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

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Seeing the spring

Ten years ago today my father died, only three months after my mother. As he lay dying I realised that, for me, his death would come too soon; but for him, heartbroken after the death of his darling wife, each day of those three months had been too long. And that, of course, is how we seek to console ourselves after bereavement: she's not suffering anymore... he's reunited with his wife... though such comforting thoughts can barely touch the surface of our grieving.

Three months ago, on my mother's anniversary, I described something of the past decade, and the gradual process of healing and recovery; the slow, barely perceptible return of life. I thought that today I would have nothing to add - and indeed, what I wrote then I could easily repeat today. But reflecting on this yesterday as I walked past a crocus-strewn churchyard, I realised something new.

My father died at this seasonal point, when winter is slowly oozing into spring, just as crocuses and daffodils begin to join snowdrops and the days noticeably start to lengthen and turn milder. But I cannot remember noticing a single flower, bird or new leaf, even though I was in my father's village, surrounded by hills and nature and people in whom its rhythms are innate. I saw only wintry death and greyness. Whereas now... now I can see the flowers; more than that, now I marvel at and relish the flowers... and buds and blue skies, and the gradual greening and quickening into new life.

Ten years ago I couldn't see any signs of spring... now I can see the spring, and the new life it brings, gliding in all around me...

Monday, 20 February 2017

In praise of... snowdrops and faithful love

Today is the 75th anniversary of the day one of our sisters made her first vows, aged 23 in the middle of World War II. Any anniversary or jubilee is a cause for celebration, but when it's three-quarters of a century... well, from the lowlier vantage point of my twenty years, I can only look on with admiration and awe!

Any anniversary or jubilee of commitment is a cause for celebration, and for looking back, often with wonder and gratitude, at the enduring love and fidelity which have permeated the years. And as Amy's story shows, the gentle assurance of God's fidelity and love has been a constant, especially present the day she made her vows. Wartime austerity in rural Scotland meant the altar could only be decorated with flowers from the garden; wintry weather meant the garden was as bare and unadorned as the altar would be. And Amy resigned herself to this - flowers, after all, were not the essence of the commitment she was about to make, merely the icing on the day's cake. But unknown to her another novice had found a patch of snowdrops, which she had dug up and brought into the house, nurturing them in the linen cupboard so that they would flower in time for the vows ceremony. And so, to Amy's delighted surprise, there were flowers around the altar, their delicate loveliness speaking of God's love, shining through Elise's thoughtful kindness.

Elijah encountered God, not in earthquakes or fires, but in a gentle breeze: and Amy discovered proof of God's covenant love, not in the miraculous, unseasonal flowering of roses or gladioli, but in snowdrops - ordinary, tiny snowdrops, gathered with love. And that is how God's covenant is so often revealed - in ordinary, tiny tokens of loveliness and love; tokens so easily overlooked, except by hearts honed and able to see and appreciate them. And then, as Rumi once wrote, life becomes one in which every object, every being, is a jar full of delight...

There are still plenty of snowdrops flowering here in Oxford; and, I've been told, there's a patch of them in the garden of Duchesne House, where Amy lives - so I'm sure there will be snowdrops in the chapel! Seventy-five years on her memory remains undimmed; God, too, has clearly not forgotten his side of their covenant, and promise of everlasting fidelity...

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

In praise of... a burning bush by the bins

Monday was a glorious day - a cloudless blue skies, dazzling winter sun type of day. By contrast, yesterday and today have been more typically February - a leaden grey sky and a dispiriting amount of rain. But then this afternoon, as the rain cleared, the hitherto absent sun did what it often does so well, startling us with a bright, sudden display as it began to set. Glancing up and out of the window I was treated to an amazing blend of colour and light. Bare, rain-washed trees shone as if bejewelled, their branches etched against a dull golden sky. I grabbed my phone, found a bit of window not covered with raindrops and rivulets and quickly took a few shots.

Alas, this was one of those occasions when my camera came nowhere near capturing what my eyes could see. The dull gold sky appeared washed out, the shining, jewel-bright branches barely glimmered. Instead, I had to capture the moment in my memory, as humans have always had to do before the easy availability of digital cameras and smartphones.

