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

Thursday, 14 December 2017

I was born here

The other evening, as I was casting around for whatever would be that day's Society quote shared on social media, I saw these words by St Madeleine Sophie. I almost passed them by, as they are well-known, and I've shared them several times already. But this time, something made me stop, read and slowly re-read these words once again: The Heart of Jesus is for (Religious of the Sacred Heart) shelter, food, fire, light, cool water... It is their element, their path, their life, their all. They were born there; there they must grow, live and die: in him, with him, for him.

And for the first time, I read them, not as referring to RSCJ in general, but to me: not to RSCJ "out there", but to me "in here". The Heart of Jesus is for you... It is your element, your path, your life, your all. You were born here... And then came the invitation to truly own the words, to make them mine, and so I found myself saying: The Heart of Jesus is for me shelter, food, fire, light, cool water... It is my element, my path, my life, my all. I was born here; here I grow, live and die; in him, with him, for him. 

I was born here... These words in particular leapt out at me. I was born here, I was formed and created here: here, in the ever-open, pierced and welcoming Heart of Jesus; here, in the very depths of God's abundant, infinite, all-embracing Love. Wow...

At times I reflect on what it means to say I am "of the Sacred Heart", to say I am "of" a Heart which is pure love, totally given. It is a challenge and a privilege, a delight and a vocation in itself. And today, on the twenty-first anniversary of the day I made my vows - vows pronounced to the greater glory of the Heart of Jesus - I am invited to ponder, with desire and gratitude, what it means to be born in that Heart. What can it mean - what do I want it to mean - to say that the Heart of Jesus is my place of birth; to say that I am a native of Jesus' Heart? Nativeness speaks most definitely of belonging and rootedness, of moulding, culture and defining characteristics, and also of deep familiarity and ease, and of one-ness.

I was born here... I hadn't asked for an anniversary gift, but I've been given one, nonetheless. And so I take into this new year of being RSCJ a deeper awareness of my vocation, and the desire to grow in understanding and living this dimension as fully as possible...

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Love and tiny fragility

There is always something rather miraculous about the survival and continued existence of a baby born prematurely, or with serious health problems. When that tiny fragility begins to grow and thrive, to run around, grow up, take its place in the world, then it is indeed lovely and wondrous to behold. And when that baby was born two months prematurely in 1779 - a time when infant mortality was high, even in the best of circumstances - to an ordinary family in a small town, while a fire raged nearby, then the miracle of survival is doubled. And when we recall that this baby ended up living, despite various accidents and ailments, for another 85 years, working hard, resolving problems and travelling long distances right to the end... then it is truly marvellous.

Today the Society celebrates the birth, in inauspicious circumstances, of St Madeleine Sophie Barat: a tiny fragility who not only grew and thrived, but who went on to found and direct our congregation until her death - seeing it, too, develop from a tiny fragility to over three thousand women educating even more girls and young women throughout Europe, North and South America and in North Africa.

But as I marvelled at this with Sophie, she drew my attention to something even more wonderful. Don't focus on the fact that I survived my birth, she whispered, focus rather on the fact that I survived Jansenism. Focus on the tiny fragility which came through an upbringing filled with fear and a forbidding God, and yet was called to know and reveal a Heart overflowing with love. And then focus less on my tiny fragility than on the Love in and by which I was created, for and by which I was strengthened and sustained. 

Love... that's the reason why I lived... Focus on that...

Friday, 8 December 2017

Space for the uncontained God

Denise Levertov's poem, Annunciation, begins with this proclamation from the 6th century Agathistos Hymn: Hail, space for the uncontained God. 

And isn't that a most wondrous, truly awesome (in the word's fullest meaning) privilege and call? To be a space, a host, for the uncontained and uncontainable be space for a God who is uncontained and uncontainable Love... A call and a privilege, very especially - and very literally - for Mary, but also for all of us: to provide a space for a God and a Love which cannot be contained within space; to provide a space from which that Love and divine presence will overflow, filling the world around us.

We celebrate today's feast in the midst of so much which could easily fill us with darkness and despair. May there also be a central space in our hearts for the hope and wonderful immensity of this call, and an awareness of the uncontainable abundance of our God, filling and transforming all that is dark and unloving, even - especially - when we least see it.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Advent: to hurry or to wait

This week's reflection for the Philippine Duchesne year of prayer focuses on her patient (though persistent) waiting, in hope and faith, for the fulfilment of her dreams. My first reaction, on seeing it, was a wry smile: Philippine, waiting and I have a bit of a history. When I applied to join the Society, back in autumn 1993, the Provincial timed her letter of acceptance to reach me on Philippine's feast. In it she explained that while the Team had been delighted to accept my application, they couldn't tell me when or where I might be able to begin my formation (the most suitable communities didn't have any space for an extra member), and so it seemed I would have to wait, maybe several months. In adding that I was receiving this letter on the feast of Philippine, Mary then wrote May she be with you in your waiting. She had to wait years to go to America. 

