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

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In praise of... not swooning

At various odd moments these past few weeks I've been reading and quietly savouring Gaudete et Exsultate - Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness in today's world. It's quite lovely, and challenging, and extremely practical: a simple, direct, encouraging manual on how to be holy, through openness to God and God's grace, and fidelity to the example and teachings of Jesus.

There are short sections on signs of holiness in such ordinary facets of life as joy and a sense of humour, passion, boldness, living in community, humility and - always - perseverance. But I rather love the section in which the pope observes drily: Holiness, then, is not about swooning in mystic rapture - definitely reassuring for those of us who have never, ever come remotely close to any sort of mystical swooning! That short, blunt sentence comes in a chapter in which Francis expands on the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 as the templates for a holiness which is practical, grounded and constantly takes us beyond ourselves and into loving service and care. And yet, holiness must find its source in God, and time spent with God; it consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration. 

Openness, not swooning...

Or, as the pope goes on to say:

We need to remember that “contemplation of the face of Jesus, died and risen, restores our humanity, even when it has been broken by the troubles of this life or marred by sin. We must not domesticate the power of the face of Christ”... Are there moments when you place yourself quietly in the Lord’s presence, when you calmly spend time with him, when you bask in his gaze? Do you let his fire inflame your heart? Unless you let him warm you more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire. How will you then be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and witness? If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds, for that is the abode of divine mercy. 

So let us live lives of holiness, marked, not by swooning in rapture, but by ordinariness; by joy and passion and service; by prayer and openness to God, and a willingness to enter into Jesus' Heart and wounds...

Monday, 23 April 2018

Have you found what you were seeking...?

Yesterday being Good Shepherd Sunday, when the worldwide Church prays for vocations to religious life and the priesthood, my social media feeds contained many inspiring articles and quotes, amid challenging questions. There was other inspiration too, courtesy of the London Marathon, and the grit, determination and valiant commitment of the runners, the majority motivated by the desire to raise money for charities, with which many have personal connections. But the focus for my reflection has come from something posted the day before on social media by the Turvey Benedictines; words by St Anselm, whose feast it was:

Have you found, my soul, what you were seeking? You were seeking God, and you found God to be that which is the highest of all, than which a better cannot be thought; you found God to be life itself, light, wisdom, goodness, eternal blessedness and blessed eternity, and to exist everywhere and always.

The post added a comment about the connection between finding God and discovering the best of what we need, in order to flourish and live good lives. And really, that is at the heart of responding to a call to religious life. We come seeking God, or - as I experienced it - seeking "more" of God, and God, who is life itself, will not only allow himself to be found, but will amazingly be for us more than whatever we were seeking. And if this is indeed what God has created us for, then we will most surely flourish, most surely grow and respond to both challenge and affirmation. Whatever our challenges and difficulties and low points, we will find light, wisdom, goodness and eternal blessedness - and within all this, the joy of becoming our best selves.

It isn't easy - but the seeking and the finding, the surprises and the blessedness are more than worth it.

PS: And if you are searching for God and fullness, and are open to a call to religious life, maybe this can help you discern...

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Surprised by grace

The other evening I was present during a pre-Vocations Sunday sharing of stories and a discussion about discernment. One young woman asked the speakers what had most surprised them in following their vocations. Responses were varied, covering aspects of personal growth, experiences of faith or hitherto unimagined possibilities. I didn't say anything, but if I had, I would have shared the first word which came into my head when I heard the question - grace.

In many ways, I realise that being surprised by grace is a surprise in itself! After all, grace - God's freely given gift - isn't some kind of fringe or new-fangled belief, but a longstanding central part of my faith. Whether we have personally experienced its truth or not, Amazing Grace is one of our best-known and most enduring hymns. But even so, it is both humbling and surprising to realise that, over the years, I have been the recipient of an abundance of this amazing grace; at times unexpected, at others fervently prayed for, but always freely, generously given. Grace which can seep in like a slow, barely perceived infusion, or which can flood me in a few words or a moment of awareness. Grace which has enabled me to say YES, to transcend my limitations, to love, to trust, to persevere, to dwell in the certainty of God.

A large part of this surprise is an awareness of not having done anything to deserve it - even though I also know that grace is nothing other than gratuitous, unmerited gift.  And, of course, I realise I'm not alone in this: that same grace which ambushes and amazes me doesn't abide by different rules for everyone else - and it has been so for millennia. Throughout the centuries saints and sinners alike have been surprised and overwhelmed by God's liberality, expressed in so many ways - but always abundantly.

And I somehow imagine that God rather enjoys this; that he delights in our delight. And somehow, too, it would not be the same if God were to be entirely predictable. So may I - may we all - go on being surprised by the lavishness of God's gifts... especially by grace.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

To have everything

When I was about fourteen one of the retired nuns in the community at my convent school had a golden jubilee of vows. The school - presumably at her request - presented her with the most modest of gifts for such an occasion - a new breviary cover. As she thanked us effusively, promising to pray for us whenever she used it, I understood, in a strange, inchoate sort of way, the inner freedom and detachment to which she was witnessing. But I can also remember thinking, very definitely: It must be awful to be a nun - you do it for fifty years, and all you get is a cover for your prayer book... I'm not sure what, exactly, I thought we should have given her - just that fifty years of vows deserved something a lot grander than a book cover.

Thankfully, memories of Sr Angela's breviary didn't prevent me from responding, years later, to God's compelling call to religious life; to embarking on a life which isn't at all awful, and in which, over the years, I have come to a deeper understanding of that simplicity of heart which makes someone genuinely grateful for the gift of a breviary cover. Our vows commit us to seek a lifestyle which is simple and unpretentious, to strive to reduce our needs and to pool all our resources in a "community of goods". If we have enough, then really, we have "everything" - certainly everything we need.

