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

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Heart to heart

Images of St Margaret Mary, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, tend to emphasise a gulf between her and the Sacred Heart, the centre of the visions and messages she received for about eighteen months. She is invariably kneeling in prayer, gazing up at the Sacred Heart, who is somewhere above and beyond her, either floating or on an altar. There are a few images in which they are closer, but - even in the most modern ones - there's no touching or sense of intimacy. Margaret Mary may well be rapt with love and wonder, but there's a definite boundary between her and Jesus, so that they communicate from a somewhat respectful distance.

Artist: Stephen B Whatley
Used with permission
But it wasn't necessarily so! Margaret Mary herself tells us that her visions began, on the feast of the Beloved Disciple, 1763, when Jesus allowed her to rest her head upon his Heart, and then revealed to her the wonders of his love, which she was to make known to all humanity. And this, surely, is the moment captured in this painting by the artist Stephen B Whatley, which I came across yesterday, and am now using with his permission.

Gazing at this painting I saw the intimacy which lies at the heart of true devotion to the Sacred Heart: far more than prayers and practices, it's about going heart-to-heart with Jesus, in contemplation and personal experience. And this lies at the heart of being a Religious of the Sacred Heart. We aren't called to gaze on Jesus from afar, but to come as close as possible; to feel his heartbeat, to touch his wounds; to enter into and remain in the depths of his Heart. And as I reflected on this, from somewhere within me I heard these words from our Constitutions: Jesus calls us to a personal encounter with Him. He wants to make known to us the feelings and the preferences of His Heart... 

The feelings and preferences of his Heart... When Jesus invited Margaret Mary to nestle up to his Heart it wasn't only for her benefit; rather, this opened her own heart to the world, as Jesus told her of his immense and unconditional love for all. And so it is for us - in our intimacy with Jesus we come to know and draw love from his Heart; for ourselves and our world. And it is this that widens our capacity to love; that opens our hearts, especially to wherever there is pain and suffering, and sends us out, to share and make known the depth, the strength and the tenderness of this love, especially to people and in situations where love is most needed.

As he was for Margaret Mary, so now, Jesus is here with us, not floating around or on a high and distant altar, but at our level, arms and Heart wide open, inviting us in. Do we dare to respond, to feel the beat of his Heart, and allow ours to beat in time with his...?

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Body broken, blood poured out

This mystery of the body broken and the blood poured out today sends us to the world to be bread shared, the real presence of the love of God for others. 

From General Chapter 1994 - The Eucharistic dimension of our spirituality

I can still remember how, back in the mid-90s, when my inter-congregational novices' course watched the film of Oscar Romero's life there were two, sudden moments at which we all, collectively and very noticeably, flinched. The first was when soldiers, having stormed into a church, turned their machine guns on the tabernacle: the door flew open, the ciborium spilled its contents; hosts were sprayed everywhere, and we, shocked at this desecration, all flinched. The second was the murder of Rutilio Grande, here shown as an ambush which forced his car off the road. As he lay bleeding in the wreckage a soldier appeared, looked him fully in the eye, pointed his gun and... as the shot blasted him we all registered our shock at this other desecration. Both scenes prefigured the assassination of Romero, cold-bloodedly shot as he celebrated Eucharist, the commemoration of Christ's redemptive, self-giving love. And we shuddered sadly, as the closing credits told of the bloody civil war in El Salvador which followed Romero's death.

This mystery of the body broken and the blood poured out...

And I remember thinking that the soldiers who assassinated Romero and Grande, who tortured and terrorised, murdered and desecrated in countless ways, were ordinary men who would have been brought up in devout Catholic homes. They had been taught the holiness of the Eucharist, and the sacredness of all human life, but had somehow been brutalised into sheer brutality: they too had been desecrated, their humanity and goodness sucked out of them in ways which still prevail...

I've been recalling this film, and those particular scenes as the Church prepares to celebrate the Romero's canonisation; thinking, too, of the many ways in which Christ's body is being broken, his blood poured out, God's people and creation desecrated, in every corner of our world. How can Romero's legacy and example, and now his official sainthood continue to speak hope and inspiration to us all? And how can we, who celebrate his 'elevation' also deepen our own commitment to raising the lowly - the poor and downtrodden all around us today?