Fine... But... But I don't want to wait! I declared emphatically to the novice director - I'm ready to enter NOW! And God clearly decided to take me at my word, because a solution was found and I was able to begin my candidacy less than two months later.

Twenty-four years on I'm still in a hurry about many things; and so this reflection is especially appropriate as we enter Advent, a time of waiting, in hope and faith, for the Word to become flesh, in and among us. It invites me to consider how accustomed I have become to rushing and hurrying and instant everything. Certainly, as I zoom along the A40 on my way to work, switching lanes to avoid any sort of congestion or slow lorries, I sometimes ask myself why I'm in such a hurry, as five or seven minutes more or less really makes little difference unless I have an appointment. But still I zoom, just as I opt for quicker seeming queues in shops, and tap keys impatiently when the internet is slow. Those days of waiting for letters to arrive in the post and photos to be developed (after a whole roll of film has been used) truly belong to another era.

But there are some things we shouldn't wait for. Hurry to be holy, Sophie Barat advised a sister, by which she clearly meant don't wait. Don't hang around, waiting for the conditions to be favourable; don't wait for someone to start loving you before you start to love them or others; don't wait to be asked to be generous, selfless, a peacemaker. Just do it, be it, NOW. Hurry, and do all in your power to quicken your step on the road to holiness - don't dawdle, making excuses about the need to smell the flowers and admire the view.

And I rather fancy she'd say similar things to those discerning religious life. Yes, discernment is a process, and at times it needs to go slowly; and yes, commitments need to be fulfilled, debts paid, study completed... but when readiness comes, I'm sure Sophie would say don't wait. Don't wait for a special sign, or for 110% certainty; don't want to wait, if waiting is not required of you. And don't confuse inaction with waiting - plenty can happen and be accomplished whilst waiting, but not during inaction.

Maybe this Advent, time of waiting, of stillness, but also of growing in readiness, we can seek to discern when and how to wait, and when and for what we need to hurry...

(And here, for those with limited time, is a lovely two minute video from Busted Halo, reminding us that Advent is a time of expectant waiting, hopeful anticipation and joyful preparation for the arrival of a very special guest...)

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Forsan et haec olim...

Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit... Perhaps one day it will be a joy to remember these things...

This line, one of the best-known from Virgil's Aeneid, can be hard to translate elegantly, but is not hard to understand. Perhaps one day remembrance will be a joy; perhaps, though, it will not, or maybe, as so often, it will be bittersweet, an interweaving of what is lost with what remains and has grown strong or dear. Sometimes even the happiest of memories are tinged with sadness or regret, or laced with wistfulness, especially as the people in them die, or places and institutions close or change beyond recognition.

For me, this has certainly been a week of remembrance. It began on Saturday when a friend attended the 80th anniversary celebrations of the Young Christian Workers in this country, and posted photos on Facebook of herself with others she'd met who were also members in the early 1980s, eliciting a flurry of comments. These vaguely familiar faces, though frozen in our memories in their early twenties, plus - for me - the sight of my friend's YCW badge, brought on a wave of nostalgia, as memories of people and events, jokes, songs and romances tumbled out. Those were the glorious days of our youth, and a pleasure to recall.

The week ended on Friday, when work took me to Hackney, to a place very close to where I worked for two years, so that my journey back to the station meant a slight detour into the churchyard of St John at Hackney church. Here, from 2000-2002 I was responsible for the day centre and advice service in a small, often struggling and overwhelmed project for the homeless and the general waifs and strays and marginalised of the area - an area which has certainly been smartened and cleaned up in the intervening years. Where once beggars and street drinkers - each one known to me - had punctuated the grubby streets and pathways, now there were coffee kiosks and council workers clearing leaves, and shiny gates. The homeless were elsewhere, presumably at whichever local centre is open on a Friday (my former project having closed some years ago): but even in that cleaned-up churchyard the raucous, vulnerable, lovable spirits of those I had known were abundantly present, with all the idiosyncrasies and chaos which made them simultaneously endearing and frustrating. Those two years were draining and difficult at so many levels, but I learnt a lot, and whilst the recalling isn't always joyful and the nostalgia is infused with dark realism, there is some pleasure, and a lot of affection in the remembrance.

