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

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Going on retreat

I'm packing my bags and preparing to go on retreat. I'm looking forward to eight days of solitude and space; of greenness and hills and woodland in which I can roam; of wide-open skies and a thousand stars; of prolonged prayer infusing my days, silence, some reading and much time to simply be with God. Obviously, I'm hoping for balmy days, stunning sunsets and clear night skies - a retreat is so much more pleasant in good weather - but I also know that God will be in any rain, clouds or chilly winds we might get instead. And if it rains then, maybe, there will be the delight of rainbows, and sudden bursts of sunshine turning wet grass into a carpet of glistening jewels.

But, some of you might wonder, how does a retreat unfold? How is all that time and space for a retreatant? What can it contain? Well, maybe this cartoon, which floated into my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, can give you some idea... Though I myself won't be floating, except maybe, hopefully, metaphorically... But yes, spending time with God can alter how we view our world, and ourselves; can fill us with compassion and sorrow, plus waves of pure joy, and enable us to see and experience God - and his angels - in some very surprising ways and places. Certainly, all this and more can and does happen while sipping tea, intensely observing bees nuzzling into flowers, climbing hills, dodging showers, cooking lunch and watching sheep endlessly, placidly munching, come rain, hail or sun... as well as while consciously seated in prayer...

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Grey is my new blonde

The other week I came across this news item, about women who have deliberately stopped dyeing their hair in order to cover their greyness. This article led me to the Grombre account on Instagram and the Twitter hashtag. The women posting, many still in their thirties and forties, told similar stories: of feeling pressured to colour their hair, and shame at their greyness and signs of ageing; a realisation, too, that their male contemporaries were being left in peace, and could, as the article puts it transition to silver with the salt-and-pepper grace of George Clooney. And with this came a sense of liberation, and - one hopes - an awareness of their innate loveliness, which is enhanced, rather than diminished, by grey streaks and shading.

I'm blessed, in that, though I'm vain about quite a few things, my hair colour isn't really one of them, and so - though I'd be very happy to still have the sandy blonde hair of my younger self - I've never felt the pressure or yearned to colour it. I'm also lucky in that, unlike the Grombre women, my greyness is relatively recent - it didn't feature at all in my thirties or even early forties. Then came the first few white hairs, and I wryly realised that whereas before entering religious life I used to pay to have subtle bleached highlights, Mother Nature had now started providing them for free.

That said, I'm not sure when, exactly, my hair began to turn grey. This is partly due to being fair-haired, so that those early whites simply blended in. I also carry a strong ginger gene, and I've noticed that redheads generally fade gradually into a softer, paler version of their original colour. All this meant that it was only in my mid-forties, whilst getting my hair cut, that I began to notice a slender grey pinstripe in the damp-darkened locks falling into my lap. Over the years the pinstripes have broadened and multiplied, and my blonde hair has darkened; even so, it was a surprise when someone described me, aged fifty-one, as having 'salt-and-pepper hair'. He could have made my day with silver and gold - but no, I'm now the far more prosaic (albeit very George Clooney graceful) salt and pepper!

By then, a combination of grey pigment placement plus the layering of my hairstyle meant I was well on the way to the kind of dip-dye 'ombre' effect you see before you. And as salons can charge £60 or more for a less complicated treatment, it seems that Mother Nature is once again providing me with expensive services absolutely free of charge!

She is also something of an alchemist - or at least, Brother Sun is. How else to explain the startling difference in colour one wintry day, depending on whether or not I stood in the sun? Ah well, forget salt and pepper - here, for once, I was able to go from silver to gold literally in two easy paces!

Monday, 6 August 2018

Caught up as we are...

Let us be caught up like Peter to behold the divine vision, and to be transfigured by that glorious Transfiguration. ~ Anastasius of Sinai

This was one of several tweets which greeted me this morning, feast of the Transfiguration. And what caught my attention, so that I remembered it as the others faded away, were those first few words: Let us be caught up... instantly reminding me of a sentence in our Constitutions:

Caught up as we are in the desires of His Heart,
we want people to grow in dignity, as human beings
and as children of God.

To be caught up in or by something is to be captivated or seized by it, often to the exclusion of other things. How often have we become so 'caught up' in an activity that we lose track of the time, or fail to notice or hear something else? This is Peter, caught up and longing to remain with this resplendent vision of radiant glory, just as anyone would love to be 'caught up' and remain in prayer, in God - rapt, focused, silent, still; beholding and being beheld.

But it strikes me that being 'caught up' in the desires of Jesus' Heart has a very different effect. The Heart of Jesus draws us to him in order to open us to the pain and the needs of our world: we are caught up, not in a vision or in signs of glory, or even in uninterrupted communion, but in reality and need, in God's presence at the heart of our world, and God's dream and desire for each one of us. To be 'caught up' in the desires of Jesus' Heart is to be impelled  - to love the unloved, to bring hope and tenderness, to act with justice and passion... to respond as he would want to respond.