As I turned away another light caught my eye; and there, beyond the garages, by the bins, a bush, seemingly encased in fairy lights. A burning bush! - but unlike Moses I did not remove my shoes, or approach in cautious awe; instead, I grabbed my phone once again. A shining, burning bush, there beside the bins... a transitory, startling moment of unexpected beauty... a burst of glory fading within minutes from sight but remaining in my memory... a swift, sudden, uplifting joy, and a reminder of the God who speaks from bushes and bins, and can be found in all things, however prosaic, if we only have eyes and heart to see...

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Towards every wounded heart

The other day I posted photos on Facebook from the first vows of three Peruvians. There were, unsurprisingly, lots of responses, but what struck me was this comment from an Italian Lasallian: Camminate sorelle spinte dallo Spirito verso ogni cuore ferito - which translates as Walk on, sisters, impelled by the Spirit towards every wounded heart.

It struck me because Enrico had somehow captured, in those few words, what is at the centre of our charism and call as RSCJ. The pierced, wounded Heart of Jesus is at the centre of our contemplation, leading us into the pain and woundedness within ourselves, within the world and in the hearts of so many people we encounter in our lives and ministries. Wounded, vulnerable hearts are what these three young women have committed themselves to embrace, reconcile, console and heal, with the strength and tenderness of the love of that primordial pierced, open, wounded Heart of Jesus.

I was reminded, too, of some words from the closing conference given by Clare Pratt RSCJ to the group with whom I prepared for perpetual vows, and with whom I share a name and devise which contains this call...

Day in and day out, we walk humbly with our sisters and brothers, fully aware of our weakness. We become "wounded healers" ourselves, discovering and proclaiming the love of a Wounded Heart, opening our own hearts to welcome all who want to enter, who come seeking a listening ear, a loving glance, someone to recognise their dignity and help them to their feet.

Today, St Valentine's Day, is a day when we celebrate love, and when every shop, newspaper and café seems full of hearts - plump, robust, intact; bursting not with pain but with love, alive and requited. It is a day for counting blessings and cherishing our beloved - but it's not a good day for those with broken hearts, for fragility, grief or painful memories. There are many for whom today is the first Valentine's Day without the beloved with whom they joyfully celebrated last year, and countless others cruelly separated - often by politics and borders - from their loved ones. And - sadly - there are all too many who are unloved, and those who believe themselves to be unlovable; and those who may never have experienced the sheer bliss and transforming, redeeming power of love.

Yes, today is a day for love and for hearts... and for those of us for whom the Heart of Jesus is Love par excellence, today is a special day for celebrating and proclaiming that greatest, widest, truest love of all. But in the midst of all this, it is also a good day for reminding ourselves that the love we proclaim is the love of a Wounded Heart, which impels us to seek out those whose pain it most easily recognises and wants only to heal and transform; those whose emptiness it wants to fill and whose deadness it wants only to breathe new life into. This is the love we are called to discover - within ourselves and our world - and make real... a love so vast it can reach and heal all pain and ugliness.

So may we all live the call in Enrico's message to our newest sisters, and journey on and outward, toward every wounded heart...


Friday, 10 February 2017

How to do more

Countless self-help books and articles provide us with handy tips for how to be more productive in our work - how to do and achieve more. We're told how to structure our time, how to create schedules, and maybe how uplifting it can be to create lists - if only to know the satisfaction of crossing things off it! There are helpful suggestions about breaking large tasks down into smaller, easily achievable ones - again, giving us a shot of triumph and satisfaction once each has been completed. Naturally, we need to tidy our desks - and, increasingly, all the files in our PCs - and keep them so. We also need to learn how to say 'no', how to delegate, and create boundaries... whilst simultaneously being helpful and pleasant to all those people who might one day give us a helping hand in return.

But today we are offered something different. Today's saint, Scholastica, rather famously prayed and got God to give her her own way over what her twin brother Benedict wanted. Recounting this, Gregory the Great comments It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love. It was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.

Reading that story I was reminded of some words of advice from that great RSCJ Janet Erskine Stuart: The way to do much in a short time is to love much. People will do great things if they are stirred with enthusiasm and love.