Yesterday I read an article by Marin Maier SJ, in which he began his summing up of Romero's legacy by stating Judged by human standards, Oscar Romero is a failure... And yes, he is, by the same standards which would have judged Jesus of Nazareth a failure. But just as we, over two millennia, have lived and acted in ways which ensure and proclaim that Christ's death was not in vain, so we owe it to Romero to keep his legacy alive, and continue his mission on behalf of those still mired in injustice, poverty and inequality. As Maier put it, far more eloquently than I ever could...

But in spite of that [failure], Romero still radiates hope today: hope that both at the personal and structural level, it is possible to change; that humanity is more powerful than violence; that the gift of one’s life is the greatest testimony of love. If you ask poor people in El Salvador what he meant for them, the answer comes: ‘he told the truth and defended us, and that’s why they killed him.’

‘Raising someone to the altar’ can bring the risk of making them remote and idealised – Jesus himself pointed out the ambiguities surrounding the tombs of the prophets. We can only fittingly venerate Saint Oscar Romero when we walk his way. When we speak the truth about this world, a world of victims; when we ask the question about the reasons for poverty and injustice; when we call the idols of our age by name and resist them; when we are prepared for danger and conflict; when we are borne by the conviction that self-gift is more powerful than egoism and that love is stronger than death.

The clearest indicator of the humanity of a society is how it deals with its weakest members... Therein lies the task for the Church in today’s world, the claim by which she must also allow herself to be judged... Everywhere, she has to take the part of the weakest... To venerate Romero means to walk his way: to call injustice by its true name and to promote justice. ‘Raising Romero to the altar’ has to go with raising the poor and the marginalised of this world to ‘a life worthy of a human being’. Then, in his words, ‘The glory of God is the poor, fully alive’.

May Romero's prayer and example sustain us, as we are sent into our broken world to be bread shared, the presence of God for others...

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Not a muse but a Heart...

A few hours ago I found, in my Twitter feed, a link to two new sonnets by Malcolm Guite. They arose as part of a response to a poem by George Herbert, but in his introduction to them he explains that as he began writing he realised that what he was in fact doing was ...articulating something I had been feeling for a long time about the damaging and depressing effect of barrages of bad news unprayed through, accumulating as a kind of uninterpreted cacophony in the mind. We need the gift of transposition and the power to hear, however tiny it might seem, the eternal tuning fork that sounds Christ’s love in the midst of things...

These sonnets are therefore very much for the dark and disturbing times in which we currently find ourselves, and in which we seek to love and hold on to hope. And then, as I read through the first sonnet I was especially struck by...

Is there no muse
To make of all that pain an elegy,
Or in those wave of white noise to discern
Christ's inner cantus firmus, that deep tone
That might give rise at last to harmony?

... Struck because this can only be a rhetorical question: because I - and Sacred Heart sisters throughout the world - have, maybe not a muse, but certainly a primordial place, an enduringly wide-open Heart, where we can bring all the pain we meet, in our daily lives as well as in the news. This is a Heart which has been pierced and broken open, to become a place of refuge and welcome, of healing and restoration and redemption. And it is in this Heart that I find the source of the hope to which I cling: that the violence and hatred which tore it open unwittingly unleashed a torrent of redemptive love; a mighty flow in which hatred has somehow been lost and vanquished.

It is through this Pierced Heart that we are called to see the world, encountering both the strength and the fragility of life (General Chapter 2008, paraphrased): it is to this Heart that we bring the pain and fragility of our world; it is from this Heart that we draw the love and the strength and tenderness we need, for ourselves and our world. This for us is Christ's cantus firmus, source and symbol of his infinite love in the midst of things...

And this is the Heart which somehow resonated a firm YES, somewhere deep within me, reminding me that I have my place of restoration and hope, and impelling me to turn my intuitive, inchoate response to that poem into a (hopefully) intelligible post, in case it might bring hope to someone else...

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Edification and joy

We asked the Holy Father for a message which we could bring back to our dioceses... His message was simple: we are to live the gift of our faith with joy. Joy was his great emphasis. He explained that this joy is rooted firmly in our relationship with Jesus. It is a joy of knowing he is with us; of knowing the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, drawing and guiding us towards the will of God; a joy of knowing our Heavenly Father is waiting for us, longing to hold us in his embrace of loving mercy... He added that this joy is the source of lasting peace in our hearts and lives, no matter our circumstances. 

