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

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Why we call her blessed

This weekend was marred by the ugliness of white supremacists - those who converged on Charlottesville, and those, in the US and around the world, who cheered them on. The fact that so many of them claim to be Christian was challenged by James Martin SJ, who succinctly reminded us all that the message and example of Jesus - the way Jesus calls us to live - is not about supremacy, boundaries and exclusion, but about service, vulnerability and open-hearted, unbounded welcome and acceptance.

Jesus' Mother Mary was most closely united to his Heart, and to his aims and desires: and today, the Assumption, she reminds us that her life too was not about supremacy, nor about glory and queenship and whatever else has been conferred on her, but about being, as Paul O'Reilly SJ writes in this short reflection, an ordinary young woman who did the most extraordinary thing and the most everyday thing of making Jesus real in the world. 

And certainly, that ordinariness is at the heart of Mary, and of her Magnificat - her sheer delight and awed wonder at the God who looks upon her in her lowliness and works marvels in her. This, she proclaims, is why all generations will call her blessed: not because of any miracles or power or glory of her own, but because she allowed the power and the glory of God to permeate and shine and work in and through her.

And this is what each of us was created for; this is what will be our fulfillment, our delight and our everlasting blessing.

May we all, in the words of Paul O'Reilly's reflection, be people who, with a little prayer, a lot of generosity and truly stupendous human goodness, make the Presence of God truly present in this world... 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Breezes and storms

It has been a momentous week, thanks to storms unleashing from across the Atlantic - and today's Mass readings have provided God's antidote to these events. We began with (and still live under) the threat of nuclear war between the US and N Korea; or rather, between two leaders behaving like belligerent boys squaring up in the playground. We heard Trump threatening N Korea with 'fire and fury', such as the world has never seen: and then in today's first reading (I Kings 19) we were reminded that God is to be found, not in blazing fire or the fury of an earthquake or the mightiness of wind, but in the whisper of a gentle breeze. God is not in unparallelled destructive power, but in something quiet and cooling and barely discernible, except to those who, like Elijah, can wait and listen, discern and encounter God.

And where and how God is, is how he wishes us to be: not in fire and fury, but as gentle as a caressing breeze.

And then in today's Gospel (Matthew 14) we had another storm, this time engulfing the disciples' fishing boat. And Peter, impelled by nothing more than faith and trust and love, stepped out of the boat and into the power of the storm... and I thought of a short video I'd shared to our Facebook page, of clergy and religious leaders in Charlottesville, slowly, prayerfully, purposefully walking towards the storm and the fury of the volatile neo-Nazi mobs... quietly stepping out, armed with nothing more than trust, and faith and a love which demanded that they could do no less than step out.

Would I have as much courage, as much faith and trust and love, to step out into anything resembling such a dangerous storm?

And to end this post... some words of Nelson Mandela, tweeted by Barack Obama, to help us recognise the breeze amidst the fury and the storms of the coming week. May we be people who live and act only from the love which comes most naturally to our hearts...

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Philippine forum: a treasure returns

Even though the rites and prayers are essentially the same, day in, day out, there are times when the Eucharist can spring surprises: when words or symbolic actions can move or inspire, or a hymn or reading seems to leap from the page with new meaning. As we settled down for the closing Eucharist of the Philippine Forum and were told we would be celebrating the jubilees of vows of ten sisters - a total of 375 years between them - that seemed enough of a surprise and an inspiration. But then one of the liturgy team handed me his phone. There's going to be a special ritual at the offertory, he said, asking if I could video it for him. I found out later he'd only heard about this a few minutes before Mass started, and was suddenly impelled to ask. In fact, only three or four people actually knew what was going to happen - for everyone else it was a complete surprise, moving the congregation simultaneously to tears and cheers; to gratitude and utter amazement and awe.

I picked a good position, assuming the 'special ritual', on such an occasion, would be akin to a blaze of glory; a procession maybe, with symbolic gifts. But just as Elijah's God was not in the mighty earthquake or the fire, but in a gentle breeze (I Kings 19), so this ritual happened, not in fanfare and spectacle, but in stillness and simplicity; in something as everyday and unostentatious as one woman handing something to another.

