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

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...

Friday, 20 October 2017

Mater's basket

The rosy young woman caught in a moment of stillness is a familiar image in the Sacred Heart family, especially today, when we celebrate her feast under the title of Mater Admirabilis. But, as an article by our general archivist on our international website explains, Mater's creator, Pauline Perdrau continued to paint copies of the original fresco throughout her life. These were copies but not exact, faithful replicas, as there were always changes, of varying degrees of subtlety, in the details. Some playful birds in one, different stars in another; some variations in colour and background throughout - and, often, subtle changes to the size and contents of her workbasket.

More recently there have been some newer versions and adaptions from around the world: two years ago my attention was drawn to this one, by Min-Ah Cho NSCJ, who has given me permission to use it. It is recognisably Mater, in all her stillness, though with extra dynamism. But the most immediate, obvious difference is in that workbasket, now transformed into a cradle. The tiny figure in it should still be familiar, even after two years: Alan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean and was found, washed up on a Turkish beach, his tragic, unnecessary death highlighting the plight of so many desperate refugees.

We call this image of Mary Mater Admirabilis - Admirable Mother - and indeed, who better than a loving mother for taking care of a baby whose own mother drowned, unable to save him?

As I look at this image I find myself wondering: who, or what situation, would I place in Mary's basket and confide to her maternal care? What fragility or place of pain; what need or urgency, grief or inadequacy? With what work would I fill up her workbasket? The list is long, seemingly endless: but as with the ever-widening Heart of her Son, in which there is room for all, so too with Mary's workbasket, constantly expanding, to allow itself to be filled with all the pain as well as the joy and beauty of the world.

And you... who or what would you place in Mary's basket, and in her tender, solicitous care...?

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Red sun, Ophelia and St Luke

It is, officially, early autumn, and the russet and gold signs of this are carpeting every lane and verge, while mornings and evenings are perceptibly darkening. But this month the weather has also held us suspended, mid-season, in late summer - even the nights have been relatively mild, with warm days, regardless of sunshine or cloud. The heating is off or turned low, while we spend our time dressed in in-between clothes: not-quite summer, but not-yet autumn; outfits in which coats, jumpers and socks are largely redundant.

It has felt like what the writer Robert Macfarlane described on Twitter as an uncanny enclave of summer, deep into autumn. And yet, it is not so uncanny, or so rare. Our mediaeval forbears had a name for this phenomenon: St Luke's little summer, in honour of the saint whose feast falls tomorrow. The evangelist and patron of physicians is also the one who - if tomorrow is still mild - will bless us with a final burst of sunshine and warmth, before autumnal chills and darkness inexorably settle in.

But what would those mediaeval folk have made of yesterday? Yesterday, while the disconcertingly gentle-sounding Hurricane Ophelia battered Ireland and the North-West, the rest of us spent the day under a strange, almost apocalyptic sky, while leaves performed a swirling, rustling dance in the suddenly strong winds. Yesterday the sun shone, even from a grey, cloudy sky; huge and haloed and red-gold in the morning, bestowing a warmth which belied the surrounding clouds. By early afternoon, though, London experienced an early twilight: a sickly, sepia, disconcertingly darkening, heavily stilling light akin to the one which usually precedes a heavy storm... but on this occasion didn't. And when the scurrying clouds parted, there, still was the sun; seemingly smaller, no longer gold now, but, weirdly, red.

This, we were told, was the result of tropical air and dust from the Sahara, plus debris from forest fires in Iberia. Dust from a desert almost 2,500 miles away from us, turning our sun and sky strange colours... however huge we may imagine our world to be, in reality, as yesterday showed, it is actually very small, inter-dependent, fragile and so in need of our care...