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

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Love has no alibi

Yesterday the worldwide Sacred Heart family celebrated the feast of St Philippine Duchesne, our great-hearted first missionary, who wanted only to spend her life in the service of the poor and marginalised of her time. Today the worldwide Church keeps the first-ever World Day of the Poor, in which we are exhorted by the Pope to love, not with words but with deeds. I'm sure that Philippine will be delighted to cede her festivities in favour of the poor, vulnerable and marginalised, and would encourage us, as the Pope does, to turn our gaze to all those who stretch out their hands and plead for our help and solidarity. 

Reading through the Pope's letter for this Day I was especially struck by one very short sentence in the first paragraph: Love has no alibi. And of course it's true. Love does not - simply cannot - say Not yet... or I'll start loving when the conditions are right and favourable... or Of course, when she loves me and is nice to me, then I'll love her back... Love simply loves, with no half-measures, no alibi, no diversionary or delaying tactic, no expectation of reward.

And in this Philippine can lead us by example: she who, as a young woman ministering to the sick and dying poor of Grenoble, told her over-concerned relatives to Let me alone; it is my happiness and glory to serve my divine Saviour in the person of the unfortunate and the poor. For Philippine love most surely had no alibi, or any conditions or restraint. May she, today and every day, help us to serve the poor with a great-hearted love which has no alibis, and which shows itself in deeds and not just words.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Love makes the story whole

I sat down to write this post aware that, this year, so much has already been written and shared about Philippine, with so much more to come. Since the summer we have been building up to celebrating what our Superior General, in her letter for this feast, called the bicentennial of the Society of the Sacred Heart’s courageous decision to live its mission and charism beyond known frontiers. This courageous decision was inspired by today's saint, Philippine Duchesne, who led the little group of five RSCJ who arrived in America in 1818, and whose generosity, openness, tenacity, courage, faith-filled prayer and so much more are becoming the focus and inspiration not only for our personal prayer, but also for our communal reflections about mission and engagement.

Yes, a great many words have already been written (several hundred by me!), and thousands more will appear during the coming year, especially in the weekly reflections from RSCJ around the world. In the midst of all these presentations, prayers and reflections, I wondered about what else or more I could write for this blog. What, I asked Philippine - if anything - did she want me to write about today? If there was something she wanted me to add or emphasise, what could it be? The answer came, quietly and gently, but also emphatically several hours later, when - reading something else - I found myself reminded of Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, and in particular these words of his...

The Gospel of grace calls out: nothing can ever separate you from the love of God.

You must be convinced of this, trust it, and never forget to remember. Everything else will pass away, but the love of Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Faith will become vision, hope will become possession, but the love of Jesus Christ that is stronger than death endures forever. In the end it is the one thing you can hang on to.

This, of course, was what lay at the heart of Philippine's life and experience: that nothing, and nobody could ever separate her from the love of the God she had pledged her life to, and for and in whom she lived and moved and had her being. She was generous, open-hearted, passionate, because - even in times of darkness - she knew God's superabundant love to be even more so. And yes, she had her failures, struggles and challenges; yes, she was acutely aware of her inner poverty and limitations; and yes, all this is a huge part of her life's story - but they are not the whole story. What makes that story whole is the Love which is stronger than death and endures forever, the one thing Philippine could hang on to when all else seemed to fail and fall apart... the one thing we can hang on to...  

In the face of difficulties and challenges Philippine held on to her God, held on to the certainty of God's love, and starkly, faithfully, doggedly lived her own Gospel of grace; her own daily infusion of all-conquering grace. Her example reminds and inspires us to do the same, in the midst of our own setbacks and struggles; reminds us, too, that the way of grace isn't only for saints - but it is the material from which saints are made. May we all hear the Gospel of grace calling out, and let its truth permeate our lives.

Happy feast everyone, and happy year of prayer and engagement with the God who is Love, and with Philippine...

