of who and what I am. Firstly, as the daughter of immigrants: with family roots and many relatives in Italy and some in France, I grew up knowing I belonged to Europe as much as to the little corner of south-west London where we lived. I have always felt part of something bigger and wider than this or that country. For me, cutting ourselves off the EU means being forced to cut myself off from a large part of myself.

But there is another identity; one which has also been with me since forever, but which I only started to discover twenty-three years ago: my being RSCJ. We are an international congregation. The Open Heart of Jesus is central to us; to our vocation, spirituality and mission. This Heart, opened when it was pierced, has remained open, enduringly, widely so, in welcome and acceptance. This is a Heart which is open to all: there are no border controls, because here there are no undesirables; no "them" and "us" or different levels of belonging; no nationalities, because all are citizens. And in this Heart I can call women from every corner of the world my sisters - and that includes those countries the UK is now inexorably seeking to divorce itself from.

Our spirit and motto are Cor unum et anima una in Corde Jesu... one heart and one mind in the Heart of Jesus. Both our 1815 and our 1982 Constitutions end with these words, and with the desire that, in and through the Society, the prayer of Jesus may be fulfilled: The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one (John 17: 22-23)

This spirit was forged in adversity, and against many tides and circumstances which could have caused splits into smaller, more local congregations. Throughout her life Sophie battled to maintain unity, to ensure our Cor Unum was more than just a few initials engraved on our profession crosses. Philippine, far away from the motherhouse, waiting months for letters to cross the Atlantic, somehow kept the American communities within a Society whose centre must have been a receding memory for the pioneers and an unknown entity for newer members. And now, two centuries later, in a world growing increasingly fragmented and polarised, we their heirs are called by last year's General Chapter to be and to act as one Body.

When we make our vows the Superior General, or her representative, accepts them on behalf of the whole Society, ending with the words: In the strength of his Spirit, together we will glorify his Heart. And that strength and that together are both a call and a promise, and something no referendum or visa restriction or political process can ever take away from any of us. In the strength of God's Spirit, we will continue to glorify his Heart - together.