This has to be what being a contemplative in action is all about: to be so utterly caught up in this Love and Light that we can only be caught up too in the desires of his Heart, and are thus impelled to leave the mountain and go out, beyond ourselves, transformed and fired by the certainty of the Love which has filled us.

May it be so for me, and for all of us...

Saturday, 4 August 2018

A powerful cameo

Whenever I hear of today's saint, John Vianney, I can't help thinking, not of the priests for whom he is patron, but of Mabel Digby. Although they never met, and she was barely aware of it at the time, his prayers for her were part of Mabel's journey into the Catholic Church. She was almost eighteen, living in France with her family, some of whom - to her strong disapproval - had become Catholic. But her antipathy to Catholicism didn't prevent her from being friends with some fervently Catholic French girls, with whom she volunteered in a local hospice - unaware that they were actively seeking to bring about her conversion. One of them travelled to Ars, where John Vianney was the parish priest, renowned for his sanctity and his wisdom as a confessor. She asked him to pray for Mabel; he said he would, and added the assurance that God will soon have complete mastery over her heart. 

And so it happened: as her friends had sought and prayed, she become a Catholic a few months later; four years later she joined the Society of the Sacred Heart, eventually becoming Superior of England and Ireland, and then, from 1895-1911, Superior General of the worldwide congregation. Dying only six years after he was asked to pray for her, John Vianney would have viewed all this from heaven, where, no doubt, he continued to pray for Mabel, that more and more, God would have complete and utter mastery over her heart.

In a film of Mabel's life St John Vianney would be little more than a cameo role, occupying just a few minutes on screen; in reality, he, and all those who supported her with their prayer, were powerful, though largely unseen elements of her story. There is indeed a power in praying for others - whether they are aware of this or not - and a strength and solace which comes from knowing we are prayed for. So today's feast is a good reminder for me of all those for whom I have ever said I will pray, to continue keeping them in the ever-widening open Heart of Jesus - and to thank God, too, for all those who have ever prayed for me. I'm sure there have been some very powerful 'cameos' in my life, some known to me, others from beyond a veil - long may they continue!

I expect John Vianney will be incredibly busy today with requests for prayers on behalf of priests, especially those who are struggling or facing persecution. But, confident that there's no such thing as 'too busy' in heaven, I'm asking him to spare a bit of time for today's Mabels: those who are seeking God, and those running away from him; those feeling the tug of God's presence and desire for them, and - especially - the ones doing their best to resist. May John Vianney's prayers, and ours, help to ensure that God will, indeed have complete mastery over their - and indeed all our - hearts.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Anima Christi

The other day, as I was sorting through and throwing out various leaflets and documents which had gathered into an untidy pile on my desk, I came across a Mass booklet from a Jesuit friend's final vows. Or rather, as it was upside down, I came across the prayer at the back, which caused a lengthy pause, before I decided on a 'stay of execution', at least until after today's feast of St Ignatius.

The Anima Christi was already a popular prayer by the time of St Ignatius, who gave it pride of place in his Spiritual Exercises. But as a child and teenager I knew nothing of that: instead, I grew up with Soul of my Saviour being sung after Communion, recoiling from some of its rather vivid imagery (Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide - yuck! No thank you!). In my twenties I came across the original, in which the pray-er asks for the Blood of Christ to 'inebriate me', and then, some years ago I discovered Newman's translation, including the line Blood of Christ, fill my veins. This transfusion, of Christ's very life into mine, feels more like something I can pray for. In this adaptation it's the opening petition, setting the tone for the rest of the prayer.

Happy and inspiring feast of St Ignatius to you all... and may all that is in Jesus flow into us, so that we do not seek to run from the immense love, with all its consequences, that God continues to offer us...

Monday, 30 July 2018

Much more than 'just enough'

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone's house and eat with him. The people who give you their food give you their heart. ~ Cesar Chavez

If yesterday hadn't been a Sunday we'd have kept the feast of St Martha. A woman of great faith, she was the one to whom Jesus revealed himself as 'the Resurrection and the Life', prompting her declaration of belief in him as the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world. (John 11:25-27) But when we think of Martha we more usually think of the homemaker who bustled about, preparing food for Jesus - and, most probably, whichever other disciples turned up with him.

We probably all know women like Martha - generous hostesses who always prepare and serve copious amounts of food, preferring to err on the side of abundance rather than 'just enough'. "All are welcome" is their motto, as they set another place at their ever-expanding table for an unexpected guest. They make us welcome, and give us food, yes, but in so doing, they most definitely give us their hearts.