Two RSCJ stood in the centre, one holding a silver ciborium; the other, the US-Canada Provincial, with only the sketchiest idea of what she was about to receive. A third, at the lectern, read a letter from the Provincial of Venezuela, explaining the ciborium's history and significance.

This was the ciborium given by Sophie to Philippine in 1818, as she prepared to set sail. It travelled with her on the Rebecca and up the Mississippi, disembarked at St Louis and took up residence in that cramped, primitive log cabin in St Charles. For the nuns, the creation of a chapel and the first Mass in a new house sealed its foundation, and this ciborium would have been at the centre of that founding moment - in this case, not just of a community, but of an entire mission and heritage; its contents, the very Bread of Life, nourishing and strengthening the nuns for the many challenges which lay ahead.

In 1858 the ciborium was sent to the new foundation in Cuba, where it spent the next century - though it seems that, over time, many religious became unaware of its Society pedigree. That's probably how Sophie and Philippine would have wanted it - that the ciborium should be treated with awe and reverence not because of them, but because of the divinity it held. From Cuba it moved, in 1961, to another new foundation, this time in Venezuela, remaining with the sisters even as they moved into the poorest and most marginalised barrios.

Three countries, three new foundations: three missions in very different times and places, and at the centre of each, the same ciborium, fulfilling its own purpose and mission of holding the Body of Christ; holding, too, and nourishing, the spirit of fervour and audacity, of sacrifice, courage and generosity, of prayer and fidelity, of all those missionaries. All this and more was in this treasure, which the sisters in Venezuela were now returning to America, with much love and prayer, and in a spirit of generosity and Cor Unum which would surely have gladdened Sophie's and Philippine's hearts.

And then - that simplest of gestures - Margot handed the ciborium to Sheila, and, as emotion and held breaths found their release in loud applause, she went over and placed it on the altar. And so the treasure was back, only a short drive from where it had begun its unique mission almost two hundred years ago. Unlike the other vessels it remained empty throughout Mass, but in reality it contained so very much, which spoke to us all of life and so many lives, given and lived to the full, for the glory of God and the love of his Heart.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

In praise of... a Beautiful Demoiselle

It's only the 2nd August, but June already feels much longer than five weeks ago. June was when we basked in unremitting sunshine - when we even had a mercifully brief, stickily uncomfortable heatwave. June was when barbecues and Pimms, bare limbs and toes abounded, when trees were verdantly lush and every leaf and bud was backlit with gold. June moved seamlessly into July, but after about a week, as I departed for the Forum, the temperatures and rain began to fall... and continued to do so. Yes, there have been some dry days, but they've mostly been relatively cool, with overcast skies from which the sun shines only in rare bursts, or only when it rises and sets.

And today, though it's 2nd August, summer temperatures have most definitely segued into autumn, the sky is one huge cloudy grey, and the rain is relentless. Only vegetation's rain-washed bright greenness serves to remind me that it's still summer. So today seems a good day to find and share a photo taken in June's summer brightness; a photo filled with colour and charm, which, I hope, might raise a few of today's chilly and bedraggled spirits.

I met this little beauty in the middle of June beside Oxford Canal, where he obligingly posed for photos and even allowed me to capture his best side. I was instantly captivated, both by his peacock-inky iridescence and his perky charm. I was reminded of him a few days ago, when I read Jonathan Tulloch's paean to a Banded Demoiselle damselfly in last week's Tablet, and this encouraged me to find out more about him. And yes, he is a male, even though he's a damselfly, and, as I discovered, a Beautiful Demoiselle - the French word from which we derive damsel, and which speaks more of demure, blushing maidens than of lusty males! In fact, according to the website he was doing a very male thing for his species - resting on bankside vegetation, waiting for females.

I don't know whether a fair damsel damselfly did indeed flutter by to make his evening, but I do know that for a few minutes, as he posed and goggled and flashed his brilliant wings at me, he certainly made mine.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Philippine forum: the newest star

Judging by many of the 147 brass stars on the St Louis Walk of Fame, the city has, over the decades, nurtured the talents of a number of its residents, who have gone on to make a significant contribution in such diverse fields as literature, sport, entertainment, science, journalism and music. Maya Angelou, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Tennessee Williams, TS Eliot, Kevin Kline, Josephine Baker, Vincent Price, Robert Duvall, Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Pulitzer, Jimmy Connors, Jackie Joyner-Kersee... These were simply the first names which leapt out at me, the first time I looked at the list. Others are maybe only famous locally, or to fans of particular sports or workers in a specific discipline; all were selected from a large number of nominations, to be one of only a few honoured each year.

