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

Saturday, 17 February 2018

In tune with the vibrant Heart

Lent started so well. The confluence of Ash Wednesday with St Valentine's Day brought forth a flood of articles and memes, of hearts and ashen crosses and words of love. The day ended with news of the latest sickening, senseless shooting spree in an American school, with ashes mingling with tears and hearts broken open. But there was love, too, not just in words but in deeds, especially those of Aaron Feis, the football coach who died shielding children from the gunfire, and others whose prompt, selfless actions saved lives.

And then yesterday I read Pope Francis' Ash Wednesday homily, and was especially struck by these words:

Lent is the ideal time to unmask [...] temptations, to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus. The whole of the Lenten season is imbued with this conviction, which we could say is echoed by three words offered to us in order to rekindle the heart of the believer: pause, see and return. 

The vibrant Heart of Jesus... vibrant is not a word generally attributed to the Heart of Jesus, but maybe it should be. It speaks of energy and vigour, of vitality, passion and bursting with liveliness and life, all of which are found in the Heart of Jesus - and not just found within it, but bursting and overflowing from it. And it speaks of the vim and vigour with which our hearts too can beat; even - especially - when the world's cruelty and suffering can make us feel bruised and so very weary.

As I ruminated on this vibrant Heart this image - Herz-Kreuz by Manfred Bugl - came to me. It was given to my probation (group with whom I prepared for perpetual vows) when we were given our group name, The Open and Welcoming Heart of Jesus. I've loved it ever since; loved its energy and vibrancy, its huge Heart bursting from a cross, transformed into arms thrown open in an exultant YES. This is a Heart which is truly alive, triumphing over death - one with whose beat I'd certainly want mine to be in tune.

And a bit later my thoughts led me to some words by a former Superior General, Helen McLaughlin RSCJ. Addressing the probation of 1984, to whom she had just given the name The Open Heart, Helen wrote:

In the whole Gospel, Jesus reveals to us that He is Life, but this revelation culminates in... the open Heart... He did not come to give life to an ideal world: no, it is a wounded Heart that gives life to a world full of ambiguity, of suffering... this bursting forth of life, this superabundance of life springing from a Heart that has been touched by suffering.

If this image needed a caption, and if the vibrant Heart needed an explanation, this surely would be it. And in this un-ideal world full of ambiguity and suffering, it can only be - it has to be - a wounded Heart which gives it the life it so desperately needs: a superabundance of life bursting forth from a Heart which has been wounded, yes, but which can still radiate the vibrancy of love with every beat. May this Lent become the ideal time to allow our own hearts to beat in tune with it.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Digging deeply

I'm one of those women who normally carries a large shoulder bag around with her wherever she goes. In my case it absolutely has to be a bag with various pouches and pockets: I don't want to spend time rootling fruitlessly through the pile of essentials which, obeying gravity's laws, have all sunk, higgledy-piggledy, to the bottom of the bag as soon as I hoist it onto my shoulder.

My current bag is a dream, as it has several of these pockets and pouches, in which live my phone, keys, pens, Oyster card and various other things. Even so, this still leaves a variety of items in its main body: purse, umbrella, spare tissues, diary, comb, shopping bag and sundry other items, many of them - like the umbrella - carried "just in case". Tardis-like, my bag obligingly expands, providing additional space for the occasional book or small item of shopping, and a resting place for stray receipts, old church newsletters and tattered flyers which lie forgotten, burrowing into seams and folds, only emerging whenever I need to rootle around for something else which has gone into hiding.

Occasionally, a work or formal event requires me to decant only a few essential items from my usual bag into a much smaller one. The lightness and lack of bulk feel strange and somewhat unnerving - there's security in my normal load, even though so much of it is indeed "just in case", rather than absolutely necessary. In my bag, as in my life, I realise that the "one thing necessary" must always fight for space and centrality, and is often obscured and weighed down by unnecessary clutter.

The other day, shortly after a decant-refill exercise, and its concomitant rootling and finding, sifting and re-arranging, I came across these words from St John of the Cross, smiled and thought wryly of my bag, with all its pockets and hidden treasures:

We must dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides. 

Tomorrow we will begin Lent, a time for re-focusing on what is essential. It's a good time for de-cluttering - materially, yes, but especially spiritually. It's a time for digging deeply, jettisoning the superfluous and knowing once again the joy of finding our true treasure; for freeing ourselves from whatever weighs us down, and gets in the way of the essential. May we all know this grace and blessing in the six weeks which lie ahead...

Friday, 9 February 2018

With a tenderness that never disappoints...

It's been especially cold recently; a hard, biting cold, which discourages all but essential outdoor activity. My recent weekend in Rome, when I walked around carrying my jacket (instead of bundled up inside it!), feels very distantly past, a tantalising memory.