And so I understood perfectly when one of my RSCJ sisters, who recently celebrated a milestone birthday, said she didn't want any presents. Of course, this was mostly disregarded, though gifts were simple. I saw one sister explaining her choice of gift; I didn't hear what she said, just the final line, uttered jokingly: I mean, what do you give the woman who has everything?

What do you give the person who has everything...? A question often asked, jokingly or not, with reference to material wealth and possessions. In this respect, my sister does not already "have everything"... except of course, that she does: she has God, totally, and a life centred in him. That, most definitely, is everything.

Give all, said St Madeleine Sophie, and you will find all. Give, said Jesus, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap. (Luke 6.38) And elsewhere he extravagantly promises a hundredfold for all that his followers give up for his sake: not a hundred houses or fields, but something infinitely more precious - his very self; his life and love, and an abundance of grace and joy therein.

My sister last week, Sr Angela forty years ago, have both discovered and live the truth of those promises. As for me, I will admit that as yet I'm nowhere near Sr Angela's detachment; hopefully, it won't take me until my golden jubilee (in 2046) to have simplified my needs and wants a good deal more. Hopefully, well before then, I too will be a woman who has everything, because she has the entirety of God.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Leaping off the boat

Young people make considerable sacrifices... but I have found that their fundamental difficulty is fear of making a final decision... It is very difficult, at least here in Europe, in our Western cultural context, for young people to make unreserved commitments or choices. So they won't take the final leap, they won't jump off the boat. The example of Peter, who jumps off the boat because he has seen the Lord, is one that I sometimes place before them. Sooner or later, we must leap off the boat. 

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ, May 1997

When I read these words recently I was transported back to the day I learned to dive. I remembered in particular that moment when, standing on the edge of the pool, I hesitated just a second too long. In that instant the water, which I had been in just a few minutes earlier, which I knew to be warm and safe and just the right depth, loomed increasingly cold and deep. In those few seconds an irrational fear began to fill me, and I had to force myself to dive into this suddenly inhospitable-seeming water - and emerged, moments later, joyously safe and warm. That, I imagine, is what that leap of commitment must feel like to so many, despite all the assurances of joy and fulfillment and rightness from those already in the water.

In today's Gospel Peter doesn't hesitate, even for a nanosecond. He hears It is the Lord, and straightaway launches himself into the sea, so eager is he to be with Jesus. He is propelled by a love and a desire which are far greater than any fears he might have had about being reproached for his denials, or possible awkwardness in their meeting. He leaps off the boat because he has seen Jesus, and he swims towards the One who is Love and Mercy and Everything; the One whose encouraging Do not be afraid he can finally, truly believe; the One for whom he will gladly, wholeheartedly spend the rest of his life, because, really, he couldn't do anything less.

In a few hours' time I'll be travelling to Dublin, to a meeting about vocations ministry, which involves helping people make that final decision, that final leap of faith and desire. Maybe Peter - big-hearted, generous, unreserved in his commitment - will be our patron and inspiration, and add his prayer to ours, that many more young women will see the Lord and make that leap into the unknown... which is in reality a leap into his wide-open, ever-waiting Heart.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

I have seen the Lord...

There's a lovely gentleness and simplicity to the Risen Jesus' encounters with his disciples and friends, which we read this week. There's no drama: none of the quaking earth and awe-inspiring angels which greet the women in Matthew's Gospel; no blinding lights or manifestations of divinity. All we have are the bewildering testimony of an empty tomb, and some very quietly powerful meetings in ordinary places in which Jesus comes, not to dazzle or demonstrate his might, but to console and strengthen and fill those he loves with joy.

And in these encounters we see the disciples unaware of just who walks and talks with them; we see dialogue, disbelief, confusion... and finally recognition, arising from a well-known voice, a familiar gesture, an everyday action, a name spoken with love.

And isn't this how Jesus so often walks and talks with us? Not with pyrotechnics but with a presence which causes our hearts to burn within us; not in ostentation or drama but in simplicity and subtlety, and in ordinary, everyday life. Religious experience can be dazzling or intensely overwhelming or extraordinary, but, more often, it is a sudden heart's leap at a few words from scripture... a fleeting moment of clarity... a quiet Voice gently breaking through our concerns and calling us to something new... a recognition of the One we love.

And then, like Mary Magdalene, we too can declare, with quiet certainty, I have seen the Lord...

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Love lives again

Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green...

(From the Easter hymn Now the Green Blade Riseth)

Easter Sunday morning 2018
Good Friday was an unremittingly grey, sodden, depressing day; the sort which should belong only to winter, but which somehow insinuates itself into spring and summer too. At around midday, as the rain eased slightly, I went out for a short, soggy walk. The sky was dully leaden, and, despite splashes of colour, even the air seemed grey, uniformly grey... until I turned the corner back into my road and saw the magnolia, its branches thrust triumphantly against the sky... and in a moment, the greyness parted, and spring's promise in rosy-white blossoms prevailed.

And somewhere within me, I heard Love lives again. 

And that is the hope and the promise of Easter for us all: that despite evil's best efforts, Love lives again, and somehow prevails; somehow parts the ugliness and ushers in the loveliness and the goodness of new life.

Today, and every day, may Love live again... may Love never die... wherever there is kindness and tenderness, sacrifice and solidarity. May Love live again, and again, in every effort for a better world, in every striving for justice and every move towards peace.

And may Love, and Love's hope and promise, live again - live anew - in our hearts and in our homes, and, through us, in each of our corners of a world so desperately in need of the hope and the promise of Easter.