Monday, 13 November 2017

In praise of... being barmy

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music... ~ Nietzsche

A friend is entering religious life in a monastery today. If the years and months ahead confirm that this is how and where God wants her to be, then she will spend the rest of her life in this one place, going elsewhere only for specified purposes. Her days will be structured and ordered towards personal and liturgical prayer, reading, study and whatever work she has been assigned in the house or its grounds. She will learn to become more silent in her actions and to measure her speech, as a means of deepening her interior silence, infusing her day with prayer and her whole life with this single-minded quest for God. This, and a life of austere simplicity, will be her response to the manifold needs of our world. 

She is, in short, embarking on a way of life which even she has admitted can appear the height of folly - crazy, barmy - even to devout Catholics. That word - barmy - was the same one used by a good friend almost 25 years ago when I was preparing to embark on my own adventure with God. You're barmy, I can still hear her insisting, absolutely barmy. No other word for it - barmy. She was unswayed by the fact that I was joining an apostolic order (heaven knows what she'd have said to my would-be monastic friend!): no amount of usefulness or mission or engagement with and in the world could cancel out the fact that I was... barmy.

And at one level I was - still am; and at another level entering was the sanest, most logical and reasonable thing I could ever have done. There was music I could not leave unheard and un-danced to; an enchanting Love I could not resist; an urgent, compelling call being written in my heart which I could not leave unanswered. So I left many things behind, vaguely trusting that I would gain so much more. And twenty-something years on, that music still plays, more sweetly than any sacrifice; that compelling call is engraved deep within, and Love still holds me enthralled.

Today monasteries are celebrating the feast of all those who have lived this call according to the Rule of St Benedict. It's also the feast of St Stanislaus, who in Ignatian circles is the patron saint of novices, those people in the early stages of formation and incorporation - and still in the very early stages of this utter folly for God. Today I pray for them, and very especially for my friend; and pray too, that many more women will hear and respond to Love's call, however barmy it may seem...

Thursday, 9 November 2017

It has to be love

We do not realise that we need never fear to love too much, but rather not to love enough... Let us love frankly, loyally, generously as our Lord had loved us. 

I was looking for something else when I stumbled across these words from Janet Erskine Stuart, found and bookmarked well over a year ago. I don't know the context in which they were written, and I can't remember what exactly struck me about them then and made me think I'd want to revisit them, but these words seem so very right for now. In a world filled with ugliness and pain and injustice, and in a week in which yet more innocent people have been killed for no other reason than hatred, the call has to be to love. It has to be to love as Jesus loved, and as he taught us to love; to be, and to radiate the Love which I know and experience, fundamentally and primordially, and to which I have pledged my life. And in this my only fear must be not that my love be unreturned or unappreciated, but that I do not manage to love widely, strongly, deeply enough...

In a bruised, pain-filled world which seems to be falling apart, in situations filled with discord and unhappiness, love has to be the only thing which can heal and hold us together.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Ordinary extraordinary

Over the past few weeks a new photographic challenge has emerged on Facebook: seven days of black and white photos of one's daily life, with no people or explanations. The results have been interesting, and striking. Drained of their bright colours and infused, instead, with the subtleties of myriad greys, the bleaching of ultra pale colours and the emboldening of dark ones, the subjects develop a new life, while the play of light and shadow acquires greater prominence. While some of the photos have been of vistas or buildings, others show ordinary, everyday things - a pile of books, some foliage, a bowl of fruit - rendered extraordinary by the medium of black and white, highlighting every otherwise overlooked detail, every difference in texture and every nuance of colour.

On day 4 I posted this image - a detail from a chair back - and received various comments and questions. Stripped of its burnished brown the wood no longer looked like wood; instead, the image appeared intriguing, mysterious even. One of my sisters, discovering what it was, commented that this showed there is beauty everywhere. And indeed there is: as another sister, with whom I lived several years ago would sometimes say, even in the midst of ugliness and pain - the loveliness is everywhere. 

And then, a few days ago, I came across this poem by Mark Nepo, in which the loveliness is indeed everywhere, and the ordinary is rendered extraordinary, not by black and white photos but by eyes and heart attuned to God's presence permeating the world. May we develop and deepen such eyes and hearts, especially in times and places where God's loveliness is harder to find and hold on to; and may we be willing to be where we are, finding both God, and joy, in the front row and the cheap seats alike...