From the Bishops' statement at the end of their ad limina visit

This message from Pope Francis came to me as I was thinking about today's saint. Francis of Assisi - a patron of Italy as well as of the pope - was certainly a man known for the tremendous, deep joy with which he was filled. This was a joy which permeated him beyond any sort of physical or material comfort; a true, enduring joy which, as the pope wishes for us, was the source of lasting peace in Francis' heart and life, no matter his circumstances. And it's a graced joy which so many of us, who can so easily slide into grumbling and disconsolation and a despairing view of the state of our world, certainly need to pray for and cultivate.

Joy, for Francis, was a consequence of a life lived congruently and whole-heartedly for God, in imitation of Jesus, and in humble gratitude and constant wonder at creation. But this was not his initial call: that came the moment he heard the crucifix in the dilapidated little church of San Damiano tell him, Francis, go and rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling down. That was in 1206: eight centuries later the Church is still in need, more than ever, of rebuilding. We can certainly commend it to the prayers of St Francis, but I realise, too, that today gives us all a good reminder to ask ourselves what we are doing - and what else or more we could do - to help with the rebuilding of our Church, and its bruised and hurting members.

Of course, Francis would no doubt remind us of the simple truth he discovered for himself: that our primary and most important rebuilding process has to begin within. When we build and rebuild our lives and our hearts in Christ, then, surely, we will find the means and the grace with which to build up others, including our Church; to become people who 'edify' - a word whose origins lie in building or construction. And surely joy has to be part of this: because who doesn't feel built up, or edified, when we are with someone radiating the deep, quiet, leavening joy which can only come from a life firmly rooted and built in God?

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Heart's ease in a drain

Eighteen months ago I wrote about some unlikely flowers growing out of a drain by my office. This 'little splash of colour and loveliness' was caused by deep red cyclamen, which withered, died and then re-appeared several months later, brightening up both autumn and spring. Raggedy-looking they may be, but they are also extremely hardy, somehow flowering despite a complete lack of care and attention from any gardener, and only rain, whether a brief shower or a sustained downpour, to water them.

But just as their appearing has been somewhat random and unexpected, so too their disappearing - or rather, their giving way. For the past couple of weeks I've been gazing down almost daily at these violets nestling in the space behind the cyclamen leaves, delighting as much in their unexpectedness as in their existence. Violette have a special place in my heart and memories, such that they occupy the masthead of this blog; heart's ease and tough survivors, as I explained a few years ago.

Heart's ease was my first thought when I saw them; a simple, uplifting sight as summer comes to an end, and so much else in the world feels out of kilter. But this morning I was reminded of the Victorian publication The Language of Flowers, and after a little search I came across a reference to the significance of purple violets - that they symbolise that the giver's thoughts are occupied with love for the recipient.

Well, these violette haven't been given to me, as such, but - as very few other folk pass by that drain - I'm happy to imagine that they've been left there, given for my almost exclusive enjoyment! And whilst I know God is constantly occupied with love for me, regardless of the reassurance of flowers, I'm more than happy to accept this sweet little reminder, made known by heart's ease in a drain...

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Michaelmas solace

Images of archangels have filled my Twitter feed today, along with invocations, especially to a somewhat warlike St Michael, for strength and protection. He certainly seemed to get the lion's share of prayer; maybe it has always been so, hence this feast's popular name of Michaelmas - or maybe we simply feel an ever greater need for protection in these dark, unstable times.

My attention was especially caught, though, by one image showing the meaning of each one's name. Michael - 'who is like God?' - was here depicted as some kind of battle cry, whereas Gabriel - 'strength of God' - was shown in a much softer, gentler mode. But I was especially surprised to be reminded that Raphael means 'God is healer' or 'God has healed - or even (as I saw in a later tweet) 'God's remedy'. And it struck me that there's no possessive pronoun in there: God is not 'my' healer; he's yours, mine, ours, universally so; God has not only healed me, his remedy is for everyone.

So in these names we are indeed reminded of divine strength, but a strength filled with tenderness and healing balm, poured out on us all. And who is like God? - this surely points us to Jesus, God's truest, most complete likeness, whose life was pure love and who could combine utter strength and divine healing in one simple gesture. We are reminded, too, of what we are called to be: God's likeness, reflecting an enduring, all-conquering power expressed in goodness and self-sacrifice, in healing and comfort.

We could all do with comfort and healing right now. Our news is dominated by the chaos of Brexit and government in-fighting, and continued hardship, heartache and xenophobia. And there's precious little solace or respite to be found in the news from elsewhere - especially the US - or in our Church. But just as we can entertain angels unawares, so solace waits to be found, often unexpected and in the unlikeliest of places.