The day before, under a blazingly blue sky in which sunlight turned autumn leaves to gold, I had driven to Sussex for the funeral of a former colleague from my time in local government in the 1980s. Several other colleagues were there, instantly recognisable despite the many years since I had last seen them, and instantly easy to reconnect with. Together we remembered a time when social housing was managed by locally-based housing officers, who visited tenants alone and without the backup of mobile phones; a time when things somehow seemed simpler and easier to achieve, and the odd rule could be bent to aid someone's need. We recalled Gilbert strips and paper records, and even more, some of the characters who peopled the office, commenting wistfully that eccentrics seem in short supply these days. And, of course, we recalled - among ourselves and to his family - the person we were there for, a boss who managed our office with a light touch, creating a friendly and lively atmosphere to balance the seriousness of our work. An unashamedly working-class boss, who sometimes seemed surprised by his status, which he wore as lightly as possible; a funny, idiosyncratic, hard-working, self-deprecating man who kept his office door open and was invariably at the heart of the most memorable pranks and jokes from that time. And a man who would never have known what forsan et haec olim... means, but unenviously delighted in knowing someone "clever" who did...

So, a week filled with memories, sweetly bittersweet and nostalgic; and with loss, not only of times and places, but of people who, each in their own way, have been dear to me, who have taught me so much and are part of the story of who and what I am today.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The times in which we live...

The times in which we live call for fervour, fidelity and generosity. The heart's best security is to trust in God alone. ~ St Madeleine Sophie Barat

Sitting down to pray with the material for our monthly prayer for vocations I was especially struck by these words. Only an hour or so earlier we had sighed and spoken with anguish of the times in which we live, as we shared the news of the terrorist atrocity in Egypt, of so many hundreds killed, injured and indelibly traumatised by this attack on worshippers at prayer. The times in which we live seem to be especially violent, unstable and ruthlessly terrifying.

And yet... I do not know exactly when, in her long life, Sophie wrote these words, but it occurred to me that the times in which we live are probably no more violent and fearful than the times in which she lived... times filled with their own revolutions, wars, intolerance and terrorism. And that Sophie's times, like ours, like all times, also overflow with hatred's opposites: with kindness, generosity, compassion, solidarity and love; with people called, in the midst of all this, to be peacemakers and reconcilers, called to live and love, not for themselves, but for the common good and for the healing and wholeness of their world. We need to remind ourselves of this, hold on to it, and be among those responding to the call to reconciliation and healing.

The times in which we live, with all their pain and anguish, beauty and hope, call for - and call forth - vast reserves of fervour, fidelity and generosity. And to paraphrase the prayer with which we ended our community prayer this evening...

Let us pray that other women, filled with the desire to spread your compassion and love to the ends of the earth, will respond to the call... to love and prayer, attention and openness, steadfast purpose and living faith...

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Legacy and spirit

Three days ago we celebrated the feast of St Philippine Duchesne, and with it, we began to commemorate the bicentenary of her journey, with four companions, to America in the spring of 1818. Today we go back in time to 1800: we leave the ocean's vastness and wide-open spaces of Louisiana and Missouri, and find ourselves in a Parisian attic, at a clandestine Mass just a few years after the infamous Reign of Terror and the guillotining of priests and religious. As with 1818 we find ourselves with a tiny group of women; fervent, generous, courageous women, taking a huge risk into a largely unknown and uncertain future.

And thus, 217 years ago today, the Society of the Sacred Heart was born, as Sophie and her first companions committed themselves to God in this fledgling community, trusting that somehow, what they were doing would be for the healing and rebuilding of their shattered society. We will probably never know exactly what they thought they would accomplish or achieve; whether or how much they felt daunted by the brokenness and needs all around them, what doubts or fears they may have had... but we do know that they must have had faith, must have believed that this was a venture worth undertaking, a risk worth taking. They must surely have believed that, small and obscure though they were, they had something to offer, through both contemplative prayer and educational mission; through zeal and desire and, above all, through an open-hearted, wholehearted love born in the depths of the Heart of Jesus.

Today, wherever we are, we too find ourselves, if not in shattered societies, then most certainly in wounded, troubled ones. We live in a world of contrasts, of suffering and beauty, goodness and heroism alongside - and often emerging from - violence and pain. We too can feel daunted, powerless and helpless in the face of so much brokenness: but it is precisely at such moments that we are called most strongly to welcome once again the grace of our vocation, to give our lives in compassion and communion, in contemplation and generous, God-revealing love. This is the legacy and the spirit bequeathed to us by this tiny band of courageous, faith-filled women, and especially by Sophie. We can do no less.