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

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Philippine forum: St Charles

After her death at St Charles in 1852, Philippine was buried in the grounds of the convent and school. Following her beatification in 1940 her remains were moved into a specially built shrine beside the school. It's a simple, spacious place; quiet, peaceful and full of light. The altar occupies the centre, and, nearby, Philippine reposes in an unadorned marble sarcophagus. And this was where my little group ended our visit, sitting in silent prayer.

We say Philippine rests here; but I believe she doesn't rest, because we don't let her. Beside the sarcophagus is a small basket, almost overflowing with prayer intentions written on the slips of paper beside it. The Woman Who Prays Always, who was devoted to the Society and spent her life in hard work and busyness, is spending her eternity praying and being busy on our behalf - and maybe this, for her, is heaven.

In my group were RSCJ from several countries and various missions, including one very new one. Some came from a newly formed region which has been named after her, and we're only a year after a Chapter which drew inspiration from her pioneering spirit. All of these and more, I'm sure, were in the intentions confided to Philippine's prayer and left in the little basket. Our first missionary continues to reach new frontiers, to inspire and impel us ever onward and outward in answering God's call to make known the love of his Heart in new places and ways. In life Philippine may well have considered herself useless and an encumbrance, but I'm sure that in heaven she has discovered that she was - and continues to be - anything but.

And from this atmosphere of quiet grace Philippine's spirit sent us out, to continue our pilgrimage...

Friday, 21 July 2017

Philippine forum: encounter

Anyone who follows me on Twitter or Instagram will know that I've just returned home from a spirituality forum in the US, focused on the life, inspiration and legacy of St Philippine Duchesne. It was an intensely rich and varied time, and I suspect one blog post alone will not suffice to describe it. Instead, as I reflect on it, sifting through photos and memories, I will probably write various short posts to try and capture some of the themes and events which have especially filled my heart.

And my heart right now is full of people! Those five days in St Louis - and then my short stay in Chicago - were rich in all sorts of encounters. There were some RSCJ there who I knew well, even if we hadn't met for a long time: perhaps we had lived together, shared significant experiences; maybe they had spent time in my Province or I in theirs, or we had simply met and re-met at different times and meetings over the years. Then there were those American RSCJ and other members of the wider family who had come to our Janet Stuart events three and four years ago; as we had welcomed them to the best of our country, history and culture now they happily welcomed us to theirs.

Inevitably, in a forum of about 350 people, there were many - sisters, associates, alumnae and staff - I had never met before. There were some names already known to me - and I was especially delighted to meet Cathy Mooney, who wrote the biography of Philippine I read on my way into the Society - but many others, hitherto unknown, yet with whom connections could easily be made. Certainly, when I arrived at St Louis airport, to be cheerily and warmly greeted by alumnae from St Charles, a joyous embrace was the most spontaneously natural thing to do. Yes; at one level we were strangers, and yet at another, deeper one we were not: as a teacher at one of our schools had written, upon finding herself at an RSCJ-run albergue on the Camino de Santiago, in the Sacred Heart network, all roads really do lead to family...

There was a special group, too, only a dozen or so, whom I had only ever met online, thanks to social media. There were some RSCJ with whom I have shared and sparred, laughed, dreamed, grieved and condoled via Facebook, whose faces I only knew in photos, their voices not at all. Now, even after just a few days, we know each other differently. To my delight too, there were some readers of this blog, and others with whom I have connected via Twitter, often camouflaged by our handles. (Hello, I'm heart in the world, I said to some, by way of introduction) In the Sacred Heart all roads really do lead to family, and to richer, livelier encounter...

Specially made banner
And underlying all this, a new, deeper encounter with Philippine, the one whose vision and legacy had brought us all together. Woman of prayer and passion, of grit, grace and generosity, her spirit and huge heart hovered over and among us, as surely as her face gazed down from banner and PowerPoint alike. In the conference hall, and very specially at St Charles and Florissant, we learnt more about her fallibility and her strength, her vision - at once wide and constrained - and her heroic courage and commitment. In her fallibility she is as human as any of us; somehow, because of this, her commitment is rendered even more inspiring. I just hope I'll be able to convey something of this inspiration and this encounter in my posts...

Monday, 10 July 2017


The host I received at Communion today was a broken part of a much larger host. Its shape was an imperfect, crooked triangle, with jagged edges - and yet within that tiny, imperfect, broken piece of bread dwelt all the holiness and wholeness of Christ, gladly coming to dwell within me.