Yesterday it came for me via a tweet by Harry Leslie Smith, a 95-year-old writer and campaigner. Born and brought up  in poverty, he recalls a time before welfare and the National Health Service, such that his TB-ridden sister had to be taken to workhouse to die, as their parents could not afford any form of healthcare. As a young man he served in World War II, then was part of the generation which sought to rebuild their shattered world along kinder, more compassionate and peaceful lines. He is still working at this, often warning us Don't let my past become your future. 

He has definitely seen the best and the worst of humanity, and what it can do. And yesterday, which was also the birthday of his son, who died several years ago, he was somehow able to tweet this message, full of hope and rejoicing and the perspicacity of nine decades of life, still being lived fully:

Make no mistake, no matter the heartache, the disappointments and the struggle; life is a joyful, wondrous experience. Even in these dark days of Donald Trump; you can take comfort that light always returns to humanity like daybreak at the end of night.

And you: who and where are your maybe unlikely angels, bringing God's healing and comfort, and the hope of light during these dark days...?

Monday, 24 September 2018

In praise of... equinox liqueur

My rural foremothers would have spent much of these past few weeks pickling and preserving everything in sight, in anticipation of a long, hard winter, before helping their menfolk turn the grape harvest into robust and fortifying wine. I have somehow combined the two: finding myself with a glut of blackberries - as I did in 2016 - I have marked the onset of autumn by spending the past month making blackberry liqueur.

I had picked the blackberries during my retreat in Llannerchwen in mid-August. They were plump and plentiful, purple-black and well ripened by the summer-long heatwave, which was just coming to an end. I began to make the liqueur a few days after I returned home, during the August bank holiday weekend, sifting through then mixing the berries with alcohol, adding vanilla, a few cloves and strips of lemon peel. By then it was beginning to feel cooler; it was by no means cold, but after more than two months in a mostly urban furnace, normal late summer weather took a while to get used to. 

Over the next few weeks I left the mixture to infuse, stirring it from time to time. In its not yet-ness it seemed to echo the time of year: those lovely weeks when we live in a liminal, betwixt and between, not-quite season, as summer gradually flows into autumn - or is it autumn which seeps into summer? The sky was at times brilliantly, cloudlessly blue, the sun gracing us with strong, frequent bursts of warmth. But part of this betwixt season's beauty lies in its autumnal signs, in leaves beginning to turn russet and gold, a chill in the morning air and earlier sunsets, and Michaelmas daisies running riot. It's as if autumn has set out to woo us; to make us forget the bitterness of last winter's cold, and its dismal darkness, by beguiling us with samples of its loveliest colours, enhanced by sunlight.

Last week I strained the mixture, trying to wait patiently as it dribbled and dripped its way through coffee filters, somehow resisting the temptation to rush, thereby allowing more sediment through. (Inevitably, of course, some did get through; some always gets through). The liquid had been immediately stained by the berries, but the taste of raw alcohol dominated. I recalled the first time I'd made this, when I'd tasted and despairingly wondered what had gone wrong, before remembering that I had yet to add the sugar. 

That - the final step - happened yesterday, after the second straining. Once again the mixture dripped, infinitesimally, while I blended what would become a sticky, sickly-sweet syrup. Once again I marvelled at the ruby redness of those first drops, glinting in the light, darkening to deep wine as the liquid increased in density. And then the syrup and the alcohol met; sweetness and tartness, light liquid and heavy syrup, each one fusing into the other's embrace, each beginning to draw out the best in the other. 

Yesterday was the autumnal equinox, a moment of balance between the seasons. The weather may at times be topsy-turvey, but there is also a reassuring stability around these predictable points of the year - even though, from today, autumn is ascendant, ushering in winter's darkness. It seemed a good day for bottling my liqueur: summer's fruits, which had begun their ageing during the season's end-beginning time, now ready to begin a further two-three month ageing. Maybe we will try some in November, as we celebrate Philippine and the Society's birthday. But according to the recipe, the liqueur will reach optimum sweetness and maturity in twelve weeks' time, which brings us to mid-December, when winter's grip is at its darkest, and the world awaits the arrival of its one, true, unquenchable Light. And what better time than Christmas to open a bottle of something filled with summer and sweetness, as well as warming fire; fruits of the earth strained clear and jewel-like, and bottled on a day of reassuring balance in the seasons' turning...?