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

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

If you are already at home in love...

Last month, in the space of a few days, I heard of the deaths of three women aged only forty or so. One - who died unexpectedly - was unknown to me: the friend of a friend, whom I had only encountered via her postings on social media. From these, though, and from what her friend has said to me, it's clear that she was a woman of great faith and love, of humour, humanity and a strong, quietly intense passion for God. These were qualities she shared with the other two, who both died after long illnesses, which enabled them to prepare themselves - and those who loved them - for their eventual deaths.

Mariola, one of our Spanish sisters, wrote a letter to her Province, parts of which they published on their website. It was a last testament, in the word's original meaning of a sign or evidence of something: in this case, of the love and grace she had received and which, she declared, were enough for her - enough for everything. And grace and love were certainly in abundance in the final weeks of the other woman, whose funeral I attended yesterday. A quiet grace, permeating her life and enabling her, even in sickness and pain, to radiate the love and goodness she had received: to do as RSCJ are called to do; as she had desired to do when she joined the Society sixteen years ago, and continued to do after she left a few years later - to discover and reveal God's love, in all the circumstances of her life.

I heard of her death on the 21st December, when the O Antiphon sings of Christ as the Rising Sun, splendour of eternal light who will enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. And on that same day, when night is at its longest - as it surely feels for all who grieve - these words from a reflection by Richard Rohr appeared in my Twitter feed:

If you are already at home in love, you will easily and quickly go to the home of love, which is what we mean by heaven.

And I am confident that for my friend, for my Spanish sister and for my friend's friend this is what has happened... And can only pray that one day, it can be so for me too...

Friday, 12 January 2018

A Heart-with-us

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day I became a novice, when I was given my own copy of the Society's Constitutions. Over the following weeks and months, as I studied them, and entered more deeply into our spirituality, I began to discover the all-embracing Heart, open and pierced, at the heart of my - and every RSCJ's - call, and of our spirituality and charism, and also embedded in the heart of our world.

I was reminded of this yesterday when, looking for something on our website, I spotted and re-read something I had written about what, for me, is Sophie Barat's legacy to us. It arose from my visit to France in 2016. In various churches, and particularly in the Sacre Coeur, I was especially struck by their paintings of a sovereign-like Sacred Heart; raised up, exalted, distant. As with the Sacre Coeur, much of this imagery and understanding stemmed from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, just a few years after Sophie's death, but its roots stretched much further back, and would no doubt have been familiar to Sophie.

My reaction to these images told me that this monarch was definitely not "my" Sacred Heart, because he isn't "ours". And in wondering to what extent Sophie had grown up influenced by this, I also wondered at the inner journey she must have made, to be able to bequeath us a very different Heart - one that is powerful, yes, but not in the way of potentates. And so, not long after, I wrote this article... and finding it yesterday, the anniversary of when so much of my own journey into the Heart of Jesus began, was both gift and impetus to share...

A Heart-with-us, not above us

From what I have seen and read, the understanding of the Sacred Heart prevalent in France during Sophie's lifetime was of a sovereign, kingly Heart, exalted on high and adored from afar. Such a Sacred Heart gives the reassurance of strength and certainty in times of instability and turmoil. But Sophie's Sacred Heart was different...

Sophie centred the Society on the piercing of Jesus' Heart; a moment of intense vulnerability and powerlessness, but also a moment which unleashed an outpouring of love. And she centred each RSCJ in a Heart which desires intimacy and relationship, and on a call to union and conformity with that Heart. This Heart, she said, is for each RSCJ shelter, food, fire, light cool water... It is their element, their path, their life, their all. They were born there; there they must grow, live and die: in him, with him, for him. 