The newest star, unveiled on the Feast of the Sacred Heart this year, belongs to Philippine, currently the Walk's only saint, as well as one of its oldest inductees. The ceremony was attended by about 100 RSCJ, members of the Sacred Heart family and local Catholics, plus a ragtime band; though, as the St Louis Review commented, she would never have expected or wanted any of this, and would probably have wondered what all the fuss was about.

During the forum two of us took a trip to Delmar Boulevard, keen to see it for ourselves. As we approached United Provisions we stopped to read a couple of citations - a WWII hero and a hockey player. And then we spotted the next star, and even from several feet away, I could see the St above her name, and knew we had found "our" star. Quietly, we read the plaque, before taking photos.

There was something quietly moving about seeing our Philippine, seeing St and RSCJ, Sacred Heart and Woman Who Prays Always, embedded in a pavement. It's one thing to see this recognition in a church or Society setting, quite something else to see it in an urban Walk of Fame: to know that here, Philippine rubs shoulders with feisty women like Tina Turner, Maya Angelou and Martha Gelhorn, as well as athletes, writers and entertainers with whom she would never normally be associated. It gives her a kind of universality; she isn't only ours, but belongs to a much wider world, even if it scarcely knows her - even if it walks over or past her. Here on a pavement, outside a shop and nowhere near a church or school, Philippine Duchesne, that wide-hearted missionary who lived only to make God known across new frontiers, and in new and different places, is continuing her life's mission - which for her must surely be a source of everlasting joy.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Philippine forum: Florissant

The old St Ferdinand shrine, the church and convent where Philippine lived, struggled and suffered for fourteen years, is a kind of holy heritage centre. Its rooms are preserved and furnished to show us the spartan living conditions of both nuns and pupils in the 1820s and 30s; conditions showing a lack of even the simplest comforts and privacy we generally take for granted, but which were normal for that time and place. Thus, on our tour we saw only one bed - a lumpy mattress on a wooden frame in the infirmary; elsewhere, furniture was pushed back and "mattresses" unrolled and laid out to form a rather cramped and basic dormitory.

But on this hot, sultry day, the air humidly oppressive as a thunderstorm gathered, we had the full nineteenth century experience from the moment we walked into the church. There was none of the American air conditioning we had already come to appreciate, to make the interior blissfully cool - if anything, the air here felt even sultrier, wrapping itself heavily around us.  And so we fanned ourselves and swigged water and slowly melted, all too aware that unlike us in our thin cottons, Philippine and her companions would have been encased in thick black habits, several petticoats and a tight, starched cap. By the time we'd made our way up to the stuffy, dark attic where the novices studied and slept - via the lumpy bed, classroom-dormitory and the occasional wispy breeze from an open window - we were all declaring our admiration for the valiant, generous women who had endured these conditions, day by day by day (plus the other climate extreme of harshly cold winters) in order to establish the Society and its mission here. These, truly, were great-hearted women who lived and worked solely for the greater glory of the Heart of Jesus.

But there was one corner of the house where the chatter stopped and gasps became muted. Here we spoke only in reverent, awed murmurs, and didn't crowd around: by common, unspoken consent, each pilgrim was allowed to be alone, silent, in a cramped, airless, under-stairs cupboard, in which the tallest had to stoop. This is where Philippine slept for years, choosing this spot as it was closest to the chapel, and she could creep into "bed" after hours spent in work and prayer, without disturbing the others. Above and around footsteps thumped on the stairs, but within, there was only prayer, soaked into the very walls, as surely as the hundreds of written prayers which fill each crack and corner and cover the floor.

What is it that turns an otherwise negligible, nondescript cupboard into hallowed space? Is it the grace and power of God, or the spirit of the holy woman who slept here; the reverent memories of those who knew her or the prayer and faith of all who have come here on pilgrimage ever since? I don't know - probably, it's all of this and more. All I know is, for a minute or so, as I added my own prayer to countless others, I touched something sacred, and emerged, gravely thoughtful and aware that in this little cubby-hole I had indeed encountered holiness.

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...