So it feels very right that, on this Sunday falling on the feast of St Martha, the Gospel was the account of the feeding of the five thousand. It is a Gospel account of generosity par excellence. We begin with the selfless handing over of one's precious, well curated lunch, with the full expectation that in allowing it to be shared out, only a fraction might come back to be eaten by the giver. Did he worry that what came back wouldn't be enough to satisfy his growing hunger? He trusted, and handed the food over anyway. And then - miracle of miracles! - Jesus transforms these few loaves and fish into an abundant feast. Now, instead of a tiny snack, or even 'just enough' for each person, there's a plentiful abundance - more than enough for even the hungriest among them.

In all three Synoptic Gospels we are told of leftovers being gathered up - but not what happened to them. I like to think they were given out as people departed, as food for the journey, or to be shared with the family when they got home. And all this, surely, was a foretaste of the Eucharist, given not just to satisfy our own hungers, but as a generous gift demanding to be shared with those around us. And there is the promise, always the promise, that there will always be more than enough if we begin by sharing, freely, joyfully, what we have been given. That is the hundredfold which lies at the heart of Jesus' assurances - give and you will receive, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together and overflowing... (Luke 6:38)

I'll end with a question arising from this Gospel, posed by the Religious Formation Conference, which appeared in my Twitter feed yesterday. It leaves me with more questions and challenges, not only related to sharing goods, but also around the issue of places at the table - the people to whom we give not just food, but also our hearts; our time and energy, our empathy and more:

How do we get from "not enough for everyone" to an abundance beyond our imagining? What does it mean to go from scarcity and fear to generosity and care? 

May Martha, that generous, faith-filled hostess, and the boy who handed over his lunch to be shared with strangers, help and inspire us in responding to this.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Heatwave blues - and breezes

British summers usually consist of brief bursts of heat, surrounded by several weeks of temperatures in the early twenties - this year we've had warm weather since April, and a heatwave since mid-June. Our agriculture and water supplies are predicated on regular, year-round rain - but apart from a couple of brief storms, it last rained in London almost two months ago. In view of our cold, dark winters, our homes are built and furnished to maximise light and retain heat - so air conditioning is usually only found in certain public buildings, offices and shops. All of which, I hope, will enable non-British readers to understand something of just how swelteringly, scorchingly, relentlessly hot the current heatwave feels in this part of the world, and how worrying its implications for our farmers and food suppliers - and indeed, for all of us.

Britons are accustomed to making the most of whatever scraps of sunshine fall our way, and that is what we started doing two months ago. But now we're seeking out sheltered spots and airy interiors, and while schoolchildren who have just begun their summer holidays might beg to differ, the rest of us are longing for rain, and delighted whenever there's even just an hour's cloudiness. Generally we're all drooping, languishing like any rain-starved garden. Collectively, we're tired: a good night's sleep is currently an elusive luxury for most of us, meaning grouchiness, and frazzled tempers as brittle as our straw-like grass. Stillness in prayer is also, for me, an elusive luxury, thanks to general stickiness, except for early in the morning, when - like the sun - I have yet to gather strength, or late at night. That's when I sit in the garden, reviewing the day and simply being in the jasmine-scented cooling breeze, before tiredness sends me indoors to bed, where temperatures rise as soon as I cross the threshold.

So here I am, tired, grouchy, and a willing participant in our national pastime of complaining about the weather...

But complaints aside, I do find myself feeling increasingly grateful for any refreshing breeze which comes my way, for cool floors and shady spots. I have started looking forward to driving or walking up any road canopied by tall, leafy trees, and relishing those sudden, fleeting winds which seem to appear out of nowhere. Places which were cold and draughty in the winter become 'light' and 'airy' in summertime - and suddenly so pleasant to be in. And then there are al fresco breakfasts and those late, late evenings in the garden... And so I had to smile, the other day, when, while searching for something else in Pope Francis' Gaudete et Exsultate I came across paragraph 127, in the section on joy and a sense of humour:

127. With the love of a father, God tells us: “My son, treat yourself well... Do not deprive yourself of a happy day” (Sir 14:11.14). He wants us to be positive, grateful and uncomplicated: “In the day of prosperity, be joyful... Whatever the case, we should remain resilient and imitate Saint Paul: “I have learned to be content with what I have” (Phil 4:11). Saint Francis of Assisi lived by this; he could be overwhelmed with gratitude before a piece of hard bread, or joyfully praise God simply for the breeze that caressed his face.

Do not deprive yourself of a happy day... Ah yes, the complaining can be fun, and a necessary outlet, but dwelling on the sweltering can make me forget the refreshing. It can skew my perception of how the day has been, depriving me of appreciation, as well as simple enjoyment. So tonight, as I sit outside beside the jasmine, I will review my day differently, focusing not on the effects of the oppressive heat, but on the places and moments of shelter and respite, and the gentle, long-awaited breeze caressing my face. And in such a day of prosperity I will be joyful and give thanks...