So if we love we will be effective... but probably not efficient. Yes, we will do more, but love doesn't spend too much time writing lists or tidying files. Love can say 'no', when 'no' is the most loving, helpful response; but love also knows when schedules need to be set aside in favour of listening, consoling, loving and loving more.

And, of course, love can make a huge difference; it is effective, productive and can achieve so much. Love can heal, transform and give both the lover and loved one energy and renewed life and hope... but a loving, kind person rarely finds out this side of heaven just what and how much they have done, or how many lives have been transformed in consequence. Often we love only in hope, and faith in love's power. But not knowing its effects is no reason not to love, of course; to open our arms and hearts and love more, and more, and more again.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The call of desperate times

The other day I attended a talk about the Rule of St Benedict and creating community. One thing that struck me was the speaker's description of the tumultuous, violent times in which Benedict lived; the turmoil, conflicts and uncertainty following the fall of Rome and its empire. And in the midst of all this instability, surrounded by struggles for power, Benedict wrote a Rule centred on prayer, stability, openness and gentle love.

And then I thought of my own Society, founded in the aftermath of the French Revolution, in a time still filled with fear, division and mistrust. Several other new congregations began at the same time, or were refounded from the ruins of communities which had been forcibly dispersed. Like Sophie, their vision and desire would have centred on rebuilding their broken society and healing its pain and division: in Sophie's case, through the education of hearts as well as minds, and helping people discover the love of God's Heart. 

Benedict in the sixth century, Sophie in 1800; and countless others throughout the centuries, founding communities and movements in the midst of conflict, corruption and upheaval... They all saw and experienced pain, fear and disunity, and faced them head on, desiring only to bind and to heal, to console and unite; to pray and to love. And they were joined in their endeavours by great and generous hearts; people hungering for God and for a better world, and utterly convinced of the power of contemplation and love.

There are parallels and contrasts with our world today: fearful, unstable times, made more so by populists stirring up hatred and fear; and we who share our founders' spiritual DNA must only want to respond as they did, to pray and love more, more deeply and widely. It's how we are, and how we want to be, to respond and to witness with hope, compassion and all-inclusive, fearless love.

Last month, I wondered about the post-Brexit vocations - the women who will join the Society in this country in 10 or 15 or more years' time. Will they, I asked, want to join us regardless of our internationality or because of it? Will they actively want to create communion, be one body, with sisters our national politics are trying to break us away from? But now I'm left with a wider, more urgent question. In these times will people feel called to give their lives in radical love and service, not in spite of the fear and division but because of it? Will they come to religious life, and to our Society, filled with passion to go to the heart of the world with the attitudes and tenderness of Jesus, to bring hope, unity and healing?

We're told that desperate times call for desperate measures. My prayer and hope is that these desperate times will call forth not desperation but today's great and generous hearts, who hunger for God and for a better world, and who are utterly convinced of the centrality of prayer and the power of God's love, with which we can indeed cast out fear...

Thursday, 2 February 2017


Today is Candlemas, a feast of light: the day when Jesus was presented in the temple; and the day when Simeon and Anna recognised the glory and the promise of God in the baby brought in by this nondescript, humble young couple. It is also the World Day of Consecrated Life, and the Pope has asked Catholics to pray for all religious, that through their witness of life, they may radiate to the world the love of Christ and the grace of the Gospel.

Later today I will be gathering with other religious in Oxford to celebrate "our" feast with prayer and adoration, followed by cake and conviviality. We will come together as sisters, brothers and priests, from several different traditions, spiritualities and ways of living religious life; a great diversity, but within that a great unity. However we live, understand and express it, we have all heard a compelling, all-consuming call: like Anna and Simeon, we too are called to contemplation and commitment, and from those depths, to be able to recognise and proclaim the God who is Love, no matter how ordinary or unprepossessing his appearance.

There is mystery in all this, and grace... but also the urgency of Love; of radiating that love, as the pope has prayed for us. Because surely the ugly, divisive events of the past year, and especially the past few days and weeks have shown us that one of the things our world so needs is people who believe in and can witness to the power of love! Which is why I was so especially struck by these words from Henri Nouwen. Today my prayer for myself and all religious is that we can more than live up to this vocation, revealing a love which is tender, limitless and seeks only to gather all into its infinite Heart...

In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.