Brokenness has been on my mind recently, as I've just finished watching Broken, the harrowing, heart-breaking, quietly hopeful BBC drama series about a priest, played by Sean Bean with powerful restraint. He is a strong yet fragile, broken man, imperfect, with jagged edges, ministering to fragile, broken, jagged-edged people in a bleakly despairing, rundown inner city parish. As Sarah Hughes wrote in The GuardianBean’s Father Michael is quiet and conflicted, haunted by his past and battling a sadness that has seeped deep into his soul. He commands the screen, his pain flitting across that gaunt, ravaged face...

In each episode we have seen him breaking the bread of Eucharist, and at this holiest of moments suffering guilt and flashbacks to the darkest corners of his childhood. His ministry means there's no hiding or running away: day in, day out, he performs the actions and says the words which fill him with darkness and dread, even as they fill him and his broken congregation with the healing love and wholeness of Christ. And indeed Christ is present throughout each episode: often, as he sits down with someone, Father Michael pauses to light a candle, to remind us that God is here, in all the pain. There is light within the darkness, and, underpinning each episode, a strong, unbreakable faith. Michael may well struggle with his vocation, be aware of his brokenness and weakness, frustrated, angered and rendered helpless by unjust situations and haunted by his inability to resolve them, but his faith in God, his hope and belief in the presence of goodness remain intact.

Each week we have also seen these broken people queuing up for Communion, seen its power and the healing it brings. Why did you give me Communion? asks the tortured, isolated young police officer, torn between truth and loyalties. Why did you come up for it? asks Michael. Because I've never needed it so much in all my life, he replies, to which Michael responds, simply That's why I gave it to you. 

A need and a hunger so many of us have known and can resonate with - yes, there is indeed indescribable power in those tiny wafers, and in the faith which receives them. And that is why Jesus gives us himself, in the daily, everyday miracle of the Eucharist; why he allows himself to be broken, hour after hour, day after day, as vital food for our journeys and the healing and wholeness of all our flaws and jagged edges.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

In praise of... Wimbledon

Ah, Wimbledon... sublimely manicured lawns... players crisply attired in white.. Pimms, overpriced strawberries... tension, drama... power, delicacy and peaches of shots, the cheers, groans and gasps of millions, and If above the players' entrance... A bastion of traditions masquerading as a tennis tournament: traditions which are in fact rules, whose origins lie in bygone eras but whose existence is somehow as reassuring as a Werther's Original toffee.

What other tournament would dare to dictate precisely how players must dress, down to underwear, scope of non-white trimmings and size of logos? And indeed, what other tournament would get away with any sort of rule arising solely from leisured Victorian norms? Yes, players do chafe under the rule and point out its absurdities, but Wimbledon's prestige means they all comply - to many spectators' appreciation. In other tournaments, with their bright colours and bold patterns, the men in particular look as though they've turned up in their practice kit, or for some kind of "dress down Friday" event, whereas at Wimbledon they've all clearly dressed for the occasion. Somehow, tennis played on vibrant green lawns by people in fresh, crisp white just seems so very, very right.

If Wimbledon were a woman she'd be a Maggie Smith dowager: imperious, wily and willing only to adapt and change in (at times surprising) ways that suit her. She would, of course, be utterly acerbic about grunting, and regard it as disdainfully as she would a turquoise patterned shirt on Centre Court. As a man, Wimbledon would be a John Gielgud don, gazing down on the quad, sherry glass in hand, pondering the changing world and noisily exuberant fans in slow, mellifluous tones, simultaneously bemused and yet utterly in command.

And it is that sense of stability in a changing, crazy world, with all its violence and division, which lies at the heart of the reassurance we get from Wimbledon. The world - certainly this country - may feel as though it is spinning out of kilter, but for these two weeks there is a corner of south west London exuding tradition, stability, benign calm and just the right amount and type of noise and craziness.

Monday, 3 July 2017

I find your love

I spent the past weekend at a Come & See discernment event for women feeling called to religious life. It was blessed and rich, and very full. During these weekends we share our lives, our way of living our commitment and our mission, beginning with the depths of our spirituality of the Heart of Jesus, and our charism of discovering and making known the unlimited and unconditional love of that Heart. This time, we were sharing at the end of a very full, turbulent, anguished month which has been both heart-breaking and heart-widening.

