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

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...

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Shaking the hourglass

This is what I want us to strive for, my sisters; let us desire and be occupied in prayer, not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have this strength to serve. ~ St Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila, whose feast Carmelites celebrate today, is - among other things - rightly famous for her mystical experiences and her deep, contemplative union with God. But her prayer wasn't all about ecstasies and visions; there were also many hours, along the way, spent in boredom and inner restlessness. And there is the account - which I love - of Teresa shaking her hourglass, in a vain attempt at making her time of prayer go faster!

Yes, she shook her hourglass, and no doubt sighed and fidgeted - interiorly if not physically. But the important thing is that she remained at prayer until after the very last grain of sand had landed. Teresa remained: she desired and was occupied in prayer, not for the sake of her own enjoyment, but because this time with God - even when dry and distracted - was the centre of her life and the source of her much-needed strength.

And at those times when I sit in prayer metaphorically shaking my hourglass, it can sometimes help to remember and be heartened by the example, from Teresa and countless others, of perseverance and fidelity to a commitment made. At other times I smilingly recall some advice from St Madeleine Sophie to one of her sisters: Love God, and if you cannot meditate you can always say: "My God, I love you". It is a reminder of that simple truth, that prayer is nothing more than spending time with the One we love; the One who loves and has loved us first, and is delighted to have us spend this time with him... even when we're busily shaking our hourglass...

Sunday, 8 October 2017

And then I looked up

A few evenings ago I was on a train, my head buried in my newspaper. The shooting in Las Vegas was the main headline, but Puerto Rico, Universal Credit, the benefits cap, Catalonia and several other dismal stories vied for my attention. And then something cut across this: I heard a camera click, a soft exclamation, and I looked up. I looked up and saw a dappled rose and gold and variegated blue magnificence filling the sky. For a few seconds I was transfixed, and then I reached for my phone, fumbled for the camera and started clicking, while we hurtled along, sudden trees momentarily hiding the golds and reds, and just as suddenly revealing them again.

Photos hastily taken with a phone from express train windows are rarely works of art, let alone technically perfect, but even in the blurrier images there was a vibrant swirl of clouds, and a sense of the gloriousness of this mottled beauty. A few days later I posted the photos on social media, with a line or two about looking up from dismal news to behold this. There was an enthusiastic response, with comments about the beauty of the sky, but also the glory - God's glory - to be found, if we only look. Here, as one person said, was something much bigger than all the news.

And yes: here was something immense and beautiful and glorious; here, very clearly, was God's glory... And yet... as I read those comments, my heart thrilling, I also recalled some prophetic words from our 1970 Chapter: To contemplate his Heart we have no need to turn away from this earth, the home of God made Man. Christ is present, hidden in the heart of the world... It is in this very humanity whose fear and loneliness and love he shared that his GLORY must shine forth....

God in all things, we say, glibly; God present and active in all aspects of the world and in our lives. And this means - this has to mean - that God is in Las Vegas and foodbanks and refugee camps, as much as in stunning sunsets, delicate flowers and breathtaking panoramas. God - the God I believe in and to Whom I have pledged my life - is as present in the darkness as in the light, even though his presence there is so much harder to discern. The pierced Heart of Jesus and the pierced heart of humanity are one, and when we contemplate one we do so through the other. Here, surely, is the incredible, ineffable mystery at the heart of our faith - that God chooses to be with us in ALL things, not just the sunsets and flowers.

But what enabled me to remember this was the fact that I looked up, took a moment away from dismal news, and shared the fruits of doing so.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

First and only love

The other day I was reading about Pope Francis' meeting with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, and was struck by these words in particular:

I encourage you, as I do so often with consecrated persons - "to return to your first and only love". Keep your gaze fixed on Jesus Christ and learn from him how to love with a truly human heart, to care for the lost and hurting... to show by your lives and your works the passionate and tender love of God for the little ones...

An even more urgent and poignant call the morning after yet more violence and hatred, this time in Las Vegas, to add to all the violence and hatred everywhere else...

Return to your first and only love... The God, revealed to me in Jesus, who first captured my heart almost thirty years ago, and has held it ever since...

Return to your first and only love... Except that, even allowing for a religious phase in my teens, I cannot truly say that God, or Jesus, was - chronologically - my first love. Several years before God swept into my life and I fell deeply, unashamedly, joyously in love with him, I already knew, very well, how it felt to be swept off my feet by a boyfriend. And yet, in another, deeper way, God is my first love: not chronologically but primarily; not first in time but first in my heart and in my life. After all, what else is religious life about - what else am I about? - if not a constant, unwavering witness to the primacy of God?