The other day I saw these snowdrops, and beside them, this single winter iris, a splash of jewel-like, exotic colour in this season of bare branches. I've written about snowdrops before: their deceptive appearance of fragility, their slender stalks, seemingly bowed under the weight of their buds. Deceptively fragile because anything which can not only withstand winter's harshness, but can push its way up through rock-hard soil, stretch, flourish and flower; anything which doesn't curl up into a freezing little ball, has got to be incredibly hardy and tough.

Even so, there was something about their downcast buds which made me remember some words from Pope Francis, which a colleague had displayed on her wall: With a tenderness that never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, God makes it possible for us to lift our heads and start anew. 

Next week we begin Lent, a season when we can always start anew. May it be a time for all of us to know God's unfailing, joy-restoring tenderness; a time when we can all lift our heads and gladly meet God's all-loving, all-reconciling gaze upon us...

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A hard-won right

Very proudly and self-consciously, I voted for the first time in a by-election when I was nineteen. Since then, I have lost count of the number of times I've entered a polling booth, for general or local elections, the GLC, London Assembly and Mayor and in a referendum. Each time, though, I do it with an awareness of the women to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude; women who, very controversially, were prepared to risk their families, health and reputations - and even their lives - in the cause of women's suffrage. Yes, men were part of the campaign too, but it was women who ended up being force fed in jail and attacked and persecuted, on the streets and through parliamentary acts.

And today we celebrate one hundred years since that day in 1918 when about 8 million women - over 30, property owners or graduates - were granted the right to vote. It is an anniversary of equality, though based on inequality: younger, poorer, less educated women were still excluded from the same electoral rights as men until 1928.

A century can seem like a long time, and its beginnings lie in a completely other age; and yet, I realise I have already lived just over half a century, and 1918 is only forty-five years away from 1963, the year of my birth. The older women who were our neighbours as I was growing up would have been young women in 1918; women who had grown up never expecting to enter a polling booth or take any part in public or civic life, but who matured and grew older in a world with universal suffrage and female politicians and public figures. How, I now wonder, did all this feel for them, born and brought up in an age with very different opportunities and expectations?

The century shortens, too, when I look at other countries. Italian women were only allowed to vote in local elections from 1924, only gaining equal voting rights in national elections in 1945, when my mother was a teenager and my grandmothers were already middle-aged. Did they chafe and complain against this inequality, or did they simply accept it, as they did so much else, maybe counting this as the least of their struggles? And how did that first vote, that first burst of equality, feel? Sadly, I will never know; until today these questions never occurred to me, and the generations before me have all died, taking these and so many other unanswered questions with them.

And then the century shortens still further when I remember that women in Saudi Arabia only won the right to vote a few years ago, or consider the lack of voting rights in apartheid South Africa.

We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. The discrimination - on the grounds of gender, class, wealth - which led to only partial suffrage in 1918, still exists; often covertly, but no less powerful for that, especially when allied to other forms of prejudice. Women here and around the world still lack equal rights and dignity in many ways. So as we celebrate this centenary and raise our glasses to those whose sacrifices won us this right, we can pray for all those who still have to fight for so much more, and renew our determination to continue working for a world in which there is true equality, fairness and justice for all - one in which the common good is uppermost. And may we never forget, and take this or any other right or privilege - especially if hard-won - for granted.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Done at the Villa Lante, Rome...

Probation, our group preparation for perpetual vows, took place at or by our motherhouse from when the programme began over 200 years ago until the early 1970s - except during those years when war prevented travel. Then came several years of different locations before it finally found a home, from 1981, at the Villa Lante, a huge edifice on the edge of Trastevere, which for many years was Sophie's on-off home in Rome. This was where I made my own probation in 2003, and where I spent last weekend, my first time back there after nine years.

Inevitably, in the intervening decade there have been changes. Probation is no longer housed in the wing called Betania, some other rooms have changed their use, and various once-familiar routes around the labyrinthine house have been altered or blocked. But other things are reassuringly unchanged. Local roads, the Vatican to one side and Trastevere on the other (including my favourite gelateria!) are all as I remembered them. Within the Villa, I was able to walk around the lush, terraced garden and revisit places where I had prayed or delighted in fireflies, various fondly remembered nooks and crannies still exist, and Angelina is still in the community, and greeted me with a big hug.

And the chapel is still the same. This, the scene of last Sunday's vows ceremony, is where I made my own perpetual vows alongside most of my companions, who were all very present that weekend, in my heart and my prayer (including one who - oh joy! - was also in Rome that weekend). But for the first time I was aware of so many others - the hundreds of others, from every continent, who, since 1981, have spent this precious, intense time of preparation here. And the vast majority of them, over the decades, who have stood at that same altar and - whether nervous, joyful, radiant, calm or visibly moved -  pronounced their vows in one of about thirty different languages, each formula ending Done at the Villa Lante, Rome... and the date. Hundreds of RSCJ, some of them good friends and important in my journey, some there at the ceremony; others unknown to me, but with whom I share a common consecration and a common call - for a moment, their presence filled that chapel, their myriad voices echoing softly around the space. And within that roll call, my companions and I - we too, in probation and profession, were Done at the Villa Lante, Rome...