Messages posted at a community centre near Grenfell Tower
In less than thirty days we had two terrorist attacks in London, either side of the heart-rending horror of the Grenfell Tower fire, which exposed so many ingrained inequalities and policy failures. We also had a General Election which has left us with a weak, chaotically defensive government and their unpopular deal with the DUP. And as a backdrop to all this, the division, violence, prejudice and poverty now all-too prevalent in this country, as well as the commemorations of Jo Cox with many unifying 'great get togethers'. In these four weeks we have seen the worst of humanity but also the best of it: selfless, heroic actions, generosity, compassion, solidarity, love and reaching out across divisions in countless small ways as well as large. In the beating of these human hearts in accordance with the rhythm of life, with joy we discover the love of the Heart of Jesus... (General Chapter 2008)

And as ever our call as RSCJ has been to gather all this contemplatively into our prayer: to know for ourselves and make known to others the presence and love of God, and to live our fundamental belief that love is stronger than hate, and vastly greater and more powerful than suffering and death. That is at the core of the Sacred Heart, whose feast we have just celebrated and in whose month so much suffering and pain has just happened, just as it is at the core of our charism.

And so we shared, not only our spirituality, but how we keep our hope alive, and where and how we recognise God's love, in strength and fragility, wounds and wholeness. As part of our prayer and reflection on all this I used this song by Beth Neilsen Chapman. Its lyrics speak gently yet powerfully of this daily call and challenge to faith and hope, and the amazing grace of finding God's love, even from sorrow's edge. I share it here for anyone who feels their hope needs re-finding and rekindling ..

I'll catch your smile on someone's face
Your whisper in the wind's embrace
Through diamond stars and songs, and dreams
I find your love in everything.

The sun, the sky, the rolling sea
All conspire to comfort me
From sorrow's edge life's beauty seems
To find your love in everything.

I've come to trust the hope it brings
To find your love in everything
Even as I fall apart
Even through my shattered heart

I'll catch your smile on someone's face
Amazing grace...

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Hanging in there

On Saturday we had a day of prayer and reflection for members of the Province. We began by prayerfully looking back over the year, recalling what had been difficult or challenging as well as whatever had given us life or joy.

Not surprisingly, given the year we've had, recalling what has been challenging wasn't hard. Division, violence and prejudice, desperation, growing poverty and inequality; a general weariness, and a temptation to hopelessness. Which is why the life-giving has been so essential! Glimpses of God, whether through people or nature, stories of goodness, selfless bravery and generosity; people and situations which speak of love and hope, rather like flowers sprouting up on wasteland. All this and more, to be placed in God's ever-open Heart.

Whenever we gathered for a plenary session we sat around a centrepiece featuring a large vase of lilies. And from where I was sitting I could see a single leaf, detached from its stalk but somehow hanging on by a single, thin fibre. It was a breezy day, and at times this leaf was caught up in the current coming through opened windows and doors: it whirled and twirled, sometimes dancing, at others swaying vigorously like an overwrought pendulum. As the breeze died down it would still sway, turn or tremble slightly, never completely still. All day long it hung there, literally hanging by a thread, rocked and buffeted, and all day long that single, so very slender, seemingly fragile fibre stayed strong.

And so can you... it said to me, so can you... just hang in there, however rocked and buffeted. Allow the wind to lead you into dance when you can, and simply bend into it when you can't. Just remember to trust the strength and durability of the thread which keeps you connected to the Source of your life, no matter how fragile it might at times seem...

Friday, 23 June 2017


On Trinity Sunday I heard an excellent homily, by James Hanvey SJ - who I was fortunate enough to have as my lecturer on the Trinity almost twenty years ago. He began the homily by talking of the three different types or levels of knowledge: knowing about (from a distance); acquaintance (initial meetings); and participation (relationship). And for a while I listened with only one ear; I left the Trinity, so to speak, because in his words I heard more about the Sacred Heart, and about being RSCJ.

Because this is what the Heart of Jesus invites us to - an ever deepening relationship and intimacy, and flowing out from that, participation in his mission of love. This is the challenge and the privilege which lies at the heart of our vocation as RSCJ, and at the heart of our charism. Christ invites us to enter into the dispositions of His Heart, say our Constitutions: effectively, as in today's Gospel, he invites us to yoke ourselves to him, so that we can work as a team, moving in unison, always together. Thus we grow in union with his Heart: his dispositions, outlook, ways of relating, his desires and dreams become ours; his Heart becomes our heart, his mission is our mission. In a world growing increasingly divided we are called to greater, deeper union; to that hurting, wounded world we can bring the healing of the love flowing from his Heart to ours.

Today, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, I will join with RSCJ throughout the world as we celebrate this Heart which is the source of God's infinite, unconditional love and renew our commitment, made through vows, to our participation in making that love known, however and wherever we may be. May we, and everyone reading this, grow in union, intimacy and participation with Jesus' Heart and his desire for us and for our world.

Happy Feast everyone!