The further I wake into this life,
the more I realise that God is everywhere
and the extraordinary is waiting quietly
beneath the skin of all that is ordinary.

Light is in both the broken bottle and the diamond,
and music is in both the flowing violin and
the water dripping from the drainage pipe.
Yes, God is under the porch
as well as on top of the mountain,
and joy is in both the front row and the bleachers,
if we are willing to be where we are.

And here's the original

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Playing with time

What is the "right" time, especially in a world in which "time" is adjusted according to the seasons?

Here in Britain, until the 1840s and the development of the railways (and the need for timetables), each town or city kept its own time, which differed, sometimes by ten or more minutes, from the time kept elsewhere, and particularly "London Time", as set by Greenwich. Even after railway clocks were synchronised with Greenwich Mean Time, many towns refused, sometimes for decades, to alter their other public clocks, their residents presumably developing mental clocks which recalculated time if they needed to catch a train or keep an appointment in town. To this day, a type of "Oxford Time" still exists, thanks to the clock on Tom Tower, still stubbornly and quaintly five minutes ahead of the rest of the country. A few other clocks in Oxford also ring out different times; thus I soon learnt to recognise peals and knew without needing to check my watch how fast or slow each one was.

But in fact, while I lived there my own home was a microcosm of Oxford's many clocks, though rarely in synch with any one in particular! What, exactly, is "standard time" or even the "correct" time, when laptop, phone, alarm, cooker, microwave, tablet and God knows what else each manage to differ from each other, sometimes by a few minutes? And when these differ from my watch and car clock? Yes, I could of course have synchronised everything with Big Ben, but modern appliances are rarely straightforward, and all this would be time-consuming. Much easier to do as those Victorians did, and simply get used to remembering by how much each device is fast or slow, and make my mental adjustments accordingly.

Last night here in the UK we did our twice-annual exercise in playing with time, and set our clocks back one hour to Greenwich Mean Time. Even though temperatures here in London are still in their early teens and the days are intermittently sunny, we bid farewell to British Summer Time for six months, ushering in early dusks and long nights. Not so long ago this adjustment simply meant turning little knobs on clocks and watches - or, in the case of older timepieces, opening the front glass casing and moving the minute hand back or forward. But as this little cartoon from Innocent Drinks reminds us, modern life is somewhat more complicated: some devices do automatically reset themselves by magic, while with everything else it's all too easy to accidentally reset the oven timer instead of its clock, or plunge something into a completely different time zone.

Which is why, for the next six months, I will be driving a car whose clock is 54 minutes faster than my watch - as I have every winter since I inherited it in 2012! Why waste precious time frowning and fiddling with a clock I'll only have to re-fiddle with in March, and which I already know is 54 minutes fast? No, like so many others, I save my time, preferring to spend half the year with a clock which is an hour or so astray...

Friday, 27 October 2017

The one you long for

Each month a different community or group in our Province suggests a prayer or reflection we can all use to pray for vocations. This month, we were sent an adaptation of John O'Donohue's For Longing: a prayer beginning Blessed be the longing that brought you here and that quickens your soul with wonder... which can be prayed as a blessing for someone who is discerning, or taking the next steps in their adventure with God.

As we prayed it the other evening I was really struck by the words: May the one you long for long for you. Our longing for God, and God's deep desire for us are embedded in scripture and spirituality, and deeply so within our own personal stories and responses. There are indeed times when we long intensely for God; when we experience what Janet Erskine Stuart called the beatitude of hunger: there are also times when we race eagerly forward, only to discover that there are always parts of us which lag behind. We long for God, and simultaneously we fear the consequences of having God. We long; we lag; we hunger; we fear... we draw back even as we move forward, rather as we would if approaching a furnace, even though we know that with God, we risk only being consumed by the Love for and by which we were created.

May the one you long for long for you... And then it occurred to me that this is also a short prayer on its own, to be addressed to God, perhaps on behalf of someone we know, or maybe simply for an unknown discerner, teetering on the edge of response and beatitude, and in need of our prayer. O God, may the one you long for long for you... with intensity and urgency... with wonder and love overcoming fear...

But of course, before I can say the prayer on behalf of anyone else, I have to begin by saying it for myself...