Return to your first and only love... Alas, whatever my deepest desire, other, lesser loves do exist! If they didn't, I'd surely be single-mindedly striding along on the path to sanctity; instead, I stagger and stumble and get all too easily distracted. I want this, covet that, put myself first: my gaze unfixes itself from Jesus and roams around other delights, before finally, eventually returning home - because fundamentally, to Who or where else would I want to go? No, not yet my only love, but still the One which trumps all others: the Love divine, all loves excelling whose only-ness is my aim. And the abundant Love which needs to be the Source for all my other love and loving, and from which they have to pour forth.

May I - may we all - return and return again, and remain true to our primary, all-excelling Love, learning from him how to love with a truly human, passionate and tender heart. It's what our poor, bruised, grieving world so desperately needs right now.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Back where I began

After just over nine years in Oxford I've moved back to my native city, London. Over the years I've lived, worked and studied in many parts of this great - and vast - metropolis: its many faces, its energy and diversity, grandeur and history, noise and pollution, are all indelibly part of me, of my background and of who I am now. London is where I began, and where my adventure with God began.

On Saturday I emerged from all my boxes and bags and spent most of the day with our community in Forest Gate, as they celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary since the community began. Those of us who had lived there and could come, joined them for a time of thanksgiving and for a long, leisurely lunch, in which laughter, reminiscing and seriousness interwove. I have lived there twice, the first time being when I was a candidate, taking my first steps in the Society; this house, which I called home for years, still feels very homely to me, and the area very familiar. This place, too, is where I began... my discovery of and ever-deepening journey into the Heart of God, and through it, into the heart of the world.

As it happens, while going through a box the day before, I'd found the letter I sent asking to become a novice (the next stage of formation), and reflecting on my experience thus far. In it, I wrote about the beginnings of these discoveries, these beginnings of seeing and understanding something of what it means to be RSCJ, and to live our call to contemplation and our charism of love. Thus, in September 1994 I wrote...

I have never had a "devotion" to the Sacred Heart. Although I notionally knew that it is a symbol of divine love, this was only notional... I joined the Society because that is where I felt God wanted me to be, and with a vague idea that with the Sacred Heart, at least its main focus would be Jesus. After becoming a candidate I began to hear terms like "the compassionate heart" and "the pierced heart"; but it was only when I properly moved into community that I really began to see these words being lived.

We live, as you know, in the poorest borough in London. We are surrounded by people whose daily lives are a struggle... and inspired by the example of those who work with them. I began to see how the others absorb this suffering into their lives and prayer, and thus it becomes part of the life and prayer of the whole community. It is more than simply "feeling sorry for X" or "praying for Y": it is a real compassion, a real "suffering with", which, I believe, is largely unconscious. It is a compassion which I know I do not possess - yet - but this does not worry me, as I realise it is the result of many years of living in the Society...

In the midst of all my returning to where I began my life, it has also been good to revisit where I began my being RSCJ. And in the midst of all that, it has been so good to be reminded, too, of how I began: to be reminded of my discovery of and desire for the contemplation which lies at the heart of our call and our lives. Fundamentally, it has been good to be reminded, in effect, of the essence of what drew me, because it is what I was created for, and am called to be, wherever I may be...

Monday, 25 September 2017

God meets us

Yesterday I went to Mass at St Augustine's, Hammersmith, for the first time in almost twenty years. In those intervening years the parish has developed a new centre, currently being used for Mass during church renovations. And - to my delighted surprise - these words, writ large on a wall, were what greeted me as I walked in: a reminder of God's call and invitation to us all - to me - to love, and to therefore be someone who invites a response of love from others.

God met me as I walked in to Mass, just as God meets me every day, with reminders both little and large of his presence and call. As Brendan Callaghan SJ said in a homily a few months ago:

God meets us at the centre of our lives: he meets us in that space where he wants to love us. And such is that experience that we want to go out and do something in the world: we want to serve him in the world; we want to build the kingdom in the world...

God meets us at the centre of our lives, and draws us to the fullness of life, life lived at the heart of God's world.

Jesus is there with us... as our brother and our friend, and delights in us (as any friend delights in us) as we grow in love and service.

The Spirit works within us - God's love and life transforming each of us into who we really are.

At the centre of our lives we are touched by God's loving delight. How can we not want to share that experience with others? How can we not smile?

Yesterday God met me as I walked in to Mass, ushering me into a new parish community with reminders of the centrality of love. And yes, I smiled; felt myself touched by God's playfulness and loving delight - as well as God's serious intent - and want to share that experience with others...

And you: where and how has God been meeting you...?