And above us all, the same Sacred Heart, his arms outstretched in a gesture which welcomes us in even as it sends us back out...

Today, Candlemas, is also the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. It's a day for being inspired by Anna and Simeon, two faith-filled contemplatives, wholly given to God and trusting in his promises, who were able to recognise his saving presence in an otherwise unremarkable baby, and spent the rest of their lives proclaiming this discovery with joy. And this, essentially, is the common call and mission to which we have all vowed ourselves, whether in the Villa Lante or not, and to which we are all sent by the ever-open Heart of Jesus, the unchanging constant in our lives, and the source of our joy and passion in our common vocation.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Intensity and transformation

I spent the weekend in Rome, celebrating the perpetual professions of twelve RSCJ from eleven countries. I already knew a few of them - especially one who lived with me in Oxford, and two others who have also spent time in this Province - and during my few days with them I was able to interact with the others; hitherto unknown to me but not strangers, as they were already my sisters. They are all now in the process of returning to their home Provinces, radiant and full of joyful energy for their new missions.

A few days earlier, as per a long-standing Society tradition, our Superior General gave the group a name and a devise (motto) which will accompany them into the future, expressing their identity and experience in these months, but also serving as a ballast and call for the rest of their lives. Their name - Intense love of Jesus - generally thrilled and met with approval, even as it led to some affectionate teasing from their sisters, and a celebratory toast To intensity! But of course, as our Superior General said in her conference, an intense love of Jesus is what we RSCJ - what we all - are called to: a love which is intense because it mirrors the intensity of the love of Jesus for all of us.

Intensity... a word we use to mean extreme force or strength, or deep or forceful feelings. A word deriving from the Latin word intendere, meaning to stretch: and indeed, an intense love is one which stretches out, stretches us, opening us and impelling us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort zones and whatever limits we might want to set. And we can see this intense, stretching, opening out love in how Jesus lived and in how he was able to journey to his gruesome death; even to allowing his Heart to be pierced, for our healing and redemption.

Thus this pierced Heart is both the consequence of intense love, and - as Barbara reminded us in her conference - an inexhaustible source of love. It is also what lies at the core of our being RSCJ, and calls us constantly to the wounds and sufferings of humanity, to become more compassionate, to search for justice and peace in a broken and incomplete world. And at its heart lies a call to allow ourselves, and our vulnerabilities, to be transformed in and by that Heart: a Heart which was wounded, broken open, and whose response was an overwhelming outpouring of love.

Transformed by the pierced Heart of Jesus... Thus begins the group's devise; it ends with them being sent by the Resurrected Christ to proclaim LOVE. The pierced Heart is not the end, but the beginning - the source of our strength and our healing and of all our compassion and tenderness. And in this world in which we can see so much ugliness alongside beauty, so much need for reconciliation, justice and love, this is an urgent call for us all, not just these newly professed RSCJ. May we all respond with courage and generosity, and with intense love.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Giving and giving up

The other evening I was listening to a recording of a homily about vocation to religious life, given by a university chaplain. He spoke of the negative perception of our life, as one of renunciation, letting go - giving up. And yes; there is renunciation, there is letting go, there is giving up: but, of course, this is true of any way of life. Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else - not necessarily because one thing is bad or lesser, but simply because the other is so much more attractive or compelling, or simply right.

But, of course, religious life is about so much more than simply giving up, and the priest proceeded to remind his congregation that it is, particularly, about giving. Not giving up, he said, but giving. Giving yourself the freedom to pray, to love to, serve...

And at that point I sat up! We so often talk of religious life as gift: the gift of oneself to God; the gift of the whole way of life to the Church and the world. We talk of our vocation as a gift, too, received by us from God, who, never outdone in generosity, gives us far more than we can ever even dream of giving him. We talk, too, of freedom: that mysterious paradox whereby the very act of binding ourselves by vows becomes the source of a sense of greater, joyous freedom. I blogged about this about 18 months ago, and it came up in conversation a couple of weeks ago, when a few of us were recalling our perpetual professions of vows. But this was the first time I heard the two in the same sentence, heard religious life described as giving yourself the freedom to pray, to love, to serve...

But in fact, that is very much what we do: through whatever we may give to God, we also give to ourselves this wonderful gift of freedom, of growth and depth in prayer, and in love, poured out in service.

Tomorrow I travel to Rome, where, on Sunday, twelve young RSCJ - including one who lived with me in Oxford for nearly two years - will make their perpetual vows. They will bind themselves forever, to God in the Society... and hopefully know that in so doing, they have given themselves the most tremendous gift of freedom, to become women of prayer and love lavishly poured out.

Please join me in praying for them, and for all those God is calling to this tremendous and extraordinary gift of a life.