So Sophie bequeathed us a Heart-with-us: one not exalted and distant but present in the heart of our world, in all our messiness, sharing our pain and vulnerability, and at work in so many efforts. A Heart which calls us to only one sort of power - the power of love. And that is an excellent legacy and spirit to leave to the Society and each RSCJ, especially in the times in which we currently live - to be rooted and founded in love.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

In praise of... the camel that got the cream

We do not know how exactly the magi travelled, though many artists depict them journeying atop richly decked-out camels, maybe silhouetted dramatically against desert dunes or a dusky starlit sky. Camels are seen as an essential part of the journey, but not of its end - they are rarely, if ever, shown in Nativity scenes. And this, of course, is very logical: sheep and cattle can fit into and even belong in a stable or a cave; camels cannot and do not. They have done their duty but they must remain outside, debarred by the very size and weight which has made them such a good, steady means of carriage. Left out, literally and figuratively.

Which brings me to this cheeky chappie. He belongs to some Holy Child sisters, whose congregational feast is today, and spends each Epiphany sitting near their crib, maybe warming himself above a radiator. I have a fondness for him - or rather, for that artfully satisfied look of his. He is, undoubtedly, the camel equivalent of the cat that got the cream - illicitly: not quite purring, but certainly hugging some secret mischief to himself. What, I wonder, has he been up to?

Maybe he was curious; maybe he wasn't happy to hang around outside, but ambled up to the stable entrance and peered in... And beheld something at once ordinary and wondrous, tiny yet bigger than the entire universe... Beheld infinite Mystery, his owner in adoration and a Light to dispel all darkness. And now he sits, contentedly ruminating, blissfully sated and so, so pleased with himself for having given in to curiosity and going where no camel has ever gone before.

That's my theory, anyway; what do you think?

Friday, 5 January 2018

24 years on

A cake for a new candidate!
~ topped by a chocolate & icing nun
(January 1994)
Twenty-four years ago today I arrived at our house in Forest Gate at the start of my candidacy with the Society. It's an anniversary I remember fondly each year, but even more so today, as only two days ago another young woman began her journey with us. Between our two New Year new beginnings almost a quarter of a century amazingly, incredibly stretches and has simultaneously flown by. My hair is now greying and my youth has meandered into middle age, though I hope my inner zest and passion remain undiminished, albeit undoubtedly mellowed.

What has not changed - except to deepen - has been the quality of the love of my sisters, expressed in so many ways, small and large, in good times and bad. And God, of course, has been steadfast: unstinting and unchanging in his infinite love; though what has altered over the years is how I have grown in my understanding of it, and my mission to make that love known.

What brought me here? What caused me to remain? So much of call and response is mystery. But today, in my Twitter feed, I saw a tweet from Pope Francis, a little anniversary gift which somehow supplied at least part of the answer...

God walks along the dusty paths of our lives and responds to our longing for love and happiness by calling us to joy.

And that, my friends, captures much of how it has been and continues to be, summed up in less than 140 characters.

Monday, 1 January 2018

New Year blessing

The other day I came across this short blessing by Isaac of Stella, a twelfth century Cistercian, theologian and philosopher. Christian posterity will largely remember him for his writing on mysticism and his philosophical interpretations of biblical texts, but I'm happy to know him simply through this blessing. It's a little gem - of gladness and delight in God, and simple, loving joy for the recipient. Despite spending so much time in his books and in his head, Isaac clearly knew how to dwell in his heart too.

And right now, as we continue to celebrate the Son of God in and among us, and send all sorts of New Year wishes and blessings around the world, this feels like an especially good wish to send from Heaven to all who read it, whether today on January 1st, or much later.

May the Son of God who is already formed in you grow in you - so that for you, he will become immeasurable, and that in you he will become laughter, exultation, the fullness of joy, which no one can take from you. 

I love the idea of Jesus becoming immeasurable within us; uncontained, bubbling up, spilling over, as pure, deep joy, for ourselves and those around us. The increase of Christ within us is key, though; a process of growth and a grace we need to desire and co-operate with daily. May we wish for nothing less.

Happy New Year everyone

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Cracked darkness

It's already ten days since midwinter: the northern hemisphere's day of shortest light and longest darkness; the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest possible height, barely rising before setting only a few hours later. Since then it has begun its slow journey back up, the hours of daylight imperceptibly lengthening, a minute or so each day. But just as there is often a final, sudden burst of flame and sparks from a dying fire, so in these in-between, semi-normal days, linking Christmas with New Year, we are often cloaked in a deeper, post-midwinter darkness.

Sometimes this comes as a comforting, hibernation-inducing blanket; at others as dull greyness and an absence of light. Being off work I can get up later: but however late I struggle into wakefulness it's still nocturnally dark, and I gaze in bleary disbelief at my clock, convinced it must have developed a fault and speeded up overnight. How else to explain this absence of light at what is officially morning? Meanwhile, if the day is dull and sunless, as it is today, dusk seems to fall and lights go on well before mid-afternoon.

And thus, shrouded in winter's gloom, I look back on the old and prepare to greet the new year. This year especially, this seems a very appropriate state in which to end 2017, in which it feels as though our world has been overshadowed by a deep, dangerous darkness. Bad news invariably dominates and makes the headlines, and we need to strain to find the chinks of light; to remind ourselves of the occasions of goodness and humanity, generosity and courage, which have shone through, often as a response to violence and hatred. There is a crack in everything, sang Leonard Cohen, That's how the light gets in... and time and again, the light has shone, not in spite of the darkness, but because of it.

And I am reminded, too, that for St John of the Cross, darkness was a place of disorientation and confusion, yes, but only because it was a place of transformative power and encounter with God. Here, in this 'dark night' filled with unknowing, searing emptiness and searching - a night which can only be inhabited and embraced in faith and trust - God, though unseen and un-felt, is ever present. Here too, in this transforming, God-veiling darkness, grace and growth and new life unexpectedly await.

Maybe this isn't such a bad way to step into a new year: in literal and metaphorical darkness, in unknowing and searching, but filled with faith and trust. And there is the hope, there must be the hope, that I will see those cracks in everything, which allow in the light of goodness.

May those cracks be visible to all of us, and in them, may there be clarity for how we can respond. And in the darkness may grace, new life and growth continue to meet us, unexpectedly, and may we never forget that God, unseen or not, is ever and abundantly present.

Happy New Year, everyone, and blessings on your 2018

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Stillness and simply being

Traditional cribs, like the one I inherited from my father, often show Mary and Joseph kneeling and gazing at their newborn God in prayerful adoration. More modern ones, like the one we had at 11NG, tend to have Mary - often seated - cradling Jesus, while Joseph stands protectively by. So the crib being used this Christmas by my community - bought in Jerusalem thirty or so years ago, and given to one of our sisters - is somewhat unusual. It is also very human and realistic, in the figures' postures and the attitudes they suggest.

Mary lies, in post-birth drowsy bliss, sleepily contemplating her newborn baby, as billions of mothers have done throughout the ages: as those of my friends who are mothers can recognise as something they too have done, in a powerful, quietening rush of joy, pure love and adoration. Joseph sits, his gaze fixed, staring straight ahead. I fancy he looks rather dazed, as any brand-new father would, as he contemplates the enormity of his new responsibilities. He's a young lad, barely older than Mary, thrust into adulthood by this entrusted paternity. And he's sitting. Maybe he isn't yet ready to stand guard; maybe he needs to steady his trembling knees and gather his strength - or maybe he just wants to be on the floor too, as close to Mary and Jesus as possible, savouring this time with them, and his own post-birth rush of heart-melting love.

They may not be kneeling, hands folded in prayer, yet there is a prayerful quietness about these figures, a stillness born of contemplation, and intimacy with the tiny One whose presence has so radically changed their lives. The bustle and noise of labour and birth have happened; the busyness of responsibility and care and so much to do will start soon enough - but for now, there is just stillness and simply being.

And may we too, in these coming days so often filled with busyness and bustle, find our own opportunities for stillness and simply being, and for intimacy with the One whose presence has the power and grace to transform our lives - and through us, to transform our world, if we but let him.

Happy Christmas everyone...